Culture Club

The Modern Perspective: Just What Is the Identity of the American Woman?

“This is weird,” my boyfriend said as we wandered the labryinthian halls of the new Costume Institute exhibit at the Met, titled “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity.” “Please don’t wear this,” he said, pointing to a Franklin Simon & Co. military uniform that was situated in “the Suffragists” section. And I more or less had to agree. For an exhibit that excitedly showed women as diverse (and contemporary!) as Madonna, Serena Williams, Michelle Kwan, and Grace Jones on flat screens, the clothes felt strangely unrelateable. That’s not too surprising considering all the costumes in the exhibit are pulled from between 1890 to 1940, and focuses on your usual stereotypes that, believe it or not, have no direct (or at least, obvious) resonance with the same stereotypical categories today: “The Heiress” (far curvier and with jaw-droppingly longer hemlines than your contemporary Tinsley Mortimer), “The Gibson Girl,” “The Bohemians” (though maybe that’s where Mary-Kate Olsen got the idea for her dowdy hobo-chic look), “The Screen Siren,” “The Suffragists” (seriously, please don’t wear this), and “The Flapper” (perhaps the only section I remotely enjoyed, although the common male opinion can be summed up in this one sentence: “These dropped waistlines make you look like a 12 year old boy”). And, lastly, perhaps to compensate for its wildly anachronistic, yawn-yawn feel, the museum includes that last room, aptly titled “The American Woman: 1890s-2010,” rife with gyrating images of Beyonce and Michelle Obama gleaming in her Jason Wu inauguration gown.



But is that last nod to the myriad identities of the American women alive and working today, well, enough? Why not include some Hussein Chalayan as a nod to Lady Gaga, or Gareth Pugh to evoke Beyonce’s amazing “Diva” video? But no. Let us all be content with staid mannequins evoking a way of life that has already far dissipated, whether it was the overtly masculine (offputtingly so, I’d say) costumes of the Suffragists (c’mon, a chic YSL pantsuit to bring it back to modern territory? please?) or the ridiculously luxurious gowns of the Heiresses. But please, go see the exhibit, which closes very soon (August 15), and then share with me: did you like, love, or hate the American women who supposedly fashioned our new national identity?




American Woman: Fashioning a National Collection; May 5, 2010–August 15, 2010; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.


–Xiyin Tang

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