In today’s New York Times, writer Guy Trebay covered the opening night gala of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s exhibit “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity,” a soiree, presided over by chairwoman and Vogue editrix Anna Wintour which, for its swathes of celebrities swanning their mostly borrowed finery for hordes of paparazzi, has become widely known as the Party of the Year. He ends his article with “the stage of New York nightlife might well have dimmed had Anna Wintour not brought her own kind of carnival to town.”
I beg to differ with Trebay, starting with the very title of his somewhat brown-nosing article, “Welcome to the Club.” Yes, indeed, welcome, that is if you write for the Times, or are a media superstar or mogul able to afford the price of a table which ran to $250,000 this year. Starting with the very first, pre-Wintour Gala, this was always an elitist affair once supported mainly by the interested members of Manhattan high society. However, once the high-priced dinner was finished, a dance party ensued where the hoi polloi, who also happened to be the real fashionistas, were allowed to attend for a C note or so. Decked to the nines in everything from haute couture to do-it-yourself fantasies which paid tribute to the exhibit’s theme, these were the fun style-obsessed folk – the artists and their models, the hardcore party people -who lived for this annual event. They were the ones Bill Cunningham loved to photograph, as opposed to those he HAD to. In those days, this really WAS the party of the year, because it was such a dazzlement to the eye and so damned enjoyable, with no need for any extraneous after-soiree – now de rigeur – to heighten the exclusive elitism factor.
Once Wintour swept in, with her anorexic army of label-bearers, with the basic attitude of “We’re too good for y’all,” these parties came to an end, and unless you were a very certain somebody, you simply were not wanted. Even the Costume Institute employees, who slave to put up the exhibit and ensure that everyone in the world knows about it, are not included. (And why should there be, when there’s always some Olsen twin with sundry escort to take their entitled place at the table?). It should be noted that Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley and Costume Institude head Harold Koda were once upon a time budding fashionistas, too, and Vreeland acolytes who worked on her shows and also got to go to the ball. With its ultimate red carpet illuminated by photographers’ flashes, the event is now much more Hollywood than New York, a sort of faux Oscars, with all the attendant shallow glitz that this implies. This unseemly fascination of the New York fashion world (which once sniffed at West Coast tackiness) with Tinseltown has of course been obvious for a while in the endless covers of VOGUE, HARPER’S BAZAAR, etc., which feature such imperishable style icons as Renee Zellweger and Kate Hudson on their covers, rather than the supermodels (from Jean Shrimpton to Linda Evangelista) true fashion lovers once adored.
But, at this ain’t-we-the-shit shindig, even the most fortunately entitled can experience a freeze-out akin to anything felt by commoners who must content themselves with watching the proceedings from afar on 5th Avenue. And good luck with that, as even the red carpet takes place under an obscuring white tent; as La Wintour must see it, why the hell would any celebrity want to get all gussied up to be gazed at by “the little people”? A few years ago, Diana Ross arrived in full diva regalia, feeling no doubt every inch the queen of the universe (as usual). She espied her dear friends Naomi Campbell and Iman across the room, raised her arms in a typically florid gesture of greeting, whereupon her two “Supremes” promptly popped out of her strapless gown. Campbell and Iman took one look at this and quickly scurried away from her, like any two high school mean girls.
This year, we got Katy Perry – the Millicent Rogers of our time – in a gown which – Holy Cow! – really lit up!
The exhibit, which consists of garments from the recently acquired holdings from the de-accessioned, venerable Brooklyn Museum costume collection, is itself something of a puzzlement. One expected to see the great American designers – Elizabeth Hawes, Claire McCardell, Irene, Pauline Trigere, Halston, et. al – represented, but, from the first room, devoted to the nouveau riche “Robber Baron” Age at the beginning of the last century where the opulent creations of Worth are featured, most of the clothes are French. Vionnet, Lanvin, Chanel, Patou, Alix Gres, Molyneux are all heavily featured making one think that the show’s title should really have been “The Rich, Well-Traveled American Woman – Fashioning a Parisian Identity.”
The clothes are undeniably beautiful, with the 1920s room an exquisite rotunda of ethereally gorgeous flapper dresses. However, this brings up another problem with the show, which is too blandly generic, with its themes of Flapper, Suffragette, Screen Siren, etc. It’s all rather Women’s Herstory 101 telling us nothing really new. At the press conference, Curator Andrew Bolton said the Institute had originally envisioned the exhibit as a follow-up to Diana Vreeland’s “American Women of Style” show in the 1970s, which featured influential style innovators like the Gibson Girl, Josephine Baker and Rita Lydig. Such fabulous fashion victims as Millicent Rogers, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., and actress Janet Gaynor, who was married to Hollywood costumer Adrian, had donated clothes to Brooklyn Museum, and the idea was to feature them as additional American style muses.
I wish the Institute had stuck to this original concept, as it would have made for a far more interesting show. These women, rich and renowned as they were, were also fascinating in their own right and led remarkable lives. Standard Oil heiress Rogers was an accomplished jewelry designer who drew inspiration from the Native American culture of her beloved Taos, New Mexico and was an early advocate of Indian rights. Gaynor was an entrancingly charming performer who won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928 for her luminous work in three silent films, one of which, F.W. Murnau’s lyrically Expressionistic SUNRISE, is generally rated as one of the all-time greats. Although exquisitely gowned by the talented Omar Kiam in her greatest success, the original A STAR IS BORN (1937), she was never known as a fashion plate until she married Adrian. He transformed a petite, perfectly proportioned girl next door into the very height of sophistication, a mainstay of best-dressed lists for decades.
The Met does have on display one absolutely jaw-dropping rarity: Anna May Wong’s dragon motif black satin sheath which she wore in the film LIMEHOUSE BLUES (1934). Designed by Travis Banton, perhaps the greatest of all Hollywood costumers, it possesses all the singular magic of a myth as well as revealing the tall, lithe, impossibly slender form of the legend for whom it was designed. An actual clip of Wong wearing the dress in the film unspools on the walls around it, adding to the delirium. There are also clips from such fashion forward films as GILDA, SHANGHAI EXPRESS, THE WOMEN and BRINGING UP BABY (although “Katherine Hepburn” is misspelled, which would have driven the actress crazy, as she spent her whole life correcting people.) Hepburn, Dietrich, Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rita Hayworth: these were true style icons whom women the world over avidly copied, as opposed to these screen nonentities on the magazine covers today who’ll barely be remembered in twenty years and are the synthetic product of that bane of the world: stylists. Incidentally, the clips are far more effective than the specially commissioned final room of a panorama of fashion icon media images, which are blurry and chaotic, and end the show anticlimactically, to say the least.
Today I went to Brooklyn Museum for the press preview of the sister exhibit to the Met show, AMERICAN HIGH STYLE: FASHIONING A NATIONAL COLLECTION, which also draws on their vast holdings which date back to a time when the museum was the premier depository of fashion for scholarly purposes. The minute I set foot into the galleries I had – yes – an “Aha!” moment for this was everything I’d been seeking at the Met. Curator Jan Glier Reeder has done a spectacular job in both selection and her lucid, informative and accessible exhibit notes, filled with that essential, enlightening context which, she agreed with me, is so important in any exhibit and sometimes gets lost to the purely academic. Here were the clothes one needed to see, expressive of that uniquely American dynamism, function and elegance: Elizabeth Hawes (with three adorable pencil sketches for Katharine Hepburn’s 1932 wardrobe), Adrian, McCardell, Norell, Galanos, Geoffrey Beene, Halston. An assortment of Sally Victor hats bears testament to that designer’s incredible wit and the way she drew upon various ethnic influences to crown her chic ladies who lunched. Her Foreign Legion-inspired draped chapeau is simply divine – no other word for it.
THe exhibit has its nod to Hollywood as well, in the form of an expert original knock-off of the John-Frederics-designed hat that Vivien Leigh wore in GONE WITH THE WIND to complete her green velvet ensemble made from her mother’s portieres, replete with chicken claw decoration. The hat was mass manufactured to fulfill the feminine heart’s desire of a nation besotted with Scarlett O’Hara. Additionally, the magnificent Fontana Sorella embroidered pink satin ballgown and bolero coat Ava Gardner wore in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA is there to be drooled over.
Yes, there are French clothes here as well, particularly some luscious Schiaparellis which belonged to La Rogers and show exactly why, in the late 1930s, especially, she posed such an innovatively daring threat to Chanel’s eminence. But they never overwhelm the collection, as they do at the Met. Indeed, how could they, when Brooklyn boasts some of the most marvelous examples of their famed cache of Charles James creations, that designer who always seems to dominate any exhibit through his incrediblly fertile, architectural sensibility? His famous 4-leaf clover ballgown, seen below, which he considered his masterpiece, is on display and one can only imagine the number of students who will be feverishly sketching this one on their visits to the museum, and all the designers who will unsuccessfully try to knock it off.