The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual fashion spectacle has long been something to look forward to on the global fashion calendar, alongside its star-studded Met Gala. Organised by The Met’s Costume Institute and traditionally overseen in its most recent years by head curator Andrew Bolton, who has held the role since 2015, the ambitious and glittering showcases have ranged from highlighting different historical and cultural aspects of fashion to in-depth looks at the careers of some of the industry’s visionaries, both past and present.

In celebration of the Costume Institute’s 75th anniversary and ahead of the opening of ‘In America: A Lexicon of Fashion’ next week, a two-part exhibition that throws the spotlight on fashion in America and how it has evolved, particularly with traditionally underrepresented designers now gaining a foothold, we take a look back at the last five fashion exhibitions at The Met and celebrate how each iteration has pushed the boundaries of how fashion is perceived, year after year.

Fashion exhibitions at The Met: Manus x Machina (2016)

 fashion exhibitions at The Met Manus x Machina

The cryptic title of 2016’s ‘Manus x Machina’ may have bewildered many ahead of its opening, but the exhibition’s mission to reframe the power duel between machine-made fashion and the more refined, yet fading traditions of hand craftsmanship could not have been more memorable. Staged within a dramatic cathedral-like structure designed by OMA and constructed from translucent white scrims that were stretched over an intentionally visible framework, the building-within-a-building feel created a series of alcoves and porte-cochères that radiated out from a central domed atrium. A testament to the level of artistry possible by the human hand, and how technology can complement and take craft even further, the show reiterated just how closely the handmade and manmade can stand together.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between (2017)

 fashion exhibitions at The Met Rei Kawakubo

This fashion exhibition at The Met focused on one individual designer, a tribute to the iconic Kawakubo and the singular vision that she continues to pioneer since founding Comme des Garçons in 1969, this comprehensive showcase broke down the designer’s cerebral and extensive catalogue into nine themes, each diving into the way her garments embody duality while resisting classification. The exhibition design was equally disruptive, with the installation of fluorescent lighting and geometric white niches that artfully and chaotically framed the various vignettes – all devised by Kawakubo, of course. ‘It is a massive white space of structures and sculptures, which lead the public on a voyage of discovery,’ she said at the time. ‘I didn’t want it to look like a museum exhibition.’

Heavenly Bodies (2018)

fashion exhibitions at The Met Heavenly Bodies

Installed within the museum’s galleries for Byzantine and medieval art, its Costume Center space and also uptown at The Met Cloisters, ‘Heavenly Bodies’ was the Costume Institute’s largest undertaking to date and brought together over 150 garments, including 40 papal robes and vestments dating back to the mid-18th century, on loan from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy – a first. Featuring a specially designed display system by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, including hovering platforms, industrial pedestals and vitrines, the show’s seamless blend of garments influenced by Catholicism with true historical artifacts gave it a palpable gravitas. 

Camp (2019)

fashion exhibitions at The Met Camp

Delving into the idea of what camp has meant through the years, from subversive beginnings when the term was first coined in 1909 to the combination of extravagance, fantasy, hedonism, subculture and ornamentation that it’s now well known for, the 2019 exhibition proved just how influential all these facets have been on fashion. The show featured a set designed by theatre scenographer Jan Versweyveld, which culminated in a multi-coloured ‘house’ of camp, where all its different iterations lived in harmony. ‘It’s like a mirror of human behaviour,’ he said. ‘[The set design] provides one big world where all these different styles of camp can live together.’ 

About Time (2020)

fashion exhibitions at The Met About Time

Derailed by the global pandemic and unveiled six months after its traditional date, ‘About Time’ looked back at the last 150 years of clothes, from 1870 to the present day, and charted how sartorial associations across the years have conflated the past, present and future. The exhibition employed a series of flashbacks and fast-forwards to emphasise fashion’s ephemeral nature while disrupting the conventional and linear timeline of viewing history. Supported by a dynamic exhibition design by Es Devlin, who fashioned a pair of adjacent galleries to resemble two enormous clock faces that each marked 60 minutes of fashion, the exhibition depicted the progression of time through the changing forms in women’s fashion. §