Julie Dash, MFA, Spelman College‘s Diana King Endowed Professor in Film, is one of nine directors tasked with transforming 13 period rooms of the Met Museum’s American Wing to display a history of American fashion from the late 18th century to the late 20th century for “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” Get the full story from Chloe Malle and photography by Annie Leibovitz below.
Sofia Coppola is seated, elbow perched on knee, on the oak steps of the McKim, Mead, and White Stair Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is dressed in crisp Chanel separates, in sharp contrast to the ornately beaded aubergine velvet dress on the mannequin in front of her. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the dresses in the space, not in the workroom,” she says to Annie Leibovitz, who is taking her photograph.
Coppola is one of nine directors tasked with transforming 13 period rooms of the museum’s American Wing to display a history of American fashion from the late 18th century to the late 20th century for “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” part two of the Costume Institute’s comprehensive survey of American fashion. (In addition to Coppola, the directors include Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Autumn de Wilde, Julie Dash, Tom Ford, Regina King, Martin Scorsese, and Chloé Zhao.)
ndrew Bolton—the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge at the Costume Institute—paired each director with rooms based on their work. “The idea is to bring the museum to life,” says Coppola, who was assigned the intricately paneled staircase where she’s sitting, along with the adjacent Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, both of which highlight the emergence of New York as the fashion center of the United States during the late 19th century—a natural fit for Coppola, currently at work on adapting Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. “It invites the audience in,” she says of the animated vignettes. “Hopefully you get lost in the moment of each space.”
De Wilde, meanwhile, was assigned the Baltimore and Benkard Rooms, dating to the same period as her 2020 feature Emma; King will explore themes of race and gender within the work of prominent Black dressmakers in the Richmond Room; Blank will transform the Haverhill Room; Zhao is taking a studied, quiet approach to the Shaker Retiring Room; Ford, an American fashion icon, was a natural fit to tackle the Battle of Versailles in the Vanderlyn Panorama rotunda; Dash will reference film history in the Greek and Renaissance Revival rooms; Bravo has drawn on her early background in production design for her work in the Rococo Revival Parlor and Gothic Revival Library; and Scorsese seemed best-suited to showcase Charles James in the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright Room.
“All of the rooms are connected by these curatorial threads,” says Bolton, “but they’re also connected through this cinematic lens. Every director has put their own imprimatur on each of them.”
Last fall’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”—a 6,000-square-foot grid of vitrines in and above the Anna Wintour Costume Center—forms a diptych with “Anthology,” but if the former exhibition focused more on designer pieces, its second half is equally informed by politics, culture, and historical narrative. “ ‘Lexicon’ was conceived as a modern vocabulary of American fashion,” explains Bolton. “ ‘Anthology’ is more about storytelling.”
And what better way to narrate these stories than through that most American of art forms: cinema. “You’re dealing with nine different directors who have very different aesthetics and very different ways of working,” Bolton says. “You end up—and this is what I wanted—with something that is, in a way, discordant. It’s more dynamic.”
Beginning with the largely anonymous dressmakers of the early 19th century, the exhibition tours the American rooms, graduating into the emergence of such name dressmakers as Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass. Studded throughout the exhibition, like fashion bread crumbs for the Hansel and Gretel museumgoer, are case studies offering what Bolton calls “deep-dive analyses” of various garments that hold particular resonance, starting with a grouping of Brooks Brothers coats—from the one Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated to the livery worn by an enslaved man—shedding light on “the hidden story of Brooks Brothers, which has clothed 40 presidents…but also had a thriving trade making uniforms for enslaved men and women.”
Along with recasting the narrative of legendary American clothiers, Bolton’s work in “Anthology” focuses on “showcasing the work of designers who had been written out of fashion history.” Designers such as Fannie Criss Payne, a leading Black modiste who persevered as a successful Richmond dressmaker despite the attempts of white Virginians to disenfranchise Black entrepreneurs, whose work is featured in the Richmond Room, reconstructed from the 1810 home of local lawyer William Clayton Williams.
“I knew I had to take her story on,” says King, who calls Criss Payne “a powerhouse of a woman who broke barriers in the dressmaking industry.” In creating the mise-en-scène, the One Night In Miami…director reimagines a fitting with the designer, sketches in one hand—the other outstretched—and her seamstress pinning the hem of a client’s lace- and taffeta-trimmed day dress. “Fannie emits a pose of power—and an expectation to be paid for her time,” explains King.
For many of the directors, the biggest challenge was working with actors that don’t move. “That makes it even more challenging,” notes Scorsese, who explained via email how proper blocking then becomes essential to his work here. “You have to position the mannequins and pose them so that there’s the suggestion of imminent movement.”
“The status of clothing in the museum is very different from the status of clothing in real life,” says Bolton, his eyebrows shooting up, seated in his subterranean office at the museum, his silver hair matching his gray wool Thom Browne cardigan. “Tom’s room, I think, will be the most challenging, because the mannequins are going to be flying in the air like Mulan—and it’s like, Oh—that’s a museum object.”
In the museum’s oval gallery, which houses John Vanderlyn’s early-19th-century painting Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, Ford reinterprets the historic 1973 “Battle of Versailles” fashion show, which pitted five French designers against American designers such as Halston and Stephen Burrows—an event that became a turning point in the perception of American fashion.
“Since it was called ‘Battle,’ I decided it should be a literal battle,” says Ford on the phone from his office in Los Angeles. Watching Marvel martial arts movies like Shang-Chi with his nine-year-old son, Ford says, inspired the idea, and the figures themselves were fabricated in Tokyo by a martial arts mannequin producer. “It’s rare to have one mannequin kicking another in the guts,” Ford says with a laugh, “so we had to have them made from scratch.” The 18 different warriors, some of them suspended from the ceiling, will be joined by seven spectator mannequins ringing the room tossing programs and sipping pink Champagne. Armature wiring under the clothes creates the illusion of movement.
“I want everything to be alive,” says Dash, who set about employing wind machines to animate the clothing in the Renaissance Revival Room to highlight the work of Ann Lowe, the pioneering Black designer known for creating Jacqueline Bouvier’s ivory silk taffeta wedding dress. “High-born insiders knew who Lowe was, but no one else,” says the Daughters of the Dust director, who plans to depict the designer as a veiled woman. “You’ll see the form, but she’s never totally revealed.”
In the neighboring Greek Revival Parlor, Dash puts a spotlight on the Hungarian-born American designer Eta Hentz’s 1944 Grecian collection, fashioning her tableau as a take on Helen of Troy—influenced by Orson Welles’s 1950s theatrical production starring Eartha Kitt as Helen.
“I’ve been calling the mannequins my ladies, my muses,” says Bravo, who has imagined the walnut-and-chestnut-paneled Gothic Revival Library as an “atelier of the mind” for designer and writer Elizabeth Hawes, described by Bolton as “the Dorothy Parker of her day.”
“The space is still very much a museum,” says Bravo of the challenge of designing within a hallowed space like the Met. “I’m just the renter of the Airbnb, so I’m learning the rules of the space—and for me, working within parameters allows my ideas to flourish.” The Zoladirector’s early work in production design, and as a wardrobe stylist, proved helpful. “When making something inside of a black box,” she says, “the idea is to imagine a whole world in a void.”
For some of the directors, though, disruption seemed to be the very point. “I wanted to infuse chaos and gossip into the rooms,” explains de Wilde of the vignettes she has designed in the Baltimore and Benkard Rooms. “I’m really good at making fun of the elite,” says the Emma director by Zoom from her home in London. “It’s a great opportunity to remind people that not everyone’s life was walking around like paper dolls.”
The tableau in the Baltimore Dining Room will focus on an 1805 sheer cotton mull evening dress worn by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, a Francophile American socialite who married Napoleon’s brother and raised eyebrows for her social mountaineering and overenthusiastic embrace of risqué French fashions—all of which serves as an entry point to discuss the influence of French fashion on early-19th-century American dress. To accommodate museum guidelines, the period French porcelain that typically lives in the room is being swapped for prop china, while glacéed cherries dangled by Bonaparte in front of her liveried papillon and decanters of wine will be recast in resin (any organic matter is forbidden in the museum for fear of insects).
“It can’t be real chaos, because it’s a museum—that’s the fun of it, but also the challenge,” says de Wilde, who, as a child, fantasized about sleeping over in these very rooms after reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
The challenge galvanized Coppola as well. “I’m trying to make it an atmosphere, which is the same way I would approach a scene,” says the director, who’s working with the florist Ariel Dearie to create museum-approved flower arrangements (no real flowers, no silk). Hairstylist Odile Gilbert, meanwhile—with whom Coppola worked on Marie Antoinette—is limited by having to use synthetic hair for the mannequins’ wigs. (Coppola is asking her friend Rachel Feinstein to paint faces on the mannequins, and her husband, the musician Thomas Mars, is creating a Schubert remix that will play on repeat.)
In the neighboring Shaker Retiring Room, Zhao’s mannequins are as muted as Coppola’s are adorned. To echo the Shaker precepts of nature and simplicity, the Nomadland director painted her mannequins in a wood-grain finish to mimic the furniture in the room. “I want everything to feel as not-loud as possible,” says Zhao, who curated quotes advocating the equality of the sexes by Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee to play as a soft whisper throughout the room. “It’s really striking how nonconformist and ahead of its time the religion was,” says Zhao. Her tableau reimagines traditional works of art depicting worship—such as The Sermon on the Mount and Raphael’s Transfiguration—but depicts both worshippers and deities as women, with the deities outfitted in traditional Shaker dress and worshippers in the minimalist designs of Claire McCardell, whose designs in the 1930s and ’40s embodied key principles of American sportswear—including utility and simplicity—that dovetailed neatly with the precepts of Shakerism.
In the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, Scorsese explores the relationship between Wright and midcentury couturier Charles James, both uncompromising visionaries and iconoclasts, through the narrative conceit of a wake, with a young woman in one of James’s gowns mourning her father (inspired by John Stahl’s 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven). “The wild emotions are felt in the color, in the objects,” Scorsese says of the “Technicolor noir”—“in the light and shadows, in the angles of the architecture.”
Scorsese, who just wrapped the 1920s Western Killers of the Flower Moon, was particularly inspired by the latter. “For certain films and filmmakers, architecture becomes a central element, something close to a character,” Scorsese explains, citing the films of Antonioni, Visconti, and Powell-Pressburger. “And Charles James dresses? They’re architecture,” he continues. “You want to take time to study them, to understand their structures. As for Wright, you walk into one of his rooms and you’re on another plane of thinking and feeling—you’re experiencing the world from a new perspective,” says Scorsese, who featured a Wright home in his 2004 film The Aviator. “They’re also intriguing in the manner of a great film: You’re drawn in, and you want to see it through to the end. Does it tell a story? I don’t know about that—but it certainly lends itself to stories being told.”