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Sara Berman's Closet

Sara Berman's Closet

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 6-November 26, 2017)

The American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted an unlikely installation.  It was easy to miss for visitors on their way to the Shaker furniture or Ash Can School painting displays, but arrested the gazes of those who noticed it.

Discreet and minimalist, a closet that once belonged to a woman named Sara Berman (1920-2004) in her small Greenwich Village apartment is on view for all to examine. A white wall opens up to reveal the closet, the contents of which include stacks of precisely folded clothing in various sizes and gradations of cream and ecru, neat piles of books, a wooden box of recipes, three black watches, a glass jar of gray buttons, a precious box. Overwhelmingly white with dashes of color—a yellow floor, a red ball of yarn that hangs from the light—the space invites the gaze of onlookers, who stop to pore over the strange, intricate precision, and stay for its calming effect.

The ordered beauty of the closet, reproduced almost exactly for the Met, prompted Berman’s daughter, the artist, writer and illustrator Maira Kalman, to turn it into a ‘gallery’ after her mother’s death. It was first installed at her son Alex Kalman’s Mmuseumm 2 in 2015, a storefront window at 4 Cortlandt Alley (while the original Mmuseumm is a former elevator shaft transformed into an exhibition space on the same Tribeca street), where it sat between graffiti-adorned metal shutters and city buildings. It moved to the Met in 2017 with the help of curator Amelia Peck, where it became something completely different, but just as out of place.

In its new context, it is a period room, and in dialogue with the 1882 Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, from the New York home of Arabella Worsham (c. 1850-1924). In spite of stark physical differences (when else can we compare the ornate woodwork of a Gilded Age interior to a white closet?) and their 100-year gap, Berman and Worsham suddenly relate through their most intimate spaces. This juxtaposition encourages visitors to rethink their ideas on the period room, to consider their own lives and spaces, and ask what their sartorial and other possessions (and the various ways they might be displayed) reveal.

Berman is a woman like any other—an immigrant from Belarus then Palestine who settled in New York, a mother, a grandmother, a person who dresses. The clothing and other objects on display materialize her daily life and memories—there is a cheese grater to make potato pancakes, the bottle of Chanel No. 19 which reminds us of her scent, the shoes that took her places, the dutifully ironed and folded clothing that recalls Berman’s mother and childhood home in Tel Aviv—and set in motion viewers’ imagination. Just as important to forming ideas on Berman is her careful means of organization: each item had its place, demonstrating an affection that counters aseptic modernist aesthetics, and giving it value that surpasses notions of monetary worth.

The significance of personal, everyday narratives in relation to fashion seen here also stands as blatant contrast to curatorial approaches at the Costume Institute, with its focus on designers and the spectacular.

The significance of personal, everyday narratives in relation to fashion seen here also stands as blatant contrast to curatorial approaches at the Costume Institute, with its focus on designers and the spectacular. It relates more closely to recent exhibitions at other institutions that explore wardrobes and wearers, including Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House (London), Roman d’une garde-robe at Musée Carnavalet (Paris) and Maira Kalman’s own 2015 installation at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (New York), in which she filled the former drawing room of the Carnegie Mansion with 40 objects to suggest the journey of a life story, from birth through death, a room that, in her own words, “recognizes that many of the most important memories in your life will be populated by the most seemingly unimportant objects.” [1]

Dress foregrounds life stories in Sara Berman’s Closet, which reflects work by writers and researchers with interest in social and subjective narratives in the fields of material culture, design history and fashion studies. This includes Cheryl Buckley and Hilary Fawcett’s (2002) study of everyday dress and women’s experience in historical contexts; Sophie Woodward’s (2007) ethnographic work on everyday wardrobes and complex dressing choices of women; and scholars who use oral history to highlight the sensory aspects and materiality of dress experience. [2] And let’s not forget the 2014 compendium Women in Clothes and Vestoj’s Material Memories Instagram account. [3] Sara Berman’s Closet seems to crystallize many of these ideas into a diorama, and provides viewers with an easily digestible yet endlessly probing way of looking at clothes.



[1] For full text, see the Cooper Hewitt website.

[2] Cheryl Buckley and Hilary Fawcett, Fashioning the Feminine: Representation and Women’s Fashion from the Fin de Siecle to the Present (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002); Sophie Woodward, Why Women Wear What They Wear (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2002); Alison Slater, “Wearing in Memory: Materiality and Oral Histories” in Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty. 5.1 (2014): 125-139; Sara Chong Kwan,  “Making sense of everyday dress: integrating multi-sensory experience within our understanding of contemporary dress in the UK,” PhD diss., University of the Arts, London (2016). 

[3] Sheila Heti et al., eds., Women in Clothes (New York: Penguin, 2014).

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