Home Uncategorized Inside the Costume Institute’s “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” Exhibition

Inside the Costume Institute’s “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” Exhibition


What the exhibition does throughout 13 period rooms is exalt the unsung heroes and the less-than-always-glamorous backbone of American style. The exhibition “Anthology”, which doesn’t kowtow to the obvious touches like Levi’s jeans and Nike sneakers, chronicles the unnamed hands, hearts and minds that have shaped what we can call quintessentially American fashion. Jessica Regan (associate curator) worked with Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge. “Lexicon” is more broad and focuses on American fashion’s many qualities, both past and present.” The period rooms are intimate and have allowed us to tell more focused stories. Many of these spaces can be devoted to one designer or dressmaker. It certainly isn’t a sweeping survey of American fashion.” Instead, Regan says, the second part of the museum’s American exhibitions–September 2021 saw the opening of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”–is more like a series of short stories about overlooked periods that impacted the American fashion industry.

Because of the nation’s relative newness, American fashion can only exist in dialogue. Many installations are counter-American fashion. Madeleine Vionnet (French) is shown with Claire McCardell from the United States. On a larger scale, fashion’s Battle of Versailles–where the best French designers of 1973 faced off against the best Americans in a so-called battle fundraiser to benefit the restoration of Louis XIV’s palace–has been reimagined by the designer-director Tom Ford in the Vanderlyn Panorama room, which showcases John Vanderlyn’s ovoid work Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (1818-19). Yves Saint Laurent’s costumes literally attacked Stephen Burrows – it is hilarious. Don’t forget to count your points for this fight. While the Americans won the first, Regan says that this “depicts middle of show,” where some Frenchies rise above their Stateside counterparts.

It’s that tendency toward comedy that makes American fashion truly American–in no other country does irony, wit, or joy play so well on and off the catwalks. In the 13 rooms staged by nine of America’s most influential directors–Ford, Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Autumn de Wilde, Julie Dash, Regina King, Martin Scorsese, and Chloe Zhao–levity and humbleness come together in a uniquely American way. Take Coppola’s rooms–the McKim, Mead, and White Stair Hall (1882) and the Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room (1881-82)–where she had her friends, the artists Rachel Feinstein and John Currin, sculpt and paint her mannequins’ faces, lending a lurid allure to their elegant poses and Gilded Age clothing. Autumn de Wilde took things even further in her rooms–1810-11’s Baltimore Room and 1811’s Benkard Room–adding spilled-over card tables, drunken suitors, faux pastries, and some classic American gossip, reprinting contemporary accounts about the sultry socialite Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte as text bubbles among sneering mannequins.

Chloe Zhao’s installation in the Shaker Retiring Room (circa 1835) is paired with Claire McCardell’s pure and unadorned 1930s-era fashions, but something otherworldly is afoot: The central figure, meant to represent Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee, is levitating at the room’s center. In The Haverhill Room (circa 1805, Massachusetts), Radha Blank illuminated a bustled wedding dress by Maria Hollander with a single light projected on sweeping beaded and braided hair. Hollander was one of America’s earliest designers to engage with social justice, creating a pro-abolition quilt exhibited in New York in 1853. According to Blanks’s director’s statement, “We good,” reads the text. Blanks is using this method of shifting the narrative to center “Black Women, which are often overlooked as cultural weavers of the fabric in this country.” The staging is Blanks’s way to give Black women the ability to speak through their OWN quilt. Reclamation is central in America’s cultural legacy and artistic practices.

So is a sense of individualism and self. In the Richard and Gloria Manney John Henry Belter Rococo Revival Parlor (circa 1850), Janicza Bravo has staged a phantasmagorical party scene with a melancholic narrative: A lone guest wearing a deliciously ornate 1960s party dress by Marguery Bolhagen, originally worn by Augustine Hearst to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, is at the room’s center, its wearer having wandered off from a bustling party to re-center herself. As a projection, the pattern of the room’s rug envelopes her and climbs up to the ceiling. When I speak, no one can hear me. My voice sounds hollow. Instead of speaking, I prefer smiling. Bravo wrote, “…I am shrinking.”


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