For my second summer exhibition review, I went to see Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture & Fashion at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Publicised as a first, this exhibition attempts to consider the rebozo, a shawl worn by Mexican women since the 17th century, through displays that consider historical context, cultural identification with well-known Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo, social functions and the influence on contemporary art and fashion in Mexico today.
Examples of rebozos made in the 1950s and arranged to evoke the style of Frida Kahlo who wore them often.
Given that the Fashion and Textile Museum is housed in a building designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and that many of the earlier designs by the museum’s founder, Zandra Rhodes, are inspired by Mexican culture, it is not a surprise to find the exhibition here.
Here, you can see contemporary rebozo designs by British designers Zandra Rhodes on the right with a white feather screenprint on a cotton rayon mix and on the left, a wool patterned design by Wallace & Sewell
There is certainly a celebratory feel throughout the space as artists, designers and anthropologists display their enthusiasm for the rebozo by providing photographs, films and contemporary interpretations alongside material examples that cover every possible fabric and motif.
The main room which featured displays of rebozos juxtaposed with art installations and photographs from the Mexican anthropologist Ruth Lechuga (1920 – 2004)
The main room is given over to a dynamic display of these beautiful coverings, demonstrating the diversity of Mexican female society. There is a rebozo here for everyone, from plain to fancy, soft to hard, flat to sculptural, raw to recycled.
Appliqued cotton rebozo made by Mamaz Collective, a group of women from Tanivet, Oaxaca in 2014. It shows how women wear and use the rebozo in their daily lives.
A detail from a rebozo owned by Lila Downs, a popular singer-songwriter in Mexico
The rebozo can be made with pompoms, silk, feathers or glass beads. It can be woven from silk, wool, cotton or even constructed out of teabags. A rebozo can be both abstract and figurative, sharing stripy details or offering up appliquéd people. A rebozo can identify you with both a particular region of Mexico and the country as a whole.
Photographs by Tom Feher of Dominga weaving a rebozo, 2010
There are fantastic images by Tom Feher of women weaving rebozos, such as Dominga, which show how these complex garments are made using a relatively simple back strap loom. Although the practice of wearing these shawls originates from the Spanish conquest and the emphasis on women covering their heads in church, their production is clearly the result of methods developed by earlier indigenous people of Mexico. As a result, the rebozo is an object of interest for collectors, artists and anthropologists as they continually seek to identify its cultural significance.
Detail of a traditional back strap loom
However, there is another reason for having this exhibition other than having a celebration. Production of rebozos has gone from involving a third of the Mexican population to less than forty people scattered across the country. And of those left, there are only two who use the traditional back loom while the rest use a foot loom, introduced through colonialisation (1).
The craft of the rebozo is clearly in decline and current generations seem less interested in learning the skills and knowledge required to make these emblematic objects. The display of contemporary art and fashion inspired by the rebozo suggests that their importance is not lost and Mexican designers today are keen to continue indigenous skills and materials.
An jaspe rebozo jacket designed by Beatriz Russek, 1990
I particularly enjoyed the garments designed by Carmen Rion and Beatriz Russek, known for their collaborations with Mexican indigenous weaving communities and who have created some striking modern designs. While the exhibition highlights the significance of artists re-interpreting the rebozo, the highlight for me was a film of weavers talking about the process of making a rebozo. They described a sense of ‘urgency’ felt when weaving as they became closer and closer to finishing the rebozo and became more and more curious about whose shoulders it might finally embrace. I was transfixed by this narrative as I imagined what it would be like to weave these objects, spending up to sixty days on one rebozo, thinking about who might this shawl belong to one day. Capturing what it feels like to produce something seems critical when inspiring current generations to value and utilise historical skills and knowledge in the future.
Recent designs by Carmen Rion using the rebozo form to create blouses and skirts
(1) Virginia David and Hilary Steele, The Rebozo: A Mexican Tradition, Fibrearts, vol35 no1 60-1 Summer 2008, p60-61
The textile galleries at the de Young Museum in San Francisco are not small. I am very well acquainted with them due to my frequent trips to the city — typically because there is an exhibition on at the de Young or the Legion of Honour I very much wanted to see, and heaven forbid I visit one without going to the other. Unlike their blockbuster Bulgari and Balenciaga exhibitions, the gallery space has not been manipulated or altered in any way, and yet Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art From the Weisel Family Collection is a very intimate exhibition, despite its completely open floorplan. Intimate to the point that when someone besides a small child does speak loudly, the rest of the visitors almost look at each other sideways in silent reproof for this breach of the ambiance.
I do not know whether his intimacy was intended or was a happy accident, but it fits the exhibition to a tee. The word foremost in my mind to describe the artwork in this exhibition is delicate. Even the boldly patterned, bright cochineal red and rich indigo blue Navajo serapes, seemed delicately beautiful. The tiny brush strokes, the purposeful creation of an overall effect in thousand-year-old pottery, the individuality in each piece that the exhibition’s curators invite and encourage you to seek. Details do not overwhelm, nor do they compete with the larger picture, but they are given their own spotlight.
The exhibition is the debut of a new donation by Thomas Weisel of a collection he and his family have spent thirty years creating, which spans a millennium. Seventy-two art objects including pottery, baskets, carvings, textiles, and drawings are on display at the de Young until January 4, 2015. This is only a portion of the 185 pieces already donated to the de Young, and a further 21 textiles which will be officially acquired by the museum by 2016. The Weisel Family collection focuses primarily on the artwork of the American Southwest, with a few pieces from the Pacific Northwest.
The guiding purpose of the collection — and the exhibition inaugurating it into the museum’s permanent collection — is connoisseurship. Not in the sense of value of each particular object, but in that rarity among non-western, non-contemporary art: determining the individual artist. Thomas Weisel collected with a carefully trained eye, trying to find pieces by the same maker. According to the catalogue, “A driving interest behind the selection of specific works for the Weisel Family Collection is the hypothesis that it is possible to identify individual artists … through sustained observation and comparison among objects in the same style.” This is an ambitious goal, but one that the collection succeeds in fulfilling. The intimacy I described invites you to look closer — as closely as the gallery attendants will allow — to pick out details, find continuity among pieces whether because they were made by the same hand, family, or wider community.
When you enter the gallery it is hard to ignore the textiles. This is perhaps due to the prestige of Navajo textiles, but I think it is more due to the bold colors, the distinctive patterns, and the sheer beauty of the pieces. Despite there being more pottery in the exhibition than textiles, it is one of the “Chief” blankets that graces the cover of the catalogue — they catch your attention and pull you in.
All of the textiles featured are the work of the Dineh (Navajo) people. In her contribution to the catalogue, curator of the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts, Jill D’Alessandro, describes the history of Navajo weaving, and the development of their distinctive style from its Pueblo origins to the “Classic” period represented by the textiles in the exhibition. Most fascinating for me, since I confess a great deal of ignorance on the topic of Southwest indigenous textiles, was the suggestions of a greater trade network, of greater communication and exchange among the indigenous peoples of America through these trade and sale of these textiles. I am always intrigued by the communication and exchange of ideas and material goods between peoples — and have long felt there is a bias to portray the Native Americans as a single unit instead of the multiple and diverse nations they are. This cultural exchange is most apparent in the so-called “Chief” blankets featured in Lines on the Horizon – four pieces spanning the breadth of the style’s lifespan. These pieces, despite being less boldly colored, are the ones I most admired. They gain their name not from their use within the Navajo, but because they were purchased for use by chiefs of various Plains tribes. The Navajo did not have chiefs, but the Plains Indians did, and Navajo textiles were so desirable the Navajo made pieces for trade with Plains peoples, such as the four blankets made for chiefs of the Ute tribes.
The “stages” of the blankets do not indicate ranks within Ute society, but instead developments within the style by the Navajo. So that from the beautiful simplicity of the “first stage” blankets (see the far left above and the image below), the style gradually developed over the course of 35 to 40 years, into the more intricate, geometric patterns seen in the final “third stage” in the far right of the image above. The later stage no doubt had a major influence on the art deco period of the late 1920s and the 1930s due to a vogue for “Primitivism” — seeing the famous art deco building at 450 Sutter in San Francisco later the same day as my visit, it is easy to see how far short the imitators fell.
In her essay for the catalogue, D’Alessandro also discusses how the years of turmoil between the early 1800 and the mid- to late half of the century affected Navajo weaving. There is not only the displacement of the tribal peoples as they were forced onto reservations interrupting trade, but amidst the tragedy and the “battles fought among Native Americans, Spanish Americans, Mexicans, and European Americans for control of the western territories” the Navajo were exposed to a vast array of new artistic styles, materials, and perspectives — as well as new markets — that influenced and evolved the style and design of their weavings. The Classic period of Navajo weaving seems to be proof of triumph through turmoil for the arts.
The exhibition is a very comprehensive examination of artistry within the Southwest and Pacific northwest Native American artistic communities. To select one type of art “ove”r another is impossible. However, as a dress and textile historian after the textiles the pieces that most struck me were the depictions of the various Peoples by their own. A small taste of this was found in the bowl to the left above (ca 1450 – 1550, Sikyatki people), but the coup de grace was in the ledger drawings by Tsistsistas (Cheyenne).
In fact, I think I would be fair in saying these small, delicate drawings on blank, lined, ledger sheets were the pieces that have most fascinated me in the entire exhibition. The pieces featured are known as “The Old White Woman Ledger,” due to a tiny pictograph in several of the pieces portraying a hunched female figure with a cane (seen in the top center of the artwork below). This pictograph enticingly suggests that the pieces are all from the same artist, but close (intimate?) examination shows tiny differences in style which suggest a community if not a single hand. The ledger drawings in the Weisel Family Collection all portray one aspect of Cheyenne life: courtship ritual. As described in the catalogue, “A young man wooing a young woman would stand outside her residence, wearing a blanket. If she assented, the two could share the more private space defined by the blanket.” What a beautiful way to integrate textiles into one of the most important rituals of life.
For a people silenced by history and its recorders, the beauty of seeing them as they saw themselves through these drawings is beyond description. There is also the underlying message: that creative impulse cannot be suppressed. Matthew H. Robb says in his essay on the ledger drawings that artistic expression followed gender lines — women wove, beaded, and did quillwork as well as the more abstract painting of rawhide containers, whereas figural imagery on animal hides was the purview of men. In these ledger drawings we see the evolution of that tradition: denied access to the larger, asymmetric hides they were accustomed to, they transferred their drawings to the ledger paper they either bartered for or bought or even absconded with after an altercation. What further proof of the importance of an art form can you find than that the materials for it are a war trophy? This is how they saw themselves. This is their own perspective and portrayal of what they wore. Something priceless to material culturists and art historians.
In so many other exhibitions I can imagine, such drawings would have been lost. In the intimacy of the de Young’s Lines on the Horizon, they — and every other object displayed — had their chance to shine.
The other important aspect of this exhibition I came away with was the emphasis on the maker/artist/creative individual or community. It is a dichotomy, but I simultaneously admired the exquisitely beautiful pieces in this exhibition for themselves — not because there was a famous name attached — but also because of the invitation by the collection and the museum to look at each object as the individual creation of a specific person. Staring at some of the pottery, the wood carvings, the textiles, the sketches, you felt the hand reaching across the millenia, the centuries to say: I was here. This is what I saw. This is what I thought worth remembering.
Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection is on display in the Textile Galleries of the de Young until January 4, 2015.
As always, I welcome news about specific exhibitions and events. Feel free to leave information about them in the comments — along with your own reactions to exhibitions covered or my post. Feel free to email me with tips and comments as well.
The Return of the Rudeboy captures a contemporary snapshot of the Rudeboy culture with a display of photographic portraits, art installations and recreations in order to demonstrate that a subcultural identity with roots in 1950s Jamaica is still alive and well in 21st century Britain. With their credentials as photographer and creative director respectively, the curators Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliot have created an exhibition based upon a shared interest in menswear, subcultural style and contemporary consumption.
The first room of the exhibition featuring piled up suitcases as photographic frames
The exhibition is made up of five rooms that allow the visitor to wander through and tentatively identify with the Rudeboy subculture, be it through historical context, stylistic devices, musical tastes, urban locations or consumer choices. In the first room, you are faced with several sculptures made from stacked suitcases, some of which are open to reveal contemporary portraits of ‘rudies’. These luggage balancing acts make reference to the immigration of many from the West Indies and Africa to Britain in the second half of the 20th century, thus sowing the seed for the Rudeboy style amongst young men and women in urban centres across the country. On entering the second room, you find yourself amongst a lookbook of Rudeboy attires, modelled by invisible mannequins, many of which have been put together by Sam Lambert, an Angolan artist/tailor and a self confessed Rudeboy. There is also an installation by the artist Catherine Jane Willis, whose handmade boxes draw attention to the influence of the ‘Sunday best’ look that underpins Rudeboy dress.
Sartorial creations by Sam Lambert, Art comes First
The third room is the recreation of a barbershop that is in use twice a week and where you can experience the literal buzz by watching Johnnie Sapong groom visitors in the Rudeboy style. The fourth room focuses on the contemporary consumption associated with the subculture, epitomised by a ‘stepper’ bike designed specifically for the exhibition. The final room, with speakers piled up on one another to create a soundsystem, refers to the important role that music plays in connecting and creating a subcultural identity. An extensive soundtrack choreographed by the curators and played throughout the exhibition reinforces this.
Johnnie Sapong in the barbershop recreation within the exhibition
What all the rooms have in common are vivid photographic portraits of individuals from across the UK representing what Chalkley and Elliot see as the best stylistic examples of current Rudeboy culture. Interestingly, these are both women and men, young and old, black and white. However, unless you are familiar with these people already, the exhibition offers you very little in the way of information other than their name, displayed on a small label under each portrait.
Portraits of contemporary Rudeboys from across the UK photographed in East and West London location
It would seem that in this exhibition just their title is enough to establish their credentials as modern Rudeboy aristocracy. It is the absence of information regarding biography, locale or motivation that meant I found myself in a three-dimensional compendium of Rudeboy tastemakers, supported by a cast of artistic displays that failed to shed any new light on how and why such a subcultural identity may still be important today. Many of the figures on display, for example, draw our attention to the influence of globalisation, the African diaspora and post-colonialism on the continuity of Rudeboy style yet you will only discover this if you read around, and not in, the exhibition.
I also wondered why the exhibition wasn’t called ‘Rudie’, another term for ‘rudeboy’, given the fact that today’s Rudeboy could be female and/or no longer a young boy. The dominant demographic of my fellow visitors seemed to be fathers with children who showed little sartorial interest in identifying with Rudeboys today. The only person who appeared to embrace the style that day was a mature black woman whose genuine enthusiasm for the images and the culture bubbled out of her dress and comments as she walked around the exhibition. This delight was noted by other visitors who proffered compliments on her Rudeboy attire.
One of several portraits of female Rudeboys
The curators suggest that the exhibition is an introduction to the subculture, in terms of its attitude and appearance. I agree that the imposing portraits certainly command the viewer to accept that who they see are the legitimate inheritors of a stylistic lineage. I also agree with the curators that this exhibition attempts to fill a gap in the market if only to persuade you that your recent attempt to dress like Janelle Monae or purchasing Mr Hare’s shoes are so culturally important as to be economically justified. However, for me, this is less an introduction and more of an attempt to retain a hold on subcultural capital by re-fashioning the past into an array of consumable baroque objects that tell us who is in and who is out.
When I first heard about the Paris 1900 exhibition held at the Petit Palais, I must admit I was quite immediately excited about it. Not knowing anything about it, something inside me believed I would love it and I wasn’t disappointed. For those of you who may not know the Petit Palais, it can surely be considered as one of Paris’ loveliest museums with its beautiful Beaux Arts style architecture, decorated with impressive frescos and mosaics. Housing the city’s fine arts museum, it was specially erected for Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1900 and thus stands as the perfect location for an exhibition dedicated to that particular time. On the pretext of the International Exhibition, the display introduces visitors to Paris’s splendid and luxurious context during the Belle Epoque. Organized like the Exposition itself, Paris 1900 is organized into 6 sections – 6 pavilions that all highlight the different aspects of the French capital’s cultural and artistic life. The exhibition demonstrates how spectacular this moment in Paris’ history has been, nourished by about 600 pieces (I think I have actually never seen so many artefacts in one space!) that mingle scientific rigor and pure aesthetic pleasure. From oral and social history to official art and innovative design, the display spans this unique cultural moment with a very rich (almost too rich: there is so much to look at) documentation: Mucha posters, letters, models, films by the Lumière brothers, a real metro entrance by Hector Guimard, paintings, sculptures and costumes. The whole within an impressive yet simple scenography.
Julius Leblanc Stewart – Redemption, 1895
The first section thus immediately brings our attention on the Exposition Universelle itself and all the architectural projects and decors, built or not, that accompanied it. This first part also celebrates the emergence of modernity with electricity, cinematography, the motor industry…that all supported the festivities’ atmosphere. A triumphant modernity that liberated imagination leading to such projects as the Eiffel Tower, the Petit and Grand Palais, the Alexandre III bridge, metro and railway lines….that enhanced Paris’ splendor as it was at the centre of the world’s attention. The visitor is introduced to the second section dedicated to Art Nouveau by a dancing Loie Fuller filmed by Pathé, in 1900: her innovative choreographies and her sinuous nature-inspired gestures perfectly echo the lines of the Art Nouveau furniture, decors and objects.
Callot Soeurs – 1905
Not being an exhibition about Art Nouveau, there is no academic approach to the movement within this section, simply a stunning ensemble of artefacts that all highlight the work of the Art Nouveau’s pioneers and put the visitors in the skin of the Exposition’s wealthy art-lovers. Alongside Majorelle furniture, Gallé delicate objects and Lalique precious jewelry, are presented two ‘avant-garde’ costumes that evoke the concept of total art promoted by the movement. These simple white outfits bear very graphic adornments that evoke the stylistic researches of Art Nouveau artists. The third section establishes what an art centre the French capital was with a hanging evocative of classic 19th century museums – that is an accumulation on the wall, all the way up to the ceiling.
Paul Troubetzkoy – La mère et l’enfant, 1898
21st century visitors being used to the white cube concept do get quite disoriented as there are many artworks to observe and you have to raise the neck high (and get blind by the spotlights) to be able to look at the highest pieces: I did appreciate the historical reference but it definitely wasn’t very practical. Nevertheless, this room overflowed with incredible works from Auguste Rodin’s sculptures to the Nabi’s almost abstract experimentations, Symbolist disturbing legends and the Impressionist serene landscapes. Strangely, although the selection is clearly eclectic, there is a certain sense of harmony that can be felt, as though, more than reflecting about different artistic movements, the section simply provides an insight into the period’s global creativity.
Tea Gown, 1898-1899
The following section highlights the mythic figure of the admired Parisienne and how her persona was greatly built at the turn of the century with the help of the Exposition that brought much of foreigners’ attention on the feminine characters of the city. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘distinguished from other women by an understated elegance appropriate to every circumstance in life. Her characteristics are restraint, good taste, innate refinement and that indefinable something which is unique to her, a mixture of allure and modernism that we call chic.’ Thus the Parisienne rapidly was identified as not only a geographical cliché but more as a chic attitude that could be embodied by elegant duchesses as well as popular ‘midinettes’. The ‘pavilion’ we enter proposes art pieces that evoke the various representations of the Parisienne, will it be through photographies or paintings and mostly with her very own objects – costumes, jewelry and accessories – the whole drawing the picture of a mythified as well as a real woman. The little number of fashion artefacts (all lent by the Musée Galliera) are mostly spectacular pieces such as a lovely tea gown that belonged to the French comedian, Réjane, a majestic cape earned by the Duchesse de Greffuhle and a Redfern ensemble made for Anna Gould.
Evening Dress – Jacques Doucet, 1900
The two last sections highlight Paris’ night and entertainment life made of cafés, bals, cheeky cabarets, drama pieces conducted by the iconic persona of Sarah Bernhardt, operas and early experimental films. The dark side of 1900’s Parisian life is supposedly demonstrated with references to morphine and brothels. I must admit I did not find the rendering of Paris’ dark side that dark: the scenography privileged humour and a certain glamour with portraits of the city’s legendary courtesans that mostly leave us thinking that the period was free-spirited and fun rather than glaucous although we do know poverty, absinthe, drugs and prostitution were serious issues. Focusing on the Parisienne part as it enclosed the fashion objects, the exhibition definitely points out to the fact that she was entirely indissociable from the urban environment she evolved in, the reason why tailored masculine-like ensembles popularized by Redfern met with such success as they enabled Parisian women to stroll around in their city with dark and practical yet elegant outfits – the ancestor of the perfect little black dress! The Parisienne also helped establish the fame of the capital’s couture houses and craftsmanship: the Made in Paris concept becoming highly popular. The display confirms how limited the avant-garde’s influence was – fashion privileged the S shaped silhouettes (although we could say these sinuous forms did resemble that of the Art Nouveau creations) and historical motifs. What disturbed me is how the exhibition has restricted the feminine figure to the ‘frivolities’ of fashion, domestic affairs or to sexual pleasures: I know women did experience such confinements but the art section lacked art pieces made by women as well as I would have wished to see masculine fashion that would have also helped us draw the outlines of the male parisian.
Henri Alexandre Gervex – Une soirée au Pré Catelan, 1909
In the whole, Paris 1900 illustrates how inventive, spectacular and unleashed the city was, establishing close interactions between art, social and design history. It does not concentrate on precise academic issues nor does it analyse modernity and experimental works but it definitely makes the visitors feel as if they were participating to the Exposition Universelle’s exciting fiesta. I greatly appreciated the fact that fashion was not left out as it does evoke how important this creative discipline was considered within international exhibitions within which they were given special lavish displays: fashion was undeniably part of a whole artistic and cultural context – a partner of high art.
Further Resources: The exhibition’s catalogue is very interesting (I did treat myself with it):
Bosc, Alexandra. Paris 1900: La Ville Spectacle. Paris: Paris Musées, 2014.
Rose, Clare. Art Nouveau Fashion. London: V& A Publishing, 2014.
A pop history of collectables so often blends nostalgia and personal experience with historic research. The author falls in love with Legos, buttons, LPs, etc in his or her youth, saves up for the first or the elusive, and the rest is publishable material. I Love Those Earrings, by Jane Merrill and Chris Filstrup, is a love story to the earring. The typical pop history approach reminded me a bit of On the Button by Nina Edwards, a book I recently reviewed for Dress. But where that book is as scattered as an overturned notions jar, I Love Those Earrings is structured in its historical content and perfectly balanced in its evident admiration for the subject matter. With some dramatic exceptions, I wear the same pearl studs every day. But while reading this book I started to reconsider the costume earrings I’ve carried with me through many moves, reserving for special occasions. Maybe they would work for every day, playing queen or noblewoman on the streets of Stockholm?
From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.
As the authors, skillful and familiar storytellers, introduce us to Earring History, we learn that fashionable styles reflect available materials, advancing technology, sumptuary laws. We meet the women who made the jewels famous (and vice versa), find inferences in social mores and are reminded of the earrings worn in Pretty Woman–would you be able to conjure up the shape and size of the earrings, or just the snapping of the jewelry box on her fingers?
Paraphrasing ancient history, myths as painted by Titian, royal marriages, French revolution, and Josephine Baker’s influence, this book flows. It has a charming way of relating these stories of lust and war to their subject: “The initial object of [Henry VIII's] ambition was Eleanora of Austria (1498-1558) who would have brought to England an extravagant collection of earrings.” (27) I enjoyed the juxtaposition that unintentionally created: Henry weighing Eleanora’s earring collection against the Spanish alliance he would gain from marriage with Catherine of Aragon–whom he eventually chose as his first wife for that reason.
From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.
The book is organized chronologically, which is logical and easy to follow. As is common for pop histories spanning huge amounts of time, the “early” chapters cover centuries and even millennia, whereas the later might discuss a two or three decades. The chapters are pleasantly organized in different manners, keeping the reader engaged: the sixteenth-century examines European depictions of famous women, the seventeenth-century chapter starts with a tour of Dutch portraits in American museums. The “Belle Époque” leads with a personal history of grandmothers and ends with “In the Colors of Feminism.” When we arrive in the twenty-first century, individual earring artists, almost all American, are given the stage. The book concludes with personal histories from women who love earrings, a short visual glossary of earring fastenings, and a bibliography.
Sushi earrings by Stephanie Kilgast. Pictured in “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Christ Filstrup, 2014.
The photographs and reproduced paintings included are museum quality, generally well edited. One drawback–perhaps a function of the image budget?–is that many paintings referenced meaningfully in the text are not included visually. But I especially appreciated the authors’ study of contemporary portraits, which gave the work a more academic feel–more than “just” a collector’s delight. As Merrill writes in her introduction,
Swirling quite carefree in culture and fun, I became drawn to earrings like a crow to a piece of silver foil. I consciously wanted to develop my sense of beauty as I had for carpets–and my pursuit became the earrings I saw in paintings, museums, fairs, expositions, and shops. …Playing detective, I would detect a whisper of pearl of pendant in a portrait, which might well not show up in a reproduction. (6-7)
Portraits are prized in this book, and the authors write short analyses of the importance and roles of these paintings in the history of earrings to augment the existence of the extant jewelry. Advancements or fashions in portrait painting as well as the skill of celebrated artists are noted for how they helped make certain types of earrings popular, proved the eminence of the portrayed figure, or highlighted the inherent beauty of stones and precious materials.
From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.
Here and there are teasers of other primary source materials, such as an eighteenth-century drawing, a design for Aigrettes housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, seen above. I wish there had been more of these less obvious sources for variety’s sake. Interestingly, as the decades pass in this volume, a greater portion of the jewelry photographed was courtesy jewelry dealers and private collections than museum collections. In the “Victorian Era” chapter, Merrill passes into a collectors’ state:
This brings me to my single, favorite pair of Victorian earrings, where whimsy is executed with perfect craftsmanship, resulting in utterly wearable fantasy. You see this pair of goldfish bowls that were a tour de force in rock crystal. If you’ve carried a goldfish in a bowl or plastic sack back from a country fair or amusement park, you know that the bowl sloshes and almost tips out the fish. The same giddy tension was embodied in these earrings. (101)
Her heartfelt description of “A Mother’s Jewelry Box” will be familiar to many young women (and men). This book is, after all, about (and arguably for) women. Men (or, “studs who wear them”) and jewelry fill one chapter, which also begins with a personal history: Merrill confronts her co-author–her ex-husband–with his adornment choices over the years.
From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.
From there we jump into ancient history and speed through the millennia to the seventeenth century. It is also an example of the abrupt endings found here and there in this book: that’s certainly not the end of male earring-wearing, and there is no concluding paragraph. The final line of the chapter concludes an anecdote about the Abbé de Choisy: “Even as he took on the celibate life of a clergyman, he continued to crossdress.”
While entertainingly written, there are some odd punctuation and interesting word-order choices; this may not bother other readers. The style is informal; historian Ion Grumeza personalizes his essay on ancient jewelry with the qualifying phrase, “Romania, where I grew up.” (20) And yes, you will find a few instances of the word “bling.” Sometimes the informality breaks the storytelling spell; the description of sixteenth-century collars as “his, the circus dog style; hers, the standing kind” (26) feels unnecessarily distancing. There are certainly examples of earrings here that could be conveyed as equally ridiculous.
From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.
While the visuals are strong (if relatively small), this book is meant to be read. Its value lies in the energetic storytelling, never focusing too long on one subject, time period, or style, but keeping today’s reader afloat on a river of anecdotes and examples. This is not a book from which to pull hard quotations for a term paper, but rather an admiring, playful tribute. There are no citations, and although the bibliography is good, sources quoted in the text are mysteriously not included there. There are not many books that focus on earrings and this is the most comprehensive in years. Books on “dress accessories” rarely include jewelry; books on jewelry are often focused on one designer or try to tackle All of the Jewelry That Ever Was.
The fashion historian might benefit from passages about trends in shape and material, such as how the girandoles of the eighteenth century were largely replaced by pendeloques by the turn of the nineteenth century, or why paste jewels were practical. But this is a book for the aspiring informed collector, and would be a helpful precedent for other writers working on similarly focused subjects. Like any excellent pop history, I Love Those Earrings places its object of affection meaningfully in the course of our accepted history, making that history all the more enjoyable and accessible.
Lead Image: Cover of I Love Those Earrings by Jane Merrill with Chris Filstrup. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2014.
Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Evans, Joan. A History of Jewelry 1100-1870. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1989.
Mascetti, Daniela and Amanda Triossi. Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Phillips, Clare. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Steinbach, Ronald. The Fashionable Ear: A History of Ear-Piercing Trends for Men and Women. Burlington, VT: Vantage Press, 1995.
Tait, Hugh, ed. 7000 Years of Jewelry. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2009.
A little over a week and a half ago, on June 28, my internet feeds were flooded with World War I articles. That was because June 28 was the centennial anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive in 1914 to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This year is the centennial year of the start of that conflict, and so in addition to the articles recapitulating the details of the Archduke’s assassination, of the war itself, and its major battles – and probably a dramatic increase in Downton Abbey sales and merchandise – the Kent State University Museum is honoring the event with what looks to be a truly wonderful exhibition.
They have a tradition of doing such exhibitions, having done On the Home Front: Civil War Fashions and Domestic Life in 2012 in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. They also have an advantage in that this particular time period is a specialty of curator Sara Hume’s, her dissertation examines “the development and preservation of traditional or folk dress practices in Alsace in the face of pressure both from political conflict and mainstream fashion,” Alsace-Lorraine was one of the most contested regions between Germany and France during World War I. Sara was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about the exhibition, its focus and its challenges.
As with On the Home Front, this exhibition focuses on the women of World War I. However, instead of being left behind these women were the first to not only be allowed, but actually encouraged to actively participate in the war effort – not just as nurses but as enlisted personnel. This is just one of many changes society experienced across the board: this was the first war to employ airplanes, automobiles and tanks, and the last in which cavalry would play a major role. “Back home,” there were movies, and fashion was undergoing a whirlwind revolution from the traditional Edwardian silhouette to the boxy, “liberated” shapes of the 1920s. As Sara explained to me, the 1920s were the result of all the shifts and changes that happened between 1912 and 1918, largely as a result of the war and the changes it brought to women’s lives. The true revelation of The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War is how this change happened both so quickly, and yet incrementally when you look at it year by year.
US Navy Yeoman (F) uniform
KSUM 2013.43.1 a-d
Photograph by Vanessa Port
In one of the first sections, “women at work” is the key theme. The exhibition focuses on the American war, which was far different from the European experience, but still had quite an impact. Despite joining the war so “late” in 1917, America would lose approximately 100,000 men to the point that in the 1920s young women outnumbered young men three to one. Using mixed media of clothing and ephemera, the exhibition places recruitment posters – including those by Howard Chandler Christy featuring his famous “Christy” girl wishing she was a man so she could join the Navy, or encouraging men to sign up – alongside a woman’s Naval uniform (above), showing that for the first time in American history, women could enlist for active duty, as this young yeoman had. The uniform is displayed next to a man’s army uniform for contrast, and also with uniforms for other women’s occupations, such as a nurse and a maid. These are all interspersed with suits for women, since the period of focus was a big time for women’s tailoring, since women were out working and taking a much more active role in society – something they couldn’t do in the elaborate costumes of the Edwardian era. Also in contrast to their immediate predecessors, the recruitment posters are not aimed exclusively at men. The exhibition features posters appealing directly to women to join as either nurses or enlisted personnel, or to join the “land army” to take up the farm work the men would vacate when they enlisted. All of this establishes the unique experience of American women during the war.
Navy blue and white swimsuit
American, ca 1919
KSUM 1996.58.224 ab
Photograph by Vanessa Port
Another section of the exhibition focuses on athletic wear, play in contrast to the work. This is actually in keeping with the popularity of the “Christy” girl, who was seen as wholesomely athletic – which made her uniquely American in the minds of consumers at the time – she was also a young woman who had been to college, because educated women made the best wives and mothers. In this section of the exhibition, two gym uniforms and two bathing suits (one above) are featured, both of which foreshadow coming changes in fashion through a shift in emphasis on muscularity and exercise to maintain fashionable body shapes rather than on corsetry and petticoats. According to Sara the uniforms and swimsuits have a distinctly nautical style – a feature we both remarked as fascinating since the usurpation of distinctly masculine dress seems to be only acceptable in activewear and when it is imitating naval uniforms; a tradition I believe was established in the eighteenth century by women who borrowed naval details for their riding habits, considered scandalous then, but apparently completely accepted by 1912.
Corset of cotton eyelet over orange ribbons
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
To contrast with the emerging world of women’s sports, corsetry is also on display in The Great War. Ranging from 1912 until about 1918 or 1920, the corsetry shows as much as the clothing does the shift in silhouettes from the tubular Edwardian pieces to the girdles we typically associate with the Jazz Age. This segues nicely into what is the major feature of the exhibition: several pieces contrasting fashion at the beginning of the war (circa 1912 – 1914) with fashion at the end of it (circa 1918 – 1920).
Purple wool and chiffon dress
KSUM 1986.20.1 a-c
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
Purple velvet and chiffon dress
KSUM 1995.17.86 ab
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
One such comparison involves two dresses of a remarkably similar purple hue (above), which were both made no doubt for similar occasions and use, but that is where the similarities end. The shapes, skirt lengths, etc., are all radically different pre-war and post-war, showing the shift in women’s lives as much as the shift in the fashions they wore, and proving the underlying thesis of the exhibition – that what we see in the 1920s is the end result, the aftermath not the revolution itself which took place during the three-year period between 1914 and 1917. There are also four wedding gowns, two from the pre-war period and two from the end of the war to illustrate this change. One wedding gown from 1918 (below), Sara tells me, is so completely different from its 1912 – 1914 counterpart and features so many style details we associate with the Jazz Age – bell skirts, dropped waist, etc. – that without the provenance anyone looking at it would date it to the 1920s. But, it was definitely made for a bride in 1918.
Photograph by Joanne Arnett
A revelation of the exhibition for the museum staff was that while the styles and fashion drastically simplified over the decade under examination, it took a long time for ideas about clothing construction to change with the fashions – they simply couldn’t imagine just pulling a gown on over their heads. In a post for the museum’s blog, curatorial assistant Joanne Arnett discusses the difficulties in dressing the mannequins in the garments due to the complicated construction and seemingly endless little snap closures.
Another challenge faced by the museum is the fact that the fashions of the time preferred fabrics that are delicate and a test of conservation: sheer fabrics, netting, tulle, delicate silks and satins which don’t stand up well over time and are tricky to display for long periods of time. There was also the problem of mannequins – those for the late-nineteenth century were too narrow due to the Edwardian love of corsetry, but those for later in the twentieth century didn’t have the proper posture, or came in strange, awkward poses that mimic fashion photography of later periods. It’s rather impractical for most museums to purchase all-new mannequins for one exhibition. Kent State rather masterfully created custom mounts on their existing mannequins, a process Sara wrote about for the museum’s blog, and which is well worth the read.
As my own research has moved progressively forward from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the nineteenth and early twentieth, I have found it very hard to overemphasize the importance of World War I in the creation of what we think of as the modern world. From my discussion with Sara, my reading of the museum’s blog posts, and through the information and photos she has shared with me I think it is impossible to overemphasize the war’s affect on women’s fashion. It is the Teens, not the Twenties where the revolution took place; the “Flappers and Philosophers” of the post-war were merely finishing something what their older sisters and brothers had started. What I feel Sara and the rest of the museum staff have done is to masterfully place the fashion in a proper socio-historical context: giving a perspective of the whole war, and of the American experience of the war, while still focusing on women, how their lives were changing and the war accelerated that change, and how fashion reflected that.
The exhibition opens on July 24, and will be open until July 5, 2015. Quite long enough for me to be actively considering a cross-country trip just to see it. I think it is worth it.
If you are anticipating going to the exhibition, or as always, if there is an exhibition or event you know of and would like to share, please do not hesitate to share either in the comments or by emailing me.
In my very short time as a substitute teacher in the Swedish public school system, I suddenly had a new relationship with baseball caps: trying to get boys 12-15 to please take them off, if I have to ask you a fifth time there will be consequences, et cetera. What, besides an emphatic need to do the opposite of anything a substitute teacher says, makes these caps so irresistible, so difficult to remove? Steven Bryden has been equally besatt with hats his whole life, beginning with a Marlboro merchandise hat his father gave him. Now that caps have become the objects of obsession and collection, a new book on the subject was in order: Bryden’s Caps/One Size Fits All was released this year. One cap enthusiast even called it a “bible.”
For the fashion historian this is a meritorious material culture study from a true insider. The book prioritizes the object as a collector’s item, and offers a pop history of the ubiquitous accessory that is heavy on images and photography. From wool flannel vintage remakes to the Odd Future Golf cap, Bryden centers his book around a selection of hats that represent the width and breadth of cap culture.
After a (very) short history by Gary Warnett, the reader is presented with diagrams from a baseball cap patent, which allows Bryden to show us the “Anatomy of a Cap”: here is the brim, the buckram, the sweatband. It may seem like overdrive for such a simple garment, but I like the democratic approach. Caps and sneakers have become, oxymoronically, elite street fashion, but this book allows everyone to come in on the same level. Bryden outlines the major manufacturers, including the well-known New Era and the perhaps lesser-known Sports Specialties Corporation (later sold to Nike). The book has a collector’s tone: just enough information so that you can impress your friends and keep an eye on what you might like to own and wear yourself.
So it’s no surprise that the most substantial section of this book is about individual specimen, listing specs like date, type of hat, and a few lines of observation, maybe a snippet of historical significance or an insidery trivia gem. The museum-collections-report-like sentence structure can sound unnatural considering the pop-history function of the book, but the empirical observation also serves to honor the objects with respectful distance:
The [ESPN 'Boo-Yeah!!'] cap is a promotional item for the US TV network ESPN; it was only available on studio tours. It features the network’s ‘Boo-Yeah!!’ strapline stitched onto the rear; this was a well-known catchphrase of SportCenter anchor Stuart Scott. The cap has an adjustable strap and is constructed from cotton twill. (93)
While each of these descriptions may be fascinating to cap collectors, and possibly very useful for future fashion historians (what was “in,” collectable, or at least available in 2014?), the second half of the book provides the most entertaining sections: interviews with innovators, photographs of the film and sports stars that made caps a Thing, and street style. Offering the reader insights from “key insiders from the streetwear world,” Bryden continues to let us in on the ground floor. The interviews in the “Influencers and Innovators” section are short; Bryden asks marginally more interesting questions than we saw in the Fashion Scandinavia book, but we the readers want more! Fittingly, only one woman is interviewed: this is a male fashion world.
The “Caps Made Famous” chapter is the most engaging, visually strong and nostalgic. Pop culture icons from Eddie Merckx and Will Smith to Lewis Hamilton and A$AP Rocky are shown in their cap of choice, providing a historical flow. Remember Daryl Strawberry? Did you know that the Tri-Mountain Baseball Club was the first New England team to take up New York-style baseball?
“Street Snaps” brings the cap back into the present, offering a variety of different faces (mostly young, mostly male) framed by an equally broad range of caps. The volume ends with a list of shops for those readers inspired to start or expand his or her own collection.
This book shows how not only the aesthetics and the materials but also the meanings and the use of caps have changed from their earliest years in the late nineteenth century, in brief. Acknowledging and furthering the cult status of the cap, Cap/One Size Fits All provides a foundation for collectors and maybe even collections personnel in museums with forward-thinking accessions policies. While it is an interesting, quick read even for those not interested in wearing caps, I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to fashion historians except for the value inherent in its insider perspective (it’s not the first book about the cap phenomenon, but it is the first one in almost 20 years) It collates pertinent information into one resource in a way the internet cannot, with a clear structure and a nice flow. Far from academic, it is the ideal analog homage to a now-timeless accessory.
Lead Image: Cover of Caps/One Size Fits All by Steven Bryden [Prestel, 2014].
Garcia, Bobbito. Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture 1960-1987. New York: Testify Books, 2003.
Harris, Alice. The White T. New York: HarperStyle, 1996.
Sullivan, Deidre. Caps. New York: Andrew McMeel Publications, 1997.
Talbot, Stephanie. Slogan T-Shirts: cult and culture. London: A&C Black, 2013.
If you speak Swedish, I suggest you listen to the Baseballkepsen episode of Stil i P1. If you have any other insider baseball cap research tips, leave them in the comments section and I’ll update this bibliography!
In The Language of Clothes, the author Alison Lurie suggests that a bride’s preference for a one off all white outfit can be what the earlier costume commentator Prudence Glynn describes as wanting on the one hand “one marvelous, escapist, romantic moment in an otherwise drab life” or, on the other “by wearing archaic dress she is stating her unconscious belief that the ceremony itself is archaic.”
Display featuring the pink background and in the foreground, an ensemble of accessories dating from the early to mid 19th century. www.adorngirl.com
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, the latest exhibition in the V&A’s wonderful Fashion Galleries, certainly appears to embrace this perceived romance and escapism of what to wear on the special day with its emphasis on a ‘western wedding style’, predominantly British, in sartorial form. Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor finds herself looking at a timeline of white dresses, displayed against pink walls, with curvy fonts highlighting the wonder of weddings as expressed by a range of contemporary cultural commentators. Once on the upper gallery, it is possible to see huge projections of photographs showing the more current dresses on their owners, in-situ, replete with soft focus edges and flowery transitions. This exhibition holds to the ideals associated with a particular normative notion of femininity, where weddings are a bride’s ultimate dream rather than a complex socio-cultural event where ideas and values are negotiated through dress.
Jenny Bishop in Ian Stuart wedding dress, with the exhibition in the background. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Despite there being several outfits on display that make reference to different religious systems, local traditions and economic groups, these often felt like a novel footnote to the main body of text rather than a full paragraph or chapter. The primacy of the ‘western wedding style’ meant that it was hard for me to place experiences such as the double wedding of my Trinidadian neighbour, who celebrated her nuptials in both a Hindi and Christian ceremony, into this exhibition. Similarly, I struggled to find examples of the angst experienced by many brides to be when it comes to finding the one dress, knowing that it is likely not to be worn again. I recall one friend who decided to overcome this challenge by buying a dress for 99p on Ebay while another gave herself only one day to find something to wear, recounting the experience as if it was had been a prison sentence.
Monica Maurice’s red wedding dress, 1938. Victoria & Albert Museum
So, for me, the most interesting outfits were those that were more idiosyncratic because they went some way to demonstrating the complex socio-cultural negotiations that take place around weddings. Take Monica Maurice, for instance. The first woman to become a member of the Association of Mining Electrical Engineers in 1938 and who decided to wear red for her wedding of the same year to celebrate her love of the colour. Or Elizabeth King, who had her dress made from furnishing fabric in 1941 as a way to circumvent clothing rations. More recently, imagine the moment when Christopher Breward and his partner James Brook wore suits for their civil partnership in 2006. I also enjoyed the dress worn by Lisa Butcher in 1992, whose literal baring caused her husband to pass judgment on the appropriacy of bridalwear at a wedding.
Suit worn by Christopher Breward in 2006 for his civil partnership with James Brook. Victoria & Albert Museum.
I thought the arrangement and presentation of the dress worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933 was excellent because it was possible to acknowledge the context more vividly with the inclusion of Pathe footage documenting the event. It also provided an early example of the way in which the white one off costume could be completely removed from fashionable dress, which in this case meant having a spectacularly huge train.
I appreciated those outfits where additional contextual information was present, which included photographs, accessories, design sketches and wedding invitations. It was fascinating to spot a napkin souvenir created by Maud Cecil for her wedding in 1927, drawing our attention to the inherent ephemerality of nuptial occasions. It was also interesting to note that there was very little jewelry on display despite the fact that this can often play an important role in nuptial ceremonies.
Wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933. Victoria and Albert Museum
Yet, overall, I found that the chronological approach to this exhibition made for quite a dull experience. Much of the label descriptions were given over to aesthetic references with very little explanation, intimating an art historical approach to understanding objects where prior knowledge is assumed. I find this quite irritating because it not only makes information appear esoteric but it fails to engage the visitor in a more critical dialogue with the objects on view. Interestingly, the aim of Wedding Dresses 1775- 2014 is to demonstrate how fashion has impacted upon the design of wedding dresses from a historical perspective yet in doing so, the one off all white outfit becomes increasingly fetishlike as it moves further away from its various spatial and temporal locations.
I think the exhibition could have extended to asking more reflective questions around the roles and responsibilities of those involved in a wedding. For instance, what do a bride and groom actually do in a wedding? How and why? What other factors play a part in wedding practices? What impact might this have upon their choice of dress?
Ending on a more positive note, the accompanying exhibition blog is very informative because, through curatorial narrative, the nuances of wedding dress design and wear are given more space as the curators move in and out of people’s lives through the chosen objects, forcing them to consider their relationships in a more immediate way than in the actual exhibition. This is most vividly realized when the curators meet with the designer Gareth Pugh and Kate Shillingford, fashion editor of Another Magazine to discuss how she wore his dress on her wedding day. The curator observes how intimate the relationship is between the designer and the client in their negotiation of specific details. I wonder if the exhibition could have benefited from having observations like this or even recordings of those who wore the garments recounting their experiences included as an audio guide to accompany the visitor.
Alison Lurie (1981) The Language of Clothes London, Heinemann
Ethics is not visual.
Friend, are you tired of your acquaintances’ self-congratulatory explanation of how they only buy jeans made of organic cotton? Are you confused by the limited ethical practices of do-good companies like Toms, and why your co-worker feels good about buying ten pairs?
Have we got the resource for you! Efrat Tseëlon has edited this special edition of the journal Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty. This journal takes its name seriously, and from Tseëlon’s introduction the writing does not spare the consumer’s feelings or pander to corporate interests and the general public’s assent. Tseëlon identifies responsibility in both parties, and while she may acknowledge difficulties in attaining a truly ethical fashion system, these are not excuses.
Ethical fashion is distinct from ethical fashion, a construction that Tseëlon defines as a “set of concepts” (13) such as ‘green’ or ‘produced locally.’ “Ethical fashion” is “an ethical style of doing things which serves as a smoke screen against having to engage with the issues that the twin concepts ‘ethics’ and ‘fashion’ entail. … ‘ethical fashion’ has come to designate what is safeguarded as the core of the ethical agenda in fashion, and what is left safely outside its bounds.” (3) In Tseëlon’s view, companies choose from a number of different strategies, such as a special ethical line of clothing or beauty products that give the company “cred” while allowing them to continue less ethical practices in their other offerings, and that the consumer is willing to participate in that structure. Have you shopped H&M’s new recycled fashion line? Did you buy a $10 bikini while you were there?
Tseëlon admits that it’s not so simple: if consumers purchased fewer, nicer things, the volume of sales would drop; if the corporations take their vows to improve worker’s rights and production values, the prices would go up: sounds mutually unattractive. But is this falsified middle road more insidious? Is the appearance of transparency actually creating great opacity?
Displacing its ethical concerns onto exotic and remote people, places and practices, and maintaining a mode of engagement which is philanthropic rather than political, the industry has been able to simultaneously genuinely enjoy the fruits of this exploitation while genuinely making some contributions to cleaning up their supply chain. (italics in original; 17)
The articles in this volume offer more specific debates and/or answers. Even the keywords are aggressive and niched, as identified for the first article, “Fashionable dilemmas” by Austin Williams:
questionable morality, ethical euphemism, ethical dogma, ethics of ‘development,’ conscience cleaning (69)
From “Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty,” Volume 2. Edited by Efrat Tseëlon, 2014.
Williams’ article continues the attack on “pick’n’mix” ethics laid out in the introduction and calls out ironies of ethical fashion: real or imagined, created or accidental. Which is the more important issue to address: animal cruelty, production waste, human rights? Why can’t we choose all of these? The Israeli fashion label Comme il faut was chosen by Tseëlon as an especially ethical business; while the label cannot reach the level of a platonic ideal, the holistic approach to an ethical mission impressed the editor. CEO Sybil Goldfiner contributed a long case study of her own company, which adds a commercial viewpoint to this volume.
Marie-Cécile Cervellon and Lindsey Carey have taken on a sociological marketing topic: what are consumers’ perceptions of ‘green’? These first-hand accounts are engaging and balance the previous article’s business-side focus; the subjects’ general skepticism and lack of knowledge support the volume’s theme neatly, but there is a generous bibliography for further reading, as with all the articles.
The ethical treatment of animals has been largely ignored by fashion theorists, writes John Sorenson in his article, “Ethical fashion and the exploitation of nonhuman animals.” While fur is a hot-button issue, the fashion industry exploits animals in a variety of ways that are overshadowed by the most obvious or egregious wrongs, like crocodile-skin bags. Sorenson argues that nonhuman animal rights are essential to an ethical fashion practice, not just an easy protest symbol. Rafi Grosglik takes a new tack, focusing on the cultural appropriation of hummus as inherently Israeli in the past few decades, making the now-popular connection between luxury/organic trends in food fashion and how those consumer choices translate to clothing fashion–or how they fail to.
The final two articles address body image and fashion modeling. The first, by Patrícia Soley-Beltran, offers models’ testimony on their experience in the business, just as in the consumer article, and equally engaging. This is the first point at which I thought, ‘Haven’t we read so much on this subject before?’ But the author’s inclusion of “the forms of symbolic violence that shape the experience of being a model” in the realm of ethical fashion broadens the definition of this topic and maintains Tseëlon’s challenge to the rote system of “ethical fashion” as it exists today. The final article adds a psychological angle to the previous topic, offering a professional opinion to the academic.
Each provides an excellent bibliography for further reading in its specific field, along with the email address of the author–a bold, inclusive choice. The book and exhibition reviews that close the volume are also on-theme: coverage of the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition, “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” has consistently remarked on his interest in “diverse” models and non-traditional aesthetics, and the books reviewed have explicitly ethical subjects.
Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty offers an unflinching critical look at the greening of fashion consumption, an unbeatable source from which to gather poignant and critical quotes for a term paper or article. I’ve never put together a curriculum, but this volume provides a clear chorus of voices in a muddy subject and speaks to so many different issues that it seems a natural choice for students. Despite its presentation as a journal, this volume reads more like a book; a lot of the sources and examples are from at least four years ago, and at 250+ square pages, it’s a lot of reading. It may be evident from the tone of this review that I am sympathetic to the authors’ viewpoints, and glad to finally read something more decided and critical; I would look forward to opposing reviews from those who have read the book (write about it or link to your review in our comments section below!). The emphatic and passionate nature of Tseëlon’s arguments, as well as those voiced by other contributors, may raise some hackles; the editor’s comparison of animal cruelty to the Holocaust, for example (see: Goodwin’s Law). But that’s just the point: which sources of modern fashion criticism make you talk back to a book, get you posting on social media, or inspire you to discuss academic journals with everyone from your coworkers to your grandma?
I wonder if this journal will catch some good media attention, if Tseëlon or her contributors will be on NPR and peppered throughout the NYTimes as much as Elizabeth Cline was for her book, Overpriced: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Penguin, 2013). Which is the most effective medium for writing about ethical fashion/fashion and ethics, and which for reaching the target audience?
Find more Book Reviews on Worn Through here!
Lead Image: Cover of Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, Volume 2. Edited by Efrat Tseëlon, 2014. University of Chicago Press & Intellect.
Barnett, Clive et al. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Baumann, Zygmunt. Postmodern Ethics. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993.
Black, Sandy. Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2008.
Cline, Elizabeth. Overpriced: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Devinney, Timothy et al. The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Ribero, Aileen. Dress and Morality. London: Batsford, 1986.
Rivoli, Pietra. The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. New York: Wiley, 2009.
Stigliz, Joseph. Globalization and Its Discontents. London: Penguin, 2003.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Right: Hale Woodruff, Portrait of Theresa
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.