The Museum at F.I.T.

Late April. Around 5:30pm. I’m walking down the street to a see a museum show about high fashion for different body types. Right out in public, in the middle of busy Manhattan, a class of bootcampers side-shuffle from one side of the one-lane street to the other. At any moment, a car could drive through them, or want to drive through them. The instructor shouts commands in a heavy New York accent. I imagined he had been a fire fighter or a cop who survived 9-11 and couldn’t work the job anymore due to PTSD. He decided on a career change: to use his aggressive tenacity to motivate 20-somethings into shape.

The biggest slackers, a tall beefy gay man and two straight women, entertained each other in muffled comments and exaggerated reactions to the drills, theatrically expressing how tired they were. Most everyone wore yoga style sleeveless T-shirts (the kind that hang like the top of a toga). The bootcamp’s motto was printed on the shirts, something like, “This ain’t no joke”. A good reminder that physical fitness is a matter of life or death.

I found a bench on the promenade outside the Fashion Institute for Technology, to join the other gawkers. Lounging on benches in the mellow sun, about fifty of us stared expressionlessly at the bootcamp spectacle. One guy even had his camera up. It was quality footage for a 10-second snap, gram, tweet or meme-thing, just because of how bold it was to face the humiliation of constant onlookers. After the class did a bunch of squats in the only section of the street not parked in, the instructor indicated that it was now time to jog. They ran off in a line like ducklings, the slackers at the back.

I followed them down the block, into the fancy glass-walled lobby of The Museum at FIT. An indoors red carpet leads to the entrance of the museum, but for some reason it was cordoned off with movie theater velvet ropes. I went to walk around. A security guard sitting at a podium on my right suddenly asked me what I wanted and I said to see the museum. Security guards and doormen exist in every New York lobby. But they don’t necessarily greet you. They wait to see what you do. They are there to test peoples’ certitude. Are you in the right place?

The museum is one long room, shaped like the letter L. If it was a golf course it would be called a dog leg, dimly lit. Clothing is displayed on dressing forms on a platform that runs along the walls on either side. You walk down the center, with clothing displays to your right and left. It’s like you’re on a catwalk and the fashions are looking at you! Several of us were smartly dressed. A businesslike woman wore red stockings, a pair of ladies had hats and me with the weird side burns.

The red stockings woman spent a lot of time with each piece of clothing, probably reading every single placard, like I did, and always have since I could read and go to museums. Isn’t Delmonico’s a thing? I would like to go there with this 60-year-old woman and have a steak and wine and talk about the weather and business.

I eavesdropped on the hat-wearing pair of women. One listened. The other spoke in Spanglish. Quick to judge. Theatrically editorializing on the Donna Karan shoulder pads dress. Loves Donna Karan. Owns a DK couture thing which makes her say the name, Donna Karan, with familiarity. Spoke disparagingly of Rei Kawakubo, which even though RK is my favorite, I totally get.

Kawakubo Dress. This dress is from the 1980s show called “Body Meet Dress. Dress Meet Body.” Form-fitting. Stretchy material. With lumps of stuffing here and there in unexpected places like the hip or arm or anywhere. If one can have shoulder pads or a bustle on the butt, then why not enhancements in other places. Reminds me of Bouffon outfits, which makes sense because Kawakubo is often mocking the ignorance of fashion norms and ridiculous standards for what a female body is supposed to be.

There were so many guards, it felt like overkill. But then, it’s in the middle of Manhattan where a zillion people are doing whatever they want everywhere. You never know who might walk, jog or side-shuffle in. The guards, noticeably gentlemanly and wonderfully adept at containing being stir-crazy.

Not far from the Kawakubo dress is a package of Spanx. Across from the Kawakubo dress, an actual bustle is on display. Posterior is the word for butt here. There are also different variations on corsets and girdles on display, including a pregnant woman’s corset and a little girl corset. There was also a pregnant woman’s isolation cloak, for when women were meant to quarantine themselves during their unsightly pregnancies.

A dress from the 1960s with plastic windows down the sides reveals the body, and the show description infers that the woman wouldn’t wear anything underneath a dress like this. The dress had the Courreges futuristic antiseptic but playful stiffness.

Clothing designs had to do with women covering up their bodies, until the 1960s when clothes revealed parts of the body in cheeky places. When fashion required women to show more skin, exercise replaced bustles and corsets as the method of forming the body. The Museum at FIT has a video looping Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” as well as a workout video from the 1980s blared upbeat music and instructions while women in pastel leotards and leg warmers followed along.

What happens when you don’t wear the bras, spanks or work out obsessively? One of my favorite runway photos of all time is Liza Minelli at like 2014 Oscars wearing a bright blue limpid silk Halston pantsuit with no bra. It was very unpopular with the press. But Tumblr loved it and so did I.

Like Mary looking for a place to give birth to Jesus Christ, Leslie Jones could not find a designer for the Ghostbusters premiere in 2016. Jones tweeted:

“It’s so funny how there are no designers wanting to help me with a premiere dress for movie. Hmmm that will change and I remember everything.”

Until Christian Soriano leapt at the chance to have Leslie Jones as a client. He designed a beautiful red dress, now on display the The FIT Museum. When people applauded his choice, Siriano tweeted:

“It shouldn’t be exceptional to work with brilliant people just because they’re not sample size. Congrats aren’t in order, a change is.”