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Creativity Out of the Closet

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Two Women Wear Ambition, Invention on Their Sleeves

In the world of fashion, art and design — as well as the world of everyday living and wearing — clothes take up quite a bit of space in the imagination, especially in women’s imaginations.

Two current Washington exhibitions focus on the clothes of two highly inventive women — one of whom, by designing clothing from a radically different and unconventional standpoint, elevated the world of fashion. The other, by creating astonishing costume balls, used clothing as a way to elevate the status of high society parties.

Renowned haute couture designer Mary McFadden gets a nod at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, while the late high-society heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post gets her due at the museum in her honor, Hillwood Estate. The two women might, at first glance, not have a lot in common. American McFadden is often called a “design archeologist” whose imagination, and fashions, bathed in the influences of ancient Near Eastern, African, Greek, Javanese, pre-Columbian, dynastic Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures.

Post was an icon of American society, an oft-married heiress and art collector who had a refined taste, yet was equally at home throwing spectacular costume parties in the Roaring ’20s as she was holding regular square dances at her Hillwood Estate.

Yet “Mary McFadden: Goddesses” and “An Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Fancy Dress Costumes of the 1920s” share a common thread, so to speak. Each exhibit has a lot to say about the function of clothes in the lives of women and in their imaginations, while shining a light on two women who were obviously one-of-a-kind originals (each of whom incidentally was married four times).

There’s something else that connects the two shows: walking through them is like stepping into closets that connect to other worlds. It’s one thing to look at the information about the influences behind McFadden’s dream-like creations. But wandering through the tableaux of dozens of mannequins, you get the sense you’ve stepped into the kingdom of a fashion designer inspired by ancient civilizations whose original vision is evident in every fiber of her work. And when grouped together, McFadden’s dresses wear their stylized, sophisticated grace and simple yet direct power on their sleeves.

Nothing as dramatic is quite involved in the Post show at Hillwood, but it too has an otherworldly quality that inevitably draws you into another era. The physical content of the exhibition consists only of four costume dresses that Post herself wore to opulent parties, also called fancy dress balls, that she threw in Palm Beach in the 1920s — soirees that revived the moribund spirits of the wealthy who’d set up winter homes in sunny Florida.

Post, who was newly married to E.F. Hutton at the time, had ambitions that were much more serious than being a mere hostess. Indeed, the extravagant affairs were vehicles for women to carry out their charitable obligations, albeit in an entertaining way, and the parties often had historic and literary themes attached to them.

And Post clearly set out to create lasting memories if the four costumes and accompanying descriptions are any indication. On display are a startling, Marie Antoinette-royal-caliber gown complete with wig; a starry blue dress for an equally starry night party; a Juliet (minus Romeo) Shakespearean dress; and a stunning Native American ensemble. One can only imagine what the other attendees wore, when this kind of imagination and resources were put to work. No doubt it was the kind of scene that caused F. Scott Fitzgerald to famously gush: “The rich are different from you and I” — to which Ernest Hemingway once equally famously replied: “Yes, they have more money.”

Fashion design and lavish costume gowns were probably wasted on Hemingway, but they weren’t wasted on Post. Everything at her Hillwood Estate in fact is a kind of physical recreation and demonstration of not only Post’s decadent lifestyle, but of her assured taste manifested in the highly prized French and Russian pieces of art that she collected throughout her lifetime.

McFadden’s work is that of an artist, not a collector, consumer or patron, though her creations dazzle just the same. Her dresses and gowns are so compelling that you wonder whatever happe ned to that artful, refined creativity in an age of “Fashion Week” and “Project Runway” and the misbegotten so-called trends draped on often near-anorexic models. Even as headless mannequins, the female forms in this exhibition look more imposing, more commanding and alluring then some of the models traipsing on impossible heels across the runway today.

Take for instance the unique fabric that McFadden created, “Marii,” a pleated polyester fabric created in 1975 and designed to “fall like liquid gold” on a woman. Call it what you like, on the female forms the result is immediate, simple, lovely, form-hugging and, even on mannequins, sensual. Positioned throughout the exhibition, these figures do indeed seem like queens, like “goddesses.”

You could easily imagine that the extravagant but also tasteful, beauty-savvy Post would have appreciated McFadden’s creations. She might have even bought them by the lot and thrown a huge party for them.

“An Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Post's Fancy Dress Costumes of the 1920s” runs through July 12 at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 686-5807 or visit www.hillwoodmuseum.org.

“Mary McFadden: Goddesses” runs through Aug. 30 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999