The Met Museum’s new ‘Sleeping Beauties’ fashion exhibit is a wonderland for the senses

You can actually smell clothes at the new fashion show.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
A red rose in a case and red dresses.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When an artist creates a painting, their intention is for us to look at it. Not to listen or smell or, god forbid, touch it. But when a designer makes a piece of clothing, the intention is different, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Director Max Hollein says. Yes, the outfit is meant to be admired visually, but it’s also expected to be touched by the wearer who imbues the piece with their own scent and creates sound as the garment moves on their body.

Though the latest exhibit from the Met's Costume Institute mounts dresses upon the museum's walls, it doesn't treat them as stagnant, framed objects. Instead, "Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion" takes a multi-sensory approach allowing visitors to smell, touch, and hear the clothing, not just look at it. With more than 200 garments from the 1600s to today, the exhibition is the largest and most ambitious in the Costume Institute's history in terms of range and scope.

Here are six things to expect from the exhibit, which runs May 10-September 2 after The Costume Institute Benefit (a.k.a. The Met Gala) tonight.

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A red dress in a case.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1. New life for 'sleeping beauties'

The Costume Institute at the Met maintains a collection of 33,000 garments, but some are so fragile, they can’t even be put on a mannequin for display. Instead, these pieces, called “sleeping beauties,” lie flat beneath panes of glass. In the exhibition, the Met found ways to reanimate them.

For example, an ornate 1887 ball gown with glittering beadwork and pale green satin has deteriorated so much that it cannot be restored. However, a video animation reimagines what the dress would have looked like on a woman dancing through a ballroom.

Butterfly-inspired dresses.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Butterfly-inspired dresses.

2. A natural twist

Nature serves as a throughline in the exhibition, showcasing poppies, roses, birds, and insects as inspirations for designers. 

“In many ways, nature serves as the ultimate metaphor for fashion with rebirth, renewal, and simplicity but also its ephemerality,” The Costume Institute’s Curator Andrew Bolton explained. 

Garments self-destruct and become fragile, much like the processes we see in the natural world. But the exhibit resuscitates their stories. 

Taking a fresh approach to fashion’s overlapping ethos with nature, don’t miss the “grass coat” by LOEWE’s creative director Jonathan Anderson. The navy blue wool coat decorated with real oat, rye, and wheatgrass is now alive, but it will slowly die over the course of the exhibition. An accompanying timelapse video shows the complete cycle from germination to death as a way to explore fashion’s ephemerality.

A collection of clothing with tubes and their smells.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

3. Sniffable surprises

If you’ve ever borrowed a hoodie from a boyfriend or a jacket from a relative, then you inherently know that clothing holds smells that are unique to the wearer. We tend not to think about those smells when it comes to museum garments, but these flaunted fashions also hold aromas, sometimes dating back decades.

To reawaken these clothes through smell, the team from Sissel Tolaas Studio extracted scent molecules from the fabrics, then used a microfilter to trap the air and moisture. Eventually, they analyzed the molecules to identify and replicate the smells. Some of the smells you’ll find include odors found in tobacco, bitter drinks, high-end skin products, roses, polluted environments, and toothpaste. The technology is so advanced, that it even determined aromas associated with human hair and human skin that had been in contact with a dog. 

In several installations, you'll sniff the aromas through tubing, while in another you can gently rub the wall to release the aroma, as if the wall is human skin.

A Dior dress, 3D printed.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4. A chance to touch the famed Miss Dior dress

The Met’s typically a ’no-touch’ kind of place, but you’ll get a chance to experience the feeling of Christian Dior’s famed Miss Dior dress. A 3D-printed plastic replica of the floral dress offers a chance to feel the shape of the flowers. Visitors are also welcome to touch the black patterned wallpaper behind the replica, which was created from the flowers embroidered on Raf Simons’s interpretation of the “Miss Dior” dress.

A collection of poppy dresses.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

5. Stirring audio installations 

The ears don't get much love at a typical fashion exhibit. Maybe you'll hear some quiet music in the background, but it's certainly not a focal point. Curators here, however, thought about how audio components could complement the visual elements. 

In a display featuring poppies in fashion, from Isaac Mizrahi's "Exploded Poppy" dress to Viktor & Rolf's multi-hued poppy piece, a recording of the 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields" plays through speakers. The poem, read by Morgan Spector, praises the courage and mourns the sacrifice of soldiers who died on the Western Front during World War I.

In another room exploring Romantic artists' fascination with the mermaid, you'll learn about how fashion designers created glittering pieces that created sounds like gentle waves.

A Depression-era wedding gown displayed on a staircase.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

6. A dazzling Depression-era wedding gown with a modern twist

You may not know the name Natalie Potter now, but if you were alive in the 1930s, you likely would have. This New York socialite’s wedding to financier William Conkling Ladd on December 4, 1930, was such a glamorous affair that the bride’s wedding photo was published in Harper’s Bazaar.

The dress was at once dramatic with its cathedral-length train, yet devoid of beading or other embellishments due to the Depression-era sentimentality. Its design draws upon the waistless, androgynous silhouette of the 1920s and the more feminine aesthetic of the 1930s.

To bring to life Potter's wedding, the Met worked with OpenAI (the creators of Chat GPT) to build an interactive platform where you chat with Potter through AI. You can ask her questions about her wedding, her outfit, and her life in the 1930s — putting a very 2024 spin on a 94-year-old dress.

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