I’m in the basement. Of the Met. In storage. With Harold Koda. (HAROLD KODA!!) Looking at Millicent Roger’s dress. Designed by Gilbert Adrian. For my next exhibition! This kept going through my head, in this order, over and over – just this string of choppy phrases where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and each part is pretty excellent unto itself.
My mid-May visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art kicked off research for the 2015 exhibition I am curating on contemporary Native American fashion, NDN Style: Native Fashion Now! This show will present new frontiers in Native American fashion since the 1950s. The word “NDN” is the phonetic pronunciation of “Indian” and is actively used by American Indians to differentiate themselves from East Indians. It is a well-intended, self-empowering term used in Native pop culture today. NDN Style will have about 60 objects, focusing on pioneering Native style-makers working in a variety of materials and genres, and will integrate key examples by non-Native designers for comparison and counterpoint. Whether it’s street clothing or haute couture, NDN Style will demonstrate what an important tool fashion is to the expression and vitality of Native people.
I was at the Met with Trevor Fairbrother, PEM’s guest curator of NDN Style’s companion exhibition Indians and Artists: An American Phenomenon (working titles for both shows). Trevor, a widely-known independent curator and scholar, curated PEM’s 2006 blockbuster exhibition, Painting Summer in New England. His exhibition Indians and Artists will run concurrently in the galleries adjacent to NDN Style, and examines the figure of the American Indian as an artistic subject as well as some of the countless guises that “Indianness” has taken in the eyes of Native and non-Native artists. We will have a co-curated gallery that expands on the complementary nature of our shows, a space where the two exhibitions meet in the middle – physically and intellectually.
So there we were, in the Met’s vast subterranean labyrinth that houses part of the Costume Institute’s collection, looking at an ensemble with Harold Koda (HAROLD KODA!!), a fashion scholar – rather, a rock-star fashion scholar – who is Head of the Costume Institute at the Met. He and his colleague, Elizabeth Q. Bryan, associate research curator, showed me a gorgeous crepe dress and matching cape and belt designed by Gilbert Adrian, the renowned Hollywood clothing and costume designer who was known for his meticulous, perfectly executed tailoring and elaborate piecing.
In the mid-1940s, Gilbert Adrian introduced his client and friend, socialite and Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers, to Taos, New Mexico. Rogers fell in love with the region and bought a house there, which she named “Turtle Walk.” She began collecting Native and Spanish Colonial art, and developed her iconic Southwestern style, which blended her affinity for high-fashion and local Native American designs and materials.
Adrian designed this fringed dress and cape specifically for Millicent Rogers, one of the more personal pieces he made for her. The fringe was inspired by fringed clothing of Native people, while the outfit has a bold turtle pattern. Harold thought it likely that Rogers picked out the decorative fabric for Adrian to work with: the turtle a reference to Rogers’ Taos home and as a Native American symbol of creation, protection and longevity.
A loan request will go to the Met later this summer requesting Rogers’ ensemble. It is our hope that this dress will feature prominently in the co-curated space for both exhibitions, as it fosters a rich dialogue between artistic inspiration, design aesthetic and intercultural borrowing.
Stay tuned for more from the field – or basement!