Domestic Affairs: Contemplating ‘GORGEOUS’

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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)

‘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.

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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

‘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.

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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. WP_20140710_024   SFMOMA_Gorgeous_Strut__EX_2014.1.22

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.

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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.

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Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on “The Great War” at the Kent State Museum

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 American, 1918 KSUM 2013.43.1 a-d Photograph by Vanessa Port

US Navy Yeoman (F) uniform
American, 1918
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 Por

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 American, 1914  KSUM 1983.3.52 Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Corset of cotton eyelet over orange ribbons
American, 1914
KSUM 1983.3.52
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 American, 1912 KSUM 1986.20.1 a-c Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Purple wool and chiffon dress
American, 1912
KSUM 1986.20.1 a-c
Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Purple velvet and chiffon dress American, 1918  KSUM 1995.17.86 ab Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Purple velvet and chiffon dress
American, 1918
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.

Wedding dress American, 1918 KSUM 1995.17.1762 Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Wedding dress
American, 1918
KSUM 1995.17.1762
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.

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Museum Life: Charles James in Texas, Part II

From left: William Middleton, Susan Sutton, Lady Amanda Harlech, and Harold Koda  Courtesy of The Menil Collection

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 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

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

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.

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

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

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, 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

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.

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The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Menil House living room, 1964. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Balthazar Korab

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

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).

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

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

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

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

 

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

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)

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.

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Domestic Affairs: GORGEOUS, World War I Women, Lingerie, and more

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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 14GORGEOUS 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 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.

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Review: Wedding Dresses 1775 – 2014 at V&A Museum

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.”[1]

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.

 

REFERENCES:

[1]Alison Lurie (1981) The Language of Clothes London, Heinemann

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Domestic Affairs: Planning your fashion-filled summer vacation

2002.367_circus_skirt

It looks like it will be a truly wonderful summer for fashion exhibitions!

As we were informed by Kristen of the Newport Restoration Foundation the last time I did an event roll call, there is a small but wonderful exhibition at the Foundation looking at the fashion of tobacco heiress, Doris Duke, called No Rules: The Personal Style of Doris Duke.

Worn Through’s Jill Morena started a wonderful series of posts yesterday on the Charles James exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James, at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. The exhibition closes September 7, and be sure to read Jill’s post from yesterday and to look for her next installment!

In Los Angeles, the FIDM Museum just opened an exhibition today of rare Hollywood costume sketches from the collection of Christian Esquevin, author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, called Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection, which will be open until November 1. Opening later this month (June 26) at their Orange County campus will be a second exhibition, International Inspiration: The Donald and Joan Damask Collection, featuring a recent donation of over 75 pieces of vintage clothing and world dress, objects by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, and theatrical designs by ErtéInternational Inspiration also closes November 1, and look for my review in September or October after I make the trek down to Orange County.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I am eagerly anticipating the opening of Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392 – 1910 at the end of this month (June 29), and even more so, Kimono for a Modern Age which opens on July 5. Did any of you get to see Treasures from Korea in Philadelphia?

All of this on top of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the CSA fortieth anniversary symposium last week, Charles James at the Met, Draped Down at the Studio Museum in Harlem (check out the Domestic Affairs guest post from the creator and curator, Monique Long from last week), and many more.

Do you, like Kristen, have an exhibition in your institution or at one nearby? Have you been to any of these exhibitions mentioned? What did you think? Did you go to CSA National which I unfortunately had to miss this year? What did you think?

Please feel free to share exhibition and event announcements in the comments below, or to email me with details. I’d also love to hear about your experiences at any of these events or any I might have missed. Please share your experience in the comments!

Opening image: 2002.367 Circus Skirt from the Doris Duke exhibition at the Newport Restoration Foundation

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Charles James in Texas, Part I

Wall of reference photos in the conservation studio at The Menil Collection, for the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James Photo by Jill Morena

Photos of James garments in the conservation studio at The Menil Collection, for the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Photo by Jill Morena

With all eyes and ears on the Charles James exhibition at The Costume Institute, I’d like to draw your attention to a more modestly sized, but no less intriguing and compelling, presentation of James’s work at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James (which takes its title from a quote by James’s friend, photographer Bill Cunningham, describing the transformative space between the body and the structure of James’s garments) will be on view from May 31-September 7, 2014 and will focus on the collaborations between James and the de Menils, John and Dominique.

If you’re wondering if the exhibition was planned to coincide with the Met exhibition, the answer is no–both projects were planned independently.  And yet it proved to be a happy coincidence that both exhibitions are concurrent.  For a panel discussion moderated by exhibition curator Susan Sutton, scheduled during the evening of the opening day, Costume Institute curator in charge Harold Koda shared his insights on James along with creative consultant Lady Amanda Harlech and de Menil biographer William Middleton–each bringing their own unique perspective to the unparalleled talents of James and his creative intersections with the de Menils.

For readers unfamiliar with the de Menils, this fascinating couple made an extraordinary impact on the Houston arts scene and beyond from the 1940s onward, and were instrumental in transforming Houston into an international destination for modern and contemporary art.  The de Menils and their children left the chaos of World War II Europe and eventually settled in Texas from Paris, France. Once in Houston, they continued to build an impressive collection of modern art, forged strong connections with artists, civil rights activists and politicians, and local universities, and fervently supported those who shared their progressive outlook on politics, art, and spiritualism. I won’t go into too many details of the de Menil biography here, but many overviews of their life, accomplishments, and endeavors can readily be found online (see sources below), and also through the publication, Art and Activism, which describes their many projects.

North facing facade of The Menil Collection Photo by Jill Morena

North facing facade of The Menil Collection
Photo by Jill Morena

John de Menil, the more extroverted of the couple and most focused on perfection and quality in clothing and appearance (as opposed to the more introverted and pragmatic Dominique), encouraged the couturier/client relationship between Dominique and James.  The couple recognized the innovation and unusual beauty of James’s creations and accepted and negotiated what is so often described as James’s “mercurial” or “difficult” personality, acknowledging this as part of the genius that gives birth to such meticulously considered and truly unique creations. The de Menils themselves had very strong personalities and ideas, complete dedication to the projects they pursued, and very high standards and parameters concerning quality in artistic creation.  In this sense, James had found a match in the principled and strong-willed Dominique and John de Menil.

In the 1980s, following her husband’s death in 1971, Dominique de Menil decided to create a public home for their astounding and highly personal modern art collection that had since outgrown the space of their private home.  The private house, designed and completed by architect Philip Johnson in 1950, with interiors and furniture designed by James (his only commission of this kind), is as much a part of A Thin Wall of Air as is James’s clothing. The unique colors and shapes created by James for the de Menil home are present or strongly evoked in the galleries, and this helps visitors make connections between different media as well as shared artistic and aesthetic affinities.

The small size of the exhibition (three galleries, to be discussed in my next post) is in keeping with the overall ethos of the Menil museum as Dominique de Menil envisioned it–intimate, personal spaces filled with purposeful, focused objects–”where things can be seen on multiple levels, with a relationship made between the objects and the way they are presented”(Glueck 1986: 5), where a visitor would never experience “museum fatigue.”

A few weeks before the opening, I was fortunate to be able to meet with curator Susan Sutton during the remaining days of intense preparation for the show—painting gallery walls, finishing up mannequins, planning final placements. She generously spared her time to show me a sneak peek of the gallery plans and Dominique de Menil’s garments as they were being prepared for display. It was thrilling to be able to see a row of James coats, suits, and dresses up close.  I had never seen one in person before this visit.

Charles James garments formerly worn by Dominique de Menil, in the conservation studio at the Menil Collection, being readied for display Photo by Jill Morena

Charles James-designed garments formerly owned and worn by Dominique de Menil
Photo by Jill Morena

One question I was keen to ask Sutton was how Dominique de Menil’s voice comes through the clothes, besides the fact that they are perfectly tailored to her body.  One important quality, Sutton noted, is Dominique’s modesty and practicality.  She wasn’t a “ball gown” type of woman, and noted (rightly, I agree), that in photographs de Menil seems much less comfortable in a ball gown with floor-length frothy layers than in practical yet beautiful wool suits and calf-length dresses.  Sutton and conservator Tae Smith noted that other versions of the “bustle gown” they had seen were usually strapless–James’s version for the sartorially pragmatic Dominique had shoulder straps.

Bustle gown worn by Dominique de Menil, being readied for display Photo by Jill Morena

Bustle gown worn by Dominique de Menil, being readied for display
Photo by Jill Morena

James designed for her a little over a decade (beginning in 1947), and Sutton and Smith discussed the opportunity to trace the changes in Dominique’s body and the process of becoming familiar with the particular and subtle idiosyncrasies and asymmetries of the body (that are common to us all), and which can only make themselves known to others when clothing is made specifically for a certain body over time. Although there were times when Sutton wondered, are these unusual seam placements or off-center closures due to Dominique’s body or is it James’s design? James preferred asymmetry, sometimes very subtle, in creating patterns and seams. William Middleton noted in the panel discussion that both he and Dominique had the confidence to create and wear, respectively, these off-center creations. Sutton said that when dressing the mannequins there was a tendency to want to gently coerce closures or seams and situate them to be more symmetrical or centered.  I suppose that created a bit of a mystery–where does James end and Dominique begin?

Sutton and Smith felt that the use of “floating” forms, in which the body is strongly evoked but exterior limbs or other parts of the body are not constructed or seen, fit well with a presentation of garments within a fine arts museum, with the focus primarily on the garment as an art object (The Costume Institute has also used this presentation for James’s ball gowns).

Dress forms customized for each James garment Photo by Jill Morena

Dress forms in the conservation studio, customized for each James garment
Photo by Jill Morena

This choice of display has been popular in the 21st century, particularly with the greater inclusion of exhibitions of clothing in art museums.  I often think of this particular photograph of a Rei Kawakubo gown on the webpage for the Costume Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The “floating form” has its beauty and its limitations, such as those discussed by Hayley-Jane in her recent review of the Alaia exhibition in Paris.

The absent body is an element that is unavoidable, challenging, and sometimes vexing for the costume curator, and sometimes disappointing for the museum viewer.  And yet Harold Koda expressed a very interesting observation about the “absent body” in the context of this exhibition: while he acknowledged an absence of de Menil’s specific body–or live presence–in the garment, he said, “I can still see the person.” Despite the “fine art” presentation of absent, “floating” bodies that tends to define garments as sculptures or architectural forms (and is certainly appropriate for a James creation), the presentation in the context of the Menil Collection grounded Dominique’s clothes in her individuality and the environment she and James created, whether through her physical person, her home, or through the objects that inspired them both.

An interesting thread that emerged throughout the panel discussion was the imagining of the act of wearing a James garment–entering the garment, moving in it–the exchange between the body and the person and the clothing.  This sensation is somewhat addressed in the exhibition, which I’ll discuss in the next post.  Lady Amanda Harlech expressed her desire to wear the James garments“I want to try out what ['a thin wall of air'] feels like–what would be that dynamic?” What would it be like to experience simultaneous heaviness and lightness? Seeing the James garments up close myself, I could feel her frustration when she said, “I really wanted to try them on!”

Koda also recounted a story of a young teenager who was lucky enough to model a privately-owned James gown at the 1982 exhibition of James’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, The Genius of Charles James.  He said the young woman summed up the experience of wearing the gown as “a lesson in beauty.”  The dress, she said, is telling me how to stand and how I should walk.  This recurring emphasis on embodiment and wear throughout the panel discussion was fascinating and refreshing–this is often not a focus in studies of fashion and clothing (and of course forbidden in the museum environment)–although this is changing, and has been consistently addressed by some scholars, such as Joanne Entwistle.

There are particular, subtle touches in the exhibition presentation that attempt to address, or come somewhat close to, the feeling of tactile sensation (which, as Juliana reminded us a few weeks ago, was an important element in the The Chicago History Museum’s 2011 exhibition, Charles James: Genius Reconstructed).

To give viewers an immediate impression of the interiors of the garment, the interiors of the floating forms were lined with the colors of James’s vibrant, often unusual contrasting linings.  Satins were custom dyed to match James’s original selections.  Swatches of the dyed fabric, seen at the lower right of the leading photograph of this post, were placed on the wall for ready reference and to match thread for sewing the material to the form.  Although not a glimpse of the “original” lining (which may have been achieved through plexiglass mounts, for example), the decision to replicate the linings heightened the contrasting color, a sense of texture, and what it may feel like to wear the garment against your body. (Dominique de Menil inverted the expected conventions of dressing in more ways than one, based on what textures or sensations pleased her–she often wore her mink coat inside out).

I’ll end this post with one intriguing photograph of the exhibition galleries that invokes a Surrealist landscape–so appropriate as both James and the de Menils loved Surrealist art.  I’ll discuss my impressions of this jewel of an exhibition in next month’s post.

Installation view of A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James Photo by © Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway

Installation view of A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Photo by © Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway

Sources cited and further reading:

Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (2010). Helfenstein, Josef and Schipsi, Laureen (Eds.) Houston: The Menil Collection, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Browning, Dominique (1983 April). ‘What I Admire I Must Possess’. Texas Monthly.

Entwistle, Joanne (2007). Addressing the Body. Fashion Theory: A Reader. Malcom Barnard (Ed.) London and New York: Routledge.

Glueck, Grace (1986 May 18). The De Menil Family: The Medici of Modern Art. The New York Times.

Middleton, William (2004 June 3). A House That Rattled Texas Windows. The New York Times.

 

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Parisian Insights: Femmes Berbères du Maroc

If there is one private institution I particularly appreciate in Paris, it is the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. Despite being the treasure chest of the iconic fashion brand’s patrimonial archives, it is also a major cultural site that features eclectic exhibitions. Today’s display pays a dazzling tribute to Berber women. As I have said earlier on this site, I am completely uneducated when it comes to ethnic costumes but I surely am a profound admirer of  traditional garments (having an Indian background myself, I dream of daring to wear a proper sari one day!). Thus when I visit such exhibitions, I come pure as snow with absolutely no knowledge nor do I relate to the pieces that have nothing to do with my own environment. Femmes Berbères du Maroc (Berber Women of Morocco)  is at the crossroads of various implicit themes: acknowledging the audience with a traditional culture and craftsmanship, exhibiting exquisite jewellery and ethnic costumes as well as it refers to Yves Saint Laurent’s native background and lifelong fascination for North Africa.

Jewish Jewellery from Tahala – South West Morroco © Musée Berbère / photo Nicolas Mathéus

Jewish Jewellery from Tahala – South West Morroco © Musée Berbère / photo Nicolas Mathéus

With much pedagogy, we are first introduced to the Berber culture:  the display insists on the fact that women are the key holders of the Berber patrimony that they diffuse with the help of exclusively feminine crafts such as weaving, pottery and basketry. The eldest population of North Africa, Berbers occupy a territory that goes from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to eastern Egypt. Following informative maps, texts and photographies, we soon discover the traditional works created by the tribes’ women: baskets, practical everyday objects made with pottery techniques, woven textiles and carpets…illustrate the skills and decorative taste of the Berber society that clearly emphasizes simple geometrical patterns and earthy tones enhanced by strong blues.  The adorning shapes mostly speak about fertility, the motives that go back to prehistoric art, protect against bad luck and are the promise of many childbirths and therefore, happiness. Woven capes bear sacred paroles: ‘ A woman who has made 40 carpets in her life is sure to go to heaven’, the saying affirms. The dim light creates a scared-like atmosphere that forces us to recognize the mysticism diffused by what could be considered as trivial objects.

After observing the creations of Berber women, come the garments and adornments with which they embellish themselves - displayed under a stellar dark sky (and along an oriental tune) that strongly evokes romantic and dramatic Arabian nights in the desert.  The draped pieces of clothing are presented worn on white mannequins, on video screens that accent, with various close-ups,, their beauty and the complex technique of wrapping and assembling the textiles around the feminine body. An original curatorial choice that enables visitors to better comprehend the garments. Yet, surely the key objects of the exhibition would be the jewellery presented against majestic black  busts. These intricate sculptural pieces made of silver and colourful polished coral or amber stones, as well as shells and coins that feature the same geometric adornments as the daily objects were most often wedding and engagement gifts. They helped express a tribal identity and social status- the reason why women would wear these jewels in a provocative accumulation . Easy to imagine the tinkling sound these adornments produced when worn from head to chest. Videos of these women preforming traditional dances and beautiful 1950s photographies by Mireille Morin-Barde help understand the ceremonial context within which Berber women paraded with their exquisite embellishments.  Interestingly and intelligently, there is no hierarchy, within the display, between daily objects and ceremonial items: the first enable an indispensable everyday existence while still bearing mystical symbols when the second help build an explicit identification. 

Display View

Display View

Most objects come from the Berber Museum that opened its doors in 2011, in Marrakesh’s Majorelle Garden which Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent had purchased in 1980. Housing testimony of Berber art, the museum also possessed the jewels passionately collected by the couple from 1966 (when they first visited the country). Yves Saint Laurent who was himself born in Algeria was strongly inspired by the culture he had been surrounded with as a child and that he lovingly found again in the 1970s with his gypset gang. He even attested he had discovered colours in Morocco and yes, Orient definitely influenced some of his most exquisite colourful and embroidered collections and I could not help myself from trying to make links between the traditional costumes displayed here and his couture designs ( an exhibition was organised in Marrakesh, in 2010/2011 to illustrate Yves Saint Laurent’s relationship with Morocco.)

What I appreciated most is that this exhibition does not display ethnic garments for the sake of presenting beautiful oriental pieces. The Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent adds a sociological and inspirational feel to a show that clearly demonstrates what significant place the Berber woman occupies in her society? And how important her appearance can be, proving dressing up is not simply a means of frivolity as we easily tend to claim in our Western societies.

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Domestic Affairs Guest Post — Draped Down: What Makes Black Fashion Black?

Monique Long organized Draped Down as the culminating project of her 2013-14 Curatorial Fellowship at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The exhibition will be on view through June 29, 2014

Draped Down: What Makes Black Fashion Black?

Draped Down, currently on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem, is an exploration of the intersection between fashion and art. The exhibition is primarily comprised of art from the museum’s permanent collection and includes fourteen artists from three continents whose work spans almost a century (1925 through 2013). The painting, sculpture and photography included in the exhibition are organized to inspire viewers to read the art as non-traditional fashion portraiture.

  photo (5)
This image courtesy of Monique Long

With Harlem at the center of modern black culture, I propose black dress is defined by landmark cultural and political movements in which African-Americans sought to craft their identity vis-à-viscitizenship. The first of these recognized movements is the so-called New Negro which occurred during the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of a black middle class at the turn of the twentieth century.

The New Negro was first defined in the eponymous anthology first published in 1925, although the phenomenon itself can be traced back to the end of World War I. In editor Alain Locke’s manifesto, also titled “The New Negro,” he declares Harlem the birthplace to a kind of black ‘Zionism’ or the ethos of a new identity for American blacks.

photo (4)
This image courtesy of Monique Long

Renaissance figure Zora Neale Hurston was a source of inspiration in mounting the exhibition. The prolific Hurston was a fixture in the cohort of artists and intellectuals whom she wittily called the Niggerati. Her oeuvre consists of her documentation of the era through her work as an anthropologist, writer, and folklorist.

photo (2)

In my research for the project, I found a short story she wrote that was published in a literary magazine, American Mercury, in 1942 called A Story in Harlem Slang. Attached to the story was a glossary for the terms featured in the text, a perfect balance of both her literary work and anthropological studies. In the glossary, there were several quaint terms listed to mean well-dressed but “draped down” still seemed fresh, contemporary. Hurston defined it thus:

draped down: to be dressed in the height of Harlem fashion. also: togged down.

Ultimately, I chose “draped down” as the title of the exhibition in order to contextualize Harlem’s inherent relationship to black fashion and I suggest that the neighborhood’s influence has diffused throughout the diaspora.

photo (3)
Right: Hale Woodruff, Portrait of Theresa, 1945

Museum Purchase and a Gift of E. Thomas Williams and Audlyn Higgins Williams  97.9.25
Left: Jules Allen, 10 prints (2 females, one with hat), n.d.
Gift of the artist  TD06.1.10

During installation, other historical connections emerged that I had not been consciously aware of when reviewing the checklist, but became apparent when I began to organize the exhibition in the gallery with the actual artwork before me. For example, I pair Hale Woodruff’s Portrait of Theresa (1945) with Jules Allen’s photograph from a series of 10 prints, (2 females, one with hat, ca. 1978) together(seen above) because I liked the poetic quality of both women facing each other, both in three-quarter profile and one in silhouette, across time. I also saw the opportunity to bring a fashion historical element to Draped Down. Hale’s Theresa, painted in 1945, is contemporaneous with material restrictions placed on women’s clothes in the United States to conserve resources for the war effort.  Regulation L-85 or commonly known as “austerity fashions” transformed and even defined American style as women from Hollywood to Hoboken embraced the limits as their patriotic duty. The subject embodies austerity with the modest look of her dress and the way Woodruff exalts womanhood asTheresa is, in effect, enshrined in a mysterious, womb-like background, a Madonna trope reinterpreted.

In Allen’s photographic series, he captures women in Harlem juxtaposed with the advertisements they are confronted with everyday. In the background and out of focus of 2 females, one with hat, is a poster with a stockinged leg. Nylon: the magical innovation that was invented during the 1930s but supplanted the use of silk for hosiery when L-85 took effect a decade later. Here was the essence of my idea of fashion and nationalism; African-American history through clothes.

In Hurston’s definition of the expression “draped down” she also provides the synonym “togged down.” Togged, I learned later, is an informal expression dating back to the eighteenth century meaning to get dressed for a special occasion. The origin of the word “tog” is derived from the word toga. What is interesting is that the derivative of a word for the garment worn exclusively by Romans to establish citizenship found its way into black vernacular and it deserves further investigation. The works in Draped Down give a visual interpretation of how faceted the relationship is between citizenship and clothes and how that relationship is negotiated throughout the diaspora.

Have any of you been to see Draped Down? If so, what were your impressions? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

 

Photos (unless otherwise noted):  Adam Reich. Courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

Final paragraph excerpted from an essay written by Monique for the Studio Magazine’s forthcoming Summer/Fall 2014 issue.

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Parisian Insights: Papier Glacé

I’m always a little suspicious when it comes to exhibition’s highlighting contemporary companies, not that I neglect the idea that a current brand has its place within a cultural institution but I always found it hard to make the difference between marketing operation and artistic project. I’ve already explored such displays here: rememberer? Dior, Alaia, Roger Vivier

Poster

Poster

When I first discovered the posters for Papier Glacé: Un Siècle de Photographie de Mode chez Condé Nast, I was truly sceptical and promised myself I wouldn’t visit an exhibition praising the glories of a publishing group: I know I can sometimes be a little narrow-minded! My professional conscience and my personal curiosity finally won and I therefore pushed the doors of the Palais Galliera staging this fashion photography display.

I think I may have said it before, I strongly appreciate this Parisian fashion museum, directed by Olivia Saillard, whom I consider to be one of the most talented fashion curators in Europe. I was thus very interested in discovering how they chose to deal with such a theme: an insight of Condé Nast fashion photography archives with 150 objects by 80 different artists.

Peter Lindbergh - Vogue Italia, 1989.

Peter Lindbergh – Vogue Italia, 1989.

First, I was really impressed by the scenography with walls painted in black and white evoking standing magazines, on which were placed the photographies: luminous and airy – great conditions to admire the photographies. The (small!) exhibition is organised following seven themes that are reminiscent of the different styles used by fashion photographers in the pages of the Condé Nast publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, W and Love: Décor, Fiction, Exterior – Street, The Figure, Still Life, In Praise of the Body and Portraits.

Within the ‘Décor’ display, we travel into early Vogue photographies that emphasize elegant and luxurious backgrounds that clearly echo the wealthy readers who could afford to lounge about reading a fashion magazine. Such photographers as Cecil Beaton, Baron de Meyer or Edward Steichen proposed glamorous ‘mise-en-scène’ within which high society figures and models mingled into a stylish atmosphere where chic made one between photography, fashion and design. With ‘Fiction’, the display highlights how photographers create narratives, dreamlike sceneries that feature groups of models who play theatrical roles. We clearly observe how simple a story can come to life with little tricks: showers, a wet floor and several women in bathing suits and light robes and Deborah Turbeville gives birth to an erotic atmosphere that evokes a harem where others would simply recognize a post-sports cleaning. Soon, photography went outside! At the end of the 1930s, with World War II, women engaged into more active existences and photographers installed their models in lively streets, often along cars to highlight movement…The ‘Exterior’ display identifies this aesthetic that tended to more naturalness.

Erwin Blumenfeld - American Vogue, 1945

Erwin Blumenfeld – American Vogue, 1945

Some photographers dare to erase ‘The Figure’, blurred by graphic and light effects. There is something quite ironic in shading the model and her garments for a fashion magazine whose goal is to sell clothes. In this case, fashion photography resembles art and the clothing disappear behind the concept. The exhibition also interestingly brings into light the problem of ‘Still Life’ that is so closely linked to the commercial aspect of a publication: that’s when you sell the handbags, the shoes, the cosmetics…However Papier Glacé reminds us that these still lives are also veritable artistic photographies where the object dominates the body: comes to mind and before our eyes, the image of Guy Bourdin and his sexy high heels and legs.

John Rawlings - American Vogue, 1943

John Rawlings – American Vogue, 1943

With the ‘In Praise of the Body’ section, the exposition deals with its most controversial theme. Fashion magazines dictate trends but also silhouettes with mostly surreal bodies! Beauty and health are at the centre of their thoughts and photographers beautifully stage perfect forms and features. I would have appreciated to see a little less sleek images (even though they were stunning) and more harsh photographies that would have also demonstrated how sometimes fashion photography has gone too far in its search of perfection or over-sexualisation. Finally, I loved the last section dedicated to ‘Portraits’. In this display, the model is enhanced not only as a coat-hanger but definitely appears as an inspiring muse and superstar herself alongside the photographer. We observe the complicities, the admiration and confidence diffused in powerful or soft portraits that deliver insight into these women’s intimacy.

I surely missed a little criticism (that’s where branded displays show their limits!): what about the impact of these images on women? Nothing about controversies and scandals and there have been several scandalous spreads in the pages of Vogue! Photographers fantasize the feminine body to make readers dream but they also impose an aesthetic that 99% women cannot assume…Surely that isn’t the exhibition’s goal but I assume you can pay tribute to the splendid work of artists and still give a little information about the dark sides.

Deborah Turbeville - American Vogue, 1975

Deborah Turbeville – American Vogue, 1975

What I highly enjoyed was the installation of several garments and videos between the different thematic displays to poetically recall the photographies: a sensible way to add a little sense of reality to this ‘fake” environment. I also fancied that large reading tables were installed at the beginning and the end of the room to enable visitors read several Condé Nast (of course!) publications because that’s what magazines are made for, no? Flipping frantically through glossy pages.

 

Further Resources:

Selina’s Reading List

Nathalie Herschorfer. Coming into Fashion – A century of Photography at Condé Nast. New York, Thames& Hudson: 2012.

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