Sunday, 2 May 2010

American Woman

The fashion world is all abuzz; that wonderful time of the year has come again: the Costume Institute Gala and the accompanying exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute. This year, the exhibit is called American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity (May 5, 2010-August 15, 2010).

The exhibit itself has a pretty interesting history. The Brooklyn Museum could no longer afford to maintain its impressive costume collection, so in 2009,  the Met agreed to take charge of storing and maintaining the collection while the Brooklyn Museum still has access to it. As if to prove that point, American Woman does not have its own exhibit catalog. Instead, it is sharing a catalog with the Brooklyn Museum's sister exhibit, American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection (May 7, 2010-August 1, 2010).

The Met's own exhibit seeks to define the American woman as she presented herself at the beginning of the 20th century. According to WWD, the exhibit is divided up into several sections--the Heiress; the Gibson Girl (a Victorian prelude to the flapper); the Bohemian; the Suffragists; the Patriots; the Flapper; and the Screen Siren. The last room has videos and photographs devoted to America's style icons past and present.

The categories are a somewhat curious choice, considering that some of the styles presented in the exhibit--most notably the Suffragists and the Bohemians--didn't affect the majority of American women. Obviously, the curators, as well as sponsors Vogue and the Gap, want us to draw connections with today's fashion trends (with varying degrees of success). The exhibit comes with the inevitable discussion on what, exactly, makes American style American. And who personifies American style? 

Most agree that American style is defined by a certain functionality, simplicity and independence, which Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton hopes each section of the exhibit encompasses. As for the quintessential American woman, he says that it's Sarah Jessica Parker (who narrates the audio guide tour).
"She is such a style icon, but apart from that, she is very adaptable in terms of the clothes she wears,” Bolton said. “She is somebody who costumes herself into roles. When you think of Sarah Jessica Parker, you almost think of a flapper, because she has this remarkable joie de vivre about her. Michelle Obama represents this idea of a democratic way of dressing high and low and is a contemporary patriot or suffragist. ChloĆ« Sevigny may be a Bohemian, and Scarlett Johansson the Screen Siren."

The fact that you can't really name one perfect example of American style, or that all of these women are celebrities in some way, speaks volumes about how we as Americans treat fashion today.


  1. The Brooklyn Museum did not sell its costume collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was transferred to the Met in a landmark collection sharing program.

  2. Thanks for the correction--you're right.