Head to Toe, New Exhibition Opens at The Museum at FIT; November 17, 2021 – May 8, 2022
NEW YORK, Oct. 27, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — The Museum at FIT (MFIT) presents Head to Toe, an exhibition that explores the history of Euro-American women’s fashion from 1800 through the early twenty-first century by examining the role of accessories within the total ensemble. Accessories communicate socially constructed ideas, including femininity, sexuality, modesty, race, class, power, and modernity, as well as illuminate changes in the broader social landscape. Although they are often seen as ancillary to garments, accessories have always been essential components of the fashionable ensemble, and serve as important objects for understanding how women express their personal identities.
“Accessories have become so central to fashion that they are hardly an accessory anymore,” says Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of MFIT. “In fact, even in the nineteenth century, hats, gloves, parasols, and fans played an important role in fashion, just as shoes, bags, and sunglasses do today. The exhibition curators, Melissa Marra-Alvarez and Elizabeth Way, have done a wonderful job showing how and why accessories always complete a look.”
Head to Toe features approximately thirty garments and more than two hundred accessories from the permanent collection of MFIT. The show is organized chronologically, and for each historical period a small sample of the possible combinations of garments (daywear, formal wear, and outerwear) and accessories helps illustrate the intricacies and etiquette of Western women’s fashion, showing its evolution and changing social context over two centuries.
The exhibition’s introductory gallery features juxtapositions of historic and contemporary accessories, making connections over time. Whereas a woman during the mid-nineteenth century would have picked up a parasol for protection from the sun, a modern woman dons sunglasses. Beyond providing shade, both accessories give women an opportunity to disrupt the public gaze—either obscuring or revealing their faces—and both can act as clear signs of wealth and status. Yet, while parasols reinforced the nineteenth-century Western idealization of white, untanned skin as feminine, refined, and racially superior, during the twentieth century, sunglasses came to connote leisure time spent outdoors and an ineffable cool associated with youth cultures.
The first half of the exhibition focuses on the period between 1800 and 1940, with each section examining multiple accessories and highlighting those that were particularly important to fashion at the time. During the early nineteenth century, for example, the fashion for slim Neoclassical gowns in sheer fabrics drove the popularity of reticules, or small fabric handbags, which became a necessity as the silhouette narrowed and no longer accommodated hidden pockets. These bags, exemplified in the exhibition by an exquisitely embroidered and embellished circa 1800 reticule, came to represent femininity on public display, where once it had been hidden beneath skirts. The seemingly innocuous task of carrying one’s feminine accoutrements was seen by some social commenters as a bold and vulgar spectacle.
During the Victorian era, rapid industrialization afforded middle class women access to luxury items previously reserved for the upper class. Gender roles became more rigidly defined, and women were emphasized as the domestic and ornamented sex. In turn, female adornment became a tangible expression of social class, race, and overall femininity. On view is a satin and lace evening gown whose extravagant materials and revealing bodice projected the wearer’s standing and sexuality. This dress would have been accessorized with items such as fans and shawls, which were desired as commodities, but also served as fashionable “weapons of seduction.” Fans, in particular, were indispensable accessories at parties and balls. Evoking a nostalgia for eighteenth century aristocratic refinement, they were also tools employed by women to flirt and command attention through orchestrated gestures. A lavish display of fans, featuring an example by the Parisian fan-maker Duvelleroy, showcases the sophisticated level of craftsmanship and the performative value of these symbolically charged accessories.
The consumer revolution that led to the explosion of available fashion goods at increasingly accessible prices drove the demand for aspirational luxury accessories coveted by the middle class; a case on display shows a late nineteenth century mink fur muff, ivory-handled walking sticks, a silver calling card case, and silk stockings. Two leather handbags, also on display, illustrate a modern style new to the late nineteenth century. These bags, inspired by luggage designs, were practical accessories that represented an emerging independence for women as they progressively moved into the public sphere.
The “new woman” of the early twentieth century adopted a less formal mode of dress inspired by tailored menswear styles; however, the popularity of intricate lace “lingerie” dresses, worn as formal day wear, proved that a taste for the decorative still prevailed. An elaborate “garden party” ensemble, featuring a slim, modern silhouette is accessorized with an oversized plumed hat and elegant parasol. Oversized hats elaborately embellished with silk flowers and exotic plumage reached extreme proportions by the early twentieth century, becoming not only the most prominent accessory in women’s fashion, but also overt symbols of the leisure class.
World War I, however, exerted a powerful effect on Western fashion, extinguishing many lingering Victorian formalities and disrupting established norms. War conditions fostered new attitudes toward dress. Hemlines lifted, hats grew smaller, and shoe styles varied. Although extravagance was considered distasteful, women were nonetheless encouraged to look stylish, turning to accessories to enliven their outfits. A selection of quiet but distinctive shoes highlights their increased visibility, and an embroidered black silk handbag, circa 1915, is an example of a versatile style made popular during the war.
Women’s fashion modernized dramatically during the 1920s and 1930s. Although many nineteenth century accessories remained in style, their design reflected modern aesthetics such as art deco, and increasingly utilized new materials such as plastics. Although the social etiquette of fashion relaxed slightly, hats, gloves, and stockings were worn more often than not. Shortened hemlines brought unprecedented focus to shoes as an important fashion accessory. Examples of 1920s and 1930s shoes include casual leather brogues and canvas oxfords, as well as embellished and colorful high-heeled pumps and sandals.
As the exhibition continues, accessories are examined in groups that reflect movements in fashion and society. A patriotic austerity descended on fashion during World War II as rationing limited fashion’s taste for the extravagant. Women were encouraged to purchase practical clothes, such as a versatile “little black dress,” which could be easily accessorized to carry them from day to evening. A large display of 1940s accessories—ranging from a pair of patriotic red, white, and blue leather pumps to a whimsical turban-style hat by Lilly Daché—shows how accessories became the focal point of fashion used to enliven plain clothes.
Post-war high fashion was nostalgic, looking back to nineteenth century ideals of femininity, which created a focus on “ladylike” accessories. Fashion was dominated by Parisian couturiers, including Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Pierre Balmain. Couture houses offered their own accessories to match and coordinate with their clothing; they were often created in conjunction with accessories designers. On view are silk shoes designed by Roger Vivier with a matching clutch from? Christian Dior, and red suede elbow-length gloves created by Tréfousse for Balmain. The “American Look” created by designers such as Claire McCardell challenged haute couture with sportier styles, including red gingham driving gloves and bright yellow sunglasses. McCardell often worked with the dancewear company Capezio to create delicate yet practical flats and sandals.
Youth culture was a major influence on fashion during the sixties. The Mods, for example, embraced fun, brightly colored,plastic clothing and accessories. Vibrant hosiery from Trimfit, marketed with the face of British Mod model Twiggy, shows the subculture’s impact on the wider fashion world. In France, the space-age designers responded to Youthquake styles with futuristic accessories like André Courrèges’s slit white sunglasses and Paco Rabanne’s gold metal link purse.
The hippies were an influential style tribe of the late 1960s and early 1970s that started as an anti-establishment movement with a unique, do-it-yourself look, which was quickly adopted by the fashion mainstream. A brightly embroidered suede “granny” boot, modeled on vintage footwear, shows the commercialization of the hippies’ bohemian style. Individuality in fashion was stressed during the seventies, and accessories were essential to solidifying a cohesive look. A decadent Judith Leiber white snakeskin clutch and modernist silver jewelry by Elsa Peretti exemplify the style of New York’s sophisticated disco nightlife scene, whereas a Gucci handbag and leopard-patterned Manolo Blahnik pumps from the end of the decade were high-status designer accessories that working women could buy for themselves.
The image-conscious eighties saw a return to dressing up, and fashion became a prominent symbol of success. Designer accessories, such as a pair of Charles Jourdan “power heels,” underscore the newfound sense of ease in which women flaunted their wealth and status. However, a number of youthful, music-driven subcultures also emerged with their own distinct sense of style. A gold lamé “fez” by Stephen Jones illustrates the gender-bending New Romantics aesthetic. As a predominance of style tribes influenced fashion, accessories again helped to navigate sartorial displays of allegiance and dissonance, as well as modernity and power. On view are fashion accessories influenced by music genres, such as New Wave and hip hop, that underscore this notion.
Sartorial expression grew more individualized during the nineties. While subcultural influences continued to assert their sway on fashion, women took more possession than ever over their style choices, adopting them to reflect individual lifestyles. For example, a 1998 Vivienne Tam slip dress is displayed with a choice of footwear that would dramatically change the tone of the ensemble—a pair of rugged Dr. Martens boots and ultra-feminine pink Manolo Blahnik mules. This dichotomy highlights the powerful sartorial statement each footwear option communicated.
By the end of the millennium, handbags and shoes dominated as the most prominent accessories in women’s fashion. Among the shoes and handbags on display are Christian Louboutin’s lavender Pensée pumps (the first style to feature his iconic red sole), Martin Margiela’s avant garde Tabi boots, a hand-painted Fendi Baguette bag, and Christian Dior’s Diorissimo saddle bag. Today, bags and shoes continue to reign supreme in the fashionable woman’s wardrobe, while essential accessories of the past such as parasols and fans are all but forgotten. During the last twenty years, new accessories, such as designer cell phone cases and face masks have emerged to reflect current lifestyles. Head to Toe invites viewers to examine the history and changing roles of women’s accessories, and to contemplate their ongoing importance to both individual style and wider sociocultural movements.
Head to Toe is curated by Melissa Marra-Alvarez, curator, Education and Research; and Elizabeth Way, associate curator, Costume. It is on view from November 17, 2021 through May 8, 2022.
The Museum at FIT
The Museum at FIT, which is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, is the only museum in New York City dedicated solely to the art of fashion. Best known for its innovative and award-winning exhibitions, the museum has a collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories dating from the 18th century to the present. Like other fashion museums, such as the Musée de la Mode, the Mode Museum, and the Museo de la Moda, The Museum at FIT collects, conserves, documents, exhibits, and interprets fashion. The museum’s mission is to advance knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, publications, and public programs. Visit fitnyc.edu/museum.
The museum is part of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a State University of New York (SUNY) college of art, design, business, and technology that has been at the crossroads of commerce and creativity for 75 years. With programs that blend hands-on practice, a strong grounding in theory, and a broad-based liberal arts foundation, FIT offers career education in nearly 50 areas, and grants associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. FIT provides students with a complete college experience at an affordable cost, a vibrant campus life in New York City, and industry-relevant preparation for rewarding careers. Visit fitnyc.edu.
The Couture Council is a philanthropic membership group that helps support the exhibitions and programs of The Museum at FIT. The Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion is given to a selected designer at a benefit luncheon held every September. For information on the Couture Council, call (212) 217-4532 or email [email protected]
Museum hours: Wednesday–Friday, noon–8 pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10 am–5 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, and legal holidays.
Admission is free.
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