MFA Boston Explores Fashion’s Significance in a Show That’s Less Political Than It Is Playful

"Dress Up" showcases fashion's creative self-expression but misses several opportunities to dig deeper into why we wear the things we do.

‘Dress Up’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, looks at fashion through many lenses. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Playing dress up is often regarded as a childhood pastime—one we’re meant to leave behind as we grow up. But in reality, we never stop playing the game. Every time we dress ourselves, as we choose how we will visually present who we are to the world, we are playing dress up. Clothes—and the way we accessorize them—are powerful tools for conveying personality and cultivating individuality, and can also demonstrate political stances or signify status.

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Dressing up, in all its complexity, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, titled “Dress Up,” which features 100 pieces of 20th- and 21st-century clothing, jewelry and accessories, plus photographs and illustrations, from the museum’s collection. Fashion, frivolous? Absolutely not, the show attempts to demonstrate as it explores both the ways we choose to adorn ourselves and the whys.

The focus of “Dress Up” is not a specific designer or artist, or even a few, and its broad scope contributes to its success in making the case for the universality of dressing up. Many designers are represented, and by styling mannequins with a dress by one and a necklace by another, for instance, the curators contribute to the thesis that our sartorial choices are communicative and individual: styling looks is about uniquely combining differences to create a whole.

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There’s also a melding of time at work here, as pieces from different artists, designers and brands are combined to make something more modern. The exhibition includes an Original Trucker Jacket (2023) by Levi’s, adorned with World War II-era brooches that showed support at home for the overseas war effort. Yes, putting pieces like a U.S. Navy figural brooch (1940-1949), Saxophone brooch (1939-1945) and Wings of Victory Brooch (1942-1945) on a 2023 denim jacket demonstrates how vintage articles can be styled in modern ways, but the implication seems to be there’s more to unpack here. We use clothing and accessories to make statements, and sometimes juxtaposition can make our messaging clearer, perhaps?

A woman in a red dress with a matching glittery mask poses on a catwalk
Red EMME Studio Ensemble, Vest 2022, Korina Emmerich (Born 1986); Cotton ribbon, handwoven; Hilsinger Janson Fund for Native American Art. © Emmerich / Photography: Red Works /Courtesy MFA Boston

There’s a nod to identity politics in a garment by Korina Emmerich, a Native American designer whose displayed ensemble was worn during an annual red dress installation for The National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. Another one of her frocks, the wall text explains, was worn by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous United States Cabinet member, when she posed for the August 2021 cover of InStyle. But if the choice to call attention to the politics of clothing was a good idea, it’s also one not as well-executed as it could be.

Instead, the exhibition is big on referencing pop culture and famous figures, which add color to an already (literally and figuratively) colorful exhibition. Cate Blanchett’s iconic 1999 Oscars dress from designer John Galliano is here, as are two pairs of Manolo Blahniks made famous by Sex and the City: Campari Patent Mary Jane Pumps (2007) and Hangisi, Blue Satin Jewel Buckle Pumps (2023). In Season 4, Carrie famously tours the Vogue closets and stumbles upon the Manolo Blahnik patent leather Mary Janes, exclaiming that she thought “these were an urban shoe myth!” And in the first Sex and the City movie, Carrie’s longtime love interest Mr. Big proposes with a blue satin Hangisi instead of an engagement ring.

The evening dress by John Galliano worn by Cate Blanchett in 1999; Silk knit, silk embroidery, tulle; Gift of Judith Hurwitz Krupp. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The wall text reads, “Thanks to costume designer Patricia Field, Manolo Blahnik became a household name after Carrie Bradshaw—played by Sarah Jessica Parker—obsessed over them in the HBO original series Sex and the City.There’s certainly a point to be made about how pop culture influences the way we dress, and the impact that featuring a designer in a TV show or film can have on that designer’s success. Beyond the Sex and the City credit, there are photographs of dressed-up Madonna and Grace Kelly; several dresses worn by Donna Summer throughout her career; and an homage to the little black dress, initially conceptualized by Coco Chanel in 1926 and made a staple by pop culture in the century since.

Fancifully embroidered high heel booties with open toes
Oliver Rousteing for Pierre Balmain shoes with double-headed eagle, 2012; Leather, suede and embroidered beads and studs. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Toward the end, “Dress Up” references how shopping has changed in the Internet age. This would have been the moment to acknowledge the global challenges created by fast fashion and rampant consumerism, but the exhibition doesn’t go there, in the same way it only half-heartedly acknowledges the politics of fashion without delivering much in the way of insights.

Overall, the exhibition is a success. Kate Spade famously said, “Playing dress up begins at five and never truly ends” and “Dress Up” does much to prove that sentiment right, with a collection of interesting, culturally relevant pieces that encourage us all to satisfy our inner child. The general sense I came away with was that “Dress Up,” for all its shiny, sparkly goodness, could have been so much more. It stands on its own as a fun fashion exhibition, but deepening its critiques would have made it stronger, and increasing the breadth of what was on view might have helped it feel more complete.

Dress Up” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through September 2.

MFA Boston Explores Fashion’s Significance in a Show That’s Less Political Than It Is Playful