Arts and Entertainment

What to Wear to Change the Fashion Industry: Women Dressing Women

Women Dressing Women is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first exhibit celebrating the work of solely women in a beautiful visual display of their contributions to the fashion world.

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As March 10, 2024, nears, so does the closing of one of the most monumental exhibits in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Costume Institute’s Women Dressing Women is the first exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum’s history to be devoted entirely to the work of women—seriously. The display showcases the work of over 70 female fashion designers who worked from 1910 to the present. The pieces shown in the exhibit focus on the women who made immense cultural contributions to the world of fashion, whether their work was celebrated or forgotten. All the garments on display are from The Met’s Costume Institute.

The exhibit’s introductory text explains the four “key notions” of women’s work in fashion: anonymity, visibility, agency, and absence/omission. Each of these themes is explained with accompanying text on the wall. These established themes allow the viewer to understand the duality of the pieces; they represent both advancements and obstacles for their creators, whose work was shaped by societal factors as well as their own artistic visions.

At the bottom of the stairs of the exhibit’s entrance, three dresses are centered against panels of mirrors. These three dresses introduce the exhibit through three of the most well-known female designers of their time—Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Gabrielle Chanel—all of whom rose to prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As viewers walk through the exhibition’s two rooms, podiums of various sizes line the walls, displaying mannequins wearing plastic headpieces. Distinct groups of four or five are established by mannequins wearing the same symbols on their headpieces. Within these groups are pieces that reflect common themes ranging from Reclaiming the Body to Appropriating Menswear

 The first room showcases early twentieth-century dresses by French fashion “houses,” which are high-end brands that specialize in their own styles of clothing like Chanel and Dior. The exhibition space is beautifully arranged, with the dresses lined up in a rainbow ombré along the walls. Many of the pieces draw inspiration from Ancient Egyptian patterns and styles, coincidently mirrored by the Ancient Egyptian wing upstairs. This room highlights the era when the whole world looked to France for couture and fashion. At that time, there were many French couture houses, most of which had men at their heads. In an era where the world was rapidly changing, the clothes took on new functionality as well. Take the casual 1920s Chanel skirt-suit, which was not only stylish but also easy to wear, reflecting the era where leisure time and sports were becoming increasingly important to the upper class. In the mid-1910s, hemlines were getting higher and trousers gained popularity as the modern woman looked for comfort as well as elegance. For the upper class that patronized these French fashion houses, there was still a strong need for formal evening wear, emblemized by a pale blush-pink dress adorned with long, black monkey hairs that splay out like dramatic fingers. The dress was designed by Ana de Pombo, who worked for one of the earliest women-led fashion houses, House of Paquin, in the late 1930s.

The walls of the second room are also lined with outfits, including a factory uniform from the WWII era, a flamboyant ‘60s skirt-suit with bold brown and yellow stripes, and a flowing rosy chiffon evening dress with rosettes nestled into delicate pleats. One of the most interesting sections features colorful, funky dresses from the 1920s that look almost contemporary. The supplementary text explains how these Parisian female designers, who expressed fashion as an art form, were rejected by both the fashion and art worlds. They were neither employed by fashion houses nor regarded as fine artists. It symbolizes how some female designers boldly colored outside the lines in the name of their creative visions.

What stood out to me the most about seeing this exhibit was the way the people moved about this room compared to the other exhibits in the museum. To walk into most other art shows, you need to be previously well-versed in the subject and expect a very quiet room of people leaning in towards the art with their hands behind their backs, nodding their heads and breathing deeply. This exhibit differs from others in that the displayed fashion is designed to be the most accessible form of art. This accessibility creates a unique relationship in how we see it on the walls of the exhibit. The clothes in this exhibit possess the same elements of art as anything else in the museum does—color, texture, line, and shape—but knowing that someone’s arms have pushed through the sleeves, someone’s fingers have buttoned the buttons, and someone has probably turned in a circle in front of a mirror, analyzing the piece on themselves, gives the art a quality that is undeniably human.