Last night I was able to attend the last of a series of talks curated by Dr Carolyn Mair, MA course leader at London College of Fashion (LCF), and entitled ‘Looking Ahead…isms in Fashion’. Previous talks in the series have covered topics such as ageism, racism and ableism, underlining LCF’s initative Better Lives, which aims to develop our understanding of sustainaiblity within the business of fashion. This final presentation was a panel discussion between a range of diverse speakers, all asked to reflect upon what the Chair, Dr Phil Sams, suggested were ‘tools’ at our disposal in effecting positive change upon a range of long-held stereotypes within the fashion industry.
James Partridge, founder and CEO of UK charity Changing Faces
The discussion was structured around brief presentations by all the speakers and the order of service was well considered. It began with two very positive, eloquent and engaging introductions by James Partridge, the founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces, the distinguished UK charity supporting people with disfigurements, and Caryn Franklin MBE, fashion broadcaster and co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, an independent organization focused on challenging stereotypes of body ideals within the fashion industry.
All Walks Beyond the Catwalks 2013 campaign to diversify media representation of body shapes
Both were able to raise questions about fashion, well-being and diversity that struck a personal chord with the audience. James engaged us by revealing just how many people know someone with a disfigurement while noting how research suggests we still psychologically associate negative characteristics with people based upon their physical appearance. Caryn suggested we consider what is meant by ‘success’ not just within the fashion industry but when we get dressed every morning. Caryn asked us whether what we chose to wear was an experience of anxiety and conformity or affirmation and individualisation. This personal approach to the subject of exclusion, identity and fashion was certainly inspiring. While Caryn talked of the ‘extraordinary’ as a profitable antidote to the emphasis on normalization within the business of fashion, James highlighted a recent media campaign by Illamasqua, a cosmetics company, whose slogan ‘beauty is imperfection’ helped to recognize facial diversity within society.
Illamasqua 2013 ‘Imperfection’ campaign featuring a model with a facial birthmark
However, for me, the highlight of the panel discussion was the elucidating contributions by the last two speakers. Firstly, Dr Chris Pawson, a community psychologist and Principal Lecturer in Clinical & Community Psychology at the Institute for Research in Child Development, reminded us of how external circumstances, such as socio-economic systems, can negatively impact upon our mental well-being. As he put it, some people definitely have a rougher time of it than others. To only suggest a range of therapeutic methods that focus on self-improvement fails to address wider communal issues. Chris drew our attention to the way in which stereotypes are the products of socialization, not just cognitive hardwiring as referred to by other panel and audience members. Chris also voiced the oppression felt by young people when faced with pressure to conform to fashion trends or particular ways of dressing in order to be fully accepted into society, however, he was equally optimistic about fashion’s contribution to enhanced self-esteem.
M&S 2013 clothing campaign featuring Helen Mirren (actress), Tracey Emin (artist) and Katie Piper (philanthropist)
Chris was followed by Dr Carolyn Mair, the primary instigator behind these talks, who pointed out that fashion was still a very narrow business in terms of social representation, reflected in the fact that a third of Britain’s population are over the age of fifty yet barely seen in fashion representation. However, the fact that the clothes worn by Helen Mirren and Tracey Emin in the recent Marks & Spencer (M&S) campaign were the first to sell out clearly highlight the profits of appealing to a more diverse fashion consumer.
Both Chris and Carolyn brought a critical eye to a discussion that covered explicit themes such as the normalization of dress, identity and diversity, yet, arguably, more implicit themes of exclusion, anxiety and conformity were less considered. Here, it might have been interesting to include Daniel Miller, material anthropologist at UCL, or Rebecca Arnold, fashion historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, who have both written about the various ways in which fashion and dress manifests anxieties around a range of issues, including perceived body ideals.
Instead, the final contribution to the discussion was given by Zowie Broach, co-creator of Boudicca, a London based design house, whose practitioner stance would offer insight into how fashion design might help to improve our lives. Unfortunately, her presentation with its focus on a recent art piece rather than the inherent structural challenges of working in fashion failed to engage me despite her being considerably moved by what the other speakers had to say. Zowie observed that the issues raised all made her feel quite ‘sad’. Yet it seems to me that if the fashion industry and the public are to move forward in terms of broadening our perception of what is ‘normal’, perhaps it is better to transform this sympathy, which rarely resolves and more often condones ‘isms’, into an empathy so we can start to imagine ourselves in the body/dress of another in an effort to see the world from their perspective.
Boudicca’s The Liquid Game, 2014 ( audio-visual installation)
The final audience discussion was disappointing, with very little time allowed to hear a range of questions, and was not helped by the panel Chair, who drew upon previously featured speakers amongst the audience for contributions rather than pursue lesser well-known faces amongst the sitting crowd. This was a missed opportunity to have a dialogue about ‘isms’ in more depth and perhaps in future, the panel might consider asking audience members for questions in advance.
Yet, despite these minor criticisms, the discussion was a useful starting point for thinking about cultural values, as both social and psychological phenomenon, and broader concerns about sustainability of the fashion industry. As Sandy Black has made clear, the notion of ethical or sustainable fashion is paradoxical: while the industry operates on wastefulness and obsolescence, it simultaneously claims to be our ecological and economic ally. This is perhaps why it is a challenge for designers such as Boudicca to be understood in a more critical light. But, last night’s discussion went some small way towards more intellectual reflection of cultural practices and their influence upon our efforts to ‘do better’ by fashion and by default by our complex, dressed social lives.
Finally, if you are studying anything to do with dress, fashion and mental health, I would love to hear from you. Recently, here in the UK, it was revealed that one in four people have a mental health disability. How might this impact upon people, especially when it is also often hidden from the normative gaze? How does the role of dress function within this newly emerging socio-cultural context?
 p252, Sandy Black ‘Ethical Fashion and EcoFashion’ in Steele, Valerie (ed) (2010) The Berg Companion to Fashion New York, Berg.
In my last column, I discussed a number of events that were coming up in March and April. Virginia Postrel informed me via the comments that in addition to Hollywood Costume, the Phoenix Art Museum is mounting their own look at red carpet gowns, Hollywood Red Carpet – a fantastic accompaniment to the Hollywood Costume exhibition, conceived and curated by curator Dennita Sewell.
Not to be biased — though I do live here — but there are several happenings this month, here in California in case you live here as well, or are planning a West Coast trip.
This past weekend, CSA-Western Region had an event touring the legendary Western Costume company followed by a visit to FIDM Museum’s 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. As mentioned in my review last month, the exhibition includes costumes from The Great Gatsby, which won the Academy Award for best Costume Design, and 12 Years A Slave, which won best picture. I was not able to attend this event, but if any of you were able to attend this event, please feel free to share your impressions or experience in the comments below, or email me directly!
While not strictly fashion- or dress-studies related, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach opened their exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s personal collection of photos: Frida Kahlo, Her Photos. Most of the images were taken by her father and grandfather, pioneers in the field of photography, and are a wonderful insight into the artist’s personal, private world, including Frida’s own unique, indigenous-inspired style.
At the Walt Disney Family Museum, in the Presidio in San Francisco, tickets have gone on sale for Colleen Quen’s 19 April Illustration Workshop: “Couture fashion and Watercolor Design”. According to Ms Quen, she will be discussing “how fashion and costume design are integral in creating character,” and she will teach attendees how to incorporate watercolour and ink into their own drawings and designs. Their workshop this month on female animators sold out, so get tickets now!
At the Lacis Museum in Berkeley, their exhibition, Smocking: Manipulating Fabric and Beyond opened on 8 March and will be up until October. My opening image is from their website. I will definitely be making my way there before it closes. There is also a CSA-WR meet-up scheduled for 22 March, so if you would like to attend with CSA, email me and I will put you in touch with the organizers! Otherwise, it looks like a fantastic exhibit if you have the time. Look for my review here, soon.
In San Jose, Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity is still on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The exhibition is getting lots of attention, and was recently written up in Selvedge magazine. There will also be a Fiber Talk & trunk show by three contributors to the show, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Jean Cacicedo, and Janet Lipkin next week on 30 March. I suspect this will be a very popular event, so be sure to buy tickets quickly.
I do have news of one non-California event: in New York, Fern Mallis’s latest Fashion Icon talk will be with John Varvatos on 27 March at the Kaufmann Concert Hall.
As always, if you have been to any of these events and would like to share your experience, or if you have additional information to add, feel free to leave a comment! I love hearing about any North American events I may have missed — it’s a big continent and there’s no way I can find everything! — so feel free to let me know about them either in the comments or by email.
February, March and April are turning out to be very busy months for fashion exhibitions and events. It’s the sort of situation that makes me very angry at Star Trek: they promised me the future would have teleportation, after all.
Registration has begun for the 2014 Costume Society of America’s National Symposium, in Baltimore this year, celebrating 40 years of CSA.
The Italian Futurism exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York city, is entering its third week, and features a few lovely garments and textiles; while at the Museum at FIT, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s is entering its second month. Given my love for all things material culture of the 1920s and 30s, words cannot describe how much I wish I could see these two. The Museum at FIT’s Trendology exhibition will also be up until 30 April.
Also in New York, the American Folk Art Museum‘s Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art exhibition will be up until 23 April. Jessica Sofia Mitrani: Headpieces for Peace closes this month at the French Institute: Alliance Française.
At the MFA in Boston, their exhibition, Think Pink, explores the changing meaning of ‘pink’ in both art and fashion. The exhibition opened in October last year and will be up through the end of May.
If you missed the costumes at FIDM Museum’s Television costume show this past summer — or if you’re just suffering withdrawals, now season four has ended — the Costumes of Downton Abbey show will be up at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library until January 2015. I saw them when I was in LA the end of this past summer and they are truly beautiful pieces.
Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392 – 1910 opened this weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing 150 objects of which many have never before been seen outside Korea, including several examples of dress and textiles. I’m very excited about this exhibition’s next stop in its US tour: LACMA. While I was a Japanese studies major in my undergraduate work, I’ve always preferred the artwork and textile arts of Korea so I will definitely be making a trip to Los Angeles to see it. Look for my review this summer!
At the Wilshire May Company in Los Angeles, Diane von Furstenberg’s 40th Anniversary show, Journey of a Dress, is in its last month.
Last but not least, I received an invitation to the opening of Hollywood Costume at the Phoenix Art Museum on 26 March. Oh how I wish I could go! But perhaps I will find a way to make it to Arizona before the exhibition closes on 6 July…
Have any of you been to any of these exhibitions? What did you think? Are there any other events that you think our readers should know about? Is there anything I missed? Please share your thoughts and impressions in the comments below, or email me with announcements!
When I worked for the FIDM Museum last autumn, it honestly felt like I was getting up to go hang out with my friends rather than “real work” (though it was a lot of that, too). So I was rather pleased to be invited to the opening for their latest exhibitions, the 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design, and BLISS, displaying 19th-Century wedding dresses and other objects from the Helen Larson collection. The opening was covered by several Los Angeles publications, such as The Hollywood Reporter, and was — as you can see in the image above — a very popular event. With the Academy Awards approaching, the V&A Hollywood exhibition moving on from Virginia this month, and Jill’s wonderful post about the Cosprop costume exhibition in Texas, it is not really surprising that the FIDM Museum’s exhibition has attracted such attention. What is so amazing about the exhibition is the way in which they manage to gather all of these costumes together, and still wow their audiences year after year.
I saw my first Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition at FIDM in 2011, where my own research into Kashmir shawls made the Jane Eyre display particularly interesting for me, as I was able to see how they imitated the imitations for the film. I was also attending on a Saturday in the midst of a CSA event, so it was not nearly so crowded as this attendance. I also now know, from having worked with the museum staff and the exhibition curator and Museum Coordinator, Michael Black, how much work goes into this show. Studios and production teams don’t always keep track of where their costumes go after the film wraps, so the finding and displaying of all of the costumes is nothing short of a miracle that Mike manages to reproduce every year. This year was particularly difficult, especially with some costumes which were borrowed from overseas being held by customs until just a couple days before the opening on 8 February.
What struck me most about this year’s show was the sheer variety of costume design on display — a variety not always seen in the Academy Award nominations, I might point out. Starting with science fiction and fantasy costumes in the first gallery and first part of the second gallery, the exhibition showed select costumes from Ender’s Game, Pacific Rim, Oblivion, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, and Oz, The Great and Powerful, among others. Contrary to expectations with The Hunger Games, it was not the gloriously ridiculous outfits worn by citizens of the Capital that were on display, but those garments that had to have fabric specially designed and created for the pieces, such as Jena Malone’s ‘tree’ costume for her role as Johanna Mason. This was a theme that Michael Black emphasized throughout the exhibition — but which really stood out among the sci-fi and fantasy costumes — a “focus on unique fabrics that are often made from scratch to specifically fulfill the look needed for each character”.
The Great Gatsby
The remaining costumes ranged from historic — Renaissance for Romeo & Juliet, 19th-century for The Invisible Woman, Anna Karenina, and 12 Years a Slave, to early 20th-century for The Great Gatsby, The Grandmaster, and 42 – to orientalist fantasy for 47 Ronin. The latter was an interesting fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean traditional dress with the sort of costumes I used to see when I read manga as a teenager. There was also the work of at least three FIDM graduates, a wonderful way for current students to see the work of various alumni. There are also six displays by designers nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for costume design.
When I attended that first Motion Picture Costume exhibition three years ago, I was actually disappointed by the costumes. Many that had looked absolutely luscious on screen were, in person, a bit dull. For example, the above mentioned imitation of a Kashmir shawl was obviously stamped cotton (not a surprise, considering budget restrictions, but there are historic imitations that used stamping and looked more accurate than this modern one did). Or the costumes from Madonna’s W.E.: the black suit with white appliqué trim for Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson had none of the appeal or glamour it did on screen (I would like the two hours of my life I spent watching that particular film back, but that’s another story). This year, I was absolutely astounded by the detail.
Oz, The Great and Powerful
The Great Gatsby (Daisy)
And it was not just the beautiful embroidery, beading and appliqué that was so impressive. It was the attention to detail: the simple elegance of a dress worn by Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby emphasized her character and her place as Daisy’s foil (I asked assistant registrar, Ilana Winter, if I could have that dress, she said no). Then there was a man’s tie on one of the costumes from Saving Mr. Banks which captured the era in a single accessory that is hard to explain. Even more so, was the wearing and tearing done to the costumes of 42 that made them look like they really had been worn in a baseball game. Or the delicate contrast that you had to look for to see between Michael Fassbender’s and the several slave costumes from 12 Years a Slave. Such common, if not pretty, details exemplify the sort of research and attention that is necessary to not only help the actors inhabit the character, but for the audience to inhabit the story.
12 Years a Slave
Saving Mr. Banks
The Great Gatsby (Jordan)
This attention to detail was a perfect segue into the other exhibition that opened that night, BLISS: 19th-Century Wedding Gowns from the Helen Larson Collection. Showing ten or twelve gowns, the show manages to illustrate the breadth of wedding gowns and wedding paraphernalia for the era. From the Belle Epoque with its opulence, to my favourite eras, early 19th-century empire gowns and Romantic era bell-sleeves, seemingly every fashion and detail of the century could be found in this small collection of dresses, gloves, shoes, bonnets, and fans.
The tiny gallery was absolutely crowded full of visitors — as full as the main gallery — every one of them speaking in admiration of the gowns, and more than a few aghast at how tiny the corseted waists were. The inclusion of individual bonnets, gloves, shoes, and in one case a letter accepting a proposal along with gloves and an engagement ring, gave a complete picture of the material culture of upper class weddings of the time period. It is also an excellent fundraising tool: each text panel showed the amount needed to be raised by the museum to purchase this particular piece for the collection, so that visitors could pledge what they could for their favourite garments and be involved in the acquisition.
It was also a wonderful way for independent scholars and students of dress history to see a collection that has not yet been digitized. The gown below — complete with hair arrow — fits perfectly with one of my current research focuses: the use and copying of Indian fabrics as evidence of the influence of Indian aesthetics on those of Britain. The gown looks to be made of an imitation saree fabric, with its simple print and detailed border (at the hem). I sense a research trip may be in order!
I could go on and on showing pictures and discussing the excellent curation and beautiful display. I was truly excited about getting to see my friends at FIDM, and seeing the exhibition, but I was completely unprepared for this year’s exhibition and the way little details still keep sneaking up on me. The array of costumes, well-displayed, and the exquisite nature of all the pieces from BLISS was in keeping with FIDM’s standards, but still incredible to see in person. As Michael Black says in his introduction to the film costumes exhibition, the displays really do cause visitors to “think about the fact that costume designers are often on the cutting-edge of researching new fabrics and techniques of creating and manipulating them to present the costumes you see on the screen”. Juxtaposed with the historic techniques, and couture craftsmanship seen in the wedding gowns in BLISS, I feel the two exhibition compliment each other.
The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition will be on display until 26 April, and BLISS will be up until 5 July.
Please share your comments below. And remember, if you are in North America and have any exhibitions or events happening in your area that you would like featured, just email me the details!
Schiaparelli observing her own brand’s fur coat and a Lanvin hat.
We are certainly enjoying a Schiaparelli moment: following the revival of the couture house by Diego della Valle seconded by Farida Khelfa and Marco Zanini and the Prada/Schiaparelli exhibition held at the MET in 2012, the auction house, Christie’s has organised an exceptional sale of her personal collection in Paris, on the 23rd January 2014.
Marisa Berenson, the granddaughter of the iconic 1930s fashion designer decided to let go of about 180 pieces illustrating the personal taste of Elsa Schiaparelli – an eccentric time capsule made of art pieces, furniture, sketches, clothing and accessories.
Jules Chéret – Folies Bergères, la Loie Fuller, 1893.
No need to play with suspense, the auction was a real success. The pre-sale estimate was doubled and reached a total of 1.686.250 €. In the sale’s top ten appear such pieces as a pair of carved marble leopards, an Alberto Giacometti lamp, Aubusson tapestries along photographies of the designer by Man Ray and Horst P. Horst. But fashion was not left aside as a Balenciaga plaid as well as an ensemble of Schiaparelli patterns reached elevated prices.
An ensemble of 1950s patterns.
It is not the first time Christie’s delivers important fashion auctions (past memorable examples include Anna Piaggi or Vivienne Westwood’s personal collections) but it is the first time it takes place in Paris and no better time nor place could have been chosen at the peak of the haute couture season.
All that made the Italian fashion designer unique could be observed during the collection’s exhibition: her love for fantasy and surrealism – an art movement she deeply collaborated with, the close relationship between art and fashion – an association the auction house has ingenuously accounted with its presentation mingling fashion pieces and art objects, her strong taste for oriental aesthetics and the legendary shocking pink.
Probably Schiaparelli, Black Mink Hood, End of 1930s.
How interesting to inspect the inventive environment La Schiap lived in and what she loved to wear. Fashion wise, she definitely had a thing for furs (on the 49 fashion related lots, 12 are fur pieces), she also privileged oriental wear inspired by her Tunisian home and I can definitely imagine her lounging around in those vivid and precious tunics and dresses and finally, when it comes to the garments she would select from her personal brand, embroidered tops seemed to be favoured. How exciting to observe for real the ‘Astrologie’ collection with its key piece: a violet silk blouse embroidered by Lesage and the impressive 1940 beaded rodeo waistcoat that Karl Lagerfeld would have probably loved to have in his Paris/Dallas show. I also fell deeply in love with an embroidered shocking pink bolero: a feminine and sensual matador.
Schiaparelli – Pink Wool, 1940.
As for the furniture and various objects that adorned her interior, there was definitely something of a Renaissance ‘cabinet de curiosités’ as Elsa Schiaparelli seemed to mix and match such a diverse selection of styles and influences: Art Deco met Baroque while French Second Empire blended with Louis XVI Chinoiseries…All these objects illustrate the eclectic almost bohemian-like setting the designer had created for herself. It is hard not to think that only such an avant-garde and creative personality could assume mixing so many different genres – the sign of the surrealist movement she felt connected to.
Wedding Kaftan (1930) against an Aubusson Tapestry.
The auction also highlighted her artistic friendships with objects imagined by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the illustrators Christian Bérard and Marcel Vertès or the photographer Man Ray: a fascinating fragment of 1930s modernist art.
Marcel Vertès – Schocking, 1946.
In the whole, along the obvious financial logic behind the auction (I must admit I’m always a little disturb by the fact that trustees sell off objects from their ancestors like this), it was also a formidable situation for us curious historians to take a closer look at the intimate life of a famed fashion designer. Although we may have read numerous books or visited exhibitions that explained her work, we definitely got to know Elsa Schiaparelli better through her intimate collection that not only highlighted her inspirational taste but also brought us on a journey through her times’ contemporary art scene.
I do hope, as it happens in London and New York, this will make Parisian auction houses organise further major couture and fashion sales as we clearly miss them here!
You can browse the auction’s catalogue on Christie’s website.
Take a look at Heather Vaughan’s post about the designer.
Rediscover the MET’s exhibition uniting Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli
Read her autobiography: Schiaparelli, Elsa. Shocking Life. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007.
Discover Showstudio’s Conversation between Hubert de Givenchy and Marisa Berenson.
January is a busy month for exhibitions, events, and symposia for fashion studies.
First, the Southeastern Region of Costume Society of America (CSA) is holding its annual symposium from January 9 through 11. The symposium will be hosted by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and is focusing on Fashion & Film. This is no doubt due to the Hollywood Costume exhibition (which I have mentioned in my past two columns) is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February. Worn Through intern Jon Frederick will be speaking at the symposium about the Ballet Russes and their influence on modern fashion in the early 20th century. This is definitely one of those occasions where I wish I had a limitless travel budget…
The Western Region of CSA will have an event the same weekend. On January 11, the Western Region will have a personal tour of the de Young Museum’s “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950 – 1990” exhibition, as well as a curator-led tour of their current lace exhibition, curated by Kristen Stewart. Registration closes on January 3, and spaces are limited. I will not be able to make the event, but will be visiting the exhibitions, so look for a review in my next column!
There are also a couple of exhibitions that are closing here in Northern California in January and early February. In Berkeley, the Lacis Museum’s “Early Italian Needlework“ exhibition (from which the image above was taken), will close on February 8 — again, look for a review in my first column of February. In San Jose, the San Jose Museum of Quits and Textiles has four exhibitions closing on January 19: Fiberart International, Translucence: Cathy Breslaw, Art Cloth Network: Interpretations, and Quilt Detective: Fake, Fraud or Finished? These four wonderful small exhibitions will be coming down to make way for the SJMQT’s next big exhibition, Metamorphosis: Clothing and Identity, which will open January 29, and which I’m hoping to assist in mounting.
If there is anything happening in your area that you would like to inform Worn Through readers of, don’t hesitate to email me, or leave a link in the comments!
I do not know much about the golden age of Hollywood. I know names when they are written or said, and I have seen plenty of classic Hollywood films provided they star Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Hepburn and Tracy, among a very few others. So it was not until Turner Classic Movies asked Deborah Nadoolman Landis to host their Friday Night Spotlight all this month focusing on Hollywood Costume that I finally saw such legendary performers as Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert.
The Spotlight comes at an apropos time, with Ms Nadoolman Landis’s book, Hollywood Costume having just been published by Abrams (as many of you know, we gave away a copy two weeks ago), and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood exhibition on display in Virginia until February.
Due to a family medical emergency and an error on my part setting up the DVR, I missed the second week of Ms Nadoolman Landis’s choices and introductions, and I must say I feel the loss. I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the first week more than I anticipated I would – I have even forbidden my family from removing any of the films from the DVR, not because I don’t already own Casablanca, but because watching it with Nadoolman Landis’s commentary is better.
I felt that Blonde Venus, while a not particularly good story or venue for Marlene Dietrich’s obvious talent, was an excellent introduction choice by Ms Nadoolman Landis to acquaint audiences with the work of Travis Banton. Banton’s designs were amazing in the way they were not obvious. Minor things, such as small tears in Dietrich’s clothes when her character had descended into destitution, enhanced the character, rather than distracted from it. However, I confess that for me the weak script made this film was a waste of both Banton’s and Dietrich’s talents.
Costume for Cleopatra, Cleopatra, 1934. Costume designer Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion. Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
Far better was the second film, Cecil B. deMille’s Cleopatra of 1934. As Ms Nadoolman Landis pointed out in her introduction to the film, historic costumes always look like the time in which the film was made; hence the clear evidence to our eyes of the influence of 1930s, bias-cut evening gowns on Banton’s designs for Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, as well as her attendants, and the women of Rome. And yet, in several places it was very clear that both Banton and deMille had done their research, as it takes great skill and artistry to transform historic images and garments into something that will appeal to a contemporary audience, immersing them in the world without distracting from the story. I did at some points wonder whether Colbert had to be carried on and off the set, the cut of many of the gowns was so severe, but it emphasized Colbert’s portrayal of the original femme fatale, rather than distracted.
It was also fascinating to see such a juxtaposition of Banton’s talents: contemporary and historical epic. The showing of both films emphasized Nadoolman Landis’s discussion of Travis Banton’s ability to create unique costumes not only for the actress – emphasizing her attributes and enhancing them – but subtley enhancing the story and the film’s general artistic aesthetic.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s next two choices also showcased the range and mastery of her second highlighted designer: Orry-Kelly. Her introduction to Casablanca allowed me to watch the film with new eyes. She discussed Kelly’s restrictions working during the fabric and clothing rationing of World War II, and the rejection by the director of some of Kelly’s initial designs because they were “too glamorous” for refugees on the run from the Gestapo. The next film, Auntie Mame, has become a new favourite of mine, largely because of the wonderful performance given by Rosalind Russell as the title character. And yet, and yet… without Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s introduction and discussion of the film, while I would have loved the costumes, I’m not sure I would have known to pay attention to the subtle ways in which they emphasized the character – or seen that Rosalind Russell was, as Nadoolman Landis said, in on the joke. I shall forever be enamoured of Auntie Mame’s blue turban with the blue feathers erupting from the top in the elevator. The contrast between the cotton creations Orry-Kelly made under wartime restrictions for Casablanca and the extravagant, beaded, jewel-toned masterpieces he made in 1958 for Auntie Mame were a wonderful way to showcase what a good designer can do both when he is working under strict rules, and the restraint he can show when the sky is the limit.
Costume for Irene Bullock, My Man Godfrey, 1936. Costume designers Travis Banton and Brymer. Gown and duster jacket designed by Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
The value of Nadoolman Landis as a guide was felt when TCM then showed an additional two films – The Women and Anna Karenina, both costumed by Adrian – but not chosen by or discussed by her. I actually found myself disappointed because I know Adrian’s work well, and I had enjoyed seeing the work of designers who had previously been unknown to me. I also have a prejudice towards Dinner at Eight and the ‘goddess gown’ that made Adrian famous, but mostly it was the lack of knowledge behind the designer’s process that I had missed.
My only criticism was the lack of discussion of what the men wore. Humphrey Bogart’s trench coat and snap-brimmed fedora were mentioned briefly, but that was it. What about the suits for the young Patrick in Auntie Mame? I am aware that in the thirties, the male actors were left to purchase their own suits for their roles, but did they collaborate with the designers at all about what suits to wear in which scenes? And also, how long did this practice go on? There is also the fact that the absence of suits in Cleopatra means that Travis Banton designed all of the costumes in the film, why was there no discussion of their clothing in addition to the gowns Banton created for Claudette Colbert?
Overall, though, as someone with very little knowledge of the history of Hollywood costuming, the Friday Night Spotlight is almost like a mini-course in the subject. And a wonderful opportunity to expand my classic film repertoire.
Please share your thoughts below, and be sure to email me any events for the new year you would like to highlight!
Costume for Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007. Costume designer Alexandra Bryne.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
Congratulations to Charisma Lee, first entry to answer all of yesterday’s questions correctly.
1) Travis Banton for “Cleopatra” (1934)
2) Orry-Kelly first won an Oscar in 1951 for An American in Paris
3) Cary Grant
Every Friday night this month, Turner Classic Movies’ Friday Night Spotlight will focus on costume design. Hosted by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, film and theater costume designer and author of several books. Every Friday, Nadoolman Landis will introduce four films of her choice and discuss the costume design for the films.
In honour of the event, Worn Through is giving away a copy of the Abrams publication, Hollywood Costume, edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis. The Victoria & Albert exhibition that accompanies the book is currently still on display through February at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Heather Vaughan reviewed the costumes for one of Deborah’s first choices, Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert, here on Worn Through in 2010. Heather has also reviewed Hollywood Costume on her own blog, Fashion Historia, just this week.
Image from page 137. Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum. Via Abrams Publishing.
To win the book, be the first person to email me the answers to the following three questions about the first films and designers Deborah Nadoolman Landis has chosen for this Friday (December 6):
1) For which film was the above costume designed, and by whom?
2) In what year and for which film did Orry-Kelly win the Academy Award for costume design?
3) Which actor starred in 1932′s Blonde Venus, costumed by Travis Banton, and then went on to star in 1944′s Arsenic and Old Lace, costumed by Orry-Kelly?
I will email the winner immediately, and share my impressions of the Friday Night Spotlight on Turner Classic Movies in my next post on December 18.
Where do you begin when you have only an hour to cover 400 years of quilting history in the United States? Linda Baumgarten, curator of costumes and textiles for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, began with the story of one quilt. Citing diary entries by the quilter, showing close ups and full length images of the quilt, and last a photograph of the quilter with the quilt: Linda’s mother in law, who made the quilt for Linda and her husband.
A perfect introduction to the history of a textile that is as intimate and personal as it is beautiful and artistic. And a perfect match to the “mini-exhibition” that preceded the lecture, which was in fact the sharing by various members of the American Decorative Arts Forum of family quilts, and hopefully getting a clearer picture of the ages and origins of their heirlooms.
The lecture coincides with an exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg of several quilts from Baltimore, on display through May 2014. As well as with the publication of Linda’s latest book on the Colonial Williamsburg (CW) collection of quilts, out next year.
What was equally wonderful about Linda’s lecture is that instead of simply following a chronological history of quilts, she instead focused on aspects of quilting history that were completely new to me, at least. I have always known that quilting was an international craft, as evidenced by the “melting pot” — if you will — of American quilt designs such as the Norwegian star, Amish designs, and others. But I did not know that in the earliest days of the American colonies, quilts from Eastern India were regularly imported by colonists as luxury items. After showcasing the wonderful Flying Geese quilt her mother in law had made for her, Linda cycled through several pieces from the CW collection discussing the lecture’s main question of “what is an American quilt”, finally reaching a quilt from the 1650s, with a gold tambour embroidery pattern on a cream ground, clearly from India. Which emphasized the point: how do you define an “American” quilt when all of these are part of the textile’s history.
I hadn’t realized until then that I had a stereotype about quilts and quilting. I had always imagined it as something “pioneer” women did during the evening, together, to save fabric from discarded clothing, or scraps, to keep their families warm. Quilts in my mind were synonymous with “home made”. And yet Linda shared ship manifests, import records, and newspaper advertisements for ready-made quilts from East India and Britain. All of the quilts were hand made, but not at home. Those imported from Britain, at least, were made by upholsterers’ shops to go with the beds and other furniture they sold. Not that quilts weren’t made at home, but until about 1800 or a little later, they were made by middle and upper class women as a luxury item, and way to show off their skills, and as a way to socialize, since typically more than one person worked on a quilt. Even men made quilts. Later in the lecture Linda showed paintings of men in hospital during World War I working on quilts as part of their therapy.
Quilts also followed fashion to a certain extent. At the beginning of the colonial period and through the eighteenth century, plain ground quilts made of glazed wool were particularly popular. Later on appliqué became popular, especially as the nineteenth century progressed when “autograph” quilts, or quilts such as those in the image above, became all the rage. In an autograph quilt, each woman contributes one square before the quilt is finished (placed over the quilting in the middle and given a back), usually as a gift for someone who might be leaving town. This might be because the woman married, or a young man was going to college, but the story of one quilt was quite bittersweet: a minister’s wife whose husband was sent to a new parish nearly every two or three years would request a quilt square from friends she had made during her stay and now had to leave. A way to remember people and be remembered.
The autograph quilts brought forward something else I had not realized — the near-identical designs in several of the squares revealed that there were in fact “kits” of squares where all the appliqué pieces were pre-cut and even pinned in place so that all the purchaser had to do was sew them together. I had always thought of the craft kits you see in various stores or online — whether entire knitting projects with pattern and yarn, maybe even needles, or sewing projects with all the pieces and the instructions for how to put it together — were a completely modern invention. A novel way to teach skills everyone used to have but now are somewhat rare. The more I study art and dress history the more I realise nothing is new.
Another revelation was that many of the patterns used in the quilting stitches were created by professional pattern designers as well, not necessarily passed down through the generations. Once popular these designs would last for generations no matter how general aesthetics had changed — hence the Baroque designs you see on quilts made during the height of the neoclassical period.
And this brings me to the most amazing part of Linda’s lecture, and what I am sure will be the highlight of her upcoming book. She would show us quilts, sometimes very simple Amish quilts, and then she would show us a graphic in white that showed the amazing, elaborate quilting stitches in the background, otherwise invisible in the photograph. This was incredible because it enabled me to see things I don’t even know if I would have seen in a museum with the quilts on the wall in front of me. It highlighted a very particular aspect of historic quilts: they were designed to be seen on beds, in the bedroom, where the sunlight from a window could catch the change in the texture and other patterns on a horizontal surface you otherwise would not be able to see.
These patterns also help you to determine a quilt’s place of origin. Linda placed two quilts side by side, each seemed to use the same triangular appliqué or patchwork pattern, the same dark colours that one would expect from an Amish quilt. Then Linda showed the patterning of the quilting stitches which were completely different and revealed that one was indeed Amish, the other was Welsh. Vital in the textile history world to be able to tell the difference, or even if you are a quilt collector.
Another incredible discovery is the literary history that can be found inside the quilts themselves. Women would cut out out pattern pieces from old books, papers, newspapers, letters — like the unfinished quilt by Francis Scott Key’s wife at the San Jose Quilt and Textile Museum, where Key’s love letters to his future wife are found under the quilt as pattern pieces. Who knew quilts could reveal what the average household might have read — or no longer wanted to read.
Quilts as a luxury item made by and for upper and middle class families didn’t last. As the nineteenth century wore on and the industrial revolution led to more, cheaper fabric, quilts took on their current perception of being how families preserved scraps and bits of fabric. It is also when the African-American tradition of quilting began to emerge. And now quilting has returned to the earlier tradition of being a luxury, a craft. And one which has retained its social aspect.
In the eighteenth century their were quilting parties or “quiltings”, where young women would socialize not only with each other but perhaps brothers of friends, and other potential partners. Many even ended in impromptu dances once the daylight faded and the quilting materials were put away. These evolved into the quilting bees of the nineteenth century, where women would congregate to work on a quilt.
What I came away with was a history as rich and varied as America’s own. The quilt has been with us since the beginning, and it changes and evolves with us. From luxury to necessity to art form to cherished tradition.
There was not enough time to cover everything. An hour for 400 years is not enough. Still, there was so much information. Crazy quilts of the nineteenth century were barely touched on, as were several other fads and traditions.
I guess I’ll just need to buy Linda’s book next year.