Fashion. If you’ve been reading along for the past year or so, it might be quite evident that what fascinates me the most about fashion is its capacity of communication: through our choices of clothing we send messages to the world about who we are, what we think, how we view the world. But fashion—the clothes we wear—is also about reinvention. In moments of change, fashion and self-fashioning are among the main tools used for the creation and expression of our new identities.
Sara Berman’s closet, now on view at the Met Museum, reveals the story of her life and her reinvention as a woman.
Born in Belarus in 1920 and married in Israel, Sara Berman (1920–2004) immigrated to New York with her husband and daughters. After what her daughter Maira Kalman describes as long years of unhappy marriage—”we thought she was decrepit by the time she divorced”—she left her old life and possessions in her husband’s home in the Bronx to begin a new life in downtown Manhattan. There, she created the closet that has become the latest addition to the collection of period rooms at the American Wing.
Dug into a white museum wall, the closet consists of a neatly organized, seemingly all-white collection of clothes and curiosities. On the left, two rows of garments hang: tops on the upper part and bottoms on the lower (naturally). To their right, in the center of the closet are the knits, t-shirts, undergarments, linens, and a flask of Chanel No. 5, lined neatly in five shelves, which bend to form the right side of the closet, which is filled with a variety of curiosities that complete the closet: from a potato grater to a few, carefully selected books to the three black watches she often wore simultaneously. Under the middle shelves, on a greenish floor, are seven pairs of shoes, neatly arranged in order of tonalities, and on the upper shelf are the accessories, including a box-shaped Louis Vuitton trunk, a candelabrum, a white blanket, a stove pot and an inflatable globe. Hanging in the center of the closet, as if to become the “cherry on top,” is a fluffy red pompon, attached to the end of the light bulb pump chord.
Despite the small notes of color—purple bras, the multi-colored globe, shoes colored with hues of gray and green—the closet and its items appear to be all white.
Why white? “We think it had something to do with her growing up in the Mediterranean,” ventures Maira Kalman, daughter of Sara Berman, who co-curated the exhibition with her son, Alex.
After Sara’s death, they recall,
We stood in the closet—as families do—and thought: this has to be in a museum!
For them, the pure whiteness, the orderly neatness of the closet represent the loving nature in the everyday of a woman that spent the later years of her life committed to it. For the grandson, it revives the weekends spend with grandma, organizing his closet—something he knows as the only conceivable way of spending quality time with her. For the daughter, it reveals the power in Sara’s own revival, after choosing to abandon a life she was not happy with. The carefully selected clothes, the small space, had just and right what she needed and, more importantly, were her own.
For viewers of the exhibition, the view of the closet might result somewhat striking. Its minimalism, highlighted both by the absence of color and the contrast with the sumptuous Gilded Age dressing room of Arabella Worsham in another period room close by, is a kind of utopia in a time where over-accumulation—of images, of clothes, of stuff—has come to be the normal.
But the closet also reveals the power of carefully-selected clothes in the creation of an identity. Sara Berman, divorced at 62, had the rather unique opportunity to reinvent herself, as an independent woman in the contemporary world, starting from nothing. Her clothes—and the other components of the closet—reveal a mindful process in the creation of her new identity: they are all perfectly cohesive, while also revealing the not-so-obvious aspects of her life. The staggering simplicity of the closet reveals a complex process of self-identification, of identity creation, of recognition of her own being. One she achieved so successfully that, when looking at the photos of her placed in the wall perpendicular to the closet, there is no doubt that the fine woman in white that appears in them is Sara Berman, owner of this closet.