Released in September, “The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day” is a beautiful, full-color coffee table style work from French sociologist Georges Vigarello. Though not a fashion historian, Vigarello is an historian, and research director at the The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, a leading French institution for research and higher education in the social sciences.
Published in English for the first time, the book is a scholarly look at the cultural implications of the human form, as a “symbol of status, sexuality and the aspirational quest for physical and moral ‘perfection’.”
The shape of both mens’ and womens’ bodies are explored and illustrated through paintings, silhouette portraiture, sketches and line drawings, as well as caricatures and cartoons. What is unexpected is the true focus on the history of silhouettes as an art form, and how their creation changed over time. The book primarily focuses on the 18th century, with the invention of the word “silhouette,” and runs up through 2012 (though modern chapters are quiet brief). An interesting, though densely worded, coffee table book it’s likely something I will dip into slowly over time.
If you’re a member of the Costume Society of America, you know from their most recent (October) newsletter that the CSA Series has changed hands, and is now being published through Kent State University Press and managed by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Prior to this, the CSA Series was published by Texas Tech University Press, managed by Phyllis Spect. Phyllis is still managing the tail end of that relationship, and to that end a new book in the series from Texas Tech has been released:
The authors analyze legal and apparel industry documents; governmental reports; and their own primary research conducted in museums, archives, and special collections to shed light on arguments both for and against design piracy.”
Much of the book also appears to focus on the Fashion Originators Guild of America (FOGA), which attempts to protect original design. I’ve waded into a few of its pages, and hope to have a chance to learn more from these esteemed authors. Add it to your reading list!
In my continuing series of recently released books (that I want to read, or have started to read), I present this weeks book:Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice, Edited by Charlotte Nicklas and Annabella Pollen [ Bloomsbury, Oct 2015]. For more in this series, see previously reviewed books here.
If one were to judge a book by it’s cover, after reading blurbs by the likes of Nancy Deihl (NYU); Clare Sauro (Drexel); Jean L Druesedow (Kent State); and Abby Lillethun (Montclair State), one might reasonably expect to see some US-based scholarship here. Unfortunately, the series of essays include only scholarship from the UK and Canada (though the dust jacket says “international case studies.”)
That said, it does look to be a fascinating collection of essays by a good mix of early-career and established scholars. With an introduction by THE Lou Taylor (Establishing Dress History, and The Study of Dress History), it’s got some impressive clout.
Topics include gloves in the 18th Century; 19th Century Afro-Brazilian dress; African dress in the V & A; Aesthetic dress in 19th Century Britain; gender identity and Norman Hartnell; and even sari revival in Tamilnadu, India (among many others). Collections explored include the V&A; Narryna Heritage Museum; Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum; Royal Ontario Museum; and The Hartnell-Mitchison Archive.
It really does appear to be an outstanding contribution to the field, and aims to move Taylor’s work forward. I’m looking forward to continuing my reading!*
*I’m also looking forward to a book of similar impact that includes US-based collections and scholars.
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.
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.
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.
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 »
In contrast to last weeks book, which was the heavily illustrated Fashion and the Art of Pochoir, this weeks selection is all about the words. Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words, by Pamela Golbin (Chief Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris) is a compilation of words, opinions and thoughts written or spoken by a number of high profile (and deceased) 20th century fashion designers jig sawed together so that they appear to have been interviewed by the author. It is a clever way to bring a fresh perspective to these long-gone artists. This particular construct places greater emphasis on the designers’ personalities, as well as their design sense and communication styles.
I’ve read the introduction and part of the first ‘interview’ and really do want to read more. I’m learning about designers I thought I knew pretty well (like Poiret, Chanel, Balmain, and McQueen, among others) and it feels like pleasure reading, rather than academic’s ‘versions’ of designers. That said, the academic information is more readily available than in some other texts (yeah for chapter endnotes!)
The introduction is similarly constructed as an interview between the author, Pamela Golbin and Hamish Bowles. In it, she draws parallels between issues faced by the fashion industry now, and those that have been faced historically. One particularly timely point is the perennial problem of the speed of Fashion. Prior to his relatively recent departure from Dior, Raf Simons spoke to Cathy Horyn about it. Here, Golbin notes that historically designers “all had issues with time management, if I can put it that way. Whether it’s Poiret or Lanvin or McQueen, they all speak about that fact that they don’t have enough time to design their collections; that they have to keep producing in order to satisfy the demand.” (12)
Designer ‘interviews’ included in this nifty resource are: Paul Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Madame Grès, Pierre Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. They are all represented in their own words, with the exception of Balenciaga: “Quite simply because he never gave an interview during his entire career, except or the one he agreed to at the end of is life. I couldn’t think of publishing this book without having Balenciaga in it, so I chose to have his peers speak about him. It says a lot about how respected he was within the fashion community…” (13)
To give an example of what these chapters are like, here is a brief section of the ‘interview’ with Paul Poiret:
What is your contribution to the vocabulary of couture?
Some have been good enough to say that I exercised a powerful influence over my age, and inspired an entire generation. it would be presumptuous of me to agree, and I must say it makes me feel uncomfortable; though if memory serves, when I started out all color was absent from fashion.”
Could you elaborate on that, please?
The faintest of pinks, lilac, swooning mauve, light hydrangea blue, watery green, pastel yellow, and the barest beige — all that was pale soft, and insipid was held in high esteem. So I decided to let a few wolves into the sheep’s pen — reds, greens, violets, bleu de France that raised the voices of the rest.”
I’m eager to read the other chapters to see what new subtle nuances can be learned of these already well-documented designers. The book ends with a very brief round-table style group discussion with all the designers statements that answer the question, “What is Fashion?.” Ultimately, this book is an insightful, useful, and inspiring resource for both the novice and established fashion historian (especially one looking for designer’s in their own words).
As a part of my need to play catch up (I took on too many projects recently), I’m starting a summer series to share the giant stack of new books that have come through my front door. And you’ll be happy to know that I’m focusing on the good ones! I (and a few contributors), will be covering everything from the fashion illustration history, some major new works cover 20th century fashion history, new works on the field of dress, Hair (and more as the books roll in!) Stay tuned !
First on my list of ‘must read’s’ this summer is the giant, beautiful and highly informative Fashion and the Art of Pochoir: The Golden Age of Illustration in Paris by April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary (Thames & Hudson, November 2015). The fact that the book is dedicated to Dr. Lourdes Font (“whose passion and vast knowledge have inspired an entire generation of fashion historians”), tells me that these authors are on point and know their stuff (#FontFan over here!)
Highly illustrated and beautifully designed, the book appears to be a happy marriage of style and substance, full of interesting looking, well-documented essays (yeah for footnotes in a legible size!). The book covers 1908-1925, and focuses on the “centuries-old hand-stenciling technique known as pochoir,” though it does include a good many photographs for garment comparison. I love this time period, and love that this book is an easy reference to the well-loved and such famous illustrations and artists. I can’t wait to dig in !
“Collectively, the ten publications featured in this book document a fashion revolution, in terms of both the clothing depicted and the practice of fashion illustration itself. The groundbreaking illustration styles seen in the pages of these albums and magazines were born out of the need to represent the rapid modernization of fashionable dress that occurred in the first two decades of the century.”
Heather (Vaughan) Lee is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America. More on Heather’s career can be found here.
Founded in 2011, Fashion Historia explores the history of fashion (and related events and exhibitions) with a focus on California and the West Coast. It includes book reviews, historical research, theoretical discussion and invites feedback from other scholars in the field. Contact Me Here.
At the end of March this year, the USPS made an announcement about a forthcoming stamp featuring American author Henry James (1843–1916). What you might not know is that the USPS hired me to consult on the accuracy of the fashion depicted on the stamp.
The stamp features a profile of the author in later life in the foreground, with a scene from his The Ambassadors (1903) in the background. It was the depiction of the two characters in a canoe that were of concern, so I focused my efforts on boating attire in and around 1903 (as the author did not provide very detailed description of their clothing). (Fascinating side note, Boston outlawed kissing in canoes in 1903)
Society in general was much more formal at this time. From what I understand of the female character, ironically named Madame de Vionnet, she was beautiful and somewhatrefined.
She would have more likely been wearing a hat – a straw boater or a picture hat (especially as James included a mention of a hat). She would have been wearing wrist-length puffed sleeves, had a defined/corseted waist, and a pigeon or bloused top (yes, much more formal, even for a ride in a boat). She may have been dressed in all white, or she may have had on a dark skirt with a white blouse (aka shirt and waist). Her blouse would more than likely have been high-necked.
The man’s attire would also have been more formal – with a stiffened arrow collar and bow-tie, and with the addition of hat. This image of photographer Edward Steichen on his honeymoon in 1903 suggests the style I mean:
Unfortunately, I was contacted to review the stamp fairly late in the process, and so despite the information I provided, no alterations were made to the stamp (pictured below). Nonetheless, it was still an interesting excuse for research and learning more about the connection(s) between fashion and literature. (For those who want more, there is Henry James and the Art of Dress)
I’m thrilled to share that a project I have been working on since 2012 has finally come to fruition (that is three years people!). Now available, Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe is a four-volume encyclopedia edited by Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and (myself) Heather Vaughan Lee, along with General Editor, José Blanco F.
I wrote about 10% of volume 3 (1900-1945), and served as the volume editor. I was honored to work with an amazing group of historians, curators, collection managers, writers, and friends and I sincerely thank all of them for their contributions to this project.
While I don’t expect that very many individuals will buy this book, I do hope that it is picked up by libraries and university fashion departments. If you think your library/institution/department might be interested, you can print the flyer or you can now buy it directly from Amazon (at a slightly discounted price).
Recently released from Rizzoli, is a new gigantic visual reference for fashion history from expert Caroline Rennolds Milbank titled Fashion: A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today (October 27, 2015). The forward from Harold Koda is overshadowed by the wealth of images: 1400 images on 320 pages. While the text is minimal, it is informative and interesting. Not your typical fashion history book, it explores a number of trends, types of clothing, and designers in not often seen images (those well versed in fashion history will present the ‘newness’ of this approach).
For example, the spread on page 32 includes 10 photographs of fashions from 1867 with the text noting:
Two views of a Mrs. Bates show her seated in a black silk dress with jet embroidery and also standing dressed for an outing in a short paletot jacked and flat hat worn low on her forehead. A white cotton or linen waist with ribbon and other trimming, worn with a solid or plaid skirt makes an appearance. Christine Nilsson, the blonde and blue-eyed Swedish singing sensation, wears what is being called a suit, a fitted paletot and matching skirt in striped silk.”
The uncluttered design presents beautifully on the page, though historians may find it frustrating to have to flip back and forth to the end notes for citation information for all the photographs. Admittedly, however, the endnotes DO provide a wealth of fascinating information.
I think it would make a wonderful coffee table book – and it makes me wish I had a coffee table!
Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl are the authors of the new book, The History of Modern Fashion (September 2015), and they were gracious enough to answer a few questions about their new publication from Laurence King, the publishing process, and their vision for the book. Nancy Deihl was my advisor in graduate school at NYU’s program in Visual Culture Costume Studies and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share her work. This new book covers the history of fashion from 1850-2010 and is lavishly illustrated. It’s a must have for fashion historians, students, and enthusiasts (and with the holiday’s approaching would make a great gift!)
How did the book, as a project begin, and develop? How long did it take to research, write and publish?
The publisher, Laurence King, based in London, approached the fashion design department at FIT about the possibility of a fashion history book. Daniel teaches in that department and was definitely interested in the opportunity and asked me to join him. It took us over six years to research and write and have it brought to print.”
My assumption is that you intend it to be used as a fashion history textbook with some cross over appeal to the general market. How do you see it’s ‘place’ in the world? Especially in comparison to other fashion history survey’s out there (such as Tortora or Mendes/de la Haye)?
The History of Modern Fashion works well for textbook use. We organized the book using a decades approach, knowing that that’s how many (if not most) instructors organize the material for a course on modern fashion. And we start with 1850 because that’s also a typical marker for a class. The 1850s and 60s were notable in terms of developments of the designer system and also technologies, both important for laying the groundwork for 20th century fashion.
We also made sure to include subheadings, a glossary, and really explicit captions so every word is an opportunity to inform! We feel – and the feedback we’ve gotten so far backs this up – that it fills a niche for lots of different levels of instruction. The general public seems to be enthusiastic as well. I spoke at an NYU alumni event last week – and as you know Steinhardt alums range from musicians to physical therapists – and there was a fantastic response to the book!”
Six hundred images is a LOT! How did the image selection/research/publication process go?
Yes, 600 images is a lot. Images are crucial to this project so we are grateful that everyone at LK understood that. We were very lucky that the picture editor, Heather Vickers, who has done a number of books for LK, was extremely imaginative and just wonderful to work with. We did lots of sleuthing and had a wish list and although not every picture we wanted was traceable (or affordable) the results are extremely satisfying! And the Special Collections department at FIT was instrumental in helping with images – making many, many available to us.”
Anything in particular you’d like your fellow historians to know about this book, the process, or the research?
This was a big project. We learned so much along the way – not just about fashion history but about research and collaboration and communication. We certainly got to know each other very well through this collaborative process. At the beginning we were colleagues who were only slightly acquainted; by the end of the process we could finish each others’ sentences!!
One of our favorite aspects of the writing is the ‘sidebars’ that are part of each chapter – self-contained, fun (we hope!) profiles of memorable characters and fashion ‘stories.’”