‘Women Dressing Women’: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Honors a Century of Great Women Designers | culture

The Costume Institute’s fall exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Met) pays tribute to women’s creativity. Women Dress up women is a statement of intent that begins with the first panel of the exhibit. Women designers, artisans and artists have covered the feminine universe with their designs and different visions for women, always making them protagonists, sometimes making them objects, but never passive subjects when it comes to clothing. Over 80 outfits from the Institute’s permanent collection are on display, and the exhibition spans the fashion industry chronologically, artistically and commercially. The items represent the two main centers of the fashion industry, Paris and New York, including names and labels that connect haute couture and street fashion and the finest traditions of the Old Continent, the American avant-garde and utilitarianism.

The exhibition, which opens on Thursday and will remain on display until March 3, 2024, begins with a selection of black-and-white photographs, projected in a loop, showing the work of tailors, tailors and seamstresses in anonymous workshops between 1907 and 1962. There is also photos of the first timid tests for a client and the first private fashion shows in salons at a time when designers had no recognition, let alone the planetary fame they have acquired in recent decades (not to mention the attention they have received in recent years from celebrations such as the Met’s big annual fashion show and the museum’s fashion gala, the event of spring).

This black-and-white tribute features the forerunners of over 70 female designers who bring dreams to life with their needles and thimbles. The exhibition traces the lineage of the most influential fashion houses led by women in the last century (although only a few remain today, the House of Dior and the House of Chanel). It features the work of pioneers such as Adèle Henriette Nigrin de Fortuny and her Venetian textiles; the exquisite Madeleine Vionet; the Spanish designer Ana de Pombo, one of the last in the French fashion house Paquin (1891-1956); and Elsa Schiaparelli, who ran her own brand and was perhaps the first name-recognizable designer. In fact, the latter had an exhibition at the Met dedicated to her in 2012, in which she engaged in an imaginary dialogue with her famous compatriot Miuccia Prada. Big names (Chanel, the aforementioned Miuccia Prada, Marchesa, Rodarte) do appear in the exhibition, but it highlights unknown women and those that time has forgotten, as in the selection of ethereal creations from the first decades of the 20th century.

A panoramic view of the main hall of the Women Dressing Women exhibition at the Met in New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The figure of the well-known designer was forged in the workshops where seamstresses, fashionistas, apprentices and tailors worked for decades. As noted in the introductory panel accompanying a selection of anonymous photographs, “in the centers of French and European fashion, the right of women to dress other women was a slowly won privilege,” as men dominated the industry. It took a long time for female professionals to establish themselves, something that happened with the deregulation of guilds. In the United States, however, this vocation is seen as a natural, hard-working extension of domestic duties: after all, sewing is an inherently female occupation.

One of the rooms in Women Dressing Women, the fall fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

At a preview of the exhibition on Monday, Max Hollein, director of the Met, explained that fashion created by women has helped to empower women as well as the designers themselves. “This exhibition invites reflection on the vital contributions women have made to fashion from the early 20th century to the present day by amplifying historically undervalued voices and celebrating the celebrity they have achieved. The garments on display exemplify the countless women whose contributions have been and continue to be the lifeblood of the global fashion industry as we know it today.”

The foyer of the Women Dressing Women exhibit, which features designs by Madeleine Vione, Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle Chanel, among others. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrew Bolton, the world’s most influential fashion curator, senior curator at the Costume Institute and right-hand man to Anna Wintour (the almighty fashion Vogue editor and architect of the Met’s fashion gala), also spoke at the exhibition preview. He noted that “women have been central to the success of the Costume Institute since its inception. Its founders include several inspirational women; that’s why the Institute remains dedicated to celebrating the artistic, technical and social achievements of women. They are part of fashion history.”

A Mad Carpentier evening dress from the late 1940s, which is on display at the Met until next March. Anna-Marie Kahlen © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For Melissa Huber, associate curator at the Costume Institute, the fall exhibition offers an opportunity to “learn the important stories of groundbreaking women designers who played a pivotal role in the concept of fashion as we know it. The contribution of women to fashion cannot be quantified, but our intention with this show is to celebrate the Costume Institute’s permanent collection, which represents the rich history of Western fashion. As Hollein emphasizes, fashion is a symbol of female power and emancipation, but also the result of enormous collective work. Historically, conceptually and commercially, fashion is also the triumph of social progress, a powerful vehicle for women’s social, financial and creative autonomy. As Ted Pick, co-chairman of Morgan Stanley, sponsor of the exhibition’s luxury catalog, notes, “the milestone that three Parisian haute couture houses—Chanel, Dior and Iris van Herpen—are run today by powerful women” cannot be overlooked.

One of the rooms in the Met’s autumn exhibition, with designs by Ester Manas, Balthazaar Delpierre, Purchase, Millia Davenport, Adèle Henriette or Elisabeth Nigrin Fortuny. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The common thread that connects different generations of professional women reveals how subsequent generations have built on and expanded the legacy of their predecessors. The exhibition reflects the intergenerational dialogue between these designers in a historical perspective and the talented women who worked with them from a contemporary perspective,” explains Karen Van Godtsenhoven, co-curator of the exhibition. Indeed, to cite just one example of these silent conversations between the pieces on display, there is a direct link between Fortuny’s characteristic pleating and Comme des Garçons’ textile origami; the austere scenography highlights the connection and reveals the continuum mentioned by the experts who organized the show. There is a similar connection between the conceptual punk of Vivienne Westwood and the innovative dress with pieces of metal inserted in silk, with which the House of Vionnet rethought the syntax of ancient Greek ceramic painting in 1924: tradition as modernity and vice versa, together with the eternal aspect of fashion and Art.

Indeed, to see an example of this heritage, look at the heads of the mannequins wearing the dresses in the room of the pioneers (the first room in the exposition): they are covered with the resistant forms of classical Greek columns.

“Theodosia” (c. 1925), tunic by Maria Monachi Gallenga for her fashion house Gallenga. Anna-Marie Kahlen © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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