High fashion takes the spotlight at area museums in a group of exhibitions that serve up a thoughtful look at things we wear — from head to toe. At the James Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA, the lavish costumes and accessories that transformed the silver screen into a land of dreams are featured in “Icons of Costume: Hollywood’s Golden Era and Beyond.” In Morristown, NJ, some 300 pairs of shoes, including those that belonged to inventor Thomas Edison, Yogi Berra’s sneakers, and slippers that were the property of Pope Pius XII, are among the feetured attractions in “The Shoe Must Go On!” at the Morris Museum. And the work of Philadelphia designer Michelle Berkowitz, also at the Michener, shows how dressing up can be translated into an artistic statement. In the process, these exhibitions function collectively as a lesson in the language of fashion; a material narration that illustrates how what we wear speaks of who we are — our history, social status, sense of humor, cultural connections, ethnicity, and more.
“Costume is non-verbal communication,” says costume historian Edward Maeder, special guest curator at the Michener, describing it as a form of material narration. “In film, it instantly sets the stage, fixes the time period. Before the actress opens her mouth you know who she is.”
“Icons of Costume” takes a loving look at an era when Hollywood set the style, with a generous sampling of elegant wearables by celebrated designers. The Oscar-winning roster includes such legendary names as Edith Head (with 35 nominations and eight Oscars) as well as Adrian, Walter Plunkett, Orry-Kelly, and Bob Mackie. The assembled gowns, men’s costumes, and accessories from the 1940s through the 1990s were worn by a star-studded cast of performers including such headliners as Warren Beatty, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor. And the telling mix is enriched with original art, old-time movie memories, and a nostalgia-producing array of images.
According to curator Erika Jaeger-Smith, the names are as big a draw as the clothes, but she notes that the costumes ultimately upstage the actors. “(Visitors) leave knowing where the actual art lies, and that’s with the designers.” She says the featured works still have meaning after a half-century, describing them as “remarkable survivals” — old-style clothing that remains significant in the era of the mini and the Goth. “Their impact on today’s fashions is immediately recognizable.”
In the exhibition, couturiere Elsa Schiaparelli is quoted as saying, “What Hollywood designs today, you will be wearing tomorrow.” Hollywood fashion firsts include padded shoulders (Adrian for Joan Crawford), the cling dress, and the pillbox hat (Adrian for Greta Garbo, 1932). More than 50,000 copies of a dress he designed for Joan Crawford in “Letty Lynton” were shipped to the Macy’s New York City stores alone.
Drawn from a private collection, the exhibition focuses on Hollywood’s early decades with costumes assembled, in part, from Best Costume Academy Award nominees. Among them are six from films that actually took the Oscar home. Staged chronologically, it offers a capsule history of costume and the Hollywood film. A supporting cast of rare publicity stills, lobby cards, jewelry, and film props helps tell the story and recreate the essence of Hollywood glamour.
Visitors to the Michener can also get into the act in their own screen test. Up to four aspiring actors at a time can stage a test of their own design in which they chose from a selection of costumes and scripts. The results are then uploaded to the museum’s page on YouTube.com. Screen tests cost $20 and can be purchased online at the museum’s website or by calling 800-595-4849.
The exhibition remains on view through August 29. It will then open at the Morris Museum on October 3 and continue through December 5.
A companion exhibition offers a sampling of fashion as art with the work of Philadelphia designer Michelle Berkowitz, whose handmade clothing is informed by the past. Using antique fabric and trim, with period sewing techniques, her one-of-a-kind gowns include such modular components as crinolines, underskirts, jackets and wraps that can be interchanged to create unique outfits.
If “The Shoe Must Go On” is any indication, what we put on our feet can be as glamorous as the opulent gowns from the silver screen. What is more, what covers the foot often has a story to tell about the wearer, one that speaks of other ways and other days. In fact, the range of narrative created by the shoe often functions as a history lesson or a bit of social commentary, making this exhibition food for some serious thought as well as a particularly entertaining collection.
“Shoes can tell us something about the place and time in which they were made and often something about ourselves as well,” says Linda S. Moore, co-curator and chief operating officer of the museum. “This is not just about fashion. We wanted to show what shoes can tell us about the culture in which they were produced and who is wearing them.”
To that end the exhibition is divided into 15 sections spanning four centuries and include sports, high-style fashion, famous designers, New Jersey and national politics, children’s wear, shoe-inspired whimsy, and “What’s Hot Now.” The assembled array of show-stopping footwear is made from silks and satins, furs, precious metals, jewels, vegetables, recycled materials, animal skins, and even chocolate. The rich mix, which begins chronologically with slippers that belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), is brought up to date with combat boots worn by General David Petraeus and the walking cast that Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice, U.S. Supreme Court, wore during her Congressional confirmation hearings.
“We cast a pretty broad net,” says Moore. “We were looking at shoes from all walks of life.”
Most telling, perhaps, in this instructive collection is the section that examines cultural differences. “We wanted to show what shoes can tell us about the societies in which they were produced” says Moore. “Here, especially, they are more than just shoes.”
The global array of footwear speaks clearly of human diversity with tiny, elaborate Chinese shoes made for bound feet, peasant sandals made from rice stalks, woven rubber shoes from Korea, Native American beaded moccasins, gold embroidered slippers from Algeria, shoes made of finely etched silver from Turkey, and fur-lined Inuit boots.
There is also a generous helping of style with sections on designers, heel design, and early 20th-century party shoes. Notable among them is the innovative work of Dolce & Gabbana, Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada, and Roger Vivier. And “What’s Hot Now” includes the latest — shoes by such contemporary stars as Manolo Blahnik, Marc Jacobs, Stuart Weitzman, and Giuseppe Zanotti.
The section on heels highlights the variety that marks shoe design. Some are curved. Others are curly or straight. There are those made of gold or Lucite, studded with rhinestones, even interchangeable heels that alter the height and line of the shoe. Moore points out that some innovative designs actually hold a patent. “People don’t realize that shoes are not just shoes, that there are actually patents on some heel designs.”
While shoes are often second banana in the fashion hierarchy, some of the original owners of the featured footwear help put this collection in the spotlight. Shoes that belonged to first First Lady Martha Washington share space with those of such newsworthy contemporaries as Mario Batali and Eliot Spitzer.
There is even a New Jersey angle. Moore says, “We tried to make as many local connections as we could.” To that end there are shoes worn by Governor Chris Christie as well as those of his predecessors, including Thomas Kean, Christie Whitman, and Richard Codey. And personal letters accompany Princeton historian James McPherson’s tennis shoes and a pair of hand-embroidered house slippers made for Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen by his mother.
Former New York Giants defensive end George Martin walked across the United States to raise money for medical care for the first responders to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. He walked from New York City’s George Washington Bridge to San Diego, from September 16, 2007 to June 21, 2008, covering more than 3,000 miles, using 27 pairs of shoes, and raising about $2 million. A pair of Martin’s shoes that made the journey is now on display, along with a football commemorating his walk.
Another recent addition to the exhibition is an art quilt, Fancy Footwork, by New York City-based artist Madeleine Appell.
The art of shoemaking is brought to light in the section called Tools of the Trade with a cobbler’s bench, complete with boot and shoe lasts, an assortment of vintage tools, and a chart showing the anatomy of a shoe. The telling mix is enriched with shoe-inspired original art including a work by Wayne Thiebaud and another, “High Heel Factory,” made especially for this exhibition from shoe-making machinery by Stephen Gerberich.
Art Exhibits, Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. “Icons of Costume: Hollywood’s Golden Era and Beyond,” on view to September 5; and “Michelle Berkowitz: Contemporary Costumes,” on view to August 8. $10. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.
Art Exhibit, Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown. “The Shoe Must Go On,” on view to August 29. Guided tours of the exhibition take place every Saturday at 1 p.m. Visitors who bring a pair of shoes to donate to “CUMAC — Feeding People and Changing Lives” in Paterson, will receive $1 off admission. 973-971-3700 or ww.morrismuseum.org.