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Monday, July 07, 2003

Arts & Letters


Goddess, an exhibition by the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 1-August 3, New York City.
Goddess: The Classical Mode, a catalogue by Harold Koda. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Yale University Press), New Haven, 224 pages, illustrations, 2003, 39.95 hardcover, 24.95 paper.

Goddess, sponsored by Gucci with additional support from Condé Nast, is another in a series of magisterial reviews of some aspect of women’s fashion that were inaugurated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 30 years ago by the brilliant Diana Vreeland. Generally, they are wildly popular with the public, less so with the museum administration, whose academic training in art history has not prepared them for considering clothing as one of the fine arts. Certainly, they make a statement by confining the exhibitions year after year to a small space in the basement. Yet clothing definitely has a place in this museum if for no other reason than that New York City remains a world center of the fashion industry. As sociological and psychological phenomena, clothes are among the basic vehicles that humans have for making statements about themselves. These shows have to do with the public or at least the elitist construction of women; in that sense, one might say that they are a complement to the armor galleries. But is fashion art? That is the doubt one often hears. The Fashion Institute of Technology mounts interesting and instructive exhibitions of designer clothing in which the focus is on the design and details of their manufacture, whether in the atelier for haute couture or in a shop. While the shows at the Metropolitan do acknowledge in varying degree the craft in fashionable garments, the curators tend to foreground an esthetic that derives from the material on display, which moves the exhibition along toward the notion of art as it is installed elsewhere in the museum.

Exhibitions upstairs, however, have changed over the last 50 years in the direction of a marked predilection to educating the viewer about the minutest particulars of artists’ biographies, sales histories and provenance of displayed items, and, generally, explanations of whatever subject the curator thinks is relevant to what is being viewed. It is art history run amok, leaving the museumgoer mauled by information that many consider a serious distraction from the esthetic experience that is sought. Regrettably, a similar surfeit of didacticism tends to overwhelm the current Goddess exhibition; one wonders what Mrs. Vreeland would have made of it. Walking through it in a casual way, however, the show offers the viewer any number of visual delights, arresting ideas — clever or perverse, it is sometimes hard to tell — and, of course, some of the most beautiful pieces of clothing created in the twentieth century.

The show’s premise is that the contemporary idea of the dress of ancient Greek women is, in one way or another, the source for a major style and esthetic in twentieth-century women’s fashion. In the first decade of that century, the French designer Paul Poiret inspired a significant change in women’s clothing when he decreed the death of the corset as part of his campaign for the natural, draped look of antiquity. The one example of his work here — a simple construction of two pieces of fabric, one draped over the upper body, the other reaching to the floor in columnar fashion — is arresting in its complete modernity. Poiret’s was an important fashion idea since it inaugurated a veritable revolution in women’s clothing and, hence, in the sense of a woman’s body.

But how did clothes look in antiquity? Since the perishable fibers of the fabric of female attire in Greek antiquity have disappeared, students of dress must rely for their research upon the representation of clothing in vase painting and sculpture. Sculpture especially has its snares. While one could argue that realist ancient sculptors rendered clothing with what seems to be considerable verisimilitude, there is no question that esthetics often distorted the end effect. Then, too, their subject matter was almost always divine female figures, the clothing of which does not necessarily bear close relation to what the human figures of the time were wearing, even if our evidence suggests that the basics were identical. The dress designers who turned to antiquity for inspiration were not above using Renaissance reinterpretations or, for that matter, giving their imaginations free rein.

In the hilarious film, Unzipped, the contemporary New York designer Isaac Mizrahi is shown anxiously studying Nanook of the North and watching Loretta Young at death’s door on the tundra in Call of the Wild in his search for inspiration, which is then realized by him in his next collection of fur hoods and parkas. Mizrahi was looking for a concept, he wasn’t doing research. Some designers may have actually studied the construction of ancient clothing, but those who think about fashion must avoid the pitfall of exaggerating the parallels between contemporary and antique. The verisimilitude is more on the level of effect than exact reproduction.

Thus, it is debatable how much information about ancient female dress the viewer needs to understand the clothing in the current show. It can be hard going trying to identify the allusion to the components of ancient garments, a rather tedious and pedantic exercise. One must assume that the curators take it very seriously from the chart with schematic drawings of ancient dress that they have posted as an introduction to a section of the show dealing with contemporary realizations of ancient types of female clothing: the chiton, the peplos, the himation, their variations and accessories.

In antiquity, the fabric was woven on looms that determined the size of the piece. A common practice was to sew two pieces together, leaving openings for the arms and head; this was the chiton. Another idea was to create places for arm and neck by using pieces that were fastened at the shoulder with something like our modern safety-pin, although the Greeks polished, inscribed, and bejeweled their safety-pins so as to make them decorative; this was the peplos. Cloaks could be had by wrapping oneself in a large piece of loomed cloth, the himation. Women could vary the length of their gowns by tying a belt at the waist and pulling the fabric up above the waistband to create a blouson. This maneuver also allowed for gathered fabric at strategic points. The belt could go higher on the torso and function as a support for the breasts. There could be two belts, each with its own function, or crisscross supports. The important fact is that material was not cut and sewn to the figure, i.e., clothing was not constructed. This is the defining truth of later attempts at recreating the so-called classical look in female attire. The classical look was a true revolution; there is no going back now save from perversity or self-conscious archaism. It is the essence of minimalism, the expression of what Mrs. Vreeland meant by “Elegance is refusal.”

Women have struggled on and off over the millennia with bondage of one sort or another; constructed clothing, hoops, corsets, and other means of artificial shaping have been significant elements in the battle. Their departure from the world of fashion can be called a female victory of sorts. Ironically, what women seldom realize is that unconstructed gowns, the commonplace fashion for much of the twentieth century, require such strenuous maintenance of the human body’s youthful silhouette that one would be hard put to say that the battle for women’s liberation has been won on this front. The gowns in this show are as a group unusually beautiful. One needs to remember, however, that it is probably true that the ancient chiton and peplos were not very flattering when draped on real women, precisely because they did not fit, not to mention being bunched up at the waist. The sculpted versions we see obviously could be as beautifully fit as the sculptor could manage, and these were the inspiration for fashion designers.

The information about ancient gowns is well-presented in the book that Harold Koda has put together for the show he curated. Goddess: The Classical Mode is not exactly a catalogue of the show, but rather a complement to it. The book is a gem, and well worth owning for its own sake. Unlike so many catalogues these days, Goddess has a lot to say in few words, and in addition to the pictures of the dresses on display offers ancillary photographs of artworks and fashion shots that truly explain and amplify much of what is on exhibit. (The double-page spreads, however, are often badly conceived, as when the figure of Venus in Botticelli’s celebrated painting comes right at the split between pages 208 and 209.) Koda’s language is witty and to the point, perhaps nowhere more amusing than in the very first sentences in which he riffs postmodernist jargon with a preciosity that seems to hint at rough intellectual seas ahead, but is quickly dispensed with as no more than a tease after which the volume settles into solid, economical prose. Of course, sometimes the point is an unlikely one, but then the relationship between ancient Greek female clothing and eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and especially twentieth-century fashion, easy enough to suggest, is difficult to prove. Koda’s road can be uphill.

But the classical look, as this exhibition demonstrates dramatically, is well worth the struggle. Our life-long acculturation to the so-called high value and timelessness of ancient statuary imbues the twentieth-century reworking of this paradigm with transcendence or, at least, aristocracy, if not divinity. One thinks, for instance, of the two Jacquelines, Mme. la Comtesse de Ribes and Mrs. Onassis, who always seemed Olympian in their pose and walk, never more so than when draped. Koda ends his introductory chapter with a rhetorical flourish: “In the end, with its aura of mythic beauty sustained over time, the classical mode is nothing less than the desire to transfigure women into goddesses” (p. 19). One must put aside any repugnance for elitism and class bias or a visit to the show will not be much fun. Still, one can smile at the thought that the goddesses of antiquity were untouchable, that seeing them naked could be punished by death (consider the Artemis and Actaeon story, for instance), that they were often able to render serious harm to mortals they disliked (one thinks of Hera’s implacable hostility to Heracles); all of which load the twentieth-century classical style with a kind of sexuality that seems on the face of things distinctly off-putting, if not downright kinky. As an archeologist friend well-phrased it, we know the ancient paradigms only from a remote, ice-cold, necrophiliac dream.

If the goddesses of antiquity were on some Olympian heights, the visitor to the Metropolitan show must descend into the very bowels of the museum as though to the kingdom of Hades, an idea reinforced by the extraordinary amount of gray in the costumes on display, and by the expressionless, pallid manikins. If they were not upright, one might imagine they were so many bodies in a morgue. That, of course, speaks to the fact that, when fashioning their garments, the twentieth century’s designers had in mind antique marble pieces from which time and weather had removed the colors used by Greeks to paint them.

In an obvious surrender to the impossible problems of circulation in the tight little basement rooms at the Met, the curators have eschewed a chronological presentation, opting instead for themes, some of whose titles — Pandora’s Box, Ariadne’s Thread, Pygmalion and Galatea — apart from pushing the “Greekness” of the items on display, are confusing uses of the ancient ideas inherent in them. In any case, the themes suggest nothing more than that ancient Greek gowns have been made over into something else by twentieth-century designers; the viewer has the sense of seeing the same thing over and over again from display to display. This can be boring if one stops to read the often pedantic text, but in moving more rapidly, the sameness is in fact one of the exhibition’s great esthetic strengths. The repetition of styles, of the manikins’ facial expressions, their pallor, the parallel positioning of the manikin bodies, all work to suggest a classical frieze, say, the Panathenaic Frieze, the so-called Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum.

There is a kind of desperate curatorial attempt to insist upon classical allusion, as for instance, a Tom Ford dress in pink silk jersey with a suggestion of a draped peplos over the upper torso, the fabric gathered horizontally at the waist, alluding perhaps to the kolpos of the classical dress, or a himation perhaps worn around the waist, culminating in a floor-length train to suggest the ripples and folds of the chiton, which, perhaps because it is open at the front to reveal the full length of leg, is said to be “easily associated” with Aphrodite. Grouped with this is an Oscar de la Renta overblouse of gilt cock feathers that, according to the accompanying text, “references” Athena’s breastplate. Another of the manikins in this group is supposed to suggest Hera. Attempts to force readings of this sort on material so elusive always flounder. Here, the viewer will be puzzled by the short, tousled hair of the supposedly Aphrodite-like manikin: it is the twentieth-century look of a girl as teenaged boy, hardly the goddess Aphrodite. Facing her is a male manikin draped in an Yves Saint Laurent scarf caught at the shoulder. What that adds to the ensemble is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is meant to be Paris, ready to choose the most beautiful of the three female deities. It is the oddest costume for a shepherd, not to mention that the manikin upon which it is draped is too old to be Paris.

The male figure appears again as the absolute symmetrical center in the show. Apart from the ideology reflected by this placement, this Roman copy of a Greek marble preparing to throw a discus is delightfully ridiculous, standing naked except for his fig leaf amid an ensemble of gowned ladies, all looking away for some reason. One wonders if — in an exhibition on the classical look in clothing — the fig leaf is an allusion to a Renaissance notion of proper attire for the nude male in an ancient statue. It is more instructive to leave themes to the side and walk through the show looking at significant features. Pleats, for instance, are a significant part of twentieth-century classical style. Gathered fabric that resulted in the ancient blouson suggests pleats. Broad pleats are an important feature of the chiton sculpted on the bronze Charioteer at Delphi (held to his shoulders with a harness — another element of the modern “classical” look). The Venetian designer Mariano Fortuny’s pleated dresses, two of which appear in the show, are a marvel of construction, not yet fully understood. It seems that the women of his atelier sewed large zigzag stitches with basting thread that was then tightened so as to bunch the fabric, which was then run through heated ceramic rollers to press the gown into continuous close pleats. These made the gown cling to extraordinary effect; even at this late date, it strongly suggests a woman déshabillé. Indeed, it was shocking at first when celebrities such as Lillian Gish (whose Fortuny dress in the show was willed to the Costume Institute) went out in public in such a frock. Fortuny gowns were not for everyone, however, since they had to be returned to the master after one or two wearings to have the pleats redone.

Post-war designers like Edward Molyneux began to sew their pleats onto a flexible underbodice that gave them permanence, but the magic nakedness of the Fortuny gown’s cling was gone, leaving only the allusion to naturalness and undress. An even more extraordinary experiment in permanence was undertaken in 1984 by Issey Miyake, who used liquid polymer into which a length of synthetic jersey was immersed. The fabric was fitted to a body while wet; when the polymer hardened, the resultant flow and drape were fixed. But the best solution was Mary McFadden’s turning to synthetics, fabrics that could be permanently pleated. Alongside two examples of these is McFadden’s loose silk satin frock with pin-tucked pleats, which allowed for a more ample body of the woman wearing it. The realizations of McFadden’s designs are marvels of unfettered body movement.

The drape was as important as the pleat. Madeleine Vionnet’s celebrated draping with fabric cut on the bias introduced remarkable ripple and flow in her gowns. Her experiments in draping are legendary, as the photograph by Irving Penn of a manikin seen from the back in a Vionnet drape on page 169 of the catalogue attests. The bald rear view of the manikin’s head is an extension of the minimalism of the drape, not to mention an interesting expression of the inherent self-effacement in the ancient Greek statue. Koda notes (p.17) that Vionnet used a scaled-down model set on a potter’s wheel for draping her fabrics. This is an important detail, for it establishes her fidelity to the ancient sculptural pieces. For sculpture is meant to be viewed, to be gazed at, in the round, whereas most human encounters involve primarily viewing the front of the body (face to face), the back (the backward glance), and, only by chance or somewhat dubious design, the side (the covert gaze).

Clothing on female statuary was often sculpted so as to seem to cling to the body either as though windblown or, more often, as though the fabric were wet. The wet look allowed for representing every detail of the female anatomy, while at the same time presenting a woman clothed. The windswept Victory of Samothrace is singled out by Koda as an instance of “the breasts and navel fully exposed” (p. 135), although even this portion of the torso is actually covered, albeit with fabric exceedingly thin. One can make the argument, however, that the viewer’s attention is caught up in the drama of the sculpted, wind-tossed fabric rather than in Victory’s anatomy. One thinks, however, of the sculpted male on the island of Motya (off the southwest coast of Sicily), whose clinging, seemingly wet, diaphanous chiton is far more erotically revealing of his genitals than a forthright naked pose would have been. Designers of the eighteenth century recreated the wet look with a thin fabric known as mull. The look has been recreated in our time by John Galliano, two of whose dresses in cotton gauze with the waistband worn high just under the breast very closely recall the Napoleonic era’s way of suggesting nudity. Suggestion is no longer an issue in the late twentieth century, when any kind of nakedness could be incorporated into the design, as in the bared bosoms of Yves Saint Laurent’s 1990 collection.

There are some extraordinary gowns in this show: Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1999 white silk gown with a silk screen reproduction of a photograph of the Venus of Arles front and back; Galliano’s silk crepe gown with painted pleats; Alexander McQueen’s pieces with torn chiffon, a perverse denial of what the classical look is all about. The great dresses in the show come from the early years of the century when modernism was the reigning esthetic. Yet there are still beautiful pieces being made; one thinks of the ravishing Gianni Versace pleated gown with the silver insets and all the incredibly beautiful Christian Lacroix dresses that stand up to the “classics” from the earlier years of the century.

The manikins of this exhibition are generally so slim as to problematize the nature of the female body; the argument over women’s desires vs. fashion’s dictates goes back and forth. It seems a statement when a group of three manikins, their backs to the viewer, gaze in the direction of a highlighted statue of a young male nude at the rear of the display case, as though his slender teenaged torso is the ideal to which they are striding and striving. One wonders what women with obvious flesh in their breasts, torsos, and hips think as they walk through this show. Certainly, ancient statuary generally presented female figures with more substantial bodies. A contemporary criticism of the fashion industry focuses upon the relentless presentation of a silhouette that few women can achieve or necessarily want to achieve. Indeed, the epidemic spread of eating disorders among American women — parallel to the problem of obesity — is sometimes traced to their attempts to be excessively or unnaturally slender.

On the stairs down to the show, the curators have installed an allusion to the Caryatids of the Erechtheion on the Athenian acropolis: three manikins dressed in draped, deep-red gowns with magenta bodices designed by Issey Miyake. There is delightful ambiguity in their symbolism. In Athens, the Caryatids hold up the roof of the porch attached to the temple. In either male or female versions, they are a somewhat unusual feature of ancient architecture, the males being called Atlantides (after the god Atlas, who supported the world on his shoulders). The ancient historian of architecture Vitruvius calls the female version “images of eternal servitude,” and while he gets the historical/mythical facts muddled, it is hard not to agree with him. One wonders what the curators read as the subtext of this installation. Could it be the burden of fashioning themselves that women forever carry on their heads? Actually, it is not too much of a stretch to think of fashion as women’s Sisyphean rock.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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