Tuesday, June 22, 2010

American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity

Over the weekend, I went and saw the American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by drinks on the rooftop bar while gazing at this glorious bamboo jungle gym that Doug and Mike Starn had erected over the veranda. It turns out that you can take guided tours of the bamboo jungle at certain times. They take you through a maze of paths that stretch up to 40 feet over the roof of the met. It looks/sounds like such a little kid’s dream! I will be returning to climb the bamboo jungle at a later date.

I had been wanting to see the American Woman exhibit for quite some time; the artwork on the roof was just a bonus. I find it totally fascinating to see the connections between what is going on in the world and the fashions of the time. I find it equally fascinating to see how fashions cycle through time periods. I mean, there’s only so many ways to cut a dress right?

The exhibit covered the 1890’s-1940’s of fashion. It broke the periods down into 6 archetypes of female fashion: the heiress, the Gibson girl, the Bohemian, the Suffragette/Patriot the Flapper, and the Screen Siren (in chronological order).

The heiress was the earliest period, when young women started investing in European couture houses with their families’ money. The dresses were satin and gold. The women were gilded lilies, expected to sit still in their corseted waists and look pretty. The second was the Gibson girl. Women started to express their need for activity in sports like tennis and sailing. Clothes adjusted to allow more freedom of movement. Clothes became less fitted, more conservative, and almost business like. Women became more liberal in their movements, and the clothes reflected a sportier feel. There were long pleated skirts, and sports coats with big puffy shoulders. The third period was the Bohemian. It was a similar movement to the Gibson Girl, but rather than expressing themselves through sporting activity, women began to invest themselves in the arts for a means of conveying their emotions. The dresses we long, mainly shapeless, and flowing (think Olson twins), and incredibly beautiful. Head wraps were in style. Women were more often patrons of the arts rather than creators of the arts at this point, but they were investing themselves in creative pursuits.

Next came the patriot/suffragette. In this section, I learned 3 things: 1. They had video at the beginning of WW1, and it was playing tapes of women enlisting in the armed forces/working in factories. 2. Women’s mass display of patriotism during WWI was directly related to their obtaining the right to vote 3. Women were allowed to wear military uniform in WWI, and they were on display in this exhibit!! It was pretty cool.

After the patriot was the flapper, a period of shapeless shifts designed to showcase a lean androgynous shape, which was popular during the 1920’s. Need I say more? This is probably the most recognizable fashion there. The dresses were sequined and flashy, yet not body-hugging. This must have been the period when the horrid drop-waist was invented. Any fitted portion of the dress fell below the natural hip. I found this very surprising. I never realized how loose the dresses of the flapper era were. Their intricacy of design was still unbelievable, the sheer amount of time spent hand-sewing sequins and beading is remarkable. I would love to see something like that made today.

Last in the collection was the screen siren. This was during the 1940’s, a time of the movie star bombshell. It was the first silhouette designed to flaunt and enhance a woman’s natural curves, namely her bust and hips. It was the era of Rita Hayworth, and Lena Horne. The only word to describe it would be pure glamour. Some of the dresses on display were in such good condition, they looked as if they could, and should be worn today.

The exhibit said that the flapper and the screen siren are the archetypes that have had the most lasting impact on American women’s fashion today, and I can clearly see the reverberations of these styles today. I truly enjoyed the collection. I learned a lot, and I see the echoes of my sisters decades ago in the fashions of today. I highly recommend this retrospective as a look into how American women took part, in their daily clothing and daily dress, in shaping a female national identity at times when women’s rights were no where near what they are today. Definitely go see it. At the very least, it will make you think how lucky you are when you realize how recently it has been that women are allowed to wear pants in public.

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