Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
In the Dressing Room, on view at the City Museum through March 25, thanks to funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a mannequin cloaked in a blue-grey jumpsuit uniform might the next day don a floor-length fur-trimmed evening gown and a pair of bunny ears. The following week, the mannequin may find herself in an above-knee vermillion minidress, with a gaggle of museum staff and visitors alike quietly gushing over the ensemble.Though not an exhibition proper, the costumes popping up in the Dinan-Miller Gallery—part of an ongoing photo shoot documenting the museum’s midcentury women’s fashion collections for digital consumption—are meant to wow their onlookers. The range of suits and dresses from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s reflect a time when, as Elizabeth Farran Tozer Curator of Costumes and Textiles Phyllis Magidson put it, “women were transformed.”
During a rare break from her work inside Dressing Room, Magidson gave a fashion historian’s overview of the events that shaped women’s changing silhouettes through this radical three-decade period.
“We begin in the 1940s. It’s an odd era for fashion in that we start out anticipating our entry into the World War, so we are living without the influence of the Haute Couture. The major fashion publications had already prepared their readership for the fact that Paris was out of commission, but with a tremendous pool of native talent in this country. It would become an era of boosting the American confidence in our own designers. By March 1942, as fabric becomes a pivotal part of the war machine and the government introduces the L85 regulations on fashion, there are strict guidelines for cutting. No decorative elements can be added to garments; they’re exclusively functional and shorter, there are no patch pockets or superfluous tucks on hips.“An iconic garment that embodies American wartime ingenuity is the prototype jumpsuit that Vera Maxwell designed for the Sperry Gyroscope women war workers. The jumpsuits had to be impervious to oil, inflammable, and allow women to move—they had to be used as working garments. They also required dropseats, because otherwise you’d have to get entirely undressed every time you went to the bathroom. Vera actually interviewed the workers and designed for them a concealed dropseat so that the men they worked with wouldn’t drop ice cubes down their pants—it was a big concern for them. She did get an award from the government for non-governmental employees who contributed to the war effort.
“Following the war, designers on both sides of the Atlantic can use great amounts of fabric again, and between Paris and New York, we have some incredibly opulent fantasy influencing feminine garments. So from this era we’re shooting a ballgown by New York-based designer Ceil Chapman with layer upon layer of black and grey net, with an accompanying hot pink silk chiffon scarf.
“Into the 50s, we have some truly iconic American designs, such as a pencil-thin pinstriped dress and jacket by Norman Norell. It defines every curve on a woman’s body—the exact opposite of the bouffant fairytale dresses. But it’s another concept of femininity, the little girl fantasy vs. the drop-dead siren.
“We then morph into the very ladylike aesthetic of the late 50s to 60s. This is the era of the Kennedy White House—complete with white gloves, three strands of pearls, very defined protocols for women of a certain financial status.
“Throughout the decade of the 60s, one witnesses these guidelines fall away, specifically from the moment of the assassination of Kennedy in November of 1963. Jackie Kennedy is no longer centerstage as an icon to epitomize the direction of fashion. By Feb of ‘64, you’ve got the Beatles coming to NYC and the British invasion in music and culture, and things pick up. Hemlines soared skyward, colors become more intense; the pale hues of the early 1960s fade away into vivid, saturated hues, with psychedelic colors that send you on an acid trip.
“Towards the end of that decade, both the Haute Couture and the Seventh Avenue establishment designers need to address the needs of the next generation clientele. So you have youthful dresses, shorter dresses coming from the storied couture houses of Dior and Balenciaga, who just 20 years before were designing incredibly structured, accessorized garments. Women now look for ways to streamline the dressing process, and discard the idea of needing help to get dressed, as they become more independent. With designer Rudi Gernreich’s introduction of the no-bra dress, the bullseye bra of the 1950s is gone.
“A process like this makes you focus on the garment on a new level. We have not had many of these garments on 3-dimensional bodies before. When you put one on the form, you understand why Dior, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent had the reputations they had. We don’t have designers today who’ve gone through such incredibly structured training as these earlier designers did. They knew the body intimately, and knew cutting intimately. To look at these pieces, you just marvel at the virtuosity. It’s sobering.”
The work to digitize, conserve, and catalog women’s garments from our celebrated Costumes and Textiles Collection is supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for America program.