Domestic Affairs: Planning your fashion-filled summer vacation

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Review: Artists Textiles at The Fashion and Textiles Museum

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As I have said in earlier posts, I prefer exhibitions that attempt to explore themes rather than present singular biographies of designers or makers. Why? Well, they invite us to step into lively debates within the study of fashion, dress, art and design by drawing upon a range of disciplines in an effort to discuss their interaction with our lived experience.

This is why I thoroughly enjoyed Artists Textiles: Picasso to Warhol at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London, which comes to a close next week. Curated by Geoff Rayner and Richard Chamberlain, it seems that the exhibition is a three-dimensional realization of their book Artists Textiles 1940 – 1976, published in 2012 and co-written with Annamarie Stapleton.

Published in 2012, this is also the exhibition catalogue

The intention is to chart, chronologically, the way in which modern artists in the second half of the 20th century engaged with ordinary people in Britain and America through the medium of textile and the production of cheaply printed fabrics. The emphasis is on the efforts of various entrepreneurs, companies and collectives to bring the desirability of modern art to the attention of a wider, increasingly affluent populace by establishing working relationships with iconic artists such as Picasso and Warhol.

The Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) opened in 2003, situated in a bright orange and pink building just south of London Bridge designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and commissioned by the fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. It was Rhodes’ intention that the museum would house her own collection of garments, herself (at the top of the building) and her printing studio. However, in 2007, the museum was taken over by Newham College while Rhodes kept the apartment and the studio which now also holds her archive of prints since the 1960s.

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A view of the main room that includes the second higher level in the background

The museum is small, split over two levels, with only one entrance/exit which forces the visitor to double back in order to leave the exhibition. Often, with larger exhibitions at places such as the V&A, the visitor is required to follow a route that starts at one place and finishes at another. It’s almost impossible to go back to look at something again. A visit to the FTM is refreshing because the visitor can move around the exhibits as they want, taking more or less time to study displays. Upstairs, there is a generous educational space that often exhibits contemporary workings of fashion and textile design. While I was there, I saw the current work of Sarah Campbell through a display of mood boards and videoed interviews.

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A display from the first room ‘Curtain Up’, showing a range of printed designs from 1910 – 1939

Artists Textiles features 200 pieces arranged over eleven displays that focus on activities in Britain and America from the 1940s to the 1960s. Much ground is covered from Dali’s work with various textile companies in the 1950s and 1950s Horrockses fashions to Picasso’s collaboration with Fuller Fabrics and Warhol’s textile design work throughout the 1950s.

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‘Harvest Time’ by Rockwell Kent, 1950

Interestingly, although the exhibition is an attempt to show how modern artists engaged with ordinary people through printed textiles, there is very little information on how this was experienced by the so called ordinary people. It is hard to get a sense of what it was like to purchase a roll of Warhol designed fabric or to own a set of curtains displaying a Kent print. As a result, the exhibition assumes the importance of modern art in people’s lives rather than assuming the importance of how ordinary people experience modern art.  The objects on display reveals an intimacy between modern artists and manufacturing entrepreneurs, which is arguably at the expense of exploring the more complex relationship felt by consumers with their newly acquired textile art.

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Feature on Fuller Fabrics collaboration with modern artists in Life magazine, November 1955

Reviews of the exhibition reiterate this assumption about the desirability of modern art, whether it be the emphasis on the entrepreneurial skills of textile producers like Zika Asher to persuade Matisse to mass produce his work or the way in which advertisements for fabrics designed by Picasso reminded consumers that his work was not to be sat on even if it was available as a fabric.

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Display showing textiles as both worn garments and isolated works of art

In contrast, a review by Fruzsina Bekefi on the Courtauld Institute of Art Documenting Fashion blog highlights the way in which the exhibition maintains the aura of the individual artist through the display of textiles as isolated works of art.  Yet, textiles can allow someone to get even closer to works of art through the wearing of a skirt, the closing of a curtain or the wrapping of a scarf. This is only alluded to throughout the exhibition with the inclusion of mannequins featuring textile designs in the forms of finished garments but these were certainly silent women, whose narratives were not included within the general story of textiles as a didactic lesson in modern art appreciation. Nonetheless, as the Bekefi points out, the inclusion of clothes designed by emerging designers such as Claire McCardell do at least highlight the way dress was also becoming a vital medium by which people could interact with cultural and commercial interests.  

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‘Cypren’ by Josef Hoffman, 1910

My favourite display was the introduction entitled ‘Curtain Up’, which focuses on the period between 1910 and 1939 in an effort to establish a pretext for artists’ interest in using design as a way to share their work with a wider mass market. On a display is a rich range of printed textiles, from scarves to furnishing fabrics, by key modernist artist/designers such as Sonia Delaunay, Josef Hoffman, Ben Nicholson and Ruth Reeves. Although I have seen Reeves and Delaunay at the V&A, it was exiting to view more of their work close up. I was particularly moved by Hoffman’s silk scarf as I imagined it being worn and cared for over much social and cultural changes. Such a small beautiful object imbued with previous lived experience was now lying there like a rare, dead animal finally disembodied from its daily purpose.

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Folly Cove Designers feature showing women learning how to design and make wood cuts for printing textiles

This first display featured examples from various artistic/design collectives, which for me were also the most intriguing. Here is where the role of the individual artist becomes superseded by the intention to work more closely with ordinary people in an effort to make art and design relevant to their daily lives. With this in mind, I found the inclusion of projects by the American co-operative Folly Cove Designers and the British Hammer Prints Limited fascinating because they attempted to address and challenge the debate on artistic endeavors and mass production in their design work.

Despite its more traditional art historical approach to textile design, Artists Textiles raises many more questions than it answers, which in my mind can only be a good thing when it comes to discussing fashion and dress within a dynamic critical context.

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Domestic Affairs: Met Gala, Charles James, and May Happenings

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I tend to think of May as the Golden Month for fashion exhibitions, due to the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual fashion exhibition, the Met Gala with all its red carpet oggling opportunity, and so many other museums gearing up for their summer exhibitions. The Met’s exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion opens this week (May 8), with member previews yesterday and today (May 6 & 7). The accompanying Met Gala was Monday night.

This exhibition has been a source of excitement and anticipation within the fashion history community, and I don’t know of any of my friends in the field who aren’t eager either to see it or to at least get the catalogue. Former Worn Through contributor, Ingrid Mida, has said on her own blog that Charles James is one of her must-see exhibitions this year (along with the Museum at FIT’s Elegance in an Age of Crisis). The joy of the internet age is that for those of us who can’t make it to the actual exhibition, the exhibition website offers a way to experience it virtually. One such is the video de-constructing James’s ‘Ribbon Dress, featured at the New York Times this weekend. It is interesting to compare the ‘Ribbon Dress’ — with its masterful construction — with the bias-cut tweed gown from the beginning of James’s career featured in the Museum at FIT’s Elegance in an Age of Crisis video, to see that while James’s taste was always impeccable, it takes time and experience and mistakes to become the master couturier he was. There is a second video through the museum website through the 82nd & Fifth blog, in which Consulting Curator Jan Glier Reeder discusses one of James’s evening gowns.

Much-anticipated as the Met’s Charles James: Beyond Fashion has been, it is not the only thing happening this month, not even in New York. Over at The Studio Museum in Harlem, their exhibition, Draped Down, has been open since late March and will close June 29. According to the museum’s website, “Draped Down looks at both the implicit and explicit references to fashion in visual art. The title is adapted from a renaissance-era slang term meaning well-dressed; to be in the height of Harlem fashion. The term “draped down” was culled from a short story that the novelist and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston published in 1942.” I’m very pleased to announce that the exhibition organizer, Curatorial Fellow Monique Long, will be doing a guest post on the exhibition for Worn Through that will be posted here on May 21.

At the New York Historical Society Museum & Library, Bill Cunningham: Facades is entering its last month. The exhibition opened in March and will close June 15. The show features photographs from an eight-year project Cunningham began in 1968, “which paired models—in particular his muse, fellow photographer Editta Sherman—in period costumes with historic settings.” According to the museum, “Cunningham’s work will be reconsidered in a show that will highlight the historical perspective the photographs suggest—not just of the distant past, but of the particular time in which they were created.”

In Philadelphia, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love opened last weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of ArtRunning until November 30, the exhibition “is an expansive retrospective showcasing some eighty ensembles that were recently presented to the Museum as a promised gift by Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, and Bill T. Jones. Kelly’s designs are complemented by selections from the artist’s significant collection of black memorabilia, videos of his exuberant fashion shows, and photographs by renowned artists including Horst P. Horst, Pierre et Gilles, and Oliviero Toscani.”

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Artfully Adorned
Scottish Knot Brooch
1850 – 1860
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Here in California, the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles has opened Artfully Adorned: Jewelry from the Christie Romero Collection on display in the Annette Green Fragrance Archive at the main campus in downtown L.A. The exhibition explores two hundred years of jewelry history through 50 pieces from Christie Romero’s private collection.

Are there any exhibitions opening in your area (North America only) that you want to let people know about? Feel free to email me, or to leave details in the comments!

Have any of you been to Charles James: Beyond Fashion, yet? Are you intending to go? What were your favourite Met Gala moments? Have any of you seen Draped Down at The Studio Museum, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the Phildelphia Museum of Art, or Bill Cunningham: Facades at the New York Historical Society? If so, please share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.

Opening image credit: Charles James with Model, 1948, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

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Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on the Lacis Museum, Berkeley

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The Lacis store was established in 1965 by Kaethe and Jules Kilot, “as a haven for the textile community and all involved in virtually every aspect of the textile arts,” according to their website. It is a truly unique store that offers antique garments, as well as reproduction underclothes (like the crinolines creating a chandelier effect in the image above) and clothing for living historians and reeneactors, a magnificent bookstore and library, as well as supplies for every textile art imaginable. It is truly a haven for practitioners and lovers of the textile arts alike.

Following Kaethe’s passing in 2002, Jules Kilot founded The Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles above the store in 2004. Over the years Kaethe and Jules had collected thousands of specimens of textiles, including examples of pre-Columbian Peruvian handiwork, 17th-century European lace, and 19th-century machine-made lace. Jules told me during my visit at the end of March that the museum was born out of his desire to preserve “the humanity” of the textile arts, and to keep that aspect of them alive. Since one of the things that has always attracted me to material culture in general, but dress and textile history in particular, is that sense of being connected to the people of the past, this is a sentiment I very much agreed with, without expressing half so eloquently. After his wife passed away, hundreds of letters poured in to tell Jules how Kaethe had touched their lives — establishing that Lacis was much more than a retail store, it was a community in and of itself.

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Tucked away in Berkeley, the museum does not get much attention, when it really should. I was there to see their current exhibition, Smocking: Fabric Manipulation and Beyond. Mounted as a joint venture between Lacis and the Smocking Arts Guild of America, this excellent exhibition gives visitors the entire history of smocking from its origins in English peasant workclothes to its current use as decoration or even a technique to practically sculpt using fabric. The museum has even displayed one of Anne Hathaway’s costumes from Les Misérables, which makes use of smocking as both shaping and decoration (no photos allowed, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to go yourselves if you can).

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At first sight the exhibition appears deceptively small, but it is not. There is a great wealth of objects of various styles, regions, patterns, and periods; the pieces are not placed in any particular chronological order, nor are they ordered by style or technique used, instead seemingly haphazardly about the exhibition space as they fit. Rather than confusing the visitor, I feel this emphasizes the universality, beauty, and usefulness of smocking throughout history as you look at pieces from the 19th century next to contemporary gowns. And yet as you move through the exhibition you notice there is a methodology in place — objects are grouped together by their type rather than the technique. You will observe an entire wall of christening gowns (seen above), without knowing until you read the labels which are antique and which are contemporary. This is a masterful stroke by the museum, drawing visitors to examine the garments more closely, so that after you have identified the 19th-century christening gowns, you start to notice details that were common place then, but that we — with our mass-manufacturing-influenced aesthetics — no longer think to add. Such as the pin-tucks and embroidery you see in the detailed shot below to conceal where the hem of the gown has been sewn since white cotton’s naturally being somewhat sheer would otherwise show a stark line.

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Smocking’s beginnings can be traced — as I said above — to the work clothing of English peasantry. Large shirts were sewn to cover the worker’s regular clothes and protect them from dirt, and wear and tear. Smocking was developed as a way to fit the garment to the individual without losing the freedom of movement needed for the manual labour tasks required. It was also a way to make this somewhat mundane garment beautiful.

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In the usual trickle-up-affect of fashion, the technique was copied by the middle-class; looking at the dress below, I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t have been worn by a woman who ascribed to the dress reform and aesthetic movements. The borrowing of a “country” textile technique, and the looseness of the fit seem to point in that direction. It is certainly quite a contrast with the lattice-smocked costume from the BBC series Copper set at about the same time, which has a much more fitted waist and the expected mid-19th-century silhouette.

WP_20140328_053    WP_20140328_055 19th-century gown from the Lacis collection

 

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Smocking experienced a revival first in the 1930s with the advent of the home pleating machine, and then in the late 1970s when it was popularized as part of the artwear movement as a way to manipulate and sculpt fabric. During the 1930s, the advent of the home pleating machine (seen below) was rather well-timed considering that the economic depression of the decade meant there was a new necessity to sewing at home, and smocking is wonderful for growing children: its stretching ability means the clothes can grow with them (provided the shirt or dress is long enough, of course).

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This is what I typically think of when I think of smocking: children’s clothes. According to both Jules and Erin Algeo, the store manager who curates many of the museum exhibitions, this is quite a common perception of smocking, and it is a practice you still see today (that stretch ability for movement and growth is more durable than lycra and far prettier). There are quite a few children’s pieces on display, below are two of my favorite examples: a child’s dress from the Lacis collection from circa 1940, and a contemporary piece called “Golden Gate Bridge Dress” by Sarah Douglas, one of the women who brought smocking back in the 1970s.

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The 1970s shared a trend with the 1930s: the “peasant” look, with bloused sleeves, “ethnic” details (such as smocking), and revival of handcrafts made its way into fashion.

WP_20140328_008 Nellie Durand smocked blouse, 1975

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WP_20140328_015   WP_20140328_014 Nellie Durand smocked evening dress, 1979

This exhibition began with the donation of Sarah Douglas’s collection of not only antique pleating machines, but all her archives, notebooks, patterns, and other materials to the Lacis Museum. Sarah Douglas, along with Nellie Durand and Mimi Ahern helped to bring smocking back into the focus of the textile arts community in the 1970s, publishing books of instruction and patterns. Before them, Grace L. Knott had taught English smocking in Canada through her own school in the 1930s through the 1970s. Today smocking is used not only in clothing, but in any decorative textile arts, such as the ornaments pictured above. The archival materials of all four women, including their notebooks, smocking samples, patterns, instructions, etc. are on display in the museum.

Since the Lacis staff are so knowledgeable in the textile arts, this is a truly informative exhibition, tracing not only the chronology but the breadth of this simple, historic technique. I won’t say I came away brave enough to smock myself, but I certainly know where to go should I decide to start and have any questions. They have published a book to accompany the exhibition that gives instruction in the techniques as much as it gives smocking’s history.

Off in the Lacis classroom area — they offer several classes on various sewing techniques, their most popular recent course being on corsetry — there is a smaller exhibition space showcasing several of their historic lace pieces, and the Les Misérables dress.

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After visiting  the exhibition, I went down to thoroughly poke about the store. I spent a large amount of time in their absolutely amazing book/library section — including antique or out of print texts that ranged from 19th-century how-to textile arts books to Aileen Ribeiro books. There were shelves upon shelves of vintage garments and textiles, and the shop was never empty. The staff’s knowledge of the textile arts is incredible, making it possible for them to help people even through email inquiry or over the phone. They work to restore historic garments and host classes to teach living historians, reenactors, costumers, or anyone really how to make historic recreations, the basics of sewing, or how to care for their own antique and vintage textiles.

WP_20140328_097 Uchikake on display in the shop

WP_20140328_098    WP_20140328_099 Vintage undergarments & textiles for sale

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The San Francisco Chronicle called Lacis Berkeley’s “best kept secret,” I found it to be a treasure trove of knowledge of the textile arts, their practice, preservation, and history. That’s even before you step into the museum upstairs. Lacis, I will be returning!

Are there any treasure trove museums, shops,  or organizations in your area or experience that you would like to share? Have you been to Lacis? What did you think? As always share your thoughts in the comments below, and if you have any events or exhibitions you want to share with Worn Through be sure to email me.

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Forever the Explorer: Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! review

You may have been forgiven for thinking that the recent exhibition about Isabella Blow, fashion stylist and patron extraordinaire of the 1990s and 2000s, at Somerset House here in London, was a sneaky opportunity to catch a glimpse of Alexander McQueen’s retrospective Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum, New York in 2011.

Display of Alexander McQueen designs in the exhibition

To be fair, many sections of the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition consisted entirely of garments, accessories, photographs, videos and, of course, hats that were the work of designers and models whom Blow had ‘discovered’ throughout her career as both stylist and muse of British fashion in the last decades of the twentieth century.  These included McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald, Philip Treacy, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl.  It was hard not to disagree with the NYTimes who suggested this was an exhibition as much about the designers nurtured by Blow as it was a celebration and insight into her own contribution to the history of fashion styling.

Photograph of Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by Dave LaChapelle, 1996

And yet, this emphasis on Isabella Blow as the ultimate ‘discoverer’ of fashion at the edge, fashion which didn’t fit in, fashion that was anxious, acted as a critical thread throughout the exhibition. From her family roots, which include Lady Vera Delves Broughton, the grandmother whose ethnographic photographs of peoples from places such as the Papua New Guinea are now in the archives of both the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Society, to her support in and influence upon key collections by Treacy and McQueen, Blow is presented as a fashion explorer, someone who goes where others mostly fear to tread.  As a result, her decision to support the most exotic and self-critical of designers has been mythologized in much writing about fashion in the late 1990s (Evans, 2003; Breward, 2003; Craik, 2009).

Photograph taken by Blow’s grandmother Lady Vera Delves-Broughton in 1934 of Papa New Guineans

This is certainly played out in the opening section of the exhibition, as the visitor is taken on a biographical journey that highlights both her discoveries and inspirations in an anthropological way, with all the objects on display lit by singular spotlights while the surroundings remain in almost complete darkness.  Moving though the various videos, garments, printed ephemera, I felt as if I was at the British Museum, glancing at rare finds that had only seen the light of day after a lifetime of obscurity.  The decision to display the portrait of Blow by Noble & Webster, as one of the first objects encountered acted as a bewitching fashion totem, suggestive of both the exotic and the wild things to be discovered in the rest of the exhibition.   The interior details certainly lent themselves well to the macabre and the mournful, whether it was walking through a plastic curtain more at home in a cold storage facility or following the curve of dark red, heavy, curtains as shrouds for the start and end of the exhibition.

Noble & Webster portrait of Isabella Blow, 2002

Although it was exciting to see so many examples of McQueen and Treacy’s work on display, for me the highlights were two exhibits featuring the outfits worn by Blow that were apparently put together from archival photographs and newspaper cuttingsWorn on Blow inspired mannequins with their downturned, red-lipped mouth and size, one set was arranged in a circular room against the backdrop of an interior from Boddington Hall, her estranged ancestral home.  The other set of outfits flanked the visitor either side, and were set against a recreation of her favourite outdoor location for photographs; where the lawn met the hedges on her husband’s estate.

First set of Blow’s outfits, set against the backdrop of Boddington Hall

These two displays capture Blow in all her glory as muse, stylist and patron.  This is a woman whose approach to fashion was far from entrepreneurial but embraced a love of historical references, contemporary designers and creative visions.  However, it was a surprise not to see the curators including references of their own efforts to represent Blow in all her many guises.  As a result, Blow is represented as the final product, rather than a work in progress, which means the visitor gains little more insight into this woman’s approach to dress than what has already been covered in heavily edited texts and images.

Second set of Blow’s outfits on display

Interestingly, Alistair O’Neill, one of the co-curators of Fashion Galore: Isabella Blow, wrote an engrossing but perhaps esoteric text called London: After a Fashion (2007) which suggested that the motif of the masked figure  allows the wearer to “wander, phantom-like’ through the fashion world, excavating what she likes, ignoring the banality of everyday life.”(O’Neill, 2007:18)  Clearly, Blow, with her passionate commitment to headdresses of all types, always appeared masked even if her face was not completely obscured from view.  Yet, it also seems that the curators have chosen to maintain the various masks that we assigned to Blow throughout her lifetime.  The decision not to show how Blow in fact styled herself or handled her life beyond fashion compound the myth of her as the ideal ‘discoverer’, whose own motivations never come under further scrutiny.

A Blow-like mannequin wearing a hat by Philip Treacy

Nonetheless, a set of displays aimed at revealing the more mundane details of a woman who lived for her love of fashion could have provided the more observant visitor with a sense of just how complex and contradictory Blow was.  Once I had got past the rather bizarre display cases, which I was surprised to discover were designed by Shona Heath, it was fascinating to learn how Blow would wear odd shoes, always write in pink pen, ignore magazine budgets, give McQueen falconry lessons or not think twice about damaging her outfits as the result of late night parties and too much time spent near a burning candelabra.  It was a rare moment in the exhibition when I thought ‘What was it like to actually live as Isabella Blow?’

Isabella wearing odd shoes, something she did quite frequently.

Yet, the display of her peculiarities, for me, reiterated just how much Blow’s ability as a stylist was clearly tied up with her cultural capital as fallen aristocrat, embodying the ‘upper-class raffishness and eccentricity’ characteristic of bohemian women (Wilson  2003:110).  Wilson (2003) also suggests that these women often had complex relationships with their own sense of achievement and this certainly seems relevant in the case of Blow.[1]

Isabella Blow (2002) Diego Uchitel, wearing Philip Treacy

Watching a video featured by Selina in a previous Worn Through post, featuring commentary by those who knew Blow, I was struck by the insight offered by Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Interview magazine, on the way in which Isabella Blow struggled with her various visions of herself.  Sischy suggested that it was this conflict of self-vision that caused Blow such a turbulent interior life, arguably leading to her suicide in May, 2007.

[1] Elizabeth Wilson (2003) Bohemians: The Glamourous Outcasts London, Tauris Parke

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Book Review: American Cool

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Weren’t we taught that starting with a dictionary definition of your subject is totally uncool? Or was that unscholarly, unprofessional? Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear defy that classroom convention in their new book, American Cool, by taking a page from a jazz dictionary: automatic validation. The quote comes from A Jazz Lexicon, compiled in 1964 by Robert S Gold, and it is actually an inspiring start to this big book of cool, a complement to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same name happening throughout most of this year:

From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Suggested review-reading listening:

American Cool kicks off with essays by the editors, Dinerstein tackling the history of cool’s social construction and Goodyear examining how photography is inextricable from that process. Their work is academic but accessible, with thoughtful but recognizable examples, in laid-back, informed prose. The straightforward essays are highly quotable on the subject of cool, and their writing will not only appeal to but also draw in a wide crowd. There’s a lot of fun swearing that happens (part of being cool is “not giving a shit” (15)), and the relaxed intentions fit the characters introduced. The authors come up with interesting quasi-definitions of cool (while acknowledging its indefinability), and make it clear that cool is not only relative person to person but also generationally, morally, and emotionally. John Wayne is one person’s cowboy hero and another’s hyper-traditional he-man.

Bruce Lee holds it down for Asian-Americans in "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014. Photographer unidentified, in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Bruce Lee holds it down for Asian-Americans in “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014. Photographer unidentified, in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

For me, the text was overshadowed by an apparent assumption that their readership doesn’t have a strong grasp of the Civil Rights Movement in America, or by a fear that we still just don’t get how racist America was). Dinerstein especially spends a lot of time explaining the racial background and makeup of both the phenomenon of cool and the book; at times borderline apologetic and acknowledging the Burden. I don’t want to discourage this kind of positive revisionist history, but it sometimes read like American Studies over-compensation.

While not exactly disconnected from the subject, the authors’ otherness shows as they write platitudes like “Such are the absurdities of a racist society” and make funny word choices such as: “For all his achievements, [Frederick Douglass] remained a black man in a deeply prejudiced nation.” Dinerstein’s frustration with the rarity of the cool woman is somewhat neutralized by his description of Louise Brooks as “luminous” and Zora Neale Hurston as “sassy” (she’s black!), while their male counterpart Malcom X has fierce, steely pride and Thelonious Monk is a genius. (15) The grammatical authority exerted by capitalizing bell hooks’ name: would that have happened in an exhibition at or book from MoMA?

The outsider position isn’t necessarily detrimental; their distance allows the subject to continue to exist on its higher, unknowable plane; something we can write about, approach with logic, but maybe not really understand (which is what we like about coolness in the first place)There is other space for writing about/presenting cool in a cool way.

It is certainly an inclusive crowd filling the pages, but not a diverse one; the only cool Asian-American dude is Bruce Lee, and Selina is one of very few Latin-American persons celebrated. Dinerstein writes that black culture IS cool culture:

“A set of conditions for generational cool are often forged at the intersection of youth culture, popular culture, and African American culture, from swing to rock and roll to funk to hip-hop, from language to dance to fashion to aesthetics. …Cool is in large part an African American concept. Black Americans invented the concepts of hip and cool–both traceable to concepts in many African cultures–and the terms first crossed over from New York’s jazz culture in the late 1940s.” (13, italics in original)

Spread of Cool and Counterculture Ladies: Joan Didion (photo copyright Julian Wasser, 1970) and Angela Davis (photo copyright Stephen Shames, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Spread of Cool and Counterculture Ladies: Joan Didion (photo copyright Julian Wasser, 1970) and Angela Davis (photo copyright Stephen Shames, 1969, in the National Portrait Gallery Collection). From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

The writing supports and introduces a set of striking photographs; one of the four main criteria for inclusion in this book was that the person was caught looking cool and photographed (the one exception is Walt Whitman, whose cool was etched after a daguerrotype). The visual record is necessary for an exhibition of portraits, but here is evidence that cool is so essential to certain humans that it can be captured on film–to say nothing of the photographer’s talents.

Too cool for photography: Engraving after a daguerrotype of Walt Whitman, by Samuel Hollyer, c.1854-55. In the National Portrait Gallery collection and featured in the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Too cool for photography: Engraving after a daguerrotype of Walt Whitman, by Samuel Hollyer, c.1854-55. In the National Portrait Gallery collection and featured in the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Dinerstein explains the selection process in his introduction:

We created a historical rubric for cool*, and a given nominee had to pass the test. It has four central elements, and every figure here carries at least three: (1) originality of artistic vision and especially of a signature style; (2) cultural rebellion or transgression in a given historical moment; (3) iconicity, or a certain level of high-profile recognition; and (4) recognized cultural legacy.” (15)

Goodyear makes the case for photograph as the best means of capturing “cool”:

“Most basically, [photography] acts to mediate the public’s understanding of and engagement with these individuals. Photographic representations circulate more widely than those in any other medium. Like peepholes into another world, photographs make visible something special beyond our immediate grasp.” (44)

The photographs that follow are strictly American; they and their subjects exemplify the trickle-up, working-class cool that contrasted with aristocratic sprezzatura, sangfroid, and duende. Separated into four chronological sections, we examine the Roots of Cool (Before 1940), The Birth of Cool (1940-59), Cool & Counterculture (1960-79), and the Legacies of Cool (1980-present). Full-page portraits of various angles, poses, and viewpoints also constitute a history of photography, a medium which is itself considered cool, or something that cool people create.

Louise Brooks (photograph copyright Nickolas Muray, in the IMPF in Rochester, NY) and James Cagney (photograph copyright Edward Weston, in the National Portrait Gallery). Pages from the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Louise Brooks (photograph copyright Nickolas Muray, in the IMPF in Rochester, NY) and James Cagney (photograph copyright Edward Weston, in the National Portrait Gallery). Pages from the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Its past outsiderism as an art form adds to the cachet of the medium to capture and exhibit the elusive characteristic of cool. Many of the photographs are in the National Portrait Gallery collection, but the curators also loaned from collections both public and private, creating a very interesting visual mix. All but two of the 76 pictures taken pre-1980 are black and white. This makes for easier comparison and nice continuity in the book; I can only imagine the impact in the gallery.

Sometimes an interesting pair is coupled; here Lenny Bruce (copyright Julian Wasser, 1960) and Malcolm X (Photograph copyright Henri Cartier Bresson, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Sometimes an interesting pair is coupled; here Lenny Bruce (copyright Julian Wasser, 1960) and Malcolm X (Photograph copyright Henri Cartier Bresson, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Oh right: clothing. It’s here; each of these historical figures uses clothing to create a persona, a personality. Dinerstein and Goodyear included a sense of style–notably not a fashion sense–as the first necessary attribute for inclusion in their Top 100. Subcultures, the fermenting pots of cool, are often identified by their clothing; it is a Bourdieuvian exercise. Everyone can identify cool, but those in the know can quickly sniff out those who are just pretending. Those on the outside, on the other hand, often stereotype or iconify a group’s sartorial markers for easy identification (leather, sunglasses; fringe, love beads; skinny jeans).

Goodyear notes: “Cool has long had its own vernacular language, but it has also developed over time its own visual vocabulary as well. The manner in which an individual wears certain clothes, styles his or her hair, and adopts a particular accessory (e.g. cigarettes, sunglasses, motorcycles, leather) suggests an allegiance to a particular code or, conversely, a disavowal of convention. Likewise, one’s expression, posture, or action can also signal the nature of a person’s relationship with a larger audience. Hard to codify, endless in their variation, yet frequently imitated and subject to incessant change, these personas are not only photogenic but also important to one’s creative expression.” (45)

Thelonious Monk, photographed by William Paul Gottlieb in 1947. Shades inside, beret, "as if hiding in plain sight." From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Thelonious Monk, photographed by William Paul Gottlieb in 1947. Shades inside, beret, “as if hiding in plain sight.” From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Dinerstein and Goodyear make use of clothing descriptions most often to describe black celebrities’ “defiance of racism,” such as Lester Young’s sunglasses at night and porkpie hat (coupled with “impenetrable personal slang”), Monk’s glasses and beret, or Fredrick Douglass:

In particular, [Douglass] sought a sense of dignity and refinement through formal dress most commonly associated at the time with white men of stature. In this self-fashioning, he proclaimed his independence and his equality and refuted racist assumptions about black masculinity. Yet Douglass’s appropriation of white fashion did not constitute a rejections of his own blackness. (43-44)

These quotations and ideas are very important to include in a volume on self-presentation, visual splendor, and the creation of cool, but for the knowledgeable researcher these statements may echo shallowly. There’s little about how Hank Williams used his cowboy hat, for comparison. That said, no one in the book is reduced to his or her wardrobe–not even Audrey Hepburn, whose film roles and work toward redefining womanhood come before Holly’s Givenchy dress.

Missy Elliot photographed by David LaChapelle, 1999, copyright David LaChapelle. From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Missy Elliot photographed by David LaChapelle, 1999, copyright David LaChapelle. From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Like the much-admired books collecting August Sander’s portraiture, this book would be a rich visual resource for fashion and costume designers. But outside of the exhibition, where the aura of the photographic work and the impressive gallery space create a certain experience, why buy a book like this instead of searching the troves of vintage celebrity photographs on the web? The essays, certainly, which loop nicely around the chosen photographs, and the curated nature of the selections as a group. There were only a few names that might be unfamiliar to the reader; it is the context and the whole that make this book engaging. To appease those whose favorite did not make the cut, there is an “Alt-100,” an appendix of runners-up.

For a comparison study, please refer to The Impossible Cool, a tumblr that collects photographs much like these in scrollable form. Many of the faces are the same, but the range is wider and obviously less “permanent.” Dinerstein suggests that their book is “not the last word on cool, but the first one: I see this as a recuperation of cool, an attempt to provide a useful framework for an elusive concept.” (19) If American cool had lost its punch as the authors suggest, I think they give us ample proof that it still exists, and will continue to thrive and myth-make through the increasingly eternal medium of photography.

Have you been to this exhibit, or do you plan to? Do you follow any blogs, tumblrs, etc with “vintage” photos of celebrities that you want to share? What does cool mean to you, and can it be found in photographs? Let us know below! 

Notes:

*said no one cool, ever.

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Further Resources:

Buckland, Gail. Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Coolhunt.” The New Yorker, March 17, 1997.

Gold, Robert S. A Jazz Lexicon. New York: Knopf, 1964.

McAdams, Lewis. Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde. New York: Free Press, 2001.

Pountain, Dick and David Robins. Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

Stearns, Peter. American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York: NYU Press, 1994.

 

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