Fashion is known for being so cyclical that even styles once deemed questionable, like high-waisted mom jeans, eventually find a new audience. The industry commonly recycles ideas, and designers from its lowest ranks to its upper echelons look to the past for tomorrow’s concepts. In its laziest form this can become copying, a practice that rears up with stubborn regularity. But even designers who may not intend to can replicate preexisting designs. Clothing has to work with the body, giving it limits that have been thoroughly explored over time. A jacket, it’s generally agreed, needs sleeves, and there are only so many ways to reshape them around human arms while keeping them functional.
Fashion, it might seem, is doomed to repeat itself in some form or another. At first glance, the gorgeous new fashion exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art won’t dispel the notion. Called About Time: Fashion and Duration, it pairs garments from different periods, connected through features such as silhouette and design motifs. You see how ideas are reused and refreshed, sometimes deliberately and other times apparently by chance. The picture that emerges, however, is of an industry constantly finding creative ways to renew itself, rather than one lacking originality.
Opening Oct. 29, the exhibit is the annual installment from the museum’s Costume Institute, responsible for such mega-attractions as the 2011 Alexander McQueen retrospective and its 2018 exploration of Catholicism’s influence on fashion, which became the most visited show in the Met’s history. (Because of the pandemic, museum tickets are currently timed to prevent large crowds.) Some of the paired garments were created more than a century apart, and others just a few decades. In either case, it shows fashion’s progress isn’t strictly linear. A shape or motif that worked in 1920 might be just as relevant in 2020—so long as it’s updated. Good fashion, like that in the show, is always updating.
“To me what’s interesting is even when fashion looks back on itself, it’s always emphatically about the present,” says Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute and the mind behind the Met’s fashion blockbusters. As an example, he points to the way designers continue to rework the puffed-out gigot sleeve, using modern techniques and design elements to pull it into a new context.
Sometimes the context is so different that it takes careful consideration to see how the paired garments connect. Maybe the cheekiest example is an 1877 afternoon dress—cut in a “princess line” so there’s no waist seam to bisect the body, which makes it look longer—beside an Alexander McQueen “Bumster” skirt from 1995. The Bumster raised eyebrows by revealing the top of the rear, but McQueen’s intent was really to elongate the torso and showcase the base of the spine, which he considered the most erotic part of the body.
“It’s my favorite pairing in the show actually,” Bolton says. “McQueen loved the princess line. When you look through his career, he did it many times in a very traditional way…The Bumster is basically a radical reinterpretaion of the princess line. If you were to cut the top part off of the princess line, you would have the Bumster, and to me that was a real revelation.” Bolton says McQueen may or may not have been conscious of the connection, and probably wouldn’t have admitted it if he were still alive.
Of course designers reference the past deliberately too. The show includes multiple gowns by Anglo-American couturier Charles James, whose work in the middle of the 20th century cast a long, influential shadow on fashion, coupled with pieces he inspired from more recent talents such as Azzedine Alaïa and Thom Browne. Bolton notes that Alaïa actually had an archive of James dresses. “It’s a sort of conversation from the grave,” he says. Another example of such an exchange features Christian Dior’s famous, flared-hip “Bar” suit from 1947 beside its echo in a leather jacket and skirt by Junya Watanabe from 2011.
One issue the show doesn’t address is when the conversation fails to offer anything new. Copying has been an issue in fashion going back at least a century. Today it’s routine among fast-fashion retailers, but even top designers may do it. It’s less an issue when the original source is distant in time and requires a fresh take to work in the present. It gets trickier when designers reproduce contemporary items or work from the recent past with only superficial variations. The line between re-contextualizing an idea and appropriating it is thin. Understandably, though, the Met is more interested in examining how creativity works in fashion than calling out copycats.
Bolton acknowledges that fashion can be repetitive. But he says it doesn’t follow a strict binary where something is either new or it’s not. As in other creative fields, the past and present coexist. Some silhouettes, motifs, and ideas will continue to repeat. That’s how we know they’re good.