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Highlights from the 2024 Met Gala exhibit: Sleeping Beauty would wake up for these gowns


NEW YORK — Sure, she was a royal princess and all. But there’s no way Sleeping Beauty — either before or after her nap — ever had quite the fabulous wardrobe that’s been assembled at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion,” the spring Costume Institute exhibit that debuts at Monday’s Met Gala, is not technically about THAT Sleeping Beauty. The title’s nod to the fairytale is actually a reference to the glass coffins — “let’s be more upbeat and call them cases,” quips curator Andrew Bolton — that hold 16 aging garments now so fragile that they can’t be shown upright. These delicate creatures have been slumbering, like Aurora herself, in the museum’s climate-controlled archives.

But these “beauties” are only a small fraction of the 220 items on display in the nature-themed “Sleeping Beauties,” which Bolton calls one of the institute’s most ambitious shows yet (his previous blockbusters include “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and “China: Through the Looking Glass”). It’s also special to Bolton because every item on display is from the museum’s own collection.

Another key difference: This show will be a multisensory experience, involving not just sight but smell, sound and touch. Organized into themes of earth, air and water, the show makes use of a “smell artist” who extracted and analyzed molecules from clothing, creating scents visitors can now sniff from plastic tubes. Curators have also captured sounds of fabrics in an echo-free chamber, and used 3D scans to replicate embroidery patterns for touching.

Despite the scale, “I really wanted to make this intimate and participatory,” Bolton said during a weekend tour through the show. In fact, there’s even a mannequin in a gown you can text a question to, and she’ll deliver a ChatGPT-enabled response.

A few highlights:

A late 19th-century, satin-and-chiffon ballgown begins the show, its intricate embroidery of metallic threads, golden beads and sequins evoking sunbeams radiating from clouds. But the “cloud dress” by influential English designer Charles Frederick Worth is doomed, due to deterioration of the vertical threads — “there’s nothing we can do about it,” Bolton says. Except perhaps to recreate it digitally: On a screen nearby, an animated “Pepper’s ghost” illusion that took nine months to perfect shows the gown dancing at a ball. The gown was donated by relatives of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, played on HBO’s “The Gilded Age” by Donna Murphy.

A trio of gowns from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries explores the look of “blurred blossoms” — the effect that makes a dress look like a watercolor or an Impressionist work. But in this gallery you also hear “scroop” — the sound of silk taffeta rustling (a combination of the words “scrape” and “whoop”). The sound was captured in an echo-free chamber at Binghamton University. In another gallery, you can hear the clattering of razor clam shells, captured the same way — accompanying McQueen’s dramatic “razor clam” dress, covered with dried and bleached shells.

Christian Dior was influenced by Impressionist painters, and nowhere is this more evident than in the delicate floral embroidery on the famous Miss Dior dress, here a miniature version of the original. It looks just like a chic (and strapless) bouquet of flowers, and if you’re dying to touch it, there’s a small, white replica in 3D printed plastic. You can also run your hands over wallpaper created to match the shape and form of the flowers in the edgy 2013 Raf Simons version of the dress in black, with flowers in leather.

In 1988, Yves Saint Laurent paid homage to Van Gogh’s famous depiction of irises a hundred years earlier, with a glistening jacket celebrated for its embroidery. The museum lays it flat to give a closer view of a garment that took 600 hours of work by artisans who used 250 meters of ribbon, 200,000 beads and 250,000 paillettes (spangles) in 22 colors.

In a show devoted to nature, it’s hardly surprising to find rooms devoted to roses. And you’re invited to smell them, via scents carried in plastic tubes — not simply the smell of roses, but the smell of garments themselves and those who wore them. Bolton explains that Norwegian “smell artist” Sissel Tolaas brought an apparatus that extracted molecules from 57 garments. Two evening dresses, one by Saint Laurent for Dior and one by Lanvin, yielded molecules found in things like almonds and honey, tobacco and hay, and even “a mild sex attractant for moths and cockroaches.”

Yes, it was an Al Pacino movie — but here, it’s a gallery devoted to Millicent Rogers, a socialite, heiress and art collector known for her style and how she combined haute couture with regional dress. This gallery focuses on her scent, though, analyzing molecules from her garments — like a 1938 Schiaparelli evening dress in blue silk crepe — to discover her fragrances but also habits and lifestyle, “including what she ate, drank and smoked.”

A prime draw in the “Garden Life” section is a grass coat in which the wool itself has been planted, like soil, with oat, rye and wheatgrass. Right now, the design by gala honorary chair Jonathan Anderson of the label Loewe (a sponsor of the show) looks beautiful and green. But it is dying, because this version cannot be watered, and will be replaced about a week from opening with a version in a different stage of life. Also here: a slew of floral hats from the Met’s copious collection. These, too, have been analyzed for smell — eliciting scents containing hairspray, unsurprisingly, but also chewing gum, cigarettes and other things.

Bolton has said he wants to depict not just nature but shades of emotion — including fear. Which is just what you may feel when you get to the part on flying things: insects and beetle wings, for example. Also, birds. McQueen is said to have adored Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and here we have his orange wool jacket printed with black swallows. The creepy part is the animation on the ceiling: first a few black birds, then more, then so many that the space turns an ominous black. The animation, created in consultation with wildlife experts, comprises “14,000 digital swallows,” ending with 4,000 simulated feathers. For sound, real swallow calls were recorded, and also the “humming” sound from the 1963 movie itself was captured to create tension.

“Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” will open to the public Friday and run through Sept. 2.

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For more coverage of the 2024 Met Gala, visit https://apnews.com/hub/met-gala.



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