The Costume Institute Wakes Up Sleeping Beauty in the Chemistry Lab

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute announced its 2024 spring blockbuster show would be called “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion,” a lot of head-scratching ensued. Was this a show about Disney costumes? Princess frocks? Now the exhibition is actually here, and the answer is: none of the above.

It’s a show built on a base of 15 pieces from the institute’s collection that have become so fragile over time they can no longer be displayed on mannequins (the “sleeping beauties”), along with more than 200 hardier gowns and accessories reflecting organic themes such as roses, butterflies and beetles (nature also being fragile). Its curators seek to “reawaken” these items with a dash of technology and a soupçon of sensory overload: touch, smell and sound. Imagine the ghostly rustling of silk taffeta, the clinking of giant paillettes, brought back to life by scientists and engineers. It’s not your usual fashion exhibit. But what exactly is it?

Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic, and Jason Farago, critic at large, debated the result. These are edited excerpts from their conversation.

VANESSA FRIEDMAN This exhibit struck me as both wildly ambitious — with its use of A.I., video, molecular science, sound and touch to enliven the multiple dimensions of the 250 garments and accessories from five centuries on display, creating what the Met director Max Hollein called a “grand multisensory experiment” — and yet oddly minor. I think it’s because, with the feel-me walls, the bend-’n-sniff tubes, the claymation-like animated embroideries, it seemed like a grown-up version of the children’s “discovery” gallery, but with much chicer clothes. Still, there’s a very provocative big idea hiding under all theatrics: that once fashion enters the museum and falls into hands of a conservator it becomes an object and effectively “dies.” Ka-pow!

From left, a jacket by Valentino, an evening dress from House of Dior and a dress from Dolce & Gabbana. Plastic tubing disperses smell molecules extracted from the Dior dress as well as a Lanvin dress, one of the “sleeping beauties” in a glass vitrine.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Tubes used to transport what the Costume Institute calls “smell molecules” extracted from garments on display.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
A flask displays various peak “smell molecules” from hats, anything from perfume to hair products to cigarette smoke.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
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