This image released by The Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a British waistcoat Source: Nick Knight/The Metropolitan Museum of Art via AP

Fashion Isn't Just for the Eyes: Upcoming Met Gala Exhibit Aims to Be a Multi-sensory Experience

Jocelyn Noveck READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Fashion, most would surely agree, is meant to be seen. Not heard, and certainly not smelled.

But Andrew Bolton, the curatorial mastermind behind the blockbuster fashion exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, begs to differ. His newest show, to be launched by the starry Met Gala next month, seeks to provide a multi-sensory experience, engaging not just the eyes but the nose, the ears – and even the fingertips, a traditional no-no in a museum.

Open to the public beginning May 10, "Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion" features 250 items that are being revived from years of slumber in the institute's vast archive, with some in such a delicate state of demise that they can't be draped on a mannequin or shown upright. These garments will lie in glass coffins – yes, like Sleeping Beauty herself.

As ever, celebrity guests at the May 6 gala, which this year is being hosted by Zendaya, Jennifer Lopez, Bad Bunny and Chris Hemsworth, will get the first look at the exhibit. With a dress code defined as "The Garden of Time," one can expect lots of creative, garden-themed riffs. But will anyone go so far as to actually wear a living garden? As he began mounting the exhibit late last week, Bolton shared that there's just such a garment in the show, a coat that has been planted with oat, rye and wheatgrass.

The garment, designed by Jonathan Anderson of the label LOEWE (a sponsor of the show), is currently "growing" right now in a tent at the museum, with its own irrigation system. It will be displayed in all its green glory for the first week, after which it will be replaced with a version, also grown for the show, that has dried out. As the museum puts it, the coat "will grow and die over the course of the exhibition."

"Sleeping Beauties" will be organized around themes of earth, air and water – but also, Bolton says, around the various senses. The garden gallery where the coat will be displayed is one of four areas devoted to the sense of smell.

This means viewers will be able to sample scents connected to various garments. But it doesn't mean that a floral gown, for example, will be accompanied by a floral scent. The reality is much more complex.

"What we're really presenting is the olfactory history of the garment," Bolton says. "And that's the scent of the person who wore it, the natural body odors that they emitted, what they smoked, what they ate, where they lived." For these galleries, the museum worked with Norwegian "smell artist" Sissel Tolaas, who took 57 "molecular readings" of garments, all to create scents that will waft through the rooms and enhance the visitor's connection to the items on display.

But garments also create sound. Especially if the garment is embroidered, as is one famous gown by the late Alexander McQueen, with dried and bleached razor clams.

Because the original dress would be too fragile to now record the sounds it makes in movement, curators made a duplicate – with the same kind of razor clams that McQueen collected from a beach in Norfolk, England – and then isolated and recorded the sound in an echo-free chamber at Binghamton University. The effect, Bolton says, is "to capture the minutiae of movements."

The same effect is achieved with a silk taffeta garment, featuring a sound called "scroop," a combination of the words "scrape" and "whoop."

"I know it sounds like a garage band," quips Bolton, "but it's a specific sound that silk makes." It can be loud or soft, depending on the finishing of the silk. Taffeta has the loudest, so that's what visitors will hear in one particular gallery.

And then there is touch.

"It's one of the difficulties of museums, that you can't touch things," the curator says. The exhibit aims to change that, too. An example: an embroidered 17th-century Jacobean bodice. No, you can't handle such a fragile thing. But with the help of 3D scanning, curators have recreated the embroidery on wallpaper. "The whole room will be covered with this wallpaper," Bolton says. "You can use your hands to feel the shapes and the complexity of the embroidery." The same technique will be used to experience the feel of a Dior dress.

Even with the plain old sense of sight, the exhibit aims to enhance the viewing experience with accompanying animations featuring details of the garment one cannot see with the naked eye – rather like looking through a microscope.

For what Bolton says is one of the most ambitious shows the Costume Institute has attempted, he went through the museum's entire archive of 33,000 garments and accessories to choose the ultimate 250.

He hopes the various new technologies will became a norm, and that the institute will be able to build a database of the sounds and smells of some garments before they enter the collection – capturing them in living form, in their "last gasp" of life before they become museum pieces. Perhaps one day to lie in a glass coffin, like Sleeping Beauty.

"Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion" will run May 10-Sept. 2, 2024.

by Jocelyn Noveck

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