On ViewMetropolitan Museum Of Art
A Line of Beauty
May 5–July 16, 2023
The first object on view in Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, the newest exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, is a desk. The desk is a replica of the one which served legendary fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld throughout his life, and it buckles under the weight of artist monographs, history books, worn-down oil pastels, fabric samples, and goblets of Diet Coke. Just behind this tableau are Lagerfeld’s dressing gown and slippers, pressed flat, meticulously polished, and hung behind glass like clerical robes.
Is the Lagerfeld found within A Line of Beauty a man, content amongst cans of half-drunk soda, or is he a god, elevated to higher standards of aesthetic perfection? The Costume Institute seems unable to make up its mind on this matter. Lagerfeld is a tricky subject, seeing as he spent much of his sixty-five-year-long career making designs that transformed him from a humble designer into an international celebrity and then passing racist, sexist, fatphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise hateful comments towards the general public who had given him this platform.
Uncertain whether one can still separate the art from the artist in 2023, the Costume Institute has decided instead to focus on the artist’s hands, which are inarguably the most faultless aspect of Lagerfeld’s persona. A Line of Beauty is insistent that what made Lagerfeld a true talent was his masterful ability to sketch looks that would eventually become garments. This feels a bit like holding a retrospective for a well-regarded architect and emphasizing how talented they were at making blueprints—a truth, undoubtedly, but one rather inconsequential in the face of the finished product.
Throughout the exhibit, texts work to connect the lines of Lagerfeld’s hands to William Hogarth’s theory of the “line of beauty,” a continuation of the Costume Institute’s dedication to combining clothing with some of the more obscure elements of popular literature and philosophy. This worked to great success in 2019’s Camp: Notes on Fashion, which cemented one of Susan Sontag’s essays into present-day vernacular, but flopped in 2020’s About Time: Fashion and Duration in which references to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando were so heavily veiled that even an expert eye might have missed them completely.
In A Line of Beauty, Hogarth’s theory of a serpentine line of divine beauty that runs counter to straight lines of earthly practicality is applied as a framework through which to understand the duelling themes of Lagerfeld’s designs (Masculine and Feminine lines, Military and Romantic lines, and Canonical and Countercultural lines rank among some of the clearest demonstrations of these dualities). At times, these lines take turns that betray this layout, leaving a viewer to wonder what the precise difference is between a “Floral line” and an “Embellished line” and whether or not these specificities serve a better understanding of either Hogarth or Lagerfeld.
Hogarth aside, A Line of Beauty contains beauty in spades. There are examples of couture craftsmanship (decadent skirts of handmade pink lace, tiny rosettes crafted from mink fur, and sequins that mimic armour) that cause crowds to move with slow reverence. Small sketches of these pieces are often displayed on the floor beside the completed works, further disproving the Costume Institute’s theory of Lagerfeld’s talent as a draughtsman. His clothing is what draws the eye—and the hordes of dedicated fans.
The physicality of Lagerfeld’s designs raises yet another tricky issue: that of craftsmanship. The first section of the exhibition offers video tributes to Lagerfeld’s most trusted petites mains, highly skilled seamstresses who are tasked with translating a couturier’s fanciful visions into wearable reality. It is a delight to see these women represented amongst their work, but in a museum that contains masterpieces from the workshops of Caravaggio and Jeff Koons without the same sort of explanation, the effect feels a bit muddled. What is the viewer meant to make of Lagerfeld in light of this information? And what to make of the couture system which predates Lagerfeld by a century?
Curiously absent from the exhibition is any sort of clear biography of Lagerfeld. His works for three major fashion houses (Chanel, Fendi, and Chloe) and his own eponymous line are continually shown side-by-side with hardly any indication as to their different provenances. The impulse here is understandable—to display Lagerfeld’s garments as something wholly his own rather than a product of various brands—but what is lost here is another aspect of his genius: his ability to take a fading historical house and shake it into something new and desirable.
Lagerfeld’s branding acumen and sardonic humour rescued Chanel from the dusty obscurity that befell other 1920s couturiers. He transformed the house’s logo into perhaps the most widely recognized fashionable symbol worldwide. This is, arguably, his most lasting contribution to today’s fashion industry, which thrives on the delicate balance of mass-market appeal and luxury sensibility that Lagerfeld perfected. This balance appeared in Lagerfeld’s Chanel-branded surfboards and furry Fendi keychains, but signature sartorial quips like these have been omitted in favour of making room for yet more beautiful dresses.
In its attempts to wipe clean the more unsavoury aspects of his character, the Costume Institute has inadvertently robbed Lagerfeld of so much of what also made him great. Lagerfeld himself told Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge, that his clothing did not belong in a museum. Like many of Lagerfeld’s comments, this is best ignored, as the clothes in A Line of Beauty are undoubtedly worthy of institutional attention. It’s Lagerfeld’s character that may not be. Yet when the beauty laid out so neatly within the exhibition fades from memory, it will be Lagerfeld’s character and the nebulous, serpentine ways it still permeates the fashion industry that remain. That line is harder to follow.