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American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 15-August 15, 2010

"Rita Hayworth dances and sings "Put the Blame on Mane" in "Gilda"

Rita Hayworth dances and sings "Put the Blame on Mame..." in "Gilda" in the Screen Sirens Gallery

All photographs by Michele Leight except where noted

By Michele Leight

What a treat it was to enter a romantically lit gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and see mannequins dressed as heiresses - or fairy-tale princesses - in ballgowns and ornate "up-dos" at "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity." The show, which runs from May 15 to August 15, 2010, was organized by Andrew Bolton, Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sponsored by the GAP, with additional support from Conde Nast. Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue magazine, was acknowledged by Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the museum as the driving force behind the famous annual spring shows, adding that the proceeds of the ticket sales from the evening gala accounts for a substantial portion of the annual budget of the Met's famed Costume Institute. He added with a smile that tickets were sold out months in advance.

Far from being just a series of pleasant vignettes of fashion through the ages, this show traced the intersection of fashion with feminism, and included moving documentary footage of suffragettes in action, those now mythical ladies who risked a great deal so that the rest of us could vote, work and choose to live the lives we live today. I found myself riveted to the screens, and moved by their efforts.

Evening dress, 1862-5, Charles Frederick Worth

"Evening Dress," 1862-65, Charles Frederick Worth, Lavender silk taffeta, white silk satin and tulle, black velvet ribbon; label: "Worth and Boberg/7,Rue de la Paix7/Paris." Brooklyn Museum Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Purchase, Designated Purchase Fund, 1987, photo from catalogue

This exhibition celebrates the transfer of the Brooklyn Museum's Costume Collection to The Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, and complements "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" on view at the Brooklyn Museum. The introductory wall text to the exhibition noted: "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" also marks the "genesis of the American Diana and her triumph over the French Venus. Organized in a succession of archetypes based on mass-media representations of American women from the 1890s to the 1940s, the exhibition examines how fashion intersected with feminism to become a liberating force for women in America. For the American woman physical and fashionable appearance became a primary vehicle through which she expressed social, political, economical and even sexual emancipation and emerged as a spirited symbol of progress, modernity and, ultimately, Americanness."

"Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling" by Carolus-Duran

"Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling,"by Charles-Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran (French, 1838-1917), oil on canvas, 89 by 47 1/2 inches, Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Paul Roebling; "Court Presentation Ensemble," circa 1896, Attributed to Jean-Phillipe Worth, (French, 1856-1926), Yellow silk satin; white silk satin with gold and silver metal thread embroidery, Baroque floral and vine pattern; ecru embroidered net lace; yellow silk chiffon; yellow satin picote ribbon; violet velver; silk crepe and velvet orchids, lavender silk tulle. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Anonymous gift in memory of Mrs. John Roebling, 1970, photo from catalogue

The heiress was the first mass-media archetype, epitomized by great beauties like Consuelo Vanderbilt or Nancy Astor. The Met has a magnificent portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, with her son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, by Giovanni Boldini. One of her favorite relatives was Winston Churchill, whose mother was Jenny Jerome, another American "dollar princess" who married into Europen aristocracy because of a sizeable fortune. This was common at a time when the fortunes of aristorcats were dwindling. Titles were traded for money essentially, and although Consuelo married because her mother wanted her to snag a title, it was not long before she and the 9th Duke of Marlborough were divorced. However, she remained friends with several members of the noble Marlborough family, including Winston Churchill, who continued to visit Consuelo at her estate in France. He did his last painting there before World War II began and his attention became totally focused on the World War II.

The Heiress Gallery: ballgown by Worth

From The Hieress Gallery: "Ball Gown," circa 1898, by Jean-Phillipe Worth(right); Ice blue silk satin patterned with yellow and cream butterfly motifs, rhinestone and sequin over-embroidery; ice-blue mousseline de soie, seed bead, silver metallic, and rhinestone beadwork embroudery; scroll motif; artificial pink roses, black silk velvet; signature label"Worth/Paris; Formerly collection of Jane Norton Grew Morgan (Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Jr.).Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,; Gift of The Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965

The manners and wardrobes of these "grandes dames" reflected European aristocratic taste, and their dresses were inevitably French. Their evening gowns most often came from the legendary house of Worth in Paris, whose founder Charles Frederick Worth, had a preference for American clients. When he was asked why this was so he said "they have faith, figures and francs - faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, and francs to pay my bills." The "Court Presentation Ensemble," circa 1896, (illustrated), is French and attributed to Jean-Philippe Worth. It was worn by Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) at her formal presentation to Queen Victoria at the Court of St. James, and later that same year to the coronation of the ill-fated czar and zarina, Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna) of Russia. The catalog notes: "Emily was the wife of Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), son of John R. Roebling (1806-1869), designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington became chief engineer after his father's death. When Washington developed caisson disease, preventing his further physical involvement, Emily Roebling took over the on-site supervision of the project, ensuring her husband's ability to remain in charge despite his illness until the bridge was completed in 1883."

When a situation demanded it, women proved more than equipped to do what was then called "mans work."

Detail of Worth ballgown

Detail of "Ball Gown," by Jean-Phillipe Worth, showing butterflies

Readers familiar with Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte or Henry James will perhaps know that some heiresses lived in lonely gilded cages, were required to sing a happy tune, and do what male dominated society expected of them (or else). Other great classic novels and films feature heroines that did not toe the line, like poor Tess of the D'Urbevilles, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, with disastrous results. Modern heiresses are also cited at this show, the difference is that today many of them have careers. Heroines of my favorite novels - spanning centuries - leapt to vivid life at this show, as I imagined them wearing similar clothes, set against wonderful backdrops designed by Nathan Crowley, with Jamie Rama and Center Line Studios. The Heiress gallery was inspired by Nancy Astors ballroom at "Beechwood," her home in Newport, Rhode Island.

American riding ensemble circa 1896

"Riding Ensemble," circa 1896, American; Ivory wool broadcloth; tan suede leather; cream cotton with windowpane plaid; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the Princess Viggo in accordance with the wishes of the Misses Hewitt, 1931. "High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo from catalogue

Towards the end of the 19th century rumblings of discontent were felt in the palm-dotted conservatories of the priveliged classes. Rich ladies were not expected to work, but some managed to do more than look decorative, have children and keep a fabulous home. Talented female writers, artists, poets and scholars did manage to bore through the mire of sexist attitudes of their day, and their work lives on to prove it. Edith Wharton came from a priveliged backgrounds and was fortunate to be able to write without worrying about finances. "House of Mirth" won The Pulitzer Prize in 1921, making Ms. Wharton the first woman to win it. The heroine of this novel, Lily Bart, runs afoul of a society that she describes as "a hot house of traditions and conventions," and ends up dying alone in a boarding house. Wharton exposed the harsh truth about women's lives, no matter what background they came from. Her stories are incisive, and ironic. Poorer ladies have always worked - like Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" - but back then they were not recognized or credited for their achievements, and they were certainly not paid well. Jane Eyre would hav worn a much less fine version of the lavender silk dress by Worth, illustrated at the top of this story, supported by a crinoline. "My Antonia," is a superb novel by Willa Cather that features a more independent heroine, who helps work the family farm as she raises her large family as a newly arrived immigrant in Nebraska. Willa Cather went to college and earned a B.A. in English. She won a Pulitzer for "One of Ours" in 1922. All these writers had a huge impact on the women of their generation.

"Trouville cycling suits

"Trouville" (American), 1896, Cycling Suit, Jacket and bifurcated skirt of brown wool twill; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift, in memory of Mrs. Arthur Ridgeway Ryan, (nee Katherine Browne), from her children, Katherine B. Ryan, Marcella Burnell, and Arthur Martin Ryan, 1983; "American" Cycling Suit, 1896-98, Jacket, bifurcated skirt and gaiters of brown wool tweed, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009, Gift, Mr. and Mrs. Morton Sultzer, 1979. From The Gibson Girl Gallery

The emancipation of women - the emergence of the butterfly from the crysalis - is portrayed in a succession of themed galleries, beginning with "The Heiress," symbolized by the exquisite "Ball Gown," circa 1898, by Jean-Phillipe Worth, illustrated here, with a detail of the butterflies that adorn it. This work of art was formerly in the collection of Jane Norton Grew Morgan, or Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Jr. The "Riding Ensemble" illustrated below is from the catalogue for this exhibition "High Style : Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art" dated 1898. This riding outfit was less conventional, and includes pants or jodhpurs, and was worn by a famous heiress , Eleanor Hewitt, whose contribution to the decorative arts was enormous, and who rode in the privacy of her estate "Ringwood Manor" in Northern New Jersey. The designer of this avant garde outfit - which allowed a woman to ride astride her horse, instead of side-saddle - was American. The entire ensemble includes a tailored jacket, several interchangeable man-tailored wool vests, a mid-calf-length suede skirt, two pairs of suede jodhpurs, and knee high gaiters. Having a private place to ride was not possible for the average woman, who would have had to forgo jodhpurs.

"Riding habits

"Riding Habit," American, 1890, Jacket and side-saddle skirt of black wool twill, Purchase of The Costume Institute Gifts, 1979; "Riding Habit," American, 1893, Jacket and side-saddle skirt, of navy wool broadcloth; derby of black wool felt, and black wool grosgrain, Gift of Miss. Maud Schuyler Clark, 1952; "Cape, (Pelerine)," American, 1900-1903, Gift of Miss Caroline Ferriday, 1940

The Gibson Girl gallery (1890s) moved the action outdoors, symbolizing a distinctive type of "American beauty" that challenged European hegemony over accepted standards of style and beauty. The backdrops were inspired by the illustrations of Coles Phillips, Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, Harrison Fisher, and J.C. Leyendecker. All the sets were designed by Nathan Crowley, with Jamie Rama and Center Line Studios. In previous generations, other than riding, women barely played sports because among other things their clothes were far too cumbersome. Sports were also considered a male preserve.

"Vacation" by J. C. Layendecker

"Vacation," by J.C. Layendecker, photo from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Suddenly, Charles Dana Gibson's illustrations of "The Gibson Girl" - his own creation - in Life Magazine (mid 1890s) made her an instant sensation. Depicted as tall and slender, with long limbs, classical features, and hair tied up in a chignon, this archetype was depicted as fairly aristocraic, but she also transcended age and class barriers. Reflecting the times, when women were seeking emancipation, she was confident and commanding. It was The Gibson Girls ability and freedom to play sports - to exercize - that exemplified the new American woman's assertion of herself, and her increasing independence.The illustration above, by J.C. Layendecker, depicts a vacation with accessories like the tennis racket and golf clubs, active sport, not passivity.

French evening dress, 1909-1911

Second from right: "Evening Dress," French, 1909-11, Cream silk charmeuse; cream chiffon; silver bugle-beads; turquoise and pearl tassels; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museu, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Frederick H. Prince, Jr., 1967

As the illustrations show, The Gibson Girl still wears corsets and long dresses, but the "bifurcated" skirt - the beginning of trousers for women - made its appearance, which allowed women greater freedom to try out new sports like bicycle riding by the end of the 19th century. Tennis, golf, boating, swimming and skating outfits still look terribly cumbersome by today's standards, but at least women got out into the fresh air. Yards of fabric were replaced by simpler, tailored suits and dresses for day wear, and practical shirtwaist blouses and skirts for sports. While the riding habits of aristocratic women are familiar to us from films and novels, this show, and the catalog, offer many more examples of outfits women wore to play tennis, golf, ice-skate and swim. American women spent far more time outdoors playing sports than their European counterparts, which had a profound impact on her physique.

Evening Cape by Arthur Silver for Liberty and Company

"Evening Cape," Arthur Silver, (1853-1896), Liberty and Company, (Founded 1875), British, 1910-15, Blue and green silk brocade woven in a peacock feather pattern, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Jane Mead von Salis Funtanella, 1984

The Bohemians Gallery (1900s) was stunningly beautiful, complementing the connection between the arts and the exotic avant-garde fashions favored by the "Bohemian" archetype of the American woman. Extremely individualistic, these women used the arts - rather than sports - to further their development as independent individuals. Tiffany lamps cast an warm glow in the wood paneled room with Tiffany leaded glass windows, inspired by The Tiffany House, New York. The Bohemian was financially well off, and did not "make art" but consumed it - by patronizing the arts and artists, organizing exhibitions, and founding museums. The Bohemian favored dramatic fashions that made bold statements, epitomized by the more artistic design houses, such as Callot Soeurs, Poiret, and Liberty and Co. The looser fitting, un-corseted silhouette was instantly noticeable, as were the exotic fabrics and exquisite ornamentation, inspired by classicism, Orientalism, and medievalism - and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The unconstricted female body is finally visible, mirroring further development towards independence and individuality. The shoes were a show stopper - quite literally works of art.

American evening dress 1911-1913

"Evening Dress," American, 1911-13, White silk satin and chiffon embroidered with orange and gray beadwork, orange silk taffeta sash; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Alan L. Wolfe, 1957. From the Bohemian Gallery

A case of exquisite shoes in The Bohemians gallery was hard to miss. Outfits as luscious as these had to have complementary footwear. Although many of the shoes were adorned with lace, the catalog illustrates and describes one pair in particular, because they belonged to Rita de Acosta Lydig, (1869-1942), who exemplified the American Bohemian archetype: "Lydig's wardrobe was an expression of her quest for artistic individuation. Her idiosyncratic style, best described as 'bohemian,' 'melded an old-world ambience with avant-garde daring. Lydig was the inspiration for famous artists and photographers, including Edward Steichen, Baron Adolf de Meyer and Giovanni Boldini. A passionate collector of seventeenth and eighteenth-century laces, she commissioned the couture house Callot Soeurs, specialists in lace, to make up tunics, blouses and bags using them. One of her most recognizable ensembles paired the tunics with one-piece bifurcated satin garments draped between the legs like the Indian dhoti, an adventurous and idiosyncratic look in the pre-World War I period." It is likely that Lydig supplied the lace for her shoes. Yantorny applied identical motifs to each shoe in exactly the same pattern, which would have required cutting out the pieces from a larger piece of lace. Over two dozen pairs of Lydig's Yantorny's shoes have survived, but she is reputed to have had several hundred.

Evening shoes, 1914-1919, Pietro Yantorny

"Evening Shoes," 1914-19, Pietro Yantorny, Italian, (1874-1936), Silk satin, silk velvet, cream Venetian gros-point lace, metallic sequins, glass beads. From the Bohemian Gallery.

The Patriot and The Suffragist Gallery was dominated by large movie screens with documentary footage of the indomitable ladies in action: marching in formation down Fifth Avenue, aiding the War effort, working as nurses, and motivating crowds with speeches about womens rights, and the right to vote. It was deeply moving to see actual footage of them. They have become so mythical, it was a jolt to watch them right there, urging women to fight for rights we now take totally for granted. Documentary footage showed how organized the suffragists were, and how hard won any kind of "rights" are. Millions of women across the world still struggle to have them. Military uniforms and far more practical attire emerged to accommodate thousands of women as they entered the armed forces or workforce once that became possible - because it was necessary. What women wore had huge significance in the struggle for emancipation.

Walking suit by Aitken and Company 1905-1909

Left: "Walking Suit,"Aitken and Company, 1905-9, Jacket and skirt of cream wool flannel, with cream Irish crochet lace and silk braid, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. J.W.Post, 1944; "Walking Suit," Probably French, 1915, Navy wool twill, Gift of Mrme. Louis Cerlian 1940; "Walking Suit," American, 1915, Navy wool gabardine, Purchase, Irene Lewishon Bequest, 1951. From The Patriot and Suffragist Gallery

The wall text from the gallery gave the historical context of the clothes, and the film footage:

"The Bohemian's involvement in the arts, like The Gibson Girls participation in sports, helped advance equality for women, a cause for which the American woman had been campaigning since The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where the right to vote was her most radical demand. Women's suffrage received its greatest impetus when the United States entered World War I on April 16, 1917. During the war, more that 40,000 female patriots served in relief and military duty. Commenting on women's wartime service, President Woodrow Wilson observed, "Unless we enfranchize women, we shall have fought to enfranchize a democracy which, to that extent, we have never bothered to create." With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to The United States Constitution on August 18th, 1920, female citizens were finally given the right to vote. Over their seventy-one year struggle for voting rights, suffragists mobilized various practices of display for political purposes, the most significant being fashion. Through the use of specific colors, such as gold or the tri-colors purple, white and green, (and, later, purple, white and gold), suffragists forged a visibly shared public identity. The American woman's adoption of these colors signified her identification and performance as a suffragist, as did her adoption of the latest fashions and accessories. For the suffragist, fashionable dress was a form of feminine protest. By co-opting the practices of conventional femininity, she demanded that women be political subjects because of - not in spite of - their sexuality."

The Flapper Gallery with backdrops inspired by de Lempika

The Flapper Gallery, with backdrops inspired by the paintings of Tamara de Lempika: A mannequin attired in glamorous ostrich feather boa and fan, and "just-below-the-knee sheath dress

The silhouettes in the Flapper Gallery reflected women's liberation. They were slimmer and more androgynous. Suddenly, the hems were up, arms were bare, and necklines scooped the neck. The underpinnings or undergarments that for so long had influenced the appearance of womens figures, had all but disappeared. The dresses look more natural because of fitter bodies - that exercized - that no longer required "support." Euphoria in achieving the right to vote had an enormous impact on women, which manifested in greater freedom in her clothes, hair and make-up. The Roaring Twenties had arrived, and with it a new era for womanhood. Unlike the Gibson Girl, who was a distinctly American beauty, the flapper became popular as an American and an international icon The low-waisted, short skirted, loose-top "tube" - or sheath dress - became the flapper uniform, its vertical and angular proportions echoing the skyscrapers rising up around her. She was sexually liberated, urban, the epitome of modernity. These were clothes to work in, play sports in, or go dancing in, and they soon appeared in an entirely new context - Hollywood movies - that had enormous global impact. The backdrops were inspired by the paintings of Tamara de Lempika, and wall text at the introduction to the show noted:

"By the 1920s the American woman was slim, athletic and youthful. Patou came to refer to her as 'the slender American Diana,' an ideal he compared to (and pitted against), her continental counterpart, 'the rounded French Venus.' The French couturier was not alone in his praise of the American woman's graceful greyhound silhouette, which he ascribed to her vigorous outdoor lifestyle. Collette, writing in French Vogue about Patou's imported American mannequins predicted: 'This squad of archangels in a chaste flight unimpeded by the flesh, will reorient fashion toward an increasingly slender line.'"

"Evening dress by Lanvin, left

Left: "Evening Dress," by Jeanne Lanvin, spring/summer 1923, Peach silk crepe and gold silk tulle embroidered overall with rhinestones, gold sequins and metallic thread. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Designated purchase, 1984; Right: "Evening Dress," French, circa 1925, White cotton gauze embroidered overallwith white, pink, green and gold pearlescent beads in a swag and floral motif; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Howard B., and Mary Bavetta Hanning, 1976

It is interesting to see how the early, more voluminous dresses, suited the "French Venus" body type, while the pared down, elegant lines of evolving fashion suited the slender, athletic "Diana's."

"Trussing" the female form to look shapely was radically replaced by bodies that were in great shape. It was a carefree, heady time for women, and several innovative women designers emerged as a formidable force in fashion - from France Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin, Callot Soeurs (also from The Bohemian era), Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle Chanel, Madame Alix Gres, among others. American women designers like Jessie Franklin Turner, Elizabeth Hawes, Madame Eta Hentz, Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin and Vera Maxwell broadened the field of fashion to include noticeably more "sportswear" as well as sophisticated evening wear that became highly visible on movie screens during Hollywood's Golden Age. 

Dinner ensemble by Elsa Schiaparelli

"Dinner Ensemble," by Elsa Schiaparelli, French, 1933-35, Green and black silk faille, supplementary gold metallic wood-grain pattern; Shoes: green and black silk faille; gold kidskin; label: "Padova/Modele/Andre Perugia/4.rue de la Paix-Paris;" Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1951, photo from catalogue

The stunning green and black "Dinner Ensemble" illustrated below is by the brilliant Elsa Schiaparelli (French, born in Italy, 1890-1973), who used custom textiles, like this luscious mottled pattern of deep greens, injected with gold wood-grain motif, that "transmogrifies the human body like a fleeing Daphne, into a tree. Deploying industrial zippers as decoration on evening wear was an early iconoclastic gesture that became a signature Schiaparelli design element." ( From the catalogue "High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The co-ordinating shoes are by Andre Perugia (French, 1893-1977). 

There is a formal tweed pantsuit by Schiaparelli in the catalogue that is decades ahead of its time.While her signature structured jacket was mainstream by the 1930s, pants were accepted attire only for sports related activities, with few exceptions. It was not until Yves Saint Laurent and Andre Courreges introduced pantsuits in the 1960s that they became mainstream fashion.

The Screen Sirens Gallery was a personal favorite, featuring Rita Hayworth, Anna May Wong, Marlene Deitrich, Katherine Hepburn and Lena Horne, among other stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1930s, by which time these films had absolute influence internationally. The girlish, flirtatious flapper was replaced by the more womanly, sensuous, and sophisticated screen siren. The back and forth of male-female relatonships is rendered in celluloid in films like "Bringing Up Baby," with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, who brought with them the delicious gift of humor. Edgier is "Gilda" starring Rita Hayworth, who is total dynamite on screen, and a lady that clearly understood that working her talents to the hilt was true liberation. This is an empowered woman, whose success did not rest on her looks alone - and it could have, because she was exceptionally beautiful. She clearly relished her work.

Marlene Dietrick smoldering

Marlene Dietrich smolders on screen, flanked by sinuous silk jersey evening gowns with halter necks, among other innovations. On the far left is the dramatic back of Jeanne Lanvin's "Phedre" Evening Dress (Fall 1933). Front illustrated below

"Phedre" evening dress by Lanvin, 1933

"Phedre," Evening Dress, Jeanne Lanvin, French, (Fall 1933), Black silk crepe with silver lame channel quilted panels, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009. Gift of Mark Walsh, 1984, photo from catalogue

Large screens featuring clips from movies starring some of the most acclaimed actresses of the 30s and 40s - the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is easy to see from their all-out glamour, and the clothes they wore, how they blew audiences away with their style, talent and confidence. They are just as impressive today. Besides being great actresses, many of the screen goddesses sang and danced like a dream - in high heels. They were in prime physical shape. Dancers like Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth required fluid gowns that did not impede movement. This was an exciting new venue for fashion, and halter necks, backless, strapless dresses burst onto the movie screen. They were designed by the best, impeccably tailored, and often fashioned from fluid fabrics that worked with the body, not against it. A screen icon whose dress sense matched her independent spirit was Katherine Hepburn, who played sports and wore trousers off the golf course before it became the norm. These ladies were hugely influential on fashion. Women who saw their films wanted to dress like them. Jeanne Lanvin's dramatic "Phedre" evening dress, (illustrated above), drew great praise from Harpers Bazaar in January 1934: "One of the most beautiful gowns that the mid-season collections brought forth is a Lanvin model called 'Phedre.' It is of black crepe Francoise, with long tight sleeves that forget themselves at the shoulders, and a seductive fish tail, which turns back at the corners to show silver lame, sure sign of a Lanvin gown." (Catalogue)

"Evening dress by Jessie Franklin Turner 1933"

"Evening Dress," by Jessie Franklin Turner, 1933, Gold lame, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;Gift of the estate of Mary Boocock Leavitt, 1974

While Hollywood was certainly in the business of selling fantasy and illusion, it is noticeable that many of the gowns that came out of the studios were wearable. Jessie Franklin Turner's luscious gold lame dress, illustrated above, was and is a show stopper. It is exquisitely styled, can be adapted to any stretchy fabric - like jersey - and similar dresses in different lengths are worn today. 

Travis Banton's "Dragon Dress" for Anna May Wong is so incredible it is really just for the silver screen - or an opera diva. Overall the silhouettes in the Screen Sirens gallery looked far more stylish and comfortable than the tightly belted, "armored-bra" silhouettes of the 50s, for example, designed over a decade later.

Evening dress by Madame Gres, 1937

On screen, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn lock horns in "Bringing Up Baby;" Foreground: "Evening Dress," Madame Gres (Alix Barton, French, 1903-1993), 1937, White silk jersey, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009, Gift of Bettina Ballard, 1952

The glamorous screen sirens were slim but curvaceous, and many of the dresses of this era, especially the evening gowns, appear to be "molded" to the body. Designed for the camera, they were also classically oriented, often cut on the bias to emphasize the contours of the body. 

Evening ensemble, 1935, by Madeleine Vionnet

"Evening Ensemble," Madeleine Vionnet, 1935, Magenta and fuschia silk crepe; label: Madeleine Vionnet/Deposse/95104; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009; Gift of Mrs. James Johnson Sweeny, 1968, photo from catalogue

Designers like Madeline Vionnet and Madame Gres used draping, twisting and wrapping to enhance the natural figure. Both designers were inseparable from glamour, and the look they created continues to characterize the American woman today, together with the slim, youthful, athletic flapper.The evening ensemble illustrated below, and at the top of this story, is by Jeanne Lanvin. Other designers whose gowns were featured in the Screen Sirens Gallery included, Charles James, (American, born England), Madame Eta Henz, (American, born Hungary), Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, (French), Jessie Franklin Turner (American) and Travis Banton, (American), whose "Dragon Dress" is illustrated below. On screen is Rita Hayworth, dancing her famous routine in "Gilda."

Evening Ensemble by Jeanne Lanvin

Left and at the top of the story: "Evening Ensemble," by Jeanne Lanvin, spring/summer 1935, Dress of ivory silk satin; jacket of ivory silk georgette trimmed with quilted silk satin; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Ogden Goelet, Peter Goelet, and Madison Clews, in memory of Mrs. Henry Clews, 1960. On screen: Rita Hayworth dancing in "Gilda"

The American designer Charles James (born England, 1906-1978) features prominently in the catalogue, as he went on to become one of the premier couturiers of American women for several decades. 


"Tree" ball gown, 1955, Charles James, photo from catalogue

The cover illustration of the catalogue is his "Tree" ball gown from 1955 of rose pink silk taffeta, white silk satin, red, pink and white tulle.  "Reshaping the body through corsetry was one of James's lifelong fascinations.  The quinetessential feminine shape is perfected in this dress through rigid interior boning in the bodice and intricately tucked exterior hip drapery.  As an added touch of sheer romanticism, the bouffant skirt is faced with rich shit satin and supported by a profusion of colored tulle, a hidden blossom made visible with movement. Deploying a double entendre, James named the design for one of his clients, Marietta Peabody Fitzgerald Tree, mother of the model Penelope Tree, and also a reference to the plant form, which the silhoutte, uiprooted, resembles," according to the catalogue.

In describing James famous dress "La Sirene," (illustrated), the catalogue notes: "Transcending the style of three decades, James produced this dress, one of his most popular designs, from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. While its lines correspond to the slinky silhouettes of glamourous 1930s fashions, it parts company with the bias cut sheaths of that decade in cut, construction and attitude. The tapered front spinelike element, supporting proportionally spaced upward tucks, adds an edgy anatomical feature, ambiguously suggestive of crustacean, reptilian or human skeletal forms, a signature James conceit."

"La Sirene" evening dress by Charles James

Near Left: "La Sirene," Evening Dress, by Charles James, 1941, Black silk crepe; Brooklyn Museum Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Bequest of Marta C. Raymond, 1989

The emphasis of this show was on ladies from the upper echelons of society, but their impact upon mainstream women became universal because of mass media, primarily through its depictions of The Gibson Girls playing sports in lest restrictive clothing and hairstyles. This "sporty" sense of style was then at the disposal of any woman with imagination, who could adapt what she saw in the illustrations for her own purposes. The most significant influence in the early stages of emancipation was The Gibson Girl was her advocation of sports, and independent spirit, which persists till today.

"Lucille Brokaw" by Munkdasi

"Lucille Brokaw," by Martin Munkcasi, 1933, photo from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The evolution of fashion and feminism culminates in the final gallery, a room filled with media and film images of "American women," from the past to the present - including tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Michele Obama, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Diane Keaton, Iman, Sandra Day O'Connor, Esther Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Ava Gardner, Sofia Coppola, Hale Berry, Melind Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many other iconic movie stars, models and women that have achieved extrordinary success in every possible field. Clothes that virtually imprison or smother the body - beautiful as they are - in the earlier galleries, become fluid and unconstricted, until they are the recognizable outfits visible on contemporary American women today. The comfortable "sporty" American look has evolved into an international, uniform, the most fundamental components being the cotton jersey T shirt and denim jeans. GAP, the sponsor of this show, is a global franchize that has perfected affordable, and practical "everyday wear" that we would be lost without today. It is quintessentially American, but it is worn globally by both sexes. Less practical, but comfortable, artistic and drop-dead elegant is Halston's "tie-dyed" inspired caftan evening dress, circa 1975.

Evening dress, Halston

"Evening Dress," Halston, 1975, Silk chiffon tie-dyed in orange to yellow ombre grid pattern with green diagonal stripe; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Carol Siris Roaman, 1983, photo from catalogue

This exhibition , and the catalogue, show how women freed themselves from centuries of baggage and protocols, and how much what they wore reflected that change. Clothing becomes a celebration of their new found freedom, represented by the outfits we see women wearing today, which have a strong emphasis on comfort as well as style. The clothes eventually complement the lifestyle of women - who choose what they wear - instead forcing women to conform in "a hot house of traditions and conventions."

Evening dress, circa 1965, by Geoffrey Beene

Evening dress, circa 1965, by Geoffrey Beene, photo from catalgoue

Geoffrey Beene (American, 1927-2004) "asserted his interest in twentieth century art in methods both subtle, as in regardig the body-garment relationship from artistic perspectives such as Cubism, and obvious, by preempting imagery.  The iconic leaf forms inspired by the late work of Henri Matrisse, known as "cutouts," dominate this dress design," the catalogue notes, adding that "Beene echoes the curvilinear shapes in the low U-cut of the front bodice and the petal forms at the hem."

1930 wedding ensemble by Callot Soeurs

Wedding ensemble, 1930, Callot Soeurs, photo from catalogue

One of the most beautiful dresses in in the catalogue is a 1930 wedding ensemble by Callot Soeurs (French 1895-1937).  In its description of this dress, the catalogue observes that "The influence of Asian and Islamic designs featured prominently in Callot Soeurs clothing.  Evoking the rippling waters of a Japanese landscape, the bias-cut cathedral -lenth train of this otherwise quintessential example of 1930s glamour is woked with a concentric scallop pattern, adding definition andcharacter to the extravagance of its dimensions."


 Model as Muse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art review by Michele Leight (6/29/09)

"Skin + Bones, Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and The National Art Center in Toyko (8/1/08)

"Poiret, King of Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reviewed by Michele Leight (5/29/07)

"AngloMania" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reviewed by Michele Leight (2/7/07)

Chanel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reviewed by Michele Leight (8/5/05)

"Goddess" at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reviewed by Michele Leight (7/07/03)

"Extreme Beauty, The Body Transformed" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (4/17/02)

"Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art reviewed by Michele Leight (5/18/01)

Giorgio Armani exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art reviewed by Michele Leight (10/27/00)

Iridescence and gray are the bywords in new Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue of women's fashions (2/14/99)

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