If you think of designer Rei Kawakubo's current exhibit at the Met ("Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the 'In-Between'") as a commentary on life, it's a lot more palatable than thinking of the clothes as something you'd run out in for the evening. (Well, some do - keep reading.)
Kawakubo's womenswear designs in the show date from her first Paris runway show in 1981 to her most recent collection, and, yes, the haute fashionistas with a sense of humor seemed to enjoy swaddling without sleeves worth the effort for the opening gala earlier this month.
Be prepared to go deep and become unsettled - i.e., "a holistic, immersive experience, facilitating a personal engagement with the fashions on display." As the catalogue puts it, "They can be read as Zen koans or riddles devised to baffle, bemuse, and bewilder." It's an expansive commentary on the contradictions of fashion morays and the duality of esthetic sensibilities (e.g., nine expressions on themes such as "design/not design," "fashion/antifashion," "clothes/not clothes" and "self/other") to which I would add, practically speaking, "bound/unbound."
Clearly writing a narrative about this isn't sufficient - you have to experience it to make sense of its meaning. But trust it to Kawakubo to provide the theater of visually disrupting design that challenges conventional notions of beauty and even certain characteristics of the fashionable body. The craftsmanship is completely breathtaking, as are some of the materials and accessories (note the Brillo-pad hairdo). As Alice said in Wonderland, walking through the show gets "curiouser and curiouser" and you will leave the exhibit with a gnawing sense that you have just started, not completed, a deep journey of reflection. (Open through September 4.)
Not to be missed either is the Irving Penn retrospective (Irving Penn: Centennial), more than 150 photos representing all his genres, including his elegant fashion photography for Vogue. You might call this the polar opposite of Kawakubo's imagination.
Penn's lens captured reality but with his own penetrating vision, probing deeply, capturing in one moment the essence of not only a face but a soul. More than iconic fashion poses, the exhibit presents a comprehensive glimpse of his work, which could be very gritty. (Open through July 30.)
I always start in the members lounge for another artful experience - the cuisine of Chef Fed Sabo, American and international cuisines inspired by the museum's latest exhibits (hence, Asian influences this summer). This is a reward I give myself by purchasing a National Membership at only $70/year - definitely worth the price of admission to have access to delightful and civilized dining and other special insider benefits at The Met.