"Infra-Apparel," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new display of undergarments, may not be as risque as Frederick's of Hollywood, but it's about as daring as things get at the august Fifth Avenue institution.
"Our director often says that the Met is a great old lady of an institution," observed Richard Martin, curator of the museum's Costume Institute, as Chopin played over the gallery loudspeakers. "All we wanted to do was show that the great old lady wears underwear."
Indeed, the exhibition traces the clothing over three centuries, focusing on its evolution from private, intimate apparel to street wear. The corset, for example, a strictly undercover garment of centuries past, has re-emerged as the bustier--specifically Madonna's pink satin and elastic "Express Yourself" bustier by Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Also among the lineup are baby-doll dresses by Gianni Versace (they're descendants of loose cotton slips), elegant lace dresses by Calvin Klein (reminiscent of delicate lingerie) and a token men's garment, Gaultier's corset bike shorts--tight one-piece units stretching from waist to thigh.
"Infra-Apparel," which runs through Aug. 8, is the Met debut for Martin and associate curator Harold Koda. The duo, whose bold, often irreverent installations at the Fashion Institute of Technology were fashion events here for 10 years, have been brought uptown with a mandate: to put on three major costume shows a year instead of the traditional one. Their rotating four-month displays will mostly draw from the Met's collection of about 60,000 garments and accessories, though essentials for "Infra-Apparel" were borrowed from designers.
The curators expect the costumes to be a magnet for visitors.
"(This is) probably the greatest costume collection in the world," Martin said. "There is no other institution that is really definitive in determining what the discourse in fashion history might be."
The Met has renovated for the new curators. Galleries include floor-to-ceiling display cases with protective glass and an army of new mannequins with faces modeled after Christy Turlington. Even the male figures are rendered in a sculptor's notion of a male Turlington.
Martin and Koda say they hope to do more than just showcase the Met's impressive inventory. They want to reclaim the glamour days of the '70s and '80s, when Diana Vreeland took the Costume Institute, a department within the museum, from an amalgamation of stage dress to international assemblage of 17th- to 20th-Century clothing.
Under Vreeland, who died in 1989, the party that opened the institute's annual exhibition became one of the Met's most successful fund-raisers.
"What she did was create a reality that a stilted dusty exhibition does not," Koda said. "Certain scholars have reservations about the kind of exhibition she did because they lack a factual perspective. But in terms of a larger concept of truth, she captured the truth of fashion."
Toward the same end, the curators will put on "Madonna in the Museum," a lecture in which Martin will discuss "a person who has a visual presence worthy of being in a museum." If that doesn't raise eyebrows, exhibitions such as the lighthearted "Jocks and Nerds," a recent FIT show of men's fashion, just might.
But Martin and Koda intend to do more than entertain. They plan to restore the costume to its rightful place in the museum, "to place it at a parity," Martin says, "with the Egyptian art galleries" immediately next to the institute.
Among their future shows will be "Word-Robe," a display of clothing that features words and numbers, and "Waist Not," an examination of the changing waistline in fashion.
Martin believes that shows that draw on contemporary designs are vulnerable to criticism and may be labeled as trendy. "We can only see the past from where we are now," he says. "That's not trendy. It's just our vantage point."