The "Rock Style" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute will undoubtedly be one of the institution's most successful endeavors. Even on a recent rainy Tuesday morning, throngs of admirers wandered through the basement exhibit space. Children on a field trip stared, transfixed, at garments worn by modern-day icons Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Marilyn Manson and Tori Amos.
For those with a fascination for the accouterments of rock-and-roll, the exhibit, which runs through March 19, is a winner. It's like a trip through the Hard Rock Cafe without the smell of burgers wafting from the kitchen.
In fact, several pieces in the exhibit, such as a floral silk shirt and black satin pants worn by Jimi Hendrix, are on loan from Hard Rock Cafe International. Other items hail from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, as well as from the private collections of the performers themselves.
There are spectacular examples of both rock chic and kitsch: Elvis Presley's white jumpsuit studded with semiprecious stones, Grace Jones's sculpted fiberglass breastplate, the Beatles' marching band uniforms from the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," John Sebastian's tie-dyed velvet cape, Bootsy Collins's tie-dyed leather coat.
But other than noting the provenance of the articles and detailing when and where they were worn--a concert tour, a video, an album cover--there is little that gives the observer an understanding of what story these particular garments tell.
And that is too bad, because there is much that can be said and debated about the complicated and influential relationship between music and fashion.
The exhibit was conceived by the Costume Institute's late curator Richard Martin, who died in November of cancer. Martin had a gift for bridging the distance between an academic's examination of fashion's place in the culture and a fan's attraction to the pure style and beauty of clothes. His concept of "Rock Style" was filled with potential.
Because of his illness, the curatorial tasks were ultimately shared by the Costume Institute and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In many ways, the exhibit feels more suited to a hall of fame than to the Met. There is no doubt why a sequined tuxedo worn by James Brown might be part of a celebration of the highlights of popular music. But why should it be at the Costume Institute?
When fashion enters the exhibition halls of the Met, there is an assumption that it will be held to the same high standards as other objets d'art: How does it reflect the culture and the people of its time? What does it say about those who created it? What lies beyond the beauty or the shock?
The exhibit fails to answer those questions. Guest curator Myra Walker, however, does. One wishes that every visitor would have the benefit of her insight.
For example, a black and white fur coat and hat owned by Elvis Presley are two of the more interesting pieces in the collection. Presley bought them in 1974 from Lansky Bros. in Memphis. The shop, on Main Street, was a favorite of African American dandies, Walker says, noting that Presley emulated black style not only in his onstage persona but also in his personal wardrobe.
One wishes that the exhibit labels gave more details about the Mamas and the Papas and how their style was influenced by a British sensibility that, in turn, had been informed by Indian immigrants to England.
Walker reveals that information, as well as the fact that the pale pink evening gowns worn by the Supremes on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1966 were purchased off the rack from Saks Fifth Avenue. It turns out that the '60s version of rock glamour was far more accessible than the couture style of today. It genuinely reflected the look of the moment and the tastes of real consumers rather than the flamboyant fantasies of a designer on commission.
The exhibit makes no mention of the important role that stylists have come to play in bridging the gap between performer and designer. Do the clothes that performers wear today truly reflect their tastes--as did the vintage shop purchases by Janis Joplin--or are they a reflection of the fashion designer's point of view? Or the stylists'?
There is no hint that the gold corset designed by Jean- Paul Gaultier for Madonna launched an entire fashion movement of underwear as outerwear and transformed the nature of modesty and appropriateness.
The exhibit does not examine how issues of racial stereotyping influenced the Motown music machine and led Berry Gordy Jr. to insist that his performers graduate from a makeshift finishing school that offered lessons in etiquette, comportment and, of course, dress. A mention of "ghetto fabulous"--an ostentatious style that mocks the establishment--would help make sense of Salt-N-Pepa's Dolce & Gabbana rhinestone tuxedo and Sean "Puffy" Combs's black leather suit.
"Rock Style," which was sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A. Inc., is an exhibit filled with boldface names and striking garments that conjure memorable images from the history of rock, rhythm and blues and hip-hop. But in the midst of the who, when and where, one can't help but long for a thoughtful explanation of why.