About Time: Fashion and Duration is the biggest exhibition of the year for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and part of the Met’s 150th anniversary celebrations. The simplicity of both its design and the garments on view is a refreshing change after years of exhibitions that have only grown in scale and complexity, culminating in 2019’s over-the-top Camp: Notes on Fashion, whose final gallery included so many objects from floor to ceiling that properly appreciating each one was next to impossible in a single visit. About Time strips away any notions of excess including color (every piece in the show is black to highlight its form and structure) and even accessories. In keeping with the idea of simplicity and highlighting the Met’s permanent collection, pieces were largely selected from the Costume Institute’s holdings.
In stripping the very notion of fashion down to the core idea of its evolution over time, this exhibition reveals just how complex this concept really is. Rather than a linear development—we are often conditioned to think of both time and progress in this manner—the show calls attention to fashion’s cyclical nature by pairing garments from different periods of time that share a common element. The kinship afforded by each pair was either foreshadowed by the earlier piece, inspired by the past in the later piece, or a mixture of both. This curatorial tactic throws a wrench in the idea that both time and fashion, whose inherent nature is eternally of-the-moment, are only ever moving forward.
The design of the exhibition captures the spirit of this idea in its circular first gallery, wherein each pair of garments represents a minute on a clock and visitors move around the room in an ironically counter-clockwise fashion while a large pendulum swings back and forth in the center. A large mirrored room houses the remaining pairs and culminates in a single white Viktor and Rolf patchwork dress from their 2020 collection. Made from surplus fabrics, it floats suspended above a sea of black garments—a beacon of hope for the future of fashion. Unlike the first circular gallery, here, viewers snake through a more serpentine walkway past each pairing, which seem to repeat ad infinitum in the mirrored walls and surfaces.
One particularly striking pairing is a black Chanel dress from 1927 and an Off-White dress by Virgil Abloh from 2018 on which large, block letters proclaim “LITTLE BLACK DRESS.” Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s popularity as a designer took off in the 1920s and ‘30s. Her simple, well-constructed designs were made for everyday wear by the modern woman, which stood in stark contrast to fussier garments of the preceding decades. Inspired by her childhood, she took the idea of the simple black dress that she was made to wear when growing up in an orphanage and elevated it to the status of a high fashion symbol as the now-iconic “little black dress”—a defining style of the early twentieth century that continues today. Abloh’s interpretation of this ubiquitous garment pays homage to its precedent with the phrase “little black dress,” emblazoned on the garment in the designer’s signature white block letters and quotation marks. Anyone familiar with fashion history would understand the importance of this garment and its association with Chanel.
It is unclear whether the strictly linear progression through the exhibition was originally intended or whether the layout was adapted to keep people moving and to accommodate for reduced capacity. Regardless, there is something reassuring about being able to work through an exhibition with a clear beginning and end in a methodical way. Rather than wandering through galleries full of objects to be seen from many vantage points, one need not worry here that they will miss anything. This traffic pattern provides an element of stability to a museum-going experience during a time that is anything but stable.
In a year when our very notions of time, productivity, and consumption have been called into question, About Time draws attention to fashion’s past and its possible future. By reaching a breaking point, wherein we can no longer maintain the trajectory of speed, scale, and cost necessitated by both museum exhibitions and the fashion industry, it is about time we slow down to figure out where we are, how we got here, and where we are going. Prompting reflection on these looming issues, the exhibition’s timing and message are more relevant now than they would have been in an alternate, pandemic-less version of 2020.