Thursday, May 13, 2010

American Woman: Sister Suffragettes and Screen Sirens

Mike i.e. Goatdog (of the Best Pictures From the Outside In series) was visiting from the Windy City this past weekend. He brought the wind with him. It was so strong and crazy that he cracked "I think we're going to land on someone's sister". Hee!

We took in the "American Woman" exhibit at the Met. They had a section on Screen Sirens so... that's always one way to hook the cinephiles. Only one section was about the movies but I was reminded of other movies a few times as the decades past by: Howard's End and Thoroughly Modern Millie in particular.

It was a costume exhibit mostly, which covered the long slow rise of female liberation.

Reminders that it took multiple decades to get half of the population something as obvious as the right to vote suddenly gives you perspective about how slow progress is. And it reminds you that today's civil rights struggles will pay off... eventually. The problem is there's always huge conservative forces working against progress. And they're always so proud of it at the time. Decades later their ancestors will watch a period movie about some civil rights struggle and everyone will cluck at the screen and feel confident that they would have been on the progressive side and 'how horrible that people treat [fill in blank with any minority] this way!'. And they won't see the hypocritical parallel when they vote against whatever is the new civil rights struggle.

This is the way history (and movies about it) goes...and why everyone should stop fighting against other people's rights fer chrissakes [/soapbox]

It was totally fun to see how one decade would bleed into the next fashion-wise... but you know how I get about costume design. The whole thing made me long for a really great epic about the Suffragette movement. I love the "Sister Suffragette" number from Mary Poppins but it does depress me a little that that's my chief touchstone, cinematically speaking. Or am I missing some great obscure drama?

I also think we need a really big budget eye candy movie about flappers. My favorite fashion evolution was watching the slim androgynous lines of the flapper dresses morphing into the sleek but very feminine dresses of Hollywood's golden age.

The tail end of the exhibit, before you exit from the gift shop, is a circular room filled with costumes one might easily have seen in 30s and 40s movies with huge looping clip reels of greats like Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Rita Hayworth. A Norma Shearer vs. Joan Crawford clip from The Women, which I've seen a trillion times, was made fresh by Mike's Old Hollywood knowledge. He pointed out the ample display of Joan Crawford's legs while Norma is only shot from the waist up or covered up with a huge full skirt. I guess they rarely showed Norma's legs because they were considered unsexy/stumpy? It's another variation on Natalie Wood's bracelet (she was uncomfortable about her left wrist) or Barbra Streisand's 'only from the left side' profile edict.

I love Norma and I did not know this.

One of my favorite things about hanging out with fellow movie-obsessives is that you can make bad jokes and constant movie references all day and no one looks at you funny but instead plays along. Right before leaving the museum for dinner we chanced upon this statue of Cleopatra.
Nathaniel: I want my money back. This looks nothing like Liz Taylor.
Mike: OR Claudette Colbert.
The American Woman exhibit runs through August 15th and you can see a slideshow (partial) here. If you missed the celebrity attended opening last week you can see pics here.


Andrew K. said...

I'm always a little surprised that they haven't made a new version of Thoroughly Modern Millie making use of the Broadway version's score...but I suppose we'll get one eventually...


yeah. that is weird considering it wsa an unexpected hit and musical/comedy is what's worked best at the box office (movie-wise)

i also had hoped that Amelia would give me enough 20s/30s era costume excitement but even the costumes didn't excite me.

that era needs more movies about it

Rose said...

So, the reason I love visiting your blog is because of your love of actresses. Especially because of your love of Norma - there's so few of us left these days - and classic actresses in general. So, I thought I'd share with you this YouTube clip just added today (No, I didn't make it or anything, I just love YouTubing my actresses). The music is super corny, but there's nothing I love more than candid shots of Classic Hollywood. Anyway, the video has abundant shots of actresses of old, and the first few seconds with Norma are so charming and wonderful...

Janice said...

Regarding suffragettes, I haven't seen the UK 1974 production "Shoulder to Shoulder" with Sian Phillips as Christabel Pankhurst, but I'd like to. (Phillips btw is best remembered from her award-winning role in I, Claudius, and an accomplished stage actress as well as being Peter O'Toole's ex-wife and the mother of his children. But - we all knew that, right? Right.)

I'll check out the links, thanks Nat. I love a good costume/clothing exhibition, although this one feels slightly unfocused from your description. Maybe the Met's site itself will clarify.

As to the 1920's, there was a time when quite a lot of movies were set then, it seems (especially the late '60s early '70's) but movie costumes at any time have a tendancy to reflect the modes of the time in which the film is made, not when the film is set. (You've already been subjected to my rants about beehive hairdos in Funny Girl and Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, so I'll try not to repeat.)

When I go online to Vintage or look at fashion magazines and books, I find that era is actually much more interesting and diverse stylewise than one generally thinks (I'm talking about the '20's specifically).

Of course I personally think there needs to be more movies about 1890-1914 because I adore the clothes, but to each their own. (Which reminds me that I still need to see Cheri.)