I look forward to the Met Costume Institute exhibition every year. It springboards the fantastical costumes of that year’s Met Gala. It offers a detailed tour through beautifully constructed objects like the black embroidery of 2014-15’s Death Becomes Her, or the whimsical dresses of 2019’s Camp: Notes On Fashion.
Yet in Death Becomes Her, we were left unsettled by narratives of morality, and the ever-precarious places available to women in society. In Camp, we confronted how the centuries have punished the vast spectrum of people who dare to be different. The Costume Institute’s exhibition is always a thorough and often unsettling mirror. Shows about dress are simply shows about people and why we do what we do. This year’s theme is no exception and, after years in a pandemic and an uproarious political and social climate, the topic is particularly daunting: America.
For the past year, The Met has hosted a two-part Costume Institute exhibition which includes In America: A Lexicon of Fashion and In America: An Anthology of Fashion. The exhibition covers the Anna Wintour Costume Center and the American Wing. Despite its vastness, that “mirror” confronting the viewer is most accessible in a single antechamber of the exhibition. Right before rounding a corner to see a star-spangled mannequin shimmying into view over the Anna Wintour sign, the viewer must first pause in a small space with light boxes stacked two tall, each containing a garmented mannequin.
These garments cover a wide range of textiles from fine silks to fraying denims, to bed blankets, but they all share one thematic element: quilting. Each piece is an assemblage of patches, and this patchwork motif becomes a powerful metaphor, reflecting a complicated side of American fashion. The main wall text in this space includes the Jesse Jackson quote:
“America is not like a blanket — one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.”
“Many patches” is an apt analogy for the history of American fashion and the history of the United States itself. Moments of social commentary appear throughout these Americana styles. A few different angles include garments from SC103 , co-designed by Sophie Andes Gascon and Claire McKinny, a patchwork prairie dress from Rentreyage by Erin Beatty, and a voluminous sundress from La Reunion by Sarah Nsikak. Each dress’s mannequin wears a placard on its head, pulled from the exhibition’s emotive lexicon. The SC103 dress is called “Connection,” the Rentreyage dress is called “Continuity,” and the La Reunion dress is called “Commemoration.”
The “Connection” dress is easily recognizable in Western dress history with its ballooned sleeves and chest and slim skirt. The silhouette immediately recalls the exaggerated shapes found in 1880s – 1890s American Gilded Age dress, an era characterized by great decadence and excess from the “newly wealthy” (the name itself is a critical play on “Golden Age,” claiming the “gold” is inauthentic and superficial). Even the names of these older styles–the “pouter pigeon” blouse, the “leg-of-mutton” sleeve, and the “hobble” skirt–point to the silliness, gluttony, and futility of so-called high fashion, especially in the United States. It’s almost wasteful to dress a body in such a way.
The patches of “Connection” themselves also call on identifiable fashion moments. They range from the nostalgic pastel pinks and powder blues of 18th century gowns, to more modern, art deco patterns like black checks on golden yellow. Centered in front are two side-by-side iterations of contemporary army fatigues. Each patch with its own shape, scale, and texture, they seem to be crawling up the dress at different speeds, competing for attention and overwhelming the surface.
But, the “Connection” dress does not simply reconstruct a dress from fraught times. Rather, it uses the outline to point to entirely new contents. The textural swatches of fabrics are repurposed from different sources. By eliminating that waste in favor of recycling, the “Connection” dress offers a kind of reparation to the excess and carelessness of its stylistic origin. It’s a forward-thinking approach to an
antiquated idea that high fashion is a game for those who can afford to be flippant about material.
Nearby, on the “Continuity” dress, a different facet of American fashion history appears. “Continuity” is also composed entirely of repurposed textiles, though it uses entire limbs of previously-built garments rather than scraps. The right half is a robin’s egg blue and dotted with tiny flowers, seam ripped right from the set of Little Women. The top left half carries a similar “frontier” nostalgia as a weather-gray floral bodice complete with the center-bust “princess seam” of many “hyper feminine” eras of dress. A third panel of floral drapery finishes off the left half of the skirt, this time with a darker, more modern floral motif.
The fashion label “Rentreyage” is French for “to mend” or “to make whole again.” The “Continuity” dress exhibits exactly that. A prairie dress made out of old prairie dresses, it nods to stories of American suffering and resilience against the countryside: the Oregon Trail, the Dust Bowl, and so forth. It suggests the turning over of new land and the continued commitment to working with the same materials, even as they age and demand greater repair.
This story of the hardworking American pioneer, is, however, just that, a story. There is great mythology in the so-called history of American settlers and the frontier environments they carved away at. “Continuity” does not necessarily celebrate this fantasy as much as it comments on its absurdity. The bodice is an almost-perfect splicing of the original outfits of two American Girl Dolls. Pioneer Kirsten wears a blue floral, puff sleeved dress with a full skirt and white trim and pre-Revolutionary War colonial Felicity wears a neutral tone floral with the same square neckline and half sleeve.
These characters represent white-washed accounts of American land settlement; and the dress represents a false and distorted nostalgia for a pastoral femininity that also never existed as written. The bodice seams do not line up, giving the otherwise neat styles a jolt of asymmetry. The lower left section drags the girlish florals into a more modern and liberated era of women’s dress in which innocent pastels and miniature bouquets were abandoned for abstract, androgynous patterns. In essence, the “Continuity” dress is a deconstructed and reconstructed American Girl: borrowing the source material from willfully-ignorant stories and removing the doll-like tidiness.
Subtly, all the quilted garments together show us the fraught side of American culture’s arrival and spread through North America.
Sarah Nsikak’s “Commemoration” dress pulls that theme to the forefront with a hidden story on global colonialism. The piece has two main elements: a blue and white stripe button down collar shirt beneath a dress with a wide ruffle skirt in large patches. In this case, the wall text tells the story explicitly. “Commemoration’s” description notes how the designer modeled the shapes of this garment after the silhouettes of 19th century German colonists.
The patches themselves create a singular and careful arrangement of pattern and color, inspired by fashions of Namibia’s Herero tribe. Stating allusions to both German colonists and Herero costume, and given the name “Commemoration,” Sarah possibly references the horrific reign of the German Empire in Southern Africa, now Namibia. A collared shirt and a voluminous dress: both menswear and womenswear, oversized and looming, the hybrid garment speaks to the great impact of colonialism. As a “husband and wife” pair, exaggerated in size to take up maximum space, this piece seems to foreshadow the vast spread of colonial invasion.
In a show on American fashion, and by an American designer, the “Commemoration” dress further complicates and adds challenges to the theme. We can see not only the impact but the devastation of colonialism that exists throughout our own history. The “Commemoration” dress does have another takeaway, however. Sarah’s fashions “celebrate the resilience and creativity of African makers.” The influences of Heroro fashion, even aspects of the “German” silhouette, overwhelm the subtle nods to Western colonialism.
The dress is taking up space as a celebration, not just as a memorial. The art of patchwork takes on great symbolism about the people who make quilts. The act of assembling, which is required for any quilt, is itself an act of resilience and an innovation. Those who quilt are mending and fortifying the old and creating the new. And in both American history and globally, this act is nearly always led by women, often working class or impoverished women and communities ripped apart by war and empire. This quilted dress, and the dresses around it, seem to share another statement: “yes, you cut me into pieces but now look, I am whole.”
© Allison Green (8/29/22) — Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
To learn more about the exhibit, visit The Met’s website.
Click here to purchase the gorgeously-produced catalogue.
Check out the fashion labels mentioned above: sc103 / Rentrayage / La Reunion
To learn more about the American Girl context, please click here.
To read more about Herero Fashion, please visit here.
Past Met Costume Institute Exhibitions: Camp: Notes on Fashion / Death Becomes Her
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Close up of “Attachment.”
Top Photo: The “Connection” dress.
Middle Photo: The “Continuity” dress.
Bottom Photo: The “Commemoration” dress.
All photos by and courtesy of Allison Green.