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Goddess

The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 1 to August 3, 2003

Evening gown by Christian LaCroix

Evening Gown by Christian LaCroix, French, b. 1951, spring-summer 1998, white stille tulle, courtesy of Christian LaCroix

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 real world.

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.

Evening ensembles by Marino Fortuny

Evening ensembles by Marino Fortuny, Italian, born in Spain, 1971-1945, pale blue pleasted silk with Murano glass beads, 1934, right, gift of Mrs. Anthony Wilson, 1979, and gift of the Estate of Agnes Miles Carpenter, left

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.

Phillipe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum

Phillipe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, addressing press preview for the exhibition in front of the Temple of Dendur, photograph by Michele Leight

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 York.

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.

Anna Wintour and Tom Ford

Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, right, and Harold Boda, director of The Costume Institute, right, at exhibition's press preview, photograph by Michele Leight

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 moments.

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 this show.

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 Bacall).

Tom Ford of Gucci, one of the show's sponsors, photograph by Michele Leight

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.

Red evening dress by Tom Ford for Yves St. Laurent Rive Gauche

Fuchsia silk chiffon evening dress at right was designed by Tom Ford, American, b. 1961, for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, French, founded 1966. Exhibition notes that this dress "reflects the effects of Madame Grès who also introduced fissures and openings to the body....Here, however, the chiffon is handled roughly, the pleats are irregulat and the edges of the cloth are frilled and frayed."

"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.

Evening ensembles by Dolce & Gabbano

Evening ensembles by Dolce & Gabbano, Italian, founded 1982, spring summer 2003, white silk chiffon

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.

Evening gown ensembles by Mary McFadden

Evening gown ensembles by Mary McFadden, American, b. 1938, autumn-summer 1991-2, Ivory pleated synthetic and gold metallic circling, courtesy of Mary McFadden. The museum exhibitio notes that the fabric originates in Australia, is dyed in Japan and then subjected to patented process known as "Marii" and that it is virtually indestructible.

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.

"Oyster" dress by Alexander McQueen, British, b. 1969, spring 2003, courtesy of Alexander McQueen. The exhibition notes that this dress "seems to be poetic rendering of a disaster at sea," adding that the "sand-colored organza recalls the mille-feuille ridging on the surface of a shell" and that it is a pearl encased in a "deconstructing oyster."

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.

"Venus" dress by Christian Dior

"Venus" dress by Christian Dior, French, 1905-1957, gray silk embroidered with feather-shaped opalescent sequins, rhinestones, simulated pearls and paillettes, 1949, gift of Mrs. Byron Foy

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 Duncan.

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 show:

"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. Koda explains:

"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 fashion system."

Evening ensemble by Ralph Lauren

Evening ensemble, at right, by Ralph Lauren, American, b. 1939, fall winter 2003-4, silk georgette embroidered with silver metallic glass beads and ivory cashmere, courtesy of Ralph Lauren

"Minerva Dress" 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.

Evening ensemble by Julien MacDonald of Givenchy Couture

Evening ensemble by by Julien MacDonald, British, b. 1972, of Givenchy Couture, spring-summer 2002, white silk mouselline, courtesy of Givenchy Haute Couture

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.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is available at www.amazon.com and www.ashraya-ny.org

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