After the pop culture bonanza of this summer’s “Barbie,” the hoo-ha surrounding the live action remake of “The Little Mermaid” and the attention paid to anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, observers could be forgiven for hearing the title of the next Costume Institute blockbuster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and think they were in for a Disney spectacle. After all, it is called “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion.” And those princess costumes have been very influential.
But while the show was, indeed, partly inspired by a hot button cultural moment, it’s not a fantasy one.
Rather, it’s a sustainability one.
Specifically, the ephemeral nature of … well, nature. And how fashion captures that literally, in the form of garments inspired by and decorated with flora and fauna, and conceptually, in its endless cycle of in and out, its potential to degrade. Think of it as a show devoted to unsustainable fashion, one that could function as a requiem, a warning sign and a reminder of the fundamental importance of regeneration.
“It’s pretty much an ode to nature,” said Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute and the man behind the idea. “Nature as a metaphor for fashion and for its fragility and its ephemerality.”
Given fashion’s own famously negative impact on the natural world, that’s a little ironic. But Mr. Bolton, who is responsible for such shows as “Camp,” “Heavenly Bodies” and “China Through the Looking Glass,” has never shied away from a controversial theme. The show is also a meta-comment about nature as a source of life and the life that is lost when garments enter a museum and become objects of study, rather than tools for navigating the world.
There’s going to be a lot going on, which makes it a signature Bolton production.
Composed of 250 garments and accessories from the museum’s permanent collection and held in the Tisch Galleries, “Sleeping Beauties,” which will open in May 2024, will be an immersive experience centering on pieces with what Mr. Bolton called “inherent vices,” meaning that because of the internal characteristics of the material involved, they had deteriorated too much to be displayed on mannequins.
Instead they will be interred in glass “coffins,” hovering flat for the viewer to see, while near them a ghostly hologram, à la Kate Moss in her Alexander McQueen dress, may appear, allowing the garment to come back to some sort of three-dimensional life. Surrounding the approximately 12 or 15 of these relics will be more contemporary garments that share a creative dimension rooted (no pun intended) in the natural world.
“I was going through all of the 33,000 pieces we have in our permanent collection,” Mr. Bolton said, noting that he was struck by how many referenced the environment, including those that were among the most fragile. Hence the decision to make that idea the connective tissue binding the show.
“It is a subliminal message about caring for nature in a more sustainable way,” he continued, as well as a reminder of what is lost when attention is not paid. (It also allowed him, he said, to acquire a number of pieces from younger designers who work with sustainability in mind for the museum’s permanent collection, including Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada, Connor Ives and Phoebe English.)
The exhibition will be divided into three zones according to theme: earth, air and water, which will in turn be displayed in about 26 walk-in bell-jar-shaped structures, like their own little fashion terrariums. (Mr. Bolton called them “bubbles.”)
Imagine, for example, an Elizabethan jacket from between 1615 and 1620, covered in embroidered pea pods, flowers and insects, juxtaposed against a 2006 couture dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel that was itself inspired by Elizabethan embroidery, both pieces framed by enlarged close-ups on the walls and floor of the ants and bees in the embroidery, so they will virtually buzz around you. Or think of a black tulle 1938-39 dress by Madeleine Vionnet embroidered with a flock of swallows and set in a room with a video of swallows swarming in evermore frenzied circles as the sound of flapping wings fills the space and the light fades to black.
To further emphasize the emotive component of clothing and why it matters, Mr. Bolton is working with the photographer Nick Knight of ShowStudio as a creative consultant and Sissel Tolaas, the Norwegian artist and smell scientist, who is recreating certain scents associated with the garments via molecular analysis. Sound, such as the rustling of taffeta or the clacking of paillettes (or those wings), will also be involved, as will X-rays and video. Even A.I. may play a part, thanks to the involvement of Sam Altman, the chief executive of OpenAI, who is helping animate a 1930 Callot Soeurs wedding dress in the show.
“You will be able to ask it questions,” Mr. Bolton said. “And it will answer.”
The exhibition is being sponsored by Loewe, whose designer, Jonathan Anderson, has been known to use an enormous molded anthurium as the bodice of a strapless dress, as well as by TikTok. As to what the latter has to do with “sleeping beauties,” Mr. Bolton shrugged and pointed out the platform might help the exhibit “reach a huge audience that, you know, perhaps it wouldn’t automatically.” And that, in turn, might wake them up to the museum.
Though the hosts of the gala that is the opening for the show and famously funds the Costume Institute, have not been announced, odds are that Mr. Anderson will take his place next to Anna Wintour, the honorary co-chair of the bash, at the top of the Met stairs, possibly alongside a Loewe ambassador or two, like Josh O’Connor or Taylor Russell.
As for the party’s dress code, it is also still a mystery, but one thing is clear. It’s going to have to be blooming marvelous. Don’t bug out while we wait.