Single definition of American Woman proves elusive at Costume Institute

The Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art puts on a exhibit aimed at understanding the American woman through fashion. "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" runs through Aug. 15.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010


The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has tackled complicated cultural conceits, from the save-the- universe fantasies of superheroes to the glamorous mythology surrounding models. But there are few topics as challenging and fascinating as trying to understand the American woman through her style of dress.

The impulse to put people into neat categories is irresistible, and the desire to explain what it means to be American -- beyond citizenship -- has become a hot topic. But defining an American identity through the vernacular of style is a daunting goal at a time when women as diverse as first lady Michelle Obama and performance artist Lady Gaga are celebrated by the media in almost equal measure. It seems a thankless project, too, destined to draw accusations of reductive analysis.

What benefit is there in hashing out a national style when economies and cultures interact in a global marketplace? Japanese women, credit cards in hand, storm the doors of French companies such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton; French women shop at the Gap; and American women rely on an Italian named Giorgio Armani for their power-dressing needs.

So from the outset, one feels pangs of sympathy for curator Andrew Bolton and no small amount of skepticism about his exhibition, "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity," which runs through Aug. 15. What has he got himself into?

The greatest strength of the exhibition lies in its narrow timeline. Bolton looks at the period between 1890 and 1940 -- from the moment American women began to break away from European style to when the American film industry began to define glamour as an aesthetic category on an international scale. Bolton is also aided by the extraordinary set designs of Hollywood's Nathan Crowley, whose work provides the garments with context and drama. His painted backdrops of lavish ballrooms, bucolic seasides and Tiffany-inspired stained-glass windows hint at the kind of lives these women led.

Bolton makes a convincing argument for sifting through the styles of the past: They provide a history of how dramatically the culture has changed and where it may be headed. The past is brought to life through the Heiress, the Gibson Girl, the Bohemian, the Suffragette, the Flapper and the Screen Siren. The idealized woman of the present -- the archetype of 2010 -- is sadly missing. Could that modern icon be defined by the Reality Star? The Video Queen? The Political Dynamo?

Defining an era

The garments have been pulled from the costume collection that once belonged to the Brooklyn Museum and is now part of the Met. This is the first time that many of these clothes have been exhibited. And while there are dazzling examples of gowns by such renowned names as Paul Poiret, Charles Frederick Worth and Madeleine Vionnet -- European designers who ruled the fashion universe -- there are also those that do not come with a famous label. They are fine examples of the period, but they are not the most rarefied. The result is a sense that these styles defined an era, not merely the wealthiest class of women.

The exception is in the first gallery, which is devoted to the Heiress, a woman of social stature and inherited wealth. While a viewer can marvel at the elegance of her dresses and the sparkle of her jewels, it's impossible to forget that her power was borrowed. She is constrained not just by her corset and her bustle, but also by familial bonds, by social hierarchies and gender roles.

The Gibson Girl of the late 1800s and early 1900s marked the first time that a beauty ideal was not derived from Europe. The women of this era indulged in sports. And while their clothing for swimming or cycling was more cumbersome than what today's women wear in a blizzard, the ideal continues to resonate. When America celebrates the "girl next door," there is an implied athleticism to her look. Her skin is sun-kissed; her hair is streaked with natural highlights. She is a surfer chick. And in the popular imagination, she is white. Still, the Gibson Girl broadened the definition of beauty to at least include a strong, powerful and graceful body.

Grainy newsreels have made the Suffragettes a familiar image. They marched for the vote in their knee-grazing skirts and buttoned-up jackets. Those can't help evoking the conservatively dressed ladies of Capitol Hill today who work to make women's issues everyone's concern. There's a familiar sobriety in their attire, a willful turning away from decoration and flash.

The exhibition moves to the 1920s and the era of the Flapper, one of the few American archetypes with international reach. The Flapper aspired to sexual liberation. She danced, drank and bobbed her hair.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company