Things apparently did not work out with Mr. Big. Carrie Bradshaw, broke and alone, is filling her time by narrating “Costume: The Art of Dress,” an audio tour of the fashions in the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Curious about how much fun something like this could possibly be, I find myself in the Great Hall on a warm December day, a break from my usual haunts: department stores, where everything at this point is 99 percent off. (Plus, the people at Bergdorf’s will come to your house dressed as elves and bearing trays of Beluga; the staff at Saks will sing you a lullaby and tuck you in—if you’ll only just buy something.)
I am ashamed to admit that a profound failure of mechanical ability has prevented me from ever putting on headphones and taking an audio tour before. (I am so lame that I can’t even open the package of peanuts on an airplane, let alone operate the joystick.) Also, I’ve always thought that wearing headphones was dorky (not that I know what I’m looking at most of the time without them—I assure you, I do not). And, of course, the apparatus does wreak havoc on one’s hairdo. But this time, I have no choice. If I want SJP to tell me about doublets and ruffs, pleats and poufs, I have to contact the Costume Institute’s publicist and get her to help me.
The museum isn’t as crowded as I’d expected (are people too ashamed to give a dime instead of the $20 recommended pay-what-you-please admission and so just staying home?), but there are still plenty of tourists milling around. I suddenly discover something really wonderful about wearing headphones: You can see the other visitors, but you no longer have to endure the dumb things they say! That gang of seven-year-olds running past you and pointing at the statues’ wieners? Wonder of wonders: You cannot hear them shriek.
Instead, I stand in a welter of blessed silence in front of a fourth-century marble statue, and my friend Parker is telling me about how this goddess is wearing a Kiton made of pleated linen. (What she doesn’t say is that this gal is hardly a sylph, and a swath of gently folded fabric always looks good when you’re a bit chunky.) Parker’s soft, cheery voice not only evokes Carrie, but also brings to mind Annie, that plucky, curly-haired orphan who saw the nation through the last Depression and who a surprisingly uncloying SJP played in the original Broadway production.
Once you disregard the fact that you look hideous with this thing on your head, an audio tour is not half-bad! Parker and I visit Asmat body masks and Renoir dowagers and Peruvian nose ornaments (there are around 20 stops all together, and more are planned), but you can look at as many or as few as you like—this isn’t school! The trouble is that after a while, you actually want Parker to tell you about clothes that aren’t on the tour—the peasant frock in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc, for instance, a painting I’ve always adored, though it caused my art-history professor decades ago to sigh in despair at my gross plebeian tastes. (Well, love what you love, my teacher finally muttered, echoing Van Gogh.)
When we get to Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man, the publicist (her name is Nancy Chilton, and she’s very nice) and I stop dead in our tracks. This 16th-century fellow is beyond foppish, a real Miss Thing—”What an attitude!” Parker breathes in my ears. But wait, I know who he looks like! Excuse me, I say to Nancy—and talk about dumb things people say in museums—but doesn’t he remind you of Chuck Bass?
Miracle of miracles—Nancy bites. I had seen only the first half of Gossip Girl the night before, so I didn’t know what Chuck was looking for in his desk when Lily confronted him, or whether Blair’s mom really married Wallace Shawn. As we continue our tour, wonderful Nancy describes how Blair finally says, “I love you,” to Chuck, and he tells her it’s too late. Oh, no!
We have a little trouble finding the Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya, and when he shows up, I try to pay attention to SJP, but I am powerfully distracted. Did Serena go back with Dan? I whisper. No, she went to Buenos Aires for Christmas with that horrible weasely artist guy who is supposed to be Wallace Shawn’s son. (Must be adopted.)
My reward for all this bad behavior is lunch in the museum’s trustees’ dining room with my friend Harold Koda, the Costume Institute’s curator. I love the trustees’ dining room, which overlooks Central Park. It isn’t open to the public—it’s reserved for donors, which means that even in these times, we are surrounded by quietly rich people. And guess what? It turns out that Koda, who recently received the Oracle Award from Fashion Group International, was seated for the ceremony at a table with—you’ll never believe it—Serena and Dan. Turns out that not just Nancy, but other smarty-pantses on the museum staff, after finding out who Koda was sitting with, begged him to ask Dan if he got into Yale and Serena if she was going to be a bitch all season.
After this high-toned, erudite conversation, I bid goodbye to Harold and Nancy and make my way to the vast museum shop on the main floor to see if there’s anything new. Though I have a soft spot for William—the Egyptian faience hippopotamus that dates from 1981 to 1885 B.C. and is the Met’s mascot (he’s available inexpensively as a magnet or a tree ornament)—I am otherwise usually disappointed by the store, which favors scarves and jewelry that are invariably too conservative for my taste.
But this season, there’s a nice, snug black T-shirt with a trompe l’oeil gold necklace, in honor of the current exhibit of Calder jewelry (I should be looking at that instead of lurking in the gift shop), for $40, which seems a little high for a tee. On the other hand, it’s cheaper than the molded-plaster model of the museum building for $595 (also available as bookends for $300). A $20-and-under table holds that unwelcome gift, the dreaded mug, which, although it is printed with shoes, I doubt would satisfy any sex-and-the-city-dwelling gossip girls. I’m about to give up when I spot a modernist silvery card case for $40 that I assume is an homage to Mondrian but turns out to be engraved with a Frank Lloyd Wright design based on a window triptych from the Illinois Avery Coonley Playhouse, circa 1912. It’s accessible yet slightly pretentious, alluring but pragmatic—just like Carrie, Serena, and Blair themselves.