American Woman: Fashioning A National Identity

15 Jul

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Showcasing the Art of Being a Woman

by Anna Louise Siegel

American Woman: Fashioning A National Identity Exhibit

Women stand tall and proud, as well as fashionable and intricately dressed, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity. The exhibit takes you through the decades of blooming fashion, telling a colorful story of the women of each era through authentic clothing of each age, brought over from the Brooklyn Museum.  With beautiful scenery and soft background music playing, the exhibit takes you back to each time period, making you not only see the beauty of the clothing, but the pride and glory each woman has within her.

The Heiress

The first section of the exhibit shows you the lifestyle of the late 1800’s Heiress. Mannequins in flamboyant gowns made of silk and rhinestones bespeckle the floor, holding parasols and fans. Bold patterns cover their dresses of pastel colors, which have much ruffle and lace, as well as puffed sleeves.  The hair is sky-high and done in tall, curled styles that force you to tilt your head up. Classical music is heard and chandeliers and elegant lamps on mahogany tables are painted on the walls, giving you the understanding that it is a time of etiquette and Parisian Couture.

The Gibson Girl

You are then lead into the room of the Gibson Girl. Featuring the sporty, distinctive “American Type” women of the 1890s, you see mannequins holding gear such as tennis rackets and golf clubs. They are sporting long, practical skirts of basic colors such as navy blue, black and cream with matching lightweight, tailored, buttoned coat. Their hair is done in chignon style, and you get the feel of growing confidence and independence.


After the Gibson Girl, you see rows of mannequins wearing Bohemian styled clothes from the early 1900s. The slim waists are gone, and now it is all about loose fitted clothing. The dresses are long and simple, deeply colored, covered by cloaks of lace, chiffon, and silk brocade with bold, antique patterns. Fringe is seen here and there, along with a few feathers. The hair is worn in a down style behind the head, tied back with metallic headbands, proving to be less extravagant. This piece of the exhibit boasts woman’s new-found freedom and ability to be a part of the social scene.

A short break is taken from the care free fashion as you enter The Patriot and the Suffragist piece. Simple, fashionable dress that seemed quite like the Gibson Girl was worn – basic colors, long skirt, and matching tailored, buttoned coats. The only difference is that instead of sports gear, the mannequins are holding American flags, and pins supporting America and feminism are pinned onto their breast pocket. Also, straw hats are worn over pony-tailed hair. With marching-band music and a slideshow of women picketing in front of the white house, you get a taste of what it was like to be a female in the late teens of the 1900s.

The Flapper

The Flapper is then introduced, with jazz playing loudly for effect, showing off sleek, modern clothing. The mannequins all have dark, bobbed hair, some covering it with bucket hats. Straight, loose dresses that touch just below the knee are worn. All of them have sparkles and rhinestones, some more plain with just chiffon or fringe designs, and others more elaborate with short bursts of floral design. There are some feathered boas or fans scattered about, along with taller, strappier heels than seen before.  This marks the turn of woman’s fashion, making it easier for one to be more sexual in her dress.

The Screen Siren

As the fashion goes for a more seductive approach, so does the exhibit, which is when The Screen Siren is brought about. Tight, slinky ball gowns with bare shoulders, cinches at the waist and cut out backs are worn are a reoccurring theme seen on the mannequins. Some dresses are adventurous, with large patterns or sequins running down to the hem. Others, however, are classic and more demure, with simple ruches and pleats in the fabric. Scenes of old movies are playing in the background, featuring Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, and many other stars, helping to show off this new sensuous, sophisticated, and mature age.

Everything in the exhibit was quite captivating. Many were enthralled by the beautiful fashion and wonderful scenery. Others however were a little disappointed. Pat said, “Weak. It was weak.” Maybe it was because the exhibit skipped over many decades and important landmarks in fashion, as it did not go on past the 1930s. Or maybe it was because of the slideshow at the end, comparing Beyoncé to a flapper dancing the Charleston, all the while playing The Guess Who’s American Woman. It was a poor, showy ending for a fabulous, sophisticated exhibit.

Most did not mind the ending, however, and forgot all about it, only remembering the rest f the package. Some liked the exhibit for the beautiful clothes and wonderful scene. “I think it was the most all around, exquisite form of art… An atmosphere that is terrific, that makes you feel as if you were back in that time,” said Galya Gordon, a fashionable spectator. Almat Rochowanski, also there to admire the clothes, said, “I think it was wonderful. It was just so gorgeous. You become jealous because you want all that stuff!”

But some were fond of it because of the point about women’ growth it portrayed, and the underlying meaning of feminism. Lindsay Simpson said, “I liked it. I think it was a nice introduction to how fashion influenced our political growth.”  This was the real message, after all. Through fashion women have heightened themselves in society, and although American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity has a few weak spots, its true message shines through the beauty of the clothes.

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