American Woman: Fashioning an American Identity at The Met, is a history of how fashion has influenced the role of women in culture or vice versa – it wasn’t entirely clear to be honest. Sponsored by Gap, the fashion and marketing snob in me was curious to see how the brand has been part of this historical journey.
I had hoped to see how women challenged mediocrity through the clothes they wore, and not just the whole repression/women’s lib thing. I really wanted to learn about designers that have pushed people’s imaginations, their influence in culture and how we live and dress today. Which is where I figured Gap would have been a creatively relevant part of the exhibit.
There are the beginnings of an interesting narrative journey in the exhibit, but it could have been a much more interactive and illuminating exploration, rather than what felt like a dumb-down version. If it was designed for a mainstream Gap consumer, then that’s where the brands connection ends.
The story starts in the 1820’s with the ‘greyhound’ female form, a specifically American slender shape that international designers preferred to showcase their clothes. Look how far we haven’t come in terms of the skinny model debate. I’d love to have seen some kind of commentary, or better still, a debate brought to life around this topic.
It is amazing how incredibly well constructed and detailed the gowns of the early 1900’s are, and I wanted to know how they were inspired to accomplished so much. You can’t really get a sense of how small their waists were back then until you see them up this close. Call me a strategic planner, but I’d have thought to really understand the identity of American Women, you’d want to explore why they felt the need for their waists to be that small?
Based on the ball gowns on display, the silhouettes and designs were essentially the same but different, which is a common theme throughout all the decades featured in the exhibit. I wanted to see the breakout influences, the sub-cultures and styles that were the catalysts of change.
One of the standout periods for me was the 1890’s, where imaginative forms really came into play – literally, because women broke out of their twee, inactive lives for more social sporting activities and abstract structures were created to assist riding sidesaddle, for example. I would love to have seen how this influenced designers today.
The most amazing thing to me is that they produced such high quality, imaginative and detailed designs without the technology and creative influences designers have today. A puff sleeved sweater from the 1890’s, so perfect that it looked machine made.
Cica 1895 Sweater that could easily be circa 1985.
During the Bohemian period, a sense of fashion as a personal statement took hold. At this point of the exhibit however, it’s apparent that fashioning a national identity was very much a collective endeavor and subcultures within mainstream style didn’t exist, or rather, they weren’t included. Perhaps that’s for another exhibit at the New Museum.
But, you do get a sense of where contemporary designer inspiration comes from here. For example, an early Pleats Please, a technically brilliant accomplishment for its time, and familiar designer names such as Lanvin – an equally brilliant accomplishment that the brand has retained it’s cache and relevance for so long.
On paper, Flapper girls were the New York Lower East Side Hipsters of their day. Hipless, waist-less and flat chested women, smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking bootleg gin, through bright red lips. Another missed opportunity to connect the exhibit to contemporary culture.
For me, the first signs of real individuality started to show in the 1930’s, and the ‘Golden age of Hollywood,’ when women embraced glamour, like this Travis Banton dragon dress. (Look out for dragons on the runway in the next few seasons?) Banton was the chief designer at Paramount Pictures and is considered one of the most important Hollywood costume designers of the 1930s. (I didn’t learn that from the exhibit, maybe I missed it in the audio guide?)
Travis Banton dress. 1934.
And that’s where they decided the foundations that shaped today’s American Woman ended. No Flashdance, no punk, no Sex and the City. Maybe that’s because these influences are merely incarnations of what has been before, proving my point that Vintage is the Future of Fashion.
And apparently Gap played no role in fashioning American Women either.
Slapping a logo on something and expecting the association to pay off, doesn’t make sense, on any level, to any brand. If I asked the Gap client should sponsorships communicate a brands point of view in an honest, relevant and authentic way, they wouldn’t say no.
So, what did Gap, the khaki, denim and t-shirt brand, notorious in its struggle stay ‘in fashion’, gain from sponsoring this very high end, couture lead exhibit?
According to Marka Hansen, President of Gap, North America, “The theme of the exhibition is a natural fit for Gap and the significant role the brand has played in shaping the lifestyle of the American woman through its versatile American style, which is continuously reinvented to reflect whatever is culturally relevant at that given moment in time.”
He goes on to say, “The exhibition looks at historical portrayals of the American woman to achieve a better understanding of how she is perceived today. The active American woman is known around the world for her independent spirit, and Gap is famous for creating the everyday fashion that celebrates her as an individual.”
I get the feel good factor, because their sponsorship made the exhibit possible, and I get the American Woman – classic American brand thing, but there was no connection between anything in the exhibit and the brand. Is it because Gap has always struggled with its own identity? Which makes its sponsorship of an exhibit about fashioning identity, ironic.
For me, this collaboration is another example of why the fashion-marketing model is flawed, and why even fashion brands need a ‘brand strategy’ beyond ‘celebrating individuality’, which let’s face it, every brand claims to. But without knowing what their well-defined point of view is, (I believe there’s a little pitch going on right now for someone to work it out,) I can’t say for sure if the Gap would ever make sense for this exhibit.
American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity is at The Metropolitan Museum, New York until August 15, 2010.
Gill is a freelance creative strategist in New York, and this is her planner’s perspective on the business of fashion. You can contact her at Gilllinton@me.com.