The Costume Institute’s collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories represents five continents and seven centuries of fashionable dress, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children, from the 15th century to the present.
The redesigned Costume Institute space reopened in May 2014 after a two-year renovation as the Anna Wintour Costume Center with the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion. The complex includes the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, the main showcase space with a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformation with the latest video, sound, and wireless technology. The Center also includes the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery to orient visitors to The Costume Institute’s exhibitions. Behind the scenes is a state-of-the-art costume conservation laboratory; an expanded study/storage facility to house the combined holdings of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection; and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries.
The Costume Institute began as the Museum of Costume Art, an independent entity formed in 1937 and led by Neighborhood Playhouse founder Irene Lewisohn. In 1946, with the financial support of the fashion industry, the Museum of Costume Art merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art as The Costume Institute, and in 1959 became a curatorial department. The legendary fashion arbiter Diana Vreeland, who served as special consultant from 1972 until her death in 1989, created a memorable suite of exhibitions, including The World of Balenciaga (1973), The Glory of Russian Costume (1976), and Vanity Fair (1977), galvanizing audiences and setting the standard for costume exhibitions globally.
In 1989, Richard Martin took the helm, with the support of Harold Koda, and began a rotating cycle of thematic exhibitions including Infra-Apparel, Waist Not, The Four Seasons, and Cubism and Fashion. Martin’s tenure culminated in Rock Style, the last exhibition before his death in 1999. Mr. Koda, who had previously departed from the Museum, rejoined the Met in 2000 as Curator in Charge, hiring Andrew Bolton in 2002. Upon Mr. Koda’s retirement in January 2016, Mr. Bolton became Curator in Charge.
The Costume Institute organizes two special exhibitions each year. Recent thematic exhibitions have included AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion (2006); Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008); The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion (2009); American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity (2010); Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (2012), Punk: Chaos to Couture (2013), and China: Through the Looking Glass (2015).
Recent monographic exhibitions have included Chanel (2005), Poiret: King of Fashion (2007), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011), and Charles James: Beyond Fashion (2014).
China: Through the Looking Glass attracted 815,992 visitors, surpassing The Costume Institute’s prior most popular show on Alexander McQueen, which attracted 661,509 visitors. Both exhibitions are among the Museum’s top ten most visited, with China at number five, and Alexander McQueen at number nine.
In January 2009, The Brooklyn Museum transferred their renowned costume collection, amassed during more than a century of collecting, to The Costume Institute, where it is known as the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It includes the definitive collection of Charles James material, as well as the world’s foremost holdings of American fashion from the late 19th to mid-20th century. The combined collections now constitute the single largest and most comprehensive costume collection in the world, offering an unrivaled timeline of Western fashion history.
The fashion industry funds the work of The Costume Institute, including its exhibitions, acquisitions, and capital improvements. Each May, the annual Gala Benefit, its primary fund-raising event, celebrates the opening of the spring exhibition. Under the leadership of Trustee Anna Wintour (Artistic Director of Condé Nast and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue), who has been co-chair since 1995 (excluding 1996 and 1998), the gala has become one of the most visible and successful charity events, drawing attendees from the fashion, film, society, business, and music industries. The brainchild of publicity doyenne Eleanor Lambert, the benefit was introduced in 1948 as a midnight supper and dubbed "The Party of the Year." Co-chairs in past years included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1977–1978) and Patricia Taylor Buckley (1979–1995).
Due to the sensitive nature of textiles, The Costume Institute’s collection is not on permanent public view. However, two fashion-focused tours are available year round: Fashion in Art, a tour led by Costume Institute docents which discusses costume history within the context of the Museum's collections of armor, textiles, paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts; and Costume: The Art of Dress, a recorded Audio Guide narrated by the actress Sarah Jessica Parker which highlights historical costume throughout the Museum's galleries.
In 2002, the Museum established The Friends of The Costume Institute, a group that supports the department’s exhibition, acquisition, conservation, and publication programs. In promoting a more profound historical and theoretical understanding of costume, these programs advance fashion as an art form, and encourage the study of fashion as a serious academic discipline.
Please check the museum calendar at www.metmuseum.org for The Costume Institute’s schedule of special exhibitions.
January 8, 2016