American Beauty Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion (on view at the Museum of F.I.T through April 10, 2010) aims to show how innovative American designers were when it came to technical aspects of modern dressmaking and how this influenced the aesthetic beauty of the garments.
American Beauty demonstrates that American fashion is much more than just functional sportswear and blue jeans. Curator Patricia Mears approached this exhibition with the eye of a connoisseur selecting garments which were created by designers who focused primarily on the craft of dressmaking. The approximately 90 garments included are grouped according to their methods of construction. Each section is contrast of past and present work: some of the most innovative American fashion designers of yesteryear are paired with clothing designers of our time who utilize the same dressmaking techniques. The sections focus on the use of geometric forms, dressmaking (clothes making for women), tailoring (clothes making for men), highly structured or engineered eveningwear, and embroidery and other surface embellishments.
The birth of dressmaking in American began in the 1930s with women like Jessie Franklin Turner, Elizabeth Hawes, and Claire McCardell, who is often considered to be the “greatest American designer in modern history.” These women were not designers but worked as dressmakers which allowed them to eventually earn a reputation and emerge as independent designers. Incredibly talented, these dressmakers invented their own techniques with which they revolutionized dressmaking. They were also inspired by French fashions yet they created clothing more in the spirit of the American woman. Hawes, for example, was inspired by the work of Madeline Vionnet while studying in Paris, and brought back her techniques, successfully adapting them for the American market.
Several of the gowns featured in this exhibition are masterpieces of American fashion. The work of Halston (born Roy Halston Frowick, 1932-1990), who dressed absolutely everyone from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to society swan Babe Paley to film legends like Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor, is prominently featured in the exhibition in several categories. The most beautiful of his creations here is the billowing gown that also lends the exhibition its name: the “American Beauty Rose” evening gown of red silk organza (1980) and that also defines the exhibition. While the design of this dress is simple, one would imagine that so is the construction but on the contrary, this layered evening gown is made of sixteen circles. Charles James (1906-1978) has two of the most incredibly beautiful dresses in the show to represent him. James’s “Tree” evening gown in pale pink silk taffeta (1955) transports you to another era. This stunning, sculpted ball gown is as “close to pure works of art” as fashion can be. It “represents American fashion creativity at its most complex” and it is no wonder that James has been bestowed with the honor of being called America’s greatest couturier. James’s creations are contrasted with the work of the young and talented Ralph Rucci (who designs under his own label Chado Ralph Rucci), who is equally interested with construction. The major difference between the two of them is that Rucci designs clothing for the modern woman, his gowns allow for freedom of movement and he does not believe in rigid understructures, while James’s dresses are like free-standing molds. Rucci’s Infanta gowns are a contemporary take on the ball gown. His Infanta gown of graphite gray duchesse satin (Fall 2004) deceivingly looks stiff and hard, although it is made of duchesse satin and has hidden supports, it still has movement.
An exhibition on American fashion would not be complete without the inclusion of Hollywood. After all, for a country without a monarchy, the actors and actresses that grace the screen are the closest thing that we have to royalty. Costume designers like Adrian (born Adrian Adolphe Greenberg, 1903-1959) made sure that they looked the part. An incredible gown and caplet made of red pave bugle beads and red crepe (1937) worn by Joan Crawford in the film “The Bride Wore Red,” exemplifies the great skill and hard work of Adrian’s team at MGM films. The clasp, at the top, which holds the caplet together, is meant to resemble a diamond and ruby bombé brooch.
At first glance one notices the omission of several important American designers and questions the inclusion of others. But the young generation of designers that are featured like Rodarte, Jean Yu, and Yeohlee can certainly hold their own against these classics of American fashion. They have learned the techniques of the masters left behind. In the category of embellishment Rodarte (the American sister act of Kate and Laura Mulleavy) have proved to be very capable in the “marriage of aesthetics and innovation” and Mears believes that they have “modernized American embellishment” in their designs. Yeohlee Tang believes that her main contribution to American fashion is the uniqueness of the construction of her clothing. Jean Yu also effortless captures American elegance with her modern version of McCardell’s Hostess dress which has ties around the torso, ribcage, and waistline.
A wonderful black and white video is on view in the museum galleries. The designers who are featured in the exhibition discuss their work and what American beauty means to them. They all unanimously agreed that the essence of American beauty is the attitude: it is a pure, aristocratic, natural, unpretentious, discreet, confidence. All of these things, combined with what Hamish Bowles, Editor at Vogue magazine and collector of vintage clothing says, “the American sophistication of technique” is what makes American fashion stand apart from all the rest.
Image 1. Halston, American Beauty Rose gown in red silk organza, 1980. Photograph: William Palmer. Courtesy The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Image 9. Charles James, Tree evening dress in pale pink silk taffeta, 1955. Photograph: Irving Solero. Courtesy The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.Image 10. Adrian for MGM, gown for Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red in red pave bugle beads, gold beads, red crepe, 1937. Photograph: Irving Solero. Courtesy The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.