By  on April 28, 2010

Who embodies the American woman and her style today?

Is it Michelle Obama, whose mix of high and low gives a whole new meaning to the idea of fashion democracy? Or Sandra Bullock, America’s sweetheart, who everyone seems to be rooting for these days given her husband Jesse James’ much-publicized travails? Some may consider Scarlett Johansson, whom many deem the modern incarnation of the Screen Siren, while others would name reality television “starlet” Heidi Montag, with her penchant for surgical enhancements, as the new American ideal.

These women may seem a far cry from what the fashion flock considers quintessentially American — a notion more typically linked to the concept of American sportswear and its easy spirit that comes through in looks ranging from Arnold Scaasi to Halston in “High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” the book that accompanies the Costume Institute’s “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” exhibit.

As the Costume Institute prepares to unveil its spring exhibit next week, the female face of America will almost certainly become a key topic of conversation, particularly among fashion types looking to pinpoint just what American style is and how it has evolved since the 1890s Gibson Girl, who serves as the starting point for the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The American style has absolutely cultivated itself,” said Donna Karan, who herself, with her iconic seven easy pieces, has come to define one facet of it. “You see this effortlessness of individuality and comfort, which I think comes from the legacy of the blue jeans. When you think of America, you think of T-shirts and blue jeans.”

Ralph Lauren said American style is “really about living. Though there is elegance and sophistication to American style, its signature is in its casual and varied attitude. It’s less studied, more natural, more about life and less about fashion.”

Vera Wang echoed those sentiments. “It is a certain confidence, sense of cool, sense of casual, and sense of effortlessness,” she said. “It has obviously evolved but, in Paris, a lot of fashion was dictated by the designers. American women like comfort, they like freedom, and they don’t like to be dictated to. They were never fenced in by their history for as long as the French, the Germans and the Italians. We also developed a culture of celebrity, which in Europe were the designers, but in America were the icons, like Jackie Kennedy, Babe Paley, the Cushing sisters, Grace Kelly and even athletes, like Dorothy Hamill and her wedge haircut.”

Diversity has always been a defining feature of the U.S., and the Met exhibit is likely to drive that message home with a journey through different female archetypes that ultimately serve to lay the foundations for the individualistic and relaxed, casual attitude most consider quintessentially American today.

The show will feature about 80 looks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, which was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in January 2009. There will be six, purpose-built circular galleries that set the stage for different American archetypes since 1890: The “Gibson Girl,” the “Bohemian,” the “Suffragist” and “Patriot,” “Flappers,” the “Screen Siren,” and, finally, a look at the faces of American women from the 1890s through now. In each case, fashion played an integral role in shaping their identity, and designers whose works are in the exhibition include Charles Frederick Worth, Chanel, Callot Soeurs, Charles James, Jeanne Lanvin, Jessie Franklin Turner and Madeleine Vionnet.

Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton cited the Gibson Girl — Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations of turn-of-the-20th century beauties that captured the independent, athletic American woman — as the first ideal of beauty to emerge here.

“Prior to that, American women were still following Europe considerably, even in terms of their modes and manners,” Bolton said. “The Gibson girl was the first mass media archetype of the American woman, and in a way, she was the first to challenge European dominance of accepted standards of style and beauty. She was considered liberated and emancipated woman, at least physically, which is still associated with the American woman today.”

Media played a key role in crystallizing the ideals of the American woman, and where once Gibson created his version through sketches for magazines, Hollywood later became a key communicator of the identity, albeit in a hyper-glamorized way.

“We started exporting this idea of the Hollywood screen actress, which showed the lifestyle of an American,” said Patrick Robinson, executive vice president of design at Gap Inc., which is underwriting the exhibit. “The fashion was liberating for a lot of women, it was optimistic, it was beautiful, and I think it started showing the world a different idea of America.”

Robinson, who earlier in his career lived in Paris and Milan, said he can spot an American woman from a mile away, “because they smile, which the rest of the world doesn’t always do. There is that sense of optimism in America in the way that Americans embrace life and embrace dress, no matter if you are a rocker or a teacher. We embrace it and want to wear it as a badge of honor.”

In the Fifties, Hollywood also played a key role in exporting the American lifestyle, and women around the world have gleaned their fashions from the movies. Transatlantic stylistic differences have eroded even more so over the past decade as a result of globalization and technology.

“If someone falls in love with a handbag or a jacket in London, chances are she is falling in love with it in Los Angeles, in Seoul and in Munich,” Michael Kors said. “Because of the Internet, she doesn’t have to send out smoke signals to her friends anymore about what’s the hottest thing in town. She gets the information even without leaving the house.

“The reality is you walk down Avenue Montaigne and people are wearing sportswear and ballet slippers,” Kors added. “The idea of a French woman gussied up with a poodle is from another time.”

That said, Kors agreedAmerican women still approach their fashion with a sportier, on-the-go approach and without fear of breaking fashion rules. “I look at pictures of my grandmother when she was a teenager,” Kors said. “Her parents were immigrants and had old-fashioned European ways, and there she is with bobbed hair, a cigarette, no bra and a shift. If they hadn’t left Europe, there is no chance she would be willing to break the rules that way.”

To Kors, there isn’t just one type of woman who embodies America, but many.

“To the world, Jennifer Aniston is the quintessential American girl,” he said. “Her hair is undone, she is tanned and athletic. Then you could go the opposite way and have someone like Chloë Sevigny, a girl who subverts American style. It has always been a cast of characters.

“Think about the Thirties and how, in one decade, you could have Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn. There couldn’t be more polar opposites. Today, we have bombshells and tomboys, and they are both part of the American vernacular,” Kors said.

Not everyone, however, sings the praises of more recent iterations of the American female ideal. Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan said that an excessively sexy archetype currently dominates the American cultural scene, driven by the national obsession with plastic surgery and surgical enhancements of body parts. He isn’t too fond of the development.

“It’s not a great moment for the American woman right now because of this macrofocus on hypersexuality,” Doonan said, adding the current embodiment is “probably unfortunately someone like Heidi Montag. I don’t know how well it serves women, when you think about the world of breast implants, and fake hair and fake tans and fake everything that are a dominant feature of our culture right now. Maybe now is a great time to reflect on the more nuanced archetypes in history.

“Thank god it is balanced out with more thoughtful icons like Michelle Obama,” Doonan added.

Bolton at the Costume Institute sees Sarah Jessica Parker fulfill the American ideal.

“She is such a style icon, but apart from that, she is very adaptable in terms of the clothes she wears,” Bolton said. “She is somebody who costumes herself into roles. When you think of Sarah Jessica Parker, you almost think of a flapper, because she has this remarkable joie de vivre about her. Michelle Obama represents this idea of a democratic way of dressing high and low and is a contemporary patriot or suffragist. Chloë Sevigny may be a Bohemian, and Scarlett Johansson the Screen Siren.”

Robinson at Gap graciously agreed the First Lady embodies the ideal perfectly today — even if she does wear more J. Crew than Gap. “She always seems very comfortable in her skin,” he said. “It looks like she is dressing for herself. She can dress up, but has that attitude of casualness. To have a First Lady dress the way she does shows that this is something that we still are as a country.”

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