Sunday, June 27, 2010


If anyone is heading to New York City this summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's historical exhibit, "American Woman:  Fashioning a National Identity" should be on the itinerary.  It is an interesting insight into the American Look as it has developed from the 1890s through the 1940s.

The journey begins with The Heiresses drawing wardrobes from Charles Frederick Worth in Paris ("House of Worth").  Worth essentially created what we now think of as "haute couture" and pioneered the fashion show.  With a steady supply of American heiresses needing a wardrobe, fashion spread from the European centers into the New World.

The Heiress: Charles Frederick Worth gowns, 1850s
The Gibson Girl, popularized by Charles Dana Gibson's sketches of women with hourglass shapes, showed a new ideal of feminine beauty: athletic and independent.  These were the first Surfer Chicks!  They rode bikes.  They swam.  They played tennis.  Fashion moved in a new direction to accommodate these activities.

Gibson Girl: Camille Clifford

Other Female Archetypes follow:
The Bohemian, The Suffragette, The Flapper, The Screen Siren.   With each type, we know historically that women were pushing for a new level of independence as well as sexual and political liberation.

The Flapper of the 1920s seems to bring in a truly Modern Age for women.  These ladies bared their arms and legs.  They drank.  They danced.  They could match anything a man did.  Their fashion even resonates to today: see the black-and-white photo of the lady in a dress with boots.  We can see that on the streets these days!
Flapper from the 1920s

The Flapper 1920s

The dawn of the Silver Screen era gave rise to another American female ideal:  The Screen Siren.  Here, we recall Hollywood goddesses like Rita Hayworth.  Sexy and slinky now defines the Siren.  We continue to see these today in Hollywood galas.

Screen Sirens in Madame Gres 1930s

It is obviously challenging to peg American Style with one definition.  Even now, what constitutes the American Woman?  Is it Lady Gaga?  Oprah?  Michelle Obama?  Sarah Jessica Parker?  Or in the age of blogging, people whose eclectic styles refuse to be pigeonholed into a designer category?

Food for thought.  The exhibit continues to run at the Met until August 15th, 2010.

* Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and historical archives.

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