If you live in New York City (or will be visiting this summer before August 15th) get your tush over to the Met to see the fantastic new Costume Institute exhibit, “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity.”
The exhibit explores the development of American fashion as an expression of the social, political, and sexual emancipation of the modern American woman. Several iconic archetypes of American fashion, from “The Heiress” to “The Gibson Girl” to “The Flapper” are presented. Over 80 examples of gorgeous, amazingly preserved haute couture fashion pieces dating from 1890 to 1940 are showcased in hand-painted panorama rooms that will transport you through time as you walk through the exhibit. I recommend paying a little extra for the audio guide, narrated by modern-day fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker, who will walk you through each room and offer interesting information on the time, the fashion, and the items displayed.
For me, some of my favorite pieces in the exhibit were the examples of haute couture gowns from The Heiress period, designed by The House of Worth. If you don’t recognize this label, it’s because it no longer exists, though it is historically important to fashion. Charles Frederick Worth, who established the design house in 1858, eventually came to be known as the “father of haute couture.”
The detailing on these dresses are fantastic. You have to see them in person.
Another memorable piece was the Gibson Girl sweater below, an example of early American sportswear:
This very early sportswear sweater combines the aesthetics of fashionable dress through its puffy gigot sleeves and overall silhouette with the informal sportiness inherent in any knit fabric. It’s an interesting example of how the standards of what’s beautiful and fashionable have changed, and yet stayed the same over time. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth best made famous the voluminous gigot sleeve that creates a powerful yet feminine look through a strong, broad shoulder that emphasizes a slim, tiny waist:
Today, we can see an echo of the gigot sleeve in Dolce and Gabbana’s fall 2009 collection, which used whimsical circles to create a similar voluminous shoulder that shows off a narrow waist:
Perhaps the most current iteration of strength and femininity expressed through fashion is by Michelle Obama, who is known for preference for styles that are sleeveless. And with those arms, who wouldn’t?
As Robin Givhan wrote in her infamous New Yorker article, “Those arms represent personal time. They are evidence of a forty-five-year-old woman’s refusal to give up every free moment in service to husband, kids, and all the nagging distractions that could have filled her days and left her tuning in to “Oprah,” trying to figure out how she’d lost herself along the way. The arms imply vanity and power: two things that make many women uncomfortable and yet are fundamental to self-confidence.”
Today on July 4th, a day we celebrate our independence and great democracy, let’s also celebrate our right to bear arms (I just couldn’t resist), and can be grateful that thanks to the women who have gone before us in fashion, today the American Woman can exercise a sense of style that expresses her individuality, power, strength, vanity, self-confidence, athleticism, femininity, independence, and so much more.
p.s. If you’d like to read more on the web about Michelle Obama’s fashion, I highly recommend the blog Mrs. O. If you check it out, let me know what you think!