Fashion is often viewed as frivolous. But in recent years, students of fashion have been showing the role clothes and style have played in documenting historical eras. Correspondent Jenny Badner recently visited a new exhibition at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, that explores how fashion helped create the modern woman who is on a quest for political and social equality.
A bold, bright red evening gown, tightly cut, with expensive silk and lace, is on view at the entrance to the exhibit.
"A dress like this, which is so sexy, with the corset bodice and with the lace and ostrich feathers and the deep décolletage - this, in fact, was worn by a very respectable New York society woman, even though it looks incredibly Moulin Rouge [cabaret,]" explains Valerie Steele, curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology's museum.
The Fashion Institute of Technology, part of the New York State university system, prepares college students for careers in the fashion industry. Professor Steele put together the exhibit on the image of the dangerous so-called Femme Fatale. She says the dresses on display come from an important period marking the "metamorphosis of the new and modern woman."
The exhibition shows how women from different socio-economic classes began wearing the same designs. Sophisticated, upper class women looked to the trends set by actresses and even courtesans, and adopted their revealing and sensual style of dress.
Professor Steele says new department stores opened, contributing to the independence of working, middle and upper class women.
"The idea of going shopping, too, of course, was in fact quite liberating, [the idea] that women no longer were just staying at home, but rather the department store became a kind of woman's world, a sort of ladies' paradise, where they could spend all day - not just shopping, but they could eat in the cafe, they could sit in the writing room and write letters," she says. "They could see all kinds of aspects of life, and be out independently, and that was part of the new urban culture."
The bold dresses on exhibit come from a turbulent time before World War I, when women's movements for political and social equality were gaining momentum in the West.
More than 50 of those dresses are on display, including a black-and-white silk gown with a long dramatic train, embellished with flowers typical of the art nouveau style of the times. Dresses that at first glance look innocent because of their soft pale shades appear daring upon closer scrutiny.
Many of the gowns are revealing, with low cut bodices, covered in sequins and elaborate lace. The plain white corset, which was soon to be replaced altogether, became available in colorful satins.
The exhibition's co-curator Fred Dennis says, in the late nineteenth century, style became a way to gain attention.
"It was the first time that fashion was moving from the lower level up. But I think we are always saying 'look at me.' Even [we] New Yorkers dressing all in black, that is our uniform, but there is something that says, we stand out from everyone else," he says.
Curator Valerie Steele says that an all black riding outfit on display from 1895 contributed to the development of the popular tailored suit worn by contemporary, professional women.
"I think, what is important is not to look at women as being the victims of some monster called fashion, but that fashion is the result of the choices of innumerable women," she says. "So, they are, in a sense, voting with their pocket book, when they are deciding how they want to look and how they want to present themselves to the world."
Many of the gowns in the exhibit were designed by the House of Worth, the most famous fashion establishment of its time. Reflecting on the message late-19th century women were sending with their clothing choices, Professor Steele says, they used fashion to present a new and erotic image of themselves.