Big Apple Showcases The History of Fashion And Feminism

By Elayne Clift, Womens Feature Service

“A Paris couturier desires to secure three ideal types of beautiful young American women who seriously desire careers as mannequins in our Paris atelier. Must be smart, slender, with well-shaped feet and ankles and refined of manner.” So wrote French designer Jean Patou in his 1924 ‘New York Times’ ad. No one knows how many women responded to the call but by the 1920s the idealised American woman was clearly slim, athletic, and young. Patou called this prototype “a slender American Diana”, comparing her favourably to “the rounded French Venus”. Noted writer Colette agreed that she was a new ideal. “This squad of archangels, in a chaste flight unimpeded by the flesh, will reorient fashion toward an increasingly slender line,” she predicted.

A gorgeously appointed exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, ‘American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity’, reveals how fashion intersected with feminism to become a liberating voice for women in America. “For the American woman, physical and fashionable appearance became a primary vehicle through which she expressed social, political, economic, and even sexual emancipation and emerged as a spirited symbol of progress, modernity, and ultimately, Americanness,” according to the exhibit’s curators.

Beginning with the heiresses of Henry James novels, who adhered to strict rules of etiquette and dressed for dinner, European influences on fashion in the 1890s are displayed in a recreated ballroom from the Newport mansion of the famed Astors. These wealthy women were a favourite of European designers, especially Charles Frederick Worth, who said of them, “They have faith, figures and francs.”

During the same period the ‘Gibson Girl’ made her debut and challenged European dominance over standards of style and beauty. Made famous by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, these young women were distinctively American: tall, slender and with classical features, their thick hair in a loose chignon. Confident and commanding “the ultimate new woman” they transcended class boundaries on the way to emancipation. Their clothes were modern, practical and liberating, consisting of simple tailored dresses by day and a sports wardrobe of skirts and shirtwaist blouses. The very fact that these women played tennis and golf or went riding and swimming signalled a new freedom for women.

Shortly after the Gibson Girl came on the scene, a new archetype emerged. She was the bohemian who represented American women’s growing demand for greater freedom of personal expression. Like the Gibson Girl, she inspired women to enter the public sphere, but she used the arts rather than sports as a means of developing personal autonomy. Not always an artist herself, she found creative outlets such as collecting art and organising exhibits to articulate her own sense of self. She dressed dramatically in loose fitting, uncorseted clothes inspired by “Orientalism”. Her aim was to be unfettered as she paved the way for greater personal freedom.

The 1910s saw the emergence of the patriot and the suffragist, who received their greatest impetus from World War I. During the war more than 40,000 women served in relief and military duty, causing President Woodrow Wilson to note that “unless we enfranchise women, we shall have fought to safeguard a democracy which, to that extent, we have never bothered to create”. American women finally got the right to vote in 1920, thanks to the suffragists, who used fashion to further their cause. Dressing in trademark purple, white and gold, they forged a visibly shared public identity. For suffragists, fashionable dress was a form of feminine protest. By co-opting the practices of conventional femininity, they demanded that women be political subjects because of, rather than in spite of, their sexuality.

The 1920s also saw the emergence of the flapper, an archetype of femininity that redefined the concept of freedom as sexual rather than political. “Her emergence signalled the realisation of a moral revolution rooted in the late 19th century. As she rouged her lips, bobbed her hair, drank bootleg gin, smoked Lucky Strikes, danced the Charleston, and necked in the backseat of Roadsters, the flapper marked the ultimate rejection of Victorian prohibitions against sexual expression”. The flapper was slim, athletic, and youthful like the Gibson Girls, but her influence was international. Like a New York skyscraper, she was androgynous, urban, and contemporary.

In the decade that followed, American movie stars exercised influence over perceived standards of style and beauty. The ‘screen sirens’ of Hollywood’s Golden Age promoted an ideal of beauty that was less youthful and more sophisticated. These stars were womanly and sensuous in their evening gowns, cut on the bias to accentuate their natural contours. Satin gowns draped, twisted, and wrapped around them to enhance their natural figures, making them seem assertive, self-confident, gracefully sensual, and independent. Glamour was their defining attribute. Think Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, both of whom appear in film clips from the 1930s in the exhibit.

The curators have worked on every detail of the show. An artistic rendering of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio in New York provides the backdrop for the “Bohemian” (early 1900s), while the “Suffragist” and “Patriot” have backdrops of archival film footage revealing the gradual political emancipation of women after World War I. The exhibition features 80 examples of haute couture and high fashion primarily from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many of the pieces from designers like Travis Banton, Gabrielle Chanel, Callot Soeurs, Madame Eta, Madame Gres, Charles James, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jessie Franklin Turner, Valentina, Madeleine Vionnet, Charles Frederick Worth, and Jean-Philippe Worth, among others, have not been seen by the public in more than 30 years. Uber cool fashionista and Sex and The City star, Sarah Jessica Parker gives an audio tour of this entertaining and educational exhibit.

Set in mansions and movie theatres, ‘American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity’ is truly a delightful portrayal of the American woman from 1890 to 1940. The clothes she wore are sumptuously displayed while music, photographs, and film clips add to the lush settings.