New Met Exhibition Celebrates Women Fashion Designers

“Women Dressing Women” gives often-forgotten figures in fashion history their due

Four colorful garments: 	1831676467
A selection of outfits designed by women on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Taylor Hill / Getty Images

A new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York examines how women have helped shape the fashion canon—even if they didn’t always receive credit for it.

Titled “Women Dressing Women,” the exhibition showcases roughly 80 garments from the museum’s collection made by a diverse group of more than 70 designers. Many of the pieces on display have never been shown before.

“The spectacular garments on view will inspire a renewed appreciation for the multidisciplinary talents at the heart of this vibrant art form, and for the countless women whose contributions were, and continue to be, the lifeblood of the global fashion industry we see today,” says Max Hollein, the Met’s director and CEO, in a statement.

Anonymity section of show
A view of the "anonymity" section of the exhibition © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition is divided into four sections—anonymity, visibility, agency and absence/omission—and the garments on view date from the early 20th century to the present day.

It begins with the early history of anonymous dressmakers, a “collective ancestor leading to the present-day eponymous designer,” per the museum. After that, the show examines how women began to take on more visible, public-facing leadership positions. “As women began exercising their newfound agency during the 20th century, designers sought to distinguish themselves amid a competitive fashion system,” writes Time Out’s Rossilynne Skena Culgan. The final section spotlights women from fashion history who haven’t been given their due until recently, such as Ann Lowe, a Black designer who made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, and Adèle Henriette Nigrin Fortuny, who was a central figure in crafting the iconic Delphos gown introduced in 1909.

Dresses from visibility section of the show
Dresses on display in the "visibility" section of the show © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“‘Women Dressing Women’ is about the individual designer’s contributions and women’s societal roles,” Mellissa Huber, the show’s co-curator, tells Vogues Concetta Ciarlo. “There’s a lot of ground to cover. Still, because of the framework of working with the museum’s permanent collection, we managed to really dig into all of the designers and discover unknown names.”

She adds, “There were so many different viewpoints we wanted to highlight. The main takeaway is that the better periods for women in general were also the better periods for women in fashion—they’re correlated.”

Outfits on view in the agency section
A display from the "agency" section of "Women Dressing Women" © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Originally scheduled to open in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, “Women Dressing Women” was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the industry’s representation problems have, in many ways, only worsened.

These problems are deeply embedded in the industry’s history. Even when women designers and women-led fashion houses were able to take center stage, they often weren’t given proper credit for their achievements.

“When we keep repeating the same names—Dior, Balenciaga—we create a canon and a history, and people start to drop off,” co-curator Van Godtsenhoven tells the New York TimesVanessa Friedman. “All of a sudden, all we are talking about are ‘masters’ and ‘fathers’ … [instead of] ‘mothers.’”

Dresses in the absence/omission section of show
Some of the garments on view in the "absence/omission" section of the exhibition © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition includes couture gowns by high-profile makers. But it also showcases lesser-known designers and clothing made for women of all sizes, ages and abilities.

“It’s a show that celebrates the artistic legacy of female fashion designers,” Hollein tells Time Out. “Fashion was a profession where women were permitted to work and to make their living. So in that sense, fashion was a site of female empowerment, and it was a female emancipation in production as well as consumption.”

Women Dressing Women” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through March 3, 2024.

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