SALEM, Mass. — In the immortal words of Abigail Adams, the Peabody Essex Museum is “remembering the ladies” who revolutionized women’s fashions over the past 250 years in an ambitious and extensive new exhibit.
“Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion,” running now through March 14, is a transatlantic production that partnered Peabody Essex Museum with the Netherland’s Kunstmuseum den Haag. The brain child of Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, the exhibit began when she spotted an Instagram post about the Haag museum’s original 2016 exhibit of female designers, “Femmes Fatale.”
Curated from both museums’ collections, the 112-piece ensemble, five-part, 250-year retrospective was augmented by loans from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and local private collectors.
In a virtual preview, organizers on both sides of the Atlantic spoke of the challenges and goals of the exhibition, particularly during the pandemic, which postponed its original opening date in May.
The words “handle with care” take on a whole new meaning when you’re talking about the extreme fragility of fabric, stitching, seaming and embroidery that date back to the mid 18th century. The packing, transport, and installation of such a movable fashion feast was, in itself, a feat. Then there was the copious research that went into the enlightening biographies of each of the designers which accompany and contextualize their ensembles.
Local fashionistas will find among the silks, chamois, gilt, glitter, drape and dazzle, show-stopping ensembles by such icons as Chanel, Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Trigere, Carnegie, Prada, Koran, and Kamali.
But they will also find lost treasures, most notably Elizabeth Kinkley, a mid 19th century Black woman who bought her way out of slavery and turned her talented needle to couturier, dressing the grand dames of Washington, D.C., society, foremost among them, her friend Mary Todd Lincoln.
The sheer scope of the collection is a wow, as are the clothes. But it is how the history is contextualized with well-researched text accompaniment that makes this show truly educational. If, as France’s Louis IV is said to have said, “Fashion is the mirror of history,” then this exhibit succeeds in capturing the historical evolution not just of fashion, but of women themselves.
For starters, the total absence of male designers shifts the focus not only to the fact that the beating heart of this industry has really always been women, but how women designers have become so good at beating men where it counts — not in the haute couture salons of Paris, but in the real world.
Basically, the word couturier translates as seamstress, and seamstresses have traditionally been women. At PEM, the show has been mounted to give the viewer an up-close, personal and very tactile experience of the exquisite artistry and craft of a cast of countless anonymous female seamstresses dating back to the mid 18th century European court, where high fashion was high theater and a declaration of wealth and social stature.
But once this show pays homage to those European roots, it moves swiftly along through decades of corsets, bustiers, bustles, and ruffles to 1849, when Fredrick Worth, a man — and an Englishman to boot — is credited with inventing French couture. The names of the couture houses that followed his lead belonged to men, and women became slaves to fashions that bound their bodies to those men’s impossible ideals of feminine perfection.
Then, as the 19th century gave way to the long hard fight for 19th Amendment rights, the 19-inch waist gave way to a newly liberated woman and a newly liberated wardrobe.
World War I played an unwitting role in this. As men went to war, women went to work, […]