Editors' pick

Mary McFadden: Goddesses

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Editorial Review

'Goddesses': A Designer's Borrowed Clothes

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mary McFadden, now 70 and a longtime force in American fashion, has collected fantastic art from all around the world, from every moment in history. She's got a stunning crown from China, encrusted with gold dragons and at least a thousand years old. She's got a golden funerary mask made in Peru about A.D. 400, and a necklace made of huge fish teeth from 18th-century Cuba. Those and dozens of other compelling artifacts fill the display cases in "Mary McFadden: Goddesses" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

They are much more than objects of delight. Each one suggests an entire foreign culture, with its own personality and way of doing things that is different from ours. You may not know a thing about the culture that lurks behind the object, but you can still feel that it's there.

Which leaves us to deal with this show's 40 works of haute couture, designed by McFadden and set out on mannequins in front of her collected treasures. The whole time between her New York debut in 1974 and the closing of her showroom in 2002, McFadden's signature move was to take a few details from the clothes of faraway peoples and eras -- Japan and Mongolia; ancient Egypt and classical Greece -- and incorporate them into her modern attire. The same quilted-silk Nehru jacket can come hand-painted with botanical swirls, in McFadden's 1981 "Art Nouveau" collection, or with animal interlacings from medieval Ireland (in the "Book of Kells" collection, 1993) or with motifs that recall the palace walls of ancient Persia (the "Royal City of Susa" collection, 1994).

Good or bad, what do these garments tell us of the time and place they come out of? This show -- the museum's first to feature a fashion designer -- gives a fascinating glimpse into what high-end gowns can mean.

Right off, you spot authority and confidence in McFadden's couture. Her fashion borrows eagerly from everywhere, because it's the product of a society that imagines its embrace can take in all the world, all its cultures and all its history -- as McFadden did in her own art collecting. It's as though McFadden, dining at one of those international buffets that were de rigueur in 1970s America, is helping herself to a taste of couscous, a piece of tempura and a bite of tamale, with a spoonful of tzatziki over all.

What other society, however powerful and sure of itself, has ever had such mental sway over an entire planet's worth of history, geography and culture? By the 1970s, whatever lay out of reach of American trade or politics could be served up by the country's archaeologists, historians and anthropologists. To a globe-trotting, National Geographic-reading culturata like McFadden, nothing was a truly foreign country, not even the past. It had all become part of the Greater America her dresses represent.

And yet, for all the security and power implied in that situation, there's also a sense of cultural uncertainty.

The artisans who made McFadden's Chinese crown, Peruvian mask or Cuban necklace had a clear sense of how things ought to be. Their objects point to a coherent cultural back story. Whereas the gowns of McFadden, with all their different borrowings, can seem all at sea. They're on a fishing trip for a style they can call their own. Or not for a style: In cut and fabric and approach to detailing, they've got a look that's almost too consistent. What they seem out to nab are the markers of "cult-chah," as represented, say, by the accumulated global treasures of the Metropolitan Museum.

McFadden isn't stealing, really, the way the cocksure Picasso did when he took African art and bent it to his ends. (All artistic cultures do such "stealing." It's part of how they grow.) Instead, hesitant and magpielike, her dresses pull together almost interchangeable decoration -- from art nouveau to Irish to Persian -- that they call on to signal their cultural worth.

In the 1970s, measly little Paris was still the place to go for haute couture. The United States, for all its newfound power and reach, still didn't feel it knew what it was doing. In a way, that gives a McFadden gown as rich and strange and coherent a back story as any ancient death mask can offer.

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As a companion to its McFadden show, the museum has mounted a display of 29 black-and-white pictures from its collection of works by the great fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. As with McFadden's gowns, not every one of Dahl-Wolfe's works are great. (Though overall she was arguably a more important cultural figure than McFadden.) But what these photos do is clearly illustrate the same phenomenon we have to dig out of McFadden: an expansive postwar American culture that's out and about in the world.

Eight years after the liberation of Paris by U.S. troops, Dahl-Wolfe shows a gorgeous American model strolling by the Seine as the quaint locals look on. She shows a girl in all-American shorts leaning on an ancient Mexican sculpture. And a girl in sportswear hanging out in Tunisia. Look closely at the newspaper she's reading: It's the International Herald Tribune, a sure sign of an American abroad.