The Hillwood Estate explores the 1920s through the eyes of founder Marjorie Merriweather Post, offering a flashy and fabulous look at the Roaring Twenties through one of the wealthiest figures of the age.
Post’s incredible eye for fashion, art, design and opulent living is on full display in a compact and well-designed exhibition on through Jan. 9, 2022. “Roaring Twenties: The Life and Style of Marjorie Merriweather Post” had originally been set to debut last year100 years on, and it’s a delight to see it now in 2021 at the museum’s Adirondack building.
That delay, said Megan Martinelli, assistant curator of apparel, jewelry and accessories for the museum and curator of the exhibition, meant a few more items were able to be conserved and repaired for this show that they hadn’t expected to originally share, such as a glorious gold cape and dress with a patchwork applique in the Russian avant-garde section.
“Those were some silver linings of the situation,” she told The Washington Diplomat.
The exhibition changed in other significant ways due to the past year, Martinelli noted.
“We wanted to kind of reframe the context of this exhibition and make sure that we’re clear to the audience about the perspective that we’re presenting. Marjorie Post is someone who was a white woman with privilege growing up in the 20th century, but we wanted to make sure that we were honest about that upfront, and didn’t want to, in light of everything happening in 2020, we didn’t want to suggest that we were trying to blanket others’ experiences during the period.”
Post, who inherited The Post Cereal Company, had a remarkable decade, emerging onto the social scene in the 1920s with a bang alongside her new husband E.F. Hutton. Parties were over-the-top spectaculars a la “The Great Gatsby,” the museum acknowledges, with Post donning stunning gowns and outfits for a seemingly endless parade of galas and operas and events.
On display in the exhibition are flapper-style gowns that embody the era, lush capes and lavish costumes for balls. Post’s “Midnight” gown is the clear showstopper, set above all the other dresses and centered, decorated with fantastic rhinestones sparkling across the space. The outfits are a cascade of stars and bows and feathers and furs, but they largely strike one as opulent rather than gaudy. As I overheard one museumgoer whisper to herself on a recent visit while scanning the impressive display of dresses, “Oh I want them. I want them so badly.”
“Discovering that Marjorie Post, who some people think of later in her life as being very traditional in her fashion choices in the ’50s and ’60s, she seemed very much excessive in the 1920s. So finding these pieces that had been damaged or tucked away for so long, reveal the side of her that some of the visitors or longtime Hillwood fans might not have seen before, which I thought was really exciting,” Martinelli said.
The spotlight on this period of her life may also intrigue many people familiar with her time in the Soviet Union. Post’s third husband Joseph Davies served as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1938, and she became a noted collector of Russian art at that time. But her interest here was apparent early on, this show suggests.
“This is kind of a nice precursor to that period. So it’s a nice way to contextualize who she would become while serving abroad as the spouse of an ambassador,” Martinelli said. “She’s already having this burgeoning interest in Russian art that only expands to her global experience later in life.”
A number of Russian avant-garde pieces, prints and sculptures stand beside the exhibition’s stars — the dresses, outfits and accessories Post bought and wore. There’s also an excellent display highlighting her focus on collecting 18th-century French furnishings and decorative arts, as well as a stunning array of frames Post commissioned from Cartier for family portraits. These picture frames demand a second look, decorated with jade, rubies, turquoise, diamonds and watercolor. The wealth on display, even in this small room, is immense.
Along with her gowns and jewelry, the exhibition engages with Post as an art collector, a family woman, a theater fan, and hints at her coming obsession with Russia.
“You can trace the origins of Hillwood through her story in the ’20s,” Martinelli said. “It’s really a time where she’s coming into her own.”
“Roaring Twenties: The Life and Style of Marjorie Merriweather Post” runs through Jan. 9, 2022, at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave., NW. More more information, please call 202-686-5807 or visit hillwoodmuseum.org.
Mackenzie Weinger is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.