Ingenue to Icon: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Art of Living

Amy Henderson
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Marjorie Merriweather Post posing for studio photograph , Washington, D.C., 1903

The “art of living” is masterfully evoked in the new exhibition Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion from the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Organized by costume curator Howard Vincent Kurtz for Mrs. Post’s Washington, D.C. house museum, Hillwood, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue dramatically document a biography-in-fashion, using Marjorie Merriweather Post’s clothes to convey her evolving sense of self. xxxxx

Born in 1887 to enormous wealth, she lived a long and active life of purpose, leaving a legacy that ultimately encompassed business, art, music, diplomacy, society, and fashion. Her greatest influence was her father, C.W. Post, a high-strung inventor who made his fortune by inventing Postum and Grape-Nuts Flakes in the late 19th Century. C.W. kept young Marjorie by his side as he built his business, schooling her in the strategies of that world and with the idea money was to “do good with.” His advice became Marjorie’s lifelong mantra–to use money to “make it work for you, keep it busy.”

Right: Evening dress, Jay’s Limited, London, 1903-5, Yellow silk crêpe, silk taffeta, satin ribbons.

One of ways she made her money work was to collect decorative arts. She turned her last estate, Hillwood, in Washington, D.C., into a repository for her vast collection, including such pre-Bolshevik Russian objects as Faberge eggs and a chandelier from the Catherine Palace. At her death in 1973, the Post Foundation established Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens as Mrs. Post’s continuing gift to the nation. Nestled within twenty-five acres of Rock Creek Park, Hillwood today features over 17,000 objects and is filled with Beauvais tapestries, Sevres porcelain, eighteenth century French furniture, Russian icons, Faberge, jewelry by Harry Winston and Cartier, and paintings. www.artesmagazine.comThe Washington Star exclaimed that the estate was the perfect setting for “the most fabulous hostess in all America.”

Left: Suffragette suit, Pollak & Bruder, Vienna, Austria, ca. 1912, Tan wool, blue and cream wool thread,blue wool felt, pearl buttons.

Hillwood is also the repository for Mrs. Post’s unparalleled collection of Twentieth Century fashion. From her Edwardian adolescence through her years as an iconic “grande dame,” Mrs. Post saved all of her clothes. According to exhibition curator Kurtz, Marjorie Merriweather Post would wear a dress perhaps twice and then carefully pack it away. Eighteen years ago, Kurtz—who is a professor of costume design at George Mason University–was hired by Hillwood to catalogue seventy years of Mrs. Post’s fashions. He has never left.

Ingenue to Icon is one of the great results of Kurtz’s consummate knowledge about Mrs. Post’s life and sustains his decision to evoke “a biography through clothes.” Because clothes are an outward expression of identity, Kurtz argues that Mrs. Post consistently made very deliberate choices about what she wore—“nothing was ever left to chance!” She understood exactly what fashion icon Diana Vreeland meant when she argued that defined the 20th Century’s emerging modern woman: “Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”

Right: Evening dress, Bergdorf Goodman, New York City, 1929, Black silk velvet, black tulle, rhinestones, black ilk charmeuse, and nude silk organza.

As the exhibition of more than seventy gowns, dresses, and ensembles shows so tangibly, Mrs. Post’s clothes dramatically conveyed her own sense of changing identity. They also reflect her passion for things that were exceptionally beautiful and impeccably constructed. The earliest dresses are Edwardian and highly-corseted, but by the First World War, times—and the role of women—have changed. The exhibition www.artesmagazine.comdisplays a distinctively-tailored Suffragette suit that she wore in 1917 when she and others met with President Woodrow Wilson to lobby for woman’s suffrage.

Left: Ambassador and Mrs. Joseph E. Davies in Moscow, 1937.

In the Roaring Twenties, she embodied the Jazz Age’s newly-minted Café Society of celebrity culture, and relished wearing exquisite “flapper gowns” made of silk organza, glass beads, and feathers. In the mid-1930s, when her then-husband Joseph Davies was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, she wore Socialist-Realist woolen dresses to get her through Moscow’s frozen winters. But she also paid close attention to the rise of Hollywood design in the 1930s and ‘40s, when such great movie studio designers as Adrian created an American style: the simple elegance Hollywood design was particularly effective showcasing Mrs. Post’s extraordinary jewelry.

Right: Marjorie Merriweather Post Davies, Frank O. Salisbury, England, 1946, Oil on canvas; far right: Evening dress (inn painting), Orry-Kelly, American, 1943, Black silk velvet backed with cotton taffeta, faux pearls, rhinestones, silver thread.

One of the most fascinating deliberations Mrs. Post made about fashion was to express her identity as a business strategist. The welfare of her family business was always close to her heart—the childhood interest her father had cultivated grew into an extraordinary adult business sensibility. The Postum Cereal Company enlarged beyond Grape-Nuts to include Jell-O and Maxwell House coffee in the ‘20s, but it was Marjorie who instigated their acquisition of Birdseye Frozen Foods in www.artesmagazine.com1929. This was a transformative acquisition, and the company was then more suitably renamed the General Foods Corporation.

Left: Evening dress, Eleanora Garnett, Italy, 1957, Purple silk velvet, pink taffeta, purple acetate, pink nylon net.

In 1936 Marjorie was given official recognition by becoming the first woman elected to the corporation’s board of directors. She made a special effort to dress well for these board meetings, saying “I always have to get dressed up for my boys.” She once explained to her granddaughter, “You know they like a woman to look nice, even if they don’t say anything about it.” A reporter quoted her saying that she “kept that steel-trap mind behind a veil of femininity.”

Mrs. Post’s idea of keeping her money “busy” extended to a lifelong commitment to philanthropy. During the First World War, she not only rolled bandages for the Red Cross but funded a 3,000 bed hospital in France for soldiers wounded in the war—an effort that, in 1957, resulted in her being awarded the French cross of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her “long-demonstrated friendship towards France.” When she was living at Hillwood in the 1950s and ‘60s, she actively worked to elevate Washington, D.C.’ lackluster cultural life by funding the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Ballet, and such programs as the “Music for Young America.”

Right: Marjorie dancing the tango with partner, 1962.

Another facet of Mrs. Post’s activism was her fondness for dance—most particularly, for square dancing. She had a theatrical sense and had always enjoyed dancing; her parties often featured watching first-run movies or square dancing, and notables even of the highest rank were fully expected to participate. Everyone danced because no one wanted to risk never being invited back.

One of the reasons this fashion exhibition is so effective is because it is really not about the clothes as much as it is about the woman. The curator, Howard Vincent Kurtz, is as much a perfectionist as Mrs. Post was, and insisted that special mannequins be made using her exact measurements. The result is stunning as the viewer walks through a veritable www.artesmagazine.combiographical parade of exquisite clothes that tell the story www.artesmagazine.comof Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Left: Marjorie entering the Red Cross Ball, escorted by Col. C. Michael Paul and by a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Palm Beach Florida, 1968; far left: Evening dress, Oldric Royce, Inc., New York City, 1968, Cream and fuchsia raw silk, black cotton lace, red plastic beads.

The catalogue deserves special mention as well, both because author Kurtz has written a delightful cultural biography and because the photographs of the gowns are extraordinarily beautiful.

When she died in 1973 at the age of eighty-six, Time magazine wrote that “a gilt-edged volume of American history came to an end.” But this exhibition and catalogue give us a delicious glimpse into what it must have been like.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

The exhibition Ingenue to Icon will be up at Hillwood Estate, Museums & Gardens until Dec. 31, 2015. The catalogue, “Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion from the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post, is available at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, Washington, DC.

Amy Henderson is a cultural critic and Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery

One Comment

  1. Amy Henderson October 27, 2015 3:45 pm

    What “Ingenue to Icon” reaffirms to me is how “fashion and identity” are rich subjects that need more work. Its an evocative approach to cultural history that fascinates the public–n.b. the lines around the block for the Met’s FIT Costume exhibitions, or the V&A’s extraordinary “Hollywood Costumes” exhibit from 2013. The Durham Museum in Omaha hosted a wonderful costume exhibit last Spring on Katharine Hepburn’s costumes and clothes….

    Fashion –or at least wearing clothes –is something that we all share: that fashion exhibitions connect with a broad public response should not be surprising!

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