American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity

May 14, 2010, 12:12 a.m.

Fashion has the capricious power to not only define us, but also to be our own tool for defining ourselves. The complication ensues from the contention between personal expression and the way society catalogues it all away and enforces the clean boundaries. Then, just to make it really confusing, art goes and mixes the two together. For example, magazines encourage self-expression on the same page that it reinforces the categorizations of women.

This past Monday, all of these forces came to a massive collision in the fashion event that is the annual Met Gala. The red carpets are swarming with the beautiful people defining their personal styles, while moments after their pictures are taken, they are classified and discussed on the Internet. Add that to the actual exhibition celebrating specific archetypes of The American Woman, and we’ve managed to introduce the artistic meddling and the abstract cartoon-like concept of The American Woman, branded, of course, by its sponsors Oprah Winfrey, Anna Wintour and The Gap.

American Woman: Fashioning a National IdentityEverything surrounding The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala this year is a perfect example of the competing trajectories of fashion and the American woman’s identity. American Vogue did an editorial featuring each of the galleries’ selected archetypes, providing modern well-known models as fuzzy definitions.

The exhibition itself is broken up into six different archetypes of the American woman from the 1890s to the 1940s. The six categories are the heiress, the Gibson girl, the Bohemian, the suffragist, the patriot, the flapper and the screen siren.

The different facets of the American woman’s collective style are all fighting for the expression of some freedom against, although still inherently linked to, the traditional roles of female as confined, powerless and sexualized object.

The heiress holds some economic power, though stuck in corsets tightened by society and dressed in elegant ball gowns much like a Disney princess. Her struggling identity is alongside the Gibson girl, a term inspired by Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations of a new slim athletic figure, whose clothes became more practical out of necessity from her active lifestyle. The curator of the exhibit, Andrew Bolton, explains that, “the Gibson girl came out of the domestic sphere through sport, and the bohemian came out of the domestic sphere through the arts.”

The Bohemian section attempts to break from Victorian tradition by omitting all of the corsets, and instead seeking aesthetic inspiration from Classicism and Orientalism. Clearly demanding a change, suffragists wore specific tricolored garments to signify solidarity, dressing for a specific cause. However, they simultaneously became immediately recognizable to the rest of the society in their own new category. In opposition to expression, the patriot section was filled with military uniforms, the ultimate visually defining garment.

Finally, the last two rooms of the exhibit explored a modern example of female independence and definition through sexual freedom. The flapper was an expression of sexual freedom with drop-waist, above the knee (scandal!) slip dresses and short bobs. In contrast, Bolton says, “while the flapper was girlish and flirtatious, the screen siren was womanly and sensuous.” The modern vehicle of cinema produced the screen siren, all skin-tight sex appeal.

Each historical incarnation of the complex attempts to reach self-definition by style still concedes to tradition, is an archetype and flattened in time. However, I’m confident that the evolution of this abstract definition of the American woman is getting closer to freedom, regardless of all its levels of complexity, just by watching some of my favorite beautiful people make daring and unique sartorial choices.

Login or create an account