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Model as Muse

All eyes were on the Costume Met Gala and who wore what, but now it's time to concentrate on the exhibition.

Superheroes ruled the far-out fashion universe last year thanks to the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Costume Institute exhibition, leaving the glossies to run rampant with nods to as many Superman, Batman, The Thing, Cat woman, and the rest of the Marvel Comic brigade as possible. This time around the Costume Institute stuck to normalcy, looking at the impact of the ultimate fashion canvas, the models.

The Model as Muse, which officially opened Wednesday trailing after Monday evening’s gala where designer accessorized a la muse as dolled-up models, celebrities, and, even, Gossip Girls, stood by their side.  The show, which was curated by Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan, dissects fashion history years 1947 to 2007 through the lens of a model, showcasing 80 works of haute couture and ready-to-wear, fashion editorials, advertising, film-projections, and a decked-out exhibition design complete with mannequins.

“We will look at the power of clothing, fashion photography, and the model to project the look of an era.  With a mere gesture, a truly stellar model can sum up the attitude of her time – becoming not only a muse to designers or photographers, but a muse to a generation,” said Costume Institute Curator Harold Koda.

Opening up the show stands a life-size recreation of Richard Avedon’s famous photograph of Dovima, one of the first supermodels, and her stretched-out swan elegance against two massive elephants. Such recreated grandeur hints at the gargantuan chunk of fashion to be revealed in the rooms to come.  Irving Penn classics from the 1940s and ‘50s, chalked full of jolting original composition and image heavy with his beautiful partner Lisa Fonssagrives, line the following hall that guides towards the main room of fashion opulence in American post-WWII, and the height of haute-couture; a time that came to life thanks to the help of Dior’s New Look, a resurgence to advertising, and the starts of heavy-hitter modeling agencies like Ford.  On view, this bourgeois elegance sparkle to life with haute-couture examples from Dior’s New Look and Charles James, exquisite ballroom backdrops, and projection of Funny Face as the models Lisa Fonssagrives, Dovima, and Suzy Parker, presented the elegance. But going back to the models, this being about them after all, Lisa Fonssagrives, Dovima, and Suzy Parker presented the time through their statuesque poses and pristine lady-like personalities.

Rounding the next room, turns it back on the fully manicured female image associated with the ‘40s and 50s, letting the 1960s break free in the era Yohannan coins “Youthquake.” Couture seriousness is dismissed for playful fun as transcended in the birth of the shorter skirts, and shorter hair to match, personified ideally through Twiggy’s long boyish figure and blonde bob.  The main room pays homage to William Klein’s 1966 film Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo, bringing to life the sixties as metallic sculpture-like dresses, originally from the film, twirl in the room’s center alongside ensembles from Courreges, Pierre Cardin, and Yves Saint Laurent, as editorials display the eyes upon models Twiggy, Peggy Moffit, Verushka, and Jean Shrimpton.

As the 1970s came along women reached new heights of freedom, giving rise to women in the workforce and erasing the traditional constraints of women in society.  American women were now more diverse, broadening from the all-American and independent gal to the wholesome girl-next-door and femme fatale. The new looks of Jerry Hall, Lauren Hutton, Patti Hansen, and Rene Russo combined with the raw and cutting-edge imagery brought forth by Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin unleashed the beginning of promiscuity and bad side of fashion as played out in the MET’s recreation of the Yves Saint Laurent clan at infamous Studio 54.  

The lavishness and disco dazes of the seventies eventually led to the height of the supermodel phenomenon of the eighties.  When Christy, Naomi, Cindy, Claudia, and Linda not only were known on a first-name basis, but they became household names, with even larger piggy banks.  The formation of the “Trinity” started with models Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista --going beyond their million-dollar deals, deluxe-sized personalities, and reaching out as international brands of themselves. Early ‘90s mega houses of Versace, Chanel, and Donna Karan were on display upon striking mannequins that glared at one another with such power that it appeared in mere seconds a massive cat fight was to break.

The “don’t mess with me I am a model” attitude of the eighties and early ‘90s soon dissipates into the grunge era, where the nobody cares attitude takes over, made clear in exhibits droning sounds of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain blaring from the speakers. Apart from the spectacular display of grunge Ralph Lauren mannequins strewed against drums, guitars, and amps, the entire room has been transformed into graffiti-overridden shrine to model’s names and stylized figure drawings that could have come straight out of Basquait’s bedroom—a detail that only occurred last Friday after Anna Wintour commented that the room didn’t feel grunge enough yet. John Myhre, who created the entire exhibit’s set design, went immediately to work Friday night and Saturday completing the finishing touches of grunge.

The final room rolls the credits, paying the last respect to all the models mentioned throughout the exhibit, as fireworks are projected, and a screaming voice of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” sum up the beauty your eyes have just witnessed.  The homage to these muses also doubles as a goodbye to the models as the rise of celebrities begins to overstep their role, becoming more the frequent and dominant force in magazines. We are left wondering if the models can ever come back and if so who can we cheer on the sideline to be the next Trinity?   

Model as a Muse: Embodying Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum, New York until 9th August.