An Anthology of Fashion: More than Meets the Eye


PHOTOS Sydney Morris

On a rainy Friday afternoon, the GRAMMAR Gals headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a feast for the eyes. ‘In America: An Anthology of Fashion,’ the second part of a long-term installment by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was on display (this exhibition will be open till September 5, 2022). This time, the exhibition was placed in the American Wing. The American costumes were presented in different American Period Rooms, each respectively staged by a renowned American filmmaker. The audience were able to admire the rich intricacies of both the garments and the narratives behind them at the same time.

The exhibition itself is a multi-dimensional curation of fashion and fashion history. While the costumes spoke for themselves visually, the Period Rooms drew the audience back to their historical contexts. The accompanying furniture, setting, music, lighting, and ambience contributed to a highly effective simulation of the historical venues. In addition, the staging of the Period Rooms by directors added a narrative layer to the interpretation of the costumes. Not only did they re-capture the design philosophies of the original costume designers, but they also offered their own commentaries from a contemporary perspective. Spanning across two hundred years, from as early as 1805 and as current as 2022, the exhibition extended a cordial invitation to the visitors to glance at the complicated development of American fashion, narrative, and identity.

The first major theme we identified for the exhibition was the intersection between black and female empowerment in the fashion scene. In the 1805 Haverhill Room, director Radha Blank staged a wedding dress by the designer Maria Hollander, who founded L.P. Hollander, one of the representative fashion firms in Massachusetts during the 1840s. Maria Hollander herself was a successful business woman and fashion entrepreneur, leveraging her business achievements to further advance women’s rights and abolitionist movements.

The wedding dress showcased Maria Hollander’s fine custom design details and illustrated the high-fashion silhouettes popular among the Bostonian merchant families in the 1800s. Also on display was a pro-abolition quilt she commissioned for an exhibit in New York in 1853. In response, director Radha Blank created her own “quilt” expressing genuine black identity, created as a wig with African American-style braiding and beading that reads “We Good. Thx!” In Blank's scene, she reasserts the autonomy of black craftswomen and adds another layer of contemporary critique to Maria Hollander’s original abolitionist statement.

The Haverhill Room

Designer Maria Hollander, Staged by Radha Blank,

Another display with a similar theme would be the 1868-70 Renaissance Revival Room staged by director Julie Dash, highlighting the power structure of racial dynamics in colonial and contemporary America. The white, glaring wedding gowns are juxtaposed with the black, diaphanous mannequins that represent the African American designer, Ann Lowe, behind these gallant designs. Ann Lowe was the first noted African American fashion designer, favored by high society patrons from the 1920s to the 1960s. The ivory dresses showed her exemplary craftsmanship and impeccable understanding of the costumes’ interiors and exteriors. In comparison to the popularity of her designs, however, her talent never received its due recognition. Through director Julie Dash’s staging, the black, diaphanous symbolic mannequins became an indispensable part of the scene. The luminescent wedding gowns with gorgeous floral ornaments formed a compelling contrast to the discreet black cloaks with a special elegant flair. The luxurious setting of the Renaissance Revival Room complemented the more historic, elaborate elements in Ann Lowe’s designs. The creativity, talent, and courage of Ann Lowe was celebrated by the parallel display of her symbolic self and her creations.

The Renaissance Revival Room

Staged by Julie Dash, Designs by Ann Lowe

In contrast to the often extensive, intricate design following the European tradition, in the mid-20th century another point of view developed in the American fashion scene with a modern, simplistic bent. One of the American designers leading this charge was the designer Claire McCardell, on display in the 1830 Shaker Retiring Room. This room showcases the simplistic charm of American sportswear, free of conventional European decorations. The clean-cut and well-tailored dresses enabled their wearers to move around with ease and elegance. These costumes with concise silhouettes and monastic qualities matched well with the Shaker Religion’s tenets in utility, simplicity, and beauty. Staged by Chloé Zhao, the Shaker Retiring Room provided a tranquil yet mindful sanctuary. The illuminating lights shined through the room, accentuating the minimalist environment and reflective atmosphere.

The Shaker Retiring Room

Designs by Claire McCardell, Staged by Chloé Zhao

The collision of the opposing European and American forces reached a climax in the central room of the American Wing. The 1973 Battle of Versailles was restaged here by director Tom Ford with true-to-life mannequins. Accompanied by war-like music and surrounded by a panoramic 1819 mural of Versaille, we were transported back in time to observe the great Guerre de la Mode on that fateful night of November 28, 1973. Five French couturiers (Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro) competed against five American ready-to-wear designers (Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta). The models on the American side (11 of whom were women of color, a notable statement at the time) moved with irresistible charm and the audience were quickly overcome by the vitality and simplicity of the costumes. Director Tom Ford reinvented the tension of the fashion battle through fencing foils and front kicks. These ingenious devices worked in combination with the vibrant colors and the highly spirited music in the scene.

The Battle of Versailles

American Designs by Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta and French Designs by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro

Last but not least, the 20-century Frank Lloyd Wright Room staged by director Martin Scorsese carried us back to the melodramatic 1940s. Bathed in vibrant three-strip technicolor, a group of men and women in Charles James’ elaborate designs conversed in an extravagant but distressed atmosphere, full of cinematic intrigue. It’s a perfect venue to display the garments of Charles James, the English-American designer who found the sweet spot between elegance and structure. His design followed and flowed with feminine curves, adding sensuality to his meticulous tailoring. The scene was almost nostalgic, harkening back to a time when James’ stately ball gowns adorned socialites at sleepless party nights.

Getting tired of the summer heat and wondering about a place to rest the body, recharge the mind, and refresh the eye? We recommend heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts to see this cinematic and exceptional exhibition of American fashion and costumes before it closes!

More Info:
Exhibition Overview
Period Rooms
Visiting Guide
Director Statements

The Frank Lloyd Wright Room

Staged by Martin Scorsese, Designs by Charles James

Dresses by Ann Lowe

The black organza draped mannequins are a representation of the anonymity of the black dressmakers and designers of the era despite playing such an important role.

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