There is subliminal magic built into the fabric of a luxurious dress. It has a way of oozing romance, elegance, and the possibility of something extraordinary occurring on an otherwise simple evening. A dress can also speak its own language and, as 100 Dresses shows, the tongues are endless. A white lace gown, like the 1901 dress worn by Manhattan aristocrat Winifred Sprague Walker Prosser, brings to mind a traditional white wedding. In Winifred’s time however, the high-necked, mutton sleeved beauty was nowhere near elaborate enough for such an occasion, and was instead worn as a simple day dress.
100 Dresses takes readers through the expansive permanent gown collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a collection generally seen by a privileged few. The pages are laden with covetable dresses ranging from a Mantua frock worn in the late 17th century, a time before design houses (as we know them today) existed, to a House of Dior creation from the Fall 2006 collection.
The two-page prologue is written by the celebrated curator of the Costume Institute, Harold Koda. Koda takes readers through the history of the collection, which began as the Museum of Costume Art in the 1920s — its own entity separate from the Met. Originally used as a costume resource for the New York City Playhouse’s productions, the collection was a modest aggregation of historic and regional garments. By 1937, it had grown both in size and in curatorial importance, was pulled from theatres, and deemed worthy of preservation. In 1946 the Museum was began operating under the umbrella of the Met, and became its own department in 1959. It was then that the Museum of Costume Art began gathering its “Masterworks collection” of the world’s most rare and iconic frocks. Today the museum is home to over 35,000 costumes and accessories, but only a select few can be shown at any given time due to their quick deterioration. Koda explains the challenge of deciding which 100 dresses to include in the book: “Establishing a standard for inclusion of one beautiful or elegant dress over another presents, whatever its date or provenance, the same objectivity that operates whenever we judge others by what they are wearing.” In the end, he admits, the dresses seen in the book are simply the favorites of various museum staff members.
As a result, this textbook-like paperback was born. Each dress has a two-page spread: one side dedicated to a photograph of the dress itself, and the other to short paragraphs detailing where the dress might have been worn, who first designed it, and how and where it was made. Often close-ups of the beading or lace are also pictured and in some cases, photos of women modeling the particular style (occasionally the original owner) are included as well. Two-page photo spreads are littered throughout the book, showcasing archival images of dresses from different eras. On page 66, five flappers walk through London in 1925, decked out in pleats, long strands of pearls, and dropped waists. Jump ahead to page 152 and you’ll find a Dennis Hopper photo of model Mary Leon Bing modeling a Rudi Gernreich ensemble from 1966.
Although vastly different, every gown offers something unique and beautiful — I couldn’t seem to hold in my gasps and sighs with every turn of the page. Full of dreamy classics and modern marvels, the photographs in this collection turn these dresses into what they truly are: works of art.
100 Dresses by The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Preface by Harold Koda), Met Publications/Yale University Press, 2010
Reviewed by Alyssa Garrison