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History of American Women’s Fashion

In 2010, The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City ran an exhibition called, “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity.” It explored developing perceptions of the modern American woman from 1890 to 1940 and how they affected the way American women are seen today. Focusing on American femininity through dress, the exhibition revealed 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. Here we take a look at a seven different styles that had a significant influence on the American women.

Putting on Airs

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Nancy Astor in 1908 shows the archetype of American heiresses, a group that was depicted in the paintings of Sargent and the literature of Henry James and whose fashion preferences were usually over the top.

The Sporting Life

The Gibson Girl, as drawn by J. C. Leyendecker for Collier’s magazine in 1907, was the first ideal of American beauty to be depicted in the mass-market media. She represented the athleticism and physical independence of American women.

Marrying Well

Consuelo Vanderbilt, seen below in a 1906 portrait painted by Giovanni Boldini, married an English aristocrat and became the Duchess of Marlborough. Wealthy Americans who married titled European men were known as “penny princesses.”

Grand Gestures

An elaborately embroidered blue silk satin ball gown by the French couturier Jean Philippe Worth was the kind of grand costume favored by American heiresses at the turn of the century.

Artistic License

Rita Lydig, photographed below by Edward Steichen in 1905, was a lady who favored the loose lace tunics by Callot Soeurs. She represented the bohemian archetype: women who used art and artistic practices to express their intellectual freedom.

Girl About Town

Louise Brooks, below, the archetypical American flapper, was photographed by Eugene Robert Richee in 1928. Her slim figure and short bob expressed the footloose freedom of her generation.

Screen Gems

These five evening dresses from the 1930s and ’40s, by designers like Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin and Madame Gres, are as modern as any red-carpet gowns you will see today.

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