Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion

You’ve seen the pictures by now. You’ve blanched, you’ve sighed, you’ve expressed almost every emotion in between. The Met Gala steers culture year after year, and it came at just the right moment this time around, effectively routing the discourse around the unsavoury Drake, Kendrick Lamar feud. The Met to most is perhaps the pinnacle of fashion, producing enduring moments decade after decade. But what exactly is the Met Gala and why is it held? This year’s exhibition perhaps brings that to the fore more than any other… Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion. Dress code? The Garden of Time.

L-R: Lewisohn, Lambert, Vreeland, Wintour

First off, what is fashion if not wearable art? Yes, it looks outlandish, yes, they can’t sit or maybe even walk in that outfit. But one must first look at fashion outside a utilitarian perspective and acknowledge it as mere expression. And indeed, like a treasured Da Vinci canvas, fabrics must be preserved as well to be exhibited for years to come. Our story begins in 1937 New York with Irene Lewisohn, founder of the Museum of Costume Art. Having earlier founded the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre where she and her sister trained students in dance and drama, she sought to collect costumes from plays and sets. Soon, the collection grew too large to sustain, and in 1946, the Museum of Costume Art merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art to become the Costume Institute. In 1959, it officially became a curatorial department within the Met. Initial financial support for the Costume Institute came from the first Met Gala as we know it, a fundraising effort spearheaded by American publicist, Eleanor Lambert. In 1948, to mark the first annual exhibit of the newly founded Costume Institute, tickets to her fundraiser were sold for $50 to New York high society and fashion industry members – a stark contrast to the $75,000 tickets of the most recent Met Gala! This annual event has been maintained in the years since, supervised by legendary names such as Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour, the Met Gala has become a centrepiece of fashion, evolving from a modest fundraiser to a global celebration of couture, culture and creativity, drawing attention from around the world. Progressing from raising money to preserve art exhibitions, nowadays, the red carpet is an art exhibition itself. Today, the Costume Institute exhibits, conserves, studies, and houses the world’s most comprehensive costume collection (over 35,000 costumes and accessories spanning five continents and seven centuries), offering an unrivalled timeline of fashion history.

Christian Dior’s May dress, SS53, flowering grasses and wild clover etched into the fabric. Garment currently on display at the Costume Institute. Photo: Steven Meisel

The Costume Institute’s Spring 2024 Exhibition is on view at the Met 5th Avenue in Gallery 899. This year’s exhibition centres on sleeping beauties – garments that can no longer be dressed on mannequins due to their extreme fragility. These delicate pieces become a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of fashion and the passage of time. What was once a vital part of a person’s life is now a motionless ‘artwork’ that can neither be worn, heard, touched nor smelled. Therefore, the Costume Institute seeks to reanimate or perhaps reawaken these objects for the exhibition, helping us experience them as they were originally intended – with vibrancy, dynamism, and life. In a sign of the times, the exhibition leverages various technologies, including artificial intelligence, computer-generated imagery, x-rays, video animation, light projection, and soundscapes for this purpose. In addition, the approximately 250 garments and accessories on display this year are visually connected through themes of nature, serving as a metaphor for the transience of fashion. Perhaps real beauty is in the fragility of one’s petals, a rose that never wilts isn’t a rose at all. In the garden of time, an undying plastic flower is amiss.

L-R: Jenner, Bhatt, Hadid, Met Gala 2024.

Among the attendees this year, some particularly stood out. Supermodel, Kendall Jenner showed up to the red (or perhaps mold) carpet in a never-worn-before Givenchy dress. Givenchy would confirm that Look 14 HC FW99 was not worn in the past, and was only presented on a bust form. Since then, the dress had been preserved in the Givenchy Archives until the 2024 MET Gala after which it was returned to the Givenchy Archives. A mammoth 500 hours were required to hand-embroider the dress, with more than 100,000 beads and sequins. And even then it pales in comparison to the 163 artisans working 1,905 hours required to handsew Alia Bhatt’s 23-foot-long custom Sabyasachi sari. Shockingly still, Bhatt doesn’t get the gong for most intricate tailoring, with Gigi Hadid’s custom Thom Browne dress needing 70 people and 5000 man-hours to embroider a staggering 2.8 million beads!

Zendaya’s Galliano Looks at the Met Gala

John Galliano. Where do I even start, il n’est pas aussi simple. Maison Margiela SS24 may have been the best couture show in years. The Artisanal collection designed by Galliano floored critics entirely: dark, majestic, beautiful beyond compare. It wasn’t so much fashion as it was theatre, Leon Dame slinking about, hunched, menacing. Glassy doll-like makeup by Pat McGrath, pinched corsets, padded hips, Adele, La Seine, it was 1930’s Paris and you were on the prowl for a lady of the night. It was no surprise then that Maison Margiela was in high demand at this year’s Met. Ariana Grande would perform in SS24, and the breathtaking Gwendoline Christie who closed out Margiela Artisanal back in January showed up to the Met this year in stunning velvet Margiela paired with one of the signature Chiffon wigs from that show. The focal flower of the Met ultimately was Zendaya, who coming off the back of starring roles in two blockbusters, stepped onto the red carpet draped in custom Maison Margiela by Galliano, referencing Christian Dior SS99 by Galliano. As if that wasn’t enough, she returned for the kill in bewitching Givenchy by Galliano SS96 paired with a Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen SS07 headpiece. Fashion is expression above all, you say who you are without needing to speak; arguments can be had, peace can be brokered, one may fall in love. And in this world, John Galliano is Shakespeare.

Many thanks to Miracle Onyedim and Rhoda Etta.

Okojie Osakwe Simeon


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