Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > Fashion> Trends > The Met celebrates over a century of designs by women

The Met celebrates over a century of designs by women

An ongoing exhibition at the New York museum tracks the legacy of well-known as well as little-known designers from 1910 to the present day. In an interview, the curators talk about the process of setting up the show, and more

From the 'Women Dressing Women', which continues till 3 March at the Met in New York
From the 'Women Dressing Women', which continues till 3 March at the Met in New York (PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY THE MET COSTUME INSTITUTE)

As soon as you enter the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, you meet the La Garconne: a black silk dress with a white collar and cuffs created in 1923 by Madame Charlotte of the French fashion house Premet. This “little black dress”, born three years before Coco Chanel designed the LBD, has flashes of androgyny. It became one of the most copied designs of the time.

A few steps away is a 1968 white evening dress with rose appliqué, by Ann Lowe. A black woman designer, Lowe was the brain behind former US first lady Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 wedding gown but didn’t get the credit for it for years. On the left, is the famous Delphos gown, a finely pleated silk garment made to be worn without underwear. Its design was, for decades, attributed to Spaniard Mariano Fortuny; the actual designer was Henriette Negrin Fortuny, his wife.

Also read: For Karl Lagerfeld, fashion was both art and business

The three pieces of fashion history are part of Women Dressing Women, an exhibition of 80-plus costumes by the Met’s Costume Institute celebrating the work of over 70 women designers from the early 20th century to the present.

While you glance at the 1920s flapper dress, admire the 1960s’ and 1970s’ jumpsuits, or get bedazzled by slinky slip dresses of the 1990s, a question keeps popping up: In a world where conversations around women’s representation at the workplace have become more than just topics of PowerPoint presentations and social media debates, why did it take so long for a major institution to shed light on female designers who have shaped fashion as we know it today? Women Dressing Womenbecomes more important in this context and, hopefully, indicates a change is in the works.

“This exhibition was supposed to happen in 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage (in the US),” Mellissa Huber, associate curator of the Costume Institute, who created the show with Karen Van Godtsenhoven, the guest co-curator, offers one reason. “But then covid happened.”

The exhibition, which opened in December, is divided into four categories: anonymity, visibility, agency and absence/omission. They reveal women’s impact within the field of fashion, from introducing the nameless dressmakers at couture houses to sharing histories of celebrated as well as forgotten designers, and explaining how their craft helped them to create their own identity.

Among the exhibits are French haute couture houses such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin, American creators like Lowe, Claire McCardell and Isabel Toledo, and contemporary designs by Rei Kawakubo, Anifa Mvuemba, Iris van Herpen and Simone Rocha.

In a Zoom interview with Lounge, Huber and Van Godtsenhoven talk about the process of setting up the show, the challenges along the way and why the ubiquitous dress, be it in the shape of a gown or a slip, remains such an integral part of women’s wardrobes. Edited excerpts:


What criteria did you follow while zeroing in on the costumes?

Mellissa Huber (MH): We chose from our permanent collection, which represents a timeline of Western fashion history. It contains over 3,000 objects, including pieces that we have acquired and that were donated to us. The permanent collection was a great rubric for the way we approached this exhibition. While searching, we were really looking at striking a balance, to ensure we represent makers from across time. Often one work of a maker led us to another.

Karen Van Godtsenhoven (KVG): Over 50% of the show has never been exhibited before. The show’s connective thread binds different generations, showing how subsequent generations have built and expanded upon the legacy of their predecessors. We wanted to reflect on the intergenerational dialogues between the designers and the women who worked alongside them. Also, we wanted to break the stereotype that women are more practical than men when it comes to design.

Why is the show largely restricted to Western fashion?

MH: Yes, that was one of the challenges since the permanent collection, like I said earlier, is more towards Western fashion. Given the vast contributions of women, the interconnected nature of fashion today, how one style in the US affects trends in India and vice-versa, there’s so much more that could have been included. And we are working towards it, and perhaps expanding the show later on.

KVG: I agree. And I also want to highlight that the focus of the show is to provide a chance to viewers to engage with histories of women designers, all of whom played a critical role in shaping fashion. It’s also a way for us to start a conversation between scholars and the audience.

What are some of the oldest and the latest pieces in the show?

MH: Among the oldest, which is also among my favourites, is an evening ensemble from 1901 by Marie Gerber, the head designer of Callot Soeurs (French label; 1895-1937). It’s sort of an evening pyjama jumpsuit, if you will, that would have been worn for entertaining at home. Four sisters (Marie Gerber, Marthe Bertrand, Joséphine Crimont, and Régina Tennyson Chantrell) had founded Callot Soeurs under their maiden name. They started with selling lingerie, blouses, passementerie and antique lace, and expanded into couture by 1895 and became known for their opulent creations that had hints of Eastern dress.

KVG: The latest one is a sheer dress from Tory Burch’s resort 2023 collection. It both reveals and obfuscates the body beneath, while its swags of ballerina tulle, pinpointing towards the brand’s early success with Burch’s take on the ballet flat. Burch has been working towards empowering women entrepreneurs since in 2009, so we thought it was important to include her. (The designer established The Tory Burch Foundation to provide access to education and financial resources to women who wish to start a business.)

A large part of the exhibition is dedicated to the dress—what makes it so timeless?

KVG: Women have mostly worn dresses, in Western fashion. That was what they were allowed to wear...and skirts. Around the 1920s, there was a movement towards trousers, but eventually, the women were back to wearing dresses, as society dictated it. It’s now become part of women’s identity in a way, globally.

Women Dressing Women is on view till 3 March at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. To view online, visit

Also read: The problem with celebrating Karl Lagerfeld



Next Story