At an exhibition of Sandy Schreier’s fashion collection at the Costume Institute, it’s the pieces by little-known designers that linger in the imagination.
When fashion enters the hallowed halls of an art institution, as a rule, it begins to fall victim to museumitis: the need to justify its presence in the temple of high culture by focusing almost entirely on its craft or conception. This is understandable, but the result can often seem a bit arid; clothes, after all, were made for people, and it is people that animate them. To separate the life of a garment from actual life can also sap it of emotion, and meaning.
Which is why viewing “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection,” currently at the Anna Wintour Costume Center of the Metropolitan Museum of Art until May 17, is such a pleasure. Anyone expecting a series of historical looks from the usual suspects might think again.
Featuring 80 pieces (clothing and accessories) from what the museum calls “one of the greatest private collections of 20th-century fashion,” most of which are from an extraordinary 165-piece bequest by Ms. Schreier to the Met for its 150th anniversary, the exhibition is, more than anything else, the reflection of one woman’s love affair with fashion.
Not that Ms. Schreier, who grew up in Detroit, actually wore any of these clothes. But she adored them from the time she was 4 years old, and began flipping through the magazines at Russeks, the Detroit department store patronized by the great auto moguls’ wives, where her father ran the fur salon. Amused by the sight of a little girl obsessed with sparkly dresses, they took to sending her their castoff couture, and that became the kernel of a collection that now includes over 15,000 pieces.
That collection, and the part on view at the Met, contains all the major names, but what defines it more than anything else is Ms. Schreier’s own appreciation for pretty things. The pieces on display in two rooms stretch from the turn of the century through the 1950s and on to today, with a Campbell’s Soup Can dress from 1966-67 and some winking trompe l’oeil 1980s Chloé (plus two gorgeous 1970s Zandra Rhodes).
But hidden away between the Balenciagas and the Chanels, the Diors and the Adrians, are treasures by little-known or even unknown designers that are a delight to discover. The Madeleine & Madeleine evening gown, circa 1923, greets guests at the entrance to the show, for example, with its Egyptian-inspired scarab embroidery. And the 1913 Maison Margaine-Lacroix Art Nouveau satin gown, encrusted in jet, that glimmers with sequins. Three origin-unknown flapper dresses from the 1920s, beaded to within an inch of their glittering seams, matched only in their lavish surprise by three elaborately printed velvets of the same era — two capes and a column — by Maria Monaci Gallenga, so plush you can practically stroke the weft with your eyes. It is these less famous names whose impact lingers, in part because they are so unexpected.
And if Ms. Schreier hadn’t had that initial gut punch of desire for them, trumping pedigree, they might never have made it into her sartorial miscellany, and they wouldn’t now be part of the Met — or our own imaginations.
In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection
Through May 17 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
More related articles: Fashion? They’re over it, Serena Williams Ups Her Fashion Game with a New Jewelry Line, Suzanne Rogers Brings the Fashion Industry to Toronto, The Met’s Next Big Fashion Show Revealed.