Review: Model As Muse


I again have the pleasure of introducing you to a guest reviewer – Rachel Morris Tu (a classmate of mine from the NYU: Visual Culture Costume Studies program). Rachel was also formerly with the Brooklyn Museum cataloging project (along with several of my former guest reviewers Katie and Jennifer). Back in May I promised you a review of ‘Model as Muse’, and Rachel has graciously provided one. Enjoy!

This past May 5th I indulged in a guilty springtime pleasure: Visiting to peruse red carpet snapshots of who-wore-what at the Costume Institute’s Party of the Year. The party was hosted in conjunction with the opening of The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion, an apropos exhibition topic that focuses less on fashion history than on the models who have inspired both fashion designers and photographers and have become icons of their generation since WWI.

Exhibition design-wise, The Model as Muse plays with the use of scale. Life-size blowups of iconic photographs and videos are the backdrops to the real costumes. These are presented with intimate biographies on important models of each decade and provide deeper insight into the women behind the beautiful pictures. The introductory vignette features a life-size reenactment of Richard Avedon’s 1955 Dovima with Elephants, complete with cardboard elephant cutouts and Christian Dior’s black evening gown with dramatic white sash.

Viewed 06 July 2009*

Opening with the post-WWI era, I was greeted like an old friend by a series of Charles James gowns with Cecil Beaton’s famous 1948 photograph for Vogue as the backdrop. In addition to Dorian Leigh -the only identified model in Beaton’s photograph- other featured models of the decade included Suzy Parker, Carmen Dell’Orefice and Sunny Hartnett just to name a few.

Cecil Beaton (British, 1904-1980)
Dorian Leigh (fourth from left) and unidentified models in Charles James, Vogue, June 1948
Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
© Condé Nast Publications Inc.

Pulsing with the Who’s “My Generation,” the centerpiece of the 1960s Youthquake gallery are three spinning aluminum dresses made by the Baschet brothers for William Klein’s satirical film Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? starring model Dorothy McGowan. As a whole, this gallery is the most successful in illustrating the developing relationship between model and designer and model and photographer. Unquestionably, Twiggy was the muse of her generation, but Donyale Luna and Naomi Sims were enormously significant. As the earliest African-American fashion models in print, they ushered in greater racial diversity to the fashion world.

Viewed 06 July 2009*

Richard Avedon
Donyale Luna in dress by Paco Rabanne, 1966

In the 1970s and early ’80s, models such as Jerry Hall, Lisa Taylor, Lauren Hutton and Brook Shields embodied new ideals of sexual freedom and the athletic body. The gallery, entitled “The Body Politic,” features Yves Saint Lauren’s Russian collection beside Halston’s minimalist gowns in a Studio 54-inspired setting.

Helmet Newton
Lisa Taylor in Calvin Klein, Vogue, May 1975

Viewed 06 July 2009*

The late 1980s’s saw the rise of the supermodel, with the likes of Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford becoming household names. Photographs from the period often include groups of models in similar ensembles, suggesting that the clothing is almost secondary to the women wearing it. Surprisingly, my favorite costume examples were a series of Gianni Versace’s Pop Art-inspired beaded jumpsuits and gowns that looked better in-person than they ever did in print alone.

Peter Lindbergh (German, born 1944)
Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Karen Mulder, Stephanie Seymour in Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946-1997), Autumn/Winter 1991-1992, Vogue, September 1991

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gift of Gianni Versace, 1993 (1993.52.4)

A special tribute is made to Kate Moss who arose as the most relevant model of her time with the anti-fashion/grunge movement of the late-1990s and has continued to stay relevant with her own sense of personal style. According to the creators of the exhibition, Moss is perhaps the most significant model in recent fashion history.

While conceptually the reenactment of fashion photography’s greatest hits in life-size form is an interesting idea, the resulting vignettes fall somewhat flat, with the costumes in general appearing lifeless and superfluous to the topic. The biographies on the models juxtaposed with magazine photographs (that viewers are more likely to be familiar with) are certainly an education in the history of modeling, but barely touched on their role as muses per se. In summary, the Model as Muse is an elementary introduction to models in fashion history, but a deeper exploration of the muse and her relationship with fashion makers had yet to be realized.

The Model as Muse, curated by Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 9, 2009. The catalog for the exhibition is also available from Yale University Press.

*Photographs of the exhibition were taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Flickr account and were taken by Alex Hills.

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1 Comment

  • Erika L. November 19, 2013 03.49 am

    Thank you for a really well-written review. I missed the exhibition (I live in Stockholm), bought the catalogue, however this is the most informative review I have read so far, thank you.

    Stockholm recently hosted an exhibition showing the work of Jean-Paul Gaultier. It was the most wonderful fashion exhibition I have seen ever, I hugely recommend a visit. The exhibition has just opened at Brooklyn Museum (October 25, 2013–February 23, 2014).

    I am a fashion scholar (MA Fashion Studies, Stockholm University 2012) focusing on the model profession as presented in girl series books.

    Sincerely, Erika


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