NPR logo

The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129105695/129171540" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

Fine Art

The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129105695/129171540" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

"Clothes make the man," according to an old saying. Women, too: Those of us on the distaff side have been known to get some of our identity from the clothes we wear.

An exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art examines how American women — and their clothing — have evolved over the years. The show, which closes Sunday, is called "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity," and it features everything from gowns to riding habits to a woolen bathing suit — clothes created between 1890 and 1940 that show the gradual emancipation of the American woman, and her rise as an international symbol of style and beauty.

Mannequins in a 19th century ballroom — a real gilded cage — represent heiresses, dressed to impress in sweeping satin gowns encrusted with sequins and embroidery.

"I think you'd get a lot of attention if you wore that to the prom," says Karen Colgan of Long Island, visiting the exhibition with her mother, Lucy.

"I like the size of the waist," Lucy adds. (Of course, Victorian women had some help when it came to whittling their middles — Scarlett O'Hara couldn't have achieved that famous 17-inch waist without a corset.)

Most of the ball gowns on display were made in France. Andrew Bolton, who curated the Met's show with clothes from the Brooklyn Museum costume collection, notes that in the 1890s, it was Europe that showed America how to dress.

Article continues after sponsorship

"It was a huge status [symbol] for American women to go to France and get their trousseaus and their seasonal wardrobes," Bolton says.

Challenges To The Paris Look

In the late 1890s, women in the magazine illustrations drawn by Charles Dana Gibson began to challenge the formal, fancy French look. The "Gibson Girl" — with her puffy leg-o-mutton sleeves and shirt waists — was slim, youthful, liberated: the first American type.

Nancy Astor, pictured here in a John Singer Sargent portrait from 1909, represents the 19th-century American feminine ideal: soft, delicate, and clad in European-made clothes. As the 20th century developed, that ideal shifted. National Trust / Art Resource hide caption

toggle caption
National Trust / Art Resource

Nancy Astor, pictured here in a John Singer Sargent portrait from 1909, represents the 19th-century American feminine ideal: soft, delicate, and clad in European-made clothes. As the 20th century developed, that ideal shifted.

National Trust / Art Resource

"She's very sporty," says Bolton. "She played golf, she played tennis, she'd ride, she'd swim — all in a corset."

The corsets started disappearing when another archetypal American woman emerged in the 1910s: the bohemian. Millionairesses married to robber barons found freedom through art rather than sport. Their look, though still mostly made in France, was looser and more languid — kimono-ish. And they loved shoes, bringing cases of them along when they traveled.

Museum visitor and New York-dweller Joyce Mantilla loves the incredible detailing on these clothes: "The decoration, the lace," she marvels. "To think that this lace was all hand done — I mean, the nuns were going blind, so let's not get into that."

A decade later, in the 1920s, the Jazz Age flapper got the vote, rouged her lips, bobbed her hair, drank boot-legged gin, and shimmied the Charleston in a loose chemise.

"It's basically just a very flat, tubular shape," Bolton notes. "The ideal flapper body type was tall, she was slim — but she was much more androgynous."

Indeed, flapper clothing was made for flat-chested women with incredibly narrow hips — "almost like a skyscraper," Bolton continues. The skyscraper symbolized everything modern, as did the flapper.

Hollywood Steps To The Fore

The Met exhibit ends with yet another new look: clothing designed in the '30s and '40s for the screen siren. Glamour girls like Harlow, Garbo, Hepburn and Hayworth went slinking across the silver screen in sexy, American-made crepes and lames. Bolton says a Hollywood ending provides a kind of closing bookend for his exhibition.

"I wanted to end with the screen siren because we started in the 1890s, with the American woman looking towards Europe for their ideals of style and beauty," he explains. "And we end with the 1930s, when really all of Europe was looking towards America for their ideal of beauty — primarily through the screen siren."

According to Bolton, attention shifted not because of American fashion, but because of the American woman herself. By 1940, she had come to represent something that would intrigue the world from then on — a physically and sexually liberated, confident human being.