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Mary McFadden Exhibit in D.C.

Mary McFadden combines a broad range of cultural references with her elegant style.

Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art has said, “McFadden’s designs convey her deep interest in distant cultures and times….(she) reflects in her designs an archeologist’s fascination with the cultures and narratives expressed through art.”

There’s currently a fascinating exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Mary McFadden: Goddesses runs through August 30. Visit the museums’s blog for more information.

I’ve long been an admirer of McFadden’s elegant garments, and the way she combines a broad range of cultural references with her elegant style.

The designer is now 70, and had been a unique contributor to American fashion since her New York debut in 1974 (she closed her showroom in 2002). The exhibit contains 40 of her couture gowns, along with the many of the textiles and objects that have inspired them. Her inspiration is wide-ranging – from Egypt to South America to Central Asia to China to Ireland and beyond – and it’s fascinating to see how she works these references into her garments – in silhouette, in fabrication, and in embellishment.

I first came face-to-face with one of her garments years ago. A client had a Mary McFadden gown that needed to be altered. It was a fairly typical McFadden design – the skirt out of the finely pleated polyester charmeuse (her signature fabric), the bodice strapless and heavily embroidered. The bodice had to be taken in, and I was interested to see just how such heavy embroidery had been supported. Once I got inside, I could see that heavy crinoline (imagine heavily starched gauze) had been used as one of the inner layers. It made sense – had the underpinnings been any less sturdy, the bodice would have lost its shape, and the garment would have…

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  1. lonieberg | | #1

    The creations of Mary McFadden are truly awe inspiring! As a professional Alterations Lady, I am constantly encouraged by the designers and by the gowns and creations that I get in to work with. Each time, I learn something new about construction and design, (and I have a few tricks up my sleeve of my own). McFaddens use of fabric texture and pattern makes her truly unique...Aloma Cronberg........Aloma's Alterations, Laramie, Wyoming.

  2. LisaS2 | | #2

    Hi Susan!

    I love these. Gorgeous details. The third photo from the bottom would be a stuning wedding gown in white/ivory, still with the gold embroidered bodice treatment. Dresses like this make me want to get married again - to the same man, or course...

    be well,

    Lisa Shepard Stewart

  3. User avater
    jofre146 | | #3

    I am particularly fascinated by her use of macramé in addition to her emphasis on quilted and embroidered embellishment. While the large scale macramé pieces she used tend to date the clothing to the 70's, her work inspires me to create micro-macramé sections which will add a rich, Byzantine look to Fortuny-pleated gowns.

  4. User avater
    JaniceCM | | #4

    Mary Mcfadden is by far one of my favorite designers. I have also been heavily influenced by other cultures in what I sew,and have,since the 1970's, followed her incredible designs. Gorgeous!
    Janice Morrill

  5. User avater
    trishapat | | #5

    the show was in Boston at Mass College of Art recently. There were books and a video as well as the garments shown. There were pieces of jewelry in cases too. I love seeing how she was influenced by other cultures. She had traveled a lot prior to starting to design. It would be great to find sources for some of the embroidered elements that she uses.
    I did illustration for her in the late 1970's and early '80's, and didn't see any of the gowns had drawn in the Boston show or in the book. That tells me that there are even more than what are being presented in these shows.
    I think she is amazing and her work is breathtakingly beautiful.

  6. User avater
    saradipitysews | | #6

    Mary McFadden spoke to my costume design class while I was in college. She told a classroom full of students, nonchalantly, that she used children in India to pleat her fabric. She said something about little 5 year olds having the best fingers for making the pleats. We were shocked that she seemed to think child labor was acceptable. Her designs are beautiful but her integrity is lacking.

  7. User avater
    Osal | | #7

    @ saradipitysews

    this is sad to hear. I have loved her work for years, and used to own a few of her designs. Always wondered who did the pleating...

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