How these lowbrow clothes became works of art

One of the most precious objects in the Costume Institute’s collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a short, modish dress made in 1968 by André Courrèges. But instead of handmade lace or intricately embroidered silk, this scandalous shift is made of . . . plastic.

“We are on borrowed time with this dress,” says conservator Sarah Scaturro, pointing to its shrinking, cracking cellulose acetate paillettes. “I was so happy that we get to show it before it’s gone.”

That dress is the centerpiece of current show “The Secret Life of Textiles: Synthetic Materials,” which explores the ephemeral beauty of artificial fibers in 40 objects — and the problems that arise when trying to preserve them.

“People think that plastics last forever,” Scaturro, who curated the exhibit, tells The Post. “So I was excited to be able to put that story out there and give the public a behind-the-scenes understanding of how we approach the preservation of a synthetic.”

Designers began using man-made materials in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until after World War II, and the depletion of wool, cotton and other natural resources, that fashion really embraced synthetics.

“These were miracle fibers, totally man-made,” says Scaturro. “There was a sense of excitement and wonder that synthetics gave to culture.”

For the first time, outfits and shoes, like Herbert and Beth Levine’s fanciful plastic slides, could be completely transparent. A checkered orange-and-brown knit vest, thanks to acrylic, could be thrown in the washing machine (and dryer!) instead of cleaned by hand.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art


With these new synthetic fibers came new synthetic hues. Colors shone brighter than ever before, and designers like Rudi Gernreich showcased them via the swinging, polyester pop-art minidresses of the ’60s, when clothes reflected the technicolored, technological, space-exploring new world.

Yet for conservationists — and people who their clothes to last for decades —…

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