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NEW YORK — Today’s opening of “Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set” marks associate curator Andrew Bolton’s maiden exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it will also introduce another new face to the museum’s Costume Institute.
While they are expected to make a more formal debut at the Met’s upcoming “Goddess” exhibit, planned for April 2003, a new set of mannequins commissioned by the Met is also being used in the “Blithe Spirit” show. However, their faces have been partially obscured by thick white stockings, primarily because the exhibition’s subject matter refers to very specific personalities — the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lady Mendl and Mona Bismarck — which are instead reflected by a series of wigs patterned from pictures and paintings of those subjects.
Bismarck’s closely cropped, salt-and-pepper curls, for instance, can be seen in a portrait by Salvador Dali from 1943, when she was married to Harrison Williams. While the renowned beauty was once derided for dyeing her hair brown, the plaster version was designed to reflect the prevalent styles of café society, as does another model based on the parted, horn-like curls of Wallis Warfield Simpson.
The petite proportions of the future duchess also played a part in the creation of the new mannequins, Bolton said, considering a Mainbocher evening dress from 1939 that she wore is displayed in the show’s opening and is close to a size one. To further evoke the famous poses of le beau monde, seen in photographs by Horst and Cecil Beaton, several were also cast in a pose that Bolton called “the debutante slouch,” where the hips and shoulders are thrust forward to make the chest appear concave.
The exhibition also diverges from traditional Costume Institute shows by incorporating decorative arts from the period, such as a mirrored table by Serge Roche that echoes the splintered mirror bodice of a Schiaparelli cape, or another dark wood Roche table whose baroque legs are echoed in the black velvet swirls of a Balenciaga gown.
“There was an incredible connection between fashion and the decorative arts taking place,” Bolton said Wednesday, noting that as the show progresses chronologically through increasingly tense years — ultimately leading to the final declaration of World War II in September 1939 — the relationship between creativity and an acceptance of the sociopolitical client becomes more apparent.
“The whole Blithe world was about denying what was going on,” he said. “While women escaped into tea parties and fancy dress, fashion retreated into classicism and romance.”
For instance, a gallery that features a Vionnet’s transparent crinolines and Balenciaga’s bustle skirts — set against a curvaceous Royere sofa — demonstrates an innocence and longing for references of 1870s and 1880s Victoriana. It is followed by a gallery filled with subsequent designs that reflect the mood of war: Paquin’s day dress covered in blood-red poppies, Chanel’s evening dress in red, white and blue, referencing the French Tricolor, and Schiapparelli’s symbolic torn gown and fuchsia dresses embroidered with beaded flies. Behind them is a Eugène Berman trompe l’oeil wardrobe, painted to appear as a bombed-out building.