‘About Time’: Dressing by Decade

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The upcoming Costume Institute exhibition “About Time: Fashion and Duration” celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by presenting a chronological timeline of fashion through the decades, from 1870 to 2020—and adding “interruptions” with the work of designers who have riffed on earlier silhouettes and design concepts. Think Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen’s leg-of-mutton-sleeve dress that takes its cue from 1890s examples in the museum’s collection, for instance; or Norman Norell’s 1965 interpretation of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s 1925 wardrobe; or Yves Saint Laurent’s broad-shouldered 1978 redux of Elsa Schiaparelli’s “broken mirror” embroidered jacket of 1938.

With this idea in mind, we thought we’d explore, decade by decade, the imaginative ways that guests attending the Costume Institute galas through the years have looked to the past for their own fashion and beauty inspiration.

We begin in the 1870s, when New York’s artists and robber barons were reshaping the cultural landscape with the city’s free art museum and the British-born designer Charles Frederick Worth was the undisputed king of Paris fashion. (His bustle reigned supreme.) We end in the minimalist ’90s, when Marc Jacobs brought grunge to the Perry Ellis runway and Helmut Lang, Calvin Klein, et al. glorified the little slip dress.

From 1920s flappers to 1970s disco divas, from turn-of-the-century Gibson girls to 1930s silver-screen sirens, and from the big shoulders of the 1940s to the big skirts of the 1950s, here is a treasury of the best Met-gala looks that looked back to look forward.

The decade of the bustle

The decade of the voluminous skirt

The decade of the important sleeve

The decade of the hourglass silhouette

The decade of Paul Poiret and the tubular silhouette

The decade of flapper fringe and extravagant silent-movie costumes

The decade of escapism that celebrated movie-goddess glamour and the bias-cut gown

The decade of big shoulders

The decade of big skirts, small waists, and haute couture drama

The schizophrenic decade began with the ladylike chic of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and ended with self-expression, hippie rebellion, and global gleanings

The glam-rock and disco decade brought Cher and Diana Ross razzle-dazzle

The maximalist decade saw short skirts, embellishment, and the return of the power shoulder

The minimalist decade brought grunge—and the triumph of the slip dress