By Michele Leight
For many people today, the
word "goddess" might invoke images of a gun toting Carrie
Anne Moss as Trinity in the "Matrix," clad in slithery
black vinyl, holding her own with the guys in futuristic battles
against evil, winning the heart of the hero along the way. This
is not as far-fetched as it seems, for Trinity is the modern equivalent
of the mythic foreign tribe of warrior women, the Amazons. It
is inconceivable, however, that any of our modern Hollywood warrior
goddesses would run around bare-breasted - as they are represented
in the statues of antiquity - wielding spears in muscular arms,
hair flying in the wind. The ratings would soar, but such heady
imagery is not for the real world and in any case, it would never
get past the censors. Things were different in ancient times.
For other mythologically addicted folk, a goddess is certainly
not a woman who gets "down and dirty" but is instead
a creature who is worshipped and adored from afar on a pedestal
and not an ordinary mortal. This woman might resemble Sandro Botticelli's
famous and ethereally beautiful portrayal of the young goddess
in the "Birth of Venus," painted in 1485, (Galeria degli
Uffizi, Florence), clothed in nothing but skin and flawless proportions,
her impossibly abundant tresses curling in unison with the waves
tossing her about in her oyster shell. Angels are close at hand,
blowing wind to hasten her perilous journey, and more angels stand
ready with a cloak to cover her as she embarks upon life in the
This idealized woman is the protected, "perfect" goddess
and Botticelli's choice of model set the bar high for future depictions
of goddesses of all types. His definitive representation of Venus,
the Italian version of Aphrodite, (the fabled goddess of love
in Greek mythology), together with other imitators and artists,
has been hugely influential in everyday life, from Valentine's
day celebrations to the association of roses with love the flowers
associated with Venus, the goddess of love. Where would we be
without love after all, a word inextricably linked with the idea
of "Goddess," the focus of a show at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York from May 1 August 3, 2003.
Sandro Botticelli knew his Ovid. The Roman poet wrote of an ancient
myth in which Pygmalion, a sculptor disenchanted by mortal women,
created an image of feminine perfection. When he became enthralled
with his own sculpted ideal, Venus responded to his prayers and
brought the statue to life as Galatea. Botticelli's ethereal goddess
Venus was not going to do her own fighting or back up the guys
in sweaty chases down grimy alleyways, as Trinity does in the
Matrix and the amazons of ancient times might have done. Like
Helen of Troy, she would more likely inspire hundreds of men to
defend her honor with sword, muscle and their lives if necessary.
Perhaps this is why myths and fairytales enchant us. An entire
section of the "Goddess" show is devoted to "Galatea,"
or "art into life." Tracing the history of fashion design
through the centuries and idealizing and beautifying the female
form through exquisitely wrought garments may sound like pure
fantasy but many of the clothes are refreshingly wearable.
The press preview for the
current exhibition "Goddess," opened to great excitement
on a pristine spring morning. Descending into the famous subterranean
galleries of the Costume Institute required changing lanes visually,
but the spectacle indoors was just as dazzling as the birth of
spring outdoors. Many of the gowns featured would have been worn
by Hollywood screen idols of the 30s like Marlene Dietrich and
onward to Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn. Gowns worn more recently
by Jacqueline Kennedy and Nicole Kidman share the limelight with
classic evening ensembles by Vionnet, Poiret and the divine Madame
Gres. Whoever wore these gowns, then or now, they were women at
the top of their game or unwilling to dim their lights. Such women
would be mythic in stature, though certainly flesh and blood,
and the display is both beautiful and thought provoking, ranging
from the 18th century white gossamer mull gowns worn by Jane Austen's
heroines to elegant silver halter dresses by Ralph Lauren that
are visible today in the windows of his 72nd street and Madison
Avenue flagship store.
Before introducing Harold
Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, Phillipe de
Montebello remarked "on the unbroken line of classical influence"
in the gowns at the show in the imposing wing housing the Temple
of Dendur. What a spectacle the nymphs and goddesses and maeneads
would have made in that setting. The Met offers up so much so
often, there are times one must simply take a moment and thank
the powers that be that this magnificent institution is in New
Spring heralds the Mets famous "party of the year,"
and preparations were in full swing for the event that evening.
Lila Acheson Wallace's ongoing legacy of abundant floral bouquets
places the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the highest possible
category of breath-taking museum entrances. It is drawn to my
attention every time I am with a visitor from abroad or other
parts of the United States. Like the famous Christmas tree, the
seasonal floral displays are now an intrinsic and much-loved part
of the Met experience.
The Dendur Wing is one of the glories of New York, with its ancient
temple, indoor pool and soaring glass panes. Blue skies dotted
with clouds accompanied the first budding leaves of spring that
had wrought their magic on the winter weary boughs, turning gray
into green in Central Park. In ancient times the pagan populace
of Greece and Rome celebrated the advent of spring with rites
that would raise an eyebrow today animal sacrifice, virgins delivered
up unto the gods and all kinds of debauchery and Dionysian excess.
A prolonged winter can have that effect but now there is prosac
or a good show like this.
Fearful imagery is entirely absent from "Goddess" at
the Met and nymphs are the perfect accompaniment to any season
when the spirits are a trifle jaded. "Haute" fashion
injects adrenalin into sluggish veins when for a few enchanted
moments workaday women imagine plunking down thousands for the
kind of gowns featured in this show, but in reality wind up paying
for that summer school for Sally or simply paying the mortgage.
Fantasy, pure and simple, is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would
say, and that is what "Goddess" offers. It is like a
clandestine afternoon spent watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
strutting their stuff instead of going grocery shopping.
It is revealing that Niclole
Kidman was invited to co-chair the "party of the year"
at the benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that evening,
together with Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief of Vogue Magazine
and Tom Ford, Creative Director of Gucci, who sponsored the show.
At six feet tall in her bare feet, statuesquely beautiful and
elegant whether she wears faded jeans or designer gowns, Kidman
qualifies as a contemporary classical beauty, or "goddess."
She never disappoints her fans, dons a large nose to portray Virginia
Woolf, one of the great female genius's of the 20th century, and
wears glamorous outfits for blockbuster events like the Oscars.
Kidman even managed to appear as dewy and fresh at 9 AM on a recent
Regis & Kelly show as though she had risen at noon and sound
intelligent. The John Galliano for Christian Dior gold gown that
she wore to the 2000 Oscars is included in the show. Pity she
could not walk up and down in it just for a few brief, shining
All cultures have their interpretations of goddesses, in various
sizes, varieties and moods. In the East there are goddesses of
love, learning, procreation and death: the Hindu goddess Kali
wears necklaces of skulls and has multiple arms wielding swords,
making the Amazons seem quite tame by comparison. Across the world,
from Africa, Asia and Europe, there is the ideal of the "mother
goddess" depicted with abundant breasts and generous hips
to ensure the safe birth and survival of the small life entering
the world and calculated to jump-start the libido of Mr. Right
so that children may be created at all.
The famous "Kamasutra" carvings in India where the classical
loincloth is widely featured - were created with the intention
of increasing the population, and not conceived as a pornographic
peep show. The loincloths are so gossamer fine and transparent
that very little is concealed very much like Romeo Gigli's featherlite
nymph dresses and Norma Kamali's intentionally transparent bathing
suit at the show.
"Goddess" does not delve into the global significance
of earth mothers and fertility symbols or Kali, but instead focuses
specifically on the clothing worn by the classical Greek and Roman
goddesses that have soaked into our unconscious via art book reproductions
or directly from Attic vases, Pompein murals and the sculptures
of Greece and Rome. This show examines the influence that the
spare and elegant garments of antiquity have had upon successive
generations of fashion designers and fashion through the centuries.
It is one of the most enduring aspects of style ever invented,
and may be linked to saris and sarongs in Asia, kilts in Scotland
and the simple minimalist shifts that girls and women wear today.
However, the more "fantastical" gowns on view, while
nodding to antiquity, offer memorable "takes" on the
classical, laced with irony and humor, the most provocative coming
from contemporary designers. Chanel's glittering genius remains
as bright as ever, and it is important to remember how revolutionary
she was in her day as her design vocabulary has now become so
fully absorbed into modern fashion culture.
Christian Lacroix's inspired evening gown, illustrated at the
top of the story, is a dream dress worthy of Chanel, the rose
at the waist recalling her famous camellias. Lacroix ingeniously
layers tulle over body-hugging satin, lending an alluring peek-a-boo
quality to a "serious" dress. Surprisingly there is
no work-out gear at the show, considering how many hours the modern
woman spends at the gym. Chanel, with amazing foresight, took
ordinary jersey fabric and, for the first time in fashion history,
applied it to women's attire, causing a revolution that has its
legacy wherever one looks today from "Gap" T shirts
and work out gear to sophisticated silk jersey evening dresses
by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. It would have been
remarkable to seen that connection made in the glass cases at
Two of the most memorable gowns were created by very different
contemporary designers: one an older, sophisticated master of
haute-couture elegance, Oscar de la Renta, and the other an "enfant
terrible" with a genius for interpreting fashion - Alexander
McQueen. A ballet costume belonging to Isadora Duncan bridges
the gap between art and life, and leave a lasting impression of
the creative genius through the medium of fabric.
The artistry of classical pleating and fabric manipulation reach
a peak at this show in the creations of Mario Fortuny, Mary McFadden,
Pierre Balmain and Issey Miyake. Halston's spare and very American
sense of style is particularly noticeable and enduring, even in
the heady company of fashion titans like Madame Gres, Balenciaga
and the entire "haute couture" fashion establishment.
Halston's gowns are always unpretentious and elegant and classical.
In the exhibition catalog that accompanies the "Goddess"
show, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press,
2003), Harold Koda writes:
Halston called these dresses his "Goddess" gowns. His
goddesses, however, were the stars of Hollywood, Broadway and
American high society. In creating dresses for his celebrity clients,
Halston balanced his impulse to minimalism with an ingenious ability
to infuse his work with glamour. Styles that recalled the antique
through the filter of the 1930s silver-screen sirens appeared
with regularity in his collections. Halston was a master of simple
constructions with maximum effects. His Goddess gowns typify his
best work, alluding both to the scarf ties of Vionnet and the
bandage wrappings of Chanel." It is easy to imagine Grace
Kelly, Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall in Halston's blue silk
jersey "Goddess" gown, circa 1972, lent by The Museum
of the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York (Gift of Lauren
In his collections for Gucci
and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Tom Ford has referenced the
classical past but with a "twist." His tightly pleated
dresses recall Madame Gres, whose gowns also featured fissures
and openings revealing the body beneath, but Ford's manipulation
of the fabric is rough, the pleats are irregular, and the edges
of the fabric deliberately frayed. Ford's cruder nod to Hellenism
challenges the more conventional notion of the cool perfection
and refinement associated with classicism.
"Evening dress, fuscia
silk chiffon, resort 2002," by Tom Ford (born 1961) for Yves
Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, (French, founded 1966), alludes to
"a repertoire of leitmotifs established by Saint Laurent,"
writes Koda in the exhibition catalog, adding that " Ford
has been oblique in his quotations of the company's rich heritage.
Saint Laurent's collections often included a number of fluid gowns
alluding to the antique, but the sensuality of his work was always
mediated by the chill of his intellect, distanced from any hint
of vulgarity or the profane. Ford's effects are deliberately visceral
and explicitly sexual, perhaps reflecting a belief that there
can be an excess of refinement, and that calculated imperfection
might introduce a seductive approachability."
The collection of "Goddess" gowns is organized in five
parts, beginning with costumes that introduce the principles of
classical dress that have informed fashion since the late 18th
century, from the Directoire and Empire periods to the present.
Sheer mull dresses from the Napoleonic era are shown with early
20th century gowns reflecting the Directoire-revival styles embraced
by Paul Poiret and Lucile. Far from being demure, nymph like gowns,"Two
dresses, white mull," (French, circa 1810, French, the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, The Costume Institute) illustrate the transparent
properties of sheer mull, which often revealed more than they
concealed of the wearer.
"Their classisicm," according to Koda, was "aligned
with an arcadian "naturalism" that rationalized the
disclosure of the supple female form. Observers of the period
frequently deplored the absence of modesty conveyed by a style
that was predicated on the prominence and exposure of the breasts
and on the barely veiled body. The women of ancient Greece, generally
swathed in modesty, would have been startled by this promiscuous
public display." So much for Jane Austen's conversational
teas in the parlour pinky raised of course. It appears the gentlemen
came calling for other reasons.
The second gallery presents
designs inspired by traditional garments such as the chiton, himation
and peplos worn in ancient Greece. Examples of early 20th Century
couture such as Paul Poiret's peplos are paired with recent creations
by Yves St. Laurent. The means by which the basic types of chiton,
peplos and himation Greek "gear" in today language -
were adjusted to modifiy silhouettes and individualize styles
is explored in the third gallery. The use of waist cinches and
harnesses transformed the ancient Greek beauty's form in innumerable
variations. The "girding" of the ancients is re-defined
in cashmere evening gowns by Halston, pleated silks by Prada,
and bondage style strapwork by Gucci. Dreamy, diaphanous nymph
dresses by Dolce & Gabbana are placed near the "scandalous"
dance costumes of the legendary Isadora Duncan.
The fourth gallery, entntled "Ariadne's Thread," focuses
on drapery, revealing the hidden constructions and delicate manipulations
that promote the creation of the ideal of feminine dress controlled
exposure without overt disclosure, or the essence of classicism.
This extraordinary selection features Issey Miyake's textile wizardry,
Liberty of London and divine dresses by Azzedine Alaia and Geoffrey
Beene, the latter in a drop-dead shade of red.
The final gallery is devoted
to ornamental details and embellishment. Fortuny pleats and metal
dresses sporting the Greek key and meander motif by Douglas Ferguson
are displayed with gilt-leaf corded lariats by Vionnet and Mary
McFadden, which recall the gold laurels that adorned Hellenic
goddesses and beauties. The fabulously spare and elegant spiraling
seafoam green dress by Valentino, worn famously by Jacqueline
Kennedy on her visit to Cambodia, merges the structure of the
sari with a poetic evocation of the birth of Venus; the richly
beaded border recalls seashells and cornucopia. A re-creation
of this gown was worn by Jennifer Lopez, who dazzled in it, at
the 2003 Academy Awards no body-revelations this time, sorry guys.
While the spare and elegant
silhouette of the sleek classical "sheath" predominate
in "Goddess" (in which the body is virtually poured
into a tube of fabric and had better be in perfect shape), the
most fascinating aspect of the show are the contemporary interpretations
of a "ballgown," -presented with "tongue in cheek"
bravado - that a modern "Botticelli Venus" might wear.
Bearing labels like "Oyster Dress" (Cream silk organza
and chiffon by Alexander McQueen, Spring 2003), and aided by a
strategically placed reproduction of Botticelli's "Birth
of Venus," the link to classical antiquity is clearly defined.
Unlike the idealized Botticelli
Venus, however, Alexander McQueen's goddess has been tossed about
in the waves and struggled to stay alive on her journey to the
real world, as the elegant tatters on her gown suggest. The modern
goddess of love is presented as a survivor of a tumultuous ocean
the idealized goddess fused with the amazon of antiquity. The
tatters are decorative and symbolic and superbly rendered, and
the generous flowing lines of the gown are unrestricting - the
opposite of the tubular "sheath," which would prevent
any goddess from swimming for her life. Despite the tatters McQueen's
gown is an affirmation of the high standards of hand-wrought couture
still available today, despite our fast-paced, machine- dominated
world. It offers an alternative "tatter couture" and
like tom Ford's hands on classicism, it is seductive and approachable.
Movement would have been
paramount in the mind of the designer in the creation of a costume
worn by the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, and a "form
follows function" philosophy underlies the costume she wore
for her famous ballets. At the time, both she and her costumes
were considered scandalous, as bare legs and arms popped out from
hems and armholes, but this did not prevent audiences from flocking
to her performances. An above-the-knee, (very risqué back
then), highly individualistic, classically inspired costume in
an unusual shade of purple is encased together wih a long "arts
and crafts" version of the antique by her brother, Douglas
Isadora Duncan was a revolutionary "mover and shaker,"
who scoffed at the frothy ballet tutu, pioneered modern ballet
and demanded unrestricting clothing which allowed her feet to
fly as she charged like a creative lighting bolt into the conventional
sensibilities of the audiences of her day. Isadora Duncan earned
her mythic stature: she was an extraordinary genius and as dramatic
in death as she was in life. Whilst driving with the hood down
in a magnificent Bugatti in the South of France, her trailing,
diaphanous scarf became caught up in the spinning wheels of the
car and her neck was broken instantaneously.
Back in our own history compartment, Harold Koda, writes of contemporary
fashion designers in the beautifully illustrated catalog to the
"Over the years, with the influence of certain Japanese designers,
most consistently Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, and a new
generation of Belgians, the Antwerp Six, a conceptually transgressive
methodology emerged. For those designers, history is tumbled and
assimilated. Unlike the bright juxtaposition of old forms newly
minted that is visible in architectural post-modernism, the new
historicism finds expression in elements that have eroded and
melded into ambiguous morphologies. Like the work of deconstructivist
architect Peter Eisenmann, these designers seem to highlight the
unstable junctures and tensions of contradictory narratives. Theirs
is a train wreck of history, with periods no longer discrete but
piled, twisted and welded into new forms, in which the focus shifts
to the tenuous balance created by collapse rather that by the
lucidity of linear alignment."
"Collapse" and "train wreck" are not descriptions
one would normally associate with classical antiquity, but imaginative
designers today somehow make it all work without losing the thread
of their original inspiration. Just as images from all forms of
media assault our sensibilities till they are in danger of blowing
a fuse, designers must synthesize and edit from the sheer volume
of historical reference now available to them and make an original
statement with fabric and fingers that give meaning to their creations.
If one looks at any environment where women are present today,
from the sarong on the beach to the slinky one-shoulder prom dress
worn by a teen, the link to the classical is visible.
While some might find little connection between the more recent
fashion statements at the show and the classical originals, Mr.
"Although fashion is predicated on a rather accelerated cycle
of innovation and obsolence, there have been numerous instances
of its impulse to forms of immutable ideal beauty. Invariable,
the invocation of designs impervious to the capriciousness of
fashion has attributes of Graeco-Roman gods and goddesses, discrete
classicising by which ephemeral fashions are imbued with an ostensible
sense of timeless and enduring beauty. Some of the elements establishing
a transcendant association with the antique directly cite the
costume types observed through ancient artworks, whether sculpture,
wall frescoes, or red-and-black figure vase paintings"
The most striking thing about this display of gowns is their fluidity:
no lumpy bustles to the rear or the mushrooming silhouettes of
the whalebone petticoat variety. For that we have to thank Monsieur
Paul Poiret, (1880-1944), who liberated women from the punishments
of the corset by pronouncing the pinched waist "passé"
and embracing instead the "column," or Directoire Revival
silhouette for the fashionable woman's gown.
Poiret's gowns were, and remain, ground-breaking, and have intrigued
this writer from the first Poiret gown spotted at age 14 in the
costume galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington,
London. Poiret's simple, classical silhouettes were often accompanied
by exquisite fabrics or detailing Indian, Chinese or Japanese
oriental fantasies, peacocks strutting across embroidered Deco
grids, "Mikado"-esque nightgowns, and geometrics in
sophisticated Mediterrenean colors. His imagination, born on solid
classical principles of design, explored the landscape of art
history with enthusiasm and energy. Unfortunately the dour ensemble
chosen for this show lacks zip, but it is impeccably classical
in its conception.
It is of no importance: Poiret would have my vote as a designer
in a league of his own solely for enabling women to eat their
hamburgers or salads without having to breathe through a whalebone
corset. Visions of mammy "lacing up" Scarlett O'Hara
to her "pinched waist" minimum in "Gone With the
Wind" puts in perspective the importance of Poiret's contribution
to the comfort and emancipation of women. Harold Koda has this
to say about the designer's revolutionary denouncement of the
corset as outmoded and his affinity for non-Western dress:
"The jettisoning of the corset alone established Poiret as
among the most important and influential designers to this day.
Poiret's interest in the "liberating" style and cut
of non-Western regional dress results in a peplos-like ensemble
(at the show). Two separate but identical squares of cloth, one
worn like a short poncho and the other wrapped into a cylindrical
skirt, create a peplos effect with its apoptygma-style top. Although
the ensemble is not constructed like any classical Greek precedent,
the use of cloth, completely orthogonal as if off the loom, suggests
an affinity to the simply configured garments of the ancient world,
which were also formed out of rectilinear pieces of cloth scaled
to their intended use directly on the loom. This interest in the
non-tailored traditions of much regional dress was not restricted
to Poiret, nor was his conflation of classical styles with ethnographic
forms. Madame Gres is perhaps the best example of the phenomenon,
but Cristobal Balenciaga, Valentino, Issey Miyake and Romeo Gigli,
among others, have all made Graeco-Roman allusions through minimalist
constructions based on clothing traditions outside the Western
by Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain Haute Couture, fall-winter
2002, (French, founded 1945), is displayed in the same gallery
as McQueen's "Oyster Dress." It is a sleek evening ensemble
of gold painted feathers and pleated gold lame worthy of a designer
who imbues even his ready-to-wear collections with "an haute
couture aura" writes Koda. Known for all out luxury, which
suited the lives of many of his sophisticated clients, de la Renta
injected American pragmatism into the "only for the runway"
world of Balmain.
"His explorations of the couture atelier's extraordinary
artisanal possibilities" writes Koda, "has yielded evening
designs of subtle refinements not possible in the ready-to-wear.In
this ensemble from his final collection for Balmain, de la Renta
referenced Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Perhaps alluding to
her favorite bird, the owl, (he) created a breastplate of gilt
cock feathers that have been hand-clipped and overlapped in carefully
graduated rows. For its illusion of metallic heft, the breastplate
is literally featherweight; each pinion has been individually
attached to a silk net ground that is lined in silk organza. Paired
with a long skirt of crimped-and-pleated gold gauze, the ensemble
suggests a contemporary feminine counterpart of Louis XIV's well-known
costume in which he portrayed Apollo. In seventeenth-century fancy
dress, and in twenty-first century evening dress, the breastplate
is both an attribute associated with a deity and an opportunity
for brilliantly gilded display." In this gown, technical
wizardry fuses with an elegant imagination to produce an extraordinary
gown for a mature goddess, the stately accompaniment to McQueen's
tumbled, tattered young goddess of love.
By the end of the show, one thing becomes clear. Despite the history
of women as the traditional supporters or mothers or whatever
- of the successful or famous man, modern goddesses who own gowns
such as those displayed at this show are a combination of the
dreamy Botticelli Venus and the amazon warrior women of antiquity.
They now earn decent paychecks and command the respect and status
that "purchasing power" previously accorded only to
men. The modern goddess does not have to beg, plead or connive
to get the gown of her dreams she can go out and buy one for herself
if she chooses. Or perhaps Mr. Right will go to a show like this
and make a mental note for the next Valentine's Day or birthday
gift and surprise his beloved.
The most important development of the past century is that if
a woman or man cannot or does not wish to spend the big dollars
on the high-priced "couture" or designer gown, virtually
every well-known designer today offers a more reasonably priced
"ready to wear" version.
Judging by the numerous examples of Greek and Roman statuary at
the Metropolitan Museum itself, the ancients were consistent in
their adherence to classical style. The ripples of fabric echo
the ebbs and tides of the ocean and are made manifest time and
again in peplos, togas, himations and chitons worn by the men
and women of Greece and Rome depicted in marble and stone with
little variation through the centuries. Some pleats are more pinched
and deliberate, while others are as fluid and timeless as the
waves themselves. Would the "Victory of Samothrace"
be half as beguiling or leaving such a lasting impression without
the diaphanous ripples of her gown balancing her jubilant, arching
wings? Those Greek sculptors knew their ripples.
Modern designers may subvert,
invert and stand classicism on its head, but the underlying order
and classical principles of ancient Greece shine through even
the most wayward interpretations of the antique. The show is as
decadent as a luscious hot fudge sundae, dripping with latent
eroticism and Dionysian excess. Like the best monochromatic 30s
and 40s movies, little is revealed and everything is implied.