style.com: feature story, American Woman, then and now

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the past is prologue
from anna may wong to, yes, megan fox, we salute the american woman then and now

Photo: Courtesy of Giorgio Armani


Photo: John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images

The more things change, the more they stay the same? We take a closer look at the female archetypes in the Costume Institute’s upcoming show, opening May 5, and draw comparisons to the heiresses, Gibson Girls, bohemians, flappers, and screen sirens of today.

— Alison Baenen

Heiress
Gibson Girl
Bohemian
Patriot
Flapper
Screen Siren

Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


The Heiress

The Original: Consuelo Vanderbilt

A celebrated beauty with a $2.5 million dowry—plus 50,000 shares of her family’s railroad company—Consuelo Vanderbilt was a catch. Her first marriage, to an English aristocrat in 1895, was a coup; it ended in an annulment, but Vanderbilt stayed close to in-law Sir Winston Churchill. The Glitter and the Gold, her 1953 autobiography, is a gold mine of social registry data (though somewhat lacking on the tabloid tell-all front); a review in The New York Times described it as “an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance.”

Photo: Black / Startraksphoto.com

The Heiress

2010 Model: Ivanka Trump
The twenty-first-century heiress is a fraught role (see: Hilton sisters, all references). Public interest is high, sympathy is low, and Gawker is waiting. So credit Ivanka Trump, daughter of you know who, for staying on the straight and narrow. “I look at my brothers and myself and I’m, like, really proud of the fact that nobody’s, like, totally fucked-up,” Trump told GQ in 2007. “Nobody’s a drug addict, nobody’s driving around chasing women, snorting coke. There’s something amazing about that. And you know, this isn’t to pat myself on the back, but I could be a lot worse.”

Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Heiress

Source of Wealth, Then
It paid to be descended from a baron—a robber baron, that is. As the great-granddaughter of railroad and shipping magnate “the Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, Consuelo Vanderbilt was primed for the good life. Her childhood home, the Vanderbilt Palace at 640 Fifth Avenue, boasted a ballroom modeled after the one at Versailles, an eight-foot-tall vase straight from the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg, and the honor of being the prototype for Scarlett’s estate in Gone With the Wind. When her paternal grandfather died unexpectedly in 1885, Vanderbilt inherited a cool $20 million. She was eight.

Photo: Ted Thai / Getty Images


The Heiress

Source of Wealth, Now
These days, a personal fortune preferably comes with a reality TV tie-in. Aided now by Ivanka and her brothers, dad Donald has quietly moved away from high-stakes Monopoly and is focused on growing the family brand, whether through The Apprentice or by advising developers on their investments—properties that bear the Trump name, of course. How much money is in this new marketing game? Last September, Forbes estimated Trump’s net worth at $2 billion, but the Donald has always liked to go with his own, higher, estimates.

Photo: Eileen Tweedy / Blenheim Palace / The Art Archive

The Heiress

Working Girl, Then
A female member of the moneyed elite’s sole job was to marry—and marry well—and no one knew this better than Vanderbilt’s mother. Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt deployed whips, steel rods, and a German au pair (for minor infractions, posture, and foreign language lessons, respectively) to ensure her only daughter was worthy of an aristocrat. The proposals poured in, and Alva auctioned Consuelo off to the most landed bidder: Charles Spencer Churchill, Ninth Duke of Marlborough, whose title was intact but whose personal finances were in ruins. Considering Vanderbilt went through with the union while secretly engaged to her true love, Winthrop Rutherfurd, we’d say she was the first in a long line of modern women to sacrifice personal happiness for her career.

Photo: Courtesy of Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry

The Heiress

Working Girl, Now
In 2010, even heiresses have to work hard for the money. And Donald’s eldest daughter has followed in his enterprising footsteps (TV cameos included). A jewelry designer (those are her earrings, left), an occasional model, and the executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, Trump is a true mini-mogul—a mini-mogul who happens to be 5′ 11″.

Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Everett Collection

The Heiress

Go-To Designer, Then
Charles Frederick Worth. The English-born, Paris-trained couturier pulled out all the stops for Vanderbilt’s first wedding, to Charles Spencer Churchill. According to a contemporary report in The New York Times, “revers of lace,” including a trim “twelve inches deep,” and “billows of chiffon” went into the gown. “It is no exaggeration,” the Times man on the spot surmised, “to say that the preparations for this wedding are the most elaborate ever made in this country.”

Photo: Getty Images

The Heiress

Go-To Designer, Now
Vera Wang. They may flirt with other designers for cocktail parties, but Wang remains the trusted source for any high-profile bride. For her 500-person wedding to Jared Kushner last October, Trump glided to the chuppah in a high-necked, sleeved gown with a sleek bodice and a full skirt made by the designer from Worth-worthy amounts of Chantilly, Lyons, and corded lace. It encapsulated the Trump look: fitting, fitted, and, save for a few décolletage-heavy spreads in men’s magazines, always classy. She has the family name to think of, after all.

Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Gibson Girl

The Original: Irene Langhorne
Before there were street-style bloggers, there was Charles Dana Gibson. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the illustrator’s pen-and-ink renderings of a new, saucier woman—dubbed the Gibson girl—were beloved by editors and readers alike. A bevy of models posed for Gibson, but only one became his wife. A celebrated Southern beauty (she reportedly fielded marriage proposals from 66 different men) and sister of Nancy Astor, Irene Langhorne gamely modeled for Gibson for years, becoming, in effect, America’s first pinup.

Photo: Kristin Callahan / Everett Collection



The Gibson Girl

2010 Model: Jessica Biel
For twenty-first-century pinups, the outlets are endless: toothsome GQ photo shoot, raunchy Maxim spread, anything involving the phrase “photographs by Terry Richardson.” When Jessica Biel wanted to shake her Seventh Heaven preacher’s-daughter persona, for example, she chose to pose topless on the cover of that great and sadly departed literary journal Gear. The gambit worked, though Biel—whose big-screen career has taken off nicely in the meantime—now considers the photo shoot a “really bad decision.” Millions of men would disagree.

Photo: Courtesy of Victorian Trading Company

The Gibson Girl

Sign of Cultural Ubiquity, Then
Proof that brand extension isn’t a new phenomenon: The Gibson girl visage appeared on pillows, chair covers, fans, umbrella stands, ashtrays, and plates, raising the somehow disconcerting possibility that Langhorne may have eaten off of her own face.

Photo: Staff

The Gibson Girl

Sign of Cultural Ubiquity, Now
Being named Sexiest Woman Alive (twice—by Esquire in 2005 and Stuff in 2007) is nice, and an Oscar or, hell, Golden Globe wouldn’t go amiss down the line, but the real evidence you’ve arrived? When the hardworking interns at antivirus software manufacturer McAfee ascertain that a search of your name is most likely to infect a user’s computer with spyware, adware, and other malicious Internet entities.

Image: Charles Dana Gibson / Mansell / Getty Images

The Gibson Girl

Outdoor Activity, Then
Tennis, golf, horseback riding, bicycling—sports were an important part of the Gibson girl’s modern image. How modern? If the drawings are to be believed, Langhorne was known, on rare occasions, to get behind the wheel of a car herself.

Photo: Splash News

The Gibson Girl

Outdoor Activity, Now
Ball sports are too genteel for today’s athletic gal, who is more likely to be found hiking up Runyon Canyon with her dogs, snowboarding with the pop star boyfriend in Colorado, or trekking to the summit of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (which, happily for a much pursued celebrity like Biel, remains a paparazzi-free zone).

Photo: The Art Archive



The Gibson Girl

Go-To Designer, Then
Inez Gaches-Sarraute. Who, you ask? An underwear maker with, some say, a degree in medicine, Gaches-Sarraute is credited—if that’s the right word—with popularizing the swan-bill corset. This device created the illusion of a slimmer waist, a rounded rear, and an ample bosom by forcing the hips back and the bust forward—all marketed under the guise of relieving pressure on the abdomen.

Photo: Sherly Rabbani and Josephine Solimene

The Gibson Girl

Go-To Designer, Now
Lycra™. Body-cleaving workout gear or a bikini tends to make up this generation’s everyday wardrobe. For occasions when dressing up is called for, it’s tried-and-true all-American brands like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, or Oscar de la Renta.

Photo: Edward Steichen / Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Bohemian

The Original: Rita Lydig
In 1905, not wearing a bustle was considered fashion suicide. And pants? Please. There were, however, a few dedicated individuals doing their part to change the restrictive trends. Take Rita Lydig, a clotheshorse so devoted to shopping that she sometimes bought up to 20 examples of the same garment. Thanks to her snazzy sister Mercedes, who had the sense to donate several of Rita’s prized possessions to the Met—thus prompting the creation of the Costume Institute—those silk Callot Soeurs pantaloons live on to inspire today’s fashion innovators.

Photo: Steve Eichner / WWD / Condé Nast Archive



The Bohemian

2010 Model: Erin Wasson
In terms of shock value, Lady Gaga may be the true inheritor of Lydig’s mantle. But the contemporary definition of “boho” may be less about wantonly defying the rules of good taste than cultivating a mellow, multisourced personal style. And they don’t come mellower or more multisourcing than model/stylist/designer Erin Wasson. In the May issue of Teen Vogue, she defines her idea of happiness as “sitting on my front porch in the Hill Country of Texas watching the sunset with an iced tea in my hand after having just ridden a horse.” Boho, Silver, away!

Photo: Gianni Dagli Orti / Museo Boldini Ferrara / The Art Archive


The Bohemian

Shot at Immortality, Then
Giovanni Boldini, “Master of Swish,” was the man to go to for your likeness in oil (he painted Lydig at least twice). Based on the sheer volume of his work, it’s safe to say the Italian portrait painter and Degas contemporary was the Patrick McMullan of the 1900’s.

Photo: Steven Torres

The Bohemian

Shot at Immortality, Now
These days, you’re nobody until your industrial loft has been photographed in arty disarray by The Selby. Now that blogger/photographer Todd Selby has rounded up a crop of his favorite dwellings for his new book, The Selby Is in Your Place, everybody knows his URL, but Wasson and her pad posed for him way back in 2008.

Photo: Keystone / Getty Images

The Bohemian

Hangout, Then
If most American women were still chafing at the idea of loosening their corset stays, Parisians welcomed their freewheeling sisters with open arms (especially if they were also free-spending). Lydig frequently decamped to the Ritz with entourage in tow: Hairdresser, masseuse, chauffeur, secretary, and maid all made the trans-Atlantic trip, along with 40 Louis Vuitton trunks filled with her own linen and silver. The final touch? A request that her room be filled with white flowers.

Photo: Amy Dickerson

The Bohemian

Hangout, Now
Pack a string bikini and your favorite pair of shearling boots, grab a joss stick, and don’t even think about showering. Yeah, man, it’s Coachella.

Photo: Baron Adolphe de Meyer / Library of Congress



The Bohemian

Go-To Designer, Then
Pietro Yantorny. The Calabria-born cobbler required a $1,000 commission before work began, and he took a mold of his clients’ feet so he would always have their measurements on hand. Known for his ornate, antique fabrics, he crafted over 300 pairs of shoes for Lydig, which she kept nestled in padlocked, velvet-lined leather trunks from Russia. “A shoe without sex appeal is as barren as a tree without leaves,” she said, decades before anyone had heard of Christian Louboutin.

Photo: Steve Eichner / WWD / Condé Nast Archive

The Bohemian

Go-To Designer, Now
Alexander Wang. The boy wonder’s insouciant way with American sportswear has won him plenty of fans, though a twenty-first-century bohemian wouldn’t be caught dead in a head-to-toe designer look, of course. Also in the mix for Wasson and her ilk: vintage dresses, animal prints, Isabel Marant fringed boots, a tangle of necklaces, and cutoffs and tanks from Wasson’s own line for RVCA.

Photo: Bettmann / Corbis



The Patriot

The Original: Eleanor Roosevelt
If Hillary Clinton was the biggest First Lady policy wonk, Eleanor Roosevelt was the office’s biggest agitator. A journalist, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt chronicled her political and social engagements alongside her thoughts on issues like women’s lib in her syndicated news column—the White House’s first blog, if you will. And while she and the President frequently butted heads (she was against Japanese internment camps, for one), Mrs. Roosevelt often served as his proxy, traveling around the world on behalf of the administration. Fans were legion: President Truman, who appointed Mrs. Roosevelt as a U.N. delegate, declared her “First Lady of the World.”

Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

The Patriot

2010 Model: Michelle Obama
Call it FLOTUS fever. First Lady Michelle Obama leads her husband in the popularity polls, not to mention outranking First Ladies Bush and Clinton. The transition from family breadwinner to First Mom could’ve been tricky, but Mrs. O. has proven she’s a natural. The fact that she’s looking so good while doing it? Yeah, we’re fine with that.

Photo: Michel Du Cille / Getty Images

The Patriot

Cause Célèbre, Then
Mrs. Roosevelt was nothing if not tough. Her campaign for civil rights preceded the general public’s interest by about 30 years, and she almost seemed to enjoy the resulting spats with her husband’s staff. The First Lady famously hitched a ride with a pilot from the all-black Tuskegee Airmen squadron, ordered a photo op, and convinced her husband to use the pilots in the war effort. On the occasion of Mrs. Roosevelt’s death, Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked, “The impact of her personality and its unwavering devotion to high principle and purpose cannot be contained in a single day or era.”

Photo: Marvin Joseph / Getty Images

The Patriot

Cause Célèbre, Now
Hillary Clinton had health care, Laura Bush had literacy, Michelle Obama has childhood obesity—and a serious social network to help her tackle it. Her Let’s Move campaign has a Web site, blog, Facebook page, and YouTube channel; it also gets regular shout-outs from #whitehouse, the administration’s official Twitter account. Proving that she’s not above old-school methods of disseminating information, the First Lady also took her message to the people via television. On a star-studded Iron Chef throw-down, Mrs. Obama presented the show’s secret, must-use ingredient: White House vegetables.

Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

The Patriot

Hostessing Kerfuffle, Then
When Queen Elizabeth and King George VI announced their plans to visit the Roosevelts’ estate at Hyde Park, the First Lady announced her plans to serve them…hot dogs. Her mother-in-law was aghast and wrote Eleanor an impassioned letter begging her to change her mind. (“One of many” she’d received, the First Lady noted dryly.) But it was all good. The Queen was delighted with the menu, and King George remarked, “You have given us a delightful time….I must also confess I shall never, never forget my first hot dog!”

Photo: Pete Souza / White House / AP Photo

The Patriot

Hostessing Kerfuffle, Now
If only the menu were all Mrs. Obama had to worry about; today’s party problems come with a camera crew. The first serious stain on Michelle’s social legacy came when Michaele and Tareq Salahi busted their way into the White House’s State Dinner in November. The messy fallout made for good TV, but Mrs. Obama emerged blameless. You can be sure, however, that her staff will be tightening up that plus-1 policy for her next state function.

Photo: Eileen Tweedy / The Art Archive

The Patriot

Go-To Designer, Then
Arnold Constable. Remember Reagan red? Before Nancy claimed a primary, Mrs. Roosevelt had her own shade: Eleanor blue. The First Lady’s crystelle velvet inaugural gown was in a shade of periwinkle so becoming that Constable, its designer, named the hue in her honor. As for the First Lady’s, dare we say, funky headgear, her milliner of choice was Lilly Daché. The French transplant supplied Mrs. Roosevelt with her signature turbans.

Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images



The Patriot

Go-To Designer, Now
What, just one? Too camera-savvy to rely on a single designer, Mrs. Obama has crafted a Cabinet of Clothes—labels that send the right message at the right time. For constituents who think the First Lady’s wardrobe should project an “everyday American in a time of financial crisis” type of vibe, she turns to off-the-rack J.Crew and Talbots. Jason Wu, Azzedine Alaïa, Michael Kors, and Narciso Rodriguez, on the other hand, are reserved for affairs that require “head of state gravitas.” And Mrs. Obama loves to throw a wild card like Rodarte in every now and again. Like a comprehensive health care bill, it’s good to have options.

Photo: Eugene Robert Richee / John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images

The Flapper

The Original: Louise Brooks
At last, knees! With hemlines and haircuts significantly shorter than sanctioned, a troupe of skinny, dance-crazed girls set the tone for the freewheeling 1920’s. At the top was Louise Brooks, the Ziegfeld Follies dancer who went on to make 24 movies in 13 years and earn this tribute from film fanzine Photoplay: “She is so very Manhattan. Very young. Exquisitely hard-boiled. Her black eyes and sleek black hair are brilliant as Chinese lacquer. Her skin is white as a camellia. Her legs are lyric.”

The Flapper

2010 Model: Kirsten Dunst
Her mainstream turn as Mary Jane to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man might have made her famous, but Kirsten Dunst’s best roles are of the offbeat indie variety. Dreamy as Lux in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the California blonde is beautiful and aloof—an established talent with fringe appeal. Her off-screen image is equal parts cheeky and cool—she went so all-out at the 2007 Met ball in vintage Yves Saint Laurent that haters panned her, but she embodied Paul Poiret’s radical approach to dressing better than any of her more safely attired counterparts.

Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

The Flapper

The Scene, Then
Cocaine was readily available, alcohol was temptingly prohibited, and sex was no longer taboo. It couple F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rode on top of taxis, were forcibly removed from hotels, and once ended up in the Union Square fountain. Brooks, who avoided the usual Hollywood scene, spent her time at the Hearst castle with friend (and rumored lover) Pepi Lederer, the niece of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress.

Photo: Sherly Rabbani and Josephine Solimene

The Flapper

The Scene, Now
Check with Humberto Leon. Wherever the Opening Ceremony shopkeeper’s crew is hanging (the Ace, the Jane, Tokyo), you’re sure to find Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Ryan McGinley, and Spike Jonze.

Photo: Edward Steichen / Condé Nast Archive

The Flapper

Famous for Her Hair, Then
All about the bob. Brooks’ famous “black helmet” is often imitated, never replicated.

Photo: Sony Pictures / Everett Collection



The Flapper

Famous for Her Hair, Now
Best cheveux moment: Appearing in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette in full regalia, sky-high hair included. (Eat your heart out, Snooki.)

Photo: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art



The Flapper

Go-To Designer, Then
Jeanne Lanvin. Alber Elbaz’s predecessor was instrumental in popularizing the sensuous, draped gowns that women slid into after finally abandoning their corsets and bustles. Lanvin adapted them from the designs she made for her own daughter, which may account for the somewhat naïf quality cultivated by party girls like Brooks, Clara Bow, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Another plus: The loose fits meant these gals could shoot back plenty of bathtub gin.

Photo: Sherly Rabbani and Josephine Solimene



The Flapper

Go-To Designer, Now
Rodarte. They might not be as comfortable as a slip dress, but the Mulleavy sisters’ envelope-pushing, thigh-high ensembles are some of the most progressive ready-to-wear looks out there. A fan of their crafty cobweb knits and futuristic slash-and-burn micro-minis, Dunst is a front-row and after-party regular. And the designers recently returned the favor by costuming Bastard, a short film Dunst directed that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Photo: Mary Evans / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

The Screen Siren

The Original: Anna May Wong
Temptress, vamp, spy, killer…With 60-plus films to her name, Anna May Wong had her fair share of juicy roles. Yes, most of them played on confining stereotypes, but Wong prevailed in spite of her characters’ limitations. With her of-the-moment bob and sleek bias-cut dresses, her success was emblematic of a sea change in American cinema. Women like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were getting top billing in feature films, and the images of sly, seductive confidence they projected to audiences across the country have informed generations of clever starlets ever since. Sex sells, but smart sex spells Oscar.

The Screen Siren

2010 Model: Megan Fox
She’s only made a handful of movies, but Megan Fox is everywhere. Realistic about her assets—”If I weren’t attractive I wouldn’t be working at all,” she told Esquire in June 2009—Fox personifies a new breed of super-celebrity. She’s famous for her uncouth bons mots, steamy magazine spreads, and, ironically or not, her lack of acting talent. At a time when the mantra of “all press is good press” has never been more true, her ability to generate a thousand re-tweets by simply opening her mouth makes her extremely bankable. And yes, smart.

Photo: George Hurrell / Everett Collection

The Screen Siren

Photo Op, Then
If his pictures could talk, they’d purr. Photographer George Hurrell shot every major movie star of the thirties and forties, immortalizing babes like Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, and Rita Hayworth in a very becoming glow. Anna May Wong posed for him in 1938, looking impervious, super-sexy, and, by a trick of the light, like a marble figurine. As for the hint of nipple beneath Wong’s robe? Chalk it up to the Hurrell charm.

Photo: Radcliffe / Bauergriffin.com

The Screen Siren

Photo Op, Now
Who needs good lighting when you’ve got a wide-angle lens? Today’s Hollywood royalty will forever be remembered as being on their way back from Starbucks. Fox, who keeps a low profile for such a hot-button celeb, is usually papped somewhere really exciting. Like a parking lot.

Photo: Howard Mandelbaum / Everett Collection

The Screen Siren

Dictatorial Director, Then
Director temper tantrums started with Josef von Sternberg, the famously imperious Austrian-American auteur who, in addition to directing, often took on editing, screenwriting, and cinematography roles. Can you say control freak? Still, the man had talent, and Paramount Studios convinced Wong to take on the unpalatably stereotypical role of Fu Manchu’s daughter in Daughter of the Dragon by promising her a role in a future von Sternberg movie. The film, Shanghai Express, garnered Best Director and Best Picture nods from the Academy (it took home Best Cinematography) and co-starred von Sternberg’s longtime collaborator Marlene Dietrich. Wong played a murderous courtesan, and critics are still buzzing over her and Dietrich’s on-screen sizzle.

Photo: Paramount / Everett Collection

The Screen Siren

Dictatorial Director, Now
“He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is,” Fox said about her Transformers director, Michael Bay. To which some of Bay’s loyal crew members replied in a since-removed online posting: “We actually don’t think she knows who Hitler is.” Other words were exchanged, none of which hurt the box office, of course. We’re sure that in her heart, Fox will always be grateful to the man who gave her her big break as “Stars-and-Stripes Bikini Kid Dancing Under Waterfall” in Bad Boys II.

Photo: John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images

The Screen Siren

Go-To Designer, Then
Travis Banton. Back in the day, an actress’ public persona was molded by her on-screen appearance, and Banton was the man with the magic scissors—a costumer, yes, but an image-maker and celebrity stylist before the term existed. Credited with masterminding Marlene Dietrich’s sexy-androgynous look, Banton shaped starlets from Carol Lombard to Mae West. The curve-hugging, dragon-embroidered cheongsam he poured Wong into for Limehouse Blues was over-the-top sexy and a guaranteed scene-stealer.

Photo: Courtesy of Giorgio Armani

The Screen Siren

Go-To Designer, Now
Giorgio Armani. The Milanese maestro has been dressing Hollywood since American Gigolo, and he hasn’t lost his way with celebs. Bumping Victoria Beckham for Megan Fox in his über-hot Emporio Armani underwear campaign this season was a shrewd move; she showed up in his front row (the picture of her next to a slightly stunned-looking Cate Blanchett is one for the ages), and he guaranteed himself future mentions on any Transformers red carpet. Add to this his Lady Gaga moment at the Grammys, and Armani’s got the coveted tween-to-teen set in his tanned hands.

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