Witty and daring, ‘Goddesses’ delights the senses

PHOTOS BY JOHANNA WARRICK The “Goddesses’’ exhibit juxtaposes Mary McFadden’s fashion creations with textiles and jewelry from her art collection. PHOTOS BY JOHANNA WARRICK
The “Goddesses’’ exhibit juxtaposes Mary McFadden’s fashion creations with textiles and jewelry from her art collection. (Photos By Johanna Warrick
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 22, 2009

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‘Mary McFadden: Goddesses,’’ a knockout exhibition at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, juxtaposes the fashion designer’s own creations with textiles and jewelry from her art collection. The show, originally organized by the Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, hums with visual wit and daring.

McFadden didn’t go to design school. She studied anthropology and sociology at Columbia University. She traveled the world, lived in South Africa (as the editor for Vogue South Africa), and acquired an eclectic art collection before she ever designed a dress. Once she started designing - in the mid 1970s - her unorthodox gowns and jackets riffed on the patterns, textiles, and art she had delighted in along the way.

Jacqueline Onassis, an early aficionado, wore a gown from McFadden’s “Greece, the Classical Period’’ collection in 1976. There’s a similar gown from that group on view here, an ivory-toned dress cut close to the body, with snug draping around the bodice and a flowing skirt. McFadden took her inspiration from Greek sculptors’ depictions of pleated robes and drapery. This exhibit begins at the dawn of Western civilization, referencing the closest thing to a 20th-century American goddess, and flies giddily around the world, through time and across cultures.

Museum exhibits often strictly pair like with like. Not this show. McFadden audaciously groups her own 1978 “Pendant (Archaic Ax),’’ a gold-dipped, hand-forged brass number that resembles an inverted mushroom, alongside a gold, fourth-century Colombian death mask and a pair of 17th-century Tibetan turquoise earrings. They come together perfectly: The gold forms gently echo one another, as do the dangling shapes of the pendant and the earrings.

This is how McFadden works within her own designs, gathering patterns and techniques from across the world and throughout history and dovetailing them in one startling garment. While many of her lines pay tribute to a particular culture - Renaissance Italy, Javanese, and Dynastic Chinese, to name a few - she ebulliently draws in other references, to marry East and West, to make a gown or a jacket original and contemporary.

In her “Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’’ collection named for the 19th-century artist who savored the female form, McFadden adorns graceful, French-inspired black velvet sheath dresses with a traditional, high-relief Indian embroidery technique known as Zardozi, once used to decorate the robes of Indian kings. Two of these hang near a 19th-century Spanish matador costume, also made of velvet and outfitted with gorgeous embroidery and beadwork. The matador who wore this, a small man, would have looked like a prince standing beside a woman in one of McFadden’s regal gowns.

McFadden is best known for her two-tier gowns, topping off flowing skirts (in fabrics such as her signature Marii, a narrowly pleated, silky polyester that clings yet disguises what a woman wants to disguise) with distinctly textured tops, such as richly embroidered or macraméd bodices. She’s also famous for her hand-painted quilted jackets. There’s a silk jacket here from McFadden’s “Art Nouveau’’ collection, hand-painted and line-quilted, that glows with delicate imagery and a grid structure recalling Tiffany windows.

Her colors can be luscious. Look at the delicious plum tones of a gown from her “Tales of the Genji’’ collection, a confection inspired by the 11th-century Japanese novel and its 12th-century illustrations. Skirt and sleeves slink down the frame in Marii polyester. The back drops in a V down from the shoulders in an embroidered pattern of jewel tones that resembles a scene of lilies floating on iridescent water. The nape of the neck, considered an erogenous zone in Japanese culture, becomes the gown’s focus.

In 2000, McFadden was invited to create an installation for the World’s Fair in Hanover, Germany. She lit upon the idea of fire, and borrowed fire symbols from Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Khmer sources to create 12-foot-long one-of-a-kind silk organza dresses, each hand-painted. Three stand in the middle of one of the galleries here, luminous and splashy with fiery tones. Each is different, but they share a vaporous quality, almost not like dresses at all - more like auras.

“Mary McFadden: Goddesses’’ is, ultimately, a luxuriant show. Her designs, her techniques, her fabrics, her colors, and her cultural references all mingle together to delight the senses, and only incidentally invigorate the mind.

MARY MCFADDEN: Goddesses At: Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 5. 617-879-7333,