Premiering tonight on PBS at 8pm is Craft in America, and from the trailer it looks like it will offer some inspiring stories on handcrafted objects and their role in culture. The companion book is available for sale : Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects
Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic* By James H. Johnson details the practice of masking in Venice and explores how this practice led to the mixing of all social ranks including nobles, clergy and con men. It is full of stories of the role that masking played in everyday life, but also focuses it’s attention on Carnival and commedia dell’arte. It’s a fascinating look at identity, truth-telling, and appearance.
Throughout his affair with M.M., Casanova relied on the simple half-mask common in eighteenth-century Venice. During his trips to Murano, there was plenty to arouse suspicion–his unlikely devotion to the little chapel, his faithful presence in the convent’s visiting room, his regular visits to a certain green door at the top of the staris. But there was one thing that would not have raised an eyebrow: his mask.
In Casanova’s day, virtually the whole of Venetian society wore masks as daily dress, and not just during carnival. For six months of the year, beginning in the early autumn and ending with Lent, masks dominated the city. They reappeared periodically throughout the summer for civic festivals and ceremonies. Nobles greeted foreign emissaries masked. Venetians entered private receptions and public theaters masked. They heard concerts, watched plays, and danced at formal balls masked. Husbands and wives met for meals masked at inns and hotels. Masked patrons sat in cafes sipping chocolate and reading the gazette, or at lower-class establishments, eyeing other patrons to rob, swindle, or proposition… (47)
In my talking with the author, Johnson points out that “sometimes what we think are ornaments or accessories in dress actually got their start as a response to social needs or situations–in this case, the mask served first and foremost as a way that people in a very segregated society could share close spaces (cafes, the theater, the gambling hall) without going through all the rigamarole of bowing and scraping.” Fascinating to say the least – and I hope to learn more once I’ve finished reading the book.
On a related note, Tricia Roush, the milliner behind House of Nine’s Design, recently attended Carnival in Venice (March 2011) and provided some marvelous photos of how it is celebrated today. Many more are available here.
Those in attendance were treated to a lecture by Jo Ann Stabb, who conducted an assessment of this collection of over 100 artifacts in 2002-3 for the California State Parks. Several pieces from the collection were on display at the Sonoma Developmental Center, including some lovely theater coats, evening shoes, a lace blouse and an evening dress. The lecture highlighted Charmian’s independent spirit and outgoing nature, and drew links between her wardrobe and the larger fashion world of each era.
Many of the garments in her collection draw strong correlations with the House of Lucille and with Paul Poiret- though it’s not likely that she purchased items from these makers. Jack London’s mother was an accomplished seamstress, as was Charmian herself.
At various times Charmian’s style was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau (especially during her bohemian days in Berkeley and Oakland), and often by her travels abroad with Jack (including trips to Hawaii and the tropics, where she would don Mother Hubbard style dresses and Kimono’s). Japanese, African and other ethnic influences can certainly be found in extant photos and clothing pieces in the collection. Not surprisingly, she had a love of fur – especially trimming hats and garments (reminiscent of Lucille).
The incredibly informative and well attended lecture was followed by lunch and a visit to the Jack London State Historic Park to see the House of Happy Walls (where Charmian’s closets were on view). Park Rangers were on hand to answer our questions, and a park volunteer played music on Charmian London’s piano – much to the delight of the visitors. (For more of my photos from this event, see the gallery at the end)
What made this event all the more bittersweet was the news that came out last Friday: that the Jack London State Historic Park is one of many on a proposed list of park closures due to a $22 million California general fund budget cut. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, those closures are expected to begin in September and have already been approved by the California Legislature.
It will be the first time in California’s history, including during the Great Depression, that state parks have closed because of budget cuts and parks that remain open also will have reduced services.”
What isn’t obvious to many, is that some of these parks also house historic collections of costumes and textiles (as well as other artifacts) – and access to these collections would also be diminished. Along with Jack London SP, and close to my heart, the Fisher Hanlon House (a historic home in Benicia Capitol State Historic Park) has a costume collection and would also be closed.
Benicia is my hometown, and my first experience with a historic costume collection was at the Fisher Hanlon House. According to one parks employee “Parks that do end up being closed will be in a caretaker status, and the collections will still be preserved.” While officials weren’t able to confirm which parks had historic costume and textile collections, they indicated that the Governor’s Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion both include displays of historic dress. Upon further research, it seems that the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park also has historic costume, and is scheduled to close in September (For a complete list of California collections housing historic costumes and textiles, see Clothing And Textile Collections in the United States: A Csa Guide).
Now if you want to do something to help preserve these collections that are important to California’s History, I’d advise a donation:
It’s not often that I get to work on fashion related books at my day job,* though it does happen occasionally. I have several coming down the line, so you might hear about them from time to time.
Accompanying an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (opening today), Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories by Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer includes a detailed look on Steins creation of her public persona and the role fashion played in her identity.
According to the authors, “Stein and Toklas had perfected their late-life look by the time they met [Cecil] Beaton in the mid-thirties. From the very beginning of their friendship, the two women shared an interest in dressing distinctively.”
The New York Times Style Magazine recently provided an excerpt of the chapter titled “Dress” which chronicles both Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Tklas relationships with their appearance and with ‘fashion’ in general.
As girls they spent time at dressmakers, shoemakers, and milliners, where they acquired day dresses and casual shoes for home life; heels, suits, hats, and gloves for the public sphere; and gowns for special evening events. . . . Alice’s hats, a friend wrote, “were all in perfect condition, kept in their original pretty boxes from the most famous milliners. She had superb examples of inlaid feather work by Paul Poiret, huge black-and-gold birds of paradise. . . .
Happily, the exhibition includes vests, pins and other articles worn by Stein, and the book includes photographs and famous artwork featuring Stein’s image. I’ll be attending the opening this evening, and if I can, will post some additional photos.
A whole host of museum and literary events are planned in collaboration with this exhibit, including a UC Extension Course, lectures on Stein’s ties to queer and artist cultures, among many others. Full details can be found here. After the exhibition closes at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, on Sept 6, it will travel to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. where it will run from Oct 14 through Jan 22, 2012.
In the mid to late 1950s television began to reinforce the shirtwaist as a mother’s uniform on family comedy TV shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and later, The Donna Reed Show. These shows reinforced the idea that a responsible or “good” woman [or mother] is well put together at all times, and that her place was in the home. [i] With the advent and prevalence of television, women were shown doing housework in the most perfect of ensembles, including Dior inspired shirtwaists, with high heels, and pearls. Early television shows, such as The Honeymooners had been slightly more realistic and less idealistic than later shows such as Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Donna Reed Show.
In addition, the later 1950s saw a dramatic shift in terms of influence as television began to outweigh all other media types. Television Historian Mary Ellen Zuckerman explains that, “by the mid-fifties it was clear that television could attract larger audiences than any of the older media, even with the cut-rate subscriptions increasingly offered by magazines” (203).
Television characters affected how women felt about themselves and their capabilities, both in terms of motherhood as well as in terms of appearance.[ii] In 1959, Donna Reed was given an award for her character on The Donna Reed Show from the founders of Mothers Day (The American Mother’s Committee), reinforcing the notion that women should be mothers who strive for perfection (Chapman; Fane 107). William Roberts, who created the characters for The Donna Reed Show described her character as “wife, mother, companion, booster, nurse, housekeeper, cook, laundress, gardener, bookkeeper, clubwoman, choir singer, PTA officer, Scout leader, and at the same time effervescent, immaculate, and pretty” (Fultz 118). Moreover, her character and unrealistic perfection helped to solidify the shirtwaist dress as an icon of female perfection for American Culture.
[i] Of “the goodwife “Her setting was the home and she was seldom seen outside it. Her uniform was the apron and later, the housedress” (Meehan 34).
[ii] “Titles such as ‘Do You Make These Beauty Blunders?’” suggested just how close women could be to making mistakes and did little to alleviate the anxieties about personal appearance that were also being fostered by films, and later, television” (Walker 193).
Chapman, Priscilla. “Donna Reed Wins citation for Television Family Show.” New York Herald Tribune 20 May 1959.
Fane, Xenia Flyer. “Television Image of the Father: A Comparison of the Father Image Held by Home Economics Teachers with the Image Perceived by High School Students on Commercial Television.” Diss. New York U, 1965.
Fultz, Jay. In Search of Donna Reed. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1998.
Meehan, Diana M. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-time Television. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1983.
Walker, Nancy A. Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2000.
Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995. Westport: Greenwood P, 1998.