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K is for knowledge: fashion is a lens to understand past times and current events. A dress can be a political statement. A shoe can be an artifact. Style is made up of so much more than mere material once you examine its background. For as long as it has been around, fashion is and has been an exemplification of cultural and historical knowledge influenced by societal contexts.

The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a robust example of the use of fashion to promote global knowledge. Founded in 1937 as the Museum of Costume Art independent from the Met, the Costume Institute merged with the museum in 1947 with support from the fashion industry. With over 33,000 objects representing fashion from the 15th century to the present day, it features the largest permanent collection of Western fashion history and temporary thematic exhibitions. Recent exhibits have included Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, and Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which attracted a record number of 1.65 million visitors to the Met. This year, for the 75th anniversary of the Costume Institute, the theme was In America: A Lexicon of Fashion to honor American styles and designers. Given the Met’s millions of attendees, these exhibitions—as well as the permanent collection—hold immense power to inform the public of specific cultural and historical topics through fashion.

The exhibitions at the Costume Institute are most notably coupled with the theme of the Met Gala. On the first Monday of May, the Costume Institute at the Met, under the guidance of Trustee and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Anna Wintour, presents a charity gala filled with celebrities, designers, and public figures to fund the department’s operations. The event is designed to present the theme of the annual rotational exhibit for the first time, showcasing its niche representations of history and culture on a large scale. Take the 2019 theme Camp: Notes on Fashion—most people, including myself, had never heard this context of the word before. The exhibition and Met Gala, though, exposed millions of viewers to the theme of Camp and its rich history involving LGBTQ+ culture as well as race and class politics. China: Through the Looking Glass, the 2015 theme in collaboration with the Met’s Department of Asian Art, brought attention to Chinese culture and its influence on centuries of fashion. Both the museum exhibition and Met Gala served as strong platforms to inform the American public about Chinese history through the lens of couture and art. Another important aspect of the Met Gala that enables its extraordinary impact is the press surrounding it. From the guests’ outfits to the actual exhibit, media outlets cover every facet of the evening—making it one of, if not the largest fashion events of the year. If not for the reporters, the millions of Americans who are unable to visit the museum would lack an elaborate explanation of the theme and its meaning. Through its wide reach, institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and events like the Met Gala hold a pivotal role in educating people on the intellectual significance of style and clothing.

Fashion is knowledge. It is a vehicle to share valuable information about cultures and histories. Almost like a magnifying lens, a piece of clothing that might seem simple on the surface shares the stories of people, places, and politics. A dress can embody a social movement. A bag can hold a whole history. K is for knowledge, for the understanding that fashion holds, and for its power to keep both the past and present alive.

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