The memory of the 2019 MET exhibition, Camp: Notes on Fashion, remains imprinted, living rent free in our collective consciousness. However, something else has occurred since: a fresh offering from the MET’s Costume Institute. About Time: Fashion and Duration debuted in the early days of May 2020. It seemed to sneak by us, quiet, composed, gala-less. Without the first Monday in May to provide us with the usual pomp and circumstance, we were left with a lack of evidence that the event had, in fact, taken place. There were no red carpet looks to dissect, no celebrity bathroom selfies to gawk at. Even during a time when face-to-face affairs have become nearly impossible to conduct, ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ remains the slogan of our internet-dominated pseudo reality.  

While Camp: Notes on Fashion celebrated a certain kind of frivolity and playfulness, About Time seems to stand for the opposite. The exhibition makes room for more serious contemplations regarding how we navigate our world–more specifically, of course, the ways we operate within the realms of fashion, technology, and self-presentation.

The show is curated by Andrew Bolton (Head Curator of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute), and designed by Es Devlin (a visual artist and stage designer). Virginia Woolf functioned as its “ghost narrator,” and texts from her novel Orlando: A Biography are read aloud by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore over a booming Phillip Glass soundtrack.

(Nicole Kidman contemplating death, The Hours, 2002, dir. Stephen Daldry)

The exhibition is designed to resemble two enormous clocks, complete with a huge swinging pendulum lurking ominously off center. On the edges of these circular forms are 60 illuminated lines, spaced out–ticks which reference the number of minutes in an hour. Two garments are displayed with each tick, further embedding these objects within the grand design. Paired and slightly off kilter, one swings behind the other. The walls of the exhibition are covered in large mirrors, which places the viewer directly in conversation with the objects presented (and gives way to myriad #photo #opportunities).

Hall of Mirrors (exhibition photograph, courtesy of The Met)

We encounter a princess-cut afternoon dress by Charles Frederick Worth, from 1876, paired with a McQueen Bumster Skirt from 1995. Another tick brings us to a Chanel Shift Dress from 1927, next to Off-White’s Little Black Dress from 2018. It’s worth mentioning here that all of these garments are black. Black, the color of mourning and antifashion. Is the exhibition grieving something? Perhaps the slow death of creativity and construction? The black also highlights the minutiae of similarities and differences between the garments, which appear as we encounter them, affixed and removed from time. Like ghosts in conversation with each other.

Notice how the silhouette of the princess cut dress informs the rise of the Bumster Skirt. 
(Images copyright About Time: Fashion and Duration, Yale University Press, 2020.)

 Here, likeness and contrast erupt in the same moment. Garments in conversation. Mimicry. An uncanny doubling. These days, we often get caught up in ideas around ownership and authenticity–who’s wearing what, and why? The internet has watered down a need for concrete references, as everything slowly becomes a parody of itself. 

Bolton was concerned with the idea of fashion looking back on itself–more specifically, how it exists in the past and present simultaneously. He was inspired by Henri Bergson’s theory of La Duree

a theory of time and consciousness. The moment one attempts to measure a moment, it will be gone: one measures an immobile, complete line, whereas time is mobile and incomplete.

This is something to consider, especially within the context of technology and consumerism. How do we measure time? We post. This is our attempt not only to signify to the world who we are, but also what we are doing. Posting could be considered an attempt to measure a moment, to render it immobile and complete. But time is more elusive than a well-curated feed. 

Time is fluid and incomplete, constantly changing and erupting around us. Things happen simultaneously, quickly and slowly. It’s hard to gauge endings and beginnings. This notion is enacted by the presentation of each garment pairing. Here is the thing and what it is pointing to–but also, here they are together occupying the same time and space.  

Chanel’s original little black “Ford” dress, 1927
Off-White’s printed knitted dress, 2018

Technology has created a new sense of chaotic urgency, especially concerning how we present ourselves, what we do creatively, and what we consume. In the context of the exhibition, Bolton said that he was “thinking about time reference to acceleration in production, circulation, and consumption, to meet commercial demands of a digitally synchronized world, which is detrimental to creativity and the environment.” 

If anything, the internet has brought us closer together. Fashion has edged itself out of the elite sphere it used to occupy. Of course, most of it is still physically out of reach, but we can look at it online. And that looking drips down into everyday life. Trickle down fashion, by way of fast fashion. On the flip side, and I think what Bolton is addressing here is that proximity breeds uniformity. And uniformity gives way to hyper-consumption and urgent demand. When a Kardashian wears an archive Mugler, Fashion Nova has copies out within the hour. Does something get lost in translation? Is it happening too fast? It’s like google translating a surrealist poem; the meaning dissipates. When you are looking out at nothing but a sea of similarity, based on likes, on an algorithm, the thing loses value. It becomes meaningless. 

The final object we encounter is a white Viktor and Rolf patchwork dress from Spring/Summer 2020. The patches are made of delicate lace scraps from past collections, brought together to evoke the spirit of craftsmanship and sustainability. Unlike the rest of the garments, the dress appears suspended in midair, floating above it all. 

Ghost or phoenix? Viktor and Rolf white patchwork dress, Spring/Summer 2020. (Image courtesy of the MET)

Bolton leaves us with several things to think about. For one, it is impossible to live in a world without references. He provides us with proof that we don’t need to force ourselves unto urgent newness. We can relax a little bit, slow down, stop obsessing over it. For me, the Viktor and Rolf white scrap dress was a reminder to revisit. There are ways we can nurture our creativity which circumvent the internet machine. Why do we feel the need for so much, all the time? Not only visually and technologically, but also from a consumerist standpoint. What are we really reaching for? We may not be able to stop time, but we can stop to consider.

Although it may feel like we will never be able to keep up with the constant refreshing of the page, it is important to remember that we can find balance and contemplation around the influx of information. For me, this exhibition was a meditation on the act of slowing down and looking closely. It reminded me that time is both malleable and repetitive, and gives us a lot to think about in regards to the ways in which technology informs creativity. We must cultivate our own meaning, outside of the algorithm. 

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