The Met's 'Sleeping Beauties' Isn't About Disney
Historic dresses get the old dust-off.
The Kim Kardashian memes practically wrote themselves after the Costume Institute announced its spring 2024 exhibition Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion. The show, which the Met Gala will open on May 6, is devoted to 250 historic garments that can no longer be worn, some of which will be shown laying in glass cases, hence the Sleeping Beauties title. The historic pieces will appear alongside similar contemporary ones. The theme seems like a splendid use of the museum’s archive, which comprises 33,000 pieces, and is regarded as the best in the world.
Two Met Galas ago when the dress code was “Gilded Glamour: White Tie,” Kardashian wore the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy, which prompted conservators to say she never should have been allowed to wear something of such historic significance. With Sleeping Beauties, the Met has chosen a theme that won’t result in the controversy of last year’s Karl Lagerfeld exhibition. Though it didn’t arouse as much backlash, it also ought to be safer than the “Gilded Glamour” dress code; inspired by America’s Gilded Age, it was chosen perplexingly at a time when the Vogue staff was unionizing and income inequality was a huge post-pandemic issue. Some are wondering if the 2024 theme is a “subtle dig” at Kardashian, but I’d guess it’s more about avoiding controversy, while attracting audience and sponsors.
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Naming it after a Disney princess seems particularly shrewd. Following last year’s announcement of the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition, which resulted in predictable disgust over honoring a man who denigrated fat women and sexual assault victims, BuzzFeed ran a story titled, “Dear 2023 Met Gala, Here Are 18 Theme Ideas You Could've Used Instead Of Karl Lagerfeld.” One theme suggestion was “The Wonderful World of Disney.” Kristen Harris wrote:
[I]f there can be a superhero theme, then there can be a Disney theme. Attendees would take inspiration from their favorite Disney characters — but in a "modern Snow White" way, not a "Gucci Mickey Mouse T-shirt" way.
Frankly, I can only imagine the explosion of interest in anything remotely tied to, like, Frozen. While this suggestion may not come from within the small, elitist fashion industry, it matters because mass appeal matters to the museum. Bolton told me in an interview for my book that Anna Wintour provides feedback on how to make his ideas appeal to the broadest possible audience.
However, the Costume Institute isn’t using the 250 historic garments as a way to lean into Disney. It’s using it, Bolton told Vogue, to “activate… that sensorial appreciation of fashion.” That means appealing to our senses of smell, sight, and hearing, seeing as incorporating touch into an exhibition of garments that cannot be touched would be impossible, to say nothing of, well, taste.
The museum hired SHOWstudio’s Nick Knight to be a creative consultant on visuals, and Sissel Tolaas to create custom scents. Tolaas created a “couture” candle for Balenciaga under Demna by, Wallpaper reported, “us[ing] a special device to extract molecules from the walls of Balenciaga’s historic couture house at 10 avenue George V in Paris, along with pieces from the Balenciaga archive and objects that belonged to Cristóbal Balenciaga himself.” The exhibit will also incorporate the projection technique known as Pepper’s ghost, along with “video animation, light projection, soundscaping, AI, CGI, and other forms of sensory stimulation,” per Vogue.
The AP breaks it down in plebeian speak:
This could mean scents will be wafting through a gallery, connected perhaps to the perfume used by the wearer. It also means that the rattling sound of razor clams will accompany a dress by Alexander McQueen covered with stripped and varnished razor clam shells.
As if that weren’t enough! The show will have three zones, “Land, Sea, and Sky.” “It’s based a lot on nature, as you will see, and Andrew’s vision goes from snakes to roses,” Anna told reporters at the museum on Wednesday. These nature zones will likely inform the dress code for the Gala, which hasn’t officially been announced (to the degree that the dress code even matters, given that many guests just kind of wear whatever they want that Vogue will approve).
So, why NOT lean into the Disney of it all? There may be practical concerns around incorporating the Disney brand, sure, but also these exhibitions feel increasingly like Bolton and his team are working overtime to justify the inclusion of fashion in a traditional institution like the Met. Though fashion is inspired by art, many in the art and fashion industries would argue it is not art and is too commercial to be in museums. Karl Lagerfeld himself was fond of saying that clothes didn’t belong there. (Sleeping Beauties recruited a sponsor in Loewe, which is designed by Jonathan Anderson, who pulls inspo from the art world as well as anyone.)
Sometimes I wish Bolton, who is brilliant, would strip an idea or two from these shows. I can only imagine the pressure that results from all that funding, which comes primarily from the Gala, to deliver something wildly innovative. Yet I came away from the last two Costume Institute shows, on Lagerfeld and American fashion, feeling like there was so much going on that it detracted from the fashion. Like, do visitors need Martin Scorsese to stage a roomful of mannequins wearing Charles James in order to deepen their understanding of Charles James?
One of the best fashion exhibits I recall seeing in recent years was Thierry Mugler: Couturissme at the Brooklyn Museum. Though a fairly straightforward retrospective with a dramatic opening visual, it allowed the clothing to shine. The garments were simply displayed alongside fashion photography.
That said, Sleeping Beauties ought to result in an interesting Met Gala red carpet. TikTok is sponsoring so expect those influencers to show up (my money’s on Alix Earle, who has been everywhere lately, making her Met Gala debut). And I hope the Vogue live stream hosts take the sensorial sub-theme as an opportunity to pose my very favorite red-carpet question: “What do you smell like?”
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