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August 29 2014

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American Women, Then And Now

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Oprah Winfrey, who is a co-host of tonight’s Costume Institute Party of the Year with Vogue‘s Anna Wintour and Gap’s Patrick Robinson, wasn’t in the house, but the American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity preview and press conference at the Met this morning drew a big crowd nonetheless. Explaining the genesis of the exhibition, curator Andrew Bolton said, “Our original focus was American women of style—Rita Lydig, Lauren Bacall, Gypsy Rose, and other women who’ve donated their clothes to the Met. But the Brooklyn Museum collection [which the Costume Institute recently acquired and which forms the basis of this show] reflects more powerfully on ideals of femininity and how they echo the American woman’s gradual emancipation.” Not only the physical emancipation of the Gibson girl, but also the political emancipation of the patriot and the sexual and economic emancipation of the flapper. Still, there’s no resisting assigning icons to the show’s six archetypes, and the last room features over 200 still and moving images of famous American females from 1890 to today. For Bolton, Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer is the modern heiress, Serena Williams today’s Gibson girl, Lady Gaga our bohemian (her predecessor—Mrs. Philip Lydig, as shot by Edward Steichen, left), Michelle Obama a contemporary patriot, Beyoncé a latter-day flapper, and Angelina Jolie a twenty-first-century screen siren. Many, if not all, of those women will be in attendance at the gala tonight.

What might prove to be most compelling about the show, however, are the fairly unknown French and American designers it showcases—Weeks, Simcox, and Madame Eta, among them. In Costume Institute chief curator Harold Koda’s estimation, that has a lot to do with the nature of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. “They were more focused on addressing the American design community, and how the collection would inspire other designers.” Indeed, there are plenty of frocks, in the Flapper and Screen Siren rooms in particular, that wouldn’t look out of place at “the party of the year.”

PLUS: For more on the American archetypes, check out our American Woman feature.

Photo: Edward Steichen/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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  1. NCollard says:

    The Brooklyn Museum collection is really beautiful. It’s funny that you mention the irony of the exhibits’ labels and assigned icons despite the theme of liberation.

Dept. of Culture