The Met Celebrates Women Designers Without Enough Reflection

Women Dressing Women at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an attempt to acknowledge a gap. Aside from retrospectives dedicated to Madame Grès and Rei Kawakubo, it’s the first in the Costume Institute’s history devoted entirely to female designers. Following a route from anonymity to visibility to agency, it aims to track the shifting position of designers within the fashion industry, and to recenter the roles of often uncredited women whose names are lost behind the couturier’s label. 

But for a show three years in the making, Women Dressing Women is thin in places. The two digital objects — a slideshow of couturiers and sewists at work and a timeline of the designers and fashion houses featured in the show — are both weirdly lo-fi. The slideshow lacks information; it’s just atmosphere, and there’s basically no attempt to identify the people it shows. The timeline zooms at such high speed that several visitors told me they felt motion-sick, and at times the text is so small that it’s just pixels and fuzz. The lineage of designers is reproduced in the catalogue, which is a gorgeously photographed and designed companion, but retails for $50. I wondered at the choice not to simply display these timelines and family trees on the wall — it would be far more legible and useful as a reference point for visitors. 

Women Dressing Women is snug: it’s an easy visit, a jewel-box show. The garments span over a century, and though the intent is to narrate the transforming role of women in couture, the exhibition is so dense that it can be difficult to feel that progression. This is a gesture toward a different kind of fashion history, one that reckons more deeply with the material history and manufacture of garments, but it stops short of any real engagement with the labor history of the textile industry, still largely run on the labor of disenfranchised and exploited women. The sewists and makers shown in the slideshow are not really so different from those working today. And though the garments displayed here are couture, they cannot be detached from quotidian fashion and its murderous, meaningless caprices. 

Some truly beautiful garments are shown here: an outrageously tartan Vivienne Westwood suit, a silk mesh dress covered in metal feathers by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, a quilted coat made by the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective in collaboration with Gabriela Hearst for Chloé. Anifa Mvuemba’s Kinshasa dress from her Pink Label Congo collection is displayed on a frame rather than a body, so that the dress appears to float, in reference to the digital catwalk she created during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Two mannequins are different from the rest. One is based on Aaron Rose Philip, the model who originally wore the garment, and is positioned in a power wheelchair like the one Philip uses; this is the only mannequin with realistic facial features or hair (a green wig in tribute to Philip’s runway look). The other represents a model with achondroplasia, wearing the “Going Out” dress from Danish label Customiety. While it’s unreasonable to ask the Costume Institute to model every mannequin on an actual person, these two stand out, and draw attention to the otherwise blandly lifeless mannequins and their identical tall, thin frames. This is a show that asks us to consider the individuals who made and wore these clothes, that argues for the liberatory potential of fashion, but uses the same basic, sample-size forms to display those clothes. Presenting the “Kinshasa” dress on a floating form, rather than a full body, was clearly a choice to evoke Mvuemba’s use of the digital, but it is also an interesting choice for the way it allows the garment to speak for itself, and encourages us to imagine the body that it could dress. The Met has used floating forms in other shows to great effect, so why default to the standard Schläppi mannequin here? Only one is larger than the standard small size, and displays a dress made by Ester Manas for her size-inclusive namesake label. It’s paired with a Fortuny Delphos dress — an iconic design that the gallery text refers to as “adaptable” to different bodies because of its shapelessness — so why show it on the typical thin form?

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Installation view of Women Dressing Women at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Far left: Collina Strada (Hillary Taylor), “Ensemble” (autumn/winter 2021–22), as worn by Aaron Rose Philip; far right: Customiety (Jasmin Søe), “Going Out” dress (2022) (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The story of the Delphos dress is a perfect example of what the Met sought to do with this show: Historically credited solely to Mariano Fortuny, further research has shown the role his partner, Henriette Negrin, played in designing the gown, and the gallery text in Women Dressing Women focuses on her as its creator. The Fortuny-Negrin partnership and its rebalancing is interesting, to be sure, but it’s also fairly unusual within the show. Very little new research is on view here, and the overarching argument about the neglect of women designers is difficult to square with the holy trinity of Vionnet, Chanel, and Schiaparelli that greets visitors. How “forgotten” are these designers, really, if their work is in the collection of the Costume Institute? Running through the exhibition is a thread called “Absence and Omission,” which goes some way toward acknowledging the Met’s own limitations. Ann Lowe, the Black designer who created Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, is represented, but Zelda Wynn Valdes, who dressed dozens of Black artists and performers and is now best known for creating the original Playboy Bunny costume, is present only as a photograph.

It’s this push-pull of absence and presence that lets Women Dressing Women down: it is trying to be a celebration of neglected designers and sewists, but does not offer a critical reflection on how they have been excluded. The knitter who created Schiaparelli’s iconic bow sweater — Aroosiag Mikaëlian, an Armenian garment worker who collaborated with Schiaparelli to create the trompe-l’oeil design using historical stitch techniques — is alluded to but not named. The skill of actually assembling these garments goes largely uncredited. I don’t expect anything radical from the Met, and the Costume Institute is not the institution that I turn to for a history of labor and gender. Women Dressing Women is a beautiful show filled with beautiful objects, and its curators have done a careful job to identify and celebrate the women who designed these dresses. In elevating this handful of women, though, they are also falling into the well-worn narrative of exceptionalism and genius, and in many ways restaging the erasure and exclusion from which they seek to liberate these designers.

Women Dressing Women continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 11. The exhibition was The organized by Mellissa Huber, Associate Curator, The Costume Institute, and guest co-curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven. Headpieces were created for the exhibition by artist Caitlin Keogh.

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