“Women Dressing Women,” the soon-to-open exhibition at the Costume Institute, might have gender identity as one of its organizing principles, but the success of this show is that it is not othering. Instead, it connects the dots among disparate designers throughout history while linking them to The Met’s own holdings. Half the objects—a remarkable number—have never before been on view. “We’re often looking for what we’re missing, but it was fascinating to look at what’s here already—and what’s been overlooked as well,” said the Costume Institute’s associate curator Mellissa Huber, who organized the show with Karen Van Godtsenhoven, an independent curator and CI alumna. The condition of hiding in plain sight might be used to describe the larger experience of women in fashion.
The way this exhibition will be read and received is sure to be impacted by current events—Sarah Burton’s exit from Alexander McQueen drew attention to the lack of female creative leads in luxury fashion. But to be clear the show is not a response to recent goings-on. It was in the works pre-pandemic; the idea was that it would dovetail with the 100th anniversary of suffrage, by which American women obtained the right to vote in 1920. “In the meantime, sadly, things have changed, not always for the better,” acknowledges Van Godtsenhoven, “but at that time [in 2019], it was more a celebratory feeling, a more centennial spirit.”
The idea of lineage, or a through line across history, is the backbone of the show, Huber says during a preview, ”whether it’s in relation to the collection or our own departmental history, whether it’s broader social histories, whether it’s the history of the fashion industry itself or the trajectories of the individual designers.”
That idea is introduced even before one enters the galleries. Greeting visitors on the stairwell are works by Germaine Émilie Krebs (a.k.a. Madame Grès, who died in 1993) and Rei Kawakubo: a white silk pleated goddess dress and a distressed wool sweater and cotton-and-batting skirt, all in black. The only two women to have had monographic exhibitions at the Costume Institute, Grès and Rei, as the display dubs them, approached design from opposite ends of the spectrum—classicism and disruption—while keeping the female form in focus. At the bottom of the stairs, one encounters the exhibition’s so-called hosts and fashion’s three graces, as it were: Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Their work is presented in a mirrored display case that offers front, side, and back views of the garments, borrowing, explains Van Godtsenhoven, from the manner in which Vionnet photographed her designs for copyright purposes.
These five introductory looks argue against essentialism by presenting many unique approaches to design. Chanel’s streamlined, movement-friendly fashions set the template for modern womanhood, while Vionnet was preoccupied with bias cutting, first working out her complex designs on dolls, and Grès was focused on draping. Schiaparelli was building bridges between art and fashion, and one of Kawakubo’s key accomplishments was to work with ma, or the space around the body.
There are many ways to parse the show, partly because the framework within which it is built is multilayered, taking into account both museology and societal structures. The first of its four sections considers anonymity and is focused on the time span of 1675 to 1900. The start date references the foundation of the first guild of female dressmakers. At this time, both men and women worked locally with individual clients, usually adapting trends rather than setting them. With rare exceptions (think Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker Rose Bertin) there was no tradition of claiming authorship of a garment. That changed on the eve of the 20th century when Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman in Paris, began putting labels in his clothes. He also introduced the idea of the “solitary genius,” as Huber puts it, which later developed into the industry’s star system as it exists today.
One of the concepts the curators stress, in the exhibition as well as the catalog, is that fashion is a collective activity. Dressmakers work together with their clients just as creative directors rely on the expertise of their atelier. They also speak about the biases (unconscious or not) that can exist in collecting. And so the dresses included in this section on anonymity include an unattributed panniered robe à la française, circa 1770, as well as a dress that has a Saks Fifth Avenue label and was designed by Ann Lowe for the retailer, demonstrating that items in the collection might have untold stories attached to them.
The exhibition’s second section, covering the period from 1900 to 1968, is centered on visibility. There’s a particular focus on the interwar period, not only because it’s Huber’s special field of expertise but because the ’20s and the ’30s were the only time in history that there were more female than male creative directors in Paris. In a U-shaped room, a pantheon of those women is exhibited. Here a streamlined Chanel shares space with lacy frocks by Callot Soeurs and Lucile, maisons that long ago shuttered. The curators have compiled a truly extensive genealogy of women designers, which shows how interconnected the system was during this early period especially and also that the game of musical chairs has long been played in fashion. What’s remarkable is that so many of the designs of that era could be described as lingerie inspired; it’s almost as if women’s progress in the industry has radiated from the body/skin outward.
The third theme in “Women Designing Women” is agency, which deals with fashion from 1968 to today and charts the progression from what Van Godtsenhoven calls “the boutique generation” to the increasing individualization in self-presentation of this century. “The boutique is a space [where a designer comes in] contact with the customer,” says the curator. “There was more of a dialogue. [It offered] a whole lifestyle, a lot more than just the garments—that’s very important. And of course [there is] a sort of marriage of business and creation.”
There are subsections within each theme, which are identified by the various custom headpieces by Caitlin Keogh. Within the Agency section is a grouping that, as the wall text reads, deals with “how dress has served as a site of political and bodily expression and addresses lived experiences that have often been overlooked within high fashion, such as pregnancy or disability.” Here are examples of work by No Sesso, Collina Strada, and the Danish brand Customiety, which is dedicated to fashion for those in the achondroplasia community.
The exhibition’s fourth topic is absence/omission, and the pieces relating to it stand not against the gallery walls but in the middle of the floor. These are pairings of garments that speak to, among other things, a lack of attribution or deliberate obfuscation. A dress by Ester Manas, for example, represents the way body diversity has long been missing from the industry. “We didn’t organize the exhibition in the spirit of politics, per se,” Huber says. “It was really about the idea of acknowledgment and celebration.” That also includes recognizing areas for improvement.
“Women Dressing Women” is complex by default, as women’s engagement in fashion cannot be separated from their position in society, which through time has limited their ability to own property, receive certain inheritances, and vote, among other things. Class and race are other factors that have further delineated certain women’s scope. Nothing can be taken for granted. The subject “is so multilayered that the collection gave a framework to talk about many things,” says Van Godtsenhoven. “You can talk on a sort of meta level about museum practices and collecting, as well as about historical time periods and individual women’s lives. There’s a lot of biographical information that reflects bigger movements and the changing roles of women.”
It’s possible to descend the steps into the galleries and enter into a kind of sartorial heaven and simply marvel at the beauty and variety of the clothes on display. (The irony of this show being located underground, the locale reflecting the perceived second-class status of fashion in museums, is worth noting.) What is not possible is to walk away with a single answer regarding how women work in fashion or what their contributions to the industry have been because they are as varied as the creators themselves.
The curators have placed a lot of emphasis on the collective nature of clothes making. Stepping away from the idea of the lone genius, their focus has been tracing a lineage of female fashion design. It is in the celebration of what Huber describes as a “constellation” of talent that “Women Dressing Women” shines.