The New Met exhibition examines American fashion, frame by frame

Rihanna, left, and A$AP Rocky attend The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the 'In America: A Lexicon of Fashion' exhibition on Sept. 13, 2021. (Evan Agostini / Invision / AP)

New York, 2022-05-02 10:04:45. The New Met exhibition examines American fashion, frame by frame


New York –

Even for a legendary filmmaker like Martin Scorsese, the task was daunting.

Take one of the famous American rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and make a one-frame film without a camera: a painting, not a film, but using your cinematic sensibility. Your actors are models, and the costumes were chosen for you.

“Creating a single-frame film in a period room? A great opportunity and an interesting challenge,” the director wrote in a statement next to his creation, an enigmatic blend of characters, emotions, and costumes in the museum’s stunning Frank Lloyd Wright room.

Eight other directors are also putting their stamp on period rooms, for “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” the Met’s Spring Costume Institute exhibition to be launched with the Met Gala on Monday, which opens to the public May 7. The concert, which raises millions for the self-financed organization and has become a major show of fashion and popular culture, will be among the first to see the performances.

The exhibition is the second part of a broader display of American fashion marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Fashion Institute. As usual by star curator Andrew Bolton, the new edition is a sequel and introduction to “In America: The Fashion Dictionary,” which opened last September and focuses more on contemporary designers and the establishment of what Bolton calls the fashion vocabulary. (The shows will run concurrently and will close together in September.)

If the presentation of the new “Anthology” aims to provide critical historical context, it also seeks to find the untold stories and unknown heroes of early American fashion, especially female designers, and especially colorists. Announcing the show, Bolton said that many of their stories were “forgotten, overlooked, or relegated to the sidelines in the annals of fashion history.”

The nine directors were chosen to revive storytelling with their ever-changing aesthetics. In addition to Scorsese, they include two hosts of the Met Gala Monday night – actor and director Regina King and designer director Tom Ford. Other contributors include last year’s Academy Award winner Chloe Chow, Radha Blanc, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Julie Dash and Autumn de Wilde.

For King, the Richmond Room, which depicts domestic life in the early 19th century for wealthy Virginia, provided an opportunity to highlight black fanny designer Chris Pine, who was born in the late 1860s to formerly enslaved parents and became a prominent local tailor. She is best known for sewing a name ribbon into her clothing to “sign” her work – part of an emerging sense of clothing-making as a creative endeavor.

King says she was looking to “depict the strength and power that fanny Chris Pine exudes through her incredible cut and gorgeous outfit,” put her in a thriving business position – proudly donning her own custom design – fitting a client, and hiring another black woman as a seamstress.

Director Radha Plank looks at Maria Hollander, the mid-19th century Massachusetts clothing trader who used her commercial success to advocate for abolition and women’s rights. In the museum’s Shaker Retiring Room, director Zhao relates to the simple beauty of 1930s sportswear designer Claire McCardell.

De Wilde uses her collection in the Baltimore Dining Room to examine the impact of European fashion on American women—including some dismissive American attitudes toward those low-key gowns from Paris. Dash focuses on black fashion designer Anne Lowe, who designed future first lady Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress but was barely recognized. “The designer was shrouded in secrecy,” writes Dash. “Invisibility was the cloak she wore, and yet it lasted.”

In the Gothic Wing Revival Library, Bravo takes a look at the work of Elizabeth Howes, a mid-20th century fashion designer and writer. Looking at McKim Hall, Maid and White Stair and another room, Coppola wrote that at first she wasn’t sure what to do: “How do you stage a scene without actors or story?” She eventually collaborated with sculptor Rachel Weinstein to create distinctive faces for her “characters”.

Each director reached their own bag of tricks. For Scorsese, his costumes were designed by illustrious fashion designer Charles James—the subject of his fashion show (and Met Gala) in 2014. Scorsese knew he needed to create a story that “can be felt across the length of that room.” He turned to Technicolor films in the 1940s and used John Stah’s “Leave It to Heaven,” which he calls “real Technicolor noir.” In regards to what happens before and after the scene we see — which includes a woman crying near a picture of a man, and a martini glass nearby — “I hope people walk away with multiple possibilities unfolding in their minds.”

Sure to be a speaker is the show in the Versailles room of the museum, well known for its panoramic circular view of Versailles painted by John Vanderlin between 1818 and 1819.

Ford turns the room into a depiction of “The Battle of Versailles” – not a military conflict but the name given to a major night of American fashion in 1973, when five American sportswear designers (including Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein) “faced” five French designers. The haute couture show at Versailles and they showed the world what American fashion is made of.

In his painting, Ford decided to make it a real battle with the warring models, many of them wearing sets of this pivotal show. “The weapons have changed,” Ford wrote. “Instead of propellers and boa feathers, fencing chips and forward kicks are used.”

In America: An Anthology of Fashion opened to the public on May 7. Part One, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” is still open at the Anna Wintour Fashion Center. Both close in September.

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