10/12/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fashion As Social History: What Makes A 'Refreshingly Unpretentious' Exhibit On Fashion?

The most notable change in female fashion during the past three decades has had nothing to do with such age-old preoccupations as hemline length, neckline depth, or silhouette width. Rather, it has been the inexorable transformation of the high-end women's garment trade from the province of a tiny elite to an all-pervasive marketing tool for international luxury-goods conglomerates, which have masterminded such paradoxical concepts as mass luxury and global exclusivity, more through the sale of designer-label cosmetics and accessories than through clothing itself.

Today, red-carpet celebrities serve as living billboards to promote big-name dressmakers, shoemakers, and jewelers in borrowed finery at entertainment award ceremonies, only to have it all vanish after midnight like Cinderella back from the ball.Thus not least of the pleasures afforded by Notorious and Notable: 20th Century Women of Style--a comparatively small but thoroughly entertaining and subtly instructive exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York--is to be reminded that once upon a time, and not so long ago, the most influential style-setters actually owned their haute couture and bijoux.

One of this show's distinctions is that the name of its principal business sponsor, the London-based jewelry firm Graff, is not splashed all over the place, as has been the case in several exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute (including those sponsored by Ralph Lauren and Yves Saint-Laurent), or worst of all, at the Guggenheim, whose disgraceful Giorgio Armani retrospective of 2000--2001 amounted to the corporate takeover of a major museum. In contrast to those lavish productions, this modest mounting occupies one large rectangular room, with dresses placed on fifty-three mannequins ranged against both long walls of the gallery, at the entry to which stand five vitrines containing jewelry and other objets de luxe.

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