The Costume Institute’s New Exhibition Understands the Emotional Power of American Fashion

Fashion
“In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” uses clothes to evoke powerfully American emotions.

Tremaine Emory whose work is featured in In America A Lexicon of Fashion takes in the show.

Tremaine Emory, whose work is featured in In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, takes in the show.Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images.

The Friday before the Met Gala (and the opening of its accompanying museum exhibition), I met the designer and impresario Tremaine Emory for tea. The theme of this year’s exhibition is In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, and Emory, who designs T-shirts, sweaters, and sneakers under the name Denim Tears, had recently found out his work would be featured in the show. He began musing about the meaning of American fashion—the way that it is rarely about design and much more about pulling together references and style with originality. It’s a kind of hustle, you might say.

“Marc and Ralph,” he mused, referring to Jacobs and Lauren, respectively, “are ultimate curators. Good at curating, styling—Kanye [West]’s a good one too. Curators and storytellers.”

He went on to list more: Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, Willi Smith. JCPenney! And, of course, Levi’s, with whom he designed his most famous garments: a pair of jeans and a matching jacket decorated with cotton wreaths—covetable products, but also ones he used to tell the story of his family’s history as sharecroppers, and the cotton business’s exploitation of Black labor. Those pieces, along with a sweater featuring David Hammons’s African-American Flag, are in the show.

The inclusion of Emory, who is in his early 40s and has never done a runway show, suggests that the Met’s exhibition will communicate something a little different. In years past, the Costume Institute has taken up grand themes like camp and the Catholic Church, mounting astounding displays of Versace couture and Galliano gowns. That approach wouldn’t make sense this year, for a few reasons. American fashion isn’t really about bravado or showing off—the average New Yorker on the subway is dressed in Crocs and sweatpants. And even the most accomplished American designers, from Claire McCardell to Supreme, are triumphant for the sheer ease of their clothes, and the way they create expressive pieces with mostly vernacular forms.

The American designer Eli Russell Linnetz speaks with curator Andrew Bolton.Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images.

Still, there was a worry among fashion fans and even designers the theme of “America” might lead the Institute, which has been criticized for not adequately spotlighting the work of nonwhite designers, to tell a cliched story of American fashion, one of tasteful ballgowns and nifty if sleepy pantsuits. Instead, this show is American fashion as a quilt, head curator Andrew Bolton explained, and it offers an impressive aerial view of the current variety and diversity of American fashion. Rows and rows of designs are presented, each with their own Stephen Jones-designed fascinator featuring an noun to summarize the work, and which put younger cult designers like Emory and Eli Russell Linnetz alongside legends like McCardell and Donna Karan.

Designer Travis Detwiler, of Stan, poses in front of his work at the Costume Institute.Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images.

From a fashion curatorial perspective, this approach has its limits. It lacks narrative, which, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, is a bit un-American. All we care about is narrative! (The second part of the exhibition, which will fill the American Wing next May, is intended to present a more definitive historical argument.) Christopher John Rogers is described in conversation with the society-designers of yore, like Oscar de la Renta, when in fact he has much more in common with the playful spirit and obsessive craftsmanship of Patrick Kelly, or with Donna Karan, who was obsessed with the inner life and mind of her sophisticated clients who lived with brisk mystique. (De la Renta, for all his glamour, would never have put Michaela Cole in a highlighter yellow silk crop top and skirt. He did not, as we say, have the range.) And Emily Bode’s work, especially over the past three years, has become much more complex than her grouping with other designers who use upcycled quilts, like Tristan Detwiler’s Stan, allows. Her work imagines wearers as caretakers or guardians of garments, protectors of their materiality and myths.

A view of In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bolton said that the exhibition changed shape as the team worked. In other words, it’s an audodidact’s buffet. Still, it seems strange to show the work of Eckhaus Latta (by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta) or Lou Dallas (designed by Raffaela Hanley) without noting the influence of the radical Bernadette Corporation, which pioneered an art world-first relationship with fashion. The exhibition is also short on America’s greatest fashion invention: streetwear. Willi Smith, the sensuous genius whose combination of art world finesse and sportswear elegance presaged designers from Jonathan Anderson to Supreme to Virgil Abloh, is not included, despite being widely credited with pioneering the genre. And Supreme, the most powerful or at least the most famous fashion brand in the world, is not here either. Nor is Rachel Comey, who invented the south Brooklyn style of post-recession New York; nor, for that matter, is Stüssy.

But if the show is less effective as a museum exhibition making an argument about the state of contemporary fashion, it instead delivers a powerful emotional experience. Emory grew up in New York as a regular Met visitor, and he seemed nearly overwhelmed to see his work in the show a few days after we spoke. The same went for designers like Linnetz and Hanley, plus Latta and Eckhaus. A number of designers posed in front of their pieces for photographs, looking a little dazed. You don’t exactly get that sort of sensation from papal fashion. And anyways, emotion is the most American state of mind: at the root of patriotism, pride, anger, liberty, achievement, and accomplishment is a sense of intensity that (especially lately) overwhelms the rational.

Strolling through the exhibition with a number of the designers emphasized the potential power of this show. Emory and Linnetz were once kids looking through magazines and watching music videos, pining to make a fashion dream come true. They didn’t have the same Costume Institute to look to for inspiration growing up: the wing of the Met has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in New York. Its shows consistently set records as the museum’s most visited—the Catholicism show holds the record, with over 1.6 million visitors—and even a teenager who pays close attention to the slides of Vogue Runway or the trends of TikTok might not come across a designer like Hanley, or Emory, or have a full sense of what Linnetz’s Abercrombie-zombie landscape is about. In America, we tend to look down on fashion and style. And yet the range of what our designers are doing, especially the young ones, is remarkable. (Todd Snyder told me last summer that designers across Europe are at this point all copying Americans, like Aime Leon Dore’s Teddy Santis and Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo—not the other way around.)

The show itself, designed by LAMB Design Studio’s Nathan Crowley and Shane Valentino, feels almost shoppable. Which I liked, because it underscores something significant about the relationship between fashion and art, which is that: they are not the same thing. Some people like to think they are, because they believe that gives value to this frivolous thing, and allows us to free ourselves from the so-called constraints of commerciality. But the commerciality is powerful—essential—because it’s what makes fashion a tool of self-expression. And its frivolity is powerful, too. The ephemeral is often more precious than what is intended to last.

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