This morning, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a press preview of the Costume Institute’s newest exhibition, The American Woman: Fashioning A National Identity.
Andrew Bolton, the Institute’s curator, spoke at length about the exhibit’s evolution and the Museum’s decision to “structure the exhibition around the archetypes of American femininity.” When they started talking about the theme, they planned to build the show around specific women as an answer to Diana Vreeland’s “American Women of Style” in 1975, but along the way those involved with the exhibition shifted gears and started to focus more on “ideals than icons.”
And so they worked to display the “gradual emancipation” and “physical and intellectual liberation” of the American woman without putting a specific face on her, until the last room of the show in which 200 still portraits of iconic American women are projected on the white walls “suggesting how the characteristics embodied by these archetypes are manifested in specific women.”
Though the exhibit feels short (and a surprising amount of dresses are actually French), the clothes within it are spectacular. It’s easiest to get lost in the beading of the flapper room, with dresses by Jeanne Lanvin and anonymous “Probably American” designers. Drop waist dresses in peach and ivory are covered in teeny tiny glass beads, shells and even turquoise scarabs. The cinched waists and leg of mutton sleeves on the Gibson girls look surprisingly Vivienne Westwood-ish and the Charles James dress in the Screen Siren room is in mint condition. But it’s the Madame Grès gowns we’d steal off the mannequins back if we were attending tonight’s ball.