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The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

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The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

Fine Art

The Feminine Mystique, Expressed In Silks And Satins

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a show on that makes the point: Clothes make the woman. It features fashion, and how it reflects changes in how women look -and look at themselves. The exhibition, which runs through this weekend, is called American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, known for her T-shirts and sturdy shoes, went to see it.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Gowns, dresses, riding habits, a woolen bathing suit - clothes from 1890 to 1940 show the gradual emancipation and rise of the American woman as an international symbol of style and beauty.

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

Ladies, what do you think? Is this a prom dress?

Lucy Colgan and her daughter Karen are in from Long Island.

Ms. KAREN COLGAN: I think you'd get a lot of attention if you wore that to the prom.

Ms. LUCY COLGAN: I like the size of the waist.

STAMBERG: Well, I think she had some assistance with those.

Ms. L. COLGAN: Oh, I believe so.

STAMBERG: Remember Scarlett O'Hara, 17 inches?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Most of the ball gowns were made in France. Andrew Bolton, who curated this Met show with clothes from the Brooklyn Museum costume collection, says in the 1890s, Europe showed America how to dress.

Mr. ANDREW BOLTON (Curator, American Woman Exhibit): It was a huge status for American women to go to France and get their trousseaus and their seasonal wardrobes.

(Soundbite of birds squawking)

STAMBERG: In the late 1890s, women drawn by magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson began to challenge the formal, fancy French look. The Gibson girl, with her puffy, leg o' mutton sleeves and shirtwaists, was slim, youthful, liberated - the first American type.

Mr. BOLTON: She's very sporty - she played golf, she played tennis, she'd ride, she'd swim - all in a corset.

STAMBERG: The corsets started disappearing when another archetypal American woman emerged in the 1910s: Bohemians. No, not Greenwich villagers - these were millionaire bohemians married to robber barons. Their path to freedom was art, not sport. Their look, still mostly made in France, was looser, more languid, kimono-ish. And they loved shoes - traveled with cases of them.

Do you think she was the Imelda Marcos of America?

Ms. JOYCE MANTILLA: Yes, indeed.

STAMBERG: New Yorker Joyce Mantilla is loving the exhibition.

Ms. MANTILLA: I mean, the decoration, the lace. To think that this lace was all hand-done. I mean, the nuns were going blind, so let's not get into that.

STAMBERG: Lace inside, outside, on the bottom, on the top. Bravo. What a world.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Ten years later, in the 1920s, the Jazz Age flapper got the vote, rouged her lips, bobbed her hair, drank bootlegged gin, and shimmied the Charleston in a loose chemise.

Mr. BOLTON: It's basically just a very flat, tubular shape. Look at the ideal body type: She was tall, she was slim, but she was much more androgynous; flat-chested, no waist and no hips - almost like a skyscraper.

STAMBERG: Curator Andrew Bolton says the skyscraper symbolized everything modern. And so did the flapper, with her wild, wild ways.

(Soundbite of song, "Put the Blame on Mame")

Ms. RITA HAYWORTH (Entertainer): (Singing) Put the blame on Mame, boy...

AMBERG: Another decade or two, another new look. It's a Hollywood ending: the screen siren - Hayworth, Harlow, Garbo, Hepburn - glamour girls all, in their American-made crepes and lames; slinky, sexy gowns that shimmered in black and white footage. American movies make a global mark. They shift the fashion gauge from the Old World to the New.

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

STAMBERG: Andrew Bolton says attention shifted not so much because of American fashion, but really because of the American woman herself - what she'd come to represent: a physically, sexually liberated, confident human being.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And there's a gallery at our website exhibiting everything from French ball gowns to flapper dressers. It's at


By the way, this month marks a milestone for American women and for the country at large. It was 90 years ago this month that Americans ratified the 19th amendment to the Constitution. It gave women the right to vote.

MONTAGNE: In August 1920, the amendment had made it through Congress and most of the states, and then it was up to the state of Tennessee.

INSKEEP: The state House of Representatives was deadlocked, and the vote depended on the decision of one man. He was a 24-year-old legislator named Harry Burn.

MONTAGNE: He was thought to be opposed to ratification, but on that day in August 1920, he carried a letter from his mother in his pocket.

INSKEEP: He later explained his vote by saying: I know that a mother's advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.

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