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Fashion Diary: Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's 'American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity'

May 4, 2010 | 10:00 am
American women were defining themselves through fashion long before Lady Gaga doffed her bottoms to get to the top and Michelle Obama wore a J. Crew cardigan and pencil skirt to telegraph that she's just like us.

Gibson girls wore split skirts and went cycling to proclaim their independence. Suffragists dressed in tricolors to signify solidarity. Flappers shimmied in chemise dresses to express sexual freedom.

This liberated approach to dressing is the focus of a historical exhibition that opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 15 at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" looks at perceptions of womanhood in mass media from the 1890s to the 1940s, focusing on archetypes of femininity created through dress.

Galleries are devoted to feminine archetypes — the heiress, the Gibson girl, the bohemian, the suffragist, the patriot, the flapper and the screen siren — with period clothing culled from permanent collections at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum bringing those archetypes to life.
The first gallery addresses the 1890s heiress as immortalized in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton. It is filled with ball gowns by leading European couturiers of the day, including a pale blue gown by Charles Frederick Worth, with butterfly-shaped rhinestone, silk and bead embroideries that seem to flutter off the dress.

"There was a vulgarity Europeans associated with American women in the 1890s because they themselves were so obsessed with moods and manners," says Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute. "People like Daisy Miller [the namesake character of the James novella] stood outside of social structures and were always more liberated."

The second gallery is devoted to the Gibson girl — a tall, slender character with long limbs, classical features and hair tied in a bun, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Debuting in Life magazine in 1890, the Gibson girl popularized a slim, athletic figure that was very different from the curvier French ideal. (Go figure — now it's French women who don't get fat.)

The Gibson girl's wardrobe was full of practical pieces that could be worn for a range of physical activities, including a cycling suit with a bifurcated skirt that is one of the rarest pieces in the exhibit. "The Gibson girl came out of the domestic sphere through sport," Bolton explains. "And the bohemian came out of the domestic sphere through the arts."

Flouting convention, the bohemian dressed in looser, uncorseted garments inspired by Classicism and Orientalism, such as the fluid, yellow silk charmeuse 1910 Callot Soeurs jumpsuit on view, worn by socialite Rita Lydig. That's right, a jumpsuit in 1910.

The patriot archetype is served by World War I military uniforms in one gallery, while a collection of chemise dresses brings the flapper to life in another. One of the most beautiful was designed by Jeanne Lanvin in peach silk crepe with circles of gold embroidery. "The flapper was the [extension] of the Gibson girl," says Bolton. "She was someone who challenged men and was sexually and economically liberated." (One of the more interesting revelations in the exhibit is that French couturier Jean Patou came to America in 1924 to recruit American models because of how appealing he found their "slender American Diana" body types to be.)

But more than any other archetype, the screen siren "represented the vehicle of modernity," Bolton says. "While the flapper was girlish and flirtatious, the screen siren was womanly and sensuous." Gowns designed by Charles James, Madame Gres and Chanel accentuated curves and reinforced an image of female independence that is still a global export today. The star of this gallery is a black silk charmeuse evening dress from 1934 designed by Travis Banton for Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, with gold and silver sequins in a dragon motif spiraling around the bodice

Although  women have advanced since the 1940s, Bolton believes some of the archetypes are still relevant today, naming examples of the slim athletic flapper (Kirsten Dunst, Winona Ryder), and the screen siren (Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie).

It's certainly true that glossy magazines, including exhibit sponsor Vogue, spill mountains of ink every month trying to fit women neatly into one of the two molds, even as they preach the gospel of inclusiveness by featuring size 10 models upon occasion.

But thankfully, when it comes to representations of women in the media, that's not all there is. You only have to look to Oprah Winfrey, one of the hosts of the exhibition's gala opening, for proof of that.

-- Booth Moore

Photo (top): In the Flapper Gallery are a Edward Molyneux-designed dress (left) and others by anonymous French and American designers, 1924-28. Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images

Photo (center): The Bohemian Gallery features three Callot Soeurs evening ensembles. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo (bottom): Gowns by Charles James, from left, Madame Eta and Jeanne Lanvin are seen in the Screen Siren Gallery. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala red carpet

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