Fashion & Beauty

Fabrics of Our Lives

IN CASE YOU missed NYC’s Metropolitan Museum’s superb jewelry exhibit (examining how cultures incorporate jewelry and the power of adornment), you’ve still got time to catch a fascinating show—for history and fashion lovers—at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).

“Fabric in Fashion” looks at textiles in Western women’s high fashion over the past 250 years in two ways: the mechanics of textiles (how they work on the body) and the cultural history of the four most prevalent fibers—silk, cotton, wool and synthetics. Raise your hand if you think about what materials you wear on our bodies. Newsflash: Fabric is essential to creating silhouette and aesthetics. Fibers can be manipulated to create diaphanous cottons and wools or sculptural silks. Synthetics can look sleek and futuristic or imitate natural fibers.

Elizabeth Way, assistant curator of costume at The Museum at FIT, and curator of  this exhibit, aimed to encourage people to take a closer look at materials. She points to a “silver muslin” gown from about 1795 (see the gallery above). “The dress was likely sewn in the US, but the cotton fabric comes from India, probably Bengal, which was a center of luxury muslin weaving at the time. This fabric is finely woven and embroidered with real silver wire. The sleeves are made from silk. This dress’s silhouette shows the transition to the high-waist Empire style that was led by French high fashion.  This one beautiful dress tells a story that spans from Asia to Europe to the United States.”

Silk was the ultimate luxury fiber; it was also the foundation of the French textile industry in Lyon, which helped Paris become the world’s fashion capital. Wool financed the growth of the British economy, beginning in the Middle Ages. Wool’s ability to contour with heat and moisture led to the Western fashion for tailored clothing. When, by the late nineteenth century, cotton became an everyday fabric, the effects ranged from disenfranchisement and oppression in India to slavery in the United States. Rayon was the first manmade fiber, marketed as an alternative to silk during the early twentieth century. Then came nylon (1935) and polyester (1941). Synthetics expanded the variety, function, and availability of textiles, although they also led to fashion’s pollution of the environment.

New fabrics are constantly in the pipeline, according to Way. Would you believe synthetic spider’s silk, pineapple fibers and milk proteins? For the present I’m taking to heart the curator’s wise purchasing advice: “We live in a world that is inundated with stuff of all kinds; by looking at fabric’s artistry, history and cultural significance, we can all be more appreciative and selective of the things we buy.”

The Museum at FIT is located on Seventh Avenue at 27th Street. “Fabric in Fashion” will run until May 4, 2019. Admission is free. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, noon to 8pm,  Saturday 10am to 5pm. Closed Sunday and Monday.


—Janet Kelly

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