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

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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.

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Guest Review: “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power” By Nadine Stewart

Rubinstein wearing a 1923 Paul Poiret dress, photographed by Nickolas Muray, c. 1924. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives
Rubinstein wearing a 1923 Paul Poiret dress, photographed by Nickolas Muray, c. 1924. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.
© Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

“Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power”(at the Jewish Museum in NYC until March 22, 2015)

By Nadine Stewart

It can be argued that Helena Rubinstein was a force of nature—a self-made magnate whose empire, originally based on her skin cream formula, of spanned four continents. But she was much more than the head of a cosmetics firm, she was a tastemaker whose unerring eye for cutting edge art informed her work and in the process changed the image of the modern woman. The Jewish Museum has presented an exhibit that showcases all aspects of this powerful personality who used her Jewish name at a time when it was considered a handicap.

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Graham Sutherland Helena Rubinstein in a Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown, 1957 Oil on canvas, 61 3⁄4 × 36 1⁄2 in. (156.9 × 92.7 cm) Daniel Katz Gallery, London © Estate of Graham Sutherland

We get the full force of Rubinstein’s personality in the first gallery where eight portraits by artists as varied as Christian Bérard, Roberto Montenegro, and Graham Sutherland are hung salon style. Rubinstein herself hung her portraits this way as an article from Life magazine in the one of the side cases shows. While the portraits are fascinating, the items on either side of the flanking walls are worth a careful look. They show the beginning of Rubinstein’s career with a rare picture of her family in Poland taken in 1888 to a 1964 article in Life, which described her as the “Tiny, Tireless Tycoon of Beauty.” Advertisements with her image show how she used her image to brand her products. An evening suit of red silk brocade by Balenciaga and a large sunburst necklace of Mexican silver that appear in her portraits give a taste of her sense of the dramatic.

Rubinstein’s passion for art was central to her drive for beauty in all things. The next two galleries display her copious art collection. Rubinstein was not a timid collector. She responded to the sculpture of Elie Nadelman with its mannered classicism, but even more significantly, she loved the art of Africa and Oceania viewing it as fine art, not ethnographic. Nadelman’s work is shown with works from Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Mexico much as she would have displayed them. Nadelman’s work was prominently featured in her salons since Rubinstein believed that her salons should be places where women absorbed beauty and culture along with beauty treatments. “Women who visit the salons on a regular basis develop a sense of discrimination and appreciation. …It will teach her much and give her knowledge about herself.”

The third gallery titled “The Changing Face of Beauty” is the core of the exhibit for it is here one sees the extent of her collection and her vision of beauty. “African art appealed to me greatly. Few of my friends cared for it. ‘How strange,’ they would say, ‘to think of someone who has dedicated her life to beauty buying such ugly things.” Her collection is breathtaking. Rubinstein cared little for conventional opinions of the day. Amid the works by Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró, George Braque, and a legion of African figures are twelve Picasso sketches of Rubinstein. Madame pressured the artist for a portrait for decades. Undeterred by Picasso’s refusal, she showed up at his home on the French Rivera in 1955 unannounced. The resulting sketches show Rubinstein’s many moods and are not all flattering. Picasso never did the long-sought portrait, but his sketches show the many facets of this remarkable personality.

Helena Rubinstein wearing her celebrated Schiaparelli bolero jacket, embroidered with elephants, from the designer’s 1938 Circus collection. © Roger-Viollet / Image Works
Helena Rubinstein wearing her celebrated Schiaparelli bolero jacket, embroidered with elephants, from the designer’s 1938 Circus collection.
© Roger-Viollet / Image Works

Rubinstein also wore what she liked. It might seem that a tiny woman who was only 4 feet 10 inches tall could not carry off couture laden with embroidery and huge jewels in profusion, but Rubinstein made her own style. She adored jewelry, especially large pieces with bright stones and endless strands of pearls. They are part of her “Glittering Armor” as the next gallery is titled. Among the items on view are: an enormous cuff bracelet with flowers of sapphires, emeralds, and yellow and white diamonds, strings of baroque pearls, and large ruby and tourmaline rings. She bought jewelry after quarrels with her husbands, “Buying ‘quarrel’ jewelry is one of my weaknesses,” she admitted. “”Some women buy hats, but I am more extravagant in anger, as I am in most things.” Even more extravagant was her system of jewelry storage. She used a large filing cabinet. Drawers labeled D contained her diamonds. “Under E could readily be found my emeralds, P was for pearls; R for rubies, S for sapphires and T for topaz.” Rubinstein also loved unconventional designers, Poiret, Schiaparelli, and Chanel. On view is a Schiaparelli bolero embroidered with elephants, and trapeze artists from 1938 and a 1923 Poiret tunic embroidered with symbols inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. A photograph of Madame from 1924 shows she wore it well.

Rubinstein not only collected art, she lived with it, decorating her homes in Paris, London, and New York with a profusion of paintings, sculpture, and tapestries by artists from all parts of the world. Pictures in the next gallery show the dramatic spaces. Madame used these apartments in publicity and fashion shoots, which also promoted her image. Another collecting sidelight was miniature rooms. Six are on display from an eighteenth-century French salon to an artist’s studio based one in Montmartre.

Finally, we see the world of the salon, the source of all her wealth. Advertisements and a video of the many treatments offered give a sense of how Rubinstein marketed her won image to project her vision of beauty. She believed that “One’s identity is a matter of choice,” so women should be free to take control of their appearances and express themselves. Before Rubinstein, beauty was considered “inborn,” one could not be attractive unless one was gifted with perfect features at birth. Madame rejected that. This exhibit shows how this very unconventional, powerful woman paved the way for women to re-invent themselves, to become modern.

Exhibition Catalog:

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The Kimono: Two Exhibits, Two Reviews

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Right now two major museums, on opposite coasts of the United States, both have exhibitions on the Kimono. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has Kimono for a Modern Age (through October 19, 2014) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has Kimono: A Modern History (through January 4, 2015). This unique situation requires a unique review. And so, I’m happy to present two simultaneous reviews of the two exhibitions by two experts in the field: Brenna Barks agreed to review the LACMA exhibition, and Nadine Stewart reviewed the Met’s exhibition. Below are their reviews. Happy Reading!

Kimono for a Modern Age

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through October 19, 2014)

Guest Review by Brenna Barks

Little attention is paid to what can be called the decline of the kimono in Japanese fashion. Most museum-goers, and thus most museum exhibitions, concentrate on the “expected”: what is seen as the traditional, soft, delicately patterned kimono that so inspired the Impressionists and the patrons of Japonisme. Indeed, this is the majority of kimono. However, kimono – like all clothing – followed fashion. And the fashion during the last “heyday” of the kimono is the subject of the Kimono for a Modern Age exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Leading up to and immediately after the second World War, while the traditional patterning remained popular, a new style of kimono emerged: the meisen. The fabric for meisen is unusual in that the warp and weft threads were stencil dyed individually before being woven, creating a marvellous faux-ikat pattern. These patterns were typically large and boldly coloured, contrary to the expected tradition.

Woman’s Kimono with Large Dewdrops (mizutama), Japan, early Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1935, purchased with funds provided by Grace Tsao, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Much has been made of the influence that the West had on the patterning of meisen – and LACMA does point out the references to Art Deco motifs or motifs taken from famous Western painters, such as Matisse, in the exhibition. But what LACMA does with their exhibition of over 30 meisen is to properly place them back into context within the Japanese tradition. Yes, there are Western art influences, but predominantly meisen were reinterpretations of Japanese art: landscape paintings, calligraphic motifs, and more often new, bold re-imaginings of traditional Japanese kimono patterns such as arrows or dewdrops.

Some of these re-interpretations can even be seen as forms of protest against American occupation after World War II. At least two meisen in the exhibition feature the Japanese war flag of the rising sun being not-so-subtly worked into the pattern. One in blue as a vague “star” pattern, another into what would otherwise be an image of dawn over a village. Or perhaps instead of open protest, these patterns were a silent message of surviving patriotism and a hope that they would rise again after re-inventing themselves as well as their traditions? LACMA masterfully and tactfully addresses the subject of war and occupation, tradition and fashion head-on through the display of such kimono and their thoughtful, well-written tombstones about each piece.

With the increasing popularity of Western clothing due to ease of wear and maintenance, the kimono declined rather sharply in popularity after the war. The meisen, while largely ignored in the West until now, was in many ways the last hurrah of this beautiful garment. The Kyoto kimono industry closed for good in the early 2000s; so few Japanese people today know how to wear it that schools exist to teach the proper wearing of the kimono, or simply to dress clients when occasion calls for traditional clothing. The LACMA exhibition not only fills this gap in the history of the “symbol of Japan”, but inspires visitors to question what the term “fashion” really means: it does not necessarily mean a shift in shapes and hemlines, but can mean the re-adaptation of tradition and the extended survival of an ancient garment into the modern age.”

Kimono: A Modern History

Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 4, 2015)

Guest Review by Nadine Stewart

Over Robe (Uchikake) with Long-Tailed Birds in a Landscape Period: Edo period (1615–1868) Date: second half of the 18th century Medium: Silk and metallic-thread embroidery and stencil paste-resist dyeing on silk satin damask Credit Line: Gift of Charles Zadok, 1959 Accession Number: 59.46

Kimono: A Modern History is a stunning exhibit, not to be missed. The fifty kimonos on display span the period from the eighteenth century to the present day, a time when the kimono evolved from a garment worn by the nobility and the peasantry. Though “kimono” literally means a “thing to wear,” this exhibit shows how much more this garment has meant to Japanese culture over the centuries and how it has influenced fashion in the rest of the world.

The first things on display are swatch samples from the Edo Period (1615-1868), exquisite examples of tapestry weaving in silk and silver thread. In one piece the fighting dragons are made entirely of tiny French knots. In another, we see Western ships with their flags, a reminder that Japan opened up to the West in this period, which would mean a new set of influences and textiles techniques would come flooding into the country. The kimonos in this section are the elegant silk padded kimonos for ladies of the nobility. The fabric of each one is an example of the highest level of craftsmanship–damask grounds overlaid with couched gold thread and silk embroidery.

Elegant as they are, the kimonos are not the only items featured here. A beautiful inlaid cosmetic box with brushes and combs, a large screen showing dancers whose fluid sleeves accentuate their movement, and an etiquette book on how to dress give a sense of the special place the kimono had in this society. The entire exhibit is full of objects that amplify the kimono story from elegant prints that show members of the Japanese court mingling with Western men and women suits and bustles to a “Basket Derby” from 1880-97, a city style made from simple reeds to be worn by the Japanese dandy with his walking stick.

Working class kimonos are just as beautiful as the kimonos for the nobility. Firemen in Japan wore heavy cotton kimonos with figures painted inside for protection as they fought the many fires in a nation of wooden buildings. The kimonos were soaked with water as the men fought fires. The designs inside were only seen during festivals when they were turned inside out. Even rarer, is a farmer’s kimono of recycled rags and a coverlet kimono worn over a person in bed, painted with image of a lobster, the symbol of longevity.

Woman’s evening coat Date: 1910–20 Culture: France Medium: Silk velvet, silk satin collar, cuffs, and lining Credit Line: Lent by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mr. William B. Gannett

A significant section of the exhibit shows how Japan and the West influenced each other from 1868 to 1912. The Japanese adopted Western chemical dyes and weaving techniques, while the Western fashion was swept up in beautiful images from Japan as these pieces from the collection of the Costume Institute show. A lush pink silk velvet opera cloak by Jean-Charles Worth is displayed next to a kimono robe made by Tashimaya Department Store for the foreign trade. It features short kimono-like sleeves and a simpler printed fabric with Japanese-style motifs. Finally, a light green wool Western-style robe with frog closures features embroidered flowers, which are a fine example of Japanoism.

As Japan moved into the twentieth century, the influences changed, the artistry did not. Modern inventions like cameras, express train tickets, and sheet music appear. Tow kimonos show sobering signs of the nation’s increasing militarism—one shows the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War and another, antiaircraft guns, tanks and planes backing Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Kimonos for the masses appear sold in department stores with design influenced by Art Deco and the De Stijl movement. There is even a child’s kimono treasured by Frank Lloyd Wright with a pattern of wisterias climbing over abstract trellises.

The Exhibition Catalog (Click to purchase)

After World War II, Japan began an effort to preserve its cultural heritage, preserving and honoring the craft of the kimono makers, weavers, and dyers through the Living Treasure Movement. Three kimonos created by these artists give testament to the beauty of their work. At the end of the exhibit are garments from prominent Japanese designers, who have brought the nation to the forefront of fashion while honoring their unique traditions—Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, and Yojhi Yamamoto, and one more designer, Bonnie Cashin. Her simple black wool kimono-style coat shows her love of the Japanese kimono. It was a design she repeated often though her career.

Kimono: A Modern History is tucked into the Arts of Japan Galleries in the Met’s Asian Arts Wing. The galleries surround the lovely basalt Water Stone (1986) by Isamu Noguchi, whose soothing sound pervades the galleries. It underlines the timelessness of the fashions displayed here and their lasting beauty. This is a fashion exhibit from another perspective, a valuable reminder that Western fashion is not the only fashion.”

A very special thanks to Brenna and Nadine for cooperating on these reviews for Fashion Historia. Can’t make it to New York to see their exhibition? You can buy the exhibition catalog, but the Met has all 170 objects from the show available online for you to look at (sans curatorial insights/labels/wall text) . While there isn’t an exhibition catalog to accompany LACMA’s show, they have created this beautiful video:

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*Image: Utagawa Kokunimasa (Japanese, 1874–1944). Swimming at Ōiso, Distant Views of Mount Fuji, 1893. Meiji period (1868–1912). Japan. Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints; ink and color on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1960 (JP3382a–c)

**Image: Woman’s Kimono (kosode) with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, late Taisho+ (1912-1926) – early Sho+wa (1926–1989) period, Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyo+-kasuri meisen), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.2012.130.9.

**Image: Woman’s Kimono (kosode) with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, late Taisho+ (1912-1926) – early Sho+wa (1926–1989) period, Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyo+-kasuri meisen), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.2012.130.9.

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Guest Exhibition Review: “Exposed: The History of Lingerie”

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EXPOSED: THE HISTORY OF LINGERIE
MUSEUM @ FIT
JUNE 3-NOVEMBER 15, 2014

Guest Exhibition Review By Nadine L. Stewart

Saks Fifth Avenue camiknickers, crepe chiffon, silk satin, c. 1924, France, Museum purchase, P86.63.5.

Exposed: The History of Lingerie explores a fashion story that often takes a secondary place in the fashion history—what’s been worn underneath our clothes. These are the pieces that give our bodies the current fashionable silhouette or the clothes we wear for our most intimate moments in bed or lounging at home. Curator Colleen Hill has been fascinated with lingerie since 2008 when she curated Seduction, an exhibition that focused on the erotic nature of fashion. Through the intervening years she kept track of the Museum’s lingerie collection, which occupies the back of its huge clothing storage area. Her interest intensified when the Museum acquired several beautiful collections of custom lingerie, with pieces that were marvels of beautiful details and exquisite craftsmanship. The result is a fascinating exhibit of intimate wear from the eighteenth century to the present.

The first thing one sees in the Museum’s vast lobby is a platform with five underwear ensembles designed by the 2014 BFA students of FIT. Hill told me she decided these garments should provide the prologue to the exhibit because the students’ work was so professional. In the outside entry case stands a mannequin in a witty 1994 Moschino evening dress with a pouf skirt made entirely of 20 black underwire bras complete with their dangling shoulders straps.

But it inside that the real spell of the exhibit takes hold. Mounted on the first platform is a raspberry colored satin corset from around 1889 that glows like a jewel in the low light. Hill told me this corset surprised her for several reasons. One, it was an early example of colored lingerie, which was just becoming acceptable. Even more important, the corset’s bones were made of coraline, a plant based material that was probably more comfortable to wear than the steel bones common at the time. That meant it was probably marketed by Warner Brothers as a “healthy” garment for the stylish woman. The corset shares the platform with a Peter Sorensen evening dress from 2007 with a corset bodice and another jewel-colored corset from the 1850s, this time in blue satin.

Claire McCardell evening dress, printed nylon, 1950, USA, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Adrian McCardell, 72.61.182.

Throughout the exhibit garments are often paired, making it possible to see how the intimate “under” garment was morphed into an “outer” garment. For example, an Empire line nightgown from the 1950s is paired with a Claire McCardell evening gown from the same decade, both in the new wonder fiber—nylon. A princess line slip from 1910 replete with eyelet trim stands next to the lingerie dress—a glorious confection of white eyelet and sheer muslin.

The panorama continues. In the next room is an eighteenth century corset with tie-on sleeves. Such a garment could be worn as outerwear. Next to it is quilted petticoat, which would have been visible too. A lady would pull her overskirt and tied it up, so she could show off the petticoat’s elegant stitch patterns To remind us of that an eighteenth century lady was expected to stand straight, whalebone busk from the 1780s lies in a case in front. This piece would have been inserted into the corset in a place provided between the breasts to keep the wearer erect and stately.

Amid all the elegance and couture work are two companies from the present day that show us how lingerie still fascinates women today. Both Victoria’s Secret and Hanky Panky give the consumer fashionable linger at an affordable price. Hill was also impressed by Hanky Panky’s ethical standards of production in these days of concern over sustainability. But how can one forget that Hanky Panky claims to produce the “worlds most comfortable thong” for a wide range of sizes? There it is–in a colorful three pack!

Another notable company is Cadolle of Paris, a family-owned firm still producing beautiful ready-to-wear and custom lingerie after 5 generations. Founded in 1889 it pioneered innovative brassiere designs and is one of the few companies to produce custom lingerie today. On view is a baby doll nightgown and corset in pink lace.

One of the loveliest lingerie styles was the tea gown, a robe that women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wore to relax and entertain in the privacy of their homes. Hill chose several to display. There’s an early white cotton and lace dressing gown from the 1850s that hides the body under its generous cut. By 1900 the robe was an alluring confection of chiffon, silk and lace. The Fernende Burel gown on display is accented with silk roses placed strategically on each breast! Next to it is an elegant brown silk hostess gown hand printed with gold by Suzanne Bertillon from the 1920s and a Delphos dress which, we are reminded, was originally designed to be worn as tea gown without a corset.

It’s a stunning array that continues with choice examples that bring the exhibit to the present day with the Wonderbra from 1994 and the overtly sexual style of Agent Provocateur. One of the joys of this exhibit is the simplicity of the exhibit layout. It has been well edited, so that the garments are clearly visible without excess clutter. After following the styles of fashionable dishabille, we know that lingerie and the urge for special underwear is something that has continued through the centuries. What’s next?”– Nadine L Stewart

Exposed will be on display till November 15th. On Thursday, November 6, Curator Colleen Hill will host Poupie and Patricia Cadolle in a conversation about their unique family-run business. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Register online.

The accompanying exhibition catalog, written by Colleen Hill and Valerie Steele, is also available now:

*Corset (stay), silk, silk ribbon, whalebone, c. 1770, possibly Europe, Museum purchase, P82.1.16

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

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

ends August 31, 2014

Guest Review by Nadine Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those memories haunt us still 150 years later.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

— Bill Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Nadine L. Stewart

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Charles James: Beyond Fashion (Exhibition Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video of the exhibition can be seen here:

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

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

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

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

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

By Nadine Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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