The Met Gala’s “Sleeping Beauties” 2024 Exhibition Spotlights Conservators

Some Met Gala themes are easier to digest than others. Karl Lagerfeld? Simple, an ode to the late German designer. Heavenly Bodies? An exploration of the intersection of religion and fashion. Punk? A celebration of the subculture and its unprecedented influence on style. This year, though, the theme—“Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion”—is a bit more esoteric. The initial announcement had many dreaming of princess gowns, but it was quickly revealed that Disney would have no part in the Gala or exhibition. Instead, “Sleeping Beauties” is a celebration of the past, of fashion’s role as a time capsule, and the fragility of artifacts, along with the processes necessary to maintain these historic pieces. That’s where the conservators come in—the custodians of museum-grade objects, often working behind the scenes, coming out at night to take stock of the galleries’s contents once the public is gone for the day. It’s not often these arbiters of fashion artifacts are placed in the spotlight—until now.

“Sometimes I think conservation is best when it’s invisible,” says Beth Szuhay, head of textile conservation of costume and textile arts for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “That way, you’re able to appreciate the beauty of the costume.” “Sleeping Beauties,” however, will shed light on a practice crucial to the realization of exhibitions like the upcoming Costume Institute’s display, or “Fashioning San Francisco”, the Bay Area-focused fashion showcase on view at the city’s de Young Museum.

Two “Butterfly” ball gowns designed by Charles James in 1955, both of which will be on view as part of the “Sleeping Beauties” exhibition.

Photography © Nick Knight, 2024. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Photography © Nick Knight, 2024. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The goal of “Sleeping Beauties” is not only to present historic dresses for the public’s viewing, but to bring each piece to life so “future generations appreciate how it was worn, what it looked like on the body, and how it moved,” the Costume Institute’s head curator, Andrew Bolton, told Vogue. To do so, The Met will install AI and CGI modalities so museumgoers can smell, hear, and immerse themselves in what these antique gowns looked like in their prime. But before all that comes the much less glamorous process of going through a good ol’ checklist.

“At the beginning of exhibition planning, the curator will let conservation know of the pieces they’re considering putting up,” Szuhay explains. That list starts out pretty long; some of the desired pieces in the museum’s archives will end up not being fit for display. It’s a strategic game, determining how to tell the desired story with the resources provided: if dresses will take over 300 hours of restoration apiece, decisions are made quickly to make the most of the conservators’s time.

Of course “Fashioning” and “Sleeping Beauties” are two different exhibitions. Laura L. Camerlengo, curator in charge of costumes and textile arts at FAMSF, wanted every dress on the mannequin for “Fashioning.” “I do think, for interpretation and understanding, that’s the most legible way to read and understand a garment,” Camerlengo told W back in January 2024. Thanks to gravity, however, mannequin display is much more of a feat than laying a piece flat. “There have been pieces in our collection so fragile that they would need to be displayed flat,” says Szuhay. So, some of FAMSF’s older pieces were immediately removed as possibilities from the exhibition list. On the contrary, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made displaying dresses in a flat lay a hallmark of their exhibition. Guests will enter the exhibition space expecting gowns sprawled out in glass cases. Of course, as Szuhay explains, “displaying a dress flat takes up a lot more space in the gallery,” a benefit the de Young does not share with The Met, which boasts the largest floor area of any museum in the world.

The “Tulipes Hollandaises” evening cloak by Charles Frederick Worth, created in 1889 for House of Worth, which will be on display as part of the “Sleeping Beauties” show.

Photography © Nick Knight, 2024. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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But no matter how these fragile pieces are displayed, there’s still a risk of furthering their decay beyond the point of restoration—another consideration for both The Met and the de Young when planning their respective exhibitions. The alternative, that the pieces spend an eternity in storage, seems just as bleak. Bolton has been outspoken on his opinion on this issue, landing on the side of display over complete conservation.

Szuhay, for the most part, agrees, though she hesitates to make a generalized statement about all the pieces in FAMSF’s collection. “You have to make that decision: do we want [a dress] to have its moment in the sun? Or is the goal to preserve it for preservation’s sake?” she says. “We want our pieces to get out there. We want the public to see them.” For many of the pieces in “Fashioning,” this will likely be their one chance to shine. When the exhibition closes its doors, the conservation team will take stock of the garments and decide if, say, the Callot Sœurs dresses currently on display can be conserved for another exhibition in the future.

Even when the show is mounted and the doors have opened, though, the work is not yet done. At the de Young, Szuhay and her team work hard to make sure the dresses stay in good condition throughout the months-long display. “We do pest and environmental monitoring,” she says. “This has been an incredibly popular exhibition, so it gets dusty.”

Now, halfway through the show’s tenure (“Fashioning” opened in late January and is on view until August 11th), Szuhay and her team must switch out some of the more delicate pieces in what is called a rotation. A Callot Sœurs will replace a Callot Sœurs—and luckily, the de Young has an archive to support this necessary step. It’s still unclear whether The Met plans to engage in a rotation between “Sleeping Beauties’” opening on May 2nd and its closing on September 2nd. For some of pieces featured in the Costume Institute show, the exhibition’s effects on the clothing is exactly the point. While it’s not an antique, a grass-seeded Loewe coat designed by Jonathan Anderson will grow and die over the course of the show’s five months.

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Two of the Callot Sœurs in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s archives.

Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

For all their similarities in the realm of conservation, the de Young and The Met are attempting to do very different things with their respective exhibitions. The Met is placing conservation in the conversation with “Sleeping Beauties,” while “Fashioning” is not. Camerlengo’s choice to display on mannequins relates back to the ultimate purpose of “Fashioning,” which is just as much about the women in San Francisco as it is about the clothes. “We’re trying to not only show beautiful designs by incredible designers, but also tell the story of the women who donated the pieces to our museum,” says Szuhay. As she stated, sometimes conservation succeeds most when it’s invisible, and in “Fashioning” it most definitely is. “We wanted to show [the dresses] as beautiful and pristine as possible. It’s a totally different story to say, ‘Here’s this wonderful dress that was made in 1910. But it was made with weighted silk, and now it looks like a cat has taken its nails down through the fabric.’”

Still, there is no right or wrong way to mount a fashion exhibition. It is, after all, a celebration of beauty, art, glamorous nights in ball gowns, suits, and sets. But “Sleeping Beauties” is a nice reminder that these shows don’t just appear overnight. While this year’s Costume Institute exhibition is about antique sartorial darlings, it’s equally about the less glamorous caretakers of those pieces.

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