What is American design? And what defines an American designer? Both seemingly straightforward questions are actually quite difficult to answer. Andrew Bolton and his team considered them in the “In America” exhibitions at the Met, and now they’re being considered in new ways in “Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour,” opening this week at Crystal Bridges in Arkansas.
A wave of Americana—a major theme at the spring 2023 men’s shows—is sweeping through fashion because, or despite, of the current state of divisiveness in the country. What’s different is that this time around, the trend is only partly nostalgic. The social justice movement sweeping the U.S.—and the world—has encouraged a reconsideration of the past. In keeping with this, curator Michelle Finamore has made it her mission to “re-look at American fashion with a more inclusive lens, rethink what the canon is, disrupt the narrative a bit, [and ask] who has been left out of the story.” It’s a remit that’s very much in sync with that of Crystal Bridges, an institution that chairperson Olivia Walton describes as “progressive,” meaning, she explains, “it’s not a traditional museum of American art. We think of ourselves as a platform for inclusive storytelling, so we aim to do things differently.”
“Fashioning America” is the first fashion exhibition to be shown at Crystal Bridges (which does not currently collect garments). “We’ve been inspired by the success of the Costume Institute [and] we know that this is something that people in our region are very interested in. Fashion is the dominant mode of creative expression today,” says Walton. “It is self-expression, it is cultural expression, and so it makes perfect sense for us.”
Rather than tell the story of American fashion chronologically, Finamore has instead organized it by thematic groupings, informed, she says, by “the distinctive forms that are recognized on a global level as being distinctly American.” In that way the exhibition will progress in a slow crescendo from Grit (which includes sections devoted to Streetwear, Intimacies and Beachwear, and The Rise of Ready-to-Wear) to Glitz and Glamour (with theme sections on Pop Art, Bridal, Refashioning America, and Red Carpet dressing.