Parisian Insights: Dries Van Noten – Inspirations

Let’s set the record straight right now: I’m a huge fan of Dries Van Noten’s work. He’s the designer that makes me proclaim how much I wish I was very rich to be able to buy all his collections, you thus imagine how impartial such a groupie may be when it comes to consider the exhibition celebrating the designer at Paris’ Arts Décoratifs. Yet no fear I intend to be entirely unbiased but let me tell you, this is probably the most beautiful display I have seen for years…

The title of the exhibition is to be taken literally. It is no traditional retrospective but a journey within the fertile grounds of Dries Van Noten’s imagination and how he assimilates diverse materials to fuel his creativity. The display is arranged in various themes, not genuinely in a chronological order even though it does begin with a few pieces from his Antwerp graduation show, in 1981 and ends on his Spring-Smmer 2014 collection.  We enter the exhibition through a dark room entirely covered by diverse names and titles such as ‘Grease’, ‘Iggy Pop’, ‘Superman’, ‘Diana Ross’ or ‘Like a Virgin’ that all evoke how versatile the designers’ inspirations are.  The different ensembles are arranged as inspirational boards with an eclectic juxtaposition that sometimes clearly justify the design of a garment but also raise inquisitive questions.

Gold Display

Gold Display

 

The first alcove mingles his early designs with that of his fellow Antwerp comrades such as Raf Simon and Ann Demeulemeester alongside 1980s glamorous pieces imagines by Gianni Versace and Yohji Yamamoto’s minimalist outfits, the whole beside posters and magazine covers of the trendy celebrities of the decade.

The following themes look at Gold, Butterflies, Graphic, Bollywood or Foppish and establish conversations between Dries Van Noten’s creations, historical garments selected within the museum’s archives and art works. Thus an Elsa Schiaparelli butterfly dress meets a Damien Hirst majestic collage, lamé Chanel and Thierry Mugler ensembles are assembled alongside a 1909 embroidered costume from the Balkans while a New Look silhouette contrasts with an Yves Klein sculpture and a Vasarely painting merges with a photography of Serge Gainsbourg.  Such diverse personalities as Cecil Beaton, David Bowie and Jean Cocteau are united as the dandy-like inspirations of the Belgian designer’s androgynous and edgy masculine wear – the combination of counterculture and chic gives birth to Dries Van Noten’s recognizable silhouettes made of layering, prints, flamboyant Baroque and bohemian cool. 

Graphic Display

Graphic Display

The second floor diffuses a more dramatic feel, with a highly visual and colorful mise-en-scène: flowered wall paper from ceiling to floor that ultimately brings us into an enchanted garden and an exotic environment. Here, it’s all about flowers – he who loves gardening -Indian luxuriance and Mexican gothic, something of an Alice in Wonderland travels the world…

Flowers Display

Flowers Display

Despite being a wonderful occasion of discovering such diverse art works and garments, the display is also a fabulous way of understanding the creative process of the designer. And here, it’s no caricatural nor explicit inspiration in the idea of ‘I saw flowers so I put flowers on the skirt’, it’s more about how Dries Van Noten’s garments are based on subtle references and how the flourishing inspirations he surrounds himself with can lead to a cut, a print or simply a purpose as the designer clearly states on the walls of the exhibition: ‘The starting point of a collection can either be very literal or abstract. A painting, a certain colour, a thought, a gesture, a smell, a flower, anything really. What matters to me is the journey from the first flash of inspiration to the final destination, the individual garments, the collection.’

Foppish Display

Foppish Display

When we observe Dries Van Noten’s garments on catwalks or within boutique displays, one thing clearly comes to mind: these clothes are wearable and lack the sense of spectacle that would have suited more the grounds of a museum exhibition. Yet that’s how the scenography is such a success as it nonetheless proposes a dramatic atmosphere with its spectacular alcoves that resonate with Renaissance ‘cabinets de curiosités’.

There is a strong form of modesty in Dries Van Noten’s choice to not only attract the attention on his work but also on the many creations of the artists and designers he admires. Although the display doesn’t focus on the sole work of the designer, it invites us within his very intimacy, his mind. When we leave the exhibition, we can’t help but think that more than an exposition about Dries Van Noten the designer, we have just discovered Dries Van Noten, the man.

 

Further Resources:

More information: here

 

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Domestic Affairs: Fall Recap

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It continues to be an exciting Fall for fashion exhibitions and events.

Closing soon is the Museum at FIT’s Exposed: A History of Lingerie exhibition on November 15.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is still open at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which doesn’t close until December 7.

If you missed your chance to see the Downton Abbey season four costumes at the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, the costumes from seasons one through three are still on display at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware until January 4, 2015.

To lead the new events and exhibitions opening or happening in the next few months, 92y (92nd Y Street)‘s regular series of Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis on October 9 will feature Fern Mallis in conversation with Teri Agins.

In Milwaukee, the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee has opened an exhibition in time for the High Holy Days, Stitching History from the HolocaustSeptember 14, 2014 – February 28, 2015. The exhibition, which was featured in the New York Times recently, celebrates the memory and work of a dressmaker in Prague who could not make it out of the city in time. The opening image is one of Hedy Strnad’s designs on display in the exhibition and is taken from the exhibition website.

At the Des Moines Art Center, an exhibition examining the creativity and friendship between Andy Warhol and Roy Halston Frowick, Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede, opened on September 19, and will be up until January 18, 2015.

At The Metropolitan Museum of ArtKimono: A Modern History opened last week and will be up until January 4, 2015.  The exhibition examines the kimono from the eighteenth century to the present day. And of course, the Costume Institute will be opening its first autumn exhibition in seven years, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire on October 21.

As previously mentioned, the Chicago History Museum will be opening Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Royal Mile on November 15.

And at the Denver Art Museum, Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Centurywill be opening on November 16.

If you have been to any of these exhibitions, or know of other exhibits and events worth sharing, feel free to share you experiences and suggestions in the comments. You can also email me your events for a future Domestic Affairs column.

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Domestic Affairs: Kimono for a Modern Age at LACMA

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I have eagerly anticipated the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) Kimono for a Modern Age exhibition for over a year. I started out as a Japanese language and culture scholar, and while my research focuses since I entered the field of dress history have drifted westward, I still have a love for and fascination with Japan and Korea. I had also become very interested in the type of kimono this exhibition explores – meisen — through a paper of my own delivered at the CSA Western Region symposium in 2012, which I reiterated in a post for Worn Through.

As mentioned on Unframed, the LACMA blog, the kimono in many ways symbolizes Japan itself. However, people have a very distinct impression of what kimono should look like — a stereotype, if you will — which this exhibition challenges and challenges well.

Instead of small, delicate patterns we are accustomed to in kimono fabric, meisen kimono popular between the end of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), through the Taisho (1912 – 1926), and up to the post-war period of the Showa period (1926 – 1989) had large, bold patterns in bright colors. In my previous post, I discussed the methods of creating the most distinctive feature of meisen: the ikat-imitation effect of stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads before the fabric is woven. The other distinguishing feature is that much of the meisen designs can be seen as borrowing from art and artistic movements in the West at the same time that Japan was influencing these same Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, as well as modernizing their own traditions such as screen painting and calligraphy (examples below).

Now that we’ve gone over how meisen are unexpected, let’s examine this particular exhibition, which features of 30 kimono spanning the period from approximately 1920 to 1960.

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The exhibition is located in LACMA’s pavilion of Japanese Art, and is brilliantly laid out to take full advantage of the unusual exhibition space, the permanent Japanese art collection, and the other exhibition in the pavilion, Zuan: Japanese Design Books. The pavilion’s layout requires that visitors take an elevator to the top — where they can see both the permanent collection and Zuan off to the right — and then perambulate down various ramps to the display spaces on each floor to make their way to the basement and then up the elevator again to the ground floor. The space is designed to compliment Japanese art which traditionally was created with the intent of inspiring contemplation rather than intense emotion or awe. In many ways the pavilion also mimics an Indian stupa, which became the pagoda in the far east, encouraging walking in a circular or spiral pattern as a form of moving meditation. This enables the visitor to take in each of the ten or so displays of three kimono each, in a calm, contemplative manner similar to the way in which you are encouraged to appreciate the traditional arts in Japan.

It worked very, very well. The slow pace that the building’s ramps encouraged and the pause at each landing allowed me to see subtle similarities of patterning I otherwise might not have noticed had the display been set up in the usual single-floor manner of fashion and dress exhibitions. The open-plan layout, with clear, perspex railings so you could see through to the next level below you, also leant a sense of anticipation to the exhibition as you could see glimpses of kimono to come, and compare the patterning to those you were currently appreciating.

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What I appreciated most about this particular exhibition was the emphasis on re-interpretations of traditional Japanese art and kimono patterns in meisen, instead of the usual focus on cross-cultural references. For example, in the blue kimono above you could interpret the design as simply “polka dots” on a blue background, but thanks to the well-written tombstones that accompanied each kimono, it was revealed that multi-coloured dots had long been used in kimono as well as paintings to emphasize sun- or moon-dappled dew drops and had specific symbolism within Japanese art.

This is indeed how the exhibition starts, with three kimono featuring three very different uses of an enlarged, traditional arrow patterning. Each kimono is in a different color scheme, each reinterprets this symbol of samurai status in a new way, sometimes emphasizing it with palm fronds that were connected with sixteenth-century warlord, Oda Nobunaga, sometimes simply using the pattern in bold red, yellow, and gray colors. This also adds more layers to the meisen of both overt and subversive political messages.

For example, the “star-patterned” kimono at the beginning of the post also resembles the Japanese war flag of the rising sun with red rays. This kimono was made around 1940 and so while not as overt as some “propaganda” kimono of the same time period is a piece that might have been gotten away with post-war during the occupation. Another kimono from the 1950s or 1960s later on in the exhibition seems to depict a city scene at dawn, but while the sun isn’t visible the red rays associated with the war flag are seen beyond the mountains. Was this a quiet protest against American occupation, or a decree of loyalty even in the midst of defeat?

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I have often wondered if there were or weren’t political elements to meisen kimono. The height of their popularity coming in midst of patriotic and nationalistic fervor in the lead of to the second World War, while taking much of their inspiration from Western art movements is full of contradictions. On the one hand, the military industrial complex (bakufu) was very keen on adopting Western ways as a way of defeating both the West and Japan’s neighbors in battle. On the other hand, were the wearers of these kimono making political statements against war through their clothing? If so, is it not possible that those who had different political leanings might not do the same with their meisen?

I consider exhibitions that not only teach you something, but encourage you to re-evaluate perceptions of a particular art form and to ask questions to be the absolute best. Through the display, layout, grouping of various kimono, and informative tombstones, LACMA did just that.

They did not altogether ignore the Western influence, either. On many pieces, such as the third kimono featured in this review, they referenced not only the traditional art of screen paintings of landscapes, but the works of Impressionists and modern painters in the LACMA collection such as Matisse or Cezanne that might equally have influenced the design.

My only critique would be that all the kimono were displayed as you see in the images, none were mounted on mannequins. This however is a critique I have often of all kimono exhibitions, not LACMA in particular. I fully understand that this is the traditional method for displaying kimono in Japan, where they are admired as individual works of art in their own right; I also deeply admire LACMA’s conservation department turning to Japanese tradition when they were looking for new methods to store their kimono collection. However, since my personal fascination is with how such pieces were worn and who they were worn by, I would have loved to see at least one kimono dressed on a mannequin. Though I understand there might be conservation issues with displaying kimono this way.

This however, did not in any way diminish the exhibition. The display, use of the pavilion — even the touch of displaying one of the design books in Zuan on the pages the showed kimono designs — were magnificent. All of which combined to challenge perceptions of not only kimono, but perceptions I had about meisen kimono.

Kimono for a Modern Age will be on display in the pavilion for Japanese art at LACMA until October 12, 2014.

As always, if you have any thoughts, contributions, or want to notify me of an exhibition or events in your area please feel free to leave them in the comments, or to email me.

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A Postcard from Abroad: Autumnal Activities in London

This is the time of year when academic life goes up a gear as we begin our teaching and learning programmes, embrace a new cohort of students and welcome back the older ones.  It is also a time of great pressure and the weight of the so many ‘to do’ lists can become unbearable! So, between running around like a maniac and wanting to stick my head in the ground, I am taking this opportunity to mention some autumn activities worth noting.

There would seem to be a buzz for f20th century fashion photography exhibitions this winter as we see two retrospectives open at the V&A and Somerset House.  The former features Horst. The Photographer of Style and is on until 4 January.  Featuring many unseen prints and restored colour photographs, the exhibition explores the prolific work of Horst P. Horst, the photographer whose work redefined fashion photography during the 1930s and 1940s.   Covering a later period but no less esteemed fashion photographer, Somerset House hosts Guy Bourdin: Image Maker from 27 November until 15 March 2015.  Showing over 100 works, spanning his 40 year long career, the exhibition is curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shelly Verthime and will also include the entire ‘Walking Legs’ series, his iconic campaign commissioned by Charles Jourdan in 1979 (and from which the above image is taken from).

An intriguing exhibition at Sotherbys S/2 Gallery entitled Stitched Up caught my eye and is open until the end of September. This small display of pieces by contemporary artists working in the medium of textiles claims to show the historical relationship between contemporary art and textiles since the 1980s as well as shine a torch on the breadth of practices seen today.  I think this is worth a visit in order to see how textiles as an artistic medium has developed in the last 30 years, something that has yet to be done on a larger scale in the bigger design museums.

Staying with the art and fashion theme, I noticed there is an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery featuring a ‘psychological’ portrait of Coco Chanel by Sam Taylor-Wood, the director of the much hyped film Fifty Shades of Grey and Turner Prize nominee.  Taylor-Wood presents 34 photographs that capture the interior of Chanel’s private apartment in Paris, which has been preserved since her death over 40 years ago.  The exhibition, called Second Floor, has been curated to coincide with London Fashion Week.

I’m excited to see an exhibition on dress and identity starting soon at the Design MuseumWomen Fashion Power opens on the 29 October until 26 April 2015 and offers us insights into how influential women have used dress to define and embellish their status.  Featuring 25 women and spanning over 150 years of fashion history, the exhibition features outfits and personal style stories from figures involved in fashion and music to politics and economics.

This also reminds me of a new book by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton which focuses on how women choose to dress as an integral aspect of their daily lived livesWomen in Clothes  seems to promote itself as a philosophical ponderance on what it means to get dressed, presented as a stream of dialogues rather than a set of rules.  I have yet to read it but understand that this is a take on fashion and dress that draws upon the conversations started in publications such as Worn Magazine, where clothes are rarely about fashion and almost always about stories relating to who we were, are and could be.   If you have read the book, it would be great to hear from you.  I am very interested to know what you think about this emerging interest in clothes as identity narratives; in the ‘getting dressed’ process might offer fashion and dress scholars new material to consider and reflect upon.

Lastly, I am excited to say that later this week I will visit the V&A’s Clothworkers Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion for the first time – it’s taken me a year to get an appointment!  I hope to share my experience at a later date but for now, it’s back to crazy running around!

 

Photo credit: Guy Bourdin, Charles Jourdan advertisement (1979) Accessed at http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/picture-galleries/2010/august/16/fashion-photography-guy-bourdin/?idx=12&idx=12

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Domestic Affairs: Fall Fashion Exhibition Line-up

Django Unchained, 2012, Courtesy of Visiona Romantica, Inc., The Weinstein Company, Columbia Pictures & The Motion Picture Academy

Django Unchained, 2012, Courtesy of Visiona Romantica, Inc., The Weinstein Company, Columbia Pictures & The Motion Picture Academy

Rather unusually for fashion exhibitions, it’s going to be a busy autumn.

For the first time in seven years, The Metropolitan Museum‘s Costume Institute is opening a fall exhibition on October 21, 2014 (Press Preview, October 20). Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire will be open through February 1, 2015 and “will explore the aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Also in New York, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe opens today, September 10, at The Brooklyn Museum. “From the high platform chopines of sixteenth-century Italy to the glamorous stilettos on today’s runways and red carpets, the exhibition looks at the high-heeled shoe’s rich and varied history and its enduring place in our popular imagination.” The exhibition will be open until February 15, 2015.

Opening November 15, 2014, Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile will be on view until August 16,2015 at the Chicago History Museum.

Here in California, the FIDM Museum‘s 8th Annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design exhibition is entering its final weeks, closing on September 20. Their other exhibitions, International Inspiration: The Donald and Joan Damask Collection at the Orange County campus, and the Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection at the main campus downtown will be up until November 1.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in addition to their Kimono for  Modern Age exhibition which is up until October 19, 2014, Art Deco Textiles is also up and will be on display until February 22, 2015.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting the exhibition, Hollywood Costume, at the Wilshire May Company building in Los Angeles – the future site of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The building is right next door to LACMA. The exhibition will be the final showing of the Victoria & Albert’s Hollywood Costume, but expanded to include costumes from The Hunger Games and Django Unchained. The exhibition will be on view from October 4, 2014 until March 2, 2015.

It is also symposium season! Three regions of the Costume Society of America will be holding their annual symposia in the next few weeks. Starting with the Midwestern Region on September 26 & 27, followed by the Northeastern Region on September 28. The Western Region‘s symposium — where I will be giving a paper, myself — will be happening October 10 through 12. Be sure to follow the links to see the schedules and paper topics for each one.

As always, if there is an exhibition or event happening in your area or your institution that you think Worn Through readers should know about be sure to let me know either in the comments or by emailing me!

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Domestic Affairs: Revisiting Le Salon Dore

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I must confess that of the museums in San Francisco, the Legion of Honor is my favourite. As I’ve been going to “the City” my entire life for art exhibitions, that’s saying something. This is partly sentimental — I consider the Legion to be one of the early influences on my becoming a material culturist and dress historian, long before I knew those careers existed — and partially a sheer love for the unique nature of the museum, itself. Architecturally modelled on the Hôtel de Salm in Paris, the Legion lends itself to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco‘s (FAMSF) eighteenth-century art and material culture collections. Among these are the rooms such as the recently restored Salon Dore.

I first learned of the renovation of the Salon Dore by being startled at its and the other eighteenth-century rooms’ being closed off from the public while on a visit to see FAMSF’s Royal Treasures from the Louvre in 2013. The Salon Dore seemed like the perfect way to end the visit. Except that the Salon was being restored in a huge, eighteen-month long project. As I said, the Salon, along with other aspects of the Legion influenced me greatly in my career, so I eagerly anticipated the reopening this year.

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According to the FAMSF site discussing the details of the renovation and encouraging visiting, Le Salon Dore is one of the finest surviving examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture in the United States. I can only agree. What’s more, the restoration has given the salon back the intimacy it had previously lost, while still retaining that subdued elegance that first gave the world the concept of “good taste”.

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This is not a criticism of the Salon as I first knew it. In 1995, when it was installed at the Legion, the Fine Arts Museums took the bold step of using it as much to display other object of material culture — glassware, etc. — in the spaces between the gilded mouldings we now see as blank wall. This particular display taught me as a young pre-teen the context of objects I might otherwise have misunderstood. However, there are shifts in attitude about display as much in the museum world as there are everywhere else. The more we learn, the more technology advances, all influence how we communicate with our audiences; so while the Salon was almost avant garde in its educational and display in 1995, those same nuances had become as tarnished as some of the eighteenth-century mirrors by 2013.

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The restoration was extensive and amazingly well-done. The lighting has been dimmed in the room to preserve that restoration work for as long as possible, and the room positively gleams. It is this lower lighting — mimicking candlelight — that restores the intimacy and eighteenth-century ambiance to the room. The gilding and other objects are meticulously preserved and restored, but of course what caught my attention was the work on the textiles which is almost mind-boggling. I am unsure whether it is the conservationists’ work, or my own increased education as to the beauty of Lyon silk furnishings, or a combination thereof, that made the deep impression on me that it did. I couldn’t remember the colour of the furnishings in the Salon Dore during the restoration despite having visited it every time I was at the Legion since its arrival, now I don’t know how I missed the beautiful sky-blue silks with cream and gold patterning.

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The conservation and restoration is not merely to the artwork, but in their presentation. The set up genuinely suggests that at any moment you might witness an eighteenth-century gathering, though that might be influenced by my having met a costuming group in full sacque and robe à la française gowns in the galleries recently. The fault I often found with the Salon and the other rooms is that there was not enough information about them posted within the museum. There would be the tombstone informing me that this was the Salon Dore from the Hôtel de la Trémoille, but nothing much more. This is no doubt due to pre-teen laziness, the internet not being quite what it is now in 1995, and the museum not wanting to damage the Salon itself with placards when it didn’t have the space. The Salon is a room — giving the museum limited space to work with when labelling items displayed since eighteenth-century rooms are not large and they are, as can be seen, rather ornate.

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This is where the technological advances come in handy. Thanks to mounted tablets, there is interactive information available to the public where before the museum was limited to what they could transcribe on limited podium tombstones a decade previously. Entire paragraphs about the room, its creation, its restoration, everything are available at your fingertips. FAMSF has never been shy of technology, embracing it in its presentation of the Bulgari exhibition last year (as I discussed in my review), but I’ve never seen what direction they were intending to go in with with permanent displays. This is all complimented by an extensive, well-researched, well-written catalogue on the Salon and the Salon alone. So extensive I’ve not yet been able to give it the complete attention it deserves (lots and lots of fine print — this is what I will be reading on my next vacation, I assure you). Having done my master’s internship working with a private collection of eighteenth-century architectural drawings, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francsico have done a meticulous job of presenting the history and beauty of the Salon.

One debate regarding museum displays that seemed to trouble my master’s instructors was how do you keep a permanent collection on display interesting to the public? I don’t think there is a single answer to that question since each institution and thus each public is different, but with the Salon Dore and the rotation of various sixteenth- through twentieth-century paintings and material culture objects, the Legion of Honor has absolutely figured out its balance. I was able to visit the very portraits by Reynolds and Vigée Le Brun that had captivated me as a child, while seeing new pieces to fall in love with, and being dazzeled by the newly restored Salon Dore.

And they used the images of the restored textile designs as the end papers in the catalogue, in addition to extensive essays on those same textiles. What more could a girl in love with the late eighteenth-century ask for?

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The Salon Dore is open to the public every day that the Legion of Honor is open. The catalogue on the Salon’s history and restoration is available in museum shops, and online.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments. And if you have any dress or textile history or material culture events happening in your institution or know of any that you would like to be discussed here on Worn Through feel free to email me!

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Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion at the FTM

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For my second summer exhibition review, I went to see Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture & Fashion at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Publicised as a first, this exhibition attempts to consider the rebozo, a shawl worn by Mexican women since the 17th century, through displays that consider historical context, cultural identification with well-known Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo, social functions and the influence on contemporary art and fashion in Mexico today.

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Examples of rebozos made in the 1950s and arranged to evoke the style of Frida Kahlo who wore them often.

Given that the Fashion and Textile Museum is housed in a building designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and that many of the earlier designs by the museum’s founder, Zandra Rhodes, are inspired by Mexican culture, it is not a surprise to find the exhibition here.

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Here, you can see contemporary rebozo designs by British designers Zandra Rhodes on the right with a white feather screenprint on a cotton rayon mix and on the left, a wool patterned design by Wallace & Sewell

There is certainly a celebratory feel throughout the space as artists, designers and anthropologists display their enthusiasm for the rebozo by providing photographs, films and contemporary interpretations alongside material examples that cover every possible fabric and motif.

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The main room which featured displays of rebozos juxtaposed with art installations and photographs from the Mexican anthropologist Ruth Lechuga (1920 – 2004)

The main room is given over to a dynamic display of these beautiful coverings, demonstrating the diversity of Mexican female society. There is a rebozo here for everyone, from plain to fancy, soft to hard, flat to sculptural, raw to recycled.

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Appliqued cotton rebozo made by Mamaz Collective, a group of women from Tanivet, Oaxaca in 2014. It shows how women wear and use the rebozo in their daily lives.

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A detail from a rebozo owned by Lila Downs, a popular singer-songwriter in Mexico

The rebozo can be made with pompoms, silk, feathers or glass beads. It can be woven from silk, wool, cotton or even constructed out of teabags. A rebozo can be both abstract and figurative, sharing stripy details or offering up appliquéd people. A rebozo can identify you with both a particular region of Mexico and the country as a whole.

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Photographs by Tom Feher of Dominga weaving a rebozo, 2010

There are fantastic images by Tom Feher of women weaving rebozos, such as Dominga, which show how these complex garments are made using a relatively simple back strap loom. Although the practice of wearing these shawls originates from the Spanish conquest and the emphasis on women covering their heads in church, their production is clearly the result of methods developed by earlier indigenous people of Mexico. As a result, the rebozo is an object of interest for collectors, artists and anthropologists as they continually seek to identify its cultural significance.

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Detail of a traditional back strap loom

However, there is another reason for having this exhibition other than having a celebration.  Production of rebozos has gone from involving a third of the Mexican population to less than forty people scattered across the country. And of those left, there are only two who use the traditional back loom while the rest use a foot loom, introduced through colonialisation (1).

The craft of the rebozo is clearly in decline and current generations seem less interested in learning the skills and knowledge required to make these emblematic objects. The display of contemporary art and fashion inspired by the rebozo suggests that their importance is not lost and Mexican designers today are keen to continue indigenous skills and materials.

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An jaspe rebozo jacket designed by Beatriz Russek, 1990

I particularly enjoyed the garments designed by Carmen Rion and Beatriz Russek, known for their collaborations with Mexican indigenous weaving communities and who have created some striking modern designs. While the exhibition highlights the significance of artists re-interpreting the rebozo, the highlight for me was a film of weavers talking about the process of making a rebozo. They described a sense of ‘urgency’ felt when weaving as they became closer and closer to finishing the rebozo and became more and more curious about whose shoulders it might finally embrace. I was transfixed by this narrative as I imagined what it would be like to weave these objects, spending up to sixty days on one rebozo, thinking about who might this shawl belong to one day. Capturing what it feels like to produce something seems critical when inspiring current generations to value and utilise historical skills and knowledge in the future.

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Recent designs by Carmen Rion using the rebozo form to create blouses and skirts

(1) Virginia David and Hilary Steele, The Rebozo: A Mexican Tradition, Fibrearts, vol35 no1 60-1 Summer 2008, p60-61

 

 

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Domestic Affairs: Lines on the Horizon at the de Young

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The textile galleries at the de Young Museum in San Francisco are not small. I am very well acquainted with them due to my frequent trips to the city — typically because there is an exhibition on at the de Young or the Legion of Honour I very much wanted to see, and heaven forbid I visit one without going to the other. Unlike their blockbuster Bulgari and Balenciaga exhibitions, the gallery space has not been manipulated or altered in any way, and yet Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art From the Weisel Family Collection is a very intimate exhibition, despite its completely open floorplan. Intimate to the point that when someone besides a small child does speak loudly, the rest of the visitors almost look at each other sideways in silent reproof for this breach of the ambiance.

I do not know whether his intimacy was intended or was a happy accident, but it fits the exhibition to a tee. The word foremost in my mind to describe the artwork in this exhibition is delicate. Even the boldly patterned, bright cochineal red and rich indigo blue Navajo serapes, seemed delicately beautiful. The tiny brush strokes, the purposeful creation of an overall effect in thousand-year-old pottery, the individuality in each piece that the exhibition’s curators invite and encourage you to seek. Details do not overwhelm, nor do they compete with the larger picture, but they are given their own spotlight.

The exhibition is the debut of a new donation by Thomas Weisel of a collection he and his family have spent thirty years creating, which spans a millennium. Seventy-two art objects including pottery, baskets, carvings, textiles, and drawings are on display at the de Young until January 4, 2015. This is only a portion of the 185 pieces already donated to the de Young, and a further 21 textiles which will be officially acquired by the museum by 2016. The Weisel Family collection focuses primarily on the artwork of the American Southwest, with a few pieces from the Pacific Northwest.

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The guiding purpose of the collection — and the exhibition inaugurating it into the museum’s permanent collection — is connoisseurship. Not in the sense of value of each particular object, but in that rarity among non-western, non-contemporary art: determining the individual artist. Thomas Weisel collected with a carefully trained eye, trying to find pieces by the same maker. According to the catalogue, “A driving interest behind the selection of specific works for the Weisel Family Collection is the hypothesis that it is possible to identify individual artists … through sustained observation and comparison among objects in the same style.” This is an ambitious goal, but one that the collection succeeds in fulfilling. The intimacy I described invites you to look closer — as closely as the gallery attendants will allow — to pick out details, find continuity among pieces whether because they were made by the same hand, family, or wider community.

When you enter the gallery it is hard to ignore the textiles. This is perhaps due to the prestige of Navajo textiles, but I think it is more due to the bold colors, the distinctive patterns, and the sheer beauty of the pieces. Despite there being more pottery in the exhibition than textiles, it is one of the “Chief” blankets that graces the cover of the catalogue — they catch your attention and pull you in.

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All of the textiles featured are the work of the Dineh (Navajo) people. In her contribution to the catalogue, curator of the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts, Jill D’Alessandro, describes the history of Navajo weaving, and the development of their distinctive style from its Pueblo origins to the “Classic” period represented by the textiles in the exhibition. Most fascinating for me, since I confess a great deal of ignorance on the topic of Southwest indigenous textiles, was the suggestions of a greater trade network, of greater communication and exchange among the indigenous peoples of America through these trade and sale of these textiles. I am always intrigued by the communication and exchange of ideas and material goods between peoples — and have long felt there is a bias to portray the Native Americans as a single unit instead of the multiple and diverse nations they are. This cultural exchange is most apparent in the so-called “Chief” blankets featured in Lines on the Horizon – four pieces spanning the breadth of the style’s lifespan. These pieces, despite being less boldly colored, are the ones I most admired. They gain their name not from their use within the Navajo, but because they were purchased for use by chiefs of various Plains tribes. The Navajo did not have chiefs, but the Plains Indians did, and Navajo textiles were so desirable the Navajo made pieces for trade with Plains peoples, such as the four blankets made for chiefs of the Ute tribes.

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The “stages” of the blankets do not indicate ranks within Ute society, but instead developments within the style by the Navajo. So that from the beautiful simplicity of the “first stage” blankets (see the far left above and the image below), the style gradually developed over the course of 35 to 40 years, into the more intricate, geometric patterns seen in the final “third stage” in the far right of the image above. The later stage no doubt had a major influence on the art deco period of the late 1920s and the 1930s due to a vogue for “Primitivism” — seeing the famous art deco building at 450 Sutter in San Francisco later the same day as my visit, it is easy to see how far short the imitators fell.

In her essay for the catalogue, D’Alessandro also discusses how the years of turmoil between the early 1800 and the mid- to late half of the century affected Navajo weaving. There is not only the displacement of the tribal peoples as they were forced onto reservations interrupting trade, but amidst the tragedy and the “battles fought among Native Americans, Spanish Americans, Mexicans, and European Americans for control of the western territories” the Navajo were exposed to a vast array of new artistic styles, materials, and perspectives — as well as new markets — that influenced and evolved the style and design of their weavings. The Classic period of Navajo weaving seems to be proof of triumph through turmoil for the arts.

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The exhibition is a very comprehensive examination of artistry within the Southwest and Pacific northwest Native American artistic communities. To select one type of art “ove”r another is impossible. However, as a dress and textile historian after the textiles the pieces that most struck me were the depictions of the various Peoples by their own. A small taste of this was found in the bowl to the left above (ca 1450 – 1550, Sikyatki people), but the coup de grace was in the ledger drawings by Tsistsistas (Cheyenne).

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In fact, I think I would be fair in saying these small, delicate drawings on blank, lined, ledger sheets were the pieces that have most fascinated me in the entire exhibition. The pieces featured are known as “The Old White Woman Ledger,” due to a tiny pictograph in several of the pieces portraying a hunched female figure with a cane (seen in the top center of the artwork below). This pictograph enticingly suggests that the pieces are all from the same artist, but close (intimate?) examination shows tiny differences in style which suggest a community if not a single hand. The ledger drawings in the Weisel Family Collection all portray one aspect of Cheyenne life: courtship ritual. As described in the catalogue, “A young man wooing a young woman would stand outside her residence, wearing a blanket. If she assented, the two could share the more private space defined by the blanket.” What a beautiful way to integrate textiles into one of the most important rituals of life.

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For a people silenced by history and its recorders, the beauty of seeing them as they saw themselves through these drawings is beyond description. There is also the underlying message: that creative impulse cannot be suppressed. Matthew H. Robb says in his essay on the ledger drawings that artistic expression followed gender lines — women wove, beaded, and did quillwork as well as the more abstract painting of rawhide containers, whereas figural imagery on animal hides was the purview of men. In these ledger drawings we see the evolution of that tradition: denied access to the larger, asymmetric hides they were accustomed to, they transferred their drawings to the ledger paper they either bartered for or bought or even absconded with after an altercation. What further proof of the importance of an art form can you find than that the materials for it are a war trophy? This is how they saw themselves. This is their own perspective and portrayal of what they wore. Something priceless to material culturists and art historians.

In so many other exhibitions I can imagine, such drawings would have been lost. In the intimacy of the de Young’s Lines on the Horizon, they — and every other object displayed — had their chance to shine.

The other important aspect of this exhibition I came away with was the emphasis on the maker/artist/creative individual or community. It is a dichotomy, but I simultaneously admired the exquisitely beautiful pieces in this exhibition for themselves — not because there was a famous name attached — but also because of the invitation by the collection and the museum to look at each object as the individual creation of a specific person. Staring at some of the pottery, the wood carvings, the textiles, the sketches, you felt the hand reaching across the millenia, the centuries to say: I was here. This is what I saw. This is what I thought worth remembering.

Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection is on display in the Textile Galleries of the de Young until January 4, 2015.

As always, I welcome news about specific exhibitions and events. Feel free to leave information about them in the comments — along with your own reactions to exhibitions covered or my post. Feel free to email me with tips and comments as well.

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Review: Return of the Rudeboy at Somerset House

The Return of the Rudeboy captures a contemporary snapshot of the Rudeboy culture with a display of photographic portraits, art installations and recreations in order to demonstrate that a subcultural identity with roots in 1950s Jamaica is still alive and well in 21st century Britain.  With their credentials as photographer and creative director respectively, the curators Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliot have created an exhibition based upon a shared interest in menswear, subcultural style and contemporary consumption.

The first room of the exhibition featuring piled up suitcases as photographic frames

The exhibition is made up of five rooms that allow the visitor to wander through and tentatively identify with the Rudeboy subculture, be it through historical context, stylistic devices, musical tastes, urban locations or consumer choices.   In the first room, you are faced with several sculptures made from stacked suitcases, some of which are open to reveal contemporary portraits of ‘rudies’. These luggage balancing acts make reference to the immigration of many from the West Indies and Africa to Britain in the second half of the 20th century, thus sowing the seed for the Rudeboy style amongst young men and women in urban centres across the country.  On entering the second room, you find yourself amongst a lookbook of Rudeboy attires, modelled by invisible mannequins, many of which have been put together by Sam Lambert, an Angolan artist/tailor and a self confessed Rudeboy.  There is also an installation by the artist Catherine Jane Willis, whose handmade boxes draw attention to the influence of the ‘Sunday best’ look that underpins Rudeboy dress.

Sartorial creations by Sam Lambert, Art comes First

The third room is the recreation of a barbershop that is in use twice a week and where you can experience the literal buzz by watching Johnnie Sapong groom visitors in the Rudeboy style.  The fourth room focuses on the contemporary consumption associated with the subculture, epitomised by a ‘stepper’ bike designed specifically for the exhibition.  The final room, with speakers piled up on one another to create a soundsystem, refers to the important role that music plays in connecting and creating a subcultural identity.  An extensive soundtrack choreographed by the curators and played throughout the exhibition reinforces this.

Johnnie Sapong in the barbershop recreation within the exhibition

What all the rooms have in common are vivid photographic portraits of individuals from across the UK representing what Chalkley and Elliot see as the best stylistic examples of current Rudeboy culture.  Interestingly, these are both women and men, young and old, black and white.  However, unless you are familiar with these people already, the exhibition offers you very little in the way of information other than their name, displayed on a small label under each portrait.

Portraits of contemporary Rudeboys from across the UK photographed in East and West London location

It would seem that in this exhibition just their title is enough to establish their credentials as modern Rudeboy aristocracy.  It is the absence of information regarding biography, locale or motivation that meant I found myself in a three-dimensional compendium of Rudeboy tastemakers, supported by a cast of artistic displays that failed to shed any new light on how and why such a subcultural identity may still be important today.  Many of the figures on display, for example, draw our attention to the influence of globalisation, the African diaspora and post-colonialism on the continuity of Rudeboy style yet you will only discover this if you read around, and not in, the exhibition.

I also wondered why the exhibition wasn’t called ‘Rudie’, another term for ‘rudeboy’, given the fact that today’s Rudeboy could be female and/or no longer a young boy.   The dominant demographic of my fellow visitors seemed to be fathers with children who showed little sartorial interest in identifying with Rudeboys today.  The only person who appeared to embrace the style that day was a mature black woman whose genuine enthusiasm for the images and the culture bubbled out of her dress and comments as she walked around the exhibition.  This delight was noted by other visitors who proffered compliments on her Rudeboy attire.

One of several portraits of female Rudeboys

The curators suggest that the exhibition is an introduction to the subculture, in terms of its attitude and appearance.  I agree that the imposing portraits certainly command the viewer to accept that who they see are the legitimate inheritors of a stylistic lineage.  I also agree with the curators that this exhibition attempts to fill a gap in the market if only to persuade you that your recent attempt to dress like Janelle Monae or purchasing Mr Hare’s shoes are so culturally important as to be economically justified.  However, for me, this is less an introduction and more of an attempt to retain a hold on subcultural capital by re-fashioning the past into an array of consumable baroque objects that tell us who is in and who is out.

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Parisian Insights: Paris 1900

When I first heard about the Paris 1900 exhibition held at the Petit Palais, I must admit I was quite immediately excited about it. Not knowing anything about it, something inside me believed I would love it and I wasn’t disappointed. For those of you who may not know the Petit Palais, it can surely be considered as one of Paris’ loveliest museums with its beautiful Beaux Arts style architecture, decorated with impressive frescos and mosaics.  Housing the city’s fine arts museum, it was specially erected for Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1900 and thus stands as the perfect location for an exhibition dedicated to that particular time. On the pretext of the International Exhibition, the display introduces visitors to Paris’s splendid and luxurious context during the Belle Epoque. Organized like the Exposition itself, Paris 1900 is organized into 6 sections – 6 pavilions that all highlight the different aspects of the French capital’s cultural and artistic life. The exhibition demonstrates how spectacular this moment in Paris’ history has been, nourished by about 600 pieces (I think I have actually never seen so many artefacts in one space!) that mingle scientific rigor and pure aesthetic pleasure. From oral and social history to official art and innovative design, the display spans this unique cultural moment with a very rich (almost too rich: there is so much to look at) documentation: Mucha posters, letters, models, films by the Lumière brothers, a real metro entrance by Hector Guimard, paintings, sculptures and costumes. The whole within an impressive yet simple scenography.

Julius Leblanc Stewart - Redemption, 1895

Julius Leblanc Stewart – Redemption, 1895

The first section thus immediately brings our attention on the Exposition Universelle itself and all the architectural projects and decors, built or not, that accompanied it. This first part also celebrates the emergence of modernity with electricity, cinematography, the motor industry…that all supported the festivities’ atmosphere.  A triumphant modernity that liberated imagination leading to such projects as the Eiffel Tower, the Petit and Grand Palais, the Alexandre III bridge, metro and railway lines….that enhanced Paris’ splendor as it was at the centre of the world’s attention. The visitor is introduced to the second section dedicated to Art Nouveau by a dancing Loie Fuller filmed by Pathé, in 1900: her innovative choreographies and her sinuous nature-inspired gestures perfectly echo the lines of the Art Nouveau furniture, decors and objects.

Callot Soeurs - 1905

Callot Soeurs – 1905

Not being an exhibition about Art Nouveau, there is no academic approach to the movement within this section, simply a stunning ensemble of artefacts that all highlight the work of the Art Nouveau’s pioneers and put the visitors in the skin of the Exposition’s wealthy art-lovers. Alongside Majorelle furniture, Gallé delicate objects and Lalique precious jewelry, are presented two ‘avant-garde’ costumes that evoke the concept of total art promoted by the movement. These simple white outfits bear very graphic adornments that evoke the stylistic researches of Art Nouveau artists. The third section establishes what an art centre the French capital was with a hanging evocative of classic 19th century museums – that is an accumulation on the wall, all the way up to the ceiling.

Paul Troubetzkoy – La mère et l’enfant, 1898

Paul Troubetzkoy – La mère et l’enfant, 1898

21st century visitors being used to the white cube concept do get quite disoriented as there are many artworks to observe and you have to raise the neck high (and get blind by the spotlights) to be able to look at the highest pieces: I did appreciate the historical reference but it definitely wasn’t very practical. Nevertheless, this room overflowed with incredible works from Auguste Rodin’s sculptures to the Nabi’s almost abstract experimentations, Symbolist disturbing legends and the Impressionist serene landscapes. Strangely, although the selection is clearly eclectic, there is a certain sense of harmony that can be felt, as though, more than reflecting about different artistic movements, the section simply provides an insight into the period’s global creativity.

Tea Gown, 1898-1899

Tea Gown, 1898-1899

The following section highlights the mythic figure of the admired Parisienne and how her persona was greatly built at the turn of the century with the help of the Exposition that brought much of foreigners’ attention on the feminine characters of the city. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘distinguished from other women by an understated elegance appropriate to every circumstance in life. Her characteristics are restraint, good taste, innate refinement and that indefinable something which is unique to her, a mixture of allure and modernism that we call chic.’ Thus the Parisienne rapidly was identified as not only a geographical cliché but more as a chic attitude that could be embodied by elegant duchesses as well as popular ‘midinettes’. The ‘pavilion’ we enter proposes art pieces that evoke the various representations of the Parisienne, will it be through photographies or paintings and mostly with her very own objects – costumes, jewelry and accessories – the whole drawing the picture of a mythified as well as a real woman. The little number of fashion artefacts (all lent by the Musée Galliera) are mostly spectacular pieces such as a lovely tea gown that belonged to the French comedian, Réjane, a majestic cape earned by the Duchesse de Greffuhle and a Redfern ensemble made for Anna Gould.

Evening Dress - Jacques Doucet, 1900

Evening Dress – Jacques Doucet, 1900

The two last sections highlight Paris’ night and entertainment life made of cafés, bals, cheeky cabarets, drama pieces conducted by the iconic persona of Sarah Bernhardt, operas and early experimental films. The dark side of 1900’s Parisian life is supposedly demonstrated with references to morphine and brothels. I must admit I did not find the rendering of Paris’ dark side that dark: the scenography privileged humour and a certain glamour with portraits of the city’s legendary courtesans that mostly leave us thinking that the period was free-spirited and fun rather than glaucous although we do know poverty, absinthe, drugs and prostitution were serious issues. Focusing on the Parisienne part as it enclosed the fashion objects, the exhibition definitely points out to the fact that she was entirely indissociable from the urban environment she evolved in, the reason why tailored masculine-like ensembles popularized by Redfern met with such success as they enabled Parisian women to stroll around  in their city with dark and practical yet elegant outfits – the ancestor of the perfect little black dress! The Parisienne also helped establish the fame of the capital’s couture houses and craftsmanship: the Made in Paris concept becoming highly popular. The display confirms how limited the avant-garde’s influence was – fashion privileged the S shaped silhouettes (although we could say these sinuous forms did resemble that of the Art Nouveau creations) and historical motifs. What disturbed me is how the exhibition has restricted the feminine figure to the ‘frivolities’ of fashion, domestic affairs or to sexual pleasures: I know women did experience such confinements but the art section lacked art pieces made by women as well as I would have wished to see masculine fashion that would have also helped us draw the outlines of the male parisian.

Henri Alexandre Gervex - Une soirée au Pré Catelan, 1909

Henri Alexandre Gervex – Une soirée au Pré Catelan, 1909

In the whole, Paris 1900 illustrates how inventive, spectacular and unleashed the city was, establishing close interactions between art, social and design history. It does not concentrate on precise academic issues nor does it analyse modernity and experimental works but it definitely makes the visitors feel as if they were participating to the Exposition Universelle’s exciting fiesta. I greatly appreciated the fact that fashion was not left out as it does evoke how important this creative discipline was considered within international exhibitions within which they were given special lavish displays: fashion was undeniably part of a whole artistic and cultural context – a partner of high art.

 

Further Resources: The exhibition’s catalogue is very interesting (I did treat myself with it):

Bosc, Alexandra. Paris 1900: La Ville Spectacle. Paris: Paris Musées, 2014.

Rose, Clare. Art Nouveau Fashion. London: V& A Publishing, 2014.

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