The 16 Best Fashion Exhibitions to See in 2021

The global spike in Covid-19 cases has caused in-person events—including the fashion weeks—to be canceled, digital presentations mounted in their stead. Exhibitions have gone a similar route, with digital showrooms cropping up since March 2020. This year brings a stellar selection of fashion exhibitions which dig deep into style history—see: the retrospectives of Martin Margiela or Thierry Mugler. There are also roundups on the history of handbags, 18th-century shoes and even a new fashion museum in Belgium that celebrates the likes of Raf Simons and Ann Demeulemeester. While you’re staying at home, why not check out some virtual fashion exhibitions online, or some in person later in 2021, when it’s safe to do so? From London to New York and Paris, here are the top 16 fashion exhibitions to catch this year.

“Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design”
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

The renowned costume designer Ruth E. Carter has worked on the sets of Do the Right Thing, Selma, and Black Panther (which led to her historic Oscars win as the first Black woman to take home the best costume design award). To celebrate her expansive career in Hollywood, the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, Georgia is hosting her first retrospective. The exhibition will be on view until September 21, 2021.

“Martin Margiela”
Martin Margiela

Opening on April 15 at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, Belgian avant-garde designer Martin Margiela is staging his first solo show—as an artist. Paintings, sculptures, and photographs will be on view, but more details are being kept under wraps. The exhibit is meant to be one total artwork, and will also showcase never-before-seen pieces. It’s regarded as something of a comeback exhibition, after the designer retired from Maison Margiela in 2009. A multimedia exhibition, the show will feature new works themed around the passage of time, chance, and mystery. In the meantime, check out the foundation’s media library, which boasts videos, playlists, and an online exhibition of filmmaker Wu Tsang.

“Bags: Inside Out”
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a huge group exhibition devoted to handbags, which runs until September 12. From Birkin bags to Louis Vuitton luggage and bags by the artist Tracey Emin, the show examines the style, design, and craftsmanship of the art of the handbag. The highlights include a backpack created by Stella McCartney x Parley for the Oceans, a frog-shaped purse from the 17th century, and Mulberry purses from the private collections of Kate Moss and Alexa Chung. Peruse the exhibit online or sign up for an online lecture about sustainability and bags on March 19, which brings together industry leaders in eco-design.

Thierry Mugler: “Couturissime”

From the 1970s to the early 2000s, Thierry Mugler changed the face of fashion, again and again. Whether he was defining the look of the 1980s, or working with iconic models Jerry Hall and Iman, “I have always been fascinated by the most beautiful animal on earth: the human being,” said Mugler. “I used all the tools that were at my disposal to sublimate it: fashion, staging of shows, perfumes, photography, video.” Now, the designer’s retrospective “Couturissime” opens at the Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris this fall (after debuting at the Musée des beaux-arts in Montréal). This retrospective looks at how one man changed contemporary fashion with his singular vision.

Anne Imhof: “Carte Blanche”
Nadine Fraczkowski

German artist Anne Imhof may be well-known for winning the Golden Lion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, but her work doesn’t stop there. The artist, who recently collaborated on projects with Juergen Teller and Riccardo Tisci, is staging an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris this fall, as part of the museum’s “Carte Blanche” series. Imhof will be combining performance art with music, installation, and painting. And it’s bound to include androgynous model Eliza Douglas, her longtime partner and muse.

“Chintz: Cotton in Bloom ”
Studio Noorderblik

Opening March 12 at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London is this exhibition exploring the history of fabrics. “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom“ looks at the history of chintz fabric throughout England and Europe, the cotton textile bearing multicolored patterns (think: grandma’s flower curtains). Over 150 different fabrics will be on view, from 18th century millinery to Japanese dresses and Indian tablecloths.


If you think you own a lot of shoes, think again. The Fashion Bath in England is opening an exhibition called “Shoephoria! on March 29, which features highlights from their collection of 3,000 shoes. On view will be designer heels by Vivienne Westwood, Jimmy Choo, and Versace, as well as Queen Victoria’s boots from the 1850s, and casualwear, from Dr. Martens to Converse sneakers. The lineup proves to be for the quintessential shoe addict. Until the museum opens physically on March 29, check out their online exhibition of “Fashion From the 1970s and 1980s.”

“Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture”
Karl Ferris

Slated to open September 3 at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture looks at how flower power influenced style during the Woodstock era. The style of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix will be on view alongside garments from historic boutiques, like the Kings Road shop Granny Takes a Trip, which opened in 1966, to the influence of British fashion designer Thea Porter, who is credited with bringing Middle Eastern style to London.

“Head to Toe”

Opening this spring at The Museum at FIT, this New York exhibit looks at the accessories integral to fashion, from shoes to handbags. Head to Toe features over 200 years of accessories in Western fashion, including a silk parasol from the 19th century to extravagant feather-clad hats and lace dresses and fans, as well as Manolo Blahnik pumps and a black satin purse from 1915.

The MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp

Antwerp is a world-class hub of fashion history, from its avant-garde designers Dries Van Noten and Dirk Bikkembergs to its famed fashion school. Now, Belgium’s foremost fashion museum, The Mode Museum, is reopening in Antwerp after a grand renovation on September 4. Expect to see an expanded library, archive (boasting over 30,000 items) and a new exhibition space detailing the history of Belgian fashion, including luminaries like Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, and Raf Simons. In the meantime, the museum has over 100 videos from their archive online.

“The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment”

What sort of footwear prevailed during the Age of Enlightenment? The exhibit “The Great Divide: Footwear in the Age of Enlightenment” details how garments and shoes spelled out social codes, and was a way to parade privilege. On view at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto until February 2022, see a selection of shoes from the 17th and 18th century; from embroidered slippers with bows to beaded heels, and sequins made from beetle wings. The museum has an online video series detailing the shoemaking process, from the past to present.

“Feminine Singular: Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent”

Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris studio-turned-museum features an exhibition honoring one of the designer’s most beloved muses—fashion icon Betty Catroux (who is 76 today and still fabulous). Curated by the brand’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello, over 50 pieces from the archive reveal Catroux’s influence on Saint Laurent’s signature style. “She’s perfect in my clothes,” Saint Laurent said in 1968, “Just what I like: long, long, long.” It runs until May 9, though the museum’s entire archive is available to browse online, boasting over 2,800 works.

“Alaïa and Balenciaga” at the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation
Stéphane Aït Ouarab

The famed French-Tunisian designer’s foundation in Paris is currently showing an exhibition called “Alaïa and Balenciaga – Sculptors of Form,” which showcases a series of dresses, coats, and suits by the two designers who changed the face of fashion. It runs until February 14 and a video tour of the exhibition is on the foundation’s website. They’re also planning to open a new restaurant and café this spring, which pairs high-end cuisine with designer furniture (with lighting by Le Corbusier and chairs by Harry Bertoia).

Pierre Cardin Museum

Though the legendary Paris designer Pierre Cardin passed away last month, his namesake museum in Paris carries on Cardin’s legacy. Over 80 different mannequins display the designer’s storied career as a space age, futuristic fashion pioneer. The permanent exhibition features over 250 haute couture designs from 1950 to 2000 (and the museum selects garments from their archive of 4,000 archived items). Don’t forget to check out the recent documentary on the designer, House of Cardin.

“Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI”

The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City highlights how French fashion thrived during the First World War. Designers like Coco Chanel and Hermès created military-inspired fashion and modern linework during a time when fabrics were rationed, demonstrating how the French fashion industry adapted to the scarcity of materials. “Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI” features historic clothing women wore during the war—including the shift from corsets to bras. The exhibit runs until April 11, though their online exhibition looks at the power of commercial advertising during the war called “The Poster: Visual Persuasion in WWI.”

“America 1970s/80s”
Helmut Newton Estate

German fashion photographer Helmut Newton sexed up glossy magazines in a time when overt sexuality was deemed crude. His vision continues in a group exhibit at Berlin’s Helmut Newton Foundation – Museum for Photography, which celebrates beefcake culture, California babes, and Hollywood celebrities—from Sigourney Weaver to Elizabeth Taylor and David Lynch. On view until May 16 America 1970s/80s features photos by Evelyn Hofer, Sheila Metzner, and Joel Meyerowitz, showing American culture at its best, worst, and weirdest.