Material Witness


For those who have always sought solace in the world of things, recent events presented dilemmas that seemed almost shameful: One felt ridiculously trivial, almost vulgar, looking for consolation in the unhappy, empty stores, even though the mayor had urged people to resume their normal lives and go out and spend money. There didn’t seem to be an object on earth, no matter how desirable or beautiful, that could in any way lessen the heartache. And anyway, even if you did buy something, wouldn’t it forever remind you of these sad weeks?

On the first Saturday after the catastrophe, a beautiful fall day when the shops would ordinarily have been thronged with customers, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor had removed the mannequins from their windows, replacing them with flags and flowers. Inside, even the perfume sprayers stood silent: After all, if you were going to speak to another human being, a stranger, would you have wanted to say, “Care to try the new Calvin Klein fragrance, madame?”

Still, for people who have always haunted stores and markets and antiques shows, not so much to buy as for the pure love of things, the notion that contemplating beautiful objects might lift spirits persisted. Surely this was the reason that at least some people visited the city’s museums last week, though of course no matter how you chose to spend your time—burying yourself in American Pie II, watching Friends reruns instead of the news—the disaster was always close at hand.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s current exhibit, “Dress Rehearsal” (Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, through October 28th), virtually the first thing your eye falls upon is a sequined evening gown worn by England’s Queen Alexandra during her coronation year, 1902, which, despite its scalloped train and the fact that it is smothered in glittering paillettes, is, it turns out, mourning wear. (Queen Victoria died in 1901.) It brought to mind, at least to one viewer, a glittery Donna Karan skirt prominently displayed on the second floor of Saks last week—at the very least, both garments spoke of a desire to shine despite despair, even if the Karan outfit, created before September 11, was intended for less freighted tasks.

Queen Alexandra’s 1902 mourning gown at the Met. (photo courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As it happened, not just Alexandra’s mourning costume but virtually everything else you looked at in the museum was viewed through a lens of grief. The bustle-laden, wide-skirted, tight-laced, puffy-sleeved gowns women wore, night and day, in the middle of the 19th century might be tolerable for sitting in the audience watching Our American Cousin, the play Mr. Lincoln attended on the last night of his life, but they would be hell to wear while squeezing through aisles of cots in a Civil War hospital. (So voluminous were their skirts that satirists of the period used to joke that women might become airborne; in fact, the clothes were so heavy the wearer was virtually trapped inside them.) It’s something of a relief to come upon a showcase with a circa-1918 walking suit from England, an outfit with a narrow skirt, normal-sized sleeves, and, at last, a mud-clearing hem, that was perhaps intended for a woman compelled to join the workforce following the carnage of the First World War.

Though the dark halls of the Costume Institute are oddly comforting, the exhibit, in the end, like every other diversion, offers scant respite. A 1996 silver velvet gown by Geoffrey Beene that looks like it is made of tinfoil is a cruel reminder of carefree times. A display of exquisitely embroidered peasant costumes, worn on the infrequent joyous occasions that brightened lives of unspeakable poverty and toil, cannot help but remind you of centuries of sorrows: lavish linen tunics from late-19th-century Macedonia, an early-20th-century embroidered outfit from Slovakia, and three exquisite ensembles worn a hundred years ago by Palestinians.

After an afternoon at the Costume Institute last week, a visitor walked down Madison Avenue, not so much to shop as to just look in the familiar windows, so like familiar faces in happier times, their welcoming displays usually groaning with good fortune. In this pristine part of town, where graffiti and postering are unheard of, every lamppost had a flyer that said, “Our neighborhood heroes—one dead, eight missing, Engine Company 22, Ladder Company 13.” The owner of a place called Christians English Furniture, whose window offered a splendidly outfitted kitchen bigger than most New Yorkers’ homes, had removed the “Wanted: Dead or Alive, Osama bin Laden” poster from the New York Post and taped it to the glass. At Vera Wang, the bride’s bouquet had been replaced with a tiny flag; at Judith Leiber, the silly, expensive rhinestone-covered evening purses shaped like pandas and ducks had vacated in favor of a vase of lilies and a red-white-and-blue ribbon. Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery, a shop that sells historical letters and rare books, placed signed portraits of Roosevelt and Churchill in the window. A card next to FDR’s picture read, “A day that will live in infamy”; the one near Churchill said, “We shall not flag or fail, we shall go on to the end.” And Ralph Lauren, who sells a vast array of merchandise at what used to be the Rhinelander Mansion, had nearly obscured the entrance to that edifice with giant American flags. Still, the door was open, and if you wished, you could go in and buy something sequined.