Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jill Krementz covers 'American Woman' at the Met

Decorations being installed for Costume Institute Gala. In place, the gigantic balloon which will greet guests as they exit the red carpet and enter the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The flowers and additional shrubbery were still being worked on.
American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 5-August 15th, 2010

Putting on the finishing touches to last night's Met Costume Ball.
The Costume Institute has joined forces with the newly established Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Met for this exhibition that focuses on The American Woman.

Funded by the Gap, and curated by Andrew Bolton, the galleries explore the developing perceptions of the modern American woman from the 1890s to the 1940s and how they have affected the way American woman are seen today.

The show commences with a vignette in Washington Square Park, once the smartest place for old money New York. Then it's on to the world of new money and the so-called robber barons of the Gilded Age, whose wives and daughters transformed old society.

The various galleries are devoted to The Heiress, The Gibson Girl, The Bohemian, The Suffragist and the Patriot (with film footage from the era), The Flapper, and The Screen Siren (which also contains wonderful film footage of the glamorous stars). The last Gallery is devoted to The American Woman, a multimedia montage of film and photographs.
Workmen sitting outside on steps in front of the Met while white canopy is installed. By the time you read this, Monday evening's red-carpet gala will have been hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Anna Wintour, and the Gap. Many Manolos, Louboutins, and Jimmy Choos will have made their way up
these fabled stairs.
Patrick Robinson, Executive Vice President of Global Design for Gap, and Anna Wintour, Editor of Vogue, at the Press Conference held in the Met's European Sculpture Court. Hamish Bowles, European Editor at Large
for Vogue.
Patrick Robinson, Andrew Bolton, and Anna Wintour. Mr. Bolton curated this exhibition.

"Throughout our 40-year history, Gap has been proud of American design, which has helped shape the independent spirit of the American woman." — Patrick Robinson
Arnold Lehman, Director, Brooklyn Museum, with
Emily Rafferty, President of the Metropolitan Museum.
Billy Norwich, Editor-at-large of Vogue.
Thomas B. Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and Patrick Robinson.
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 exhibition features 80 examples of haute couture and high fashion primarily from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which transferred to the Met from the Brooklyn Museum in January 2009. Many of the pieces have not been seen by the American public in more than 30 years.
Marie-Joelle Parent, New York Correspondent, Sun Media, a Quebecor-Media company. Vilislava Petrova, associate editor of Trends.
Harold Koda, Curator in charge of the Met's Costume Institute.
Gallery One: The Heiress (1890s)

Immortalized in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton and in the paintings of Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent, the heiress was one of the first archetypes of the American woman to emerge with the rise of the popular press in the late nineteenth century. Defined by her family's sizable (and often newly aquired) fortune, she was raised in a traditional manner to become a conventional lady.

Strict rules of etiquette governed her behavior and appearance. Like the leading grand dames of her generation, the heiress derived her modes and manners from those associated with the European aristocracy, into which many of her peers married, giving rise to the epithet "the dollar princesses."

For her wardrobe, which required specialized clothing for morning, afternoon, and evening, the heiress relied on the foremost fashion houses in Europe. Most of her eveningwear came from the Parisian couture houses of Rouff, Hallée, Pingat, Doucet, Paquin and especially Worth, whose founder, Charles Frederick Worth, had a particular affinity for American clients. Once asked about his preference for Americans, Worth responded: "They have faith, figures and francs--faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, francs to pay my bills."
House of Worth, British (1825-95)
Charles Frederick Worth (1825-95) or
Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926)
Ball Gown, 1895-1900
House of Worth, French (1858-1956)
Jean-Philippe Worth (1856-1926)
Ball Gown, 1898-1900
Gallery Two: The Gibson Girl (1890s)

While the heiress may have been the first mass-media archetype of the American woman, the Gibson Girl was the first to challenge European hegemony over accepted standards of style and beauty and merge as a distinct and -- distinctive -- "American type." The creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, she made her debut in an 1890 issue of Life magazine and by the mid-1890s had become a national sensation. Typically, the Gibson girl was depicted as tall and slender with long limbs, classical features, and thick dark hair caught up in a chignon.

It was through sports--especially golf, tennis, riding, cycling and swimming--that the Gibson Girl exemplified the American woman's increasing independence and self-determination.
Backdrop inspired by the illustrations of Coles Phillips, Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, Harrison Fisher, and J.C. Leyendecker. Designed by Nathan Crowley with Jamie Rama and Center Line Studios.
Cycling Suit, 1896-98
Jacket, bifurcated skirt, and gaiters of brown wool tweed
Cycling Suit, 1896
Jacket and bifurcated skirt of brown wool twill
Probably French
Blouse, 1900-1902
Light blue handkerchief linen

Blouse, 1890s
Blue plain-weave cotton with white cotton cord stripe
Sailor Suit, ca 1895
Beige linen trimmed with white braid

Bathing Suit, ca 1905-8
Black plain-weave wool with white cotton piping
Gallery Three: The Bohemian (1900s)

As an archetype, the bohemian represented the American woman's growing demand for greater freedom of personal expression. Like the Gibson Girl, she liberated women to venture into the public sphere, but instead of sports she used the arts as a means to further their development as autonomous individuals. Generally speaking, the bohemian's involvement in art revolved less around its production than its consumption. But this consumption--which ranged from collecting art to patronizing artists and from organizing exhibitions to founding modern museums--afforded creative outlets that contributed to the articulation of the self.
The bohemian gravitated toward design houses that reflected her artistic leanings, such as Poiret, Callot Soeurs, and Liberty & Co.

The backdrops of the Bohemian vignettes are inspired by the studio at The Tiffany House, New York.
Pietro Yantorny (Italian, 1874-1936)
Shoes, 1914-19
Silk satin, silk velvet, cream Venetian, gros-point lace, metallic sequins, glass beads
The Bohemian. evening coats by Weeks (left) and Paul Poiret (right).
An artistic rendering of Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio in New York provides the backdrop for the "Bohemian" (early 1900s).
Gallery Four: The Patriot and The Suffragist (1910s)

The bohemian's involvement in the arts, like the Gibson Girl's participation in sports, helped advance equality for women, a cause for which the American woman had been actively campaigning since the Seneca Halls Convention of 1848, where the right to vote was her most radical demand. Women's suffrage received its greatest impetus when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. During the war, more than forty thousand female patriots served in relief and military duty. Commenting on women's wartime service, president Woodrow Wilson observed, "Unless we enfranchise women, we shall have fought to safeguard a democracy which, to that extent, we have never bothered to create."

For the suffragist, fashionable dress was a form of feminine protest. By co-opting the practices of conventional femininity, she demanded that women be political subjects because of--not in spite of--their sexuality.
Gallery Five: The Flapper (1920s)

After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the ideal of the American woman underwent a significant transformation--from patriot and suffragist to flapper, an archetype of femininity that redefined the concept of freedom as sexual rather than political. Her emergence signaled the realization of a moral revolution rooted in the late nineteenth century. As she rouged her lips, bobbed her hair, drank bootleg gin, smoked Lucky Strikes, danced the Charleston, and necked in the backseat of Roadsters, the flapper marked the ultimate rejection of Victorian prohibitions against sexual expression. In appearance, she was slim, athletic, and youthful, a standard of beauty that originated with the Gibson Girl in the 1890's.

The flapper uniform, with its low-slung waist and lack of bust darts, its tubular, shapeless silhouette served to further abstract the contours of her body and emphasize the angularity and verticality of her proportions, Worn by every type of flapper conceivable--from the career flapper to the society flapper--the dress style reflected not only the flapper's sexual freedom but also her urbanity and contemporaneity. Indeed as an archetype, the flapper was as much a symbol of sleek modernity as the skyscrapers rising around her.
Gallery Six: The Screen Siren (1930s)

The flapper's international approbation was in no small part attributable to her portrayal in movies. American film stars began to exercise an influence over received standards of style and beauty from the 1910's, when movies initially became popular. By the 1920's, with the rise of Hollywood , their influence had become universal, and by the 1930's--the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood--it had become absolute.

In contrast to the film flappers of the 1920's, the screen sirens of the 1930's promoted an ideal of beauty that was less youthful and more sophisticated. While the film flapper was girlish and flirtatious, the screen siren was womanly and sensuous. A figure of mature, palpable physicality, she projected an image that was assertive, self-confident, and vigorously independent. Her body was slim but curvaceous. Glamour was her defining attribute, reflected most forcefully through her fashions, particularly her evening gowns.

Although they were designed for the camera--using effects and fabrics that would achieve the utmost impact on the screen--they echoed high fashions from the period, especially the classically-inspired, modernist designs of Madame Grès and Madeleine Vionnet.
Lena Horne.
Rita Hayworth.
Anna May Wong.
Greta Garbo.
Last Gallery: The American Woman (1980s-2010)

A montage of film clips and photographs which includes 119 American woman ... from Marian Anderson to Jayne Wrightsman. Easily spotted: Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Taylor, Vera Wang, Scarlett Johansson, Jackie Kennedy, and, at bottom, Gloria Steinem.
The exhibition catalogue, which I purchased, and which I consider a real disappointment. In fact, it is a complete mystery to me. Very few of the pieces in the exhibit are included.
Canvas shopping bags.
I bought one of these adorable ballpoint pens for $3.
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz
all rights reserved.