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Exhibition Review: Civil War Quilts at the New York Historical Society

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Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War at the New York Historical Society

ends August 31, 2014

Guest Review by Nadine Stewart

“Cotton thread holds the Union together; unites John C. Calhoun and Abbot Lawrence. Patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, with music and rockets, but cotton thread is the Union.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, May 23, 1846

Homefront and Battlefield is a bland title for a powerful exhibit that gives us a unique look at the reign of “King Cotton,” the fiber that shaped American history. The subtitle “Quilts and Context in the Civil War” is even blander. There are quilts throughout, each with its own powerful story. But was really gives the exhibit its impact are the many, small items that show how important textiles were for those on the battlefield and at home. There are small shreds of fabric—including commorative ribbons, dress swatches, and uniform clothing fragments—that were treasured for the memories they evoked of a loved one or an event in the tragedy that shapes our history to this day. Each piece, no matter how simple, evokes the individuals caught up in a dangerous time and struggling to survive it. The result is a unique exhibit that shatters many of our myths about the past.

The first thing one sees in the gallery is a huge bale of cotton, the raw cotton of the South that accounted for 50% of American exports by 1850. New York State banned the slave trade in 1827, but like all the Northern states, the state’s businesses profited from trade with the slave states. The bonds between North and South were so strong, so strong plantation owners in the South could not imagine that northern businesses could exist without the materials produced by the slave economy. A small example of this interdependence is a book of fabric swatches from Rhode Island. The cheap, coarse material is “negro cloth” intended for the slave clothing. Rhode Island lead the country in producing this material. Nearby is a small child’s vest of that coarse cloth, clothing that would mark the wearer as enslaved. Close by is a “Free Labor Dress” of the 1850s, a blend of wool and silk worn by an abolitionist Quaker, part of a group who refused to wear garments produced by the supply chain that depended on slave labor.

The 1867 “reconciliation quilt,” by Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn, is in the show “Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War” at the New-York Historical Society.

A full section is devoted to quilts and textiles with patriotic imagery—items as large as full quilts, and as small as “housewifes,” small handmade rolls for sewing supplies that featured flag images. Even children wore clothing to show which side their family was on. One example is a little girl’s cotton dress from Xenia, Ohio printed with a small repeat pattern of Union flags and soldiers. Another is a small apron from 1862 with Confederate symbols appliquéd on its bib and skirt. A garment like this would silently show an entire family’s defiance of the North.

Another section shows more practical things– blankets, bandages, tents, or uniforms for the troops made by women volunteers North and South. When the war began, neither side had enough of these basic supplies. Women filled that gap, volunteering countless hours to roll bandages, knit stockings, and sew uniforms. A soldier could go through on pair of socks in a week. Machine made socks were considered inferior. An 1861 Peterson’s print shows soldiers at Christmas exulting over a shipment of new socks. There are posters for fund raising fairs that sold fancywork of all kinds to raise money for the war effort. It is estimated that women’s volunteerism on both sides raised a billion dollars to support the troops in the four years of the war.

The story of business during the war is not so admirable. Near the section on women’s goods are mosquito nets, tents, uniforms, and blankets all produced by war contractors. There are also pieces that show the dark side of all that production, uniforms made of shoddy. This cloth made of recycled wool fiber, made huge profits for wartime merchants, like Brooks Brothers, but disintegrated in the first rains. Industries often slowed down production to make scarce goods more profitable. Mill owners from Lowell, Massachusetts sold their raw cotton at inflated prices and laid off ten thousand women workers.

Intimate items of clothing tell their own story. On display is a nightshirt modified for an amputated left arm, a money pocket and money belt designed to be worn under women’s crinolines, so money and valuables could be kept safe from marauding soldiers; and, of course, mourning clothing. Dressing properly for mourning the dead was so important that a Confederate nurse scolded her sister, “How could you come out of New Orleans without any black cloathes (sic) for me?” A mourning day dress in a soft lavender print is on display, its voluminous sleeves and gathered skirt remind us also just how much cotton cloth it took for the proper lady’s dress. The hold of King Cotton on fashion was a strong one.

The small textile pieces amplify the stories of this exhibit’s extraordinary quilts, each with a special story. The curators refuse to allow us to sentimentalize these stories or use them to “prettify” history. A simple quilt in dark, somber wool material made of blanket scraps and old uniforms hangs in the first section of the exhibit. A Union soldier in a hospital stitched it after he after he escaped from Confederate troops. An album quilt from upstate New York is beautifully pieced in the Chimney Sweep pattern. But what distinguishes it are the handwritten messages, like “Brave soldier thou will ever be remembered.” on each block. A beautiful piece with floral appliqués shows no sign of the war, but it was sold to raise funds for Confederate troops around 1862.[1]

The exhibit ends with Reconstruction. We usually think Reconstruction ended in 1876 as the nation prepared for its Centennial year, united again. Mourning ribbons for President Abraham Lincoln surround the “Reconciliation” quilt made in Brooklyn, New York in 1867. Two blocks stand out. One shows Confederate President Jefferson Davis next to a young woman holding an American flag. Another shows a black man facing a white man with the words “Master I am free.” It is clear the quilt’s maker hoped the nation could resolve its divisions.

But two items remind us that the problems of the War still affect us today. Mounted in a lone vitrine is a single white Ku Klux Klan hood From the 1920s. Nearby hangs a KKK banner from same period. The Klan resurged in 1915 due to anti-immigrant feeling. A closer look at these pieces tells a chilling story. The hood belonged to a woman. The banner is from the “Realm of Vermont.” When the Klan reappeared, women were accepted as members. Its chapters spread into the North. These mute artifacts confront us with one final question—how much did the Civil War actually resolve?

After Lincoln was assassinated, his secretary of the navy wrote reflected in a diary entry that “…. the incidents are fresh in my mind and may pass away with me by cannot ever by me be forgotten.” Through the display of many objects saved by people of all classes, Homefront and Battlefield gives us an understanding of that troubled time.

Those memories haunt us still 150 years later.

Author’s note: New York Historical has mounted a large sampling of Bill Cunningham’s Facades in the back hall of the first floor, so you will be able to see them when you exit Homefront and Battlefield! A nice bonus!”

 

[1] The exhibit is careful to dispel a myth about quilts that grew up in the 1990s. The story arose that escaping slaves were guided in on their way north by quilts that were hung out in a special “code.” A label states firmly that no record of this has ever surfaced from escaped slaves or participants in the Underground Railroad. It adds such a story does a “disservice to the true heroism and ingenuity of the slaves who escaped and those who helped them.”

*Made for “AK” in Pennsylvania by an unidentified quiltmaker, this textile illustrates the life of a Zouave soldier. It includes fabrics used by seamstresses at the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia to make Zouave uniforms. “AK” may have been Adam Keller or Albert Keen, both of whom served with the 88th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, which boasted two companies of Zouaves. Collection of Kelly Kinzle.

“Hips Don’t Lie” at the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco)

I’m happy to be able to share with you, this review by my good friend, and fellow CSA Western Region board member, Brenna Barks. She recently visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to hear “HIps Don’t Lie — GORGEOUS Idea Talk” by Nicole Archer, a fellow CSA member, as a part of a CSA Western Region meet-up. . The talk is part of programming support for the current exhibition, Gorgeous (on view through September 14). Brenna kindly agreed to write up her thoughts for Fashion Historia:

Hips Don’t Lie – GORGEOUS Idea Talk by Nicole Archer

The first piece Nicole Archer led the group to in the GORGEOUS galleries for her talk, ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, was Gerhard Richter’s 1991 piece, Spiegel, blutrut (Blood Red Mirror). It was an unexpected first piece to examine, and with it, Nicole masterfully set the tone for the entire talk.

I had noticed the piece during my quick walk-through prior to the talk and had admired it for the color and for the power of such a rich color on such a large, stark piece. But I was in a bit of a hurry because I didn’t want to miss the start of the talk so I didn’t have time to notice what Nicole pointed out: the piece’s reflective properties. Oil painted on glass, Spiegel, blutrut is naturally reflective and for a talk that focused on posture, body language, and how we use both to communicate and relate not just with ourselves and each other, but with the art objects we encounter, the first “image” Nicole confronted us with was ourselves.

This forced us to examine how we were standing and carrying ourselves, and enabled Nicole to introduce the major tenet of her talk, best summarized by a Nietzsche quote she shared with us: “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” Our bodies know as much about figurative art – and non-figurative art, we would learn – as our minds do.

Nicole then discussed the hip line and its use throughout art history and across various cultures. Starting with the ancient Etruscan kore statues and the statuary of ancient Egypt, there is a firm, stiff posture with the hips straight and parallel which establishes one’s presence, or gives one a dominating, determined, confident (if static) air. This was followed by the ancient Greek s-curve and the contro posto poses; each of these stances adds a sensuality and a movement to the body that the initial posture does not have.

This was best illustrated by Nicole through Narkissos (1976 – 1991), a collage drawing by San Francisco artist, Jess which features a self-portrait of the artist in the composition in the more sensual s-curve posture, with another male figure in the background in the firmer, straight-hipped, kore-style stance. The contrast between firmness and softness in stance, between strong confidence and a gentle sensuality emphasized the artwork’s main theme: exploration and celebration of male, homosexual desire. As Nicole stated through her use of the Nietzsche quote at the start of the talk, my body “knew” what the difference in those postures meant and I had read the difference almost subconsciously; by viewing the work through the lens of Nicole’s thesis and expertise, and hearing and participating in the discussion with my fellow attendees, this difference was brought to the surface and for me added even more depth to an already exquisite piece.

I was not alone in my revelations. While gathered around a sketch by Tom of Finland, as various people examined the figures’ postures and connected with them physically through mimicking their poses (some only mentally, some physically), there were multiple and all equally interesting and accurate interpretations of what the two men in the sketch were doing: they were subtly checking out each others behinds, they were establishing who was the dominant and who was the less dominant person in this exchange, they were posturing for a third person observing them, and so on.

While examining the comedic Laughing Nude by John Currin (1998), one young man pointed out that the hands of the woman depicted were not graceful, but – through illustrating with his own hands – rather awkward, and that their depiction was almost masculine. This meant that Currin’s Nude was not only a parody of the distorted nudes and female figures found in most Northern Renaissance paintings, but also perhaps a parody of contemporary nudes, which tend to over-emphasize an ideal of grace and delicacy.

That so many people felt comfortable speaking aloud can only be credited to Nicole. Her ability to engage with her audience, and her style of delivery were nothing short of masterful. With or without any artistic knowledge, Nicole emphasized that since we all have bodies, we can all relate to these artworks, and that no way we relate is wrong. People felt confident and comfortable enough to speak, even though surrounded by a large group of strangers in a very public setting, something I’ve never seen before. She was also very engaging, miming actions – such as the impossibility of “strutting” while maintaining a straight-hipped, kore-style stance – explaining things quickly and succinctly, making us laugh, and genuinely listening to anyone who spoke, welcoming new insights and perspectives.

Movement was as much a theme as posture. Comparing a Japanese triptych of Three Types of Edo Beauties, wrapped in their kimono with the static nature of a Noh robe hanging in a case, Nicole perhaps intentionally echoed a statement of Lou Taylor’s: that recreating the dynamism of movement in clothing can never quite be achieved in a museum or gallery setting, a living, moving body is required to give the clothing life. As Nicole illustrated, our stance indicates what movements are possible as much as what we are doing and where we are indicates the style of movement. “Why don’t we strut in galleries?” she asked. Contrasted with the performance by Phonique and other performance artists happening in the museum at the same time, it was a very thought-provoking question. It was not suggesting that we necessarily should strut, but it brought to the forefront of our minds how different situations and their different etiquette’s dictate our bodily stances and movement.

By the end of the talk through the gallery, Nicole had brought our attention to movement even in artworks that were not human: the curves of a Balinese dagger and the swaying, beaded curtain of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Golden) each had their own movement and a sensuality which mimicked the s-curve of so many of the figures we had examined. Nicole also brought attention to the curators’ expertise in this exhibition by highlighting juxtaposing pieces that might seem unrelated at first, until you examine the poses and stances the art depicts – even between “realistic” photographs, and cubist portraits.

After this wonderful, insightful talk, which felt more like a private class than a lecture, I don’t think I will be completely unaware of my own stance and body language in a museum or gallery for a long time to come.

Guest Exhibit Review: Bill Cunningham’s Facades at New York Historical Society

 

Currently on view at the New York Historical Society (through June 15, 2014), “Bill Cunningham: Facades” is a photography show from the now iconic photographer and the results of an eight-year project to document the architectural riches and fashion history of New York City which pairs models in period costumes with historic settings. Nadine Stewart, Fashion Historian, has graciously provided a review here for those not able to see the exhibit in person, or for those looking for some analysis of the show. Thanks again to Nadine!

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you should do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”

– Bill Cunningham

Today Bill Cunningham is an icon. Readers of the New York Times can follow his analysis of street styles and social life every week. He was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary. He’s followed fashion tirelessly both in New York and abroad for 35 years. When he began, it was a lonely quest. Now bloggers copy his work every day. None of them have the knowledge or wit to equal him.

“Facades” covers an early period in Cunningham’s career. It’s a smaller, quieter exhibit across the park from the glory of the Charles James exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet its images resonate just as strongly. The pictures were taken in the late 1960s when he was transitioning to his special brand of fashion photography from earlier work as a milliner and fashion journalist.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City, ca. 1968-1976 By Bill Cunningham, Gelatin silver photograph, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham

Beginning in 1968, Cunningham shot a series of 88 gelatin silver prints that matched iconic New York architecture with historic fashions–a range that stretches from the eighteenth century to the 1950s. His model for this eight year project was his neighbor in the Carnegie Hall Artist Studios, Editta Sherman, a fellow photographer who became his partner and muse. Together they scoured thrift shops, flea markets and auctions for vintage clothing. One find, later photographed in front of St Paul’s Chapel, was an eighteenth century man’s coat and vest scrounged for a secondhand shop on Ninth Avenue. In the end, they used 500 outfits at 1800 locations.

In 1968, New York was considered a decaying hulk. Historic buildings like Penn Station were being torn down to make way for an uncertain new future. Preserving the past was still being debated. Some city planners felt that the only way for the city to develop was to cut its link with the past and tear down older buildings. Cunningham clearly disagreed with this approach, a feeling that comes through in the loving way he photographs each building, finding angles a less informed observer would have missed. Editta was the perfect muse for this project. A striking image of Editta in a graffiti-covered subway car dressed in Edwardian splendor, sums up the grittiness of the time, but Editta sits proudly, no giving in to the squalor around her. Her presence is powerful as it is in every picture. She modeled with flair and style—a 56 year old muse who threw herself into each pose whether she was portraying a Victorian grande dame, a flapper from the 1920s, or a swinging mini-skirted girl from the 1960s. Cunningham used his background as a milliner to provide her with hats that punctuate the picture and echo the architecture in the background—like the towering fur toque Editta wears in a close-up in front of the Guggenheim.

Though the pictures were taken 37 years ago, they show a clear relationship between architecture and fashion that informs us today. They are not simply historical dress-up. Each shot shows an understanding and a love of the city. They have a freshness that contemporary fashion photography with its Photoshopped perfection often lacks.

Editta Sherman died in 2013 after she and Cunningham were evicted from Carnegie Hall, their home of 60 years. This exhibit gives us a vision broader than fashion history or iconic New York architecture. It gives us a sense of what type of spirit it takes to survive in a dystopian time.

–Nadine L. Stewart

Fashion Books Recently Recieved

I can’t always review the books that publishers are kind enough to send, but I did want to at least share with you some of the new books that have come out recently, in case they help with something you’re researching:

Recently Received:

Fashion and Ethics by Efrat Tseëlon (Editor), Intellect Ltd (Feb 15, 2014)

Fashion and Ethics focuses on issues of power, social positioning, and practices among creators, producers, practitioners, wearers, and consumers of fashion. With a special emphasis on the moral fabric of clothing, contributors to the book offer a critique of some of the fundamental assumptions of ethical fashion and expose how products are often framed as fair trade in order to relieve consumers’ guilt.

Honolulu Street Style by Malie Moran, Attila Pohlmann and Andrew Reilly, Intellect Ltd  (Feb 15, 2014)

Hawai’i is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse places in the world due to its central location in the Pacific. Situated at the crossroads of different cultures, Honolulu has a style all of its own. Honolulu Street Style captures this unique approach as it demonstrates how global trends are transformed by stylish Honolulu denizens to give them a unique, local look. Divided into chapters on hair, hats, accessories, and beachwear, the book features the styles of people encountered on the street and in many different neighborhoods, with an essay on the history and clothing of Hawai’i as a whole.

1000 Dresses by Tracy Fitzgerald and Alison Taylor, Barron’s Educational Series (Mar 1, 2014)

The study of the dress can reveal a wealth of information that can epitomize an era and provide insight into the historical, social, and cultural context of the time. Here, in this comprehensive library of 1,000 garments, the authors explore and document all aspects of the dress, from its evolution and impact on the fashion industry to its ability to move from functional garment to art form. A directory of dresses is organized by style, with variations for each. Cut, construction, embellishments, proportion, symmetry, volume and more are reviewed.

Catching up: Fashion books you should know about

I can’t always review the books that publishers are kind enough to send, but I did want to at least share with you some of the new books that have come out, in case they help with something you’re researching:

Fetish Style by Frenchy Lunning Bloomsbury Academic (April 11, 2013)

Fetish Style traces the history, forms and tendencies of sub-cultural fashions that are popular in both mainstream and alternative fashion cultures. Presenting the world of subcultural fetish clothing design in all of its richness and beauty, this book explores the idea of fetish as subversive and repressive as reflected in clothing choices in people of all ages and cultures. Linking the fetishistic aspects of contemporary culture with everyday clothing as dictated by fashion and merchandizing, Fetish Style presents a fascinating study of historical as well as 21st century subcultures. Case studies include the Japanese-influenced ‘tribes’ of the various Lolita formations, the Shotaru (male Lolita), the club scene, the Goths, the hip-hop fashions and other locally-formed fetishized practices.

Fashion Designers Resource Book by Samata Angel, A&C Black (April 25, 2013)

A one-stop resource packed full of advice and guidance that will help you to succeed in the fashion world, this book provides a detailed overview of the fashion industry as a business, combined with an insider’s understanding of the creative process and the lifestyle of a fashion entrepreneur.

The Story of Colour in Textiles by Susan Kay-Williams, A&C Black (May 15, 2013)

The colour and shade of dyed textiles were once as much an indicator of social class or position as the fabric itself and for centuries the recipes used by dyers were closely guarded secrets. The arrival of synthetic dyestuffs in the middle of the nineteenth century opened up a whole rainbow of options and within 50 years modern dyes had completely overturned the dyeing industry. From pre-history to the current day, the story of dyed textiles in Western Europe brings together the worlds of politics, money, the church, law, taxation, international trade and exploration, fashion, serendipity and science.

Slogan T-Shirts: Cult and Culture by Stephanie Talbot, A&C Black; 1 edition (May 15, 2013)

Informative, illuminating, insightful and erudite, Slogan T-Shirts: Cult and Culture is completely unique. Featuring interviews with a wealth of credible fashion insiders, cultural commentators and creative luminaries, from Holly Johnson (of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) to Katharine Hamnett, it offers a multi-faceted approach to the question of what makes the slogan T-shirt so rich, layered and culturally relevant… because slogans are never simply just words; they are emotive and evocative, suggestive and provocative.

Vampire Culture by Maria Mellins, Bloomsbury Academic (September 26, 2013)

Unique and exciting, this ethnographic study is the first to address a little-known subculture, which holds a fascination for many. The first decade of the twenty-first century has displayed an ever increasing fixation with vampires, from the recent spate of phenomenally successful books, films, and television programmes, to the return of vampire-like style on the catwalk. Amidst this hype, there exists a small, dedicated community that has been celebrating their interest in the vampire since the early 1990s. The London vampire subculture is an alternative lifestyle community of people from all walks of life and all ages, from train drivers to university lecturers, who organise events such as fang fittings, gothic belly dancing, late night graveyard walks, and ‘carve your own tombstone’.

Queer Style by Vicki Karaminas, Bloomsbury Academic (October 10, 2013)

Queer Style offers an insight into queer fashionability by addressing the role that clothing has played in historical and contemporary lifestyles. From a fashion studies perspective, it examines the function of subcultural dress within queer communities and the mannerisms and messages that are used as signifiers of identity. Diverse dress is examined, including effeminate ‘pansy,’ masculine macho ‘clone,’ the ‘lipstick’ and ‘butch’ lesbian styles and the extreme styles of drag kings and drag queens.

Divided into three main sections on history, subcultural identity and subcultural style, Queer Style will be of particular interest to students of dress and fashion as well as those coming to subculture from sociology and cultural studies.

A Queer History of Fashion,  Yale University Press (October 29, 2013)

From Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, many of the greatest fashion designers of the past century have been gay.  Fashion and style have played an important role within the LGBTQ community, as well, even as early as the 18th century.  This provocative book looks at the history of fashion through a queer lens, examining high fashion as a site of gay cultural production and exploring the aesthetic sensibilities and unconventional dress of LGBTQ people, especially since the 1950s, to demonstrate the centrality of gay culture to the creation of modern fashion.

Wiener Chic by Susan Ingram, Intellect Ltd (November 9, 2013)

Vienna may not be a city of fashion per se, but it is a fashionable city, a city which historically has been structured by changing fashions and fashionable appearances, by the tortured yet glittering façades of personalities and buildings. Like the Litfa säule in Orson Welles’s 1949 urban noir masterpiece The Third Man, which Harry Lime escapes into in order to avoid capture and the guileless visitor presumes are merely surfaces for advertising, and like the stolen letter left prominently on display in Poe’s short story, Vienna wears its charms on its sleeve, confident they won’t be recognized. By focusing on cinematic and institutional mediations of fashion and style, Wiener Chic explores and re-narrates the historical formation of Vienna’s urban imaginary. It takes the material dimension of urban culture seriously and mobilizes fashion as a structure of visibility that can direct the critical gaze at revealing aspects of the urban fabric from façades to festivals.

Dressing Dangerously by Jonathan Faiers, Yale University Press (December 3, 2013)

When Marlene Dietrich makes her entrance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, the Dior dress she wears immediately draws the viewer’s attention—not because of its designer label, but owing to the dramatic blood stains ruining its stylish surface. Fashion in film goes far beyond glamorous costumes on glamorous stars, as Jonathan Faiers proves in Dressing Dangerously, a pioneering study of the “cinematic negative wardrobe” revealed in mainstream movies. The book emphasizes how problematic, even shocking depictions of dress, until now largely overlooked, play pivotal roles in shaping film narrative.

The Religious Life of Dress by Lynne Hume, Bloomsbury Academic (December 19, 2013)

From clothing to the painted and scarified nude body, through overt, public display or esoteric symbols known only to the initiated, dress can convey information about beliefs, faith, identity, power, agency, resistance, and fashion. Taking a ‘senses’ approach, Hume’s engaging account takes into consideration the look, smell, feel, touch and sound of religious apparel, the ‘smells and bells’ of dress and its accoutrements, as well as the emotions evoked by donning religious garb.

Important New Books on Fashion in Museums from Yale

The pace of fashion publishing continues to impress me. When I was in graduate school, new and important fashion history books were few and far between. But now, it’s hard to keep up! Yale Press, in particular, continues to set the bar high for new and necessary books for the fashion historians library. Aside from the new Charles James: Beyond Fashion from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition in New York (a MUST have and a MUST see, if you can), there are a few others that you might not have heard about. Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, edited by Patricia Mears, is an excellent resource and documents the recently closed exhibition from the Museum at FIT (Nadine Stewarts review of that show is available here).

Exhibiting Fashion: Before and after 1971 by Judith Clark and Amy de la Haye is an extremely important work for the field, and something that has been needed for quite some time. It chronicles the work of curators such as James Laver (1899-1975), Doris Langley Moore (1902-1989) and Anne Buck (1910-2005) in several case studies. It also discusses, at length, the importance of Fashion:An Anthology the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert by Cecil Beaton in 1971,

Additionally, it provides an admittedly incomplete inventory of fashion exhibitions since 1971. While Lou Taylor’s book, Establishing Dress History does much to document fashion collections and their history in text, Clark and de la Hayes’ book not only discusses the history of exhibitions of fashion, but does so in an oversized, illustrated volume (including photos of historic exhibition catalogs, as well as installation photos).

The inventory of exhibitions focuses primarily on major exhibits from England, Australia, France, Canada, and the United States (although a few from the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Italy, Germany, Belgium are also included). The U.S. exhibits listed were held primarily in New York and Philadelphia; though it does also list some from Boston; Kent, OH; Saint Paul, MN; Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (It doesn’t begin listing exhibits from the de Young until the year 2000 and The Museum at FIDM’s first listing is in 2003). My feeling is that this book leaves the door open for further work on the history of fashion collection and exhibition in the United States.

 

Charles James: Beyond Fashion (Exhibition Review)

I’m extremely excited to have this exhibition review from fashion historian Nadine Stewart, of the brand new show “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit opened last week and runs through August 10, 2014. For those not able to make the trip, there is  the exhibition catalog, Charles James: Beyond Fashion (Yale University Press, 2014).

When I was a little girl I collected Moddess advertisements. I was too young to understand what Moddess was, really too young to even read, but every month I turned eagerly to the back cover of Ladies’ Home Journal where a full page color ad showed me a world far away from my suburban neighborhood. No one I knew had gowns like the ones I saw there. No one lived in rooms like the ones I saw in the ads. I stared at these pictures for hours and dreamed.

I had never heard of Charles James. He was not a household word in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Many years later I learned that Charles James was behind the 1948 ad campaign that launched my dreams. For it was James who persuaded Cecil Beaton to photograph five gowns so “any woman at a difficult moment can imagine herself a duchess.”

Charles James: Beyond Fashion took me into the world of the designer who launched those ads. Charles James’ goal was to “help women discover figures they didn’t know they had,” to make them fit of his dreams of perfection. Curators Jan Glier Reeder and Harold Koda of the Costume Institute have presented much more than a show of beautiful clothes. They have sought to analyze the architecture of James’ garments so we can gain an insight into the mind that created garments unique in the history of fashion. To a large extent, they have succeeded.

The exhibit is divided into two parts in two different galleries on different wings of the museum. James’ earlier work is shown in the lower level of the north wing. This is location of the new Anna Wintour Costume Center, which is the home of the Costume Institute. Of special interest is the small, overcrowded room, which shows James’ archive because it is here the curators, begin to wrestle with how James developed as a designer.

The walls are lined with James’ sketches. Here too are pictures and an album from an English childhood in the privileged upper classes of England, including life at Harrow where he met Cecil Beaton. After time in Paris studying art, James eventually went to Chicago where he opened a millinery shop in 1926. This experience was surely key in developing his sculptural technique. A milliner has to think in the round, knowing that all angles will be visible on the head. How he learned this craft is mysterious. James claimed he worked right on the heads of his clients, but that is unlikely unless he was draping a turban style. It is more likely that James blocked the hats to the proper size and then adjusted the fit and brim on the client. Three of his hats are on display. All show the asymmetric lines he would become known for.

Next to the hats are two small bolero jackets, whose label informs us that James shaped the collars using millinery techniques, steaming, pulling, and shaping the material so it curled around the neck at just the right angle. There are also dress forms, including the “Jennie,” a flexible form the designer developed so he could adjust it for different postures. A video from the time shows James constructing it.

Further along the same platform is a tiny blue baby jacket made for his son with an unusual armhole shaped like a flattened oval. Behind it is an adult version of the same jacket displayed with several sewer elbow pipes. Apparently, the pipes inspired the shape of the sleeve, a good example of the unconventional way James visualized in three dimensions. The center vitrine displays another James’ innovation—the down-filled jacket, a design so advanced it wouldn’t re-appear again until the 1980s.

You can also get a glimpse of James’ waspish personality from a typewritten list he wrote in the 1960s where he ranked the rest of the fashion world with statements like: “Photographers who I felt unable to catch the essence of fashion—Horst and Avedon.” Even more cutting was his assessment of Erte. “Illustrative of designer artists whom I abhorred and thought their pretension to represent fashion disgraced it.” Ouch.

Next to the archive room are the garments James felt were some of his best—tailored coats with seams that curve and shape the body yet allow a “breeze of air to linger between body and fabric.” Made of firm wools like melton, flannel, and cavalry twill, James’ coats look like they could stand-alone. He seems to have learned from his mistake, made around 1936—the bias-cut coat in loosely woven plaid featured in the recent exhibit at The Museum at FIT. That coat stretched out of shape since James was still learning the how to handle bias draping. The coats on display show James’ millinery training at work in the curved collars and molded bust lines that fit the body without the use of darts.

Also on view in this room are a number of cocktail dresses, suits, and evening gowns, including the Diamond Dress (1957), the Sirène (1951-52), and the Taxi Dress (c. 1932). Video animation gives a valuable insight into the way his clothing was constructed.

This would be enough for most exhibits, but mounted in the Special Exhibitions gallery in the south wing are the gowns James is famous for—15 ball gowns whose construction amazes the fashion world today. Each is mounted on its own platform, which allows viewing from all sides. Instead of label cards, each has an animated screen attached to a robotic camera. As the camera roams over the dress, the screen highlights crucial details. Pattern pieces float apart so one can see the shape and then are applied to a form so we can understand how they fit together. To get the unconventional shapes he wanted, James used unconventional materials like nylon mesh, millinery willow, polyester horsehair braid, and blocking net–materials used by milliners. He also used Pellon, a nonwoven interfacing that contains nylon and synthetic rubber among other materials to expand the shape of many of his garments, like the famous Clover Dress (1953). This was the 1950s when “wonder fibers” were advertised in Vogue. James bent them all to his vision.

James would have liked all this analysis. He wanted the public to learn from his work. He made up muslins of his dresses especially for a 1948 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. These are now visible in a separate room at the entrance of the second gallery. In their midst sits the Butterfly Sofa (1950), made for the de Menil family home in Houston, an early example of ergonomic design and a mark of James’ only attempt at interior design. Next to this room is a 1949 portrait of his client, Millicent Rogers, resplendent in a James gown. Rogers looks out at us with a haughty, bemused smile as if she knows none of the women who appeared at this year’s Met Gala will ever outshine shining society swans who were dressed by Charles James.

After looking at this exhibit one can conclude that designers can learn from James, but his world will never come again. Those days of couture splendor I dreamt about many years ago were ending even then. What remains is his body of work that illustrates his belief that “A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time.” James’ design principles still inspire. They can still make us dream. It’s worth visiting this exhibit several times to absorb them.

 

Video of the exhibition can be seen here:

Koda, Harold and Jan Glier Reeder. Charles James: Beyond Fashion. New York and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

Mears, Patricia and G. Bruce Boyer. Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

California Fashion History: Davis Schonwasser Co.

Baby Bathrobe dated 1910-1920 from Davis Schonwasser & Co

I recently received some beautiful vintage baby clothes from a very dear friend, and one piece was a beautifully embroidered silk baby bathrobe bearing the label “Davis Schonwasser Co.” The sales tag suggests that the garment dates to 1910-1920, but I (of course), wanted to know more and couldn’t help diving in head-first to do a tertiary bit of research (this is by no means complete or exhaustive, but it is interesting).

Baby Bathrobe dated 1910-1920 from Davis Schonwasser & Co

As it turns out Davis Schonwasser & Co was a luxury department store, among the likes of City of Paris, I. Magnin, The White House, and a number of other long-time retail establishments of San Francisco. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 1996, “The city nourishes and cherishes traditions, celebrates the idiosyncratic and mourns casualties. And casualties there have been, even among classics: I. Magnin and Ernie’s have closed. So has the original Fly Trap, Winterland and Davis Schonwasser with its creaky wooden floors. We also miss the White House, the Fox Theater, Solari’s lentil soup and Townsend’s creamed spinach. The list goes on.” (Steger 1996)

L.E. Davis in 1903 via "Cloaks and Furs"

Several publications name different “Davis’s” and “Schonwasser’s” associated with the store. According to author Michael Zarchin, “Two Jews who combined their efforts to establish and run successfully a ladies’ and children’s ready-to-wear store known to San Franciscans for many generations were Samauel Schonwasser and Max Davis. Back in 1856, Mr. Schonwasser, an importer and dealer in dry goods, [first] established a small shop…. ” (Zarchin 1952, 47)

The Industry publication, Cloaks and Furs, suggested in 1903, that “L.E. Davis, of Davis, Schonwasser & Co., of San Francisco, is one of the new-idea men of the cloak an suit world. As long as two years ago Mr. Davis, in an interview with the writer, declared that such a thing as universal style had gone out of existence.” (Cloaks and Furs 1903, 46)

A newspaper clipping from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, dated Feb. 27, 1907, noted that Davis, Schonwasser, & Co was established in 1873 and it has been suggested that a “Schonwasser was independent of Davis at least before 1885.” (Carey 2014) Several San Francisco based city directories indicate that the store was in business as early as 1894. According to the 1902 Crocker-Langley San Francisco directory for the year, the store was run by “Max Davis and Emll G. Schonwasser” and sold “ladles’ and children’s furnishing goods.”

Davis Schonwasser Co, 1909 (Via Bancroft Library)

The San Francisco Evening Bulletin article mentioned above also explains that, “prior to the great fire was located at Post and Grant Avenue.  After the fire, and until removal to these new quarters, the firm’s business has been carried on at California st. and Van Ness Avenue.” The 1906 Earthquake and Fire prompted a move to their most famous location, opening there March 1, 1907. This was a time when, “Van Ness Avenue became a temporary downtown during the period that the real downtown rebuilt. Major dry goods and department stores such as the White House, the City of Paris, The Emporium, Davis-Schonwasser, D. Samuel’s Lace House . . . were some of the businesses that located here.” (Kostura 2010, 18)

"Looking down Sutter St. showing "The White House, Davis Schonwasser Co., and The Sloane Building, San Francisco, California, 1908"

This “new’ building had an elegant cache as well. “It was designed by George Adrian Applegarth, an Oakland native. He trained in Paris at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1906 was in New York working on his graduate project. He stowed away on the next ship to Paris to collect his diploma, then returned to San Francisco. He ended up in a partnership with Kenneth MacDonald Jr., who may have been his collaborator on this building. The building is still a retail venue today, although the façade has changed somewhat.” (Time Shutter)

Made of painted satin ribbons laid vertically and horizontally with machine valenciennes lace trim top and bottom edges. Slot and stud front closure, laced back, large bow top front; whalebone stays. Seller: Davis Schonwasser, San Francisco (de Young Museum)

Several Bay Area museums hold costume examples within their collections. The de Young has a corset (c.1904-1908), described as being of French origin and donated by Mrs. Gordon H. True; and the Oakland Museum of California has a never-worn black “Geisha Waist” shirtwaist dating to between 1904-1910. Interestingly, the label of this piece has the former address of “128 to 134 Post St., San Francisco, Ca.” and was donated by Deanna Vickers.

One presumes that these two donors were the original owners and clients of the store, but that it completely unverified. In a letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was noted that Eleanor Maini Wollenberg was at some point, the accessories buyer for Davis- Schonwasser, and “with military precision, Admiral Nimitz would come see [her] twice yearly to pick out a purse for his wife.” (San Francisco Chronicle 2001, 2) Fashion shows were a common occurrence between 1900-1911, and were often held in cooperation with the surrounding department stores (as is described in a number of articles in the San Francisco Call).

The company appears to have had a conscience as well: In 1909, the store sold a doll to raise funds for the benefit of the California Women’s Hospital (San Francisco Call 1909), and in 1911, Davis Schonwasser supported the suffragette movement, but joining with other department stores by displaying yellow items in their windows (San Francisco Call 1911).

Little is documented of their children’s wear today, but the retailing journal The Corset and Underwear Review described a window display seen in 1918,  “Attractive clothing and nursery accessories for infants and young children formed a display in four windows at Davis, Schonwasser & Co., San Francisco, for the fall lines recently received by the various sections of the baby departments. The new and enlarged windows are in tones of cream, with pale blue and pink for the ribbons and other touches of color. The first window showed a nursery scene, with a mother in morning frock and apron, seated at the right, holding a baby in her arms.” (“Infants’ Wear” volume 12, 86)

Later years are even less well-documented in archives and history books, though it was active in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s at least. The company supported the San Francisco Opera’s 1950 season, and it was listed in the Bluebook of Leather and Shoe Businesses as late as 1958. By 1964, however, the location had become a Hibernia Bank office.

If you have information on Davis, Schonwasser, & Co, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Sources:

For another interesting tid-bit on a former employee of the Children’s department, check out this oral history from Harvard.

Carey, Thomas. 2014. Librarian, San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library, correspondence with the author. April 16.

Cloaks and Furs. 1903. Volume 33, 46

Kostura, William for the San Francisco Department of City Planning. 2010. Van Ness Auto Row Support Structures: A Survey of Automobile-Related Buildings along the Van Ness Avenue Coridor.

“Letters to the Editor.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 6, 2.

Perspectives in vernacular architecture, Volume 9, By Vernacular Architecture Forum, Edited by Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch, 2003, University of Tennessee Press.

San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 1907. California Pioneer Society subject file. Feb. 27.

Steger, Pat. 1996. “Staying Power,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 21.

Zarchin, Michael Moses. 1952. Glimpses of Jewish Life in San Francisco: History of San Francisco Jewry. Distributed by the author.

Last Minute Exhibit Review: 1930s Fashion at the Museum @ FIT

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I’m happy to share with you this last minute, guest exhibition review of Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, from historian Nadine Stewart. On view at the Museum @ FIT through tomorrow (April 19, 2014) the exhibition catalog is available for those unable to see the show in person.

ELEGANCE IN AN AGE OF CRISIS: FASHIONS OF THE 1930s

By Nadine Stewart

The fashions of the 1930s are often overlooked. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted its retrospective of American fashion in 2010, the focus was on fashion in films. We look back on the time and think of the breadlines and Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. But the Thirties was also a time when fashion became truly modern. This spring’s exhibit at the Museum @ FIT showed the range of fashionable dress, featuring men’s and women’s clothing for all occasions.

This was a time when clothing was cut to fit and show off the body without constricting it with corsetry or padding.  Designers of women’s clothing worked with a new concept—the bias cut that allowed the clothing to drape and fall fluidly. Chief among the designers working with the new cut was the great dressmaker Madeline Vionnet. One could get the sense of her mastery of draping by examining a black crepe gown with gold lame accents. Its intricate twisted back highlighted the back—the new erogenous zone to the 1930s. But the exhibit does not limit itself to flowing draped pieces by Vionnet. An ivory silk dress with subtle pin-tucked flowers and an orange dress made entirely of cutwork fabric gave an indication of her range. Exhibited with these garments were those of designers she influenced—Madame Gres, Claire McCardell, Elizabeth Hawes, and Valentina. The exhibit also singles out several designers whose reputations have been obscured or forgotten by the passage of time—Jean Patou and Augustabernard. Amid the masterfully cut and draped garments is one misfire that shows how difficult working with the new bias technique could be—a coat by Charles James in a loosely woven wool plaid. Curator Patricia Mears explained in the video that accompanies the exhibit, the coat fabric stretched so badly after it was finished James had to add an interlining of organza to keep it in shape. The mistake reminds us just how new this technique was.

Detail, Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk georgette evening dress with pintucks, 1930, Paris, museum purchase | © Eileen Costa (Via Museum @ FIT Blog

The elegance of the age really comes out when one viewed the men’s bespoke tailoring. This was a the age of the English Drape, a suit with a generous cut that adds stature to a man’s physique without appearing bulky. Notable among the suits displayed were the suits of London House, a Neapolitan firm founded by Gennaro Rubinacci. His tailors eliminated inner linings, producing suits whose cut and drape preceded Armani by many years.

One is given a whiff of the influence of Hollywood too. The soft, beautifully crafted shoes of Fred Astaire are featured in the cases at the beginning of the exhibit as is the famous red sequined gown and cape from The Bride Wore Red. There are also several bathing suits in the new stretch fabrics of the 1930s, which displayed the curves of movie starlet’s bodies in their publicity shots. The Hollywood pieces don’t dominate the exhibit. Instead, they fit in to give a full perspective of the period.

Sportswear like a jumpsuit for an aviatrix that could be worn out for cocktails, evening lounge wear for men and women made of silk and velvet, and even, a wedding dress round out the room. As one emerges from the gallery, there’s an intriguing case of hats which shows the progression from the deep-crowned cloche of the Twenties, which covered the head, to the perky fedoras of the Thirties which sat on the head at rakish, improbable angles, a jaunty antidote to the dark economic times.

Elegance in an Age of Crisis resets our perception on the 1930s establishing the decade as a time of importance in the history of Twentieth Century fashion—a time that opened the door to the modern era of design.

*Via the Museum @ FIT Blog, “Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014. | © Eileen Costa.”

Guest Book Review: Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion

Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America

Emma Tarlo and Annelies Moors, eds.

294 pp., illustrated, Bloomsbury, $29.95

Guest book reviewer, Jennifer Heath

There are moments I think we’re beating this horse to death. I worry that we are still far too fixated on the hijab (veil) and on Muslim women’s dress, though we should be turning our gaze toward other, more pressing issues that profoundly affect women: e.g., poverty, war, and environmental degradation. Will we ever be content to let women dress as they choose without judgment or comment?

Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America is an essential collection that fulfills a great deal of scholarship. It features sixteen essays covering history, anthropology, sociology, and fashion studies.  Editors Emma Tarlo and Annelies Moors have written an excellent introduction, particularly in its discussion of how dress affects religiosity and piety, how fashion relates to assimilation and creativity, and the politics of so-called Muslim dress or “the performative power of the headscarf to make identity claims and political demands,” as Rustem Ertug Altinay puts it in his chapter “Sule Yüksel Senler: An Early Style Icon of Urban Islamic Fashion in Turkey.” Tarlo and Moors remind us that Muslim women are habitually perceived as shrouded and silenced and that their coverings often seem to prove they are merely “agents of barbarism,” as Canadians A. Brenda Anderson and F. Volker Greifenhagen write in “Covering up in the Prairies.” Yet within the bounds of “proper” Muslim dress, there is vast, sophisticated sartorial ingenuity and, as Tarlo calls it, “the agency of the hijab.” (Unfortunately, too much sensational focus on the hijab also robs women of their agency.) The editors write that the “book grows out of awareness of the discrepancy between public discourses…and actual developments…pointing to the need for greater understanding and more nuanced interpretation.” Indeed.

Altinay’s chapter about Turkey pushes the book’s self-ascribed Europe boundaries, but Banu Gökanksel and Anna Secor bridge the gap with “Transnational Networks of Veiling Fashion Between Turkey and Western Europe.” Many Europeans are ethnic Turks, many whose families arrived generations ago as guest workers. Maria Curtis addresses Turks in the United States with “Closet Tales from a Turkish Cultural Center in the ‘Petro Metro’, Houston Texas.” Altinay offers essential historic ballast (with kudos to Audrey Hepburn), for one thing, helping to explain how the headscarf was enthusiastically re-inaugurated into a society that was mandated by its leadership to be secular.

Most interesting are those essays about unfamiliar, rarely noticed practices and challenges, like  Daniela Stoica’s “The Clothing Dilemmas of Transylvanian Muslim Converts” or Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska and Michael Lyszcarz’s “Perspectives on Muslim Dress in Poland: A Tatar View,” a study of the Tatars’ distinctive, traditional uses of the headscarf as they encounter a new (and often insistent) interpretation of Islam.

Annelies Moors’ “Fashion and its Discontents: The Aesthetics of Covering in the Netherlands,” Synnøve Bendixsen’s  “‘I Love My Prophet’: Religious Taste, Consumption and Distinction in Berlin,” and Connie Carøc Christiansen’s “Miss Headscarf: Islamic Fashion and the Danish Media” look to the entanglements of belonging, social conflict, politics, gender, and sexuality (among other things).

I once asked Reina Lewis – who, like Leila Karin Österlind with “Made in France: Islamic Fashion Companies on Display,” examines merchandising in “Hijab on the Shop Floor: Muslims in Fashion Retail in Britain” — whether the trend among Euro-American women combining trousers with dresses was related to the beautiful salwar kameez, a customary costume in South and Central Asia. She thought it more likely to be a retro-hippie craze. I’m not so sure, because, as we see in various chapters of this book, and in Tarlo’s previous work, contemporary Islamic fashions, increasingly distanced from indigenous clothing, are so modish, attractive, elegant, fun, and streetwise that even young non-Muslim women could find them irresistible. But would they also wear hijab?  Well, that might, at the very least ─ at last ─ render all this who-wears-what fuss moot.

Jennifer Heath is an independent scholar, award-winning cultural journalist, critic, curator, and activist, the author or editor of eleven books of fiction and non-fiction, including On the Edge of Dream: The Women of Celtic Myth and Legend and The Echoing Green: The Garden in Myth and Memory (both from Penguin/Plume, 1998, 2000), A House White With Sorrow: A Ballad for Afghanistan (Roden Press, 1996),  The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam (Paulist Press, 2004), The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics (University of California Press, 2008), Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women (University of California Press, 2011), co-edited with Ashraf Zahedi, and also with Zahedi, Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace (University of Texas Press, 2014), as well as The Jewel and the Ember: Love Stories of the Ancient Middle East (Smashwords E-Book Publications). She came of age in Afghanistan, founded Seeds for Afghanistan in 2001 and in 2003, the Afghanistan Relief Organization Midwife Training and Infant Care Program, later International Midwife Assistance. Her many touring exhibitions include Water, Water Everywhere: Paean to a Vanishing Resource, The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces, Black Velvet: The Art We Love to Hate and The Map is Not the Territory: Parallel Paths-Palestinians, Native Americans, Irish.