The Metropolitan Museum’s annual Costume Institute exhibition, this year titled In America: An Anthology of Fashion, opened to members of the press this morning with a speech delivered by the First Lady of the US Jill Biden, in which she proselytised on the political power of fashion ahead of her departure on a humanitarian tour to Romania and Slovakia to support Ukrainian refugees in the wake of the Russia invasion.
“As an English teacher, I’ve always believed in the power of language, and since I’ve become First Lady I’ve been reminded that there’s not only one way that we communicate,” Biden said. “A few months ago, as the president was preparing for the State of the Union Address, my mind was a world away. Like so many Americans, I was transfixed on the news of Ukraine, the bombings and the parents weeping over children’s broken bodies on the streets.”
She added, “As the State of the Union approached, I knew that the only thing that would be reported about me was what I was wearing. So I ordered sunflower appliques—the flower of Ukraine—as a symbol of hope and solidarity and had it sewn on the cuff of my dress. It was small but shined against the deep cobalt blue of my sleeve. That night, sitting next to the Ukrainian ambassador, I knew that I was sending a message without saying a word.”
Alongside Anna Wintour, the First Lady (who wore a floral dress by a yet-unidentified American designer) had a private tour of the exhibition, a two-part show whose first portion, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion (until 5 September), opened last year. Like that first iteration, the new show aims to champion both well-known contemporary and rising designers and those who made pivotal but overlooked contributions to American fashion, especially women and Black designers.
The exhibition is organised across 13 period rooms in the Met’s American wing, which have been designed by nine film-makers who each have a distinct sense of style: Tom Ford, Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Autumn de Wilde, Julie Dash, Regina King, Martin Scorsese and Chloé Zhao. Scorsese, for example, devised a party scene in the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright Room with mannequins dressed in vintage gowns by the English-American designer Charles James, some who are holding cigarettes or martini glasses.
The new exhibition is a stark contrast to the first part of the show, which displays garments in sleek glass cubes on faceless mannequins. The new iteration features dimmer lighting and mannequins with haunted facial expressions that are sometimes installed in positions that make the clothing imperceptible. The staging of some of the scenes arguably distracts from the designers’ craftsmanship and the nuanced design and political history that the curators attempted to convey through the garments.
The show, which opens to the public on 7 May, has been organised by Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. The event was staged ahead of the annual Met Gala, an event supported by Condé Nast that is a major fundraising moment for the Met, bringing in a record $17m in 2021.
- In America: An Anthology of Fashion, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 7 May-5 September.