Speaking in Garments

The word lexicon is defined as “the vocabulary of a language” and the word is being aptly used in defining and describing the current fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In America: A Lexicon of Fashion showcases the tremendous creativity and influence of the American fashion scene and the designers who molded it in the past and those that continue to transform it today.

A unique quilt from the 1860’s that belongs to the museum’s permanent collection serves as a springboard and introduction to the exhibition. The quilt was constructed by Adeline Harris Sears, who sent small white fabric diamonds to people around the country (including Abraham Lincoln!) and requested that they autograph the swatches and return them to her. She then sewed them into the quilt, thereby displaying the broad diversity of the American people. The quilt symbolizes the best of the American experience and the myriad Americans who make up this experience and is indeed a stunning reflection of the country. Peering at the squares to find the famous was indeed a fun challenge due to the difficulty of deciphering the elegant and flowery handwriting of the time!

The quilt serves as a springboard and introduction to the exhibition which features designs from the early 1940’s to the 2021-22 fall/winter collections and shows the differing fashions of America and the diversity of its designers.

Claire McCardell, Dress, 1943

I thought the show was a fantastic visual and academic survey of garments created by Americans and it expanded my knowledge of fashions designed here, especially the plethora of young designers gaining attention. It is easy to overlook our own country’s contribution to the fashion industry when so much focus is on European work. Or that we consider American fashion to be one thing—sporty, practical, basic.

Helen Cookman, Uniform, 1948
Rudi Gernreich, Jumpsuit, 1970

In this show, concepts reigned as clothes were featured within the context of ideas, emotions or reconfiguration. A dress is no longer just a dress but part of a wider conversation involving a current issue, a wonderment, a cerebral consideration or a single word.

Stephen Burrows, Dress, 1970-73
Ralph Lauren, Ensemble, 1982-83

Indeed, words are prominently displayed all around and become as important as the clothes themselves—hence, “lexicon.” Each garment is attached to a descriptor (such as fellowship, honesty, conviction, responsibility) which helps to define the designer’s vision for the particular garment or a curator’s interpretation of a look. The words further expand the way you view what you’re seeing and enhance the appreciation of the designer’s hand. Again, a dress transforms into something much larger than itself.

Donna Karan, Ensemble, 1985-86
Anna Sui, Ensemble, 1994

We certainly don’t dress under such academic considerations nor shop that way. But this show does open the eyes to more cognizant ways of thinking about dress.

Calvin Klein, Dress, 1996-97
Jeremy Scott, Tailcoat, 2009-10

And regardless of the inherent point of view or distinct transmission of any one particular garment, with clothing, making a statement doesn’t require words.

Heron Preston, Ensemble, 2016
Bstroy by Brick Owens and Dieter Grams, Ensembles, 2018
Off-White by Virgil Abloh, Ensemble, 2020-21
Dauphinette by Olivia Cheng, Ensembles, 2020, 2021-22
Savage X Fenty by Robyn Rihanna, Ensemble, 2020
Kidsuper by Colm Dillane, Ensemble, 2021
Lavie by Claude Kameni, Dress, 2021