As Nicolas Ghesquière took to the podium at this morning’s press conference for 2020’s Spring Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, his backdrop was the enormous clock that overlooks the Seine from the Musée D’Orsay. Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director of Women’s Collections is acting as cochair of the show, entitled “About Time: Fashion and Duration”, and as the minute hand of the clock behind him crept forward he explained why that theme feels “particularly appropriate.” He said: “It got me thinking about fashion’s intimate link to the notion of time, not just because fashion is the perfect mirror of the moment, but because it plays such a significant role in shaping our future. At Louis Vuitton, fashion and time have been in constant dialog for over 150 years. And the rapport between those two elements remains fundamental to my work. I have always looked to marry silhouettes, techniques, memories, and impressions from the past with the latest technology to create fashion for today that speaks to the future.”
The man calibrating every last detail of the “About Time” show is Andrew Bolton, The Wendy Yu Curator in Charge at the Costume Institute. Bolton replaced Ghesquière in front of the D’Orsay clock to disassemble the mechanics of thought behind the exhibition that will open with the Met Gala on May 4. He said: “Fashion teaches us to tell time differently. It shows us that there is more to time than what you can count on the fingers of your hands, or on the hands of your clock.”
This exhibition’s starting point, he expanded, is that this year is the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a temporal landmark being celebrated across the museum. The anniversary led to a consideration of the nature of longevity in fashion—an art form whose ever-shifting, ephemeral nature makes it an extremely accurate cultural timepiece—as seen through the watch face of the Institute’s collection. Bolton observed: “We wanted to rethink our collection through a concept that reflected the fashion zeitgeist, one that we felt was very timely and topical… In recent years, time has dominated discussions within the fashion community. These talks are centered around the accelerated production, circulation, and consumption of fashion in the digitally synchronized world, the 21st century. Unquestionably companies have benefited from this sped-up, around the clock temporality of digital capitalism, but designers have often been creatively constrained by its 24/7, continuous functioning. So we thought it might be an opportune moment to explore the temporal character of fashion from a historical perspective.”
Bolton explained that the exhibition, which he is designing in collaboration with Es Devlin, will itself be a clock. This clock will be constructed of two sets of 60 pieces of fashion that act as markers of moments spanning 1870 to now. It will also have two functions: the first will tell time in a chronologically linear order, and the second will be a kind of time-travel chronometer that allows the visitor to hop across moments in time between 1870 and now when fashion’s helix circularity (what comes around, goes around) has resulted in intersections (or “interruptions”) in the fabric of our perception of the present through clothing. Like any precision timepiece, the complications of its movement will result in a conveniently readable face.
Bolton explained that he has consulted the thinking to two Frenchmen, the poet Charles Baudelaire and the philosopher Henri Bergson, to set his clock by. As he explained, Baudelaire was highly attuned to the acceleration and compression of human perception of time prompted by industrial and technological advances—such as railways—in the 19th century. In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire “coined the term ‘modernity’ which he defined as the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent. Baudelaire extended these concepts of modernity to the dialectics of fashion. For Baudelaire, fashion was a hallmark of modernity because of its endless mutability and its relentless iteration of the new.” Baudelaire’s “modernity” will be the timezone against which the 60 chronologically ordered looks are set. Bolton said all would be presented in black to highlight the nuance of silhouette, and a film presentation included examples such as a heavily bustled American day dress from 1865, and a satin gigot-sleeved dress made by Brooklyn dressmaker Mrs. Arnold in 1895.
The second, time-traveling function of the “About Time” clock is set to the thinking of Henri Bergson, who as Bolton said “argued that our sense of temporal succession at the present moment, perpetually erased and replaced by the next one was an illusion… he contended that time exists as duration, as a continuous flow in which thoughts, feelings, and memories exist together. And that it makes no sense to separate them in the form of a linear sequence. In Bergson’s words, duration is a conception of time, in which the past coexists with the present.” The second set of 60 looks, set to Bergson’s “duration” theory, will each be placed against corresponding looks in the first set to illustrate moments in which the fabric of fashion time has overlapped. That film display gave one example by showing the Mrs. Arnold dress alongside a similarly sleeved (but much shorter-skirted) Commes Des Garçons piece from 2004. It also instantly sparked thought of Moschino’s fall 2020 “mini panniers,” the historically-rooted invention behind so much work by John Galliano at Christian Dior or Alessandro Michele at Gucci, and of course the work of Ghesquière.
In fact, as the Louis Vuitton designer had earlier noted, “one of the most memorable collections for me was the spring 2018 show, which I call the “Brocade Frock Coats Collection,” which contained designs that were direct interpretation of pieces I had discovered in the Costume Institute’s archives.” Bolton confirmed that a Ghesquière piece from spring 2018 will serve as a “duration” against the archive garment that inspired it, and added: “In effect, these durations represent patterns of repetition, or rather temporalities of repetition in which fashions of the present are freed from the confines of chronology by allowing them to return to the past.” Which leads to the “narrator,” or time-teller, of the collection. Bolton will use the writings of Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando as a narrative device through which to explore the relationship between fashion and time. “She was unconvinced that in the end time’s passing could really be slowed, that change could really be stopped, which makes her the ideal mediator in the battle between Baudelaire and Bergson.”
Also on the podium this morning was Max Hollein, Director of the Met, who said: “almost all of the objects in the show are from the Costume Institute’s collection, and include new donations and prominent gifts from designers in honor of our anniversary—and I really want to express my great gratitude for that.” As Ghesquière noted, however, everyone benefits from these donations: Once a garment is in the Costume Institute’s collection it becomes a forever-preserved moment in the flowing onrush of fashion’s shifting story. He said: “I’m humbled by how the Costume Institute brings myself and other designers, as well as fashion itself, a certain glory. Thanks to it, our creations are transformed into valuable cultural artifacts, wearable treasures that can continue to tell the latest stories about who we were, who we are, and where we are going.” So set your alarms for May 4: Along with Ghesquière, the co-chairs for the gala that Monday will be Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, and Anna Wintour.