July 30, 2010

"American Woman" Part II

In May I visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" produced in sumptuous style by The Costume Institute. Yesterday I rode the Number 2 train out to Eastern Parkway to visit the sister exhibition "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" at The Brooklyn Museum. While not as atmospheric as the Met's production, Brooklyn's 80+ mannequins are dressed in historic and vintage clothing that are masterpieces in their genres.

Over nearly a century, The Brooklyn Museum had assembled a costume and textile collection that numbered more than 24,000 pieces and was incomparable in its range and depth. Due in part to the ingenious "Textile Study Room" and later "Design Lab" the museum provided a rare link between the art world and the industrial and design communities, and, as an added benefit, encouraged fabulous donations by some leading fashionistas of the time.

By the 1960's, the research and educational branches of the Design Lab were moved to the newly established Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. In the past few years the Museum has found the cost of maintaining and preserving these textile treasures to be prohibitive and in January 2009 worked out an arrangement with The Costume Institute whereby the Metropolitan received the entire magnificent collection but Brooklyn reserved the right to borrow back pieces as it wished. The result was a win-win situation for both museums and for the fashions themselves which can now be properly cared for and are more likely to be seen by the public.

Which brings me to the current exhibition, a sort of "swan song" for the jewels of the collection featuring gowns and accessories by French and American designers from the 1850's to the 1970's. Beginning with the House of Worth and its fully bustled lavender silk taffeta confection created for the Empress Eugénie in 1860, moving through Elsa Sciaparelli's 1939 Surrealist inspired dress and gloves covered with colorful embroidered musical notes, past 1940's beach ensembles by Claire McCardell (see right), and culminating in Charles James' 1955 "Butterfly" ball gown, which, comprising 18 pounds and 25 yards of tulle, is hardly butterfly-like in weight but certainly in form and imagination, there are many fabulous things to see.

Of particular interest in this show are the occasional "Rarities" on display. Seemingly incongruous with the exhibition, they are often goofy, always fascinating oddities within the historical and social contexts of fashion. I had to smile at the 1920's satin couture dog coat and leash by Galline, the green velvet and cord hat made by John Frederics for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind", the smartly tailored 1940's waitress and milkman uniforms by Helen Cookman and finally laughed out loud at some of the evening shoe designs done in the late 1930's by Steven Arpad (see left).

Historic pieces include a black silk twill gown worn by Queen Victoria in an 1896 portrait family portrait (the only un-sylphlike bodyshape in the show), a group of opulent Russian headdress' from the early 1800's, and a marvelous series of miniature mannequins outfitted in the finest of French couture and sent as a gift from the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne as thanks for American generosity in rebuilding France after World War II.

We tend to overlook Brooklyn as a center for culture and fashion, but a show like this reminds us that what is now a borough within New York City, was once a thriving metropolis all by itself and contributed greatly to the arts and sciences. A visit to "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" recalls a more glamorous time in the world of vogue and the golden years of this community's past.

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