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Looking for Rosie the Riveting

By Robin Givhan
The Washington Post
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page C02

Walking into the Terrace Gallery at the Kennedy Center, the first thing one sees is an elegantly draped, red silk evening gown that seductively bares one shoulder. The dress, designed by Norman Norell about 1944, is part of "Fabulous! Fashions of the 1940s," the first fashion exhibition the Kennedy Center has ever hosted and part of the center's year-long celebration of the arts of the 1940s.

The Norell dress is not the most elaborate in the exhibition -- that honor goes to a 1948 Hardy Amies gown in iridescent silk taffeta adorned with matching silk roses. But the Norell dress might be the most compelling because one could so easily imagine wearing it now. In fact, it is reminiscent of the yellow Valentino gown that actress Cate Blanchett wore to this year's Oscars.

In the Kennedy Center's "Fabulous! Fashions of the 1940s," an elegant silk evening gown from 1944, right, and a rayon crepe dress from 1940 bear a striking resemblance to today's styles. (Irving Solero - Courtesy The Museum at FIT)

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That sense of familiarity is one of the reasons why fashion exhibitions can be so enticing. They give visitors an opportunity to indulge in smug satisfaction, as surely the most common refrain is "I've got a dress like that in my closet." It is certainly possible. After all, the fashion industry may swoon over its couture creations, but it is a business that survives on mass production, not one-of-a-kind frocks.

With the realization that one might have unwittingly sent a museum piece to Goodwill come two possible reactions. One might respond with snide dismissal. Can this frock truly represent a rarified art form or be some kind of sociological barometer if the same thing was hanging in the back of my closet gathering dust? Or one might feel connected to a large cultural phenomenon, a generational shift or a global mood. The most successful exhibitions succeed by convincing audiences of the latter.

"Fabulous!," mounted in conjunction with the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, strives to underscore the daily sacrifices and changing gender roles set in motion by World War II. After all, fashion collections are not conceived in a vacuum. Designers are influenced by their times, not necessarily designing in reaction to specific incidents, but more often designing in response to emotions: fear, hope, optimism, anger.

In the 1940s, World War II defined those emotions and set the ground rules. Designers on this side of the Atlantic were limited by the American War Production Board in the amount of fabric and labor that could be devoted to their garments. They were forced to keep embellishments to a minimum. Those limitations are evident in the spare jackets and dresses with their few buttons widely spaced. But designers were also responding to the ways in which women were pushed into the workforce and the public stoicism that became their mask. With that in mind, the square-shouldered suits of Adrian, with their boxy, ungainly silhouettes, seem the natural designs to spring from that time.

The clothes remind one of the broad-shouldered suits that women carried into the corporate world in the 1980s, when gender roles were once again sent spinning. But the emotions on which those 1940s suits draw -- the bracing for the unknown, the steeling of the spine for new challenges -- may be even more familiar.

During the German occupation of Paris, the world's fashion capital, American designers who had typically followed the lead of their French counterparts were forced to look inward for inspiration. Over the course of those years, American clothes transformed from stark, dispiriting suits to the simple energetic sportswear of Claire McCardell. After the liberation of Paris, Christian Dior popularized the New Look, with its rounded shoulders and hips, nipped waist and yards of indulgent fabric. Debuting after the end of the war, these were the quintessential party dresses. It is impossible to separate the exultant spirit of the dress from its silhouette.

"Fabulous!" is a small exhibition that moves so quickly from the dignified WAVES uniforms to one of McCardell's playsuits to the New Look, it is as though the war lasted about five minutes. It is only the beginning of a conversation about fashion, wartime and the ways in which clothes reflect emotions. There is little sense of the context in which these clothes were worn.

The exhibition is as slick as the fashion photographs by John Rawlings and Louise Dahl-Wolfe that line the walls. Rawlings worked for Conde Nast publications and Dahl-Wolfe was associated with Harper's Bazaar. While each photographer has a distinct style, the eye is captivated by their similar dedication to crafting a perfect veneer. This was a time when even the most ungainly silhouettes were photographed with flattering, glamorous lighting. Fashion photography cultivated aloofness. So much of recent fashion photography has attempted to break down the wall separating the viewer from the frame -- often through informality, cynicism or irony. The exhibition's photographs most commonly evoke dignity. And the models, with their heads tilted just so, display a rather regal self-possession.

The photographs offer a varnished, emotionless view of the times, a public face of noble, graceful sacrifice. The clothes offer hints of the far more complicated, sometimes unattractive, reality.

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