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Sunday, May 8, 2022

Met Gala Exhibit: In America An Anthology of Fashion


What is American fashion? The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has been exploring what that means since its inception. Like many museums, many fashion exhibits have been a celebration of the elite paying tribute to themselves. That has also been my top criticism for exhibits of recent years like China: Through the Looking Glass and Punk:Chaos to Couture.

I was pleasantly surprised at In America: An Anthology of Fashion. The show was a series of vignettes curated by successful directors like Sophia Coppola, Chloe Zhao, and Regina King. Many of the vignettes highlighted accomplished dressmakers (before they were called designers) of color who created some of the most famous garments in American history. What do they usually have in common? They were women of color, who were rarely recognized publicly or treated with disrespect.

Ann Lowe, who only in recent years had her name celebrated, was the go-to maker of Jackie O’s famous wedding gown and counted high society’s leading brides and debutantes as clients. However, Jacqueline Onassis, when asked who made her dress, would callously just say “a colored dressmaker”.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s inaugural gown was made by Elizabeth Keckley, who was once a slave, then a trusted companion in the White House, then an author and activist. Fannie Criss Payne was also featured. She was a Virginia modiste who turned to dressmaking because it was one of the few businesses a woman of color could legally start in the late 1800s. 

It wasn't all dark history though. The most joyous vignette was the dancing, floating mannequins Tom Ford curated depiction of the Battle of Versailles. This 1973 moment in fashion history where American designers traveled to France to declare themselves a design force to be recognized on an international scale. Designers Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta brought models and collections in tow to show the world that Europe did NOT have a lock on style. The event was recently dramatized in Netflix's Halston series starring Ewan Mcgregor.

While the fashion world as a whole is far from progressive. Seeing the talent involved (both as exhibit and curator) gives me hope that it is inching forward, however slowly. Giving credit where it was due, centuries later, at least is a start.

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