Friday, August 7, 2009

Not A-mused...

I finally took the time to go up to the Met and check out this years Costume Institute exhibit, The Model As Muse before it closes this Sunday, and as promised here's my $.02. Honestly there was a part of me that was debating whether or not to even bother since it's such a schlep up Madison by bus to get to there. I just wasn't as interested as I've been for past exhibits, and the only reasons I went were a) because you're not required to pay the full admission fee at the Met and there aren't many things to do in Manhattan for $3 and b) because I haven't missed an exhibit since Chanel in 2005, and I wanted to keep that track record going. Plus, I figured maybe I'd be surprised and it would be better than I thought...didn't quite work out that way, such is the power of positive thinking. I'm sure I'm making it sound like it was just a train wreck, and that's really not the case. As always Julian d'Ys did an amazing job with the wigs, masks and "makeup" that adorned the mannequins, and the set design was pretty good, particularly in the "Grunge" room (graffiti on the walls, dim lights and Nirvana on the sound system). But on to the subject itself. Being that the focus of the exhibit was models there were a lot of photographs, more than any other Costume Instititute exhibit I've seen anyway. There was everything from prints by Penn, Avedon, Newton and Meisel to archival issues of Vogue displayed in showcases. Getting to see such iconic images, like Avedon's "Dovima With The Elephants" or Erwin Blumenfeld's January 1950 Vogue cover of Jean Patchett up close and personal was actually pretty cool.

"The Doe Eye" by Erwin Blumenfeld
Vogue Jauary 1950

Sunny Harnett in Gres by Richard Avedon
Harper's Bazaar September 1954

"Dovima With the Elephants" by Richard Avedon
August 1955

Marisa Berenson by Hiro
Haper's Bazaar February 1966

Twiggy at FAO Schwartz by Melvin Sokolsky

"Fetching is Your Dior" by Chris von Wangenheim
Christian Dior advertisement 1976

But the photos were just part of the story. The other part of the story was the clothing. The exhibit was divided into rooms which each housed a decade, and therefore represented a "look". It started with post-war Paris, since really the mid-to-late 40s were when the idea of the supermodel was born. In that room there were poised, haughty looking mannequins with arched brows and red pouts dressed in clothes from the golden age of haute couture like Balenciaga's "shawl" coat and sack dress, and evening gowns by Charles James. The next room focused on the 60s youthquake, the mod era of Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Rudi Gernreich and early Saint Laurent. The centerpiece of this room was three aluminum dresses worn in the movie "Qui ĂȘtes vous, Polly Maggoo?" rotating on a platform under psychedelic lighting. Then came the 70s, which was pretty much glossed over with one small display showing what was supposed to be a V.I.P room at a club, but struck me as looking more like a painfully hip Williamsburg loft space than Studio 54. Lounging on a couch were one group of mannequins in gilded peasant blouses and ball skirts from Saint Laurent's Ballet Russes collection, and another group in slinky Halston jersey. Like I said, the 70s disco era was completely glossed over in terms of clothing. Then of course came the 80s and the supermodel era, which you'd think would be treated as some sort of holy grail kind of experience given that everyone (not including me, however) worships the supermodels. Here's what the supermodel era amounted to as far as Harold Koda and his team of curators is concerned; a couple of Versace, Chanel, Armani(?), Ralph Lauren(??) and Donna Karan (???) looks in front of a projection of George Michael's "Freedom" music video. That's all. The pinnacle of the model obsession and all we got was a music video and some clothes. I can't imagine why Azzedine Alaia wasn't featured in the exhibit given that this room was so utterly flat. I mean, are Ralph, Donna and Giorgio really the designer names that come to mind when you think of the supermodels? Where was Mugler, or Galliano, or Dolce and Gabbana even? After that came the phase of alternative beauty embodied by grunge and unusual looking models. The clothes were nothing special, mainly just some grunge looks from MJ's infamous Perry Ellis collection and some Anna Sui with a side display of Prada and Helmut Lang to cover the "minimalism" end of the 90s, but the room itself was pretty cool and completely blew the f-ing supermodel section out of the water.

The post-war years: Balenciaga (left photo), Charles James (right)

The 60s Youthquake

The late 70s

Alternative beauty - 90s grunge

One thing that was done in an attempt to really combine the two concepts of models and clothing was to recreate iconic images using mannequins and the actual clothes that were photographed. So there was a life-sized recreation of Dovima with the Elephants or a group of models dressed head-to-toe in Charles James photographed by Cecil Beaton, Peggy Moffit in Rudi Gernreich's "monokini" from 1964 and Brooke Shields' infamous Calvin Klein jeans ad. Unfortunately these little vingettes were limited, and the majority of the clothes were really just like a brief walk through fashion history, and were basically incidental to the pictures of models wearing them. Ultimately they weren't the focus, and about halfway through the exhibit I found myself thinking that the theme would make for a much better photography exhibit than a fashion exhibit since the images were what it all boiled down to.

All in all, not a great exhibit. Like I said in my post about the Gala back in May, I think calling the exhibit "The Model as Muse" is completely misleading because the truth is that the models didn't actually inspire the clothing, they merely embodied an aesthetic that the designers were striving to achieve, so to imply that Peggy Moffitt inspired Rudi Gernreich to bare a woman's breasts, or that Gianni Versace never would have printed Warhol's image of Marilyn Monroe on a gown had it not been for the models he surrounded himself with is simply untrue. The most that can be said about the women to whom this exhibit was dedicated is that their images defined an era in fashion, which is nothing to scoff at. But ultimately that doesn't have anything to do with clothing because the clothes would have come about with or without the models who wore them. This wasn't so much a fashion exhibit as it was an examination of changing ideals of beauty throughout the second half of the 20th century. I stand by my statement that this subject would have made a much better photography exhibit, since that was really the focus here. But since there was also a Francis Bacon exhibit open, I wouldn't consider my $3 completely wasted.,,,,,, metropolitan museum of art

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