In America: An Anthology of Fashion
In America: An Anthology of Fashion explores defining moments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fashion. Following earlier exhibitions in the Museum’s French and English historical interiors—Dangerous Liaisons (2004) and AngloMania (2006)—this presentation centers around the complex and layered histories of the American period rooms, which provide curated windows into over three hundred years of domestic life.
Within the rooms are a series of focused narratives that reflect larger developments, such as the emergence of an identifiable American style and the rise of the named designer as an individual recognized for their distinct creative vision. In this way, Anthology also provides a historical grounding for the companion exhibition, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion—currently on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center (Galleries 980 and 981)—which offers an expansive reflection on defining qualities of fashion in the United States.
The installations take the form of cinematic vignettes that enliven the stories and highlight the intimate and immersive aspects of the rooms. These fictional tableaux were created by nine film directors: Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Julie Dash, Tom Ford, Regina King, Martin Scorsese, Autumn de Wilde, and Chloe Zhao. Seven “case studies” offer in-depth, forensic analyses of individual costumes that function as connecting threads. Together, they comprise an anthology that challenges and complicates received histories, offering a more nuanced and less monolithic reading of American fashion, and American culture more broadly.
American Fashion and French Style
Baltimore Room, Gallery 724
By the early nineteenth century, Baltimore was an artistically and commercially vibrant city, offering its citizens access to a range of fashionable imports, from fine tableware to elegant dress goods. As in other urban centers in the United States, the latest styles in Paris and London influenced local trends.
In France, a revived interest in classical antiquity resulted in the popularization of dresses with narrow silhouettes and high waistlines. Characteristic of this French Neoclassical style, the evening gown highlighted at the center of the room was worn by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785–1879), daughter of a prosperous Baltimore merchant and briefly the wife of Jérôme Bonaparte, younger brother of Napoleon.
Most fashion-conscious American women modified Parisian styles for greater simplicity or modesty. Bonaparte, however, enthusiastically embraced them without adaptations. That she was often critiqued by her peers for her low- cut gowns reflected Americans’ conflicting views about French tastes, which suggested elegance and sophistication to some, and excess and indecency to others. Despite this ambivalence, French style continued to provide inspiration in the United States throughout the nineteenth century.
American Fashion and British Style
Benkard Room, Gallery 725
The modern role of fashion designer—someone who conceives and disseminates original ideas linked to their name and reputation—had not yet emerged in the early nineteenth century. Individuals played a direct role in designing their own clothing, coordinating with dressmakers and tailors to create garments based on their personal preferences. In both architecture and dress, American tastes were shaped by the British example. That influence is evident in the built elements of this parlor from Petersburg, Virginia, a city where many residents maintained close ties to Great Britain. In fashion, it translated as a general inclination toward simplicity, along with the emulation of specific styles.
The blue silk dress illustrates the puffed sleeves and subtle trimming typical of British women’s fashion in the late 1810s. It also reflects the popularity of a shade of blue favored by the Duchess of Clarence, who in 1818 married the future William IV. London periodicals noted the prevalence of “Clarence blue” in fashionable dress, a pronouncement that was reprinted in American newspapers. The original wearer may have selected this style based on published descriptions, imported fashion plates, or guidance given by a dressmaker on the latest trends from England.
Fannie Criss Payne
Richmond Room, Gallery 728
Three designs by Fannie Criss Payne, a leading modiste in the Virginia capital at the turn of the twentieth century, are highlighted in the Richmond Room. The dresses reveal the designer’s precise technical skill and refined artistic sensibility. Her expert tailoring and careful composition of embellishments are evident in the ivory wool dress adorned with fine pintucks and lace insets. Exemplifying her virtuoso handling of delicate materials, the dress of ivory crochet lace is enlivened with subtle floral appliqués and narrow bands of filet lace that gracefully outline the figure.
Born in about 1867 to formerly enslaved parents, Criss belonged to a generation of Black Virginians who built their livelihoods following the abolition of slavery in the United States. She established herself as one of Richmond’s premier fashion professionals in the face of segregation laws that barred members of the Black community from entrepreneurship. Dressmaking was one of the few occupations accessible to women in this period that offered opportunities for economic independence and social advancement. It was also increasingly recognized as a creative endeavor, and thus “signing” one’s work with a label became common practice. Criss, like many American dressmakers, stitched a waist tape bearing her name into her garments, a marker of artistic ownership over her designs.
Haverhill Room, Gallery 729
The mercantile success of the Duncan family, who originally owned this home, reflects the importance of Massachusetts port cities as centers for retail and trade. Of those cities, the primary fashion hub was Boston, represented here by one of its leading nineteenth-century firms, L. P. Hollander.
Founded in 1848 by Maria Hollander, the business initially specialized in children’s clothing and later expanded to menswear and womenswear, opening retail locations in multiple cities. This wedding dress, worn in 1884 by Bostonian Alice Dexter Fay, illustrates the period’s high-fashion silhouette, with an extravagant bustled skirt and sweeping train. The sumptuous voided velvet and neatly tailored bodice exemplify the fineness of L. P. Hollander’s custom designs.
Maria Hollander leveraged her business success to engage with issues of fundamental importance in her day, including abolition and women’s rights. In 1853 she participated in the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, displaying a selection of her children’s clothing as well as the abolition quilt shown nearby, at a time of women’s growing prominence in the abolitionist movement. When Hollander later became an advocate for women’s suffrage, the activists with whom she allied valued her business experience.
Shaker Retiring Room, Gallery 734
American sportswear of the 1930s paralleled the design tenets of the Shakers: utility, simplicity, and beauty. Pioneering, and primarily female, designers shaped a distinct style unencumbered by the conventions of French couture.
A leading proponent of this movement was Claire McCardell, whose adherence to its principles is reflected in her “Monastic” dress: a bias-cut sack, pleated from neckline to hemline and cinched with adjustable self-fabric ties. Peaking in popularity in the mid-1940s, the garment was first introduced in the fall of 1938 as the American manufacturer Best & Co.’s “Nada Frock,” based on a prototype McCardell had designed for herself. This early iteration featured a separate belt to cinch its unstructured silhouette and was advertised as embodying “the simplicity of really great design and the mobile grace which the modern woman craves.”
McCardell extended the modest aesthetic of her “Nada” and “Monastic” designs to her “Cloister” dress, so named by its eventual manufacturer Folkwear, which touted it as “a romantic but practical wedding gown for a wartime bride.” Versions of the three styles are displayed here alongside a traditional Shaker costume, whose simple silhouette, durable fabric, and roomy pleated skirt reflect the Shaker sisters’s practical mindset.
The Battle of Versailles
American fashion took its rightful place on the world stage on November 28, 1973, at the transatlantic fashion show Grand Divertissement à Versailles (Great Entertainment at Versailles). Conceived by fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and palace curator Gérald Van der Kemp as a fundraiser for the host palace, then in significant disrepair, the “Battle of Versailles” pitched five couturiers from France—Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro—against five ready-to-wear designers from the United States—Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta. While the French staged a presentation boasting “enough scenery and effects for four bad operattas [sic],” according to Women’s Wear Daily, the Americans captivated the audience with the modernity of their clothes and the vitality of their choreography. The American models, many of whom were women of color, “knew how to move in the clothes. . . . The French just stood there bewildered.” The event shifted the dynamics between the reigning capital of haute couture and the emergent epicenter of sportswear.
The ensembles displayed here against John Vanderlyn’s panoramic view of Versailles were shown either at the original event or in the participating designers’ concurrent seasonal runway presentations.
American Fashions for American Women
From the 1930s to the 1950s, American fashion received promotional support from industry leaders who sought to encourage domestic business. In 1932 Dorothy Shaver, vice president of the department store Lord & Taylor, launched the “American Fashions for American Women” campaign, which highlighted relatively unknown designers at a time when French fashion dominated press coverage. Advertisements featuring photographs of designers alongside illustrations of their fashions were bolstered with corresponding in-store displays. By 1935 the program was dubbed the “American designers’ movement,” and with the onset of the Second World War and France’s ensuing isolation, the campaign correlated the practicality of American fashion with patriotism.
The movement peaked in 1945 with the copyrighted “American Look,” whose name associated American sportswear with the complex roles women held during and immediately following the war. Advertisements equated the look with the ideals of ease and freedom, and lauded the American woman as “many sided—a cultivated woman with wide interests and influence” whose “public appearances invariably start new fashion trends.”
Headpieces by Stephen Jones
Renaissance Revival Room, Gallery 737
Mid-twentieth-century American fashion was shaped by both the modernist impulse toward streamlined simplicity and the historicist tendency toward greater elaboration. The latter mode is represented here by Ann Lowe, whose designs— similar to the Renaissance Revival parlor—display the influence of historical sources, seen in their strong silhouettes and rich ornamentation. The expansive bow adorning the ivory ball gown, for instance, evokes the airy draping of an 1870s bustle, while the three-dimensional lilies on the wedding dress recall nineteenth-century bridal traditions, with Lowe’s signature fabric flowers as sculptural focal points rather than fussy decoration.
Based in New York for much of her career, Lowe specialized in debutante and wedding dresses for socially prominent women. Though underappreciated in the press, her fashions were recognized by her clientele as “works of art— timeless, feminine, beautiful.” The designer’s early training was with her mother and grandmother, a formerly enslaved dressmaker with a thriving business in Montgomery, Alabama. Understanding every facet of the design process, from conception to fitting and finishing, Lowe created garments with interior structures as refined as their exteriors. Her perfectly fitted and intricately embellished gowns exemplify the American couture tradition.
Greek Revival Parlor, Gallery 738
Throughout the Second World War, The Met cultivated close ties with the American fashion community. As designers faced material restrictions and diminished interaction with their counterparts in Paris during the German occupation, the Museum offered its collection as inspiration.
An especially successful example of this collaboration can be found in Eta Hentz’s spring/ summer 1944 collection, for which the designer looked to a Met exhibition on Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Her gowns echo the movement’s classical columns and decorative motifs and also reference ancient Greek garments, including the chiton (tunic) and himation (cloak). Rather than directly copy these antique forms, Hentz captured their essence by creating the impression of fabric being draped and tied on the body.
Known professionally as Madame Eta, Hentz studied design in her native Budapest before establishing herself in New York in the 1920s. The designer frequently studied historical sources, most notably at The Met, which she visited regularly and described as her second home. The fashions on display here exemplify her skill at producing ready-to- wear with the impeccable finish and refined fit typically associated with custom garments.
Rococo Revival Parlor, Gallery 739
The opulent historicism of the Rococo Revival Parlor is paralleled in this lavish 1960s evening dress by Marguery Bolhagen, which echoes the emphatic silhouette of mid-nineteenth-century fashion. Bolhagen, who was largely based in the Washington, D.C., area, specialized in custom garments and was known for sculptural designs made from exquisite fabrics. In this ball gown, a firm internal structure provides a foundation for an inventive combination of materials—gray satin overlaid with cellophane fabric and blue net—embellished with crystal beads, iridescent tinsel, and lush ribbon work.
Austine Hearst, wife of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst Jr., wore this design to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961. Admired for her daring style, Hearst appeared regularly on the International Best Dressed List in the 1940s and 1950s and was a long-standing client of Bolhagen’s. The creative synergy between the two women resulted in some of the designer’s most distinctive work. In Bolhagen’s view, the fruitful nature of enduring designer-client relationships demonstrated the value of custom design, a branch of fashion she considered crucial for promoting individuality in dress.
Gothic Revival Library, Gallery 740
For Elizabeth Hawes, writing and fashion were interconnected forms of creative expression, each essential for conveying her ideas. A leading New York designer during the 1930s and 1940s, she also wrote prolifically about topics including fashion and women’s roles in American society.
Hawes’s most widely read work, Fashion Is Spinach, first published in 1938, addressed problems she saw in the American fashion system. Among these was the persistence of “the French legend”—the idea that the most beautiful and desirable women’s clothing was designed in France. Hawes believed women in the United States needed clothing designed specifically for them, with an emphasis on comfort, functionality, and timeless appeal.
Although Hawes rejected the authority of French designers to dictate American wardrobes, her fashions were informed by a knowledge of their couture techniques. Like the Parisian couturiere Madeleine Vionnet, whom she admired, Hawes often draped her designs directly on a form. This method supported her creative piecing and bold geometric patterning, which was also influenced by contemporaneous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee. The designer frequently assigned her fashions witty or irreverent titles, such as “The Tarts”—a dress with vivid arrows on front and back pointing to the wearer’s breasts and buttocks.
The Rise of New York Fashion
McKim, Mead & White Stair Hall, Gallery 741
By the middle of the nineteenth century, New York had secured its status as an artistic and cultural leader as well as the center of American fashion. The city was a hub for retail and manufacturing and a channel through which new styles were disseminated. This growing fashion industry was enriched by the specialized skills brought by many recent immigrants.
The Stair Hall, designed in 1882 by the leading architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, highlights superb examples of New York dressmaking and tailoring from the same era. Two striking dresses by Franziska Noll Gross showcase her inventive use of rich textiles and trimmings, which are arranged to accentuate the strong silhouette of the 1880s. Gross, who emigrated from Germany, maintained her New York dressmaking business from the 1860s into the 1890s. The neatly tailored coat and waistcoat by Mathias Rock illustrate the subdued palette and streamlined silhouette of menswear during this period. Rock trained in his native Germany as well as in London and Paris before establishing himself in New York, eventually earning praise as “the tailor par excellence of America.”
Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, Gallery 742
Gilded Age dressmakers, like architects and decorators, helped define elite identities for their clients. High-style fashion mirrored the era’s sumptuous interiors with opulent design schemes and intricate surface ornamentation.
Like the Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room’s decor, the evening gown displayed here was designed to interact with ambient lighting, which created glinting effects on the meticulously sewn embroidery of opalescent bugle beads and silver thread and paillettes. Designed by Lucie Monnay, a Swiss immigrant who established herself in New York in the late 1880s, the dress displays a quality of finish and sophistication of embellishment equal to French couture. Its original wearer, Annie-May Hegeman (1859–1948), an amateur embroiderer and collector of antique textiles, appreciated fine handwork and patronized both French and American couturiers. The evening dress shown within the Worsham-Rockefeller wardrobe, created by the Parisian couture house Jeanne Hallée and also worn by Hegeman, similarly reflects her taste for lavish embroidery.
While Paris fashions enjoyed greater prestige and often provided inspiration for American styles, New York dressmakers of this period were increasingly acknowledged by the American fashion press. Their recognition reflected the growing ambition for the city to be seen as a fashion leader in its own right—not simply interpreting trends, but directing them.
Frank Lloyd Wright Room, Gallery 745
Charles James, like Frank Lloyd Wright, possessed a steadfast artistic vision, a trait that profoundly shaped his client relationships. As one design assistant said of James, he “was a genius but impossible. He had his own ideas for designs and fitted them to the customers whether they liked them or not.” Most clients accepted the couturier’s intractable nature and embraced his singular perspective. He maintained collaborative relationships with a select few, including the socialite and art collector Millicent Rogers (1902– 1953), whom he credited with inspiring some of his best designs.
James crafted his fashions with the precision of an architect, using complex understructures and unconventional seaming to transform the wearer’s silhouette, often with allusions to the natural world. His “Butterfly” ball gown, for instance, evokes outstretched wings with layers of richly hued tulle, while his “Swan” mimics the bird’s arced back.
Although they suggest metamorphosis, James’s designs were also in tune with the wearer’s body, emphasizing its sensuality with seams, draping, or contrasting materials that outlined the figure or accentuated erotically charged zones. In one of his more overt examples—a peach faille and marigold taffeta gown made for Rogers—suggestive draping at the pelvis echoes female anatomy.