From The Archive: American Art, American Fashion. What is it, anyway?

This piece by Tove Hermanson, originally posted in December 2010, justifiably questions how museums define and present American fashion.

American flag costume c. 1889 and contemporary Flag Dress by Catherine Malandrino

As a native Cantabrigian, I read with interest and delight the NYTimes review of the newly opened, newly expanded American Wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, a museum I practically grew up in (my father still lectures there). I was especially intrigued by the following statement:

“One can imagine arguments growing sharp in the present political climate, when opinions about what America was, is and should be are so polarized and proprietorial. And maybe this is where art itself comes to the rescue…. Usually we get North America, meaning Euro-America, over here; America Indian and Mesoamerica over there, with African and Oceanic; and South America almost nowhere…. But what if you bring them together, hook them up, seat them as equals at a hemispheric table? Intriguing things can happen. Boston homeboys like Paul Revere begin to look, in their great harbor city, unexpectedly cosmopolitan. Sophisticated civilizations like Olmec and Maya break free of the “primitive” slot. South America, that grand ballerina en pointe, starts to look like the big global deal it, of course, is.”

The Triumvirate “American” Fashion Exhibits

The definition of “American” has been on my mind too: aside from Obama’s supposed non-citizenship (Hawaii is, to my knowledge a U.S. state) and the latest war against immigrants, not one but three New York museums tackled American fashion within the past two years. FIT presented “American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion,” and the Met and Brooklyn Museum concurrently displayed “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection,” respectively.

While I generally look for geographic indicators in garments that could include politics, economics, wars, etc., I somehow feel that this rash of exhibitions has a subtle consumerist agenda — as Anna Wintour’s “Fashion’s Night Out” shopping night series is — an attempt to revive the American fashion industry that has been floundering since the Great Recession (or whatever we’re calling it). This is not bad per se, it’s simply something to take into consideration when thinking about the purpose or necessity of three institutions defining our supposed national style one after the other. Isolating American-specific style, no matter what the motivation, is problematic from a conceptual perspective as well. The United States was founded by colonists and continues to be built upon waves of immigrants, and the arts have been inextricably influenced by these immigrant cultures (even as we inevitably resist being “taken over” by too many). All the American fashion exhibitions included some designers who were born in other countries; the example of Dior below was not only created by a French couturier, but worn by Eva Peron (1919 – 1952), the First Lady of Argentina, and evens riffs off a Spanish theme with beaded trompe l’oeil “ruffles” on the skirt. I mean, it’s gorgeous, but it may be a stretch for an “American” exhibit:

Dior evening ensemble, 1952, worn by Eva Peron

I myself have been battling this problematic nation-specific framing, as I’m writing several fashion articles for an upcoming Encyclopedia of Women and American Pop Culture. It’s been a real challenge to extricate American-specific fashion trends and icons from international ones, especially French and English. At times I’ve felt like I’m trying to explain Vietnamese cuisine without mentioning the French occupation of that country (mmmmm, makes me want a Vietnamese sandwich — on the requisite baguette — riiiiight now). Robin Givhan voiced similar perplexity in her article “Single definition of American Woman proves elusive at Costume Institute.” And this type of nation-defining exercise grows more difficult — perhaps even futile — as one explores more recent decades in which images, information, and trends pass effortlessly, inexpensively, and instantly across continents via TV and the internet. (As a side note, I would love to see a project similar to the Electronic Enlightenment Correspondence Visualization, but tailored to fashion samples, color cards, textile production, etc. to more concretely trace paths of influence.)

The good news is that the specific missions and personalities of FIT, the Met, and the BMA are all called into sharp relief when they tackle the same challenging subject. FIT is, after all, a technical fashion school that focuses on design and construction elements and generally lets the gowns speak for themselves, going light on historical context. In the photo below, you can see that gowns that resemble each other’s shapes, palettes, and materials are grouped together, something that’s particularly helpful to people studying fashion design:

American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion set

The Met has a ridiculous budget and blockbuster-style annual gala associated with its spring Costume Institute show so there’s more emphasis on creating high-class period atmosphere, with elaborate sectional murals and plentiful props (this is noted in Roberta Smith’s article The Art of Style, and the Style of Art). Additionally, Curator in Charge Harold Koda treats fashion as “high art,” and therefore favors extraordinary (i.e. couture) garments over more common (ready-to-wear) ones though the latter may be more characteristic of what the general population wore; this approach seemed especially problematic to me because historically speaking, American designers have generally been more sleek and restrained than their flamboyant European contemporaries (this is due in large part to our somber religious forebearers and democratic political system that explicitly rejected the caste system of England).

American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity set

The BMA tends to emphasize historical conditions that are generally provided in explanatory signage contextualizing costumes within local, national and global circumstances (this is my personal favored approach, if you didn’t know!). Compare the BMA’s minimalistic installation and wider represented economic range (like the ready-to-wear Claire McCardell bikini top and romper shorts in far center) to the Met’s above; likewise, compare the range of styles, colors and materials grouped together (probably because of subject theme) to FIT’s more visually cohesive design:

American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection set

The Difficulty of Defining “American”

The Whitney Museum, which I used to work for, had similar difficulty pinning down a definition for “American,” and this was a larger issue than a single exhibition: the full name is The Whitney Museum of American Art. Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney established the institution in 1930 with the explicit intention of supporting living, American artists. The difficulty arose however, that with ever-easier, affordable transportation options (not to mention America’s well documented appeal to immigrants), people don’t necessarily live and die in one country. Artists especially (this very much includes writers, as the Ex-Pats of US / Paris) seem to thrive on changing locals for fresh inspiration. The definition of “American” thus becomes increasingly nebulous.

What the Times article reminded me was that America is even larger than these institutions and exhibits acknowledge — North America is a continent, after all, and the United States is one single country among 22 represented nations. I hope that, with the MFA’s lead, people will start to include and compare / contrast American art and American fashion while acknowledging the influence of our geographical neighbors, also American.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite pieces from the BMA’s exhibition, one that I not only think is beautiful, but thoroughly American by any definition: designer Elizabeth Hawes (1903 – 1971) was American, and the dress exemplifies the traditional, somewhat plain silhouette of early WWII years in America. But my favorite aspect is the simple-but-bold shiny red graphic, an inverted pelvic-like triangle with abstracted vaginal slit running between the modestly covered legs is wonderfully subversive when you consider America’s ingrained Puritan roots and complicated relationship with displayed female sexuality (and if you think this interpretation is a stretch, consider the title of the dress):

"The Tarts" dress by Elizabeth Hawes, 1937

Ah America, land of expression!

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