In the forthcoming spectacle gracing the hallowed halls of the Costume Institute, an enchanting narrative unfolds in the exhibition entitled “Women Dressing Women.” While the thematic undercurrents nod gracefully to gender identity, the true triumph of this exposition lies in its seamless unity, a harmonic convergence of diverse designers throughout history intricately interwoven with The Met‘s own sartorial treasures. Astonishingly, nearly half the exhibited artifacts, each a masterpiece in its own right, have yet to grace the public eye, adding an aura of clandestine allure. Mellissa Huber, the discerning associate curator at the Costume Institute, alongside the accomplished Karen Van Godtsenhoven, an alumna of CI, orchestrated this symphony of style that transcends temporal boundaries. As the doors swing open to this couture haven, visitors are beckoned by the whispers of Germaine Émilie Krebs (Madame Grès) and Rei Kawakubo,a white silk pleated goddess dress and a distressed wool sweater with a cotton-and-batting skirt, a ballet of contrasts resonating through the stairwell.
Descending further, one encounters the illustrious triumvirate of Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, akin to fashion’s celestial muses. In a mirrored display case, their creations, viewed from every angle, evoke a sense of reverence. Chanel’s modernist vision, Vionnet’s intricate bias cutting, Grès’s artful draping, Schiaparelli’s fusion of art and fashion, and Kawakubo’s mastery of “ma” redefine the very essence of femininity. This curated journey refuses to bow to essentialism, as Chanel’s streamlined elegance coexists with Vionnet’s meticulous craftsmanship and Schiaparelli’s artistic ingenuity. Kawakubo, standing as a disruptor, shapes space around the body, challenging conventional norms.
The exhibition’s core theme, the lineage across history, pulsates through each meticulously arranged section. Even before entering the galleries, the notion of anonymity takes centre stage, transporting patrons to the era spanning 1675 to 1900. A nod to the genesis of the first guild of female dressmakers, this section unveils the transition from collaborative creation to the emergence of solitary geniuses, exemplified by Charles Frederick Worth. Moving forward to the period from 1900 to 1968, the exhibition delves into the concept of visibility. An entire room pays homage to the interwar period, highlighting an era when Paris witnessed a surplus of female creative directors. Chanel, Callot Soeurs, and Lucile become protagonists in this historical tableau, illustrating a feminine ethos radiating from within.
The theme of agency emerges as the narrative unfurls from 1968 to the present, capturing the evolution from the “boutique generation” to the modern era of individualised self-presentation. Here, the exhibition emphasizes the symbiosis of business and creation, embodying a dialogue between designer and client. Amidst this fashion odyssey, the exhibition addresses societal realities and lived experiences that often evade the limelight. An entire section within the agency theme explores how dress serves as a canvas for political and bodily expression, spotlighting the work of contemporary designers like No Sesso, Collina Strada, and Customiety.
¨In this subterranean sanctuary of style, the brilliance of women in fashion not only shines but radiates through the collective brilliance of their creations, a testament to the enduring, ever-evolving tapestry of feminine design. The constellation of talent celebrated in this exhibition beckons patrons to ponder the intricate threads that weave through time, creating a legacy that extends far beyond the confines of a gallery.¨ – Charles Daniel McDonald
The final thematic strand, absence/omission, positions garments in the heart of the gallery, a deliberate choice symbolising a lack of attribution or intentional obfuscation. Ester Manas‘s dress becomes a poignant commentary on the historical absence of body diversity in the industry. “Women Dressing Women” emerges not merely as a showcase of exquisite garments but as a celebration, an acknowledgment of the multifaceted roles women have played in fashion. The exhibition, like a constellation of talent, invites patrons to traverse the labyrinth of time and explore the evolving tapestry of feminine design. In this subterranean sartorial sanctuary, the brilliance of women in fashion radiates through the collective brilliance of their creations.
As visitors descend the grand staircase into this immersive experience, the irony of the exhibition’s underground locale beckons contemplation. The subterranean setting, historically associated with the perceived second-class status of fashion in museums, adds a layer of significance to the narrative, echoing the resilience and determination embedded in the evolution of women’s roles within the industry. What unfolds within the dimly lit galleries is not merely a chronological presentation of garments, but a nuanced exploration of the complexities inherent in women’s engagement with fashion across time. The curators, with meticulous attention to detail, have emphasised the collective nature of clothing creation, transcending the notion of the lone genius.
Huber and Van Godtsenhoven’s focus on tracing a lineage of female fashion design becomes a celebration, an ode to the constellation of talent that has graced the industry throughout history. The exhibition offers a multi-layered lens through which patrons can contemplate not only the evolution of fashion but also broader movements, societal changes, and the dynamic roles of individual women. The exhibition’s thematic richness extends beyond the exquisite garments on display, delving into the intricacies of museum practices, collecting biases, and historical time periods. The acknowledgment and celebration of women’s contributions become a gateway to explore not only biographical narratives but also the larger tapestry of shifting societal norms and women’s changing roles.
As the narrative unfolds through the meticulously curated sections, each defined by custom headpieces by Caitlin Keogh, the gallery becomes a temporal portal, allowing patrons to traverse the rich tapestry of feminine design. The detailed genealogy of women designers from the early 20th century, presented in a U-shaped room, provides a comprehensive panorama of interconnected creativity, an intricate dance of influences and inspirations. The exhibition’s fourth theme, absence/omission, transforms the gallery into an immersive experience. Garments standing defiantly in the middle of the floor become symbolic pairings, speaking to the lack of attribution or deliberate perplexity. The deliberate placement challenges patrons to confront not only the aesthetic allure of fashion but also the obscured narratives and overlooked aspects within the industry.
Ester Manas’s dress, representing the absence of body diversity, becomes a poignant reflection on the historical limitations within the fashion realm. The curators’ intention, as Huber articulates, was not driven solely by politics but rooted in the profound idea of acknowledgment and celebration. The exhibition becomes a nuanced exploration, a visual symphony celebrating the strengths and recognising the areas that demand improvement. “Women Dressing Women” is a complex masterpiece that unfolds its layers like a carefully crafted gown. The multilayered narrative invites patrons to delve into the interconnected realms of museum practices, historical time periods, and individual women’s lives. It’s an invitation to transcend the mere admiration of garments and engage in a reflective journey through the shifting landscapes of fashion and feminism. And long may it continue.
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald
Photography: Metropolitan Museum Of Art