Before, After, and “In-Between”: The Art of Fashion at the Met

“The right part of my brain likes tradition and history, the left wants to break the rules.”

Rei Kawakubo (b. 1942), founder Commes des Garçons

“Fashion’s Biggest Night Out”

Are you a rule breaker? A classicist? Something “in-between”?

Met Gala 2017 —which was held, as per tradition, on the first Monday of May—challenged a reported 650 to 700 invited guests to break with convention and boldly embrace the avant-garde, at least for an evening.

If you couldn’t make it to this year’s biggest fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, no worries: Dozens of fashion icons hang out year-round in the galleries of the Met Fifth Avenue.

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Scroll below to see some of our favorite Met fashions—BEFORE + AFTER the Ball

It’s Kawakubo Time at the Costume Institute

This year, the Costume Institute’s benefit found inspiration for its theme in the intellectually and visually provocative ensembles of Rei Kawakubo, the Tokyo-based visionary behind the Comme des Garçons brand of apparel, launched in 1969.

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Rei Kawakubo’s body of work—famous for conforming to neither historic convention nor the human form itself—is the subject of the Met’s newly launched exhibition, Rei Kawakubo/Comme de Garçons: Art of the In-Between, organized by the designer in collaboration with the Costume Institute’s curator-in-charge, Andrew Bolton.

“Rei Kawakubo is one of the most important and influential designers of the past 40 years,” Bolton explains. “By inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, recreation, and hybridity, she has defined the aesthetics of our time.”

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The concept of time plays an interesting role in Rei Kawakubo’s work.

It’s frequently written that she values originality—which she defines as “newness”—above all else, and seeks to cut off references to the past in the nonconformist pieces she constructs.

But in New York, perhaps more than any other modern city in the world—and certainly in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—fantasy, reality, past, present, and future remain forever interconnected.

People, places, and ideas engage in a virtual game of tag that finds every player, ready or not, ever chasing the “new,” “different,” and “one-of-a-kind,” but tangibly and/or spiritually linked to the centuries of art, architecture, infrastructure, and ideas that have come before.

And “In-Between”?

Well, at the most basic level, the space between “past” and “future” would be the present.

Art happens every day in the here and now. Just look around you.

And so we celebrate the art and culture of the very places in which we find ourselves at this very moment—whether we are attired in Spring|Summer 2017 Commes des Garçons (“Like Some Boys”) or “come as you are.”

TIMELESS STYLE ON MUSEUM MILE

Our generation didn’t invent the concept of fashion as art, or art as fashion.

We just took it to the streets. Including Fifth Avenue.

Impeccably dressed politicians, merchants, socialites, and power couples of generations past hang in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art year-round, captured for posterity by the world’s most renowned portrait painters.

Here’s the backstory on 16 of Met Fifth Avenue‘s resident fashionistas and their Met Gala rivals, beginning with the divine Madame X (on view in Gallery 771) in her infamous shoulder-bearing black gown.

Case Study 1:  An Attention-Getting Black Dress (Oh, this Little Ol’ Thing?)

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Madame X (Madame Pierre Gauteau), by John Singer Sargent, 1883-84, in Met Fifth Avenue’s Gallery 771. According to the Met scholarship, the artist painted Louisiana-born socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno (1859–1915) without a commission, hoping the painting of a young woman known in Paris for her artful appearance would enhance his own reputation. Originally, the artist depicted the right strap of his subject’s black satin gown slipping from her fair shoulder, enough to cause quite the scandal at the Paris Salon 1884. In a compromise, Sargent hoisted the bejeweled strap back in place and kept the retouched painting himself from 1884 to 1916,  when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I suppose it is the best thing I have done,” he commented, but asked the Museum to disguise his subject’s name.

Embed from Getty Images Kendall Jenner on the Met Gala red carpet in La Perla Couture.

Case Study 2: Parrots that Make People Talk

Embed from Getty Images Twenty-year-old Zendaya on the Met Gala red carpet, looking timeless in a Scarlett O’Hara silhouette by Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda: The bold color and the Scarlet Macaw parrots were the talk of the town.

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Lady with Her Pets (Molly Wales Fobes, of Rayham Massachusetts), the earliest known work by Rufus Hathaway, 1790, on view in Gallery 757. The fashionably dressed subject, seated in a Chippendale chair, is surrounded by animals meant to denote, according to Met scholars, the sitter’s beauty, loyalty, and affection. Molly’s father was a professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. Her French hairstyle, flowers, and fan identify her as a woman of the world, as well as a friend of the animal kingdom.

Case Study 3: Empire Strikes Back

Embed from Getty Images Kim Kardashian West expressed her desire to keep things very simple—which can sometimes prove to be the most daring decision of all. Her pure white dress, by Vivienne Westwood, nods to the Neoclassical ideal. We miss everything about the Enlightenment period, to tell you the truth, so we really liked this dress.

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Madame Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord (born Catherine Verlée), by Baron François Gérard (a student of David), c. 1804, on view in Gallery 614. The subject was a celebrated beauty of her time. According to Met scholars, “Her chaste white dress alludes to propriety and grace, while the suggestive transparency of the silk sheath and the tight-fitting bodice underscore her sensuality.”

Case Study 4: Red Roses and Veiled Allusions

Embed from Getty ImagesEmbed from Getty Images If we ever need a witness—or to make some fashion fireworks—we’re turning to Met Gala co-chair and co-host Katy Perry, dressed here in layers of red chiffon and tulle, embellished with crystals, satin ribbon, embroidery, and ruched roses by Maison Margiela Artisanal.

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A Rose, by Thomas Anshutz, 1907, on view in Gallery 768. The sitter, Rebecca H. Whelen, was the daughter of a trustee of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, where the artist taught. Anshutz was a student of Thomas Eakins. The likening of a woman to a flower was a common theme in the late-19th-century painting, linking the feminine form to the ideal of aesthetic beauty, leisure, domesticity, and harmony with nature. Anshutz’s young sitter seems to us a bit of skeptical of that idea, anticipating some changes on the early-20th-century’s cultural horizon.

Case Study 5: Speaking of Flower Power…

Embed from Getty Images Our pick for most artistic interpretation of Mat Gala theme: the perennially artful Rihanna, making her Met Gala entrance in a sculptural floral extravaganza by Comme des Garçons, paired with red DSquared2 Riri sandals, laced all the way up her stems, and Rihanna Loves Chopard jewelry.

Editor’s note: A little off topic, but, we kinda love these limited-edition chandelier earrings from the Rihanna’s collection with Chopard: They might make someone a nice last-minute Mother’s Day gift… We think Sophie (below) would have liked them, too.

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Madame Sophie de France, by Francois Hubert Drouais, 1762, on view in Galley 615. Sophie, the sixth of eight daughters of Louis VX, is said to have been quiet and self-effacing. While we have no reason to doubt her sweetness, her bold striped-floral damask dress with lace cuffs and fur muff suggest she was no shrinking violet in the fashion department.

Case Study 6: Strong Military Presence

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Representing the avant-garde New Guard: Héloïse Letissier, having fun on the Met Gala red carpet in Burberry’s exaggerated take on military chic, with a broad-lapeled jacket and satin-stripe trousers. Not buttoned up in the least.
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Fashion ally George Washington, depicted after the Battle of Trenton, the turning point in the Revolutionary War, looks rather dapper in military dress, in a c. 1779-81 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, on view in Gallery 753.

Case Study 7: Formal Arrangements, or Always Trust Your Cape

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Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret, by James McNeill Whistler, 1883, on view in Gallery 771. (Editor’s note: The narrow-minded perspective of that title is not lost on us, btw.) The sitter requested that Whistler paint him in full evening dress. The artist complied, but insisted that he carry a blush pink-colored domino, a type of robe traditionally worn at masquerades and fancy-dress balls, to add interest to what would otherwise have been a sterile composition.

Embed from Getty ImagesOn the Met Gala red carpet, Sean Diddy Combs, demonstrated the dramatic possibilities of an astral-patterned cape and a confident persona. What else does a man need?

Embed from Getty Images Zoë Kravitz on the Met Gala red carpet, in a blush pink-and-black Oscar de la Renta gown embellished with real black-dyed roses and Tacori jewelry, obviously understands the superpowers of the cape idea, as well.

Case Study 8: Bow Jest

Embed from Getty Images The red carpet is not a place for loose ends or understatement: Here, in Marchesa couture, Rita Ora demonstrates the timeless power of tying everything up in a big red bow, made all the more powerful with bias cut ribbons and a fishtail train.

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A length of knotted fabric embellishes the dress of Marie Françoise de La Cropte de St. Abre, Marquise d’Argence in this c. 1744 portrait by Jean Marc Nattier. On view in Gallery 615.

Case Study 9: Bling’s the Thing—A Little or A Lot?

Embed from Getty Images Gold and crystal clusters embellish the front of Diane Kruger‘s Met Gala dress, by Prada. The back? An elegant drape of pure white…not sure it’s avant-garde. But it’s certainly lovely.

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Young Matilda Stoughton de Jaudenes, painted by Gilbert Stuart (most famous for his ubiquitous American schoolroom portrait of George Washington), pushes a similar look to the limits in a portrait that hangs in Gallery 755. The Met curators explain the look best: “The 16-year-old bride of Josef de Jáudenes, Matilda Stoughton (1778–after 1822), was an American whose father served as Spain’s consul in Boston for thirty years. Although her richly fashionable costume and jewelry would have been regarded as excessive for a young Anglo-Saxon, the splendor was completely appropriate for the wife of a wealthy and ambitious Spanish diplomat.” There’s a time and a place to get your gold on. And the onyx cuff looks like a “wear it everywhere” piece to us.

Case Study 10: Red Suits You, and You, and You, and….

Embed from Getty Images At the end of the 1980s, Commes des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo famously declared, “Red is the new black.” Many celebrities on the Met Gala runway took the proclamation to heart. Here, Rami Malek stands out in expertly tailored Dior Homme. (Editor’s note: Nature Girl over here especially digs the botanical boutonnière, referencing the ginkgo, a symbol of longevity and endurance. It’s said the trees can live for a thousand years…though someone else will have to attest to that.) For the record, Mr. Malek looks as handsome in black tie and white tie as red-no-tie. But all-red suited this occasion.

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Red plays a powerful role in a portrait of a young man identified as the young Charles Beauclerk, Duke of Albens, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c. 1690-1695, on view in Gallery 629. The subject was the son of Charles II and the actress Nell Gwynn. Maybe that’s where he got his flair for the dramatic.

Case Study 10: Pretty Perfect (Regal Bearing, No Crown Required)

Embed from Getty Images The woman bold enough to portray the current British royal monarch showed up on the Met Gala runway impeccably groomed, gracefully attired, and sans jewels. How avant-garde!!!! English actress Claire Foy, celebrated for her sensitive portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the original series The Crown, proves pretty is not a four-letter word. Her only adornments: the crystal-embellished ornaments that decorated the sleevetops of her bespoke floral jacquard dress, by Erdem. Some might not see past the beauty of the line, the train, the gentle color: But every freckled woman on the globe quietly applauds the bold beauty this off-the-shoulder look asserts.

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The Masquerade Dress (1911), in Gallery 774, captures the wife (and one of the favorite models) of American artist Robert Henri in a similarly straightforward presentation. Marjorie Organ Henri needed no feathers, diamonds, idealized landscape, or prestigious props. Just her pretty dress, graceful figure, and direct gaze. An artist herself, she illustrated cartoons for Hearst newspapers and exhibited works at the landmark Armory Show of 1913, exhibiting her own works (offered at $50 each) under her maiden name, Marjorie Organ (1886–1930).

Case Study 12: A Little Luster and a Whole Lotta Leg

Embed from Getty Images Beige goes Punk: Putting her fishnet-stockinged leg forward, Gigi Haddid steps onto the Met Gala red carpet in an assymmetrical Tommy Hilfiger design and Christian Louboutin shoes.

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Though folks tend to associate the “best leg forward” red carpet pose with Angelina Jolie, the fashion-savvy Ms. Jolie did not originate the posture, as Jacques Louis David‘s exquisite 1788 double portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) demonstrates. The Met’s curators note: “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier is known today as the founder of modern chemistry, for his pioneering studies of oxygen, gunpowder, and the chemical composition of water. In 1789, his theories were published in the influential Traité elementaire de chimie. The illustrations in this book were prepared by his wife, who is believed to have studied with David.” The rest of their story is sad (involving a guillotine execution for one and a bad second marriage for the other). We will leave that research to you. It’s all on met museum.org.  

Well…much remains of interest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s important collection of cultural treasures from around the globe. But, for now, we must return to our other tasks at hand.

Have fun researching art and fashion, and the art of fashion.

And a quick shoutout to Adam and Eve, without whom clothes would have been unnecessary, and people-watching on the streets of New York would be so much less interesting.

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Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by Charles Joseph Natoire (French, Nîmes 1700–1777 Castel Gandolfo). On view in Met Fifth Avenue Gallery 616.
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