Next Met Gala theme unveiled: the ‘sleeping beauties’ of fashion

NEW YORK — It may be time to get out those fairytale ballgowns. The theme of the next Met Gala has been unveiled: “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion.”

In this case, though, the title refers not to a princess with a pricked finger, but to the fabulous gown she might be wearing. The stars of the Met’s spring exhibit, to be launched by the celebrity-studded Met Gala on May 6, will be treasured garments from the vast collection at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — some too fragile to hang upright, lest they disintegrate. They will lie in glass cases, like Sleeping Beauty herself.

Curator Andrew Bolton, who masterminds all of the Met’s blockbuster fashion exhibits, says he was looking for a way to literally breathe life into a collection of 33,000 pieces, many of which are never seen. He’s chosen about 250 of them, spanning four centuries.

“Fashion is such a living art form,” Bolton said on Wednesday as he led a group of journalists into the bowels of the museum where the conservation lab lies and where the garments currently “slumber,” in his words. His aim, he says, was to bring garments to museum-goers via the various senses — not just sight but smell, and sound, too.

“When a costume comes into the Met collection it changes irrevocably,” Bolton explained. “It can’t be worn, obviously, you don’t see it in movement, you can’t smell it, can’t hear it, can’t touch it.” The idea was to “reawaken the sensorial aspect” of the clothing.

This could mean scents will be wafting through a gallery, connected perhaps to the perfume used by the wearer. It also means that the rattling sound of razor clams will accompany a dress by Alexander McQueen covered with stripped and varnished razor clam shells.

The initial plan was to organize the show around certain masterworks, but curators then changed their strategy. The themes of land, sea, and sky will organize the displays.

“It’s based a lot on nature, as you will see, and Andrew’s vision goes from snakes to roses,” quipped Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor and doyenne of American fashion who runs the gala each year and accompanied Bolton at the preview.

Bolton added: “I think nature is a broader metaphor for fashion — the fragility and ephemerality of fashion, but also the circular nature of fashion, the ideas of regeneration and rebirth. So the through-line is the natural world.”

Among the oldest items: a tiny 17th century Elizabethan-era bodice embroidered with nature-themed elements like peas in a pod, and birds eating insects. That bodice was fitted onto a mannequin, but nearby, a stunning silk satin ballgown by the 19th-century English designer Charles Frederick Worth lay on a table. Like some 50 of the items to be displayed, it is too delicate to be shown any other way.

The immersive nature of the show may prove a little frightening to some, Bolton noted — perhaps particularly the presentation of a black tulle dress covered with embroidered blackbirds, designed just before World War II. Like many of the older items, it will be paired with a contemporary garment, in this case a McQueen jacket inspired by Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

As in many of the displays, cutting-edge technology will be used to create a mood, in this case “a Hitchcockian swarm of black birds” on the ceiling. “If you’re afraid of birds, I wouldn’t go in there,” Bolton said.

Yet to be announced: the celebrity co-hosts of the Met Gala, which will occur as usual the first Monday in May. The carpet beforehand is one of the biggest pop culture spectacles of the year with stars like Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, Billy Porter and Rihanna wearing outfits tailored to the night’s theme. Last year’s gala honored late designer Karl Lagerfeld, but other years have focused on broader themes like punk, American fashion, or camp.

Bolton said he imagined this year’s guests will use the theme of nature to guide their sartorial choices. “Probably a lot of florals,” Bolton guessed. Or, perhaps, razor clams.

The exhibit will run May 10-Sept. 2, 2024.

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