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BOSTON — Presumably, airline baggage screeners don’t often handle valuable ancient textiles in carry-on luggage, but that didn’t stop Mary McFadden from arriving with last-minute additions for “Mary McFadden: Goddesses,” running through Dec. 5 at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design here.
Pulled from McFadden’s archives, the show features about 40 ensembles spanning her career, including four runway finale wedding dresses; roughly 50 pieces of gold jewelry, much of it pre-Columbian, and 14 source textiles collected worldwide. With pale skin and inky bobbed hair stopping ruler-precise at her chin, McFadden, 71, reviewed the show several days before its opening wearing a skirt purchased at a thrift store topped with a 300-year-old jacket from Isfahan, Iran.
But for all her love of ancient textiles, McFadden’s designs still look current. Without peeking at the date, it’s impossible to peg individual work to an era. The show ranges from Grecian gowns from the Seventies, done in her signature Marii pleated polyester charmeuse, to gowns created for the Fire Pavilion at the 2000 World’s Fair in Hanover, Germany, and featuring ombré hand-painting, gold macramé and ropy fringe.
Over a 30-plus-year career, McFadden returned often to the column, using the lean, simple silhouette as a blank slate for handcrafted details, motifs and colors from whatever ancient civilization she was currently studying. Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute, once called her a “design archaeologist,” a label she says is apt.
“To a curator, she’s exciting because she embraces multiple disciplines,” said show curator Lorie Mertes, visiting from her role as director of the Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design. Mertes will host a gala in McFadden’s honor in Boston on Nov. 19.
Along with her Marii pleated fabric, the show highlights a quilting technique McFadden developed using dense, narrow, horizontal rows to create a barely perceptible ridging, like sand pressed by the tide. Still, as the exhibit took shape around her, McFadden was clearly more interested in the items she collected for inspiration than with reexamining her own work.
“It’s remarkable to see these things in this context,” McFadden said, wandering among centuries-old Indian mandalas, Buddhist keisei and Japanese Noh theater robes. “I have no more space in my apartment, so these things are never shown. They’re rolled up, or in stacks. My friends think I’m a barbarian.”