It took a global pandemic to shake up one of my favorite summertime traditions.
Nine years ago, I wandered into the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was sucked into the world of Alexander McQueen.
McQueen was a British fashion designer — unknown to me — who had committed suicide the year before.
Here in a museum, his dresses, corsets and ensembles were treated like the theatrical works of art they are. I spent the entire afternoon squinting at the craftsmanship and the materials McQueen selected, watching the videos of his runway shows and reading about how he constantly pushed people to question beauty, nature and history.
By the end of the summer, that exhibit set attendance records for the Met and made the Costume Institute a must-see for me. In the years since, the party for the opening of each exhibit, the Met Gala, has become big enough for a documentary of its own and wall-to-wall media coverage. I’ll stick to the exhibitions, even if the museum is temporarily closed.
I ended up at the Met that afternoon years ago after waiting for free Shakespeare in the Park tickets. I try to make it to New York City to see at least one of the Public Theater’s summer performances. After I picked up my tickets at the theater in Central Park around lunchtime, I had the afternoon free until curtain time. The Met is a quick walk away.
For the past few years, the Costume Institute there has put on blockbuster exhibits. Two years ago, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” broke the record for most-visited exhibition, even beating out the huge 1978 King Tut show.
In the Charles James exhibit, ball gowns were in the spotlight next to video screens with digital animations. On the screen, you could watch how each piece came together. The designs became much more than simply beautiful when watching the architecture of his designs: how they were draped, cut and tucked.
The Rai Kawakubo exhibit explored huge picture ideas like design without design. Kawakubo, a Japanese designer, makes clothing that often doesn’t look like clothing.
“What’s inspiring is that for her, the body and the dress body have no limits,” Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator in charge, told the New York Times.
“Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” explored handmade vs. machine-made, from lace and pleats to paper flowers and featherwork.
“Heavenly Bodies” stretched to the Met’s Cloisters. The catalog was an embarrassment of riches. The embroidery work alone was stunning. The way the pieces were placed throughout the museum made the show even more special.
This year’s exhibit was about time (literally) and was inspired in part by Virginia Woolf’s novels. COVID-19 has pushed the exhibit’s opening to October.
In the meantime, “The First Monday in May” is a documentary all about creating “China: Through the Looking Glass” and that year’s Met Gala. It’s much more than Rihanna’s pizza dress. (You can stream it on Hulu.) “McQueen” is a look at the designer’s work and life, including the Met exhibit. (You can watch it on Amazon Video.) I’m also going to rewatch “Orlando,” the excellent 1992 movie version of Virginia Woolf’s book, starring Tilda Swinton as the immortal noble. (And read the book if there’s time.)
The Met’s website also is a treasure trove of photos, videos and audio interviews. You don’t even have to wait in line.