No one expects the Metropolitan Museum of Art to mount a production of No, No, Nanette on 83rd Street, but couldn’t they at least spring for a Victrola and a 78 recording of Bye Bye Blackbird? The atmosphere at the Costume Institute’s “Cubism and Fashion” exhibit is so arid, the corpselike mannequins so dreary, the whole enterprise so pedantic, you want to jump into a Model T and head for the nearest roadhouse.
Of course, none of the Met’s costume exhibits are helped by being located in the basement of the museum, an airless pit situated directly under the Egyp-tian mummies. But extreme circumstances call for extreme remedies: In addition to cranking up that Victrola, why doesn’t the Met project Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters on the nearest white wall? The liquored-up, Freud-obsessed, exhibitionist flappers who once wore these clothes deserve as much.
Instead, the Met attempts to illuminate the period by befuddling hapless tourists and students with wall placards that say stuff like, “Along with flatness and visual interdeterminacy, cubism promotes the aesthetic atomism of vision over the integers and illusions of the whole that has prevailed for centuries.” It’s enough to make Jacques Derrida call it quits and repair to the gift shop.
Which is a shame, because there are some interesting clothes here. The heavy-as-lead, just-above-the-ankles World War I woolen suits (in their own way a radical improvement over the swaddling turn-of-the-century Worth gowns displayed nearby) provide a breathtaking contrast with Chanel’s famous little black dress reposing a few showcases over. Designed less than a decade after the suits, Chanel’s jersey vision is a dazzling window on the future.
It wasn’t only the haute bourgeoise Chanel customer whose sartorial life changed so dramatically in so short a time. In a 1925 article in The New Republic, the author describes a fictional 19-year-old: “Jane isn’t wearing much this summer. If you’d like to know exactly it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes. . . . The skirt comes just an inch below her knees. . . . The idea is that when she walks in a bit of a breeze you shall now and then observe the knee. . . . This is a bit of coyness which hardly fits in with Jane’s general character.” So sweeping was the revolution that the author was moved to observe, “These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.”
The literature of the period is full of Jane’s sisters. Hemingway’s circa-1926 Lady Brett Ashley “wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. . . . She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey”; the flapper-debutantes of Fitzgerald’s Saturday Evening Post stories could be found “on all the corners around the Plaza Hotel, girls in short squirrel coats and long flowing skirts and hats like babies’ velvet bathtubs . . . hundreds of girls with marcel waves, with colored shoes and orchids. . . .”
Unfortunately, the liveliness, the insouciance, the pure erotic energy dripping from every pore of these cosmopolites is entirely absent at the Met, which instead offers us metal mesh handbags entombed in glass cases (set up a fan! They should be swinging!). And why doesn’t an exhibit that is supposed to be about cubism and fashion have at least one tight-fitting cloche, a hat so cubist it turns the wearer’s whole head into a sphere? But even the Met can’t squelch the spirit of Lanvin’s black coat with white spiderweb embroidery, or Vionnet’s ivory velvet wedding dress— a gown so sinuous it seems to have stepped out of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing.
As it turns out, the tenuous connection between fashion and art makes even the museum nervous. Richard Martin, the Costume Institute’s curator, laments in the show’s catalog that the hackneyed “art and fashion connection is the bane of the costume curator’s professional life.” But there is a relationship between art and fashion, just as there’s one between jazz and fashion or the cinema and fashion: explosive social and aesthetic movements are occasions that require new clothes. A spectacular evening wrap in the exhibit has a pattern that looks like it was lifted from the curtain at Radio City Music Hall; a coat and dress combo printed with a mélange of beige blocks is a sort of 3-D version of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
The more recent items in the show have a rather slenderer relationship with cubism, though that hardly diminishes one’s enjoyment in seeing them. A floppy navy blue Comme des Garçons dress, like a schoolgirl’s uniform on steroids, is just as exciting today as it was incongruous in the shoulder-padded ’80s; a strange gray cocoon coat by the masterful Charles James belongs so wholly to the imagination of its creator that it can owe allegiance to no particular decade or art movement.
Perhaps the most poignant garment in the whole exhibit is a silk coat brocaded in a dizzying pattern of ziggurats worthy of M.C. Escher. Sewn into its voluptuous lining is a label from Lord & Taylor, a store now stocked to the brim with polar fleece pullovers and down-filled car coats, working women’s suits, and other hardy, practical clothing. Nary a whisper from the ghost of that evening wrapsporting, hooch-guzzling, free-thinking, flapper-customer can be detected anywhere within its drab corridors.