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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WP_20140328_102 Heaven!

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.

Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!

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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Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on ‘Elegance in an Age of Crisis’

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When I applied to the University of Edinburgh for post-graduate study, I was truly torn between studying the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and studying the 1920s and 1930s in dress and textiles. Their ‘History, Theory and Display’ taught programme had everything I wanted in a master’s program, except someone to supervise the latter topic, so I looked at the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in my coursework and my subsequent dissertation. I do not regret this.

However, since graduating my own research as progressively moved forward to focus on the late nineteenth century through the second World War. This means that my regret at not being able to see Elegance in an Age of Crisis at the Museum at FIT (closing April 19), is greater than for any other exhibition geographical limitations have prevented me from seeing thus far.

Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet, and the Museum at FIT has done an incredible job with their exhibition website, blog, and in the catalogue for which I am daily checking my mailbox in anticipation of its arrival (what is it Carrie Fisher says, Instant gratification isn’t fast enough?). These are so good that it is some compensation for not being able to see the exhibition myself. Thankfully as well, I am a member of Costume Society of America; at my first ever national symposium I made the acquaintance of Ariele Elia, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT, who assisted with the exhibition and contributed to said-anticipated catalogue. Ariele was kind enough to take the time this week to speak with me over the phone about the exhibition, what it aims to accomplish, how it was conceived, and the amazing things it reveals not just about fashions of the 1930s, but about the innovations in design worldwide that were happening during an age society typically associates with breadlines, stock market crashes, Dorothea Lange photos, dust bowls, and John Steinbeck.

 

The exhibition is co-curated by Patricia Mears, whose work I have long admired, and G. Bruce Boyer, whose work I am now going to pursue with almost single-minded devotion. Elegance in an Age of Crisis was conceived after Patricia read an article Bruce had written about the changes in men’s tailoring in the 1930s. She found that the deconstruction in these suits mirrored perfectly the sort of deconstruction happening in women’s fashion, and thus the first exhibition to examine both menswear and women’s clothing of the 1930s was born. Patricia and Bruce had worked together on Ivy Style, so working together to demonstrate the elegance and innovation of fashion design in the Great Depression was not as difficult as it might have been.

Featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection — such as tailoring patterns for the Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor who contributed much to the shift in menswear — MFIT was also loaned suits and jackets from the Ribonacci Museum in Naples (with whom Bruce has long worked), Fred Astaire’s shoes from the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, and pieces from private collectors including Hamish Bowles and Beverley Birks. The exhibition aims to be truly international showing that while it features clothing from the high end of fashion, the elegance of the era matched a truly global aesthetic. There are suits from department stores in Cuba, an emphasis on Neapolitan tailoring and its contributions to the deconstruction of men’s suiting, and a collection of qipao worn by Mrs Wellington Koo, a socialite — this garment was unique in making use of traditional Chinese lines, fabrics, embroideries, and embellishments while revealing the contours of the body in a way that had never been done before in Chinese dress and which indicates the influence of modernity, the West, and cultural exchange in general.

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Left, McGregor man’s beach robe, c. 1935-1940, USA. Museum purchase, P92.11.4.
Man’s swim suit, c. 1929, USA. Gift of Mike Dykeman, 89.143.1.
 
Right, Munchen swim suit, wool, circa 1930, Germany. Museum purchase, P83.8.9.

In speaking with Ariele, I was struck by the sheer amount of information, and the number of concepts and innovations the exhibition is communicating through 110 objects: 80 garments and 30 accessories. One of these innovations was the emphasis on the human body as it is as opposed to how the fashionable silhouette was recreating it in fashion, for the first time in years, possibly millennia. Having studied the 1920s extensively, I have often seen the silhouette of the 1930s characterized as a “return to Puritanism” or other such biases. What Elegance in an Age of Crisis does so well is to place the 1930s silhouette properly in the context of neoclassicism in the first part of the decade and Victorian revival in the latter half of the decade — celebrating the human body instead of contorting it has had been done in the Edwardian age, or concealing or denying it’s adult state as happened during the youthful, tubular shapes of the 1920s.

This emphasis on the body also led to a more public — if initially scandalous — acknowledgement of sport, leisure, and thus more elegant and visible sportswear and leisurewear as seen in the examples above. As Beverley Birk says in one of the accompanying videos (see below), you can’t wear a corset under a bias-cut gown. The exhibit also revives the work of Augustabernhard, who was equally talented at creating bias-cut gowns as Madame Vionnet, while revealing through the errors of a tweed coat by Charles James how tricky the bias cut was to create in an era when it was not formally taught in apprenticeships or schools — it was an open field of discovery. This deconstruction in garments was, as I’ve already said, echoed or mirrored in the deconstruction of men’s tailoring to create the soft drape of what became known as the ‘London Drape’.

1930s_augustabernard Classic Neopolitan Jacket: D/B cream silk thussor six-button jacket, 1930's
Left, Augustabernard (attributed) gown, ivory tulle. 1934, USA (licensed French copy). Gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills, 93.71.4.
 
Right, London House (founder: Gennaro Rubinacci, tailor: Vincenzo Attolini) classic Neopolitan jacket, silk thussor, 1930s, Italy. Lent by the Rubinnaci Museum.

There is a natural division within the show, which opens with accessories — that wonderful way in which you can make a small budget stretch — and then leads into distinct themes of active and resortwear, women’s day wear, menswear, women’s evening wear, and patterns. This decision on how to layout the pieces was not a challenge for the museum, since the divisions seemed almost pre-made by the very nature of the era and the clothing itself.

By far, for me, the most incredible aspect of the exhibition is all of the original research, and the ways in which that research has enhanced our understanding of the era not only as dress historians, but in the understanding of worldwide design and visual culture. It was truly an era of international design innovation, with an international aesthetic to accompany an international depression. And yet, through film and clothing and design, the people of the 1930s escaped those hardships and almost in defiance of their circumstances created a “golden age of fashion”, as Bruce calls it, to be elegant in a way that still inspires designers today. The detail that Bruce and Patricia put into their analysis of clothing, and their understanding of the construction and the changes that happened in clothing construction at the time is awe-inspiring.

I will not attempt to paraphrase their phenomenal work, since I would by no means do it justice, but I wholly recommend visiting the exhibition if you can. If you, like me, cannot, I recommend the blog, the catalogue, and the videos below. Which I will be watching over, and over, and over again.

Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 1: Hers

Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 2: His

 

Bottle green cotton velvet smoking jacket, cashmere trousers, black bowtie 1936
Gardner and Wooley LTD smoking jacket, green velvet, satin, 1936, London. Collection of Alan Bennett, Davies and Son.

Have any of you been to Elegance in an Age of Crisis? What were your thoughts? Did you like or dislike it?  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. And if there are any North American exhibitions or events you would like to announce or see covered, feel free to email me.

Opening image credit: Madeleine Vionnet gown, ivory silk organza with black lace insets, 1937, France. Collection of Beverley Birks.

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Parisian Insights: Roman d’une Garde-Robe at the Musée Carnavalet

Paris’ Musée Carnavalet is the city’s historical museum, a museum that tells the story of Paris with the help of various themes such as painting, drawings, interior design…and, with its most recent exhibition, Roman d’une Garde-Robe (The Novel of a Wardrobe), fashion. How natural for a city that has always been and still is entitled the capital of fashion and chic to be the guiding thread of a display illustrating the making and the life of an elegant Parisian wardrobe from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s. Actually, I’d rather say that what is a the centre of the exhibition is not quite Paris (although the city’s activity as a haute couture market is clearly contextualised) but rather La Parisienne. The famed Parisienne, the one foreigners and sartorial authors still much babble about: ‘The Parisian style’, ‘The Parisian diet’, ‘How to..like a Parisian’….Some ‘Parisiennes’ have made a living of their mythologised identity, I’m thinking Ines de la Fressange…However, being a Parisian myself I still have not quite understood what makes a style, Parisian…I actually believe there is no such thing as a Parisian style. Maybe foreigners observe something I don’t quite see myself.

Anyhow, this is not the subject of my post today but what brought me to talking about La Parisienne is that the exhibition proposed by Carnavalet, in association with the Musée Galliera, clearly plays with the concept of La Parisienne but a Parisienne less known by the public, a Parisienne who evolved in the beginning of the 20th century.

Evening Dress - Unknown, 1920-1925. Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

Evening Dress – Unknown, 1920-1925.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

Let me announce it clearly right now, I loved this exhibition. I truly appreciated the concept, the precise observation of the life and work of Alice Alleaume, the woman around whom the whole display is built. Between 2008 and 2010, indeed, were donated to the Musée Galliera hundred of garments and accessories belonging to the descendants of the Dumas family, pieces that illustrated the lives of Alice, her mother Adèle and her elder sister, Hortense: a veritable and brilliant piece of fashion history, spanning from the 1830s to 1930s. In addition, those historical items were accompanied by precious documents such as photographies, letters and notes that enabled the museum curators to develop a strong insight into the context in which the clothes were made and worn. Such a rare opportunity had to be shared with the public!

The museum therefore decided to focus on Alice Alleaume who not only led a wealthy bourgeois existence and had been brought up in a family firmly anchored in couture, but was herself first vendor at Chéruit, an experience that enables the display to bring the attention on a couture house that is often forgotten although it was, alongside such houses as Lanvin and Poiret, a major witness of 1920s fashion.

Alice Alleaume is our guide throughout the display. We follow her traces through four main sections: the influence of her family and her first steps into the professional environment of fashion – the context of Paris and couture within its key centre, the Place Vendome and the Rue de la Paix – Alice’s career at Chéruit – the 1930s and how Alice embodied Parisian chic.

Evening Dress - Unknown, Beginning 20th century.  Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

Evening Dress – Unknown, Beginning 20th century.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

We thus enter a first clear room in which are displayed pre-war garments: children pieces and the crinolines of Adèle, her mother, that lead us within the context in which she was brought up. We discover the great taste of her parent who was herself a renown seamstress alongside the dresses of her sister, Hortense, who worked at Worth. We also observe the clothing of Alice’s young years who despite her youth is already very elegant and possesses numerous hats. All these items come along various photographies and paintings that illustrate the family’s environment, the stylistic context of the time and most of all put a face on the protagonists.

The second section interestingly tells us more about Paris’ fashion scene and how it concentrated between the Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix. Various articles and illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s evoke the atmosphere of this area while certain drawings by Sem mock the fashion ‘wannabes’ (fashion evolves not attitudes!). A slideshow presents a very entertaining photographic reportage published by Le Figaro in 1910 and that invites us behind the scenes of the main couture houses.

G.Agié - Les Mannequins, 1910.  Photographie: Les Editions du Figaro/Droits Reservés G.Agié/Droits Réservés Prise de Vue Gerard Leyris

G.Agié – Les Mannequins, 1910.
Photographie: Les Editions du Figaro/Droits Reservés
G.Agié/Droits Réservés
Prise de Vue
Gerard Leyris

The third and most important section is dedicated to Alice’s work at Chéruit from 1912 to 1923. To enhance the contextual feel, large blow-up photographies of the Chéruit salons serve as a mural background. A couture house, Chéruit’s designs were tailor-made and Alice Alleaume encountered with many wealthy clients to whom she gave her best advices and she consciously took notes of all the alterations that were to be made on her clients’ garments. Alice indeed kept a notebook she updated daily: an extraordinary document that tells us all about the technical work that had to be done but that also shares her remarks about a client’s physical characteristics and humours. She thus, for example, signifies that this lady being  ‘large, the waist should be loose-fitting’

The scenography also evokes the rich productivity of the house with the images of  the 200 hundred models of the summer 1920 collection used as a wallpaper as well as the airing of vendors’ voices that give the impression of taking part to their bursting activity.

Most of the Chéruit garments on display come from Alice’s personal wardrobe and reflect the versatile and elegant style of the vendor who follows the evolution of fashion and adopts jersey swimsuits, beach pyjamas and Art Deco prints.

Evenning Dress - Jeanne Lanvin, 1935. Patrimoine Lanvin Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

Evenning Dress – Jeanne Lanvin, 1935.
Patrimoine Lanvin
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

Finally, we enter the 1930s section, a decade during which Alice is no longer a vendor but nevertheless continues to demonstrate her taste for refined garments. She adopts the 1930s style with bias cut dresses, plastic Art Deco jewellery and inventive dressing-up costumes. Many Jeanne Lanvin pieces are displayed and we are told that Alice led the existence of a socialite: going to premières  and to the theatre.

The Roman D’une Garde-Robe is not only the tale of a woman and her wardrobe, it greatly illustrates the evolution of high fashion and its professional working. Alice is the embodiment of a wealthy bourgeoisie that, to keep up with its social obligations, possessed a rich and elegant wardrobe and followed trends without being an avant-garde. What is added with this precise figure is her role as a vendor in a major couture house who brings an exclusive and rare insight into the everyday activity of a fashion house in the beginning of the 20th century. 

By choosing to tell the story of a real life person, the museum added an emotional feel to its display. We can more easily relate to the garments as they were ‘explicitly worn’. And we finally come to envy Alice who got the chance to wear such exquisite dresses that, with the help of great work of contextualisation, are not fantasy-like garments but become true wardrobe items.

 

Further Resource:

Exhibition Catalogue:

Goissiord, Sophie. Roman D’une Garde-Robe: le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30. Paris Musées, Paris: 2013.

 

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Historical Dress on the Small Screen: The Great British Sewing Bee

‘I watched Bake Off and couldn’t believe how upset people got,’ Chinelo says. ‘Now I totally understand. At one point I couldn’t even thread a needle, my hands were shaking so much.’[1]

The statement above was made by Chinello, one of ten contestants taking part in a BBC television programme called The Great British Sewing Bee, currently on air here in the UK.  This second series succeeds the first in both size and grandeur.  While the first was set over four episodes and located in a Georgian building in the heart of Dalston, East London, this one contains eight episodes and places more contestants in a lofty but grander converted warehouse by the Thames, offering everyone panoramic views of the capital city at the front while at the back, there is an extensive, well stocked haberdashery at their disposal.

The Great British Sewing Bee invites the participants to take part in weekly sewing challenges, which finds them spending two days completing three tasks: make a basic pattern, customize a piece of ready made clothing and finally making their own pattern, which must fit to a live model.  Their efforts are judged not by an audience vote but by two authoritative figures, who in this case are a Woman’s Institute sewing teacher with more than forty years of experience teaching and a director of a successful tailoring company located in Savile Row, London.  A television host, whose fundamental role is to mediate between the novice participants and the expert judges on behalf of the viewer, also joins them.

Contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee, Series 2

Each week, the two judges decide which contestant must leave the competition, based upon their performance across the three set challenges.  The most concise and in-depth review of the programme can be found in The Daily Telegraph, where Kate Bussman highlights how the nature of television production creates much tension for the contestants as they are constantly required to stop their sewing for ongoing sound bites, camera shots and set pieces.

For me, the most interesting contestant in The Great British Sewing Bee is Chinello, a twenty-six year old dressmaker who does not use paper patterns, having learnt to cut forms directly onto the cloth.  Chinello’s approach to clothesmaking is riveting because she engages with fabric directly, choosing not to mediate the process with the use of representational tools such as paper patterns.  Her process involves thinking and working with design in a very three-dimensional way; Chinello is like a living, breathing 3D printer.

The setting for the series is an old Thameside warehouse, seen here in the background while Chinello, one of the contestants, is cutting out her pattern in the foreground.

Another fascinating part of the programme is the way in which the historical context and social commentary about dress is approached.  Every week there is a theme explored, which might be a particular era or the type of material being used in the sewing challenges, such as stretchy fabric or patterned textiles.  The television host then engages with a range of scholars and academics to discuss interesting aspects of that weekly theme.  This part is fascinating because they draw upon a range of scholarly disciplines, from anthropology to consumption studies to performance and fashion, in an effort to contextualise the weekly challenges set for the contestants.

Prof. Giorgio Riello, Textile Historian, who discusses the advent of chintz and printed cottons in the 18th century

The Great British Sewing Bee provides us with a contemporary snapshot of academic interest in fashion, dress and textile studies. Craik’s (2009:264) identification of five types of fashion writing – language of fashion, fashion reportage, promotional writing, critical writing and intellectual analysis – makes no mention of the representation of these studies within the media of television yet it seems that in this one programme, there is visual evidence of all types of fashion writing taking place.[2]

My interest in fashion and dress television programmes, particularly with a focus on historical context and cultural commentary, has its roots in a childhood spent avidly watching The Clothes Show each week.  The Clothes Show was this unique mix of contemporary affairs and intellectual discussion about fashion and dress but whose content has now been taken over by the internet or reality television programmes that concentrate on how to improve the individual identities of ordinary people through fashion and dress.  These would include Trinny and Susannah’s What Not to Wear, How to Look 10 Years Younger or Gok Wan’s How to Look Naked, to name but a few of a growing genre focused upon the daily anxiety of colloquial dress.

While the Great British Sewing Bee has a lineage that certainly relates it to reality television programmes (its sister production is The Great British Bake Off), it does go some way to filling the gap left by the likes of The Clothes Show with its efforts to discuss and inform the viewer about the wider scholarly interest in fashion and dress.  In future, it could be part of a small archive of British television programmes that focus on fashion and dress history, perhaps beginning with Doris Langley-Moore’s What We Wore in 1957.  I would be very grateful to hear of reading suggestions on the subject of historical dress and its representation through the medium of television.  With the increasing complexity of internet coverage, it seems there is still a place for television to capture our attention with contextual discussion of dress and fashion for longer than just a brief click.  Research into how this is done, with particular reference to the second half of the 20th century, is definitely worth further consideration.


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10602931/Behind-the-scenes-of-Great-British-Sewing-Bee.html [Accessed 10 March 2014]

[2] Jennifer Craik (2009) Fashion: The Key Concepts Oxford, Berg

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Book Review: Wiener Chic

wiener chic cover

 The thrust of the collection is decidedly local. While some international designers are represented … they are dwarfed by items associated with notable Viennese personalities, such as one of Maria Theresia’s cashmere shawls, a pair of ballerina Fanny Elssler’s shoes, one of playwright Johann Nestroy’s dressing gowns, a parasol from the opening of the Suez Canal, boots belonging to Helene Vetsera… (117)

And on and on goes an impressive paragraph on the Wien Museum’s collection, ripe with meaning, personalities, and object lessons. But this excerpt also indicates Vienna’s bigger fashion issue that forms the premise of Wien Chicit is bogged down in the city’s indefatigable history; the international items are true objects of fashion, while the local is represented best by historic dress. Susan Ingram and Markus Reisenleitner seek to identify “a locational history of Vienna fashion” that re-places Vienna into a global sphere, this time not the stylistic or  the musical, but the fashionable.

Here, “fashion” becomes a byway through which the authors explore the aesthetics of the city, the multiplicity of Viennese self-identification and the spaces that at least some of those identified bodies interact with, create, enjoy. This is, after all, a locational history, and the locations are not only geographic (Vienna) but architectural or found in anecdotes on city planning. I was instead expecting a sort of glorified, academized street style book (possibly “misled” by the cover image), an understanding of how “Viennese” or “Vienna” can be expressed through clothing, fashion, and style.

In this volume, clothing/dress/style are not given primacy in the authors’ understanding of “fashion.” There was a fashion for all things Baroque (albeit by a different name), and its lasting influence on Vienna is underscored. But in the whole chapter on “Baroque Chic,” fashion/dress are never discussed, only architecture and ethos. Neither is it in the subsequent chapter on “Ringstrasse Chic,” but the leather jacket is mentioned as a visual indicator of “Prolo Chic” in the next. The section on “Ausländer (foreigner) Chic” speaks more to the role of the foreigner as portrayed in films and the changes in vocabulary that accompanied their changing ethnicities and status over the past two hundred years. As they summarize:

Baroque chic paved the way for the expression and understanding of passion and of suffering. Ringstrasse Chic put capital in charge, which restructured the city and expedited the pace of change. Prolo Chic and Ausländer Chic both participated in and responded to this change, mitigating its tendency to mythologize elites. Taken together, they provide a unique composite that fashion has had to grapple with in trying to make inroads into the Viennese urban imagery. (96)

This is all very important backstory and separate fashions, and the real strength of the book: books about fashion don’t have to be about clothes, just as in English the word “fashion” does not always mean dress or clothing. It seems here that the authors use fashion as a metonym for modernity. They note that “what is at stake in fashion is the pleasure derived from change, an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon that applies to more than dress or ornamentation.” (10) The authors’ struggle to bring the thesis back around to fashion/dress is mirrored in the struggles to achieve a balance in creating modern, forward-moving architecture while maintaining the baroque aesthetic that many in Vienna still cherish, described at length in the book: the story gets caught in a historical-interest loop. Vienna can’t commit to fashion/dress, and the authors can’t commit to it either.

Modernity means something quite different, something much more inflected and influenced by the weight of the historical, especially the baroque, in the Viennese context than it does in other modern Euro-American cities, such as London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (9)

But although they “find fashion a useful heuristic wedge to open up the spatial specificity of the cultural-historical struggle inherent in the modernity of Vienna’s urban context,” [ed. note: Phew!] the wedge doesn’t seem a purposeful tool until more than 100 pages into the text (of 170). When we finally get to the applied fashion/dress section, it is split into Museum Chic and Designer Chic, reflecting the authors’ interest in the two as separate but occasionally overlapping spheres.

The introductory note to this section is quite good, using “the chics” to look very briefly at fashion (although not the other way around, as suggested above): “in the first instance, fashion is primarily staged in the city’s baroque tradition of conspicuous display.” In the Museum Chic section we are rarely treated with descriptions of the museums’ holdings, strengths, intriguing or important past fashion exhibitions (except for the passage above and a list is hidden in the notes), but most often the text jumps back into the loop for a comparison of the museums’ roles, historically and contemporarily, in Vienna’s cultural capital and landscape. However, the Wien Museum is credited with “mov[ing] the role of fashion … to the centre and giv[ing] it visibility.” Its inclusive intentions best fit with the Prolo and Ausländer chics, as a public offering with a focused mission. The MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts Vienna) is most significant here for its leadership issues, Wiener Werkstätte collection, various fashion schools, and complex relationship with the category of “applied and decorative arts.”

The renowned museum cluster called the Museumsquartier (MQ) has worked with or offered spaces for fashion exploration and support, and also creates “inclusive” space for a wider public than private fashion shows (which are never truly addressed, other than to dismiss them as elitist), fulfilling an important anti-Baroque quality that the authors admire. (1).

The final chapter, Designer Chic, begins with designer Helmut Lang, offering a background on his unhappy teenage years that may have inspired him to become a designer, the schools he attended, Anna Wintour’s admiration…but not a lot about his collections, hardly an adjective or descriptor to explain his work–even from others. Is this less important than his childhood in the Styrian Alps? Is it left up to the reader to explore Lang’s work further, or does it assume a common foreknowledge of his aesthetic? The art Lang has made and shown is given more thought; it does, of course, use clothing, textiles, and garments from his label, but it is only in the guise of Artworks that these objects receive recognition and academic handling. The authors use the art to speculate about Lang’s attitude toward his clothing design, which is described as “champion[ing] the independent, proletarian heritage of jeans.” (Prolo chic!)

In their conclusion, the authors remark that:

What became apparent in our investigations is that Vienna’s urban imaginary is so intimately linked to its historical legacy that its fashion system’s inherently modern, change-oriented dynamic is constantly forced to define itself in relation to its past. (175)

 

And this book certainly proves that, in part due to the lack of observation of fashion; the structures, both physical and social, surrounding them were examined at length here, and occasionally applied to fashion/dress. As an explanation of why fashion has such a difficult time taking in root in Vienna, this work is excellent. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect or desire an account of buying and wearing clothing in Vienna as opposed to Paris or Seoul, or what it is like to design in Vienna instead of  New York or London (or Denver?). But instead of adding to the body of work that describes fashion/dress outside of Major Fashion Cities, this book confirms that those are the places whose fashion systems actually deserve direct examination. An insightful, apropos remark is hidden in a note:

We would not want to be misunderstood as suggesting that it is due to Helmut Lang’s influence that these [younger designers'] collections contain echoes of his; rather, we would want to see them all as part of the larger system, one, moreover, that tends to produce a quite unique, more understated look than one tends to find in the fashion capitals. (172)

While the authors stated plainly that they did not want to create simply a comparison study, that “unique look” is never discussed explicitly. By offering each of the young designers and the entire concept of “sustainability” little more than a page or a paragraph and one small photograph each at the end of the book, contemporary fashion design that is unique to Vienna is effectively an afterthought, literally an endnote.

This book can perhaps be compared to the Fashion Scandinavia book I reviewed a few months ago; while an interesting read, it offered somewhat shallow, short interviews with fashion designs from all over Scandinavia, along with photographs chosen and submitted by the designer(s). Also locational, that book intended to help spread the word about new talent as well as collecting images and words that might begin to define “Scandinavian fashion” (despite the surprisingly different cultures within that loose geographical area). Wiener Chic does not attempt this definition, but rather seems to define everything but, the physical surroundings, the people, the art, the history. Somewhere in between these two is a truly useful and dynamic resource for the fashion historian; this book’s sister publication, Berliner Chic, accomplishes its goal much more effectively.

However, I really did enjoy this book! It was a truly engaging and well-written look at various aesthetic aspects of Viennese life, and laid a foundation for a very interesting future discussion on fashion and the spaces it inhabits, fills, or is lacking. I especially like the story-telling language that gives the often heavy academic historical prose a little lift:

[The Wien Museum] included, and put on display, the holdings of the city’s armoury (the Zeughaus), where not only the weapons that armed the citizens of Vienna were store but also the spoils of the two failed Ottoman sieges of 1529 and 1683. Displays emphasized the city’s historical role as a bulwark against the threats thought to be emanating from the East and characterized Vienna as a feisty place whose spirit of independence was temporarily subdued during the early modern absolutist period of the Habsburg’s reign, only to be resurrected by the Liberals wresting away the Ringstrasse urban modernization project from the imperial rulers. (112)

I can’t decide if it honors fashion/dress to go beyond the obvious descriptions and overwrought “examinations” of designers’ collections and museum exhibitions to find a more dynamic understanding of “Urban Chic,” or if the authors’ treatment of the subject (largely ignoring the material realities and even its easily accessible aesthetics) reduces it to a lesser-than-Art byproduct of life in Vienna. It’s obvious that the authors are more interested in film, architecture, and social structures than the fashion system per se, but by playing on that word in English, it does bring the fashion/dress into those “higher” scholarly realms. It may be interesting to more closely compare this 2014 look at fashion/modernity with Adolf Loo’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century commentary on modernity and Vienna (see Stewart). Although Vienna is not included in Breward and Gilbert or in Potvin, those books are more directly relevant to “locating” fashion in specific cities, albeit mostly the more obvious ones.

There are very few books like this out there, and I want to encourage these non-predictable approaches to the subject of fashion/dress. I look forward to the continuation of the Urban Chic Series (edited by Susan Ingram), and I especially hope it continues to avoid the traditional “Fashion Cities” and will look for the more interesting stories; this seems to be the intention. I wonder which city will be next?

Have you read this book, or Berliner Chic? Which cities do you think merit or require a locational history of fashion?

Notes:

(1) Speaking of which, this book is relatively academic-jargon-free, the one exception being “baroque,” despite their warning of general overuse of the word when describing Viennese culture.

 

Lead Image: Cover of Wiener Chic by Susan Ingram & Markus Reisenleitner. Intellect & University of Chicago Press, 2013.

 

Find more Book Reviews on Worn Through here!

Further Reading

Brandstätter, Christian et al. Vienna 1900: art, life, and culture. New York: Vendome Press, 2006.

Breward, Christopher and David Gilbert. Fashion’s World Cities. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Gilbert, David. “World Cities of Fashion” in The Fashion Reader, Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun, eds. Oxford: Berg, 2011. [More here about space/place in Part V, "Fashion: space and place].

Ingram, Susan and Katrina Sark. Berliner Chic: A Locational History of Berlin Fashion. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2011.

Kremer, Roberta S. Broken Threads: the destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Potvin, John. The places and spaces of fashion, 1800-2007. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Quinn, Bradley. The Fashion of Architecture. Oxford: Berg, 2003.

Stewart, Janet. Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos’ cultural criticism. London: Routledge, 2002.

Thun-Hohenstein, Christoph. Contemporary Vienna: architecture, art, design, film, literature, music. Wien: Schlebrügge, 2010.

Walkner, Martin et al. No fashion, please!: Photography between gender and lifestyle. Wien: Kunsthalle Vien, 2011.

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Small World: Where is This Character From?

photo

Ok so this is a bit of a frivolous post, but I have a nagging question for readers that I don’t think I’ve asked before (If I have my apologies):

I have a handful of Disney “It’s a Small World” items that I adore, and recently put in my daughter’s bedroom as part of an international theme. However, there is one boy magnet I purchased in 2002 and in all that time I’ve never been able settle on where he is supposed to be representing. I’ve got my guesses, but I’m curious of your thoughts.

Certainly some global fashion expert can identify the details?

I know they recently came out with a TV show and are updating the ride, however I cannot seem to get the info from those websites either.

Yes…I’ve spent too much time on this! I guess that’s a born fashion researcher right?!

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Henrik Vibskov exhibition, Helsinki Design Museum

IMG_1613 IMG_1612

This week, I am taking a break from the UK, having just returned from Finland, where I had the pleasure of staying in Fiskars, a small village whose claim to fame is being the original location for the country’s largest metalware brand.  Fiskars is internationally known for their ergonomic orange scissors, which anyone who has ever dabbled in dressmaking or taken up fashion design as a more serious pursuit will be familiar with as an iconic tool of the trade.

With cloth and pattern in mind, I made the journey into Helsinki to the national Design Museum to see an exhibition about the menswear designer Henrik Vibskov.  I went with an Icelandic product designer who was very enthusiastic about Vibskov, and to whom I had to admit I had never heard of him before.  I became vividly aware of how little I knew about Danish contemporary dress, let alone Scandinavian fashion.

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On my return home, I skimmed Berg’s Companion to Fashion for some kind of further reference but found nothing.  Yet, perhaps that was part of the problem.  What was I looking for?  A nice summarized discussion on the identity of Scandinavian fashion that would explain the cultural identities of several quite distinct geographical locations?  Well, yes, sort of.  Searching on this site, I was pleased to find Arianna’s review of Fashion Scandinavia and to discover Vibskov is one of several Scandinavian fashion designers recognized within a wider international discourse on the subject.  This was certainly reiterated within the exhibition by a huge graphic timeline of his career in the main room. It was also a canny opportunity to showcase the museum’s new visual identity including font and logo designed by the Finnish branding agency Bond.  However, the question of fashion design as an aspect of a national identify played only a small part in the overall exhibition as it was dedicated more to an exposition of the range of outputs produced by Vibskov since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2001. 

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Vibskov is presented in this exhibition as a designer and an artist, a creative individual, credible in both worlds. In some ways, he is perfect for a museum to exhibit because his work crosses such diverse mediums from sound and film to clothes and sculptures.  His ability to cross disciplines is recognized in a list of accolades that include both distinguished art and design prizes.

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A small exhibition, it is loosely arranged chronologically, although the fit between sculpture and space seems to take precedent over the organisation of the artifacts.  However, as the exhibition is accessed from two sides, it is possible to start with the now and work your way back or start with the past and work your way here.  Therefore, each room appears to stand alone as well as playing a role in an overarching biographical narrative.

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There is a strong tactile quality to Vibskov’s work, whether it be in his use of inflatable shapes, foam props or textile creations, and I was especially drawn to his graphic knitwear, frenetic prints and the Fringe project from 2000/2001.  There is no doubt that his sartorial designs are beautiful and humorous, also wearable, which I thought was well reflected in the decision to display them on coathangers and not mannequins.  However, having watched some of his shows, which often involve lots of motion and theatrical techniques, the absence of a kinesthetic connection with the clothing was noticeable throughout the exhibition.

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Nonetheless, in one room, I was drawn to a men’s jacket from his The Stiff Neck Chamber Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that featured a retro flamingo print.  Hung up next to the other garments, it could have been mistaken for a pair of kitsch pyjamas.  Overlaying the fabric were black strips that externalized interior seams.

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A striking piece, I was then quite excited to discover another room dedicated to the display of an installation for the same collection.  Featuring black birds that were similar in form to flamingoes, they were hung from the ceiling to create a forest of birds.  Vibskov explained that for the show, the birds were laid on the floor appearing as upside down kites, before being hoisted up where their very long necks created material lines through which one could walk in and out.  It was lovely to find myself seeing the installation within which the garments had been shown originally.  So then imagine my joy when, in the final room, I noticed a photograph from the show placing all three aspects together!

However, this interest in conjoining garments with show sets, immersing the visitor into a more embodied experience of Vibskov’s world was not often reflected in the curation of the exhibition, with emphasis placed on displaying his outputs in isolation so it felt more like an art exhibition than one focused on exploring the design process.   I often think this is a missed opportunity whereby the different aspects of how clothing is made, worn and represented can come together for the viewer to better understand what is arguably a intricate design process.

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The curator suggests that it is a celebration of creativity yet I think the exhibition is more a celebration of a recognised creative as there is little said about the process of creativity or the business of fashion.  This exhibition seems to be a logical step after Vibskov’s art exhibition in Paris last year and a monograph published by Gestalten in 2012 in establishing the designer as a key signifier of Scandinavian fashion design.  There is just one glimpse of the design process, where the visitor is invited to gaze upon Vibskov’s sketchbooks, samples of printed textile designs and collected ephemera that demonstrate his work in process.  This is perhaps only matched by a film in another room that documents the setting up of a show in Copenhagen, where Vibskov makes explicit his intentions for his visual style.

 

I find exhibitions about fashion designers slightly problematic, particularly when they are located in design museums.  I noticed this when visiting the Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2009Although it was a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary fashion on display, the decision to present his work as art rather than design meant there was no discussion of Chalayan’s collaboration with Puma nor Marks & Spencer’s Autograph range.  This surely limits how much we can understand the world of fashion as a complex place where design and art are arguably blurred activities, influenced by social, cultural and economic factors. These exhibitions would benefit from reflecting upon the way in which particular designers understand fashion as art, design and/or craft in an effort to engage the visitor in these same debates.

To conclude, I think I agree with Valerie Cumming, who in her book Understanding Fashion History (2004) argues that exhibitions which emphasise one designer are challenging for anyone who is interested in the role of fashion in the 21st century because they provide little opportunity to compare or contrast their designer contemporaries.  This is often a frustration I have with these exhibitions because they choose to celebrate the work through the lens of designer as original artist.  There is rarely a critical perspective by which to assess the work and its impact beyond the assumed status of creative celebrity.  Cumming also makes the point that when considering whether fashion is art, it is difficult to assess when academic scholarship of male dress is generally absent from the debate.  The exhibition of Vibskov’s work certainly attempted to address that imbalance yet, overall, I felt disappointed with a curatorial decision to approach the subject in such a singular fashion.

 

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Global Mode: Fashion Dissidence

A few weeks ago, I happened upon a “fashion story” that coupled high fashion with folk dress to examine the future of Ukraine and its cultural heritage. In an article called “Fashion Dissidence,” 032c Magazine published fashion designer Anton Belinskiy’s inspiration from the country’s anti-Yanukovych protests in November 2013. Seeing a prime opportunity to use his creative powers to make a statement, Belinskiy connected with a photographer and a model on Facebook–aged 16 and 15, respectively–and they created a “fashion story.” Using traditional clothing interspersed with the collection he had shown days before at Mercedes Benz Kiev Fashion Days, Belinskiy and his photographer Alexandra Trishina and model Nastya Petryshina showed their allegiance to their Ukrainian heritage while expressing dissent and dissatisfaction.

But you may have been following the protests in Kiev since November, and may know that the violence and discord in Maidan (Independence Square) have escalated significantly in the last week, with huge fires and close to thirty people killed. The many paragraphs I wrote may find their space in a later post, but for the time being don’t feel appropriate. That is a discussion in itself, that I am reticent to bring fashion and dress into the conversation about civil rights, governance, and the right to free speech: am I codifying the idea of clothing and fashion as superficial?

I do want to share the photographs that caught my eye and inspired me weeks ago to write about the different interactions fashion has with protest and civil unrest:

Protest fashion, Kiev, 2013. Photograph copyright Alexandra Trishina.

Protest fashion, Kiev, 2013. Photograph copyright Alexandra Trishina.

As Belinskiy noted to 032c Magazine,

“Around us there were students covered in blood, protesters, journalists. At first they could not understand what we were doing, and some were even a bit aggressive, but then after understanding what it was they strongly supported us.”

Protest fashion in Kiev, 2013. Photograph copyright Alexandra Trishina.

Protest fashion in Kiev, 2013. Photograph copyright Alexandra Trishina.

Find more of Trishina’s photographs here. Are they moving? predictable? provoking?

If you’d like to read more about dress and protest today, here on Worn Through we have generally covered “protest fashion” by looking at how protestors present themselves while participating in social uprisings, statements, and sit-ins. Our contributors have written thoughtful and insightful posts, such as Tove Hermansson’s work on secondhand clothing as protestsubversive knitting,Yippies and political fashions, and more. Brenna’s Bits and Bytes column touched on the use of hoodies after Trayvon Martin’s death and Lisa and Monica collaborated on a field report for Anarchists of Style: Occupy Wall Street.

Can fashion or the use of clothing as art be considered a constructive, meaningful reaction to political upheaval? Leave your respectful comments below.

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