Accessories create social ideals such as gender, sexuality, modesty, race, class, power, and modernism while also illuminating changes in the larger social environment.
Although they are sometimes viewed as an afterthought to clothing, accessories have long been crucial components and they serve as significant elements for understanding how women express their own identities.
Most recently The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) opened the exhibition—Head to Toe—that examines the significance of accessories to the history of Euro-American women's fashion from 1800 to the early twenty-first century.
The Head to Toe exhibition includes over 200 accessories and roughly thirty clothes from MFIT's permanent collection.
The gallery shows historical and contemporary comparisons of accessories. For example, a lady in the mid-nineteenth century would have taken up a parasol to shelter herself from the sun, whereas a modern woman wears sunglasses. Aside from providing shade, both accessories allow women to disrupt the public gaze by hiding or showing their features, and both may serve as distinct indicators of wealth and status.
"Accessories have become so central to fashion that they are hardly an accessory anymore," says Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of MFIT. "In fact, even in the nineteenth century, hats, gloves, parasols, and fans played an important role in fashion, just as shoes, bags, and sunglasses do today. The exhibition curators, Melissa Marra-Alvarez and Elizabeth Way, have done a wonderful job showing how and why accessories always complete a look."
The first half of the exhibition examines different accessories from 1800 to 1940, with each section highlighting those that were particularly essential to fashion at the time. Rapid industrialization during the Victorian era gave middle-class women access to luxury things traditionally reserved for the upper class.
The "new woman" of the early twentieth century chose a less formal type of clothing inspired by fitted male patterns. By the early twentieth century, oversized hats richly decorated with silk flowers and plumage had reached extraordinary dimensions, becoming not only the most prominent item in women's fashion, but also overt emblems of the leisure class.
By the end of the millennium, purses and shoes dominated as the most significant women's fashion accessories. New accessories, such as designer cell phone covers and face masks, have arisen in the most recent twenty years to represent modern lifestyles.
Head to Toe urges people to consider the history and shifting functions of women's accessories, as well as their continuing significance to both individual style and larger social trends.
The Head to Toe exhibition opens at The Museum at FIT on November 17, 2021 - May 8, 2022.
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