Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: American Woman at the Met

The Met now has a great feature where you can access the collections database records (including images) for all the pieces shown in the exhibition from their website, here (the second link). While it's out of order, it's a good virtual visit to the show!

This weekend's museum visits were very fruitful! We went to American Woman first thing, so we were not swamped by other visitors (although the Picasso exhibit was packed to the gills). Overall, I was very happy with the show. It was extremely different from The Model as Muse in many ways. Model as Muse was a highly academic show, with a lot of text and a lot of garments. I really felt that it contributed to the scholarship of the field-- read my full review here. American Woman at least seemed to be a much smaller exhibit, with fewer garments overall, and much, much less text. Outside of an introductory didactic and an approximately 200-word didactic for each room, there was no instructional text, just "tombstone" labels for each garment. Any additional information was included in the audio guide, which I got just to see how it was. Thankfully, Sarah Jessica Parker's narration was not distracting-- it just sounded like she was reading an audiobook. I'm assuming curator Andrew Bolton wrote the audio guide text, but I didn't see any credits for its author anywhere. The audio guide was pretty nice-- not particularly deep, but offering additional insights and notes on the pieces, and drawing particular attention to certain objects. I wasn't left wondering about the objects, and it was obvious how they all fit into the particular archetype demonstrated in each room (as a reminder, the archetypes were The Heiress, The Gibson Girl, The Bohemian, The Suffragist, The Patriot, The Flapper, and The Screen Siren).

I did want to know more about some of the accessories, including shoes and hats, most of which were not identified. It's possible that they came from the museum's prop collection, of antique but not particularly valuable pieces that are used for display purposes but not accessioned into the permanent collection. Something that totally stymied me was the presence of at least three Fortuny pleated "Delphos" dresses in the Bohemian section that were entirely ignored by the text. They were worn underneath wrappers, by Liberty of London for the most part, which were credited in the labels. The Fortuny tea gown/evening dress, both historicizing and strikingly modern and meant to be worn over an uncorseted body in a time when corsets were generally worn by all proper ladies, would have fit perfectly into the discussion of The Bohemian. It's possible that the Fortunys shown were reproductions, but I doubt that, considering that the Met has at least ten Delphos dresses and that the luminosity and uniqueness of the gowns' colors were characteristic of true Fortuny pieces. My only other guess is that the Fortuny gowns were from the Met's own collection, and as they wanted to feature only pieces that had come from the Brooklyn collection, they didn't mention them. I'm stumped!

The set design (by Nathan Crowley, a Hollywood Production Designer for films such as The Dark Knight) was unbelievable. Each room was painted in an appropriate backdrop for the archetype (for instance, the Heiress section had curved walls-- like most of the rooms-- and was painted to look like Mrs. Astor's ballroom in Newport). As in Model as Muse, some of the sets incorporated pieces from the Met's Decorative Arts collection, such as chairs and chandeliers. I think this is a great idea and assists both in appreciating the garments somewhat in situ and getting a chance to view pieces that might otherwise be stuck in storage. It is a real treat that they have the resources to create such elaborate sets! My only complaint with each room was that the lighting made it very difficult to see some aspects of the costumes. I'm not talking about the overall light levels; although they were low, that is necessary to preserve the pieces. It's that the lighting was spotty, with patches of dark and light, so that there was a subtle mottling to the illumination. This made it hard for me to discern details on some pieces-- although it may have been intentional, as low lighting hides a multitude of problems in damaged or fading garments!

I felt that the sections on The Suffragist and The Patriot, put together in one room, were sadly lacking. The Suffragist section featured about three or four suits from the teens, accessorized with a suffragette banner and some sashes-- not much of a sartorial statement. The Patriot section featured only two ensembles, both of them uniforms. These are interesting pieces and great early examples of women's military service-- but even combined with the Suffragist suits and the large screens showing contemporary video footage, I didn't feel that they really filled their own section. I also don't feel as though these are particularly strong American female archetypes (and I feel somewhat the same way about The Bohemian), although I understand that their depiction of strong, independent working women fits in well with the overarching ideas of American female identity that Bolton is getting at.

The Flapper, and her taboo-breaking sexual and behavioral freedom, is perhaps the best known of the archetypes and certainly had the fullest exhibit room. There were a couple of nice day ensembles, highlighted as appropriate for the career woman (read: working class person) that the Flapper typically was, although I didn't really think they were appropriate work clothes-- more like sportswear. The evening dresses were stunning. This was one room in which Julien d'Ys' hair dressings were NOT distracting-- in others, they were very irritating, particularly in The Heiress and The Gibson Girl, where the pompadours were multiple feet high and wide. I understand wanting to stylize, but I felt that in many cases it took away from the display of the objects.

The exhibit ended with The Screen Siren, which featured some video footage and a number of slinky '30s gowns. I was expecting to see more American designs in this section-- Adrian, perhaps, or some more American film designers. There was a notable piece by Travis Banton, but it was a film costume, and while striking, I wasn't certain it really fit in since it wasn't really "fashion." The other thing that irked me about this section was something that I saw in a few other places in the exhibit: less-than-stellar mannequin dressing. Many of the mannequins were dressed extremely well, but a few caught my eye in a bad way-- a Worth gown or two from The Heiress didn't have smooth, filled-out torsos, and there was a cluster of James gowns in The Screen Siren that made me shudder. James gowns are particularly difficult to dress because they are so sculptural. These gowns were not the most architectural of his pieces-- they were examples of the "Sirene" gown (aka the shrimp dress, see here)-- but they are still meant to fit exceptionally well and, as they are all custom-made, require appropriate mannequin modifications to look right. These appeared as though they had just been placed on the mannequins, which I'm sure is not true, but they were ill-fitting and gapped in a number of places, and I thought it made it difficult to really appreciate their intended look. Perhaps I am biased because FIT has custom mounts for all their James gowns-- but I think that is really the appropriate way to display them. See the difference here.

There is one more point I want to mention. I will not go into detail about Robin Givhan's review of this exhibit, a) because this post is already epic and b) because I don't want my blog to turn into a collection of reviews of Robin Givhan articles, BUT in her review (here), she says, "...based on this exhibition, the beauty ideal has always been slender. Those athletic Gibson Girls were practically waifs. The Flappers -- at least the ones who naturally fit the clothes and did not have to bind their bosoms so they would be fashionably flat -- were small-boned and almost fragile. Even the Screen Sirens, celebrated for their womanly curves, are tiny compared to a contemporary actress.... In our upset with the present, we have re-imagined a past of buxom beauties that mostly did not exist."

She is both right and wrong. While the ideal body of the American female archetypes discussed in the exhibit has frequently been fit and athletic, it is not true that "buxom beauties" were never actual ideal body tpes of the past. The Heiress, while fragile, was probably able to be heavier than today's models thanks to the aid of her corset. The Gibson girl was seen as tall and healthy, if still svelte. The Bohemian, Suffragist and Patriot had some more room to fit in their dresses-- they were ideally busty and shaped like an inverse teardrop, wearing empire-waisted dresses and peg-top skirts. Flappers were boyish and frequently thin, although the emphasis was on a lack of definition of curves and not necessarily on waifishness. The Screen Siren ideal is perhaps the most difficult to fit-- tall and thin but just curvy enough to make a bias-cut dress interesting. The thing is, the pin-up girl of the 40s was certainly voluptuous-- and what about Marilyn Monroe? "Buxom beauties" existed-- just outside of the 1890-1940 time frame.

That aside, Givhan's point is that the ideal bodies seen in the exhibit were no fairer to the everyday woman than is the oft-discussed stick-thin ideal of today. That is true. Fashion isn't fair-- fashion just likes novelty. Ideal bodies will come and go, but if they get any healthier it will not be because fashion has decided that that's the best thing for everybody-- it will be because we're bored.

The final room in the exhibit was an oval with video and still photo projections of well-known "American women," from Katharine Hepburn to Michelle Obama. There was a particularly fabulous juxtaposition of Josephine Baker in her banana skirt with Beyoncé in her "Single Ladies" video. I felt it helped challenge the visitor to think about the characteristics of today's American woman. It also fit well with the concluding didactic, which emphasized that while these archetypes never represented a majority of real women at any point, they all combine to help name the characteristics we associate with American womanhood: vitality, boldness, and sexual, social, and artistic freedom. While I am not sure that this was a significant contribution to research in the field, it was a digestible exhibit that will teach its visitors some interesting social and fashion history and perhaps leave them with the sense it left me-- that American women are, above all, independent.

What did you think of the exhibit? What were your favorite pieces? What thoughts did you depart with?

Photo: Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong w. filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl at Pierre Ball, Berlin, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life, 1928.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

American Woman Hype

I'm very excited to see "American Woman" at the Met and "Night & Day" at FIT this weekend, although I'm a little apprehensive about the crowds at the former-- and not only because it's opening weekend. This exhibit has received more hype than any other fashion exhibition I've seen in a long time! Last week's Costume Institute Benefit Gala, frequently called "the party of the year," had (as always) a huge celebrity draw and was co-hosted by none other than Oprah, along with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (who co-hosts the party every year) and Gap's Executive VP for Global Design, Patrick Robinson. According to the exhibit's press release, the Gala is "The Costume Institute's main source of annual funding for exhibitions, operations, and capital improvements." Most curators I know would happily give up an appendage for a source of funding and publicity like that! Since the party's red carpet shots are shown on news, fashion, and society pages everywhere, the public is more aware of The Costume Institute than usual these days, which draws attention to the new exhibit.

In addition, "American Woman" is being sponsored by Gap, who has released a line of embellished t-shirts inspired by each archetype explored by the exhibit (the heiress, the Gibson Girl, the haute bohemian, the suffragist, the patriot, the flapper, and the screen siren). While the t-shirts are cute enough, I personally find them overpriced for how simple they are. I think the suffragist is my favorite, or perhaps the screen siren-- but I'd be much more likely to consider investing if they were $15 or $20 cheaper.

As if that weren't enough, Gap has also coupled with designers Alexander Wang, Rodarte, Sophie Theallet, and Thakoon to create unique gowns that were worn to the Gala by Vera Farmiga, M.I.A., Kirsten Dunst, Kerry Washington, Jessica Alba, Riley Keogh, Zoe Kravitz, and Jamie Bochert (all this comes from the Gap website). The gowns, now displayed in a Gap pop-up store on Fifth and 54th, are being sold in an online silent auction, with the proceeds benefiting the Costume Institute. Bidding opened yesterday and will last until May 31st.

Goodness gracious, what a lot of publicity for a show! Something about it turns me off, although I should, of course, be happy that a fashion exhibit is getting this much attention. I think that between this and Sarah Jessica Parker's narration of the audio guide, I am afraid it's going to be too fluffy and commercial. I had some of the same worries, however, for "The Model as Muse," and I was stunned by how academic and thorough it was. And, as the Gap was founded in 1969, I don't have the same fears about conflict of interest in content as I would if it were, say, a monographic show being sponsored by the living designer whom it was featuring.
I am ready to plunge in and see how the exhibit is!

Has anyone seen it yet? Did you like it? Do you think it will be too fluffy or will it satisfy pop-culture lovers and museum dorks like me alike?

Image by Charles Dana Gibson, undated (c.1903, I think), from the Time/Life image archive
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