Arts Review: The Met’s ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’

A narrow corridor in a fashion exhibitions
The galleries The Scent of a Man and Scent of a Woman, part of fragrance artist Sissel Tolaas’ contribution to ‘Sleeping Beauties’. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

If I had to summarize this exhibition in one word it would be this overloaded. “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” at the Met’s Costume Institute has more than 200 pieces on display in 29 rooms – many of which are in display cases, such as Sleeping Beauty, the famous sleeping princess who could only be awakened by her true love’s kiss, but it’s less romantic than it sounds. The hallways are so narrow and the pit stop rooms so small that you can’t help but bump into your fellow fashion enthusiasts, especially when they pause to take photos.

Surprisingly, this is the case even though the way ‘Sleeping Beauties’ is organized is where visitors once inside the museum scan a QR code to get on a ‘virtual waiting list’ to access the exhibition. If you are a museum member ($110 per year for an individual), you can enter the exhibit in 10 minutes or less. If you’re not a member, the typical wait time during the exhibit’s opening week was three hours long. So we have a $110 exhibit on our hands. Worth the effort? Probably not, but it’s a surefire way to sell memberships.

Gowns in shades of yellow and orange displayed in alcovesGowns in shades of yellow and orange displayed in alcoves
The Reseda Luteola area in ‘Sleeping Beauties’. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Inside, this exhibition has the feel of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, with leafy fashion, floral prints, botanical embroidery and fairytale dishes with pieces by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hattie Carnegie, Lilly Daché, Hubert de Givenchy, Deirdre Hawken, Stephen Jones, Guy Laroche, among others. Madame Pauline, Mainbocher, Elsa Schiaparelli and Sally Victor.

At its best, ‘Sleeping Beauties’ showcases otherworldly pieces by Iris Van Herpen and treasures from Alexander McQueen’s archives – who can forget his iconic monarch butterfly dress, which is actually made of feathers? At worst, the exhibit features hideous floral hats with huge brims – the kind of thing your great-grandmother might have to wear for modesty reasons. Completely horrible. Overall, there is so much to see and the show is so detailed that you could easily spend hours here, although you may be tempted to speed walk through certain sections.

A dress made of feathers that resemble butterfliesA dress made of feathers that resemble butterflies
Alexander McQueen, dress spring/summer 2011, black silk organza, appliqued with orange black and white painted feathers. Nadja Sayej

The ‘sleeping beauties’ are sixteen special garments that are too fragile to be dressed on mannequins, which is a shame. These garments are displayed flat in glass coffins and, to be honest, feel quite dead. When you look at an old dress on a mannequin it comes back to life because you can imagine it in a human form in the world. When laid flat, even the most beautiful dress looks a bit like laundry. As fantastic as they are, the pieces can best be described as couture corpses or zombie fashion.

A dress in a glass caseA dress in a glass case
A fragile dress in a ‘coffin’ in ‘Sleeping Beauties’. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although the sleeping beauties are not exactly exciting to see, there is a nice twist to the exhibition: each garment connects to nature, thematically or materially, and nature as a metaphor represents the ephemeral essence of fashion (the four seasons can are applied to the circularity of fashion). Motifs such as flowers, leaves, birds, insects, shells and fish are divided into three groups: earth, sky and water. No fire? Oh yeah.

Two dresses with poppy motifsTwo dresses with poppy motifs
Floral motifs dominate ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Flowers in fashion are practically a proverb – so typical that it can be difficult to find meaning in floral hats, dresses or scarves, all ancient in their style. But nevertheless, the silk cape designed by Alessandro Michele for Gucci’s autumn/winter 2017-2018 collection, which exudes a bit of retro Elvis glamour, is a highlight of the exhibition.

The 18th century French dresses are another, as is a sequin dress by Mary Katrantzou from 2018. There are Rodarte dresses, a room dedicated to Anna Maria Garthwaite (an 18th century British designer who created dreamy textiles) and breathtaking pieces from the House of Worth, Charles Frederick Worth’s British fashion house that ran from 1858 to 1956. To the uninitiated, he is generally accepted as the father of haute couture. His evening coat ‘Tulipes Hollandaises’ from 1889 is so timeless that it could still be worn today. Another of Worth’s masterpieces is a 1900 evening coat in white silk satin with black silk velvet and sequins.

The best room by far is ‘The Red Rose’, with its blossom-shaped red dresses from Valentino, Dior and Dolce & Gabbana, examples of truly timeless design. But in other sections, this exhibition becomes gimmicky, contrasting the old sleeping beauties with newer pieces from young designers, which feels like a cheap trick. There is a room dedicated to insects, with dresses covered in beetles and cockroaches, and yet the Costume Institute has not included the famous cockroach dress from John Waters’ film Hairspray (probably because it is on display at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles as part of a retrospective devoted to Waters’ oeuvre). There’s something dirty about it, even though women have been wearing insect-pressed buttons since the 18th century.

Dresses in shades of blue on display in a fashion exhibitionDresses in shades of blue on display in a fashion exhibition
The Marine Life gallery in ‘Sleeping Beauties’. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps the theme is less reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the Mad Hatter’s tea party? Garments and scarves with ladybug motifs, fake caterpillars and large statement hats, complete with leaves, balance on the border between fairytale and flamboyant. Still, it just goes to show you that flowers have never really gone out of style throughout the centuries. Of course, there should have been more female designers represented in ‘Sleeping Beauties’, but that is often the case when it comes to exhibitions focused on the history of fashion. Maybe something to think about for next year? Who knows…the Met might even sell more memberships.

The Costume Institute's