Parisian Insights: Sonia Delaunay – The Colors of Abstraction

I first began to develop an interest in Sonia Delaunay’s work during my early years at l’Ecole du Louvre, studying history of art. It was with the avant-garde movements of art that mingled all forms of creation, from painting to furniture and textile, that I built my passion for the history of fashion. Sonia Delaunay thus belonged to those innovative artists that fueled my curiosity and it is with much pleasure that I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne’s exhibition dedicated to her. The display is an incredible retrospective that features about 400 works raging from her earliest expressionist paintings and drawings to her late abstract pieces and, of course, her experiences in design and fashion.  Sonia Delaunay, The Colors of Abstraction perfectly emphasizes the artist’s affection for color and how she used it to build dynamism and unusual forms on any kind of canvas. Her life and work spreading from the Belle Epoque to the 1970s, the exhibition explores how her manner evolved during those years, placing it in a wider historical context thanks to photographies and videos of the periods.

Sonia Delaunay's son blanket, 1911

Sonia Delaunay’s son blanket, 1911

From a Russian background, Sonia Terk settled in Paris in 1906 and soon met Robert Delaunay who would become her husband and with whom she would explore a new form of abstract art based on the constructive and dynamic power of color: Simultanism. Promptly, Sonia Delaunay applied these colorful and rhythmic researches to various supports and techniques. Her relationship with textile began at her son, Charles’ birth when she imagined a blanket – presented in the display alongside her early abstract paintings – inspired by Russian folklore: a patchwork of colorful cubes that fueled their artistic concept and her will to apply their art to a new supple canvas. When World War I begins, the Delaunay family settles in Spain and Sonia Delaunay collaborates with Serge Diaghilev for the creation of costumes for a Cleopatra show danced by the Ballets Russes. Her costumes being a huge success, Sonia Delaunay becomes highly popular and thus opens a lifestyle boutique in Madrid, the Casa Sonia. When they return to Paris, the artist and designer concentrates on fashion and creates numerous textiles for the home but also simultaneous dresses, bathing suits, coats with forms dictated by colors and movement built by her intense geometric patterns. At the same time, she also works with the Dutch department store, Metz & Co that sells her fabrics.

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat, 1924

In the display, textiles and fashion - within glass cases – mostly occupy the central room within the sections dedicated to the Factory and the 19, boulevard Malsherbes, the address of their home and dressmaking workshop – a commercial venture far from her artistic ideals but that met with much success at the 1925 International Exposition during which she collaborated with the Parisian couturier, Jacques Heim. Her colorful fashion is the mark of avant-garde personalities who dare to stand out and some of her clients are Nancy Cunard or Gloria Swanson for whom she imagines an impressive art coat presented here. The sections dedicated to Dance and Theatre (and cinema) also feature textile objects, the drawings and costumes she created while she joined forces with literature when she imagined the concept of the poem dress: dresses that bore her colors and the words of poets such as Tristan Tzara and Blaise Cendrars, once again adding a fundamental sense of modernity to her practice.  Sonia Delaunay saw color as ‘the skin of the world’, thus no wonder she intended to apply her art to fashion, our very own second skin. With her bold designs, she offered 1920s chic and modern women a daring alternative to couturier’s elegant designs. She enabled them to wear the latest innovative fashion but also the piece of art of an avant-garde artist. Often compared to Italian Futurists, Sonia Delaunay differed from their experiments as she concentrated on the chromatic effects that changed the dynamism and forms of her clothing while Giacomo Balla and the Futurists insisted on the cuts of garments and their movement in action.

Sonia Delaunay - Swimsuits, 1928

Sonia Delaunay – Swimsuits, 1928

After the stock-market crash of 1929, Sonia Delaunay put an end to her fashion venture and remained concentrated on textile design until her husband’s death, in 1941. She then returned to painting and was finally recognized from the 1960s as a major artist and inspired fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Moschino or Jean-Charles de Castelbajac . An artist that broke all the boundaries between arts and was eager to link art and everyday life as well as she announced with much modernism, the rise of ready-to-wear. A bright and airy display, the Musée d’Art Moderne exhibition is beautiful and incredibly complete with its numerous hanging photographies, paintings, drawings, illustrations…It is truly interesting to juxtapose all her creations and look at them via the prism of their original context – the exhibition features important material culture in a way French institutions have rarely done. It is lively and buoyant and never marks any rupture between her painting and her design work. A must-see! 

P.S: The exhibition will travel to the Tate in London from April 2015.

Further Resources: The Catalogue: Montfort, Anne. Sonia Delaunay. Paris: MAM, 2014.

Damase, Jacques. Sonia Delaunay - Fashion and Fabrics. London: Henry N Abrams, 1991.

Morano, Elizabeth. Sonia Delaunay – Art into Fashion. New York: George Braziller, 1987.

Timmer, Petra. Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. New York: Smithsonian Design Museum, 2011.

And have a look at Melissa’s review on the Color Moves exhibition: interesting to see that the Cooper Hewitt display had proposed parallels between Sonia Delaunay’s work and that of her contemporaries. Something I would have loved seeing at the Parisian exhibition.

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Review: Women Fashion Power, Design Museum, London

Women Fashion Power opened at the Design Museum on the south side of the Thames in London on 29 October 2014 and is on display until 26 April 2015Co-curated by Donna Loveday, Head of Curatorial at the Design Museum, and Colin McDowell, fashion commentator and writer, the exhibition offers an unprecedented look at how princesses, models, CEOs, Dames and designers have used fashion to define and enhance their position in the world.”

A view of the exhibition from the back so you can see the third section Fashion and Women in the foreground, the second section Power and Fashion in the background.

Over one floor, the curators have chosen to approach the subject by splitting sources into three sections: Women and Power; Power and Fashion; Fashion and Women.  The first section, Power and Fashion, presents the visitor with a line up of historical portraits representing well known women in positions of authority including Cleopatra, Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II.  The second section, Fashion and Women, invites the visitor to look at how fashion has enabled women to obtain a range of increasing freedoms since the mid 19th century.  The final section, Women and Power, is dedicated to a display of 28 mannequins, dressed in a range of outfits lent by women considered to be successful in the fields of fashion, politics, business and culture.  Each outfit is accompanied by a photograph of the individual woman and her explanation of its significance in her working life.

A view of the first section Power and Fashion, featuring portraits and descriptions.

Upon reading the museum’s description of this exhibition, I was given the impression that the third section, featuring what Loveday describes as a series of “fashion portraits of contemporary women” would be the main highlight and therefore would have the most space given over to it.  For me, this was an exciting prospect because, as Loveday explained in an interview with Jess Cartner-Morley before the exhibition opened to the public,  ‘women are the heroes’ of what they wear, not fashion designers or retailers.  Since I received Women in Clothes for Christmas, I have poured over endless case studies of women thinking about what they wear, in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of clothes.  Each women featured is a hero in her own life, often the result of a complex and intimate relationship with what they wear so I could not have agreed more with Loveday’s comment.  Subsequently, I expected Women Fashion Power to invite me in and contemplate the ways in which fashion, dress, authority, success and politics create interesting intersections within the lives of a bunch of real women who hold a range of positions of power in society.

A view of the stairwell going up to the exhibition entrance featuring graphics by Lucienne Roberts.

Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong.  To begin with, the exhibition is dominated by the second section on Fashion and Women. Covering over 150 years of fashion developments from the corset to ethical fashion, the displays chart how changes in what women have worn are the result of important social, political and economic changes, not just whims of fashion or frivolity. Despite Loveday’s insistence that it is not a history of fashion, it clearly is and this is reflected in the physical layout of sources, which are arranged chronologically.   I was met with predictable displays dedicated to eponymous designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Diane von Furstenburg or Coco Chanel and arrangements on the promotion of fashion or couture. Teleological in approach, this section appears to make very simplistic links between developments in fashion and increasing freedoms bestowed upon women in the last century.  

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‘Feminism’ and the Wonderbra (authors own photographs)

To see ‘Feminism’ reduced to a small display was disheartening, given how much the ideas associated with both the historical movement and theoretical discipline have not only informed women’s dress since but also reframed our understanding of women lives in the past.  When I came across a display of the well analysed Wonderbra advertisement featuring Eva Herzigova from 1995 without any explanation, it was difficult not to feel further disappointment.  Where were the documented experiences of women at certain historical moments and how they related what they wore to those events?  I did manage to find one example of this in a clip from a documentary in 1979 by the BBC called An English Woman’s Wardrobe.  It featured Margaret Thatcher going through her wardrobe, pulling out outfits that she had worn and explaining their significance to the presenter.  It was absolutely fascinating to see how interested and aware Thatcher was about what she wore and when.  If women in positions of power are this highly aware of what they wear, surely the rest of us are pretty conscious of the fact too?

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Margaret Thatcher discussing her wardrobe (authors own photograph)

To get to the third section, Women and Power, where I was hoping to find the real women, I had to go to the very back of the exhibition.  Given that this was a fashion exhibition that claimed to show how women related to fashion in their work lives, I think the fashion figures were unnecessary; many of them already feature in the second section.  Other figures include Camila Batmanghelidjh, Skin from Skunk Anansie and Dame Zaha Hadid.  Anyone familiar with those I have just named will know they represent a diversity of shapes, ages, ethnicities and styles so I was very surprised to find that all their outfits had been presented on identical mannequins, thereby diminishing both the status of the wearer and the significance of their clothes.

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Camila Batmanghelidjh’s photograph and outfit (authors own photographs)

I felt better when I discovered there are interviews, Q&As, with all the women featured about what they wear and their daily work lives, nicely ecohing the ethos of Women in Clothes and reminding us of their various individualities. Yet, these are presented as printouts within A4 binders so could easily be overlooked.  They require time to read, and after having spent too much time trying to negotiate the second section, I was unable to give them my full attention.

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Q&As on display at the back (authors own photograph)

Although the selection of women represent important sectors such as business, politics and culture, it was a shame not to see education, health or science included.   It is not surprising, therefore, that like many I was drawn to the outfit of Morwenna Wilson, a chartered engineer who has led the Kings Cross construction project in London.  Here is a woman whom we might never see otherwise, given what she does for a living.  Her decision to compliment a daily uniform of black trousers and white top with a range of interesting jackets, including one by Carven featuring a map of Paris, in an effort to be noticed within her work environment spoke volumes.  As a successful woman in a field dominated by men, Wilson drew attention to the subtle but important way clothes can help to define oneself in environments where dress conformity tends to be standardised.  Her interest in what to wear reminded me just how much gender roles and stereotypes inform what women wear and how little this is addressed throughout the exhibition.

Morwenna Wilson wearing her Carven jacket

If, as Loveday suggests, this is an attempt to explore fashion beyond the obvious term ‘power dressing’ associated with the 1980s then, yes, the exhibition definitely does that but, overall, it is underwhelming, only hinting at the complexities of how actual women negotiate power in their lives through dress.  There is a certain irony in this, considering just how many fantastic objects are on display.  

I probably should have spotted the clue in the title.  Women Fashion Power.  Not a Multiple Choice.  This exhibition is about women and fashion, which is the obvious bit.  Power, arguably less apparent but much more fascinating is sort of stuck on at the end. Fashion, power and women may not be about multiple choices but its a shame that the exhibition did not fully explore these limitations or discuss how women could have more choice in the future.  A more impactful exhibition might have emerged if the title had been rearranged to become Power Women Fashion.

I would love to hear what you thought of this exhibition, especially the 28 fashion portraits and the Q&As if you had a chance to read them.  How is what you wear informed by what you do in your work, where you work and with whom?

 

Opening image from the exhibition of women wearing beachwear in the 1930s. Image credit: [http://www.byoutifulyou.com]

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Italian Style: Exhibition Review

Italian Style*

Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945
Exhibition ran October 26, 2014 – January 4, 2015
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Curator at MIA: Nicole LaBouff; Curator of exhibition Sonnet Stanfill of Victoria and Albert Museum

*First image: Roberto Cavalli Leopard Print Gown
Spring/Summer 2007
Courtesy of Roberto Cavalli S.P.A.

Recently I took two visits to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the exhibition Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945. In my first visit I was toured through by curator Nicole LaBouff and then did an interview with her to get more background. You can read all about that by clicking here. I also put a number of additional photos in that post.

Before heading into the show I was drawn into the gift shops. I ended up spending a great deal of time enthralled by the vintage Italian designer fashion finds the museum had acquired for sale during the exhibit, as well as current Italian styles such as unique purses and furnishings, and a slew of fashion volumes perfect for holiday gifts or an indulgent self purchase.

HIGHLIGHTS AND DESCRIPTION:
Once entering the exhibition the story unfolds through a series of educational panels, numerous cases and platforms with mannequins and objects, a few video clips and slideshows, some framed wall documents and photos, and varied support pieces such as sketches, log books, fabric swatches, and muslin mock ups.

This enormous exhibition is a beautiful travel through time with room after room of displays. I tend to enjoy shows that canvas a lot of territory and explore many aspects of one theme. When a show dives too narrow it often feels like the viewer is aching to fill in the gaps. However, with a comprehensive show there’s always some challenges trying to encapass so much and do each aspect of the show the justice it deserves. It’s inevitable not all portions will be at the exact same level of quality. Overall, I’d say this show did a solid job at that, and maintained a fairly high level of visual intrigue and comprehensiveness. There were a few weak spots but those were outnumbered by the positive.

This exhibition originated at the V&A and has traveled to the MIA. Panels explained that V&A curator Sonnet Stanfill started devouring Italian Vogue as early as age 10, and took many trips all the way to Italy as a child from Alaska. These early entrances into fashion began her fascination with Italian culture and design. As she became a scholar her research indicated that there was limited study on the rise of Italian fashion; thus the catalyst of this show.

Both times I attended had fairly large crowds, primarily of women of all ages. There were groups of many sorts: students, ladies, and many multi-generational families of grandmother through toddler. All were enjoying the show using different reference points, although shared the same admiration of vibrant colors and eye catching embellishments.

The MIA ran a “living social” coupon for discounted admission, and also did an impressive showing of PR including neighborhood billboards. This was the first fashion exhibition from this museum and they were obviously making a big effort to get the word out. It’s too bad I missed the Italian fashion themed films they showed in support, however I believe those were only for museum members. It would have been an extra treat to see further activities such as an academic symposium or esteemed guest speakers. There are multiple fashion programs in the area, a strong local design and advertising community, and companies such as Target, which all create a community who would attend such events.

The educational introduction starts with WW2 and gives this as a jumping off point to see the quick rise to prominence of Italian fashion. Galleries then focus on this relatively contemporary time period and traces its rise, the shifts in its priority and design/manufacturing styles, the artistry, and name designers/stylists of the region. The entry galleries feature a beautiful array of dresses of the 1940s and 50s representing the first shows that took place at the house of a buying agent entitled Sala Bianca. Letters from buying agents and accessories add to this bright room of detailed ensembles.

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Sfilata (fashion show) in Sala Bianca, 1955
Archiveo Giorgini
Photo by G.M. Fadigati © Giorgini Archive, Florence

A highlight was gallery 3 which was focused on the traditional sartoria or dressmaker
Wardrobe of Margaret Abegg
whose husband owned a textile manufacturing company. She had a variety of garments commissioned and this gallery brings you into the world of the personal relationship between designer and wearer, as well as into the details of custom design. Also, Margaret’s clothing is a size and proportions conventional to the average woman and therefore it was refreshing to see the high-end clothes shown in non-runway sizes. I was not the only person in the room commenting on this feeling unique. While her taste was not flashy, and the items didn’t wow the spectator, this was a highlight gallery because of its thorough demonstration of how the items were employed including accessories and also the letter of bequeath to museum from Margaret.

These early rooms explain the development of their fashion shows and individualized market but also show that the informal clothes, such as some of Pucci’s were the key initial success in foreign markets as they spread for vacation use and broader appeal. The museum-goer then travels through a series of galleries such as the lively room highlighting the relationship of Italian fashion with Hollywood. Museum visitors were clustered around the movie clips and were also commenting on the sketches next to some of the garments showing the creative process. my interview with Nicole discusses the Elizabeth Taylor gems that eddie fisher gave her as a pitch to save their marriage. they were beautiful. a Vespa as well as a dress worn to Truman Capote’s black and white ball and other entertaining items.

Italian Style
Prada
Shoe with flame detail, Spring/Summer 2012
Courtesy of Prada
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Italian specialty leather goods are featured throughout and showcased in a slideshow as well as a case of items from 1950′s and 60s. This is a bit drab of a presentation, but the items themselves are masterful. Another gallery focuses on the cult of designer and features those big names many of the guest were excited to see. This is a point that shines.

Menswear will get its due in upcoming exhibitions at other museums, but this was a useful preview as numerous mannequins demonstrated the value of the mens fashion market ranging from Hollywood style to tailoring expertise. In this section I watched many people walked right past the grand log book featuring client details and swatches, but I was fascinated by its oversized pages of fabric choices and measurements.

Embroidery and textile design were of course a crucial element of an Italian themed show and this was a section that was strong with ephemera. The viewer gained insight into Versace’s process of pattern design from inspiration through final product and advertising campaign, and Missoni’s knitwear process takes us from marker colors to yarn dye to final product. Apparently one of Missoni’s grandsons came to the show and reminisced.
Made in Italy as marketing term and less couture

The final gallery features includes some contemporary designers such as Piglisi and Dolce and Gabbana indicating that the quality is still at a very high level. The couture closing the show brings the concepts full circle back to the custom high end dress makers at its start. A final rom focused on the future showed a film about the direction of Italian fashion is going was intriguing discussing positives as well as challenges in the industry. It was hard to hear but still fun to watch because those featured were all significant in the field.

Giorgio Armani Privé gown, Spring/Summer 2010.
Giorgio Armani
Privé Gown, Spring/Summer 2010
Courtesy of Giorgio Armani

SOME CRITIQUES
As you can tell, I really liked this exhibition and I am enthusiastic that it will travel further and be viewed by many. This is not to say it is perfect though. I do have a series of notes that nagged at me that I would be remiss not to mention. I’m just going to lay them out. I do realize some would be do to time, space, and budget constraints and the fact it’s a traveling show and not from the institution itself:

    There is a narrative from room to room, but it’s a bit hard to follow and doesn’t feel like a story. I had to work to follow along. I think many people use admired the clothes but not the storyline. That’s probably completely normal though. This is exacerbated by some display choices where items are showcased that don’t seem that important (like Pucci lounge wear) and other key pieces are tucked into the crowd.
    The lighting is dim in some sections, films are quiet, fonts are small in films, and sometimes I entered a room and basically walked into a black corner when the way finding seems like I could have been directed into something more exciting rather than walking around a wall. I did hear complaints from the audience.
    Some messages are conveyed in panels but then not translated well into the exhibition design. I know a lot of people do not read the data and are visual learners so it is crucial to be visually dynamic. One example was a mention of all the stylish film actors wearing the clothes but there was limited showing of this in objects (not the Hollywood room but a second room). Another is the party atmosphere of Fiorucci but then the design of that display is very skeletal and not festive.
    People love to be near celebrities, and some of the biggest names and best stories of the show are tucked in almost indistinguishable. There’s a suit worn by JFK but it’s amid a row of other men’s suits with little fanfare. Museum guests were frequently name dropping a wish to see Jackie O’s clothing and there was none, however there was Lee Radziwill’s dress although again, not spotlighted. The curator’s favorite garment that she feels represents the highest craftsmanship is on the far side of one case and easy to walk past. Also there is an Armani suit that is a quintessential style of his career, yet the label does not share the story that designer hand picking the garment for the show (which gives it an extra special feel when that is known; Nicole let me know this story and it gave me a higher reverence for the object). Then there is a small photography section that is a focal point, but seems sort of removed from the core. Overall, this reflects hit and miss choices of which items are under a spotlight and which are quietly in the very large mix.

Irene Galitzine, silk palazzo pyjamas, c.1963.
Irene Galitzine
Silk Palazzo Pyjamas, c.1963
Courtesy Historical Archive Maison Galitzine
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

CLOSING THOUGHTS
It’s clear this exhibition was lovingly researched and constructed. I overheard one woman said “Timeless styles” with a smile and sigh. Sure a few spots were awkwardly presented or felt dry, but this is the reality of a comprehensive exhibit as the budget and resources do have a finite point. Overall the display of iconic and lesser known names internationally gave us the fun of seeing beautiful representations of familiar brands and also introduced us to those we may not know. Upon exit there was a cute children’s section with fashion illustration and photography activities, looking at the childrens’ drawing’s left behind it was clear from this exhibition that the legacy will continue.

Exhibition Acknowledgments:
Exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Presented by Nordstrom and the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation.
Major Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
Generous support provided by: Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Topsy Simonson

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Domestic Affairs: A New Year of Fashion Exhibitions!

Hollywood Costume

Museums, universities, and the Costume Society of America are ringing in the new year with new events, and exhibitions new and old.

The Costume Society’s Western Region has just opened registration for its first program of the year: a guided tour of Hollywood Costume led by CSA-WR-member Dr. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis. The event will take place at the Academy of Motion Pictures museum on February 7, 2015. Registration is open until February 2. For more information and to register follow this link.

Also in Los Angeles, the FIDM Museum is preparing to open the 23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. Open from February 10 through April 25, 2015 and the main FIDM campus, I understand they have costumes from Maleficent among many others.

At the Phoenix Art Museum, well-known fashion and textile scholar Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell will be giving a lecture today, January 14th, on her new book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The lecture begins at 12:30 and will be preceded by a luncheon at 11:30. While there you should see the museum’s current fashion exhibition: Fashioned in America which opened in October and is up until March 15.

In New York, the Bard Graduate Center has announced that they will be featuring Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, opening April 3 and up until July 26. At the Museum at FIT, their latest exhibition, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits is on display until April 25.

At Kent State, Geoffrey Beene: American Ingenuity will open on January 29 and be up until August 30. While there you can also check out American Jewelry Design Council: Variations on a Theme: 25 Years of Design, The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War (which I previously did a virtual review of here), Entangled: Fiber to Felt to Fashion (entering its last weeks), and Fashion Timeline.

I am most grateful to reader, Leesa, in Toronto for telling me about Politics of Fashion/Fashion of Politics at the Design Exchange museum, which will be closing on January 25.

Are there any events or exhibitions you would like to promote here on Worn Through? Have you been to any of these exhibitions or events? What did you think? Feel free to share your thoughts or event and exhibit recommendations in the comments below. Or to email me the information.

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Parisian Insights: 2015 – A Very Fashionable Year

If some of you have been reading my posts from the very earliest, you might remember that about two years ago I was complaining on how poor Paris was, compared to other major cities, in the presentation of fashion-orientated studies and exhibitions. Since, my wishes have been fulfilled thanks to wonderful events from a magical Dries Van Noten exposition to a glamorous look at the 1950s, and the end of the year was highlighted by a symposium about fashion during World War I I unfortunately missed, having to travel abroad on that particular weekend but I know Jaclyn will share a review as she attended it. 2014 was thus delightful, 2015 announces itself as exceptional!

Fashion Mix Poster

Fashion Mix Poster

 

The Immigration Museum has just launched an exhibition entitled Fashion Mix that explores the work of foreign designers that have enriched French fashion: at a time when political extremes are rising in France, I find it very brave and interesting to highlight such a theme, I can’t wait to visit and review the presentation. Then, we will explore the mysterious and delicate world of buttons at the Arts Decoratifs from February: quite an audacious subject for a museum used to more popular blockbusters. Jeanne Lanvin (sigh!!) will be honored at the Galliera Museum in March – the very first retrospective dedicated to the couturier in France – before Jean Paul Gaultier at the Grand Palais in April. And let’s not forget fashion-related shows such as the V&A’s David Bowie Is…that will take place at the newly opened Philharmonie, a Harry Potter exhibition with many bewitching costumes at the Cité du Cinema or the life of Edith Piaf and some of her little black dresses at the Bibliothèque Nationale…If some of you living abroad are planning a trip to Paris, it’s the moment!

Finally, I am myself, thrillingly,  preparing a participation to a conference dedicated to Marie Antoinette and Fashion at the Chateau de Versailles, I will be happy to share with you.

Let’s thus wish ourselves a very fashionable year!

 

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Italian Style at Minneapolis Institute of Art

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The exhibition entitled Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945* is truly extensive! A few weeks ago I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see their first ever fashion exhibition as well as interview Assistant Curator of Textiles Nicole LaBouff, PhD.

The MIA is a solid museum and I knew the exhibition originated from the Victoria & Albert Museum, however I was still surprised at the breadth and depth of the show. Therefore I’m spending two visits at the museum and devoting two distinct Worn Through posts to the tour/interview and then to the review.

A little background from the press release:: “Trace the evolution of Italian design, from Gucci and Prada to Missoni, Versace and more. A major retrospective of the fashion that has defined a nation—and a rare chance to see Milan’s finest in Minneapolis. An MIA first, this groundbreaking exhibition examines the craftsmanship and entrepreneurial verve that catapulted Italy from the ashes of World War II to the style powerhouse it is today. Immerse yourself in impeccable design, rare ingenuity, and the head-turning glamour of celebrity style.”

Nicole was generous enough to walk me through the exhibit discussing its development by the V & A staff as well as any adjustments made for the Minneapolis space and audience.

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Dolce & Gabbana
Leather Ankle Boots with Gold, White and Pink Embroidery
2000 Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tom Ford for Gucci, man's velvet evening suit, Autumn/Winter 2004/5.
Tom Ford for Gucci
Man’s Velvet Evening Suit
Autumn/Winter 2004/5
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As I walked thru the sprawling space looking at the numerous items Nicole explained that V & A curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion, Sonnet Stanfill, did extensive research into archives and an array of other sources to pull together this comprehensive show.

Monica: How did Italian Style come to the Minnepolis Institute of Arts?

Nicole: Negotiations mostly were before I arrived. The way it happened was that the V&A typically reaches out to our museum and gives us a sense of what traveling exhibits were lined up. (The MIA) was interested in doing a fashion show and what our director and our leadership really liked about Italian Style is that it wasn’t one designer that was featured, it was focusing on an entire a national industry and that was a huge draw for them.

When the show completed its run at the V & A it was packaged for touring. It will come to a handful of U.S. spots and was constructed to be transported virtually pre-built. The MIA purchased new modular cases to showcase the dress objects and plans to repurpose the cases for future shows. When the exhibition was being installed the V & A sent their choice of individuals to assist and to handle all dress objects.

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Mila Schon
Sequined Evening Dress and Silk Coat
Worn and given by Princess Stanislaus Radziwill Worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball 1966 Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Monica: Can you discuss some of the challenges and highlights of the preparation and install?

Nicole: It came all prepared. That made it really exciting, the fact that we had these massive crates that would be wheeled into the galleries and when we would pry it open it would be like unwrapping these giant Christmas presents day after day! That created an install that was really high on drama.

I can’t really think of any in particular challenges as it was very smooth install. I attribute it to the fact that things were dressed everything as very fast really very pleasant.

Gucci, bamboo-handled pigskin bag, early 1960s.
Gucci
Bamboo-handled Pigskin Bag, early 1960s
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Monica: What are some of the fan favorite pieces and you must have a favorite?

Nicole: I love the Fendi mink coat for the intricacy of construction and the “How did they do it?” factor. When we were unpacking objects I was really puzzling over how did they get those pieces (together). [Note from Monica-It's a patchwork coat and is displayed adjacent to its mock up]. There are so many fan favorites but the Fendi coat is something that there is a lot ooo-ing and aaahhh-ing and gasping. But, I kind of worry that people walk past it because it kind of doesn’t look like a fur coat. I think it’s easy to walk past it and think it’s a velvet coat and printed or something. [Note from Monica--it is part of a large display of items versus an isolated spotlight piece].

People really love the Audrey Hepburn dress. That’s an older Hollywood actress that even young people are really familiar with and spans all ages. I think it’s really interesting that it’s a film costume and you can see it moving in that film clip so it’s wonderful to have it contextualized with that material.

The Elizabeth Taylor jewelry is a really great story and it’s a great object. [Note from Monica–In her blog post for the MIA, Nicole tells the fantastic tale of Eddie Fisher buying Taylor the Bulgari earrings in an attempt to save their marriage during her affair with Richard Burton, only to have her foot the bill when it didn’t go his way.]. I’m always sure to mention on tours one of the things I think people really would appreciate about it is that the gemstones are set on springs so it would have trembled when the wearer moved so it would have been such a spectacular piece to see it in motion.

I think there’s a lot of really attractive and exciting pieces in the final gallery about the designer. The Dolce and Gabbana is hand painted, so if anyone has a difficulty understanding why a fashion exhibit belongs in an art museum I always make the point that that’s a very literal translation that bridges because it’s a painting. A lot of people catch that (and show) a lot of nodding and understanding that fashion has relevance in art museums. Also the Capucci piece in that last gallery is also a stunner; the green and pink one.

Roberto Capucci, silk evening dress, 1987-88.
Roberto Capucci,
Silk Evening Dress, 1987-88
Courtesy Roberto Capucci Foundation
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition is built on the idea of the history of Italian style shifted from magnificent designers and their craftsmanship, then makes its way toward mass production, ready to wear and the entertainment industry, and then circling back through to unique pieces and artisans again.

Monica: What is meaningful about this exhibition to the average Minnesotan (and other U.S. cities it will travel to)? Is it the familiar designer names? Why do you think the Italian designer really grabs the American public’s interest?

Nicole: The didactics explain that the story of the growth of Italian fashion is really implicated in American history too. So it’s really an important symbiotic relationship between Italian producers and American consumers. And that’s something the exhibition really demonstrates very clearly.

I don’t imagine it’s a draw. The drama of having a major fashion exhibition here at the MIA, the first ever, is the draw, but then once they’re here they’ll find it’s really not just Italian designers doing something over in Italy. It’s actually we as American buyers helped to grow this industry and this would be really interesting to the person going through the exhibits.

If we had one on French fashion we’d see people coming in great numbers. It’s an exciting new type of artwork for people to engage with in a large scale.

In a couple of weeks look for my review of the exhibition which will be from the lens of an audience member as well as colleague. I look forward to giving all of the items a second look!

*Top photo:
Photograph by Gian Paolo Barbieri for Gianfranco Ferre advertisement Fall/Winter 1991
Model: Aly Dunne
©GIANPAOLOBARBIERI

Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 at Minneapolis Institute of Art

Runs Thru January 4, 2015, ticketed exhibition in the Target Galley, see the website for details

Exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Presented by Nordstrom and the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation.
Major Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
Generous support provided by: Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Topsy Simonson

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Fashioning Winter at Somerset House

 

If you find yourself at Somerset House over the festive period, stop for a moment to have a look at an interesting series of small displays that draw attention to the relationship between fashion, winter and leisure pursuits in a subtle but poetic manner.

Fashioning Winter, an exhibition created by nine curators, offers a poignant backdrop to Somerset House’s annual ice rink experience.  As you discover the various displays, made up of inventive interventions in and around Somerset House, you are reminded that London is not only a fashionable capital but also a city that celebrates winter pastimes.

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‘Skating is Streatham’ by Beatrice Behlen

This is particularly well achieved by Beatrice Behlen’s display highlighting the craze for ice skating during the interwar period in London with ghostly photographs of art deco indoor ice rinks and a pair of ice skates worn by a regular skater from the 1930s.

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‘Skating on Film’ by Caroline Evans

Caroline Evans’ display of silent ice skating films from the early 20th century are mesmerising and perhaps the closest thing we might get to of a re-enactment of London’s 17th century frost fairs on the river Thames.

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‘White Perspectives’ by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov

The display ‘White Perspectives’, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov fills an entire staircase with objects illustrating the way in which the colour white has historically informed fashion.  I particularly loved a fascinating video about the work of designer Iris Van Herpen who uses white 3D printing to create her fashion designs.

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‘Winter Mode’ by Rebecca Arnold

Another staircase is adorned with homemade Christmas cards by photographer Angus McBean.  This display, curated by Alistair O’Neill, nicely captures the festive spirit.  Yet, it is Rebecca Arnold’s display on how fashion has informed our need to dress warmly in the winter months that for me best encapsulates the exhibition’s main title.

Fashioning Winter is a free exhibition at Somerset House until 11 January 2015 and you can download the exhibition guide here.  I would also recommend Furzsi’s post about the exhibition on the Courtauld’s Documenting Fashion blog.

 

First image credit is to Professor Amy De La Haye who provided the image for the London College of Fashion website.  It can be found here http://blogs.arts.ac.uk/fashion/2014/11/11/lcf-alumni-curate-fashioning-winter-exhibition-somerset-house/ [Accessed 15 December 2014]

 

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Domestic Affairs: Houghton Hall at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

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My favourite museums are house museums. I really do not know how many times I have been to Hearst Castle, but I know I have no plans to ever stop visiting. I love to see where and how people lived. Second to this — especially for private residences still in use — are exhibitions about such grand homes and estates. Having been a lifelong reader and lover of Jane Austen, I suppose this isn’t a surprise. Thus, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House was an absolute dream of an exhibition for me.

The exhibition, which is open until January 18, 2015 at the Legion of Honor, draws from the collection of quite possibly the original English country house — read ginormous mansion — Houghton (pronounced ‘how-ton’) Hall. The house was built by England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (known as Cock Robin by those who didn’t like him). Walpole can also be credited with starting the trend for magnificent country estates that then swept Britain; until Walpole the Pemberleys, Kellynches, and Hartfields that serve as the backgrounds of Jane Austen’s novels didn’t exist. The Legion of Honor’s exhibition allows visitors an inside look at not only the current Houghton Hall, but insights into its creation, history, and survival tot he present day.

Exterior view of Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Exterior view of Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Through the use of high-resolution prints of wallpaper, ceilings, library bookshelves, etc., and the arrangement of those objects — paintings, ceramics, furniture — the Legion of Honor transformed its special exhibition space and recreated the rooms the exhibition focused on quite well. Beginning with the opulent red damask and gilded Saloon (below), the exhibition established fully in the minds of museum visitors what homes like this were built and decorated to do: show off to Walpole’s fellow members of parliament and aristocrats, and his political rivals who had the most money and taste.

A view of the Saloon at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

A view of the Saloon at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Interspersed among the tombstones and wall text — which outlined the history of the home from room to room — were family trees which helped visitors trace the family and how the family titles changed as they were added to. Since they started out as the Earls of Orford, the wall texts were remarkably helpful in determining how they became the Marquesses of Cholmondeley (pronounced “chumdley” apparently) as people married or inherited other estates. However, most fascinating was the history of each room and its building and renovation since these little histories showed how the house evolved not only with the trends and styles of successive generations, but with the tastes and needs of the family as well. Not to mention the insights such histories gave into the way in which homes were decorated and built from 1720 until the most recent renovations and revivals in the early 20th century.

William Kent, architectural drawing for the Marble Parlour at Houghton, ca. 1730. Black and brown ink and brown wash on paper. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.132

William Kent, architectural drawing for the Marble Parlour at Houghton, ca. 1730. Black and brown ink and brown wash on paper. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.132

What I was most fascinated by were the original plans, drawings, and perspectives created by architect William Kent and his various successors, for the building and decorating of the house. Even the placement of paintings was thought of by the various architects as can be seen in the various drawings on display. Since my internship during my master’s degree was working with a similar private collection of architectural drawings, I felt like with my background they gave me more insight into the home and its history — but also added depth to the exhibition for the “novice” visitor as well, as I overheard various fellow visitors remark on the plans.

In the “library” room, they had several books on display from Sir Robert Walpole’s own collection — including secret dossiers from security meetings during Walpole’s tenure as prime minister in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Cabinet at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Cabinet at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

There were three objects in the exhibition that I found most beautiful and incredible. First were the intact rolls of chinoiserie wallpaper that decorates the “Cabinet” seen in the image above. Four such rolls were hung on the walls of the room meant to recreate the “Cabinet,” in absolutely pristine condition. Nothing was said about why the wallpaper was still in existence, let alone in such excellent condition, but I can only assume it was extra from when the room was decorated and that it was originally kept “just in case” of need to replace the original. To have not a photo recreation, but the original wallpaper as it must have come from the manufacturer was truly wonderful, indeed.

Second were Jean Singer Sargent’s portraits of the woman responsible for Houghton’s preservation and survival in this century, the current Marquess of Cholmondeley’s grandmother, Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley. Her mother having been a Rothschild, her father a Sassoon, and marrying the Marquess, Lady Sybil had the means and the inclination to restore the home. She became fascinated by its history and its original builder, Sir Robert Walpole, and it is no overstating it (if the wall text, catalogue, and video interviewing her grandson are to be believed) that she ensured this beautiful home’s survival. Sargent’s portraits of the Marchioness is are arresting in their beauty — not merely because of Sargent’s skill, but because of Lady Sybil’s unique, striking beauty and bold, avant-garde way of dressing for the portraits. The one below is apparently the result of her not having anything she considered suitable to wear for her engagement portrait, and so the great artist went to his “dressing up box” in his studio and draped her in a beautiful gold fabric he found there.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage, 1913. Oil on canvas. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage, 1913. Oil on canvas. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall

Last but not least on an academic fashion blog, the exhibition ended with a “bang,” if you will: displayed on two mannequins the coronation robes that the 4th Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, wore to the coronations of Kings Edward VII and George V. Complete with crimson silk velvet, gold braid, and ermine train.

Uniform worn by the 4th Marquess of Cholmondeley, 1901. Wool and metallic thread. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.060.1

Uniform worn by the 4th Marquess of Cholmondeley, 1901. Wool and metallic thread. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.060.1

Only the Marquess’s costume is shown above, but also on display was the Cecil Beaton portrait of Lady Sybil and her husband George, when they were the 5th Marquess and Marchioness, similarly attired for the coronations of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

Cecil Beaton, George and Sibyl, Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, in their coronation robes, 1937. Gelatin silver print. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.065

Cecil Beaton, George and Sibyl, Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, in their coronation robes, 1937. Gelatin silver print. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.065

The exhibition did have its failings. The layout was somewhat illogical and hard to follow, with very few of the rooms seeming to flow into one another in any logical path – the first room recreating the Saloon seemed to lead into the last room and exhibition shop instead of onto the rest of the exhibition. The library in particular was awkwardly placed, off to the side and exiting all over again if you didn’t double back to the rest of the exhibition space. This is partially simply the nature of the Legion of Honor’s special exhibition space, but I can’t help feeling that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — which has used the space magnificently in the past — could have laid things out in a way that would not confuse visitors. The tombstones and much of the wall text were also frequently too small and placed in such a way that you had to get dangerously close to the objects themselves to read the plaques and see what you were looking at. I did not envy the gallery attendants their jobs in the recreation of the “Cabinet” where in order to read the tombstones for them, you had to lean over the eighteenth-century, lacquered card tables in a rather precarious way, since on either side of you were glass cases and other visitors.

Overall, the exhibition was wonderful, and did exactly what it aimed to do: recreated not just Houghton Hall, but gave visitors insights into and an understanding of the world of the English country house.

A view of the Marble Parlour at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

A view of the Marble Parlour at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

A view of the Picture Gallery at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

A view of the Picture Gallery at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

Have any of you been to see Houghton Hall? What were your thoughts? What house museums and similar exhibitions do you enjoy? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments. You can also leave me information about upcoming events and exhibitions in your area, or you can email them to me.

 

Opening Image Caption: A view of the Stone Hall at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

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Review: KNITWEAR Chanel to Westwood at FTM, London

Main image © Rachel Atkinson / mylifeinknitwear 2014 and used here with permission.

It was with some trepidation that I approached the exhibition Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey on a cold rainy Sunday last week.   The loud hint of a chronology in the exhibition title was less than appealing to what is arguably my constant critique of the historical overview as the failsafe curatorial approach to fashion and dress displays.   I wondered about which objects would be used, as well as which technological developments would be explored in more depth, given that the exhibition’s aim is to ‘chart the influence of art movements Pop, Punk and Deconstruction alongside new knitwear technologies and design innovation.’

A piece from Roisin McAtamney MA Digital Fashion collection

Upon walking in, I encountered a precursor in the form of a small display curated by Professor Sandy Black at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, entitled Visionary Knitwear. A small display of contemporary knitwear from design graduates celebrates both fashion education and the continued relevance of knitwear to our daily dressed lives. I was particular enthralled by the work of Roisin McAtamney, Juliana Sissons and Sister by Sibling, all of whom show in their work a interesting juxtaposition between contemporary culture and historical influence. It was exciting to see knitwear as a dynamic form of textile and fashion design, studied to such a high level by these influential designers. I also liked the inclusion of examples produced by companies such as a pair of 2012 Nike Flyknits running shoes, drawing our attention to how important knitwear is as a technological innovation in the design of everyday goods.

Juliana Sissons fashion armour

This invigorating start to the larger exhibition was then followed up by a nice introductory display that demonstrates just how consistent  our interest in knitwear design is with the juxtaposition of two items in the same pattern; one from H&M and the other hand knitted in 1907.  This small opening display allowed me to reflect upon how and why it is that techniques and patterns continually resurface in everyday dress.

View of the main room, featuring sections Knit America Style, Crochet Your Way and the Cocktail Hour

However, further reflection and the hope of encountering knitwear through the lens of their emotional value and/or their associations with particular wearers, as proposed in the accompanying guide, fell short almost immediately as I found myself looking at a very straightforward chronological display of knitwear in the main room. Instead, there are just a few glimpses of how knitted items were made and what they felt like to be worn in amongst a rather basic timeline that could be found in most historical texts on knitwear, even Wikipedia, dare I say it.

Summary labels that make even the full sighted squint in an effort to read the inscrutable white capitalised text against a black, unforgiving background did not help. Due to a photography ban, it was not possible to capture these curious things.  I am not sure whether the curatorial team felt that the labels needed to be ‘modern’ in form as a contrast to the historical weight of the exhibition but whatever their rationale, I was glad they did not carry it through with the paper guide, which due to a more reader friendly combination of red, black and white meant I could still navigate my way through the various displays.

Display crates in the main room

The attempt to present knitwear in a more contemporary light may perhaps also explain the use of huge crates as display cases which frame the various ‘this is your life’ moments associated with knitwear in the 20th century. While one review lauded the way in which these semi-opened wooden cases suggested a sense of treasured garments being rediscovered, I found it difficult not to think of mothballs and the proliferation of East London cafes with similar DIY interiors.

Vogue shoot, February 1951. Photograph: Norman Parkinson/Vogue

Now, the need to make knitwear ‘modern’ or ‘now’ within the exhibition is interesting because what it reveals is some concern about the status of knitwear in today’s society. The curators and collectors are, arguable, not alone. The review of the exhibition by the Guardian’s Invisible Lady, a voice for older women interested in fashion, leads to much reminiscing about the demise of the knitting glory years and the constant low status bestowed upon knitwear in the face of haute couture and high fashion.  Yet, this does not seem to be shared by those involved in the designing and making of knitwear whom also visited the exhibition. Reading reviews by knitting enthusiasts Katy Evans and mylifeinknitwear remind us that this area of textile and fashion design is very much alive and well, with no intention of being laid to rest in some forgotten corner of our wardrobes.

Norman Parkinson, Vogue, February 1952

For me, it is the emphasis on presenting a chronology of knitwear that is problematic and which underpins the subsequent need to make small details in the exhibition appear ‘modern’ such as the labels and display cases. If the opportunity to debate the currency of knitwear, the shifts in production and consumption, technological developments and the philosophical concerns underlying its existence had framed the curatorial decisions, this exhibition would have better addressed the issue of knitwear being more than just a bag of old clothes on display.

The Fair Isle display

I am also confused by the arrangement of 150 knitwear examples because according to the exhibition information, the curators and collectors wanted to avoid a ‘historical overview’ and focus on ‘the emotions we invest in objects’. Unfortunately, one is completely overwhelmed by a chronological approach and very underwhelmed by the personal associations with these items. A good example of this was the display of Fair Isle garments where quantity and repetition took precedence over quality and association, making it very easy to disassociate from what looked like a bad Boden editorial.

Mark and Cleo Butterfield at the exhibition’s opening night

On closer look, it is possible to find evidence of these emotional investments, allowing me to see knitwear playing an active role in people’s lives, challenging the notion that no-one knits anymore or will care to in the future.   I was fascinated by the items that revealed just how interested their owners were in knitwear and the best examples of these were those shared by Mark and Cleo Butterfield, private collectors whose collection makes up most of what is on display.   To see Cleo’s very competent attempt to knit a Patricia Roberts pattern in the 1980s was to witness the immediacy of knitting and the effort made to ‘wear or create’ knitwear.

Les Sportives section featuring knitted swimwear

It would have been great to include more details like this as related to the earlier pieces, which might better locate the making and wearing of knitwear in our emotional memory. The display of knitted swimwear, for example, left me with so many questions concerning the experience of wearing these garments at the seaside. What did it feel like to wear wool in the water or while lying down on the pebbles? To what extent did these items sag and become heavy with the weight of salty liquids? How did that alter the experience of those wearing them? Was it embarrassing, hilarious, liberating?  Alternatively, there were many pieces on display that were machine knitted yet discussion around this means of production was largely absent. The exhibition seemed to miss these moments for further deduction, opting instead for an extended but static representation of knitted items.

The Novelty Factor section, highlighting 1970s interest in pop art and postmodern styling

So, in some ways, my initial feelings of trepidation were not without warrant. Knitwear Chanel to Westwood is not an exhibition that breaks new ground nor did it leave me wanting to pick up an implement and use it to start weaving two threads together. The historical examples are enjoyable to see but they are definitely more interesting when accompanied by a personal story or two.  Yes, the exhibition does capture some cultural and technological aspects of a knitwear timeline but it could have done so much more with this.  It wasn’t a badly spent Sunday wet afternoon, just perhaps a bit too quiet for my liking.

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Domestic Affairs: Princely Traditions

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This week’s post is a bit of a cheat, since I will be discussing an exhibition that closed over a month ago. But the exhibition was so wonderful, despite being small and tucked in amongst LACMA’s South Asian and Middle Eastern permanent displays, that it absolutely deserves a mention even if it is no longer open.

Back in September when I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see both Kimono for a Modern Age  and Art Deco Textiles (both of which I reviewed here at Worn Through), I noticed Princely Traditions and Colonial Pursuits in India on the list of exhibitions currently on display. Having done my master’s thesis (dissertation in the UK) on the influence of India on British dress and society, I knew I had to stop in at the exhibition before I left the museum that day.

Unknown Landscape with the Taj Mahal, circa 1800-1825 India, Uttar Pradesh, Awadh, Lucknow Opaque watercolor on paper Sheet: 15 3/4 x 24 in. (40.0 x 60.96 cm); Image: 14 x 22 in. (35.56 x 55.88 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by The Smart Family Foundation through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar G. Richards (M.86.123) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Unknown
Landscape with the Taj Mahal, circa 1800-1825
India, Uttar Pradesh, Awadh, Lucknow
Opaque watercolor on paper
Sheet: 15 3/4 x 24 in. (40.0 x 60.96 cm); Image: 14 x 22 in. (35.56 x 55.88 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by The Smart Family Foundation through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar G. Richards (M.86.123)
Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

For my master’s research I was focused on Britain itself, and what the returning nabobs and nabobinas — as they were derisively referred to — brought with them and how it affected their society. LACMA’s exhibition focused on what they collected and commissioned while they were in India, the prologue to my own research, if you will. So needless to say I found the exhibition absolutely fascinating. I learned that many artists and artisans who had previously worked for Indian princes, now offered their services and products to the British colonists, “adjusting their  practices to suit the taste of their new patrons.” There was also the influence of European artists who came with the merchants and government officials, as can be seen in the two paintings above: they introduced new genres and aesthetic styles to India.

LACMA does not ignore the fact that many of these officials and merchants were only temporarily posted to India, and also explores the demand for Indian luxury items created by not only Britain’s having this new colony, but more definitely by those returning from India with their collections of Indian art and household goods. One intriguing detail I noted was that the names of the Indian artists were far more often known than those of the European painters. I found myself wondering if India didn’t respect the arts and thus the artists more than Europe did during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

4x5 original

Attributed to Dana Bhati Maharao Ram Singh (r. 1827-66) Enjoys a Dance Performance, circa 1850 India, Rajasthan, Kota Opaque watercolor and ink on paper 17 x 21 1/4 in. (43.18 x 53.9 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Paul F. Walter (M.77.154.22) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Shaikh Zayn-Al-Din Pair of Lorikeets on Broken Branches, Folio from an album commissioned by Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, 1780 India, West Bengal, Kolkata (Calcutta) Opaque watercolor and ink on paper Image: 20 x 29 in. (50.8 x 73.66 cm); Sheet: 25 x 37 1/4 in. (63.5 x 94.62 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by Christian Humann (M.72.36.1) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Shaikh Zayn-Al-Din
Pair of Lorikeets on Broken Branches, Folio from an album commissioned by Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, 1780
India, West Bengal, Kolkata (Calcutta)
Opaque watercolor and ink on paper
Image: 20 x 29 in. (50.8 x 73.66 cm); Sheet: 25 x 37 1/4 in. (63.5 x 94.62 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by Christian Humann (M.72.36.1)
Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

As I have said the exhibition was small, and tucked away amongst the South Asian and Middle Eastern permanent displays. However, it was very rich and the museum managed to communicate much through the use of objects from across museum departments. There were paintings, sculptures, architectural pieces, and, of course, fabric.

Unknown Designs from the Adina Mosque, Pandua, West Bengal, 1812 India, West Bengal, Purroah (?) Opaque watercolor and ink on paper Image: 21 1/4 x 17 9/16 in. (54 x 44.6 cm); Sheet: 21 7/16 x 17 15/16 in. (54.5 x 45.6 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Indian Art Special Purpose Fund (AC1993.74.1) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Unknown
Designs from the Adina Mosque, Pandua, West Bengal, 1812
India, West Bengal, Purroah (?)
Opaque watercolor and ink on paper
Image: 21 1/4 x 17 9/16 in. (54 x 44.6 cm); Sheet: 21 7/16 x 17 15/16 in. (54.5 x 45.6 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Indian Art Special Purpose Fund (AC1993.74.1)
Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Unknown Palampore, 1700-1740 India, Coromandel Coast for the European market Cotton plain weave, painted and dyed 124 1/2 × 89 in. (316.23 × 226.06 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Costume Council in memory of Mary Hunt Kahlenberg (M.2012.73) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Unknown
Palampore, 1700-1740
India, Coromandel Coast for the European market
Cotton plain weave, painted and dyed
124 1/2 × 89 in. (316.23 × 226.06 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Costume Council in memory of Mary Hunt Kahlenberg (M.2012.73)
Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

This is something I have noted before that LACMA does extremely well: integrate various objects to create context without using often-limited wall text. By placing the objects with other pieces – albeit of a different medium – that they would have been seen with originally, the exhibition gives visitors a better impression of what the “whole picture,” as it were, was for this particular aesthetic movement or trend. It also creates an ambiance that is sometimes lost when an exhibition focuses only on one element. That is not to say that focusing on one element, era, or designer is a bad thing — I would never have been able to appreciate the beauty and artistry of Balenciaga had I seen his work “in context” as it were, whereas seeing it in an exhibition devoted only to him at the de Young museum gave me an understanding of his technique and genius. But it does strike at the heart of museum exhibitions: what are they trying to communicate? And how often then succeed at communicating that message through objects and their arrangement.

This is what I love about LACMA — and many other museums, it was just that this particular exhibition brought the idea home — the work and effort that goes into the exhibitions behind the scenes to make the exhibition and its message seem effortless, whether it is about a single topic, or trying to create as close to the full picture as possible. So much of ‘Domestic Affairs’ focuses on a single topic — whether it is modern kimono or fashion during World War I – it was lovely this time around to focus instead on an entire group of people. And a group of people with whom I discovered I was only half familiar. I thought I was a bit of an expert on the nabobs and nabobinas, but LACMA’s Princely Traditions revealed that I was familiar with only half their lives and opened a new avenue of research to me. Which is exactly what museum exhibitions are supposed to do.

Unknown Principal Monuments of India, Including the Taj Mahal, circa 1850 India, Delhi Opaque watercolor on ivory, mounted in an ebony frame 6 3/4 x 7 x 1/2 in. (17.145 x 17.78 x 1.27 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Albert G. Wassenich (34.13.965) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Unknown
Principal Monuments of India, Including the Taj Mahal, circa 1850
India, Delhi
Opaque watercolor on ivory, mounted in an ebony frame
6 3/4 x 7 x 1/2 in. (17.145 x 17.78 x 1.27 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Albert G. Wassenich (34.13.965)
Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

Did any of you see Princely Traditions? What did you think? Are there any exhibitions that have made you stop and appreciate the art of exhibition creation, lately? Do you feel integrated exhibitions are less successful than those with a sole focus, or more? Are there any small museums or exhibitions that didn’t get the press they should have? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And as always, if you have an announcement or know of an event or exhibition that you want featured here, please either comment below or email me.

Opening image caption: Arthur William Devis Manre Royale d’Aubusson The Hon. William Monson and His Wife, Ann Debonnaire, circa 1786 England 40 1/2 x 51 1/2 in. (102.87 x 130.81 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Hearst Magazines (47.29.16) Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/ LACMA

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