Arts

American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity

1895-1900 Worth ball gown
1895-1900 Worth ball gown

Introduction

The spring 2010 exhibition organized by The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, the first drawn from the newly established Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Met. The exhibition, on view from May 5 through August 15, 2010, explores developing perceptions of the modern American woman from the 1890s to the 1940s, and how they have affected the way American women are seen today. Focusing on archetypes of American femininity through dress, the exhibition reveals how the American woman initiated style revolutions that mirrored her social, political, and sartorial emancipation. Early mass-media representations of American women established the fundamental characteristics of American style – a theme explored via a multimedia installation in the final gallery.

“The ideal of the American woman evolved from a dependence on European, Old World view of elegance into an independent New World sensibility that reflected freedoms still associated with American women today,” said Andrew Bolton, Curator of The Costume Institute. “The show looks at fashion’s role in defining how American women have been represented historically, and how fashion costumes women into archetypes that persist in varying degrees of relevance.”

1896–1898 Cycle Suit
1896–1898 Cycle Suit

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition features 80 examples of haute couture and high fashion primarily from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was transferred to the Met from the Brooklyn Museum in January 2009. Many of the pieces have not been seen by the public in more than 30 years.

Visitors walk through time as they enter circular galleries that reflect the milieu of each feminine archetype. Period clothing is brought to life with hand-painted panoramas animated by music, video, and lighting. The first gallery evokes the ballroom of the “Heiress” (1890s), filled with ball gowns by Charles Frederick Worth. Scenes of the great outdoors showcase the athleticism and physical independence of the “Gibson Girl” (1890s) as characterized by bathing costumes, riding ensembles, and cycling suits.

An artistic rendering of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio in New York provides the backdrop for the “Bohemian” (early 1900s), an archetype represented by Rita Lydig and featuring her signature silk pantaloons by Callot Soeurs. The “Suffragist” and “Patriot” (1910s) have backdrops of archival film footage revealing the gradual political emancipation of women after World War I.

1895 sweater
1895 sweater

“Flappers” (1920s) are evoked through simple, practical chemise dresses for day by Patou, and heavily beaded styles for evening by Lanvin and Molyneux, shown against a mural of New York City inspired by the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka. Cinematic representations of the “Screen Siren” presented in a gallery resembling a 1930s cinema, showcase body-cleaving, second-skin bias-cut gowns, including a dress designed by Travis Banton for Anna May Wong in the film Limehouse Blues (1934). In the final gallery, projected images of American women from 1890 to the present explore how American style has evolved from characteristics represented by each of the exhibition’s archetypes.

Designers in the exhibition include Travis Banton, Gabrielle Chanel, Callot Soeurs, Madame Eta, Elizabeth Hawes, Madame Grès, Charles James, Jeanne Lanvin, Liberty & Company, Edward Molyneux, Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jessie Franklin Turner, Valentina, Madeleine Vionnet, Weeks, Charles Frederick Worth, and Jean-Philippe Worth, among others. A concurrent exhibition of masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection, at the Brooklyn Museum (May 7–August 1, 2010) looks at 19th- and 20th-century masterworks by designers including Madame Grès, Charles James, Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Charles Frederick Worth collected by prominent women including Lauren Bacall, Dominique de Menil, and Millicent Rogers. Many of these pieces have never previously been exhibited. This exhibition is organized by Jan Glier Reeder, Consulting Curator of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [source]

See the Collection Database for a list of works included in this exhibition.

Photographs courtesy of The Met’s Costume Institute

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Comments

5 thoughts on “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity”

  1. I’m glad you did this lovely overview of the exhibit. I’m planning to visit later this summer and and looking forward to it very much. ^-^

  2. I’m glad you did this lovely overview of the exhibit. I’m planning to visit later this summer and and looking forward to it very much. ^-^

  3. I went to this exhibit last week. It was wonderful!!! Have you guys had a chance to see this collection yet? If not, really hope you do before it ends.

    Each gallery really makes you feel as if you were back in time! I loved it and would go again if I had the time.

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