From ancient Coptic textiles to contemporary haute couture, the historic dress collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a treasure trove of culturally and historically significant pieces. I have spent hours browsing the seemingly endless online database (437,732 items have been digitized to date) and, while I have shared many pieces from the collection with you on my Instagram, there are thousands upon thousands of objects that I have yet to discover! For most of us, browsing online is the closest we will ever get to examining these exquisite pieces up close. I can only imagine what it would be like to physically handle, examine and research this world-class collection. It is another fantasy entirely to get paid to do it. And yet for Anna Yanofsky, Collections Manager Assistant at the The Costume Institute, dreams really do come true.
The Costume Institute is the name for the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories representing “five continents and seven centuries of fashionable dress, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children, from the fifteenth century to the present.” Anna has worked at the Institute since graduating (with me!) in 2012 with her Masters in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but she has loved fashion ever since she was a young girl. Her passion for the subject is inspiring and I am excited to present her Fashion History Talks! below. Thank you Anna!
Please provide readers with a description of your job and how it relates to the history of fashion and dress: My title is Collections Management Assistant in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In my role I spend a lot of quality time with objects of all shapes, sizes, and kinds. The Collections Team is responsible for the proper storage and care of objects–which involves strategizing the placement of objects within the space we have available, and packing them archivally to suit their needs. Each object presents its own unique challenges based on its materials and structure. In addition we are constantly pulling and presenting pieces for curatorial viewings and conservation treatments.
Why is the study of fashion history important to you? My professional dedication to the study of fashion history is born of a nascent obsession with fashion that I can never remember not having. I may have been the only 8-year-old watching Style with Elsa Klensch on weekend mornings and paying for my copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar with my wadded-up allowance (four dollars because I was in the fourth grade). Fashion magazines were my ticket to an alternate universe of beauty and style. In those magazines I was not only transported through editorials, but I was also reading about art, politics, and culture. As I advanced in my education, I realized that fashion history is the study of so many topics at once: world history, design, materials, technology, sociology, and much more. A fashion object or photograph can educate you fully and deeply about a moment in history, or a culture, or an economic principle. Fashion is an entry point into looking at the world around us in a more profound way. Also, it is accessible. We all get dressed. We all express our identity and place in time and space through the clothes we wear. We are all participating in fashion on some level.
In your opinion, is fashion art? Some fashion is art; some is not. There are a select few designers who put ideas into clothing and treat fashion as a medium for conceptual communication. And then there are those who sell clothes in a more utilitarian way. Couture as it is traditionally constructed, with the highest attention to skilled craft, is undoubtedly artfully made–but even couture isn’t necessarily art. The complicating factor of this topic is always commerce. Clothes are made to be sold and worn and discarded for something newer and better each season. This leaves many with the perception of it as an impure artform, one created for profit rather than the expression of inspiration and creativity. However, when you see certain garments, there is little denying that they capture the essence of artistic creation as aptly as a painting or sculpture.
Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Just one? I’ll say that ever since I laid eyes on a garment by Madame Gres I have had an utter fashion history crush on her. The pleating of her dresses is simply extraordinary in person and symbolizes a Classicism
that is eternally chic. Her designs are powerful in such a feminine way. In spite of the flow of the yards of fabric she uses, the tight pleating creates a firm structure–to her bodices especially–that leave them with a protective, almost armor-like quality. The effect is totally dichotomous. She also had a career that spanned decades successfully (from the 1930s to the 1980s), with some of her most interesting designs emerging in the 1970s. I thought that Raf Simons’ interpretation of the Christian Dior aesthetic was so beautiful and modern while still respecting the history of the house. His most recent eponymous menswear collection featured photographs from the Robert Mapplethorpe archives in a very pleasing way. I am a sucker for a photographic print in textile form! I am excited to see how he can revive Calvin Klein.
If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I know this isn’t a book, but subscribe to Teen Vogue! Their recent coverage of political and social issues has been so incredibly smart. I’ve heard a lot about how shocked people are by the fact that a fashion magazine–geared towards teenage girls, no less–could have such adept coverage of complex issues, but I’m not surprised. My consciousness was raised on fashion magazines. There is no exclusionary binary between a love of fashion and an interest in the complexities of the world. In fact, they are so much more related than people may initially think. A balance of beauty and brains are what we should all be encouraging in each other. Also, subscribing to quality content is so important in this moment. We need to financially support the sources we appreciate.