Thursday, October 7, 2010

Notorious and Notable Women

I took my Parsons students to see the Notorious & Notable: 20th Century Women of Style exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on Tuesday morning. I love visiting museums at the top of the day; you have the place nearly to yourself, similar to catching an 11 a.m. movie. The items on show appear to wake up alongside the rest of us, particularly when they're mannequins donning clothing worn by the likes of 'Was she, or was she not killed by her husband Sunny von Bulow' (pink mini dress, circa 1968) and 'the brunette Buster Brown, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' Anita Loos (pink tea dress, circa 1930s).

The show features jewelry and clothing owned by eighty women who were, at one time or another, active socialites on the New York scene. The intention was to highlight the relationship between the media and the women (hence the "Notorious" in the title). This aspect of the show wasn't as in depth as I would have liked; generally there was just one descriptive quote pulled from a newspaper or magazine of the person's era, mainly directed at their personal style rather than the very things that gave them notoriety, implied riches aside. Some of the lifted quotes described cheeky traits (apparently Hilary Geary Ross has an embroidered pillow that says "Eat, Drink, and Remarry"), but none were doggedly mean like the tabloids of today. Joan Crawford is lauded for her charity work; not her alleged parenting shortfalls (to put it mildly). The exhibit would have benefitted greatly, in my opinion, from a smattering of framed relevant newspapers and magazines.

The jewelry that was captured two-dimensionally in newsprint, dangling on their owners during benefits and parties, perches in cases under flattering light. The irony of the tidy presentation of a pendant owned by one of the two Edie Bouviers of Grey Gardens fame didn't elude me. A giant calla lilly broach shares the spotlight with a pure gold clutch, clutched by Jackie O (earrings to match).

The dresses were magnificent, and varied wildly from a custom made Oscar de la Renta caftan worn by Jayne Wrightsman, to a stripper costume worn by Gypsy Rose Lee. There was an emblematic flapper-era Poiret worn by Isadora Duncan, and other gowns worn by the likes of Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Jesse Norman, and Lauren Bacall. I was particularly moved by two items that appeared worn with age. One brick-red Geoffrey Beene jersey gown was pilled through the bodice, and Alice Tully's blue and white-floral silk coat still needed a good pressing. These are the details though that remind us that breathing, blood flowing women wore them, usually to their advantage.

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