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Celebrating the American Woman

Catherine Malandrino Flag Dress. Photo credit: Pascale Richard

As a nation founded on fantasy, busy dreaming and reinventing… we like the idea of the American Woman; we traffic in fantasies, build archetypes, are seduced by precisely these national stereotypes, oddly stirred by them.

Flying British Airways from Nice to London to NYC, I picked up an exceptionally interesting Financial Times weekend paper. Breezing past the news of the Greek financial meltdown and other such heavy and unhappy matters, I headed straight for the Life & Arts section to read about Rothko’s return to Russia.

I was happily sidetracked by the headlining article American ideal by NYU professor Katie Roiphe explores and celebrates the American-Girl-turned-American-Woman, delving into the stereotypes and varying definitions of said woman and girl. This was an article that made my little heart swell with pride as it resonated deeply with me, as I’m sure it will with many other American women and those who love them.

Roiphe (halfheartedly) wonders whether the upcoming Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition American Woman: Fashioning National Identity will amount to more than a collection of worn-out, overplayed stereotypes. Is there even such a thing as the American Woman; is she anything more than a figment of our collective imaginations?

The thinking person has to acknowledge that the whole idea of the American Woman is silly. There is no American Woman, only millions of American women: the huddled masses, the poor, the sick, the hungry and the very, very rich, the bluebloods, the Chinese immigrants, and the daughters of Pakistani taxi drivers, trying to go about their lives as best they can.

The author revisits our childhood adoration of tomboys from Little House on the Prairie and Little Women. From a young age, Americans are taught to admire girls who “get dirty, run fast, scrape their knees, break rules, and harbor secretly unfeminine ambitions.” These American girls grow up to become American women, and their rebelliousness and strength are deeply valued.

Ultimately, Roiphe concludes that the American Woman does, indeed, exist, albeit as a fantasy or a glorified ideal that is part and parcel of our own national identity, and that she is brought to life by literature, glossies, and the silver screen.

We secretly love our suffragettes, our flappers, our screen sirens, our bohemians, even if they never quite existed… we secretly cherish the incorrigible tomboy, that vulgar flirt, that stubborn, independent pioneer girl, that infinitely romantic notion of American womanhood, that freedom and grit and spirit.

The article is available for viewing online via the Financial Times website. Also worth reading is the shorter article at the bottom, ‘Gossip Girl’ as American Woman by executive producer Stephanie Savage (what a great name, huh?).

Go: American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity. May 5, 2010–August 15, 2010. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, 2nd floor. Opening Gala to take place on April 3, 2010.

American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity will explore developing perceptions of the modern American woman from 1890 to 1940 and how they have affected the way American women are seen today. Focusing on archetypes of American femininity through dress, the exhibition will reveal how the American woman initiated style revolutions that mirrored her social, political, and sexual emancipation. “Gibson Girls,” “Bohemians,” and “Screen Sirens,” among others, helped lay the foundation for today’s American woman.

The exhibition is made possible by Gap.
Additional support is provided by Condé Nast (Vogue)

A related exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection (May 7–August 1), will highlight masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection.

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