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Outside, glorious weather beckoned, but more people could be found inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art than in neighboring Central Park, or so it seemed as I craned my neck, stood on tiptoe and otherwise contorted my body so that I might catch a glimpse of the museum’s latest triumph, “China: Through the Looking Glass.”

Roberto Cavalli, evening dress, fall/winter 2005–6/Metropolitan Museum
Roberto Cavalli, evening dress, fall/winter 2005–6/Metropolitan Museum

Spectacular in every which way, the exhibition features 140 costumes, one more enthralling than the next, that reflect the West’s fascination with the East. Even more compelling and visually arresting than the clothes on view were the settings in which they’re positioned -- or, more to the point, staged. Through a series of what the exhibition’s curators call “careful juxtapositions,” several Chanel shirtwaist dresses with a calligraphic print were installed in a gallery whose vitrines held panel after panel of ancient Chinese ideograms. A constellation of stunning blue and white print evening gowns took pride of place amidst a display of the well-known blue and white porcelain that could be found in many 18th century American households.

Elsewhere, red lacquered walls, delicately colored wallpaper flecked with chrysanthemums and a heart-stopping forest of luminous white tubes meant to resemble bamboo (at least I think that was the point) were pressed into service, along with video screens in every conceivable size just about everywhere and background music that intruded rather than receded.

Visitors are duly informed that the exhibition is designed to diminish the distance between East and West, between the “cultural and the simulacrum,” and to inspire “dialogue” as well as “conversation.” That may be, but it was hard, extremely hard, to discern an interpretive through-line as you battled lines, squared off against the ubiquitous taking of selfies and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, visited galleries that were so dimly lit you couldn’t read a thing even if you wanted to.

I suppose that’s the point. Museums these days seem to put more of a premium on sensation than on enlightenment. Visitors aren’t so much engaged or challenged or even moved as barraged. I don’t mean to sound like an old fogy -- I like special effects as well as the next person -- but something’s amiss when, upon exiting, you desperately need a soothing cup of Oolong tea.

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that years ago, when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush -- and a very good student, at that -- I was sent to the principal’s office and promptly suspended from school. My grievous offense: the length of my skirt. The powers that be insisted it was way too short. Since I lived quite a distance from school, I had to spend the better part of the day cooling my heels and covering my knees in the secretary’s office until the private bus that, day in and day out, transported a small group of us back to our Long Island homes was ready to board.

Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.
Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.

For years, I’ve dined out on that story, a source of considerable bemusement. But it’s no longer a laughing matter. Just the other day I learned that the practice of singling out young women for their allegedly immodest and provocative clothing, for their breach of tzinut (or modesty), continues apace at my alma mater.

Recently, things had gotten so out of hand that a female student named Melissa Duchan wrote to the administration expressing her dismay. “Every school should have clear priorities; in ours, trivial concerns like a few inches of fabric have superseded more important aspects of the school environment like integrity and respect for others,” she related. In short order, Duchan’s comments fired up the blogosphere, generating quite a heated conversation about modesty, gender and sartorial norms. I wish that conversation had taken place in my day.

On a happier note, I also came across a much more positive fashion-related story this past week: the discovery of an interwar clothing atelier on Madison Avenue run by and catering to affluent German Jewish women. The genteel emporium, where money rarely exchanged hands and clothes were shipped in a green box decorated with daisies, was known as Filer-Machol after its two proprietors, Alice Hahn Machol and Edith Filer.

I was reviewing the manuscript of an historical novel that takes place in New York of the 1940s and happened across a reference to the shop. Having never heard of it before, I queried this detail and, in response, was directed to a lovely piece in the Journal of New York Folklore that discussed its history.

This revelation was a much welcome tonic, a counter-narrative, to the grim goings-on at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. It lifted my spirits where the latter story set them crashing.

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