Heading Indoors to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Conservatories

The weather’s terrible in New York City today (in fact, I’m home writing this because the university closed for the day), and this winter weather is making me long for spring. I thought I would take us somewhere warm, with flowers and green plants – but where should we go? How about the conservatories at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden? We can travel to multiple climate zones in a single afternoon! I’ve written about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Bonsai Museum previously (you’ll find it here), but there are several other indoor garden spaces nearby.

As soon as we enter the conservatory complex, things are looking promising. We come across this sculpture suspended from the ceiling, made entirely of botanical materials. Doesn’t it look intriguing? The sculpture, titled Windfall, is by artist Shayne Dark. It was created using apple wood root balls and aircraft cable.

Let’s head downstairs to the conservatory entrances. First, there’s the Warm Temperate Pavilion. What geographic areas are located in warm temperate regions? The botanic garden’s website includes this list: “the Mediterranean basin; South Africa; Australia; New Zealand; Eastern Asia; western coastal regions of North America (mainly California); and western coastal regions of South America (mainly Chile).” The entrance to the pavilion makes me feel like we are exiting a cave and going back into the light.

Here are a few of the plants and flowers we spy as we stroll through the Warm Temperate Pavilion.

Next stop: the Tropical Pavilion. The Tropical Pavilion includes representative plant life from the Amazon basin in South America, as well as tropical areas of Africa and eastern Asia.

The Desert Pavilion has interesting cactus specimens – some I’ve never seen before.

Finally, let’s step into the Aquatic House, which is also home to the botanic garden’s orchids.

It might be a snowy, icy, windy day outside, but our tour of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Conservatory has me feeling much warmer! I hope you are staying warm as well.

The Conservatories, as well as the rest of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, are open all year around. If you’d like to visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden yourself, you’ll find directions at the end of a previous post I wrote about the Garden, found here.

Chinese Food Inspiration at the Museum of Chinese in America

One of my favorite museums in New York City is the Museum of Chinese in America, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The long-term exhibition, tracing the history of the Chinese experience in the United States, is excellent. But I always look forward to the temporary exhibitions. (I previously wrote about one of those temporary exhibitions here.)

The current temporary exhibition, titled Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America, is the best one yet. The main part consists of a large space, set up to resemble a dinner table. Around the table are 33 place settings, each representing a Chinese or Asian-American chef. At each place is a small ceramic sculpture symbolizing that chef’s food influences, as well as a card giving more information about the chef’s personal background, food inspirations, signature dishes, favorite ingredients, and choice of ultimate comfort food. Museum visitors are invited to sit down at each place and learn more about the chefs.

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It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the beautiful ceramics. There are larger pieces in the middle of the table that symbolically represent various geographic good influences. Then, each chef’s place setting has a smaller ceramic sculpture that includes the geographic symbols from the larger pieces. All ceramics in the exhibit were created by two ceramic artists: Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang.

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Symbolizing Beijing (Jing) influence
Symbolizing Sichuan (Chuan)
Symbolizing Sichuan (Chuan) influence
Symbolizing Chino-Latino influence
Symbolizing Chino-Latino influence
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Symbolizing Taiwan

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Around the room, large screens hang on the wall. Visitors can sit at the table and listen to some of the chefs talk about their personal experiences with various topics, such as immigrating to the United States, growing up Chinese or Asian-American, and their food influences. The videos really add another layer to the whole experience – being able to see and hear the chefs that you are reading about, maybe even as you sit at that chef’s place at the table.

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MOCA’s website has the following explanation of the exhibition’s title, which I found compelling: “In Chinese the saying Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy refers not only to the delicate balance of flavors that defines Chinese cooking but also the ups and downs of life.”

Once visitors finish in the first room, there is a second, smaller room across the lobby that offers another approach to the exhibitions theme. In the smaller room, each chef loaned the museum an item from his or her kitchen. The artifacts are very practical, but also very personal. On a surface level this room may seem less impressive, but if you read the descriptions for each item you begin to understand the chefs’ connections to the food they create.

For example, Wilson Tang loaned these moon cake molds to the museum:

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And Ken Hom has loaned his cleaver:

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Want to see Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy in person? The exhibition was originally scheduled to end on March 26, 2017, but it has been so popular that the museum has extended it to September 10, 2017. The Museum of Chinese in America is located at 215 Centre Street in Manhattan.

Touring an Assyrian Palace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since the recent announcement of the travel ban here in the United States, a number of museums in New York City have found several ways to show dissent or show solidarity with people from the seven countries affected by the ban. For example, the Museum of Modern Art has a special exhibition of art by Muslim artists from the countries included in the travel ban. The Museum of the City of New York has focused on curating images of activism in the city, such as the use of the #activistny hashtag on Instagram, as part of an ongoing exhibition titled Activist New York. MCNY also has a new photography exhibition opening soon titled Muslim in New York.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a rich collection of art from Muslim countries, as well as other art from the ancient world that comes from the countries included in the ban. The Met programming has been more subtle than other NYC museums in this respect, but there is always great art on display from the ancient Middle East and historical Islamic world. And the museum regularly offers a tour of those galleries called Arts of the Islamic World.

Today, I thought I would take you on a tour of one of my favorite galleries in this part of the museum, Gallery 401. This gallery present carved stone reliefs from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled over the Assyrian empire (located in modern-day Iraq) from 883 to 859 B.C. Although the reliefs from a variety of locations within the palace originally, they are displayed as a single reception room with a high ceiling.

The first thing you are likely to notice as you enter the room are the statues on either side of the entrance – a winged bull and a winged lion, each with human heads.

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There are also some magnificent reliefs along the other walls of the room. Here is just a sample of what you will see.

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Although this isn’t a great photo of the reliefs, I thought the view of the group tour would give a better sense of the size of the room and the art.

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If you get the chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I recommend that you explore this gallery in person – it’s worth the visit. The museum is located on Fifth Avenue at East 82nd Street.

Exploring the New York Public Library

As I’m a voracious reader and lover of books and libraries, the New York Public Library – and specifically the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building – is one of my favorite places in New York City. Although the library now has annexes all over the city, this building, which first opened to the public in 1911, is the one that most people associate with the NYPL. Today, I thought I’d take you on a tour of the library.

Here’s our view as we get ready to cross Fifth Avenue and approach the main entrance to the building. As you can see, the building is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Doesn’t it look promising as we approach?

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As we cross the street, we see the famous library lions. Since the 1930s, they’ve been known by the names Patience and Fortitude.

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During the Christmas season, the lions wear evergreen wreaths studded with pinecones and trimmed with a red bow.

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On either side of the main entrance are magnificent fountains. If you look closely, you may be able to see the netting that prevents birds from perching on the statues.

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Make sure you look around as we go through the entrance. The details on the huge bronze doors are incredible, and the arched ceiling of the portico is also magnificent.

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We’ve entered into the grand Astor Hall. The white marble reflects the light shining through the front windows.

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Here’s one of my favorite details in the entire library – a small marble plaque set into Astor Hall’s floor. The plaque remembers Martin Radtke, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States who educated himself during regular visits to the library over the course of his life. Upon Martin’s death in 1973, the library discovered that he had left his savings to the library – $368,000 in all. How special that he has been honored in this way.

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There’s so much more to see as we explore the library’s many rooms and corridors. Can you imagine sitting at one of the tables for a while, reading a book you’ve requested from one of the librarians? If you have the time, we can catch up on some news in the periodicals reading room, or explore an atlas in the Map Division reading room. And there’s so many interesting architectural details and art to experience as well. Don’t forget to look up! The ceilings display more fine craftsmanship.

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Periodically throughout the hallways you may spy these lions along the wall, remnants of the original water fountain system. You can’t get a drink of water from these fountains today, but they are still fun to see.

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One of the most impressive rooms in the library is the Rose Reading Room, which stretches the length of a football field. The Rose Reading Room has just reopened after a lengthy restoration process. The ceilings are beautiful in this room as well, and there are so many other interesting architectural details to explore.

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Let’s not forget to head down to the ground floor. As we exit the elevator, we spy this rare artifact: a set of pay phone booths! Unsurprisingly, none of them are in use.

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And then we come to the library’s Children’s Center. The entrance to the Children’s Center is guarded by lions as well, although these two are made of Lego blocks.

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The Children’s Center is a magical place, with a mural of various New York City landmarks stretching around the room.

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Best of all there are the original stuffed animals that inspired author A. A. Milne to write the children’s book Winnie the Pooh.

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I hope that you enjoyed our tour. There are even more treasures to be discovered if you visit the New York Public Library for yourself. The library even offers free tours on a daily basis. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is located on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, between 40th and 42nd Streets. (Yes, the building stretches the length of two city blocks – but the short blocks!)

A personal note: I wrote this post as a tribute to a wonderful friend and family member that we lost this week. Roy lived an incredible life, full of love and family adventures. His wife Rosie, my cousin, has become a close friend as we’ve collaborated on family history projects. Roy had lost his eyesight over the years, but he still participated in numerous book clubs and loved to read. He was one of those special people who are life-long learners. Somehow, writing about a library seemed like the perfect way to honor his memory as his family prepares to celebrate his life tomorrow.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Bonsai Museum

During the cold winter months, you might not usually think of visiting a botanical garden. But the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum (as well as other indoor conservatories) make this garden a perfect place to visit on a cold, blustery day. What makes the Bonsai Museum so special is that it’s home to a collection of approximately 350 trees – the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s website states that it is “one of the finest in the world.” Most of these trees are not on exhibit at the same time; instead, curators rotate trees from the collection in and out of the modern and light indoor verandah.

I last went in late fall on a windy day, and the exhibition included both evergreen and deciduous trees. Here are some of my favorites, which all posed for photos. I particularly like the architectural effect of the trees that are almost stripped bare of leaves. They cast some great shadows as well!

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One of the great things about the Bonsai Museum is that different trees are on display throughout the year. Who knows what you might find when you visit! You’ll find the directions to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the end of a previous post I wrote about the Garden, found here.

Kerry James Marshall at the Met Breuer

One of the wonderful things about art is that it offers so many different perspectives of the human experience. As an art lover, I appreciate that museums in recent years have worked to make art offerings more inclusive, allowing visitors to be exposed to those different perspectives. That is one reason why one of the current exhibitions at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer annex excites me. The exhibition, titled Mastry, offers almost 80 works by African-American artist Kerry James Marshall. Mastry covers two full floors of the Met Breuer building, and the artwork reflects Marshall’s unique perspectives of African-American life.

I found this description, taken from the museum’s website, very appropriate: “[T]his … exhibition reveals Marshall’s practice to be a complex and compelling one that synthesizes a wide range of pictorial traditions to counter stereotypical representations of black people in society and reassert the place of the black figure within the canon of Western painting.” As I looked at the paintings, I was struck by Marshall’s choice of very dark pigment for the figures – accentuating their blackness in a compelling and beautiful way. Most paintings had multiple layers – paint, then pieces of text, advertising, photos, or other images, then more paint. The closer you look, the more symbolism and detail you’ll discover.

Here are some of my favorite paintings from the exhibition:

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I also really liked the series of paintings contrasting the dream versus the reality of public housing projects. The paintings are known as the “Garden Project” series, as the housing projects all had the word “garden” in their names. Here are three of the paintings from the “Garden Project.”

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To give you a sense of the scale of Marshall’s artwork, here is one of the paintings with museum visitors in front of it. (This one also shows how much patience I had to have in order to get the other photos I took!)

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Want to see Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry for yourself? The exhibition is only open through January 29, 2017, so you’ll have to hurry. The Met Breuer is located on Madison Avenue at 75th Street. If traveling by public transportation to the museum, you can take the 4 or 6 train to the 77th Street Station. There is also a bus stop for the M1, M2, M3, and M4 buses close by.

Pixel Forest at the New Museum

I recently had the opportunity to explore an immersive exhibition at the New Museum. The New Museum is known for its innovative contemporary art, and this exhibition by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, titled Pixel Forest, certainly exceeded my expectations. Pixel Forest combines video installations with multimedia art and audio. The result is a full sensory experience that draws the visitor into a new artistic world.

The exhibition covers three floors of the museum, and as you go through each level you have the opportunity to see how Rist’s art has evolved over time. On one floor there are long strands of light clusters that slowly change colors as you wander through them. It was a delightful experience.

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In another corner visitors can lounge on throw pillows as they watch a video installation. Dreamy music plays in the background.

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Tucked around a corner in a narrow space I discover this unexpected chandelier, made entirely of men’s and women’s white underwear. Different colored images are projected upon it, turning it into an unusual video screen.

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On another floor, visitors rest on beds arranged around the room, staring up at a video that is projected onto a space on the ceiling. The video appeared to be made up of changing colors, and once again you are surrounded by soft music.

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And on the third level video images are projected on fabric panels hanging from the ceiling, and guests are encouraged to wander among them, becoming part of the installation as the videos are projected on their own bodies.

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This is one of the most unusual art exhibitions I’ve been to in a long time, and I really enjoyed how the installations invited the visitor in to participate and soak it all in.

If you are interested in seeing Pixel Forest for yourself, hurry to the New Museum before the exhibition ends on January 15, 2017. The museum is located at 235 Bowery.

Celebrating Diwali at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tomorrow is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Each year, there are numerous celebrations of Diwali in New York City. Last year, one of those celebrations took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I stumbled upon it during a visit to the museum. Although the museum is not hosting a Diwali celebration this year (at least, I haven’t been able to find anything about it if it is), I thought that revisiting last year’s festival activities would be a great way to celebrate the holiday this weekend.

To celebrate Diwali, the Met offered numerous activities, including henna painting, lantern-making, and children’s dance activities. I met some visitors who were willing to share their experiences with me, as you can see from these photos.

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In one room, children were being taught some traditional dance steps – guaranteed to burn off some youthful energy, and fun to watch!

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There was also a dance performance, difficult to capture in photographs because of the crowds, dark light, and fast movement, but so beautiful.

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One of the benefits of hosting this event in the Met Museum is the proximity to a wonderful collection of Indian art. I made sure to explore some of it while I was there, and here are photos of a few of my discoveries.

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And don’t forget to look up!

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Although the Met Museum may not be holding Diwali festivities this year, I recommend visiting to see its Indian and Southeast Asian art collections, which are primarily located on the second floor of the museum. There’s also a small special exhibition of Indian art on display at the Met through December 4, 2016: Poetry and Devotion in Indian Painting: Two Decades of Collecting. More information about that exhibition is available here.

New York City’s African Burial Ground

New York City’s reputation for growth and emphasis on new, bigger, and better has often resulted in the loss of historical architecture. Similarly, the passage of time has obscured significant aspects of the city’s diverse social history. The city’s growth occasionally serves the opposite function, however: it unearths previously forgotten and hidden parts of the city’s past. Such is the case with the African Burial Ground.

In 1991, the federal government was in the process of excavating a site just north of City Hall in preparation for a new administrative building. As the workers removed layer after layer of accumulated soil, they began exposing colonial-era graves. Research revealed that the location was part of the African Burial Ground, a site where free and enslaved African Americans in New York City buried their dead in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The discovery created quite a controversy. Some graves had been damaged by construction efforts before workers realized that the site contained human remains, and modern-day descendants of slaves believed that building on top of the cemetery was disrespectful.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. Archaeologists carefully removed 419 sets of human remains from the site, and those remains were sent to scholars at Howard University for study. (It’s believed that 15,000 or more people were originally buried throughout the full cemetery, which extended beyond the current building site.) After scholars learned as much as possible about what those remains tell us about African-American life in the New York colony, each set of remains was carefully placed in individual coffins, handmade by craftsmen from Ghana, and then interred on the grounds of the new African Burial Ground National Monument. The federal office building was eventually completed next door, and the first floor of that building now houses the monument’s Visitors’ Center.

The Visitors’ Center is very well done, educating visitors about a number of important and interesting themes. I’m not always a fan of Visitors’ Center introductory films, but the one here is excellent. It’s not very long (only 15-20 minutes), and definitely worth taking the time to see it.

One of the first things that grabs your attention is this life-sized burial scene, complete with audio. You can even sit on one of the benches located nearby, absorbing the solemnity of the burial of one slave family’s husband and father and another family’s infant child.

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As you explore further, you will learn more about the challenges that slaves faced in colonial New York City, including details about their working and living conditions. You will encounter a few slaves (as well as free African Americans) that we know more about because of historical records, and you will be able to read for yourself examples of the laws that were passed to maintain English colonists’ power over their African slaves.

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Artifacts such as this contemporary newspaper advertisement for runaway slaves were sobering.

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If you are interested in archaeology, you will find the parts of the exhibition that focus on the exhumed graves fascinating. The exhibit includes photos of each of the graves – here are just a few of them.

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Additionally, the exhibit demonstrates how much scholars were able to learn about the health, working conditions, etc. of each buried person by providing a lot more information about one individual, Burial No. 101.

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The outdoor monument is a peaceful, architecturally striking place. Its design is filled with multiple layers of meaning, from the mounds of earth covered in green grass, where the excavated remains were reburied, to African symbols and their translations, to various commemorations of the dead. Here are a few of the photos I took of the monument to give you a sense of what the space is like.

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Located only a short distance from City Hall, the African Burial Ground National Monument is easily reached by public transportation. A number of subway stations are located within walking distance of the monument and visitor’s center: take the 1, 2, 3, J, Z, A, or C trains to their respective Chambers Street stations; the 4, 5, or 6 to the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station; the E to the World Trade Center station; the N or R trains to City Hall; or the 2 or 3 to Park Place. The memorial’s visitor center is located on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. The memorial is located behind the building and is accessible from Duane Street. The African Burial Ground National Monument and Visitors’ Center is free.

Uniforms as Fashion Inspiration at the FIT Museum

New York City is known for fashion, and there are a number of museums that host fashion exhibitions. (In fact, I’ve previously written about a few of those exhibitions here, here, and here.) What many people don’t know is that there is a museum entirely dedicated to fashion in New York City, and it’s free. The Fashion Institute of Technology has its own small museum, a little gem with rotating exhibitions.

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The current exhibition, titled Uniformity, explores the connections between uniforms and high fashion. As visitors tour the museum, they discover 4 categories of uniforms: school, sports, work, and military. Curators have juxtaposed those uniforms with fashion designs that take inspiration from uniform details and silhouettes.

Here are just a few examples of the uniforms and fashion exhibits in Uniformity. I’ve included identifications and designers in each photo’s caption.

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Left: Designer Claire McCardell, 1947-1950; Right: Man’s WWII U.S. Air Corps uniform, 1945
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Left: designer John Bartlett, Spring 2011; Middle: designer Michael Kors, Fall 2013; Right: designer Richard James, 2002
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Left: U.S. Air Force uniform flight suit, 1940-1945; Right: U.S. Coast Guard uniform flight suit, 1970s
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Designer Elio Fiorucci, circa 1976
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Designer Stan Herman, TWA flight attendant uniforms, 1975
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Left: school uniform from Eton College, 1390; Right: designer Thom Browne, 2006
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Left: man’s track uniform, c. 1925, USA; Right: Muratado Company, girl’s summer school uniform, 2010, Japan
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Left: McCarthy & Simon, school uniform for Marymount College, c. 1927; Right: designer Rudi Gernreich, Fall 1967

There are still a couple of months to catch the Uniformity exhibition in person – it continues until November 19, 2016. The FIT Museum is located at the corner of 27th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. The closest subway station is the 1 train’s 28th Street station, only a short block away from the museum’s entrance. It’s a slightly longer walk to take the R or N train to 28th Street, or the F or M train to 23rd Street.