Domestic Affairs: FIDM Opening for the 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition

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When I worked for the FIDM Museum last autumn, it honestly felt like I was getting up to go hang out with my friends rather than “real work” (though it was a lot of that, too). So I was rather pleased to be invited to the opening for their latest exhibitions, the 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design, and BLISS, displaying 19th-Century wedding dresses and other objects from the Helen Larson collection. The opening was covered by several Los Angeles publications, such as The Hollywood Reporter, and was — as you can see in the image above — a very popular event. With the Academy Awards approaching, the V&A Hollywood exhibition moving on from Virginia this month, and Jill’s wonderful post about the Cosprop costume exhibition in Texas, it is not really surprising that the FIDM Museum’s exhibition has attracted such attention. What is so amazing about the exhibition is the way in which they manage to gather all of these costumes together, and still wow their audiences year after year.

I saw my first Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition at FIDM in 2011, where my own research into Kashmir shawls made the Jane Eyre display particularly interesting for me, as I was able to see how they imitated the imitations for the film. I was also attending on a Saturday in the midst of a CSA event, so it was not nearly so crowded as this attendance. I also now know, from having worked with the museum staff and the exhibition curator and Museum Coordinator, Michael Black, how much work goes into this show. Studios and production teams don’t always keep track of where their costumes go after the film wraps, so the finding and displaying of all of the costumes is nothing short of a miracle that Mike manages to reproduce every year. This year was particularly difficult, especially with some costumes which were borrowed from overseas being held by customs until just a couple days before the opening on 8 February.

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Pacific Rim

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 Ender’s Game

What struck me most about this year’s show was the sheer variety of costume design on display — a variety not always seen in the Academy Award nominations, I might point out. Starting with science fiction and fantasy costumes in the first gallery and first part of the second gallery, the exhibition showed select costumes from Ender’s GamePacific RimOblivionThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Man of SteelThor: The Dark World, and Oz, The Great and Powerful, among others. Contrary to expectations with The Hunger Games, it was not the gloriously ridiculous outfits worn by citizens of the Capital that were on display, but those garments that had to have fabric specially designed and created for the pieces, such as Jena Malone’s ‘tree’ costume for her role as Johanna Mason. This was a theme that Michael Black emphasized throughout the exhibition — but which really stood out among the sci-fi and fantasy costumes — a “focus on unique fabrics that are often made from scratch to specifically fulfill the look needed for each character”.

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American Hustle
 
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The Butler
 
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The Great Gatsby

The remaining costumes ranged from historic — Renaissance for Romeo & Juliet, 19th-century for The Invisible Woman, Anna Karenina,  and 12 Years a Slave, to early 20th-century for The Great Gatsby, The Grandmaster, and 42 – to orientalist fantasy for 47 Ronin. The latter was an interesting fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean traditional dress with the sort of costumes I used to see when I read manga as a teenager. There was also the work of at least three FIDM graduates, a wonderful way for current students to see the work of various alumni. There are also six displays by designers nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for costume design.

When I attended that first Motion Picture Costume exhibition three years ago, I was actually disappointed by the costumes. Many that had looked absolutely luscious on screen were, in person, a bit dull. For example,  the above mentioned imitation of a Kashmir shawl was obviously stamped cotton (not a surprise, considering budget restrictions, but there are historic imitations that used stamping and looked more accurate than this modern one did). Or the costumes from Madonna’s W.E.: the black suit with white appliqué trim for Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson had none of the appeal or glamour it did on screen (I would like the two hours of my life I spent watching that particular film back, but that’s another story). This year, I was absolutely astounded by the detail.

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Oz, The Great and Powerful
 
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The Great Gatsby (Daisy)
 
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47 Ronin
 
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The Grandmaster

And it was not just the beautiful embroidery, beading and appliqué that was so impressive. It was the attention to detail: the simple elegance of a dress worn by Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby emphasized her character and her place as Daisy’s foil (I asked assistant registrar, Ilana Winter, if I could have that dress, she said no). Then there was a man’s tie on one of the costumes from Saving Mr. Banks which captured the era in a single accessory that is hard to explain. Even more so, was the wearing and tearing done to the costumes of 42 that made them look like they really had been worn in a baseball game. Or the delicate contrast that you had to look for to see between Michael Fassbender’s and the several slave costumes from 12 Years a SlaveSuch common, if not pretty, details exemplify the sort of research and attention that is necessary to not only help the actors inhabit the character, but for the audience to inhabit the story.

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12 Years a Slave
 
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42
 
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Saving Mr. Banks
 
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The Great Gatsby (Jordan)

This attention to detail was a perfect segue into the other exhibition that opened that night, BLISS: 19th-Century Wedding Gowns from the Helen Larson Collection. Showing ten or twelve gowns, the show manages to illustrate the breadth of wedding gowns and wedding paraphernalia for the era. From the Belle Epoque with its opulence, to my favourite eras, early 19th-century empire gowns and Romantic era bell-sleeves, seemingly every fashion and detail of the century could be found in this small collection of dresses, gloves, shoes, bonnets, and fans. 

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The tiny gallery was absolutely crowded full of visitors — as full as the main gallery — every one of them speaking in admiration of the gowns, and more than a few aghast at how tiny the corseted waists were. The inclusion of individual bonnets, gloves, shoes, and in one case a letter accepting a proposal along with gloves and an engagement ring, gave a complete picture of the material culture of upper class weddings of the time period. It is also an excellent fundraising tool: each text panel showed the amount needed to be raised by the museum to purchase this particular piece for the collection, so that visitors could pledge what they could for their favourite garments and be involved in the acquisition.

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It was also a wonderful way for independent scholars and students of dress history to see a collection that has not yet been digitized. The gown below — complete with hair arrow — fits perfectly with one of my current research focuses: the use and copying of Indian fabrics as evidence of the influence of Indian aesthetics on those of Britain. The gown looks to be made of an imitation saree fabric, with its simple print and detailed border (at the hem). I sense a research trip may be in order!

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I could go on and on showing pictures and discussing the excellent curation and beautiful display. I was truly excited about getting to see my friends at FIDM, and seeing the exhibition, but I was completely unprepared for this year’s exhibition and the way little details still keep sneaking up on me. The array of costumes, well-displayed, and the exquisite nature of all the pieces from BLISS was in keeping with FIDM’s standards, but still incredible to see in person. As Michael Black says in his introduction to the film costumes exhibition, the displays really do cause visitors to “think about the fact that costume designers are often on the cutting-edge of researching new fabrics and techniques of creating and manipulating them to present the costumes you see on the screen”. Juxtaposed with the historic techniques, and couture craftsmanship seen in the wedding gowns in BLISS, I feel the two exhibition compliment each other.

The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition will be on display until 26 April, and BLISS will be up until 5 July.

Please share your comments below. And remember, if you are in North America and have any exhibitions or events happening in your area that you would like featured, just email me the details!

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Museum Life: Film costume in the gallery and the archive

With Brenna’s recent post on Deborah Landis’s costume analysis on Turner Classic Movies, FIDM’s 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition opening February 11, and the Academy Awards broadcasting March 2, discussion and presentation of excellence in costume design for film and television is in the air.

Exhibitions solely devoted to costume and fashion don’t pass through Central Texas very often, so I was happy last month to have the chance to view an exhibition of costumes that has been making the rounds in North America over the past few years, CUT! Costume and the Cinema, at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. The exhibition showcases the artistry and inventory of London-based costume house Cosprop, which specializes in period and fantasy film.  Their creations have figured prominently in Oscar wins for costume design during the last four decades, beginning with the 1985 Merchant Ivory film, A Room With a View.

Something I really value in viewing exhibitions, traveling or otherwise, is not only the enjoyment of seeing garments in person and how they are contextualized, but also how the process of absorbing the presentation and narrative allows for reflection on one’s own work and practice and the collections in one’s care.

The gallery space was a visual feast that wisely resisted becoming too overwhelming.  With a particular emphasis placed on educating the audience in the examination of embroidery, lace, beading, underpinnings, period construction and the recognition of the considerable expertise involved, more than the 43 costumes on view would have been too much to take in.  The text panels also encouraged visitors to consider these elements not only within the context of the film narrative and the psychology and motivations of the character, but also within the social codes of fashion of the given period.

This exhibition, though an advertisement for Cosprop in particular, helped to shine a light on behind-the-scenes craftspeople, sometimes mentioning practitioners by name, beyond the star and the designer. While many visitors seemed to focus on this, some people breezed by text labels or looked only for which actor wore the costume.  The text panels introducing each section and labels placed by each costume appeared small and subtle next to the showstopping costumes, but did attempt to communicate that the costumes were not there as just eye candy or celebrity souvenirs–they challenged the audience to really look at the details.

Female costumes were presented on what appeared to be the most petite size dress form from Stockman, a company used by museums and couture clients alike. This presentation worked with costumes worn by very svelte and/or petite actresses, such as Nicole Kidman, Keria Knightley or Natalie Portman (all former or current spokespeople for couture houses). In the case of a costume worn by Maggie Smith in Gosford Park (2001), the juxtaposition of a film clip of Maggie Smith with the costume as displayed on the couture-sized mannequin highlighted the distinct difference between the costume worn by Smith in the film and the costume as presented in the gallery. With these standardized bodies, the actor and their unique embodiment of the character is sometimes denied.

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Costume worn by Maggie Smith in Gosford Park (2001)
Costume Design by Jenny Beavan
Cut! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

That said, creating a particular person’s body and a certain character’s personality through a standard dress form or mannequin is difficult, time-consuming, and not always possible given various budget, staff, or time constraints.  For an idea of just how challenging it is, read this article on preparing costumes, contemporary and historical, from all genres and eras for the exhibition, Hollywood Costume.

Costumes were generously spaced throughout the gallery on low platforms, or spaced closer together without platforms if from the same film, as in a series of costumes from The Duchess (2008).

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Gallery of costumes from The Duchess (2008)
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

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Costumes worn by Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes in The Duchess (2008)
Costume design by Michael O’Connor
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

Visitors could step forward to examine details, inches away from the costume with no barriers.  Museum guards were attentive and present in each room, but I was surprised at how close I could approach the costume. And yet these garments comprise a portion of the archive of a privately owned, working costume company, not a public museum collection of period garments (although perhaps these costumes have been permanently pulled from use and circulation?). All of the costumes in CUT! are not actual 18th, 19th, or 20th century garments, but contemporary period costumes created in the late 20th and 21st centuries with fabric and stitches made more resilient than historical garments by their relatively young age. I do not mean to imply that Cosprop is not concerned about their stock, or the McNay about collections in their care, but rather that pieces from a museum collection generally could not be displayed with this kind of first-person intimacy.  Additionally, the kind of scrutiny that CUT! encouraged could not be done without the ability to see the costumes close-up.

As the desire for ever more dynamic and interactive displays inevitably increases, digital components, both online and in the gallery, will likely continue to be utilized in helping to create an intimate experience of the garment. I missed out on the McNay’s app, “The Dressing Room”, while in the gallery.  This is a version of virtual interaction that playfully approaches the forbidden action of wear and embodiment for costume collections intended for preservation. Hollywood Costume had a similar app, “Hollywood Photobooth”, at its originating venue at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Overall the exhibition did a pretty good job of educating the audience about the creative process of costuming, although I felt that examples illustrating the differences in the creative process could have been grouped together more coherently in a single gallery space. One text panel explained that a costume, when the budget allows, can be built from scratch, with construction, embroidering, beading, or other embellishment created by Cosprop’s staff.  Or, an entire costume can be created around a period fragment, such as the intricately beaded panel at the front of a costume from The Portrait of a Lady (1996).

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Costume worn by Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Costume design by Janet Patterson
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

Sometimes a completed, previously used costume is selected from stock by the designer, such as an ensemble from The Prestige (2006). I wondered if audiences realized these differences between each costume, as the various examples of each design decision (complete construction, partial construction, or stock rental) were spaced apart throughout the galleries, and descriptive labels for each costume were relatively small and usually placed on the wall beside or behind the costume.

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Costume worn by Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige (2006)
Costume Design by Joan Bergin
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

When confronted with such stunning costumes, fantastical to 21st-century eyes and beyond the realm of current everyday wear, it is perhaps easier to convince the public that the choice of a ready-made costume is a creative act. It may be more difficult when the audience is faced with something that looks like a shirt or sweater they may have passed by yesterday at the mall or the thrift shop, folded on a shelf or hanging on a rack.

The Academy favors design for lush historical or fantasy films, like the costumes displayed in the CUT! exhibition. This emphasis is not surprising, and is, of course, deserving.  And yet the complexity and attention to detail that is so celebrated in period costume can be just as evident in costume for films set in the present day.  A costume does not have to be a showstopper of historical accuracy to contain evidence of the thought process and careful assemblage of a character’s ensemble.  In contrast to the Academy’s monolithic category, the Costume Designer’s Guild recognizes achievement in separate categories: contemporary, period, and fantasy film.

When I prepared a costume worn by Robert De Niro from Silver Linings Playbook (2012) for viewing in the lobby in advance of last year’s Oscar ceremony, one participant asked, “Is this even a costume?” The pervasive assumption of costume design as largely historical or out-of-the-ordinary makes an seemingly ordinary outfit look like an interloper in the world of costume design.

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Costume worn by Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Robert De Niro Costumes and Props
Harry Ransom Center
Photo by Pete Smith

And yet the costume above is more complex than you think.  Designer Mark Bridges has talked about where he imagined Robert De Niro’s character, Pat Sr., would shop for his clothes, and then went and shopped at those stores and malls.  He created a wardrobe chronicling Pat Sr.’s love for his favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, by mixing vintage pieces like this 1960s/1970s cardigan with newer pieces from neighborhood shops. He and his wardrobe team also sourced older logo patches of the Eagles and sewed them on different garments, as seen on the well-worn cardigan, indicating a much-loved sweater that has been in his closet for years.

Of course the extraordinary costume is a compelling object, and such garments make for dramatic presentations in the gallery. But I often wonder if any other museum or archives (besides studio archives), collect ready-to-wear contemporary costume. Are we losing or under-representing a history of costume design through a focus, reinforced by the Oscars and exhibitions like CUT!, that centers mainly on the historical and the extraordinary?

I would love to hear from others who have contemporary, non-period or fantasy costume in their collections, or also recent ready-to-wear fashion (not high-end designer), and any thoughts on whether you think this is or is not a neglected collection area.

I’ll leave you with a few blogs to visit that focus on all aspects of costume, such as Clothes on Film and Frocktalk, and a tumblr, Costumer of Awesome, that hilariously reveals not only the creative process but also the workaday travails of wardrobe, and the frustrations of how the work he or she does can be misunderstood or underappreciated.

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Domestic Affairs: Metamorphosis

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There is something inspiring about watching an exhibition come together. I first experienced this when I worked with the FIDM Museum on their first travelling exhibition, Modern love. Two weeks ago, I was one of a number of volunteers who helped install the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textile‘s (SJMQT)latest exhibition, Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity – where I had the opportunity not only to see the exhibition come together, but to watch it go up.

Metamorphosis opened a week ago, and is already getting rave reviews such as this one from Art Nerd Blog by an acquaintance of mine, Sarah Lorraine.

The exhibition tells the story of the wearable art, or art wear, movement that originated in Northern California — specifically the San Francisco Bay Area — in the 1960s. As Sarah put it in her review, the art wear movement was a sort of “spiritual love child of the arts & crafts movement”. The movement’s purpose was taking the mundane — clothing off the rack, traditional crafts such as knitting and crochet — and transforming it into self expression and statements of identity that you could wear. The movement quickly began integrating traditional dyeing and weaving techniques from around the world such as shibori, ikat, resist and clamp dyeing, etc., as well as rediscovering of historical techniques, such as Ellen Hauptil’s works which use industrial heat-set pleats that mimic the Delphi gown and others by Mariano Fortuny.

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The idea of this exhibition came about as a part of the larger story/background that the museum is trying to tell about the history of the rich and diverse Nothern California/San Francisco Bay Area fiber arts scene that we call Founding Fibers‘, I was told by curator Deborah Corsini. This larger story began in 2011, when the museum held an exhibition, Invisible Lineage, focusing on the four major founders of the fiber arts movement: Kathleen Westphal, Lydia Van Gelder, Mary Walker Phillips, and Mary Balzer Buskirk. Lineage also included works by four next-generation artists carrying on the tradition. Metamorphosis showcases not only the entirety of the movement, and showing that despite attention having fallen away from art wear in the last decade or so (the movement thrived from the 60s through the 1990s), it is still going strong.

Deborah told me that she ‘wanted to include work that used clothing as a vehicle for conceptual idea – completely unwearable but transformed. These pieces of knitted wire dresses, the yurt-like tent of ties, and the flattened, vintage assemblage pieces, evoke memory, loss, and transformation of something common and universal into another realm, another perspective. This show is possibly just the beginning of other clothing conceived shows as I realize their are a lot of other contemporary artists working in the field making artwear and/or more conceptual clothing.’

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All of the pieces are on loan from the artists themselves, with the exception of four pieces loaned by the Levi’s Archives which were submissions for Levi’s 1973 denim art competition (no photographs of these, I’m afraid — no matter how entertaining the Watergate-themed jeans with Nixon’s face peering at you from the fly). With this notable exception, Deborah visited as many of the artists as she could in their studios — working with others through the internet — and collaborated with them on selecting those pieces that would make the strongest statement. There are pieces by Kaffe Fassett (as a knitter I have seen his work in Rowan and other magazines, and his patterns, but until installation none of his actual knitwear pieces), Marion Clayden, Jean CacicedoIna KozelWendeanne Ke’aka Stitt, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, K. Lee Manuel, Angelina De Antonis of Ocelot, and Carol Lee Shanks among others. The exhibition ends with a yurt made of silk neckties that visitors can walk through by Isaac Amala and Liz Simpson (which was not finished installing by the time I had to head home).

Another fantastic addition to a textiles show: Deborah received ‘touching samples’ from many of the artists so that while you can’t touch the pieces, you can still feel the textiles they are made from.

Due to the breadth of the show, Deborah had to limit herself (and the artists) to only five or six pieces maximum per artist. One of the best things about the show is that it has so many objects in it without overwhelming the visitor, or losing the thread of the exhibition’s purpose. Deborah had a rough idea of how she wanted things placed, but most of that changed when it came to the actual installation, because there is only so much you can do with a scale model and in the case of many of these pieces, a photo really isn’t enough.

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This was also my first experience mounting objects on dress forms without supervision. It is probably best that I did it with contemporary art wear pieces rather than historic garments (not suggesting the former are inferior to the latter, but the damage done would have been less had I dropped any of them!). It was a unique and wonderful challenge that I very much enjoyed — especially finding a way to mount the hat that accompanied the Janet Liptkin piece below without a head mount and without endangering either piece). Deborah also included me in her process for creating the final arrangements (none of which you see here, since I was taking pictures in between mounting and moving forms), so that I could see her entire process and really feel like I was involved in the exhibition itself. It was amazing to see how a shift from one place to another, grouping certain pieces together, or even just proper lighting could completely transform the garments — emphasizing various artistic qualities, textures, colours, and so on.

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Having had some bad volunteer experiences, I could tell that the Museum of Quilts & Textiles treated their volunteers well not just because I was one, but from the sheer number of people who had shown up to dedicate their time to the installation. What’s more, I was the only “newbie”, everyone else had assisted with previous installations and de-installations. In my opinion, that speaks volumes about the museum itself and its ability to cope in the current economic environment and make use of limited resources.

It is rather embarrassing to admit, since I’m a fourth-generation Californian, but I didn’t know too much about the art wear movement before working on this exhibition. I knew that it existed, and that it was a ‘California thing’, but not much more. And so I find myself, once again being introduced to textile art, and educated about it by the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. Deborah Corsini tells me that the aim of the exhibition is to showcase ‘ the incredible richness and diversity of the art wear movement and the continued legacy of this movement. We want to give our audience a sense of the vitality and creativity of the times and to show the wide variety of artistic achievement by this unique group of artists that were creating art-to-wear.’

Through working with the objects, she’s succeeded with me.

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The show is open from 29 January through 27 April. Be sure to check out Deborah’s article in the Winter 2014 volume of ‘Fiber Art Now‘.

I will be writing about the FIDM Museum’s Hollywood show in my next column, but if you have any North American events or exhibitions you would like me to feature here on Domestic Affairs be sure to email me the details.

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Parisian Insights: Christie’s and Elsa Schiaparelli’s Personal Collection

Schiaparelli observing her own brand's fur coat and a Lanvin hat.

Schiaparelli observing her own brand’s fur coat and a Lanvin hat.

We are certainly enjoying a Schiaparelli moment: following the revival of the couture house by Diego della Valle seconded by Farida Khelfa and Marco Zanini and the Prada/Schiaparelli exhibition held at the MET in 2012, the auction house, Christie’s has organised an exceptional sale of her personal collection in Paris, on the 23rd January 2014.

Marisa Berenson, the granddaughter of the iconic 1930s fashion designer decided to let go of about 180 pieces illustrating the personal taste of Elsa Schiaparelli – an eccentric time capsule made of art pieces, furniture, sketches, clothing and accessories.

Jules Chéret - Folies Bergères, la Loie Fuller, 1893.

Jules Chéret – Folies Bergères, la Loie Fuller, 1893.

No need to play with suspense, the auction was a real success. The pre-sale estimate was doubled and reached a total of 1.686.250 €. In the sale’s top ten appear such pieces as a pair of carved marble leopards, an Alberto Giacometti lamp, Aubusson tapestries along photographies of the designer by Man Ray and Horst P. Horst. But fashion was not left aside as a Balenciaga plaid as well as an ensemble of Schiaparelli patterns reached elevated prices.

An ensemble of 1950s patterns.

An ensemble of 1950s patterns.

It is not the first time Christie’s delivers important fashion auctions (past memorable examples include Anna Piaggi or Vivienne Westwood’s personal collections) but it is the first time it takes place in Paris and no better time nor place could have been chosen at the peak of the haute couture season.

All that made the Italian fashion designer unique could be observed during the collection’s exhibition: her love for fantasy and surrealism – an art movement she deeply collaborated with, the close relationship between art and fashion – an association the auction house has ingenuously accounted with its presentation mingling fashion pieces and art objects, her strong taste for oriental aesthetics and the legendary shocking pink.

Probably Schiaparelli, Black Mink Hood, End of 1930s.

Probably Schiaparelli, Black Mink Hood, End of 1930s.

How interesting to inspect the inventive environment La Schiap lived in and what she loved to wear. Fashion wise, she definitely had a thing for furs (on the 49 fashion related lots, 12 are fur pieces), she also privileged oriental wear inspired by her Tunisian home and I can definitely imagine her lounging around in those vivid and precious tunics and dresses and finally, when it comes to the garments she would select from her personal brand, embroidered tops seemed to be favoured. How exciting to observe for real the ‘Astrologie’ collection with its key piece: a violet silk blouse embroidered by Lesage and the impressive 1940 beaded rodeo waistcoat that Karl Lagerfeld would have probably loved to have in his Paris/Dallas show.  I also fell deeply in love with an embroidered shocking pink bolero: a feminine and sensual matador.

Schiaparelli - Pink Wool, 1940.

Schiaparelli – Pink Wool, 1940.

As for the furniture and various objects that adorned her interior, there was definitely something of a Renaissance ‘cabinet de curiosités’ as Elsa Schiaparelli seemed to mix and match such a diverse selection of styles and influences: Art Deco met Baroque while French Second Empire blended with Louis XVI Chinoiseries…All these objects illustrate the eclectic almost bohemian-like setting the designer had created for herself. It is hard not to think that only such an avant-garde and creative personality could assume mixing so many different genres – the sign of the surrealist movement she felt connected to.

Wedding Kaftan (1930) against an Aubusson Tapestry.

Wedding Kaftan (1930) against an Aubusson Tapestry.

The auction also highlighted her artistic friendships with objects imagined by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the illustrators Christian Bérard and Marcel Vertès or the photographer Man Ray: a fascinating fragment of 1930s modernist art.

Marcel Vertès - Schocking, 1946.

Marcel Vertès – Schocking, 1946.

In the whole, along the obvious financial logic behind the auction (I must admit I’m always a little disturb by the fact that trustees sell off objects from their ancestors like this), it was also a formidable situation for us curious historians to take a closer look at the intimate life of a famed fashion designer. Although we may have read numerous books or visited exhibitions that explained her work, we definitely got to know Elsa Schiaparelli better through her intimate collection that not only highlighted her inspirational taste but also brought us on a journey through her times’ contemporary art scene.

I do hope, as it happens in London and New York, this will make Parisian auction houses organise further major couture and fashion sales as we clearly miss them here!

Exotic Wall.

Exotic Wall.

Further Resources:

You can browse the auction’s catalogue on Christie’s website.

Take a look at Heather Vaughan’s post about the designer.

Rediscover the MET’s exhibition uniting Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli

Read her autobiography: Schiaparelli, Elsa. Shocking Life. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007.

Discover Showstudio’s Conversation between Hubert de Givenchy and Marisa Berenson.

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Pearls exhibition at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum

Although I want to focus upon local and regional dress collections across the UK within my new role as a Worn Through contributor, there can be no doubt that I am from London and greatly appreciate all that my hometown has to offer.   So, for my second post, I thought I would return to my dress/design history roots with a visit to the Pearls exhibition at the V&A Museum.

My schooling in design history and theory began at the V&A, where I completed an MA History of Design in conjunction with the Royal College of Art.  It was such a rich experience, to be taught by researchers and curators active in the museum while spending almost every day in the presence of its never ending collections.  I know it may sound cliched when I say that I never stop discovering new things on a visit to the V&A but it really is worth saying.  In other words, the V&A is never dull and its broad, varied sweep of curatorial decisions means there is always some display or exhibition worth further discussion and debate.

That is perhaps why I chose to visit Pearls, an exhibition organised in partnership with the Qatar Museum Authority, and which closed to the public a week ago.  Jewellery and bodily adornment does interest me, as an aspect of dress and identity, and I have spend several years engaging with student jewellers and silversmiths about the focus and value of their work.  However, I tend to approach the subject through the prism of critical design rather than from the magnifying glass of a collector.  So, when faced with an exhibition that aims to celebrate one form of jewellery, I needed some convincing.  How would I engage with Pearls if I wasn’t already a fan of this curious natural phenomenon?  As I entered the exhibition, I admit, my mind was atuned to a slightly cynical attitude.  It was with some relief that I then found myself completely immersed in the fascinating, but also disturbing, story of an inherently precious hard, spherical mass.

There are four sections to the exhibition and for me, the most satisfying were the first and the last, both of which explored what a pearl is, how it is produced and its eventual redesign in an effort to make it a cheaper commodity.  The middle sections were dedicated to displays of jewellery that show the pearl’s recurring importance throughout Western history as a symbol of authority, wealth, glamour and prestige.  This was reiterated by the use of old 19th and early 20th century safes as display cases.

There were definitely some fascinating pieces to be seen here, such as a pearl drop earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649, the Renaissance portrait of a pregnant woman wearing row upon row of pearls or the pieces by Reinhold Vasters, a master jewellery forger.  Yet, overall, these sections probably hold more appeal for the visitor who likes to look at shiny, dazzling objects in a setting that smells faintly of a commercial showroom.  It is no surprise that the Evening Standard lauded this section, suggesting that it is where the ‘death, sex and jewels’ approach to exhibition planning, as described by Valerie Cummings in her text Understanding Fashion History has taken precedence over a more critical approach to the design, production and consumption of pearls in various societies and times.

Saying that, the first section of the exhibition is gripping as the story of a pearl’s creation reveals its true state as an accident of natural causes.  Crudely put, pearls are the result of fish or shellfish excrement (which contains a tapeworm) becoming trapped in a mollusc such as an oyster or mussel, which then tries to deal with the alien body by growing nacre (mother of pearl) over it.  After a couple of years, a cyst is formed and there you have your glamorous pearl.  As these trapped tapeworms are rare, to find a single natural pearl is the equivalent of opening 2,000 oyster shells.  I was quite surprised by this as in my research on jewellery, fashion and ethics, I had not found any discussion on the degree of waste produced through pearl farming.  This was further compounded by the last section which focused upon the emergence of the cultured pearl.  The farming of natural pearls eventually diminished stocks in the Persian Gulf meanwhile the wave of modernity washed over the 20th century and Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in cultivating fresh water pearls in an innovative feat of genetic engineering.  As Beatrix Chadour-Sampson, co-curator of the exhibition explains, pearls are born, not made.   The difference now is that where before they were born in situ, they are now completely test-tubed, leading to a growing Chinese mass market where everyone can adopt a pearl baby.

Display of mass produced pearls at the end of the exhibition

A film of Japanese women in the mid 1930s grafting small pieces of nacre onto freshwater mussels alongside haunting photographs of Chinese urban landscapes transfigured (or transformed) by pearl cultivation were nothing short of captivating.  To see the technical production of cultured pearls and its impact on contemporary China and the historical Persian Gulf raised questions about how these rather ugly, biological rarities had managed to persuade us otherwise – I mean, if Roman women were obsessed with pearl earrings, why was that the case?  Who were the buyers and traders that created such interest in what seems to me to be such an inherently obsolescent enterprise, founded upon a very narrow hierarchy of  labor and capital?  It still takes around two years to cultivate a pearl and yet Mikimoto, as well as most of what China produces, only keep 5-10% of what they produce to maintain perceived levels of quality.

Pearl divers in the Persian Gulf circa 1970s

Mark Hudson, reviewing the exhibition in the Daily Telegraph, suggests that one needs to be a particular sort of woman to wear and ‘get’ pearls.  In other words, you either have it or you don’t.  This probably makes more sense if you categorise jewellery and those who wear it according to modernist tastes, whereby you put bling in opposition to pearls and you see most jewellery as a highly femininised enterprise, where its stereotypical aim is to beautify the world.  However, why are we assuming all women acknowledge the pearl’s high value?  I don’t get what the fuss is about because I find it difficult to take their status for granted.  The assumed emphasis on pearls and feminine identity seemed a missed opportunity for the exhibition to explore the way in which jewellery and adornment challenges gender roles and expectations.  It would have been interesting to know whether today’s jewellery makers/wearers see it that way too?  Although the exhibition does feature contemporary pieces by makers such as Nora Fok and Frederick Baker, they are not invited to comment on how they understand this curious material beyond just its assumed prestige and glamour.

Chest belonging to a pearl dealer

The Pearls exhibition is no doubt a promotion for the upcoming Pearl Museum in Qatar which, according to the Daily Telegraph, will feature most of a collection owned by Hussain Alfardan, known as the dealer in the Qatari pearl industry, and whose portrait is prominently display in the exhibition next to artifacts associated with pearl trading: scales, conversion tables and sieves.  Much has been said in the British popular media about how this particular exhibition highlights the way in which Qatar wants to buy back their cultural heritage – pearls were the most important Persian commodity before oil.  Interestingly, while they may possess these objects physically, Qatar and its historical relationship with the trading of pearls or influence upon their popularity is little explored in this exhibition.  Why?  Perhaps because, like pearls, their authority on the subject is a priori assumed and, as the viewer, we require nothing more than that assurance of cultural capital.  In the end, I left the exhibition convinced not of the pearl’s allure but of the way in which we fetishise objects and how insightful this process can be about ourselves in the material world.

Finally, I thought this exhibition could have incredible resonance with anyone studying fashion, ethics and sustainability.  Questions concerning the concept of luxury, the role of provenance in ethical debates and alternative cycles of consumption all seem relevant to an interest in pearls.  If you have a view on this or are in fact working on something related, I would love to hear from you.

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Domestic Affairs: Jewels, and Lace, and Grace Kelly… Oh my!

Sophia Loren 1960

The first word to come to mind when trying to organize my thoughts and impressions regarding the de Young’s exhibition, The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950 – 1990, is ‘stunning’. That seems a bit obvious and unoriginal, but that is the only way to describe this amazing combination of dress history, opulence, and phenomenal use of technology in an exhibition. The second word that comes to mind is ‘crowded’. This was frustrating when trying to see the individual cases, but at the same time I found it quite gratifying that yet again, a dress exhibition was pulling in as many visitors as the David Hockney exhibition downstairs which is in its final week. Its popularity also proves something I have long suspected of human beings: we really are magpies.

I confess that jewellery, while beautiful, has never been a major focus of my own research. I’ve always been more interested in fabric and cultural borrowing and colonialism (because life is apparently not depressing enough), and never particularly found jewellery interesting. However, I had a revelation at this exhibition that I have only ever had a few times in my life — when I saw my first Jackson Pollock, Marc Chagall, and Frida Kahlo paintings — that there are some things that simply cannot be appreciated through photographs: they must be seen in person in order to understand their beauty and allure.

This was what happened to me at ‘The Art of Bulgari’. I had gone because it was the big, annual exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), and because I knew I should do a write up for Worn Through. I did not expect to walk out with the catalogue any more than I expected to dream of pure, exquisite colour for the next two nights, but that’s what I did.

6560-6564-6562

Parure, 1955–1956
Gold and platinum with
sapphires, rubies, and diamonds
Necklace: 42 x 4 cm
Earrings: 6 x 2 cm
Bracelet: 18 x 3 cm
Private collection

Brought in by the European Decorative Arts department, the exhibition begins with projections of the jewellery floating across a pure black background as you enter the textile galleries. I have been in these galleries so often that I have the space memorized, and the exhibition design rather awed me. It completely transformed the space so that it actually took me quite some time to get my bearings, creating five rooms where I knew there had only been one. More than that, by going with completely black walls on to which projections could be shown with amazing clarity and colour, they created an intimate feeling without feeling crowded or claustrophobic. It also made the display cases set in these walls in and of themselves jewellery boxes: there was a feeling of anticipation as you entered the second room, and the crowds parted to reveal bright, white, dazzling groupings of the tremblant brooches that first made the house famous.

Giardinetto brooch, ca. 1959 Gold and platinum with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds 5 x 5 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 5000 P206 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

Giardinetto brooch,
ca. 1959
Gold and platinum with
emeralds, rubies, and diamonds
5 x 5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 5000 P206
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

P29

Tremblant brooch, 1962
Platinum with yellow and
white diamonds
9.5 x 5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 4998 P154
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

All of the text panels were done on giant flat screens, a subtle way in which the feeling that everything glowed was actually enhanced. This is also the first time I have ever seen visitors reading all of the text panels all the way through. There were also several such panels that  showed images of celebrities both past and present wearing Bulgari jewels in a loop. My impression was that the celebrities and models paled in comparison to the actual jewellery you could see, so I can’t really tell you who was featured in these parades of images other than the obvious actresses: Monica Vitti and Elizabeth Taylor. The exhibition also utilized technology to show even more pieces through digital ‘books’ that patrons could turn pages in to reveal an image of new necklace or other amazing creation. In the next to last room, which displayed the Elizabeth Taylor collection, the images on these pages even climbed a special wall so that they could be seen by everyone, not just the patron using the book. The integration of all these new tools was absolutely seamless, and greatly appreciated by the visitors — there were lines for several of the text panels and books in the same way there were lines for the pieces themselves. There were also several cases that used themed holographic projections before revealing a single, beautiful item, usually a brooch.

ElizabethTaylor_Fisher_ 1962

Eddie Fisher adjusting his wife’s Bulgari tremblant brooch, Rome, 1961. Photo: © Bettmann/CORBIS.

In addition to the display cases in the walls (all of which were lined with a white background that had a subtle sparkle to it), there were individual pedestals in the centre of each room showing sets, be they necklace, bracelet, and earrings, or necklace, brooch, and table clock.

The exhibition was divided up largely by decades. The first display room dealt with pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, the second with the 1960s and 1970s, the third was dedicated to the Elizabeth Taylor pieces (there was a platinum with sapphire cabuchon sautoir with matching ring that I’m sure would look lovely on me!), and the last room dedicated to pieces from the 1980s and 1990s. Within these rooms, the pieces were grouped by types: tremblant brooches, sautoir necklaces, tubogas, etc. This was remarkably helpful to me, since until this exhibition I had never actually been sure what a cabuchon jewel was, so it was not only beautiful to look at, it was extremely educational. It also helped that I went through with my mother who gave me a crash course in how to recognize clarity and flaws in jewels — an easy task with such large examples to illustrate the concepts.

Bracelet, 1972 Platinum with turquoise and diamonds 17.8 x 1.9 cm Collection of Jennifer Tilly Photograph by Zale Richard Rubins

Bracelet, 1972
Platinum with turquoise
and diamonds
17.8 x 1.9 cm
Collection of Jennifer Tilly
Photograph by Zale Richard Rubins

Necklace, ca. 1978 Gold with Florentine Renaissance silver coin and diamonds 40 x 4.5 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 347898 N2175 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

Necklace, ca. 1978
Gold with Florentine
Renaissance silver coin
and diamonds
40 x 4.5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 347898 N2175
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

28. Necklace and pendant earrings, 1967 Gold with sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds Necklace: 32.5 x 7.3 cm Earrings: 7.3 x 2.8 cm Formerly in the collection of Mayrink Veiga Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 5125 N1397, 5140 E1562 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

28. Necklace and pendant
earrings, 1967
Gold with sapphires, emeralds,
rubies, and diamonds
Necklace: 32.5 x 7.3 cm
Earrings: 7.3 x 2.8 cm
Formerly in the collection of
Mayrink Veiga
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 5125 N1397, 5140 E1562
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

I’m afraid I lost count of the number of objects featured in the exhibition, largely because I was too busy oggling all the shiny — I, too, am apparently a magpie. Thankfully the press release tells me there were over 150 pieces. The layout was truly masterful because even with so many pieces, and the projections, and the backgrounds of full-colour design sketches, and the holograms I did not leave feeling overwhelmed by the colours or the glamour. I actually left wanting more.

33. Brooch, 1969 Gold and platinum with turquoise, sapphires, and diamonds 5 x 5 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 4992 P111 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

33. Brooch, 1969
Gold and platinum with
turquoise, sapphires,
and diamonds
5 x 5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 4992 P111
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

What I came away with was an deep admiration for the house of Bulgari’s design mastery, and their amazing sense of colour. Not only did they manage to move with the times and fashion, they managed to remain recognizably ‘Bulgari’ as they changed. The integration of Renaissance coins, precious and semi-precious stones, gold with silver, and being able to move between cut gems and cabuchons — sometimes three, even four different colours — to capture the same ambiance as the fashion the jewellery was worn with was truly awe-inspiring. The exhibition proved Andy Warhol correct when he said, ‘I always visit Bulgari because it is the most important museum of contemporary art’.

Princess Grace of Monaco, wearing a Bulgari gold coin-set necklace, in Monte Carlo, 1978. Photo: © Jack Nisberg/Roger-Viollet.

Princess Grace of Monaco, wearing a Bulgari gold coin-set necklace, in Monte Carlo, 1978. Photo: © Jack Nisberg/Roger-Viollet.

Flounce, 17th century Italy Linen needle lace (gros point de Venise) Museum collection X1989.320

Flounce, 17th century
Italy
Linen needle lace (gros point de Venise)
Museum collection
X1989.320

After leaving ‘Bulgari’ I stopped in the T. B. Walker Foundation Textile Education Gallery, where a smaller exhibition, ‘Lace: Labor andLuxury’, was on display. Curated by Kristen Stewart, there were 12 pieces including both examples of lace from FAMSF’s collection and portraits of men and women wearing lace from the Achenbach collection of prints. Kristen’s goal was to place lace in the context of fashion history, and she definitely succeeded through the combination of etched portraiture from the seventeenth century, and a painting from the nineteenth century, and examples of needle, bobbin, and machine lace. There was an exquisite nineteenth-century jacket of chantilly lace that greeted the visitor as they entered the gallery that I have fallen head over heels in love with.

Robert White (English, 1645–1703) After Pieter van Sickeleers, called Saturnus (Flemish, active 17th century) Portrait of Francis Morosini, 17th century Engraving Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts 1963.30.11134

Robert White (English, 1645–1703)
After Pieter van Sickeleers, called Saturnus (Flemish, active 17th century)
Portrait of Francis Morosini, 17th century
Engraving
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
1963.30.11134

Through careful selection of a mixture of objects Kristen showed not only the long history of this now-neglected art, but also the wearing of it by both men and women to demonstrate taste and wealth. The exhibition, though small, was as popular as the Bulgari exhibition, with nearly everyone wandering through the Education gallery to see it after shopping the Bulgari store. I also found the pairing of ‘Lace’ with ‘The Art of Bulgari’ was an amazing way to show that while the methods of conspicuous luxury have changed, the practice itself has been with us as long as fashion has. With both exhibitions, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco demonstrated just how amazing, educational, and appealing to broad audiences dress and textile exhibitions can be.

Cap back, early 18th century France Linen needle lace (point d’Alençon) Gift of Mrs. Hans Benedict 53.39.19

Cap back, early 18th century
France
Linen needle lace (point d’Alençon)
Gift of Mrs. Hans Benedict
53.39.19

 

This week I end with the announcement of the final weeks to see the Grace Kelly Style exhibition at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The exhibition closes next week, on 26 January. My heart-felt thanks to Hollie Brown who informed me of the exhibition and its imminent closure through email. This is one of those moments where I desperately wish I had an endless travel budget.

Please do not hesitate to email me your exhibition and other event announcements you would like promoted here, or simply leave links in the comments. Next week I will be assisting with the installation of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles’ new ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition, an experience and review I will share with you on 5 February!

Many thanks to Clara Hatcher and Kristen Stewart of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for images and insights.

Opening image caption: Sophia Loren in a Bulgari parure of cabochon sapphires and rubies highlighted with diamonds, 1960.
Photo: Archivi Farabola

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Bath Fashion Museum, Hello and Happy New Year!

Bath Fashion Museum: 50 Fabulous Frocks

I thought I would start my first UK based bi-weekly contribution with a review of Bath Fashion Museum, one of the most significant dress collections in the country.  However, there is a twist.  My visit took place in the last week of 2013, in an effort to catch a final glimpse of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations.  Described as one of the top 10 fashion collections in the world, I had previously overlooked this museum in my dress and museum education pursuits. I discovered that Bath Fashion Museum has a collection of approximately 80,000 objects compared to 75,000 within the Fashion and Textile Collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  To have not noticed the potential of Bath’s offerings is in part due to being a self-confessed citycentric Londoner.

So in an effort to address this oversight, I hope to spend my time with Worn Through bringing you news of more regional events and exhibitions.  The visit to Bath Fashion Museum did not disappoint and I can only stress how much it is worth leaving the capital to visit this extensive and thoughtfully exhibited collection.

According to their website, the museum opened in 23 May 1963 as the Museum of Costume and was founded by Doris Langley Moore, an enthusiastic scholar and avid collector of dress.  Moore is notable for her interest in fashionable dress as a social and historical practice, based upon detailed object observation and research.  According to Dr Lou Taylor, Moore challenged the more psychological, theoretical approach favoured by her contemporaries such as James Laver and Chris Cunnington.

As the presenter of a television series produced by the BBC entitled Men, Women and Clothes, broadcast in April 1957, most of the garments featured were from her private collection then housed in Eridge Castle, Sussex.  This series is fascinating viewing for anyone interested in fashion history and theory.  Moore’s deep, heavily enunciated narration is hypnotic listening while the attempt to visualise and explain historical changes in dress highly innovative for the time.  The decision to use real people in period dress, although considered unacceptable today due to the damage caused to the garments, vividly brings the timeline of fashionable dress to life. 

Once the collection was permanently based at Bath and opened to the public, Moore continued to make sure that displays provided as much contextual information as possible, ensuring mannequins were realistically styled in accordance with the particular dress period.

Bath Fashion Museum can be found in the basement of the Assembly Rooms, a set of public rooms opened in 1771 for the purpose of Georgian entertainment.  Situated in the upper part of the town centre, the Assembly Rooms is a pleasant 15-20 minute walk from the train station through the historic main streets, which nicely takes in both the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey.  Once there, it is possible to see the rather sparse, although clearly splendid at the time, entertainment rooms upstairs before descending upon what is essentially an underground museum.  A free audio guide is on offer and although I would recommend this, it was at times slightly unnecessary for those who perhaps prefer to read, rather than listen to, the information on display.

The visitor to the museum is taken on a tour of six key displays, as well as a hands-on area where both adults and children can try on reproduction historical dress such as crinolines, corsets, bonnets, top hats and sportswear.  The museum’s website currently cites nine displays but three of these took place earlier in the year so were unavailable on my visit.  The breadth of displays on offer in 2013 impressed me, bringing a dynamism to the visit that I think is missing from larger museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum.

IMG_0004

Introduction to the 50 Fabulous Frocks display

Champagne bottle fancy dress 1904

Champagne bottle fancy dress 1904

Before entering the first display, the visitor is presented with a single outfit at the bottom of the stairs.  A fancy dress costume circa 1904, it is an attempt to imitate a bottle of champagne and on the website there is an image of it being worn by an unknown lady.  It is a clever and fun introduction to the following display entitled 50 Fabulous Frocks, which is a celebration of the museum’s collection since it opened fifty years ago.  It encapsulates an ethos where dress is valued across all sections of society, and is not just designer gowns and celebrity faces.  It highlights how dressing up is a well established cultural practice, putting the body in praxis as we reflect upon why and by whom this particular costume was made.  Lastly, the symbol of a champagne bottle evokes a celebratory mood, providing a soundtrack of popping corks, effervescent bubbles and raised voices exchanging notes on best fancy dress to accompany the visitor as they experience 50 Fabulous Frocks.

The display is a rich and varied experience, showcasing outfits from the collections that span over 300 years.  I particularly liked the juxtaposition of an Ossie Clark floor length dress back to back with a 1930s evening gown.  Not only are there fantastic examples of everyday dress, such as a 1940s housecoat where each printed polka dot has been individually quilted to give the whole garment a 3D appearance or the embroidered coat made by an unknown art student, the information labels for each outfit also nicely evoke the social, cultural and economic contexts while avoiding being too academic.

There is an eclectic mix of mannequins to reflect fifty years of displaying fashion. This was an interesting device as it made subtle reference to the history of the museum, again without being overly didactic.  I would love to see an exhibition here in the future that focused upon their wonderful collection of mannequins, especially as Moore was known for paying close attention to this detail.  Labels for the garments were on the surrounding walls while the objects were displayed in two large cases inaccessible from all sides, which meant much walking back and forth.  On the one hand, this almost deterred the visitor from reading about each outfit while on the other, it could have engaged more deeply as they had to actively take control of their own learning by matching up the label with the outfit.  In doing so, the visitors could put together their own story of the collection’s highlights.

Interesting choice of mannequins – there were a few items of menswear also in the display!

IMG_0010

Zandra Rhodes outfit

 

Following on from this display is 17th Century Gloves, which is small and first opened in 2007 when the museum changed its name to Bath Fashion Museum.  It features some of the rarest objects in the collection, with the presentation of 20 pairs of gloves that are over 400 years old.  The labels make good use of questions as a way to frame each glove’s unique history.  This helps to focus a visitor who may find it initially hard to engage with the significance of such specific objects.

After the gloves, the visitor is invited to view the Behind the Scenes display, which on reflection was a fascinating experience once I read that most visitors to the museum are tourists on the Bath historic site tour.  Simply put, the display is focused on the changing fashions of women’s dress in the 1800s until the very early 1900s. However, what the curators have done is to place this chronology against the ‘working’ backdrop of the museum itself.  Seven ceiling to floor glass vitrines provide a view onto the museum’s stores in the form of labelled boxes and containers stacked up against interior walls, seen behind the mannequins in the foreground.  They are further supported by a cast of references from literature, letters, diaries, magazines and advice manuals from the period.

In her essay Staging Royal London in London: From Punk to Blair, Fiona Henderson suggests that the tourist gaze often seeks out alternative experiences in an effort to uncover the authenticity of a particular place.  By illustrating a historical period with these ‘behind the scenes’ snapshots that present the museum as a place of work, the display offers the average Bath tourist a potential new cultural geography of the area.  However, this attempt to peel back the official layers of a museum exhibition relies on the display being a performance, which is perhaps demonstrated by the absence of doors or space within the vitrines for people to work with the objects.

A glimpse of Bath’s fashion archive through the vitrine

Leaving the Behind the Scenes display, the visitor is guided through two displays, the permanent 20th Century Fashion and Glamour, a temporary exhibition celebrating women’s evening wear over the last 100 years.  What I liked here was how the labels made suggestions about who might wear similar outfits to those on display.  For example, a 1920s coat was labelled with the following: ‘Think…Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1925)’ This encourages the visitor to culturally place the garment, inviting him/her to survey one’s own memory for relevant references.

IMG_0032

Models from the 20th century gallery – was particularly drawn to this mannequin in motion!

The final display is Dress of the Year, which is an interesting and appropriate end to the museum’s visit.  Begun by Langley Moore when the museum opened in 1963, it is a collection of items chosen each year by someone to reflect the fashion of the preceding 12 months.  Alongside a selection of previous candidates, including Mary Quant in 1963, Scott Crolla in 1985 and Versace in 2000, was the dress of the year for 2012.  Chosen by Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor of the Financial Times, it is a Christian Dior ensemble designed by its newest designer Raf Simons.  The outfit appropriately marks Simons debut at Dior by drawing attention to his cutting in half of the New Look silhouette to create a contemporary, arguably more androgynous look. Not only did I like the choice but I also loved the complex simplicity of this display idea.  Dress of the Year is an invaluable archive and the museum’s website provides concise information about each year’s selection since the display’s inception.  I look forward to finding out what Susie Lau, the well established fashion blogger, will choose to represent 2013 in March this year.

IMG_0055

The complete list since 1963

IMG_0059

Dress of the Year 2012 – Raf Simons for Dior

Special mention must be made about a huge suggestion board within the museum for other relevant dress collections and exhibitions, where I spent a good amount of time reading all the postcards.  I came away with a great inventory and alongside a list made by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton for dress collections in the southern areas of England  this will now form the basis for my future excursions.  I would also love to hear about more events taking place across the UK, especially in the Northern regions, so please do email me at emma@wornthrough.com or add it to the comments below.

Visitor’s suggestions – brilliant!

 

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Domestic Affairs: Last Chance Exhibitions and the Fashion & Film Symposium

January is a busy month for exhibitions, events, and symposia for fashion studies.

First, the Southeastern Region of Costume Society of America (CSA) is holding its annual symposium from January 9 through 11. The symposium will be hosted by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and is focusing on Fashion & Film. This is no doubt due to the Hollywood Costume exhibition (which I have mentioned in my past two columns) is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February. Worn Through intern Jon Frederick will be speaking at the symposium about the Ballet Russes and their influence on modern fashion in the early 20th century. This is definitely one of those occasions where I wish I had a limitless travel budget…

Lacis

The Western Region of CSA will have an event the same weekend. On January 11, the Western Region will have a personal tour of the de Young Museum’s “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950 – 1990” exhibition, as well as a curator-led tour of their current lace exhibition, curated by Kristen Stewart. Registration closes on January 3, and spaces are limited. I will not be able to make the event, but will be visiting the exhibitions, so look for a review in my next column!

There are also a couple of exhibitions that are closing here in Northern California in January and early February. In Berkeley, the Lacis Museum’sEarly Italian Needlework exhibition (from which the image above was taken), will close on February 8 — again, look for a review in my first column of February. In San Jose, the San Jose Museum of Quits and Textiles has four exhibitions closing on January 19: Fiberart International, Translucence: Cathy Breslaw, Art Cloth Network: Interpretations, and Quilt Detective: Fake, Fraud or Finished? These four wonderful small exhibitions will be coming down to make way for the SJMQT’s next big exhibition, Metamorphosis: Clothing and Identity, which will open January 29, and which I’m hoping to assist in mounting.

If there is anything happening in your area that you would like to inform Worn Through readers of, don’t hesitate to email me, or leave a link in the comments!

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Parisian Insights: Miss Dior

Last week ended what had been 10 days of a highly publicised and successful exhibition, Miss Dior at the Grand Palais. To celebrate the 66th anniversary (I must admit I didn’t know these birthdays were meant to be celebrated!) of the perfume’s launch, the Dior house organised a major display combining historical review and contemporary art commissions. The entrance was free and the exhibition had gained such publicity that numerous visitors attended the show that was, I must say, quite beautiful.

Raf Simons - Dior Haute Couture 2012 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Raf Simons – Dior Haute Couture 2012
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

As I said, the interesting aspect of this exposition is that it handled patrimonial questions, presenting the perfume’s history and a few key moments concerning the fashion house, and it highlighted conceptual art installations specially commissioned near 15 contemporary feminine artists reinterpreting the Miss Dior codes.

Various themes organised the space. As an introduction, to somehow justify the reunion between art and fashion within this exhibition, the luxury house evoked Christian Dior’s first job as an art dealer and his strong friendship with some of the pre-war most major artists. Therefore, were presented art works by Bernard Buffet or Marc Chagall and personnel mementos, photographies, letters…that illustrated the future couturier’s close collaboration with the surrealist movement. This space was placed on an upper open floor overlooking the rest of the exhibition: it pushed the visitor to look upon the 15 contemporary art pieces with a different feeling, a sense of continuity…You could then come down a few steps into the exposition and explore what linked the past and the present.

 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013


Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

The exhibition also clearly illustrated the powerful influence of flowers on Christian Dior’s work, infused by his childhood Normandie mansion or his Provençal home. An influence illustrated by the couturier’s creations that resembled flower bouquets – objects such as garments and drawings helped demonstrate this effect- and epitomized by the perfume’s scent.

The perfume was imagined by Christian Dior as a loving declaration to his sister, Catherine who had miraculously come back from deportation after she had been arrested for her activities in the French resistance. Miss Dior was launched the same year as, the now iconic 1947 collection: the New Look was accompanied by a new, impertinent scent that depicted the young, beautiful and audacious women the couturier liked to surround himself with: from his assistants to seductive celebrities. The display at that point, presented images of legendary muses such as Marlène Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor and more recent faces such as Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman: that was the exhibition’s celebrity moment! Besides this informative and somewhat gently frivolous documentation stood a Bar tailored ensemble, an emblematic symbol of the New Look and, how lovely it looked.

Bar Ensemble, Dior 1947 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Bar Ensemble, Dior 1947
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

The scenography  installed a pertinent dialogue between the house’s archives and contemporary art, the present constantly making reference to the past. The visitor jumped from a 1950s René Gruau illustration to an installation by Ionna Vautrin, from the Bar garment to Sofia Coppola’s advertisement video: the display efficiently mingled history with a contemporary concept. The most stunning example was a delicate 1949 bustier dress by Christian Dior, entirely covered by precious pastel flowers confronted to Raf Simon’s 2012 version of the garment, which he turned into a profound black piece worn by Natalie Portman in the Miss Dior ad, all was united: patrimony, contemporary fashion, publicity and the celebrity factor.

Christian Dior, 1949 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Christian Dior, 1949
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Raf Simons for Dior, 2012 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Raf Simons for Dior, 2012
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

The display was thus regularly punctuated by the art installations imagined by 15 feminine contemporary artists who had all created art works that refered to Miss Dior. Polly Apfelbaum was inspired by the perfume’s hound’s tooth motif to create a colourful carpet, Carole Benzaken reinterpreted the perfume’s bottle into a graceful glass sculpture surrounded by forest landscapes, Alyson Shotz worked on a digital rose and Joanna Vasconcelos designed a gigantic pink bow epitomizing the juvenile spirit of Miss Dior… just to cite a few.

I much appreciated the dialogues between these feminine artists and the perfume. They all managed to convey new questions, new concepts looking at women, the body, nature, history, patterns…A fruitful and complete collaboration.

Alyson Schotz - Infinite Rose, 2013 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Alyson Schotz – Infinite Rose, 2013
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Obviously, I could not end this article without raising THE question: was this an art display or just a perfect marketing concept? Well, I’d say: both! While visiting the space, you could not ignore that all this was an ode to Dior, an ode to a consumption object, an ode to a bottle of perfume. There was something quite disturbing when you really thought about it…All the panels, although they did provide historical information, did however insist on Miss Dior, the product and some sentences resembled press releases: ‘Her perfume is nothing else than Miss Dior, the one she wears with passion.’, ‘Miss Dior is an olfactory conversation that will continue all the house’s creations, from Diorissimo to J’Adore..’ You had to look at all this with much distance….

Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

However, let’s not just focus on this idea. Art and Fashion have been united for years, decades…it was considered fabulous when Elsa Schiaparelli would team up with Salvador Dali, Gabrielle Chanel with Jean Cocteau…Why should it disturb us today? Because our dear friend marketing has now taken over. We now look at art and fashion collaborations with a suspicious eye: brands obviously do this to gain respectability and as judicious communication tools. Yes, brands now use their patrimony to give sense and profoundness to their commercial concepts…But, why not? If this provides us, the public, with seductive campaigns and exhibitions: why complain?

It would be naive not to remark that the exhibition took place a few weeks before Christmas and its gifts’ shopping, to not consider the impact the show will have on the house’s image. It was definitely a seductive communication operation but how brilliantly coordinated it was! I surely think the Dior house actually clearly assumed that all this was a formidable publicity and I quite appreciate this honest assurance.

Maria Nepomuceno - Delilah, 2012-2013 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Maria Nepomuceno – Delilah, 2012-2013
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

 

If I had only focused on the negative marketing aspects of the exposition, it would have clearly been a real shame for me to miss the beautiful archives the house exceptionally presented and the 15 installations produced by some of  design and contemporary art major actors: all this for free! I preferred to please my eyes over controversy!

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Domestic Affairs: Jack Handford Award & Linda Baumgarten at the de Young

Pieced quilt top fragment, England, 1700–1730, silks and metallic threads over earlier paper templates. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation via http://www.adafca.org/

There are many great changes afoot here at Worn Through. While we are sad to see some of our contributors leave, it is exciting to bring in new voices and perspectives, and all the changes have enabled us to notice a gap in our coverage: namely those fashion and dress studies events happening here in North America. So with no further ado, I present my new column, ‘Domestic Affairs’, where I hope to fill that gap by sharing exhibitions, lectures, book publications, and anything else related to the study of fashion and dress here on Worn Through’s home continent, if you will.

I cannot possibly travel to every happening, but I am committed to bringing as much information as possible to our readers, so if any of you have an event coming up, or know of one you would like featured, please email me at brenna@wornthrough.com. I am happy to conduct interviews over email or by phone to gain deeper insights and perspectives on exhibitions and lectures, and I will travel to those events I can. Or you can always let me know about something in the comments (as well as letting me know what else you would like to know about something already covered)!

This week I can report on two events. The first is the Costume Society of America, Western Region‘s announcement of the Jack Handford award. The Jack Handford Summer Internship awards a $2000 stipend for a student internship at an accredited museum or educational institution with a costume or dress collection. The Western Region is currently seeking applicants AND accredited institutions to participate for the summer of 2014. Applicants must be current CSA Western Region members, and the internship is open to undergraduate students about to commence their senior year and to graduate students.

Applications for both students and institutions are available at the website above. Though for more information please feel free to contact Jeremy Miller, Student Awards and Summer Internship Chair for the Western region.

Application deadline is January 10, 2014.

The second event is Linda Baumgarten‘s return to the American Decorative Arts Forum of Northern California, with a lecture on the amazing history of quilt-making in America. Since 1978, Ms Baumgarten has been the curator of textiles and costumes for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and is responsible for its collections of antique quilts and coverlets, costumes and textiles, and will be presenting “400 Years of Quilts, Styles, and Influences”. The lecture will be on November 12 in the Koret Auditorium at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. There will be a mini-exhibition at 7:15 pm, and the lecture will begin at 8:00 pm.

Ms Baumgarten’s lecture will ask the question “What is an American quilt?” in the context of the quilt’s history and use within the United States since its earliest years of settlement. According to the event announcement, Ms Baumgarten’s answer to this question is that ‘the story of American quilts is really many stories, “written” in the stitches of the women – and men – who produced them’.

You can read more about the lecture and mini-exhibition at the website above. I will be attending the lecture and will be able to give a summary and review, and I hope a mini-interview with Ms Baumgarten, in my next column (November 20). Are there any questions you would like me to ask? Anything you would like to know about the history of quilts in the United States or about the Colonial Williamsburg collection?

Also, please email me or leave events you’d like covered in the comments below!

Opening image credit: Pieced quilt top fragment, England, 1700–1730, silks and metallic threads over earlier paper templates. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Obtained via http://www.adafca.org/

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