American Style on Display

Honoring a history of female fashion at the MET.

Oprah © Robin Platzer, Twin Images

Demi Moore wearing a halter-top column of silver lamé, Emma Watson wrapped in ruffle-seamed one-shoulder white silk, Blake Lively immersed in over-the-shoulder bright peacock ruffles by Marchesa, Anne Hathaway in a ballgown of spangled nude tulle — one by one dozens of movie stars came down the red carpet, each clad in a “preview of coming attractions,” because the main event Monday evening was not the starlets’ gowns, but the clothing they had come to see. The party was launching the Metropolitan Museum’s latest fashion exhibit, a show devoted to historic themes that have inspired American style. Although resplendent in a cascade of Oscar de la Renta navy-blue ruffles, evening co-chair Oprah Winfrey downplayed the red-carpet hoopla: “Tonight is about the exhibit.”

“American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” traces through the eras of the 1890s to the 1930s fashion trends that developed into what became known as American style. On display in six circular rotundas are garments tracing the evolution of American fashion, from “Parisian Venus” to “American Diana,” from dependence on European ideas of elegance to the independent sensibility of women today.

Starting in the 1900s, a rotunda decorated in the style of a Newport mansion features the heavily ornate, highly structured gowns of the Edith Wharton age, silk mousseline embroidered with stars, butterflies, wheat-ears. Known as “Dollar Princesses” for marrying titled husbands from overseas, “Heiresses” bought their clothes from European courtiers such as Charles Frederick Worth, who favored his American clients for their “faith, figures and francs — faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, francs to pay my bills.”

That shape, tall and slender with long limbs, classical features and thick dark hair was quintessentially captured by Charles Dana Gibson, whose mass-media archetypes, the “Gibson Girls,” indicated the first emergence of distinct American style. Shown in a seasonal panorama, Gibson Girl mannequins with bouffant upsweep hairstyles wear clothing designed for the active life: casual shirtwaists to wear playing tennis, bifurcated skirts for bicycling, ermine capelets for winter ice-skating and full-dress “Sailor” swimsuits.

The growing emergence of active life and of personal expression is represented by the “Bohemian” who fostered self-expression though patronage of the arts, which was reflected in the bold statements of her clothing. In front of a tableau representing the work of artist Tamara de Lempicka, dresses by Callot Soeurs, Liberty & Co and Poiret illustrate looser, less constricting silhouettes coming to acceptance. Influenced by themes of classicism, medievalism and Orientalism, and decorated in floral, feather and Egyptian motifs, the unusual garments appealed to women who were active collectors and founders of museums.

Involvement in the arts and participation in World War I boosted the “Patriot and Suffragist” quest for equality. Yeomen F (Female) and members of the Women’s Motor Corps adapted traditional twill military uniforms with braid and gold eagle buttons. Suffragists devised walking suits, practical and comfortable for marching and campaigning with “wide enough skirts to walk to the polls,”

After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, freedom broke loose. No longer corseted, slim, athletic, youthful “Flappers” abstracted their curvy contours in loose chemises with low-slung waists and no-bust darts. Encrusted in sequins, beads and paillettes, Jazz Age tube dresses reflect urbanity and sexual freedom.

The “Career Woman/Screen Siren,” more sensuous and sophisticated, emerged in the 1930s. Projected on screens around the rotunda, vintage films show sirens Rita Hayworth, Anna Mae Wong, Lena Horne, Katharine Hepburn performing in gracefully sensual bias-cut evening gowns. On the mannequins, luscious charmeuse designs by Jeanne Lavin, Mme. Grix, Charles James show how these garments drape and twist to reveal the figure’s mature natural contours.

The exhibit concludes with a photo collage of “The American Woman.” Shots of Josephine Baker, C.Z. Guest, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Halle Berry, Mia Farrow, Cher and dozens of others illustrate the composite of casual and sportif simplicity, decorous elegance, artistic unconventionality, democratic functionalism, uninhibited rebelliousness and glamorous sophistication that comprise the 2010 American style.

Diane von Furstenberg and Blake Lively © Robin Platzer, Twin Images

The night’s red-carpet dresses brought those themes to life. Brooke Shields in form-fitting gold paillettes (with her escort designer Michael Kors dutifully adjusting her train), Dylan Lauren in a halter neck gold lamé column and Sarah Jessica Parker wearing vintage Halston sparkle pleats all embodied what is meant by “Screen Siren” glamour. “Bohemian” influences were Gisele Bündchen’s woven leather fringed mini and Diana Taylor’s gown, bead-encrusted in exotic ethnic patterns. Stella McCartney, Kate Hudson and Liv Tyler showed off their legs in little, half-there “Flapper” concoctions. Encompassing more than one theme, Vogue editor Anna Wintour wore a silver-beaded three-quarter-length “Flapper” jacket over a beige satin horizontal pleated “Siren” gown — what’s more, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, her choice came back full circle to the 1890s “Heiress” tradition of shopping overseas, a perfect segue to the exhibit inside.

Brook Shields © Robin Platzer, Twin Images


Editor’s Note: Sharon King Hoge specializes in consumer and travel journalism both in print and on radio and television. The former Consumer Reporter at WBZ-TV and producer/host of “The Sharon King Show” in Boston, she reported on ABC network news, hosted “The Cookbook Kitchen” on the Food Channel and participated in the launch of CNBC.  A Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Traveler and Global Traveler magazines, her writing has appeared in Forbes FYI and Forbes Executive Woman, SELF, Ladies Home Journal,  National Review.  A former columnist for both AOL and the New York Daily News, she was Calendar Editor for the Martha Stewart Living website and is Editor at Large of the three regional Cottages and Gardens shelter magazines.

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