Understanding American Fashion – A View from The MET's In America: An Anthology of Fashion
Outside of the exhibition “In America: An Anthology of Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What is an Anthology? Why Apply it to American Fashion?
An anthology, by definition, is a collection of poems, pieces of writing, or other forms of art. Anthologies strive to give information about a subject matter, while referencing selected works. A theme binds the selected pieces into a cohesive whole. The theme in this exhibition is how American fashion evolved its own identity and independence, reflecting a distinct culture.
The myriad contributions of American fashion are not always obvious considering how late the country’s fashion sector developed in comparison to its European counterparts. Most people do not stop to reflect on the development, artisanship, and beauty of American fashion. The museum’s current exhibition celebrates the early and modern designers of American fashion through two separate exhibitions, while educating the viewer about how fashion evolved from a specific culture and context. The exhibition called In America: An Anthology of Fashion houses many historical pieces as well as modern designs. An earlier, partner exhibition, focuses on the lexicon of fashion, providing the viewer with a sense of the cultural values evoked by signature designs that speak to the American spirit. Both exhibitions run through September 5th 2022.
The exhibition consists of different rooms displaying defining moments in American fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries. The rooms give the viewer insight into the domestic life of wealthy Americans. Each room has a narrative that reflects larger social developments, one being the rise of named designers. Playing on this theme, a cinematic vignette designed by nine different film directors like Chloe Zhao and Sofia Coppola blend contributions in fashion, design and cinema. All this creativity creates an anthology that contextualizes early American fashion.
The video link below by Andrew Bolton from the Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a great overview of the exhibition.
Exhibition Tour—In America: An Anthology of Fashion with Andrew Bolton
Which Designers Appear in the Exhibition?
A recurring theme for this exhibition is comparing life before and after significant developments in American fashion. One such development highlighted throughout the exhibition is the naming of designers. Before this time, designers worked in guilds or were simply seamstresses that designed for people but were never credited. During the early 19th century, designers began to emerge and recognized by name for their work. This was a great way for designers to finally build a reputation and gain exposure. Olympe Boisse who designed a pink taffeta and silk dress towards the beginning of the exhibition was one of the first designers to put her name on the label of the dress. Other designers mentioned are Claire McCardell an American designer who was inspired by French fashion, and of course, more modern designers like Oscar de la Renta are also included.
Photo of pink taffeta and silk dress made by designer Olympe Boisse.
How do Film Directors Tie into the Story?
Another recurring theme within the exhibition was storytelling. Visiting the exhibition, I felt as though I was walking onto a movie set! The rooms are vignettes constructed by nine different film directors, interpreting domestic scenes spanning American history. There was also a director’s blurb that explained the creative process. One room that had a very clear story was demonstrating American fashion and French style. The scene is set in Baltimore, a city, at the time that was thriving commercially and vibrant and colorful with art and fashion. The city’s fashion was inspired by the latest trends in Paris and London. France’s style encompassed simplicity and sophistication with narrow silhouettes and high waistlines, evident in the gown in the center of the room worn by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785-1879) daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant (see photo below). Her modified dress illustrates the more modest American interpretations that sets the design apart from the French style. The vignette shows a woman training a dog and three women talking to each other by a table filled with party favors and food. The Neoclassical room served as inspiration for director Autumn de Wilde.
Two photo display of scenes by Autumn de Wilde depicting a family celebration in Baltimore.
Why 19th and 20th century America?
During the 19th and 20th centuries, America was establishing itself as a nation and was still finding its own style. The domestic stories included in the exhibition describe how basic American life contributed to that style and culture. Something important to note is that these were not regular lives on display; rather, these were wealthy Americans who could afford to employ tailors or seamstresses to create unique designs for them. Most of the clothing you see in the rooms were not accessible to the public. The garments were collaborations between rich individuals and up and coming designers of the century. The people privileged to wear these garments had enough money to afford tailored clothes.
In turn, the designers also chose the people they made clothing for so that the wearer(s) would act as an “advertisement” of their work and talent. This was a time before modern media or news exposure through television or online news, designers relied on their clients to relay the message of their work. As mentioned previously, Olympe Boisse, a French-born designer, based in New Orleans, was the perfect example of designer independence and entrepreneurship. Boisse was one of the first known designers to put her own name on the tag of the clothing she made, and served to open up doors for many designers to be household names among the wealthy.
Photo of a scene created by director Martin Scorsese displaying the work of American designer Charles James (1906-1978).
Many of the rooms showed inspiration from other countries such as England and France. An important innovation at the time was the use of fashion plates through which Americans would see the new trends from overseas. Examples appear in a room called American Fashion and French Style where the vignette is of birthday celebration with a man, a woman, and what seems to be three other women conversing. The French styles appear in the high waistlines and narrow silhouettes of the dresses. Women at the time were striving for the simple and modest Parisian style during this time.
In the photo above of director Martin Scorsese’s scene, towards the back you see a black Brooks Brothers suit. Brooks Brothers is an iconic American brand that dates back to 1818 and it was interesting to see it included here. Often, ordinary people can’t see themselves as part of history because times have changed so drastically, so including Brooks Brothers connects past and presence while remaining relevant to the anthology.
Dress by Nettie Rosenstien (1890-1980) S.L. Klein Inc. Evening Dress, 1942 Ivory Silk gauze embroidered with gold metal strip and gold silk thread.
The fashion designer and film director, Tom Ford, curated the room titled “Battle of Versailles” which alludes to the historic fashion show that put American designers in the same league as the French designers. American designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, and Anne Klien challenged French designers, Marc Bohan, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emmanuel Ungaro to a fashion show battle where the Americans would get to show their work against the French couturiers. The fashion show was staged 1973 and at the time, French designers did not consider American designers authentic designers, dismissing their work! All parties agreed to the fashion show and the Americans ended up winning. The Tom Ford room presents work from all of the designers who participated and the mannequins look like they are in physical combat. The ceiling and floors are mirrors, while the perimeter walls were an older style of painting to juxtapose the modern-looking center. I found this room to be the room epitomized the link between old and new, enabling a sense of familiarity. Many of the designers mentioned in the early 19th century are not names the public would know but those mentioned in this room were mostly household names. This piece of the exhibition showed that American fashion owes much to past designers and it continues to be influenced by 21st century designers we wear today!
Battle of Versailles room created by director Tom Ford.
In America: An Anthology of Fashion ties together past and present while portraying the life of Americans through actions and stories. I loved the more nuanced and visual telling of the American fashion story.