Guest Exhibition Review: Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

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I’m very pleased to present a review by my friend and fellow Costume Society of America Western Region Board Member, Brenna Barks.

“Back to …” By Brenna Barks

There is an intimacy present in objects of material culture that is often lost in exhibitions and academic studies. This can be especially true of clothing. It is not only worn on the body, but reflects an extremely personal choice either to express or hide identity, to reveal or armor ones self against the rest of the world.

This feeling of intense, almost uncomfortable intimacy permeates Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibition currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. While raw and somewhat intrusive, it is an extremely relevant intimacy as the exhibition is designed to delve behind the tabloids and the public persona of a world-famous musician, to reveal the girl her family knew, loved, and lost.

It gives the feeling of going through Amy’s belongings in the way that her family must have done after her death. In addition to various family items, it includes her clothing from childhood through the height of her career. Things that she most valued and kept, and which her brother, Alex Winehouse, and his wife, Riva (as co-curators with Liz Selby of the Jewish Museum in London) decided best represented Amy to include in this exhibition.

First among these items are her school sweater and tie worn in both grade school and the Sylvia Young Theatre School. They could be anyone’s jumper (sweater) and tie, but they are displayed so that you can see the name labels sewn into them. The objects are shown next to private photos from Amy Winehouse’s school days. These photos reveal for visitors that even a young Amy knew what her style was, and how to express it despite a school uniform.

Cynthia Winehouse (“Nan”), Amy Winehouses’ grandmother. Photo credit: Winehouse family

The exhibition suggests that much of Amy Winehouse’s unique style could be traced to her grandmother, Cynthia Winehouse. Alex and Amy Winehouse’s “Nan” was a strong, larger than life personality whom they both felt they could talk to (and smoke a sneaky cigarette with behind their parents’ backs). She married towards the end of World War II, and believed strongly in looking her best. Evident inspirations in Amy’s style are reflected in pictures of her Nan from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Clothing displayed from both Amy’s private and public life, the theme of intimacy remains. Several portraits from early in her career, taken in her home, were displayed along with a smattering of her wardrobe. The exhibition design aimed to display objects in the same way that Amy would have seen them every day on her clothes rail at home. Her brother Alex revealed that while she often wore stiletto heels and mini dresses in public, she was happiest in the tracksuit bottoms and cut off shorts she wore at home – albeit, as the home photos show, with her hair and make-up impeccably done.

The clothing is a delightful mix of this casual attire, exquisite designer scarves from Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint-Laurent, Hermes and others mixed with fast-fashion and thrift shop scarves, comfortable bedroom slippers next to platform heels – including some by Christian Louboutin, all hanging alongside the thrift shop finds like a pink bowling jacket Amy had customized, or a pair of braces (suspenders) found in a charity shop. There seems to be a definite mix in Amy’s “closet” of her at-home clothes and some of the dresses she performed in, as though she didn’t have a true stage wardrobe. This revelation seems to reveal that despite her public persona she managed to remain true to her authentic self by wearing her own clothes on stage, not what a stylist or her fans wanted, but what she felt comfortable in. This variation of formal and casual helps present a more realistic picture of the woman, as any of our closets would do.

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Installation view from Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. Photo: Ian Lillicrapp. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.
Amy Winehouse performing in a Luella dress at Glastonbury in 2008

A couple of her outfits are set apart. The black and white gingham, Arrogant Cat mini-dress that she wore not only in the “Tears Dry On Their Own” music video, but for several on stage performances is set apart to demonstrate just that she often wore her own clothing on stage or in videos. To quote the catalogue, this dress, combined with the bowling jacket and other casual pieces she was often seen wearing in public “reflect the grass roots nature of her style and her down-to-earth nature.” Then there is the Luella Bartley dress she sang in at Glastonbury, which was apparently too small even for Amy. This is set apart to discuss her stage persona and how even with her “down-to-earth” style, fame enabled her some designer collaborations and perks, though in the end, she preferred her own clothes, it seems.

The references to Amy’s Jewish heritage are very subtle, but that seems in keeping as it is meant to reveal the woman, rather than a perception of her. The exhibition opens with a family tree of the various Jewish, largely Eastern European emigres to London who make up the Winehouse siblings’ background, various name changes over the years as the family assimilated and became Jewish Londoners, rather than immigrants. The catalogue delves deeper not only into the family history but the history of Jewish London, a community that Amy was deeply connected to through cultural if not religious ties.

There are various objects throughout the exhibition that quietly reinforce this identity. A few pieces from her beloved Nan; photographs at her brother’s bar mitzvah, or other family gatherings at the synagogue; and a cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food by Cynthia Roden, which was a present from her brother with a message from him directing her to the recipe for chicken soup if she ever suffered “a loss of faith.” You get the impression that music was the central passion of Amy Winehouse’s life, with the large record collection, the guitars, the music school performances, but that her Jewish identity was strong and so much a part of her it didn’t need mentioning or overt displays.

The exhibition ends with a quote from Amy’s application essay to Sylvia Young Theatre School:

I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell out concerts, and sell out West End and Broadway shows. For being … just me.”

Respectful, intimate, and engaging, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait gives viewers a fuller picture of the iconic singer as a real person, so that you leave knowing that she accomplished just that.

The exhibition will be on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through November 1, 2015.

Thanks so much to Brenna for this review! For anyone not able to make it to the exhibit, the Associated Press provides this glimpse of the London version of the show in 2013:

 

*Image credit: Mark Okoh, Camera Press London. Amy at her home in Camden town, 2004.

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