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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ME

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

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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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Don’t Miss The Royal Pageantry of VISITORS TO VERSAILLES

By Nadine L. Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


ME

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

More posts by the Author »

 

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History of the Nightingale, 2 years in the making, now for sale online!

*

Earlier this year, I was thrilled to share that Piecework Magazine published my article on the history of the knitted nightingale (January/February 2017). I started by explaining that “The nineteenth-century wrap that became known as “The Nightingale,” a garment worn over the shoulders in bed, was the Victorian ancestor of the modern-day slanket (blanket with sleeves) or snuggie.

Florence Nightingale Jacket in "Harper's Bazar," September 5, 1885.
Florence Nightingale Jacket in “Harper’s Bazar,” September 5, 1885.

“Also called a bed jacket, dressing gown, shawl, wrap, cape, cloak, or sacque, the Nightingale was, over time, made from different fabrics.” The research was a fun romp through the early history of nursing and Florence Nightingale’s career, the Crimean war, wartime knitting, and yes, even Fashion History (an 1856 issue of Godey’s pictured a mantle called the “Nightingale” likely based on published images of Florence Nightingale).

 

Knitted Nightingale, Originally published in PieceWork January/February 2017.

My article also included a re-worked pattern for a Knitted Nightingale, which I’m happy to share is now for sale on the Interweave website. “This pattern is based on the Knitted Nightingale in Weldon’s Practical Knitter Sixteenth Series. With the exception of the choice of ribbon color, this knitted nightingale is true to the original Weldon’s pattern. The lapels on this Nightingale are fairly wide and are intended to imitate those seen in portraits of Florence Nightingale from the 1850s. They can easily be adjusted to your own preference. Extra length in the dolman-like sleeves allows for a generous range of movement and an added sense of coziness.” It was a long-time project that began July 16, 2015, and finished with a crochet edge on May 4, 2016.

*Florence Nightingale; Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney by William White watercolour, circa 1836 18 1/4 in. x 14 1/8 in. (462 mm x 358 mm) overall Given by Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, 3rd Bt, 1945 NPG 3246

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Fashion Encyclopedia wins at American Library Association

I’m thrilled to share that the Fashion Encyclopedia I helped create has just won a prestigious award at the American Library Association! I continually find myself grateful to all the wonderful contributors for their hard work and diligence!

“The most noteworthy reference titles published in 2016 have been named to the 2017 Outstanding References Sources List, an annual list selected by experts of the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). The list was announced January 22, at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta.

The Outstanding Reference Sources Committee was established in 1958 to recommend the most outstanding reference publications published the previous year for small and medium-sized public and academic libraries. The selected titles are valuable reference resources and are highly recommended for inclusion in any library’s reference collections.”

Included on this list is Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe.” by Jose Blanco F., Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and Heather Vaughan Lee, editors. ABC-CLIO.

For a full list  of award winners please follow the link:
http://rusa.ala.org/update/2017/01/outstanding-reference-sources-announced/

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The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day

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.

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New Book in the CSA Series: “Knock It Off,” a history of design piracy…

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:

Knock It Off: A History of Design Piracy in the US Women’s Ready-to-Wear Apparel Industry by Sara B. Marcketti and Jean L. Parsons is a 240 page volume of extensive research, with photos to match, exploring a fascinating and incredibly relevant subject.

From the back cover:

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!

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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer (continuing series)

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.

 

 

 

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MANUS X MACHINE Review by Nadine Stewart

By Nadine Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

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

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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer (continuing series)

In my continuing series of recently released books (that I want to read, or have started to read), I present this weeks book: Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words, by Pamela Golbin (Rizzoli, June 2016). For more in this series, see previously reviewed books here.

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).

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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer

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.”

Want more? Support the authors and Buy The Book


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.

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