A Met Fashion Exhibition: American Woman Closes After this Weekend

 Fashion exhibition at the Met includes mankins with intricately beaded flapper dresses and fur stolles.

 It’s definitely a little old-school Disneyworld, the Costume Institute’s summer-long crowd-pleaser of a fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, with its borderline cheesy lighting, background murals, and piped-in scene-setting sounds. But that in no way suggests that the clothing on display isn’t fascinating, and often eye-opening (really? the waists on those black “riding habits”, below, were that tortuously tiny, even in 1890?), and always beautifully constructed. Nor that we didn’t have blast roaming through the Met fashion exhibitions different era-based, genuinely transportive “worlds” yesterday evening, taking it all in. Because they definitely are, and we definitely did.  

Fashion exhibition featuring mankins in black Victorian dresses and upswept hairdos


American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity is the Costume Institute’s first exhibition curated entirely from the new Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Met, which, for museum-goers, basically means they had a ton of excellent examples from which to choose. The fashion exhibition is organized both chronologically, from 1890 to 1940, as well as thematically, a shrewd decision that not only narrows the focus within each era (the show could have a sprawling mess) but also hammers home the ways in which fashion was both defined by and influential in shaping American perceptions of what it means to be an (albeit idealized) woman.


Met fashion exhibition includes mankins in Gibson Girl dresses playing sports in a painted field backdrop

And so we see the turn-of-the-century Gibson Girls (above) in their sporting outfits, impossibly constricting by today’s standards, of course, but a huge leap forward in terms of freedom and physical expression for women of the leisure class. We see how the look of the Flappers–those hemlines!–was the immediate result of the victorious woman’s emancipation movement (top), and it’s remarkable how contemporary many of these outfits seem, their direct design descendants obvious to anyone who’s waded through the racks at a Forever 21. And we see at the Met fashion exhibition, 1930s dresses of the Screen Sirens (below), all drapey and smoldering, the sensuous outfits set among film clips of the era’s goddesses, such as Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. 

Fashion exhibition at the Met showcasing drapey, 1930s goddesses dresses and Greta Garbo on screen in the background.

It all works, the American Woman fashion exhibition at the Met, on several different levels, though it is a fairly quick tour. This is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s suggested admission price comes in handy: go towards the end or the beginning of the day, when the crowds have thinned (we were there at 5:00, and had lots of space), pay a couple of bucks each, and spend 20 minutes or so ogling the past. 

Fashion exhibition of mankins in Victorian sportsware set in front of a beach scene

American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity at the Met Details

American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity will be on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through this Sunday, August 15, only. The Met is located on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, and is open Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. For more information about the American Woman fashion exhibition and the museum as a whole, please see the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. 

forms with dresses


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