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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 culture.

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, anyway.

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.

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