Shifting Aspiration: An Afternoon at the Met.
By Bella DeVaan
As I prepared to meet Professor Anne Higonnet at the Met, I freaked out a bit about what to wear. It was only natural. Since graduating from her “Clothing” class—which premiered on Zoom in the fall of 2020—her sartorial expertise has inspired more intentional dressing. Finally, I landed on a sweater (a loose gesture to shibori dye techniques), a skirt (made by a nostalgic local designer), a blazer (playing with gender?), and cowboy boots (triumphantly copped on eBay). Timeless principles of craft, sustainability, self-expression, and function inform my choices. Sure, everything I wore may have been black, but that was simply a nod to the dramatic, monochromatic tendencies of Cristóbal Balenciaga. Thank you for the vindication, Professor.
On any given day, a Higonnet lecture could cover Harry Potter sorting tropes, the diasporic design sensibilities of Grace Wales Bonner, BestDressed on YouTube, or Malick Sidibé’s photography. Her idiosyncratic, roving, yet scrupulously edited syllabus met us students where we were: in the suspended reality of our childhood bedrooms or deep into clickholes, and thinking hard about how we might want to be, inside and outside, online and off.
Higonnet has taught Art History in many creative incarnations, though often in conversation with the contemporary. She is an open-minded, versatile pedagog, the stalwart instructor of “Intro to Art History” at Barnard and the brain behind popular interdisciplinary courses like “A Virtual Enlightenment” (in which students coupled curatorial and computer acumen to create immersive, digital exhibits of 18th-century life) and “Collecting” (in which students considered private ownership and the politics of display). She’s an expert on the woman impressionist Berthe Morisot, the detective who discovered the true authorship of “Young Woman Drawing,” an advisor to Denise Murrell’s revolutionary “Posing Modernity” and “Black Models” exhibits, and perhaps the only person on Earth capable of contemplating the Nirvana Nevermind baby alongside Leo Steinberg’s analysis of child nudity in theological painting. “Today’s values dictate all of our perceptions,” Higonnet writes.
As New Yorkers settle back into taking museums for granted and Columbia students attend “Clothing” in person for the first time, I figured there was no better moment to check in with Professor Higonnet. I hadn’t only been her student online; during the halcyon days of Art Hum in Paris, I followed her through summer-packed museums, whisking past the unnecessary and pausing, purposefully, in front of masterworks. “Move like water,” she’d say, ushering us awkward student-tourists where we needed to go. “And now that you’ve come all this way,” she’d smile, “you should go the last few inches and look.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Readers are encouraged to open the hyperlinks as they go, for visual references.
The moment Professor Higonnet and I enter “America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Met Costume Institute, she points out that the exhibit has been set up for the social media generation.
Anne Higonnet: When you look at the rectangle, it’s the proportions of the cell phone photo. The way in which each outfit has been isolated in a box, and even the way that they’re stacked, it’s like it’s like an Instagram format: one, two, three, four …
The Blue and White: Gridded. What do you think that does to the garments?
AH: The good part is that it shows the Costume Institute delegating a lot of the news of the exhibition to visitors, and it’s democratic in that it’s allowing visitors to choose which of these images to put online. The bad part is that it limits the degree to which the objects can interact with each other meaningfully.
We pause to look at the one-word labels affixed to each mannequin, the “lexicon” superimposed on the American fashion panoply.
AH: It’s always semantically dangerous to try to attach one word to an outfit.
B&W: Your class is about not applying these spiritual categories to styles of dress, but thinking across space and time, to see patterns in how dress happens and is perceived. Obviously, everything here is sharing a craft element and a kind of durational element, but what do the words do to then parse [these styles]? I’m a little confused.
AH: I think the intent was to make the meaning of something extremely clear by distilling it to one word. But I think most people don't know why that word and not others… and I am myself not sure.
We look at four stacked mannequins—“commemoration,” “continuity,” “celebration,” and “connection.”
B&W: It seems like it's consonance over here with all the Cs. [laughter]
AH: There’s another “on the one hand, on the other hand” about this exhibition, which makes me wonder whether the Costume Institute isn’t at a very, very important crossroads in its history. There’s no doubt that the way in which the Costume Institute was organized in the past was wildly successful: so many visitors, so much interest in the Costume Institute and Anna Wintour. Its coordination with Vogue had been, I think, more productive than not, and it’s a financial stroke of genius to earn the budget of the Costume Institute in one night—
B&W: And to create an art-historical spectacle while doing it.
AH: Yes, exactly. And to extend the productivity of the Costume Institute into the Gala, it’s a bit like what I was saying about believing that people will relay the images of the show based on what interests them. The Gala has become a part of the Costume Institute’s cultural work, but which is delegated to a group of extremely culturally influential people. On the other hand, the whole fashion industry is so predicated on a kind of traditional femininity and so predicated on horrible waste—because fast fashion has pushed clothing to be, by some measures, the third worst sustainability issue on the planet. One wonders how long such an important part of the museum can continue to be predicated on those gender and environmental assumptions. Before it just doesn't even appeal to people anymore, or it’s just too ethically bankrupt.
B&W: I thought we saw that at this year’s Met Gala—a wink of what’s to come with AOC's presence, and the ways that popular opinion has turned on the wealthy people we lionize and give this artistic authority in these events. And yet, everybody still loves it.
AH: And yet everybody still loves it! And that is a really important thing to remember—that the way through to sustainable clothing is not to get people to stop loving getting dressed up.
B&W: It’s not to take away the joy, or the expressiveness.
AH: No, I don’t think that’s ever gonna work. And just saying you have to buy less? I don’t think it’s going to work, either.
The basic idea of the show, which is maybe not articulated as clearly as it could be, is that there used to be two antonyms. There was French expressive fashion, which was about creative craft, multiplied by spatial imagination. And then on the other side was supposed to be this American sturdiness and practicality and utilitarianism.
What the Costume Institute is saying is that they don’t want to think of American fashion anymore as the opposite of French fashion—they want to celebrate the expressiveness and the autonomous creativity of American fashion. And that sounds good, especially when it means that you include so many different kinds of designers, and you have so many really, really young designers. It’s stunning.
AH: And have so many of the clothes in this exhibit made within the last five years. Back to this issue about femininity and a culture of throwaway obsolescence—
B&W: —and how that relates to American self-fashioning—
AH: Exactly. Is this celebratory idea that American fashion has escaped from one side of this old equation to the other just a way of masking that the whole equation has to be set aside as a thing of the past? Could it be that the Costume Institute has to play a part in a fundamental conceptual rethinking of clothing? So that it’s clothing, not fashion; or clothing, not costume?
I am myself trying to think through whether there’s some fundamentally different way in which we can think about clothing, including the gender binary part. There are a few outfits for men [here], but the message of so many of the outfits being for women is really continuing this bond between fashion and femininity, without rethinking what clothing could be for a genderfluid world, or one in which femininity is not the only gender that's associated with fashion.
We meander downstairs, stopping before the “Cascade” ensemble by EMME Studio from 2021.
B&W: I read about this designer, Korina Emmerich. She’s the only Indigenous designer in the show.
AH: This is also one of the outfits I am seriously tempted to try to get for myself.
B&W: I mean, come on. Look at those buttons!
AH: I don’t know what is more formally fun and wonderful about this. Is it that you’ve got four different—and maybe there’s a fifth one under there—plastic buttons? Is it that the stripes are clustering in just the right places? I love how you’ve got two sets of stripes around the hips to show how the jacket goes: that’s how you know that there are parts of the suit! And then the sleeves move up from those hip stripes, and then the other sleeve stripes move upward from the chest stripes?! Plus, the slight flare of the skirt is wonderful.
This is the new outfit that just most perfectly does something that’s as much about the specificities of history as about a fantastic timeless design, because there’s something so satisfyingly forward-looking about taking these blankets—which were so much about a commercial relationship between white people and Indigenous people that exploited Indigenous people—and then she turns it into something that’s so her. Although, one always has to be a little bit skeptical when you say [reading from the plaque] “they use upcycled, recycled and natural materials while minimizing waste.” Then you ask yourself, okay, minimizing waste by how much? One percent? Eighty percent?
B&W: Do we need to see some numbers here? [laughter.]
AH: Maybe yes, maybe no, as far as sustainability goes. But the idea is that that’s a positive thing to say about an outfit?
B&W: And coupling that definition of sustainability with the sustenance and survivance of history? That’s clearly happening, too.
AH: That I just love. Because instead of getting very mournful or angry about the past, it's saying, what do we need to do now to make things better? And the thing that is being asked for … addresses particular environmental exploitation, which just has to stop. This is one of my very, very favorite things in the show. I feel if everything in the show were as clear as this… and you took off the word, which I think is, by the way, an invented word...
The word is “sustentation.”
AH: I checked in Webster’s Dictionary.
B&W: You did?!
AH: I think it’s not a real word.
B&W: I’m not convinced. I love what you’re saying, though, about doubling the contemporary and the historical concerns. That's always been what I’ve taken away from your teaching—we’re living today. It’s going to color the way the past looks to us. What do we do?
AH: Yes. What can be done right now? Plus, there’s just something joyful about looking great.
B&W: You can still look great and care about all these things, is what it’s telling us. Do you have any others that are speaking to you like this?
AH: Some of them are just so much within the fashion world, and that’s pretty much what I have to say about it.
AH: I just have to say, it’s so sad that in New York, you’ve got a homage to Princeton and an homage to Harvard, but nothing about Columbia. Where’s Columbia? Come on, we’re in Manhattan. Okay, enough of that.
We pause before Heron Preston’s redesigned uniforms for the Department of Sanitation from 2016.
AH: In formal terms, at first glance, it looks like the greens clash. But then the more I look at it, the more I think, actually, it’s a really subtle bunch of greens and graphics. And then it turns out that it’s a uniform that was designed for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Here we are now, on our New York home turf. I love the nod to the local concerns—
B&W: With the word “responsibility.”
AH: I love the idea that every job can have a gorgeously designed uniform. I think that’s very democratic. It seems to me that the Department of Sanitation deserves a super stylish uniform. And having a prestigious designer devote himself to that project is great. Then there’s something that you can’t know unless you read the label, which is that part of his design of the uniforms is actually a [reading from the plaque] “curation of thrift-store finds and decommissioned sanitation worker garments.” That idea of taking the old uniforms, going to the thrift store, and blending it with a really gifted formal vision is one of the great ideas of how to go forward. There are a lot of Department of Sanitation workers; we’re talking about a lot of uniforms. If we could be doing this in more and more sectors? Really taking things that are already made and improving them through style? I think that would be a really, truly modern design thing to do. So Heron Preston as well as Emmerich—these really seem to me to be what the exhibition could and should have been 100% about: visionary ways forward.
B&W: I know Virgil Abloh and Vanessa Friedman were talking about how the American fashion show is about aspiration. Friedman wrote, “it’s homesteading of a new kind” that this exhibit is all about—really plumbing the possibilities of what American fashion could be.
AH: I want us to aspire to gorgeous excess. But what I’m hoping for is that our mindset changes in a way that when we see a redesigned thrift store item, that’s something we aspire to, because we aspire to be saving the planet. I would really like aspiration to not be conspicuous consumption or landfill.
We pause to look at a Naval Reserve uniform designed by Mainbocher, from 1942.
AH: This is the third thing that I really love. There’s so many things one can say about that historical moment. But like the Preston, I love the idea that fashion turned some of its energies to giving back to people who serve the nation. Look, I’m in Art History, so I think the U.S. Women’s Naval Reserve deserved a beautifully designed uniform. I think that’s part of what America should give the essential workers of the country, something beautiful to wear. Although, of course, we say, “Ugh, why a skirt?”
B&W: [reading from the plaque] “Retaining a touch of femininity.”
AH: Ah, could women not be wearing pants? But, alright, it’s 1942. There is a beautiful awareness of the female-ness of the anatomy, giving it so much presence and dignity. And it’s so much about the quiet, quiet design details—like exactly how big the buttons are, and that there are four of them, and where the stripes are. And it’s so subtle. It’s so perfect. That’s the side of couture that I think gets lost in so many accounts of fashion history, where we’re drawn to what is spectacular and obviously sculptural about clothes. But what really excites me is when there’s just beautiful equipoise between acknowledging the body and its functions and then creating something better-looking than the human body for it to wear. To me, that’s the deep magic of good design.
B&W: Performing it more quietly, and for someone who’s not being photographed as the purpose of their wearing of the garment—that it’s going to work for them and how they spend their day.
AH: I think when women wore this uniform, there was a subtle way in which they looked in the mirror and said, “Wow, I look good.” And then they felt good, and people looked at them and said, “Oh, they look strong. They look dignified. They look purposeful.” And that had an effect on how they were treated.
B&W: A huge takeaway I’ve had from your teaching is how to more intentionally navigate a museum, how to make the most of it once you show up. What are some of your cardinal museum-going, exhibit-going rules?
AH: Everyone has a tendency to get stuck on the first things they’re seeing. So I try to go through and then I let myself love a couple of things: three to five. They catch my eye or I think about what they mean, or they’re the ones that really strike a resonant note in the larger scheme of history.
And then, on my second time around, I just go look at my favorite things so that as I leave the exhibit, I’ve imprinted my very, very favorite. No one should have any shame in only remembering three to five things.
B&W: The goal is not to be encyclopedic about it.
AH: No! Then nothing means anything. It’s good to just be very focused. And then, as you know, when an exhibit is very crowded ... “Be like water.”
B&W: That reverberates in my ears.
AH: Museums are not as packed anymore, but parts of them are still full. The trick is that you just stand on the edge of the crowd and you—just slowly, like water—go in through the cracks. Once you’re in front, then you just stay there. You get close, even if it takes a couple of minutes to infiltrate, and then you stay in your spot because you have to believe that those who want to really concentrate on something deserve to spend more time in front of it. No one should feel guilt about, “Oh, I’m going to let other people see it.” If you need to see it for 15 minutes, you need to see it for 15 minutes. And we all love our cellphones and taking pictures. I think the key is to take pictures erring on the side of excess when you first go and then look at them afterward and be a fierce editor.
B&W: You’re saying delete, delete right away.
AH: Delete, delete, delete, delete, delete, so many times. Just save the most important things. Partly because if you want to show off to your friends or family what you’ve seen, it’s a very good opening line: “I only want to show you the two things I loved the most,” because then everyone is intrigued. “Oh, what do you love the most?” And they automatically think: “Why did you love it the most?” That’s your way into really good museum storytelling.
B&W: That’s the nectar. If you're willing, would you take me to something that you could spend more time in front of? Something you like to take a peek at whenever you’re here?
AH: I have a number of things. But I'm gonna show you something you might not expect. Because it has nothing to do with my period.
We leave the exhibit.
B&W: When you were an undergrad, or first realizing your intellectual and academic interests, did anything help you decide that this was what you wanted to do?
AH: I knew I loved art, and I knew I wanted to teach some kind of Art History. And that just came on me, out of the blue. When I was an undergraduate, I thought I wanted to be a costume department curator. Because I took textiles and women so seriously, I wrote my senior thesis on a woman artist named Sonia Delaunay. I wrote about her textile designs, and I argued something which, 40 years later, seems completely banal—like, of course!—which is that she arrived at a completely abstract form of art through textile design, through that flatness of fabric, and the process of designing geometric fabric. But at the time—
B&W: That doesn't sound banal to me.
AH: Well, at the time it was a heretical thing to do. To write about anything that was not painting, sculpture, or architecture. I didn’t think it through, but it was the beginning of what I’ve been interested in.
We pause in the corner, by a window and several fragments of Roman sculpture.
This is an object I’m very fond of.
B&W: “Julia Mamaea.”
AH: Yes, from the Roman Severan period. I am very touched by how you come at it from this angle. It’s very realistic, and yet there’s a satisfying degree of stylization. Then, as you walk around, you realize that part of the head has been shaved off by some terrible accident. I am very touched by how we’ve arrived at a moment in history when we can accept that the signs of the damage are in a way quite beautiful, and we can see that there’s a whole new composition and a whole new way of thinking about the representation of a person that can include damage.
B&W: That may be enabled by the damage.
AH: That’s enabled by the damage. It’s also the effect of surprise. If you look at it from here, it’s mostly—or at least half—damage. When you come around, it’s whole again. And then, because my sense of art objects is always zooming back and forth from the microscopic to the macroscopic, I do love discovering that she was a powerful woman, if only because she was the niece of an empress and the mother of an emperor. And I love how she’s in front of a window that you see Central Park through. I love how she’s in this corner, where there are all these fragments from the past on one side and all these living trees and natural light on the other side. You can look at her like this and have the trees behind her, or you can look at her against the background of all the fragments.
It reminds me of how much New York has done for the public over time. The whole idea of having Central Park in the middle of Manhattan is so great. Even if we have to keep pushing it to be a better and more inclusive and more democratic museum, the whole idea of the museum is so civic. So I love seeing the completely natural and the completely artificial civic gestures in this one corner.
B&W: Coming together.
AH: Yes. And so I've dragged you all the way to this corner—
AH: Because there are actually very few places in the Met where you can see art objects in this kind of way.
And! There is a contemporary artist, James Welling.
Professor Higonnet and I look at pictures of James Welling’s “Julia Mamaea” series on my cell phone, inspired by and depicting the damaged marble Mamaea bust.
AH: I just love that a work inspires a work of contemporary art. I have a friend who wrote an essay about the Wellings. It’s a sculpture that, in academic terms, is also doing what I was saying about being from the past, but also the present—it’s a work which inspires contemporary artists to do new work and inspires new scholarship.
B&W: You were mentioning how New York City is bringing that element into the art, too. How has being in New York lent a new element to what you study and do?
AH: It does for me as a teacher what it does for many, many students at Columbia and Barnard, which is that it makes you feel like you’re at one of the great energy sources of the universe. This is one of the most high pressure—in good and bad ways—places to go to college. If you want to go to college at twice the emotional and intellectual speed as normal, this is the place to be. And if you want to keep rethinking what teaching is, you want to keep rethinking what Art History is, this is the place that inspires that. I’ve had some very unexpected latter-day changes in my teaching career, and I don’t think that would ever have happened someplace else.
B&W: What latter-day changes are you referring to?
AH: Well, the “Clothing” course—
AH: The “Clothing” course is—oh, is about one-tenth an Art History course. I’m just grateful the Art History department is letting it in. It’s nine-tenths other fields, scholarship, and insights. And it’s a New York City melting pot course, the melting pot of ten departments.
B&W: You teach distillation really well. Why do you think that’s important to the way that people express their thoughts on art and clothing?
AH: It’s also about life. Even though I love the longform argument… those who know how to make Twitter and TikTok and Instagram work for them rule the universe.
So there’s that. And then… you’re a lawyer arguing in front of the Supreme Court; you’re a developer pitching your neighborhood redesign to the Mayor’s office. In every important career, there's a moment when you have to persuade people fast.
B&W: Another thing I associate with your class is how generous you are with letting students bring in their own contemporary references.
AH: Oh, but that’s not generous at all. It’s totally selfish. That’s when you let students realize, themselves, how any issue that’s important enough to learn about is still relevant today, in some shape or form. When you realize why you care about something now, that’s the beginning of realizing why you care about anything. Just jumping into the deep end and deciding I’m supposed to care about this column? It never works.
We happen upon the enormous Marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, from 300 BC.
B&W: Well, it’s not holding anything up! [laughter.]
AH: That one’s not even holding anything up. The easiest way to start to learn is by starting with something that you already care about. A big problem with a lot of super brilliant research academics is that they have learned to care about things that no one else cares about, and they forget how long that learning process was. We do all begin somewhere. I think a lot of teaching is just remembering how one began.