11 July 2010

American Woman

"Lucile Brokaw, Piping Rock Beach, Long Island" Martin Munkacsi (1933)

I recently spent a Saturday morning touring the "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" exhibit at the Met. It is absolutely breathtaking, showcasing amazing costumes (in pristine condition) from 1890 to 1940. Each room is dedicated to a different decade and the archetype of the American woman who dominated the fashion scene of the day. As you proceed through the rooms and history, you witness not only the changing fashions but the liberation women gained with each passing decade. You also realize how sloppy most women dress today (after this, you'll want to don a pair of white gloves and a hat the next time you leave your home).

The Heiresses. Photo: Mrs. Parker.

The first room, with a backdrop based on the ballroom from the Astors' Beechwood Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, is fittingly enough called "The Heiress." The mannequins dressed in gowns from the House of Worth bring to mind images of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (one of my favourite heroines) and reminds us that the corseted heiresses of the time, while wealthy, had little freedom of their own. (I snapped the image above by the way with my iPhone before a guard proceeded to tell me there was no photography allowed. I told her I wasn't using a flash, but no go).

Mrs. Parker and some friends. Photo: Jason Kempin.

The rooms continue: "The Gibson Girl" features sporting women in adorable sailor bathing suits and bicycle outfits; "The Bohemian" includes loose gowns with no need of a corset and a display of dainty shoes by Pietro Yantorny decorated with silk satin and Venetian lace; "The Patriot and the Suffragist" displays uniforms donned during the war and film footage of suffragists marching for the right to vote; and "The Flapper," with a backdrop inspired by Tamara de Lempicka, showcases drop waist gowns, cloche hats, and hairstyles that look suspiciously familiar. 

Anna May Wong in the dragon dress from Limehouse Blues.

It is the final decade though, "The Screen Siren" in the 1930s, that is probably the most impressive. With slinky gowns given names like La Sirene, Athena, and Helen of Troy, and the dragon gown worn by Anna May Wong in Limehouse Blues, the room is the epitome of sophistication. Projected on the surrounding walls are clips of some of the greatest screen stars of the 1930s. Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, among others, show us how these gowns are to be worn and define the word "glamour."

The exhibit ends with a video display of American woman from the past to the present. I understand that the juxtaposition of icons (Josephine Baker dances next to Beyonce) is meant to show the influence of the past on the present but the bright lights and Lenny Kravitz belting out American Woman seemed a bit jarring after the dimly lit rooms of costumes. The montage does feature a brief clip of Louise Brooks so I had to stay and watch the display, twice.

The small gift shop, located at the end of the exhibit, has some lovely items, including a pin that spells out "heiress" in rhinestones. The exhibit runs through August 15th so if you're in New York, please find the time to check it out. You won't be disappointed.

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