Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Costume in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Costume Institute houses a collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories spanning five continents and just as many centuries, arguably the greatest such collection in the world. The matrix of The Costume Institute was established with The Museum of Costume Art, an independent entity formed in 1937. Led by Neighborhood Playhouse founder Irene Lewisohn, The Museum of Costume Art benefited from gifts from Irene Lewisohn and her sister Alice Lewisohn Crowley and from theatrical designers Aline Bernstein and Lee Simonson, among others.

In 1946, The Museum of Costume Art merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and funds were raised within the fashion industry to support it. The Costume Institute became a department in 1959. Diana Vreeland, who served as Special Consultant from 1972 until her death in 1989, created a spectacular suite of costume exhibitions—including The World of Balenciaga (1973), Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design (1974), The Glory of Russian Costume (1976), and Vanity Fair (1977)—that galvanized audiences and set the international standard for the opulent exhibition of costume, chiefly based on loan items.

The Costume Institute continued to present exhibitions that achieved the defining stature of the earlier Vreeland shows in developing analytical ideas about fashion from the Institute’s collections. These have included: Infra-Apparel (1993), which examined the role of undergarments and clothing’s propensity to disclose its underlying structure; Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress (1994); and Haute Couture (1995). In addition, there have been monographic exhibitions such as Madame Grès (1994), Christian Dior (1996), and Gianni Versace (1997).

In 2000, Harold Koda arrived to lead the Institute as Curator in Charge with exhibitions that have continued to break new ground including: Charles James: Beyond Fashion (2014), Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century (2004); Goddess (2003); and Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed (2002). Additionally, Andrew Bolton, Curator (formerly of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), has contributed his fresh voice with exhibitions such as Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set (2002), Bravehearts: Men in Skirts (2003), and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2010).

After a two-year renovation, the redesigned Costume Institute space opened in 2014 as the newly designated Anna Wintour Costume Center. The complex now includes the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, a main showcase space with a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformation with a comprehensive video, sound, and wireless system, and the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, an orientation space for The Costume Institute’s exhibitions and holdings. The Center also has a state-of-the-art costume conservation laboratory, an expanded study/storage facility to house the combined holdings of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries.

The vast collection of The Costume Institute ranges from works by the father of couture, Charles Frederick Worth, to iconic examples from the high priestess of chic, Coco Chanel; from ’60s ready-to-wear with pop iconography and disposable paper dresses (1995.178.3) to the ’70s punk transgressions of Vivienne Westwood; and the innovations of modern visionaries such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, and Rudi Gernreich to postmodern designers like Rei Kawakubo and twenty-first-century maverick Alexander McQueen (2003.462). No other museum in the world supports such an ambitious suite of exhibitions on fashion. The staff of The Costume Institute tasked with the preservation of this irreplaceable resource is also responsible for exhibiting, interpreting, and researching this extraordinarily comprehensive collection.

As it would be impossible to imagine art in the twenty-first century in New York without The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s presence as keystone and touchstone to ideas and sensibility, contemporary American and international fashion has been equally enriched by The Costume Institute’s exhibitions and research opportunities.