The Frank Lloyd Wright Room, created to resemble director Martin Scorsese’s films.
Even for a legendary director like Martin Scorsese, the assignment was daunting.
Take one of the famous American period rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and essentially make a film of a frame without a camera: a painting, not a film, but using your cinematic sensibility. Your actors are models and the costumes have been chosen for you.
“Creating a one-frame film in a period room? A great opportunity and an intriguing challenge,” the director writes in a statement alongside his creation, a mysterious mix of characters, emotions and fashion in the museum’s striking Frank Lloyd Wright room.
Eight other directors put their stamp on the vintage halls, for “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” the Met’s Costume Institute’s spring exhibition that launched with Met Gala, opening to the public on May 7.
Guests at the gala, which has raised millions for the self-funded institute and become a major fashion and pop culture spectacle, were the first to see the screens. The exhibit is the second part of a larger show on American fashion to mark the Costume Institute’s 75th anniversary. Curated as usual by star curator Andrew Bolton, the new episode is both a sequel to and a precursor to “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which opened last September and focuses more on designers. contemporaries and establishes what Bolton calls a vocabulary of fashion. (The shows will run concurrently and end in September.)
While the new show “Anthology” is meant to provide crucial historical context, it also seeks to find untold stories and unsung heroes of early American fashion, especially female designers, and especially those of color. Many of their stories, Bolton said when announcing the show, “have been forgotten, overlooked or relegated to a footnote in the annals of fashion history.”
The nine directors were brought in to animate the storytelling with their own varied aesthetic. In addition to Scorsese, they include two of the Met Gala hosts, actor-director Regina King and designer-director Tom Ford. Also contributing were last year’s Oscar-winning actress Chloé Zhao, Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Julie Dash and Autumn de Wilde.
For King, the Richmond Room, illustrating the domestic life of wealthy Virginians in the early 19th century, helped shine a light on black designer Fannie Criss Payne, born in the late 1860s to parents who had once been slaves and became one of the best local seamstresses. She was known to have sewn a name tape into her clothing to “sign” her work – part of an emerging sense of clothing making as a creative endeavour.
King says she sought “to portray the power and strength that Fannie Criss Payne exudes through her awe-inspiring story and exquisite clothes”, placing her in a prosperous work situation – and proudly wearing her own design – suiting a client and employing another black woman as a seamstress.
Filmmaker Radha Blank looks at Maria Hollander, the founder of a mid-19th century clothing company in Massachusetts who used her commercial success to advocate for abolition and women’s rights. In the museum’s Shaker Retiring Room, director Zhao connects with the minimalist aesthetic of 1930s sportswear designer Claire McCardell.
De Wilde used her ensemble in the Baltimore dining room to examine the influence of European fashion on American women – including some disapproving American attitudes about those low-cut dresses from Paris. Dash focuses on black seamstress Ann Lowe, who designed future first lady Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, but who received little recognition for it. “The designer was shrouded in secrecy,” Dash writes. “Invisibility was the cloak she wore, and yet it persisted.”
In the wing’s neo-Gothic library, Bravo examines the works of Elizabeth Hawes, a mid-20th-century fashion designer and writer. And Coppola, given the McKim, Mead & White Stair Hall and another room, writes that she didn’t know what to do at first: “How do you stage a scene without actors or a story?” She eventually teamed up with sculptor Rachel Feinstein to create distinctive faces for her “characters”.
Each filmmaker dipped into their own bag of tricks. For Scorsese, the clothes given to him were designed by brilliant fashion designer Charles James – the subject of his own costume show (and Met Gala) in 2014. Scorsese knew he had to create a story “that could be felt along the length of this room.” He turned to Technicolor films of the 1940s and used John Stah’s “Leave Her to Heaven,” what he calls “true black Technicolor.” As for what takes place before and after the scene we see – which includes a woman crying near a portrait of a man and a Martini drink nearby – “my hope is that people will walk away with multiple possibilities playing out in their minds. “
The exhibition in the Versailles room of the museum, so famous for its panoramic circular view of Versailles painted by John Vanderlyn between 1818 and 1819, is sure to be talked about.
Ford transformed the piece into a depiction of the “Battle of Versailles” – not a military conflict but the name given to a major American fashion night in 1973, when five American sportswear designers (including Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein) “faced off” against five French fashion designers at a runway show in Versailles and showed the world what American fashion is made of.
In his painting, Ford decided to make it a real battle with warring models, many of whom were dressed in ensembles from this landmark show. “Weapons have changed,” writes Ford. “Instead of fans and feather boas, there are fencing foils and front kicks.” “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” is open to the public until May 7. Part one, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” remains open at the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Both close in September.