The Costume Institute’s New Exhibition Understands the Emotional Power of American Fashion

The Friday before the Met Gala (and the opening of its accompanying museum exhibition), I met the designer and impresario Tremaine Emory for tea. The theme of this year’s exhibition is In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, and Emory, who designs T-shirts, sweaters, and sneakers under the name Denim Tears, had recently found out his work would be featured in the show. He began musing about the meaning of American fashion—the way that it is rarely about design and much more about pulling together references and style with originality. It’s a kind of hustle, you might say.

“Marc and Ralph,” he mused, referring to Jacobs and Lauren, respectively, “are ultimate curators. Good at curating, styling—Kanye [West]’s a good one too. Curators and storytellers.”

He went on to list more: Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, Willi Smith. JCPenney! And, of course, Levi’s, with whom he designed his most famous garments: a pair of jeans and a matching jacket decorated with cotton wreaths—covetable products, but also ones he used to tell the story of his family’s history as sharecroppers, and the cotton business’s exploitation of Black labor. Those pieces, along with a sweater featuring David Hammons’s African-American Flag, are in the show.

The inclusion of Emory, who is in his early 40s and has never done a runway show, suggests that the Met’s exhibition will communicate something a little different. In years past, the Costume Institute has taken up grand themes like camp and the Catholic Church, mounting astounding displays of Versace couture and Galliano gowns. That approach wouldn’t make sense this year, for a few reasons. American fashion isn’t really about bravado or showing off—the average New Yorker on the subway is dressed in Crocs and sweatpants. And even the most accomplished American designers, from Claire McCardell to Supreme, are triumphant for the sheer ease of their clothes, and the way they create expressive pieces with mostly vernacular forms.

The American designer Eli Russell Linnetz speaks with curator Andrew Bolton.Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images.

Still, there was a worry among fashion fans and even designers the theme of “America” might lead the Institute, which has been criticized for not adequately spotlighting the work of nonwhite designers, to tell a cliched story of American fashion, one of tasteful ballgowns and nifty if sleepy pantsuits. Instead, this show is American fashion as a quilt, head curator Andrew Bolton explained, and it offers an impressive aerial view of the current variety and diversity of American fashion. Rows and rows of designs are presented, each with their own Stephen Jones-designed fascinator featuring an noun to summarize the work, and which put younger cult designers like Emory and Eli Russell Linnetz alongside legends like McCardell and Donna Karan.

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