Quarantine Book Club: Mourning the Met Gala, fashion books keep me looking forward
With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety and isolation through books. In this entry, Mary Sollosi honors the now-canceled Met Gala and shares how books about fashion are helping her dream of dressing up again.
“The best fashion show is definitely on the street,” the late, legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham famously said. “Always has been. Always will be.”
For almost two months now, that fashion show has been put on hold, along with the rest of American life. I count both watching it and dressing for it among the everyday pleasures I’ve missed the most since social distancing began, but reminders of how dynamic and inventive style can be have made me more hopeful than melancholy.
Like many others, it was hard for me to focus enough to read novels in the early days of quarantine. I found, however, that the colorful fashion tomes piled upon my coffee table more than held my attention, and in particular spent days poring over Bill Cunningham: On the Street, the first published collection of his work, which came out last year. Covered in blue fabric — to match the iconic photographer’s personal uniform of a French workman’s jacket — and an image of the industry legend sitting on his bicycle, the collection covers five decades of style through Cunningham’s keen lens.
Cunningham had a near-magical sixth sense for what was coming next, and he missed nothing. “The unifying element in all of Bill’s work, from his innovative hats to his searching news reports to the photographs in this wonderful book, is that the ideas flow forward,” fashion critic and Cunningham’s former New York Times colleague Cathy Horyn writes in the book’s introduction. “To the end of his life, he remained vigorously, joyfully in stride with the times. ‘Child,’ he would say to a middle-aged person. ‘Fashion is about today.’”
Fashion really should be about today, of all days: It’s the first Monday in May, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art usually hosts the Met Gala, which has now been postponed indefinitely. The storied New York institution celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, and in what was at first a celebration of that milestone but has since become a cruel cosmic joke, this year’s exhibit and event theme was to be “About Time: Fashion and Duration.”
Time hasn’t worked the same in quarantine; duration is a concept I can’t even begin to engage with after over seven weeks alone in my apartment, never knowing what day it is, now having measured out my life with weekly Zooms. The Fashion Institute’s now-on-hold exhibit, not unlike Cunningham’s decades of acutely perceptive photos, would have chronicled how the vital language of fashion has always been used not only individually to express ourselves, but also collectively to write our history — so now, I've turned to books about how it's done just that.
In addition to high-style memoirs (like Cunningham’s Fashion Climbing and a galley of André Leon Talley’s upcoming The Chiffon Trenches, which is already stirring up industry drama), I’ve loved reading The Battle of Versailles, a vivid account of the history-making runway “battle” of the title from the Washington Post’s ever-insightful fashion critic Robin Givhan. Held in 1973 — and photographed, of course, by Bill Cunningham — the event was a fashion show fundraiser in which five established French designers showed their more classical work next to that of five American upstarts, whose inventive creations presented a fresh vision of the modern woman. The brilliant show put American fashion on the map; looking to the future always wins the battle.
I’m trying to look to the future now. This episode in human history, like all others, will be reported on runways and in the pages of Vogue, and it’s become a strange comfort to me to contemplate just how. Face masks are an obvious feature — we’ll probably all keep cloth ones in our homes and handbags and glove compartments for the rest of our lives — and have already popped up for sale at various labels and in the fashion paintings of Christian Siriano, who has also begun producing them for New York hospital personnel.
Besides that must-have accessory, how else will we look when we leave our collective hibernation? Will loungewear start to creep into our business and nightlife wardrobes? Or will we cry carpe diem and go avant-garde for casual brunch or drinks or book club, having learned to treasure the once-mediocre privilege of an audience? I imagine next year’s collections (the logistics of which are a whole other question) possibly fetishizing a futuristic sterility, all gloved sleeves and the cleanest of textiles, or featuring crafty homemade details in reference to sewing projects in isolation, or very likely expanding on the already-growing trend toward sustainability in fashion. This moment in our lives will be written right onto our clothes — it’s only a question of how.
I asked Tim Gunn (whose Amazon series Making the Cut is another piece of stylish pop culture that’s gotten me through) how he thinks this crisis will change the face of fashion. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” he replied, expressing concern for suffering labels and retailers. “I haven’t a clue. Every day, things are changing. I honestly don’t know. I mean, we’ll still need clothes.”
Though he’s worried about how the debilitated industry will bounce back, “we’ll get through these dark days,” Gunn said with resolve. We will. And the best fashion show in the world, which nobody can ever cancel, will pick up again to tell a new story.