What is fashion doing in a museum? Notes on the spectacle that is the annual Met Gala

'Curious Fashion' is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.


1. To start very generally: the Met Gala is a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s Costume Institute, a costume party held on the first Monday in May every year. It inaugurates a curated exhibition at the museum on a specific theme, that also becomes the theme for the party. Other red carpet moments seem like a birthday cake before the five-tier wedding cake flamboyance of the Gala.

2. Who gets to go? By invitation only, an “A-list” of about 500 guests is drawn up (by Vogue, the main organisers) to contribute a charitable $30,000 or so for a seat at the table (or $200,000 and above for a whole table). The A-list is an actual list, in which the A may as well stand for Anna Wintour, the formidable editor-in-chief of Vogue. Massive intrigue and politics surrounds this invitation list, and defines who is in and who is kept out of the “cliquey” circle of the fashion elite. Even banned. Guests at the Gala get the warm glow of social media attention, a power cocktails-and-dinner networking opportunity, a surprise performance (Madonna last year, Cher this time), and a preview of the exhibition. We get a spectacle, and what feels like a slice of the five-tier wedding cake.

 What is fashion doing in a museum? Notes on the spectacle that is the annual Met Gala

Billy Porter at the 2019 Met Gala. REUTERS

3. The theme for the Gala this year was “Camp: Notes on Fashion” inspired by American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, essentially a 58-point listicle “Notes on Camp” (as is this article). What is camp? By now, you would know, with several commentators having explored its meaning and its essence of “a love of the exaggerated”. Camp is one of those things... you know it when you see it.

4. Random examples of items which are a part of the canon of Camp:
— The last Nawab of Lucknow Wajid Ali Shah, winking at us with his left nipple exposed out of his exquisite angarakha.
— Cardboard cutouts of Jayalalitha dominating the Chennai skyline.
— Sridevi as Miss Hawa Hawaii, when she drops from a chandelier in a gold dress with a golden headpiece and exaggerated lips and eyebrows.
— Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang post make-over, with massive hairdos, shoulder pads, gold lame, glistening mega lips.
— Mogambo, Dr Dang, Maharani stock of villains in '80s Hindi cinema.
— The '80s in Hindi cinema, generally. It’s so bad it’s good.
— The extra long maha dosa that takes up the whole table.
— Every character in Balaji/Ekta Kapoor’s K-serials of the noughties, with the repeat zoom shots, especially when someone is slapped.
— Every single icchadari nagin ever.

We Indians know a lot about camp, without ever calling it camp

We Indians know a lot about camp, without ever calling it camp

5. To be clear, we Indians know a lot about camp, without ever calling it camp. Although I don’t think the Met Costume Institute exhibition will have a room to showcase Indian notes on camp, either at this exhibition or in any other museum. Because who puts fashion in a museum?

6. The museum segregates “high art” from “low art”. By defining what it considers museum-worthy, it gives some cultural objects status, while denying status to others. More recently, alternative museums (such as those focusing on tribal communities, not so much the ones celebrating pizza) have tried to challenge this snobbery, and restore social value to neglected cultural artifacts by putting it in this space.

7. Fashion and its history has been denied legitimacy as an art by being denied entry into museums. The Costume Institute is the only department in the Met that has to raise its own funds. This is because fashion was seen as an “iffy proposition as an art form when the institute was established”. It is through an event like the Met Gala that fashion finally enters the sacred space of the museum. That, rather than the outlandish costumery, is what makes the Gala a disruptor of sorts.

8. Should fashion be in a museum at all? Is it art? Is it history?

9. Fashion is not considered one of the “fine arts” — painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, or performance. Neither is it given the status of pure design. Instead, it is considered commercial, driven by a marketing culture and therefore less “pure”. It is not created for pleasure in itself, devoted to expanding our understanding of the human condition. For a long time, fashion has lived with this crisis of identity.

When we imagine the garment factories in the global South where fashion is being created, or the discarded piles of clothes clogging landfills, it is hard to imagine this as art. Moreover, you might be thinking: if we start calling fashion art, where will this end? Will we start calling everything art? That pretty wallpaper. Or the nice bedcover your aunt gave you. It’s not like anything can be put in a museum.

10. What do we do in a museum? We listen to stories visually mapped out for us. We have a conversation with the art in front of us. We marvel at the handwork. We wonder at how people lived when it was created. We imagine its relevance to our lives today. We realise that we are all human, regardless of borders. Fashion, when curated within a conceptual framework, always has a story to tell. It was in 1972 under the guidance of then Vogue editor Diane Vreeland that the Met Gala moved from being a society party to a more serious effort at archiving. Vreeland started connecting fashion design to social histories and mounting pieces dramatically to tell these stories, demonstrating fashion’s cultural impact, making it “worthy of consuming in a similar context as ‘traditional’ artwork like sculpture and painting”.

Singer-songwriter FKA Twigs arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala (Met Gala) to celebrate the opening of "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" in the Manhattan borough of New York, May 2, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz - HT1EC530EB0SB

FKA Twigs arrives at the 2016 Met Gala to celebrate the opening of Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. REUTERS

11. Take for example, the theme of the 2016 Met Gala “Manus X Machina: Fashion in the age of technology”. This is the only Met exhibition I have visited, but I was surprised at how the exhibit challenged me to reconsider the values associated with machine-made (quick, mediocre, cheap) and hand-made (laborious, luxurious, elite). One hundred and seventy garments from the 1900s onwards were organised into sections by “métier” or trade (embroidery, featherwork, applique, lacework and so on) and deconstructed to reveal its “DNA”, showing both the complementarity and tension between the hand and the machine. And the importance of the heart and the mind, in creation. In an age of high tech (the exhibit was sponsored by Apple, wearable tech being a thing that year), I was able to imagine our relationship with technology differently, more tenderly. I left incredulous, at what both machines and manual labour can do, when powered by a creative imagination.

12. Exhibits like the Met Gala give fashion a golden ticket to enter the museum, and energise it with unusual insights, like religion’s deep influence on design (“Heavenly bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, 2018) or how rebellious subcultures have been expressed through fashion (“Punk: Chaos to Couture”, 2013). Since the success of the Gala, many museums around the world have started to include fashion in their imagination. Admittedly, it brings in the money too, with large fashion houses willing to pay the price for admission. Some fashion houses are setting up their own museums to honour their design heritage or archiving the evolution of their brand for their current and future designers to learn from.

13. The danger is that only some histories will be told, only that of large Western fashion houses. "Manus X Machina" was stunning, but Dior-heavy. Coming from India, the embroidery section to me was underwhelming. I wondered how the rest of the world’s fashion history would have coloured the glittering-but-largely-monochrome exhibit. We need to see more of fashion history in our museums. By our museums I mean the global South. The Met Gala is a reminder to us that fashion is a visual record of our times. Only when we see it before us, in its historical and social contexts, will we be able to actually have a dialogue with it.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 10:13:53 IST