American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Those who think of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as a stuffy, field trip-only destination, think again.
Their latest exhibition effort, displaying the typical dress of the American woman from the late 1800’s to the 1940’s, is decidedly fashion-forward.
American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity examines both personifications of ideal femininity and archetypes that women have represented throughout history, showing off some fine sartorial craftsmanship.
The clothing was pulled from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, and is the first exhibition at the Met to showcase the duds.

Soft lighting and era-appropriate music shuffle you through several different rooms, introducing you to selected idealized perceptions of the female throughout America’s history.

The first was the Heiress, a woman who reigned in the 1890’s, and had a penchant for candy-colored silk ball gowns from the House of Worth, with exquisitely detailed embroidery. Be sure to note the hair – designed throughout the exhibit by Julien d’Ys – which appears heavily shellacked and, for the Heiress, is embellished with glittered flowers.

Characterized by a growing independence and love of sport, the Gibson Girl was the ideal woman of the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. The Gibson Girl grew to prominence, thanks to the satirical illustrations of artist Charles Dana Gibson, which depicted statuesque young beauties with huge, piled-up hair and slightly more masculine clothing than those before her.

At the Met, the Gibson Girl is personified with volume – voluminous (and delightfully goopy with glue) up-dos for her hair, hefty leg-of-mutton sleeves on her blouses. As opposed to the Heiress, the Gibson Girl wore the decidedly more sporty fabrics of cotton, wool, and linen, and is shown at the Met with various pieces of sporting equipment.
The Bohemian was the subsequent It girl, and she hung out in dark playrooms surrounded by exquisite Tiffany’s lamps and roaring fires.
The Bohemian was a great patron of the arts, and favored Liberty of London cocoon-like capes in a pink and green silk brocade peacock pattern. Draped silk gowns and evening coats constituted her wardrobe, and are in stunning display at the Met.
A major transitional period – symbolized in the next room by the protesting Suffragist, in her dark, military-style tailored jacket and petticoat – made for an emotional display. Footage of marching suffragists is projected onto three walls, while the volume of their verbal protests overwhelm the room.
1920’s It girl, the flapper, personified a fashionable rejection of the stifling feminine norms of the past. With glittered and glued bob haircuts, the Met’s flapper mannequins wore intricate, drop-waist evening gowns and simple silk day dresses. Often accompanied by a fluffy boa, the gowns are beautifully embellished with metallic thread and rhinestones. The 30’s screen siren is celebrated in the near-last room.
Short snippets of popular era films like Stormy Weather, Bringing Up Baby, and Gilda are projected along the walls and celebrate the powerful force of actresses including Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, and Lena Horne, among others. The era was marked by exquisite body-con silk evening gowns in black, white, and gold, made by the likes of Chanel and Lanvin.
Happily, the Met addressed the exclusive nature of these ideal feminine representations with their last room, a consolation in the form of a celebration of modern women. Near-360-degree photo and video projections of women including Tina Fey, Michelle Obama, Patti Smith, and Beyonce were shown, to the tune of “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz. Though surely a more relevant song could have been chosen, it was a welcome ending to a beautiful, though restrictive, exhibit.
Those unable to see the exhibit in person can still participate: go to the Met’s website for a video tour of the exhibit, plus more photos of the clothing, as well as designer descriptions and further time period information. American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity is up through August 15.