May 22, 2010

"American Woman" Part I

American women have come a long way in the last century, and no where is this better reflected than in the clothing styles of then and now.

This year The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute presents a special exhibition chronicling the changing perceptions of American women from 1890 to 1940 as reflected in the clothes they wore. "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" uses the language of dress to trace the evolution of American, and indeed global, femininity from the Gilded Age to modern times. Beyond just practical applications, these changes in style truly reflect the social, political and sexual revolutions that the 20th Century has seen in the role of women in our society.

The exhibition is beautifully installed with over 80 gowns and outfits displayed by the decade in sumptuously decorated galleries. Beginning with the 1890's era of "The Heiress" where elegant evening gowns by Worth are presented in a salon setting befitting an Edith Wharton novel, we move on to the relative athleticism of "The Gibson Girl". Here, the American ideal of a "slender Diana" is shown in its full glory with models wearing sporting costumes for activities from golf to tennis to horseback riding. The 1900's are represented by "The Bohemian" woman wearing designs by Liberty of London, Paul Poiret and Callot Soeurs in a re-creation of Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio, complete with original antique lamps.

The next gallery is not the most beautiful, but it is compelling and very important. The 1910's were the age of World War I, and while no physical fighting occurred here in the United States, a major conflict was being waged by women who served in the military overseas but were prohibited from voting here at home. "Patriots and Suffragettes" comes alive with film footage of female armed forces and women marching for the right to vote, alongside original military uniforms worn by nurses and other female veterans of The Great War.

1920 brought American woman the right to vote and was also the age of "The Flapper". Modernism is everywhere in this gallery from the decor inspired by Tamara de Lempicka to the fabulous chemise dresses with tassels and boas and beading by Jeanne Lanvin and Molyneux. And the glamor of the 1930's "Screen Siren" is revived with black and white film clips featuring Garbo, Hepburn and Horne and actual Hollywood gowns by Madelaine Vionnet, Madame Grès and Chanel. The final gallery wraps it all up with a video montage of American women from Josephine Baker to Venus Williams, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Madonna, driving home not only the unique style of women on this continent, but the evolution of women in general.

Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the lucky recipient of the entire fashion collection of The Brooklyn Museum. No longer able to properly care for or display their vast holdings in this field, they very generously gifted it to The Costume Institute with the stipulation that they can "borrow back" pieces as they wish. This exhibition is a celebration of the gift and is a special collaborative effort as The Brooklyn Museum simultaneously mounts "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" - a show that I will visit over the summer and report on in "American Woman - Part II".

This exhibition is more than a display of pretty dresses in lovely rooms - it is a true social history of women using sartorial landmarks and a pleasure for all who come through!

P.S. This week I am leaving on a big business trip through Europe so please stay tuned for blog posts from Stockholm, Berlin, London, Basel and a few other places too!

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