This past week I took my Parsons Independent Study students to the Met's new American Woman show to celebrate the end of our semester. I was expecting to see mannequins donning concealing, tight-pinching, bustled and over-the-top clothing, but I wasn't expecting to be taken on such an unexpected emotional ride.
The show takes on five decades, between 1890 and 1940, and gives each one a room to showcase its specific influence on political and social history. We begin with an 1890s parlor, straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. Because the garments are all original, their proportions are historically accurate. The women on view distorted their bodies to accommodate societies' expectations of them; waistlines were shockingly tiny, say 22 inches? That's a guess, but if you remember the scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlet has her corset tightened as much as possible you'll get the idea: Corsets did reshape our bodies, and it was torture.
After the Proper Parlor, we move into the decade of the sassy Gibson Girl! American women were suddenly able to defy at least some conventions and become athletic, wearing floor to neck woolens for activities like horseback riding and tennis. Bathing suits looked like sailor dresses. Honestly, when you look at the last hundred years, the Williams' sisters create a remarkable arc of progression in terms of not only their physical and personal power, but their fashion sensibilities.
Pass through the 1910s doorway and you're greeted by floor to ceiling black and white film footage of throngs of Suffragettes alternately marching and working in factories. Their navy blue uniforms and yellow sashes stand stoic in front of their long-gone sisters, whose spirits seem to have dispersed from the footage to worm their way back into the garments. I swear I saw a sleeve move. This room, more than any other, made me feel heartbroken and forever grateful for the passion and sacrifice of our mothers' mothers' mothers who marched, and were imprisoned, and even force fed in custody so we could vote.
Moving from there to the Flappers, what I noticed with relief was how the silhouette of the dresses had changed in just a few decades: women had begun to liberate their bodies. Intricately beaded garments on display still clothed willowy figures, but clearly torture was no longer hanging in the balance between fashion and everyday life. Waistlines disappeared altogether in the Poiret masterpieces on show, whose beads capture the light of the Tiffany lamps on view alongside them.
There's more, of course. Glamorous movie stars' gowns from the 1930s are the Grand Finale, and we still see remnants of this decade on Oscar's Red Carpet every year. These are long, cut on the bias, unreal, outrageous (think Mae West and those pesky feathers on her boas).
American Woman is on show at the Met through August 15th on the second floor-- don't miss it!