Harold Koda: Collar Scholar

You could say that Harold Koda, chief of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute and a Hawaiian native, is the big kahuna of American fashion curators. Along with curator-in-crime Andrew Bolton, Koda is charged with organizing some of the largest, most exhaustive and best-received costume shows in the world, in the process informing both historical fashion discourse and contemporary designer collections. On the eve of his latest show, Paul Poiret (May 9 - Aug 5, 2007)—the eccentric, Art Deco-era couturier and self-proclaimed "king of fashion" best remembered for freeing early 20th-century women from the corset—Koda lunched with LEE CARTER in the Trustee's Dining Room of the Met. There, topics ranging from Poiret's contrarian ways to the curator's not-so-stuffy theories—jump-in-bed virtuosity, style as a weapon—were the order of the day.

When people think of The Costume Institute, their first thought is usually the party of the year.

Yes, our situation is unusual. We're the only department of the Met supported by the public in this very direct way, and also we're the only department supported by a specific corporate community, the fashion industry. The party of the year was established in 1947 by Eleanor Lambert [the legendary fashion publicist who helped orchestrate The Costume Institute's move to the Met] because at the time, it had been agreed that the museum would house the collection and provide professional staffing, but all of its operations would be subsidized by the fashion community. It was Eleanor's genius to say, well, we can have fun doing this and to create the party of the year. Over time, the fundraising component of the gala has been so successful, especially under the tenure of Anna Wintour, that it's allowed us to slowly accrue a war chest to be able, eventually, to embark on an expansion of the galleries.

That would be fantastic.

We'd like more breathing room for the exhibits and for some of the large objects that we're getting from designers recently, especially Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Hussein [Chalayan]. There was this extraordinarily sculptural gown from Vivienne Westwood in “Anglomania.” When Vivienne walked through the show, she pointed to it and said it was her best piece. It's made out of two components, a fitted understructure with this one long piece of silk satin that she spiraled all around into a knock-your-socks-off ballgown. We never realized how masterful it was because we had never studied its seaming. Our understanding of the gown now changes for the better since it has been informed by the designer’s own insights and motivations. I would say my mission is to honor the work and educate the public, so it is great to have the creators themselves educate me!

What do you want the public to take away?

A new way of looking at clothes. I find that the general public seems to have a much more evolved understanding of costume shows than when Mrs. Vreeland was the creative consultant of the department in the '70s and '80s. They're increasingly educated about historical fashion and even more so about contemporary fashion. Many museums that have been rather lackadaisical about acknowledging their costume and textile collections are realizing the rich opportunities in their holdings now, and reaching out to this broader audience of the fashion hungry.

What will they see when they go to Poiret?

They'll see 50 of his creations and one Chanel, her little black dress. The Poirets date from 1905-1925 and span most of his career, focusing on the modernity, as well as asserting the presence of Denise Poiret, his wife, into our view of his work.

Denise Poiret

How do you see yourself in relation to previous curators?

Two radically different people have inspired my approach, Diana Vreeland and Richard Martin. Mrs. Vreeland knew that to instruct people meant you had to engage their interest and arrest their eye. Richard thought that clothing was as important an aesthetic medium as paint or bronze. To put it crassly, I've learned to take an idea (Richard) and tart it up (Mrs. Vreeland).

In this zeitgeist, would you say The Costume Institute is the best of its kind?

If you mean an encyclopedic collection of high-style Western dress from the 18th century to the present, then yes. If you're talking about historic dress, you have to go to the Victoria & Albert museum in London. They have a very rich permanent collection going back to the 17th century, while they're also addressing the issue of contemporary clothing more aggressively. They're really catching up. We can't rest on our laurels.

What about the French museums?

In terms of fashion collecting, the Galliera and the Louvre in Paris have benefited from being at the epicenter of high style. With the Poiret exhibit, we were able to make some really extraordinary new acquisitions because of a 2005 auction of [wife] Denise Poiret's wardrobe. But the great Poiret collections are at the two French museums. They could do what we've done exclusively with their own collections. We've had to borrow. But they've also suffered from the fact that aristocratic French women either had an in-house seamstress or a dressmaker around the corner who could modify their couture garments, so a lot of stuff was redone. Still, what was not reconfigured to be made chic-to-the-moment has ended up in these two collections, and they are unparalleled. On the other hand, I would argue that for a total survey of the last three centuries, we probably have the most representative of all of the institutions.

What is it like to get into the minds and the personalities of great masters?

I don't know that we do. In the Vreeland years, there started this feeling that the art was inseparable from the artist. There's a very good argument to be made for that, but when we did the Chanel exhibition, we took the biographical aspect out of the show because we thought she wouldn't exist as this mythic personality without the achievement of her work. Her biography is so dicey. She and her friends are all such unreliable sources. People quote Salvador Dalí as saying, "Coco told me she was able to start her business because two men were fighting over her hot little body." Frankly, that just doesn't sound like her.

And Dalí was a known exaggerator.

Exactly. People who wanted a lurid, self-aggrandizing, mythologizing account could find it elsewhere. Then we got hit for that, especially by art critics. They wanted those racy details. But every biography you read and all the old newspaper articles were being manipulated from the '20s on. We all know what fashion press kits are like. People have said Chanel began wearing men's tweeds because she was dating the Duke of Westminster in the mid-‘20s, but we found the tweeds in photos from the teens. It makes a pretty tale, but it wasn't illuminating in term of the facts. The compelling fact was that she had a unique way of thinking about what constituted modernity and chic, turning principles of fashionability from a 19th-century vision to a purely 20th-century ideal. That was her great accomplishment. A demimondaine who becomes one of the greatest careerists of the 20th century, breaking any kind of glass ceiling, makes a great story, but would we remember her at all if her clothing wasn’t as important? I think not. (cont'd)

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