Guest Review: Paris, Capital of Fashion

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

The ambitious goal of trying to fit the whole history of Paris fashion into one exhibition was always doomed to fail. Paris, Capital of Fashion (on view to January 4, 2020) at the Museum of FIT isn’t a lazy show by any means, but it’s an uneven one and—much like the boulevards of Paris itself—spirals out in a lot of different directions.

Worth & Bobergh, Blue ribbed silk ball gown, 1866-67, France, Lent by The Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Richard H.L. Sexton and Eric H.L. Sexton, 1962.

There is, as the French say, un embarras de richesses. Standouts include an eighteenth-century corset and panier; a rare Worth & Bobergh crinolined gown; an equally recherché Christian Dior gown designed for Lucien Lelong before launching his own couture house in 1947; a lacy Chanel LBD; and a Madame Grès goddess dress I hadn’t seen before (naturellement, it’s in Hamish Bowles’ collection). The black and white gown Yves Saint Laurent designed for Dior—worn by Dovima in Richard Avedon’s famous 1955 photo with elephants at a Paris circus—is here, as is John Galliano’s hooped Marie-Antoinette gown for Dior, shown on the runway on a model with powdered hair and red slashes on her neck.

18th-century French inspired dress in black velvet with wide border of gold metallic lace; appliqué; sequins and tassels; boned décolleté bodice with flared sleeves; skirt with wide panniers and train; costume for Gladys George in “Marie Antoinette.” Adrian, film costume worn by Gladys George in the MGM film Marie Antoinette, 1938, USA. The Museum at FIT, 70.8.2

But there are just as many missteps and missed opportunities. Christian Lacroix merged the exuberant spirit of the Belle Epoque with ‘80s excess, but the only Lacroix gown in the show is a snooze. An over-the-top film costume from 1938’s Marie-Antoinette feels out of place among all the couture pieces. The French fashion vernacular has been so widely disseminated that it’s fair to assume that visitors will immediately connect Stephen Jones’s corset-inspired top hat for Dior with an historic precedent (like the Mainbocher corset in Horst P. Horst’s 1939 photo) even if no such corset is on display. But other references may be more obscure. There are contemporary embroidered coats for women inspired by eighteenth-century menswear, but the only actual eighteenth-century embroidered coats are upstairs in the Minimalism/Maximalism show.  

Some of the most iconic objects have been exhibited elsewhere in New York in recent memory, including an eighteenth-century doll’s grand habit from the Fashion Museum in Bath that was a centerpiece of last year’s Visitors to Versailles show at the Met, and Charles Frederick Worth’s “Spirit of Electricity” gown, on loan from the Museum of the City of New York. The latter may have been made in Paris, but it tells a quintessential New York story: it was worn to Alva Vanderbilt’s masquerade ball in 1883 and alluded to the recent electrifying of the city’s streets. A red -feathered Chanel evening cape looks like an afterthought from the museum’s Fairy Tale Fashion show. It’s always nice to see old friends, but these re-wears give the show an unwelcome sense of déjà vu, and one can’t help wishing that these fragile if famous objects had been spared in favor of seldom-seen treasures. There’s a lot of Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano but only one Jacques Fath and one Jacques Heim, and there are major gaps in the early twentieth-century timeline. (To fill them in, head uptown to the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s meaty and meditative French Fashion, Women, and the First World War.)

The show may be centered on Paris but, thematically, it’s all over the place. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the museum’s awkward configuration that the show opens with a parade of largely non-French gowns, illustrating the Parisian influence on international fashion before visitors have actually been to Paris. Here you’ll find a Paris-made Dior dress and its Lord and Taylor knockoff, American gowns modeled in the so-called the Battle of Versailles in 1973, and an authentic Chanel suit displayed alongside its licensed, made-in-the-USA copy, which is not a true copy at all but missing pockets, the quilted lining, and other couture finishing techniques.

Once you get past the disorienting outer gallery, the installation displays the Museum at FIT’s typical visual flair. There’s a platform of voluminous Worth gowns, and an inner room lavishly decorated to evoke the salons and gardens of the Palace of Versailles. A wall of accessories—called articles de Paris in the nineteenth century—includes fin-de-siècle hats, shoes by Christian Louboutin, and Jeff Koons’ Mona Lisa bag for Louis Vuitton. But there are typos in the labels, and a dearth of contextual material like fashion plates, magazines, and photos; for that, you’ll have to turn to the catalogue and the museum’s Fashion Culture podcast series.

In the catalogue, curator Valerie Steele eschews the usual couture-centric “genealogy of genius” narrative—charting the course of couture from Worth through Poiret to Chanel and Dior—and instead sets out to examine the “cultural construction” of Paris fashion through a broader global narrative. She cites Daniel Roche’s definition of a “capital” as a “concentration of power” rather than a physical place; it’s why outsiders often mistake New York for the capital of the U.S., and Los Angeles or San Francisco for the capital of California. Louis XIV recognized that fashion is a potent form of soft power and lent state support to France’s fledgling fashion and textile industries in the seventeenth century, virtually willing them into existence. As fashion journalist Grazia d’Annunzio, a contributor to the catalogue, points out, the Italian fashion industry only enjoyed this kind of official patronage under Fascism.

The court of Versailles—a concentration of political, economic, and aesthetic power if ever there was one—makes a problematic origin story for Paris fashion, however. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was considered the antithesis of Paris; there was a tense fashion standoff between the court and the city. It wasn’t until the château was amalgamated into the greater metropolis, both physically and figuratively, in the twentieth century that it became synonymous with “Paris” in designers’ minds. Pierre Balmain and Dior gave their gowns French names referencing the ancien règime; Elsa Schiaparelli created a blingy black velvet and gold evening cape inspired by the château’s Apollo fountain, included in the exhibition. Versailles has been used in fashion advertising and photoshoots, along with other Parisian landmarks like Eiffel Tower and the Place Vendome. It’s easy to forget that the Battle of Versailles was, first and foremost, a fundraiser to finance the restoration of the palace to its former glory; the Americans may have “won,” but the French got the prize in the form of a refurbished cultural showpiece.

Along with the Sun King and his royal descendants, the prevailing French fashion archetype was (and is) the Parisienne. “The innate taste of Parisian women was often cited as an important reason for the success of Parisian fashion,” Steele writes. If London was grudgingly acknowledged as the capital of menswear, French fashion was synonymous with femininity. This distinction became especially important after World War II, when several rival “fashion capitals” emerged, stepping into the void created by the Nazi occupation of Paris. Meanwhile, in France, foreign-born designers like Mainbocher, Galliano, Azzedine Alaïa, and Guo Pei were acclaimed according to their perceived “French” traits.

The catalogue essays largely focus on the reception and interpretation of Paris fashion in these new centers of soft power, including London, Shanghai, Milan, New York, and Melbourne. It has become a cliché to call a city “the Paris of the East/Midwest/Arabian Peninsula,” but these cities consciously defined or positioned themselves in relation to Paris. While the essays—by an international lineup of scholars including Christopher Breward, Antonia Finnane, and Sophie Kurkdjian—are thought-provoking, they don’t necessarily relate to each other or to the exhibition, and they’re no substitute for a much-needed illustrated checklist of the exhibition pieces.

Paris, Capital of Fashion is on display through January 4, 2020 at the Museum of FIT.


Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of several fashion history books, including Fashion Victims and the new book Worn on This Day.

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Flannel Shirt.

By Heather Vaughan Lee

1950s wool flannel blue plaid shirt by Pendleton Woolen Mills of Oregon. Shaun Turpin wore this shirt in the United Kingdom between 1988 and 1990 as a part of a grunge outfit. He donated it to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1994 for their fashion exhibition, Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads & Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties. (V&A T.134-1994).

Popular in the Fall and Winter, wool plaid flannel shirts have long been associated with the rugged outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1990s came to represent the Grunge music scene that originated in that area. Developed by Pendleton Wollen Mills (in Oregon) in the 1920s, colorful flannel shirts started out represent blue-collar work such as logging, along with outdoor recreation such as hunting and fishing.

The Beach Boys in Pendleton Shirts in the 1960s (via Pendleton).

The Beach Boys, (whose original name had been “The Pendletones”) helped to popularize the Pendelton flannel more widely, especially the Umatilla wool shirt, among California surfers in the 1960s (Pendleton 2019).

The shirt took on new meaning during the 1990s when Grunge music, and vintage, retro, and thrift-store fashions took center stage, thanks in large part to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Hole. The style was especially popular with members of Generation X, who were young adults and teenagers at the time.

With the 1991 release of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” album, Grunge (and the requisite flannel shirts) hit the mainstream. Grunge music, Gen Xers, and the flannel shirt took center stage in popular films such as Singles (1992), directed by Cameron Crowe and Reality Bites (1994) directed by Ben Stiller. The films depicted Gen-Xers and band members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney wearing flannel in the Pacific Northwest.

Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film, Singles.
Costume Design by Jane Ruhm .

Fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs (b. 1963), Calvin Klein (b. 1942), and Anna Sui (b. 1964) picked up on the trend and incorporated grunge into their collections in the early 1990s. Grunge style one of the prime examples of the workings of the bottom-up fashion trends of the late-twentieth-century whereby street styles were adopted by designers and clothing manufacturers and then copied massively by the mainstream market.

Marc Jacobs grunge collection for Perry Ellis from Spring 1993.

Among the most newsworthy grunge collection was the Spring 1993 Perry Ellis collection designed by Marc Jacobs. The collection earned Jacobs the nickname “guru of grunge.” He even sent a sample of the collection to Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana) and Courtney Love (of Hole). Love has said,  “Do you know what we did with it? . . .  We burned it..” (Madsen 2013)

By the late 1990s, the grunge era of music had ended, though Grunge-inspired styles returned to runways and streetwear several times during the two decades following the early 1990s. Ironically, twenty-five years later, Grunge fashions have returned as a new ‘retro’ fashion. Marc Jacobs reissued his original 1993 Grunge Collection in November of 2018, complete with a Dr. Martins boots collaboration (Yotka 2018).

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She 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 and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

Sources:

Madsen, Susanne. 2013. “The story of Marc Jacobs’ controversial 90s grunge
collection.” Dazed & Confused. August. Accessed August 19, 2019.
https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/16706/1/marc-jacobs-for-perry-ellis.

Yotka, Steff. 2018. “Marc Jacob’s Grunge Collection for Perry Ellis Is Back! See Every Look.” Vogue. November 7. Accessed January 7, 2018. https://www.vogue.com/article/marc-jacobs-perry-ellis-grunge-collection-reissue-lookbook.

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Eisenhower Jacket

By Heather Vaughan Lee

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.


Olive drab “Eisenhower” U.S. Army Field jacket, worn by Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II and was made sometime between 1944 and 1947. Kansas Historical Society, 1983.3975.1.1

The Eisenhower jacket (also known as the M-44, the “Ike” Jacket, ETO jacket (European Theater of Operations) and officially, the “Wool Field Jacket M-1944”) was first issued by the Army in November 1944 . It had been developed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and his tailor, Sgt. Michael Popp (1905-1968) during World War II (1939-1945). The Jacket became standard issue and along with other military clothing, inspired civilian clothing and uniform styles.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92) https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2014/11/11/the-ike-jacket/

Eisenhower and his tailor, Sgt. Michael Popp (1905-1968), redesigned the standard field jacket into something more practical and attractive. Lacking proper pattern paper, Sgt. Popp had used bedsheets to make the early drafts of the jacket (“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951, 3). It was completed in March of 1943. It would become “a coveted jacket popularized by one of the war’s most-photographed personalities” (Blount 2001). Eisenhower was so pleased with the job Sgt. Popp had done that he awarded him a bronze star (“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951, 3). Popp remained on Eisenhower’s staff until he was discharged in December 1945.

“A Blouse for Ike.”1951. Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) 24 Jun, 3. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402234982/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

In June 1951, Popp noticed that Eisenhower was still wearing his old uniforms and designed him a Summer new one (using measurements from memory). The jacket was to be hand-delivered by Popp’s wife.

About a month later, Ike’s gratitude for the gift was reported in the local newspaper, with an additional note that “Sgt. Popp doesn’t know it, but I’m a little bigger around the waist than I was during World War II. I may have to reduce a little.” (“Ike to Reduce to Fit Suit.” 1951)

The Army continued to issue the Ike jacket until 1956, when they began phasing it out, and was completely gone from inventory by October 1960 (Parkinson 2014). After President Dwight D. Eisenhower died in 1969, he was buried in an M-44 jacket in Abilene, Kansas (Parkinson 2014).

You can learn more about the Ike jacket, military uniforms, and how military dress influenced both mens and women’s fashion during wartime, in Artifacts from American Fashion, now available for pre-order.

Sources:

“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951. Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) 24 Jun, 3. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402234982/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

“Ike to Reduce to Fit Suit.” 1951. Dayton Daily News. July 1. Pg 78. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402227463/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

“Jacket Uniform.” N.d. Kansas Historical Society. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://www.kshs.org/museum/musobjs/view/307342

Blount, Jim. 2001. “Michael Popp, Hamilton tailor, created popular Eisenhower jacket.” Journal-News (Ohio) Wednesday, July 4. Accessed October 29, 2018. http://www.20thcenturygi.com/index.php?topic=145.0;wap2.

Parkinson, Hilary. 2014. “The Ike Jacket.” National Archives Pieces of History Blog. November 11. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2014/11/11/the-ike-jacket/


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She 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 and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Great War

By Heather Vaughan Lee

In the coming weeks and months, I’m planning to give you a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. Some of you might recognize some of the research and topics from my #52weeksoffashion tag on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. The book covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.

World War I, originally known as the Great War, was the defining event of the early twentieth century. Primarily a European conflict, it was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, and Japan). United States President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did his best to keep America out of the war until 1917.

The end of this War to end all Wars” falls on November 11, 1918 (originally known as Armistice Day) and it is why we have Veterans Day as a Federal Holiday on November 11 each year.

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.
“Brodie” style World War I combat helmet, 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, active between 1917-1918. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture).

In Artifacts from American Fashion, several of the entries discuss the impact of WWI on the daily lives of Americans. The World War I Combat Helmet (see above) not only explores the development of the “Brodie” style helmet, American wartime economy and culture, but also highlights what returning soldiers experienced at the end of the war. By the time the war ended in 1918, the United States had solidified its role as a world power. Many citizens wanted to return to the peaceful years of isolation before the war, but that was not to be. The returning soldiers had seen parts of the world that most Americans had never visited. Women who had taken on traditionally male tasks and jobs during the war were not interested in returning to a role that limited them to the kitchen and soon would gain the right to vote.

More significantly, the entry takes a deep dive into the experiences of the 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, a segregated African American Division comprised of four infantry regiments active between 1917-1918. Despite Jim Crow segregation, and their initial assignment to menial labor duties, the 369th Division of the 93rd earned the nickname, “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were awarded medals by the French, but their own American government failed to acknowledge their sacrifices. The 93rd Division began the journey home in late January 1919, arriving back to the United States in mid-February. The 369th Infantry had the honor of marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City before being demobilized on February 28 at Camp Upton, New York.

Another entry focuses on women’s experiences of World War I by taking a closer look at an American Red Cross Uniform. Although the early war years in Europe affected the United States and its industries, its own declaration of war began a major shift in women’s daily lives. Filling jobs left vacant by men serving on the front lines, many women began working outside the home for the first time. The idea of patriotism also grew tremendously, and women’s humanitarian efforts increased dramatically in support of the boys ‘over there’ (Benton 1994, 56-57).

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.

Recognizing that patriotism was high, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) asked his fellow Americans to contribute their time and energy to the Red Cross relief effort. Millions responded by offering their voluntary support.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Red Cross had 8,000 trained nurses ready for duty. Its Nursing Program had produced 20,000 registered nurses by 1918. World War I and its demands helped the fledgling organization grow. After the United States declared war demands flooded the still-small organization.

If a woman wasn’t out working, it was her duty to economize in her household. Excess expenditure was considered unpatriotic. Patriotism was even exhibited in the details of women’s clothing: more obviously through military-inspired styles and more subtly through the lens of economy via wool conservation and home sewing. The growing responsibilities women had during World War I directly influenced their desire for greater rights and freedoms in the post-war era. It emboldened them to fight for their right of representation, and they had gained the right to vote by 1920.

For more on how Americans’ daily lives were affected by World War I, see Artifacts from American Fashion (available November 30, 2019).

Sources:

“The American National Red Cross.” 1917. The Ladies Home Journal. September.

“Combat helmet from World War I used by the 93rd Infantry.” N.d. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Division. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.155.298

Doering, Mary D. 1979. “American Red Cross Uniforms”. Dress. 5 (1): 33-48.

King. Gilbert. 2011. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called ‘Black Death.’ Smithsonian Magazine. October 25. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/#jDBb4mevkKsQHLE5.99

Patton, James. 2018. “The Brodie Helmet.” Kansas WW1. February 28. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.kansasww1.org/the-brodie-helmet/


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She 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 and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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New in Print: A mysterious set of silver knitting needles

By Heather Vaughan Lee

While working as part of the curatorial staff on the 2017 exhibition Material Culture: Form, Function & Fashion at Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum, I became fascinated with a small silver case containing six steel double-pointed knitting needles.

Mrs. Hepsibeth Gardner Edwards, wife of David N. Edwards, 1860s (Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association)

The set of six size-two needles is kept in a Nantucket-made silver case engraved with a name and date, “Hepsibeth A. Edwards, 1840.” A fascinating history revealed itself as I researched the needles. The stories that surround the set reveal a complex web of politics, religion, industry, handcraft, and creativity in our ancestors’ daily lives. Discovering how these knitting needles and others like them were used, by whom, and why provided insights into our collective cultural history as well as inspiration for some fun knitting projects.

I’m thrilled to share that my research on these needles, along with a complimentary pattern for my adaptation of a vintage Sunflower pincushion, have just been published in the Winter issue of Piecework Magazine (Long Thread Media).


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She 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 and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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Guest Book Review of Fashion, History, Museums: Inventing the Display of Dress by Julia Petrov

By Sarah C. Byrd

Sometimes, a critical history does little more than answer the question of how we ended up here. Julia Petrov’s recent publication, Fashion, History, Museum: Inventing the Display of Dress (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019) on the history of fashion exhibitions (more broadly defined as the display of dress) is not that kind of text. Although Petrov asserts that the book is “not a how-to-guide or reflection on best practice” (p5), this thorough study delivers straightforward information that presents a rich analysis of not just how the practices develop but also why it matters, effectively supplying readers with insights to evaluate curatorial choices in contemporary practice. It is the many subtle “whywe are here” connections that makes the book stand out. However, if you don’t know anything about the history of fashion in exhibitions, you will have a strong foundational understanding after reading Fashion, History, Museum: Inventing the Display of Dress

The book’s objective to define and describe “the varied representations of historical fashion within museum exhibitions in Britain and North America … over the past century” (p2) may appear to be overly grand in scope and exclusively focused at the same time. However, Petrov quickly assuages most of those concerns in the introduction. As anyone involved in fashion studies will know, the terminology is never consistent over time, in different regions, among individuals, or even within institutions. The choice to include fashion and dress in the title speaks to this potential confusion since the two lay in such close meaning. Petrov sets out definitions of fashion – and even the seemingly straightforward use of “historical”– then revisits them in subsequent chapters. A further rationale is provided to explain the use of case studies and overarching methodology, as well as the choice to approach chapters thematically instead of chronologically. The delineations are logical and suggest that a successful critical study will identify specific cases to relate ideas instead of meandering through an endless list of material. Highlights from selected chapters are offered in this review, although each merits a more robust consideration than space allows.

Figure 4.2. Undated postcard showing installation view from an unknown museum; a mannequin in an eighteenth-century dress has been posed alongside contemporaneous decorative arts to demonstrate stylistic continuity. Author’s collection.

Despite its deeply academic approach, the book is clearly written from start to finish, avoiding complex jargon and dense sentence construction. The eight chapters are relatively short, approximately 20-30 pages each, which also aids in the readability. Petrov doesn’t shy away from humor with chapter titles like “Foundation Garments: Precedents for Fashion History Exhibitions in Museums” (Chapter One) and “Window Shopping: Commercial Inspiration for Fashion in the Museum” (Chapter Two), but the content provokes serious reflection. For Instance, “Window Shopping” does much to probe into the relationship between commerce and clothing within the museum. This section successfully demonstrates the important role the fashion industry has had in supporting the creation of collections and exhibition methods. It also acknowledges the reciprocal ways that museums functioned to support designers and promote the industry,  as early as the first call for a fashion museum in the early 18th century. Incredibly, Petrov does not betray any hint of bias towards or against this often-controversial relationship, instead allowing the reader to interpret the information for themselves. However, the issue returns in “Intervisuality: Displaying Fashion as Art” (Chapter Four) and is given more pragmatic discussion.

In “New Objectivity: Social Science Methods” (Chapter Three), Petrov’s layered timeline of case studies emerge as a highly effective format for critical analysis. Examples are pulled from a range of institutions – the familiar Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum are alongside Yeshiva University Museum, The Museum at FIT, the Smithsonian, and many others. That the author expresses familiarity with such a wide assortment of exhibitions is telling in the scope and depth of research backing the text. The effective force of this chapter, though, is how the author’s critiques develop, subtly questioning curatorial intentions before concluding with a powerfully direct assessment.

“To display fashion in this way is to understand it as an expression of society, yet this is all too frequently an unquestioning and superficial reproduction of existing social norms around dress…. These exhibitions perpetuate accepted ideologies, such as capitalism and nationalism, and affirm social rituals, such as monogamy and heterosexuality, as being normative.” (p88)

The precision highlights why a survey of the past is needed to reflect deeply on established practices.

Figure 4.6. Costumes in collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on permanent display in 1939. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Tableaux Vivants: Displaying Fashion as Art” (Chapter Five), “The Body in the Gallery: Revivifying Historical Fashion” (Chapter Six), and “The Way of All Flesh: Displaying the Historicity of Historical Fashion” (Chapter Seven) offer a unified build of ideas that shift greater focus onto exhibition choices and their implications. However, in these sections, more questions are proffered than answered. In discussions of the theater, the most salient comparisons surround the performance of museum labor in exhibition design or staffing (see LACMA’s Fashioning Fashion, 2011, and Oliver Saillard/Tilda Swinton’s Impossible Wardrobes, 2012). In these contexts, the so-called fourth wall is broken. Whether or not this is an effective method to foster awareness of the work behind the scenes, or if it presents an overly idealized version of reality, remains a question. In a complex review of bodies, Petrov briefly acknowledges the issue of race in mannequins, a subject that begs for more critical study. Using pointed examples, such as Benjamin Moore’s “neutral” white paint color (a common choice for displays) and the Caucasian features of many figures, the argument builds to present how ethnic diversity is erased through these choices. “To literally whitewash out the embodied markers of race in order to fit a visual priority is an example of the privileged nature of aesthetics in museum discourse.” (p165) This critique underscores the message of the Museum’s Are Not Neutral campaign* (created in 2017 by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski) and will be a useful rebuttal for anyone suggesting aesthetics outrank other priorities. The thread of missing content lingers in what parts of history exhibitions choose to present to audiences, with a nod to trends in collecting. She astutely describes the museum as “a place of wish-fulfillment, where the fact of absence is made present only insofar as to make it more poignant.” (p175)

Petrov has written a remarkable resource for the field of fashion studies suitable for both newcomers who will appreciate the abundance of history and references, as well as seasoned practitioners that may see their own work in a different light. She resets the timeline for the first exhibition of fashion, not content to rest on the citations of past scholars. Importantly, Petrov argues for better documentation of the exhibition-making process in order to create a better foundation for more in-depth studies and to legitimize fashion curating. These are weighty topics, and this text should be required reading for those in the field. Thankfully Petrov’s confidence as a writer provides occasional relief though the entertaining discoveries of research, sharing extended quotations from Punch and other wry journalists. Once the chuckle leaves, however, the reader may be left reeling in the realization that the perspective has hardly changed. Therein lies one of the most striking aspects of this book: that the issues that seem to plague every fashion exhibition, from mannequin heads and wigs to gaps in the collection, have been with us from the start. Perhaps with the addition of this book, we can collectively start to sort out solutions.


Sarah C. Byrd is a fashion historian, archivist, and educator. As an archivist, she has worked on a range of projects for both private clients and large corporations including Condé Nast and Ralph Lauren, where she helped develop the menswear archive. Her independent research focuses on early twentieth-century women’s novels and related films, the history of American cults and communes, and the role of exhibitions in education. She holds an MA in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology where she teaches in the Graduate Studies Programs, in addition to NYU Costume Studies MA and the Textile Arts Center.

*https://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/changing-the-things-i-cannot-accept-museums-are-not-neutral/

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Guest Book Review: Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography

By Kimberly Chrisman Campbell

Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography
By Laurence Benaïm (Rizzoli Ex Libris, March 2019)

Originally published in French in 2002, Laurence Benaïm’s biography was the basis for Yves Saint Laurent, the first of 2014’s two biopics about the iconic designer. Kate Deimling’s new translation preserves the florid, novelistic quality of the French original (it may remind readers of Edmonde Charles-Roux‘s similarly overripe-yet-authoritative biography of Coco Chanel). But while this English version is welcome, it’s a bit more than fashionably late.

At a dense 544 pages, it’s tempting to call the book the definitive biography of Saint Laurent, but it has some major gaps, both chronological and substantive. It ends with Saint Laurent’s retirement in 2002, and while it has been “updated” for reissue in English, the updates are not to the text itself. The author has written a new preface and extended the timeline in the appendix by 11 pages, bringing it up to the present day (That’s where you’ll find bullet point references to Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, the work of the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, and various auctions, retrospectives, perfume launches, and corporate takeovers, plus the deaths of Saint Laurent, his partner—in life and business—Pierre Bergé). Bizarrely, she’s even added a playlist. Yet, she has neither expanded nor reevaluated Saint Laurent’s story, nor has she seen fit to include a single image.

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé

Moreover, Benaïm, a respected fashion journalist and scholar, seems to have fallen into the journalistic trap of trading objectivity for access. In addition to Saint Laurent and Bergé, she interviewed Saint Laurent’s premières, clients, chauffeurs, and muses. The book is overly worshipful—Benaïm praises Saint Laurent as nothing less than “the sum of all the couturiers of the twentieth century: Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga, Dior, Schiaparelli, and also Givenchy” —and detailed to a fault. Surely, we could have been spared teenage Yves’ pretentious poetry?

A very young Yves

Saint Laurent was still a teenager when he went to work for Christian Dior. The couture cobbler Roger Vivier described him as “a thin young man with glasses on his nose who looked very serious. . . . There was something very strict, very diligent about him, which clashed with the traditional image of a fashion designer.” But Dior knew talent when he saw it. As the painter Bernard Buffet, told L’Express: “People said that Christian Dior was a magician. But his final accomplishment was surely, at the most essential moment, to make the right young man appear—not to replace him, but to continue his legacy.” At the age of just 21, the shy, bespectacled beanpole inherited Dior’s mantle following his sudden death in 1957. Within a few years, he was head of his own namesake couture house. (He poached half of his staff from Dior’s atelier).

Benaïm deftly teases out lifelong themes like Saint Laurent’s love of theatre (“he had grown up with the idea that fashion was costume”); his ties to Algeria, where he was born; and his physical and emotional fragility. She is less insightful when it comes to another constant in his life: his relationship with Bergé, whom he met for the first time at Dior’s funeral. Bergé remains a cipher, probably because he cooperated with the author. Saint Laurent, too, comes off as positively monk-like in his single-minded pursuit of elegance; Benaïm glosses over the less savory aspects of his character, such as his self-destructive streak and his petulance (he blamed “bad models” for his failed Winter 1963-64 collection). A master sketcher, he would disappear for weeks of intense drawing before beginning each collection. He then left it to his poor seamstresses to work out how to bring his visions to life, which they frequently managed only with great difficulty. It’s a shame, because Saint Laurent is less interesting without his flaws, as anyone who has read The Beautiful Fall, a chronicle Saint Laurent’s rivalry with Karl Lagerfeld, or the dishy oral history Loulou & Yves will appreciate.

Saint Laurent presided over the death of haute couture, which was done in not by any single designer but by changing economics and gender roles, and the rise of the Nouvelle Vague youth culture. It was not a seamless transition: the Chambre Syndicale banished Pierre Cardin for five years when he dared to show a pret-à-porter collection. But while other couturiers bemoaned the rise of ready-to-wear, Saint Laurent embraced it. Without going as far as André Courrèges, who pushed fashion forward into the Space Age, Saint Laurent embraced street style as a way of experiencing the youth he himself had been denied. But he also had to face reality: the women who could afford couture were seldom young or slim. While Dior built shapewear into his dresses so they could flatter any figure, Saint Laurent’s “made the chest disappear and were off limits to anyone measuring over thirty-five inches,” Benaïm writes.

The media frequently pitted Saint Laurent against Coco Chanel, fresh off her postwar comeback, contrasting her restraint with his theatricality. But Benaïm points out that they actually had a lot in common. “He shared Chanel’s aversion of styles that were small, precious, flowery, or cutesy—woman as trinket.” Saint Laurent’s early solo collections included trousers, “suits without padding, slim coats, light, porous wool pieces,” and lots of black. The jeweler Robert Goossens nailed the difference: Saint Laurent had Bergé to shield him from the harsh realities of life and business, while Chanel combined Yves’ creativity with Bergé’s formidable and sometimes frightening energy.

Yves Saint Laurent surrounded by his models at the thirtieth anniversary of the haute couture house, Opéra Bastille, February 3, 1992.

While “YSL’s” androgynous chic was perfect for the 1970s, he was out of touch and out of fashion by the late 80s. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the house’s 30th-anniversary show at the Opéra Bastille in 1992 a “veterans’ retreat in a devasted city.” Saint Laurent couldn’t understand the appeal of couture’s latest enfant terrible, Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose clothes looked like they had come from “a brothel in Germany,” he complained. Yet “the whole world was shocked,” Benaïm writes, when Saint Laurent announced his retirement in January 2002; he was, after all, only 65. His couture business retired with him. In October of the same year, Tom Ford presented his first collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. The “Rive Gauche” would be dropped in 2004, as there was no longer any need to distinguish ready-to-wear from couture. Hedi Slimane brought back the couture operation in 2015, though he axed the “Yves”; today, the house is known simply as “Saint Laurent.” Maybe that was the impetus for this tardy translation: to remind the world of the man behind the monogram.


Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of Fashion Victims (2015) and the forthcoming Worn on This Day (November 2019).

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The Motorcycle Jacket: From Mussolini to knitwear and biker gangs to toddler styles?

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“Sportswear Knitted Fashions: Ski Coats Copy Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket Or Fan-Shaped Yokes.” 1933. Women’s Wear Daily, Sep 01, 12.

Sometimes I come across the strangest things while doing research. Many are aware of the more traditional elements of the history of the Motorcycle jacket, and its association with twentieth-century rebellion, youth, and masculinity.

Its history lies in World War I and aviation attire, but the standard asymmetrical motorcycle jacket style was defined in the late 1920s with a Schott Brothers design called the “Perfecto” (Schott 2019). They were the first to put a zipper on a jacket, and the look took hold. Hollywood films of the 1950s, combined with rock-and-roll style solidified the image of the tough, rebellious biker with slicked-back hair, spawning the greaser trend. By the 1970s the black leather jacket was being used by New York City Punk musicians and gay subcultures who added studs, chains, safety pins and other personalization’s. It is an iconic representation of twentieth-century American culture.

However, I recently unearthed two odd tidbits about the motorcycle jacket’s trajectory:

Did you know that Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket impacted knitwear styles in 1933? Or that you could clothe your 2-year-old in a Marlon-Brando-Perfecto-Style leather motorcycle jacket as early as 1955?

Apparently, after Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883- 1945), Italy’s Fascist leader, appeared in American newspapers and newsreels inspecting and leading 10,000 of his troops in a celebratory parade from a motorcycle in late May of 1933, Bradley Knitting Company (of Delavan, Wisconsin) began producing skiwear inspired by his look. Mussolini motorcycle coats were made of beige and brown wool with metal buttons with a matching knit cap.

And then there’s this square-looking six-year-old in a tie-wearing the more recognizable version of an ‘authentic’ motorcycle jacket in 1955 by Los Angeles-based, California Sportswear. . .

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50.

Schott, Perfecto jacket, black leather, circa 1980, USA. Museum purchase, P89.29.1. (Museum at FIT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Mussolini is warmly applauded when he leads a rally at Rome driving his own motorcycle Date: May 1933

Further Information:

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50. Accessed April 1, 2019. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/1523286761?accountid=12536.

DeLong, Marilyn, and Juyeon Park. 2008. “From Cool to Hot to Cool: The Case for the Black Leather Jacket.” In The Men’s Fashion Reader, edited by Andrew Reilly and Sarah Cosbey, 166–179. New York: Fairchild Books.

Duffy, Keanan. 2009. Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style. New York: Universe Publishing.

Podolsky, Jeffrey. 2014. “Cruising the History of Biker Jackets.” New York Times Magazine. March 4. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/…/on-view-cruising-the-history-of-biker-jackets/

Schott. 2019. “The Classic American Success Story.” Accessed April 1, 2019. https://www.schottnyc.com/about.cfm


Heather Vaughan Lee  is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She 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 and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

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Book Review: Hair: An Illustrated History

Hair: An Illustrated History   By Susan J. Vincent

A Review by Tamsen Young

Hair is both deeply personal and distinctly public. It can be a form of individual expression or organizational control. It can be an emblem of belonging or it can reinforce difference. As a topic of study, hair spans the entirety of human history. From biology to anthropology, gender identity to ethnic identity, politics to hygiene, hairstyles to hair care – the subject of hair is exceptionally broad. A scholar could pull any strand and find rich material to research.

Advertisement for Edwards’ Harlene, c.1890s. ‘Mama, shall I have beautiful long hair like you when I grow up?’ asks the girl, as she learns the lesson in the performance of femininity while watching her mother wield a hairbrush. Welcome Library, EPH154:20. Photo: Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Hair: An Illustrated History (Bloomsbury Visual Arts 2018) is both lavishly illustrated and well researched. Susan Vincent focuses on how, over the past 500 years, hair practices have participated in the creation of social identities and fashionable ideals for both men and women. Some of Vincent’s finds are touching, such as this excerpt from a 17th-century letter by a husband describing the hair of his wife, who had recently passed, “It was by many degrees softer then the softest that euer I saw…This is the onely beauty remaining of her that death had no power ouer…[and] a part of her beauty that I am confident no woman in the world can parallele.”

The introduction begins by looking at how visual codes of hair color, texture, and style have been used to judge character, personality, health, and overall acceptability.

“Once given the interpretive key, which include hair colour and texture, any observer could thus ‘read’ appearance to unlock the moral truth within.”

Certainly, hair has been used in the West to identify and group folks by social status, profession, political group, age, gender, and ethnicity. But the author is quick to point out that hair is also objectified. For centuries it has been used as a stand-in for a person (think reliquaries to baby or love lockets), as well as an impersonal commodity, creating a market for hair from the 18th century to today. During the 19th century the “cult of hair” reached fever pitch, and hair work was made or purchased for items such as jewelry, scrapbooks, purses, or parlor decorations. Vincent includes a photograph of an incredible knit cap, circa 1850, made entirely from human hair!

As a result of such demand, the author tells tales of hair stolen from young women in Boston, Pennsylvania, and London towards the end of the 19th century. However, when she turns to the contemporary market, Vincent barely mentions that today’s hair trade, whether legitimate or illicit, has a tremendous impact on communities around the world. Vincent does note anthropologist Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement, a 2017 book entirely about the human hair trade, but she could have added a few sentences on some of the troubling effects of this global commodity prized by the West.

An early nineteenth-century male hairdresser attending a woman. Comb and scissors, the tools of his trade, are to hand in his coat pocket. The high points of his starched shirt, the seals hanging from his waist, and his fitted pantaloons, fixed with a strap beneath the instep, show him to be a modish fellow who pursues the latest fashions. Colored engraving, no date (early nineteenth century). Wellcome Library, ICV2046L. Photo: Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Following her enjoyable introduction, Vincent delves into the themes of the book and does a fine job of maintaining a lively tone throughout. Chapter One focuses on “the practice of haircare and its associated material culture.” Vincent discusses tonics and potions used to solve the “problem” of hair. Interestingly, the same issues have concerned us for the past 500 years: hair growth, hair loss, hair removal, hair texture, and hair color.

Chapter Two looks at the variety of providers of hair care services, from servants to salons, and the social customs and traditions that arose around them. Did you know that barbers were once notoriously providers of condoms?

Chapter Three examines the practice of shaving and shows how it was not just a means to “manage” hair but also served “to punish and control, to shame and disempower.” Auschwitz still houses nearly two tons of hair shaved from the heads of prisoners. The razor, an important tool, gets significant attention in this chapter as well.

The following chapters are “Case Studies.” “The practice of being hairy” dives into the attraction and aversion to facial hair on men (and women), introduces us to new words like pogonotrophy(1), and takes measure of the fashion, culture, and counter-culture of beards. “The politics of appearance” examines ways that the English politicized hair during the 17th and 18th centuries. “Social challenge: The long and the short of it” covers bobbed hair in the 1920s and the long hair of hippies in the 1970s, but oddly leaves out any mention of the afro and the “black is beautiful” movement.

While Vincent states clearly that her book centers on “the key ways that [hair] has been managed over the last five hundred years,” its research is mostly limited to those of European descent. Not every subject can be covered in a book of this scope, but the author misses a number of moments when she could address non-western cultures and customs. Since she focuses on British and American histories, why omit afro hair or the Black British or African-American experience? In chapter two, for example, “From servant to stylist,” Vincent could have taken the opportunity to discuss how hair salons and barber shops are important cultural centers for the African American community. Or in chapter six, “Social challenge,” when she brings up school dress codes, she had the chance to discuss how natural afro hair has been controlled and even banned. There was some discussion of hair in relationship to queer culture, but given how much new research exists in this area, this topic was also marginalized (For example, the books Queer Style and A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk were left out of the bibliography).

“We have a hair genealogy, and I hope this book helps illuminate our place in it.”

Hair: An Illustrated History is an entertaining and informative work. It appears at a time when there is a growing body of scholarship on a variety of hairy topics. Since many books on hair are compendiums of essays, Vincent’s book stands out. Her anecdotes are charming, and she finds absorbing ways to relate the histories of hair and appearance to the human experience. She includes a wide array of engaging images of people and their hair practices and uses a rich assortment of primary sources. Curious readers can easily dig more deeply into the extensive endnotes and bibliography.

Hair is a well-written and enjoyable read that draws you in and takes you on a journey around a surprisingly rich topic, although Vincent’s “hairy genealogy” in global terms is not for everyone. No book on hair can be encyclopedic. We hope Sarah Vincent has a companion volume in the works.


Tamsen Young has over 20 years of museum experience. She currently heads the department of Digital Media for The Museum at FIT where she oversees web development, online collections, video production, in-gallery media, digital marketing, and social media engagement. In 2014, the online presence for the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion won an American Alliance of Museums Silver Muse Award in recognition of the highest standards of excellence in the use of media & technology for Digital Communities. In 2015, Tamsen was keynote speaker at the Digital Fashion Futures conference organized at MoMU by Europeana Fashion and presented “A Small Museum Goes Global” at the Museum Computer Network conference. She founded the blog Hair is For Pulling in 2011. More posts by the Author »

  1. The cultivation or growing of a beard
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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:

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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!

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[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

 

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