1968 (left) and
Curator Richard Martin
Issac Mizrahi's gown
posterior in silk
Cher Bono's micro-
mini skirt from
(left), and hot
Hand painted and
gashed vinyl gown,
suit flanked by his
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.