Sharon Lorenzo visits this exhibit at the Met.

This costume installation of fashion for women was planned for 2020 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women in the United States obtaining the right to vote in 1920, but due to the covid pandemic was postponed. It is a thorough epic effort by two female curators working under Andrew Bolton at the Met’s fashion department to catalog the visual history of how females have historically participated in the brands, schools, museums, and media efforts to promote women in fashion.  Eighty works take the lucky visitor on a stimulating wander through the four sections which enumerate issues of Anonymity, Visibility, Agency, and Absence/Omission in the evolution of this field.  The entire effort is sponsored by a Met trustee, Ted Pick, who is Co-President of the Institutional Securities Group of Morgan Stanley, a leading financial services firm.

Mellissa Huber and Karen Van Godtsenhoven start off the catalog explaining that in 1915 two sisters, Irene and Alice Lewisohn, started the Costume Institute collection to lend dresses to theater productions in New York.  Then a vice president of Lord and Taylor, Dorothy Shaver, led the effort to start the Costume Institute at the Met Museum in 1946 with the stipulation that it remain financially independent as it is today with annual funding from its infamous gala which has raised almost $10,000,000 in one night.  Today 76% of the Met department of the Costume Institute remains female under the leadership of its director, Andrew Bolton.[1]

The curators Mellissa and Karen organized the catalog to show eight decades of advances as fashion for women evolved from the era of 17th century France where wealthy women were dressed by men from a guild system known as the marchandes de modes. [2] They have written that it was not until the 19th century that women were allowed into the artisan dressmaker world as men were drafted into world wars and left vacancies in their factories and design studios.  At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, a husband and wife, Isidore and Jeanne Paquin, were allowed to exhibit their designs on mannequins as part of the show.[3]

Cover Photo of Claire McCardell wearing her future design dress. P. 125
Illustration for 1900 Exposition Universelle, Studio of Paquin family, p. 29.

By 1926, Vogue magazine in the United States was showing work by a female designer, Jeanne Lanvin, who lost her parents at a young age and used her fashion work to help her eleven siblings survive.

Jeanne Lanvin, Vogue, Nov 1, 1926. Robe de Style, p. 31.

Women started to show that they could design clothes that would vary as the needs of women progressed, demanding work clothes for office jobs, maternity outfits for expectant women, and less expensive ready-to-wear brands that could be afforded by younger women of all races and identities.    The following photo of Diane von Furstenberg shows her in her storeroom in May of 1974, as she launched her wrap dress, which is still in vogue today, with great demand at her own fashion stories.

Diane von Furstenberg launching her wrap dress, 1974. Met Museum catalog, p. 51.

As the industry began to allow women an equal role, even daughters like Miuccia Prada, who had received a doctorate in political science, was allowed to join her family firm and dress models in her own designs.   Today she also oversees a fashion museum in Milan, Italy which chronicles her family contributions to the field from suitcases and purses to top end fashions for all ages.

Miuccia Prada adjusting dress for model, 1994. Met Museum catalog, p. 54.

One of my favorite costumes in the show is by the Japanese designer Hanae Mori (1926-2022) who adopted a block print by Hiroshige into the modern aesthetic of her work.   The silk chiffon flows across the model’s body as the birds and landscape emerge in the folds of the evening dress. This seems like a brilliant example of how works of art can flow with influence from one medium to another, a specialty for the Metropolitan Museum to embrace in depth.

Hanae Mori, evening dress, 1974-5, Japanese landscape design in chiffon. On view in Women Dressing Women.

To be inclusive of all women worldwide, the curators made sure to show examples of diverse participants in the fashion pantheon by including the work of a Congolese woman, Anifa Mvuemba, whose backless evening dress uses the national colors of her country in this very contemporary work of many pleats.   The Metropolitan installation shows even the more contemporary body types of women,  those who are not always a size small for such works.  This example is followed by a four-page inventory of female fashion icons from every sector of the world, a very thorough addition to their brilliant scholarship.

Anifa Mvuemba, Kinshasa dress, polyester pleated design, p. 187.

This exhibition is a must for anyone interested in both the history and evolution of the fashion industry, particularly those who wish to absorb the diverse and thorough contribution of how women of all ages are included today in same. The Metropolitan Museum staff have done a magnificent job with both the catalog and visual gallery designs.

Women Dressing Women: A Lineage of Female Fashion Design, gallery view.

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

December 4, 2023- March 3, 2024

 

 

[1] Andrew Bolton, Preface to Women Dressing Women, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, 2023, p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. 21.

[3] Ibid, p. 29.