como espiar sin descargar nada press localizar numero movil here exposed cell pics programas para espiar por satelite el mejor espia gratis de whatsapp mua giong ong noi necesito espiar espia mensajes de texto de celulares telcel gratis como funciona spyphone pro como espiar blackberry messenger descargar programa prism espia

The American Woman‘s Old Clothes: On Fashion, Nation, Suffrage, and Pop-Culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

: Function ereg() is deprecated in /includes/ on line 649.

From May 5, 2010 to August 15, 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, featured an exhibit called American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity1. At first sight, the event seemed to reflect the vacation mode of the museum's curriculum: it was about style. And, if the exhibit were just called, say, ‘History of Women's Chic from the Gilded Age to Gilda', it still would be worth recommending. This event, however, deserved special attention for its educational and political aspects, for its attempt to construct a very particular vision of popular national-and-women's history, the history it intended to tell, and the history it actually told.

The purpose of the exhibit was to "explore developing perceptions of the modern American woman from 1890 to 1940 and how they have affected the way American women are seen today"2; but also how "the American woman initiated style revolutions that mirrored her social, political, and sexual emancipation". Half of the century covered in the exhibit was divided into five installments, each representing what the organizers called "the archetype of American femininity". The tour of national femininity-through-garments began with "Heiress" (1890s), and led through "Gibson Girl" (1890s), "Bohemian" (1900s), "Suffragist and Patriot" (1910), "Flapper" (1920s), "Screen Sirens" (1930s), to a rather open-ended video patchwork made out of images of American women from the beginning of the movie era to today. Each room of the exhibit contained dresses displayed on mannequins against painted or mixed-media backgrounds.

The exhibit was special first and foremost, because it was the debut of the newly established Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a result of the partnership that began in 2008-2009 between The Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan, the Costume Institute hosts the largest collection of clothing in the world, representing all continents, the oldest coming from the 17th Century3.

Martin Munkacsi (American, born Hungary, 1896-1963),
Martin Munkacsi (American, born Hungary, 1896-1963), "Lucile Brokaw, Piping Rock Beach, Long Island", 1933, © Martin Munkacsi Estate/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

The personality that put a signature mark on the Institute's profile was its most famous curator, Diana Vreeland (1972-1989). A columnist for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and a fashion adviser to Jacqueline Kennedy, Vreeland is most remembered for her ‘iconic' saying that the bikini was "the most important thing since the atom bomb"4. In the 1970s, Vreeland reinvented the Costume Institute, achieving remarkable commercial success5. In the 1990s, under the succeeding curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda, the Institute shifted from the highbrow, status-and-style approach toward a more critical one, influenced by the theories of gender, queer, and cultural studies6. The exhibits of the latest decade under the curatorship of Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton seem to have wed traditional with avant-garde approaches7. American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity kept both feet in tradition with little, if any, attempt to lean toward contemporary challenges, among which the on-going feminist backlash and problematizing of national identity are but two of many.

The exhibit connected fashion as an element of the cosmopolitan consumer culture of the upper classes with the assertion that consumption constitutes an important factor in shaping the national identity. It also claimed to illustrate how the iconic images of women paved the way to women's liberation. But nearly every word in the exhibit's title, historically contextualized, provoked questions: Who, or rather what, is the American Woman? What is the relationship between women's emancipation and consumption? Between luxurious consumption and the construction of female national identity? Between the construction of national identity and the iconization, that is, commodification, of a women's body? And last but not least: what is national about the fashions? By all means, American Woman: Fashioning National Identity was a very ambitious project, but perhaps it tried to wear more than it could bear.

Dressing Up History

Clothing is a means of communication, and as such is an important, though often overlooked or downplayed, type of historical primary source. Fashion is a means of constructing identity, and as such it may be employed as a form of political language. As a historian, I focus in my analysis of this exhibit on constructions of history. The curators had various choices to historicize the collection, and that variety transpired through the discrepancies of representation. My method in this essay is to specify the main categories around which the exhibit was constructed, and place them in their historical context. My aim, however, is not to point out the historical inconsistencies, but rather to show how and why certain historical problems, transpiring through the narrative of the exhibit, were suppressed. As a result of that suppression, the exhibit proposed a one-dimensional vision of the history of the modern nation, suffrage, and fashion, rooted in a cultural stereotype and re-affirming it.

The exhibit, "[o]rganized by a succession of archetypes based on mass-media representation of American woman", examined "how fashion intersects with feminism to become a liberating force for American women. 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, Americaness". The ascending order of "cultural icons" effected in smoothing the image of historical development. The history of American women's emancipation was ‘underlaid' by the history of the rising global hegemony of American culture, and the two codes were interwoven into the master-narrative of the formation of national identity. Tailored in such a way, the historical framework locked the presented artifacts somewhere between extravaganza and cliché. In effect, it proposed a sort of pop-feminist version of history, customizing the Second Wave historical narratives with its radicalism neatly trimmed, where femininity has no class, no race, no ethnicity, and no age. The organizers, however, were well aware of this shortcoming, honestly stating that: "The ideals of femininity represented in the exhibit may seem to reflect the reality of only a minority of American women". Perhaps the choice of "cultural icons" as an organizing principle for the exhibit's narrative was meant to resolve problems of cultural diversities and the social, and political tensions between American women. Indeed, "the cultural icon" easily stands for the "cultural essence". "The essence", for its part, is indispensable in constructing the national identity, or identities in general. But "the icon" as "the essence" can hardly show the history of changes in women's social and political status and experiences, or to depict them, for that matter. Moreover, the tension between the essentialization of the displayed artifacts and the assertion that they represent social change was the main source of the discrepancy between history that was told, and history that was shown, at the Met.

All the displayed dresses belonged to women of the American financial aristocracy. The political convictions of their previous owners, obviously, did not matter at all. The obviousness of the class dimension of the artifacts on display was inscribed in the very heart of the exposition, and yet it was off-staged, through the way the historical framework was crafted. For the consistency of the exhibit's historical argument, the emancipation of women descends from the upper social strata downward; and so does the fashion of the period. Short introductions, displayed on walls dividing the showrooms of "Heiress", "Gibson Girl", "Bohemian", and "Screen Siren", mentioned or assumed that the icons represented women of means; however, they emphasized the universalizing effect of the iconization on the perception of American femininity. From such a point of view, the selection of icons seemed at times problematic. "Flapper", for instance, subcategorized as "career flapper" and "society flapper", stood at odds with the other icons. "Flapper" was not necessarily "the dollar princess", as was "Gibson Girl" ("aristocratic but transcending class boundaries"), and most obviously "Bohemian", a sponsor of arts and artists. "Flapper" was different: a double-faced icon of a working girl, yet at the same time ‘independently wealthy'.

Flapper Gallery, AnonFrench 1925, AnonAmerican 1926, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Flapper Gallery, AnonFrench 1925, AnonAmerican 1926, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

But it was the presence of "Patriot and Suffragist", merged into one and the same category, modestly represented by suffragist's suits and women's military uniforms from 1916-1918, that made this American beauty pageant look clumsy8. The display of appropriate documentaries in the background did little to lessen the impression of a misplacement of that installment. Visitors might be caught by surprise. One of the three college girls whom I overheard while taking notes, burst out in disdain at the sight of the suffragettes in politically incorrect fashion: "What ugly women! I hate them, though I shouldn't say that, I think, for they got us equal rights. Still, they're ugly!"

That discord demonstrated that the history of women's suffrage hardly marches hand-in-hand with the history of American women's style. Building up from stereotypes of women's beauty, the curators attempted but failed to break the negative perception of suffragettes and the women's auxiliaries. They could have if, for example, they had replaced the tapestry of motion pictures in the backdrop with a more steady collage of photographs: that would have been easier to focus on, to challenge the stereotypes and argue to the contrary. Compensating through the photographs what was missing in the costumes would help to articulate an argument, rather than confuse the spectators. Diana Vreeland used this technique in her exhibits with considerable success. The choice of the visual medium - photographs or motion pictures - in such a case makes a difference.

It seems that the only reason for adding the women's militancy installment was to further justify framing the exhibit within a narrative of women's/feminist history. And the curators did a good job in reminding the public (those who bothered to read) about landmarks of the American women's suffrage. They emphasized that it was World War I that accelerated women's suffrage and quoted President Woodrow Wilson: "Unless we enfranchise women, we shall have fought to safeguard a democracy which, to that extent, we have never bothered to create". They also recalled the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, from August 18, 1920. In this way, the ‘iconized' suffragists, united with the auxiliary women, came to embody upper- and upper-middle classness of the early feminist movement. The conclusion, however, that for the suffragists, "fashionable dress was a form of feminine protest", failed to find proof in the primary sources on display. The college girls were certainly not convinced by the mere statement. And neither was I.

Beginning the exhibit with the 1890s related its vision of history to contemporary theories of nationalism, which link the emergence of modern national identities with the rise of mass media and a consumer culture. Such a choice, however, cut off earlier historical landmarks of American women's suffrage movement, such as The Seneca Falls Convention (1848). The exhibit concluded rather unexpectedly, with the 1940s, cutting off whatever "icons" came later. The slacks-wearing nurses of World War II, "Rosie the Riveter" of the 1940s, the housewives of the 1950s, the hippies and feminists of the 1960s (if we care to follow the somehow out-of-fashion white color women's history) appeared only in a hodge-podge video collage in the last room. It is difficult to argue with the choice of periodization in such a project - after all, there have to be some time limits set, and the significant restraints which the collection's holdings put on the construction of the exhibit's narrative was a further limitation. But cutting off the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the Second Wave of feminism seemed a rather daring approach to the periodization of the history of American nation formation, as well as the history of women's emancipation. It is, however, quite obvious that introducing wartime and post-war icons would shift the history toward middle- and working-class American women and that a more democratic vision of history, associated with post World War II globalization in mass production and mass consumption, would hardly fit with the underlying assumption of the exhibits. The curators were aware of the possible criticism of excluding non-Caucasian and lower-class women. The concluding video mélange, which showed President Obama and the First Lady dancing, was a significant complement to the invisibility of ‘other' women. Accompanied by the declarative assertion that e pluribus unum, the conclusion of the exhibit could leave the spectator with an uncertain aftertaste.

What is American Woman?

Women's history, narrowed to the history of women's emancipation, was just one of the options for framing the exhibit. However, the collection did offer a rare opportunity to demonstrate the agency of cultural icons in historical perspective, an opportunity that the curators missed. Nicely elaborated but unimaginative painted panels provided very conventional backgrounds for "Heiress", "Gibson Girl", and "Bohemian". Placing the icons in their ‘natural' backdrops, such as the ballroom, the woods, the beach, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio in New York, missed contextualization. Only the rooms of "Screen Siren" and "Suffragist and Patriot" were supplied with complementary visual materials. Although the introduction set "Heiress" in the milieu of Henry James' and Edith Wharton's novels, as well as paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldoni, there was no trace of the aforementioned in the display. While the exhibit claimed "Heiress" as the first archetype of the American woman "to emerge with the rise of the popular press in the late nineteenth century", there was not a single bit of illustration showing how this "dollar princess" was actually represented in media.

The same is true of "Gibson Girl", who was described as "the first to challenge European hegemony over accepted standards of style and beauty", which emerged "as a distinct-and distinctive - "American type" and "a major example of a new woman, a symbol appropriate to a period exploring a new mode of emancipation". Apparently, the Gibson Girl explored the new mode of emancipation through sports, through shaping her body and its boundaries; that is, through clothing that "reflected modern, liberated femininity". With this icon, the lack of historical context was even more disappointing, since "she" was the creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson9. Visitors had no chance to compare Gibson's drawings with the costumes on display. Instead, they watched them against gloomy and sketchy landscapes, aiming to prove that "sport and exercise heralded a new freedom for women". Visitors had no choice but to take for granted the icon's agency in women's liberation set on the beach and in the woods.

Studies on transnational women's history of the iconic representations of women's beauty demonstrate the ability of images to challenge social norms and change women's lives. Without delving too deep into the taxonomy of cultural icons, "Modern Girl" (with its variation of "Modern Woman") embraces elements of both "Gibson Girl", who endured through the Great War up to the mid 1920s, and "Flapper", emerging only around 192610. Yet, what is even more important, the icon of the "Modern Girl" of the 1920s came from Asia (from Japan, to be precise) and became a transnational phenomenon11. The Moga, or modan gaaru (モダンガール), as an icon of the modern girl/young woman in 1920s, went global and acquired a significant agency on every continent. Such a thesis, however, questions nationalizing the labeling of the "icons of femininity". But even the transnational character of icons could be reframed into the national history. Moreover, the national dimension of the icons transpired through the displayed dresses-if we indeed care to see them beyond the history of fashion.

Viewers might feel like playing "guess who" with the icons, bringing real women to the story of the women's liberation though fashion. The question of which was first, an icon or a person, went unanswered. Mundane as it is, such a question is essential for the history of constructing any national identity. The disinterest in making such connections seemed like a lost opportunity in utilizing the educational potential of the exhibit. To give two examples: "Gibson Girl", as "the icon of genteel femininity" had very real models, who had a very special place in women's history: the Langhorne sisters12. Irene Langhorne became Charles Gibson's wife, and her sister Nancy, Viscountess Astor, passed into history when in 1918 as the first woman in history to take a seat in the House of Commons13. This unquestionable political achievement of a woman, however, can hardly serve the history of women's suffrage and American national identity. A Virginian by birth, Nancy Langhorne became a deputy representing the Conservative Party. She assumed her place in the shadow of the first elected woman, Countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish nationalist of Anglo-Irish descent, the Irish Sinn Féin politician, and a suffragist, who rejected her seat in the British Parliament. Nancy Astor had no relationship to the women's suffrage movement, finding a place in women's history rather than in feminist history14.

The epitome of the American "Heiress", Millicent Rogers, had a significant influence over American and international fashion, though not before 191915. A New Yorker by birth, an heiress to the Standard Oil and the Anaconda Copper fortunes, Rogers collaborated with the first American couturier, Charles James, and passed into the history of fashion not only as arbiter of elegance, but also as a promoter of ethnic styles in the trans-Atlantic high style. While residing in Tyrol, she promoted the elements of the regions' folk costumes to international fashion. While living in Taos, New Mexico, she did a great deal to promote Navajo and Pueblo arts and crafts in American design, from rugs to jewelry. An "Heiress" by birth and a "Bohemian" by passion, Millicent Rogers expressed herself through her inventiveness in fashion and cultural foundations, including the museum of Native American arts and crafts (Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico)16.

The mysterious owner of the little shoes trunk in the display, which drew much attention among the visitors, Rita de Acosta Lydig, might be regarded as the embodiment of several icons17. A New Yorker by birth and upbringing, a Spaniard by lineage and cultural identity, Rita Lydig exemplified the spirit of cosmopolitanism. Once a love rival of Edith Wharton, she inspired the character of Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence. As a sportswoman who was also a friend and a muse of Sargent and Boldoni, Lydig also personified the "Gibson Girl". She was admired by her contemporaries as "the most picturesque woman in America", in the words of French painter Paul César Helleu, and yet "essentially and always Spanish", according to her sister Mercedes de Acosta. Sargent once said about this "Bohemian": "[S]he was art". And yet Rita de Acosta Lydig was also a suffragist who championed birth control, a member of the Equal Franchise Society, and a member of the Mayor's Committee of Women on National Defense during World War I, so she could honorably stand for both "Suffragist and Patriot". An author, an eccentric, and a celebrity, a devout Episcopalian who once envisioned a new liberal religious movement, Lydig found her own personal way of ‘emancipation' through art collecting and passionate consumption, and yet died bankrupt and abandoned by her ‘society'. It is worth noting that in 1975 Diana Vreeland reminded New Yorkers about the great American Women of Style, using the images of Rita Lydig (among others), as a mannequin. Introducing real women in the background of the exhibit, however, might have deepened the historical context and thus released the history of national identity formation as well as suffrage through the means of fashion from the icon-like one-dimensionality.

The nationalization of icons allowed the exhibit to disguise the apparent cosmopolitanism of fashion: cosmopolitanism is an integral element of fashion, even if fashion is politically inspired. It is a critical commonplace that political ideas, like fashion, knows no borders. In the "Suffragist and Patriot" room viewers might learn that the suffragists' political colors were purple, white, green, as well as gold. Nevertheless, it was the British, not Americans, who introduced the movement's "corporate colors" and turned them into political emblems. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, an entrepreneur who started dressmaking cooperatives, between 1906 and 1912 became very successful as a fund-raiser for the British Women's Social and Political Union. The invention of the suffragists' "corporate colors" was strictly related to fund-raising for the Union. Pethick-Lawrence gave British feminists emblematic colors to mark their political identity, and the market immediately responded by producing merchandise for middle-class women, "turning out everything from buttons to bicycles in the signature purple, white and green"18.

National bodies

The exhibit asserted its claim of women's liberation through fashion by demonstrating how fashionable cuts freed upper- and middle-class women from corsets, helped them to get engaged in sports, and sexually liberated them. In such an approach, the essentialization of the body comes as a consequence of the essentialization of national identity and by identifying it with upper-classness. The exhibit offered a linear, pictorial story of changes in upper-class women's bodies: from the guarded and confined body of the American "Heiress", through the androgynic "Bohemian" and even more so "Flapper", to the full, mature body of the "Screen Siren", "less youthful and more sophisticated, ... womanly and sensuous". There was nothing going beyond the already well known.

Fashion is about the performance of status and social mobility. Becoming national might also, though not necessarily, involve social advancement. The exhibit did not attempt to demonstrate how lower-class women entered the nation via fashion, or how the national fashion changed their bodies. Fashionable clothing, as all students of immigration to America know, played an important role in the process of assimilation and acculturation, a fact well documented in the immigrants' photographs. Pictures in fashionable "American" dresses, sent to the "old country", played a pivotal role as proof of prosperity and a new identity. This "descent" of fashion from the ruling-class upstairs to the working-class downstairs remained invisible in the exhibit.

It thus did not seem awkward to begin the history of American women's liberation and modern national identification from the image of the "Heiress". Unfortunately, the dresses of "the dollar princess", as manifestations of a family's (the father's, mostly) fortunes displayed without context, did not add much weight to the thesis. Ball gowns draped on mannequins looked lavish, but it was difficult to understand how they actually liberated the bodies of wealthy American girls; instead, it seemed much easier to see how they commodified them. Though the curators claimed that the icons also represented personalities, again, viewers had to take the claim for granted. And though it was difficult to read personhood from the mannequins, it was much easier to understand changes in body language, or rather in body-message, expressed by the clothing on display.

If the curators had decided to frame the exhibit in terms of gender rather than women's history, the collection would have told the story of the ambiguity of liberation and the constraints on upper-class women's bodies just fine. For it was quite intriguing to follow how the fashion industry gave "national" shape to women's bodies and to their sexualities, and to dissect the meanings of such shaped national characteristics. While in fashion studies a dress is regarded as an extension of the body, operating "at the interface between the individual and the social world [...] the private and the public"19, categories such as bodies and sexuality, surprisingly, were employed rather casually in the exhibit's narrative. The "Flapper", for example, was presented as the icon that "redefined the concept of freedom as sexual rather than political". In the women's liberation movement isn't the sexual also political? If we make an effort to remember that issues such as the struggle over control of women's bodies and sexualities lay at the very heart of the women's liberation movements from the First Wave onward, the presentation of the "Flapper" as an embodiment of the "moral revolution" seemed quite problematic.

The exhibits demonstrated clearly that American women's bodies stand in the center of the fashion industry's targeting of potential clients with bodily imagined "Americanness" as a signature mark. The very introduction to the exhibit pointed to the body as a signifier of nationness: "In November 1924 Jean Patou add in the New York Times: ‘A Paris couturier desires to secure three ideal types of beautiful American women who seriously desire careers as mannequins in our Paris atelier. Must be smart, slender, with well-shaped feet and ankles and refined manners'". "Smartness" was supposed to secure a politeness in relationships between the couturier, his entourage and the mannequins, but it was bodies, not manners, that mattered. The introduction to the exhibit leaves no doubt about how the "idealized American woman" should look "by 1920s": she ought to be "slim, athletic, youthful". The "[s]lender American Diana", which Patou desired to get hold of, was contrasted with the "rounded French Venus". The description of the typical "Gibson Girl" already presented her as: "tall and slender with long limbs, classical features, and thick dark hair caught up in a chignon". The "Flapper" only deepened this tendency: "[s]he was thinner and more androgynous than her predecessors... hipless, waistless, flat chested." And she manifested "urbanity". According to Colette, who wrote in French Vogue: Patou's "squad of archangels, in a chaste flight unimpeded by the flesh, will reorient fashion toward an increasingly slender line". And right she was. The apparent "American Woman's" striving toward androgyny, in the exhibit's narrative, was inverted by the mature body of the "Screen Siren". This change of body shapes, more than clothing worked toward dethroning the "rounded" European woman's body for the sake of the American "greyhound's silhouette". But there was no attempt to elaborate on the tendency toward blurring sexual difference in gender representations. What did this androgyny mean for the construction of the American national identity before the 1930s? Was the return of the ‘womanly figure,' heralded by the "Screen Siren" related to the changes caused by the Great Depression, or was it rather Hollywood's response to the preferences of their audience on a global scale?

Screen Siren Gallery, Charles James and Madame Eta (1930), Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Screen Siren Gallery, Charles James and Madame Eta (1930), Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Patou "imported American mannequins" to Europe to dress them up, though doubtless he could find bodies with the desirable silhouettes in Paris or just across the English Channel, if we want to play stereotypes. The "mannequinization" of American woman's body became a form of its symbolic commodification for the benefit of the fashion industry. It was certainly an act of national/cultural essentialization, with a delicate undertone of racialization in the form of aesthetic pastiche, which came from the Old World, and targeted other white, though pot-melted and upper-middle class clientele from across the Atlantic. Such essentialization, at least by the 1930s, served well the construction of the new icons of women's beauty in mass culture, by both adding an exotic tinge to the construction of the white middle-class women's bodies in 1920s on the one hand, and by endowing the patterns of national identification by constructing Americanness in terms of bodily features, on the other. While the exhibit reminded the audience that most of Patou's clients were rich Americans, it silenced the role that the French couturier played in constructing the American women's body and sending it back, dressed, to the United States. That was in Paris, where ‘the female American body' became a commodity, predestined to acquire the status of a cultural icon, and a commercial success. The exhibit did not address such issues. Instead, it built on the very characteristics that the fashion industry constructed for the white middle-class American woman's body after World War I by re-instituting a cultural stereotype, taking it as an axiom in the history of the nation and women's emancipation. Moreover, if the exhibit intended, as it announced, to "chronicle the genesis of the ‘American Diana' and her triumph over the ‘French Venus'", the defeat of roundness and victory of slenderness was not only allied with the European fashion industry but the conquest also had a global impact on sexuality and attitudes toward women's bodies.

The artifacts of personal use, such as dresses, as signifiers of upper-class status, could tell the histories of aspirations, opportunities, constraints, and restraints that elite women faced over the half-century. Historicizing the construction of their bodies could have provided a vantage point on the artifacts displayed. It is worth noting the fact, so common as to be invisible, that almost all the dresses were displayed on uniform mannequins. It made one wonder whether all of the dresses' previous owners were of the same size, or more likely, if in the process of preparing the exposition, the gowns were adjusted to the standard figure of mannequin. Again, the mode of telling the history of the liberation of women and their bodies as a historical development embodied in icons, risks granting too much agency to the mannequins, giving us misconceptions about women's bodies of the past. The body perspective would be worth noticing, especially in relation to current dramatic changes in American women's silhouette, with obesity regarded as a national disease, and eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia affecting mostly middle- and upper-middle class young women. Nowadays, it is often fashion that is blamed for girls' striving for bodily perfection to the point of self-destruction. The assertion of thinness as a national ideal of appearance, without the historical context, made spectators fall prey to a stereotype.

Taking issue with the standardization of clothing sizes in an exhibit devoted to fashion might seem peculiar. If, however, we look at the dresses as signifying the boundaries of particular bodies and not just social status, the practice of homogenization, as an approach to a sartorial form of primary historical sources, may seem worth rethinking. The iconization of clothing tends to alienate them from their most intimate context: from the bodies they delineated, or were intended to. Not all of the pieces of fashionable attire allow reshaping, as the collection of hand-made French shoes of Rita Lydig showed. As I watched spectators, they were amazed not so much with the craftship Pietro Yanturni, a curator of Cluny Museum in Paris and a master shoemaker, as with the tiny size of Rita's feet.

The status of a dress as a historical artifact, its collectability and worth, depends not only on where it came from and how much it cost, but also who wore it, where, and for what occasion. All the exhibited dresses and personal items belonged to somebody, were worn previously, or at least occupied a space in somebody's closet. As such, they would be able to tell the history of American upper-class women and their striving for emancipation. In this way, it would be possible to go back to the period of the Civil War, and answer the question, which perhaps many visitors expected to find: what was the difference, if any, in the apparel of the Northern and Southern lady? Did the Spanish nobility style influence the attire of women in Southwest? What was the role of clothing accessories in shaping national identity? Fashioning national identity, after all, does not exclude clothing accessories.

Imperialism of Consumption

Accessories matter: they make icons and they make fashion. And they also signify status and identity. The exhibit could have easily framed the development of women's fashion within the history of American political and cultural imperialism. The inception of the distinctive American women's style, according to the curators, in the 1890s coincides with the beginning of American imperialism; the "Screen Siren" of the 1940s epitomizes the American hegemony in mass culture. Luxurious dresses, as the accessories indicating the identities, could tell the story of the cosmopolitization of consumption, nationalization of distribution, and construction of the national identity based on the consumption of fashion. The dresses of the "dollar princesses" signify more than just the liberating powers of the tailor's cut: they symbolize the power of global capitalism.

Fashion historians emphasize that the cosmopolitization of attire on a global scale was noticed at the beginning of the twentieth century and they attribute this to travel and communication. Fashion without borders in the Western world appears as commonsense and commonplace. The curators on their part confused spectators, by exposing them to the conflicting messages embedded in the exhibit. On the one hand, the curators claimed to show the development of the distinctive American style. On the other, the artifacts demonstrated their non-American origins.

The introduction informs us that the "Heiress" was a "conventional lady", whose style aspirations were limited to an imitation of European aristocracy: "she relied on the foremost fashion houses in Europe"; the House of Rouff, for example, but also Hallée, Pingat, Doucet, Paquin, and especially Worth. British born, and Paris based, designer and businessman Charles Frederick Worth was quoted as saying about his American clients: "they have faith, figures, and francs-faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, francs to pay my bills." If the "Heiress" shopped mostly in Paris and London, the "Gibson Girl", "Bohemian", and "Flapper" relied more on local suppliers20, though still buying French attire21. The "Flapper" dresses on display came from the Parisian house of Jeanne Lanvine, from British-born but Paris-based designer Edward H. Molyneux, from Parisiennes Germaine Emilie Krebs, known as Mme Grès, from Madeleine Vionnet, and Coco Channel, among others. The Europe-oriented consumption of American upper class women from the late 1890s, in later decades seemed to be more nationally self-sustained: the Fifth Avenue challenged the Champs Élysées. The emancipation of American fashion designers from the dictates of European couturieres came at the end of the exhibit's timeline, heralded by Jessie Franklin Turner, Travis Banton, and Charles James.

Jessie Franklin Turner (1933), Coco Chanel (1934), Travisa Banton'a (1934), Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jessie Franklin Turner (1933), Coco Chanel (1934), Travisa Banton'a (1934), Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Consumption can help women's emancipation, and women's and gender history in recent decades has explored the connection22. The idea of the emancipation of rich American women through consumption is present in the exhibit not so much in the case of the "Heiress" icon, who often served as a display of family wealth, or in the sporty "Gibson Girl", who corresponded to the liberal and eugenic ideals of a wealthy elite woman's fitness necessary to carry on her civic duties. Rather, it was the "Bohemian" who made a direct link between independent spending and social and sexual liberation. As the curators noted, the "Bohemian" demonstrates women's liberation by arts, though her "involvement in art revolved less around its production than its consumption"; that means collecting art, patronizing artists, and founding museums. Furthermore, "[t]he role of art in fostering self-expression extended to the Bohemian's self-representation". So, this "archetype" was conceived in strict relationship to the scope of power, as a result of the social and economic position of upper-class women, allowing them to independently sponsor and consume, and therefore appropriate, the arts, as an element of their own self-image. How it descended to the lower social groups, the exhibit did not show.

Moreover, if the "Heiress" imitated European aristocratic women, using dress as a statement of belonging to the transnational elites, if "Gibson Girl" heralded the new attitudes toward women's bodies among the upper-classes exporting them back to Europe in the form of an image, then the "Bohemian's" clothing seemed to make a clearly national statement. The curators stressed that the "Bohemian's" garments were "influenced by the language of classicism, medievalism, and Orientalism, which were a vital point at the visual culture of the period." And so it was, but its importance emerged in the political and cultural context of the imperialism of that era, in which the United States took part. The history of fashion demonstrates that the political inspirations in fashion often bear an ideological significance, to mention only the classicism in fashion during the period of the French Revolution and the empire style during the Napoleon wars, or the medievalism in the Romantic nationalisms. What is "national" then, what is "imperial", what is "global", and what is "feminist" in the meanings of fashion? If "Bohemian" heralded American political imperialism, it is still not clear how she "helped to advance equality of women".

What's National About Fashion?

How does fashion contribute to the construction of a gendered national identity? Fashion appears to be a transnational phenomenon, a form of communication and a performance of social status that embraces the ideas of both distinctiveness and mimicry, and serves the twofold but opposing purposes of blurring and fortifying social (and cultural) boundaries. Was the exhibit at the Met able to answer that question? I think not, because instead of a critical answer, it offered an embodiment of the national stereotype. The Metropolitan celebrated the things - clothing and the style - presenting them as signifiers of the national identity and women's suffrage. "The national identity", an overarching idea of the exhibit, made the artifacts tell the intended history - but not otherwise. In spite of the essentializing and smoothing treatment of the history, the exhibit reminded us that the national identity appears to be, indeed, a matter of fashion, as it could be a matter of choice, of ‘imagining' ourselves.

The exhibit proves yet again that women's history in the United States has become a part of the mainstream culture. And perhaps becoming a part of the mainstream culture has a side effect of turning women's history into a cultural and political banality, into an attribute of the national identity. Women's history appropriated into the national grand-narrative became respectable, but deprived of its critical edge, moreover - it became unquestionable, like fashion's diktat. Included into the political and cultural mainstream, feminism becomes neutralized by turning it into a lavish but slightly out-of-fashion dress.

  1. 1. The author wants to thank Edyta Zierkiewicz and Izabela Kowalczyk for their insightful comments.
  2. 2. All quotations without reference in my text came from the introductions located on the walls of exhibit's rooms.
  3. 3. The Institute traces its roots to the Museum of Costume Art. Founded in 1937 by the philanthropist Irene Lewisohn, who is best known as a co-founder of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre of New York, the initial collection benefited from gifts of Irene Lewisohn and her sister Alice as well as from theatrical designers Aline Bernstein and Lee Simonson. Shortly after its founder's death in 1944, and with the financial assistance of the fashion industry, the Museum fused with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and became the Costume Institute which, in 1959 acquired the status of a curatorial department. For its part, founded in 1902, the Brooklyn Museum costume collection has been a source of inspiration and research for the American fashion industry, mostly through its Department of Costumes and Textiles and Design Lab. It holds almost 23,500 items, mostly from the late Nineteenth to the mid-Twentieth century, with landmarks such as the ‘archive' of Charles James, the first American couturier, and Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian rival of Coco Channel during the Interwar years. As a result of the museums' partnership, the exhibit at the Met was accompanied by the sister-exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, called American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection (May 7 - August 1, 2010). The project was sponsored by GAP and Condé Nast.
  4. 4. On Diana Vreeland: Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva, In Vogue: The Illustrated History of the World's Most Famous Fashion Magazine (New York: Rizzoli, 2006); Eleanor Dwight, Diana Vreeland (New York: HarperCollins, 2002); Richard Martin and Harold Koda, Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993); Debora Silverman, Selling Culture: Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan's America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986). Vreeland's autobiography: Diana Vreeland, D.V., ed. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill, was published in 1984 and re-published many times since then.
  5. 5. Diana Vreeland's most memorable exhibits: "The World of Balenciaga" (1973), "Hollywood Design" (1974), "The Glory of Russian Costume" (1976), and "Vanity Fair" (1977).
  6. 6. Martin and Koda highlighted issues related to the construction and perception of the body and intimacy ("Infra-Apparel", 1993; "Waist Not", 1994), intersections between sexuality, eroticism, and politics ("Wardrobe", 1997), and mass-culture ("Rock Style", 1999).
  7. 7. For instance: "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years " (2001); "Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed" (2002); "Goddess" (2003); "Bravehearts: Men in Skirts" (2003); "WILD: Fashion Untamed" (2004); "Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century" (2004); "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy" (2008); and "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion" (2009). It also features monographic exhibits dedicated to the master-couturist: "Yves Saint Laurent" (1983); "Madame Grès" (1994); "Christian Dior" (1996); "Gianni Versace" (1997); "Chanel" (2005); and "Poiret: King of Fashion" (2007).
  8. 8. Uniforms came from Franklin Simon & Co. department store.
  9. 9. On Charles Dana Gibson and the "Gibson Girl", see James Richard Soladay, Gone and Forgotten: American Novels and Illustration, 1901-1910 (San Diego, Calif.: Aventine Press, 2005); Katherine Williams, Women on the Verge: The Culture of Neurasthenia in Nineteenth-Century America (Stanford, CA: Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, 2004); American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920, ed. Steven Escar Smith, Catherine A Hastedt, and Donald H. Dyal (Detroit: Gale Research, 1998); Michele Helene Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Sherrie A. Inness, Intimate Communities: Representation and Social Transformation in Women's College Fiction, 1895-1910 (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995); Charles Dana Gibson, Gibson Girls (New York: Dover, 1994); Charles Dana Gibson, The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings of Charles Dana Gibson, ed. Edmund Vincent Gillon (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1969).
  10. 10. Martha H Patterson, Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2005); Liz Conor, The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); New Woman Hybridities: Feminity, Feminism and International Consumer Culture, 1880-1930, ed. Ann Heilmann and Margaret Beetham (London and New York: Routledge, 2004); Carolyn L. Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); New and Improved: The Transformation of American Women's Emotional Culture, ed. John C. Spurlock and Cynthia A. Magistro (New York: New York University Press, 1998). On the flapper: Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: The Notorious Life and Scandalous Times of the First Thoroughly Modern Woman (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006); The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, ed. Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003); Angela J. Latham, Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000); Vicki Ruíz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Ellie Laubner, Fashions of the Roaring ‘20s (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1996); Patricia Erens, "The Flapper: Hollywood's First Liberated Woman", in Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties, ed. Lawrence R. Broer and John Daniel Walther (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990).
  11. 11. The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, ed. Alys Eve Weinbaum, Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Yue Dong, and Tani Barlow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Barbara Sato, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
  12. 12. James Fox, Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
  13. 13. Karen J. Musolf, From Plymouth to Parliament: A Rhetorical History of Nancy Astor's 1919 Campaign (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998); Anthony Masters, Nancy Astor: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981); Christopher Sykes, Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
  14. 14. Kristine Byron, "The Woman with a Garden (and a Gun): Constance Markievicz," in Irish Studies: Geographies and Genders, ed. Marti D Lee and Ed Madden (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2008); Karen Margaret Steele, Women, Press, and Politics During the Irish Revival (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007); --, "Constance Markievicz and the politics of memory," in Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women, and Wicked Hags, ed. Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (Dublin i Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2004); Brian Feeney, Sinn Feín: A Hundred Turbulent Years (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002); Joe McGowan, Constance Markievicz: The People‘s Countess (Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo: Constance Markiewicz Millennium Committee, 2003); Marta Petrusewicz, Un sogno irlandese. La storia di Constance Markiewicz, comandante dell'Ira (1868-1927) (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1998).
  15. 15. Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins, The Power of Style: The Women Who Defined the Art of Living Well (New York: Crown, 1994); Barbara A. Babcock and Nancy J. Parezo, Cover Art Daughters of the Desert: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest, 1880-1980 (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1988).
  16. 16. Rogers founded the museum of Native American arts and crafts, the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico.
  17. 17. Robert A. Schanke, That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2003); Tapert i Edkins, ibidem.
  18. 18. June Purvis, "'Deeds, not words': The Daily Lives of Militant Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain," Women's Studies International Forum 18, no. 2 (1995), 91-101.
  19. 19. Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 6-7.
  20. 20. Department stores such as: Frederick Loeser & Co., Liberty & Co., Mrs. Osborn Co., and Simcox.
  21. 21. At Revillon Frères, or Peter Thomas stores, Paret, Callot Soers, and Paul Poiret.
  22. 22. Margaret Finnegan, Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); William R. Leach, „Transformation in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925," in The Journal of American History 71, no. 2 (1984).