It’s one of those ironies rarely discussed that the fashion industry — a world devoted, above all else, to catering to (or exploiting, depending on how you look at it) women’s dreams and identities — is often run by men.
Men run the largest luxury groups; men make up the largest percentage of chief executives; and for years the most famous designers taking their bows at the end of the runways of the biggest global brand names have been men.
To a certain extent, that dynamic has finally begun to shift: In 2016, Dior named its first female creative director for womenswear, Maria Grazia Chiuri; in 2019, Chanel appointed its first female designer since Coco, Virginie Viard; Hermès has women at the head of its women’s and men’s lines, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski and Véronique Nichanian; and Phoebe Philo’s return this fall under her own name may be the most anticipated new line of the year.
But LVMH, the world’s largest luxury group and the owner of Dior, has only two other female designers among its 14 total fashion brands (plus a partnership with Stella McCartney). Kering, the second largest global luxury group dedicated to fashion, has one female designer among its six ready-to-wear brands: Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen. There is still a long way to go.
Hence the announcement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute will devote its fall show to a survey of the work of female designers is remarkable. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that this is the Costume Institute’s first such retrospective in its roughly 85 years of existence.
While the Costume Institute has held a sprinkling of solo shows dedicated to the work of women who changed fashion (Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, Rei Kawakubo, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada), it has yet to examine the female fashion canon. — or, indeed, assert that there is a feminine fashion canon and that it should be a larger part of the general fashion canon.
Even more strikingly, when the Met show opens on December 7, it will punctuate the end of months of museum shows celebrating women.
The correction will begin in September with “Ann Lowe: American Couturier” at Winterthur in Delaware, the largest exhibition yet of the work of the visionary behind Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress and a Black designer who has remained unsung for decades.
Next, in October, is “Mood of the Moment: Gaby Aghion and the House of Chloé” at the Jewish Museum in New York, the first major exhibition dedicated to the brand and its founder to be held in the city. That will be followed in November by “Iris van Herpen. Sculpting the Senses” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. All of this should add up to a powerful reminder of the breadth and contribution of female designers — not to mention motivation for the future.
“Doing a show based on identity can be complicated,” said Mellissa Huber, an associate curator at the Met’s Costume Institute and the co-curator, with Karen Van Godtsenhoven, of the museum’s “Women Dressing Women” show. “We don’t want to categorize all female designers as both working or the same. Maybe that’s something that has deterred people in the past. But this exhibit is really intended to be about celebration and recognition.”
As it happened, Ms. suggested. Huber and Ms. Van Godtsenhoven’s similar woman-oriented retrospective shows Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Costume Institute, at the same time in 2019, the year before the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. They decided to get together, but the Covid-19 pandemic intervened, postponing the show this year.
The result shows the work of about 70 designers held in the Costume Institute’s collection, which stretches from the beginning of the 20th century to today and includes names both famous (Jeanne Lanvin, Claire McCardell) and not so known (Augusta Bernard, Madeleine & Madeleine) . And it’s a reminder that once upon a time, the industry looked very different.
“The ’20s and ’30s were a time when women designers were incredibly active and prolific, and it was the one moment in history where women actually slightly surpassed men in leading creative direction. of fashion,” said Ms. Huber. “But that moment never really, truly happened again.”
Why the shift, said Ms. Huber attributed this to “gender and social change and a lack of confidence on the part of the financial community to invest in women” after World War II. “When we had the New Look in ’47 with Dior, there was a big water change,” he continued. “We haven’t fully recovered yet.”
To illustrate how we got here, the Costume Institute show traces the work of female designers from their obscure beginnings, when, Ms. Huber, “many women work in a field that does not recognize the contributions of individual makers” through the hegemony of the French couture houses, when Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet and Grès dominated.
Then it moved to what Ms. Huber’s “whacker generation” of the 1960s — designers like Mary Quant and Bonnie Cashin, who blazed their own trail — culminating in the pieces of designers working today and “thinking collaboratively , taking into account the ideas of sustainability and inclusiveness.”
Along the way, the exhibition is entitled to some historical errors, such as the frequent misattribution of the famous Fortuny Delphos gown as belonging only to Fortuny’s founder, Mariano Fortuny, rather than to his wife, Adèle Henriette Negrin Fortune.
“The Delphos dress is a good example of something so canonized, so familiar, even to non-specialists,” Ms. Huber. But the patent filed for the gown included a handwritten note from Mr. Fortuny stating “that Henriette Negrin Fortuny is indeed the rightful inventor and that she essentially filed it under her name for the benefit,” Ms. Huber.
“To realize that there really is another person behind the dress that has been removed from the historical record for so long is amazing,” added Ms. Huber.
The show also allowed curators to add the work of at least a dozen new names to the museum’s holdings, including Marine Serre, Anifa Mvuemba of Hanifa and Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada, thus carving out a permanent space for them in the historical record and ensures, said Ms. Huber, that this is just the beginning of a “longer ongoing conversation.”
“I think this is an exciting moment for female designers,” she added. What really matters is what happens next, now that “the critical mass of voices is suddenly coming together.”