The Museum at FIT’s newest exhibit proves that brains and beauty don’t have to be mutually exclusive—at least when it comes to style.
“American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion” covers some of the most groundbreaking and intelligent examples of United States fashion from the ’30s to the present. Focusing on the occasionally tenuous relationship between technique and artistic vision, the exhibition space is devoid of the pop culture poodle skirts and denim cut-offs one might expect. Instead, a subtler Americana—garments full of ingenuity and impeccable construction—dominates.
The display examines everything from casual sportswear, in the form of a ’70s ultra-suede Halston shirtdress, to haute couture personified in Charles James’ gowns, demonstrating the elasticity of the American imagination.
Curator Patricia Mears selected all pieces based on their ability to establish a link between invention and execution. “You cannot produce a great garment if you don’t understand the technical process that goes into making it,” she explained. “Otherwise, you simply have a design object and not really one that has integrity.”
Expert curation helps to facilitate this point. Organizing the exhibit by technique allows perusers to compare designers of various periods and styles side-by-side. Each of the approximately 90 pieces highlights a specific method, including tailoring, geometric forms, and embellishment. Viewers can for instance learn about the process of making skirts from shapes through the comparison of a Claire McCardell dress, constructed out of a square, and a Halston frock, cut from one parallelogram of silk.
Keeping with this diversity of talent, the exhibit tends to focus on designers with relatively small in-house teams, meaning that they personally attend the work. This allows for a rare glimpse of near-forgotten talent, such as Elizabeth Hawes and Pauline Trigère. Also on display are more familiar names, such as Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein, who still creates “without commercial pressure,” as Mears explained.
Drawing attention to the technical processes that are often underappreciated, “American Beauty” is decidedly more Ralph Rucci than Ralph Lauren. One could argue that this leaves out an entire category of large-scale designers like Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan, who lend so much to the American fashion scene. These designers’ already well received, well publicized—and not to mention well funded—collections are not the story the exhibit seeks to express.
As Mears said, “You have to cut to those who really did this day-in, day-out., who really could make a garment and design it beautifully, versus those who are really just—I want to say—creating superfluous items.”
The Museum at FIT, Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, Tuesday-Friday, noon-8 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Free admission.