Get an intimate view into the “Dress Up” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Apr 30, 2024

Step into the world of “Dress Up,” a captivating exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston that delves into the significance of our sartorial choices. Explore over 100 pieces from the MFA’s collection, ranging from contemporary clothing to timeless accessories, all of which shed light on how adornment plays a crucial role in shaping our outward appearance. In this exhibition, jewelry and fashion are intertwined seamlessly, challenging visitors to rethink the boundaries between the two and view them as interconnected forms of self-expression. With a mix of beads, sequins, and shimmering details, the pieces on display in “Dress Up” prompt us to ponder the intersection of fashion and jewelry, blurring the lines between these art forms. “Dress Up” Curator Theo Tyson guides us through this thought-provoking showcase in this engaging Q&A that promises to offer deeper insights into the world of adornment and personal style.

“Dress Up” April 13 – September 2, 2024.

Will you give us a description of the “Dress Up” exhibit?

“Dress Up” celebrates 20th- and 21st-century style with more than 100 works from the MFA’s collection, including many new acquisitions and works from our collection that have never been on view before, including shoes and dresses from the collection of Donna Summer; and a ring by Of Rare Origin, a version of which was worn by Amanda Gorman to the 2020 Presidential Inauguration. It aims to remove the delineation between fashion and jewelry to focus on how they play an inseparable and integral role in self-fashioning and society at large. In addition to our collection are spectacular loans from the Peabody Essex Museum of an Iris Apfel ensemble and Patrick Kelly dress as well as cuff bracelets designed by Fulco di Verdura for Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel courtesy of Verdura New York. 

There’s also an awesome interactive––an irresistible selfie moment inspired by our incredible MFA Teen Program, who’s photographs also appear in the exhibition courtesy of their mentors, Leica Gallery Boston, photographer Jaypix Belmer and stylist Mary O’Keefe.

How did this exhibit come about?

Grounded in a major gift from the Toronto-based costume jewelry collector Carole Tanenbaum in 2018 and 2019, this exhibition was conceived by my co-curator Emily Stoehrer, the MFA’s Rita J. and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry. She was a few years into the project when I arrived in 2021 and it has been a pleasure delving into our collections together to bring to fruition an exhibition that sparks both curiosity and discourse. 

Will you walk us through your process of curating this exhibit?

As I mentioned, I co-curated this show with Emily so the process was very collaborative. We culled and considered our respective collections and those of our colleagues across departments to find the best ensembles, jewelry, photographs, and accessories to convey the communicative power of jewelry and fashion. To be selected, objects had to offer more than their aesthetic beauty, but an intrinsic value with the potential to connect to as many lived experiences and ideas of style as possible. The storytelling was important to us both throughout the process just as inclusivity and accessibility were. Our process was to ensure we created an experiential exhibition.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Foley’s Department Store, Houston, Texas, USA, 1957. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Charles T. and Alma Isaacs. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

What are your favorite pieces in the exhibit?

That is NOT an easy question! Emily and I edited our selections with vigor and the utmost discernment. My best answer is what I’m looking forward to sharing with our visitors which is our myriad new acquisitions, items that have never before been on view, an amazing photograph featuring designer Timothy Westbrook and the Dragon Sisters by Danielle Simone, and of course – the photographs of our teen program participants. I also love the quotes that we dispersed among the galleries from Andre Leon Talley, RuPaul, Dolly Parton, and more.

What surprised you while curating this exhibit?

I think the biggest surprise was how many items had never been on view before. It gives me great joy to share the gifts of our collection with our audiences and to offer them something that is a bit of a surprise, whether they’ve been to the Museum a million times or it’s their first visit.

Can you give examples of the various designers included in this exhibit?

I’d love to! We paid special attention to the diversity of designers included. Among those featured are Alexander McQueen for the House of Givenchy, Bob Mackie, Olivier Rousteing for Balmain, Evelyn Vanderhoop and Oscar de la Renta; jewelry from designers like Alexis Bittar, Hattie Carnegie, Lanvin and Elsa Peretti; accessories by designers like Thom Solo Shoes and Judith Leiber Couture along with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cecil Beaton and Martin Parr.

How does this exhibit showcase personal expression through fashion?

It offers an opportunity for consideration of the sociocultural, often subconscious ways that we use fashion as a means of nonverbal communication. The personal is political and our expressions of identity have relied on jewelry, clothing, and dress since time immemorial. And the old adage holds true today – if you look good, you feel good. Our hope is that this exhibition reminds people to take jewelry and fashion seriously enough to have fun with it!

What is next for you?

I’m opening a few more exhibitions this year, beginning with Four Womxn: New Musing on Blackness featuring Shanequa Gay, Le’Andra LeSeur, Porsha Olayiwola, and C. Rose Smith opening May 11; the next iteration of the Museum’s banner project featuring a commissioned work by Troy Montes Michie on view beginning in June; and finally, another co-curated endeavor with our John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas, Ethan Lasser that will open in November featuring contemporary artists John Akomfrah and Ayana V. Jackson. After that, I’ll turn my full attention to an original fashion arts exhibition and publication for 2026!

Where can people find you?

At the Museum or on instagram @ms_theotyson

Theo Tyson, Curator of Fashion Arts Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo by Frances Neyra Claudio

The Style That Binds Us


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