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Fashion & Textile History Gallery
May 28, 2019 – November 16, 2019
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Fashion’s world of extremes, where sartorial expression ranges from the simple to the elaborate, is presented in one of The Museum at FIT’s 50th anniversary shows, Minimalism/Maximalism, the first museum exhibition specifically devoted to the historical relationship between minimalist and maximalist aesthetics in fashion. After years of being driven by minimalist fashion (championed by Phoebe Philo), fashion is experiencing a rise in maximalist design … while some fashion trendsetters are already predicting the imminent return of minimalism — again. This has prompted conversations around minimalist vs. maximalist aesthetics across varied disciplines from fashion to interior design. Yet even though they represent opposing principles, the two aesthetics are inextricably linked to one another, as well as to the times in which they occur.
sleeveless floor length bias cut evening dress with train in blush ivory silk charmeuse

Narciso Rodriguez, evening dress, spring 2011, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mr. Narciso Rodriguez. 2010.92.2.

patchwork body suit with extended and exaggerated sleeves in multicolored pink synthetic and natural fabrics

Comme des Garçons, bodysuit, Multidimensional Graffiti collection, Spring 2018, Japan. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase. 2018.2.1

Minimalism/Maximalism examines various expressions of these aesthetics over history and shows how they have served to move fashion forward. The exhibition also explores the sociocultural, technological, and economic factors that contribute to a rise in minimalist or maximalist aesthetics in fashion. Some designers identify almost exclusively with one aesthetic or the other. Calvin Klein was known for fashion minimalism — the idea that “less is more” — an approach that celebrates purity and restraint. Maximalism, on the other hand, emphasizes eclecticism and the beauty in excess. Christian Lacroix and later Alessandro Michele of Gucci have been known for maximalist fashions.
Spanning the 18th century to the present, the exhibition features more than 90 garments, accessories, and textiles exclusively from the permanent collection of The Museum at FIT. The introductory gallery explores the various ways that minimalist and maximalist aesthetics can manifest in fashion. For example, a maximalist ensemble from Rei Kawakubo’s spring 2018 “Multidimensional Graffiti” collection is juxtaposed with a minimalist, bias-cut, evening dress by Narciso Rodriguez from 2011 so that the differences between the two fashion extremes stand in direct contrast.
men's 3-piece court suit in dark green and beige silk velvet embroidered with floral border design

Man’s suit, circa 1785, France. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase, P83.19.10

man's 3-piece green suit with large buttons

Man’s suit, circa 1790-1800, France or England. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase, 2010.98.1

The exhibition’s chronology begins during the 18th century, with the opulence of the Rococo era. Featured is a highly ornamented man’s court suit, a symbol of masculinity and power that projects an ethos of “more is best.” By the close of the 18th century, a new social order began to emerge — especially in France — that favored an egalitarian approach over ostentatious sartorial displays of wealth. In this section, an unadorned man’s green suit emphasizes fashion’s shift toward a natural simplicity, inspired in part by English modes of dress.
men's double breasted frock coat in navy blue

Frock coat, circa 1888, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mrs. Cora Ginsburg. 72.86.6

two-piece gold and cream colored evening dress with bodice and floor length bustle skirt and long train trimmed with chenille and glass seed beads

Charles Frederick Worth, evening dress, circa 1883, France. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Jessie L. Hill, 79.40.5

During the 19th century, minimalist and maximalist fashions began to diverge along gender lines. Men’s dark business suits, sober and sensible in appearance, contrasted with the highly ornamented styles and extreme silhouettes of women’s fashions. To illustrate this difference, this section includes a man’s 1870s frock coat and an elaborate couture evening gown by Charles Frederick Worth.
white cotton denim black stripped jacket and skirt

Suit, circa 1916, USA. The Museum at FIT. Museum Purchase, P85.35.2

cardigan jacket of gold sequins crocheted on yellow chiffon in wave pattern

Evening set, circa 1928, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mrs. John A. Birch, 72.83.2 

World War I disrupted established norms and allowed women to participate more fully in society. As a result, women sought more functional clothing, comparable to men’s tailored styles, as seen in a 1916 woman’s suit made of durable denim. This aesthetic shift is seen in a 1920s jersey dress by Gabrielle Chanel, which exemplifies an emergent minimalist look that married comfort and simplicity with postwar modernity. Maximalist tendencies were prevalent at the same time, however, conveying the dynamism of the decade. Art Deco style, for example, fused the modernist tendencies of the Machine Age with visually stimulating eclecticism. The new freedoms experienced by women in both their clothing and their lifestyles culminated in the excesses and joie de vivre of the flapper, who is represented in the exhibition by a vivid yellow chiffon and gold-sequined evening dress, circa 1928.
The exhibition also addresses the continued interplay between minimalist and maximalist fashion during the following decades with the understated luxury of a Depression-era, bias-cut evening gown and a World War II–era suit designed by Adrian that “registers taste without extravagance.” Post WWII, the fashion cycle again turned toward ornamentation and hyper-femininity. Designers evoked nostalgia for full skirts and cinched waists, as seen in a Hardy Amies evening gown with an elaborate bustle.
one-shoulder assymetrical evening sheath in three shades of silk shantung, rose-beige, taupe, and lavender with asymmetrically draped skirt with back twist forming bustle and swag and large silk roses scattered on back

Hardy Amies, evening dress, circa 1948, England. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Dolores Gray, 2000.88.1

black knit tunic with center front target design

Michael Mott, minidress, circa 1968, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Beauregard Houston Montgomery, 86.12.1

As the exhibition progresses into the second half of the 20th century, it turns to the emergence of minimalism as an art movement across media. Designer Michael Mott echoed the reductive approach of Minimalist art with a 1960s black-and-white mini-dress created for the boutique Paraphernalia. Andre Courrèges’s white Space Age dress alludes to youth culture and optimism for the future; it is characterized by a streamlined silhouette and monochromatic palate typically associated with minimalist fashion. By the end of the decade, the psychedelic movement was promoting a maximalist sensory experience — often through the use of mind-altering drugs — that found expression in fashion, as seen in a maxi-dress by Thea Porter.
black leather futuristic disco-style vest and pants
Larry LeGaspi, man’s vest and pants, 1979, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Valerie LeGaspi, 2000.108.1
long evening dress in pleated silver metallic lamé with futuristic angular styling wide padded shoulders

Thierry Mugler, evening dress, 1979, France. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Clarins Fragrance Group/Thierry Mugler Perfume, 2004.49.4

pale blue ensemble with gold tone studs and blue and clear rhinestones
Versace, ensemble, Fall 1991, Italy. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Hans, Kazuko & Siv Nilsson, 2018.12.40
By the 1980s, ostentatious glamour and fashionable self-confidence had become evident in a variety of extravagant looks. Featured is a gold-studded suit by Gianni Versace, exemplifying the period’s celebration of luxury. The unapologetic hyper-sexuality that came to be associated with 1980s fashion is represented by a man’s glam-inspired leather ensemble by Larry Le Gaspi and a body-conscious silver lamé evening dress by Thierry Mugler.
3-piece ensemble with mushroom brown chiffon and grey wool jacket with blazer styling at hem and cuffs and short underdress of white chiffon printed with repeats of female saints

Undercover, ensemble, spring/summer 2005, Japan. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase, 2008.47.2

royal blue and white striped floor length sleeveless oversized tent dress with deep side pleat at off-center front neckline

Jil Sander (Raf Simons), spring/summer 2011, Germany. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Jil Sander, 2011.40.2

By the 1990s, a sensuous slip-style dress by Calvin Klein and a Prada nylon backpack stood apart from the conspicuous consumption of 1980s fashion. These garments underscore a stark aesthetic with greater emphasis on “invisible luxury.” Fashions by Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela, on the other hand, introduced a variant on the decade’s minimalism, defined by a detached and edgy aesthetic with an artistic flare.
Technology, social media, and globalization have greatly affected fashion during the 21st century, causing the fashion cycle to spin ever faster. The exhibition features designs by Alexander McQueen and Jun Takahashi of Undercover, whose penchants for drama, fantasy, and decadence exemplify a new direction for maximalism that was initiated at the start of the millennium. A look by Raf Simons for Jil Sander’s spring 2011 collection pushes aesthetic boundaries by combining maximalism and minimalism within the same garment.
The exhibition culminates with a look at present-day fashion, which is in the midst of a push toward maximalism, consistent with an overstimulated “anything goes” society. The popularity of Balenciaga’s Triple S sneaker underscores this current trend, in which bigger is always better. Recent minimalist looks by Phoebe Philo and Ellery experiment with proportion and pattern, but looks by Gucci, Richard Quinn, and Comme dés Garçons represent the new maximalism, inviting observers and wearers alike to explore what excess in fashion means in the contemporary consciousness.
Minimalism/Maximalism was organized by Melissa Marra-Alvarez, curator of education and research at The Museum at FIT. 
Minimalism/Maximalism has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT.
Coutre Council