The Multi-Layered Movie of American Fashion

When “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute show, opened last September as the world first adjusted to the idea of living with Covid-19, it signaled a fresh start by reframing the dialogue around homegrown design. Now its more sprawling, multi-layered successor, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” takes the argument out of the basement and into the museum.

Literally. While Part 1 continues to be exhibited in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, Part 2, with over 100 historical garments, takes place in 13 of the Met’s American Wing period rooms, where nine celebrated film directors (four of whom are African American women) created an immersive environment in collaboration with curators of the Costume Institute and American Wing.

Together the two displays form the first serial costume show in the institute’s history, one that challenges old stereotypes and narratives (and former Met curations) about what, exactly, “American fashion” means and who gets included in the credits. Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic for The New York Times, and Salamishah Tillet, a contributing critic at large, teamed up to assess the experience.

VANESSA FRIEDMAN There are so many ideas and agendas layered into this show, it’s hard to know where to begin. There is, first, the attempt to contextualize the development of American fashion between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th and to place it in situ. Then there is the drive to use that context to bring to light fashion stories and designers that have been overlooked, largely because of race or gender, and to redress those wrongs.

But then there’s also the fact that nine different, very diverse film directors with very different aesthetics were tasked with bringing those rooms and new scenarios to life by imaging scenarios in which the clothes might be worn.

And finally, there are the “case studies” — glass cases containing garments that represent an important turning point for American fashion, as defined by the curators. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge, said he wanted the cacophony, but it seems to me there’s just too much competing for consideration here.

SALAMISHAH TILLET I wonder if that was the point; the difference between the “lexicon” of Part 1 and the “anthology” of Part 2. The former was really searching for a shorthand, or identifiable and modern marker of American fashion. But an anthology acts as both a collection and canon all on its own.

This exhibition opens with a big statement: a case study that exposes the great American paradox of freedom and slavery. A brown wool coat worn by George Washington is immediately followed by two even more haunting items: the Brooks Brothers broadcloth coat that Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was assassinated, and another, far more modest Brooks Brothers light brown wool coat worn by an enslaved man. There is so much at stake in that founding history and opening triad. More conflict than “cacophony” for sure, but I found it quite moving.

FRIEDMAN It is a powerful opening vignette that creates clear expectations about a political point. Those expectations are met in the nearby Haverhill Room, where Radha Blank, the director of “The Forty Year Old Version,” has created a woven “quilt,” or veil, that acts as a reference to both African beading and braiding and reads “We Good. Thx!” It flows from the head of a mannequin wearing an elaborate wedding dress made by the firm L.P. Hollander, whose founder was an abolitionist and who commissioned the quilt displayed just outside the room. It features a portrait of Washington and an abolitionist poem — which itself connects to the Washington coat, and the need to wrestle with the history of slavery in this country and racism in the fashion industry.

And yet directly across from that room are two vignettes created by Autumn de Wilde, the director of “Emma” (2020), which tell the stories (complete with scripted word bubbles) of thwarted socialites obsessed with French fashion, and a cocktail party gone bad. Amusing as they are, it’s hard not to think: huh?

TILLET That was difficult for me. All of those silk dresses, puffed sleeves, and carefully tailored suits in the Benkard Room (from Virginia, circa 1811) really were period clothing. But I wondered about all those enslaved Black people that were intentionally missing here, those who made all that wealth possible. Wilde’s whimsical staging reveals the absurdity of such stateliness built on so much dispossession — but it also erases slavery, the Indigenous communities, the few free Blacks, and even white servants who lived in Virginia back then.

FRIEDMAN I was missing that connection, which is so palpable in a room like the director Julie Dash’s, depicting Ann Lowe, the extraordinary Black designer behind Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown, as an ebony chiffon-wrapped figure shadowing her own midcentury silk satin party dresses in the Renaissance Revival Room. That’s pretty provocative staging.

TILLET I was actually surprised to learn that the Met has had Lowe’s dresses in storage for several decades now.

FRIEDMAN That’s a reflection of a value system that historically canonized Dior over Lowe.

TILLET She fascinates me! I was also intrigued by Dash’s vignette. Not only do those kneeling brown mannequins in black sheer dresses and broad brim hats represent Lowe, but they also double as Yoruba Egungun dancers, ancestral spirits there to celebrate her. I liked how Dash complicated the big Americana narrative of the show, and placed Lowe within the African Diaspora and part of those vibrant expressive Black cultures that predate the United States.

FRIEDMAN But then you get Martin Scorsese’s freeze frame of a film noir cocktail party populated by fabulous Charles James gowns: seductively suspenseful, but without any meaty subtext.

I couldn’t help but feel the whole exhibit probably started from a much simpler place: wanting to counteract the stereotype of American fashion as all about practicality rather than creativity, and dramatizing its emergence as an art unto itself with a buzzy pop culture overlay. After all, the show did originate as the third part of a trilogy of period room fashion/furnishing exhibits that included “Dangerous Liaisons” (2004) in the French period rooms and “Anglomania” (2006) in the English period rooms.

But then, once our classic institutions, including the Met, began to take a hard look at their own histories of discrimination over the last year or two, the agenda became much broader and more political. And that created this weird mash-up.

TILLET I did think of it as a continuation of the recent curatorial experiments that the Met has embarked on in other period rooms in the American Wing. Like the all-white closet of Sara Berman, a Belarusian and Israeli émigré, installed next to the Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room from 1882; or the “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” a tribute to Seneca Village, the free African American community that was removed to make way for Central Park. Both rooms were conceived before the racial reckoning of 2020, and are trying to reimagine the rather antiquated, and often one-sided, histories of the period room genre.

I got the sense that the curators here were trying to animate some very, very different period rooms, pay homage to designers whose distinct styles earned them notoriety in their time but, for some, fallen out of history, and then hand over that vision to an even more diverse group of filmmakers. I’d much rather a curator takes a risk like this instead of ignoring these issues altogether. But it is a gamble.

Sometimes, it felt more about a specific filmmaker’s take on the clash between the histories of the rooms and the garments themselves.

FRIEDMAN That’s certainly how it seemed in both the Sofia Coppola rooms, where mannequins with dewy, painterly faces created by Rachel Feinstein and John Currin posed in lavish gilded age ensembles. Also the Tom Ford room, a.k.a. the Vanderlyn Panorama Room, an oval space with a wraparound painting of the palace of Versailles by the American John Vanderlyn.

In the midst of this, Ford has installed a platform featuring silver mannequins in outfits from the famous 1973 Battle of Versailles, where five American ready-to-wear designers (including Halston, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass) took on five French couture houses (Ungaro, Dior, YSL, among them) in a catwalk-off, and won. To illustrate this, Ford has interpreted the idea of “battle” literally: the mannequins, in all their gorgeous chiffons and fringed and fan-pleated frippery are fencing and flying through the air karate-chopping each other. It’s very much a discorama Ford aesthetic, but again, it feels more entertaining than substantive.

TILLET I wanted to love this room. It had the potential to resolve that conflict between slavery and freedom at the beginning, if only for a moment. That 1973 Battle of Versailles was not just a defining moment for American fashion, but a critical moment for American identity. Not only did those American designers drop the mic repeatedly in front of their French counterparts, but, despite all the backstage drama, they were fairly cohesive in their presentation. And 11 out of the 36 models were African American, including Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison! But I think Ford was going for the decorative spectacle of the moment.

It was a really big contrast to one of my favorite rooms — the Shaker Retiring Room with Claire McCardell clothing, done by the filmmaker Chloé Zhao. Shakers promoted a relatively simple, almost monastic aesthetic, so the room was sparse. Such minimalism really allowed me to appreciate the smart sophistication of McCardell’s wool frocks, even her wool wedding dress, all of which works well with Zhao’s cinematic style.

FRIEDMAN The Shaker room was one of the most aesthetically coherent presentations of the lot (I could also imagine Zhao actually wearing the McCardell dresses displayed). At the same time, though, I dispute the idea that McCardell is somehow a designer “lost” to history; like Charles James (who, after all, had an entire Costume Institute show devoted to his work), she’s one of the building blocks of the American fashion story.

What I thought was even more effective was the “case study” that juxtaposed a halter neck McCardell dress and a dress by Madeleine Vionnet, which look almost identical — except the McCardell dress, because it is made from jersey, draped without any fancy bias cutting, which speaks to an identifiably American sportswear approach. Just as another case study that compared a Dior skirt suit to a (very similar) Hattie Carnegie number showed how they differed in the detailing.

Maybe it would have been clearer if the more famous names had been relegated to these “case studies,” and the period rooms had been populated by those often overlooked. What do you think?

TILLET I actually wondered the reverse — I feel as if the more overlooked artists might still be a bit overshadowed by everything else going on in those period rooms. That’s probably why I liked the Zhao/McCardell staging so much. And I thought the director Janicza Bravo did a wonderful job transforming that Gothic Revival House library into a space in which Elizabeth Hawes, the fashion designer and critic of the industry, retreated.

FRIEDMAN Hawes is one of my favorite fashion writers (“Fashion Is Spinach” is a seminal text), but that room is so dark, I could barely see the clothes. And again, while I think it’s great that Hawes is being given a moment in the spotlight (even if it’s very dim), and credit for wit that preceded and presaged designers like Franco Moschino, here we’re zigging back to the history of how America got out from its European inferiority complex.

TILLET Well, I did appreciate Bravo’s emphasis on Hawes’s creative process. The sketches and scissors thrown on the floor remind me actual work is required to make those beautiful dresses. Regina King does this differently in the Richmond Room when she also displayed an unknown seamstress to represent the other Black women that the African American designer Fannie Criss employed to work alongside her in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even if we do not know their names, King wants to recognize those unknown hands that helped make Criss’s coveted garments.

FRIEDMAN This exhibit helps rectify some of those oversights, but it also keeps veering off in other directions, such that it’s easy to lose the thread. These sprawling, ambitious shows have become signatures of the Costume Institute under Bolton, and while they are always thought-provoking (sometimes, as in this case, many-thoughts provoking), and often gorgeous to see, oft times — as this time — they leave me with lots of questions and very few answers.

TILLET The big question I kept returning to is: How do we better tell those histories that have been overlooked? Or maybe more importantly: Why have they been overlooked for so long? And by whom? The Met has had many of these designers in their collection already, so clearly there was a recognition of their value once upon a time. But, for the most part, many of the women designers, especially the Black women designers, have been forgotten. What causes such amnesia? Clearly, not a lack of talent. Race? Gender? Taste? All of the above?

In America: An Anthology of Fashion

Opens to the public Saturday and runs through Sept. 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; (This is the second part of a two-part exhibition. Part 1, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, is currently on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center.)

Author Profile

Scott Baber
Scott Baber
Senior Managing editor

Manages incoming enquiries and advertising. Based in London and very sporty. Worked news and sports desks in local paper after graduating.


Leave a Reply