Opening of Exhibition American Woman

 A Vote of Confidence for American Women

I attended the Monday morning press preview for ‘American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity”, the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit (May 5, August 15, 2010), organized by Andrew Bolton, Curator, and Harold Koda, Curator in Charge.

As always, there was an 11AM press conference held in the glorious Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. After guests helped themselves to the pre-requisite coffee and danish, Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took to the podium and addressed the crowd, acknowledging that it was a “great pleasure to be here today to inaugurate ‘American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity’, which focuses on the 1890’s to the 1940’s and explores archetypes of American femininity through dress.”

“It’s a celebration of independent, elegant and resourceful women who initiated revolutions of style to mirror a social, political, sartorial emancipation”. “How those women were perceived has effected how American women are seen today”. Another noteworthy aspect is the fact that this is the “first exhibition drawn from the newly established Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum ”. (Most of the pieces on view, which haven’t been seen in public for about 30 years, were transported from the Brooklyn Museum Collection to the Met in January 2009). “Together, the two collections are truly greater than the sum of their parts” he observed.

Mr. Campbell also thanked and praised Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, for her unwavering support and for being a longtime and passionate advocate for the Costume Institute. “For more than a dozen years she has generously applied her support to the spring costume institute exhibition on behalf of Conde Nast and has also co-chaired the accompanying benefit gala which supports the Costume Institute year round. Tonight’s benefit has been sold out for months”.

He then introduced Patrick Robinson, “a signature talent” who is Executive Vice President of Design for the Gap (a sponsor of the exhibit). Patrick, looking chic in a crisp white shirt and black blazer (by the Gap I presume), said the Gap is “honored to be a sponsor of the exhibit, which is a celebration of the style of the American Woman”.

“Throughout our 40 year history, the Gap has been an avid supporter of the arts and our sponsorship of this year’s exhibition is another testament of our commitment. The theme of the exhibition is a natural fit for the Gap. We are proud of our legacy: offering accessible American design and helping to shape the lifestyle of the modern American woman. And being able to take that sensibility to the wardrobe of the modern American woman. Our clothes speak to who the American woman is: an independent spirit who wants to be comfortable, look good, and be her own true self. We’ve been part of her everyday wardrobe since 1969, with timeless pieces reinvented in keeping with the times.”

Last but not least was Andrew Bolton, always a wealth of information, who thanked his colleagues at the Costume Institute. He didn’t waste any time talking about the significance of the transfer of the distinctive, distintinguished and diverse Brooklyn Museum Collection, (curated by Jan Glier Reeder), to the Met’s Costume Institute. He said when they began mounting the exhibition, their initial focus was on “women of style” like Millicent Rogers and Mrs. Austine Hearst, and their goal was to provide a sequel to Diana Vreeland’s 1975 ‘American Women’ exhibition at the Met. As they continued to research the collection, their focus shifted from ‘icons’ of American femininity to ‘ideals’ of American femininity. He noted the significance of the fact that by the 1940’s, the fashion ‘gaze’ turned away from Europe towards America and internationally, the American woman began to be recognized as an ultimate symbol of progress and modernity. Their challenge was to “convey a timeframe in a way that reflected the American women’s increasing emancipation and her gradual involvement in public life”

By the way, as I previously mentioned, while the exhibition was ‘made possible’ by the Gap (with additional support provided by Conde Nast), I can assure you there is nary a pair of jeans, a t shirt, white shirt, or safari jacket from this moderately priced American brand in sight. But of course, the Gap was founded in 1969 and the timeline of this exhibit if from the 1890’s through the 1940’s.

In fact, the approximately 80 pieces on display (“the archetypes of American Femininity” symbolic of the “emancipation of American style” in the words of Andrew Bolton) represent some of the most important examples of haute couture and high fashion from the 1890’s through the 1940’s, bearing labels from celebrated houses such as Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles Frederick Worth, Vionnet, Lanvin, Molyneaux, Jessie Franklin Turner, Charles James, Madame Gres, Callot Soeurs.

Displayed in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall on the second floor, the clothing is arranged chronologically in circular galleries decorated with Nathan Crowley’s marvelous hand painted panoramas (sound and video are effective in that they seem to bring the clothes to life) and divided as such:

1- ‘Heiress’ (1890’s ballgowns); 2- ‘Gibson Girl’ (1890’s sports themed bathing ensembles, equestrian gear, and cycling sets; 3- ‘Bohemia’ (the early 1900’s); 4- ‘Suffragist’ (1910’s) and ‘Patriot’ (1910’s); 5- ‘Flapper’ (1920’s); 6- ‘Screen Siren’ (1940’s); 7- ‘American Women’ A montage from the 1890’s to the present). My favorite galleries are the ‘Flappers’ with their so very modern, bejeweled, fringed, and fur accessorized chemise dresses by Patou, Lanvin, Molyneaux, and ‘Screen Siren’ which is made to resemble a 30’s cinema (complete with the larger than life Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant on the big screen) with its selection of chic, soignée, and utterly timeless bias cut gowns (Chanel, Vionnet, Lanvin, Jessie Franklin Turner, Travis Banton) played out in predominately black and white. By the way, during his speech at the press conference, Andrew Bolton acknowledged the enduring ideal that sums up the ‘Screen Siren’. A quick look at the images from the Red Carpet arrivals for last night’s Gala, confirmed that as well as it seemed to me that many guests (screen stars or not) wanted to conjure up that image.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Red Carpet Report:

Anna Wintour in Chanel (All red carpet photos: Randy Brooke)

Last night at the gala, white and metallic gowns were the most popular on the red carpet. Most attendees I saw opted for classic eveningwear, although a few dared to show their wild sides. The evening’s co-chairs Anna Wintour and Oprah Winfrey were some of the first to arrive. Gap’s Executive Vice President of Global Design, Patrick Robinson, also served as a co-chair. When Wintour described her choice of a rouched Chanel silver gown and overcoat for the evening, she said that it was “Karl’s design and she obeyed. He’s the master”.

Meanwhile, Winfrey arrived with the designer of her gown, Oscar de la Renta. Her navy blue dress showed off her figure beautifully thanks to a ruffled skirt and a fitted top that accentuated her curves. According to Winfrey the night was about encouraging people to see the exhibit. She also said she was pleased that the evening was a celebration of the glamour of the American woman.

Doutzen Kroes wearing Zac Posen
There were a number of standout looks from the evening. Jennifer Lopez walked in a stunning silver strapless Zuhair Murad gown with a lovely metallic overlay. Zac Posen accompanied his muse Doutzen Kroes, who wore a fanciful pale blue tulle creation from the designer, complete with a full skirt. Eva Longoria Parker joked that she knew her dress was a good fit because she couldn’t breathe. She wore an elegant strapless silver Marchesa gown with metallic floral embroidery and a long train. Jessica Alba wore a lovely asymmetrical one shoulder blush rose-colored Sophie Theallet for Gap gown. Brooke Shields wore a floor length body hugging gold gown created by her escort Michael Kors. She described the gown as extremely comfortable and remarked that “it doesn’t get better than this” when Kors adjusted her train for her.

Renee Zellweger in Carolina Herrera
Although Lady Gaga was the performer for the night, she opted not to walk the red carpet. This left Katy Perry to take the place of most flamboyantly dressed attendee. She arrived in a white and pink striped dress with a sky-high slit and rotating LED lights. The gown was designed by British fashion company CuteCircuit. Whether you loved it or hated it, it was definitely the most memorable outfit of the evening.

Sarah Jessica Parker wearing Halston Heritage
Two other much talked about looks included Andre Leon Talley and Whoopi Goldberg’s coordinated Chado Ralph Rucci outfits. Goldberg wore a white unstructured ensemble that was fashioned to look like a two-piece, while Leon Talley donned a signature white cape with black trim. Gisele Bundchen also turned heads in an Alexander Wang black braided leather mini dress with a fringed border. Her outfit stood in stark contrast to husband Tom Brady’s classic tuxedo.

Stella McCartney, Liv Tyler, Kate Hudson
Of course, the men of the evening cannot be forgotten. While many of the male attendees opted for standard black tie, Tom Ford wore a pale pink tuxedo jacket. Jimmy Fallon also skipped a black tuxedo jacket in favor of a white one from Tommy Hilfiger.

Although some looks were far from tame, for the most part, timeless elegance reigned supreme.

– Caroline Erb-Medina



Ernest Schmatolla is publisher of Lookonline since 1994. It is the longest running fashion site on the Internet.

  1. I think Anna Wintour is most elegant dress in Chanel (All red carpet photos: Randy Brooke). ♥♥♥ … Generally, all of them are look great and wonderful.

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