Arts and Entertainment

The Storytelling of Taylor Swift's Costumes

Taylor Swift: Storyteller takes a career-spanning look at the outfits that have brought pop star Taylor Swift's imaginative worlds to life.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Rhea Malhotra

The second floor of the Museum of Arts and Design is abuzz with noise: feet shuffle across the polished wooden floors, excited visitors chatter amongst themselves, and the unmistakable melody of a Taylor Swift song fills the air. Capitalizing on the overwhelming force of Swift’s unmatched popularity as she embarks on her 2023 Eras Tour (Swift's sixth headlining concert tour!), the museum's newest exhibit, Taylor Swift: Storyteller, displays nearly 30 iconic outfits from Swift’s illustrious career.

Swift is best described not as an artist, but as a one-in-a-million cultural phenomenon. Since the beginning of her music career with the release of her self-titled album, Taylor Swift in 2006, Swift has captured the hearts of millions and cemented herself as a pop culture icon with her vulnerable lyricism and charming vocals. Through her music, the 12-time Grammy-winning artist has carefully curated enchanting, captivating worlds for her devoted fanbase, spinning compelling tales of love, loss, yearning, and everything in between. Swift’s talent for worldbuilding is especially showcased by her dazzling concert attire and wildly imaginative music videos, which masterfully translate her lyrics into visuals that hide “Easter eggs” for her fans to unearth. As Museum of Arts and Design director Tim Rodgers said in an interview with Artnet News, “The music is telling you a certain story, and she uses costumes and props in order to build upon those stories and characters she’s creating [...] Yes, this [exhibit] is about Taylor Swift, but this is about something bigger than Taylor Swift, too.”

Taylor Swift: Storyteller gathers Swift’s most recognizable looks in one place, allowing viewers to marvel at all the different costumes that have defined Swift’s career. The exhibit is full of eye-catching ensembles, ephemera, and bedazzled stage guitars worn by Swift over the years, with many of her most famous outfits on display. For instance, the first costumes visitors see when they enter the exhibit are the cheerleader and ballerina ensembles from the music video for "Shake It Off" (2014), which made Swift the only female artist to hit three billion views on a YouTube video. One mannequin, wearing the cheerleader uniform from the music video, strikes its arms out defiantly. It is the exact stereotype of a cheerleader costume, with a bright, gaudy blue and yellow color scheme, a tiny skirt, and an even tinier top with Swift’s initials emblazoned in block letters across the front. Two large, shiny pom-poms tie the outfit together perfectly. Meanwhile, another mannequin wearing Swift’s iconic ballerina costume sits gracefully at the cheerleader’s feet, a white nylon tutu embroidered with sparkles fanning out around its legs. These getups are a nod to a common theme in Swift’s storytelling, namely, her efforts to defy stereotypes that pigeonhole women into commonly feminine roles. In the music video, Swift utilizes these costumes to take on the persona of a clumsy, inept performance artist who stumbles over her own feet despite her flawless, feminine appearance. Swift broadcasts the message that not all women fit perfectly into the rigid roles that society sets for them as part of her subtle venture into what femininity looks like in the 21st century.

Moving deeper into the exhibit, there are also more humble yet equally impactful articles of clothing on display. These pieces include Swift’s rumpled orange striped shirt from her folklore (2020) album photoshoot and her flowy off-white blouse from the cover art of her first re-recorded album, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) (2021). Plain pieces like these show a much more tender and raw side of Swift (much like the albums from which they originate); she sheds her more grandiose outfits in exchange for simpler clothes that show her just as she is, rather than presenting an elaborate persona. By “dressing down,” Swift effectively brings herself down to Earth and conveys to her doting fans that, despite her superstar status, she is every bit as relatable and human as they are.

The showstoppers of the exhibit are grouped together in a line at the farthest end of the floor, neatly displaying particularly exquisite feats of costume design. There, Swift’s most elaborate and intricate looks demand visitors’ attention. Viewers are immediately drawn to Swift’s huge red wedding gown from her “I Bet You Think About Me” (2021) music video, in which Swift portrays a would-be bride who crashes her ex’s wedding. The dress poofs out in a spill of scarlet tulle and handmade flowers, the red conveying Swift’s rebelliousness and newfound independence from her past. The vivid red also works to defy gender norms of the docile bride dressed in pure, innocent white, instead uplifting Swift’s feminist message by introducing her as an authentic, bold woman who is wholly confident in herself. Looks like this emphasizes the larger-than-life, sparkling grandeur that makes Swift’s creative vision so special and the powerful meaning that lies underneath her music.

The costume exhibit is completed by huge, blown-up images of Swift’s lyrics (in her own handwriting, of course) adorning the walls and her loopy signature projected onto the ground. Additionally, two large screens on either end of the exhibit constantly project various music videos from her career, from her wacky and upbeat “You Need To Calm Down” (2019) video to her harrowing “All Too Well” (2021) short film. Ultimately, Taylor Swift: Storyteller is a cohesive visual glimpse into the characters, scenarios, and worlds that Swift has eloquently crafted in her music. However, though the museum is adamant that the exhibit is for everyone—not just Swift superfans—the exhibit is fairly inaccessible to those with little prior knowledge of Swift’s work; this is further reinforced by the lack of placards contextualizing the costumes and analyzing their significance. 

Nevertheless, the exhibit is undoubtedly a sensory delight with music and breathtaking outfits surrounding visitors on all sides—a must-see for any Swiftie. It encourages a new appreciation for the visual aspect of Swift’s worldbuilding and truly illustrates her range as an artist, depicting her as everything from a peppy but unskilled athlete to a show-stealing (non-)bride. The looks shown are extremely diverse, but they are all still distinctively Swiftian in their originality and unspoken depth, highlighting her significance in pop culture and her prominence as not only a musician but a talented storyteller.