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. Without kowtowing to obvious touchpoints like Levi’s jeans or Nike sneakers, “Anthology” chronicles the anonymous hands, hearts, and minds that shaped the look and feel of what today would be called quintessentially American style. “‘Lexicon’ is more sweeping, about the broad qualities of American fashion, past and present,” says associate curator Jessica Regan, who worked on the exhibition with the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute Andrew Bolton. “Because the period rooms feel very intimate, I think they inherently have led us to more intimate, focused narratives. So many of the spaces are dedicated to a single 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. Several installations counter American fashion with its French counterparts: Madeleine Vionnet, who was French, is paired with the American Claire McCardell, for example. 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 dresses literally attack Stephen Burrows—it’s fabulously funny. But don’t count points in this fight just yet; while the Americans are said to have won the original, this scene, per Regan, “depicts the middle of the show,” with some of the Frenchies rising above their Stateside peers.  

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 Chloé 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. 

Chloé 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. “We good, thx!” reads the text, Blanks’s way of changing the narrative and centering “Black Women, often uncredited as cultural weavers of the fabric of this country,” per her director’s statement. She calls the staging her way of giving Black women the power to “speak through our OWN quilt.” Reclamation is central to America’s artistic practices and cultural legacies. 

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. The pattern from the room’s rug envelops her, climbing up the walls and ceiling as a projection. “No one hears me when I speak. My voice is shot. In place of talking, I choose smiling. … I am shrinking,” reads Bravo’s text.

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