Worn Through Research Award winner, Sophie Pitman is a second year AHRC-funded PhD student of History at St. John’s College, Cambridge, supervised by Ulinka Rublack. Her dissertation, ‘Tailoring the city: the making of clothing and the making of London, c.1560-1660,’ uses material, visual, literary and archival sources to explore the ways clothing contributed to the development of early modern London and, in turn, how London’s rapid growth changed the making, wearing, and meaning of clothing. Her methodology is based on interdisciplinary approaches to visual and material culture that she developed during her Frank Knox Fellowship at Harvard (2010-11) and her Master’s at the Bard Graduate Center (2011-13).
Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, (c.1574), MAP L85c no.27. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Early modern London was full of clothing. Fabric-laden boats traversed the Thames, bringing textiles in and out of the city to customers hungry for a wide-range of colours, textures, and patterns. Young apprentices wearing large ruffs were disciplined by their masters for their transgression, merchants imported and exported textiles which were then sold in new shopping spaces such as Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange, actors wore sumptuous costumes on the public theatre stages, and cast-offs were re-sold in the second-hand shops of Long Lane. This was a city growing rich from the trade of textiles, and on whose booming streets an ever-increasing range of fashions could be seen.
I am attempting to study the growth of early modern London through the ways clothing was made, worn and understood by inhabitants and visitors to the city. As Vanessa Harding has explained, “historians of early modern London do not expect to find new caches of unknown documents.” Most of the manuscripts and printed books that I pore over in the archives have been consulted, discussed and debated by generations of scholars fascinated with the history of London. But when I embarked upon a PhD focusing on clothing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London, a period of rapid and uncertain change in which London grew from a small European outpost into one of the continent’s largest cities, I decided to not limit my search to textual sources alone. In addition to consulting archival documents, I look to images and – most excitingly – to extant objects.
The Museum of London is widely celebrated for its vast costume collection, containing over 24,000 objects. But while a handful of its earliest pieces from the Tudor period have been well-preserved and are well-known, particularly through Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion books, most of the early clothing collection is under-represented in the online catalogue and little has been published on it. Though not a completely unknown cache, the collection is certainly a promising trove waiting to be explored, and provides much exciting material for my research.
Until recently, the Museum of London’s walls were decorated with a huge sculpture based on a diamond and emerald studded salamander brooch, part of the Cheapside Hoard, a cache of sixteenth- and seventeenth century jewels found in the City of London 1912. Photograph by Sophie Pitman
The costume stores under the galleries of the Museum of London are as tantalising as any other museum I have visited. Rows of umbrellas, concealed with protective white covers, hang from a rail, their horn handles peeking out. One apparently unpromising cupboard, which could be confused for a filing cabinet, opens to reveal shelves full of children’s shoes – rows filled with tiny pairs of Victorian boots and leather slippers which give a slightly eerie feel to one corner of the collection. But most of the objects I consulted were carefully laid out for me on large tables in the centre of the room.
This is where I was able to view the Isham doublet (A7577) – a black silk cut velvet piece dated to the first quarter of the seventeeth-century. The doublet, one of the most common forms of male upper-body wear, is much degraded, but this deterioration enables a close examination of the tailoring techniques used in this fashionable garment’s construction. The silk, patterned with leaves and scrolls, covers a layer of dark brown wool fabric, underneath which is a coarse linen interlining. The doublet has been quilted with wool, the neat ridges of which are covered with an inside lining of pink silk. The collar, now coming away from the body of the doublet, is constructed of four layers of stiff canvas. The doublet was fastened with thirty-four buttons constructed of wood and wrapped in black and silver gilt thread. Similar buttons are at the collar neck and the lower sleeves. The metal hooks along the waist of the doublet show how it could be attached to a pair of breeches or hose. Around the lower edge of the doublet at the waist there are small tabs or ‘laps’ made from different felted brown fabrics. We can almost imagine the thrifty tailor at work, selecting off-cuts from previous commissions to line these small decorative flaps. Though this doublet is said to have been worn by a wealthy nobleman – either 1st Baronet of Lamport John Isham (1582-1651) or his son Justinian (1610-1675) – it bears evidence of quick and economic manufacture. This branch of the Northamptonshire Isham family gained their fortunes in London in the cloth trade, and so this doublet contains many threads (please pardon the pun) of the development of the city – as a site for the dynamic and lucrative commercial trade in textiles, as a centre full of quick and clever tailors, and as a stage upon which the well-dressed could show off their new silk velvet doublets tailored to the most fashionable shapes.
While most of the pieces I was able to consult were laid out carefully on tables, I had the most fun rifling through the storeroom drawers. These wide and shallow wooden trays are filled with fragments carefully protected with foam and card supports. Excavations of London sites over the past century have furnished these draws with pieces – laces, shoes, belts, codpieces, hats, decorative bands, cloth fragments. Unlike the Isham doublet, we have few clues as to the identity of the original owners of these pieces. But as an historian, I have long been fascinated by the way that clothing carries the imprint of its former owner. Sweat stains, rips and tears, even deposits from a decaying body all give us insights into the life (and sometimes death) of the body beneath the clothes.
One brown and black cloth slipper, (A.26847) heavily patched and pieced together with large clumsy stitches, suggests many days of pounding the streets of London. Possibly a lining for a pair of outer shoes, this well-worn piece was found in Worship Street and brought to the museum in 1924. When the former owner of this slipper was busy repairing another hole or tear, this area lay outside of the city walls and was mainly fields. Close by, London’s first theatres – The Theatre (1576) and The Curtain (1577) were drawing audiences from across the urban area. Why this slipper was left behind and who took such care to patch and repair it, we will probably never know. But it does demonstrate how early modern Londoners valued their clothing, which bore the brunt of the climate, the urban environment, and the demands of labour on the body.
But the feather in the cap of the Museum of London’s collection of sixteenth-century clothing must be its unparalleled collection of knitted hats worn by non-elite men. As John Stow explained in his Survey of London (1598), such hats were ubiquitous in the city, ‘the youthful citizens also took them to the New fashion of flat caps, knit of woollen yarn black.’ In 1571, the Cappers act even made it obligatory for men from the middling and lower end of the social spectrum to wear an English-made knitted wool cap on Sundays and holy days. It was said that there were over eight thousand people in London alone occupied ‘in the trade and science of capping’ and this act attempted to ensure continued business and stability in a city rocked by fashion trends and imported goods. Fifty-seven knitted caps, all found in excavations within the City of London, demonstrate the range of knitting, dying, and finishing techniques and suggest that many wearers attempted to personalize their headgear with ribbons, slashes and tabbed brims. It was these individual efforts that I was most fascinated to see up close, to witness how early modern Londoners attempted to stand out, adapt and make even the most humble and necessary items of clothing fashionable in a city bustling with dressed bodies.
Unknown, Portrait of Edward Courtenay, 1st Early of Devon (1526-1556), c. 1555, oil on panel, via Wikimedia Commons
As I am particularly interested in the manufacture of clothing, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to see evidence of craftsmanship in the Museum of London’s collections. One dark brown leather jerkin (36.237) on display in the ‘War and Fashion’ section of the Medieval Gallery, is decorated all over with scored diagonal and vertical lines and diamond, heart and star pinking. Sized for a young man and dated to the second half of the sixteenth-century, the jerkin shows how even a relatively mundane item of outerwear could express the emotions and decorative interests of a young man. In conjunction with my trips to the museum, I have been learning the techniques required by the tailors and other makers in the period, and during a weekend course on ‘Historical Stitching & Decorative Techniques on Leather Clothing, 1400-1800’ at the School of Historical Dress, I was able to recreate this punched and scored design myself. In doing so, I realised that such effects could be achieved quickly with fairly simple punching and scoring tools, requiring no more than the patience and eye accuracy of a leatherworker.
A detail of the star punch and my sample reconstruction of the Museum of London Jerkin. Photograph by Sophie Pitman
I am very grateful to Worn Through for the support that enabled me to make research trips to London, and to discuss my research in this blog. I would also like to thank Tim Long, Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London, for his help and assistance. Thanks also to Hilary Davidson for her kind generosity – electronically and in person – of information and encouragement. I would also like to thank Karl Robinson and The School of Historical Dress, and my supervisor Professor Ulinka Rublack for their support and interest in the academic value of historical reconstruction. I have much more work ahead of me, especially with regard to the archaeological provenance of many of the pieces, but I am sure that these investigations and the photographs that I was able to take (though unfortunately not able to share online at this stage) will form a central part of my PhD thesis, which – in due course, will hopefully be adapted for publication.
If you have any suggestions, comments, or tips for Sophie, please feel free to leave a comment!
 For images and information, see ‘Jerkin, 36.237’: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-118831&start=474&rows=1
 Vanessa Harding, ‘Recent Perspectives on Early Modern London,’ The Historical Journal, Volume 47, Issue 2 (June 2004), pp 435 – 450, 447
 In particular see Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c1560-1620. London; New York: Macmillan ; Drama Book, 1985 and Janet Arnold, Jenny Tiramani, and Santina Levey, Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540 – 1660. Unabridged edition. (Hollywood, CA: Macmillan, 2008).
 For photographs and close examination of the Doublet, see ‘Early Doublet in The Museum of London,’ (9 December 2011) http://thegoodwyfe.blogspot.com.es/2011/12/early-doublet-in-museum-of-london.html
 John Stow, A Survey of London ed. H. Morley, (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1997), 445-6. As quoted in Maria Hayward, Rich Apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII’s England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 122.
1571 13 Eliz. cap, 19 as in George Nicholls, A History of the English Poor Law in Connection with the State of the Country and the Condition of the People, (reprint Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, 2006), 173-4.
 Fortunately, many of these caps have been photographed and documented in the online catalogue: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/. Thanks to Hilary Davidson and Jane Malcolm Davis for sharing their prepublication copy of ‘“He is of no account … if he have not a velvet or taffeta hat”: A survey of sixteenth century knitted caps’ which is forthcoming….
I had already talked about a fashion auction here when I had reviewed the Elsa Schiaparelli exposition at Christies. I had intended to post today an article about the Sonia Delaunay exhibition held at The Musée d’Art Moderne but my attention was caught last week by the announcement of a major vintage and contemporary fashion auction held until today at Millon & Associés and I thought I could share that first. As often with fashion auctions, not much is said about the history and origins of the items sold: when individuals decide to sell off intimate belongings, it rarely has something to do with very positive compromises. But the catalogue is definitely eye candy for fashion amateurs with a heterogeneous selection of fashion and accessories from the 1930s to the present time.
Christian Dior Ensemble, 1979-1980
Copyright: PB Fashion
The auction is not a celebrity sale but it does provide us with interesting pieces such as a Jeanne Lanvin 1939 wedding dress, a 1960 Chanel white tweed jacket, a 1971 Bill Gibb ensemble and of course the star object: an Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian 1965 dress….just to name a few. The 400 pieces on auction resemble the ideal wardrobe of an elegant Parisienne with its fancy furs, exquisite accessories and international garments.The Mondrian dress is a true piece of history of fashion and a major example of the combination of art and fashion – Yves Saint Laurent paying tribute to the constructivist lines of the artist, Piet Mondrian. The dress also brought an innovative comprehension of haute couture that was no longer only made of frills, flounces and strass but could also be strikingly minimalist.
Yves Saint Laurent, Mondrian dress, 1965
Copyright: PB Fashion
To whom do such auctions address themselves? I would say, everyone. The fashion lovers, institutions and private collectors…Some buy items they could not afford at full price (such as the contemporary pieces or the attractive Hermès and Chanel handbags), others invest in fashion as they would do in art pieces (I remember one of my childhood friend’s mother who possessed an exquisite black dress that had belonged to Marilyn Monroe and who displayed it with pride and passion) and finally the museums that enrich their fashion and costume collections with rarely seen objects.
Jeanne Lanvin Wedding Dress, 1939
Copyright: PB Fashion
Yet a fashion auction (and its exposition) has nothing to do with the solennel and formal atmosphere of a fashion museum display: the public is allowed to touch, even try on, speak loud…the whole while fighting upon prices and enjoying an enthralling ambience of heart-racing and fighting for one’s favorite item.
The iconic Mondrian dress is ultimately the big draw of the auction (I’ll update this post once the reached selling price is known and why not its buyer, by any chance!) while the accessories attract a younger crowd interested in fancy shoes and bags that add a ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ chic and nostalgic feel to their high street outfits.
Bill Gibb Ensemble, 1971
Copyright: PB Fashion
Before being a fashion professional, I am above all a fashion lover who enjoys nothing more than to see and touch clothing pieces I would never have the chance to put my hands on in another context although I have never bought anything at auction. Have any of you?
I would be curious to hear from museum professionals and what they think of fashion auctions and if they are useful to their work and collections?
You can browse the full catalogue of the action here.
Author, Journalist, and Adventurer Jacki Lyden has started a new project entitled The Seams. A team with experience from NPR and a passion for clothes plans to start a radio show/podcast discussing history and cultural stories pertaining to fashion.
It’s a fun new project we at Worn Through are supporting and we would encourage you to as well.
Consider donating to their Kickstarter campaign to help get this off the ground! It runs through Dec. 6, 2014.
In the second half of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, various countries in the Western world underwent both revolutions and reforms that are especially noteworthy for dress history. The French Revolution and its effects on the clothing of the upper class is well documented, a touchstone for the concepts of protest dress, trickle-up fashion, political fashion, and more. Although I couldn’t find a caption for the cover image (just a copyright note), the red phrygian cap brings to mind that bloody exercise, and will be the most familiar case of nationalism and revolution for most readers.
One of the real strengths of Alexander Maxwell‘s new book, Patriots Against Fashion: Clothing and Nationalism in Europe’s Age of Revolutions, however, is his insistence on including historical examples from a wide range of Western countries. Newspaper clippings from Madrid, Polish poetry, Latvian law, and first-person Turkish accounts are integrated seamlessly with the more common French and German fashion magazines and British colonial writing. As he states in his introduction, the book “refuses to conflate the history of ‘Europe’ with the history of its two greatest powers.” (5)
The academic tone and few illustrations may turn readers off, and the amount of information here can be a bit stunning. Maxwell layers on his primary source examples, at times a little thick. But one can hardly complain about extensive and inclusive research like that which Maxwell offers in this book.
From “Patriots Against Fashion” by Alexander Maxwell. Palgrave, 2014.
Although a pile of books have been published on fashion and revolution, they have often focused on one or two countries (or nations), providing an in-depth study. Patriots Against Fashion offers instead a broad comparative study of clothing and nationalism. Revolution is often an attempt to redefine a nation, to streamline, democratize, renew–for the love of a place. Citizens strive–and sometimes give their lives–for what they see as a better version of the country or nation that they love. Who defines nationalism, and what does it mean to be Latvian, for example? How is that expressed through clothing, and could it be improved with a national costume?
Clothing is visual and immediate; your appearance on the street defines your position, real or imagined, directly to your fellow walkers, shoppers, or protesters. In the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, fashion was generally considered a feminine vice, shallow and seductive. Male figures of power, be they doctors or politicians, offered not only critical views of fashion, but also passed laws regulating this and forbidding that. One solution to the “problem” of fashion was national dress, separate for women and men. The men’s versions may have included variations for fancy occasions or military service, depending on the country, but Maxwell focuses on the “uniform,” an everyday outfit worn by “all members of the nation.” The (male) leaders of various countries had many reasons for imposing–or suggesting–a national costume, and there were a range of expectations regarding how these costumes would be manufactured, paid for, and distributed. Was the monarch/government to impose it, or “civil society” to “spontaneously adopt” the costume? Would it be based on a sort of formal-military combination, or would it find its roots in regional folk dress?
From “Patriots Against Fashion” by Alexander Maxwell. Palgrave, 2014.
Theoretically a democratic action, Maxwell describes how national dress was actually discriminatory, as various groups were forbidden from wearing the proposed national dress; this echoes nationalism’s darker, racist tendencies.
The author leads us through a logical and well-organized set of chapters, setting up the general attitudes toward fashion in the period, with a focus on anti-fashion in all its iterations. He gives many contemporary examples of fashion’s popular association with a greedy elite and unnecessary waste, both monetary and material. He describes reactions against the “tyranny” of fashion, including the most striking (and well-documented): sumptuary laws.
Maxwell then offers case studies for four different “types” of national uniforms proposed or instituted by various nations: Absolutist, Democratic, Minimal, and Folk Costumes. Absolutist come from monarchs and other absolute leaders, including Gustaf III’s unpopular national Swedish dress. Democratic dress is, as the name suggests, for the people and by the people. Here, Maxwell uses the French Revolution as the prime example, while noting that democratic national dress was a topic of discussion in Germany and America before the revolution in France.
Despite its theoretical practicality and universality, national dress would have been a radical move in many countries, and the realities of putting them into practice were essentially insurmountable. Gustaf III here in Sweden actually made his vision a reality, if for a short period of time. But a full outfit wasn’t necessary to show one’s national pride or political affiliation, and perhaps the most popular versions of “national dress” were simple items of clothing or accessories that spoke volumes. Maxwell gives headwear examples, citing the cockade, the bonnet rouge, and the fez. Can these be considered uniforms? As objects or items of clothing they were relatively uniform, but they were worn with citizens’ regular outfits, by both sexes in some cases, and could cross social lines. Here, they are offered as “minimal national uniforms,” no less meaningful than a whole outfit. Elective and powerful, the hats Maxwell describes were wildly popular patriotic symbols in ways we can only imagine now.
The national costume’s nostalgic turn is described in his chapter on folk costume as national dress, from Welsh national costume to Greek foustanela. He addresses the very important–and very current–concept of “buying local.” Even if a national costume failed to gain popularity, buying goods and dress-related services made in your country was considered very patriotic. The whimsy of fashion could be swayed to meet the needs of nations undergoing growing pains. For example, this excellent quotation about Hungarian fashion, written by a British observer in Budapest 1869 and cited by Maxwell:
To subscribe to a journal of a fashions, written in the Hungarian language, is spoken as an act of patriotism. All this seems to us very absurd, but from the standpoint of the Hungarians themselves it is quite intelligible. The most mindless and frivolous of women, even if she have neither husband nor child, has still some influence in society. (199)
That statement is in turn quite absurd to modern readers, but probably intelligible to those (men) reading it in the mid-nineteenth century. Maxwell follows through to the twentieth century in his final chapter on haute couture and textiles, an extension of the buy local-patriotism discussed in the former.
With its extensive research and truly European outlook, this book is a must-read for those interested in the time period. It would be an excellent complement to the more specialized works on specific revolutions, and is rich with primary-source quotations and citations to inspire a rich term paper. With all of his primary source research, I imagine Maxwell must have come across a great number of images, and I wish there were more included here. It would have been exciting to be able to make a visual comparison across countries to accompany his written comparison; maybe that is a different book, or a future project.
Compact, academic, and thoughtful, this book is definitely aimed toward those with more than a passing interest in the subject. In fact, he suggests that this is not a fashion history book at all, but instead a contribution to the study of nationalism. It is too a fashion history book, I argue, and a much more nuanced and well-researched one than many intentionally fashion-based history books I’ve read.
Lead Image: Cover of Patriots Against Fashion: Clothing and Nationalism in Europe’s Age of Revolutions by Alexander Maxwell (Palgrave, 2014).
Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!
**I feel like this is way skewed toward France and England, if you have good non-London, non-Paris suggestions please leave them in the comments section and I’ll add them here!**
Condra, Jill. Encyclopedia of National Dress: traditional clothing around the world. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.
Jones, Jennifer. Sexing la Mode: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France. Oxford, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004.
Purdy, Daniel. The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Goethe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Roche, Daniel. Jean Birell, trans. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ‘Ancien Régime.’ Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Starobinski, Jean and the Kyoto Costume Institute. Revolution in Fashion: European Clotthing 1715-1815. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: what Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution. New York: H. Holt, 2006.
Wrigley, Richard. Politics of Appearances: representations of dress in Revolutionary France. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2002.
Among the many things that I am preparing for with the approach of the holiday season is how I’m going to work various fashion exhibitions into my schedule.
Obviously, those exhibitions outside of California are impossible for me, but hopefully they will be possible for many of you.
Most exciting for next week is Fern Mallis’s conversation with Valentino at 92Y in New York City. Tickets are currently sold out, but there is a wait list available for Mallis’s November 18 program with the legendary designer. This is in addition to the Death Becomes Her having opened in the last couple weeks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Jill discussed her visit to the exhibition in her post, yesterday), and Killer Heels still open at the Brooklyn Museum.At the Museum at FIT, while Exposed: A History of Lingerie is closing, their special exhibition, Dance & Fashion will remain open until January 3.
As I was informed by Jon in a comment on my last exhibition round up, there is another exciting exhibition on the east coast examining Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Cartier collection at the Hillwood Estate. Cartier: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Dazzling Gems has been open since June, but will not close until December 31.
In the Midwest, Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mileopens November 15 at the Chicago History Museum. It looks to be a truly fascinating exploration of the local fashion industry and the people who both worked in and utilized it, based upon the amazing blogposts that have led up to the exhibition’s opening.
In Des Moines, Halston & Warhol: Silver & Suede will be open at the Des Moines Art Center until January 18.
Here in California, Hollywood Costumeopened a month ago and will be up until March just across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Also in Los Angeles, the Fowler Museum at UCLA has three textile exhibitions on display: Bearing Witness: Embroidery as History in Post-Apartheid South Africaup through December 7; Textiles of Timor: Island in the Woven Sea up through January 4; and Yards of Style: African-Print Cloths of Ghanaopen through December 14.
In San Francisco, not directly related to fashion — but indirectly since his V magazine photo shoot — Ai Weiwei’s @Largeis currently on display on Alcatraz Island; at the de Young Museum, Keith Haring: The Political Line while not actually involving clothing or textiles offers visitors a chance to see some of the original drawings used by Vivienne Westwood in her 1983 collaboration with the artist. At the Legion of Honor, Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country Houseis open until January 18. I will be writing my review of it in early December.
Opening January 31 at the de Young is Embodiment: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpturewhich will be a wonderful opportunity to explore bodily depiction from approximately 110 different cultural groups. It may be a wee bit early to get excited about March openings, but I must confess I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland opening on March 7 and featuring not only Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, but his portrait of Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry in full Scottish military regalia which inspired my master’s ‘virtual exhibition’ on tartan and Scottish dress. Even more exciting is the arrival of High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Legion of Honor on March 14.
What exhibitions are you making time for this winter? Are there any exhibitions you want to share with Worn Through readers? If so, feel free to either email me or to share your thoughts in the comments!
Opening image from the website for Hillwood’s Cartier: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Dazzling Gem
This weekend ended the Palais Galliera’s glamorous exhibition dedicated to the 1950s fashion in France. We often think that because we know all about the New Look, the Bar ensemble imagined by Christian Dior in 1947, we know everything about the 1950s fashion. Yet this display demonstrates how versatile the stylistic silhouettes proposed by the designers of the decade were.
Within its splendid 19th century palace, the museum decided to privilege a simple modernist scenography that would moderate the extravagance of the architecture and emphasize the garments displayed. The exhibitions follows a thematic thread built on the typical wardrobe of an elegant Parisian of those days who would change several times a day to assume her social and fashionable obligations: we thus explore daywear, evening wear (within a ballroom-like presentation), leisure garments and cocktail dresses with a few accessory and undergarment hints. About 100 objects illustrate the abundance of styles, cuts and adornments that for most reveal how Parisian Haute Couture optimistically gained respectability and glory again after World War II while others announce a subtle fashion and social revolution, one that would burst in the 1960s.
The first thing you think of when observing all the garments displayed is how imprisoned the feminine body was during the 1950s, how male designers, led by Christian Dior’s iconic and scandalous ample New Look (influenced by Jacques Fath), fantasized a luxurious nostalgic silhouette with heavy layering of material, rich adornments and girdled hips. Most 1950s wealthy women dressed to seduce and entertain not to work, they wear Haute Couture designs alongside Tupperware products in the pages of the magazines hung on the walls of the Palais Galliera. The masculine and liberated image of women established during the war was erased for a more conservative archetype enhanced by the structural undergarments displayed within the exhibition on walls as abstract art works.
Pierre Balmain, « Antonia », evening dress, spring-summer 1954
Collection Palais Galliera
Yet alongside those romantic corollas, we observe the voluminous and sculptural garments of Cristobal Balenciaga who still inspire many contemporary designers while Gabrielle Chanel’s tailored suits announce the androgynous silhouettes of the following decade. Yes, the Chanel garments of the exhibition clearly stand out. The designer who had stopped her fashion career decided to triumphantly return in 1954 and do what she had already done in her beginnings: fight against archaism and help women build their emancipation with the help of fashion. She despised the hindering silhouettes of the male authorities and created her very own scandal with her sleek ensembles that provoked a cleavage in the middle of the decade.
Installation View: Evening Wear
Although the 1950s decade surely embodies the peak of French Haute Couture, the couturiers of the period help draw the early foundation of ready-to-wear. The exhibition makes it clear that, alongside various social factors of course, the success of Haute Couture worldwide, gave birth to ready-to-wear. The baby boomers of the decade and their youthful tastes are not represented within the display but we can’t help but note how the section dedicated to leisurewear announces teenage fashion and the 1960s ready-to-wear. Led by influential cultural figures such as Brigitte Bardot, young women favor light coton, beach dresses, ballerina shoes, naive prints…that provide the body with unrestricted, dynamic and graceful moves. Those looser designs serve as and experimental platform to the up-coming 1960s wear.
Finally, just as the exhibition’s span begins with the revolutionary look of Christian Dior’s 1947 collection, it symbolically ends with the appointment of the young Yves Saint Laurent as Artistic Director of the Christian Dior house in 1957. Although at Christian Dior, he pursues his master’s opulent style, we know how promptly he would become the emblem of feminine emancipation and ready-to-wear in the 1960s.
Installation View: Day Wear
The Palais Galliera exhibition was a strongly didactic display that not only diffused eye-candy but also proposed an innovative lecture of the decade’s fashion, far from clichés and easy assumptions and raised an undeniable debate: What do you think? 1950s fashion: revolutionary or archaic?
Exhibition Catalogue: Bosc, Alexandra. Les années 50: La Mode en France 1947-1957. Paris: Paris Musées, 2014.
I have a confession to make: I am a sucker for pretty much all things art deco. I endured Baz Luhrman’s ‘interesting’ interpretation of The Great Gatsby largely because of the design aesthetic (okay it wasn’t that bad). So, when I found out that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was doing a small exhibition just on art deco textiles, I made sure to go there even before the Kimono for a Modern Age or Treasures of Korea exhibitions I had originally headed south to see. Art Deco Textiles unexpectedly was a great precursor for Kimono because both exhibitions tapped the same inspiration sources in many ways.
The exhibition is small, and tucked away amidst the rest of the museum’s modern art collection of the same time period. Using one of the smaller galleries to showcase several lengths of fabric, placing the exhibition where they did masterfully put the textiles within the greater art and design context in a way that no amount of wall text could. With so many museums dedicating space in their museums to, and thus isolating, their textile and dress collections it does feel like we are losing some of the context. LACMA’s integrating multiple textile and dress displays within other aspects of the museum collection, as well as utilizing special exhibition and specialty display spaces is one of the many ways in which LACMA continues to raise the bar.
That is not to say the wall text was inadequate. It was phenomenal in explaining the Bauhaus school, its influence, and the evolution, début, and proliferation of the art deco style from 1926 throughout the 1930s succinctly and in the context of each of the pieces displayed. No mean feat.
The pieces and the wall texts not only placed the pieces within the artistic Zeitgeist of the time period, caught as it was between the two world wars and aimed to appeal to the “lost generation,” but also showed how art deco textiles were unique and original in their own right. The wall text in particular discussed the design process of each textile, and even gave the names to the now-lost designers.
Art Deco Textiles is both a fantastic introduction to the art deco movement and the textiles it produced, and a great exhibition for those who are familiar with the period. Small, but excellent, Art Deco Textiles is definitely worth the detour if you’re at LACMA.
Have you seen Art Deco Textiles? What did you think? Do you have an opinion on integration versus isolation? Art deco? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Feel free to share any upcoming local exhibitions or events in your area there as well, or to email me the details.
Let’s set the record straight right now: I’m a huge fan of Dries Van Noten’s work. He’s the designer that makes me proclaim how much I wish I was very rich to be able to buy all his collections, you thus imagine how impartial such a groupie may be when it comes to consider the exhibition celebrating the designer at Paris’ Arts Décoratifs. Yet no fear I intend to be entirely unbiased but let me tell you, this is probably the most beautiful display I have seen for years…
The title of the exhibition is to be taken literally. It is no traditional retrospective but a journey within the fertile grounds of Dries Van Noten’s imagination and how he assimilates diverse materials to fuel his creativity. The display is arranged in various themes, not genuinely in a chronological order even though it does begin with a few pieces from his Antwerp graduation show, in 1981 and ends on his Spring-Smmer 2014 collection. We enter the exhibition through a dark room entirely covered by diverse names and titles such as ‘Grease’, ‘Iggy Pop’, ‘Superman’, ‘Diana Ross’ or ‘Like a Virgin’ that all evoke how versatile the designers’ inspirations are. The different ensembles are arranged as inspirational boards with an eclectic juxtaposition that sometimes clearly justify the design of a garment but also raise inquisitive questions.
The first alcove mingles his early designs with that of his fellow Antwerp comrades such as Raf Simon and Ann Demeulemeester alongside 1980s glamorous pieces imagines by Gianni Versace and Yohji Yamamoto’s minimalist outfits, the whole beside posters and magazine covers of the trendy celebrities of the decade.
The following themes look at Gold, Butterflies, Graphic, Bollywood or Foppish and establish conversations between Dries Van Noten’s creations, historical garments selected within the museum’s archives and art works. Thus an Elsa Schiaparelli butterfly dress meets a Damien Hirst majestic collage, lamé Chanel and Thierry Mugler ensembles are assembled alongside a 1909 embroidered costume from the Balkans while a New Look silhouette contrasts with an Yves Klein sculpture and a Vasarely painting merges with a photography of Serge Gainsbourg. Such diverse personalities as Cecil Beaton, David Bowie and Jean Cocteau are united as the dandy-like inspirations of the Belgian designer’s androgynous and edgy masculine wear – the combination of counterculture and chic gives birth to Dries Van Noten’s recognizable silhouettes made of layering, prints, flamboyant Baroque and bohemian cool.
The second floor diffuses a more dramatic feel, with a highly visual and colorful mise-en-scène: flowered wall paper from ceiling to floor that ultimately brings us into an enchanted garden and an exotic environment. Here, it’s all about flowers – he who loves gardening -Indian luxuriance and Mexican gothic, something of an Alice in Wonderland travels the world…
Despite being a wonderful occasion of discovering such diverse art works and garments, the display is also a fabulous way of understanding the creative process of the designer. And here, it’s no caricatural nor explicit inspiration in the idea of ‘I saw flowers so I put flowers on the skirt’, it’s more about how Dries Van Noten’s garments are based on subtle references and how the flourishing inspirations he surrounds himself with can lead to a cut, a print or simply a purpose as the designer clearly states on the walls of the exhibition: ‘The starting point of a collection can either be very literal or abstract. A painting, a certain colour, a thought, a gesture, a smell, a flower, anything really. What matters to me is the journey from the first flash of inspiration to the final destination, the individual garments, the collection.’
When we observe Dries Van Noten’s garments on catwalks or within boutique displays, one thing clearly comes to mind: these clothes are wearable and lack the sense of spectacle that would have suited more the grounds of a museum exhibition. Yet that’s how the scenography is such a success as it nonetheless proposes a dramatic atmosphere with its spectacular alcoves that resonate with Renaissance ‘cabinets de curiosités’.
There is a strong form of modesty in Dries Van Noten’s choice to not only attract the attention on his work but also on the many creations of the artists and designers he admires. Although the display doesn’t focus on the sole work of the designer, it invites us within his very intimacy, his mind. When we leave the exhibition, we can’t help but think that more than an exposition about Dries Van Noten the designer, we have just discovered Dries Van Noten, the man.
More information: here
I have eagerly anticipated the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) Kimono for a Modern Age exhibition for over a year. I started out as a Japanese language and culture scholar, and while my research focuses since I entered the field of dress history have drifted westward, I still have a love for and fascination with Japan and Korea. I had also become very interested in the type of kimono this exhibition explores – meisen — through a paper of my own delivered at the CSA Western Region symposium in 2012, which I reiterated in a post for Worn Through.
As mentioned on Unframed, the LACMA blog, the kimono in many ways symbolizes Japan itself. However, people have a very distinct impression of what kimono should look like — a stereotype, if you will — which this exhibition challenges and challenges well.
Instead of small, delicate patterns we are accustomed to in kimono fabric, meisen kimono popular between the end of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), through the Taisho (1912 – 1926), and up to the post-war period of the Showa period (1926 – 1989) had large, bold patterns in bright colors. In my previous post, I discussed the methods of creating the most distinctive feature of meisen: the ikat-imitation effect of stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads before the fabric is woven. The other distinguishing feature is that much of the meisen designs can be seen as borrowing from art and artistic movements in the West at the same time that Japan was influencing these same Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, as well as modernizing their own traditions such as screen painting and calligraphy (examples below).
Now that we’ve gone over how meisen are unexpected, let’s examine this particular exhibition, which features of 30 kimono spanning the period from approximately 1920 to 1960.
The exhibition is located in LACMA’s pavilion of Japanese Art, and is brilliantly laid out to take full advantage of the unusual exhibition space, the permanent Japanese art collection, and the other exhibition in the pavilion, Zuan: Japanese Design Books. The pavilion’s layout requires that visitors take an elevator to the top — where they can see both the permanent collection and Zuan off to the right — and then perambulate down various ramps to the display spaces on each floor to make their way to the basement and then up the elevator again to the ground floor. The space is designed to compliment Japanese art which traditionally was created with the intent of inspiring contemplation rather than intense emotion or awe. In many ways the pavilion also mimics an Indian stupa, which became the pagoda in the far east, encouraging walking in a circular or spiral pattern as a form of moving meditation. This enables the visitor to take in each of the ten or so displays of three kimono each, in a calm, contemplative manner similar to the way in which you are encouraged to appreciate the traditional arts in Japan.
It worked very, very well. The slow pace that the building’s ramps encouraged and the pause at each landing allowed me to see subtle similarities of patterning I otherwise might not have noticed had the display been set up in the usual single-floor manner of fashion and dress exhibitions. The open-plan layout, with clear, perspex railings so you could see through to the next level below you, also leant a sense of anticipation to the exhibition as you could see glimpses of kimono to come, and compare the patterning to those you were currently appreciating.
What I appreciated most about this particular exhibition was the emphasis on re-interpretations of traditional Japanese art and kimono patterns in meisen, instead of the usual focus on cross-cultural references. For example, in the blue kimono above you could interpret the design as simply “polka dots” on a blue background, but thanks to the well-written tombstones that accompanied each kimono, it was revealed that multi-coloured dots had long been used in kimono as well as paintings to emphasize sun- or moon-dappled dew drops and had specific symbolism within Japanese art.
This is indeed how the exhibition starts, with three kimono featuring three very different uses of an enlarged, traditional arrow patterning. Each kimono is in a different color scheme, each reinterprets this symbol of samurai status in a new way, sometimes emphasizing it with palm fronds that were connected with sixteenth-century warlord, Oda Nobunaga, sometimes simply using the pattern in bold red, yellow, and gray colors. This also adds more layers to the meisen of both overt and subversive political messages.
For example, the “star-patterned” kimono at the beginning of the post also resembles the Japanese war flag of the rising sun with red rays. This kimono was made around 1940 and so while not as overt as some “propaganda” kimono of the same time period is a piece that might have been gotten away with post-war during the occupation. Another kimono from the 1950s or 1960s later on in the exhibition seems to depict a city scene at dawn, but while the sun isn’t visible the red rays associated with the war flag are seen beyond the mountains. Was this a quiet protest against American occupation, or a decree of loyalty even in the midst of defeat?
I have often wondered if there were or weren’t political elements to meisen kimono. The height of their popularity coming in midst of patriotic and nationalistic fervor in the lead of to the second World War, while taking much of their inspiration from Western art movements is full of contradictions. On the one hand, the military industrial complex (bakufu) was very keen on adopting Western ways as a way of defeating both the West and Japan’s neighbors in battle. On the other hand, were the wearers of these kimono making political statements against war through their clothing? If so, is it not possible that those who had different political leanings might not do the same with their meisen?
I consider exhibitions that not only teach you something, but encourage you to re-evaluate perceptions of a particular art form and to ask questions to be the absolute best. Through the display, layout, grouping of various kimono, and informative tombstones, LACMA did just that.
They did not altogether ignore the Western influence, either. On many pieces, such as the third kimono featured in this review, they referenced not only the traditional art of screen paintings of landscapes, but the works of Impressionists and modern painters in the LACMA collection such as Matisse or Cezanne that might equally have influenced the design.
My only critique would be that all the kimono were displayed as you see in the images, none were mounted on mannequins. This however is a critique I have often of all kimono exhibitions, not LACMA in particular. I fully understand that this is the traditional method for displaying kimono in Japan, where they are admired as individual works of art in their own right; I also deeply admire LACMA’s conservation department turning to Japanese tradition when they were looking for new methods to store their kimono collection. However, since my personal fascination is with how such pieces were worn and who they were worn by, I would have loved to see at least one kimono dressed on a mannequin. Though I understand there might be conservation issues with displaying kimono this way.
This however, did not in any way diminish the exhibition. The display, use of the pavilion — even the touch of displaying one of the design books in Zuan on the pages the showed kimono designs — were magnificent. All of which combined to challenge perceptions of not only kimono, but perceptions I had about meisen kimono.
Kimono for a Modern Age will be on display in the pavilion for Japanese art at LACMA until October 12, 2014.
As always, if you have any thoughts, contributions, or want to notify me of an exhibition or events in your area please feel free to leave them in the comments, or to email me.
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