After about 200-plus media types wound their way through “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” the second part of the Costume Institute’s exhibition in the museum’s American Wing, FLOTUS addressed attendees in the Charles Englehard Court. Wearing a white and black floral dress, Biden opened with thanks in support of education. Interestingly, there were hardly any American designers in the crowd. Her remarks seemed to deliberately steer clear of the public’s view of women’s American fashion — $132.7 billion business last year, especially as it relates to designers.
Biden said, “Our style lets us express things that we can’t put into words. We reveal and conceal who we are with symbols and shapes, colors and cuts, and who creates them. The history of American design is rich and deep. It is a story of innovation and ingenuity, of rebellion and renewal. It has often been written by those in the shadows, not recognized for their influence and art. But here at The Met, their stories are told. Their voices are raised and their work can shine. That’s why I was so excited to accept Anna’s [Wintour] exhibition to join you to celebrate this incredible exhibit and the education that is such a critical part of your mission,” Biden said.
As an English teacher, Biden said she has always believed in the power of language and since becoming first lady, she has realized “that it is only one way that we communicate.” When the president was preparing for the State of the Union address a few months ago, Biden said her “mind was a world away. Like so many Americans, I was transfixed by the news of Ukraine, the bombs, the parents weeping over children’s broken bodies on the streets.”
In the lead-up to the State of the Union, FLOTUS said she knew that the only thing that would be reported about her was what she was wearing. So she ordered sunflower appliqués, the flower of Ukraine, and had one sewn on the cuff of her deep cobalt blue dress as a symbol of hope and solidarity. “That night sitting by the Ukrainian ambassador [Oksana Markarova] I knew that I was sending a message without saying a word. That Ukraine was in our hearts and that we stood with them.”
Biden also informed the crowd of an announcement that she had made earlier Monday to visit American troops in Romania and Slovakia, and to spend Mother’s Day with Ukrainian families that have been displaced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. “As a mother myself, I can only imagine the grief the families are feeling. I know that we don’t share a language but I hope that I can convey in ways so much greater than words that their resilience inspires me, that they are not forgotten and that all Americans stand with them still.”
Turning the focus back to part two of the exhibition, Biden said, “As we celebrate the designers and the fashion that has shaped the very identity of America, I hope it will inspire all of us to keep learning. I hope it will help us to see the beauty and the art that surrounds us every day. And most importantly, I hope it will remind us just to be bold and brave. Thank you for all that you do.”
With that, the first lady then joined Wintour, the Costume Institute’s Wendy Yu curator in charge Andrew Bolton and the Lawrence A. Fleischman curator in charge of The American Wing’s Sylvia Yount in a private tour of the exhibition. In his remarks Monday, The Met’s director Max Hollein referred to Bolton as the museum’s “employee of the year.”
Biden’s audience Monday included Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Julie Dash and Autumn de Wilde, a few of the nine film directors who reimagined some of the period rooms for the new exhibition. Another major contributor to the spring show, the milliner Stephen Jones, who designed all of the headpieces, was also in attendance, along with other fashion mainstays like Thom Browne, Sandy Schreier and Nancy Chilton.
As for what de Wilde thought of the finished product, she said enthusiastically, “‘Well, I finished.’”
Several attendees doubled back for a second loop around the Vanderlyn Panorama gallery, where Tom Ford had envisioned “The Battle of Versailles,” the 1973 showdown between American and European designers, with airborne chrome mannequins in some of the designs worn by models in the legendary fashion show. With John Vanderlyn’s “Panoramic View of the Palace and the Garden of Versailles, 1818-19” as a backdrop, Ford positioned the designer-clad mannequins dueling with fencing swords beneath a mirrored ceiling. As it turned out, Ford, whose feature films include “Nocturnal Animals” and “A Single Man,” outdid the other eight directors in terms of precision.
During a preview Sunday, Bolton said that Ford’s installation was probably the most complicated one. Where the mannequins would be placed had to be determined in advance, because once the floor was installed nothing could be moved. Replica toiles in similar fabrics and prints had to be made, and after Ford checked out the mock set-up, a few tweaks were made and the mannequins’ toiles were replaced with the actual designer dresses. “That was so complicated. I wanted there to be a time lapse in the room installed so that people could see how complicated it was. But we couldn’t,” Bolton said. “But with each one, you’re dealing with directors who have very specific visions. That’s what I like about this exhibition. Each room has its own aesthetic and is [like] a short film.”
Unsung designers like Ann Lowe, Fannie Criss Payne and Olympe Boisse are featured in “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” Speaking of the many women featured in the 100-item spring exhibition, Bolton said Sunday, “The fact that these women achieved what they did, despite discrimination and despite prejudices in some cases, and had these thriving businesses is extraordinary It’s very moving.”
While Bolton and other museum brass will be greeting hundreds of guests at Monday night’s Met Gala, FLOTUS has other plans. She and President Joe Biden will host a reception in celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the White House.