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Over the past few years, fashion labels from Gucci to Prada have infused their sleek modern designs with antique sources. And the Metropolitan Museum's latest exhibit at the Costume Institute, "Goddess," chronicles the history of classical influence on fashion with a group of magnificent and impractical dresses. In the accompanying text, the words "eternal" and "classical" repeatedly crop up, but what's fascinating is the extent to which the goddesses of each era show signs of their origins; the eternal, idealized images are almost comically grounded in their times. In the '50s the trademark gauzy, folded fabric of the goddess is grafted onto a rigid body-shaping structure with a conelike bust, so there is no hint of the real body beneath rippling cloth. And in the '20s the goddesses, in their pleated silks, look suspiciously flapperish.
But one thing remains constant: In the fashion industry's interpretation of the goddess the violence and ferocity of the goddesses are mostly gone, and in their place is a filmy, romanticized view of female divinities, drained of the real, bloody sources of their power. Everything dark or disturbing, vengeful or jealous in Greek mythology is purged. There is no trace of the Athena who turned Arachne into a spider, or the Artemis who turned a man into a stag and watched dogs devour him. Instead, many of the clothes on display are filled with a fluid prettiness, a floating and wafting that doesn't fit with the mythological ruthlessness they are supposed to represent. Take, for instance, a voluminous Christian Dior ball gown from 1947, modeled after Botticelli's Venus emerging from the waves—with gray tulle, iridescent, feather-shaped sequins, and scalloped layers of pearls and rhinestones, it looks more like it belongs to a ballerina than a goddess. Even Dolce and Gabbana, a designer usually associated with black leather, contributed frothy dresses made of bunching white chiffon. The recurring motif of the asymmetrical, bared shoulder is meant to be a reference to Amazonian warriors, but the effect is softened by the diaphanous fabrics and seems more Hollywood-in-the-'30s than Amazon-in-battle. The colors, too—whites, ivories, oysters, and creams—contribute to the gentle, feminine effect.
It's easy to forget that neoclassical fashions were originally considered risqué. References to classical modes of dress have historically been associated with a radical, new raciness. After the French Revolution, the empire waist represented an escape from the stiffly boned corsets and bell-skirted silhouette of aristocratic tradition. The sheer cotton fabrics and loose styles were considered revolutionary and revealing. For the Pre-Raphaelites, neoclassical costumes represented a return to a natural, liberated state, and the look of what art historians call "wet drapery"—fabric clinging to the body in folds, while revealing the contours underneath—held a kind of bohemian fascination. In the '20s, body-skimming, pleated silk dresses designed by Mariano Fortuny—originally intended to be worn only at home, and then later worn out by the daring—reflected the freedom and loucheness of the times. Compared to most current forms of dress, today's goddess fashions are almost theatrically innocent: They evoke nymphs frolicking in the grasses, young girls barefoot in the woods. Even the dresses that are relatively bare somehow look demure. Take the Prada dresses—made of jersey silk with crisscrossing Grecian harnesses—which are perhaps the best-known designs in the exhibit. They seem to belong to a pastoral idyll, to a shepherdess lounging under an olive tree, rather than the strung-out model in a French bistro that the designer normally riffs on. Norma Kamali has a swimsuit that is modestly covered in white draping folds. And some of the gowns in the exhibit, including a Vera Wang made of cotton gauze, look dangerously like nightgowns one would be comfortable wearing to breakfast with one's grandmother. To our eyes, accustomed as they are to tight clothes, the flowing, the unstructured, the pleated, and draped are no longer revealing. It's as if the most recent materialization of the goddess were intended to offer some respite from the overdetermined sexiness we are accustomed to. What's revolutionary about this visual style, in this particular era, is its purity.
The entrance to the costume wing is guarded by three caryatids, and somehow the idea of women merging with stone is very much a part of the exhibit: The folds and drapings of the delicate fabrics on display are crafted to look like ancient Greek statues. In fact, the whole appeal of these clothes lies in dressing like you have been carved out of marble: The illusion of permanence is at the center of goddess fashion. It may not be coincidence, then, that the latest craze for goddess design, among designers from Donna Karan to Yves St. Laurent to Gucci to Prada, began after Sept. 11. If there is anything the show's historical perspective reveals, it is that classical forms are at their most intensely popular during times of greatest turmoil: as they were after the French Revolution, or in the '30s, during the Depression, with the threat of war hanging over the nation, when designers like Madame Grès began spinning out glamorous Hollywood versions of the goddess that seemed all shimmer and satin and pedestal. At moments like these, it may be that looking like a great column or pillar gives a girl a certain desirable solidity. As I was walking past the glass cases full of filmy spectacles, it occurred to me: This is what it looks like to buy and wear immortality. It may be a softer, gentler immortality than that of the ancients, but it's our nostalgic, panicked fantasy of female forms who live forever.
The few moments when the exhibit hinted at violence seemed, in fact, to put people off. On the first morning of the exhibition, the gallery-goers were mostly cranky old ladies. One little round lady said to another, surveying a tuniclike concoction with a gold chain down the back: "Just what I've always wanted my whole life. To have a chain hitting me on the ass."