Heavenly Bodies: A Review

By Nadine L. Stewart

HEAVENLY BODIES: FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION
MET CLOISTERS
THROUGH OCTOBER 8, 2018

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is a title that seems simple on the surface. Its stated purpose is to show the influence of the Roman Catholic faith on designers of fashionable dress. However, the question arises—what IS “the Catholic Imagination?” Why is its influence so compelling that even designers who have left the faith or who are scarred by it are inspired by its power?

It is a broad topic to be sure, one that encompasses memory, history, and emotion. To answer this question, the Costume Institute, under the patient direction of Curator Andrew Bolton, has mounted its largest exhibit and in two locations: the Met Fifth Avenue building and the Cloisters, its branch in the upper reaches of Manhattan devoted to the art of the Middle Ages. Because I feel much of the mystery and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church evolved in the Middle Ages, I chose to approach this exhibit in two parts and explore the Cloisters’ portion of the exhibit first.

I get a sense of mystery every time I visit the Cloisters. It is an intimate space, so it is a good place to feel the intense faith and singular focus of the medieval world when the Church was all-powerful. There were no other doors to the divine then. The worldview and the view of time were entwined with Biblical time. It seems the right place to start to try to comprehend the mystery of the Catholic imagination.

The first sight of fashion comes right at the entrance to the museum in the Romanesque hallway. One sees the glittering of crystals which cover a heavy floor-length jute gown with shoulders built up above the ears and long sleeves like tubes that hang below the hands. Jeweled rosaries can be seen twisted around both of the mannequin’s arms that peek from the sleeves. The austere piece by Victor and Rolf from 1999-2000 is more like a religious statute than a garment. That impression is reinforced by the two wooden statues of the Madonna from twelfth-century France on each side.

A turn to the left takes one into the Fuentiduena Chapel, another Romanesque space dominated by a giant crucifix. This chapel is devoted to showing the influence of the sacraments of the Church—marriage, communion, and baptism. Some of the simplest dresses on display are here, including a simple white cotton poplin shirtwaist subtly decorated with inserts of sheer crosses designed by Azzedine Alaia in 1992. However, the eye is inevitably drawn to one of the most iconic creations in couture history—Balenciaga’s wedding dress and coif-like headdress from 1967. The restraint and simplicity of this garment show a creative strength that can only be drawn from great craft and imagination. It’s a far cry from the glitz and glitter recently on display at the Met’s Gala and gives a sense of the strength of belief that sustained Balenciaga, a man raised in the very traditional Spanish Church.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967)

Next door two long black capes by Valentino stand on high pedestals amid the arches of a smaller Romanesque cloister. The mounting of these robes is one of the unique features of this exhibit since it requires visitors to look at them in a new way. One is covered with black velvet appliques that echo the arches surrounding it. Like the Victor and Rolf garment at the entrance, these figures look like religious statues.

Bolton has chosen to place part of this exhibit around the outdoor garden of The Cuxa Cloister The garments here are influenced by the religious orders. Each is simple, depending only on cut for its effect. Two of the eight garments on the west side are by an American, Claire McCardell, whose black Monastic Dress of wool jersey set new standards in American style in 1938. Its simple pleated lines secured by a belt made it a garment that could be worn by many women with many different body types. Monastic robes must be adaptable to many different bodies too. They render them the same before God. There’s another lesser known McCardell here, the “Cloister Dress” of cream colored wool jersey with dolman sleeves and a slightly dropped waistline. Designed as a wedding dress during the 1940s, it too can flatter many figure types due to its simplicity.

The monastic line-up includes dresses by Madame Gres, including two stunning taffeta Gres gowns with enormous sleeves like exaggerated choir robes from 1969. Along the south wall are more Valentino’s with severely simple lines interspersed with two Rick Owens’ menswear from 2015-16. These sweatshirt-like robes are distinguished by “peephole crotches,” a witty touch that was influenced by the bawdy monastic figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Owens’ garments are a good reminder that the range of fashion inspired by the Catholic Church are not always ethereal, otherworldly garb.

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) 1969
Jean Paul Gaultier (French, born 1952). “Guadalupe” Evening Ensemble, spring/summer 2007 haute couture.

The Early Gothic Chapel is devoted to another important Catholic influence—Mary, the mother of Christ, who is venerated above all women. All three of the dresses here are by John Paul Gaultier, two stunning silk jersey pieces in the color blue, the color associated with Mary the Virgin. One features a red heart on the chest pierced with a dagger. Stained glass inspires a third gown with fractured images of the Virgin and Child much like the window behind it.

In the Gothic Chapel, the influence is “Goth” dress which started in England in the late twentieth century. Religious symbols are an important component of Goth dress along with the color black. The centerpiece of the Gothic Chapel is a gown and headdress by John Galliano for Dior in 2006-7 influenced by the Crusaders and Joan of Arc. The mannequin is lying down like a tomb sculpture wearing a gown encrusted with black paillettes, silver metallic embroidery with a section of silver armor on the left shoulder. It is topped with a fantastical headdress of silver wire and cascading crystals. Goth designs by Gareth Pugh and Oscar Theyskens flank Galliano’s showy piece—all in black, of course!

Downstairs in the Glass Gallery, the fashions are inspired by the Garden of Eden. At each end of this gallery are 2014 Valentino ball gowns, both exquisitely embroidered. One has the figures of Adam and Eve in the Garden based on a painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder. The other is covered with gold wheat. Wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist which becomes the body of Christ. Also, in the hall are witty creations by Junko Takahashi from 2011. They are mini-dresses and platform shoes covered with images taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the early 16th Century. The inclusion of these pieces is interesting because Takahashi is Japanese and raised outside the Catholic Church, unlike the other designers in the exhibit who were exposed to the Church when they were young. I’m guessing that Takahashi, who is drawn to dramatic images, was inspired by the weird images in Bosch’s painting which are unique in the history of Western art.

Valentino SpA, 2015–16, courtesy of Valentino, Italy, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

At the end of the gallery hiding behind a door to a confessional is another Galliano, a red gown of linen twill coated in rubber inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, a work condemned by the church. It’s a reminder of the dark side of the Catholic imagination that periodically condemned works that challenged its dogma.

The Treasury contains the most precious artifacts of the Cloisters. First on view is a striking silver crown of thorns made for Alexander McQueen. Its stark simplicity is powerful. The crown of thorns is one of the most revered symbols of the Christian faith, so McQueen’s decision to recreate it for his “Dante” collection in 1996-7 was a bold one. It raises the question—does use of such a symbol on the fashion runway diminish it?

Behind another set of glass doors, we find works used in religious sacraments, such as chalices and reliquaries. There are also two chasubles, poncho-like robes worn during Mass. These are more recent creations, one made for John Paul II in 1997 is of cream silk covered in multicolored crosses. The other was designed by French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for World Youth Day also in 1997. This one struck me as curious. It too is cream with rainbow stripes that run vertically down the middle of the front and back. The official reason for the stripes was that they were a tribute to nature, but the rainbow stripes are also on the flag of the Gay Pride Movement. An article in Interview[1] from 2016 states that Castelbajac told John-Paul about this connection, but the Pope replied, “But Jean-Charles, there is no copyright on the rainbow.” So, the Pope, 500 bishops, and 5,000 priests wore the rainbow colors that day. This is the only mention, thought very tangential, of the Church’s teaching on theological teaching against homosexuality. Many of the designers in the exhibit are gay, but we get no hint about how this doctrine of the Church affected their psyches and imaginations.

Philip Treacy hat in the Boppard Room at the Cloisters

Upstairs in the Boppard Room, three straw hats by Philip Treacy are mounted in front of an altar featuring three Netherlandish busts of female saints. The hats are based on headdresses for the Virgin and are reminiscent of nun’s headdresses with wings that encircle the head. They seem to soar about the head glittering slightly from a dusting of gold.

The last gallery contains another bride. This one by Dolce and Gabanna is all gold lace and trims. The figure is really like a religious statue of the Virgin that might be carried through the streets in a saint’s day celebration. The figure with its very Italian influence shares the gallery with work the evokes Northern Europe from McQueen’s “Angels and Demons” collection of 1997-8. The labels tell us that McQueen’s favorite period in art history was fifteenth-century Flanders. Though he references the period with its color and imagery, it is worth remembering that this was a time when the Church was being challenged there.

Heavenly Bodies took on a huge, difficult subject. The exhibit aims to show us how religious faith of the Roman Catholic Church affected fashion and its creators. It isn’t always easy to understand the spirituality behind what can be seen as just clothes—fine, beautifully crafted clothes, but still, clothes for the very wealthy. However, in the intimate chapels of the Cloisters, it is possible to sense the spiritual undergirding of religious inspiration. Not all the garments convey the power of the religious inspiration, but a few, like the pure lines of Balenciaga wedding gown, can take one to another place. It’s worth a trip to the Cloisters to touch that feeling if only fleetingly.

Note: There’s another benefit of making the trip to The Cloisters. It’s situated in the midst of one of New York City’s most beautiful public parks, Fort Tyron. You can walk through gardens with a beautiful view of the Hudson River as you go to and from the exhibit. It’s truly a lovely day trip.

A 5-minute overview of the Cloisters exhibit for some additional visuals and details:

________________________________________________________________________

ME

Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!

More posts by the Author »

[1] Trey Taylor, “Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Reflects on His Past,” Interview, November 1, 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/jean-charles-de-castelbajac-1

 

Continue Reading

Don’t Miss The Royal Pageantry of VISITORS TO VERSAILLES

By Nadine L. Stewart

Editors Note: Even though most of the fashion media is focusing today on the Met Ball in support of Heavenly Bodies at the Costume Institute, Nadine Stewart and I agreed that it was important to take a virtual visit to the Met’s current show (on view through July 29), Visitors to Versailles, 1682-1789. Here is Nadine’s review:

Silk Robe à la Française, 1775–1800, French (Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1961)

The halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are busy this spring getting the Byzantine and Medieval galleries ready for the upcoming Costume Institute exhibit. High platforms containing one mannequin each are up in the hallways on each side of the grand stairway while in the back in the medieval galleries shrouded mannequins await their unveiling. But summer visitors should remember that the Met is a place for many interests. Go up to the special exhibition gallery on the second floor for an exhibit that is about spectacle, fashion, and power in Versailles, the place to see and be seen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the high point of royal pageantry in all the world.

What makes this exhibit so pleasurable is its point of view. It draws on the accounts of travelers, diplomats, and courtiers to tell the story of the lure of a hunting lodge converted to the largest palace in the world, they symbol of France’s might and power. The pleasure is increased with the audio guide [ The onine version of the exhibit includes audio]. Usually these guides comment on the art in more detail. This guide uses actors who read the words of the visitors of the day. There’s no better way to get a feeling for the effect this huge palace had at the time.

Wool and silk Suit, 1755–65, British (Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; H. Randolph Lever Fund, 1968)

Each gallery has a theme. The first deals with how visitors got there. Versailles is twelve miles for Paris accessible by boat (by far the most enjoyable trip), sedan chair or private coach, or large sixteen seat public carriages which lurched and swayed putting their passengers uncomfortably close to each other. Once the visitor arrived, the next problem was acquiring the right clothes to wear in court, so the first thing we, the visitors to the exhibit, see is a display of eighteenth century dress for men and women. The contrast between a wool riding habit and a man’s wool suit, both from England, and the silk French Robe à la Française and Habit à la Française is striking. The huge case in the gallery has several examples of both, including the blue silk habit of Count Axel Fersen, rumored lover of Queen Marie Antoinette. You can walk around the case and see the garments from all angles.

One had to appear in the court in French clothes and be coifed in French style, so there were places in Paris where one could purchase the right garments and be groomed for presentation. In 1754, British architect Robert Adam wrote to his mother about his transformation: “Would you incline to know the appearance of your once plain friend? A most Frenchified head of hair, loaded with powder, ornaments his top; a complete suit of cut velvet of two colours, his body . . .”

Once properly dressed though, the visitor found Versailles a very public place where the King was often on view to his subjects. The king took daily walk in the gardens of Versailles, which is the theme of the next gallery. They were a wonder with a menagerie featuring rare animals and birds like the ostrich and camel and a labyrinth. Both of these were destroyed when they fell into disrepair later n the eighteenth century. We can get a sense of the magnificence of these gardens from the large landscape paintings, which show the grounds and, even more important, the crowds promenading along the paths. If one visits Versailles today, the place is thronged with tourists. It’s easy to see from these paintings things have not changed, only the fashions. Another gallery shows how the royal family was on display most of the day from the lever, a formal awakening of the King only accessible to special visitors, to the procession to chapel for mass and the Grand Couvert, a banquet held several times a week where the public could watch the King and his court eat. Apparently, the French themselves were just as fascinated with their king as foreign visitors, so these events were well attended.

Formal Ball Gown (robe parée), Attributed to Marie-Jeanne “Rose” Bertin (French, 1747–1813), 1780s (with later alterations), Silk satin, with silk embroidery, appliqués of satin; metallic threads, chenille, sequins, applied glass paste, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (925.18.3.A–B)

European ambassadors to France were required to follow rigid rules for presentation to the court. One particularly poignant painting here shows the Dutch ambassador being presented to a tiny Louis XV around 1720. One British ambassador’s wife was weighted down with diamonds worth 60-thousand pounds and a robe a la francasie she found very difficult to maneuver. There was a special technique for moving properly when being presented to the king. Coaching was required since one could never turn away from the king. One woman forgot the trick of kicking her train out behind her as she left the King’s presence and had to be rescued and disentangled.

Quiver, before 1742, Ottoman, elvet, silver gilt embroidery, precious stones, pearls, emeralds, gold, Musée de l’Armée, Paris (L 226)

Thousands of spectators showed up for the exotic diplomats from Asia and the Middle East. Missions came from Siam, India, Persia, and even the kingdom now known as Vietnam. These ambassadors were urged to wear their national dress to emphasize the reach of the French state. A delegation from Siam presented the King with a cannon decorated in silver, which is on display along with a sampling of other diplomatic gifts–a huge carpet, a high lompok or Siamese conical hat of rank with its carrying case, a bejeweled powder flask and quiver. Portraits of the diplomats in their finery, which often inspired fashion crazes, are throughout the gallery. The most special one shows the very young Nguyen Phuc Canh, seven-year-old price of Vietnam in 1787. He wears an “intricately tied turban that inspired French wig makers.”

Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and the Archduke Maximilian by Josef Hauzinger (Austrian, 1728–1786), 1778, Oil on Canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Gemäldegalerie, now on display in the Widow’s Apartment at Schloss Hof (8854)

Foreign royalty came to Versailles too, often incognito, which meant they could bypass rigid etiquette though they were still treated to balls, ballets, and banquets. Some royal visitors were more successful than others. Gustave III of Sweden visited twice, while Queen Marie Antoinette’s brother Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II insisted on being treated as a sovereign on his visit. This probably did not contribute to the popularity of the Austrians in the French court including the Queen herself. Royal portraits and gifts line this gallery including one which shows Joseph II meeting the Queen and her husband, Louis XVI.

Visitors came to Versailles as part of the grand cultural tour of Europe. This group included American form the New World. After 1776 though, American diplomats came to Versailles seeking money to fund their revolution against England. Benjamin Franklin spent many years there and became quite a celebrity. He shrewdly dressed in a plain plum-colored suit in court, a simple one with no extra embellishment like embroidery. That suit is on display here [on loan from the Smithsonian] along with a fine portrait and the Severes porcelain commemorating the signing of our alliance with France—an alliance Louis XVI could not afford that contributed to his downfall in the French Revolution. Versailles became decrepit and fell into disrepair under Louis XVI. Visitors commented on the shock of seeing beggars outside its gates. On October 5, 1789 a mob lead by the market women of Paris stormed the gates of the palace. The royal family tried to flee to the Netherlands but was caught and taken into custody. Courtiers left Versailles to save their own lives. A Russian came to the virtually abandoned palace in 1790. According to him, without its courtiers and visitors, Versailles was like a body without a soul, but still compelling.

Visitors to Versailles combines paintings, artifacts, and first-person accounts to give a rich picture of the lively court during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Right before the French Revolution, Gouverneur Morris, an American diplomat who succeeded Franklin, ridiculed Versailles as “an immense monument [to] the vanity and folly of Louis Fourteenth.” Perhaps it is, but it also still casts a compelling spell that showcases France and French culture. Visitors still flock there and French leaders like Emmanuel Marcon use it as a stage for their diplomatic events. Strolling through the galleries, I gained a sense of what my own visit might have been like all those centuries ago. It’s a story worth telling.

The Exhibition Catalog was just published today and is available here:

 


ME

Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!

More posts by the Author »

 

Continue Reading

A critical eye falls on MOMA’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern”

Editors note: While it is always nice to have the recommendation of a ‘good’ fashion exhibit, it is also beneficial and important to explore exhibits that don’t work, have problems, or are otherwize not recommended. These kinds of reviews are few and far between in the blog world. Nonetheless, I asked Nadine to write this review, knowing that she had found problems with MOMA’s exhibition. I encourage you to read her assesment and leave your thoughts in the comments (questions are welcome as well!)

In 1944 a provocative exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art curated by Austrian-born architect Bernard Rudofsky which asked the question “Are Clothes Modern?” In his accompanying book for the exhibition, Rudofsky minced no words in his opinion of fashion. In his view fashion “is based on envy and the urge of imitating the envied. It presupposes the existence of an aristocratic minority—aristocratic in the sartorial sense—that sets the ‘style’ and the pace of style rotation.”[1] He felt fashion is undemocratic and “fits the totalitarian state perfectly,”[2] harsh words for a country emerging from a war against two totalitarian states to hear.

Rudofsky’s sculptures

He was particularly critical of the changing fashionable silhouette. The exhibit featured sculptures of distorted figures—a woman with a “bustle body” who looked like a centaur, another with a huge mono-bosom. He had particularly harsh words for women’s hats, pointing to their artificiality. “Alas, we do not think any more of adorning our heads with a wreath of flowers. Women’s heads are frequently garnished with the artificial kind. They are traditionally arranged on a platter which by common consent is spoken of as a woman’s hat.” [3] Rudofsky felt that all fashion was completely frivolous and had no place in the modern society he foresaw developing in post-war America.

On December 20, 1944, he told the New York Fashion Group, an association made up of the city’s most influential designers, fashion journalists and industry executives, that he was looking forward to “the day when fashion and fashion makers will be forgotten like a nightmare—on this day we shall have made one big step toward a more intelligent way of living.”[4] Vogue’s response was spirited. “‘Are Clothes Modern?’ Vogue answers, ‘Emphatically, yes!’ and wonders that the bright-eyed, up-to-the-next-minute Modern Museum could ask such a question seriously. Granted that men’s clothes have too many buttons, pockets, are tradition-bound. But women’s fashions? Whom has the Modern Museum been looking at? Have they been rummaging through the files of their historic film library?”[5]

American fashion was just emerging from the war years when most of the fashion world was restricted by the rationing laws. So, to Vogue’s editors, “fashion is first cousin to modern furniture, modern engineering, modern housing, modern transport.  If by modern we mean ‘characteristic of the present time’ …and that’s what Webster means.”[6]

Rudofsky’s predictions for the world of fashion did not come true, Indeed, he ended up working in the fashion world himself. He established Bernardo’s, a company that made elegant simple sandals what were the embodiment of his view that clothing should be simple and body-affirming. No stilettos for him.

Seventy years went by. Exhibits of fashion became more and more numerous and drew large crowds. These exhibits and increasing scholarship in the field established the fact that fashion was not simply about women’s clothes, but a design field that influenced men and women of all ethnicities. So, MOMA now has its own exhibit of 111 items that the curators have decided transcend fashion since they are deemed iconic, like the white t-shirt, that continue to be worn year after year.

The goals of this exhibit are ambitious:

Items: Is Fashion Modern? explores the present, past—and sometimes the future—of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today. …. Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers, the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.[7]

That’s a tall order. The wall text at the entrance explains this exploration will be done by linking each item with three-part explanation composed of “archetype,” “stereotype.” and “prototype.” These leaves one wondering what those words mean. In an accompanying video Curator Paola Antonelli explained: “The stereotype is . . . close your eyes, and if you think of that item, what do you see?” That didn’t clear it up for me, but I was able to figure out that “archetype” meant the history of the garment which was covered in voluminous wall text. Many of the garments on display can probably be purchased at a big-box store, which is a good thing since MOMA has exactly four dresses, one coat, one shirt, and 4 head coverings in its collection.

The “prototypes” were works of art MOMA commissioned specifically to show how artists are inspired by the “iconic” pieces on display. According to the exhibit’s thesis statement they were intended “to respond to some of these indispensable items with pioneering materials, approaches, and techniques—extending this conversation into the near and distant futures, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use.”[8]

Spanx by Lucy Jones

You find yourself wondering why this was necessary. Often the pieces were confusing. Artist Lucy Jones created a version of Spanx for a wheelchair-bound woman. The seated figure was on a stool, not a wheelchair, so it took a while for me to figure out the meaning of what the side zippers on the Spanx were for. If I had any “conversation” after viewing this, it was to ask why the figure couldn’t have been mounted in a wheelchair, or, at the very least, with some suggestion of wheels.

Pia Interlandi, Little Black (Death) Dress, 2017. Photo by Sarah Dotson

Another piece veered in the direction of science fiction. Mounted at the end of a long platform on the little black dress, it was the recumbent figure of a woman in an embroidered black body bag. Artist Pia Interlandi, who specializes in designing garments for the deceased, dyed the shroud with thermochomatic ink. As one watched, it slowly lit up showing blue hands of mourners on the last garment. I found myself wondering how these pieces connected to the “stereotype.” The whole process was tiring.

The exhibit is mounted in the enormous gallery on the sixth floor, which has the effect of diminishing the “items” on display [see opening photo]. There are few pictures to show how these garments are worn, so the gallery looks like it is full of items that a large group of people simply left there. It diminishes the meaning of each item too. A red hoodie, which is supposed to evoke Trayvon Martin and his tragic death, simply looks like it was randomly hung there by the installation staff. To be successful, an exhibit has to blend the text, the objects, and images. It is difficult to connect the research and theory displayed on the walls with the objects themselves. There are voluminous labels with each piece, but they are often close to the floor and printed in very tiny type.

At the end of the exhibit is a huge wall chart that aims to show the interconnectedness of the pieces on display. One would need binoculars to read it since the text is small and high on the wall.

I was happy to see Rudofsky’s sculptures on display. It was like seeing some old friends, but it was hard to figure out how they fit into this exhibit.

Since Rudofsky was so interested in the concept of the fashionable body, he probably would have liked a smaller exhibit that just opened at The Museum @ FIT. The Body: Fashion and Physique examines how the fashionable “ideal” body has changed over time, using garments from the eighteenth century to the present day. The show is focused and thought-provoking.

The curators should have kept Rudofsky’s original title since this exhibit is not about “fashion,” which is a phenomenon of change spurred by the zeitgeist of the time. It about “clothes,” what we wear—a different subject.

After I trudged through Items: Is Fashion Modern? I found myself wondering how long it will be before MOMA examines fashion again. Seventy years?

[1] Bernard Rudofsky, Are Clothes Modern?: an Essay on Contemporary Attire (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1947), 232.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Ibid. 94.

[4] Bernard Rudofsky, speech to meeting of the Fashion Group International, New York, NY, December 20, 1944.

[5] Vogue, February 1, 1945, 121.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638?_ga=2.19712240.970171872.1514665663-1731633683.1514665663

[8] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638?_ga=2.19712240.970171872.1514665663-1731633683.1514665663

 

Continue Reading

Guest Review: Rei Kawakubo at Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Nadine L. Stewart

The key to approaching the latest Costume Institute exhibit [Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, on view to September 4, 2017) is to always keep in mind the telling words in its title—The Art of the In-Between.  For it is in the world of in-between designer Rei Kawakubo has been living and working for most of her career–a search that spans more than 40 years. The current exhibit allows us inside the restless mind of a strong-willed rebellious spirit.

The entire exhibit is housed in a series of stark white cylinders and boxes. There are no labels, just a brief name for each section and a number next to each piece. There is a brochure one can pick up at the entrance that contains quite a bit of information, along with many quotes from the famously taciturn designer. I advise reading it later. Concentrate on the clothes, their shapes, their materials, and their details. This is a show that demands focus.

Rei Kawakubo was not trained as a designer of clothing, she studied fine arts and aesthetics in college and evolved into fashion design. Her arrival on the international fashion scene in 1981 coincided with the emergence of other protean talents from Japan in the 1980s, including Issey Miyake and Yoji Yamamoto. (Kawakubo does not like being lumped in a group with them since she claims rightly that they are all very different.) Kawakubo says her lack of fashion training freed her, “I wasn’t limited to the confines of a pattern. Not being educated, not being taught how to design, I was able to visualize in a completely different context. And I still seem able to draw upon the unconventional.” Lack of fashion training would hinder a more conventional mind, but it is clear Kawakubo has a special view of the world. Some of this may come from her Japanese background. The influence of art of origami, folding new shapes of a flat 2-diminsional material, is visible here, as is the Japanese reverence for textiles and recycling and reusing old materials. As one progresses through the cones and boxes, there are wrapped and tied bundles, a reminder of the Japanese appreciation of package design.

The Future of Silhouette, Fall/ winter 2017-18, Rei Kawakubo

But, there is more here than references. The first garment one is confronted with is a huge ball of brown paper from her most recent Fall/ winter 2017-18 collection called “The Future of Silhouette.” It is the embodiment of her design process which, we are told, often begins with a single word or concept like a ball of crumpled paper that her design team interprets. There is no sign of the body here except for the arms, legs and head that protrude from the immense, round bundle. Kawakubo is not concerned with enhancing the shape of the body or being restricted by it. Her designs explore the space between the body and the garment itself. Commenting on one collection, Kawakubo said she was interested in, “…designing from the shapeless, abstract, intangible forms, not taking into account the body.” This turned the norms of Western fashion on upside down. One manifestation is the section of skirts form 2004. They are white cotton twill with black or pink sateen facings-stiff bulbous shapes with visible raw edges. The skirts look alike but subtle differences the placement of color and the placement of the seams make each unique. This interest in repetition progressed to explorations of popular and elite culture expressed in the “Motorcycle Ballerina” collection of 2005 and her look at the norms of good and bad taste which used cheap materials like elastic and white nylon tulle.

She moved away from aesthetic concepts to memories first in the 1990s with dresses that utilized the hoops and bustles of the 19th century often piled on the body in multiples. She returned to the past in this century 2012 with collections, that featured layers of garments evocative of birth, marriage, and death. Looking at one garment which had a childlike white lace dress with puffed sleeves sewn to its front I was reminded of how we carry our memories of these important milestones with us throughout our lives.

But it is the sight of the “Body Meets Dress” collection that shows a dramatic turn [see intro image]. This is the “Lumps and Bumps” collection. Kawakubo reassembled the human form by inserting down pads into the stretch gingham garment. This created figures that are nothing like the conventional fashion model/clothes hanger shape with narrow hips, high breasts, and long legs. These figures could be called grotesque with their asymmetric bulges making the body look deformed. And yet, the figures had their own beauty as 1997 videos of the Merce Cunningham troupe show. A former member of the company told me, the performance was extraordinary because the dancers were moving in ways that allowed their movement to be seen afresh. The costumes were also assigned to men and women with no distinction for their sex which was unusual then.

The exploration continued in 2014 when Kawakubo changed her design process again and concentrated on translating her concepts directly to design. The newer clothing is shown alongside earlier pieces, so one can see the move to pure form with the body as an armature for display of concepts. Robin Givhan, an astute observer of the fashion world, says it best, “Kawakubo’s clothes have a life separate from the body that wears them. They come with their own context; they reference themselves. The garments tell their own story.”

As you walk through the final sections with stuffed knitted forms, figures covered in brocade petals of the 18th century and samurai armor, mannequins that look like they are covered in multiple wrapped bundles and others sprouting astonishing featherwork, it seems one is seeing the entire array of age-old techniques of fashion in forms never tried before. Finally, near the end I was stopped short by two figures covered in white synthetic wadding usually used for the inner construction of a garment. They are misshapen, armless. These two pieces are from the latest collection prophetically titled “The Future of Silhouette.” It’s clear Kawakubo is not done yet subverting our expectations.

You may not understand how Kawakubo’s restless exploration of the “In-Between” affects how you see the world. But, it has. This exhibit provides a look into that mind. Kawakybo repeatedly denies that her work qualifies as “art,” believing that fashion is a “more social phenomenon.” The one thing we can be sure of—she will continue to search restlessly and her search will be a beacon in the clutter of our culture.

The exhibit does not cover the earlier years of Kawakubo’s career with the exception of 8 pieces from the 1980s which are mainly concentrated in the “Fashion/Antifashion” section. For an excellent biographical article, read Judith Thurman’s 2005 article in The New Yorker, “The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo.”

 


ME

Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!

More posts by the Author »

Continue Reading

Exhibition Review: Proust’s Muse

House of Worth, “Lily Dress,” evening gown, 1896; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
House of Worth, “Lily Dress,” evening gown, 1896; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Proust’s Muse:

The Countess Greffulhe

Museum @ FIT

Closes January 7, 2017

By Nadine Stewart

The term “Fashion Icon” gets flung around in our times. Celebrities whose images flood social media are deemed “iconic” even though their style is derivative, achieved only through the help of a well-paid stylist. We are now in a time of transition. Our national fashion icon, Michelle Obama, is stepping out of the spotlight and the nation is wondering who can replace her.

With those thoughts in mind, a visit to Proust’s Muse: The Countess Greffulhe  reminds us what a real fashion leader can be. Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay was indeed a beauty with auburn hair a fine figure, and the money to engage the best couturiers to design for her, but what made her memorable was her personal style. She was determined that her gowns would be distinctive, so participated in the creation of her dresses to insure her dress would be memorable. It was said that she would rather appear “bizarre,” instead of “banal.” Proust wrote, “Each of her dresses seemed like. . .. the projection of a particular aspect of her soul.” She inspired this intensely sensitive author, who based several of his characters on her persona. For both of them fashion “was a mark of individuality, an emotional language, and a form of art.”

The first galley of this exhibit, originally on display at the Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode, establishes who the Countess was through photographs and rare film clips. There are pictures of the Countess herself posing for the photographer Paul Nader and of Proust, but we are also reminded that she was a leader of her time in more than fashion. There are pictures of Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes, the composer Gabriel Fauré, the scientist Marie Curie, and, the most controversial of all, Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, focus of an anti-Semitic political scandal that roiled France for more than a decade. The Countess supported him too—a stand that placed her against many leaders of French society.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

De Greffulhe’s unique taste over the decades of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth is on view in the main gallery. Elisabeth married Count Henry Greffulhe on 1878 when she was 18. Even then her taste was elegant, as can be seen by an exquisite black lace bodice from 1884-5. It was worn over a colored dress, so the intricacy of the lace and jet bead trim would stand out. Color was obviously important to the new bride as can be seen by a pink silk satin day dress embroidered with brown floral motifs from the late 1880s and an 1894 garden party dress from Worth, a confection of pink silk crepe Mousseline over silk satin printed with orchids. Next to this gown is a pleated silk taffeta dressing gown in another favorite, green, a color that highlighted her auburn hair.

House of Worth, tea gown, circa 1897; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
House of Worth, tea gown, circa 1897; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

This was a demanding customer. She insisted designers showed her their best and then, often ordered them to make something different. The result could be the green tea gown with a large navy cut velvet print reminiscent of the pomegranate figured fabrics of the Renaissance.

This was also a figure who managed to lead fashion through changing times as can be seen on the next platform which shows the new silhouette of the early twentieth century. One standout is a long column of a gown covered with the metallic embroidery inspired by the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

The Countess loved “the gaze of others.” Nowhere else in the exhibit is this more evident than an evening cloak made from a Russian court robe and the dress she wore to her daughter’s wedding. The cloak or khalat from present-day Uzbekistan, encrusted with gold embroidery, was presented to the Countess by Czar Nicholas II. Jean-Philippe Worth converted the robe to a long opera cloak which she wore to great acclaim at the state visit by the Russians.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

There has probably never been a mother-of-the-bride dress like 1904’s “Byzantine Gown” of bronze colored silk taffeta covered with silver and gold embroidered and sparking with sequins. At the bottom is a wide band of fur, originally sable. We are told the Countess timed her entrance perfectly, pausing just long enough at the top of the church stairs to give the crowd a full view. Apparently, the strategy worked. The press barely mentioned the bride, lavishing praise on the mother’s dress!

nstallation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

The 1930s were a period when couturieres flourished in Paris. Designers like louiseboulanger, Jeanne Lanvin, and Maggy Rouff emerged and contributed to the Countess’ wardrobe. By this time, she was older, but still exercised her great sense of what in the new decade would complement her. By this time, the Countess had abandoned pink, feeling it was too youthful. Most of the garments from the 1930s are black, including an amusing coat with a Surrealist influence. The fabric looks like black bricks, trimmed with a lush black fur pockets and cuffs.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT.  Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

But, the Countess still loved green. This love shows up in flowing robes inspired by the Ballet Russes covered with Orientalist embroidery.

The gowns are stunning, but the accessories wall shows the Countess’ attention to detail. For a sense of mystery, there are fans replete with delicate paintings, lace, and sticks of mother-of-pearl and stockings embroidered with silk flowers. A proper lady in society had to have gloves. The Countess inherited a long pair from the Age of Napoleon, delicate ivory trimmed with gold sequins, but she had the latest as well. Her black satin evening gloves from the 1930s came from Caroline Reboux. They have remarkable puffs that extend from the wrist to the elbows. She was never without a hat, a list for a trip specifically laid out the need for at least 6 hats in different colors. Most moving, is a small hat from the 1940s when France was at war. It is an “Occupation Hat,” made of braided cellophane straw and ribbon worn when her townhouse had no heat and she lived in her servants’ quarters. Style under adversity.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT.  Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT. More images available here.

The most famous, enduring example of Countess’ style is Worth’s “Lily Dress,” which occupies center stage. Black velvet covered with appliques of ivory silk lilies and leaves that run the length of the dress and train, it is a gown whose pearls and sequins would sparkle in the lights of a Belle Époque ball. It is cut with a long princess line which flattered the Countess’ figure. A wide ivory silk berth collar would have drawn attention to her face. The Countess clearly knew the power of this dress. She was photographed twice in it by Paul Nader in front of a full-length mirror. She was clearly aware of her uncle, the dandy Robert de Montesquiou’s words— “A photography is a mirror that remembers.”

In one of his novels, her admirer Proust wrote the words that sum up this unique woman. A character based on the countess says, “I shall know I’ve lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me.” Another character answers, “Never fear, my dear, so long as you dress as you do, people will always turn and stare.” Sixty-four years after her death in 1952, we’re still staring in awe.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

Continue Reading

MANUS X MACHINE Review by Nadine Stewart

By Nadine Stewart

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913) Wedding ensemble (back view), autumn/winter 2014–15 haute couture Courtesy of CHANEL Patrimoine Collection Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope

The first thing one sees at the end of the pristine white entrance to Manus x Machina (MET, Costume Institute, New York through August 14th) is the extremely long train of a Chanel wedding gown. It’s a stunner and sets the tone for the entire exhibit which explores the intersection between hand and machine work in fashion through time. In the case of this piece, the gown was hand formed of a new material called “scuba knit,” sewn by machine, and finished by hand. The work on the train, a combination of silk and scuba knit, was even more intensive. The gilded design was digitally transferred from a sketch by the designer, Karl Lagerfeld. Rhinestones were added via a heat press. Gold pigment was added by hand. Then it was embroidered with pearls and gems, again by hand. This gown is our introduction to the intricacies of design today.

Though the exhibit is full of gorgeous gowns like this one, the exhibit is not about the clothes. Curator Andrew Bolton in his first show as head of the Costume Institute, makes it clear that the exhibit is about the techniques used to produce fashion—work done by hand (manus) and work done by machine (machina). Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, these techniques have been viewed as opposed to each other with handwork viewed as finer work connected with haute couture while machine work is associated with prêt-a-porter. Bolton wants this exhibit to change that view. He feels the increase in new technology has made the distinction meaningless. As Bolton puts it,“Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.” The 170 garments on view in the Robert Lehman Galleries certainly prove his point. The definition of embroidery is “needlework that adorns woven or knitted textiles,” which is a good technical description, but does not do justice to the the directions centuries of artisians have developed these stitches that really can be placed in three categories–looped, flat, and knotted. A trapeze dress from 1958 by Yves St Laurent that gains its shape from 5 layers of machine sewn tulle hand embroidered with crystals is set alone. Across from it are displayed a gown by Dior from the 1950s that shimmers with silver petals of tulle. On the same platform is the work of contemporary designer Iris Herpen which used iron fillings and polyester resin to build up a sculpted surface on the huge sleeves of a short evening dress. For many of us whose experience with embroidered garments might only include a peasant blouse, the sight of these pieces is a revelation.

Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936–2008) Evening dress, autumn/winter 1969–70 haute couture French Silk, bird-of-paradise feathers The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 1983 (1983.619.1a, b) Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope

Featherwork is a another skill often overlooked by the public since the conservation laws of the early 20th Century restricted the hunting of birds that adorned the huge hats of the Edwardian era. But featherwork is still an important component in the creation of fashion. The plumes have to be washed, dried, sorted, and, possibly, dyed. Then, they must be shaped and grouped to build the plume up. Often, the feathers will be curled and shaped. This work can produce garments that have an otherworldly quality. Technology has made it possible for modern designers to use “feathers” of manmade materials like silicone. One dress in this section was especially interesting to me. It is a YSL dress from 1969-70 covered in bird of paradise feathers, a now extinct bird who was hunted to death for fashion. One can certainly see how the bird’s beautiful light gold feathers made it so desirable.

Flowers are another old embellishment. The molds that shape them are stamped by machine now. The possibilities are endless from the delicacy of a Lanvin robe de style to bold contemporary garments with layers of built-up petals.

The upstairs galleries also include a section on draping of toiles, which also gives a brief history of the development of the mannequin. Display of half toiles and full ones give an insight into the designing process.

Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938) for Miyake Design Studio (Japanese, founded 1970) “Flying Saucer” dress, spring/summer 1994 Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope

Downstairs there are sections on lacework, leatherwork, tailoring and, my favorite, pleating. I thought it was a brilliant stroke to display the pieces by Issey Miyake spread out flat one side to the gallery and mounted on a mannequins on the other side. I could really see how the body shaped the pieces and how the pleating formed an outer shell around the body. These garments were designed with the aid of a computer, another example of the increasing combination of the machine.

This exhibit was a pleasure to walk through, which made it quite different from year’s China: Through the Looking Glass, which was set in the Asian galleries. It was a sprawling exhibit with the garments mounted amid the artwork. There was many, many themes as befit the huge topic—blue and white china, Mao, court robes, Anna May Wong—and that is only a few! It was gorgeous, but could be exhausting to view. This exhibit was more pristine. The Lehman galleries were covered in while scrim which made the garment stand out like jewels. The galleries have plenty of space too, so I didn’t feel crowded. There’s plenty of room to walk around and enjoy. When I first saw the exhibit, I wished there were videos that showed how the work was done.

Then, I remembered how the visitors tend to crowded around the videos and clog up the show. Videos that were in this exhibit were small and spare. This presentation made it possible to focus on the clothes. It was easy to see the work itself. One could contemplate the words of Andrew Bolton, “Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.” It’s exciting to dream about what’s next.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

Continue Reading

The Gothic to Goth Exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, a guest review

 

by Nadine Stewart

What better place to learn about Romanticism than the Wadsworth Atheneum? Founded in 1842 and named for Daniel Wadsworth, the museum is a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Its turreted towers and narrow windows give the building the effect of a medieval castle. The architecture is a far cry for the ideal of the previous generation—the Grecian or Roman neoclassic temple.

The Wadsworth Atheneum—a monument to Gothic spirit in architecture.

Defining Romanticism is not easy. Yet, the strains of Romanticism still resonate today. Gothic to Goth:Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy (through July 10, 2016) examines how dramatically the different themes affected art and dress from approximately 1815 to the Civil War.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. Instead of glorifying reason, its proponents gloried in nature, explored the darkest depths of the imagination, and harked back to the medieval period, considered the most sublime period in history by critics like John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. The novels of Sir Walter Scott gave readers dramas of knights and fair maidens set in sweeping landscapes. Ironically, the Industrial Revolution was actually changing the countryside of both Great Britain and the United States. The coal fired industries and cities crowded with a new poor working class were the depressing reality.

The Romantics sought to dress like the figures from the past mixing elements from different periods of history. In the first section we see a 1820s pelisse with a jagged edging on that looks like the architectural edging of a castle. This is combined with slashing inspired by the Renaissance on the collar, a ruff around the neck and sleeves that recall paintings from the Tudor court. The gown is displayed next to an 1852 painting which shows young couple enjoying the sight of an Irish castle glowing in the early evening light. It is this combination of art and cultural items of the period with its dress that make this exhibit so memorable.

A view of the Historicism Section of the exhibit, Note the stove and the dress next to it with similar design motifs! (via Wadsworth Atheneum’s Twitter account)

Curator Lynne Zacek Bassett has chosen five themes to tell the story of the period—historicism, religion, nature, color and “fancy” design, and emotion. The historicism section expands on the information we were given as we entered the gallery. It begins with a gown that shows the evolution from the neoclassical “empire” style. The simple cotton muslin from 1815-20 is embroidered with leaf or “paisley” motifs and features slashing on its tiny puffed sleeves. Much more elaborate is the next pairing, an 1830s silk dress with a lower waist, voluminous puffed sleeves and a fuller skirt covered in gold bullion embroidery with large paisley motifs on the border.  Next to this gown is a parlor stove also embellished with similar fancy motifs.

Two paintings in this section underline the way Romantics used the fashions of the past. An Italian Renaissance work from 1574 shows a noblewoman wearing a robe with sleeves that have a puff at the shoulders and an open neckline edged in a standing ruffled collar, next to her portrait is the portrait of Mrs. John Bliss from around 1826. Mrs. Bliss’ dress could have been lifted by her dressmaker from the 1574 portrait. She is wearing the same style sleeve and collar.

Striking use of color and pattern were another characteristic of the Romantics.  New dyes discovered by scientists of the Industrial Revolution allowed women to decorate themselves and their interiors with layer on layer of pattern. Magazines published patterns that enabled women to make “fancy” items themselves. People consumed turkey red calico, exquisitely embroidered aprons and pelerines, made beaded bags and fanciful caps. The clothing in the section which includes two beautiful embroidered silk aprons and a beaded bag from 1833 give us an idea of how deep this love of embellishment ran.

American silk dress with gorgeous ruching, c. 1840-45 (via the New York Times)

Religion, at least the Protestant version of it, was another major influence. The Second Great Awakening sparked emotional camp meetings across the country.  Believers glorified Gothic architecture believing its arches were from the most perfect period of Christian history. The arch was also a reminder to look to the sky for the Lord’s help and was repeated over and over in the art and fashion of the day. Clothing changed again in the 1840s. The huge sleeves collapsed, the waist lowered still more, and the bodice neckline dipped to the edges of the shoulders. A fine example of the new look is a silk satin dress from the 1840s with a bodice covered in ruching and a wedding dress, pelerine, and reticule commissioned by an American missionary in Burma for her sister. The wedding dress is a sign that even the very devout loved beautiful clothing, perhaps in spite of themselves! The love of the fancy recurs in this gallery a fan edged in Gothic arches, and reticule decorated with canvas work, and a beaded watch chain amply decorated with religious symbols, the gift of a young women to her special beaux.

Closely connected to the religious fervor of the Romantics was their love of nature. There are so many examples of this in literature, the poems of Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, all poets who claimed their poetry came to them in a rush of divine inspiration which they wrote down without editing or revising. In the United States artists, especially those of the Hudson River School, glorified the nation’s landscape with huge panoramas of the waterways and mountains set against spacious skies. Colors were supposed to combine with nature, not stand out, like the while columns of neoclassical buildings. Clothing followed these rules too. A dress in this section is one many women of the 1840s would have owned—a silk gown in a “drab” color. The olive green color would have blended in perfectly with the surrounding landscape.

Finally, the Romantics were proud of their passionate nature. This passion could delve into sentimentality which was considered a virtue, another change from the careful calculation of the preceding Age of Reason. This was the era the white wedding dress came into vogue. Queen Victoria was married in one, of course, but the color white was a symbol of purity. So a white wedding dress would emphasize the bride’s pure state as she entered matrimony. The dresses in this section are examples from the states of a woman’s life. There is a beautiful wedding dress from 1836, a rare calico maternity dress, an equally rare nursing dress with a gather panel in the front that allowed the breast to be exposed, a housedress, and finally, a mourning dress from the mid=nineteenth century. Mourning was the ultimate expression of emotion and wearing the proper mourning garb was an important part of a woman’s life. However, the ultimate expression of sentimental love and sorrow was the proliferation of hair jewelry. There are some beautiful examples here, including a bracelet of braided hair with a miniature of a young woman with flowing blonde hair festooned with a garland of flowers and a complete set—brooch, earrings, and bracelet—with tiny “acorns” that symbolize the oak tree, considered a protection from evil.

At the end of the exhibit we are reminded that the Romantic influences return even in our technocratic age. The exhibit closes with some examples from the present day, including the Steampunk and Goth movements. There is a stunning gown by Alexander McQueen from 2007. The black velvet dress has silver beading which appears to shoot across the bodice like a bolt of jagged lightning. McQueen was fascinated with the macabre and dark side of history. This dress honors an ancestor who was executed as a witch in Salem. McQueen’s successor, Sarah Burton, used the Goth theme in 2013, with a short coat that references Renaissance priest and boots that recall Puritan fathers of the seventeenth century. One of the most interesting pieces her is a “Vampire Suit” created by Jean Paul Gaultier, but styled by the owner Richard Patrick Anderson to create his own special mood.

“How did granny details become so compelling?” Vogue magazine asked in Fall 2015 as part of feature on the resurgence of Romantic fashions. Gothic to Goth shows us that The Romantic influence never really went away, and that its aesthetic is vital enough to be reinvented by generation after generation. By showing the many strains that fed Romanticism this exhibit carves out a special place in the spring/summer exhibit season. You will think about this one for a long time.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

 

Continue Reading

Fairy Tale Fashion at the Museum at FIT, a guest exhibition review

23859082784_a57cd1703c_z

It is with great pleasure that I present to you a guest review of Fairy Tale Fashion (on view through April 16, 2016 at the Museum at FIT in NYC) by Nadine Stewart:

We live in a post-modern age, a world in which we constantly hear about the wonders of technology, the stunning array of new sources of information, and the variety of the global marketplace. The world of fairy tales seems banished, its tales too full of old virtues and fears to be relevant to us today. And yet, we long for fantasy, for wonder, for a world of imagination in which many of the answers are hidden or obscure.

This is particularly true of the world of fashion. Though we often dream of clothes that will fulfill our dreams, the language of the fashion world often encourages us to engage with the ever shifting trends of the global marketplace. The world of dreams that fairy tales illuminate is too often discounted.

Yet the fantasy that fairy tales give us has been seeping back into the current fashion world. Perhaps it was there all the time and we simply ignored it. Fairy Tale Fashion shows how rich these influences are by linking garments and accessories to fifteen tales that range from the familiar stories of the Brothers Grimm to The Wizard of Oz, G. Frank Baum’s yarn from the beginning of the 20th century.

The idea for this exhibit had been percolating in the back of Curator Colleen Hill’s mind for some time when she saw pictures of Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2014 collection that used fairy tale influences extensively. Now, after researching the subject for over a year, she says she is surprised no one had explored the subject before, especially since the concept of a garment with magic powers is so central to many of the tales. Indeed, Hill feels our obsession with shoes, the accessory that has morphed into an object of dreams for many women, is one of the first examples of the onset of fairy tales in our carefully assembled uniforms for work and play.

24119511289_6c8f04777b_z

22734337717_8290a63fa4_zOne is reminded of the pervasiveness of fairy tales in the first gallery, whose theme is “Fashion and Story Telling.” The first garment we see is a red hood. The memories of Red Riding Hood come flooding back. One wall is full of illustrations of famous authors like Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel, artists whose work in linked forever with the stories they illuminated. Below these pictures is a case of storybooks, old and new, including and ingenious pop-up book from the 1950s that tells the story of Cinderella. The newest book re-tells the Cinderella tale with characters dressed in David Bowie costumes and a Karl Lagerfeld fairy! Across from the books hang the photographs of Kirsty Mitchell, an artist who creates her own world of dreams. Her elaborate pictures show a wonderland of beauty with swirling butterflies, fields of blue wildflowers, and women in diaphanous gowns.

But it is in the main gallery where enchantment takes effect. Exhibit designer Kim Arkert has created a special space through the use of draped translucent scrims that separate each story section. An enchanted forest is created though simple graphics of dark twisted tree branches.

Hill went back to the old versions of these stories. Many of the plots have a dark side with none of the relentless sunny optimism of Disney. This gives the curator the chance to include film clips of older movies, such as Jean Cocteau’s surreal Beauty and the Beast from 1944 and three lively versions of Cinderella, two by film pioneer Georges Melies from 1899 and 1912 and one by George Nichols made in 1911. The clips remind us that these stories have been a source of inspiration for artists over the centuries long before Walt animated them.

But, it is the clothes that tell the story. Hill has chosen a mix of garments and accessories that show influences from the 18th century to present.  Because this is not a show featuring one designer this exhibit gives us a chance to see a wide range of fashion from the 21st century that utilize stunning techniques. this is apparent in the first section which features a series of red hoods that ranges from a simple wool hooded cape from the 18th century to a version by Comme des Garcons with a huge patent leather hood and a cape of wide strips of red fabric that hang like streamers from the neck.

24404864291_aa9d5fc8c1_zFurther long,  Charles James’ Sirene and Swan gown, dresses that are iconic examples of masterful construction,  stand near a mermaid gown by Jean Louis Sajaji appears to float like seafoam with an astonishing train that bubbles up into space. In the Cinderella section two of the most interesting gowns relate to Cinderella’s life before she was transformed by her fairy godmother. The London designer Giles contributed a white evening gown with a sheer overlaid surface that appears to have been burned. It stands next to another masterpiece of distressed material, a gown by Yoshiki Hishinuma made of sheer fabric covered with film that was torn by hand and heated to crimp the material unevenly. The destruction of the material on both gowns makes them more interesting that some of the sparkling sequined dresses nearby.

In the modern fashion runway show designers strive to create a story for the creations. Thom Browne always has a such a theme. In 2014 his models paraded down the runway wearing surreal animal heads. His tweed suit with raw seams from that collection is  topped by a stunning “bear head,” a frame wrapped with tweed. It is the perfect fashion version of an enchanted fairy tale prince. Next to the “bear” is Browne’s version of “Rose Red,” a woman’s suit notable for the fabric Browne created from graduated circles of wool dripping with red lace.

Mixed in with the gowns are iconic accessories—a “glass” slipper that is actually clear acrylic spun from a 3D printer, a poison apple bag by Judith Leibner that glitters temptingly, and, of course, shoes by the current king of fantasy shoe design, Christian Louboutin. His ruby slippers, red shoes, and glass slippers sparkle with crystals, but his “Lion” stilettos in for the Beast story are the most captivating with their rhinestone claws and embroidered toes that give the effect of dainty lion’s paws.24461063546_c8143f829e_z

Not all the clothing was directly inspired by a fairy tales, but this exhibit shows us how much imagination and fantasy is at work in the world of fashion. We look to that world to recreate and re-establish ourselves. Today, even with a world full of high tech fabrics and materials, we still are drawn to the fantastic. In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will debut its annual exhibit from the Costume Institute. This year’s theme is fashion and technology. A look at the preview pictures shows many garments that could clothe fairy tales figures today. Fairy Tale Fashion reminds us we still hunger to re-invent ourselves in the garments of our dreams. There’s always room for a magic garment or two no matter how modern we are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continue Reading

Guest Review of “China: Through the Looking Glass” Ends Sept. 7 #ChinaLookingGlass

Once again, Nadine Stewart was gracious enough to write this review of the Met’s current fashion exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass (through Sept 7). I’m happy to be able to share it with you, given the recent controversy faced by the MFA Boston over their Kimono exhibit:

The latest exhibit by the Costume Institute is like a sumptuous banquet with many, many rich dishes, so many it’s difficult to choose. The purpose is to show the many, many ways Chinese themes have fascinated and inspired Western fashion. This is tricky territory. The imaginary East is a construction of the West and is under attack as a product of colonialism. The exhibit acknowledges this objection voiced most notably by Edward Said, but states that the purpose of the exhibit is “driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typically more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.” The exhibit sprawls over 30,000 square feet and includes the 140 haute couture pieces from the 18th century to the present day displayed in the museum’s Chinese galleries and the Anna Wintour Costume Center downstairs.

The experience (and it can only be called an “experience”) is amplified by the art direction of filmmaker Wei-Kar Wei, who has selected a range of films that have dramatized China in the Western mind. They range from the “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 movie about opium smoking, to “The World of Susie Wong,” a 1950s romance about prostitution and redemption. In the background on the Chinese galleries is the art that inspired this fantasy. It’s a lot to take in.

Moon in the Water gallery

Curator Andrew Bolton has described the arrangement of the exhibit as “film stills.” Label copy is minimal. This is to encourage one to absorb the total experience in each gallery, not focus on small details. There is a great deal of Yves St Laurent, who staged a famous China show in the 1970s and devised the signature perfume Opium. John Galliano seems to appear everywhere too, most notably, in the gallery titled “Moon in the Water” where his fantastical gowns seem to float above a small “lake.” But, there are many other treats to look for—a gorgeous red velvet jumpsuit by Paul Poiret covered with a shawl embroidered with alternating rows of embroidery and fringe, a gown by Alexander McQueen inspired by Chinese painted wallpaper displayed across from elegant gowns from the 18th Century with intricate painted Chinese motifs, and exquisite robe a la franchise with the strip after strip of Chinese florals accented with gold thread, and a 1924 robe de style by Jeanne Lanvin.

The possibilities are endless. The themes in each gallery could be the nucleus of a smaller exhibit.

The Asian galleries upstairs create a dreamlike background for the parade of gowns, perfume bottles, and, even a tiny, delicate Philip Tracey headpiece of a Chinese cityscape. Transition comes in the hallways. One is a tribute to Chinese-American Film star Anna May Wong who was stereotyped as the villainous “Dragon Lady” and the docile “Lotus Flower” till she quit Hollywood and decamped to Paris. According to Bolton, Wong’s screen persona fed the fantasies of Western viewers and cemented their visions of the inscrutable East.

People’s Republic of China gallery

“Dreamy” is not what one would call the themes of the other transitional gallery, which deals with the influence of Communist China and the utilitarian “Mao Suit,” a drab unisex garment that still inspired Western fashion. “The Red Detachment of Women,” a ballet from the Cultural Revolution plays high on the wall. The gallery also features Vivienne Tam’s famous suits and dresses printed with multiple images of Mao as interpreted by Andy Warhol.

Downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume galleries the pace seems to quicken, partly due to the enormous projections of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” on two central walls. One gallery is dedicated to the cheongsam or qipao, a development of the 1930s, which evolved from the loose robes of the Manchu court to the form-fitting gown of the film stars of Shanghai. They are displayed opposite the fashions they inspired. I felt this gallery was too full and crowded. It was hard to see the pieces and movement in that space was limited by the fact that there was a film playing on the back wall. People tended to stand and watch the film, so I had to maneuver around them to get a closer view of the garments on display. I should add that I did not have this feeling in the rest of the exhibit. Even though there were plenty of people in the galleries upstairs, I did not feel like I had to strain to see the pieces.

Manchu Robe gallery

 

Out in larger space downstairs, those Manchu robes are displayed, each with a haute couture gown. The embroidery on the Manchu robes is fabulous. I wished I could get closer to see it. The Western couture glitters. It occurred to me that sequins are the gold thread of our time. The music in this gallery is thundering and relentless. Here some more detail would have been helpful. The symbols on the Chinese robes have great meaning even down to the number of claws on a dragon. It would have helped understand the tremendous transition over the centuries from court robes to high-end fashion if there had been a bit more explanation here.

Special mention must be made of the gorgeous headpieces by milliner extraordinaire Stephen Jones. They are elegant, often whimsical, and witty. They always add the perfect grace not to each mannequin.

I had two wishes as I went through this massive exhibit. The Museum at FIT did an exhibit on “China Chic” in 1999. I found myself wondering how it would compare with this one. Also, the Met did a fine exhibit earlier this year on the art of the Plains Indians, which contained many garments that showed how the Native American and European cultures influenced each other. Since this is another culture that is often appropriated by fashion, it would have been wonderful to have them both on view at the same time.

In the end, the exhibit is gorgeous. It’s been extended through Labor Day Weekend, so you still have plenty of time to see it. Put on your most comfortable shoes and enjoy the dream.”

 

Continue Reading

Exhibition Review: Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s

yslhalston-logo-459-90-1

Yet again, the fabulous Nadine Stewart is offering us a wonderful review of a current exhibition (at the Museum@FIT, on view through April 18, 2015 (if you are headed to NYC). Be sure to check out Nadine’s photos at the bottom of the post as well!

Photo by Nadine Stewart
“Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

“The Unlovable Decade.” That was what New York Times called the 1970s recently. That certainly the way I’ve felt about the period. I have too many memories of avocado kitchens, orange shag carpeting, huge macramé plant hangers, garish polyester double knits leisure suits, and “conversation pits” upholstered in brown velour. But, the latest exhibit at the Museum @ FIT has helped me to see the period in though a different lens. I may never really like the decade, but I can now see it more objectively.

Yves Saint Laurent + Halston does not attempt to be a retrospective of either designer or a definitive survey of the fashion of the 1970s. It uses the rich resources of the Museum @ FIT’s collection only, but that is enough to show how the two men’s careers paralleled each other. The curators in this well edited show confine themselves to a comparison of the careers of two designers who dominated the decade and come to some interesting conclusions.

The first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a huge timeline between flashing mirrored disco balls. In the clear graphic it is easy to compare the trajectory of the two careers from the early 1950s when both careers began to the mid 1980s when Halston went off the fashion radar and Saint Laurent was no longer a young innovator, but a member of the Parisian establishment. One notable milestone is 1966, four years before the 1970s began, when YSL founded his first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris. Rive Gauche was important to Saint Laurent. This exhibit brings out the fact that the ready-to-wear line was the designer’s incubator for styles that later appeared in his haute couture line—a fact that has been forgotten over time.

Timeline at "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston" Photo by Nadine Stewart
Timeline at “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

1973 is another important date since that was the year of “The Battle of Versailles.” The Americans were declared the winners of this competition based on their simple breezy presentation that made the overly long, tedious French production seem tired and dated. Halston, already a well-known figure, rocketed to fame after this show. In 1975, Esquire magazine declared he has poised to “take over the world.” At this point in the timeline, it’s a good idea to enter the main galley to see how the garments compare.

Both Halston and Saint Laurent drew inspiration from menswear, exotic ethnic and vintage clothing, and previous periods in fashion history especially Art Deco and the Belle Époque. Saint Laurent made history with his menswear—Le Smoking evening suit of 1966, the safari, and “gangster” looks. All this at a time when pants were not something garments women were allowed to wear for evening or in chic restaurants. Indeed, Lauren Bacall in the 1968 American television show, Bacall and the Boys, makes this point as she models a pair of Saint Laurent trousers. “I’ll wear them everywhere,” she enthuses, “Even to restaurants! Just let them try to throw me out!”

Halson’s approach to menswear was less literal. He incorporated elements of men’s clothing into his line. The famous Ultrasuede shirtdress is fine example. It was wildly popular, adopted by women of every age in the wide range of colors. I do remember attending a cocktail party in the early 1970s where it seemed every woman who could afford it had one on.

Ethnic and vintage-inspired fashions were strong in the 1960s. The trend continued in the 1970s, with designers like Giorgio Sant Angelo mining every possible ethnic influence to produce a high end “hippy chic.” Saint Laurent took a more considered approach rooted in French tradition. His most famous collections were the “Ballet Russes” and “Opium” collections of the mid-1970s, which were dripping with Orientalist themes, but also on display are dresses from Rive Gauche, which show how he played with these themes for years. Also on view are pieces that echo Christian Dior and Chanel with influences that range from a medieval lace front velvet, a Belle Époque-inspired gown in shimmering purple and red with huge gigot sleeves, and sweater-skirt ensembles embellished with fur collars and cuffs.

Halston historicized more sparingly. He used eliminated the decorative elements of non-Western dress in favor of minimal garments that were inspired by the simple draping of ethnic clothing like the caftan and sarong.

Another important point. Both designers had very similar ideas in the early 1970s; so similar it can be difficult to tell their work apart. A pleasure of this exhibit is circular platforms on which pairs of garments are mounted. It’s fascinating to see how much alike they can be, especially the flowing gowns influenced by the Art Deco of the interwar years. Curator Patricia Mears has a good eye for important construction techniques and points out that Halston was an innovator in fine couture construction. He eliminated the interior shaping and linings. Inspired by the work of Madeline Vionnet and Claire McCardell, he also eliminated darts and waistbands.[1]

Saint Laurent, in contrast, continued to use interior construction, a remnant of his years of training in Dior’s atelier. His use of flowing materials, like Halson. gives his garments the sleekness of the Art Deco period.

After a walk through the gallery, it’s a good idea to go back to the timeline, which shows where the two men’s careers diverged drastically. In September 1977, both designers were featured on the cover of W magazine. Both were on top of their game with signature perfumes that were adding millions to their bottom line, fabulous apartments that were featured in shelter magazines, and hundreds of lucrative licensing agreements. It seemed they would go on to challenge each other into the next decade and beyond. But fashion is fickle. In 1982, Halston signed a multi-million deal with JC Penney to produce a lower price line called “Halston III.” This probably seemed like a coup for his business. JC Penney, after all, was the first American company to pick up Mary Quant in the 1960s. For Halston, the deal was a disaster. High-end department stores dropped his clothes since they lost their cachet. Saint Laurent continued to hold his place as a leader of the fashion establishment in Paris. He was honored with a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 curated by the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Diana Vreeland. By 1984, Halston had lost control of his company and could no longer design under his own name. The era of joint creativity was over.

This exhibit was extremely satisfying on many levels. It offered fresh insights into the work of two important designers and clarified why they defined their period of fashion history. By doing so, the curators allowed us to view the 1970s with fresh eyes. I may never get over those double knit leisure suits, but now, I’ll never forget the glorious work of these designers I saw on display. This exhibit is one to visit more than once.

Can’t make it to the exhibit? There’s an excellent website complete with the timeline. http://exhibitions.fitnyc.edu/ysl-halston/

– Nadine Stewart

[1] A personal opinion here. Halston got his start as a milliner, a topic the exhibit barely mentions. I feel this training enabled him to think in three dimensions—something a milliner must always do since a hat will be viewed from all angles. He was especially known for his ability to drape a turban, work that requires a fluid ability to work with material without an underlying structure. I think this contributed to his design of gowns that flowed and were wrapped and tied around the body, which became his signature style.

Continue Reading