Fashion as Empowerment @the Met

by Lisa Kirchner

There was some warning that the Met was trying to link fashion to female empowerment–the exhibition reveals how the American woman initiated style revolutions that mirrored her social, political, and sexual emancipation, reads their promotional material –but I can’t say I bought it. C’mon. Fashion is pretty nearly universally a symbol of entrapment. The high heels, the bras, etc. Sure, we can revel in being pretty and sexy and still be liberated, but by and large this is not how it works. (Not that I blame the messenger; fashion is a construct, it’s not the mini skirt’s fault that butt cheeks graze public seating.)

Photograph by Alex Hills for the Metropolitan Museum of Art

And yet, at the end of the exhibit, I was stunned and amazed to find myself teary-eyed at the giant projection of Michelle and Barack walking up Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, and then wanting to jump up and down in victory with Serena Williams. Yes yes yes–American Woman! (The Lenny Kravitz soundtrack accompanying the video didn’t hurt either.) Much of the clothing is beautiful–incredible detail, beautiful fabrics, all draped and stitched perfectly to complement the female form (as designated by the times)–but my reaction came from linking historical descriptions of women to the women I’ve grown up with.

Drawn from the recently-acquired costume collection from the Brooklyn Museum, the clothing focuses on 1890s to the 1940s. Each era is introduced by a brief description of the American woman at the time–Gibson Girls, Bohemians and Screen Sirens, among others. The idea is to show how the clothes evolved along with the Suffragettes and Flappers, and it kinda works. American politics, athleticism and sexuality are reflected in the outfits, alternatively ridiculous (poufy tennis gear) and sublime (the gold sequined dragon number). It all comes together in the final section, a round room with projections scrolling image after image of iconic American women (except, hello?, Cate Blanchett?), and this is what made this show for me. Fashion (or the media, or anything that’s not actually me) has never been tyrannically imposed on me, but I do live in a culture that yes, I want to fit into. And yes, my fashion choices are often more for looks than sheer practicality. So it was still a helluva lot of fun to see these clothes displayed as an extension, rather than a cause, of the feminine mystique. And damn if we don’t look good. Sadly you can’t get it off the website (which is totes awesome, but…), so I’m sorry if you’re not in New York. Except that it’s 103 degrees here today. Come anyway. And when you do, go see this show.



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