Exclusive Preview of The Met’s ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’

This week’s opening of “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s Costume Institute couldn’t be further away from a sleepy fairytale.

Visitors will wend their way through a series of 29 rooms, where 16 “Sleeping Beauties” — garments that are too fragile to hang on mannequins — are entombed in glass. While many of the 220 garments, accessories and buttons are dazzlers, the overall experience – and it is just that – is an assault on the senses and new terrain for an exhibition – fashion or otherwise. Beyond the naked eye, ticket-holders will put their senses to the test.  There are four galleries infused with molecular smell recordings, four galleries amplifying sound recordings, four galleries with CGI and/or digital avatars, three galleries with poetry readings, two galleries that encourage “forbidden museum behavior” – touching objects – and a finale of a gallery that features a ChatGPT-powered interaction that was created by Open AI.

While the earliest known version of the makings of the narrative “Sleeping Beauty” traces back to 1330, The Met’s multi-sensory and digitally-enhanced show is very much about the future. During a preview Sunday afternoon, Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute, said, “For me, this is just the beginning in my curatorial practice. I like the idea of going forward with this sensorial and emotional approach to fashion,” adding that creating a sound and scent database for select items would be part of that equation.

The premise for “Sleeping Beauties” is to reawaken costumes from the Costume Institute’s 33,000-piece collection “through the senses so that you can actually smell, touch, hear and of course see them,” Bolton said. Playing up the participatory, visitors can run their palms over the “touch wall,” a 3D-printed plastic version of the embroidered pattern for Raf Simon’s 2013 “Miss Dior” dress for Dior. They can also feel the 3D replica pattern of Dior’s 2014 “Mini Miss Dior” dress nearby, as well as admire a real version in vivid colors beneath a bell jar.

The prismatic effect is evident throughout the show, including at the entrance of the exhibition, where Brancusi’s 1910 “Sleeping Muse” bronze rests. That visage was the inspiration for the mannequin that wears the show’s final look – a 1930 Callot Soeurs wedding ensemble. Positioned atop an all-white amphitheater, the dress comes to life in other ways too. With a quick QR scan, visitors can use ChatGPT to interact with the gown’s former owner – Jazz Age-era socialite Natalie Potter. Adding another dimension is what Bolton described as “a honeymoon fan,” an 1869 cottonwood handheld fan that was inscribed like a diary by a 19-year-old bride, who detailed the three weeks after her wedding.    

From the start, the ancient versus the futuristic is clear. Take Charles Frederick Worth’s “Cloud” dress, an 1887 silk satin and chiffon ballgown with “warp loss,” which is caused by the deterioration of horizontal threads. Rather than mask those imperfections, the lighting on the garment directs the eye to that “inherent weakness, which is causing its demise,” Bolton said. Opposite that is a reimagined version of the ball gown on a form seemingly dancing in what is a “Pepper’s ghost,” an illusionary technique in which an image of an object offstage is projected so that it appears to be in front of the audience. Creating that digital version took more than six months and 40 different renderings. (Fittingly, that is accompanied by a musical score of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty.”) A “reawakening,” so to speak, of the Worth gown is steps away – a Alessandro Michele-designed fall 2017 Gucci cape.

The technological effects make the past more approachable in myriad ways, from the projecting slides on a wall to the more complex AI and CGI, Bolton said. “What people sometimes don’t understand is that when a garment comes into a museum, it can’t be touched anymore, smelled, heard or worn, so you have to rely on sight. Since fashion is a living art form, it depends on the body to activate it. Fashion is almost asking to be touched. It evinces so many senses unlike a painting, which is put on a wall and is just seen.”

The nature-heavy theme courses throughout the exhibition, which opens to the public on Wednesday and will run through Sept. 2. The multi-sensory combinations are of varying degrees in the galleries that are meant to be case studies of Painted Flowers, Blurred Blossoms, Dior’s Garden, Van Gogh’s Flowers, Poppies, Garthwaite’s Garden, The Red Rose, The Specter of the Rose, the Scent of a Man, the Scent of a Woman, Resada Luteola, The Garden, Garden Life, Insects, Beetle Wings, Butterflies, The Birds, The Nightingale and the Rose, Marine Life, Venus, Seashells, The Siren, Snakes, The Mermaid, and The Mermaid Bride.

Some of the more unexpected elements, especially the digital ones, have been crafted and perfected by the exhibition’s creative consultant and Showstudio’s Nick Knight, who created AI and CGI imagery, including a projection of a dying rose. At times, scent is the lead attraction, as in The Specter of the Rose, which draws upon the idea that perfume often remains embedded in a garment. Smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas translated fragrances using peak molecules from three dresses — including Paul Poiret’s 1913 “La Rose d’Iribe” dress — into scented paint that has been applied to three sections of a nearby wall that visitors can rub to smell each scent. In another area, the intricate embroidery of a 1615–1620 waistcoat has been reimagined in an interactive embossed wallpaper that was made to the specifications of Braille.

A symphony of scents can be wafted in Scent of a Woman, which showcases numerous floral hats and a fall 1938 House of Schiaparelli blue silk crepe evening dress that belonged to Millicent Rogers. Met goers can use the nearby plastic tubes to smell six peak molecules from the Standard Oil heiress’ dress. “You’re actually smelling Millicent Rogers,” Bolton said. “You’re smelling not only the fragrance she wore, but her natural body odors, what she ate, what she drank, what she smoked and where she lived.” All of those smells have been extracted by Tolaas.

Mortality is hinted at in the Poppies area, where actor Morgan Specter can be heard reading John McRae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Field, which hails the World War I soldiers who died on the Western Front. A 1937 Ana de Pombe evening dress has a poppies print that evokes drops of blood. Nearby, a spring 2015 Viktor & Rolf haute couture laser-cut poppy-inspired ensemble with a headpiece of straw and carbon fiber rods is a showstopper.

Fear also creeps into the picture, especially in The Birds gallery, which contains two orange Alexander McQueen jackets, including a spring 1995 one with screenprinting by Simon Ungless and Andrew Groves, while hand painted swallows are on view in a fall 1938 Madeleine Vionnet evening dress with a pattern of swallows. It is the large-scale film projection of a swarm of swallows that increasingly fill the sky that grabs the eye. Updated takes of flapping bird wings from the soundtrack from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller “The Birds” can be heard. Snakes might also make some attendees jumpy since Iris van Herpen’s fall 2011 “Snake” dress is set against a Knight-made visual of slithering snakes.  

Van Gogh’s Flowers are unmissable for the display of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Irises” jacket, which was inspired by the Impressionist’s 1889 painting of the same name. Overhead, a spinning projection zooms in on the boldness and intricacies of the garment’s embroidery. Workers at Maison Lesage needed 600 hours of handwork, 200,000 beads and 150,000 paillettes in 22 colors to complete the garment.

“Sleeping Beauties” also has green shots of major talent, including one of Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson’s grass-sprouting coats that are literally still growing in a glass case. Prior to its installation, the Costume Institute team has been tending to the coat that was embedded with seeds in an irrigated grow tent. A time-lapsed video of that device serves as the backdrop. But after a week on view, the garment will have to be swapped out for a dried version of one for the duration of the show’s run.

Anderson and TikTok’s chief executive officer Shou Chew will serve as honorary chairs at Monday night’s Met Gala. TikTok is the lead sponsor of the exhibition, with support from Loewe and additional support from Conde Nast. Asked about the TikTok factor, given a looming U.S. ban of the social media platform Bolton said, “When we approached TikTok, it was so exciting for us because it’s a huge platform. Obviously, it’s about technology. Hopefully, our shows will reach a huge audience. That was and still is really exciting for us.”

Asked about any worries regarding a pushback for that choice, Bolton said, “We’ll have to see how things develop [with the issue of a U.S. ban.”

Nature is meant to be seen as “the ultimate metaphor for fashion,” and one that relays a message of rebirth and renewal, Bolton said, “We also wanted to use this as an opportunity to engage with designers, who are involved more deeply in ethical, sustainable practices and acquire pieces from them.”

Other environmentally enterprising creations are Conner Ives’ “Couture Girl” dress from the designer’s 2020 graduate collection entitled “the American Dream.” The bulbous creation was made from dead-stock fabric donated by Carolina Herrera’s creative director Wes Gordon and was made with paillettes made from recycled PET by the Sustainable Sequin Co. Ives hand embroidered 10,000-plus sequins basing the shapes on his four favorite flowers. In “The Mermaid” area of the show, there is Phillip Lim’s 2021 “Algae Sequin” dress, which is made of biodegradable rayon mesh derived from bamboo and seaweed. Sustainability and the ethics of fashion should be seen as part of fashion and not designated in a special section, nor be unjustly criticized for its aesthetic, Bolton said.

In the “Seashells” area, visitors will not only see Alexander McQueen’s spring 2001 dress made from razor clamshells but they will hear what it sounds like in motion. A recording was made in an anechoic chamber. There are also other sea-worthy creations so to speak, like an Iris van Herpen’s 3D printed haute couture ensemble with spiraling shell forms, as well as a row of shell-shaped handbags by Judith Leiber.

Considering the breadth of “Sleeping Beauties” and the depth of details, it’s not surprising that the show’s layout was designed to look like a molecular formula if seen from above. Given the technology and fashion combination, Bolton said, “In a way, it’s like marrying the poetics of fashion with the poetics of science.”

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