Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion is a Sensory Experience

Smell, sight, sound, and touch help bring to life fragile archival pieces.

When the Costume Institute announced that the 2024 theme for their exhibit (and corresponding Met Gala) would be Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion, there was some confusion. What exactly would it entail? Were there going to be fairytale gowns? An ode to lingerie dressing? Not quite. Instead the theme refers to archival pieces too delicate for traditional display methods, brought to life via sensory enhancements from sound to scent to touch to even artificial intelligence. Drawing from the unifying theme of nature and its fragility, the galleries highlight 220 designer pieces old and new with an expansive range of bigger names and lesser known labels.

Upon entry visitors are greeted with a Constantin Brancusi sculpture, Sleeping Muse, a nod to the first sleeping beauty creation of the bunch: an 1887 gown by Charles Frederick Worth. The piece, laid down behind a glass case like a princess under a spell, was at one point a pale green and ivory creation but now has deteriorated to its current delicate state. To accompany the piece, a visual rendering of what the gown would have looked like worn and moving, one of the many Nick Knight installations across the exhibit that bring these dresses to life. From there visitors enter the galleries, which are roughly organized into earth, air, and water, although another way to think of them would be flowers, garden creatures, and the underwater realm. 

Kicking off the land section are painted flowers, featuring robes that date to the 1700s alongside a modern day Mary Katrantzou piece. Up next, blurred blossoms, which includes the first of many Loewe pieces — fitting as they’re one of the sponsors. From there visitors will wind through rooms ranging from an ode to poppies, in all of their beautiful yet brutal glory to Van Gogh’s paintings turned into jackets and dresses to roses, including a spectacular Valentino minidress.  

Air includes the creatures one might find in a garden from beetles and butterflies to snakes and birds. No surprise, Alexander McQueen designs feature prominently here, whether it’s the beetle dress, monarch mini, or black swallows jacket. Of note in this section are two Charles James butterfly gowns — one worn and the other slumbering in its owner’s closet, highlighting how identical pieces can wear (or not wear) over time. 

For the sea section, expect galleries devoted to seashells, sirens, and mermaids. Fans of McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis will be happy to note pieces from that collection as well as his iconic razor clam gown, complete with a speaker playing noises that highlight the dress in motion. Iris Van Herpen’s surreal designs also feature prominently as well as mermaid-like pieces from Thom Browne, Altuzarra, and Michael Kors. 

Sensory experiences feature prominently across the galleries in the exhibit. Besides the visual representations of gowns that would otherwise be too fragile to display in a manner befitting their silhouette, there are also tactile and olfactory moments. In the Miss Dior rooms, visitors are encouraged to touch the walls and the mini version of the gown in the alcove while the rose rooms have piped in scents. Scent of a Man and Scent of a Woman are also two areas that offer different perfumed experiences, including a touch and sniff wall. And finally, the last piece, a wedding dress worn in 1930 by socialite Natalie Potter features a QR code. Scan it and you’ll be able to chat with an AI version of the heiress, courtesy of ChatGPT.

Fashion fans will be happy to see iconic looks that would otherwise not be seen in person. Loewe’s grass covered blazer and Anthurium pieces are showstoppers in one gallery while another alcove houses an Undercover terrarium dress that periodically lights up. Smaller designers, like Dauphinette, Collina Strada, Conner Ives, and 3.1 Phillip Lim also get moments of glory, with their designs sitting side by side with bigger names — making the case that Sleeping Beauties could also include looks not to be slept on.

Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion runs from May 10th through September 2nd.

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