Harold Koda talks to Elettra Wieldemann

As curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Met, it is no surprise that Harold Koda’s knowledge of fashion is encyclopaedic. He is equally enthusiastic about historic couture pieces and contemporary street style. For Koda, who also has a graduate degree from Harvard in landscape architecture, fashion is a complex language that reflects larger social, political and economic dynamics. In the spring, he met Elettra Wiedemann at the Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” exhibition, where they discussed the dresses and paintings on show and the connections between them, touching on how the French industrial revolution affected clothes and style, creating notions of “leisure time” and “leisure space” that resonate to this day.

Elettra Wiedemann I was wondering, what’s the first thing you noticed about the dresses?
Harold Koda Well, for me, what’s interesting is what survives and what doesn’t. When we’re trying to put together selections for the paintings curator, so many of the images which also appear in fashion plates, similar dresses, don’t survive. So the first thing that comes to mind is that maybe these were extraordinary dresses. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. They were just dresses that existed, that were popularly embraced. Once the styles changed they might be pulled apart: in the 1860s there was enough fabric that you could reconstitute something else, make a jacket out of the skirt, if the textile was still fashionable. People always say: “My God, the waists are so small”, but usually the small things are the ones that survive. If you’re a larger size, it’s possible to pass it down to someone else and cut it down. If something is very, very small, it can’t be reinterpreted for another person. Things like the shoes, they’re tiny, but not all women had tiny feet.

EW My answer was much more lowbrow! I thought it had to do with the pre-industrial food system, that people weren’t growing as much because they weren’t fed as well?
HK No, in fact, in the 18th century, there was already a larger population expansion, precisely because there were larger food resources, with the slow progress of industrialisation, even in terms of farm equipment, seeding practice, all that stuff. As that was happening, you were getting more and more middle-class people – so people weren’t necessarily tiny. What’s interesting is this very clever thing that happens in the 1860s, which is the waistline is raised to the lower rib cage, and if you think about where you get fat, it’s below that point. It also allows you to create the sense of a long, more voluminous lower body, so it makes your torso seem much smaller.

EW Do you know where the hoop skirt originated? Why did this style endure for so long?
HK In the 19th century there is all this technical innovation at all levels of production. Until the 1850s, the way you increased the volume of your skirt was either corded petticoats, where you had trapunto rope-like tiers so they held themselves out; or you wore layers of very starched ruffled under-petticoats. No matter how light it is, especially if it’s starched cotton, it’s still cumbersome and heavy. And so to expand that volume even further, someone made the innovation of a hoop. In fashion lore, it’s Charles Frederick Worth. But in fact it’s more likely that he had someone come up with the mechanism to create a very light, expansive silhouette. Once that happens, a lot of engineers go into designing hoops of varying sizes and 
material and presenting them at international expositions. Frequently you’ll find a box and it says: “Grand Prix at the Exposition of 1867”, or something like that.

EW Another thing I noticed is that through the 1860s to 1890s, women’s fashion started changing a lot. But men’s stayed pretty stagnant. Even to this day, I would say, there is a huge difference between how women used to dress then and now, and men are… pretty much the same. Why do you think that is?
HK Women’s clothing is always more emphatically subject to trend. The one thing that happens with men is, no matter what culture, what period, especially in the upper classes, they have to be more mobile, more physically active, that’s their role. Women on the other hand, upper-class women, are relegated to a less physical, leisure role, so they can be encumbered. Men have to go to court, they have businesses, they’re expected to go hunting. Women weren’t required to. Their role allowed for them to be more decorative.

EW And certainly women’s roles have changed more dramatically in the last hundred years than men’s...
HK Yes. But still, now fashion is so eclectic and heterogeneous that you don’t see these really strong gender typologies – men look this way, women that way. I’m seeing young guys on the streets with skirts. Which I’ve never seen before. It’s been proposed so many times, and for the first time I actually see men who are wearing a skirt over tights or trousers. I mean beyond Marc Jacobs. It’s rare, but it suggests that we’re at a moment where there are all these individual expression of dress. But we’re still on some level subjecting ourselves to certain kinds of conventions. Clothing has codes. Going back to the exhibition, one sees in Monet’s “Luncheon on the Grass”, the people are not aristocrats, they’re not privileged, but the woman is wearing a white dress. In the past that would have been considered an incredible luxury because it’s about maintenance: how do you keep it white? But all these things had happened in the late 18th to mid-19th century that allowed middle-class people to have certain things that would’ve probably been precluded at an earlier time. You see middle-class people at their leisure, in a public park. An English-style park. And – this is where my interest in landscape comes in – you have to ask, why aren’t they in the Tuileries Gardens? They’ve chosen to be in an al fresco that suggests nature – wild, unkept nature. In fact, it’s cultivated nature that’s meant to look like the landscape à l’anglaise, which was becoming a continental style. One can have very prosaic reasons for that happening: it’s harder to maintain the French style, hordes of gardeners to clip it and constantly change the beds. But it’s interesting that it occurs at the same time as industrialisation. As many agrarian workers are made redundant because of machines taking their place in the fields, they become more and more involved in manufacturing and concentrated in these urban centres. At the same time, you have someone like Rousseau writing about the intrinsic good of nature and innocence; there’s a philosophy percolating through this whole trajectory of industrialisation that says: “Oh no, but we have to preserve nature as it is because that’s good for you.” What’s interesting about the Impressionists is, when you look at what the academic painters are doing, they’re also painting fashion, but they’re using renowned models, professional models. What the Impressionists are doing is more like Instagramming. They’re doing pictorial snapshots of their own life. It’s their friends. In fact, when you look from that painting, right next to it you see characters in that painting wearing the same clothes in the other painting, because these are just – it’s the fabric of their life.

EW Is it fair to say that there are parallels between the social media revolution of our time and what’s happening in this era, in the sense that they are ordinary people and ordinary activities elevated to high art?
HK Yes, though when you have a handful of artists in Paris who are avant-gardist, it’s different from photographing your dinner and sending it to your friends! (Laughs.) There’s something about documenting what are considered the mundane aspects of your life that in a way celebrates that life, which really is the same impulse. What’s different with what’s happening now is that something we record on our own and share with friends can be broadcast in a way that is absolutely uncontrolled and huge. You have to understand that at the time these painters had their salons, they’d look at each other’s paintings and an elite would see them, but it’s not the same kind of immediate sharing of an idea or a narrative about yourself that you have now. In terms of fashion, what is similar is that these changes could happen so quickly because technological advances allowed for the production of the printed image on a wide scale. You had fashion publications, newspapers that could do really incredible engravings to describe a new style and disseminate a trend very quickly. Before that it was very much restricted and aristocratic. So suddenly you have a popular way of dispensing this kind of imagery. What’s happened recently that I think is a similar kind of phenomenon is fashion bloggers. You can have someone who is not a professional, an engaged amateur, being able to edit the world and then broadcast that. §

  • Harold Koda Talks to Elettra Wieldemann