Met celebrates American woman

Singer Taylor Swift arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala this week in New York.

NEW YORK -- Two of the most powerful women in entertainment and fashion teamed up to throw a party in the Big Apple. Oprah Winfrey and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and Gap creative director Patrick Robinson co-chaired the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala Benefit on Monday night.

This year's theme was "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity." Stars such as Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Lopez were there. Many were accompanied by the designer who dressed them. Winfrey walked the arrival line with Oscar de la Renta, wearing his navy couture gown.

"Harry Potter" actress Emma Watson took a break from studying for her final exams at Brown University to attend, wearing a white custom gown by Burberry.

"I'm pretty lucky I get the best of both worlds, and that's why I'm so blessed," Watson said.

Lady Gaga performed at the ball but didn't walk the red carpet. Instead, the famous face with the most unusual dress was singer Katy Perry. She wore a dress that lit up with LED lights. "I feel like I really have to represent those girls that just go for it and do their own thing and, you know, have their own bit of spontaneity and self-confidence," Perry said. "I think sometimes in fashion it can get a little stuffy, so I wanted to lighten up!"

The opening exhibit was one of the most coveted social tickets of the season and brought out the stars, but the costumes will be on view through Aug. 15.

It was American style icons who helped move fashion forward with new standards of beauty, sexuality, power and art, even if many of the best couturiers lived and worked across the Atlantic.

"Whenever you think of America, you think about emancipation, modernity and progress. And American women because of their clothes are the ultimate symbol of progress and modernity," said curator Andrew Bolton.

But while he could have singled out the most influential tastemakers of their day, that might have minimized the overall impact he thinks Americans had on global trends. "I didn't want to pick out specific women. I wanted to celebrate the archetypes of American femininity," Bolton added.

Visitors enter through a photographic re-creation of Manhattan's Washington Square arch, which, coming from the end of the 19th century, notes the complementary explosion of local architecture and apparel at that time. The first gallery represents the high, expensive, elaborate style of the young nation's wealthiest women. They still bought their clothes in Paris, Bolton said, but their look, and the American spin they put on it, was exported back to Europe via Edith Wharton and Henry James novels.

To best show off the heiress' va-va-voom silhouette, Bolton selected low-cut ballgowns with tiny, nipped waists; provocative, low bustlines; and rich fabrics. One of the most stunning came from the French House of Worth. The blue-and-cream gown was decorated with delicate mousseline and butterfly-themed embroidery.

The heiresses' independent streak whet the appetite for the next generation's more carefree style that would only be furthered with the athletic Gibson Girl, followed by the liberal bohemian, tough suffragist and fun-loving flapper. Then came the Hollywood starlet, who, with glamour and sophistication, has remained a muse for fashion designers.

In 1924, French designer Jean Patou sought Americans as models, running an New York Times ad looking for women who had to be "smart, slender, with well-shaped feet and ankles and refined of manner."

That solidified the American woman's place in the fashion hierarchy, said Bolton.

"It's about the American woman going through history and how she projected herself," said Patrick Robinson of Gap.

The exhibit ends with a video of faces, past and present, who collectively embody the strong spirit woven into the look of the historical muses. Jackie Kennedy, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, Queen Latifah, Gloria Steinem and Michelle Obama are among the women whose faces flash on the walls to the soundtrack of Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman."