Pop Culture Perspective

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I am fascinated by popular culture, in particular, the history of it. Given the fact that at some point every celebrity seems to eventually turn to fashion design to market their personal style (Gwen Stefani, The Olson Twins, Jennifer Lopez), I am always interested in the history of this practice. One early innovator in the transition from Hollywood to Fashion was Natacha Rambova, just prior to the Great Depression.

As many of you may be aware, my research focuses on the design career of Natacha Rambova (I also previously co-curated an exhibit on her work). I’m happy to report, that I’ve just had an article published in the just released issue of Dress (by CSA) that synthesizes the research I completed for my Masters Thesis in Visual Culture from NYU. Just to give you a little more information on the topics I am interested in, below is a (very) brief introduction to her work.

Natacha Rambova is mostly remembered for her tabloid-worthy marriage to actor Rudolph Valentino, and for her work as a Hollywood costume designer in the 1920s. Few people are aware that Rambova was also a New York fashion designer in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Based on her personal sense of style, she designed exotic clothing based on a wide variety of historical and cultural interests.

Born in Utah in 1897 as Winifred Shaugnessy, she was raised in San Francisco and educated in Europe. She adopted the name “Natacha Rambova” while a dancer for Theodore Kosloff’s Russian Ballet and shortly before her 1917 arrival in Hollywood. After meeting the Russian actress Alla Nazimova, Rambova began her film career, designing films including Camille (1921), Salome (1923) and Monsieur Beaucaire (1924).

Rambova created stylized costumes and sets in Hollywood, but became well-known for her strong opinions and over-bearing personality. In Hollywood this was a problem, but in New York her strong personality helped her to succeed as a fashion designer. Rambova opened her first shop in June of 1928.She drew inspiration for her designs from the traditional dress of exotic countries, romantic time-periods, and her own distinct personal style. While she disassociated herself from Parisian couturiers, Rambova’s designs did reflect her interest in international styles, mythology and mysticism as well as her European sensibilities and education.

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Her clients included actresses, socialites, personal friends and, as The New Yorker described them, “intensely individualistic,” women and those who were “very sure of their personalities.” Her list of clients included Broadway and Hollywood actresses such as Beulah Bondi, Aline MacMahon Stein, and Mae Murray. Rambova’s decision to close her shop in late 1931, after just four years of business was likely influenced by both the Depression and the declining interest in Russian-inspired clothing.

On another note, after my last post on the history of fashion during recession and war, I asked the question – what will the future bring? One possible answer is: The past, specifically as the New York Times suggests: Steampunk.

Until next time,

Heather

www.fashionhistorian.net

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