At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, fashion reigns supreme. In early May, all eyes were on the opening of a new exhibit from the Met’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which showed potential to draw record crowds to the museum and provide it with a major source of income at a moment of financial uncertainty.
That’s exactly what it did. The show closed out its five-month run as the museum’s most popular show of all time, beating out 1978’s “Treasures of Tutankhamun” for the top spot. All told, 1,659,647 people turned out for the Costume Institute’s dramatic depiction of Catholic fashion, according to a release from the museum. This final figure cements fashion’s dominance at the nation’s best-known art institution.
It wasn’t always this way. The First Monday in May, a documentary about the making of the Met Gala, the Costume Institute’s annual fundraiser, begins with Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, Met trustee (and Vogue editor) Anna Wintour, then-Met director Thomas Campbell, and former Costume Institute curator Harold Koda all explaining why fashion has historically been treated as a second-class discipline within the museum: because it’s known as a decorative art and not a “real” art (like painting, sculpture, or architecture), because it’s still considered women’s domain and therefore frivolous, because the department is literally located in a basement.
On top of that, the overtly commercial nature of fashion — versus the less acknowledged but very real commercialism of art — leads some people to dismiss fashion as an art form.
But with the runaway success of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” in 2011, fashion exhibits started becoming reliable traffic drivers for the Met. “Savage Beauty,” a theatrical, unearthly retrospective that took place in the wake of McQueen dying by suicide in 2010, saw 661,509 visitors in a little over three months, making it one of the 10 most popular Met exhibits ever at the time. Since then, “Savage Beauty” has since been displaced by the Costume Institute’s “China: Through The Looking Glass” (2015) and “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” (2017), now the museum’s sixth- and eighth-most-visited shows.
Though museum collections have long housed clothing and accessories, the appeal of specialized fashion exhibits has sharpened thanks to digital media’s democratization of the fashion industry. Magazines and newspapers used to relate what happened at fashion shows to consumers; now anyone can watch them by live stream, catch the photos on Instagram minutes later, and tell the designer exactly what they think of his or her work in the comments section.
“We get to have input and feelings and reactions to what’s on the runway, so we’re involved in fashion in a greater way,” says Caroline Bellios, an adjunct professor of fashion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We take a greater ownership of it.”
Bellios also points out that as the public conversation about identity grows louder, so does our fluency in fashion as a form of self-presentation, furthering the accessibility of fashion in a museum context. Besides, looking at art can feel intimidating — What does it mean? What am I supposed to be getting out of this? — but with clothing, you can always defer to the classic question: Would I wear this?
“Heavenly Bodies” didn’t only stand to win because it’s a fashion exhibit. It was also about Catholicism, a proven hook for Met visitors.
Indeed, “Heavenly Bodies” has proven more popular even than “The Vatican Collections,” an exhibit from the spring of 1983 that is now the museum’s fourth most popular. A touring show that originated in New York and later made stops in Chicago and San Francisco, “The Vatican Collections” featured more than 200 works of art borrowed from the Vatican Museum in Rome. The Met gave the Vatican Museum $580,000 to restore some of the works included in the exhibit, and at the end of the show’s stay in New York, the Met told the New York Times that 855,939 people had attended, grossing $2.38 million for the museum.
The profit from “The Vatican Collections,” a Met spokesperson told the Times, would “mean a good deal for the financial health of the museum.’’
“Heavenly Bodies” examined the influence of Catholicism and its aesthetics on fashion designers and showcased more than 40 vestments from the church itself. Many years and one long courtship of the Vatican in the making, it is the biggest show the museum has ever held. The combination of fashion and Vatican treasures made it kind of like The Avengers of the art world — a winning crossover event if there ever was one.
You would be right to wonder whether it, too, will mean a good deal for the financial health of the Met, which has faced steep money challenges in recent years. In March, the museum did away with its pay-what-you-wish policy for non-New Yorkers and started charging them a mandatory $25 entrance fee; in April, it appointed a new director, Max Hollein, who is known as an “aggressive” fundraiser.
Unlike every other department at the Met, the Costume Institute finances itself through the Met Gala. The event supports the department’s exhibits, publications, acquisitions, and capital improvements, a rep for the museum said in an email.
Perhaps out of necessity, the Met Gala has escalated into a dazzling spectacle of fashion and celebrity under Wintour’s leadership, drawing out everyone from Beyoncé to the Kardashians. Last year, the evening raised $12 million for the Costume Institute. As the Met Gala has become a major pop culture moment (it’s the setting for Ocean’s 8), it’s raised the Costume Institute’s profile and budget.
Since “Savage Beauty” in 2011, some onlookers have worried about the pressure the Costume Institute faces to match the success of its past exhibits. Bolton, who curated the McQueen exhibit before becoming the head of the department in 2015, says as much in The First Monday in May: “The McQueen show has become a little bit of an albatross in a way, a bit of a millstone around my neck. It’s the show that every show I’ve done subsequently has been measured against.”
“Savage Beauty” was a turning point for the Costume Institute, and for fashion curators in the museum world generally, earning greater visibility and respect for their work. (When the exhibit traveled to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, it beat attendance records there too.) Last year, the Museum of Modern Art held its first fashion exhibit in decades, and the Brooklyn Museum focused an entire show on Georgia O’Keeffe’s personal style (plus some of her paintings). Between 2011 and 2016, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” traveled around the world, originating in Montreal before stopping off in 12 cities including Dallas, Madrid, Stockholm, Melbourne, and Seoul; according to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, its worldwide attendance totaled more than 2 million.
“One potential drawback is that because of Savage Beauty’s resounding success, there is now pressure in some institutions for every fashion exhibition to be a ‘blockbuster,’” says Bellios. “If every topic for a fashion exhibition has to inspire mass appeal, it could begin to limit what kinds of clothing and dress are shown and what kinds of stories are told.”
With “Heavenly Bodies,” the Met pulled out all the stops. In addition to it being the largest show the museum has ever held, it had an unusually long run (May through October) and was housed in the Cloisters, the museum’s medieval branch in far northern Manhattan, which helped draw visitors to the distant outpost. Conditions were right for a blockbuster, and that’s precisely what it was.
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