I must confess that of the museums in San Francisco, the Legion of Honor is my favourite. As I’ve been going to “the City” my entire life for art exhibitions, that’s saying something. This is partly sentimental — I consider the Legion to be one of the early influences on my becoming a material culturist and dress historian, long before I knew those careers existed — and partially a sheer love for the unique nature of the museum, itself. Architecturally modelled on the Hôtel de Salm in Paris, the Legion lends itself to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco‘s (FAMSF) eighteenth-century art and material culture collections. Among these are the rooms such as the recently restored Salon Dore.
I first learned of the renovation of the Salon Dore by being startled at its and the other eighteenth-century rooms’ being closed off from the public while on a visit to see FAMSF’s Royal Treasures from the Louvre in 2013. The Salon Dore seemed like the perfect way to end the visit. Except that the Salon was being restored in a huge, eighteen-month long project. As I said, the Salon, along with other aspects of the Legion influenced me greatly in my career, so I eagerly anticipated the reopening this year.
According to the FAMSF site discussing the details of the renovation and encouraging visiting, Le Salon Dore is one of the finest surviving examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture in the United States. I can only agree. What’s more, the restoration has given the salon back the intimacy it had previously lost, while still retaining that subdued elegance that first gave the world the concept of “good taste”.
This is not a criticism of the Salon as I first knew it. In 1995, when it was installed at the Legion, the Fine Arts Museums took the bold step of using it as much to display other object of material culture — glassware, etc. — in the spaces between the gilded mouldings we now see as blank wall. This particular display taught me as a young pre-teen the context of objects I might otherwise have misunderstood. However, there are shifts in attitude about display as much in the museum world as there are everywhere else. The more we learn, the more technology advances, all influence how we communicate with our audiences; so while the Salon was almost avant garde in its educational and display in 1995, those same nuances had become as tarnished as some of the eighteenth-century mirrors by 2013.
The restoration was extensive and amazingly well-done. The lighting has been dimmed in the room to preserve that restoration work for as long as possible, and the room positively gleams. It is this lower lighting — mimicking candlelight — that restores the intimacy and eighteenth-century ambiance to the room. The gilding and other objects are meticulously preserved and restored, but of course what caught my attention was the work on the textiles which is almost mind-boggling. I am unsure whether it is the conservationists’ work, or my own increased education as to the beauty of Lyon silk furnishings, or a combination thereof, that made the deep impression on me that it did. I couldn’t remember the colour of the furnishings in the Salon Dore during the restoration despite having visited it every time I was at the Legion since its arrival, now I don’t know how I missed the beautiful sky-blue silks with cream and gold patterning.
The conservation and restoration is not merely to the artwork, but in their presentation. The set up genuinely suggests that at any moment you might witness an eighteenth-century gathering, though that might be influenced by my having met a costuming group in full sacque and robe à la française gowns in the galleries recently. The fault I often found with the Salon and the other rooms is that there was not enough information about them posted within the museum. There would be the tombstone informing me that this was the Salon Dore from the Hôtel de la Trémoille, but nothing much more. This is no doubt due to pre-teen laziness, the internet not being quite what it is now in 1995, and the museum not wanting to damage the Salon itself with placards when it didn’t have the space. The Salon is a room — giving the museum limited space to work with when labelling items displayed since eighteenth-century rooms are not large and they are, as can be seen, rather ornate.
This is where the technological advances come in handy. Thanks to mounted tablets, there is interactive information available to the public where before the museum was limited to what they could transcribe on limited podium tombstones a decade previously. Entire paragraphs about the room, its creation, its restoration, everything are available at your fingertips. FAMSF has never been shy of technology, embracing it in its presentation of the Bulgari exhibition last year (as I discussed in my review), but I’ve never seen what direction they were intending to go in with with permanent displays. This is all complimented by an extensive, well-researched, well-written catalogue on the Salon and the Salon alone. So extensive I’ve not yet been able to give it the complete attention it deserves (lots and lots of fine print — this is what I will be reading on my next vacation, I assure you). Having done my master’s internship working with a private collection of eighteenth-century architectural drawings, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francsico have done a meticulous job of presenting the history and beauty of the Salon.
One debate regarding museum displays that seemed to trouble my master’s instructors was how do you keep a permanent collection on display interesting to the public? I don’t think there is a single answer to that question since each institution and thus each public is different, but with the Salon Dore and the rotation of various sixteenth- through twentieth-century paintings and material culture objects, the Legion of Honor has absolutely figured out its balance. I was able to visit the very portraits by Reynolds and Vigée Le Brun that had captivated me as a child, while seeing new pieces to fall in love with, and being dazzeled by the newly restored Salon Dore.
And they used the images of the restored textile designs as the end papers in the catalogue, in addition to extensive essays on those same textiles. What more could a girl in love with the late eighteenth-century ask for?
The Salon Dore is open to the public every day that the Legion of Honor is open. The catalogue on the Salon’s history and restoration is available in museum shops, and online.
As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments. And if you have any dress or textile history or material culture events happening in your institution or know of any that you would like to be discussed here on Worn Through feel free to email me!
For my second summer exhibition review, I went to see Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture & Fashion at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Publicised as a first, this exhibition attempts to consider the rebozo, a shawl worn by Mexican women since the 17th century, through displays that consider historical context, cultural identification with well-known Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo, social functions and the influence on contemporary art and fashion in Mexico today.
Examples of rebozos made in the 1950s and arranged to evoke the style of Frida Kahlo who wore them often.
Given that the Fashion and Textile Museum is housed in a building designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and that many of the earlier designs by the museum’s founder, Zandra Rhodes, are inspired by Mexican culture, it is not a surprise to find the exhibition here.
Here, you can see contemporary rebozo designs by British designers Zandra Rhodes on the right with a white feather screenprint on a cotton rayon mix and on the left, a wool patterned design by Wallace & Sewell
There is certainly a celebratory feel throughout the space as artists, designers and anthropologists display their enthusiasm for the rebozo by providing photographs, films and contemporary interpretations alongside material examples that cover every possible fabric and motif.
The main room which featured displays of rebozos juxtaposed with art installations and photographs from the Mexican anthropologist Ruth Lechuga (1920 – 2004)
The main room is given over to a dynamic display of these beautiful coverings, demonstrating the diversity of Mexican female society. There is a rebozo here for everyone, from plain to fancy, soft to hard, flat to sculptural, raw to recycled.
Appliqued cotton rebozo made by Mamaz Collective, a group of women from Tanivet, Oaxaca in 2014. It shows how women wear and use the rebozo in their daily lives.
A detail from a rebozo owned by Lila Downs, a popular singer-songwriter in Mexico
The rebozo can be made with pompoms, silk, feathers or glass beads. It can be woven from silk, wool, cotton or even constructed out of teabags. A rebozo can be both abstract and figurative, sharing stripy details or offering up appliquéd people. A rebozo can identify you with both a particular region of Mexico and the country as a whole.
Photographs by Tom Feher of Dominga weaving a rebozo, 2010
There are fantastic images by Tom Feher of women weaving rebozos, such as Dominga, which show how these complex garments are made using a relatively simple back strap loom. Although the practice of wearing these shawls originates from the Spanish conquest and the emphasis on women covering their heads in church, their production is clearly the result of methods developed by earlier indigenous people of Mexico. As a result, the rebozo is an object of interest for collectors, artists and anthropologists as they continually seek to identify its cultural significance.
Detail of a traditional back strap loom
However, there is another reason for having this exhibition other than having a celebration. Production of rebozos has gone from involving a third of the Mexican population to less than forty people scattered across the country. And of those left, there are only two who use the traditional back loom while the rest use a foot loom, introduced through colonialisation (1).
The craft of the rebozo is clearly in decline and current generations seem less interested in learning the skills and knowledge required to make these emblematic objects. The display of contemporary art and fashion inspired by the rebozo suggests that their importance is not lost and Mexican designers today are keen to continue indigenous skills and materials.
An jaspe rebozo jacket designed by Beatriz Russek, 1990
I particularly enjoyed the garments designed by Carmen Rion and Beatriz Russek, known for their collaborations with Mexican indigenous weaving communities and who have created some striking modern designs. While the exhibition highlights the significance of artists re-interpreting the rebozo, the highlight for me was a film of weavers talking about the process of making a rebozo. They described a sense of ‘urgency’ felt when weaving as they became closer and closer to finishing the rebozo and became more and more curious about whose shoulders it might finally embrace. I was transfixed by this narrative as I imagined what it would be like to weave these objects, spending up to sixty days on one rebozo, thinking about who might this shawl belong to one day. Capturing what it feels like to produce something seems critical when inspiring current generations to value and utilise historical skills and knowledge in the future.
Recent designs by Carmen Rion using the rebozo form to create blouses and skirts
(1) Virginia David and Hilary Steele, The Rebozo: A Mexican Tradition, Fibrearts, vol35 no1 60-1 Summer 2008, p60-61
The textile galleries at the de Young Museum in San Francisco are not small. I am very well acquainted with them due to my frequent trips to the city — typically because there is an exhibition on at the de Young or the Legion of Honour I very much wanted to see, and heaven forbid I visit one without going to the other. Unlike their blockbuster Bulgari and Balenciaga exhibitions, the gallery space has not been manipulated or altered in any way, and yet Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art From the Weisel Family Collection is a very intimate exhibition, despite its completely open floorplan. Intimate to the point that when someone besides a small child does speak loudly, the rest of the visitors almost look at each other sideways in silent reproof for this breach of the ambiance.
I do not know whether his intimacy was intended or was a happy accident, but it fits the exhibition to a tee. The word foremost in my mind to describe the artwork in this exhibition is delicate. Even the boldly patterned, bright cochineal red and rich indigo blue Navajo serapes, seemed delicately beautiful. The tiny brush strokes, the purposeful creation of an overall effect in thousand-year-old pottery, the individuality in each piece that the exhibition’s curators invite and encourage you to seek. Details do not overwhelm, nor do they compete with the larger picture, but they are given their own spotlight.
The exhibition is the debut of a new donation by Thomas Weisel of a collection he and his family have spent thirty years creating, which spans a millennium. Seventy-two art objects including pottery, baskets, carvings, textiles, and drawings are on display at the de Young until January 4, 2015. This is only a portion of the 185 pieces already donated to the de Young, and a further 21 textiles which will be officially acquired by the museum by 2016. The Weisel Family collection focuses primarily on the artwork of the American Southwest, with a few pieces from the Pacific Northwest.
The guiding purpose of the collection — and the exhibition inaugurating it into the museum’s permanent collection — is connoisseurship. Not in the sense of value of each particular object, but in that rarity among non-western, non-contemporary art: determining the individual artist. Thomas Weisel collected with a carefully trained eye, trying to find pieces by the same maker. According to the catalogue, “A driving interest behind the selection of specific works for the Weisel Family Collection is the hypothesis that it is possible to identify individual artists … through sustained observation and comparison among objects in the same style.” This is an ambitious goal, but one that the collection succeeds in fulfilling. The intimacy I described invites you to look closer — as closely as the gallery attendants will allow — to pick out details, find continuity among pieces whether because they were made by the same hand, family, or wider community.
When you enter the gallery it is hard to ignore the textiles. This is perhaps due to the prestige of Navajo textiles, but I think it is more due to the bold colors, the distinctive patterns, and the sheer beauty of the pieces. Despite there being more pottery in the exhibition than textiles, it is one of the “Chief” blankets that graces the cover of the catalogue — they catch your attention and pull you in.
All of the textiles featured are the work of the Dineh (Navajo) people. In her contribution to the catalogue, curator of the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts, Jill D’Alessandro, describes the history of Navajo weaving, and the development of their distinctive style from its Pueblo origins to the “Classic” period represented by the textiles in the exhibition. Most fascinating for me, since I confess a great deal of ignorance on the topic of Southwest indigenous textiles, was the suggestions of a greater trade network, of greater communication and exchange among the indigenous peoples of America through these trade and sale of these textiles. I am always intrigued by the communication and exchange of ideas and material goods between peoples — and have long felt there is a bias to portray the Native Americans as a single unit instead of the multiple and diverse nations they are. This cultural exchange is most apparent in the so-called “Chief” blankets featured in Lines on the Horizon – four pieces spanning the breadth of the style’s lifespan. These pieces, despite being less boldly colored, are the ones I most admired. They gain their name not from their use within the Navajo, but because they were purchased for use by chiefs of various Plains tribes. The Navajo did not have chiefs, but the Plains Indians did, and Navajo textiles were so desirable the Navajo made pieces for trade with Plains peoples, such as the four blankets made for chiefs of the Ute tribes.
The “stages” of the blankets do not indicate ranks within Ute society, but instead developments within the style by the Navajo. So that from the beautiful simplicity of the “first stage” blankets (see the far left above and the image below), the style gradually developed over the course of 35 to 40 years, into the more intricate, geometric patterns seen in the final “third stage” in the far right of the image above. The later stage no doubt had a major influence on the art deco period of the late 1920s and the 1930s due to a vogue for “Primitivism” — seeing the famous art deco building at 450 Sutter in San Francisco later the same day as my visit, it is easy to see how far short the imitators fell.
In her essay for the catalogue, D’Alessandro also discusses how the years of turmoil between the early 1800 and the mid- to late half of the century affected Navajo weaving. There is not only the displacement of the tribal peoples as they were forced onto reservations interrupting trade, but amidst the tragedy and the “battles fought among Native Americans, Spanish Americans, Mexicans, and European Americans for control of the western territories” the Navajo were exposed to a vast array of new artistic styles, materials, and perspectives — as well as new markets — that influenced and evolved the style and design of their weavings. The Classic period of Navajo weaving seems to be proof of triumph through turmoil for the arts.
The exhibition is a very comprehensive examination of artistry within the Southwest and Pacific northwest Native American artistic communities. To select one type of art “ove”r another is impossible. However, as a dress and textile historian after the textiles the pieces that most struck me were the depictions of the various Peoples by their own. A small taste of this was found in the bowl to the left above (ca 1450 – 1550, Sikyatki people), but the coup de grace was in the ledger drawings by Tsistsistas (Cheyenne).
In fact, I think I would be fair in saying these small, delicate drawings on blank, lined, ledger sheets were the pieces that have most fascinated me in the entire exhibition. The pieces featured are known as “The Old White Woman Ledger,” due to a tiny pictograph in several of the pieces portraying a hunched female figure with a cane (seen in the top center of the artwork below). This pictograph enticingly suggests that the pieces are all from the same artist, but close (intimate?) examination shows tiny differences in style which suggest a community if not a single hand. The ledger drawings in the Weisel Family Collection all portray one aspect of Cheyenne life: courtship ritual. As described in the catalogue, “A young man wooing a young woman would stand outside her residence, wearing a blanket. If she assented, the two could share the more private space defined by the blanket.” What a beautiful way to integrate textiles into one of the most important rituals of life.
For a people silenced by history and its recorders, the beauty of seeing them as they saw themselves through these drawings is beyond description. There is also the underlying message: that creative impulse cannot be suppressed. Matthew H. Robb says in his essay on the ledger drawings that artistic expression followed gender lines — women wove, beaded, and did quillwork as well as the more abstract painting of rawhide containers, whereas figural imagery on animal hides was the purview of men. In these ledger drawings we see the evolution of that tradition: denied access to the larger, asymmetric hides they were accustomed to, they transferred their drawings to the ledger paper they either bartered for or bought or even absconded with after an altercation. What further proof of the importance of an art form can you find than that the materials for it are a war trophy? This is how they saw themselves. This is their own perspective and portrayal of what they wore. Something priceless to material culturists and art historians.
In so many other exhibitions I can imagine, such drawings would have been lost. In the intimacy of the de Young’s Lines on the Horizon, they — and every other object displayed — had their chance to shine.
The other important aspect of this exhibition I came away with was the emphasis on the maker/artist/creative individual or community. It is a dichotomy, but I simultaneously admired the exquisitely beautiful pieces in this exhibition for themselves — not because there was a famous name attached — but also because of the invitation by the collection and the museum to look at each object as the individual creation of a specific person. Staring at some of the pottery, the wood carvings, the textiles, the sketches, you felt the hand reaching across the millenia, the centuries to say: I was here. This is what I saw. This is what I thought worth remembering.
Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection is on display in the Textile Galleries of the de Young until January 4, 2015.
As always, I welcome news about specific exhibitions and events. Feel free to leave information about them in the comments — along with your own reactions to exhibitions covered or my post. Feel free to email me with tips and comments as well.
The Return of the Rudeboy captures a contemporary snapshot of the Rudeboy culture with a display of photographic portraits, art installations and recreations in order to demonstrate that a subcultural identity with roots in 1950s Jamaica is still alive and well in 21st century Britain. With their credentials as photographer and creative director respectively, the curators Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliot have created an exhibition based upon a shared interest in menswear, subcultural style and contemporary consumption.
The first room of the exhibition featuring piled up suitcases as photographic frames
The exhibition is made up of five rooms that allow the visitor to wander through and tentatively identify with the Rudeboy subculture, be it through historical context, stylistic devices, musical tastes, urban locations or consumer choices. In the first room, you are faced with several sculptures made from stacked suitcases, some of which are open to reveal contemporary portraits of ‘rudies’. These luggage balancing acts make reference to the immigration of many from the West Indies and Africa to Britain in the second half of the 20th century, thus sowing the seed for the Rudeboy style amongst young men and women in urban centres across the country. On entering the second room, you find yourself amongst a lookbook of Rudeboy attires, modelled by invisible mannequins, many of which have been put together by Sam Lambert, an Angolan artist/tailor and a self confessed Rudeboy. There is also an installation by the artist Catherine Jane Willis, whose handmade boxes draw attention to the influence of the ‘Sunday best’ look that underpins Rudeboy dress.
Sartorial creations by Sam Lambert, Art comes First
The third room is the recreation of a barbershop that is in use twice a week and where you can experience the literal buzz by watching Johnnie Sapong groom visitors in the Rudeboy style. The fourth room focuses on the contemporary consumption associated with the subculture, epitomised by a ‘stepper’ bike designed specifically for the exhibition. The final room, with speakers piled up on one another to create a soundsystem, refers to the important role that music plays in connecting and creating a subcultural identity. An extensive soundtrack choreographed by the curators and played throughout the exhibition reinforces this.
Johnnie Sapong in the barbershop recreation within the exhibition
What all the rooms have in common are vivid photographic portraits of individuals from across the UK representing what Chalkley and Elliot see as the best stylistic examples of current Rudeboy culture. Interestingly, these are both women and men, young and old, black and white. However, unless you are familiar with these people already, the exhibition offers you very little in the way of information other than their name, displayed on a small label under each portrait.
Portraits of contemporary Rudeboys from across the UK photographed in East and West London location
It would seem that in this exhibition just their title is enough to establish their credentials as modern Rudeboy aristocracy. It is the absence of information regarding biography, locale or motivation that meant I found myself in a three-dimensional compendium of Rudeboy tastemakers, supported by a cast of artistic displays that failed to shed any new light on how and why such a subcultural identity may still be important today. Many of the figures on display, for example, draw our attention to the influence of globalisation, the African diaspora and post-colonialism on the continuity of Rudeboy style yet you will only discover this if you read around, and not in, the exhibition.
I also wondered why the exhibition wasn’t called ‘Rudie’, another term for ‘rudeboy’, given the fact that today’s Rudeboy could be female and/or no longer a young boy. The dominant demographic of my fellow visitors seemed to be fathers with children who showed little sartorial interest in identifying with Rudeboys today. The only person who appeared to embrace the style that day was a mature black woman whose genuine enthusiasm for the images and the culture bubbled out of her dress and comments as she walked around the exhibition. This delight was noted by other visitors who proffered compliments on her Rudeboy attire.
One of several portraits of female Rudeboys
The curators suggest that the exhibition is an introduction to the subculture, in terms of its attitude and appearance. I agree that the imposing portraits certainly command the viewer to accept that who they see are the legitimate inheritors of a stylistic lineage. I also agree with the curators that this exhibition attempts to fill a gap in the market if only to persuade you that your recent attempt to dress like Janelle Monae or purchasing Mr Hare’s shoes are so culturally important as to be economically justified. However, for me, this is less an introduction and more of an attempt to retain a hold on subcultural capital by re-fashioning the past into an array of consumable baroque objects that tell us who is in and who is out.
When I first heard about the Paris 1900 exhibition held at the Petit Palais, I must admit I was quite immediately excited about it. Not knowing anything about it, something inside me believed I would love it and I wasn’t disappointed. For those of you who may not know the Petit Palais, it can surely be considered as one of Paris’ loveliest museums with its beautiful Beaux Arts style architecture, decorated with impressive frescos and mosaics. Housing the city’s fine arts museum, it was specially erected for Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1900 and thus stands as the perfect location for an exhibition dedicated to that particular time. On the pretext of the International Exhibition, the display introduces visitors to Paris’s splendid and luxurious context during the Belle Epoque. Organized like the Exposition itself, Paris 1900 is organized into 6 sections – 6 pavilions that all highlight the different aspects of the French capital’s cultural and artistic life. The exhibition demonstrates how spectacular this moment in Paris’ history has been, nourished by about 600 pieces (I think I have actually never seen so many artefacts in one space!) that mingle scientific rigor and pure aesthetic pleasure. From oral and social history to official art and innovative design, the display spans this unique cultural moment with a very rich (almost too rich: there is so much to look at) documentation: Mucha posters, letters, models, films by the Lumière brothers, a real metro entrance by Hector Guimard, paintings, sculptures and costumes. The whole within an impressive yet simple scenography.
Julius Leblanc Stewart – Redemption, 1895
The first section thus immediately brings our attention on the Exposition Universelle itself and all the architectural projects and decors, built or not, that accompanied it. This first part also celebrates the emergence of modernity with electricity, cinematography, the motor industry…that all supported the festivities’ atmosphere. A triumphant modernity that liberated imagination leading to such projects as the Eiffel Tower, the Petit and Grand Palais, the Alexandre III bridge, metro and railway lines….that enhanced Paris’ splendor as it was at the centre of the world’s attention. The visitor is introduced to the second section dedicated to Art Nouveau by a dancing Loie Fuller filmed by Pathé, in 1900: her innovative choreographies and her sinuous nature-inspired gestures perfectly echo the lines of the Art Nouveau furniture, decors and objects.
Callot Soeurs – 1905
Not being an exhibition about Art Nouveau, there is no academic approach to the movement within this section, simply a stunning ensemble of artefacts that all highlight the work of the Art Nouveau’s pioneers and put the visitors in the skin of the Exposition’s wealthy art-lovers. Alongside Majorelle furniture, Gallé delicate objects and Lalique precious jewelry, are presented two ‘avant-garde’ costumes that evoke the concept of total art promoted by the movement. These simple white outfits bear very graphic adornments that evoke the stylistic researches of Art Nouveau artists. The third section establishes what an art centre the French capital was with a hanging evocative of classic 19th century museums – that is an accumulation on the wall, all the way up to the ceiling.
Paul Troubetzkoy – La mère et l’enfant, 1898
21st century visitors being used to the white cube concept do get quite disoriented as there are many artworks to observe and you have to raise the neck high (and get blind by the spotlights) to be able to look at the highest pieces: I did appreciate the historical reference but it definitely wasn’t very practical. Nevertheless, this room overflowed with incredible works from Auguste Rodin’s sculptures to the Nabi’s almost abstract experimentations, Symbolist disturbing legends and the Impressionist serene landscapes. Strangely, although the selection is clearly eclectic, there is a certain sense of harmony that can be felt, as though, more than reflecting about different artistic movements, the section simply provides an insight into the period’s global creativity.
Tea Gown, 1898-1899
The following section highlights the mythic figure of the admired Parisienne and how her persona was greatly built at the turn of the century with the help of the Exposition that brought much of foreigners’ attention on the feminine characters of the city. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘distinguished from other women by an understated elegance appropriate to every circumstance in life. Her characteristics are restraint, good taste, innate refinement and that indefinable something which is unique to her, a mixture of allure and modernism that we call chic.’ Thus the Parisienne rapidly was identified as not only a geographical cliché but more as a chic attitude that could be embodied by elegant duchesses as well as popular ‘midinettes’. The ‘pavilion’ we enter proposes art pieces that evoke the various representations of the Parisienne, will it be through photographies or paintings and mostly with her very own objects – costumes, jewelry and accessories – the whole drawing the picture of a mythified as well as a real woman. The little number of fashion artefacts (all lent by the Musée Galliera) are mostly spectacular pieces such as a lovely tea gown that belonged to the French comedian, Réjane, a majestic cape earned by the Duchesse de Greffuhle and a Redfern ensemble made for Anna Gould.
Evening Dress – Jacques Doucet, 1900
The two last sections highlight Paris’ night and entertainment life made of cafés, bals, cheeky cabarets, drama pieces conducted by the iconic persona of Sarah Bernhardt, operas and early experimental films. The dark side of 1900’s Parisian life is supposedly demonstrated with references to morphine and brothels. I must admit I did not find the rendering of Paris’ dark side that dark: the scenography privileged humour and a certain glamour with portraits of the city’s legendary courtesans that mostly leave us thinking that the period was free-spirited and fun rather than glaucous although we do know poverty, absinthe, drugs and prostitution were serious issues. Focusing on the Parisienne part as it enclosed the fashion objects, the exhibition definitely points out to the fact that she was entirely indissociable from the urban environment she evolved in, the reason why tailored masculine-like ensembles popularized by Redfern met with such success as they enabled Parisian women to stroll around in their city with dark and practical yet elegant outfits – the ancestor of the perfect little black dress! The Parisienne also helped establish the fame of the capital’s couture houses and craftsmanship: the Made in Paris concept becoming highly popular. The display confirms how limited the avant-garde’s influence was – fashion privileged the S shaped silhouettes (although we could say these sinuous forms did resemble that of the Art Nouveau creations) and historical motifs. What disturbed me is how the exhibition has restricted the feminine figure to the ‘frivolities’ of fashion, domestic affairs or to sexual pleasures: I know women did experience such confinements but the art section lacked art pieces made by women as well as I would have wished to see masculine fashion that would have also helped us draw the outlines of the male parisian.
Henri Alexandre Gervex – Une soirée au Pré Catelan, 1909
In the whole, Paris 1900 illustrates how inventive, spectacular and unleashed the city was, establishing close interactions between art, social and design history. It does not concentrate on precise academic issues nor does it analyse modernity and experimental works but it definitely makes the visitors feel as if they were participating to the Exposition Universelle’s exciting fiesta. I greatly appreciated the fact that fashion was not left out as it does evoke how important this creative discipline was considered within international exhibitions within which they were given special lavish displays: fashion was undeniably part of a whole artistic and cultural context – a partner of high art.
Further Resources: The exhibition’s catalogue is very interesting (I did treat myself with it):
Bosc, Alexandra. Paris 1900: La Ville Spectacle. Paris: Paris Musées, 2014.
Rose, Clare. Art Nouveau Fashion. London: V& A Publishing, 2014.
I confess I hadn’t expected to like the Asian Art Museum’s new GORGEOUS exhibition done in collaboration with the SFMoMA. The SFMoMA is undergoing some massive renovations and expansion; as a result they have been sending their collection out to various museums and locations so that it can still be enjoyed while the museum is closed. While it’s a great concept I haven’t been all that impressed with the offerings I’ve attended so far (probably due to my lack of knowledge of modern and contemporary art), so I attended GORGEOUS with trepidation.
‘Girl in Pink Dress, Senegal by Jim Goldberg (2008)
I absolutely loved it. The exhibition has a very ambitious purpose: challenging visitors to confront and assess their concepts of what is “gorgeous.” They do this through 72 pieces, from paintings and sculptures, to installation art, photographs, furniture, and clothing — even an iPhone display model. Broken up across four galleries and the main lobby, the objects span 2,200 years and several cultures. The success of this exhibition was as much in the pieces chosen as the juxtaposition of those pieces. On one wall in the first gallery there was a small sketch by Tom of Finland, next to an enormous print of Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (Futago), which was in turn next to Sally Mann’s controversial portraits of her children. Having long loved Morimura’s work — and partially due to the sheer size of the piece — I confess his piece was the first I gravitated towards, before noticing the other two.
These were not a “natural” combination of pieces to my mind, but it worked extremely well, creating a conversation about sexuality and beauty. It explored our perceptions of sexual identity — that of ourselves and others — and the development of sexuality, as indicated in Sally Mann’s children imitating the glamorous poses they had seen in adults or magazines and advertisements without understanding their meaning. Concepts I would not have considered together, but which are all interconnected since they connect to not only how we perceive ourselves but hope to be perceived by others.
During the talk I attended the same evening, which I reviewed for Fashion Historia, it was the Tom of Finland piece that generated the most discussion among the attendees. Were these men posing for each other or for a third observer? Were they establishing a power dynamic? If so, with whom? That the exhibition (and the amazing speaker) enticed complete strangers to offer their opinions about the pieces, and conceptions of beauty and sexuality in a public setting shows how provocative and well done this exhibition was.
The comparisons did not have to be side by side to create such a conversation. The scroll painting triptych of Three Types of Beauties in Edo were in a completely different part of the gallery from an elaborate Noh theatre robe, and yet the contradiction of the movement in the worn garments depicted as opposed to the static nature of the displayed robe not only emphasized the need for a body to give clothing life, but also that clothes can have different types of beauty depending on whether they are displayed or worn. And that neither is right or wrong or better than the other.
Multiple landscapes on screens and scrolls from China and Japan made for an intriguing comparison mentally when I moved into the final gallery to see an enormous Rothko painting, all of which were still in mind when looking at Jess’s Narkissos, a collaged drawing that explored homosexual masculine desire, and yet was composed as a sort of surrealist landscape with figures. Then there were the similarities and differences between Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles ceramic statue (it looked rather a lot like an overgrown porcelain figurine of the sort my grandmother has) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. They made for an intriguing parallel despite being in separate rooms. Both were made of porcelain, one was clearly decorative while the other was the creation of art out of the mundane, but they were each museum objects and considered “gorgeous” by someone, and they both had a note of irony in them.
‘Narkissos’ by Jess
The different concepts of beauty and what can be “gorgeous” were explored not only across cultures in the sense of Eastern versus Western, but also through the contradictions found in the struggles between mainstream and subcultures: explorations of homosexual and heterosexual desire, of photographic or traditional portraiture with cubism and surrealism, and (rather hilariously) the foibles of the ultrarich versus the rest of us through Tobias Wong’s and Ju$t Another Rich Kid’s 2005 Coke Spoon 02 made entirely of gold and mimicking the old McDonald’s coffee spoons. Concepts of what is not only beautiful but what can be appropriately depicted within a culture were equally explored — best demonstrated by a beautiful Iranian Qur’an from 1550 decorated with gold and a blue ink made of lapis lazuli.
The contradictions were sometimes found within the same piece. A piece by Andy Warhol of Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy (later Onassis) on the day of her first husband’s funeral was very vulnerable and moving — almost disturbing — despite being a simple black and white image doubled. This woman who represented elegance and chic, looking so quietly devastated and “ordinary,” if you will, was a comparison in and of itself that brought home how unkind it is of society to put people on pedestals of beauty. The same feeling could be found in Marilyn Minter’s Strut, which seemed to emphasize the struggle that exists behind being “glamorous” through the simple composition of a slightly dirty, seemingly rain-spattered foot in a Christian Dior high heel.
Despite not being the final gallery, for me the exhibition ended with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Golden), an enormous golden beaded curtain that all patrons walked through to exit the gallery and carry on with the exhibition. From a distance, and walking through it, it had echoes for me of Alexander McQueen’s Untitled Spring/Summer 1998 runway show, which McQueen had wanted to title “The Golden Shower.” Though it would be more accurate to say the McQueen show echoed Gonzalez-Torres’s work, since the artwork pre-dates the collection by three years. The piece was created in mourning for Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who had died of AIDS shortly before the artist himself would succumb to the disease. During the talk people offered their perceptions of the piece, a veil, a membrane, a rebirth. Everyone’s experience was different, and yet I agreed with every assessment.
The exhibition was — as is the catalogue — broken up into general themes, such as “Seduction” and “Fantasy” and “Imperfection,” but I largely ignored these and did as the curators wanted and went in the order that the pieces attracted me. In turns disturbing and enlightening, I found myself approaching each new piece ready to accept its gorgeousness as already established because someone somewhere already thought it was; the challenge was in leaving my own attitudes behind to understand why something I wouldn’t have liked initially might appeal to someone else. The exhibition made me think about difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, subjects such as how we perceive — or stereotype — others, and what really is “beautiful.”
The true result of this exhibition was best summed up by the first paragraph of the final piece of wall text: “The gorgeous is in the eye of the beholder. But for some artworks, the full extent of gorgeousness is not immediately seen — it is something one experiences through reflection over time.” I would extend that thesis to include people as well. This exhibition reminds us to take the time to look deeper.
As always, please share your thoughts about the exhibition or any of the pieces mentioned in the comments below. If you know of any events or exhibitions that you would like to share with Worn Through, feel free to email the details to me, or leave them in the comments.
A little over a week and a half ago, on June 28, my internet feeds were flooded with World War I articles. That was because June 28 was the centennial anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive in 1914 to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This year is the centennial year of the start of that conflict, and so in addition to the articles recapitulating the details of the Archduke’s assassination, of the war itself, and its major battles – and probably a dramatic increase in Downton Abbey sales and merchandise – the Kent State University Museum is honoring the event with what looks to be a truly wonderful exhibition.
They have a tradition of doing such exhibitions, having done On the Home Front: Civil War Fashions and Domestic Life in 2012 in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. They also have an advantage in that this particular time period is a specialty of curator Sara Hume’s, her dissertation examines “the development and preservation of traditional or folk dress practices in Alsace in the face of pressure both from political conflict and mainstream fashion,” Alsace-Lorraine was one of the most contested regions between Germany and France during World War I. Sara was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about the exhibition, its focus and its challenges.
As with On the Home Front, this exhibition focuses on the women of World War I. However, instead of being left behind these women were the first to not only be allowed, but actually encouraged to actively participate in the war effort – not just as nurses but as enlisted personnel. This is just one of many changes society experienced across the board: this was the first war to employ airplanes, automobiles and tanks, and the last in which cavalry would play a major role. “Back home,” there were movies, and fashion was undergoing a whirlwind revolution from the traditional Edwardian silhouette to the boxy, “liberated” shapes of the 1920s. As Sara explained to me, the 1920s were the result of all the shifts and changes that happened between 1912 and 1918, largely as a result of the war and the changes it brought to women’s lives. The true revelation of The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War is how this change happened both so quickly, and yet incrementally when you look at it year by year.
US Navy Yeoman (F) uniform
KSUM 2013.43.1 a-d
Photograph by Vanessa Port
In one of the first sections, “women at work” is the key theme. The exhibition focuses on the American war, which was far different from the European experience, but still had quite an impact. Despite joining the war so “late” in 1917, America would lose approximately 100,000 men to the point that in the 1920s young women outnumbered young men three to one. Using mixed media of clothing and ephemera, the exhibition places recruitment posters – including those by Howard Chandler Christy featuring his famous “Christy” girl wishing she was a man so she could join the Navy, or encouraging men to sign up – alongside a woman’s Naval uniform (above), showing that for the first time in American history, women could enlist for active duty, as this young yeoman had. The uniform is displayed next to a man’s army uniform for contrast, and also with uniforms for other women’s occupations, such as a nurse and a maid. These are all interspersed with suits for women, since the period of focus was a big time for women’s tailoring, since women were out working and taking a much more active role in society – something they couldn’t do in the elaborate costumes of the Edwardian era. Also in contrast to their immediate predecessors, the recruitment posters are not aimed exclusively at men. The exhibition features posters appealing directly to women to join as either nurses or enlisted personnel, or to join the “land army” to take up the farm work the men would vacate when they enlisted. All of this establishes the unique experience of American women during the war.
Navy blue and white swimsuit
American, ca 1919
KSUM 1996.58.224 ab
Photograph by Vanessa Port
Another section of the exhibition focuses on athletic wear, play in contrast to the work. This is actually in keeping with the popularity of the “Christy” girl, who was seen as wholesomely athletic – which made her uniquely American in the minds of consumers at the time – she was also a young woman who had been to college, because educated women made the best wives and mothers. In this section of the exhibition, two gym uniforms and two bathing suits (one above) are featured, both of which foreshadow coming changes in fashion through a shift in emphasis on muscularity and exercise to maintain fashionable body shapes rather than on corsetry and petticoats. According to Sara the uniforms and swimsuits have a distinctly nautical style – a feature we both remarked as fascinating since the usurpation of distinctly masculine dress seems to be only acceptable in activewear and when it is imitating naval uniforms; a tradition I believe was established in the eighteenth century by women who borrowed naval details for their riding habits, considered scandalous then, but apparently completely accepted by 1912.
Corset of cotton eyelet over orange ribbons
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
To contrast with the emerging world of women’s sports, corsetry is also on display in The Great War. Ranging from 1912 until about 1918 or 1920, the corsetry shows as much as the clothing does the shift in silhouettes from the tubular Edwardian pieces to the girdles we typically associate with the Jazz Age. This segues nicely into what is the major feature of the exhibition: several pieces contrasting fashion at the beginning of the war (circa 1912 – 1914) with fashion at the end of it (circa 1918 – 1920).
Purple wool and chiffon dress
KSUM 1986.20.1 a-c
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
Purple velvet and chiffon dress
KSUM 1995.17.86 ab
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
One such comparison involves two dresses of a remarkably similar purple hue (above), which were both made no doubt for similar occasions and use, but that is where the similarities end. The shapes, skirt lengths, etc., are all radically different pre-war and post-war, showing the shift in women’s lives as much as the shift in the fashions they wore, and proving the underlying thesis of the exhibition – that what we see in the 1920s is the end result, the aftermath not the revolution itself which took place during the three-year period between 1914 and 1917. There are also four wedding gowns, two from the pre-war period and two from the end of the war to illustrate this change. One wedding gown from 1918 (below), Sara tells me, is so completely different from its 1912 – 1914 counterpart and features so many style details we associate with the Jazz Age – bell skirts, dropped waist, etc. – that without the provenance anyone looking at it would date it to the 1920s. But, it was definitely made for a bride in 1918.
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
A revelation of the exhibition for the museum staff was that while the styles and fashion drastically simplified over the decade under examination, it took a long time for ideas about clothing construction to change with the fashions – they simply couldn’t imagine just pulling a gown on over their heads. In a post for the museum’s blog, curatorial assistant Joanne Arnett discusses the difficulties in dressing the mannequins in the garments due to the complicated construction and seemingly endless little snap closures.
Another challenge faced by the museum is the fact that the fashions of the time preferred fabrics that are delicate and a test of conservation: sheer fabrics, netting, tulle, delicate silks and satins which don’t stand up well over time and are tricky to display for long periods of time. There was also the problem of mannequins – those for the late-nineteenth century were too narrow due to the Edwardian love of corsetry, but those for later in the twentieth century didn’t have the proper posture, or came in strange, awkward poses that mimic fashion photography of later periods. It’s rather impractical for most museums to purchase all-new mannequins for one exhibition. Kent State rather masterfully created custom mounts on their existing mannequins, a process Sara wrote about for the museum’s blog, and which is well worth the read.
As my own research has moved progressively forward from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the nineteenth and early twentieth, I have found it very hard to overemphasize the importance of World War I in the creation of what we think of as the modern world. From my discussion with Sara, my reading of the museum’s blog posts, and through the information and photos she has shared with me I think it is impossible to overemphasize the war’s affect on women’s fashion. It is the Teens, not the Twenties where the revolution took place; the “Flappers and Philosophers” of the post-war were merely finishing something what their older sisters and brothers had started. What I feel Sara and the rest of the museum staff have done is to masterfully place the fashion in a proper socio-historical context: giving a perspective of the whole war, and of the American experience of the war, while still focusing on women, how their lives were changing and the war accelerated that change, and how fashion reflected that.
The exhibition opens on July 24, and will be open until July 5, 2015. Quite long enough for me to be actively considering a cross-country trip just to see it. I think it is worth it.
If you are anticipating going to the exhibition, or as always, if there is an exhibition or event you know of and would like to share, please do not hesitate to share either in the comments or by emailing me.
From left: William Middleton, Susan Sutton, Lady Amanda Harlech, and Harold Koda
at The Menil Collection, May 31, 2014. Courtesy of The Menil Collection
In my last post about the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, I gave some background on the de Menils, mentioned a few highlights of a panel discussion between Harold Koda, Lady Amanda Harlech, William Middleton, and exhibition curator Susan Sutton, and discussed some of the organizing principles and behind-the-scenes work for the exhibition. During the panel discussion, one of Koda’s sit-up-and-take-notice statements was that “he [James] had no respect for the fabric”, and was determined to make the fabric literally bend to his will. This mode of working is indebted to his background as a milliner. Several years ago, Heather Vaughan posted on Worn Through some wonderful photographs and descriptions of James’s unorthodox dressmaking methods and their relationship to the female body, which I’d encourage you to revisit.
This post will focus on the finished installation of A Thin Wall of Air. What is expressed in the three intimate rooms of the exhibition is the material evidence of creative partnership and mutual respect between James and Dominique de Menil. Front and center in this exhibition is not so much the genius of James, but the way in which his sometimes startling, sometimes subtle creations mesh perfectly with the de Menil’s artistic sensibilities. This came through the presentation in creative display choices and juxtapositions.
One of James’s gowns, most stunning in its asymmetry and interplay of textures, is the first object seen in the entryway. Although the gown is shown in a central location, unchallenged by any other object against an ice blue wall, its pedestal (and the bases of all the other dress form stands in the show) remains firmly grounded not only in James’s design choices but those of the de Menils.
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
The grayish-black, rough textured-looking bases were created to echo James’s choice of metal for the base of a chaise longue he designed for the de Menil home (partially seen in the same gallery view above), and yet they also mimic the black wood floors of the Menil museum, with their visible grain and natural hue peeking through.
As Harold Koda commented during the panel discussion, in the context of the Menil museum, surrounded by the furniture that James designed and the paintings the de Menils collected and displayed in their home, one can “still see the person” of Dominique de Menil in the dressed “floating” forms. James’s dress form for Dominique is also displayed in the front gallery, with a wonderful contradictory (and slightly Surrealist) inscription that encapsulates James’s design ethos quite nicely. Printed near the base of the dress form are the words, “IDEAL” and “AVERAGE” (seen in full on the homepage of the website for textile conservator Tae Smith, who created the dress forms for the exhibition).
Charles James, Dress Form for Dominique de Menil, ca. 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker
Dominique de Menil wearing a Charles James designed day suit seated on a chaise longue of his design, patio of Menil House. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders
Koda also noted (while showing a startling photographic illustration of a model, ca. 1940s-1950s, attempting to straighten her body like a board and shimmy her way down into a James gown from above) that many a woman walked into a fitting with “her own body and walked out with James’s.” Through his highly complex and structured garments, James created his “ideal” body on an “average” body (if we can call the lithe and trim society women he dressed “average”), and yet a woman’s individual body is still an independent–and necessary–presence needed to complete his vision. He must work with one particular form to achieve another.
James’s work in the de Menil home is strongly evoked through the gallery wall colors, recalling or directly quoting the strong or slightly “off” colors he chose for unconventional locations such as closets and hallways. Dominique de Menil wanted the building for the Menil Collection to feel both functional and modest, and the Menil Collection building is often compared to the architecture and feel of their private house. Curator Susan Sutton has attempted to create a home within a home, evoking the colors and opposing textures chosen by James for the de Menil’s personal home in the objects on display and on the surrounding gallery walls.
Hallway, Menil House, 1964. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Balthazar Korab
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
Selected colors were chosen as dramatic backdrops for the objects in the galleries, deliberately clashing with the garments placed in front of them. One interesting juxtaposition is the dark green wall behind a textured yellow silk jacket in the second gallery, the latter of which still contains creases in the sleeves, previous marks of use that once more confirm the presence of its former wearer.
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
Dominique de Menil wearing a Charles James designed evening jacket, with architect Philip Johnson. Houston, 1949. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Houston Post
James’s unusual textural pairings or contrasts of smooth and rough surfaces on the walls or interiors/exteriors of doors could also be seen in his design for a suit–a smooth, woolen exterior brushes against a colorful fur interior, peeking out subversively from the neckline and cuffs (and recalling Dominique de Menil’s preference for wearing fur coats inside-out). And again, the effective choice to line the interiors of the custom forms with the colors and textures matching the linings of the original garments highlight the unusual and “voluptuous” pairings favored by James and the de Menils.
Charles James, Wool Suit with Fur Lining and Silk Blouse, ca. 1950.
The Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.
Photo: Adam Baker
Charles James, Theater coat, ca. 1949. The Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.
Photo: Adam Baker
The persistent emphasis on embodiment during the panel discussion (mentioned in the previous post) unexpectedly revisited me in the galleries. Placed in the center of the right-side gallery is an heptagon-shaped ottoman designed by Dominique de Menil, based on a previous design by James. As my husband calmly took a seat on the ottoman, the museum person in me came out in full force–”Get up! You can’t sit on that!!” But apparently–and happily–we could.
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
Menil House living room, 1964.
The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.
Photo: Balthazar Korab
Not only was it a nice vantage point to contemplate the garments and paintings around me, but it also directly involved our bodies and tactile sensory perception with the gallery objects. Looking at velvet skirts and bodices while being able to touch and rest on velveteen created and used by Dominique de Menil was an interesting experience. While looking down and running my hand along the tufted velvet, I noticed a single off-center, asymmetrical seam running across one side the ottoman–perhaps another design dialogue between de Menil and James?
Charles James, Wool Day Coat, 1947.
The Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.
Photo: Adam Baker
This gallery seemed to me to best encapsulate this exchange of ideas and affinities between Dominique and James. A painting by Victor Brauner, Charmeuse de metaux [Charmer of Metal] (1947), appears to be a male and female working together to create something–and the title also could allude to the “magic” that James creates with the complex and layered hidden apparatuses within his garments. James even took a layering approach to his sketches, with some built up with other materials, taking on a three-dimensional quality (this is also echoed in another painting by Brauner which consists of layers of wax atop watercolor and ink).
Charles James sketches for adjustable dress forms and furniture. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
A third gallery, off to the left of the initial gallery, demonstrates James’s relationship to the wider de Menil family and their artistic life inside and outside the home. A cluster of photographs includes a gown he created for Christophe de Menil, Dominique and John’s eldest daughter. And yet his connection to Dominique remains at the heart of the relationship, as evidenced in an inscribed photograph of James, taken by Cecil Beaton: “So many years later with much love always to both of you but specially to you Dominique. Charles”.
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Charles James, 1929. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James
Six evening and day wear pieces share the space with the photographs and two James hats (including a black satin “four-leaf-clover” in headgear form).
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
Against a rich pink back wall is an early portrait (1932) of Dominique by Max Ernst and an undulating two-part sofa designed by James. Curator Sutton was delighted with this portrait in the context of the exhibition–the shells circulating around Dominique’s disembodied head recalled James’s conception of clothing as carapace.
Charles James designed two-part sofa in tan wool (1952) and Max Ernst portrait of Dominique de Menil (1932). The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
Another painting in the adjacent gallery by Max Ernst, Day and Night (1941-42) was chosen by Sutton to allude to the inclusion of both day and evening wear, but it also is an apt allusion to James’s intervention in the Philip Johnson-designed de Menil home. Ernst depicts organic and anthropomorphic shapes within rectalinear and trapezoidal frames, recalling James’s choice of sensual, curved shapes within the straight-edge lines of Johnson’s architecture. The combination of the straight-back and curved shapes of James’s banquette and sofa are like the piano he insisted be installed in the de Menil home (none of the de Menils played piano), expressing a bridge between James’s nostalgia for the Belle Epoque and modern forms.
Banquette designed by Charles James (1952) with painting by Max Ernst, Day and Night (1941-42). The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester
At the Menil in general, explanatory or didactic wall text is absent and object labels are pared down to the essentials: artist, title, date, medium. Juxtapositions between pieces, generally speaking, may not be directly causational or historically, culturally, or chronologically related. This approach is in keeping with the de Menils aim of avoiding “museum fatigue” and allowing objects to speak to each other in multiple ways that demonstrate how different ideas, approaches, and concepts shared by different artists can create new resonant associations. Visitors interested in learning more about specific historic and cultural contexts can pick up a particular exhibition brochure at the entrance/exit to the galleries, but generally can be left to make their own conclusions or connections between objects.
I find this museological approach interesting and refreshing, and I really appreciated how much could be so thoughtfully communicated through three small galleries. There is even more to discuss about this exhibition, but I hope those of you who are unable to make the trip to Houston have enjoyed seeing the gallery views and reading a bit about the exhibition. I would strongly encourage anyone coming to Texas to visit the Menil before the exhibition closing date, September 7.
Many thanks to Susan Sutton and Gretchen Sammons for providing images.
Distance may prevent me from seeing the Charles James exhibition at the Met, or the Museum at FIT‘s current exhibition, Exposed: A History of Lingerie, which opened June 3 and will be up until November 15; but I will still be travelling quite a bit this summer, from one end of California to the other.
In July, in addition to a trip to Los Angeles especially to see the latest FIDM Museum exhibition, Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection (open until November 1) and LACMA‘s Kimono for a Modern Age (July 5 – October 19) and Treasures from Korea (June 29 – September 28), I will also be making the trek to San Francisco to see the Asian Art Museum‘s GORGEOUS, open June 20 – September 14. GORGEOUS intrigues me because it seems to aim at encouraging visitors to explore or even challenge their perceptions of beauty — be that in art or in appearance and aesthetics in general. According to the Asian’s website, the exhibition features 72 paintings, sculptures, objects of high design or decoration and photographic works from both the Asian’s collection and that of the SF MoMA (currently undergoing a major renovation); the exhibition spans cultures and millennia and “in an attempt to shift the focus from historical and cultural contexts, emphasiz[es] instead the unique ways each work announces itself or solicits a viewer’s attention emphasizing instead the unique ways each work announces itself or solicits a viewer’s attention.”
Look for my Los Angeles reviews in my August columns, and my review of GORGEOUS in my July 23rd post.
For my first column in July (July 9), I will be covering (virtually) the upcoming Kent State University exhibition, The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War, which opens July 24. I cannot attend, but I will be interviewing curator Sara Hume about the exhibition, its challenges and its aims. World War I fashion is something I have long loved — it is the only reason I started watching Downton Abbey, I confess — so I am looking forward to speaking with Sara and sharing what I learn with you.
Other fashion-related happenings in June and July include the Fashion Tech Forum, happening today in New York city. According to the website, the forum’s purpose is to “provide a platform for fashion, design, and technology to connect and collaborate on hot to work together in the future.” This sounds like an interesting topic, and I’d be curious to hear if anyone went, what they thought, or if any of you have had any ideas or experiences with something similar in your classrooms or museums in the comments!
In Detroit, Bruce Weber’s photographs of the city’s people and their clothing are on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The exhibition combines two projects of Weber’s, the first an assignment from W magazine to photograph Kate Moss in unfamiliar surroundings, the second highlighting the city, its people, evolution, and dynamic. The exhibit opened June 20, and will be up until September 7.
As always, please feel free to share your experiences of and thoughts about any of these exhibitions — or even those I’ve not mentioned — in the comments below. Also please share any exhibitions or events you want shared either in the comments or by email.
In The Language of Clothes, the author Alison Lurie suggests that a bride’s preference for a one off all white outfit can be what the earlier costume commentator Prudence Glynn describes as wanting on the one hand “one marvelous, escapist, romantic moment in an otherwise drab life” or, on the other “by wearing archaic dress she is stating her unconscious belief that the ceremony itself is archaic.”
Display featuring the pink background and in the foreground, an ensemble of accessories dating from the early to mid 19th century. www.adorngirl.com
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, the latest exhibition in the V&A’s wonderful Fashion Galleries, certainly appears to embrace this perceived romance and escapism of what to wear on the special day with its emphasis on a ‘western wedding style’, predominantly British, in sartorial form. Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor finds herself looking at a timeline of white dresses, displayed against pink walls, with curvy fonts highlighting the wonder of weddings as expressed by a range of contemporary cultural commentators. Once on the upper gallery, it is possible to see huge projections of photographs showing the more current dresses on their owners, in-situ, replete with soft focus edges and flowery transitions. This exhibition holds to the ideals associated with a particular normative notion of femininity, where weddings are a bride’s ultimate dream rather than a complex socio-cultural event where ideas and values are negotiated through dress.
Jenny Bishop in Ian Stuart wedding dress, with the exhibition in the background. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Despite there being several outfits on display that make reference to different religious systems, local traditions and economic groups, these often felt like a novel footnote to the main body of text rather than a full paragraph or chapter. The primacy of the ‘western wedding style’ meant that it was hard for me to place experiences such as the double wedding of my Trinidadian neighbour, who celebrated her nuptials in both a Hindi and Christian ceremony, into this exhibition. Similarly, I struggled to find examples of the angst experienced by many brides to be when it comes to finding the one dress, knowing that it is likely not to be worn again. I recall one friend who decided to overcome this challenge by buying a dress for 99p on Ebay while another gave herself only one day to find something to wear, recounting the experience as if it was had been a prison sentence.
Monica Maurice’s red wedding dress, 1938. Victoria & Albert Museum
So, for me, the most interesting outfits were those that were more idiosyncratic because they went some way to demonstrating the complex socio-cultural negotiations that take place around weddings. Take Monica Maurice, for instance. The first woman to become a member of the Association of Mining Electrical Engineers in 1938 and who decided to wear red for her wedding of the same year to celebrate her love of the colour. Or Elizabeth King, who had her dress made from furnishing fabric in 1941 as a way to circumvent clothing rations. More recently, imagine the moment when Christopher Breward and his partner James Brook wore suits for their civil partnership in 2006. I also enjoyed the dress worn by Lisa Butcher in 1992, whose literal baring caused her husband to pass judgment on the appropriacy of bridalwear at a wedding.
Suit worn by Christopher Breward in 2006 for his civil partnership with James Brook. Victoria & Albert Museum.
I thought the arrangement and presentation of the dress worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933 was excellent because it was possible to acknowledge the context more vividly with the inclusion of Pathe footage documenting the event. It also provided an early example of the way in which the white one off costume could be completely removed from fashionable dress, which in this case meant having a spectacularly huge train.
I appreciated those outfits where additional contextual information was present, which included photographs, accessories, design sketches and wedding invitations. It was fascinating to spot a napkin souvenir created by Maud Cecil for her wedding in 1927, drawing our attention to the inherent ephemerality of nuptial occasions. It was also interesting to note that there was very little jewelry on display despite the fact that this can often play an important role in nuptial ceremonies.
Wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933. Victoria and Albert Museum
Yet, overall, I found that the chronological approach to this exhibition made for quite a dull experience. Much of the label descriptions were given over to aesthetic references with very little explanation, intimating an art historical approach to understanding objects where prior knowledge is assumed. I find this quite irritating because it not only makes information appear esoteric but it fails to engage the visitor in a more critical dialogue with the objects on view. Interestingly, the aim of Wedding Dresses 1775- 2014 is to demonstrate how fashion has impacted upon the design of wedding dresses from a historical perspective yet in doing so, the one off all white outfit becomes increasingly fetishlike as it moves further away from its various spatial and temporal locations.
I think the exhibition could have extended to asking more reflective questions around the roles and responsibilities of those involved in a wedding. For instance, what do a bride and groom actually do in a wedding? How and why? What other factors play a part in wedding practices? What impact might this have upon their choice of dress?
Ending on a more positive note, the accompanying exhibition blog is very informative because, through curatorial narrative, the nuances of wedding dress design and wear are given more space as the curators move in and out of people’s lives through the chosen objects, forcing them to consider their relationships in a more immediate way than in the actual exhibition. This is most vividly realized when the curators meet with the designer Gareth Pugh and Kate Shillingford, fashion editor of Another Magazine to discuss how she wore his dress on her wedding day. The curator observes how intimate the relationship is between the designer and the client in their negotiation of specific details. I wonder if the exhibition could have benefited from having observations like this or even recordings of those who wore the garments recounting their experiences included as an audio guide to accompany the visitor.
Alison Lurie (1981) The Language of Clothes London, Heinemann