The Little-Known History of American Fashion You Need to Know


Left to right: Ann Lowe. Photo by Bettmann Archive / Getty Images; Patrick Kelly AW89. Photo by Daniel Simon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images; Willi Smith and Toukie Smith. Photo by Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Halston, Charles James, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford… you already know the usual protagonists in the history of American fashion; designers who are cited as the foundation of the domestic industry. And they are an integral part of it. But by favoring a coterie of predominantly white, predominantly male designers, sections of contributors essential to the story of how we got to where we are today have been systematically overlooked. Over the next 12 months, the Met’s Costume Institute will be opening a two-part exhibit that has the potential to rectify this. In America: a lexicon of fashion, opening in September 2021, and In America: a fashion anthology, opened in May 2022, could address and in part remedy the unbalanced outlook that has shaped our understanding of American fashion.

While not the result of explicit intent, the Costume Institute, like many institutions that hold fashion exhibitions, arguably helped contribute to this biased view of American fashion history. By reproducing implicit prejudices entrenched in society at large, it reflected a white-centric narrative that has long been taken for granted. As Vanessa Friedman illustrated in a recent article for The New York Times, “at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, none of the designers named in the 33,000-piece collection’s three online ‘highlights’ pages are black.” And this is hardly a problem confined to the New York institution; at the Palais Galliera in Paris, only 77 of its collection of 200,000 objects are by black designers. In the wake of the United States’ recognition of entrenched systemic racism and inequity, the duty of the nation’s fashion industry to recognize the critical roles played by individuals from marginalized communities has become a priority. In turn, conversations about the need for a truly diverse representation in the upcoming Met exhibition became evident.


“There are so many designers, especially designers of color and black designers who don’t get their due in any context, especially in American fashion history,” confirms Luke Meagher, fashion commentator and YouTuber. “I would love to see research on designers like Patrick Kelly, Stephen Burrows, Zelda Wynn Valdes, Anna Sui,” he continues, drawing attention to the plural voices that have shaped the course of American fashion. These voices also include once enslaved dressmakers in the 19th century and Arthur McGee in the 1950s and 1960s; modest fashion designers like Nzinga Knight, a black Muslim woman, and contemporary Asian American designers like Peter Do and the trio behind Commission NYC; Jewish immigrant Jacob Davis, who designed the riveted jeans patented by Levi Strauss in 1873, and black designers like Dapper Dan, April Walker and Willi Smith, who were instrumental in the development of the category we call now “streetwear”.

“Another very important thing is the inclusion of designers descended from the First Nations of America,” says Luke, noting the general lack of awareness of the historic contributions of Indigenous figures to contemporary fashion – the remarkable and romantic work of Navajo. designer Orlando Dugi, for example, or the elaborately patterned collections of designer Northern Cheyenne / Crow Bethany Yellowtail. These are just a few of the names from the “anthology” of American fashion history that this exhibition should explore, especially in our present day.

“Some of the most pivotal moments in American fashion history took place beyond the golden catwalks, which is exactly what makes her so special.”

Of course, a given exhibit can only contain a limited amount, and some features that some feel are important will be omitted. Yet it is exactly this inevitable truth – inherent in the practice of conservation – that makes questioning the motives behind every inclusion so important. “Anyone who chooses to work in museums should grapple with the institutional context of the exhibitions, the legacy of exclusion, the prejudices of the predominantly white museum staff,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Curator of Willi Smith: street sewing, the show currently showing at the Upper East Side institution.

In light of the exhibition’s mandate to explore the legacy of the legendary black American designer, she saw his task as one of creating space for narratives that are typically not seen in Eurocentric-oriented institutions, all by providing abundant and inspiring content to as wide an audience as possible. . This task, of course, was not without challenges. “After fully understanding the importance of [Willi’s] work, I certainly wondered if I was equipped, and the museum was equipped, to interpret his experience as a gay black man without his guidance. Willi Smith: street sewing became about understanding Willi Smith through a community, rather than through an institutional lens, ”she says, turning the space into an arena for Willi’s story to be told on her own terms.

Listening to Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu’s chief curator of the Costume Institute, speak at the official press presentation of the Met Exhibition, it emerged that he and his team took an equally expansive, more focused approach. towards the adoption of polyvocality than towards the imposition of a definitive and singular narrative. . The first part of the exhibition, In America: a lexicon of fashion, sets out to “establish a lexicon of American fashion based on the emotional qualities of clothing,” he says, creating “a new vocabulary that is more relevant and more reflective in the times in which we live”. This notion will then be developed in the second part, In America: a fashion anthology, which will open new discussions on cultural dynamism and the unsung heroes of the American fashion canon.

“It was mentioned that the Conservatives plan to include the stories of Elizabeth Keckley and Fannie CrissExplains Rikki Byrd, fashion specialist, the first being the dressmaker of Mary Todd Lincoln and the second a renowned designer for the elite. It should be noted that both were black women. “I’m interested in how they will share their stories while acknowledging the many black seamstresses born during the same time period whose names we don’t know,” Rikki continues. She mentions Ann Lowe – the designer of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, who was only credited as “a woman of color” during the socialite’s lifetime – and Lois K. Lane-Alexander, designer and founder of the late Black. Fashion Museum (whose collection was acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture), as stories she hopes to see told.

Fashion designer Ann Lowe adjusting the bodice of a client's dress

Anne Lowe. Photo by Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Indeed, in the wake of conversations around the disproportionate representation of the black community at the top of the industry, the essential contributions of black designers to American fashion history is something that must be boldly illustrated in both parts. of the exhibition. This is, it should be noted, a responsibility that extends beyond the inclusion of contemporary creators like Virgil Abloh, Shayne Oliver, Telfar, Christopher John Rogers and Kerby Jean-Raymond, as crucial as they are for shaping the American fashion landscape today. Historical landmarks like the 1973 ‘Battle of Versailles’, a fundraising event for the French palace that pitted five great American designers of the time against five of their main Gallic counterparts, are important in this regard. While attention is often placed on the involvement of Halston and Bill Blass, as seen in the recent Netflix miniseries Halston, the crucial role the event played in expanding the reach of the American fashion industry is in part due to the ingenuity of black American designer Stephen Burrows, as well as a league of black models such as Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison and Billie Blair. And then there’s Oscar de la Renta, the only Latinx designer of Battle, whose romantic silhouettes set new benchmarks in American ready-to-wear from the 1960s.

Not to mention that some of the most pivotal moments in American fashion history took place beyond the golden catwalks, which is exactly what makes her so special. It’s filled with examples of designers working beyond the parameters of convention, leading the charge using fashion as a way to engage and shape ideas around gender neutrality, activism and gender. street culture, for example. Willy Chavarria – a designer known for fusing social justice and design into his denim outfits and Chicano streetwear-inspired collections, and the recently appointed senior vice president of design at Calvin Klein – and urban clothing companies like WalkerWear , FUBU and Cross Colors are a case in point. They embody how inspirations from the streets of various communities, especially those who are marginalized, have mingled over the past 75 years to create the distinct spirit of today’s American fashion, which has made its mark in Paris. , Milan, London and beyond.

Fashion designer Willi Smith holding model Toukie Smith's waist

Willi Smith and Toukie Smith. Photo by Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Standing next to a puffy taffeta dress by Christopher John Rogers, an Andre Walker wool dress and a cotton poplin dress by Prabal Gurung during the Costume Institute’s virtual press presentation, Andrew Bolton is Okay. “Last year confirms […] that American fashion is experiencing a renaissance; that the fashion industry globally is going through a process of reinvention and self-reflection, and American designers are embracing it fully at this time of possibilities, ”he said. But, just as designers engage in this process, institutions that contextualize and provide public access to their work must also do so. That the stakes are high for the next Costume Institute exhibition is obvious – at the same time, the opportunity for one of the world’s biggest stages for fashion studies to show that its reputation is deserved, and not just assumed. , is unprecedented. In his presentation, Andrew mentions that the Costume Institute’s original mandate was to celebrate the American fashion industry. Seventy-five years after its founding, we hope that In America will do exactly that.


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