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Patrick Robinson On The Timeless (And Ever-Changing) Style Of The American Woman

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“When I was younger, I would immediately come down here with my sketchbook the day after the annual gala and just stare at the gowns in awe.” Becoming the head designer of Gap comes with its perks: “I’m invited to the galas now,” Robinson laughs modestly. (Actually, this year he’s a co-chair, along with Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour.)

Following this year’s Met Costume Institute Gala—sure to showcase the best of American design—the Gap-sponsored American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity opens May 5. It focuses on six historical female archetypes that have come to define American style: the heiress, the screen siren, the bohemian, the Gibson Girl, the flapper, and the patriot. (Each is illustrated through the clothes of the time—the screen siren, for example, represented by Anna May Wong’s famous dragon gown by Travis Banton [pictured].) Where do our contemporary icons fit into the paradigm? we wondered. Lady Gaga? “Bohemian.” Diana Ross? “Flapper.” Michelle Obama? “Patriot.” The rest of us? “Today’s woman can see herself as any one of these archetypes,” Robinson says. “Or she can be all of them!” Style.com spoke to Robinson about Gibson Girls, Hollywood, and why he’ll never take the democratic spirit of contemporary American style for granted.

Is there a certain style “archetype” that speaks to you the most personally?
Well, today, it happens to be the Gibson Girl in the spring. But that’s just because I want some warm weather right now! [laughs] But rather than choose types, I can’t help but view this exhibit as history lesson about American women—how they’ve changed intellectually, artistically, with the politics of their time. And it is fascinating how they adapted their wardrobes to that.

How has being a part of this exhibit influenced your own perspectives on American women?
I think it just brought into perspective for me how much the American woman has changed. In order for you to be standing here—in order to truly become individuals—women had to travel through every stage of emancipation here. Today’s woman can be a flapper if she wants, but she can also be a hybrid—a screen siren/patriot. She can embody as many identities as she chooses—as long as she makes it her own.

Curator Andrew Bolton mentions that the heiress of the 1890′s took most of her beauty cues from European culture, but with the 1940′s screen siren, America found its own glamorous ideal and reversed the paradigm. How important was Hollywood in shaping the global perception of American women?
The screen siren was definitely the first American woman the rest of the world wanted to be. Once America exported the idea of glamour through movies, it became universal. Movies also projected ideals of what the American woman represented to the rest of the world. Hollywood showcased the freedom of American women’s lives.

How important is it for designers to be in tune with women’s lifestyles?
Hugely. All of the designers featured in this exhibit became important because they spoke to the needs and desires of women of their time. I try to do the same. For me, Gap fares best when it reflects what’s going on in American society. It’s my responsibility to make that happen. It’s actually quite easy for me to “stay in touch”—I travel, I observe, I am “plugged in” to culture.

What is a contemporary style challenge women now face?
Today’s woman is busier. She was probably just as busy 50 years ago, but today’s woman has everything flying at her at once. She is part of a 24/7 information cycle. She has more brands at her disposal. With more options come more decisions to make. Today’s woman has to learn to be her own filter—that’s a challenge, but also an amazing opportunity.


What does sponsoring a Costume Institute exhibit mean for you and the Gap brand?
It’s an amazing opportunity and a beautiful expression for me. Becoming part of a legacy I grew up admiring means so much. It also invites me to acknowledge that Gap celebrates American women’s fashion at this level. For the past 40 years, we’ve dressed the American woman—but we’ve dressed her for her individual style. And we don’t represent just one of these archetypes—we represent all of them.

Photos: Courtesy of The Costume Institute

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  1. NotMod says:

    A good reminder that a costume must stay very, very close to a stereotype, or else it risks missing the point!

  2. weight says:

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