50 years of Fashion

That’s evident in Exhibitionism: 50 Years of The Museum at FIT, which ran from February 8 to April 20. It reprised 33 of the museum’s most influential, groundbreaking shows, starting with an unconventional retrospective of vaunted Hollywood costumer Adrian, staged in 1971 as a live runway presentation.

red silk satin top hat with corest style lacing
A silk satin and lace hat by John Galliano and Stephen Jones for Christian Dior, fall 2000.

“The Museum at FIT has always been remarkably independent, and, as a result, we have created many envelope-pushing shows,” says Valerie Steele, museum director and chief curator.

The museum was founded in 1969 as the Design Laboratory at FIT. From the beginning, it showed fashion in a new way— one that “was not chronological and antiquarian, but really fashionable, and often with dramatic sets,” Steele says.

While it had some smaller shows, like the Adrian catwalk, its first major exhibit was Paul Poiret, King of Fashion (1976), a look at the early-20th-century designer who brought Oriental-ism to Paris couture.

The show didn’t just resurrect the long-forgotten Poiret—with 75 luxurious looks, featuring harem pants, feathered turbans, and bejeweled cloaks, many loaned by Poiret’s widow. It also stunned visitors with its mise-en-scène, a re-creation of the couturier’s legendary Arabian Nights–themed 1,002nd Night party held in his Parisian garden.

Using photographs, as well as the actual clothes—a catholic mix of couture, avant-garde, and ready-to-wear (including graphic tees and disposable paper dresses)—Exhibitionism brings this and many of the museum’s other presentations back to life. Highlights include the cerebral Fashion and Surrealism (1987), the rigorously academic The Corset (2000), and the fantastical Fairy Tale Fashion (2016).

Garments on exhibition in front of Union Jack flag
MFIT’s 2001 show London Fashion included garments by Ossie Clark, Boudicca, and Vivienne Westwood.

And like fashion, the museum itself has evolved. What started as a showcase for sartorial masterpieces (with solo shows on Poiret and Givenchy) eventually became a place to examine what Steele calls “fashion’s role in visual culture.” Lately, the exhibitions have used fashion as a lens through which to explore social issues, such as climate change (Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme, 2017), race (Black Fashion Designers, 2016), and gender (A Queer History of Fashion, 2013).

Steele says that such boundary-pushing is the result of the diverse interests and backgrounds of the curators, educators, exhibition designers, and others involved in each show.

“Making an exhibition is a lot like making a film: You need a good director, techies, creatives, all working together,” Steele says. “I never fail to be amazed at the creative ideas they come up with.”

Image at top of page: Garments from The Body  (2017) and Paris Refashioned (2017).

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