The Lacis store was established in 1965 by Kaethe and Jules Kilot, “as a haven for the textile community and all involved in virtually every aspect of the textile arts,” according to their website. It is a truly unique store that offers antique garments, as well as reproduction underclothes (like the crinolines creating a chandelier effect in the image above) and clothing for living historians and reeneactors, a magnificent bookstore and library, as well as supplies for every textile art imaginable. It is truly a haven for practitioners and lovers of the textile arts alike.
Following Kaethe’s passing in 2002, Jules Kilot founded The Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles above the store in 2004. Over the years Kaethe and Jules had collected thousands of specimens of textiles, including examples of pre-Columbian Peruvian handiwork, 17th-century European lace, and 19th-century machine-made lace. Jules told me during my visit at the end of March that the museum was born out of his desire to preserve “the humanity” of the textile arts, and to keep that aspect of them alive. Since one of the things that has always attracted me to material culture in general, but dress and textile history in particular, is that sense of being connected to the people of the past, this is a sentiment I very much agreed with, without expressing half so eloquently. After his wife passed away, hundreds of letters poured in to tell Jules how Kaethe had touched their lives — establishing that Lacis was much more than a retail store, it was a community in and of itself.
Tucked away in Berkeley, the museum does not get much attention, when it really should. I was there to see their current exhibition, Smocking: Fabric Manipulation and Beyond. Mounted as a joint venture between Lacis and the Smocking Arts Guild of America, this excellent exhibition gives visitors the entire history of smocking from its origins in English peasant workclothes to its current use as decoration or even a technique to practically sculpt using fabric. The museum has even displayed one of Anne Hathaway’s costumes from Les Misérables, which makes use of smocking as both shaping and decoration (no photos allowed, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to go yourselves if you can).
At first sight the exhibition appears deceptively small, but it is not. There is a great wealth of objects of various styles, regions, patterns, and periods; the pieces are not placed in any particular chronological order, nor are they ordered by style or technique used, instead seemingly haphazardly about the exhibition space as they fit. Rather than confusing the visitor, I feel this emphasizes the universality, beauty, and usefulness of smocking throughout history as you look at pieces from the 19th century next to contemporary gowns. And yet as you move through the exhibition you notice there is a methodology in place — objects are grouped together by their type rather than the technique. You will observe an entire wall of christening gowns (seen above), without knowing until you read the labels which are antique and which are contemporary. This is a masterful stroke by the museum, drawing visitors to examine the garments more closely, so that after you have identified the 19th-century christening gowns, you start to notice details that were common place then, but that we — with our mass-manufacturing-influenced aesthetics — no longer think to add. Such as the pin-tucks and embroidery you see in the detailed shot below to conceal where the hem of the gown has been sewn since white cotton’s naturally being somewhat sheer would otherwise show a stark line.
Smocking’s beginnings can be traced — as I said above — to the work clothing of English peasantry. Large shirts were sewn to cover the worker’s regular clothes and protect them from dirt, and wear and tear. Smocking was developed as a way to fit the garment to the individual without losing the freedom of movement needed for the manual labour tasks required. It was also a way to make this somewhat mundane garment beautiful.
In the usual trickle-up-affect of fashion, the technique was copied by the middle-class; looking at the dress below, I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t have been worn by a woman who ascribed to the dress reform and aesthetic movements. The borrowing of a “country” textile technique, and the looseness of the fit seem to point in that direction. It is certainly quite a contrast with the lattice-smocked costume from the BBC series Copper set at about the same time, which has a much more fitted waist and the expected mid-19th-century silhouette.
19th-century gown from the Lacis collection
BBC costume from Copper
Smocking experienced a revival first in the 1930s with the advent of the home pleating machine, and then in the late 1970s when it was popularized as part of the artwear movement as a way to manipulate and sculpt fabric. During the 1930s, the advent of the home pleating machine (seen below) was rather well-timed considering that the economic depression of the decade meant there was a new necessity to sewing at home, and smocking is wonderful for growing children: its stretching ability means the clothes can grow with them (provided the shirt or dress is long enough, of course).
This is what I typically think of when I think of smocking: children’s clothes. According to both Jules and Erin Algeo, the store manager who curates many of the museum exhibitions, this is quite a common perception of smocking, and it is a practice you still see today (that stretch ability for movement and growth is more durable than lycra and far prettier). There are quite a few children’s pieces on display, below are two of my favorite examples: a child’s dress from the Lacis collection from circa 1940, and a contemporary piece called “Golden Gate Bridge Dress” by Sarah Douglas, one of the women who brought smocking back in the 1970s.
The 1970s shared a trend with the 1930s: the “peasant” look, with bloused sleeves, “ethnic” details (such as smocking), and revival of handcrafts made its way into fashion.
Nellie Durand smocked blouse, 1975
Nellie Durand smocked evening dress, 1979
This exhibition began with the donation of Sarah Douglas’s collection of not only antique pleating machines, but all her archives, notebooks, patterns, and other materials to the Lacis Museum. Sarah Douglas, along with Nellie Durand and Mimi Ahern helped to bring smocking back into the focus of the textile arts community in the 1970s, publishing books of instruction and patterns. Before them, Grace L. Knott had taught English smocking in Canada through her own school in the 1930s through the 1970s. Today smocking is used not only in clothing, but in any decorative textile arts, such as the ornaments pictured above. The archival materials of all four women, including their notebooks, smocking samples, patterns, instructions, etc. are on display in the museum.
Since the Lacis staff are so knowledgeable in the textile arts, this is a truly informative exhibition, tracing not only the chronology but the breadth of this simple, historic technique. I won’t say I came away brave enough to smock myself, but I certainly know where to go should I decide to start and have any questions. They have published a book to accompany the exhibition that gives instruction in the techniques as much as it gives smocking’s history.
Off in the Lacis classroom area — they offer several classes on various sewing techniques, their most popular recent course being on corsetry — there is a smaller exhibition space showcasing several of their historic lace pieces, and the Les Misérables dress.
After visiting the exhibition, I went down to thoroughly poke about the store. I spent a large amount of time in their absolutely amazing book/library section — including antique or out of print texts that ranged from 19th-century how-to textile arts books to Aileen Ribeiro books. There were shelves upon shelves of vintage garments and textiles, and the shop was never empty. The staff’s knowledge of the textile arts is incredible, making it possible for them to help people even through email inquiry or over the phone. They work to restore historic garments and host classes to teach living historians, reenactors, costumers, or anyone really how to make historic recreations, the basics of sewing, or how to care for their own antique and vintage textiles.
Uchikake on display in the shop
Vintage undergarments & textiles for sale
The San Francisco Chronicle called Lacis Berkeley’s “best kept secret,” I found it to be a treasure trove of knowledge of the textile arts, their practice, preservation, and history. That’s even before you step into the museum upstairs. Lacis, I will be returning!
Are there any treasure trove museums, shops, or organizations in your area or experience that you would like to share? Have you been to Lacis? What did you think? As always share your thoughts in the comments below, and if you have any events or exhibitions you want to share with Worn Through be sure to email me.
You may have been forgiven for thinking that the recent exhibition about Isabella Blow, fashion stylist and patron extraordinaire of the 1990s and 2000s, at Somerset House here in London, was a sneaky opportunity to catch a glimpse of Alexander McQueen’s retrospective Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum, New York in 2011.
Display of Alexander McQueen designs in the exhibition
To be fair, many sections of the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition consisted entirely of garments, accessories, photographs, videos and, of course, hats that were the work of designers and models whom Blow had ‘discovered’ throughout her career as both stylist and muse of British fashion in the last decades of the twentieth century. These included McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald, Philip Treacy, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl. It was hard not to disagree with the NYTimes who suggested this was an exhibition as much about the designers nurtured by Blow as it was a celebration and insight into her own contribution to the history of fashion styling.
Photograph of Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by Dave LaChapelle, 1996
And yet, this emphasis on Isabella Blow as the ultimate ‘discoverer’ of fashion at the edge, fashion which didn’t fit in, fashion that was anxious, acted as a critical thread throughout the exhibition. From her family roots, which include Lady Vera Delves Broughton, the grandmother whose ethnographic photographs of peoples from places such as the Papua New Guinea are now in the archives of both the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Society, to her support in and influence upon key collections by Treacy and McQueen, Blow is presented as a fashion explorer, someone who goes where others mostly fear to tread. As a result, her decision to support the most exotic and self-critical of designers has been mythologized in much writing about fashion in the late 1990s (Evans, 2003; Breward, 2003; Craik, 2009).
Photograph taken by Blow’s grandmother Lady Vera Delves-Broughton in 1934 of Papa New Guineans
This is certainly played out in the opening section of the exhibition, as the visitor is taken on a biographical journey that highlights both her discoveries and inspirations in an anthropological way, with all the objects on display lit by singular spotlights while the surroundings remain in almost complete darkness. Moving though the various videos, garments, printed ephemera, I felt as if I was at the British Museum, glancing at rare finds that had only seen the light of day after a lifetime of obscurity. The decision to display the portrait of Blow by Noble & Webster, as one of the first objects encountered acted as a bewitching fashion totem, suggestive of both the exotic and the wild things to be discovered in the rest of the exhibition. The interior details certainly lent themselves well to the macabre and the mournful, whether it was walking through a plastic curtain more at home in a cold storage facility or following the curve of dark red, heavy, curtains as shrouds for the start and end of the exhibition.
Noble & Webster portrait of Isabella Blow, 2002
Although it was exciting to see so many examples of McQueen and Treacy’s work on display, for me the highlights were two exhibits featuring the outfits worn by Blow that were apparently put together from archival photographs and newspaper cuttings. Worn on Blow inspired mannequins with their downturned, red-lipped mouth and size, one set was arranged in a circular room against the backdrop of an interior from Boddington Hall, her estranged ancestral home. The other set of outfits flanked the visitor either side, and were set against a recreation of her favourite outdoor location for photographs; where the lawn met the hedges on her husband’s estate.
First set of Blow’s outfits, set against the backdrop of Boddington Hall
These two displays capture Blow in all her glory as muse, stylist and patron. This is a woman whose approach to fashion was far from entrepreneurial but embraced a love of historical references, contemporary designers and creative visions. However, it was a surprise not to see the curators including references of their own efforts to represent Blow in all her many guises. As a result, Blow is represented as the final product, rather than a work in progress, which means the visitor gains little more insight into this woman’s approach to dress than what has already been covered in heavily edited texts and images.
Second set of Blow’s outfits on display
Interestingly, Alistair O’Neill, one of the co-curators of Fashion Galore: Isabella Blow, wrote an engrossing but perhaps esoteric text called London: After a Fashion (2007) which suggested that the motif of the masked figure allows the wearer to “wander, phantom-like’ through the fashion world, excavating what she likes, ignoring the banality of everyday life.”(O’Neill, 2007:18) Clearly, Blow, with her passionate commitment to headdresses of all types, always appeared masked even if her face was not completely obscured from view. Yet, it also seems that the curators have chosen to maintain the various masks that we assigned to Blow throughout her lifetime. The decision not to show how Blow in fact styled herself or handled her life beyond fashion compound the myth of her as the ideal ‘discoverer’, whose own motivations never come under further scrutiny.
A Blow-like mannequin wearing a hat by Philip Treacy
Nonetheless, a set of displays aimed at revealing the more mundane details of a woman who lived for her love of fashion could have provided the more observant visitor with a sense of just how complex and contradictory Blow was. Once I had got past the rather bizarre display cases, which I was surprised to discover were designed by Shona Heath, it was fascinating to learn how Blow would wear odd shoes, always write in pink pen, ignore magazine budgets, give McQueen falconry lessons or not think twice about damaging her outfits as the result of late night parties and too much time spent near a burning candelabra. It was a rare moment in the exhibition when I thought ‘What was it like to actually live as Isabella Blow?’
Isabella wearing odd shoes, something she did quite frequently.
Yet, the display of her peculiarities, for me, reiterated just how much Blow’s ability as a stylist was clearly tied up with her cultural capital as fallen aristocrat, embodying the ‘upper-class raffishness and eccentricity’ characteristic of bohemian women (Wilson 2003:110). Wilson (2003) also suggests that these women often had complex relationships with their own sense of achievement and this certainly seems relevant in the case of Blow.
Isabella Blow (2002) Diego Uchitel, wearing Philip Treacy
Watching a video featured by Selina in a previous Worn Through post, featuring commentary by those who knew Blow, I was struck by the insight offered by Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Interview magazine, on the way in which Isabella Blow struggled with her various visions of herself. Sischy suggested that it was this conflict of self-vision that caused Blow such a turbulent interior life, arguably leading to her suicide in May, 2007.
 Elizabeth Wilson (2003) Bohemians: The Glamourous Outcasts London, Tauris Parke
Weren’t we taught that starting with a dictionary definition of your subject is totally uncool? Or was that unscholarly, unprofessional? Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear defy that classroom convention in their new book, American Cool, by taking a page from a jazz dictionary: automatic validation. The quote comes from A Jazz Lexicon, compiled in 1964 by Robert S Gold, and it is actually an inspiring start to this big book of cool, a complement to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same name happening throughout most of this year:
From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
Suggested review-reading listening:
American Cool kicks off with essays by the editors, Dinerstein tackling the history of cool’s social construction and Goodyear examining how photography is inextricable from that process. Their work is academic but accessible, with thoughtful but recognizable examples, in laid-back, informed prose. The straightforward essays are highly quotable on the subject of cool, and their writing will not only appeal to but also draw in a wide crowd. There’s a lot of fun swearing that happens (part of being cool is “not giving a shit” (15)), and the relaxed intentions fit the characters introduced. The authors come up with interesting quasi-definitions of cool (while acknowledging its indefinability), and make it clear that cool is not only relative person to person but also generationally, morally, and emotionally. John Wayne is one person’s cowboy hero and another’s hyper-traditional he-man.
Bruce Lee holds it down for Asian-Americans in “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014. Photographer unidentified, in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
For me, the text was overshadowed by an apparent assumption that their readership doesn’t have a strong grasp of the Civil Rights Movement in America, or by a fear that we still just don’t get how racist America was). Dinerstein especially spends a lot of time explaining the racial background and makeup of both the phenomenon of cool and the book; at times borderline apologetic and acknowledging the Burden. I don’t want to discourage this kind of positive revisionist history, but it sometimes read like American Studies over-compensation.
While not exactly disconnected from the subject, the authors’ otherness shows as they write platitudes like “Such are the absurdities of a racist society” and make funny word choices such as: “For all his achievements, [Frederick Douglass] remained a black man in a deeply prejudiced nation.” Dinerstein’s frustration with the rarity of the cool woman is somewhat neutralized by his description of Louise Brooks as “luminous” and Zora Neale Hurston as “sassy” (she’s black!), while their male counterpart Malcom X has fierce, steely pride and Thelonious Monk is a genius. (15) The grammatical authority exerted by capitalizing bell hooks’ name: would that have happened in an exhibition at or book from MoMA?
The outsider position isn’t necessarily detrimental; their distance allows the subject to continue to exist on its higher, unknowable plane; something we can write about, approach with logic, but maybe not really understand (which is what we like about coolness in the first place). There is other space for writing about/presenting cool in a cool way.
It is certainly an inclusive crowd filling the pages, but not a diverse one; the only cool Asian-American dude is Bruce Lee, and Selina is one of very few Latin-American persons celebrated. Dinerstein writes that black culture IS cool culture:
“A set of conditions for generational cool are often forged at the intersection of youth culture, popular culture, and African American culture, from swing to rock and roll to funk to hip-hop, from language to dance to fashion to aesthetics. …Cool is in large part an African American concept. Black Americans invented the concepts of hip and cool–both traceable to concepts in many African cultures–and the terms first crossed over from New York’s jazz culture in the late 1940s.” (13, italics in original)
Spread of Cool and Counterculture Ladies: Joan Didion (photo copyright Julian Wasser, 1970) and Angela Davis (photo copyright Stephen Shames, 1969, in the National Portrait Gallery Collection). From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
The writing supports and introduces a set of striking photographs; one of the four main criteria for inclusion in this book was that the person was caught looking cool and photographed (the one exception is Walt Whitman, whose cool was etched after a daguerrotype). The visual record is necessary for an exhibition of portraits, but here is evidence that cool is so essential to certain humans that it can be captured on film–to say nothing of the photographer’s talents.
Too cool for photography: Engraving after a daguerrotype of Walt Whitman, by Samuel Hollyer, c.1854-55. In the National Portrait Gallery collection and featured in the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
Dinerstein explains the selection process in his introduction:
“We created a historical rubric for cool*, and a given nominee had to pass the test. It has four central elements, and every figure here carries at least three: (1) originality of artistic vision and especially of a signature style; (2) cultural rebellion or transgression in a given historical moment; (3) iconicity, or a certain level of high-profile recognition; and (4) recognized cultural legacy.” (15)
Goodyear makes the case for photograph as the best means of capturing “cool”:
“Most basically, [photography] acts to mediate the public’s understanding of and engagement with these individuals. Photographic representations circulate more widely than those in any other medium. Like peepholes into another world, photographs make visible something special beyond our immediate grasp.” (44)
The photographs that follow are strictly American; they and their subjects exemplify the trickle-up, working-class cool that contrasted with aristocratic sprezzatura, sangfroid, and duende. Separated into four chronological sections, we examine the Roots of Cool (Before 1940), The Birth of Cool (1940-59), Cool & Counterculture (1960-79), and the Legacies of Cool (1980-present). Full-page portraits of various angles, poses, and viewpoints also constitute a history of photography, a medium which is itself considered cool, or something that cool people create.
Louise Brooks (photograph copyright Nickolas Muray, in the IMPF in Rochester, NY) and James Cagney (photograph copyright Edward Weston, in the National Portrait Gallery). Pages from the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
Its past outsiderism as an art form adds to the cachet of the medium to capture and exhibit the elusive characteristic of cool. Many of the photographs are in the National Portrait Gallery collection, but the curators also loaned from collections both public and private, creating a very interesting visual mix. All but two of the 76 pictures taken pre-1980 are black and white. This makes for easier comparison and nice continuity in the book; I can only imagine the impact in the gallery.
Sometimes an interesting pair is coupled; here Lenny Bruce (copyright Julian Wasser, 1960) and Malcolm X (Photograph copyright Henri Cartier Bresson, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
Oh right: clothing. It’s here; each of these historical figures uses clothing to create a persona, a personality. Dinerstein and Goodyear included a sense of style–notably not a fashion sense–as the first necessary attribute for inclusion in their Top 100. Subcultures, the fermenting pots of cool, are often identified by their clothing; it is a Bourdieuvian exercise. Everyone can identify cool, but those in the know can quickly sniff out those who are just pretending. Those on the outside, on the other hand, often stereotype or iconify a group’s sartorial markers for easy identification (leather, sunglasses; fringe, love beads; skinny jeans).
Goodyear notes: “Cool has long had its own vernacular language, but it has also developed over time its own visual vocabulary as well. The manner in which an individual wears certain clothes, styles his or her hair, and adopts a particular accessory (e.g. cigarettes, sunglasses, motorcycles, leather) suggests an allegiance to a particular code or, conversely, a disavowal of convention. Likewise, one’s expression, posture, or action can also signal the nature of a person’s relationship with a larger audience. Hard to codify, endless in their variation, yet frequently imitated and subject to incessant change, these personas are not only photogenic but also important to one’s creative expression.” (45)
Thelonious Monk, photographed by William Paul Gottlieb in 1947. Shades inside, beret, “as if hiding in plain sight.” From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
Dinerstein and Goodyear make use of clothing descriptions most often to describe black celebrities’ “defiance of racism,” such as Lester Young’s sunglasses at night and porkpie hat (coupled with “impenetrable personal slang”), Monk’s glasses and beret, or Fredrick Douglass:
In particular, [Douglass] sought a sense of dignity and refinement through formal dress most commonly associated at the time with white men of stature. In this self-fashioning, he proclaimed his independence and his equality and refuted racist assumptions about black masculinity. Yet Douglass’s appropriation of white fashion did not constitute a rejections of his own blackness. (43-44)
These quotations and ideas are very important to include in a volume on self-presentation, visual splendor, and the creation of cool, but for the knowledgeable researcher these statements may echo shallowly. There’s little about how Hank Williams used his cowboy hat, for comparison. That said, no one in the book is reduced to his or her wardrobe–not even Audrey Hepburn, whose film roles and work toward redefining womanhood come before Holly’s Givenchy dress.
Missy Elliot photographed by David LaChapelle, 1999, copyright David LaChapelle. From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.
Like the much-admired books collecting August Sander’s portraiture, this book would be a rich visual resource for fashion and costume designers. But outside of the exhibition, where the aura of the photographic work and the impressive gallery space create a certain experience, why buy a book like this instead of searching the troves of vintage celebrity photographs on the web? The essays, certainly, which loop nicely around the chosen photographs, and the curated nature of the selections as a group. There were only a few names that might be unfamiliar to the reader; it is the context and the whole that make this book engaging. To appease those whose favorite did not make the cut, there is an “Alt-100,” an appendix of runners-up.
For a comparison study, please refer to The Impossible Cool, a tumblr that collects photographs much like these in scrollable form. Many of the faces are the same, but the range is wider and obviously less “permanent.” Dinerstein suggests that their book is “not the last word on cool, but the first one: I see this as a recuperation of cool, an attempt to provide a useful framework for an elusive concept.” (19) If American cool had lost its punch as the authors suggest, I think they give us ample proof that it still exists, and will continue to thrive and myth-make through the increasingly eternal medium of photography.
Have you been to this exhibit, or do you plan to? Do you follow any blogs, tumblrs, etc with “vintage” photos of celebrities that you want to share? What does cool mean to you, and can it be found in photographs? Let us know below!
*said no one cool, ever.
Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Buckland, Gail. Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Coolhunt.” The New Yorker, March 17, 1997.
Gold, Robert S. A Jazz Lexicon. New York: Knopf, 1964.
McAdams, Lewis. Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde. New York: Free Press, 2001.
Pountain, Dick and David Robins. Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
Stearns, Peter. American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York: NYU Press, 1994.
When I applied to the University of Edinburgh for post-graduate study, I was truly torn between studying the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and studying the 1920s and 1930s in dress and textiles. Their ‘History, Theory and Display’ taught programme had everything I wanted in a master’s program, except someone to supervise the latter topic, so I looked at the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in my coursework and my subsequent dissertation. I do not regret this.
However, since graduating my own research as progressively moved forward to focus on the late nineteenth century through the second World War. This means that my regret at not being able to see Elegance in an Age of Crisis at the Museum at FIT (closing April 19), is greater than for any other exhibition geographical limitations have prevented me from seeing thus far.
Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet, and the Museum at FIT has done an incredible job with their exhibition website, blog, and in the catalogue for which I am daily checking my mailbox in anticipation of its arrival (what is it Carrie Fisher says, Instant gratification isn’t fast enough?). These are so good that it is some compensation for not being able to see the exhibition myself. Thankfully as well, I am a member of Costume Society of America; at my first ever national symposium I made the acquaintance of Ariele Elia, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT, who assisted with the exhibition and contributed to said-anticipated catalogue. Ariele was kind enough to take the time this week to speak with me over the phone about the exhibition, what it aims to accomplish, how it was conceived, and the amazing things it reveals not just about fashions of the 1930s, but about the innovations in design worldwide that were happening during an age society typically associates with breadlines, stock market crashes, Dorothea Lange photos, dust bowls, and John Steinbeck.
The exhibition is co-curated by Patricia Mears, whose work I have long admired, and G. Bruce Boyer, whose work I am now going to pursue with almost single-minded devotion. Elegance in an Age of Crisis was conceived after Patricia read an article Bruce had written about the changes in men’s tailoring in the 1930s. She found that the deconstruction in these suits mirrored perfectly the sort of deconstruction happening in women’s fashion, and thus the first exhibition to examine both menswear and women’s clothing of the 1930s was born. Patricia and Bruce had worked together on Ivy Style, so working together to demonstrate the elegance and innovation of fashion design in the Great Depression was not as difficult as it might have been.
Featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection — such as tailoring patterns for the Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor who contributed much to the shift in menswear — MFIT was also loaned suits and jackets from the Ribonacci Museum in Naples (with whom Bruce has long worked), Fred Astaire’s shoes from the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, and pieces from private collectors including Hamish Bowles and Beverley Birks. The exhibition aims to be truly international showing that while it features clothing from the high end of fashion, the elegance of the era matched a truly global aesthetic. There are suits from department stores in Cuba, an emphasis on Neapolitan tailoring and its contributions to the deconstruction of men’s suiting, and a collection of qipao worn by Mrs Wellington Koo, a socialite — this garment was unique in making use of traditional Chinese lines, fabrics, embroideries, and embellishments while revealing the contours of the body in a way that had never been done before in Chinese dress and which indicates the influence of modernity, the West, and cultural exchange in general.
Left, McGregor man’s beach robe, c. 1935-1940, USA. Museum purchase, P92.11.4.
Man’s swim suit, c. 1929, USA. Gift of Mike Dykeman, 89.143.1.
Right, Munchen swim suit, wool, circa 1930, Germany. Museum purchase, P83.8.9.
In speaking with Ariele, I was struck by the sheer amount of information, and the number of concepts and innovations the exhibition is communicating through 110 objects: 80 garments and 30 accessories. One of these innovations was the emphasis on the human body as it is as opposed to how the fashionable silhouette was recreating it in fashion, for the first time in years, possibly millennia. Having studied the 1920s extensively, I have often seen the silhouette of the 1930s characterized as a “return to Puritanism” or other such biases. What Elegance in an Age of Crisis does so well is to place the 1930s silhouette properly in the context of neoclassicism in the first part of the decade and Victorian revival in the latter half of the decade — celebrating the human body instead of contorting it has had been done in the Edwardian age, or concealing or denying it’s adult state as happened during the youthful, tubular shapes of the 1920s.
This emphasis on the body also led to a more public — if initially scandalous — acknowledgement of sport, leisure, and thus more elegant and visible sportswear and leisurewear as seen in the examples above. As Beverley Birk says in one of the accompanying videos (see below), you can’t wear a corset under a bias-cut gown. The exhibit also revives the work of Augustabernhard, who was equally talented at creating bias-cut gowns as Madame Vionnet, while revealing through the errors of a tweed coat by Charles James how tricky the bias cut was to create in an era when it was not formally taught in apprenticeships or schools — it was an open field of discovery. This deconstruction in garments was, as I’ve already said, echoed or mirrored in the deconstruction of men’s tailoring to create the soft drape of what became known as the ‘London Drape’.
Left, Augustabernard (attributed) gown, ivory tulle. 1934, USA (licensed French copy). Gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills, 93.71.4.
Right, London House (founder: Gennaro Rubinacci, tailor: Vincenzo Attolini) classic Neopolitan jacket, silk thussor, 1930s, Italy. Lent by the Rubinnaci Museum.
There is a natural division within the show, which opens with accessories — that wonderful way in which you can make a small budget stretch — and then leads into distinct themes of active and resortwear, women’s day wear, menswear, women’s evening wear, and patterns. This decision on how to layout the pieces was not a challenge for the museum, since the divisions seemed almost pre-made by the very nature of the era and the clothing itself.
By far, for me, the most incredible aspect of the exhibition is all of the original research, and the ways in which that research has enhanced our understanding of the era not only as dress historians, but in the understanding of worldwide design and visual culture. It was truly an era of international design innovation, with an international aesthetic to accompany an international depression. And yet, through film and clothing and design, the people of the 1930s escaped those hardships and almost in defiance of their circumstances created a “golden age of fashion”, as Bruce calls it, to be elegant in a way that still inspires designers today. The detail that Bruce and Patricia put into their analysis of clothing, and their understanding of the construction and the changes that happened in clothing construction at the time is awe-inspiring.
I will not attempt to paraphrase their phenomenal work, since I would by no means do it justice, but I wholly recommend visiting the exhibition if you can. If you, like me, cannot, I recommend the blog, the catalogue, and the videos below. Which I will be watching over, and over, and over again.
Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 1: Hers
Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 2: His
Gardner and Wooley LTD smoking jacket, green velvet, satin, 1936, London. Collection of Alan Bennett, Davies and Son.
Have any of you been to Elegance in an Age of Crisis? What were your thoughts? Did you like or dislike it? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. And if there are any North American exhibitions or events you would like to announce or see covered, feel free to email me.
Opening image credit: Madeleine Vionnet gown, ivory silk organza with black lace insets, 1937, France. Collection of Beverley Birks.
Paris’ Musée Carnavalet is the city’s historical museum, a museum that tells the story of Paris with the help of various themes such as painting, drawings, interior design…and, with its most recent exhibition, Roman d’une Garde-Robe (The Novel of a Wardrobe), fashion. How natural for a city that has always been and still is entitled the capital of fashion and chic to be the guiding thread of a display illustrating the making and the life of an elegant Parisian wardrobe from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s. Actually, I’d rather say that what is a the centre of the exhibition is not quite Paris (although the city’s activity as a haute couture market is clearly contextualised) but rather La Parisienne. The famed Parisienne, the one foreigners and sartorial authors still much babble about: ‘The Parisian style’, ‘The Parisian diet’, ‘How to..like a Parisian’….Some ‘Parisiennes’ have made a living of their mythologised identity, I’m thinking Ines de la Fressange…However, being a Parisian myself I still have not quite understood what makes a style, Parisian…I actually believe there is no such thing as a Parisian style. Maybe foreigners observe something I don’t quite see myself.
Anyhow, this is not the subject of my post today but what brought me to talking about La Parisienne is that the exhibition proposed by Carnavalet, in association with the Musée Galliera, clearly plays with the concept of La Parisienne but a Parisienne less known by the public, a Parisienne who evolved in the beginning of the 20th century.
Evening Dress – Unknown, 1920-1925.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
Let me announce it clearly right now, I loved this exhibition. I truly appreciated the concept, the precise observation of the life and work of Alice Alleaume, the woman around whom the whole display is built. Between 2008 and 2010, indeed, were donated to the Musée Galliera hundred of garments and accessories belonging to the descendants of the Dumas family, pieces that illustrated the lives of Alice, her mother Adèle and her elder sister, Hortense: a veritable and brilliant piece of fashion history, spanning from the 1830s to 1930s. In addition, those historical items were accompanied by precious documents such as photographies, letters and notes that enabled the museum curators to develop a strong insight into the context in which the clothes were made and worn. Such a rare opportunity had to be shared with the public!
The museum therefore decided to focus on Alice Alleaume who not only led a wealthy bourgeois existence and had been brought up in a family firmly anchored in couture, but was herself first vendor at Chéruit, an experience that enables the display to bring the attention on a couture house that is often forgotten although it was, alongside such houses as Lanvin and Poiret, a major witness of 1920s fashion.
Alice Alleaume is our guide throughout the display. We follow her traces through four main sections: the influence of her family and her first steps into the professional environment of fashion – the context of Paris and couture within its key centre, the Place Vendome and the Rue de la Paix – Alice’s career at Chéruit – the 1930s and how Alice embodied Parisian chic.
Evening Dress – Unknown, Beginning 20th century.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
We thus enter a first clear room in which are displayed pre-war garments: children pieces and the crinolines of Adèle, her mother, that lead us within the context in which she was brought up. We discover the great taste of her parent who was herself a renown seamstress alongside the dresses of her sister, Hortense, who worked at Worth. We also observe the clothing of Alice’s young years who despite her youth is already very elegant and possesses numerous hats. All these items come along various photographies and paintings that illustrate the family’s environment, the stylistic context of the time and most of all put a face on the protagonists.
The second section interestingly tells us more about Paris’ fashion scene and how it concentrated between the Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix. Various articles and illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s evoke the atmosphere of this area while certain drawings by Sem mock the fashion ‘wannabes’ (fashion evolves not attitudes!). A slideshow presents a very entertaining photographic reportage published by Le Figaro in 1910 and that invites us behind the scenes of the main couture houses.
G.Agié – Les Mannequins, 1910.
Photographie: Les Editions du Figaro/Droits Reservés
Prise de Vue
The third and most important section is dedicated to Alice’s work at Chéruit from 1912 to 1923. To enhance the contextual feel, large blow-up photographies of the Chéruit salons serve as a mural background. A couture house, Chéruit’s designs were tailor-made and Alice Alleaume encountered with many wealthy clients to whom she gave her best advices and she consciously took notes of all the alterations that were to be made on her clients’ garments. Alice indeed kept a notebook she updated daily: an extraordinary document that tells us all about the technical work that had to be done but that also shares her remarks about a client’s physical characteristics and humours. She thus, for example, signifies that this lady being ‘large, the waist should be loose-fitting’
The scenography also evokes the rich productivity of the house with the images of the 200 hundred models of the summer 1920 collection used as a wallpaper as well as the airing of vendors’ voices that give the impression of taking part to their bursting activity.
Most of the Chéruit garments on display come from Alice’s personal wardrobe and reflect the versatile and elegant style of the vendor who follows the evolution of fashion and adopts jersey swimsuits, beach pyjamas and Art Deco prints.
Evenning Dress – Jeanne Lanvin, 1935.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
Finally, we enter the 1930s section, a decade during which Alice is no longer a vendor but nevertheless continues to demonstrate her taste for refined garments. She adopts the 1930s style with bias cut dresses, plastic Art Deco jewellery and inventive dressing-up costumes. Many Jeanne Lanvin pieces are displayed and we are told that Alice led the existence of a socialite: going to premières and to the theatre.
The Roman D’une Garde-Robe is not only the tale of a woman and her wardrobe, it greatly illustrates the evolution of high fashion and its professional working. Alice is the embodiment of a wealthy bourgeoisie that, to keep up with its social obligations, possessed a rich and elegant wardrobe and followed trends without being an avant-garde. What is added with this precise figure is her role as a vendor in a major couture house who brings an exclusive and rare insight into the everyday activity of a fashion house in the beginning of the 20th century.
By choosing to tell the story of a real life person, the museum added an emotional feel to its display. We can more easily relate to the garments as they were ‘explicitly worn’. And we finally come to envy Alice who got the chance to wear such exquisite dresses that, with the help of great work of contextualisation, are not fantasy-like garments but become true wardrobe items.
Goissiord, Sophie. Roman D’une Garde-Robe: le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30. Paris Musées, Paris: 2013.
In my last column, I discussed a number of events that were coming up in March and April. Virginia Postrel informed me via the comments that in addition to Hollywood Costume, the Phoenix Art Museum is mounting their own look at red carpet gowns, Hollywood Red Carpet – a fantastic accompaniment to the Hollywood Costume exhibition, conceived and curated by curator Dennita Sewell.
Not to be biased — though I do live here — but there are several happenings this month, here in California in case you live here as well, or are planning a West Coast trip.
This past weekend, CSA-Western Region had an event touring the legendary Western Costume company followed by a visit to FIDM Museum’s 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. As mentioned in my review last month, the exhibition includes costumes from The Great Gatsby, which won the Academy Award for best Costume Design, and 12 Years A Slave, which won best picture. I was not able to attend this event, but if any of you were able to attend this event, please feel free to share your impressions or experience in the comments below, or email me directly!
While not strictly fashion- or dress-studies related, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach opened their exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s personal collection of photos: Frida Kahlo, Her Photos. Most of the images were taken by her father and grandfather, pioneers in the field of photography, and are a wonderful insight into the artist’s personal, private world, including Frida’s own unique, indigenous-inspired style.
At the Walt Disney Family Museum, in the Presidio in San Francisco, tickets have gone on sale for Colleen Quen’s 19 April Illustration Workshop: “Couture fashion and Watercolor Design”. According to Ms Quen, she will be discussing “how fashion and costume design are integral in creating character,” and she will teach attendees how to incorporate watercolour and ink into their own drawings and designs. Their workshop this month on female animators sold out, so get tickets now!
At the Lacis Museum in Berkeley, their exhibition, Smocking: Manipulating Fabric and Beyond opened on 8 March and will be up until October. My opening image is from their website. I will definitely be making my way there before it closes. There is also a CSA-WR meet-up scheduled for 22 March, so if you would like to attend with CSA, email me and I will put you in touch with the organizers! Otherwise, it looks like a fantastic exhibit if you have the time. Look for my review here, soon.
In San Jose, Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity is still on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The exhibition is getting lots of attention, and was recently written up in Selvedge magazine. There will also be a Fiber Talk & trunk show by three contributors to the show, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Jean Cacicedo, and Janet Lipkin next week on 30 March. I suspect this will be a very popular event, so be sure to buy tickets quickly.
I do have news of one non-California event: in New York, Fern Mallis’s latest Fashion Icon talk will be with John Varvatos on 27 March at the Kaufmann Concert Hall.
As always, if you have been to any of these events and would like to share your experience, or if you have additional information to add, feel free to leave a comment! I love hearing about any North American events I may have missed — it’s a big continent and there’s no way I can find everything! — so feel free to let me know about them either in the comments or by email.
Making or modifying mannequins for exhibition is just one facet of the work we do in our field. Once placed in the public space of the gallery, these dressed forms are perhaps the most visually communicative, tangible, comprehensible, and immediate vehicles to inform the public about our objects of study. The history of the mannequin and the choice of mannequins and what that particular decision conveys has been the subject of much discussion on Worn Through, as well as strategies for properly preparing mannequins to safely receive and support a garment. Hayley-Jane’s recent post discusses the use of invisible forms in the Azzedine Alaia exhibit at the Palais Galléria and the problems inherent in this approach, which essentially erases the visible female body or the body of a particular individual from the discourse of the history, production, or the experience of clothes.
As many Worn Through readers know, making a mannequin look good is no swift exercise—it is hardly ever straightforward, and it is no accident (although trial and error can often lead to unexpected, favorable results). This work results in a deeper knowledge of the garment and how it hangs, reacts to handling, looks on a human form, and was constructed and worn by its former owner(s). It involves the process of gaining knowledge of the material object that is essential to its understanding.
Unlike many of the museums discussed or featured on Worn Through, displays of costumes or textiles at my home institution generally occur once every three or four years, depending upon the particular exhibition’s theme and the curator’s choice to include costumes or textiles (there are, on average, three major exhibitions per year). In 2010, nine film costumes were shown in the main gallery for the exhibition Making Movies—unprecedented in the exhibition history at the Ransom Center.
Eight of nine costumes on display in the exhibition, Making Movies, 2010
Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
This year there will be costumes or clothing displayed in two consecutive exhibitions, so mannequins and support for costume is very much on my mind and immediate task list.
An exhibition display may please and wow an audience, but is the work that we do to achieve these effects really communicated? And is it necessary to do so? The topic of mannequins is often discussed solely amongst ourselves as professionals–in workshops, conference presentations, and during private conversations with each other. In recent years, I’ve noticed a proliferation of efforts to convey this complex and vital work to the public in recent years, mainly through the avenue of the blog. I’ll discuss a few examples below.
In 2009, FIDM presented a post on the building and design of their invisible forms for the exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture. The final photo of carefully shaped mannequins, odd and somewhat alien-looking, was very intriguing to me.
“Floating” forms created by Carolyn Jamerson for the FIDM exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (2009)
Reproduced from FIDM blog post, November 23, 2009
I would love to see such created and modified mannequins brought naked, so to speak, into the gallery space. Often period underpinnings are displayed in the gallery, but a small exhibition of garments and their accompanying mounts (the latter at half scale, perhaps, as they are very time-consuming to make), would be very interesting to show the audience. Or, a period underpinning and the “museum equivalent” that is pared down to the necessary support, made from archival materials and devoid of embellishment, would be an instructive juxtaposition. It could also be visually interesting–the garments alive with color, pattern, or textural trim compared side-by-side with the largely reserved colors of beige or ivory of the archival mannequins/undergarments.
A recent post from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s conservation department treats us to striking photos of the beautiful underpinnings and supports created for a 19th century wedding gown, along with the unexpected tools and hands-on techniques of mannequin modification. Photos such as this may help to dismantle the assumption that most of this work is precious and delicate (although, of course, much of it demands a delicate and experienced hand!)
Three videos of the final installation of the LACMA exhibition, Fashioning Fashion, at Les Arts Décoratifs last year (reviewed by Hayley-Jane here) shows glimpses of the often untold story of couriering a traveling show, from the crates arriving to the unpacking and condition reporting to the dressing and final placement in the gallery. While all of these unseen activities are shown, the views are fleeting and without further voice-over explanation. The videos are beautifully lit and shot, with accompanying music that lends a magical, otherworldly feel to the visuals. Overall, it is an idealized view of installation that shows the delicate final touches only. Of course, these videos serve the purpose of enticing visitors to the gallery, not necessarily educating the audience about the tasks of couriering and installation. But they do definitely convey that this is detailed, methodical, and, preferably, slow work (given the breakneck pace of most exhibition installation schedules).
A video post from Indianapolis Museum of Art has the same spirit but takes a different approach, utilizing real-time sound for a video on exhibition prep for the 2010-2011 exhibition, Body Unbound: Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Collection. With the soundtrack of various power tools, the curator’s voice, and startling images of mannequin decapitation under bright workroom lights, this video shows the nitty-gritty of exhibition preparation. It also demonstrates that mounting contemporary clothing (widely assumed to be easy-breezy to place on ready-made retail mannequins) can be pretty complicated.
Real-time sounds of the fabric moving, murmurs of discussion and problem-solving, or sounds of installation are often absent from such behind-the-scenes presentations, replaced by voice-over narration or music (or, are necessarily absent by format, as in still images). Granted, no one really wants the added stress of a camera turned on them during tense moments such as lifting a heavy garment up on a platform, or closing up a fragile bodice, but I would like to see (and do!) this type of approach to “behind-the-scenes” content more often.
A recently closed exhibition at the Texas State Library and Archives here in Austin marked the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and included the suit worn by Governor John Connally. The suit jacket and shirt are visceral reminders of the violence of that day, evidenced by the bullet holes and blood stains. In addition to archival materials detailing the events and media reactions, one wall case displayed photographs taken by staff and a description of the mannequin-making and mounting process for the shirt and suit. Techniques outlined in Lara Flecker’s excellent resource, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting are evident in the photographs.
I was disappointed to hear from several people who visited the exhibit that they felt puzzled and slightly annoyed by the photographs—did they run out of material? Why didn’t they show more archival material related to the assassination? Who cares how the suit was mounted? There is a perception that this work is somehow separate from the interpretation and the intellectual content of the clothing. And yet these are the archival materials that make the interpretation and presentation of compelling three-dimensional archival materials such as clothing possible.
As pointed out by scholars Alexandra Palmer and Lou Taylor, the process of preparing mounts and garments for display and caring for garments within the museum may be fairly categorized as “women’s work” (as historically most curators and practitioners in this area have been women, and because of the traditionally categorized work of sewing and caring for clothing), but, because of this it is unfairly disparaged as frivolous work or “playing dress up” (which also recalls the debates of theoretical versus material culture approaches to dress) (Taylor, 2002; Palmer, 2008). Palmer has further asserted that the relentless pace of changing exhibitions leaves little time for serious research for the curator, and has called for a demystification of museum work, which can demonstrate for the public the challenges in display and care we face every day.
Obviously, we can’t control the perceptions of those who may view our work as fussy or irrelevant, but we can attempt to change these perceptions. If there is to be support for research and for costumes to be displayed safely and convincingly, this kind of information about the work involved needs to be continually put out there.
I am planning a blog post for my home institution that will discuss the various difficulties in getting from one unmodified dress form torso to the finished presentation for an ensemble, a World War I uniform, that presented several challenges for us. And after the process of reviewing the posts above, I wish I would have documented my own process more completely!
Left: modified commercial dress form with custom arms and fosshape foundation legs
Right: World War I uniform on finished mannequin, ready to be brought to the gallery space for the exhibition, The World at War, 1914-1918, Harry Ransom Center
Uniform from collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry
Blogging or participating in making videos for your home institution may seem like just another job to do–extra work in a day with little time. But such posts go beyond merely illustrating for the public some cool, behind-the-scenes thing. While it is certainly that, it is also the evidence of hard work that doesn’t just “happen”. It is work that requires resources and support for staff and continued learning, and its dissemination can gradually increase an awareness of what is necessary in our field to do the best job we can–for the public, donors, and even colleagues within our own institutions, who may have very little idea of what is involved.
Palmer, Alexandra (2008). Untouchable: Creating Desire and Knowledge in Museum Costume and Textile Exhibitions. Fashion Theory, 12 (1): 31-64.
Taylor, Lou (2002). The Study of Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
February, March and April are turning out to be very busy months for fashion exhibitions and events. It’s the sort of situation that makes me very angry at Star Trek: they promised me the future would have teleportation, after all.
Registration has begun for the 2014 Costume Society of America’s National Symposium, in Baltimore this year, celebrating 40 years of CSA.
The Italian Futurism exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York city, is entering its third week, and features a few lovely garments and textiles; while at the Museum at FIT, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s is entering its second month. Given my love for all things material culture of the 1920s and 30s, words cannot describe how much I wish I could see these two. The Museum at FIT’s Trendology exhibition will also be up until 30 April.
Also in New York, the American Folk Art Museum‘s Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art exhibition will be up until 23 April. Jessica Sofia Mitrani: Headpieces for Peace closes this month at the French Institute: Alliance Française.
At the MFA in Boston, their exhibition, Think Pink, explores the changing meaning of ‘pink’ in both art and fashion. The exhibition opened in October last year and will be up through the end of May.
If you missed the costumes at FIDM Museum’s Television costume show this past summer — or if you’re just suffering withdrawals, now season four has ended — the Costumes of Downton Abbey show will be up at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library until January 2015. I saw them when I was in LA the end of this past summer and they are truly beautiful pieces.
Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392 – 1910 opened this weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing 150 objects of which many have never before been seen outside Korea, including several examples of dress and textiles. I’m very excited about this exhibition’s next stop in its US tour: LACMA. While I was a Japanese studies major in my undergraduate work, I’ve always preferred the artwork and textile arts of Korea so I will definitely be making a trip to Los Angeles to see it. Look for my review this summer!
At the Wilshire May Company in Los Angeles, Diane von Furstenberg’s 40th Anniversary show, Journey of a Dress, is in its last month.
Last but not least, I received an invitation to the opening of Hollywood Costume at the Phoenix Art Museum on 26 March. Oh how I wish I could go! But perhaps I will find a way to make it to Arizona before the exhibition closes on 6 July…
Have any of you been to any of these exhibitions? What did you think? Are there any other events that you think our readers should know about? Is there anything I missed? Please share your thoughts and impressions in the comments below, or email me with announcements!
The Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, reopened its doors after a four-year renovation, in the end of September 2013 with a grand exhibition dedicated to the Tunis-born fashion couturier.
If you pronounce the name ‘Azzedine Alaia’ to me, you may hear in return a series of onomatopoeia such as ‘oh’ and ‘ah’: I’m quite a devotee of the man and to me, visiting an exhibition dedicated to his work was just the cherry on the cake of my admiration.
Azzedine Alaia – Palais Galliera
Olivier Saillard, the museum’s director and the exhibition’s curator, chose about seventy garments to illustrate the couturier’s career that began in 1979, when pushed by his friend Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaia presented his first collection.
The designer’s work is often described as being timeless, he who also plays his own rules, refusing to respect fashion calendars and shows his collections at his own pace. To highlight the permanency of his creations, Olivier Saillard therefore decided to display the garments by types, refusing any idea of chronology: bandage dresses, African influences, zips, black tailored outfits…And as though to emphasize this idea of continuity, the garments were all placed on a lengthy line: a sort of endless procession of dresses standing tall at the visitor’s level. No glass cases surrounded the dresses which was such a refreshing display solution that bore a double significance: it evoked the initial objective of the Palais Galliera, destined to present the Duchesse Galliera’s collection of sculptures – echoing the palace’s 19th century aesthetic brought back to life with its Pompeiian red walls and dark wood carvings. The display also obviously recalled Azzedine Alaia’s creation that resembles sculpture – the designer had initially studied sculpture in Tunis and has since applied this art to his craft, renown for his garments that mould the body.
Azzedine Alaia – Palais Galliera
Thus, thanks to this display, you could read the story of Alaia’s exploration of the female form and his definition of beauty and sensuality while you could also observe a personal take on fashion’s history – Azzedine Alaia is a costume collector and has taken inspiration from such designers as Madeleine Vionnet, Alix Grès and Cristobal Balenciaga with whom he shares technical skills: influences visible in his mastering of drapes and tailoring.
Almost like an evidence, the garments were all presented on ‘invisible’ hollow mannequins that emphasized on the clothing and nothing else as well as they assisted on showing how Azzedine Alaia’s garments shape the body and its forms – although we are placed in front of unreal headless silhouettes.
Azzedine Alaia, 2013.
Alaia is the master of the clear-cut and simplicity was therefore the connecting thread of the whole display: simple mannequins, a simple scenography mounted by the furniture designer Martin Szekely and simple documentary aids ( only discreet labels under the clothing).
I yet agree that the work of a designer such as Azzedine Alaia aims to purity and needs to be presented with a certain modesty but how can the woman’s body be absent from a tribute to a man who has worked his whole life through in celebrating it? Azzedine Alaia declared himself ‘I’d rather people remark the woman than her clothes’. Well, the woman was nowhere to be seen within the display. Or only through its forms…Although it may have polluted the very plain scenography desired by the curator, videos and photographies of women and models wearing the couturier’s creations would have at least brought a little more flesh…And speaking about models, if there is one designer I closely link to supermodels, it is Alaia: I wanted a Naomi or a Stephanie! The sexiness of the creations was still highly visible but it looked like a robotic sex-appeal. Here the discourse had been reversed: visitors were invited to focus on the clothes only not all the tricks behind, including the – fake – body wearing them.
Azzedine Alaia – Palais Galliera
The exhibition was pursued at the Musée d’Art Moderne, just opposite the Palais Galliera, where were displayed in the Henri Matisse room, eight exclusive garments commissioned for the display. This incursion into the world of art, was justified as Azzedine Alaia is a renowned art collector (he even owns a gallery), is a former sculptor and has often proposed cross-discourses with contemporary artists such as Dan Flavin or Julian Schnabel. And we’ve come full circle! Azzedine Alaia’s whose garments are displayed like art objects, like sculptures…was placed on the same level as artists, the fashion designer therefore disappeared behind the artist.
Azzedine Alaia – Henri Matisse Room, Musée d’Art Moderne
And, as Emma in her post about the Henrik Vibskov exhibition wrote, I regret not seeing more of the fashion designer, especially in a fashion museum. We celebrate Azzedine Alaia as such a fine craftsman, I wish I could have seen more of his creative process, a pedagogic ‘behind-the-scenes’…All the elements that make the richness of fashion and its procedure, were hidden here behind an aesthetic and artistic concept.
Although I was thrilled being able of observing such beautiful and fine pieces, I was disappointed to be confronted to an almost stereotyped ‘fashion as art’ concept placing aesthetic above education and most of all, I highly deplored that the ‘absent body’ debate took place here: Azzedine Alaia’s work is on the contrary about the present body.
I wish we could have seen more of his parallels with other designers and artists by proposing analogies: his designs compared to those of his 80s power dressing contemporaries, the influence he has on a younger generation, art works that infused his creations and most of all his inspirations – he who was the first to discover Madeleine Vionnet’s cutting techniques….How wonderful it would have been to confront their designs!
Do read Emma’s post I refer to as she raises an interesting debate I thought it would have been redundant doing so here.
Saillard, Olivier. Alaia. Paris: Paris Musées, 2013.
Wilson, Mark. Azzedine Alaia in the 21st century. Thorn: BAI, 2012.
Gaines, J. and Herzog, C. Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. London: Routledge, 1990.
Robinson, J. Body Packaging: a guide to human sexual display. Los Angeles: Elysium
Growth Press, 1990.
Harvey, J. (2007) ‘ Showing and hiding: Equivocation in the relations of body and dress.’ Fashion
Theory, Vol.11 (1) : 65-94.
This week, I am taking a break from the UK, having just returned from Finland, where I had the pleasure of staying in Fiskars, a small village whose claim to fame is being the original location for the country’s largest metalware brand. Fiskars is internationally known for their ergonomic orange scissors, which anyone who has ever dabbled in dressmaking or taken up fashion design as a more serious pursuit will be familiar with as an iconic tool of the trade.
With cloth and pattern in mind, I made the journey into Helsinki to the national Design Museum to see an exhibition about the menswear designer Henrik Vibskov. I went with an Icelandic product designer who was very enthusiastic about Vibskov, and to whom I had to admit I had never heard of him before. I became vividly aware of how little I knew about Danish contemporary dress, let alone Scandinavian fashion.
On my return home, I skimmed Berg’s Companion to Fashion for some kind of further reference but found nothing. Yet, perhaps that was part of the problem. What was I looking for? A nice summarized discussion on the identity of Scandinavian fashion that would explain the cultural identities of several quite distinct geographical locations? Well, yes, sort of. Searching on this site, I was pleased to find Arianna’s review of Fashion Scandinavia and to discover Vibskov is one of several Scandinavian fashion designers recognized within a wider international discourse on the subject. This was certainly reiterated within the exhibition by a huge graphic timeline of his career in the main room. It was also a canny opportunity to showcase the museum’s new visual identity including font and logo designed by the Finnish branding agency Bond. However, the question of fashion design as an aspect of a national identify played only a small part in the overall exhibition as it was dedicated more to an exposition of the range of outputs produced by Vibskov since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2001.
Vibskov is presented in this exhibition as a designer and an artist, a creative individual, credible in both worlds. In some ways, he is perfect for a museum to exhibit because his work crosses such diverse mediums from sound and film to clothes and sculptures. His ability to cross disciplines is recognized in a list of accolades that include both distinguished art and design prizes.
A small exhibition, it is loosely arranged chronologically, although the fit between sculpture and space seems to take precedent over the organisation of the artifacts. However, as the exhibition is accessed from two sides, it is possible to start with the now and work your way back or start with the past and work your way here. Therefore, each room appears to stand alone as well as playing a role in an overarching biographical narrative.
There is a strong tactile quality to Vibskov’s work, whether it be in his use of inflatable shapes, foam props or textile creations, and I was especially drawn to his graphic knitwear, frenetic prints and the Fringe project from 2000/2001. There is no doubt that his sartorial designs are beautiful and humorous, also wearable, which I thought was well reflected in the decision to display them on coathangers and not mannequins. However, having watched some of his shows, which often involve lots of motion and theatrical techniques, the absence of a kinesthetic connection with the clothing was noticeable throughout the exhibition.
Nonetheless, in one room, I was drawn to a men’s jacket from his The Stiff Neck Chamber Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that featured a retro flamingo print. Hung up next to the other garments, it could have been mistaken for a pair of kitsch pyjamas. Overlaying the fabric were black strips that externalized interior seams.
A striking piece, I was then quite excited to discover another room dedicated to the display of an installation for the same collection. Featuring black birds that were similar in form to flamingoes, they were hung from the ceiling to create a forest of birds. Vibskov explained that for the show, the birds were laid on the floor appearing as upside down kites, before being hoisted up where their very long necks created material lines through which one could walk in and out. It was lovely to find myself seeing the installation within which the garments had been shown originally. So then imagine my joy when, in the final room, I noticed a photograph from the show placing all three aspects together!
However, this interest in conjoining garments with show sets, immersing the visitor into a more embodied experience of Vibskov’s world was not often reflected in the curation of the exhibition, with emphasis placed on displaying his outputs in isolation so it felt more like an art exhibition than one focused on exploring the design process. I often think this is a missed opportunity whereby the different aspects of how clothing is made, worn and represented can come together for the viewer to better understand what is arguably a intricate design process.
The curator suggests that it is a celebration of creativity yet I think the exhibition is more a celebration of a recognised creative as there is little said about the process of creativity or the business of fashion. This exhibition seems to be a logical step after Vibskov’s art exhibition in Paris last year and a monograph published by Gestalten in 2012 in establishing the designer as a key signifier of Scandinavian fashion design. There is just one glimpse of the design process, where the visitor is invited to gaze upon Vibskov’s sketchbooks, samples of printed textile designs and collected ephemera that demonstrate his work in process. This is perhaps only matched by a film in another room that documents the setting up of a show in Copenhagen, where Vibskov makes explicit his intentions for his visual style.
I find exhibitions about fashion designers slightly problematic, particularly when they are located in design museums. I noticed this when visiting the Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2009. Although it was a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary fashion on display, the decision to present his work as art rather than design meant there was no discussion of Chalayan’s collaboration with Puma nor Marks & Spencer’s Autograph range. This surely limits how much we can understand the world of fashion as a complex place where design and art are arguably blurred activities, influenced by social, cultural and economic factors. These exhibitions would benefit from reflecting upon the way in which particular designers understand fashion as art, design and/or craft in an effort to engage the visitor in these same debates.
To conclude, I think I agree with Valerie Cumming, who in her book Understanding Fashion History (2004) argues that exhibitions which emphasise one designer are challenging for anyone who is interested in the role of fashion in the 21st century because they provide little opportunity to compare or contrast their designer contemporaries. This is often a frustration I have with these exhibitions because they choose to celebrate the work through the lens of designer as original artist. There is rarely a critical perspective by which to assess the work and its impact beyond the assumed status of creative celebrity. Cumming also makes the point that when considering whether fashion is art, it is difficult to assess when academic scholarship of male dress is generally absent from the debate. The exhibition of Vibskov’s work certainly attempted to address that imbalance yet, overall, I felt disappointed with a curatorial decision to approach the subject in such a singular fashion.