On Tuesday, February 16, 2016 we kicked off our visit to New York City with two appointments at the Fashion Institute of Technology. April Calahan, Special Collections Associate of the Special Collections and FIT Archives guided our first tour by providing a wealth of historical context, which nicely complimented our current studies of mid-twentieth century European couture (see: Giovanna’s post for info on this!).
Then, after a wonderful lunch at the Eatly market (see: nutella crepes), we began our afternoon visit with the lovely Emma McClendon, Assistant Curator of Costume at FIT and Documenting Fashion alum (MA 2011). Emma kindly showed us various pieces of dress from the institute’s study collection. Having pre-selected pieces within our 1920-1960 timeframe, Emma hung garments at distance for an initial observation then laid them on a table for our closer inspection. In addition to providing detailed catalog entries for each piece, Emma expanded upon the history of each garment. Explaining how it had come to be acquired by the collection, why it was important and pointing out elements of its construction that were of relevance.
Highlights of the collection included muslins of couture pieces constructed by FIT students as part of a class project to preserve more delicate items; plus, original extant items – a gorgeous velvet opera coat; a tweed Chanel skirt suit; Dior and Balenciaga dresses; and finally a Mariano Fortuny gown. Since we’ve already spoken about the Chanel suit in a previous post, I’ll focus on my fascination with the Fortuny (c. 1930s), Dior and Balenciaga (c. 1950s) gowns; two drastically different silhouettes, which each represent a key moment in dress history.
In 1907 Mariano Fortuny introduced the Delphos gown, offering women for the first time in the twentieth century, an alternative to structured dressing. The pleated silk-satin Delphos gown could be rolled or twisted to fit into a small box. Once removed, it would stretch out into a full-length classicized dress, with its pleats intact. Fortuny devised and patented a secret method to create permanent pleats, which Emma claims has never been successfully replicated to this day. The more revolutionary advancement, however, was how the dress was designed without using conventional seams in order to mold to the female figure; liberating women from the corset. Designers such as Madeline Vionnet, who pioneered the bias cut in the 1930s would continue to champion this emancipating, form-fitting silhouette for the modern woman.
In stark juxtaposition, the Dior and Balenciaga gowns were rigid, constraining and heavy with crinolines and corset-like boning within the bodice, from the waist all the way up to the brassiere. The dresses not only highlight couture’s obsession with leaving nothing to chance by superficially molding the body to perfection, but also illustrate fashion’s complicated relationship to social norms – in this case Dior’s “New Look” represents a certain kind of response to the post war era crisis of masculinity by evoking an ultra “feminine” time period from the past.
The visit concluded with a tour of Emma’s most recently curated exhibition, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier at the Museum at FIT. This was an amazing opportunity to see first hand how a young curator researches and installs an exhibition. Emma explained her decision-making processes for including certain pieces, how they were acquired and how she included digital components. It will certainly be informing how I approach the next MA assignment, which you’ll surely hear about in the coming weeks – the Virtual Exhibition!