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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Unveiling the Fashion Industry: A Review of ‘Women Dressing Women’ at the MET

‘Women Dressing Women’ explores the expansive impact that female fashion designers have had upon the industry over the last century.
Frances Auth
The Anna Wintour Costume Center hosts an annual exhibition each year. This year, ‘Women Dressing Women’ features the work of over seventy womenswear designers.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, women’s fashion has gone through metamorphosis. From beautifully subtle tea dresses to comfortable loungewear, the intricacies of women’s fashion have evolved at a breathtaking pace. The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Women Dressing Women on exhibition through Monday, March 11th, 2024, focuses on the female designers who have made outstanding contributions to this journey. Through their creativity, innovation, and brilliance, these women have left their mark on both history and our current fashion trends. 

I visited the exhibit with my mother on a cold, windy December day. I knew what to expect: a dimly lit room, spotlights illuminating impressive-looking dresses, adding up to your standard fashion exhibit. What I didn’t expect was the warm, welcoming atmosphere that encompassed me as I stepped down the hard marble staircase into the exhibit. The majestic gowns, the sheer beauty of the works, and the intricate design choices made by these designers decades ago struck me. At the same time, however, I was puzzled by the sense of calm and hospitality I felt. After a half hour of viewing the exhibit, I realized the source of my comfort here: almost all of the exhibit’s viewers were women.

There were mothers with their daughters, pairs of women in their twenties, and a group of elderly women in warm winter sweaters. Many were dressed elegantly, with pantsuits and dresses. It felt like it was a mutual understanding that we would treat the exhibit as our own fashion show. The friendliness was almost tangible, making the experience more inviting. Not only were we exploring the evolution of fashion throughout the past century, but we also noticed trends reappearing before our eyes in the beautiful outfits of the women around us. 

The exhibit was organized into four “key notions” of the history of women’s fashion: anonymity, visibility, agency, and absence/omission. Although there were clearly labeled descriptions of each key notion, the items on display were not organized into these categories but rather stood around the walls of the room and in glass cases in the center. Visitors were encouraged to keep these tenets of fashion in their minds as they viewed the exhibit, though each idea did not correspond to a specific group of gowns.

I. Anonymity

Before 1850, clothing was not attributed to its designer in any way. There were no tags or labels that gave credit to the creators. Instead, the public would know one name: the head of a particular boutique. Long before then, women had been working as designers and seamstresses and had been effectively running the fashion industry. Since 1850, however, these women have become recognized for their work, and the veil of anonymity has fallen off. Many designers featured in the exhibition helped to make this change happen. 

The first dress that caught my interest was a black silk evening dress with large, bright taffeta leaves stitched along the skirt. Marie Cuttoli launched her Parisian boutique called Myrbor in 1922. Her pieces were influenced by the Slavic culture that was prevalent in France. Marie collaborated with Natalia Goncharova (Russian) and Sara Lipska (Polish). Not only is her story a timeless tale of intercultural collaboration, but she was also one of the pioneers of collaboration between countries in the fashion industry.

By combining cultures in this way, Cuttoli, Goncharova, and Lipska broke through the historical block of anonymity and celebrated every designer and influencer who was an inspiration to their works.

This black silk evening dress was created by Marie Cuttoli, a French designer who drew influence from the Russian Revolution of 1917. She commissioned the most famous artists of her time (Rouault, Picasso, Braque, and Miró) to make tapestries out of their respective styles of art. (Frances Auth)

II. Visibility

In the mid-twentieth century, France was undergoing many changes. One significant change was the shift in gender equality in the fashion industry. Because many women took the place of men in the workplace during World War I and II, the course of fashion development was primarily in the hands of women in this era. As a result, many women rose in the ranks of fashion houses, becoming designers and even heads of these companies. This sudden visibility provided women in the industry with the publicity to make their marks on fashion independently. The changes in French fashion sparked changes in the rest of the world, and America experienced a fashion renaissance.

Simplicity drove the trends of women’s fashion in 1920. The flapper dress, very popular in the twenties, had a dropped waistline and raised hemline. The general silhouette of the dress was modest and outlined the natural curves of the wearer. The silky fabrics, widely used in this era, symbolize the lack of stress on detail and the focus shifting to comfortability and ready-to-wear garments. The wave of women joining the workforce gave way to this change, as the feminine perspective allowed for more comfortable, stylish designs.

A gown that encapsulated this notion was an understated orange silk tea gown designed by Jessie Franklin Turner, an American fashion designer. It stood against the right wall of the exhibition hall amongst many darker and more frilly dresses. The sheer delicacy of the garment was enhanced by the lack of excessive detail or over-embellishment. The fabric hung on the model’s figure just so and was made to simply accentuate the silhouette of the wearer. 

Turner worked in America and oversaw European and Asian markets for textiles and lingerie, so she incorporated many worldly cultures into her design. In the beginning of the 1910s, Turner worked in New York and played a unique role in the creation of the modern American style. 

This silk tea gown was the specialty of Jessie Franklin Turner, an American designer who drew on her international travel experiences for her works. (Frances Auth)

III. Agency

During the years following World War II, the U.S. ready-to-wear fashion industry sought to create an identity separate from that of the French haute couture. Throughout this challenging time, the people who surfaced as the leaders and faces of the movement were primarily female designers. The period of change gave these women an opportunity to showcase their work to the world and develop meaningful, long-lasting businesses. The new perspectives that these designers provided gave birth to the trends we see today toward body positivity and more socially conscious fashion.

A dark brown and yellow skirt suit stood in the back left corner of the room. It stood out with its peculiar color scheme and petite, sharp silhouette. It was designed by Betsey Johnson, an in-house designer for the Manhattan boutique Paraphernalia. Her work became popular in the 1960s because of its liberating, campy aesthetic. There was a group of women, called the Betsey Girls, who wore her designs and lived according to her unapologetic ideals.

“Baby Jane” Holzer, a socialite and actress was photographed wearing this dark brown and yellow skirt suit in 1966. (Frances Auth)

I was intrigued by a white dress towards the back of the exhibition room. At first glance, I saw that the white silk dress had a flowy tulle skirt with pearls embroidered throughout. What I didn’t immediately realize was that the model’s necklace was adorned with porcelain baby teeth. 

Simone Rocha, the designer of this peculiar garment, is an outspoken feminist through her beliefs and her designs. Rocha combines delicate femininity with darker undertones in her work. This dress is derived from the experience of pregnancy, as the pearl-embroidered breast pockets allude to a nursing bra, and the porcelain baby teeth recall sleepless postpartum nights. In her show notes, Rocha describes the “out-of-control body dislocation” and “spooky deranged insomnia” that are associated with birth and early motherhood.

Simone Rocha’s dress of white silk and nylon tulle is paired with a necklace made of porcelain baby teeth. (Frances Auth)

IV. Absence/ Omission

Throughout the years, fashion has been a veiled and layered industry. There have been countless instances of designers not being recognized for their work, labels only crediting the heads of companies, and many talented artists slipping through the cracks. The exhibit features clothing lines that destroyed the boundaries of expectations and changed our outlook on fashion.

Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, The Costume Institute, said, “Women have been instrumental to the success of The Costume Institute since its inception — its founding members include several inspiring women — and the department remains dedicated to recognizing the artistic, technical, and social achievements of women.” 

One of the most crowded items on display was a white cotton evening gown trimmed with pink silk carnations. It was regal yet dainty. It gave viewers a sense of femininity, something that was unique to this gown. The designer was Ann Lowe, who specialized in gowns for debutantes and brides. Lowe’s most well-known achievement was designing the wedding gown for Jaqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy. Lowe’s designs were popular between the 1920s and ’60s, and she was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer.

Ann Lowe, the designer of this dress, discovered early in life a pleasure for creating fabric flowers. This skill was further developed in her career as a designer. (Frances Auth)

Women Dressing Women took me on a journey throughout the century, exploring the challenges and successes of the fashion industry during the last few decades. Not only did it educate me on the intricacies of the fashion industry, but it also opened my eyes to the struggles that women have faced as they made a name for themselves in history. Now more than ever, recognizing the women whose names have become shadowed is so important.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, women’s fashion has gone through metamorphosis. From beautifully subtle tea dresses to comfortable loungewear, the intricacies of women’s fashion have evolved at a breathtaking pace. The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Women Dressing Women on exhibition through Monday, March 11th, 2024, focuses on the female designers who have made outstanding contributions to this journey.

About the Contributor
Frances Auth, Staff Reporter
Frances Auth is a Features Editor for The Science Survey. She loves editing Features articles because of the ways in which they represent many different parts of Bronx Science and the city. She is interested in seeing the world from different angles, and Features articles do just that. She loves journalistic writing because it can provide a reader an introduction to a topic that they might otherwise never have found. Additionally, she sees in journalism the distinctive potential to shed light on obscure topics and interesting people. She enjoys journalistic photography because it provides, literally and figuratively, a unique lens into the lives of others. Moreover, journalistic photos are taken from the angle that the journalist chooses, which allows them to be very creative. Outside of Journalism, Frances has a passion for research and learning about the world, which has helped her thrive in debate. She is also on the Girls' Varsity Cross Country team at Bronx Science. Frances loves reading, and her favorite book is George Orwell's 1984. Another book that she highly recommends is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.'