Guide to Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion

Christina Parrella

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The Costume Institute at the Met Fifth Avenue has put on a number of landmark shows over the past decade, with themes that have highlighted haute couture, punk rock and styles from Chinese designers. During those years the Met has continued to acquire other pieces too, augmenting its collection of apparel and accessories that span centuries and continents. Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion features 60 of the most remarkable pieces the institute has acquired in the last 10 years. The garments represent not only the evolution of fashion but also a sartorial history of the past three centuries. Check out nine of our favorites from the show and then visit the Costume Institute to see the exhibit for yourself. 

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Unknown, British (1747)
Details to note: This robe à l'Anglaise is typical 18th-century attire, with the torso showcasing an exaggerated bodice. This may have actually been a wedding dress, due to its detailed floral patterns and use of silk, rather than cotton, as a medium. The white and silver colors represent purity; three types of silver threading were used on this dress, indicating it may have been worn by an aristocratic bride.

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Charles James (1948)
Details to note: This black-silk satin and faille “tulip” evening dress, made by America’s first couturier, Charles James, demonstrates the sculptural and structured technique of his work. James, known for his shapely ball gowns, was the subject of a Costume Institute retrospective in 2014. 

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Elsa Schiaparelli with Jean Cocteau, House of Lesage (1937)
Detail to Note: Fashion and culture began to shif following World War I, with artists and designers collaborating to reimagine the way women dressed. Italian couturière Elsa Schiaparelli was known for pushing boundaries with her bold designs; this linen dinner jacket is a perfect example. It features an embroidered sketch of a woman by writer-artist Jean Cocteau meant to play with the shape of a woman’s body. Schiaparelli was the subject of the Met's Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition. 

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen (2011)
Detail to Note: Following the death of Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton (once McQueen’s personal assistant) took over reins of the fashion brand. Burton has remained true to McQueen’s vision, melding the brand’s macabre themes with often nonfunctional dress. McQueen was known for inventive, fantastical outfits that were meticulously crafted (and sometimes uncomfortable to wear), many of which explored themes of life, death and nature. Burton created this dress, adorned with hundreds of synthetic butterflies applied by hand. The result is an illusion—the dress is in the shape of a monarch butterfly, one of the designer’s recurring forms. 

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel (2015, originally designed in 1983)
Detail to Note: Karl Lagerfeld took over as head designer and creative director for the House of Chanel in 1983. This black silk crepe dress, designed for his first collection for the label, pays homage to house’s founder, Coco Chanel. The dress is adorned with colorful necklaces of gold, pearl and rhinestones and reimagines one of Chanel’s most-worn looks

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Philip Treacy (2000)
Detail to Note: Known for his outré designs, milliner Philip Treacy has outfitted everyone from Lady Gaga and Isabella Blow to Kate Middleton and a slew of other royals. For this hat, Treacy turned the form of an orchid into an over-the-top headpiece.  

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designers: Tom Ford (2014–15; left); Geoffrey Beene (1967–68; right)
Detail to Note: Geoffrey Beene’s 1967–68 collection included floor-length sequined football jerseys. Ford’s shorter update features the year of his birth on the front along with the word Molly, a reference to the Jay-Z lyric “I don’t pop Molly, I rock Tom Ford,” off his track “Tom Ford.”

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Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Gianni Versace for Versace (this version 2016, originally designed in 1994; right)
Detail to Note: Gianni Versace crafted many garments that embodied sensuality, but this take became a particularly important piece for the House of Versace. The silk-synthetic crinkle-crepe dress features a deep V neckline and a high slit up the thigh (a Versace signature), along with cutouts on the side and gold safety pins fastened throughout. Elizabeth Hurley first wore the body-hugging number in 1994 to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which earned it the nickname “that dress.” It reemerged 18 years later when, in 2012, Lady Gaga wore the design for a night out in Milan. 

Photo: Christina Parrella

Designer: Jean Paul Gaultier (2016, A/W Couture 2008–9)
Detail to Note: The French couturier’s work is often hyperfeminine, playful with exaggerated silhouettes; this wedding ensemble is all of that. The dress is made of rayon-nylon chenille lace with nude tulle and a floor-length headpiece-cage that uses nylon mesh, organza ribbon, ivory kidskin and white steel boning. If Björk ever gets married again, we know who she should talk to.


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