As one of nine directors who reimagined the American Wing’s period rooms for the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” Autumn de Wilde didn’t afraid to magnify the fact that life can be quite messy.
In addition to Wilde, the list includes Martin Scorsese, Chloe Zhao, Tom Ford, Sofia Coppola, Regina King, Julie Dash, Radha Blank and Janicza Bravo, each examining in their own way how dress has helped shape various American identities in contexts historical. . After spending the first half of his career photographing rock ‘n’ roll musicians, de Wilde worked on his first feature film – an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” – at the age of 49.
The detail-oriented designer excels in photography and filmmaking with what she describes as a style that infuses color, production design, fashion and humans in equal parts to relay a story. Using “a visually augmented world makes you feel really real things,” she said.
Unafraid to magnify the absurdities and realities of life, de Wilde said she simply remembers that people act crazier than others. “There’s a habit of creating a stereotype of ‘he’s a distressed woman and she’ll always look like that’ and ‘he’s a man who’s romantic and he’ll always do this and look like that’,” a- she declared. “In ‘Emma,’ I said, ‘What if she had a nosebleed during the marriage proposal?’ I bleed from my nose all the time. It happened to me with lovers. I exaggerate up to a certain point and then I put in very human things that people [often] forget because I think life is totally ridiculous. But in a very good way.
Visitors to what is the second in a two-part exhibition on American fashion will find de Wilde’s stagings in the Baltimore Room – a room in a Baltimore townhouse built around 1810 that belonged to the merchant and shipowner Henry Craig—and in the Benkard Room, a living room in a Petersburg, Virginia home built in 1811. Directing “Emma,” starring Anya Taylor-Joy and set in early 19th-century England, was suitable perfectly.
Overall, the purpose of his rooms is to remind people that life is messy, no matter what time period, de Wilde said. To this end, one play features a woman in a state of hysteria, a drunken man with spilled wine and a rat crawling on his leg, a cat panicking about the rat, two people running to the rescue, two frightened children and a overturned chart table. Her playful approach looked for undercurrents such as “hysteria was once a generic term for anything that went wrong with a woman if she wasn’t sitting calmly embroidering. Some women used it to get out of a situation and some women were really sick. There was no help except to say they were hysterical and label them. It hasn’t changed much either,” de Wilde said. “So I have a comedic scene based on a disastrous family…Any time you see the darker side of life in another era, you can balance that with the beauty and the fascination it brings.”
Taking a comedic approach, de Wilde said she took pictures of people, whom she wanted to have mannequins made in the likeness of. Models were molded to have facial expressions, full breasts, and other features that later give an unexpected perspective on their attire. “A lot of people forget that not everyone just felt beautiful in the early 19th century by reciting poetry and feeling romantic. People had messy lives,” she said.
One source of inspiration was Elizabeth Bonaparte, who, according to the director, “liked to have bare breasts, which was very French…and the American interpretation of that same fashion was much wiser.” I thought that was interesting, because people are still very attached to breasts. So I had a mannequin cast with breasts, which you rarely see in museums,” de Wilde said.
Bonaparte (an American socialite who married Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome) was so obsessed with France that she wanted to live there and be part of the royal family, which she was denied, said de Wilde . Even after her husband was ordered by his brother Napoleon to return to France and his marriage was annulled, the couple attempted to enter France together in 1804 but Elizabeth was denied permission by order of Napoleon. Visitors will find speech bubbles in the scene that highlight the actual gossip about Bonaparte that was told during his time. For added effect, the slanderous female mannequins were also sculpted to have “very bitchy” faces, de Wilde said. “It was really fun to see how much it changes a dress. This period is very romanticized. What was so beautiful was these white chiffon dresses, but not everyone was beautiful on the inside They all wear the same style but they were presented so differently because of their attitude.
“It is very difficult to bring something alive. And I don’t know if it’s possible to achieve it or if I have achieved it [at The Met]. But it was fun trying to control the center of it,” she said.
For The Met, de Wilde dressed a dog figurine in a Napoleon-style early 19th-century French gentleman’s coat. There’s also an abundance of extravagant food (including some of Napoleon’s favorite dishes) to indicate just how much she shows off. The gloves are also sculpted to convey more expressiveness. The director also had a few items made to surround the featured dresses, such as a hand-painted shawl, which is more vibrant than using a fade from that period, she said. Shoes reminiscent of that period were redone to remind Met fans that there was color in their clothing at that time. “We see things in museums that were faded now and we forget that people were wearing very colorful clothes. [designs],” she says.
Another sign of his spirit can be seen in the male figure, who examines a very expensive miniature and drops it. “He looks horrified. Life is really ridiculous, but it’s really fun to see such a handsome romantic gentleman in a suit, breeches and coat on someone who’s f-king up,” de Wilde said. “The party is not that fun. Nobody is having fun. That’s another part of what I say in this room. The room is really beautiful. It’s such a fun way to play the opposite of the romance of this period in architecture and fashion.
Having always been obsessed with fashion history, de Wilde said research was central to her work. Through “Emma,” she learned about the types of people who lived during that time, the things that might have happened, and the usual gossip. “I realized that no one is wearing underwear yet. Where do they go to the bathroom? Things that humanize the story have always been an interest of mine in all the time periods I work on in films,” said she declared.
His anthology vignette highlights how “those people, who were powerful in America and had money, weren’t perfect. We don’t know when we read the story correctly how human they were and how many selfish and horrible people there were. I thought it was funny to make fun of that,” de Wilde said.
Never one to define fashion as “it’s the only good thing for someone to wear”, de Wilde hopes museum visitors will be inspired to bring the garments on display to life. She expects that in turn will inspire fashion. “By re-presenting clothes from the past, it inspires the fashion of the future. The idea of modern is ridiculous. There is no modern. Modernity was the 50s…reinterpretation of inspiration is what creates something quote-unquote modern. But trying to strip the past from the modern leaves you with nothing. The past will always be a tool to create new art, new fashion and new history,” said de Wilde.
Her portfolio includes fashion photography and years of work on Rodarte. After a five-minute chat with founders Kate and Laura Mulleavy, de Wilde said, “Anyway, I’m into it,” even though she had never seen their clothes. After years of rock ‘n’ roll immersion, she wanted to prove that her skills could be transferred. “Because of their personality, all the most interesting people in fashion were drawn to them. I was able to watch, interact with and photograph them as they built and set up the shows. We work together in such a beautiful way that they will always be my muses and I will always be grateful that they trusted me enough to let me into their lives.
At 6ft 2in, de Wilde favors a mark (unless Rodarte does something to him). His personal uniform is a suit with a large hat. Ukrainian hat designer Rusian Baginsky is a favorite. And Rodarte makes his Met Gala set.