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

In The Language of Clothes, the author Alison Lurie suggests that a bride’s preference for a one off all white outfit can be what the earlier costume commentator Prudence Glynn describes as wanting on the one hand “one marvelous, escapist, romantic moment in an otherwise drab life” or, on the other “by wearing archaic dress she is stating her unconscious belief that the ceremony itself is archaic.”[1]

Display featuring the pink background and in the foreground, an ensemble of accessories dating from the early to mid 19th century. www.adorngirl.com

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, the latest exhibition in the V&A’s wonderful Fashion Galleries, certainly appears to embrace this perceived romance and escapism of what to wear on the special day with its emphasis on a ‘western wedding style’, predominantly British, in sartorial form. Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor finds herself looking at a timeline of white dresses, displayed against pink walls, with curvy fonts highlighting the wonder of weddings as expressed by a range of contemporary cultural commentators. Once on the upper gallery, it is possible to see huge projections of photographs showing the more current dresses on their owners, in-situ, replete with soft focus edges and flowery transitions. This exhibition holds to the ideals associated with a particular normative notion of femininity, where weddings are a bride’s ultimate dream rather than a complex socio-cultural event where ideas and values are negotiated through dress.

Jenny Bishop in Ian Stuart wedding dress, with the exhibition in the background. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Despite there being several outfits on display that make reference to different religious systems, local traditions and economic groups, these often felt like a novel footnote to the main body of text rather than a full paragraph or chapter. The primacy of the ‘western wedding style’ meant that it was hard for me to place experiences such as the double wedding of my Trinidadian neighbour, who celebrated her nuptials in both a Hindi and Christian ceremony, into this exhibition. Similarly, I struggled to find examples of the angst experienced by many brides to be when it comes to finding the one dress, knowing that it is likely not to be worn again. I recall one friend who decided to overcome this challenge by buying a dress for 99p on Ebay while another gave herself only one day to find something to wear, recounting the experience as if it was had been a prison sentence.

Monica Maurice’s red wedding dress, 1938. Victoria & Albert Museum

So, for me, the most interesting outfits were those that were more idiosyncratic because they went some way to demonstrating the complex socio-cultural negotiations that take place around weddings. Take Monica Maurice, for instance.  The first woman to become a member of the Association of Mining Electrical Engineers in 1938 and who decided to wear red for her wedding of the same year to celebrate her love of the colour.  Or Elizabeth King, who had her dress made from furnishing fabric in 1941 as a way to circumvent clothing rations. More recently, imagine the moment when Christopher Breward and his partner James Brook wore suits for their civil partnership in 2006. I also enjoyed the dress worn by Lisa Butcher in 1992, whose literal baring caused her husband to pass judgment on the appropriacy of bridalwear at a wedding.

Suit worn by Christopher Breward in 2006 for his civil partnership with James Brook. Victoria & Albert Museum.

I thought the arrangement and presentation of the dress worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933 was excellent because it was possible to acknowledge the context more vividly with the inclusion of Pathe footage documenting the event. It also provided an early example of the way in which the white one off costume could be completely removed from fashionable dress, which in this case meant having a spectacularly huge train.

I appreciated those outfits where additional contextual information was present, which included photographs, accessories, design sketches and wedding invitations.  It was fascinating to spot a napkin souvenir created by Maud Cecil for her wedding in 1927, drawing our attention to the inherent ephemerality of nuptial occasions. It was also interesting to note that there was very little jewelry on display despite the fact that this can often play an important role in nuptial ceremonies.

Wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933. Victoria and Albert Museum

Yet, overall, I found that the chronological approach to this exhibition made for quite a dull experience. Much of the label descriptions were given over to aesthetic references with very little explanation, intimating an art historical approach to understanding objects where prior knowledge is assumed. I find this quite irritating because it not only makes information appear esoteric but it fails to engage the visitor in a more critical dialogue with the objects on view. Interestingly, the aim of Wedding Dresses 1775- 2014 is to demonstrate how fashion has impacted upon the design of wedding dresses from a historical perspective yet in doing so, the one off all white outfit becomes increasingly fetishlike as it moves further away from its various spatial and temporal locations.

I think the exhibition could have extended to asking more reflective questions around the roles and responsibilities of those involved in a wedding. For instance, what do a bride and groom actually do in a wedding? How and why? What other factors play a part in wedding practices? What impact might this have upon their choice of dress?

Ending on a more positive note, the accompanying exhibition blog is very informative because, through curatorial narrative, the nuances of wedding dress design and wear are given more space as the curators move in and out of people’s lives through the chosen objects, forcing them to consider their relationships in a more immediate way than in the actual exhibition. This is most vividly realized when the curators meet with the designer Gareth Pugh and Kate Shillingford, fashion editor of Another Magazine to discuss how she wore his dress on her wedding day. The curator observes how intimate the relationship is between the designer and the client in their negotiation of specific details. I wonder if the exhibition could have benefited from having observations like this or even recordings of those who wore the garments recounting their experiences included as an audio guide to accompany the visitor.

 

REFERENCES:

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

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Book Review: Fashion and Ethics

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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:

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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.

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.

 

Further Reading:

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.

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

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

Draped Down: What Makes Black Fashion Black?

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

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This image courtesy of Monique Long

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

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

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This image courtesy of Monique Long

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

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

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

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

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Right: Hale Woodruff, Portrait of Theresa, 1945

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Global Mode: HERA

EOC-image-Hagley-Museum-and-Library

A few weeks ago I was in the audience for “Swedish Innovations & High Street Fashion,” a conference held at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design. Combining the academic with the commercial, the topics ranged from “Swedish fashion industry in the 20th century” by Ulrika Berglund, PhD candidate at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University, to “‘It’s not what you do but how you do it’” by Jörgen Andersson, a long-time H&M executive and recent Uniqlo transfer.

The talks were interesting, engaging, and centered around what keynote speaker Regina Lee Blaszczyk termed “the new business history.” Instead of focusing on managerial systems at the most visible companies, Blaszczyk supports turning to small businesses, clothing companies, and objects, among many other overlooked portions of business history. She sees the clothing industry, in all its iterations, as vital to the study of business history as a whole, and the study of business history as integral to the future of fashion studies.

Professor Regina Blaszcyzk of the University of Leeds.

Professor Regina Blaszcyzk of the University of Leeds.

“Swedish Innovations & High Street Fashion” was one of many public outlets for the three-year project Blaszczyk chairs, “Enterprise of Culture.” Their plan is straightforward and exciting:

This project seeks to deepen our understanding of these developments using an interdisciplinary approach that explores the relationships among enterprise and culture. Fashion is often studied from a purely theoretical perspective, from a costume history or dress history viewpoint, or from a popular media-driven vantage point. EOC breaks new ground, using the fashion business to examine how various types of cultural encounters – between “core” fashion cities such as Paris and London and “peripheral” areas such as Sweden and Scotland, between style labs and the high street, and between fibre makers, clothing manufacturers, and retailers – stimulated innovation, and created a new and competitive industry.

Significantly, this enterprise is funded by HERA [Humanities in the European Research Area], a funding network of twenty-one humanities councils across Europe. HERA has been a generous supporter of dynamic fashion projects in the past, such as “Fashioning the Early Modern“; read my review of that conference for Worn Through here. These projects consistently bring together some of the best researchers in Europe across many disciplines, and the collaborative, multinational nature of the work is modern and forward-thinking.

It’s especially encouraging to learn about funding sources that despite (or because of?) their broad reach have chosen to fund fashion studies-based projects. In 2012 alone, HERA’s Joint Research Programme funded collaborations as different as “Cultural Encounters in Interventions against Violence” and “Travelling Texts 1790-1914: the Transnational Reception of Women’s Writing at the Fringes of Europe.” That fashion studies holds a respected place among more traditional academic topics is a major step forward.

What projects would you like to see funded? What other large and diverse geographic areas do you think deserve a similar funding source? Had you heard about HERA or their projects before?

 

Lead image source: Pierre Cardin design, 1961, for a DuPont textiles ad. From the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware.

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Review: Artists Textiles at The Fashion and Textiles Museum

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

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

Published in 2012, this is also the exhibition catalogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Harvest Time’ by Rockwell Kent, 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Cypren’ by Josef Hoffman, 1910

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

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

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

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

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Book Trailer: Stitched Up

 

 

No book review this week, but a book trailer! Tansy Hoskins writes about eco-fashion, sustainability, and worker’s rights for websites like Business of Fashion, The Guardian, and Counterfire. Her book, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, was released in February and I’m looking forward to reading it!

The New Yorker says book trailers are awkward; you may already have heard how absurd Jonathan Franzen thinks they are.

There seem to be very few trailers for fashion books. Why do you think that is?

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From the Archives: Global Mode: The Diesel Niqab

For Easter weekend, we will look back at my post from September 2013, in which Diesel presented interpretations of religious dress in their world-famous denim.

 

When Diesel’s first ad campaign under its new artistic director, Nicola Formichetti, came out in late August, bubbles of disapproval and disappointment and loathing about one of the many images in the Reboot campaign arose and floated around blogs, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post. The discussion circled around a shallow “offensive/edgy” binary deemed innate to the image, which discussion commentators (and commenters) fell into naturally: here is a semi-naked, white (?), tattooed woman wearing a niqab presumably made of Diesel denim, a studded back pocket over her face as design accent. And: go.

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From Diesel’s 2013 “Reboot” advertising campaign.

Huffpo asked its readers “Did Diesel cross the line?” without really drawing one in the sand; you can imagine the comments that question encouraged. The intense disagreement suggests that the question of whether this is “offensive or not”–because it’s not provocative or daring or challenging, it’s offensive…or it’s edgy–is to be determined by the individual observer, not by the cultural observer.

Some commented on Formichetti appropriating a “sacred niqab” out of its religious context to further his career, others insisted that veils are a social–not a religious–construction, and very few noted that this garment was not meant for actual consumption, not going to be following the “plus-sized” found model and Casey Legler, other models in the campaign, down any runway. Shock factor was mentioned and determined to be in very poor taste. Opinions!

There are so many question-layers of agency in the niqab image: the core issue of the agency of women in Middle Eastern countries, their societies so often clumped together, misunderstood, and ascribed the worst social woes of each; the agency of Eastern imagery and objects in Western consumerism; the role of artistic director as artist, as representative of an international brand, as a member of the fashion system.Questions of one’s Muslim-ness and whether the image offended morphed into that age-old conversation about who is “allowed” to be offended or make pronouncements about offensiveness to Muslim women.

Many Muslim women spoke out, mainly against the ad. The threat of Islamophobia in America is very, very serious and the further complication of this garment–especially as regards sexuality–can be seen as irresponsible. Responses like that of Shruti Parekh are vital to the maintenance of real, true, and thoughtful perceptions of the diversity of Middle Eastern cultures both in America and abroad. When presented in a considered manner, the opposition to this campaign helps foster “dialogue.” But I continue to be struck by the frenetic use of our generous avenues of communication by some to exploit exploitation. What is the difference between an international brand using intentionally inflammatory images to spark conversation and a fashion blogger using intentionally inflammatory language to do the same?

One difference is, of course, that even if this garment is not for sale, the rest of the collection is. Designer Kenneth Cole is another famous seeker of controversy, criticized often and loudly for his Twitter advertising “jokes” about Syria and Egypt (and sandals and riots). Cole sees his fashion-maker status as an opportunity to get people talking, and his detractors see him as exploiting international crises and news items to drive sales.Some who disagreed with his tweets created interesting and engaging opposition, but the majority found an easy target and denied Cole the “dialogue” he supposedly seeks to incite, fighting his tactics because it looks good or because someone tweeted their inspiring disappointment first and everyone loves a trending hashtag. Is Formichetti the new Cole? Should a supposedly “off-the-cuff” tweet be considered in a different context than an orchestrated campaign?

Is the Catholic imagery in another of the Reboot campaign’s advertisements too tame to incite commentary in 2013? Is a tattooed young drag queen in a studded denim mitre expected in the fashion sphere? If boychild is naked under that robe, is it offensive, or might it be construed as a clever nod to certain scandals that have plagued the church in recent years?

diesel-reboot

From Diesel’s 2013 “Reboot” advertising campaign.

Those who are offended by the interpretation of Pope Joan above might be as disheartened by the commodification and dilution of the power of their religious garments as Sana Saeed, who wrote about the Diesel niqab: “Long dreaded the day that ‘THE VEIL’ [would] become so subversive that capitalism [would] just consume it. Then this Diesel ad.” When it comes to religiously-affiliated dress, whether Catholic or Muslim (or whatever), what is powerful and what is oppressive? I think both of the pictured garments represent both of those adjectives. Do they belong in the realm of fashion advertising?

Only one writer, Angel Millar, remarked on the nature of the material used to make the “make-shift niqab,” noting the juxtaposition of All-American Denim and its freedom/democracy/mainstream/(pop?) connotations with the staid/oppressive/religious of veils:

A denim niqab seems at once to indicate a rejection of both Western values and religious literalism, and it seems to hint at the fusion of East and West on the level of material culture.

Millar gives two examples of Islam’s influence on Western fashion: Poiret and Chalayan. The first was meant to establish the long connection between the two worlds; it may be generous to say “Islam’s influence on…” instead of “The West’s co-opting of…”, but the point is: this is not as new as some think. But the use of the niqab/burqa to intentionally provoke in the Reboot ad is perhaps better compared to Chalayan’s “Burka,” a collection from 1996, which is called “challenging” and “art” (links nsfw). If Diesel had presented this niqab in a runway show as opposed to in an advertising campaign, would it have landed differently? Does Chalayan, seen as a high-fashion artist, have more leeway to explore these themes than Diesel, seen as a mass-market brand, or are their approaches fundamentally different?

How does “I am not what I appear to be” intersect with the niqab image? What are the social questions that may be answered by society at large or by a majority, as opposed to left up to each consumer, observer, and citizen? Is there a line to be crossed here, and how would you define it? Please leave your respectful comments below.

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Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on the Lacis Museum, Berkeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

WP_20140328_053    WP_20140328_055 19th-century gown from the Lacis collection

 

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WP_20140328_058 BBC costume from Copper

 

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

cover American cool

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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