The long awaited Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s exhibition “About Time: Fashion and Duration” is finally here, and dare we say– it’s about time. The exhibit which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic was originally set to open back in May. Half a year later, the exhibit seems appropriate following a six month period where time stood still and keeping track of the days of the week seemed like a difficult task. In celebration of the museum’s 150th anniversary, the exhibit examines timeless fashions and how garments can withstand the tests of time. But just want makes a garment truly timeless? Louis Vuitton’s Creative Director Nicolas Ghesquière once said– “Never forget that what becomes timeless was once truly new.”
Fashion certainly is a reflection of time and culture in societies, and the subjectivity of time concerning fashion is chronicled in our own history. However, the idea of timelessness in fashion seems paradoxical by definition: it is a state of being that is impervious to the passage of time and changes. So why do fashion forces strive to attain a state that negates its own existence of constant innovation? The answer lies in this year’s exhibition.
The layout of the exhibition is structured based on la durée, a philosophical theory pioneered by French philosopher Henri Bergson analyzing the subjective experience of time rather than the objective definition time. The timeline of fashion tracing back to 1870 unfolds in two adjacent galleries: the first comprises a dark, austere ambiance with a clock pendulum suspended from the ceiling, and the second is entirely white and covered with mirrors, generating a kaleidoscopic reflection of the gallery itself.
Both galleries are constructed as two enormous clocks and organized to reflect the principle of 60 minutes of fashion. Each “minute” features a pair of garments, with the primary piece illustrating a linear timeline of fashion and the secondary piece placed behind the primary one to draw parallels. Despite the hundred or so years between each garment pair, they each bare a resemblance in shape, motif, material, pattern, technique, or decoration cohesively visualizing Bergson’s concept of the past and present.
The temporality of fashion, ironically, illuminates on the timeless aesthetics of garments. For example, a floral embroidered black silk riding coat from 1902 is set beside a similar velvet floral jacket from Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2018; an all-black satin dinner dress with leg-o’-mutton sleeves from 1877 is juxtaposed with a deconstructed Comme des Garçons ensemble of a jacket and shirt from 2004; and an art deco evening dress with symmetrical geometric pattern of the late ‘1920s is paired with John Galliano’s 1997 Dior take on the era’s body-skimming silhouette but with an intricate, asymmetrical spiderweb pattern.
The effect of this contrasting style of presentation is salient, while the vintage quaintness is not lost in the contemporary pieces, the modernity is foreshadowed visibly in the antique apparels from the bygone centuries. This connection reflects the challenges designers nowadays confront, with reaching beyond the archives of a brand or of the holistic fashion timeline, and reinterpreting them with newness and modernity. Perhaps this is why timeless fashion can never truly be new, and why there is always a nuance of timeliness within fashion.
The incongruity of timeless garments coexisting in fashion, a realm of constant changes, is catalytic. In “About Time”, the timelessness of fashion progression is manifested in the endurance of archaic styles of classic cuts, impeccable tailorings, and pre-modern silhouettes that are reflective of an everlasting look. It’s beyond inspiration and nostalgia, like the Iris Van Herpen couture dress on display from 2012 that can be deciphered as a 21st-century architectural twist of Charles James’s 1951 ball gown.
Furthermore, the connection of the past to the present is rendered vociferously in the clockwork exhibit design, such as how the bow motif from a 1939 evening dress has persisted onto an ensemble of Viktor & Rolf in 2005, or how the uniform color scheme of Gabrielle Chanel’s 1977 suit is preserved by Karl Lagerfeld’s 1994 version. By doing so, the exhibition conclusively ascribes timelessness in fashion to the recycling of past ideas and the renovation of past aesthetics, but not to the vast, historic archives of fashion timeline that designers look to for enlightenment, where they might find themselves succumbing to the history of fashion and never truly evolve.
Although “About Time” associates timeless fashion with various designs that have survived decades, revisited and reinterpreted by different designers in their lifetime, the narrative shaped by the juxtaposition of the linear and disruptive timelines also defines the timelessness of fashion, by addressing the disintegration of trends and the anachronism of styles. The deflating and reflating of silhouettes as well as the parallels in materials, details, tailorings, cuts, and even philosophy across eras attest that timelessness exists in fashion, immune to the rigidness of ephemeral trends.
By extension, this year’s Met exhibit is also an admonition to designers with an accelerated vision on fashion design: while you shouldn’t be a slave to archives and history, in the meantime you should not let your unbridled creativity run wild and violate the timeless characteristics of our fashion chronicle. What is now timeless was once new and iconoclastic, but a garment that transcends time must come from disciplining creative ideas in order to withstand the passage of time. Timelessness is thus redefined as “out of time”–an anachronistic state of being that encompasses the past, the present, the future, and the infinite changes within. And it’s the creative combustion of modernity and archaicness, of breathing newness from recirculating archival ideas, that constitutes what is timeless now in fashion.END
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