"Goddess," the new exhibit at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, aims to convince museumgoers that fashion, no matter how ephemeral, has remained consistently under the spell of Greco-Roman imagery from the French Revolution right through to the spring 2003 runway collections. The impact of classical dress on modern fashion is translated in the popular imagination to mean long fluted gowns, off-the-shoulder silhouettes and endless yards of draped chiffon.
The peplos gown, a common garment in ancient Greece, was worn folded over at the top for a blouson effect that covered the waist. It was made out of one large rectangular piece of cloth, folded in half to form a cylinder. The exhibit includes a 20th century example, a 1922 Poiret dinner dress made of two panels of fabric, but the abbreviated bell-sleeved top and full-length skirt are, all impressions to the contrary, actually the exact same size. Another example is A purple Halston, donated by Rosina Rucci, whose brother is the designer Ralph Rucci, was made from one continuous loop of fabric and spirals around the body from the neck, giving the impression that a mere tug would unravel it, instantly undressing the woman wearing it.
"Goddess" would have benefited most had it offered a sense of metaphorical unraveling--had it veered away from a portrayal of women as made of marble. The goddesses and female figures of Greek mythology were steeped in a world of lust, blood, envy, transgenderism, betrayal and constant motion. In "The Odyssey," as Camille Paglia pointed out in her book, "Sexual Personae," Athena appeared eight times as a male, twice as a human girl and once as herself.
The dresses in the show that prove most memorable are two that convey the sense of sexual devastation that animated so much of Greek literature. One is an Alexander McQueen from the spring 2003 collection, nicknamed the "Shipwreck Dress," which is cut in dark nude silk crepe, crisscrosses the breasts in messy folds and falls to a pierced, shredded, asymmetrical hemline.
It is here that you get an idea of a woman embattled in something psychologically terrifying and life-altering. The second piece is a brown chiffon evening gown by Tom Ford from his summer 2002 Yves Saint Laurent collection. It falls to the knees in front, drapes to the floor in back and contains the breasts with what is meant to look like a primitive harness.