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American Woman

Heiresses at the Met

After a couple of lackluster years, the Met Costume Institute has refound its footing with American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, which “explores developing perceptions of the modern American woman from 1890 to 1940 and how they have affected the way American women are seen today.” The exhibition’s success results from its paradoxical timeliness and timelessness. In tumultuous times—say the past couple years—fashion has the tendency to cast a nostalgic backward glance, seeking out styles that carry connotations of simpler times. American Woman taps into this zeitgeist while concurrently contextualizing the designs with a historical lens.

Beyond a fashion-history geek’s delight at discovering the French house Callot Soeurs or viewing the mastery of Poiret, Worth and Vionnet firsthand, the styles on display are more relatable than many showcased in the recent past. The opening Heiress room recalls the rise of a Paris Hilton archetype. A revived interest in The Original Preppy Handbook and the feverish anticipation for its soon-to-debut sequel, True Prep, indicate there’s still a large population idealizing the Gibson Girl. Gin-guzzling, free-spirited Flappers evoke hipsters, whereas Bohemians have matured into their worldy, upscale contemporaries. Screen Sirens…easy enough. And Julien d’Ys’ ornate wigs—ranging from Oriental headwraps to shellacked bouffants to bedazzled bobs—breathe life and glamour into every personality.

Ending with a video montage of influential or iconic American women past and present, American Woman places fashion in an accessible framework, examining the role of clothing in both shaping an identity and redefining expectations, while simultaneously allowing enough ambiguity to invite visitors to draw their own parallels and fantasize about another life, era or persona.

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From left: An Heiress; a Gibson Girl


From left: Flappers; a Screen Siren

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