NEW YORK CITY— On a hot afternoon I queue up between two thin ropes in the bright and well-air-conditioned atrium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. I’m surrounded by objects from the Gilded Age. To my left is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze and gold “Diana” that once crowned Madison Square Garden. To my right is Louis Comfort Tiffany’s colorful mosaic which had adorned the jeweler’s home. A richly carved pulpit by Daniel Chester French, salvaged from a Manhattan church, rises behind me. My posse awaits being funneled into a temporary show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” It’s the annual exhibition in a decades-long run of blockbusters sponsored by the Met’s Costume Institute. Opening nights, known as the Met Gala, are often as dazzling as the shows themselves. Here, a few weeks back at the prestigious fashion event, Anna Wintour and Tom Ford welcomed to the red carpet such stars as Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Keys, Glenn Close and Austin Butler (the current on-screen “Elvis”).
But we didn’t come just for haute couture, but admittedly provincial reasons. Our hometown’s own Valentine history center has lent three dresses from its nationally recognized costume collection to the sprawling exhibition. The gowns are being displayed in the Met’s period rooms in what the museum terms “freeze frames” of American fashion. Ranging from 1670 to 1915, the vignettes were curated by nine American film directors including Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorese and Chloe Zhao. Regina King, director of “One Night in Miami ” and an Academy Award-winning actress, conceived the placement of the Valentine gowns in the Met’s permanent Richmond Room. The wing, housing period rooms that started life somewhere else, is a rabbit warren of intimate galleries. The Shaker Retiring Room of 1818 came from Mount Lebanon, New York. The 1913 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed living room is from the Francis and Mary Little House in Wayzata, Minnesota. The Richmond Room, a parlor from the William Clayton Williams house (built in 1810 and razed in 1938), stood downtown on North Eighth Street where the Federal Building now stands.
After passing through the front door of the reconstructed stone facade of the Branch Bank of the United States, a lost Wall Street landmark, we approach the period rooms. They are dimly lit to protect the delicate fabrics of the clothing. Thirteen of the Met’s 30 period rooms are venues for “An Anthology of Fashion.” Our eyes adjust to make out the Richmond Room with its dark mahogany woodwork, well-proportioned windows, and elegant “Monuments of Paris” scenic wallpaper. The precious Valentine cargo includes a trio of rare, turn-of-the-last-century “afternoon” gowns created by Richmond designer and seamstress Fannie Criss Payne, who was African American (1867-1942). Director King’s tableau captures Payne in one of her own dresses, standing proud as a client models one of her designs. Another figure, who also dons a Payne original, observes while a young Black seamstress, one of Payne’s employees, toils away on the sidelines, symbolizing a woman breaking into one of the few fields available to black women at the turn-of-the-last-century.
My thoughts, while jostling for space in the limited viewing area, went straight to imagining the emotions of the Valentine and Met staff members as they readied the elaborate dresses for display. I remembered Martin Luther King’s pronouncement in 1968 that “… the arc of moral justice is long, but it bends toward justice.” Fannie Criss Payne was born to illiterate, formerly enslaved farming parents in rural Cumberland County, Virginia, but her talent, energy, drive and sense of style catapulted her into the wealthiest — and most fashionable — Richmond households. Eventually, she owned a residence on East Leigh Street, just a few doors from the home of a black client, the celebrated Richmond entrepreneur and civic leader Maggie L. Walker. Later, Payne and her husband settled in New York where they bought a house in Harlem. There she grew her business and designed for such Hollywood royalty as Gloria Swanson. Payne had quite an arc indeed, from post-Civil War Cumberland County to Richmond, to the Harlem Renaissance, and now in the 21st century, to Fifth Avenue and the nations’ greatest art museum.
These are heady times for the Valentine’s staff, curators and leadership. While visiting the Met I also thought of how the Valentine earlier this year had tenaciously sought to borrow the de-pedestalled statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its owner, the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia. It is currently on display in the Valentine’s comprehensive “This Is Richmond, Virginia” exhibition. Other objects on display range from Native American artifacts to a bust of Chief Justice John Marshall, to a downtown five-and-dime store lunch counter where a Civil Rights sit-in was held.
On June 10, 2020, the Davis bronze, which had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907, now slathered with bubble gum-pink paint and its bashed-in face, lay in the street. A noose of shredded toilet paper encircled its neck. As for the arc of moral justice, this damaged object now rests horizontally in the museum that also displays the studio of its sculptor, Edward V. Valentine. It is also poignant that Jefferson Davis had lived just two blocks away in relative splendor as the president of the Confederate States of America at the White House of the Confederacy at 1101 E. Clay St. This is not how many folks expected he would return to the neighborhood.
It is critical that we protect, display and interpret precious buildings and artifacts from the distant and recent past. They give credence to the “arc of justice”‘ and our resilience as individuals, a community and a nation.
“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” continues through Sept. 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, Admission. (metmuseum.org)
The Jefferson Davis statue is on display in the “This is Richmond, Virginia ” exhibit at the Valentine through December 2022, 1015 East Clay St. Admission, but no admission charge on Wednesdays. thevalentine.org.