A few weeks ago, I stopped by the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in New York to check out the new exhibition “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity,” sponsored by the GAP with magazine publishing giant Conde Nast.
Walking through the rooms that chronicle six defining styles—the Heiress, Gibson Girl, Bohemian, Patriots and Suffragists, Flappers and Screen Sirens—between the 1890s and 1940s, you realize how much women and designers were influenced by their surroundings, such as art, paintings, politics, architecture, and more. Fashion is really a direct reflection of the times.
The first room, the Heiress, showcased beautiful ball gowns reminiscent of a party scene from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The next room was dedicated to the Gibson Girl. This sporty woman, first depicted by artist Charles Dana Gibson at the turn of the 20th century, had an S-curve figure, tiny waist, and long-flowing hair swept up in a high loose bun. Though she didn’t actually exist, her presence and influence were felt everywhere, at the time, from fashion to home accessories to art.
While visiting London earlier this year, before the Met show opened in May, I found a fabulous vintage cigarette case engraved with a Gibson Girl’s famous face and voluptuous upper body. Though the antique dealer couldn’t tell me much about the piece’s history, I would guess it might have been custom-made for a particular woman during that era. Something about it struck me as very personal, which is why I brought it home with me to add to my collection.
Speaking of collectibles, there weren’t more than one or two items per room, but I noticed them all including the lamps in the Bohemian room, which were part of this antique Tiffany’s decor. The next themes were the Patriots and Suffragists followed by the Flappers. All I could think about in this room were how my long necklaces would look so good on these dresses. I just wanted to layer them on the mannequins!
The final room belonged to Screen Sirens, which was my favorite. The clothing and makeup worn by the actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age—including Mae West (picture left), Joan Crawford (pictured above), Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich—were so glamorous. Having seen all these classic old movies several times (TCM is a popular channel in my house), it was a treat to see these exquisite dresses in person.
All in all, the entire exhibition reinforced something I already knew: The most classic looks continue to come back over and over again. The Heiress’ choker necklace, the Gibson Girl’s cinched waist, and the Flapper’s long layers are all still great looks today.
We have so many talented designers creating such beautiful collections today that I can already imagine what trends from the 2000s will endure the test of time in 50 years.
P.S. To celebrate the Met exhibition, which runs through August 15th, our My eBay Today column, which features daily vintage finds on eBay, will correspond to each of the six styles mentioned above. Starting with the “Heiress” this week, all five of our picks will be either from or inspired by that era. Check back often for the next six weeks to be the first to nab the timeless look!
[Photography courtesy of Wikimedia]