All of these objects worn by American women trace the tastes and transformations of the nation during the 20th century. The evolution of fashion can be traced through this exhibit by designers like Givenchy, Dior, Chanel, Charles James and an emphasis on the pioneering generation of American women designers. The objects in this exhibit are arranged thematically rather than in chronological groupings as follows: pre-war Europe, Elsa Schiaparelli, post-war Europe, American female designers, American male designers, Charles James and finally accessories.
The curator of costume and textile arts at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, Jill D’Alessandro, says that this fashion exhibit ‘celebrates the quintessential 20th-century American woman for her intelligence, independence, and sheer sophistication.’ It is clear walking through the gallery to see how political and social climates had such a great impact on the fashion of the day throughout the decades of the 20th century. Billowy, conservative lace dresses from the beginning of the century soon gave rise to sleeveless flapper dresses with low waistlines and flashy sequins, which eventually further evolved to the lower-cut tops and higher hemlines that came to be by the end of this century.
This entire exhibit in fact can be seen as a history of how Western women in the 20th century gained a greater role in society and began to be able to dress more freely to what suited them. Between the 1930s and 1950s, there was a major rise in the number of emerging female fashion designers in the world. Brooklyn curator Jan Glier Reeder comments, ‘The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection is a national treasure whose riches range from iconic rarities of haute couture to inventive sportswear by the first American women designers.’ Designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, Bonnie Cashin, Elizabeth Hawes, Claire McCardell and Sally Victor arrived on the fashion scene with a bang and left a lasting influence that has been be admired, and carried on for decades.
One woman who had a particularly strong influence on the fashion of the 1920s was the Parisian, Jeanne Lanvin. Her designs featured loose, tube-like dresses with short sleeves, lower necklines, and no corsets, which was a huge defining feature of these newer fashions that showed a departure from the past. Curator Reeder says, ‘World War I shook all of society and fashion along with it, to its foundations. After the war, there was a sense of freedom and wanting to throw off the past and the heaviness and the social structures of the prewar period and the Victorian period.’
With the 1930s and the accompanying stock market crash and depression, a different, more financially savvy way of cutting fabric allowed garments to cling more to the body. The film stars of the 1930s who had such a great influence on society and culture popularized this style. Many new materials were introduced as well during this decade; before the 1930s most synthetics tried to imitate natural fibers, but in the 1930s the aesthetic aspect of synthetics were embraced. In 1938 designer Elsa Schiaparelli used the new clear plastic material called Rhodoïd to create an ‘invisible’ collar necklace covered with tiny metallic tin insects, giving the wearer the appearance that bugs were crawling on the neck.
The onset of World War II in the 1940s lead to a global fabric restriction law that created more innovative, inexpensive trends in the fashion industry. Two-piece sportswear outfits gained popularity over the traditional one-piece dresses, and decorative aspects had to double as functional pieces. The sociopolitical happenings of each era had a great influence on daily life, and infiltrated global business, including the fashion world. Reeder agrees, ‘Fashion is always moving forward, but it gets reinvented. The forms that were created in the 20th century are forms we still see now. They include chemise dresses by Chanel, dresses cut on the bias, and even strapless gowns.’
The great British designer, Charles James, created the very first of these untraditional, even scandalous strapless gowns. An entire section of the High Style exhibit is dedicated to this designer, and includes 25 objects—nine gowns, 12 sketches, and four prototype muslins. What makes James’ work so special according to Reeder is that he approached each dress creation as if he were making a sculpture. One beautiful example in this exhibit is his ‘Clover Leaf Ballgown,’ which was finished in 1953 and worm by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation ceremony. James used architectural and engineering principles in the understructures of his dresses to build up a form that would eventually influence the great designers Dior and Balenciaga.
What makes fashion exhibits like this one at the Legion of Honor so special is that each ensemble is able to communicate with the viewer in a very personal way. It is sometimes difficult to relate to the flat canvas paintings that fill so many of the worlds museums, but a tangible, everyday object like a dress or shoe can feel so much more realistic and relatable. The modern-day viewer is able to see themselves in the shoes of a different era and develop a greater appreciation for the work.
Alexandra Brown is currently attending NYU double majoring in Journalism and Art History. She is a Bay Area native, former competitive swimmer and lifelong vegetarian who enjoys traveling, cooking, snorkeling and hiking.