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4 Dec

Where Are All of the Women Designers? They Are

There’s loads to unpack in The Met’s latest Costume Institute exhibition “Women Dressing Women,” and it’s not only the creations of generations of female designers.

While there is no such thing as a shortage of striking and sometimes au courant designs, there are also boundary-shifting garments and juxtapositions that magnify topics beyond legacy, sexism and history. If visitors don’t just glide through the galleries and stop to read the detailed wall text, they may leave with much to think about and debate. Omission, representation, inclusion, entrepreneurialism, body stereotypes, sustainability, gender fluidity and intergenerational communication are among the many conversation starters when “Women Dressing Women” bows to the general public on Thursday on the Fifth Avenue museum. The show will run until March 3.

A fall 2006 Rodarte evening dress with an Elsa Schiaparelli 1937 fall evening dress within the background.

George Chinsee/WWD

This fall exhibition is the primary one which the Met has staged since 2019. Originally slated for fall 2020 to coincide with the ladies’s suffrage centennial, that plan was scuttled by the pandemic, but The Met’s chief executive officer Max Hollein and the Costume Institute’s Wendy Yu curator in charge Andrew Bolton were committed to seeing the women-led show through. With an emphasis on items from the early twentieth century to the contemporary, 50 percent of the 83 or so items are being displayed publicly for the primary time. The assortment is rooted within the museum’s everlasting collection save for a dozen acquisitions that were made for the show. Isabel Toledo’s “Kangaroo” 1993 dress, a shape-shifting black rayon jersey with a pouch-like pocket on the stomach, is an example of how the show encompasses multiple themes — comfort, practicality and nonconformism.

When The Met will have fun the exhibition’s opening at a reception Monday night hosted by Hollein, Danish designer Jasmin Soe will likely be among the many designer guests. The “Going Out” dress from her Customiety brand, which caters to individuals with achondroplasia and uses social media for feedback, was acquired for the show. The black dress with spaghetti straps is displayed on a mannequin that was modeled for by “Tilting the Lens” director Sinead Burke. During a preview of the exhibition Friday afternoon with the show’s co-curators, Mellissa Huber and Karen Van Godtsenhoven, the relevance of previous generations of female designers resonated many times.

“Organized within the spirit of acknowledgement and celebration,” the show, Huber said, can be “a chance to evaluate our own collection and exhibition history on the broader canvas of fashion history.  We hope people will take into consideration who has been remembered, who has been forgotten and why. And likewise look a little bit deeper beyond the surface of what’s already been studied or celebrated because there may be all the time so way more to uncover and unearth.”

Ann Lowe

Unsung designers like Ann Lowe are celebrated within the exhibition. Here, a 1968 evening dress from the designer trimmed with pink silk organza and green taffeta carnations.

Photo by WWD

The work of Ann Lowe, a Black designer whose 50-year profession included designing Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 wedding dress with none credit, is featured. One other largely ignored talent was Adele Henriette Negrin Fortuny, whose 1909 size-less pleated “Delphos” gown was popular for 40 years and widely credited to her husband Mariano. Having seen the patent on the Fortuny museum that references that his wife was the true creator, Huber said, “That gesture was his acknowledgement that he recognized and appreciated their collaboration. But histories get built so quickly. It’s very easy to repeat the identical names time and again, or what’s recognizable.”

She added, “That’s an excellent example of the more positive things which might be occurring more broadly in academics, museum visitors, people inside the fashion field. Our visitors are really excited to learn latest histories and discover designers they didn’t know much about.”

Like each piece within the show, the pairing at its entrance is greater than what appears at first glance. The Grès and Rei” combination, a silk jersey Madame Grès evening dress opposite a Comme des Garçons Rei Kawakubo black sweater, skirt and white T-shirt shouldn’t be only a lesson in contrasts or the balance of opposites. In 1994, the museum spotlighted Grès’ work in its first exhibition dedicated to a female designer — 14 years after the Costume Institute’s former leader Diana Vreeland had lobbied for it. Kawakubo became the primary living female designer to receive a show in 2017.

The show is organized in multiple sections, with Anonymity, Visibility, Agency and Absence/Omission being the fundamental ones. Liminal Spaces of Fashion, American Women, Appropriating Menswear, the Boutique Generation, Reclaiming the Body and Empowerment Through Practice also come into play. While many may not need an introduction to the works of Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle Chanel, their show opening looks are ones to marvel. That trio of looks was shot against a mirror to reflect how designers within the early twentieth century often shot designs in front of a mirror for copyright purposes to capture the garment’s full view. That common practice not only mirrors what many designers are currently concerned about, but additionally underlines the great thing about their designs and the business acumen of the designers.

Vionnet advocated for her employees based on her own understanding of rising up through the ranks. And Huber loves to check Jeanne Lanvin to her contemporary Paul Poiret, “who gets a lot credit for all of his innovations. But they each, albeit with all of their different styles, created very large empires that branched out into different art forms — fragrance, decorative arts, theatrical design….But Lanvin created an incredibly stable and flourishing business, which is the longest continuous running couture house in operation. She employed many younger siblings and members of the family, whereas Poiret burned out like a comet,” Huber said

Anonymity starts with a video slide show that intersperses known designers with the countless anonymous workroom staffers. That montage is “to underscore the collective nature of design, which is a extremely essential undercurrent to the show. That may be tricky as an example sometimes, but we predict it is rather integral to the industry, particularly because it employs such a women-led workforce historically and contemporarily,” Huber said.

Met Preview 2023

A Sarah Burton-designed spring 2012 Alexander McQueen ensemble made from white silk organza and nude silk embroidery with silver glass beads, clear glass crystals and silvery feather-shaped paillettes.

George Chinsee/WWD

There is also, in fact, what the exhibition says in regards to the current state of fashion, which many criticize for having nearly all of European luxury houses being led by men.

Noting how the industry’s collaborative nature is something that she and Huber tried to underline, Van Godtsenhoven made the purpose that the show ends with more contemporary design houses working more collaboratively.  One example of that will be a Gabriela Hearst fall 2022 ensemble for Chloé that incorporated the work of Gee’s Bend quilters. “We tried to point out the range of working practices of ladies designers. For those who have a look at it through a recent view, it’s essential to acknowledge a historical trajectory and the way these design houses worked prior to now and the way now we have latest perspectives for the industry today,” Van Godtsenhoven said.

The Visibility area within the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery is a shimmery selection created by “a pantheon of designers” who trained and worked in Parisian high fashion houses throughout the inter-war years. There are also designs from just a few outliers like Elizabeth Hawes, who trained in France but returned to the U.S. to start out her own house, and Lucille’s British designer Lucy Christiana Duff-Gordon, a self-taught dressmaker who began her own design house in 1904 after her husband left her and her daughter. Together with Vionnet, Chanel and Lanvin, there are less-heralded names like Callot Soeurs’ Marie Callot Gerber, Maison Jeanne Hallee’s Marie Angenard, Marcel Chapsal, Louiseboulanger’s Marie-Louise Boulanger and the Boue Soeurs’ Sylvie Boue de Montegut and Jeanna d’Etreillis.

“We wanted to make use of this room to focus on among the names which have been forgotten over time, but additionally have been influential,” Huber said. “Sometimes with women designers, there are histories and stories that wander away.”

Working example: Premet’s Charlotte Larrazet whose 1923 “La Garconne” (Little Black Dress) was introduced three years before Chanel’s great success along with her version, Huber said. One other who-did-it-first conundrum is hinted at with Jeanne Victorine Margaine-Lacroix’s 1913 evening dress, which plays up a more natural slimming silhouette moderately than a tightly corseted one.  

Met Preview 2023

The Agency area features such designs because the three from the far right from Katharine Hamnett, Jean Muir and Georgina Godley.

George Chinsee/WWD

The interconnectedness of fashion can be in view, as Vionnet once trained with Callot Soeurs, and one other featured designer, Marcelle Chapsal, trained with Vionnet at one point. Then there may be Marie-Louise Bruyere, who had worked at Lanvin and had allegedly taken a lot of Lanvin’s staffers along with her to start out her own house, in keeping with Huber. “The breadth of connections, movements and mergers within the early twentieth century was really fascinating and speaks to the thrill around fashion as the sector was developing and documents the various women who were very lively on this one moment in time, when women outnumbered men because the creative leaders in fashion,” she said.

Agency is the most important section and focuses on designers who entered the sector from the “Liminal Spaces in Fashion,” as in dance, theater, craft and other areas of the high-quality arts but working outside of the stratified French high fashion industry, like Maria Monaci Gallenga, who operated out of Italy but had boutiques in Paris, or the Ukrainian-born Valentia Schlee, who drew from her dancer background in starting her business in Recent York within the Twenties.

Met Preview 2023

From left, designs by Vivienne Westwood, Vivienne Tam, Donna Karan and Hanae Mori.

George Chinsee/WWD

American Women showcases the abilities of Jessie Franklin Turner, a board member for the Museum of Costume Art, which became the Costume Institute, in addition to Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin and Vera Maxwell, amongst others. Their approach to fashion foreshadows the Nineteen Sixties’ shift to ready-to-wear.

One other forward-spinning area is Appropriating Menswear, where Hawes’ fall 1939 “Uphill” trousers and Ann Demeulemeester’s 1997 suit offered a more gender-neutral approach to dressing in addition to a reminder of fashion’s nothing-is-really-new edict. The latter’s relaxed pantsuit also signals how dressing for the workforce was different than what was more the norm within the Nineteen Eighties, Van Godtsenhoven said. (Other au courant touches an be present in the show’s headpieces made by artist Caitlin Keogh and the soundtrack within the galleries from Julianna Barwick.)

Met Preview 2023

Ester Manas offers single-sized garments for plus-size bodies.

George Chinsee/WWD

More spirited designs — and prints — may be present in The Boutique Generation: Barbara Hulanicki’s 1972 Biba brown, black and gold suit; Zandra Rhodes’ 1968 yellow felt coat; Betsey Johnson’s Paraphernalia yellow and brown skirt, and Diane von Furstenberg’s mid-Nineteen Seventies leopard-printed ensemble. They and other designers were or are businesswomen. Hulanicki’s autobiography is beneficial reading for Huber’s students at Recent York University, who’re keen to find out about what it takes to grow a business and the pitfalls to concentrate on.

“Her boutique Biba was incredibly influential. It began as mail-order ready-to-wear that was this huge department store that was about so way more than the garments. It became a social movement and lifestyle,” Huber said.

Met Preview

From far right, designs by Marine Serre, Collina Strada’s Hillary Taymour, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Grace Wales Bonner for Dior, Gabriela Hearst for Chloé and Yeohlee Teng.

More featured avant-garde designers include Georgina Godley (who crafted the “lump and bump” collection in 1986); Vivienne Westwood, and Melitta Baumeister, whose fall 2021 bra bodysuit and padded shorts blurred the boundaries between bodies and furniture. Nearby, Bodily Agency is explored with designs from Norma Kamali, Simone Rocha, the aforementioned Soe and No Sesso’s Pia Davis, the primary trans woman to point out at Recent York Fashion Week. Toward the show’s end, Empowerment Through Practice spotlights designers with a social ethos just like the sustainability-focused Marine Serre and Collina Strada’s Hillary Taymour. A repurposed fall 2021 lace bodysuit by Taymour is shown on a mannequin that was custom made with the assistance of Aaron Rose Philip, who has cerebral palsy and modeled the look. The mannequin has a neon green wig and a jeweled chain adorns its powered wheelchair, which was provided by Pride Mobility/Quantum Rehab.

Also on view are evening looks from slow fashion specialists like Yeohlee Teng and Jamie Okuma, a member of the La Jolla Band of Mission Indians, whose 2021 “Perfleche” dress was three years within the making. “All the thought that goes into the best way that contemporary designers are working today is so inspiring and reassuring,” Huber said.

Met Preview 2023

Hanifa’ Anifa Mvuemba “Kinshasa” dress opposite Iris van Herpen’s 3D-printed “Skeleton” dress.

George Chinsee/WWD

Near the infographic that highlights Absence/Omission, Hanifa’s Anifa Mvuemba “Kinshasa” dress is paired with an Iris van Herpen 3D-printed “Skeleton” dress. After Mvuemba’s Recent York Fashion Week debut was canceled, attributable to the pandemic, she posted a virtual presentation via Instagram showing her garments in motion as in the event that they were on a human being, but no physical form may be seen. Met attendees can get a glimpse of that on a close-by platform. One other revolutionary image is the oversize photograph of the Nineteen Fifties-era actress Joyce Bryant wearing an hourglass-shaped gown by the unheralded Black designer Zelda Wynn Valdes.

Given all the show’s footnotes and the 2 curators’ ties to students through their teaching roles, future generations look like top-of-mind at “Women Dressing Women.” Van Godtsenhoven, who teaches at Ghent University, said, “We hope that this may turn out to be a start line. This topic could be very wealthy and may be taken further. Loads of designers merit their very own study, but fashion history is commonly told through terms just like the ‘masters of high fashion’ or the ‘fathers of Paris Fashion Week.’ We wanted to provide a latest perspective and tease out these latest connections between women designers and show the range. Also, we hope that apart from the exhibition, the book may be something for brand new generations.”

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