What is American fashion? A little less than a year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute began to answer this question with the “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibit and the 2021 Met Ball Gala. Now, the second installment of the two-part show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” presents a definitive response by tracing the evolution of American style not only through the defining fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries but also through the rise of the name designer.
To further immerse the viewers into the story, Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s Wendy Yu Curator, enlisted nine film directors — Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Autumn de Wilde, Julie Dash, Tom Ford, Regina King, Martin Scorsese, and Chloé Zhao — to create cinematic vignettes to accompany the looks across 30 American period rooms. “While each vignette is presented as its own distinct short film, the exhibition itself is experienced as a feature film with interconnected stories," Bolton said at the press preview. And, whereas “Lexicon” (which debuted last September) instantly dazzled with its array of standout looks from modern-day couturiers like Christopher John Rogers, Pyer Moss, and the late Virgil Abloh, “Anthology” builds to its crescendo much like a slow-burn film.
Unlike past Costume Institute showcases, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” has no clear map: Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are faced with a “choose-your-own-adventure” dilemma, with a hallway that opens to several different rooms. But while the lack of initial direction may frustrate some, it also mimics the complicated and fractured history of American fashion that has a different beginning depending on whom you ask.
The exhibition takes a more clear shape with Ford’s room, which comes around the halfway mark and is dedicated to the 1973 Battle of Versailles that established American fashion as an international style force. To mimic the stakes and exhilaration of the historic fashion show that saw American ready-to-wear designers — Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta — compete against French couturiers — Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emmanuel Ungaro — the Nocturnal Animals director staged a literal battle. Shown against John Vanderlyn’s early-19th-century painting “Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles,” mannequins appear caught mid-tussle in feather-adorned cuffs, printed skirt sets, and sequined dresses from the aforementioned designers.
From there, the show picks up in a more structured narrative. While the exhibit still doesn’t follow a chronological order, clear themes emerge, from the influence of French fashion on American designers (including a technical comparison between Dior’s “Cigale” silhouette and a “copy” created by New York dressmaker Hattie Carnegie) to the rise of American sportswear in the '30s and '40s and the fashion of the Gilded Age (a room staged by Coppola who is currently working on a limited-series adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country), the basis of the 2022 Met Gala theme, Gilded Glamour.
Several designers are spotlighted, like 20th-century designers Marguery Bolhagen and Elizabeth Hawes — who are given Bravo’s treatment in the Rococo Revival Parlor and Gothic Revival Library, respectively — as well as 19th-century designers Franziska Noll Gross, Mathias Rock, and Josephine H. Egan. (The latter three are shown together in a Coppola-designed installation that will bring to mind the director’s eerily stunning 2017 Southern Gothic, The Beguiled, thanks to the realistic faces painted on the mannequins and a Schubert remix playing on repeat.)
The exhibit culminates in the Frank Lloyd Wright Room dedicated to Charles James — the subject of the 2014 Costume Institute exhibition, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” — as imagined by Scorsese. Inspired by the psychological thriller film noir Leave Her to Heaven, the Irishman director created a scene from a dinner party, with guests caught mid-cigarette, wearing James’ most notable silhouettes like the “Butterfly” dress, in a midcentury living room.
In the last decade, the Costume Institute has been working to highlight more diverse and inclusive stories, in particular when it comes to women and people of color. This is something that the exhibition tackles early on in the exhibit.
The show opens with a George Washington coat that is placed next door to a vignette featuring Maria Hollander's dress that is paired with a braids-like beaded headpiece that reads “We Good. Thx!” in colors inspired by the "Work-Clothes Quilt" by Mary Lee Bendolph of Gee's Bend quilters. In her notes, Radha Blank wrote that the piece is meant to “reassert Black Women, often uncredited as cultural weavers of the fabric of this country” and to serve as a tribute to those “who in this very moment are weaving protective cloaks for Black survival in America.” Images of Black women’s hands are projected onto the dress made by the white abolitionist designer — who commissioned an unknown artist to create a quilt in criticism of Washington’s stance on slavery — to evoke “hands that, by day, made garments and cleaned white folks’ houses and, by night, ‘caught babies’ and conjured African spiritual practices not meant to survive the Middle Passage.”
In the Richmond Room, Regina King pays homage to Fannie Criss Payne, a prominent Black modiste in Virginia at the turn of the 20th century who was born to formerly enslaved parents. The installation — which shows the designer fitting a client alongside another Black seamstress — is meant “to portray the power and strength Fannie Criss Payne exudes through her awe-inspiring story.” The One Night in Miami... director’s note continues: “Though Black people at the time were excluded from most economic opportunities, her apprentice seamstress represents the future of Black success and self-determination.”
In a long-overdue move, Ann Lowe, the Black designer most known for Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress, is given the recognition that she never received in her lifetime. Displayed in the Renaissance Revival Room set up by Julie Dash, black mannequins are shown working on intricate gowns while their tulle veils dramatically move in the wind.
With such powerful displays of storytelling, it’s easy to miss some of the quieter rooms. On my first walk-through, drawn to the music and showmanship of Ford’s room, I didn’t notice Chloé Zhao’s Shaker Retiring Room off to the side. Yet it is this room, an austere setup — featuring minimalist designs by American sportswear pioneer Claire McCardell alongside traditional Shaker dresses — that leaves a powerful, unnerving impression on me, similar to the one I experienced after watching Nomadland, thanks to the way it showcases sartorial simplicity without any of the pomp seen in the other rooms. The type of thinking that’s not unlike the capsule closet sentiments that have emerged in lockdown when we had no choice but to face our overflowing closets that had no use in our reality, and fashion’s overconsumption problem.
So while it took me two visits to find this specific narrative, maybe it’s exactly the lack of chronology that can best tell the story of American fashion with all its dizzying, sometimes ugly turns, particularly at a time when the industry is just coming around to recognizing the unsung heroes of its past.
“Upon seeing this room and its occupants, most people from that era would feel unease, confusion, wonder, curiosity, shock, or even distaste and anger,” Zhao wrote in her notes in reference to the at-the-time radical beliefs of the Shakers. “I hope to invoke some of these feelings in you, twenty-first-century viewers.”
“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” and “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” are on view until September 5, 2022.