Tell Us Everything, "American High Style" Curator Jan Glier Reeder
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's already-incredible Costume Institute just got 23,500 objects better. The Brooklyn Museum's Costume Collection, the oldest and greatest collection of fashion from the 18th to 20th century was recently transferred to the Met for safe keeping and preservation in the Met's incredible facility, which will be getting a state-of-the-art upgrade in the near future. To celebrate this new partnership between the two museums, they're running concurrent fashion exhibits celebrating American style. Although the exhibits include works by European designers, all the garments were worn by stylish American women such as Millicent Rogers and Austine Hearst, great patrons of the Brooklyn Museum.
My colleague, Bobbie Leigh, recently wrote about The Met's exhibit, "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity." The Brooklyn Museum exhibit "American High Style" takes visitors through the last century in fashion with focus on the French couture designers who influenced American fashion, early American women designers of the mid-century and certain important designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, shoe designer Steven Arpad and others.
We sat down with curator Jan Glier Reeder and asked her to Tell Us Everything. Reeder spent the last three years assessing the collection, mounting the exhibit and putting together its weighty book.
Someone walking through the exhibit said to me, "It makes you realize that fashion hasn't changed much."
That's one thing that I would love people to come away with. There were designs earlier in the century that were picked up on and reinterpreted over the years and are still reinterpreted today. It's the idea of the continuity of design.
What are some of these reoccurring themes in fashion in the exhibit that you hoped people will pick up on?
There are Balenciaga shoes out there with big platforms that you could just see someone wearing today. Also, the early American women clothing, for instance a Vera Maxwell outfit that has knickers with it, that was a very avant garde idea in the early 1950s. The exposed zippers of Schiaparelli's designs; that was a very avant garde, bold idea. That was the first time that had ever been done to use zippers as a decoration. Also I think when the Americans started designing, the idea of incorporating the construction details as the decoration so you have a more economic use of materials; I think that's very much an American contribution. So the piecing and the seaming is the decorative element in the clothing.
That utilitarianism was an American contribution to fashion?
It was instigated somewhat by World War II, but the American designers really did that. They really did innovative designs using less material. Claire McCardell was very well known for that. Also Elizabeth Hawes was pared down and sort of minimalist and I do think that's an American contribution.
What was the importance of the design lab that used to be linked to the Brooklyn Museum?
The Brooklyn Museum originated in the 19th century and its mission since the very beginning was to be a link between the art world and the design industry. The collecting started out for that purpose, to provide inspiration to the design community in America. And that was always a real focus at this museum. The design lab provided resources to the design community, lending pieces and providing consultations and other services. By the time the design lab opened the Brooklyn Museum was seen as a real design center promoting the study of fashion history and fashion design, so the donations to the collection just poured in for the next 20 years.
"American High Style" is the name of the exhibit but it's more than that, we're also seeing European designers.
The explanation for that is that these were all owned and worn by American women. It's not American design, per say. There's both French and American design in the show because these were designs seen as high style by American women. [The evening dress and coat at left is ca. 1958 by American designer Arnold Scaasi.]
What are your feelings on the recent difficulties and downfall of the haute couture industry in France?
I personally think it's sad because the beauty that's always been created by the French couture has just thrilled me. That tradition has always been incomparable; it started in the 17th century. The materials created in France, the trims, the fabric, the workmanship, that whole tradition of the "petite main," the many hands that sewed all those garments. Well, it's just a sign of the evolution of culture that this sort of thing is less and less possible in our world today.
As I walk through the exhibit I think on the one hand how some things seem very modern and then on the other, how we don't dress up like we used to.
That's right! A lot of people have gotten that. I'm glad that's coming across. It makes you think about that.
What do you think these fashions in the exhibit say about the American woman throughout history? Compared to what other women around the world wore? Was the American woman always imitating what the Europeans wore or was she more forward-thinking, for example?
I think the French couturier always designed for their American clients. I know that in Worth's day the American clients definitely wanted it as opulent as possible because they were buying Worth so they were definitely showing their social and economic status by wearing those clothes; so they definitely wanted the opulent, showy pieces. And I wrote my thesis on Mademe Paquin, who was the first great woman couturier in Paris and she talked about how her American clients wanted things fussier than what the French women would wear.
That's probably still true today.
See an interactive tool to mix and match the pieces in the exhibit at BrooklynMuseum.org. Or see what other intriguing people agreed to Tell Us Everything.