Left: A custom costume designed by Marina Toybina (photo Bruce M. White, courtesy MAD); right: Taylor Swift wearing the costume while performing “All Too Well” (2012) during the 2013-2014 RED tour (photo Christie Goodwin/TAS Rights Management, courtesy MAD)

Just when you thought the Taylor Swift media frenzy had finally died after her last MetLife concert, the megalith pop star rises again, this time at Manhattan’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). On view through September 4, Taylor Swift: Storyteller exhibits dresses, guitars, jewelry, and props the musician has used throughout her nearly two-decade-long career.

After 17 years, Swift’s career is somehow still gaining steam. A floor below MAD’s bustling exhibition, the museum’s gift shop hawks Taylor Swift merch to her ever-growing fanbase. Swift just performed this past weekend at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where 70,000 people filled the seats at three sold-out performances as part of her 52-show Eras tour. Additional fans listened outside the stadium.

The show is on view through September 4. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Visitors to the Taylor Swift: Storyteller exhibition are immediately greeted by a blown-up reproduction of the hand-scrawled lyrics to the 2012 hit “All Too Well” (10-minute version), the magnificently recounted story of a past love (Jake Gyllenhaal) which has largely become Swift’s magnum opus. Toward the back, the penned lyrics of “Tim McGraw” (2006), Swift’s first single which she wrote at 14, are also painted on the wall. The small gallery space projects Swift music videos with their soundtracks blaring.

The exhibition includes two iterations of Swift’s iconic “Fearless dress” — the sparkly fringed garment she wore with cowboy boots in early-career appearances and has revisited in subsequent performances. (As an Eras tour attendee, I can confirm that the majority of fans, myself included, attempted some form of this outfit.)

A flowing Marchesa gown from the Speak Now (2010) tour recalls the era when Swift dressed as a princess. A Red (2012) dress references when she went for the cringy indie style of the early 2010s (jazz shoes?!), and a 1989 (2014) costume updates the fringed costume in bright green. A Lover (2019) displays the vibrant colors she wore in the music videos for the heartwarming album she wrote when she was dating her then-boyfriend Joe Alwyn.

Swift’s BCBG May Azria dress and custom boots by Liberty (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

One of the best pieces in the show is a frilly sky-blue dress that Swift wore in 2007 when she opened on Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s joint tour. She was 16. It’s from BCBG Maxazria, a decidedly less “designer” mall brand than subsequent Swift outfitters. It gives more “eighth-grade graduation” than “global superstar.” The dress is simultaneously completely dated to 2007 and adorably timestamped in girly teenagerdom. It emerges as a rare object from Swift’s early career and a completely bygone time period in her celebrity: Before she had an ever-present PR team, maybe this is something Swift just picked out and liked.

The show is not quite chronological, frequently showcasing seemingly random outfits side-by-side. As I meandered through years and albums presented throughout the exhibition, it struck me that perhaps its greatest draw is simply Swift’s celebrity — the idea that she touched the nearly 50 objects just feet away on the other side of the glass display cases — and not the objects themselves.

Swift is simultaneously obsessed with and dismissive of her aesthetic, consistently self-aware that she is playing dress while outwardly maintaining the same personality regardless of her current look on stage. She has a different look for each “era,” which is what she calls each of her 10 albums. At the May 19 Boston concert I attended, Swift admitted that creating the folklore (2020) pandemic album in the style of deep-woods cottage-core was a way to pretend she wasn’t “a millennial woman subsisting mostly on white wine.” Across the country, hundreds of thousands of Eras tour concertgoers all dress up to pay tribute to a specific album.

The display for the 2019 Lover era (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

The vast majority of the exhibition’s objects would only be recognized by the most die-hard fans. While sparkling and over-the-top, the costumes, many of which have been swiftly forgotten, make clear that Swift’s magic lies elsewhere: In how she writes, performs, and maintains a steadfast personality that has elicited a mass lovability and assembled a brigade of fans unprecedented in music history.

Tickets to Taylor Swift: Storyteller cost $25, with admission to the museum’s other exhibitions included.

Costumes Swift wore in her “Bejeweled” (2022) music video (photo by Bruce M. White; courtesy MAD) 

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.