The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk exhibit at the de Young has been getting a fair amount of media attention since it opened to the public on March 24. Much of the coverage focuses on the technology used for the mannequins, and indeed when I first saw them I was mesmerized – to the point that I forgot to look at the garments on display in the first gallery. I began to get concerned that the distraction of the display techniques would overpower the rest of the show. But, by the end of the first gallery, I had thankfully re-engaged with the content.
The Museum has been organizing large scale events, as well as academic explorations of the exhibition through events including a conversational lecture between Suzy Menkes and the designer; as well as historical perspective by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. In Menkes introduction of Gaultier, she takes a moment to clarify that the ‘tricks’ and cleverness often used by designers (both exhibition designers and fashion designers) are not the real value of the exhibition. She points out that the value is really in Gaultier’s focus on “technique, skill and handwork.” She also made sure to draw attention to Gaultier’s ability to capture a moment in time.
Her comments are by no means insignificant, and when speaking on “technique, skill and handwork,”she points out that “if you search, you can find them” –perhaps implying that they weren’t as much of a focus as they should be. While I was certainly drawn in and amazed by the technology -ultimately it was his focus on craft and design (and yes, details) that ultimately kept me engaged.
The exhibit features over 200 utterly captivating objects that I’d put in the category of contemporary art – several of the speakers at the press preview felt that way too. Gaultier’s work is both ‘of the moment’ and contains historical reference and I frequently found myself identifying a particular moment in history: the Madonna cone bra being the obvious iconic element.
I also found historical references in a pair of men’s pants that reminded me of a Charles James ball gown; or the Red-beaded headdress in the shape of a schooner harkening Marie Antoinette; or a pair of women’s trousers with knife-pleates at the bottom which reminded me of some of Dior’s work from the 1950s. For those not able to see the show in person – there is a huge exhibition catalog (and Amazon is selling it at a discount: it’ll save you $50). For those of you who are able to see it (or who saw it in Montreal) – what’s your take on the mannequins?
Actress Rosalind Russell said to Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) Costume Designer, Travis Banton “We have got to change these petticoats because they are going to make too much noise on the microphones; the taffeta will rustle.’” (Russell, Rosalind and Chris Chase. Life is a Banquet. New York: Random House, 1977, pg 144)
Daniel Miller, an Anthropolgoist at the University College London and Sophie Woodward, a Sociologist at the University of Manchester have teamed up to present a new book in the denim history catalog: Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary.
Here is a brief excerpt from the introductory chapter, explaining how this book fits within the others on this subject:
“Other publications have covered ground different from that explored in this volume, such as the history of denim, its production, and sale [See Global Denim, also by Miller and Woodstock]. By contrast, the present volume focuses on our ethnography of possessing and wearing jeans. Still, the central question behind all these research projects remains: why jeans? For many this would appear to lead naturally to the route of historically tracing the origins of jeans. Indeed, much of the literature on denim and jeans falls within the disciplinary rubric of history (and often popular history). This includes the histories of both indigo and the textile denim. The former traces the origins of the blue color of denim to the mere happenstance that the plant-based dye indigo fixes its color to cloth without needing a mordant, the substance that is used to fix other dyes to cloth. This is what made indigo one of the key world crops from ancient times to colonial times [See Indigo by Balfour-Paul 1998; and “Redeeming Indigo” by Taussig in Theory Culture & Society, 2008). There is an equally well established history of cotton, which alongside indigo would give us an understanding of many aspects of human history, from the global evolution of political economy down to periodic fashions and styles in almost any part of the world [See The Spinning World by Riello and Parthasarthi 2009; South Carolina Cotton Museum 2007]. There is also now a well-established historical perspective on blue jeans more generally, from the patenting of the rivets by Levi Strauss to the icons James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne [See Jeans: A Cultural History of An American Icon by Sullivan 2006). (page 5)
Leonard Maltin’s blog highlights this exhibit honoring Cecil B. DeMille (one that has been on display at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since September). The building is open to the public, and the exhibit continues through March 16.
Maltin notes, of the above Rambova sketch:
“Natacha Rambova (née Winifred Shaughnessy) is best remembered as Rudolph Valentino’s wife, but she was also a talented artist who designed memorable sets and costumes for a handful of films including DeMille’s Forbidden Fruit (1921). Several of her original ink-and-watercolor originals are on display at USC.”
As many of you know, the focus of much of my research has been on Natacha Rambova’s design career (including her costumes for Broadway, Opera, film, as well as fashion ) I knew these sketches existed, but still I wish I had a trip planned to Los Angeles to see them in person.
I recently received a note from a reader, describing her trouble finding information on upcoming fashion and textile exhibitions on view in California. So, I thought I’d share what I know with readers. Quite a variety of exhibits are available across the western states: exhibitions of film costumes, exhibits using old techniques in new ways (embroidery and knitting), historical design aesthetics (including ‘California’ design and the Aesthetic movement), as well as contemporary body art (tattoos!). Quite the range to choose from. Please feel free to comment if you’ve been to any of these or others you think readers should know about:
The FIDM Museum is proud to present the twentieth anniversary Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. Celebrating the art and industry of costume designers, this exhibition will present more than 100 costumes from twenty films released in 2011. The exhibition includes selected costumes from all five 2011 Academy Award® Nominees for Costume Design: W/E, Hugo, Jane Eyre, The Artist, and Anonymous. The exhibition also showcases classic film costumes from the FIDM Museum collection and the Department of Recreation and Parks, City of Los Angeles, Historic Hollywood Collection. Some of these same costumes were featured during the first Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition in 1993.
Common Places features three objects from LACMA’s permanent collection which transform printed works on paper into one-of-a-kind embroideries: a seventeenth-century valance, a cigarette silks quilt, and Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa. The resulting textiles articulate contemporary aspects of global phenomena and suggest that far from being a recent development, globalization has deep historical roots that extended into the home and everyday life.
This exhibition is the first major study of California midcentury modern design. With more than 300 objects—furniture, ceramics, metalwork, fashion and textiles, and industrial and graphic design—the exhibition examines the state’s role in shaping the material culture of the entire country. Organized into four thematic areas, the exhibition aims to elucidate the 1951 quote from émigré Greta Magnusson Grossman that is incorporated into the exhibition’s title: California design “is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions…It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way.”
A world-class collection of Anatolian kilims given to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by H. McCoy Jones and his wife, Caroline, is showcased in a choice exhibition of two dozen of the finest examples. Presented in the textile arts gallery at the de Young, the Anatolian flat-woven kilims on view, dating from the 15th to the 19th century, include a variety of design types and regional styles, as well as superb examples of artistic and visual prowess. The kilims in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection are considered the most important group of Anatolian kilims outside Turkey.
Over the past 40 years, Mary Lee Hu has affirmed her distinctive voice in the world of jewelry with her elegant, voluptuous creations. Using wire the way hand weavers use thread, Hu has blazed a trail as both artist and innovator, exploring the nexus between metalsmithing and textile techniques. Keen to metal’s ability to bend and manipulate light within a textured surface, Hu’s work is a testament to her sophisticated eye for weightless and rhythmic lines, translated into body adornment. Featuring more than 90 exquisite earrings, rings, brooches and neckpieces drawn from public and private collections internationally, this retrospective traces Hu’s evolution from her experimental designs of the 1960s to today’s creations full of light and movement.
The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 is the first major exhibition to explore the unconventional creativity of the British Aesthetic Movement, tracing the evolution of this movement from a small circle of progressive artists and poets, through the achievements of innovative painters and architects, to its broad impact on fashion and the middle-class home. The superb artworks on view encompass the manifold forms of Victorian material culture: the traditional high art of painting, fashionable trends in architecture and interior decoration, handmade and manufactured furnishings for the “artistic” home, art photography and the new modes of dress.
Stripes are a fundamental visual element, appearing naturally in vertical lines as trees and in manmade products of all kinds, from street dividers to ornate fabrics. The stripe is so basic it is rarely given isolated attention. This installation examines how stripes decorate and structure objects, bodies and spaces. It follows the many ways that stripes are formulated—swirling, rigid, ragged, skinny or bold—and shows how they appear in a wide range of media from a multitude of cultures. These objects help us recognize the range of meanings that a stripe holds, from a minor design feature to the sign of a significant mythic journey.
Opening today is FIDM’s annual Art of Motion Picture Design exhibition, produced in association with the Costume Designers Guild, which exhibits the Academy Award® nominated costume designs. This year’s nominees include:
Lisy Christl for Anonymous
Mark Bridges for The Artist
Sandy Powell for Hugo
Michael O’Connor for Jane Eyre
Arianne Phillips for W.E
The exhibition not only includes the nominted designs, but also presents more than 100 costumes from twenty films released in 2011! Since this year marks the 20th anniversary of the annual exhibition, curators pulled out all the stops and include much more than just this year’s nominees. The exhibition also includes a showcase of classic film costume — including pieces worn by Fred Astaire, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and other Hollywood legends.
A few Sunday’s ago, I had the pleasure of joining a select group of Costume Society of America Western Region members for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Levi Strauss & Co archives in San Francisco.
This was a tour that had been years in the making, and thanks to the generosity of Lynn Downey (the company archivist) and to the organizer (CSA Western President Shelly Foote) the program was a great success.
The weather couldn’t have been more idyllic, and when we arrived at the archives, a beautiful array of clothing from throughout Levi’s history was laid out before us. Ms. Downey had brought out her favorite pieces and generously peppered her talk with contextual information – how each was linked to Western or California history at large, company history, or cultural history. Downey discussed everything from early western work-wear and the origin of the riveted pant, to the company’s foray into Khaki pants, women’s denim wear on dude ranches, to early children’s wear during the baby boom of the 1950s, collaborations (including shirts for the 1939 Worlds Fair and Winchester hunting wear), and clear through to Mod clothing of the 1960s, Leisure suits of the 1970s, the 1980s collector trend in Japan, and up through Christian Siriano’s design for Project Runway.
Some quick-facts to tease you:
Levi Strauss did not have a store in the United States until 1991: they were only wholesale merchants until that point
In 1872 a Reno, NV tailor named Jacob Davis suggested that Strauss include rivets on denim pants to make them more sturdy. Although Strauss was not a manufacturer at this time he agreed to patent the design with the tailor. On May 20, 1873 the two gentlemen got the patent to make the first pair of mens riveted work pants.
The original name of the 501 jean was “XX”
The Levi Strauss archive acquired an 1880s pair of jeans (not the 501) with a ‘rule’ pocket, paying $46,500 after an intense bidding war
The oldest known riveted denim jacket (from the 1880s) was found in a ghost town in Southern California (and is now in their collection)
Ms. Downey generously spoke to our group for a little over an hour, and then allowed us to put on gloves and examine everything more closely. She offered to answer any questions we had about Levi myths, ‘things we had heard,’ and even offered to bring out additional items if we wanted.
After a number of questions and lively discussions, our group moved back into the public display area to look at the clothing, artifacts and ephemera on view to the public, which included the company’s recent movie and celebrity tie-ins, as well as a conservation video, and a brief history of the company.
I was thrilled with this unique opportunity to learn more about this historic western company. Happily for CSA Western Region members, a full report will be forthcoming in the next issues of the regional newsletter. Should you want to learn more about Levi’s, Ms. Downey has written a book providing the definitive history of Levi Strauss & Co. I’ve included below some of my photos from the behind-the-scenes tour. Enjoy!
I recently watched the 1963s musical Bye Bye Birdie and wanted to quickly share some of my favorite costume moments from this wonderfully bright and colorful film (if you haven’t seen it, the camp factor is through the roof).
The costumes — executed by Pat Barto and Marjorie B. Wahl — include some pretty outrageous ensembles. Hearthrob Rock ‘n Roll star ‘Conrad Birdie’ (quite clearly modeled on Elvis) has some of the loudest costumes (including the tiger-print bathrobe seen on the right and an Elvis-esque gold lame suit), but the costumes of both Kim (Ann-Margret) and Rosie (Janet Leigh) have greater significance – both to film history and popular culture at large.
Many will be familiar with the theme song to Bye Bye Birdie from it’s brief appearance in a Madmen Episode, where Ann-Margret’s character is explored as the epitome of innocence and sexuality. In her autobiography, My Story, Ann-Margeret explains a little more of that dichotomy and how it worked to her advantage when getting cast in the role (See photos above):
For whatever reason, director George Sidney decided that I was perfect for the part of Kim McAfee. He’d even selected me before we met, having spotted me dancing at the Sands in Las Vegas the previous New Year’s Eve. A while later, he sent me a script for Birdie, then arranged a meeting in his office. He always reminded me that he’d had to keep from smiling at how I’d put on a pleated skirt and flats to try and look sixteen. ‘I saw how you looked in Vegas,’ he confessed. ‘It wasn’t sixteen.'”
Rosie, the character played by Janet Leigh, is supposed to be a wiser “New York” woman in contrast to Kim, the innocent teen. Leigh was a natural blonde, and that didn’t quite work for the character’s image. In a contemporary newspaper clipping, Leigh is quoted as saying “In my present film, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Columbia…I play the role of Rosie De Leon, Spanish secretary and girl friend of Dick Van Dyke. Now, with my blond hair I don’t exactly look Latin, but wearing a black wig—vive la difference! And that’s where the fun comes in.” [Taken from a clipping in the Bye Bye Birdie folder from AMPAS].
In her 1984 autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood, Leigh went on to discuss the importance of that wig to her later career, saying “When I was shooting Bye Bye Birdie, Blake Edwards had visited the set, and was fascinated by me in the black wig. He was preparing The Pink Panther (and a wig ended up serving as the disguise for the lady’s escapades) and approached me to do the film.”
From a historical perspective, Bye Bye Birdie highlights the growing influence of youth culture, the increasing importance of television and other mass media, not to mention the cult of celebrity. Many of the costumes include the familiar 1950s shirtwaist dresses, and some vaguely mod references. Here’s a good clip to get you started:
Ann-Margret, with Todd Gold, My Story, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1994 p. 98
I’m so excited to share with readers that the Costume Society of America’s Western Region has just released its registration flyer for the next regional symposium! To be held March 16-18 at the William S. Hart Ranch in Newhall, CA, “Interpreting History Through Costume” will include a wide range of activities and intellectually stimulating paper presentations.
For those unfamiliar, William S. Hart was a silent film star – primarily of cowboy movies and he became an avid collector of western art and artifacts (including costumes). His historic 1910 Ranch House will provide an exciting backdrop to the paper presentations.
This academic symposium includes presentations connecting fashion, history, theatre costume, national costume, gender, re-enactors, and much more (it also includes papers by my good friend and regular Worn Through contributor Brenna Barks, and former Smithsonian curator Shelly Foote). Highlights include:
A Comparison of Costumes Worn for Performances of Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal”
Fashioning Greek Identity-Representing “Greekness” in the 19th Century
Saris to Skirts: Negotiating National Identity through Costume
Additional activities include tours of the Hart Museum and a special costume display, a screening of the William S. Hart Film Tumbleweeds (1925), social time and opportunities to explore the Ranch (which is home to a heard of American Bison and other animals).
For complete details on the symposium and to register, download the flyer below.
In case you missed the latest episode of Portlandia (on IFC), be warned that it is a marvelous example of history and popular culture repeating itself, and repeating itself again. Apparently, the 1890s are a growing trend in Portland and this episode satirizes the mutton-chop wearing, meat-grinding, modern pre-industrial men and women of Portland. I’ll admit, these things are all pretty hip here in the SF Bay Area too – I know a good deal of canners, knitters, beard-growers and straight-razor-users.
Cheers to costume designer Amanda Needham, who won an Emmy for her work on the show last year, for creatively capturing this unique and comedic version of the steam-punk(ish) trend (though it’s admittedly more utilitarian and less glamorous)! Enjoy the clip if you haven’t had a chance to see it: