NEW YORK CITY— On a hot afternoon, I stand in line between two thin ropes in the bright and air-conditioned atrium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. I am surrounded by objects from the Gilded Age. To my left is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gauden’s bronze and gold ‘Diana’ that once crowned Madison Square Garden. To my right is Louis Comfort Tiffany’s colorful mosaic, which had adorned the goldsmith’s home. An ornately carved pulpit by Daniel Chester French, salvaged from a Manhattan church, rises behind me. My possession is waiting to be led into a temporary show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” It is the annual exhibition in a decades-long series 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 on the red carpet as stars like Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Keys, Glenn Close and Austin Butler (the current “Elvis”) on the screen.
But we came not only for haute couture, but certainly for provincial reasons. Our hometown’s own Valentine History Center has borrowed three dresses from its nationally recognized costume collection for the sprawling exhibit. The dresses are exhibited in the Met’s period rooms in what the museum describes as “freeze frames” of American fashion. From 1670 to 1915, 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 Oscar-winning actress, devised the placement of Valentine dresses in the Met’s permanent Richmond Room. The wing, which houses period rooms that started life elsewhere, is a rabbit warren of intimate galleries. The 1818 Shaker Retiring Room 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 living room 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 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 clothes. Thirteen of the Met’s 30 period rooms are the venues for “An Anthology of Fashion.” Our eyes adjust to see the Richmond Room with its dark mahogany woodwork, well-proportioned windows and elegant “Monuments of Paris” scenic wallpaper. The prized Valentine cargo includes a trio of rare turn-of-the-century “afternoon smocks” 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 proudly while a customer models one of her designs. Another figure, also donning a Payne original, observes as a young black seamstress, one of Payne’s employees, kneels on the sidelines, symbolizing a woman breaking into one of the few fields available to black women at the fulcrum. last century.
My thoughts, jostling for space in the limited viewing area, went straight to imagining the emotions of Valentine and the Met staff as they prepared the elaborate gowns for display. I remembered Martin Luther King’s statement in 1968 that “… the arc of moral justice is long, but it bends toward justice.” Fannie Criss Payne was born to illiterate, former slave 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 down from the home of a black client, famed Richmond contractor 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 truly had a great arc, 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 Valentin’s staff, curators and management. While visiting the Met, I also thought about how earlier this year Valentine had tried hard to borrow the deposed statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its owner, the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia. It is currently on display in Valentine’s extensive “This Is Richmond, Virginia” exhibit. Other items on display range from Native American artifacts to a bust of Chief Justice John Marshall, to a lunch counter in the center of a five-and-dime store where a civil rights rally was held.
On June 10, 2020, the Davis bronze, which had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907, now smeared with bubblegum pink paint and its smeared face, lay in the street. A loop 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 president of the Confederate States in the White House of the Confederacy at 1101 E. Clay St. This is not how many people expected him to return to the neighborhood.
It is vital that we protect, display and interpret precious buildings and artefacts from the distant and recent past. They give confidence in the “arc of justice” and our resilience as individuals, a community and a nation.
“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” continues through September 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 Valentine through December 2022, 1015 East Clay St. Admission, but no admission fee on Wednesdays. thevalentine.org.