On May 5 The Metropolitan Museum of Art held its annual star-studded Costume Institute Gala, complete with red carpet and paparazzi, timed to coincide with the opening of a new fashion exhibition about a legendary couturier: Charles James: Beyond Fashion. But possibly the first gallery exhibit of James’s work opened 33 years ago at MoMA PS1, part of the museum’s fascinating fashion history that is often overlooked among the wealth of other exhibitions the institution staged over four decades of existence.
In 1978, seeking ways to fully utilize the P.S.1 school building—first occupied two years earlier and called the Institute for Art and Urban Resources —Director Alanna Heiss and other staff devised a seasonal program of “multidisciplinary” exhibitions. These were small shows by freelance curators devoted separately to architecture, dance, performance, poetry, video, film, photography, and yes, even fashion. The fashion exhibitions were curated by the stylist and bon vivant Hollywood di Russo, and most shows focused on young, up-and-coming designers like Ronald Kolodzie, Julio, Willi Smith, Gary Cathey, Yeohlee Teng, and Valborg Fletre Linn.
As the fourth fashion exhibition at P.S.1, in 1981 di Russo presented Homer Layne’s Collection of Charles James Fashions. Homer Layne had interned with the designer while a student at Pratt and remained his assistant until James’s death in 1978, thereafter acting as steward of James’s archive (donated to the Met last year). Layne worked closely with di Russo on the show at P.S.1, which featured 26 dresses and other garments and displayed numerous original drawings. The show also included video interviews with James conducted by R. Couri Hay and Anton Perich. James’s decades-spanning fashion was shown at the same time as exhibitions by artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Robert Longo, Nancy Grossman, and Lawrence Weiner. Haute couture rubbed shoulders with cutting-edge art in crowded school halls.
The press took notice of the novelty of fashion exhibitions in a contemporary art space. The New York Post described di Russo as “a kind of unpaid Diana Vreeland, mounting shows and exhibitions of talented, soon-to-be stars of the fashion world.” The New York Times noted of the James show that “women may not want to dress that way today, but the craftsmanship of those clothes, with their intricate darts and gaudets, will make the viewer see how much freer clothing has become in 30 years and realize just how much skill has been lost in the move toward a total sportswear sensibility.” And even in 1981, the Met’s spring gala was a big deal: GQ magazine quoted di Russo saying “so here we are in Long Island City, trying to tell people that they don’t have to experience fashion at $500 a night, as they do at the Metropolitan Museum’s big opening charity bashes. We’re offering it at $1.20, the price of a round trip on the subway!”
Hollywood di Russo curated her last fashion show at P.S.1 in January 1985 and the museum discontinued its formal multidisciplinary program by the end of the 1980s in favor of a looser exhibition schedule. Nowadays a round-trip subway fare is more expensive than $1.20, but MoMA PS1 is still a bargain to visit. And you can learn more about its history in the MoMA Archives for free, just by making an appointment. See you there!
Further information on the history of MoMA PS1 can be found on the Archives website. The MoMA PS1 Archives can be consulted by appointment at the MoMA Archives reading room at MoMA QNS; open Mondays, 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Appointments can be made through the Archives contact form.
Funding for the processing and creation of a finding aid for the MoMA PS1 Archives was generously provided by the Leon Levy Foundation.