Exploring American Fashion History

July 7, 2022

Open since early May following the The Met Gala, In America: An Anthology of Fashion is the second of a two-part exhibition at The Costume Institute that plays out as a series of tableaux vivants showcasing the creations of designers and dressmakers from the 19th to mid-20th century. Visitors will discover some 100 examples of men’s and women’s dress staged throughout the American Wing’s period rooms where several film directors have conceived cinematic vignettes that cast the garments in more narrative context, touching upon relevant themes such as the emergence of a recognisable American style. With Chloe Zhao, Sofia Coppola, Tom Ford, Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo and Martin Scorsese among those bringing an inspired and individual perspective to each of the rooms, the exhibition – along with In America: A Lexicon of Fashion – is a must-see cultural event that revisits historical fashion with a more expansive and inclusive approach. Here, an interview with Jessica Reagan, associate curator, The Costume Institute.

Vanderlyn Panorama – Courtesy of the MET

In the context of Paris fashion over this same period, what might be some of American fashion’s points of similarity and difference?
Especially in the 19th century, Parisian fashion was a strong influence on American style. However, the structure of the fashion industry in the United States was very different than in France – it wasn’t defined by grand houses like Worth and Paquin. The foundation of the American fashion system was formed by independent dressmakers working at a relatively small scale. While they may not have had the broad reach of a designer like Worth, they shaped fashion in more subtle ways, at an individual level.

In America is a two-part exhibition, Lexicon serving as a preface to Anthology; both are currently on view. Other than the historical aspect of Anthology, what else sets them apart?
Lexicon explores the broader characteristics of American fashion, in particular its expressive qualities. Anthology is set within the American Wing’s period rooms and is very much grounded in those spaces. They’re rich, immersive settings, which lent for a more cinematic display; but they’re also quite intimate spaces, which I think led us to more intimate, focused narratives – many of the rooms are dedicated to exploring the work of a single dressmaker or designer. We called the exhibition “Anthology” because we were seeing each of the rooms as a short story – each of these stands on its own, but they’re also interconnected, and together give a more nuanced portrait of American fashion.

Charles James – Courtesy of the MET

Most exhibitions build a scenography around what’s being presented, whereas for this show, garments are presented within the American Wing period rooms. Do you feel our perception of fashion changes when we see it in the larger context of its time?
In most of the rooms, the fashions are of a different period than the interiors, and linked to them for other reasons – regional or design connections for example. I do think that we look at the fashions, and the rooms themselves, differently because of these pairings, since there’s a layering of narratives based on the history of the rooms, the history of the fashions, and the director’s presentation.

With the involvement of nine film directors – including Chloé Zhao and Sofia Coppola – the storytelling is clearly a focus. How do they enhance the experience of what’s on display?
Each of the director’s brought their own perspective, sometimes connecting with the fashion story, and sometimes introducing a new narrative. In the Shaker Room, which Chloe Zhao worked on, we were highlighting designs by Claire McCardell, and I think Chloe’s intervention heightens the experience of the room as well as the fashions. She wanted visitors understand both the modernism of McCardell’s work, and the progressiveness of the Shakers, particularly in relation to their embrace of gender equality. So, Chloe emphasized their female leadership with a mannequin in Shaker dress, intended to represent Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee. With her subtle lighting interventions, she also maintained the feeling of this room as a contemplative space, which was its original function.

Bolhagen Rococo – Courtesy of the MET

The exhibition draws attention to the “hidden stories” – the designers and fashion that are less familiar to most people. Especially for those unable to visit, can you offer an example or two that might enrich our understanding of American fashion/style?
In our Richmond room we highlight designs by Fannie Criss Payne, a leading Richmond modiste working at the turn of the twentieth century, who built her reputation based on her precise technical skill and refined artistic sensibility. She was a Black dressmaker who was building her business in a segregated city, but she became one of its leading fashion professionals in that period. She represents one of many designers working in that period whose story and work are relatively unknown, in large part because few known examples of her work have survived. We don’t have a large body of work to study, as with designers like Worth. However, local dressmakers like Payne, working in various cities across the United states, were integral to the fashion system here.

Another designer I would mention, working a generation later, is Elizabeth Hawes, who was not only a leading New York designer in the 1930s and 40s, she was also a prolific writer who authored several books covering a range of topics, including the state of the American fashion system, and women’s roles in American society. She was very opinionated about the problems she saw within the fashion system, particularly the emphasis on ever-changing trends rather than on styles that would have enduring appeal. She worked in Paris early in her career, and applied her knowledge of French couture techniques to her own designs, but she also felt strongly that American women needed fashions designed specifically for them, rather than styles based on French models. She emphasized comfort and timeless beauty in her designs, and her fashions still feel incredibly modern.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

In America: An Anthology of Fashion continues until September 5, 2022 at The Costume Institute.

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