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Rudi Gernreich's
topless bathing
suit, 1964

Topless gowns
by Courrêges,
1968 (left) and
Gernreich, 1970

Costume Institute
Curator Richard Martin

Issac Mizrahi's gown
with plunging
posterior in silk
chiffon, 1990

Cher Bono's micro-
mini skirt from
Serindipity, 1969-70
(left), and hot
pants, 1970

Alexander McQueen's
Hand painted and
gashed vinyl gown,

Gernreich's topless
suit flanked by his
"thong" bathing
suit, 1974

topless at the met

"bare witness: clothing and
nudity" at the metropolitan
museum costume institute 

by Frank Harris

I've visited a few shows down in the 

airless and dimly lit basement galleries of 

the Met's Costume Institute, and I have to 

say, they didn't do much for me. Old 

clothes on mannekins behind glass? Not my 

bag, no offense.

But "nudity," there's a topic that has 

always made me perk up and take a look. 

This time around, the Met features over 80 

mannekins garbed with fashions dating from 

the early high-waisted bust-accentuating 

light cotton dresses of the Empire period 

to the exceptionally stimulating present. 

Hot pants! Plunging necklines! Micro-minis! 

Solid gold nipple covers! And most 

achetypically of all, Rudi Gernreich's 1964 

topless bathing suit of elasticized black 

wool knit! The costume gallery's trademark 

humidity suddenly began feeling a bit, 

well, moist. It's an effect I first noted 

at the Kienholz show at the Whitney Museum, 

where the artist's famous installation 

Roxys (1961-62), a plush whorehouse sitting 

room, carries a subtle and complex erotic 

charge, quite different than the callow 

everyday titillations of our pin-up 


The fashions are grouped with their cases 

by type of tease--bodices, swimsuits, 

backs, sheer and see-through, legs. Come 

down the stairs and there you go--topless. 

Andre Courreges's 1968 turtleneck sweater 

in black stretch chiffon is see-through for 

beatniks, a sheer top with a knit 

turtleneck, worn with black knit slacks. 

Right next to it is Rudi Gernreich's 

topless evening gown in black wool knit. 

They were wearing them in 1970. 

Met costume curator Richard Martin has done 

a great job, and writes a mean wall label. 

I took special notice of his reference to 

"an erotic frontier of posterior cleavage," 

describing the open back of Isaac Mizrahi's 

1990 silk chiffon evening gown embroidered 

with bois-de-rose seed-beads. Not unlike 

the kind of thing Jean Harlow used to wear, 

this simple sheath only exists for its open 

back swooping down to the tailbone. Over by 

a case of swim suits, the wall reads, part 

Death in Venice and part Vogue, "the sea is 

always a compelling horizon for the human 

adventure." I agree. Over by the Gernreich 

topless suit is the only male mannekin in 

the room, wearing a kind of one-piece 

thong. Very nice. Another mannikin wears 

Monika Tilly's 1978 white nylon mesh suit, 

designed for model Cheryl Tiegs, to 

complement the form of the "athletically 

powerful woman." I knew that.

Around the corner, in the section on bared 

midriffs, the exhibition heralds a kind of 

"navel-gazing" that offers up "bareness at 

the center rather than the margins." From 

one-time medical student Geoffrey Beene, 

whose silver panne velvet evening gown from 

1995-96 is on display, we have, according 

to the label, a "knowing dissection and 

articulation of the body." The silver 

piping on the dress snakes down from the 

mannekin's shoulders, between its breasts 

and around its hips. Yes. Madelaine Vionnet 

designed one of the first 20th-century 

dresses, outside of the theater, to reveal 

its wearer's naked stomach in 1932; her 

"orientalist experiment" is an off-white 

silk chiffon evening gown. Even better, 192 

years ago, in 1804, Americans were wearing 

a kind of gauzy shift made of see-through 

white cotton with whitework embrodery. 

"Mull and muslin dresses worn without 

underpinnings... in these risque instances 

the body was wholly visible through the 

scrim of dress." 

Back over in the "back" section is Ronaldus 

Shamask's 1990 evening gown in black silk 

tafetta. Wrapped loosely around the body, 

it is held in place only by a silver 

necklace counterweight, in a "delicate 

equilibrium" that "suggests seductive 

uncertainty." Just what I was thinking! A 

final entry, very up to the minute: from 

the young British designer Alexander 

McQueen, a 1996 white vinyl gown, 

handpainted in black and gashed (rather 

suggestively, I noticed) down the front as 

if done by Fontana himself--though Fontana 

never filled his gashes with nude nylon 

marquisette inserts. I don't think he did, 


As ArtNet's own Waldo Pacheco noted, 

"there's not a lot of men's clothes here, 

is there?" No, there's not. Or is there? 

Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute

Apr. 2-Aug. 18

Frank Harris is author of My Secret Life.