As one of the nine film directors who has reimagined period rooms in the American Wing as part of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” Autumn de Wilde isn’t afraid to magnify that life can be pretty messy.
In addition to de Wilde, the roster includes Martin Scorsese, Chloé Zhao, Tom Ford, Sofia Coppola, Regina King, Julie Dash, Radha Blank and Janicza Bravo, with each examining in their own way how dress helped shape diverse American identities within historical settings. Having spent the first half of her career photographing rock ‘n’ roll musicians, de Wilde worked on her first feature film — an adaption of Jane Austen’s “Emma” — at the age of 49.
The detail-oriented creative excels In photography and filmmaking with what she described as a style that infuses color, production design, fashion and humans in equal components to relay a story. Using “a visually heightened world makes you feel really real things,” she said.
Not afraid to magnify the absurdities and realities of life, de Wilde said she just remembers people acting crazy more than other people do. “There is a habit to create a stereotype of ‘this is a woman in distress and she will always look like this’ and ‘this is a man who is romantic and he will always do this and look like that,’” she said. “In ‘Emma,’ I said, ‘What if she got a nosebleed during the proposal?’ I get nosebleeds all the time. That’s happened to me with lovers. I exaggerate to a certain extent and then put in very human things that people [often] forget about because I think life is totally ridiculous. But in a really good way.”
Visitors to what is the second of a two-part exhibition about American fashion will find de Wilde’s mise-en-scènes in the Baltimore Room — a room from a Baltimore town house built around 1810 that belonged to the merchant and shipowner Henry Craig — and in the Benkard Room, a parlor room from a Petersburg, Va., house built in 1811. Directing “Emma,” starring Anya Taylor-Joy and set in early 19th-century England, made for a good fit.
All in all, the focus of her rooms is to remind people that life is messy no matter what time period that it is, de Wilde said. To that end, one room features a woman in hysteria, a drunk man with spilled wine and a rat crawling up his leg, a cat freaking out about the rat, two people running to the rescue, two frightened children and an overturned card table. Her playful approach has researched undercurrents such as that “hysteria was once a blanket term for anything that was wrong with a woman if she wasn’t sitting calmly embroidering. Some women used it to get out of a situation and some women were truly unwell. There was no help, except to say they were having hysteria and label them. That hasn’t changed much, either,” de Wilde said. “So I have a comical scene based on a disastrous family.…Whenever you see the darker side of life in another period, you can balance that with the beauty and the fascination with it.”
Taking a comedic approach, de Wilde said she took photographs of people, who she wanted to have mannequins made in the likeness of. Mannequins were molded to have facial expressions, full breasts and other features that subsequently give an unexpected perspective on their attire. “A lot of people forget that not everyone was just swanning around feeling beautiful in the early 19th century reciting poetry and feeling romantic. People had messy lives,” she said.
One source of inspiration was Elizabeth Bonaparte, who the director noted “liked to have her breasts out, which was very much the French style…and the American interpretation of that same fashion was a lot more demure. I thought that was interesting, because people are still really hung up on breasts. So I had a mannequin molded with breasts, which you rarely see in museums,” de Wilde said.
Bonaparte (an American socialite who married Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome) was obsessed with France, so much so that she wanted to live there and be part of the royal family, which she was denied of, de Wilde said. Even after her husband was ordered by his brother Napoleon to return to France and that his marriage be annulled, the couple attempted to enter France together in 1804 but Elizabeth was denied permission by order of Napoleon. Visitors will find speech bubbles in the scene that highlight actual gossip about Bonaparte that was chronicled in her time. For an added effect, the backbiting female mannequins were also sculpted to have “very bitchy” faces, de Wilde said. “It was really fun to see how much it changes a dress. This period is very romanticized. What was so beautiful were those white muslin dresses but not everyone was beautiful inside. They are all wearing the same style but they were presented so differently because of their attitude.
“It’s very hard to make something feel alive. And I don’t know if it’s possible to achieve that or if I have achieved that [at The Met]. But it was fun trying to control the center of it,” she said.
For The Met, de Wilde dressed a dog figure in a Napoleon-era style early 19th-century French gentleman’s coat. There is also an abundance of extravagant food (including some of Napoleon’s party favorites) to indicate how she is very much showing off. The gloves are sculpted too to relay more expressiveness. The director also has quite a few items made to surround the featured dresses, like a hand painted shawl, which is more vibrant than using a faded one from that period, she said. Shoes reminiscent of that period were remade as a reminder to Met goers that there was color in their clothing at that time. “We see things in museums that were faded now and we forget that people wore really colorful [designs],” she said.
Another sign of her wit can be seen in the male figure, who is examining a very expensive miniature and dropping it. “He looks horrified. Life is really ridiculous but it’s really fun to see such a beautiful, romantic gentleman in a suit, britches and coat on someone who is f–king up,” de Wilde said. “The party is not that fun. No one is having any fun. That’s another part of what I’m saying in that room. The room is really beautiful. It’s such a fun way to play an opposite to the romance of that period in the architecture and in the fashion.”
Having always been obsessed with fashion history, de Wilde said research is essential to her work. Through “Emma,” she learned about the types of people who lived during that period, things that might have happened and customary gossip. “I realized no one wore underwear yet. Where do they go to the bathroom? Stuff that humanizes the story has always been an interest of mine in any period that I am working on in movies,” she said.
Her Anthology vignette highlights how “these people, who were powerful in America, and had money, were not perfect. We don’t know when we read history properly how human they were and how there were just as many selfish and horrible people. I thought it was funny to poke fun at that,” de Wilde said.
Never one to define fashion as “this is the only right thing for someone to wear,” de Wilde hopes that museum visitors will be inspired to put lives into the clothes on view. She expects that in turn will inspire fashion. “By re-presenting clothes from the past, it inspires fashion in the future. The idea of modern is ridiculous. There is no modern. Modern was the ’50s…the reinterpretation of inspiration is what creates something quote-unquote modern. But trying to strip the past away from modern just leaves you with nothing. The past will always be a tool for creating new art, new fashion and a new story,” de Wilde said.
Her portfolio includes fashion photography and years of work chronicling Rodarte. After a five-minute conversation with founders Kate and Laura Mulleavy, de Wilde said, “Whatever it is, I’m in” even though she had never seen their clothes. After years of being immersed in rock ‘n’ roll, she wanted to prove that her skills could transfer. “Because of their personalities, all of the most interesting people in fashion were drawn to them. I got to watch them, interact and photograph them when shows were being built and fittings. We collaborate in such a beautiful way that they will always be my muses and I will always be grateful that they trusted me enough to let me in their lives.”
At 6 feet, 2 inches, de Wilde favors one brand (unless Rodarte makes her something). Her personal uniform amounts to a suit with a big hat. The Ukrainian hat designer Ruslan Baginsky is a favorite. And Rodarte is crafting her Met Gala ensemble.