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The Metropolitan Museum: History of The Costume Institute

With over 35,000 costumes and accessories in its collection, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute is a seventh heaven of theatrical fashion.

In 1937, Neighborhood Playhouse founder Irene Lewisohn and partner Aline Bernstein created the The Museum of Costume Art. In 1946, with assistance from the fashion industry in New York, the museum merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it became known as The Costume Institute. By 1959, the Museum had become a facility with full-fledged exhibits curated by fashion icons such as the legendary Diana Vreeland, who served as the Institute’s special consultant from 1972 to 1989. Due to the relative fragility of most of the collection, the Institute holds only three shows per year featuring different designers. Mona von Bismarck, Nan Kempner and Kennedy Onassis have all been featured in recent years.

If you’re thinking that the Institute only caters to the high-end fashion experts, think again. In 1999, the Institute hosted costumes from icons of rock, including David Bowie and The Beatles. Other shows have revolved around unique costumes that not only transform the appearance of the wearer, but the body itself in extreme ways. Think tight corsets or shoes designed to be worn once and put away forever afterward.

Diana Vreeland was a meticulous curator of the museum’s collection and was not spared from controversy. Vreeland, after departing from her editorial position with Vogue magazine, desired to go from a print publication to the world of three dimensions – and made it show in her presentations at the Institute. Incorporating lights, sound and even fragrance, Vreeland created her own fantasy world using the Institute’s massive collection. Often times Vreeland would take costumes from different periods and pair them together in order to create her vision, a move that rubbed some in the world of historical fashion the wrong way. While scholars may have been perturbed, attendance rose.

Now, taking cues from those who have come and gone from between its walls, The Costume Institute maintains its reputation as not only a tome of the fashion past, but inspiration for trends yet to be seen.

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