On the first floor of the New Orleans Museum of Art, a mannequin draped in a 19th-century floral gown stands beside a second mannequin wearing a green sequined suit. While the gown is one of the nation’s earliest labeled garments, designed by New Orleans milliner and dressmaker Madame Olympe Boisse, the sequined suit is a contemporary work of art, designed by Tyron “Marquette” Perrin and worn by bounce legend Big Freedia only a few months ago.
The juxtaposition between old and new, lesser-known and widely-celebrated, defines “Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour,” which debuted at NOMA on July 21 and will run through Nov. 26. NOMA’s first fashion exhibit in five years features more than 100 designers from the past 150 years and highlights pieces by artists previously left out of the mainstream fashion discourse.
“It’s really difficult to kind of come up with what is uniquely American because there are so many different voices and perspectives and backgrounds that actually feed into that vision,” exhibit curator Michelle Tolini Finamore said.
She sought to rethink how we approach American fashion history, and look beyond some of the big-name designers. She incorporated the work of Black designers, Indigenous designers, female entrepreneurs, as well as designers beyond the East and West coasts.
“I just wanted to broaden the story,” Finamore said.
Part of this aim came from the traveling exhibit’s opening in “the heartland,” Finamore said, in Bentonville, Arkansas, at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “I wanted to make sure that not only did I incorporate their permanent collection and had pieces that corresponded to what their collection represented, but also did represent design that was happening in the middle of the country, rather than just the coastal cities,” Finamore said.
The exhibit ran at Crystal Bridges from September 2022 through January 2023, before moving to New Orleans. When it relocated, Finamore and NOMA staff members adjusted the show to center Perrin’s sequinned dress and Boisse’s black gown at the start of the exhibit.
“It’s great to have this moment here where people can think about how New Orleans is connected to this broader history of American fashion,” NOMA director of marketing and communications Charlie Tatum said.
For Finamore, Boisse’s gown represents “what the exhibition is all about,” when it comes to expanding the fashion history narrative. “Here is a name that is not familiar to most fashion historians,” she said. While Boisse’s name appears in a couple of history books, she explained, her work did not garner the same attention as many of her male contemporaries living in Europe.
“Here is this entrepreneur, designer, businesswoman in New Orleans in the 19th century, who was creating very distinctive garments, and really beautifully constructed, as well as somebody who was signing her name to these garments,” she said. “There’s obviously this sense of pride in that creation.”
Beyond the New Orleans-focused opening, the exhibit is split into seven sections organized by theme — including a Western wear area featuring a “Cowgirl and Cowboy” ensemble by Anna Sui, panels of streetwear featuring a piece from Tommy Hilfiger’s “Tommy x. Zendaya” collection, a lingerie section that includes a miniscule vintage corset alongside a piece from Rihanna’s size-inclusive brand, Savage X Fenty, and a series of gowns from the Ebony Fashion Fair, a defining annual event in the history of African American fashion that spanned a half century.
In curating the exhibit, Finamore tried to showcase “objects that told stories on multiple levels,” and the works by Pueblo ceramicist and fashion designer Virgil Ortiz do just that. Ortiz designed his pieces as costumes for a feature film he’s working on, a science fiction time travel narrative about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The goth and dystopian feel of the clothes, particularly the peacoat, speak to his vision for the film’s aesthetic, but they’re also a nod to Alexander Mcqueen, Rick Owens, and nightclub dress.
At the same time, the peacoat, T-shirt, leather kilt, and duffel bag are manufactured in the country under Ortiz’s label, Made in Native America and emblazoned with his family crest, a series of zig-zagged triangles called the “rez spine design.”
“The details on there all represent a very deep meaning,” he said.
Teri Greeves, a Kiowa artist and fashion designer, also creates pieces that function on multiple aesthetic and symbolic levels. A pair of red, beaded lace-up heels sit behind plexiglass at the exhibit. Images of Kiowa women in traditional dress cover the sides of the shoes. “The clothing that they have on, kind of matches what the shoes are, which in my mind, is couture,” Greeves said.
While Native American designers only started garnering mainstream recognition about a decade ago, Greeves explains, aspects of Native fashion are not necessarily different from the high fashion of European courts.
“Since the moment I was born, I lived in a world of couture,” she said. “So fashion, I think, is catching up to what we’ve always been doing as far as I’m concerned.”
As a fashion historian, Finamore stressed the ways that fashion “is an entryway” toward understanding history, social and cultural changes, and the contemporary zeitgeist.
“What I hope is that people will respond to these garments, viscerally and visually, but they will also come away understanding a deeper story related to its maker to its wearer, and how these makers and these wearers actually represent these aspects of American history and American fashion history,” she said.
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