The Costume Collection of the Brooklyn Museum is, I believe, unique in that it was set up (in 1903) specifically to provide inspiration for America's fashion industry by allowing visitors to study the very best of world fashion. It is a great collection but does not get the praise it deserves because, well … it's in Brooklyn (as the name suggests), rather than Manhattan.
So it is great news that the museum has joined forces with the Metropolitan Museum of Art – which is in Manhattan – in a joint show that goes on until August 15 in both venues. "American Women: Fashioning an Identity" is at the Metropolitan; "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" is in Brooklyn. And it is the second one I want to draw attention to, as the Metropolitan will get plenty of visitors because of its location and also because of the high esteem in which its fashion exhibitions have been held ever since the days of Diana Vreeland in the seventies.
What makes the Brooklyn collection unique? Well, it has always had a collecting policy that comes at the whole question of what clothing is worthy of preservation from a pleasingly oblique angle. That means that, along with all the big names like Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Dior, are lesser-known ones whose importance is absolute in historic terms but whose names have slipped below the radar a little. So, in American terms, think Bonnie Cashin, Mainbocher or Elizabeth Hawes; in world terms think Callot Soeurs, Yantorny or the Fontana sisters. Also, how many of us have had the chance to see the clothes of Arnold Scaasi, Geoffrey Beene or James Galanos? Acquainting oneself with these people is worth the visit alone.
But the great glory of the Brooklyn Museum is its unique collection of the work of Charles James, the irascible Anglo-American designer who in his lifetime was seen by many as technically superior to Christian Dior and certainly the equal of Cristobal Balenciaga – a judgement James would have grudgingly agreed with. The other great strength of Brooklyn's collection is Elsa Schiaparelli, who is well represented and who, along with James and Worth, is central to the show.
Try to get there, but if you can't, you can buy the supporting book, High Style – beautifully produced by Yale to their usual high standards.
Charles James gown and stole from the Brooklyn Museum (pic: NY Times)