While studying at the London College of Fashion, I had chosen, for one of our papers, to imagine an exhibition focusing on Jeanne Lanvin’s “Robes de Style.” At the time, I discovered with much surprise that no retrospective had ever been dedicated to Jeanne Lanvin and what a major impact she had have not only on fashion but on building a whole lifestyle brand. When I learnt about the Palais Galliera’s exhibition, despite suffering from a slight pinch of jealousy (how I wish I could have collaborated on my student years’ fantasy!), I was thrilled to discover how the museum’s curator Olivier Saillard and Alber Elbaz, the brand’s actual designer, had decided to present Jeanne Lanvin’s work.
Exhibition View. Photography: Courtesy of Pierre Antoine for Palais Galliera
Although, most people do know the name Lanvin, very little are aware of Jeanne Lanvin’s career and imprint on a contemporary vision of the fashion brand. From milliner and dressmaker for young girls, Jeanne Lanvin rapidly turned into celebrated couturier, lifestyle designer and perfume maker- thus setting the standards for contemporary brands.
Galleria’s display featured over a hundred pieces signed by Jeanne Lanvin – garments and accessories – mostly from the 1920s and 1930s alongside a number of material culture objects such as photographies, personal correspondences, notebooks, drawings…that enabled to comprehend not only the aesthetic and technical virtuosity of the designer but also her personality. Indeed, I believe no other fashion brands has been as inspired as Jeanne Lanvin’s by her personal history and inspirations, the passion she had for her daughter, Marguerite, surely being the most prominent: her signature blue influenced by her love for Fra Angelico, a depiction of Marguerite and herself serving as the house’s logo…Albert Elbaz supervised the artistic direction of the exhibition and chose to present the garments with the help of various themes highlighting key concepts defining Jeanne Lanvin’s style. Thus the display underlined her artistic expertise, her Robe de Style, her iconic “Lanvin Blue”, her hats, her children designs, her jeweled and embroidered dresses, her taste for black and white, her exotic, religious and Art Deco inspirations as well as her evening wear and wedding gowns.
Exhibition View. Photography: Courtesy of PierreAntoine for Palais Galliera
Despite the exquisite embroideries, the nostalgic Robes de Style, the naive mother and daughter identity, Jeanne Lanvin was greatly modern in her approach, creating garments that dared to be loose, diaphanous, bejeweled or at other times, geometric or Japanese-like but also in establishing her brand as a whole lifestyle house. The scenography illustrated her modernity with the use of black steel cases and frames to display the garments in a sort of industrial atmosphere. Yet, what surely captivated me the most was the daring choice of showing certain garments laying flat in mirrored cases opened like a piano. Transforming the garment into a two-dimensional object not only enhances it as an art piece on which the visitor can closely observe meticulous details, it erases its relationship to the body, establishing its shape as a timeless silhouette. Nonetheless I appreciated the trick as it turned the gowns into ghostly “sleeping beauties” as described by Alber Elbaz and, although anatomy was removed from the context, it yet did not negate their humanity as these garments hustled into the cases gave the impression of having just been taken off by their elegant owners after a night out. The use of mirrors and lights created playful reflections that accented the mysterious aspect of those dormant gowns that also evoked the conservation of garments within archives – a hint to the museum’s storage rooms and Lanvin’s incredible patrimonial collection. ( Olivier Saillard had already used this aesthetic for his 2012 Balenciaga exhibition at the Cité de la Mode et du Design)
Exhibition View. Photography: Courtesy of PierreAntoine for Palais Galliera
Finally, what I also enjoyed was Alber Elbaz’s refusal to include any of his designs within the exhibition, letting the sole focus of the display being Jeanne Lanvin and thus avoiding the usual game of comparisons. Alber Elbaz’s participation was “confined” to texts and the scenography which is quite relevant when we know how talented the designer is to imagine the displays of his shops’ windows.
Although according to my personal taste, I believe the exhibition could have been further in evoking all the aspects of Jeanne Lanvin’s creativity: her Art Deco interiors, her lifestyle designs…This exposition is surely one of the most beautiful and interesting I have visited these last months or should I even say, years…
The catalogue: Grossiord, Sophie. Jeanne Lanvin. Paris: Paris Musées, 2015.
One of my favorites: Merceron, Dean. Lannin. New York: Rizzoli, 2007.
It’s the end of the semester at my university in Germany and I am carefully working through about 140 pieces of written work which the students have submitted.
The work needs to be graded in a fair and responsible way, justifiable in case of any relating questions and transparent.
In theoretical projects some of the contributing factors are:
– Structure, good use of language, citing sources, coherent context
– Answering the innitial question or solving the problem
– Using visual materials to support the work
Although the students have been told in advance what elements make up a perfect project or exam, there is a lot of room for my own interpretation which has not been stated anywhere in advance.
The subjects I teach are theory, but in many written projects, the students had to come up with an idea, an interpretation of a subject matter or a concept. So how can one stay fair whilst using personal interpretation? How to stay away from grading “unruly” students a little worse, because they disrupted class almost every session or put their feet up on the table? How to stay objective when grading students who always stayed longer after class and politely asked questions, trying to clarify the class content? Personally, I find it requires a lot of self-reflection and self-discipline to grade fairly.
Self-reflection means noticing, when the impulse is to grade a “nice” student a little better and then disciplining oneself to stay objective. Even if this means re-evaluating all the grades one more time until it is very, very late at night.
A final important character trait for grading is to be strong-willed and not afraid of confrontation, when a unsatisfied student comes to discuss the grade. If the grade was given objectively, reasonably, justifiably then there is nothing to argue about.
Book Reviews is on unexpected hiatus this month, but here is a glimpse of what to expect next month.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell described well the challenges in choosing, locating, and paying for images in her Worn Through guest post on publishing in February. When reading through or perusing a book, I often wonder how many images an author, with a heavy heart, had to leave out of the finished publication for one reason or another. This must have been the case for Alphonso McClendon for his book, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation. Thankfully there’s the internet, and many images that McClendon describes but does not illustrate can be found online. While reading through Fashion and Jazz, be prepared to have a laptop nearby to look up album covers, or attempt to find images of, say, Dinah Washington at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 or Billie Holiday exiting jail following narcotics charges in 1956.
I will have a full review of Fashion and Jazz next month, but in the meantime enjoy an ebullient but cool Dizzie Gillespie conducting an orchestra in his inimitable style in the 1947 film, Jivin’ in Bebop. The entire film is posted on Youtube, and if you so desire, you can hear some hepcat repartee, see some pretty impressive jitterbugging and Lindy hopping, watch/hear Gillespie’s band performing Salt Peanuts, A Night in Tunisia, and Orinthology, and singer Helen Humes interpreting two tunes with the band, as well as view a few performances by exotic dancer Sahji.
I’ve lost count of the number of wedding dress exhibitions that have come and gone since I entered the world of dress history. This is perhaps because, as one of humanity’s oldest and most universal ceremonies, there is so much to explore and learn. There is also the simple fact that most wedding attire is the height of beauty and craftsmanship in clothing and textile arts.
The I Did! Wedding Finery Past: The Affirmations of Past Generations at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley (previously spotlighted in Domestic Affairs here) is only the second wedding-themed exhibition I have attended — the first being Bliss, at FIDM in Los Angeles. I strongly suspect that this will not be the last such exhibition and I can safely say that for me, at least, Lacis has set the standard for wedding exhibitions remarkably high. Many of the exhibitions I have heard about focus, understandably, on the craftsmanship and beauty of the gowns. This is not to say that the exhibition at Lacis does not do that, but that I Did! does so much more.
Displayed in the smaller of Lacis’s two display spaces (the smocking exhibition I previously reviewed was in their larger space), I Did! features wedding attire for both men and women from about the 1850s through the 1930s. It also has a huge number of material culture items — wedding certificates, prayer books, calling cards, etc. — that deepen the show’s exploration of wedding history. The garments are displayed in chronological order, but museum curator, Erin Algeo, also created a number of tableaus showing the journey from engagement through ceremony, through wedding breakfast, through the wedding night (featuring the delicate details and beauty found in traditional trousseaus).
These tableaus were a remarkably clever and creative way to not only engage the visitor, but also to ensure that the visitor is not overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects on display. It also allowed Erin to feature garments that she was not entirely comfortable calling “wedding gowns,” such as the beautiful 1850s (circa) gown above which features green trim on the bodice. In her research, Erin discovered that not only was green considered bad luck for a bride, but by the 1850s a bias against brides wearing color existed (my Edwardian-born, old fashioned, maternal grandmother declaring to my mother in the early 1970s that “brides do not wear color!” when my mum wanted to add a green sash to her wedding dress came immediately to mind). This made her reluctant to call this exquisite gown a wedding dress, since she did not have any provenance for when the green trim was added. So in order to still include it, and to tell the story of weddings, she created the “proposal scene” you see above, dressing the mannequin as though at a ball.
Next to this engagement scene was a proper wedding gown from about the 1860s, which was a beautiful example of the period and of the excellent workmanship of the period. As weddings were required under British law (and continued via tradition in the United States) to take place in the morning, this was a wonderful contrast in fashions and proprieties of daytime and evening attire for the mid-nineteenth-century. It was this very tradition/law created the next tableau: a wedding breakfast. The wedding breakfast was of particular interest to Erin, she even went as far back as pre-Reformation England in her research to try and discover the origins of the law, and it is also a wonderful exploration of a tradition that has not survived intact but is instead the origin of the modern day reception. The tableau also allowed for the display of the gowns from 1870s through the 1910s, going around the table in chronological order from left to right, as well as allowing for the inclusion of flower girls, and menswear.
The contrast in gowns was fascinating. Starting with the lacework of the 1870s, through to the leg-o’-mutton sleeves of the 1890s gown, right up to the pre-World War I example. Having written about wedding gowns from the perspective of fashion trends and etiquette, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at fashion plates for brides from about 1890 to 1935. I was greatly impressed by Erin’s styling of the different mannequins. She captured the spirit of the trends of the various decades perfectly with her use of veils and strings of fake flowers.
This idea of fashion trends in wedding attire is also to be found in I Did!. In the display of 1920s garments, three gowns show both the early 1920s when the waist had yet to give way to the boxy silhouette of the mid-1920s, and that expected 1920s silhouette itself. The difference in the two more expected gowns also showed the range of styles and preferences available to brides. The lone gentleman in the back also showed the shift in menswear from the cravat to the bow tie and the transition from the 19th-century ideas of formal masculine dress into what is, essentially, the expected attire of grooms today. But the display does not stop there, as you can see. While most (lay) people expect the boxy, “flapper” silhouette seen on those two gowns, Lacis also has two gowns that feature the eighteenth-century revival trend of pannier that could be found not only in women’s evening gowns, but seen in the Ascot photos of the era. It was clearly found in wedding gowns as well. These two pieces feature delicate details you had to be there to appreciate (I tried desperately to capture them with my camera and failed). The gown on the left has hand-made ribbon roses, and the one on right has a peak-a-boo panel underneath the lace of the front featuring a silver bow. I’m trying to imagine it as the bride walked up the aisle, just a glint of silver every few steps. The two pieces are, however, too delicate and far gone to have been placed on a mannequin and this is probably, Erin tells me, their last public showing. A pity, because they are wonderful examples of this 1920s style often ignored by popular media.
The 1930s display was remarkably personal for me. That maternal grandmother with strict ideas about what could and could not be worn? She married in the 1930s and I have grown up looking at the picture below of her in the bias-cut, satin wedding dress (with matching satin pumps that cannot be seen), and hearing the story of how she worked all summer to afford the gown and trousseau. Lost in the 80-plus years since the wedding, I think the two gowns on display at Lacis are the closest I will ever get to seeing my grandmother’s gown and admiring the work that must have gone into it.
The display also has a couple of stories of its own. The veil displayed with the silk velvet gown on the left above belonged to a woman Erin was able to interview several years ago when she was 100 years old. Erin had long been curious about the marselled waves of 1920s hairstyles and asked about them, low and behold, the woman had been a hair dresser. Erin interviewed her about hairstyles and many other things, and when she passed away three years later what her family could find of her wedding trousseau (unfortunately the gown hasn’t been found) was given to the Lacis Museum. The expansive veil, and her shoes (later in this post), as well as a beautiful (and quite sexy) nightgown were included in this exhibition. Even the gown on the right, in the bias cut satin, with its original veil came with the provenance of a remarkably similar wedding portrait to my own grandparents’, and emphasizing that absolutely gorgeous train.
The final tableau in the exhibition was the exploration of “the bride at night,” and a wonderful way to explore the now lost tradition and craftsmanship of the trousseau. I have mentioned before that I love delicate details and embroidery, so needless to say this was possibly my favorite display because there was plenty of both. My two favorite pieces were definitely the above-mentioned negligée, and the pink, embroidered camisole and knickers set with net-lace trim you can also see on the close up of the bed below.
A very comprehensive exhibition, but there is yet more! Gowns and suits are not the only aspects of weddings, which is perhaps why I was so deeply impressed by I Did!. In the display case in the center of the room, arranged in such a way as to properly feature each item but also create a feeling as though you had just uncovered these heirlooms in situ in an attic, was a vast array of wedding ephemera: A wedding certificate from Covina in 1891 (I didn’t even know the city was that old!), prayer books, the sorts of fashion sheets a young woman might have used in the 1890s through 1920s to plan or choose her wedding gown, headpieces from hats to tiaras, and shoes (including those belonging to the centenarian Erin interviewed). My personal favorite were the calling cards, since I have a private obsession with etiquette history.
I describe myself as a material culturist as well as dress historian because while I love fabric beyond reason, it is these simple, exquisite, mundane items that I most adore because they so represent and give us insights into the everyday lives of people. They tell their stories and demonstrate that the more we change (or our technology changes) the more we stay the same: we still fall in love and marry, we still celebrate weddings, we all save the things that are important to us.
It is this last detail that is what I really took home from I Did!. There are two sets of items that really showcase the fact that these are truly universal experiences — something that can often be lost in material culture studies as usually it is only the remarkable or the objects owned by the wealthy that survive. Lacis’s I Did! features items that belonged to the average person as well.
The first set of objects is a group of three wedding certificates from the late eighteenth through the very early nineteenth centuries. From a German immigrant community in Pennsylvania, they are small, but have been beautifully embellished either by the couples themselves or someone close to them. Who decorated them is lost to history. In contrast with the official certificate from Covina, these are a touching example of the small ways in which “the average person” without extensive means might preserve and celebrate a momentous occasion. I even made a note for myself to research the tradition at some point, and the motifs connections to traditional Germanic embroidery.
The best display emphasizing the “universal” aspect of wedding attire is found in the first tableau, which features the engagement. There are two men’s waistcoats hung in the background. Both are from about the 1850s, both are handmade with exquisite detail. The first, seen below, has provenance of having been worn in a wedding, and is the typical sort of item that is saved: wedding attire of a man who was in comfortable enough circumstances to afford special clothing for his wedding. It is made of ivory moiré silk, and while handmade was definitely made professionally, as can be seen in the tininess and uniformity of the stitches.
This waistcoat is contrasted with another made of cotton — a good cotton, but still cotton — and featuring buttons on the inside where a warmer lining or padding could be attached in winter. It is also handmade, but its details are no less intriguing or excellent for being homemade rather than professionally done. While it does not have documented provenance as the ivory moiré waistcoat does, it was clearly someone’s “best” waistcoat and very likely worn in a wedding and other special occasions. It may not be the height of fashion, but it was important enough for a family to save it in practically pristine condition and deserves to be in this exhibition as much as anything else in it — which is why Erin featured it and spent so much time showing me its details.
Small, but truly wonderful, I am very glad I chose I Did! as my pre-semester museum visit.
I Did! Wedding Finery Past is on display at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles until April 2, 2016.
Have you been to I Did!? What did you think? What are your favorite wedding attire exhibitions? Or are there any collections of shows that you feel did an equally excellent job of telling stories like this one? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below! As always, if you have any announcements or events, please let readers know in the comments or email me with the details to include in a future column.
Kia ora! I am writing this from bed, where I have spent a lot of time recently as I finally succumbed to the dreaded cold/flu hybrid that is doing the rounds. From the comfort of my own bed also comes this month’s post about the New Zealand Fashion Museum (NZFM). The NZFM was established in February 2010 as a predominantly online venture. This is a pragmatic and reasonable decision given, as the museum say in their own words, that they choose “to be represented not by a grand building or a physical collection but rather by the quality of its research, its publications, its online museum and by its award-winning pop-up exhibitions. Acquiring and conserving fashion garments is a costly service already provided by other public and private institutions, so NZFM has opted to borrow rather than collect.” What has been created in this online space is a highly collaborative and interactive environment with a wealth of knowledge attached to each photo.
Collection page of the New Zealand Fashion Museum, each image is clickable and has an explanation of the clothing, designers and history featured
Making the decision to focus on a digital collection has meant that the collections have a lasting presence. As a proponent of seeing exhibitions in real life so that I can more tangibly experience the history listed alongside, I’m surprised to find myself so won over by NZFM. In short, it is because of the permanence of it and the quality of the images. I remember going to a textiles exhibition a few years ago with a friend who worked in the clothing industry and being surprised to hear her frustrations at the dimness of lighting (a conservation-based choice) because it meant it was difficult to see the intricacies of the garments and their creation. This would not be a worry on the NZFM website, it operates similarly to an online retailer wherein hovering the mouse of clothing images provides a close-up to the details.
Up close detail of a collection item
Another aspect of the website that I enjoy is the Upload section wherein members of the public are invited to upload a personal garment and its related history. Though there doesn’t appear to be much uptake in this area, the stories I have read have been very interesting and heartwarming and allude to the presence and importance of clothing as markers of moments in people’s lives. Furthermore, by introducing a more democratic offering for knowledge development like this (open to the public to contribute what is important to them about their favourite pieces of clothing with presumably lax criteria) it means that fashion histories are including the personal stories of people by their own merit not merely as illustrators of wider fashion movements. It is a grass-roots contribution where the personal is treated as importantly as the societal and cultural.
Aside from the pop-up exhibitions that show in various locations throughout New Zealand, NZFM also features online exhibitions, the most recent one titled “What to wear to the ball”. Again, utilising the online collection offers an ease of display that wouldn’t be a possibility if it were to be recreated physically. Furthermore, the exhibition doesn’t appear to be restricted by time period and all of the online collection that could be worn to a ball is featured resulting in a fascinating cross-section of clothing on offer.
The most recent online exhibition offering from New Zealand Fashion Museum
The last aspect of the museum that I want to highlight is its ongoing support and exposure for emerging designers. The curator and creator of the museum is former fashion designer turned fashion historian Doris de Pont and I think she should be lauded for her dedication to creating the site where there was a real gap. As part of the growing online collection, emerging designers are featured, many of whom are recently graduated or still studying. It isn’t an easy industry to make a living out of in New Zealand (is it easy anywhere?) but being given exposure from established industry names in one of the few fashion outputs in the country must be a great boost.
In closing, check it out. There is plenty to be read, seen and enjoyed!
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.
Registration is open for the Costume Society of America’s Midwest Region Annual Meeting & Symposium, “The Midwest on Stage and Screen,” in Madison, Wisconsin, October 22-24, 2015. The fee, which varies depending on registrant status, includes visits to the Helen Allen Louise Textile Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Wisconsin Historical Museum, and Ten Chimneys, the historical home of Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Visit the event’s site for a full schedule and to register. Student members may apply for a travel award of up to $500.
A new video from Historic Royal Palaces is making the rounds on social media (assuming your connections include a group of fashion historians). The “February” tapestry, a 17th-century object that is on permanent display in the Kensington Palace privy chamber, is washed in a custom tub at Hampton Court Palace. Having done a small amount of of textile washing in labs during grad school, I was fascinated to see this process on a larger scale. Below are links to the aforementioned video, as well as two others, one of the Met’s restoration of the Burgos tapestry, and an overview of the conservation practices used for objects in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Tapestry Room.
Image credit: hrp.org.uk
I have taught in the same adult education class younger students who have never sewn items of clothes and wished to progress to a future course and career in Fashion, and students who have not completed any dressmaking in many many years and wish to take this up again as an enjoyable past-time. Both ends of this scale are equally wonderful to work with, and within the setting for the class they have focus and drive. As September comes closer in my full time job, teaching individuals to use a sewing machine is something Fashion teachers do a lot of in the Autumn!
In my last post I spoke about the education my grandmother completed in the 1940’s and beautiful work she had produced, as well as the very interesting syllabus in Educational Needlecraft, by M. Swanson and A. Macbeth. However I fully understand today’s modern climate, mixed abilities and mixed interests that are presented to teachers. I think before you can design and construct anything or even ‘pass go’, individuals need to be able to use the sewing machine, happily, comfortably, safely and importantly: well. I have much enjoyed reading the comments from my last article on the Worn Through Facebook page, from professionals in response to my question about the importance of sewing. Individuals have been posing ideas such as the importance of the modern industrial technologies, intern’s lack of practical skills needed for the industry work place but also a positive involvement of sewing in the curricula being addressed today.
However, to create great seamstresses, manufacturers and constructors of tomorrow that can fit, drape, and produce couture standards pieces initially they probably are a young students being taught by family or at school level. I was interested to read the comment posing the idea; from my last article, about are European countries teaching garment construction to a high level? This is something I definitely wish to learn more about. Also an art in teaching I believe is to go back to the beginning of your knowledge and deliver this to students with drive.
Referring back to the basic level of teaching individuals how to using a sewing machine, I find common issues throughout the cohorts of students I see. The first being (and at this point we are working on paper or fabric squares) pushing and pulling the fabric through the machine, far too heavy handed. An act of second nature that needs to be counteracted, as hands are there to steady and glide across the fabric, as the machine does all of the moving.
Secondly before you can progress, individuals, even those refreshing their skills are very nervous with the weight in their foot, causing the machine to start, stop and jump. This can be due to the studio unfamiliar machine they have not used, so I begin students with straight and curved line tests to practice how much weight to put on their foot for a comfortable speed and even flow. I always stress as skill and confidence grows we can go faster; from the beginning there is no need to race. Here I also have the opportunity to challenge the students to sew a seams’ width down the edge of fabric, a crucial skill for any garment constructor. Finally I test students on more complex shapes with tighter curves, right angles and flowing shapes to move the fabric around- the big test being will the fabric lay flat at the end of it. Students’ need to be able to feel the fabric, have confidence to control the machine and have accuracy in what they are doing.
After this standard is set, I look forward to progressing onto more challenges throughout their studies with me.
Call for Submissions for Volume on Teaching Fashion Studies
Deadline for full submissions: Friday, December 4th
In recent years, courses and course units about fashion studies have become common at many colleges and universities. Fashion studies is a core part of curricula in the disciplines of American Studies, Business, Communication, History, Media Studies, Public History, Sociology, Visual Arts, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Despite the rise and expansion of courses and course units on fashion studies, there is currently no book offering pedagogical resources and examples of classroom exercises and assignments for instructors teaching in this ever-growing field. Teaching Fashion Studies: Pedagogies and Exercises addresses this significant gap, featuring examples of exercises and assignments for instructors incorporating fashion studies into their courses.
Each chapter will offer an example of a different exercise or assignment in fashion studies, a discussion of the wider scholarly and pedagogical issues which this exercise or assignment addresses, and guidance about how to most productively implement this exercise or assignment in the classroom. Issues to be addressed may include (but are not limited to): fashion as an art form, the business of fashion, fashion and globalization, fashion in the media and popular culture, the history of fashion, and the intersections of fashion and class, race, gender, and sexual identities and social structures.
For full details of submission guidelines for this volume, click here
to access a Google Document.
Direct all queries, and full submissions, to Holly Kent at email@example.com.
It’s no secret that I am a fan of the FIDM Museum. Excellent collection and exhibitions, with free entry? Yes, please. I loved the museum long before I had the opportunity to work there (some of you may recall my disclaimer at the beginning of my first Domestic Affairs FIDM review). My undergraduate degree is in languages and linguistics and my master’s is in art history. This means that even while I was doing my master’s research and writing my thesis on dress history, I was self educating on the topic of fashion and textile history.
The FIDM Museum blog was one of my first tools for doing that. It was also a wonderful way to procrastinate on my actual papers during my master’s coursework — it was way more fun to actually go out and see what a Callot Soeurs, 1920s gown looked like than write a paper applying Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura” to Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs. But, I digress.
It is also, to a certain extent, through FIDM that I became less of a dress history snob, and came to appreciate more recent fashion history (even, you know, this season’s) instead of refusing to look at anything past about 1840. This meant that working on their first traveling exhibition, Modern Love, was even more fun because I knew these contemporary pieces already, and now I was getting to see them up close.
But if I’m honest, it is still the period from about 1780 – 1840 that most fascinates me (though I do occasionally moonlight and teach classes on 1890 – 1938, because Art Deco). So it is probably not a surprise that I spend an inordinate amount of time when I’m at the museum looking at the current display of the Helen Larson Historic Collection. It is where I can swoon over eighteenth-century men’s waistcoats, and even see an actual hair arrow. I know I’m not alone, because the image below was taken from former Worn Through contributor, Ingrid Mida’s post for us on the FIDM Museum collection, and there is an entire category on the FIDM Museum blog dedicated to posts on pieces from this amazing collection.
A Century of Cotton: Selections from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, 1800-1900. FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles. Loan courtesy of Jane Gincig & Pat Kalayjian. Photograph by Brian Sanderson. Copyright of FIDM
I really do not have words for how amazing this collection is, even having worked within sight of it. The Helen Larson Historic Fashion collection contains 1,400 pieces. Among them are objects worn by six queens, three empresses, ten princesses, and 21 haute couture gowns spanning 400 years of fashion history. My personal favorite is one on which museum curator, Kevin Jones, did a paper: a gown having belonged to Princess Charlotte of Wales (on the right below), George IV’s only legitimate child and heir, who died tragically during childbirth in 1817 (my favorite eras are the Regency and Romantic periods, I blame my mother’s introducing me to Jane Austen at an impressionable age).
Dress c. 1897 Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection © FIDM Museum
But this is not the only piece that is name catching. The first Helen Larson Collection display I saw included one of Queen Victoria’s mourning gowns (above and below). It was astounding to realize I was mere inches from something worn by a woman who gave her name to an entire era of Western history. It also brought the woman startlingly to life. The evidence was there of eight pregnancies, and despite the two- to three-foot platform on which the garment was displayed, I was staring at what would have been her majesty’s shoulders. For some reason this clear evidence of Queen Victoria’s four-foot-seven-inch height (or lack thereof) made her more real than any history book ever could. It is one of the things that drew me to material culture, it brings the people of history to life.
It’s not merely British Royalty in the collection either. The image I opened this post with, which I repeat again below, belonged to none other than Consuelo Vanderbilt, and is remarkably similar to the gown she is wearing in the Boldini portrait included in the FIDM Museum blog post on the piece.
Callot Soeurs Paris, France c. 1907 Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection © FIDM Museum
Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill Giovanni Boldini 1906 Oil on canvas Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 47.71 Gift of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, 1946 www.metmuseum.org
My favorite of the couture gowns mentioned is the original iconic little black dress, made in about 1926 by Mademoiselle herself. Beaded (of course!), with a simple elegance of design that literally stopped me in my tracks (no photograph does it justice), the FIDM blog post on the piece admits that this was most definitely no Coco Chanel’s first little black dress (that was created in 1919), but it will now and forever be what I think of whenever anyone uses that phrase.
Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection
I’m featuring this collection this week for two reasons. First, while I unfortunately have to miss this year’s Annual Art of Television Costume Design exhibition, I am preparing for my early October trip to see (and then review) the current Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection display: Fleurs: Botanicals in Dress. As I have learned and worked more in the field of dress and textile history since graduating, I find myself drawn to the details: the hair arrow above, the delicate, intricate embroidery of the gown below (also, Romantic era, so double yes!). So I am very excited for this exhibition but have two months to wait before I can go down and see it. So, I am sating myself with other Larson Collection pieces in the meantime.
Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection
The second reason I am posting is because it is what I can do to help raise awareness within our community about this amazing collection, because it is in danger of being broken up and lost. The museum’s deadline for raising the funds to purchase the entire collection is fast approaching. For those interested in contributing, feel free to check out the #4for400 campaign on the FIDM Museum blog, and if you can, please spread the word. And be sure to check back in October for my review of the latest Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection display!
Have any of you been to the FIDM Museum and seen the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection? What are your favorite pieces? Are there any collections in your local area that you love and feel should get more attention? Please share your thoughts below, or email me details so I can include them in a future column!
All images — except those taken by me while reviewing exhibitions — and all objects depicted courtesy and copyright of the FIDM Museum.