Parisian Insights: Paris 1900

When I first heard about the Paris 1900 exhibition held at the Petit Palais, I must admit I was quite immediately excited about it. Not knowing anything about it, something inside me believed I would love it and I wasn’t disappointed. For those of you who may not know the Petit Palais, it can surely be considered as one of Paris’ loveliest museums with its beautiful Beaux Arts style architecture, decorated with impressive frescos and mosaics.  Housing the city’s fine arts museum, it was specially erected for Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1900 and thus stands as the perfect location for an exhibition dedicated to that particular time. On the pretext of the International Exhibition, the display introduces visitors to Paris’s splendid and luxurious context during the Belle Epoque. Organized like the Exposition itself, Paris 1900 is organized into 6 sections – 6 pavilions that all highlight the different aspects of the French capital’s cultural and artistic life. The exhibition demonstrates how spectacular this moment in Paris’ history has been, nourished by about 600 pieces (I think I have actually never seen so many artefacts in one space!) that mingle scientific rigor and pure aesthetic pleasure. From oral and social history to official art and innovative design, the display spans this unique cultural moment with a very rich (almost too rich: there is so much to look at) documentation: Mucha posters, letters, models, films by the Lumière brothers, a real metro entrance by Hector Guimard, paintings, sculptures and costumes. The whole within an impressive yet simple scenography.

Julius Leblanc Stewart - Redemption, 1895

Julius Leblanc Stewart – Redemption, 1895

The first section thus immediately brings our attention on the Exposition Universelle itself and all the architectural projects and decors, built or not, that accompanied it. This first part also celebrates the emergence of modernity with electricity, cinematography, the motor industry…that all supported the festivities’ atmosphere.  A triumphant modernity that liberated imagination leading to such projects as the Eiffel Tower, the Petit and Grand Palais, the Alexandre III bridge, metro and railway lines….that enhanced Paris’ splendor as it was at the centre of the world’s attention. The visitor is introduced to the second section dedicated to Art Nouveau by a dancing Loie Fuller filmed by Pathé, in 1900: her innovative choreographies and her sinuous nature-inspired gestures perfectly echo the lines of the Art Nouveau furniture, decors and objects.

Callot Soeurs - 1905

Callot Soeurs – 1905

Not being an exhibition about Art Nouveau, there is no academic approach to the movement within this section, simply a stunning ensemble of artefacts that all highlight the work of the Art Nouveau’s pioneers and put the visitors in the skin of the Exposition’s wealthy art-lovers. Alongside Majorelle furniture, Gallé delicate objects and Lalique precious jewelry, are presented two ‘avant-garde’ costumes that evoke the concept of total art promoted by the movement. These simple white outfits bear very graphic adornments that evoke the stylistic researches of Art Nouveau artists. The third section establishes what an art centre the French capital was with a hanging evocative of classic 19th century museums – that is an accumulation on the wall, all the way up to the ceiling.

Paul Troubetzkoy – La mère et l’enfant, 1898

Paul Troubetzkoy – La mère et l’enfant, 1898

21st century visitors being used to the white cube concept do get quite disoriented as there are many artworks to observe and you have to raise the neck high (and get blind by the spotlights) to be able to look at the highest pieces: I did appreciate the historical reference but it definitely wasn’t very practical. Nevertheless, this room overflowed with incredible works from Auguste Rodin’s sculptures to the Nabi’s almost abstract experimentations, Symbolist disturbing legends and the Impressionist serene landscapes. Strangely, although the selection is clearly eclectic, there is a certain sense of harmony that can be felt, as though, more than reflecting about different artistic movements, the section simply provides an insight into the period’s global creativity.

Tea Gown, 1898-1899

Tea Gown, 1898-1899

The following section highlights the mythic figure of the admired Parisienne and how her persona was greatly built at the turn of the century with the help of the Exposition that brought much of foreigners’ attention on the feminine characters of the city. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘distinguished from other women by an understated elegance appropriate to every circumstance in life. Her characteristics are restraint, good taste, innate refinement and that indefinable something which is unique to her, a mixture of allure and modernism that we call chic.’ Thus the Parisienne rapidly was identified as not only a geographical cliché but more as a chic attitude that could be embodied by elegant duchesses as well as popular ‘midinettes’. The ‘pavilion’ we enter proposes art pieces that evoke the various representations of the Parisienne, will it be through photographies or paintings and mostly with her very own objects – costumes, jewelry and accessories – the whole drawing the picture of a mythified as well as a real woman. The little number of fashion artefacts (all lent by the Musée Galliera) are mostly spectacular pieces such as a lovely tea gown that belonged to the French comedian, Réjane, a majestic cape earned by the Duchesse de Greffuhle and a Redfern ensemble made for Anna Gould.

Evening Dress - Jacques Doucet, 1900

Evening Dress – Jacques Doucet, 1900

The two last sections highlight Paris’ night and entertainment life made of cafés, bals, cheeky cabarets, drama pieces conducted by the iconic persona of Sarah Bernhardt, operas and early experimental films. The dark side of 1900’s Parisian life is supposedly demonstrated with references to morphine and brothels. I must admit I did not find the rendering of Paris’ dark side that dark: the scenography privileged humour and a certain glamour with portraits of the city’s legendary courtesans that mostly leave us thinking that the period was free-spirited and fun rather than glaucous although we do know poverty, absinthe, drugs and prostitution were serious issues. Focusing on the Parisienne part as it enclosed the fashion objects, the exhibition definitely points out to the fact that she was entirely indissociable from the urban environment she evolved in, the reason why tailored masculine-like ensembles popularized by Redfern met with such success as they enabled Parisian women to stroll around  in their city with dark and practical yet elegant outfits – the ancestor of the perfect little black dress! The Parisienne also helped establish the fame of the capital’s couture houses and craftsmanship: the Made in Paris concept becoming highly popular. The display confirms how limited the avant-garde’s influence was – fashion privileged the S shaped silhouettes (although we could say these sinuous forms did resemble that of the Art Nouveau creations) and historical motifs. What disturbed me is how the exhibition has restricted the feminine figure to the ‘frivolities’ of fashion, domestic affairs or to sexual pleasures: I know women did experience such confinements but the art section lacked art pieces made by women as well as I would have wished to see masculine fashion that would have also helped us draw the outlines of the male parisian.

Henri Alexandre Gervex - Une soirée au Pré Catelan, 1909

Henri Alexandre Gervex – Une soirée au Pré Catelan, 1909

In the whole, Paris 1900 illustrates how inventive, spectacular and unleashed the city was, establishing close interactions between art, social and design history. It does not concentrate on precise academic issues nor does it analyse modernity and experimental works but it definitely makes the visitors feel as if they were participating to the Exposition Universelle’s exciting fiesta. I greatly appreciated the fact that fashion was not left out as it does evoke how important this creative discipline was considered within international exhibitions within which they were given special lavish displays: fashion was undeniably part of a whole artistic and cultural context – a partner of high art.


Further Resources: The exhibition’s catalogue is very interesting (I did treat myself with it):

Bosc, Alexandra. Paris 1900: La Ville Spectacle. Paris: Paris Musées, 2014.

Rose, Clare. Art Nouveau Fashion. London: V& A Publishing, 2014.


CFP: In the Context of Change: Approaching Emotions and Objects of Material Culture

XXI IAHR World Congress August 23-29, 2015 in Erfurt, Germany – Dynamics of Religion: Past and Present

Panel: In the Context of Change: Approaching Emotions and Objects of Material Culture

Every text and every material object – from architecture to food – is directly or indirectly related to emotions, either being shaped by emotions, aiming to evoke emotions, or stimulating emotional memories. All religious emotions (take fear of polluted and polluting things as an example) are to a great extent constructs of societies and cultures, and as such subject to historical change.

The panel will explore how emotions and material objects are observed, described, evaluated, assigned roles, and used in strategies of persuasion; and how the ‘regime’, appraisal, control, and display of emotions changes depending on context, communication strategies, historical period, and ‘emotional communities’ (lay people, clergy, deities, members of specific traditions, elites etc.). Which material objects (iconography, clothing, religious art etc.) evoke which emotions in whom? Which emotions are encouraged (and at times exalted), and which are discouraged? These and similar questions will be asked all against the background of change.

The convenor invites contributions from all disciplines of religious studies and related fields of research (e.g., Indian Studies, Chinese Studies, Japanese Studies, Ethiopian Studies, Islam Studies, Jewish Studies). Each panel paper should be limited to 20 minutes. The abstract should be no more than 150 words. The papers may form the nucleus of a follow-up publication.

The following information are asked for:

Academic Title
First Name
Last Name
Home institution/ City
Title Paper
Abstract max 150 words
Relevant Literature max 3 titles

Deadline for submission: September 1, 2014 to the panel convenor, Barbara Schuler, and afterwards to; Congress thematic area: Practices and discourses: Innovation and tradition

Panel convenor: Barbara Schuler, Universität Hamburg,


You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Costume

fashion books from

This week’s column focuses on the word “costume” as a way of dressing for a specific event or role as well as the ensemble itself. What are the differences between costume and dress? What decisions do we make when consciously choosing a costume for an event? How can costume work to conceal or reveal aspects of our identities? These are a few of the questions tackled by the authors of this week’s recently published articles. We hope you enjoy!

1. Cole, S. (2014). Costume or dress? The use of clothing in the gay pornography of Jim French’s Colt StudioFashion Theory, 18(2), 123-148.

It would seem that one of the intentions of the viewer of gay pornography would be to see the sexual engagement of the participants (and perhaps the “money shot”) with a focus upon the gymnastics and writhing of bodies that constitute the practice and representation of sexual activity within the film. However, before nudity or nakedness is presented the “characters” are dressed. Using the films and photography of Colt Studio and its founder Jim French from the period 1967‐81 as a focus this article explores the ways in which the “characters” are constructed through their clothing and costuming. It will address the ways in which these “icons” of masculinity that had developed in the pre-liberation physique magazines and stag films reflected the prototypes, archetypes, and stereotypes of post-liberation gay identity and dressed appearance in the fifteen years following the Stonewall riots and gay liberation. Colt Studio was famed for its particular presentation of hypermasculine images and a “stable” of masculine actors that included Clone superstar Al Parker. This article will offer an analysis of the use of particular items of clothing and the iconic styles of leatherman, motorcycle cop, and gay clone in Colt’s output of this period. – Full Article Abstract 

2. Copeland, R., & Hodges, N. (2014). Exploring masquerade dress at Trinidad Carnival: Bikinis, beads, and feathers and the emergence of the popular pretty masClothing & Textiles Research Journal, 32(3), 186-201.

Over the past several decades, there has been a considerable shift in the form of masquerade costumes worn during Trinidad Carnival. With the growing popularity of Carnival, there are increasing concerns about whether the modern style of costume will lead to the disappearance of Carnival s traditional meanings. This study employs an ethnographic methodology to understand dress at Carnival in the context of a 21st century global society. Data collection took place in Trinidad during the Carnival season and employed the methods of participant observation, depth interviews, and photographic documentation. Data were analyzed for emergent themes, and an interpretation of the significance of changes in masquerade costume for understanding Carnival was developed. Further research on the role of the dressed body at Trinidad Carnival is needed to fully examine the power of dress to define Carnival and shed more light on its importance. – Full Article Abstract 

3. Moden, M. (2014). Layers of the ethereal: A cultural investigation of beauty, girlhood, and ballet in Japanese Shōjo Manga culture. Fashion Theory, 18(3), 251-296.  

The popularity of classical ballet as a cultural form grows apace in a global context. Even in a country like Japan, which has not been previously identified as a “ballet capital,” it is receiving wide public attention. As a conventionally female-dominated arena, ballet and the ideas that circulate around it reveal the complex interrelationship between femininity, beauty, and selfhood. A prime example is the understudied genre of “ballet manga” in Japanese Shōjo Manga culture. With the first examples published in the mid-1950s, the history of ballet-themed manga reveals that, particularly in the years following the Second World War, ballet was the epitome of a dream world, connoting luxury, beauty, and glamour. “Ballet manga” used this particular art form, its costumes, and romanticized, almost fairy tale-like settings of Old World Europe as a mix of femininity, rigor, and elegance remade for Japanese audiences. Since the 1970s, some authors have attempted to combine this imagery of ballet with the idea of feminine independence and agency, thus negotiating the paradox of reality and fantasy in lived experience. Ballet, therefore, is not presented simply on the stage but in Japan is frequently interpreted/experienced through Shōjo Manga. This distinctive situation deserves closer scholarly investigation. – Full Article Abstract


Image Credit:


You Should Be Watching: Hats!

This month’s YSBW focuses on millinery, taking a look inside the ateliers of two of today’s leading British milliners, Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy.

The first video visits Stephen Jones in his workshop where he discusses his early years in the millinery business, historic references, and why he thinks millinery is still relevant to today’s fashion. The second presents an interview of Philip Treacy as he discusses his process and inspiration.

Bonus video: Deborah Miller of Stephen Jones crafts a Union Jack hat.





CFP: The Look of Austerity Conference

The Look of Austerity

September 11-12, 2015

Museum of London

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the beginning of a period of economic austerity for many affected nations. ‘Austerity’ is a term that has recently re-emerged in areas as disparate as politics and design, and is used to describe everything from specific policy decisions to the national mood. In light of this, The Look of Austerity aims to re-examine the post-war period, looking at the changing meaning and the face of austerity and exploring the real implications of austerity policies and culture on sartorial aesthetics. Focusing on the immediate post-war period, specifically the years 1945-1951, we invite papers that examine the popular experience of obtaining and wearing clothes throughout the western world during these turbulent and changing times, exploring the often overlooked areas of ready-to-wear innovation, international dialogues, and approaches that look beyond some of the popular myths of post-war fashion.

Topics for discussion may include:

  • fashion consumption and austerity, particularly popular and everyday experiences of obtaining and wearing clothes
  • the production and distribution of ready-to-wear
  • the role of couture after the war
  • dialogues across Western nations and fashion capitals, particularly Paris, New York, Berlin and Rome
  • visual and written representations of fashion in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, cinema and amateur film
  • biographic approaches, for example diaries, novels and short stories
  • the designer in a culture of austerity
  • the connection between austerity and glamour
  • re-emergence of the austerity look in later periods, for example in the 1970s/1990s
  • the legacy of the look of austerity


If you wish to present a paper, please submit the following to
  • 500 word abstract of the proposed paper naming the presenter(s)
  • contact information: name, title, position, university or institutional affiliation, postal
  • address, email and telephone
  • 150-200 word biography of the presenter(s)

Deadline for submission of proposals: Monday 27 October 2014. Notification will be made to all by the end of November 2014. 

For more information, please visit the conference website.


On Teaching Fashion: Summer Dresses

I am on vacation this month. Enjoy the fleeting days of summer. Perhaps this video of summer fashions will inspire you?


Book Review: I Love Those Earrings

cover i love those earrings

A pop history of collectables so often blends nostalgia and personal experience with historic research. The author falls in love with Legos, buttons, LPs, etc in his or her youth, saves up for the first or the elusive, and the rest is publishable material. I Love Those Earrings, by Jane Merrill and Chris Filstrup, is a love story to the earring. The typical pop history approach reminded me a bit of On the Button by Nina Edwards, a book I recently reviewed for DressBut where that book is as scattered as an overturned notions jar, I Love Those Earrings is structured in its historical content and perfectly balanced in its evident admiration for the subject matter. With some dramatic exceptions, I wear the same pearl studs every day. But while reading this book I started to reconsider the costume earrings I’ve carried with me through many moves, reserving for special occasions. Maybe they would work for every day, playing queen or noblewoman on the streets of Stockholm?

From "I Love Those Earrings" by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

As the authors, skillful and familiar storytellers, introduce us to Earring History, we learn that fashionable styles reflect available materials, advancing technology, sumptuary laws. We meet the women who made the jewels famous (and vice versa), find inferences in social mores and are reminded of the earrings worn in Pretty Woman–would you be able to conjure up the shape and size of the earrings, or just the snapping of the jewelry box on her fingers?

Paraphrasing ancient history, myths as painted by Titian, royal marriages, French revolution, and Josephine Baker’s influence, this book flows. It has a charming way of relating these stories of lust and war to their subject: “The initial object of [Henry VIII's] ambition was Eleanora of Austria (1498-1558) who would have brought to England an extravagant collection of earrings.” (27) I enjoyed the juxtaposition that unintentionally created: Henry weighing Eleanora’s earring collection against the Spanish alliance he would gain from marriage with Catherine of Aragon–whom he eventually chose as his first wife for that reason.

From "I Love Those Earrings" by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

The book is organized chronologically, which is logical and easy to follow. As is common for pop histories spanning huge amounts of time, the “early” chapters cover centuries and even millennia, whereas the later might discuss a two or three decades. The chapters are pleasantly organized in different manners, keeping the reader engaged: the sixteenth-century examines European depictions of famous women, the seventeenth-century chapter starts with a tour of Dutch portraits in American museums. The “Belle Époque” leads with a personal history of grandmothers and ends with “In the Colors of Feminism.” When we arrive in the twenty-first century, individual earring artists, almost all American, are given the stage. The book concludes with personal histories from women who love earrings, a short visual glossary of earring fastenings, and a bibliography.

Sushi earrings by Stephanie Kilgast. Pictured in "I Love Those Earrings" by Jane Merrill and Christ Filstrup, 2014.

Sushi earrings by Stephanie Kilgast. Pictured in “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Christ Filstrup, 2014.

The photographs and reproduced paintings included are museum quality, generally well edited. One drawback–perhaps a function of the image budget?–is that many paintings referenced meaningfully in the text are not included visually. But I especially appreciated the authors’ study of contemporary portraits, which gave the work a more academic feel–more than “just” a collector’s delight. As Merrill writes in her introduction,

Swirling quite carefree in culture and fun, I became drawn to earrings like a crow to a piece of silver foil. I consciously wanted to develop my sense of beauty as I had for carpets–and my pursuit became the earrings I saw in paintings, museums, fairs, expositions, and shops. …Playing detective, I would detect a whisper of pearl of pendant in a portrait, which might well not show up in a reproduction. (6-7)

Portraits are prized in this book, and the authors write short analyses of the importance and roles of these paintings in the history of earrings to augment the existence of the extant jewelry. Advancements or fashions in portrait painting as well as the skill of celebrated artists are noted for how they helped make certain types of earrings popular, proved the eminence of the portrayed figure, or highlighted the inherent beauty of stones and precious materials.

From "I Love Those Earrings" by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

Here and there are teasers of other primary source materials, such as an eighteenth-century drawing, a design for Aigrettes housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, seen above. I wish there had been more of these less obvious sources for variety’s sake. Interestingly, as the decades pass in this volume, a greater portion of the jewelry photographed was courtesy jewelry dealers and private collections than museum collections. In the “Victorian Era” chapter, Merrill passes into a collectors’ state:

This brings me to my single, favorite pair of Victorian earrings, where whimsy is executed with perfect craftsmanship, resulting in utterly wearable fantasy. You see this pair of goldfish bowls that were a tour de force in rock crystal. If you’ve carried a goldfish in a bowl or plastic sack back from a country fair or amusement park, you know that the bowl sloshes and almost tips out the fish. The same giddy tension was embodied in these earrings. (101)

Her heartfelt description of “A Mother’s Jewelry Box” will be familiar to many young women (and men). This book is, after all, about (and arguably for) women. Men (or, “studs who wear them”) and jewelry fill one chapter, which also begins with a personal history: Merrill confronts her co-author–her ex-husband–with his adornment choices over the years.

From "I Love Those Earrings" by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

From there we jump into ancient history and speed through the millennia to the seventeenth century. It is also an example of the abrupt endings found here and there in this book: that’s certainly not the end of male earring-wearing, and there is no concluding paragraph. The final line of the chapter concludes an anecdote about the Abbé de Choisy: “Even as he took on the celibate life of a clergyman, he continued to crossdress.”

While entertainingly written, there are some odd punctuation and interesting word-order choices; this may not bother other readers. The style is informal; historian Ion Grumeza personalizes his essay on ancient jewelry with the qualifying phrase, “Romania, where I grew up.” (20) And yes, you will find a few instances of the word “bling.” Sometimes the informality breaks the storytelling spell; the description of sixteenth-century collars as “his, the circus dog style; hers, the standing kind” (26) feels unnecessarily distancing. There are certainly examples of earrings here that could be conveyed as equally ridiculous.

From "I Love Those Earrings" by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

From “I Love Those Earrings” by Jane Merrill and Chris Fulstrup, 2014.

While the visuals are strong (if relatively small), this book is meant to be read. Its value lies in the energetic storytelling, never focusing too long on one subject, time period, or style, but keeping today’s reader afloat on a river of anecdotes and examples. This is not a book from which to pull hard quotations for a term paper, but rather an admiring, playful tribute. There are no citations, and although the bibliography is good, sources quoted in the text are mysteriously not included there. There are not many books that focus on earrings and this is the most comprehensive in years. Books on “dress accessories” rarely include jewelry; books on jewelry are often focused on one designer or try to tackle All of the Jewelry That Ever Was.

The fashion historian might benefit from passages about trends in shape and material, such as how the girandoles of the eighteenth century were largely replaced by pendeloques by the turn of the nineteenth century, or why paste jewels were practical. But this is a book for the aspiring informed collector, and would be a helpful precedent for other writers working on similarly focused subjects. Like any excellent pop history, I Love Those Earrings places its object of affection meaningfully in the course of our accepted history, making that history all the more enjoyable and accessible.


Lead Image: Cover of I Love Those Earrings by Jane Merrill with Chris Filstrup. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2014.


Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!

Further Reading:

Evans, Joan. A History of Jewelry 1100-1870. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1989.

Mascetti, Daniela and Amanda Triossi. Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Phillips, Clare. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Steinbach, Ronald. The Fashionable Ear: A History of Ear-Piercing Trends for Men and Women. Burlington, VT: Vantage Press, 1995.

Tait, Hugh, ed. 7000 Years of Jewelry. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2009.



Domestic Affairs: Contemplating ‘GORGEOUS’


I confess I hadn’t expected to like the Asian Art Museum’s new GORGEOUS exhibition done in collaboration with the SFMoMA. The SFMoMA is undergoing some massive renovations and expansion; as a result they have been sending their collection out to various museums and locations so that it can still be enjoyed while the museum is closed. While it’s a great concept I haven’t been all that impressed with the offerings I’ve attended so far (probably due to my lack of knowledge of modern and contemporary art), so I attended GORGEOUS with trepidation.

'Girl in Pink Dress, Senegal by Jim Goldberg (2008)

‘Girl in Pink Dress, Senegal by Jim Goldberg (2008)

I absolutely loved it. The exhibition has a very ambitious purpose: challenging visitors to confront and assess their concepts of what is “gorgeous.” They do this through 72 pieces, from paintings and sculptures, to installation art, photographs, furniture, and clothing — even an iPhone display model. Broken up across four galleries and the main lobby, the objects span 2,200 years and several cultures. The success of this exhibition was as much in the pieces chosen as the juxtaposition of those pieces. On one wall in the first gallery there was a small sketch by Tom of Finland, next to an enormous print of Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (Futago), which was in turn next to Sally Mann’s controversial portraits of her children. Having long loved Morimura’s work — and partially due to the sheer size of the piece — I confess his piece was the first I gravitated towards, before noticing the other two.

These were not a “natural” combination of pieces to my mind, but it worked extremely well, creating a conversation about sexuality and beauty. It explored our perceptions of sexual identity — that of ourselves and others — and the development of sexuality, as indicated in Sally Mann’s children imitating the glamorous poses they had seen in adults or magazines and advertisements without understanding their meaning. Concepts I would not have considered together, but which are all interconnected since they connect to not only how we perceive ourselves but hope to be perceived by others.

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During the talk I attended the same evening, which I reviewed for Fashion Historia, it was the Tom of Finland piece that generated the most discussion among the attendees. Were these men posing for each other or for a third observer? Were they establishing a power dynamic? If so, with whom? That the exhibition (and the amazing speaker) enticed complete strangers to offer their opinions about the pieces, and conceptions of beauty and sexuality in a public setting shows how provocative and well done this exhibition was.

The comparisons did not have to be side by side to create such a conversation. The scroll painting triptych of Three Types of Beauties in Edo  were in a completely different part of the gallery from an elaborate Noh theatre robe, and yet the contradiction of the movement in the worn garments depicted as opposed to the static nature of the displayed robe not only emphasized the need for a body to give clothing life, but also that clothes can have different types of beauty depending on whether they are displayed or worn. And that neither is right or wrong or better than the other.

Multiple landscapes on screens and scrolls from China and Japan made for an intriguing comparison mentally when I moved into the final gallery to see an enormous Rothko painting, all of which were still in mind when looking at Jess’s Narkissos, a collaged drawing that explored homosexual masculine desire, and yet was composed as a sort of surrealist landscape with figures. Then there were the similarities and differences between Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles ceramic statue (it looked rather a lot like an overgrown porcelain figurine of the sort my grandmother has) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. They made for an intriguing parallel despite being in separate rooms. Both were made of porcelain, one was clearly decorative while the other was the creation of art out of the mundane, but they were each museum objects and considered “gorgeous” by someone, and they both had a note of irony in them.

'Narkissos' by Jess

‘Narkissos’ by Jess

The different concepts of beauty and what can be “gorgeous” were explored not only across cultures in the sense of Eastern versus Western, but also through the contradictions found in the struggles between mainstream and subcultures: explorations of homosexual and heterosexual desire, of photographic or traditional portraiture with cubism and surrealism, and (rather hilariously) the foibles of the ultrarich versus the rest of us through Tobias Wong’s and Ju$t Another Rich Kid’s 2005 Coke Spoon 02 made entirely of gold and mimicking the old McDonald’s coffee spoons. Concepts of what is not only beautiful but what can be appropriately depicted within a culture were equally explored — best demonstrated by a beautiful Iranian Qur’an from 1550 decorated with gold and a blue ink made of lapis lazuli.

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The contradictions were sometimes found within the same piece. A piece by Andy Warhol of Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy (later Onassis) on the day of her first husband’s funeral was very vulnerable and moving — almost disturbing — despite being a simple black and white image doubled. This woman who represented elegance and chic, looking so quietly devastated and “ordinary,” if you will, was a comparison in and of itself that brought home how unkind it is of society to put people on pedestals of beauty. The same feeling could be found in Marilyn Minter’s Strut, which seemed to emphasize the struggle that exists behind being “glamorous” through the simple composition of a slightly dirty, seemingly rain-spattered foot in a Christian Dior high heel. WP_20140710_024   SFMOMA_Gorgeous_Strut__EX_2014.1.22

Despite not being the final gallery, for me the exhibition ended with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Golden), an enormous golden beaded curtain that all patrons walked through to exit the gallery and carry on with the exhibition. From a distance, and walking through it, it had echoes for me of Alexander McQueen’s Untitled Spring/Summer 1998 runway show, which McQueen had wanted to title “The Golden Shower.” Though it would be more accurate to say the McQueen show echoed Gonzalez-Torres’s work, since the artwork pre-dates the collection by three years. The piece was created in mourning for Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who had died of AIDS shortly before the artist himself would succumb to the disease. During the talk people offered their perceptions of the piece, a veil, a membrane, a rebirth. Everyone’s experience was different, and yet I agreed with every assessment.


The exhibition was — as is the catalogue — broken up into general themes, such as “Seduction” and “Fantasy” and “Imperfection,” but I largely ignored these and did as the curators wanted and went in the order that the pieces attracted me. In turns disturbing and enlightening, I found myself approaching each new piece ready to accept its gorgeousness as already established because someone somewhere already thought it was; the challenge was in leaving my own attitudes behind to understand why something I wouldn’t have liked initially might appeal to someone else. The exhibition made me think about difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, subjects such as how we perceive — or stereotype — others, and what really is “beautiful.”

The true result of this exhibition was best summed up by the first paragraph of the final piece of wall text: “The gorgeous is in the eye of the beholder. But for some artworks, the full extent of gorgeousness is not immediately seen — it is something one experiences through reflection over time.” I would extend that thesis to include people as well. This exhibition reminds us to take the time to look deeper.

As always, please share your thoughts about the exhibition or any of the pieces mentioned in the comments below. If you know of any events or exhibitions that you would like to share with Worn Through, feel free to email the details to me, or leave them in the comments.


CFP: Lost Museums Colloquium

Lost Museums Colloquium

May 7 and 8, 2015

Brown University, Providence, RI

In conjunction with the year-long exhibition project examining Brown University’s lost Jenks Museum, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, and the John Carter Brown Library invite paper proposals for a colloquium on lost artifacts, collections and museums. (Other formats—conceptual, poetic, and artistic—are also invited.) 

Museums, perhaps more than any other institutions, think in the very long term: collections are forever. But the history of museums is more complicated than that. Museums disappear for many reasons, from changing ideas about what’s worth saving to the devastation of war. Museum collections disappear: deaccessioned, traded away, repatriated, lost to changing interests and the ravages of time.

We are interested in this process of decline and decay, the taphonomy of institutions and collections, as a way of shedding light not only on the history of museums and libraries, but also on the ways in which material things reflect and shape the practices of science and the humanities, and also to help museums think about current and future practices of collections and collections use.

We invite presentations from historians, curators, registrars, and collections managers, as well as from artists and activists, on topics including:

  • Histories of museums and types of museums: We welcome case studies of museums and categories of museums that are no more. What can we learn from museums that are no more? Cast museums, commercial museums, and dime museums have mostly disappeared. Cabinets of curiosity went out of and back into fashion. Why? What is their legacy?
  • Artifacts: How do specimens degrade? How have museums come to think of permanence and ephemerality? How do museums use, and “use up” collections, either for research (e.g., destructive sampling), or for education and display; how have they thought about the balance of preservation and use? How can they collect the ephemeral?
  • Museum collection history: How long does art and artifact really remain in the museum? Might the analysis of museum databases cast new light on the long-term history and use of collections?
  • “Lost and found” in the museum: How are art and artifacts “rediscovered” in museums? How do old collections regain their importance, both in artistic revivals and in new practices of “mining” the museum as artists finding new uses for old objects?
  • Museum collections policy: How have ideas about deaccessioning changed? How should they change? How do new laws, policies, and ethics about the repatriation of collections shape ideas about collections?
  • Museums going out of business: When a museum needs to close for financial or other reasons, what’s the best way to do that? Are there good case studies and legal and financial models?
  • The future of museum collections: How might museums think about collecting the ephemeral, or collecting for “impermanent” collections. What new strategies should museums consider for short-term collecting? How might digitization and scanning shape ideas about the permanence of collections?

Papers from the Colloquium may be published as a special issue of the Museum History Journal.

Proposal Deadline: September 15, 2014

Please send an abstract of about 250 words and a brief CV to Steven Lubar, 

See the conference website for more details. 


You Should Be Reading: Fashion and the Female Ideal

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We all know that the ideal female body–its shape, form, styling, even its very presence–has varied dramatically throughout human history. Readers of this blog are aware of the discussions surrounding the unattainably thin female body that has been in vogue for the past two decades, but what of the ways that fashion trends play into that ideal? How is that ideal body clothed? How do those clothes reinforce (or rebel) against the ideal? How have historical clothing trends addressed changing ideals? And (as some of you may be wondering), “Why does it matter?” Here are three articles, published recently, that tackle these questions. We hope you enjoy the selection!

1. Church Gibson, P. (2014). Pornostyle: Sexualized dress and the fracturing of feminismFashion Theory, 18(2), 189-206.

This article is premised on the suggestion that there are now two separate Western systems of fashion; here the word “system” is not intended to evoke the model suggested by Roland Barthes, but rather to refer, quite simply, to a pragmatic “system” of design, manufacture, distribution, and dissemination, similar to the cultural studies’ “circuit of culture” model of analysis. A new, unacknowledged “system” of design and promotion has emerged in the last decade, which has its own fashion leaders in young female celebrities, its own magazines to chronicle their activities and showcase their style, its own Internet presence, and its own retailing patterns. These young women often resemble in their self-presentation the “glamour models” or pin-up girls of popular men’s magazines, whose “look” is a muted version of the styling associated by many with that of hard-core pornography. The “body ideal” of this alternative system is very different to that of high-fashion; once again, it resembles the look of the women pictured in magazines for men. Although one or two writers on fashion have noted this new trend, it is feminist scholars who have shown most interest; they see the new system as part of the “pornification” of contemporary visual culture. A number of these same scholars are avowed anti-pornography campaigners and the author argues that this could further damage the fragile feminist project, already riven by differences. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

2. Kayoung, K., & Sagas, M. (2014). Athletic or sexy? A comparison of female athletes and fashion models in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issuesGender Issues, 31(2), 123-141. 

Using a modified version of Goffman’s (Gender advertisements. Harper Colophon, New York, 1976) gender display as a conceptual framework, this study examined the gendered body images of female athletes and female fashion models. The authors investigated sexualized female body images by comparing athletes with fashion models in Sports Illustrated (SI) swimsuit issues. Specifically, they used images of female athletes and female fashion models from SI swimsuit issues (n = 1,099) over the past 15 years (1997–2011). The variables analyzed included four photographic image categories: photo shot location, facial expression, body display, and hand display. The findings revealed few differences in sexual portrayals between female athletes and female fashion models. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

3. Scarborough, A. D., Hunt-Hurst, P. (2014). The making of an erogenous zone: The role of exoticism, dance, and the movies in midriff exposure, 1900-1946Dress, 40(1), 47-65.

This study examined the evolution of midriff exposure in fashionable apparel between 1900 and 1946. There were two objectives: 1) to understand the cultural factors that influenced its adoption, and 2) discover its stages in becoming an erogenous zone. In this exploratory study, a content analysis was conducted on the fashion magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; these primary sources, plus analysis of selections from three newspapers, proved to be useful for the exploration of how the exposed midriff evolved from exotic dance wear to fashionable apparel. Cultural events assisted in the progression of fashionable exposure from underwear, swimwear, casual wear to evening wear in clothing that bared the midriff. Standards of morality were instrumental in the process of evolution. Production Codes established for motion pictures reflected and reinforced the morality standards of US society. Parts of the body deemed inappropriate for show in the movies were likewise considered inappropriate for fashionable dress. The 1940s was the turning point as popular culture and World War II helped to stimulate interest and more fashion pages featured women in midriff exposing ensembles. – Full Article Abstract 


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