Since its opening last September, “Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has attempted to give guests a look into the depth and breadth of the American fashion landscape. Under the guidance of guest curator Michelle Tolini Finamore, Ph.D. and design consultant Ruben Toledo, the museum’s first-ever fashion exhibit features over 100 designers and brands, weaving together garments, visual and video imagery to detail two centuries of clothing, culture and influence.


“Fashion is a uniquely personal expression of the wearer and the wearer’s place in the world,” Finamore said. “It mediates between the private and the public in a very unique way. It has the ability to carry stories related to the wearer’s past and present in a way other media do not.”


The museum has also used the exhibit to turn the fashion world’s eyes to Arkansas. On Oct. 26, the “Grit to Glamour” fashion symposium brought names like Tommy Hilfiger and Karlie Kloss to The Natural State. Supermodels and designers flocked to Bentonville for a day of discussion culminating with a gala to support the museum’s education programs. Stuart Vevers, executive creative director of the American fashion house Coach, opened the event with a conversation about “Why American Fashion Matters.” Other topics included sustainability in fashion, diversity and a look towards the future of design, both in the real world and online.


Lisa Perry, Roy Lichtenstein “No Thank You” Dress, 2011


Programming surrounding “Fashioning America” has included talks, demonstrations and workshops. The museum collaborated with INTERFORM, a Northwest Arkansas-based nonprofit supporting fashion designers and entrepreneurs, for Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week on Nov. 12. The one-day event featured discussions between designers, museum curators and scholars, as well as a fashion show themed “Model Citizen.” The show was part of INTERFORM’s sixth annual Fall Fashion Week, but it was the event’s first occurrence in partnership with Crystal Bridges. Last but not least on the calendar, an upcoming cocktail tour of the exhibit is scheduled for Jan. 26.


With a reach as expansive as the country that inspired it, the exhibit aims to be a more inclusive telling of America’s fashion story. That means bringing in industry powerhouses, like Nike, Vera Wang and Levi-Strauss, as well as unsung heroes such as Ann Lowe (“the underappreciated architect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress”) and Bill Frank Whitten (the designer of Michael Jackson’s rhinestone glove). The exhibit features pieces on loan from Vogue magazine global Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles, along with statement pieces by designers such as Virgil Abloh, Carolina Herrera, Virgil Ortiz and Isabel Toledo.


In addition to spotlighting Black and Native American designers, the exhibit focuses throughout on female designers and works promoting diverse body types. Other pieces deal with themes surrounding queer culture, gender nonbinary inclusivity, sustainable fashion and social activism.


“We are currently at a crossroads in museum scholarship relating to how we approach history and whose stories get told,” Finamore said. “American fashion has traditionally been centered on canonical designer names. We now know that the story is much bigger than that, and it is time to think about whose stories have not been told – Indigenous designers, people of color and those laboring behind the scenes. Crystal Bridges was the perfect venue to explore those perspectives.”


Jordan Casteel, Ourlando, 2018
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2019.16.
Photography by Edward C. Robison III.


Instead of being arranged chronologically or by designer, the pieces in the exhibit are grouped according to identifiably American themes and influences. Finamore explained this choice, saying, “Presenting over 200 years of American fashion history is daunting. I felt that a chronological display would not illustrate the points I wanted to make about forms of dress that are uniquely American. I focused on those fashion contributions that are recognized as American on the global stage.”


The exhibit starts, fittingly, in the earliest years of the United States. Elements of the “Fashioning Early America” section include George Washington’s portrait alongside two dresses, one from the 1830s exemplifying the patriotic promotion of American-made textiles, and another – attributed to a Black dressmaker in the 1870s, but of uncertain origins – highlighting “the vast number of unknown stories in American fashion.” Among other pieces, this section also features a pair of high-heeled sneakers covered in traditional Kiowa and Shoshone beadwork, combining modern fashion innovation with centuries-old Native American culture.


Ji Won Choi Red Jogakbo Dress, Antecedence Collection, Spring/Summer 2021
Photo credit: IED Firenze students: V. Botarelli, A. Capoccetta, M. Catarzi;
Photo: Sofia Brogi Virgil Ortiz


The “grit” in “Grit to Glamour” is a nod to the cultural behemoth that is the American West. The exhibit describes denim jeans as “arguably the world’s most ever-present American fashion item” while also explaining the multi-national origins of its fabrics and dyes. “Grit” emphasizes just how intertwined landscape and culture are, with workwear putting the “rugged” into the “rugged individualism” that would become the country’s calling card. This section spans from the denim innovation of adding rivets for durability to a painting of “Rosie the Riveter” in denim coveralls redefining gender roles. The exhibit also shows the plethora of ways jeans, cowboy boots and Western-wear have been interpreted in movies, music and popular culture over the decades.


In the “Streetwear” portion of the exhibit, the museum pays tribute to the trendsetters and designs that have made urban fashion “the most significant American contribution to global style in the post-World War II era.” From the pioneering zoot suit of the 1940s, to classic Tommy Hilfiger looks donned by hip-hip icons Aaliyah a Missy Elliot in the ’90s, to the rise and dominance of sneaker culture in the last few decades, the items in this section demonstrate the ways designers have co-opted, reshaped and challenged the status quo to create a global streetwear phenomenon.


Kiowa by Design, 2014
Beads on canvas high-heeled sneakers
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2021.40. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.


Other areas of “Fashioning America” trace style evolutions in everything from beachwear to wedding dresses. The exhibit moves from corsets to body-positive underwear, from hoopskirts to Hawaiian shirts, from ready-to-wear clothing to the often-unseen workforce behind it. Throughout this journey, photography and paintings, movie scenes and music videos demonstrate the cultural impact of each look.


This exhibit is also concerned with how contemporary designers are reimagining the meaning of American style. Many of the pieces in this section reflect the work of Black and Native American designers to challenge stereotypes, tell their own stories and connect to their histories in new ways. A dress by one artist, designer Ji Won Choi, nods to “jogakbo,” the Korean tradition of recycling fabric to make patchwork wrapping-cloths. The museum also delves into the digital realm, with styles reflecting the growing role of technology through futuristic designs and the first-ever interactive digital garment to be displayed in a museum exhibition (thanks to a collaboration with bionic pop artist and futurist Viktoria Modesta).


Crystal Bridges is also looking towards American fashion’s future by supporting the design talent of the present. In partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), a not-for-profit fashion trade association, the museum has created the CFDA x Crystal Bridges Heartland Scholars Award. This scholarship, according to a statement from CFDA and Crystal Bridges, “will foster design talent in students based, studying or raised in the American Heartland,” which includes a number of Southern states, such as Arkansas. The application and more information about the award launched this month on the CFDA’s website.


Bookending the exhibit’s “Grit to Glamour” motif, Hollywood and the “fashion propaganda” of its star-studded looks are on full display in the “Red Carpet” section of the exhibit. Dressing the stars under swaths of media coverage is no mean feat, and the outfits in this section include looks designed for the likes of Whitney Houston, Michelle Obama and Nicole Byer. Heavy-hitters like Calvin Klein, Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren also feature.


One challenge that comes with a fashion exhibit, Finamore explained, is that clothing is not meant to be static. To tell a more complete story, videos and other imagery surrounding the pieces can be just as essential as the garments themselves.


“I always include video in exhibitions, because the relationship between the moving body, space and the garment is key to how we experience fashion in the world,” Finamore said. “For ‘Fashioning America’ specifically, the power of Hollywood film and media have been key in exporting American fashion to a global audience.”


“Fashioning America” will be in the Crystal Bridges Temporary Exhibition Gallery through Jan. 30. 


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