May 4, 2022
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The Met's 'In America: An Anthology of Fashion" reviews U.S. fashion in historical settings

May 4, 2022

With the hullabaloo surrounding the Met Gala's red carpet coverage, it's easy to forget that the raison d’être for the festivities on the first Monday in May is opening a new exhibit at The Met's Costume Institute. The latest installation is a rare two-part situation.

'In America: An Anthology of Fashion' opens to the public on May 7, following 'In America: A Lexicon of Fashion', which opened in September of 2021. In an unprecedented move, the Met Gala 2021 was held later, after being canceled in 2020 and then delayed in 2021 due to the pandemic and its effects on gatherings.

The Renaissance Room - The Met

Fortunately, part two of the exhibit offered even more excitement to those who love fashion, film, and history, especially architectural period themes. The first appears more clinical and aimed at the true fashion lover. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute, remarked, "Part two, which explores the foundations of American fashion in relation to the complex histories of the American Wing period rooms, serves as a preface to the concise dictionary of American fashion presented in part one. Whereas Lexicon explores a new language of American fashion, Anthology uncovers unfamiliar sartorial narratives filtered through the imaginations of some of America's most visionary film directors. It is through these largely hidden stories that a nuanced picture of American fashion comes into focus—one in which the sum of its parts is as significant as the whole."

​Following this inspiration and curator's vision of Andrew Bolton, Jessica Regan, and Amelia Peck, approximately 100 examples of men's and women's dress dating from the 19th to the mid-late 20th century are displayed. The clothing was set in 13-period rooms in The Met's American Wing with nine film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Sophia Coppola, Regina King, Autumn de Wilde, and designer-turned-director Tom Ford, creating moments in time with a cinematic feel.

The Met

The vignettes take place in rooms that "encapsulate a curated survey of more than a century of American domestic life and reveal a variety of stories—from the personal to the political, the stylistic to the cultural, and the aesthetic to the ideological," according to a release from the museum, giving context and meaning to the garments. Resembling movie stills, the "freeze frames" also had a cheeky, of-the-moment element that had the viewer feel like a fly on the wall arriving at a crucial moment of action.

​Standouts were Ford's reimagining of the famous 'Battle of Versailles,' a 1973 fundraiser orchestrated mainly by Americans to help save France's beloved but then crumbling palace. The main festivity was a fashion show pitting the Americans—Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows—relative upstarts—against French legends such as Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Christian Dior's Marc Bohan.

Thanks to their energetic spirit and fresh approach (plus secret weapon Liza Minnelli), the Americans won the contest. Ford depicts this with Ninja-like mannequins bearing swords and hanging from the ceiling donned in original garments from the participants.

Some of the rooms will delight fans of Bridgerton and The Gilded Age (the event dress code theme 'Gilded Glamour' challenged some to evoke 19th-century chic). Autumn de Wilde's Baltimore and Benkard Rooms played mostly to Shonda Rhimes' insatiably popular Netflix series aesthetic. In contrast, Scorsese's depiction in the Frank Lloyd Wright room possessed both the glamour of The Philadelphia Story and the modern interiors and aloofness of The Ice Storm.

Benkard Room - The Met

Particularly poignant is Julie Dash's mise-en-scene of white women—designated by white gowns—being helped to dress by black women clad in ethereal, netting costumes complete with angel wings, presumably as servants. Dash is an acclaimed film director who graduated from UCLA in 1985 as part of the first group of African and African American students who studied film there.

Additionally, Bolten and his team included seven "case studies" which look at historical garments that break down key moments in American fashion from the 19th to the mid-late 20th century.

Among the examples is a gown worn by Mary Todd Lincoln, two coats that complicate the legacy of Brooks Brothers, including a livery worn by an unidentified enslaved man dating from approximately 1857, and a gown circa 1865 from New Orleans–based dressmaker Madame Olympe, the earliest example of an American dress with a label identifying the designer in The Costume Institute's collection.

Essential figures in American fashion whose work is on display include: Bill Blass, Marguery Bolhagen, Brooks Brothers, Stephen Burrows, Bonnie Cashin, Helen Cookman, Fannie Criss Payne, Josephine H. Egan, Anne Fogarty, Franziska Noll Gross, Halston, Elizabeth Hawes, Eta Hentz, L.P. Hollander & Co, Charles James, Anne Klein, Ann Lowe, Vera Maxwell, Claire McCardell, Lucie Monnay, Lloyd “Kiva” New, Norman Norell, Madame Olympe, Clare Potter, Oscar de la Renta, Nettie Rosenstein, Herman Rossberg, Carolyn Schurer, and Jessie Franklin Turner.

The show runs through September 5, 2022.

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