In America: A Lexicon of Fashion

By Carlos Nazario

The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been open to the general public since 1946, offering spectators a view of haute couture, exclusive sportswear, and ready-to-wear pieces used by celebrities and the uber-wealthy alike. I decided to visit the Met out of curiosity with my little sister – we planned on viewing the “Charles Ray: Figure Ground” exhibition but got sidetracked. We stumbled upon a room filled with mannequins displaying clothes that you only see on runways or while walking past a Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf Goodman store.

Banner for In America: A Lexicon of Fashion at the Met

The exhibition was called “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” and in an instant, I remembered reading about it on Twitter during the 2021 Met Gala. It is a two-part exhibition that explores American influence in silhouette, texture, and vocabulary. All ensembles showcased were created by designers who’ve defined fashion with their own particular aesthetic in the United States – examples include Emily Bode’s approach in reusing antique textiles and patterns to create colorful menswear staples, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger offering equestrian elegance to the everyday folk or elite, Thom Browne revolutionizing the tailored suit or skirt for all genders, and Oscar de La Renta specializing in evening gowns filled with embroidery and beading.

Dress at the Met Costume InstituteDress at the Met Costume InstituteOutfits at the Met Costume Institute

Andrew Bolton, the head curator at The Costume Institute explained that American fashion “emphasizes the principles of simplicity, practicality, and functionality.” Personally, I agree with this statement, investing in good quality hoodies, jackets, t-shirts, jeans, suits, and tailored pants leads to these items being worn either casually or formally without overthinking. This minimalistic approach has often “denied the emotional rhetoric of [the] European haute couture” which often presents itself with meticulous hand-stitched fabrics, exotic materials, and audacious silhouettes. The exhibition addressed this by presenting an eye-catching aspect – the headpiece that is on top of every mannequin. Keywords such as DISCIPLINE, JOY, SALVATION, SOLIDARITY, ISOLATION, and DELICACY seem to resonate and give emotional qualities to the garments. It is up to (us) the audience to interpret where such an item will be used or what type of message it is trying to portray. Andrew Bolton believes that it’s imperative that “we create a new vocabulary that’s more relevant and more reflective of the times in which we are living… The vocabulary addresses the creative impulses behind American fashion as well as its social, political, and environmental motivations.”

Sweater with American Flag Sweater with upside down American Flag

Two specific garments caught my immediate attention. As shown in these pictures, on the left is Tommy Hilfiger’s “American Flag” sweater created during the 2000s. It provides an egalitarian and patriotic approach to fashion. The garment was under the keyword SOLIDARITY which emphasizes the American belief that in times of crisis (such as war or a global pandemic) people will unite as a collective force for change. In addition, solidarity through the eyes of an American could mean democratic cooperation and the tolerance of self-expression without judgment. On the right is Mexican-American designer, Willy Chavarria’s “Falling Stars” sweater created in 2019. It is a direct interpretation of Hilfiger’s design with a notable twist – an American flag upside down and its stars representing all 50 states, falling. This commentary may highlight the disunity of American politics, its institutions, and citizens during President Trump’s presidency (2016-2020). The garment was under the keyword ISOLATION which is the opposite of accessibility and opportunity. I was instantly reminded of immigration policies, accessibility to citizenship and healthcare, the marginalization of minorities, and the wealth gap among all social classes. It was a clear contrast to Tommy Hilfiger’s optimistic view of the United States as a White man.

Installation view at the Met Costume Institute

I was overjoyed to see a Mexican-American designer, such as Willy Chavarria, being recognized by The Costume Institute and included amongst America’s most revered designers. Through Chavarria’s garment, I felt welcomed and understood. Although this is a minuscule step towards Latinx representation, I hope to see much more of it in the second part of the exhibition called “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.”



The Met – In America: A Lexicon of Fashion Overview

The Met – Tommy Hilfiger “American Flag” Sweater

The Met – Willy Chavarria “Falling Stars” Sweater

Youtube – Exhibition Tour—In America: A Lexicon of Fashion with Andrew Bolton