Reviving Fashion’s Forgotten Pulse: The Costume Institute’s Bold New Exhibition-Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion photos by Miguel Villalobos

Dear Shaded Viewers,

The Costume Institute’s newest exhibition, “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion,” is a groundbreaking exploration into the hidden dimensions of historical garments. Photographer Miguel Villalobos was there to document it for us. While the light seems to be on what everyone wore to the Met Ball, at ASVOF we are more interested in the actual content of the exhibition.

This spring 2024’s showcase is a resurrection, breathing new life into the Museum’s collection through an innovative blend of first-hand research, meticulous conservation analysis, and a mix of high-tech and traditional methodologies. By employing everything from artificial intelligence and computer-generated imagery to x-rays, video animation, light projection, and immersive soundscapes, this exhibit transcends the static nature of fashion artifacts.

When clothing is inducted into the Costume Institute’s collection, it undergoes a transformation from a lived-in, functional object to a preserved piece of history. Stripped of their original context, these garments lose their sensory impact—they can no longer be worn, touched, heard, or smelled. “Sleeping Beauties” challenges this stasis, reanimating these pieces so we can experience them as they were meant to be: alive, dynamic, and vibrant.

With approximately 220 garments and accessories on display, spanning four centuries, the exhibition interweaves themes of nature, symbolizing fashion’s inherent ephemerality. Visitors will not just see the clothes but will engage with them on multiple sensory levels. Imagine inhaling the fragrant past through hats adorned with floral motifs, feeling the intricate embroidery embedded in the gallery walls, and witnessing the restrictive elegance of the early 20th-century hobble skirt through the ethereal illusion of Pepper’s ghost.

The exhibition also poignantly addresses the fragility of history. Interspersed throughout the galleries are the “sleeping beauties”—garments too delicate to be displayed on mannequins. These pieces, suspended in their fragile beauty, serve as a powerful reminder of the delicate balance between preservation and the original, lived experience of fashion.

The inclusion of scent in the “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art marks a significant advancement in curatorial practice. Sissel Tolaas, a renowned scent artist and researcher, led the meticulous process of uncovering and replicating the original smells of garments in the museum’s collection. Utilizing forensic chemistry and advanced technology, Tolaas spent over a year extracting and analyzing smell molecules from up to 100 items. This involved trapping air and moisture from the garments and using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry to identify and reproduce the scents. The exhibition features these authentic smells, such as the 10 overlapping molecules found in a 1958 Dior evening dress and a 1923 Lanvin dress, allowing visitors to engage with the history and original context of the garments on a sensory level. Through this innovative approach, Tolaas aims to evoke emotional reactions and deeper connections with the past, highlighting the importance of sensory experiences in understanding and appreciating historical artifacts.

“Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” is not just an exhibition but an evocative journey that restores the pulse of fashion’s past, making it palpable and vivid for today’s audience.



Diane Pernet

A LEGENDARY FIGURE IN FASHION and a pioneer of blogging, Diane is a respected journalist, critic, curator and talent-hunter based in Paris. During her prolific career, she designed her own successful brand in New York, costume designer, photographer, and filmmaker.