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On American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection—Presentation

Jan Glier Reeder
Consulting Curator for the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Presentation Slides

The benefit of having two simultaneous exhibitions of objects drawn from the same collection—a rare event in the museum world—is the opportunity it provides to illustrate the divergent approaches that can be taken in conceiving and designing a costume exhibition. As Andrew has so eloquently delineated, his show American Woman is conceptual, structured around the theme of American archetypes. American High Style, on the other hand, is a museological survey, intended to celebrate the collection by highlighting its greatest areas of strength and some of its premier pieces. 

Like Andrew, I, too, started off thinking in terms of structuring a show around some of the individual women of style who helped form the collection, but it soon became clear to me that I wanted to take a broader survey approach so that I could present the collection's richness, breadth, and diversity as well as communicate its unique character, especially as related to the museum's relationship with the design community and how this shaped its holdings. This seemed a better format for a celebration of the new partnership with the Met, of which the plan to have two simultaneous exhibitions was a part, and to reintroduce the collection to the public after a long hiatus in exhibition programming. In addition, as I was also responsible for producing a book about masterworks in the collection in conjunction with the exhibitions, this approach made sense in order to make economical use of my time and to effect a close correlation between the Brooklyn exhibition and the publication. Finally, a book and exhibition about masterworks were the natural culmination of the three-year assessment project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the topic of yesterday's session, that had just come to an end. 

Parenthetically, when we started the project, and throughout the duration, we had no expectations of what might come at the end of it besides of course that the  records and images of  four thousand collection  highlights would be made available on ARTstor. But as we were capturing more and more images and working to gather as much information about the objects as possible, given our time constraints, I will say that our hopes of a book in the future were raised. I  found myself saying from time to time to the photographer, "Well, if there ever is a book, we would want a shot of this." And thanks to the generosity of the Met, it became a reality.

Once the plan was established, my task was to choose from the four thousand highlights what turned out to be about 235 objects in the show—85 dressed mannequins and 150 accessories and related fashion material. Having firmly established the collection's strengths through the assessment project, it seemed logical to structure the show according to those areas, reinforcing the intention to illuminate the depth and richness of the collection. So, in contrast to the selection strategy that Andrew's concept required of him, my choices were not constricted by a theme. Rather I had the freedom and yet daunting task of cherry picking from an embarrassment of riches. Amazingly enough, because of these two such divergent points of view, he and I had almost no overlapping choices. (I think at one point there was one dress on both of our exhibition checklists.) As Andrew explained earlier, he was choosing pieces not only for their correlation with his theme, but also for the way they would look as an assemblage in the beautifully decorated galleries.

Let's now start a gallery walk, keeping in mind that the groupings represent the collection's strengths and that my individual choices were based on stylistic, aesthetic, and visual qualities. The first grouping is formed with works from the House of Worth, as the collection holds almost one hundred Worth garments spanning the years 1865 to 1940. As Worth was  the founder of the couture industry, Worth gowns, especially the nineteenth-century ones, serve as a foundation of historic costume collections. My selection of the pieces here was based on the richness of the textiles, the changing silhouettes, and also on condition.

A shot of the gallery as you are walking from the Worth platforms and headed to the right shows the platform with early French couture representing the years 1900 to 1940. We see works by  Doucet,  Paquin,  Drecoll,  Poiret,  Lanvin, and Vionnet. Although chronology was not a priority in planning the show, it turned out that the objects do chronicle the major fashion changes that occurred over the hundred-year period represented. On this platform the evolution is illustrated by the S-curve of the opening years of the twentieth century, Poiret's revolutionary high-waisted  minimalist gowns of 1908–10, the draped and trained lines of the early teens, the tubular chemise of the 1920s, and the body-hugging bias cut of the 1930s.

As we have just seen some wonderful examples of French couture, a few words about the title are in order. This show features both American and French fashion. The first part of the title, "American High Style," refers to the fact that these were clothes selected and worn by American women as their expression of ultimate style. The second part, "Fashioning a National Collection," refers to the underlying exhibition narrative that explains how the collection was formed. This is presented in the wall text and label copy. The first wall text is a brief history of the Brooklyn Museum's relationship to the design community which culminated in the opening of the Edward C. Blum Design Lab in 1948 and had a profound impact on the acquisition history. Following on, within each section, I  made a few overall statements about the most significant gifts that formed each category, along with what are titled "Donor Spotlights," very brief biographies with photographs of a few, certainly not all, of the major donors. For instance, in the next section on our gallery walk, which is devoted to Elsa Schiaparelli, there is a donor spotlight on Millicent Rogers, whose Schiaparelli wardrobe is a brilliant collection within the collection. Most of the pieces on this platform belonged to her. 

To recap, my intention was dual: to present these masterworks as works of art and at the same time to give them context by relating them to the people who owned them as well as to how they were amassed into a world-class collection. I wanted to convey this particularly rich multilayered aspect of displaying and interpreting costume—that clothes are both works of art and agents of cultural and social history that can inspire inquiry into countless other areas of interest beyond their immediate context and physicality.

Walking into the next space, we enter the gallery showing the work of the first generation of American women designers who established the uniquely American sportswear aesthetic of ease, comfort, and functionality, beginning in the late 1930s. 

This is a good time to talk about the beautiful gallery design of the created by the Brooklyn Museum's chief exhibition designer, Matthew Yokobosky. In response to our preliminary discussions when I outlined my exhibition intentions,  Matthew conceived this elegant plan, which I think perfectly sets off the objects and supports the masterwork concept. Note the elegant curves of the platforms, the luminescent oyster walls and dividing panels, and the wood that matches the maple floors, so that the platforms appear as sculptural elaborations of them.   

The next gallery features the works of two generations of  American men designers—Adrian, Mainbocher, and Norman Norell, who, like the women, were designing in the 1930s—and the post-war group comprised of Arnold Scaasi, James Galanos, Geoffrey Beene, and Halston. These platforms also highlight the variety of hair designs and offer a good moment to explain the creative process that went into them. The wigs are made of paper. I chose this medium because it is inexpensive and paper hair has been used very successfully in many museums for costume exhibitions across the country. It seemed therefore like a fairly easy task to copy what had been done before. What I didn't realize at the time was that most paper hair had been made for period styles—not for the twentieth centurys—o there the templates that I originally thought existed did not. I also knew that I wanted an abstracted, modern look. The hero in the story is Elizabeth DeSole, a Brooklyn-based pattern maker and freelance designer who had never made hair before. She graciously came to the Met as a volunteer to "help" with the wig production. As it turned out, we went through a process of trial and error and, with her tenacity, gradually came up with the desired aesthetic. She ended up designing the templates and, with the help of several talented friends, making all of the wigs. There are fifteen different styles in the show. Because Millicent Rogers' clothes and persona figured so prominently in the exhibition, Liz created customized side swoops, characteristic of Rogers' hairstyle, for the wigs on all mannequins dressed in her garments.      

The next section represents what must be considered the jewel in the crown of the collection—the work of the great American couturier Charles James. James is a legend in the field as much for his legacy of unforgettable creations as for the unorthodoxy of his creative process, which he based on mathematical and sculptural principles rather than standard dressmaking practices. You can immediately see this in the works presented here. Dressing these sculptural pieces is particularly difficult, as they are rigid, awkward to handle, and were fitted with extreme exactitude to one individual's body.

This brings us to the logistics of this exhibition. It was a collaborative effort in which the Brooklyn Museum was responsible for the gallery design, signage, and promotion of the show and the Met staff was responsible for providing, dressing, and installing the mannequins as well as mounting some of the other objects, such as the Arpad shoes and Schiaparelli accessories. The two institutions split the difference when it came to the framing and presentation of the works on paper.   The costumes, which had already been physically transferred to the Met earlier in the year, were pre-dressed on the mannequins, undressed, then shipped along with the mannequins to Brooklyn. Members of the Costume Institute conservation staff re-dressed them in the gallery, which had been completely prepared before their arrival, and then finally installed them on the platforms.

These last few images are from a category which I designated as "rarities," because they are unique objects that, while they  come from areas of the collection other than those designated in the exhibition, are of such distinction that the exhibition would be diminished without their inclusion. We end with a Brooklyn story—a court dress worn by Emily Warren Roebling, the daughter-in-law of John R. Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily oversaw and accomplished the completion of the Bridge when her husband became incapacitated. She wore the gown when she was presented to Queen Victoria in 1896. A portrait of her in the dress painted by Carolus Duran in the Brooklyn Museum collection as well as a black-and-white photograph complete this fortuitous and rare convergence of art, fashion, and history.

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