Museum Exhibits Define Fashion and the American Woman

The Screen Siren portion of the Met exhibition shows glamorous dresses for the sophisticated, self-confident women depicted during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

We suspected the minute we walked out the door in our Union Jack dress, similar to the one made famous by Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls, that it was a mistake. But in the mid-’90s, we were more sartorially adventurous. Two of our friends walked way ahead of us that day almost 15 years ago, while one bravely stuck by our side. (We remain good friends with only the latter, so we learned a lesson in loyalty and in fashion.)

So we felt somewhat vindicated when we saw the Union Jack dress was recently named in a British poll as one of the top 10 most iconic dresses of the past 50 years, along with Princess Diana’s wedding gown and Marilyn Monroe’s infamous white dress, vulnerable to subway winds in The Seven Year Itch. Shine from Yahoo! soon responded with an American list — overlap with the Brit list includes Jennifer Lopez’s Versace Grammy dress and Audrey Hepburn’s black dress and pearls from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Though Monroe’s breezy frock doesn’t technically fall within the 50-year time frame, her skintight “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” Jean Louis dress from 1962 makes the cut.) Two current New York City exhibitions further explore American fashion: American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through Aug. 15, and American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection at the Brooklyn Museum, through Aug. 1.

The exhibitions mark the creation of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Met, with the transfer of the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive fashion archives to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 80 pieces in American Woman are divided by archetype from the 1890s through 1930s, against period backdrops. “The Heiress” — think novels by Henry James and Edith Wharton — largely relied on Parisian fashions from Pingat, Doucet and Worth, often purchased with a family’s newly acquired fortune. In 1890, the “Gibson Girl” emerged as an “American type,” distinct from European standards — tall and slender with a sporty, independent spirit. (Though the tennis ensemble of a long skirt might not seem very liberating in these days of Venus Williams, the riding, bathing and cycling clothes signify increasing emancipation.)

The Met exhibit also portrays the bohemian arts patron of the early 1900s, as well as “The Patriot and the Suffragist,” with footage of suffragist marches and World War I women’s efforts. The slim, athletic flapper of the 1920s returns to the figure established with the Gibson Girl, but with an added feeling of sexual freedom and modernity. With straight silhouettes and low-slung waists, the styles often have fun touches, such as bugle beads, sequins, rhinestones and embroidery.

Our favorite is “The Screen Siren” — fiercely independent, glamorous, sophisticated and self-confident, with elegant, draping gowns that also show sensuality. This part of the exhibition includes clips of stars such as Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn and Anna May Wong, whose elaborate dragon dress from Limehouse Blues is displayed. A multimedia finale, to the tune of Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman,” shows images of famous Americans, including Beyoncé, Cher, Ellen DeGeneres, Lady Gaga, Deborah Harry, Beverly Johnson, Grace Kelly, Madonna, Michelle Obama and Gloria Steinem. The Met offers an audio guide (available for $5–$7) narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, a fashion icon in her own right, along with her Sex and the City character, Carrie Bradshaw.

While the Brooklyn Museum’s American High Style features Worth pieces, such as a regal 1893 evening dress, and a flapper ensemble by Jeanne Lanvin, you’ll also see fashions from the 1940s–70s on some of the 85 mannequins. Our favorites include Arnold Scaasi’s 1958 polka dot dress paired with a swing coat and Charles James’ “Tree” red hourglass gown from 1955. More accessories are on display here than the Met — including Elsa Schiaparelli’s necklace of brightly colored insect figures and Steven Arpad’s innovative evening shoes.

We loved how these exhibitions show fashion being constantly reinterpreted. The mutton sleeves of the 1890s at the Met exhibit can be found in the exaggerated sleeves of Norman Norell’s evening ensemble from the early 1970s at the Brooklyn Museum. And Gilbert Adrian’s “The Tigress” from 1949 brought to mind Lopez’s most recent eye-catching fashion risks — Roberto Cavalli in leopard and tiger prints. And at this point, Lady Gaga seems to have reinterpreted everything we saw at the exhibits, including the Tiffany lamps.

We think these exhibits provide a thoughtful look at style and the evolution of the American woman though fashion. Perhaps we’ll keep our Spice Girls dress for posterity! What do you think are some of the most iconic dresses of the past 50 years — or beyond?

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  1. [...] year, at The American Woman fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City, we saw quite a few voluminous turn-of-the-century [...]

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