NEW YORK — A brilliant green gown in silk satin by Charles James, the late American master couturier, gleams like an emerald as you enter the archives of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology — a huge, climate-controlled space that houses 50,000 garments and accessories.
Care for a little Chanel? How about hundreds of delectable vintage suits, hanging close together in the fantasy closet of a fashionista’s dreams, with tweed jackets in plaids, pastels, or florals?
Nearby are the historical garments, ranging from the 18th century onward, including dresses from the Civil War era, “just like ones you’d see in an Impressionist painting,” says Valerie Steele, the museum’s director and chief curator.
Steele culled through a half-century’s worth of FIT exhibits to come up with “Exhibitionism,” a show opening Friday to celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary.
From over 200 exhibits, Steele whittled it down to 33, each
with a vignette.
They include “Fairy Tale Fashion,” a 2016 show that included a red riding hood and a glass slipper. An eerie sight is Thierry Mugler’s short black vampire dress from the 2009 show “Gothic: Dark Glamour.”
And if you like corsets, there are waist-cinching examples from the 2000 show exploring “the most controversial garment in fashion history.”
The retrospective also touches on social themes, with highlights from “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” from 2013.
Also represented: “Black Fashion Designers,” a 2017 show featuring more than 60 black designers. A wide, brilliantly colored cape by Duro Olowu, the Nigerian-born designer, is paired with a red-and-black wrap-style gown by Scott Barrie.
Over 50 years, fashion has come to be viewed differently, Steele says — as a social barometer rather than just clothes.
“I think in the past there was much more of a kind of male chauvinist view that fashion was something frivolous and feminine ... just about hemlines,” she says. “Increasingly over time, younger generations came to accept that fashion is significant.”
“It’s a multibillion dollar business,” Steele adds. “It sometimes has a really bad impact on the environment. But it’s also a way that individuals can express themselves.”