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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Dress Rehearsal: The Origins of the Costume Institute

The Costume Institute is renowned for its encyclopedic collection of more than 80,000 costumes and accessories, but its nucleus can be traced to several hundred examples. These constituted the original holdings of New York’s Museum of Costume Art, organized in 1937 by a theater-oriented group of civic leaders led by New York philanthropist and savant Irene Lewisohn, her sister Alice Lewisohn Crowley, and theater designers Aline Bernstein and Lee Simonson. The Museum of Costume Art established a pattern of collecting that continues to inform The Costume Institute’s acquisitions program to this day.

Queen Alexandra
From its beginnings, the Museum of Costume Art focused on the creation of an archive based first and foremost on principles of design. Nevertheless, provenance contributes undeniable luster to costume as well. One group of costumes in the collection has a notable and royal history: examples from the wardrobe of Queen Alexandra. Alexandra (1844–1925), consort of King Edward VII (1841–1910), in the tradition of Empress Eugénie of France and Empress Elizabeth of Austria, was a beauty lionized in her day. In stark contrast to the cultivated decorum of the Victorian era, exemplified by Queen Victoria, who endorsed a somewhat somber if comforting bourgeois propriety, the Edwardian period and its bon vivant king were more closely aligned with the hedonism and extravagance of the Continent’s Belle Époque.

Costume History Timeline
The majority of items in the Museum of Costume Art, however, lacked designer attribution and significant provenance. Rather, they were acquired to fulfill a simple formalist criterion—to clearly represent the style of their day—and were intended to constitute a timeline of Western high fashion. By 1946, with pieces collected primarily by Irene Lewisohn and Lee Simonson, the Museum of Costume Art could boast a continuous parade of fashion from the late eighteenth century to the 1940s.

The acquisition of two significant private collections in the late 1940s was a boon to the museum: the first, from Roy Langford, a costume scholar in London, and the second, from Schloss, an Austrian sculptor working in Vienna. The differing functions of both collections—one to promote scholarly investigation, the other to serve as a design resource—were coincident with the intentions of the museum’s founders.

Folk and Regional Dress
From the outset, the Museum of Costume Art emphasized the importance of folk and regional dress. Though primarily motivated by the desire to create a comprehensive survey of world cultures, the development of a folk and regional costume collection was also influenced by the interest of contemporary fashion designers and modern dance companies in traditional dress. As in the past, the rich patterns and surface embellishments of traditional dress were quoted, but in addition, modernist designers found inspiration in the simple and economical cuts characteristic of folk costume.