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

1930s_vionnet

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 1: Hers

Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 2: His

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Resource:

Exhibition Catalogue:

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

 

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CFP: DECADENCE: An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference

DECADENCE: An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference

August 15-17, 2014

Dalhousie University

If it is a cliché to speak of one’s own age as decadent, so be it. These are decadent times. Justin Bieber’s car collection and Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential palace fit comfortably in a world where the 85 richest people have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet’s population, according to a recent Oxfam study. Such narrowly defined good times cannot roll. This disparity between extreme wealth and poverty expresses the paradox inherent in the term “decadence.”

Although literary critics most commonly associate decadence with nineteenth-century and fin-de-siècle authors such as Baudelaire, the French Symbolists, and Oscar Wilde, this interdisciplinary conference aims to encourage exploration of the ways in which this term can be effectively applied to a variety of historical and contemporary subjects, periods, or politics. It seems clear that the various manifestations of decadence could never—and cannot now—be articulated, illustrated, or even imagined independently of a particular complex of cultural, moral, or socio-political conditions.  But how does decadence figure into other disciplines? What does decadence look like in the twenty-first century? Are exquisite excesses inevitable, or even necessary?

The Dalhousie Association of Graduate Students in English (DAGSE) invites submissions for paper presentations for “Decadence: An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference.” We welcome proposals from students at all levels and in all areas of graduate study. This three-day conference will be held August 15-17, 2014 at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and will investigate the symptoms and effects of decadence as a literary, artistic, historical, and socio-cultural phenomenon.

We invite proposals for papers (15-20 minutes) on themes and subjects including, but not limited to:

  • Neoliberalism: patterns of production and consumption
  • Decadence and the Ivory Tower
  • Sexuality and gender; hypersexuality and erotomania
  • Aestheticism, Symbolism, and fin-de-siècle literature
  • Decadence abroad: the French Decadents, the “Lost Generation,” et al.
  • The Dandy, the flâneur, the bon viveur: decadence and self-fashioning
  • Aristocratic and political excesses
  • Physical, aesthetic, or intellectual pleasures
  • Health and Fitness, HGH, plastic surgery, and biohacking

Deadline for abstracts: April 25, 2014

Abstract length: 250-words

Please send abstracts to: dagse.conference@gmail.com

Full posting and submission requirements at the conference website.

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‘Isms in Fashion’: A Panel Discussion at London College of Fashion

 

zoesterling-BetterLivesSalesForce

Last night I was able to attend the last of a series of talks curated by Dr Carolyn Mair, MA course leader at London College of Fashion (LCF), and entitled ‘Looking Ahead…isms in Fashion’.  Previous talks in the series have covered topics such as ageism, racism and ableism, underlining LCF’s initative Better Lives, which aims to develop our understanding of sustainaiblity within the business of fashion.   This final presentation was a panel discussion between a range of diverse speakers, all asked to reflect upon what the Chair, Dr Phil Sams, suggested were ‘tools’ at our disposal in effecting positive change upon a range of long-held stereotypes within the fashion industry.

James Partridge, founder and CEO of UK charity Changing Faces

James Partridge, founder and CEO of UK charity Changing Faces

The discussion was structured around brief presentations by all the speakers and the order of service was well considered.  It began with two very positive, eloquent and engaging introductions by James Partridge, the founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces, the distinguished UK charity supporting people with disfigurements, and Caryn Franklin MBE, fashion broadcaster and co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, an independent organization focused on challenging stereotypes of body ideals within the fashion industry.

All Walks on the Catwalks 2013 campaign to diversify media representation of body shapes

All Walks Beyond the Catwalks 2013 campaign to diversify media representation of body shapes

Both were able to raise questions about fashion, well-being and diversity that struck a personal chord with the audience.  James engaged us by revealing just how many people know someone with a disfigurement while noting how research suggests we still psychologically associate negative characteristics with people based upon their physical appearance.  Caryn suggested we consider what is meant by ‘success’ not just within the fashion industry but when we get dressed every morning.  Caryn asked us whether what we chose to wear was an experience of anxiety and conformity or affirmation and individualisation.  This personal approach to the subject of exclusion, identity and fashion was certainly inspiring.  While Caryn talked of the ‘extraordinary’ as a profitable antidote to the emphasis on normalization within the business of fashion, James highlighted a recent media campaign by Illamasqua, a cosmetics company, whose slogan ‘beauty is imperfection’ helped to recognize facial diversity within society.

Illamasqua 2013 'Imperfection' campaign featuring a model with a facial birthmark

Illamasqua 2013 ‘Imperfection’ campaign featuring a model with a facial birthmark

However, for me, the highlight of the panel discussion was the elucidating contributions by the last two speakers.  Firstly, Dr Chris Pawson, a community psychologist and Principal Lecturer in Clinical & Community Psychology at the Institute for Research in Child Development, reminded us of how external circumstances, such as socio-economic systems, can negatively impact upon our mental well-being. As he put it, some people definitely have a rougher time of it than others.  To only suggest a range of therapeutic methods that focus on self-improvement fails to address wider communal issues.  Chris drew our attention to the way in which stereotypes are the products of socialization, not just cognitive hardwiring as referred to by other panel and audience members.  Chris also voiced the oppression felt by young people when faced with pressure to conform to fashion trends or particular ways of dressing in order to be fully accepted into society, however, he was equally optimistic about fashion’s contribution to enhanced self-esteem.

M&S 2013 clothing campaign featuring Helen Mirren (actress), Tracey Emin (artist) and Katie Piper (philanthropist)

M&S 2013 clothing campaign featuring Helen Mirren (actress), Tracey Emin (artist) and Katie Piper (philanthropist)

Chris was followed by Dr Carolyn Mair, the primary instigator behind these talks, who pointed out that fashion was still a very narrow business in terms of social representation, reflected in the fact that a third of Britain’s population are over the age of fifty yet barely seen in fashion representation. However, the fact that the clothes worn by Helen Mirren and Tracey Emin in the recent Marks & Spencer (M&S) campaign were the first to sell out clearly highlight the profits of appealing to a more diverse fashion consumer.

Both Chris and Carolyn brought a critical eye to a discussion that covered explicit themes such as the normalization of dress, identity and diversity, yet, arguably, more implicit themes of exclusion, anxiety and conformity were less considered.  Here, it might have been interesting to include Daniel Miller, material anthropologist at UCL, or Rebecca Arnold, fashion historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, who have both written about the various ways in which fashion and dress manifests anxieties around a range of issues, including perceived body ideals.

Instead, the final contribution to the discussion was given by Zowie Broach, co-creator of Boudicca, a London based design house, whose practitioner stance would offer insight into how fashion design might help to improve our lives.   Unfortunately, her presentation with its focus on a recent art piece rather than the inherent structural challenges of working in fashion failed to engage me despite her being considerably moved by what the other speakers had to say.  Zowie observed that the issues raised all made her feel quite ‘sad’.  Yet it seems to me that if the fashion industry and the public are to move forward in terms of broadening our perception of what is ‘normal’, perhaps it is better to transform this sympathy, which rarely resolves and more often condones ‘isms’, into an empathy so we can start to imagine ourselves in the body/dress of another in an effort to see the world from their perspective.

Boudicca’s The Liquid Game, 2014 ( audio-visual installation)

The final audience discussion was disappointing, with very little time allowed to hear a range of questions, and was not helped by the panel Chair, who drew upon previously featured speakers amongst the audience for contributions rather than pursue lesser well-known faces amongst the sitting crowd.  This was a missed opportunity to have a dialogue about ‘isms’ in more depth and perhaps in future, the panel might consider asking audience members for questions in advance.

Yet, despite these minor criticisms, the discussion was a useful starting point for thinking about cultural values, as both social and psychological phenomenon, and broader concerns about sustainability of the fashion industry.  As Sandy Black has made clear, the notion of ethical or sustainable fashion is paradoxical: while the industry operates on wastefulness and obsolescence, it simultaneously claims to be our ecological and economic ally.[1]  This is perhaps why it is a challenge for designers such as Boudicca to be understood in a more critical light.  But, last night’s discussion went some small way towards more intellectual reflection of cultural practices and their influence upon our efforts to ‘do better’ by fashion and by default by our complex, dressed social lives.

Finally, if you are studying anything to do with dress, fashion and mental health, I would love to hear from you.  Recently, here in the UK, it was revealed that one in four people have a mental health disability.  How might this impact upon people, especially when it is also often hidden from the normative gaze?  How does the role of dress function within this newly emerging socio-cultural context?


[1] p252, Sandy Black ‘Ethical Fashion and EcoFashion’ in Steele, Valerie (ed) (2010) The Berg Companion to Fashion New York, Berg.

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You Should Be Watching: YAMAMOTO

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Yohji Yamamoto – Dress 1983
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Yohji Yamamoto stormed the Parisian fashion scene in the early 1980’s. With the help of other avant-garde Japanese designers, Yamamoto transformed the prevailing European fashion aesthetic. Brightly colored body conscious dresses no longer ruled the runway and were replaced with Yamamoto’s signature monochromatic body enveloping silhouettes. In the two videos below, the reticent designer discusses his fashion philosophy.

Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)
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Image: Screen Shot

This artistic documentary from 1989 has been in my Netflix queue for several months now. Directed by Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club-1999), the film explores identity, fashion, and the digitally recorded image. Wenders creatively combines multiple videos on one screen, including interviews with Yohji Yamamoto, casual interactions with the designer, and footage of Yamamoto working in his studio.

Yamamoto thoughtfully discusses his theory on the use of monochromatic color schemes and his predilection for asymmetrical designs.  One of the most interesting portions of the documentary is when Yamamoto is shown cutting patterns directly on a model’s body.

In addition, Yamamoto’s visual resource library is explored. (I have to get my hands on a copy of August Sander’s, Man of the Twentieth Century).

Yohji Yamamoto: Poet in Black
YYVA
Image: VAM.ak.uk

This short 18 minute video was produced in conjunction with the V&A’s 2011 Yohji Yamamoto exhibition.

An excellent complement to Notebook on Cities and Clothes, Poet in Black, features an older more mature and solemn Yamamoto. The designer is seated alone in front of a bookcase, smoking, while he answers a set of simple question. Vibrant runway footage is layered over top of Yamamoto’s candid responses.

Yamamoto discusses his success, his difficulty with menswear, and the future of his designs.

Bonus Video:
In Conversation, About Yohji Yamamoto - Also produced by the V&A for the Yamamoto exhibition. The hour long video features Marc Ascoli, Nick Knight, and Peter Saville in a roundtable discussion about Yohji.

In Addition…Wish List:
This is My Dream: Yohji Yamamoto (2011) – A short 29 minute documentary focused on Yamamoto.

The Challenge of Rei Kawakubo – A 50 minute documentary on the notoriously silent (Yamamoto rival) and most cerebral of the Japanese fashion designers, Rei Kawakubo.

If anyone has access to This is My Dream or a version of The Challenge of Rei Kawakubo with English subtitles, please let us know.

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CFP: International Journal of Costume and Fashion

International Journal of Costume and Fashion (IJCF) invites papers for publication.  IJCF is one of the representative academic journals of the Korean Society of Costume, published biannually in every June and December.

IJCF addresses all aspects of costume and fashion: history of dress, fashion theory, theatrical costume, fashion design, product development, aesthetics, fashion marketing and management, fashion merchandising and retailing, socio-cultural aspect of dress, social psychology of dress, clothing construction, textile science, and new technology in fashion industry. The full paper submitted by October 2014, after the review process, may be published in the journal in 2015. Manuscripts for consideration should be sent to the chief editor at ijcf@ksc.or.kr.

Abstracts of no more than 200 words are required for all papers submitted. Abstracts should briefly describe the objectives, methods, results and inquires so that the reader can better understand the contents of the manuscript. Each manuscript should have four to six keywords below the abstract. For more guidelines for submission, click here.

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Global Mode: Maiyet via Robin Givhan

Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images.

In February, Robin Givhan wrote a very interesting piece for The Cut about so-called “ethical fashion,” with Maiyet as a case study. The twist in that company’s luxury womenswear offerings is that they are produced not only by real, life artisans, but that said artisans hail from struggling countries or live in areas with few economic opportunities. Part of the profits support the establishment of the metalsmiths, the embroiderers, and the seamstresses as independent, profitable artisans in India, Kenya, Peru, and other places where hand craft skills are still practiced.

In her piece, Givhan dives into the qualifications of the founding partners, lists the big-name backers (Disney, Branson, etc), and has written a meaningful, timely piece on the effectiveness of the “ethical” brands we all love to support.

She outlines my pet protest:

The world of philanthropy has long known how to use Seventh Avenue to spur donations and raise our collective consciousness. Charities have inspired what might be called “pity purchases,” a transaction driven by liberal guilt, lefty do-goodism, or a host of other politically correct motivations rather than that most potent and enduring driver of obscenely priced fashion: pure, unadulterated desire. But ethical fashion still carries the stigma of being inelegant, precious, and a bit twee—unlike in the food industry, say, where customers eagerly pay a premium for farm-to-table bragging rights.

Examines the wonderfully real difficulties of working with craftspeople in global environments:

And then, says [Paul] Van Zyl, there are the silk weavers in India who work out of their homes and can’t work when the temperature soars because, without air conditioning, it’s too hot, and if the doors are left open, the goats come inside and get themselves tangled in the looms, and, well, it’s the kind of mess that the folks over at Hermès don’t have to worry about.

And concludes:

Not everyone can shop at luxury price points, but it’s there that mythology is born and reputations are built. If the luxury market can fetishize Lesage embroidery, can it not come to do the same with Varanasi silk?

"David Mulinga, Richard Ochieng, and the second Richard Ochieng." Photographs copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.

“David Mulinga, Richard Ochieng, and the second Richard Ochieng.” Photographs copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.

What I rather liked about this article was that the photographs accompanying the piece were of Kenyan craftspeople and the pieces they made for Maiyet. No CEO business headshot or “site visit” with a gaggle of smiling children. Givhan’s words were strengthened by portraits of Kenyan “partners” of the label, including the couple Maiyet first invested in through the Nest nonprofit. Givhan’s piece was about the business and product sides of Maiyet, but considering their apparently genuine interest in making small businesspeople visible and viable, it was nice to see the artisans lead the visual aspect of the article (accompanied by the obligatory magazine product-layout).

Watch videos about Maiyet artisans on their website here; how do beautifully-made media enhance the customer experience?

The portraits by Guillaume Bonn reminded me immediately of the work of Jim Naughten, known across the internet for his portraits of Hereros in their unique dress, featured on Worn Through in 2012.

From the “Herero” series by Jim Naughten, 2012. Photo copyright Jim Naughten, 2012.

From the “Herero” series by Jim Naughten, 2012. Photo copyright Jim Naughten, 2012.

Although I admire the Hereros series, and it may be unfair to compare the two photographic intentions, it is heartening to see people photographed for what they do, not what they wear. In their everyday dress (or work clothes?), accompanied by their tools and materials, these are just people! Very talented people, of course. I wonder if the photographs were taken outside of the Maiyet studio, or if the background was intentionally “neutral”?

How do you see “ethical fashion” companies portraying and representing their artisans and producers? Is it important that they are photographed, named, interviewed? Or is that another form of fetishization? Do you ask the same of your favorite small European brands or American producers (or would you have seven years ago)?

Leave your comments below!

 

Lead Photograph: Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.

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Anarchists of Style…Muse Edition: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an eccentric artist living in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1910s, exemplified the disillusioned artistic movement of Dadaism through her lifestyle and garb often comprised of an array of found or stolen objects. She ran with the likes of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Heap wrote that she was “the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada.” Few images of the Baroness’ fashions survive, the true picture of her being painted by descriptive testimonials that inspire mainstream fashion in a way that von Freytag-Loringhoven no doubt would have despised.

Click here for more Worn Through coverage of the Baroness.

Baroness - Comme Fall 2012 RTW

Comme des Garcons, Fall 2012

“So she shaved her head. Next she lacquered it a high vermillion. Then she stole the crepe from the door of a house of  mourning and made a dress out of it.”[1]

elle-fanning-will-cotton-new-york-magazine-2013-5

Elle Fanning for New York, February 18, 2014

“I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit – I felt just so spunky and afluent [sic]!” [2]

Baroness - Agatha Ruiz

Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, F/W 2009

“She stood before me quite naked—or nearly so. Over the nipples of her breasts were two twin tomato cans, fastened with a green string about her back. Between the tomato cans hung a very small bird-cage and a crestfallen canary.” [3]

References

[1] Gammel, I. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.

[2] von Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa. Undated letter to Djuna Barnes. http://www.lib.umd.edu/dcr/collections/EvFL-class/bios.html

[3] Gammel, I. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.

 

 

 

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Domestic Affairs: California Happenings

Sarah Mtn

 

In my last column, I discussed a number of events that were coming up in March and April. Virginia Postrel informed me via the comments that in addition to Hollywood Costume, the Phoenix Art Museum is mounting their own look at red carpet gowns, Hollywood Red Carpet – a fantastic accompaniment to the Hollywood Costume exhibition, conceived and curated by curator Dennita Sewell.

Not to be biased — though I do live here — but there are several happenings this month, here in California in case you live here as well, or are planning a West Coast trip.

This past weekend, CSA-Western Region had an event touring the legendary Western Costume company followed by a visit to FIDM Museum’s 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. As mentioned in my review last month, the exhibition includes costumes from The Great Gatsby, which won the Academy Award for best Costume Design, and 12 Years A Slave, which won best picture. I was not able to attend this event, but  if any of you were able to attend this event, please feel free to share your impressions or experience in the comments below, or email me directly!

While not strictly fashion- or dress-studies related, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach opened their exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s personal collection of photos: Frida Kahlo, Her Photos. Most of the images were taken by her father and grandfather, pioneers in the field of photography, and are a wonderful insight into the artist’s personal, private world, including Frida’s own unique, indigenous-inspired style.

At the Walt Disney Family Museum, in the Presidio in San Francisco, tickets have gone on sale for Colleen Quen’s 19 April Illustration Workshop: “Couture fashion and Watercolor Design”. According to Ms Quen, she will be discussing “how fashion and costume design are integral in creating character,” and she will teach attendees how to incorporate watercolour and ink into their own drawings and designs. Their workshop this month on female animators sold out, so get tickets now!

At the Lacis Museum in Berkeley, their exhibition, Smocking: Manipulating Fabric and Beyond opened on 8 March and will be up until October. My opening image is from their website. I will definitely be making my way there before it closes. There is also a CSA-WR meet-up scheduled for 22 March, so if you would like to attend with CSA, email me and I will put you in touch with the organizers! Otherwise, it looks like a fantastic exhibit if you have the time. Look for my review here, soon.

In San Jose, Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity is still on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The exhibition is getting lots of attention, and was recently written up in Selvedge magazine. There will also be a Fiber Talk & trunk show by three contributors to the show, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Jean Cacicedo, and Janet Lipkin next week on 30 March. I suspect this will be a very popular event, so be sure to buy tickets quickly.

I do have news of one non-California event: in New York, Fern Mallis’s latest Fashion Icon talk will be with John Varvatos on 27 March at the Kaufmann Concert Hall.

As always, if you have been to any of these events and would like to share your experience, or if you have additional information to add, feel free to leave a comment! I love hearing about any North American events I may have missed — it’s a big continent and there’s no way I can find everything! — so feel free to let me know about them either in the comments or by email.

 

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