The Gothic to Goth Exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, a guest review

 

by Nadine Stewart

What better place to learn about Romanticism than the Wadsworth Atheneum? Founded in 1842 and named for Daniel Wadsworth, the museum is a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Its turreted towers and narrow windows give the building the effect of a medieval castle. The architecture is a far cry for the ideal of the previous generation—the Grecian or Roman neoclassic temple.

The Wadsworth Atheneum—a monument to Gothic spirit in architecture.

Defining Romanticism is not easy. Yet, the strains of Romanticism still resonate today. Gothic to Goth:Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy (through July 10, 2016) examines how dramatically the different themes affected art and dress from approximately 1815 to the Civil War.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. Instead of glorifying reason, its proponents gloried in nature, explored the darkest depths of the imagination, and harked back to the medieval period, considered the most sublime period in history by critics like John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. The novels of Sir Walter Scott gave readers dramas of knights and fair maidens set in sweeping landscapes. Ironically, the Industrial Revolution was actually changing the countryside of both Great Britain and the United States. The coal fired industries and cities crowded with a new poor working class were the depressing reality.

The Romantics sought to dress like the figures from the past mixing elements from different periods of history. In the first section we see a 1820s pelisse with a jagged edging on that looks like the architectural edging of a castle. This is combined with slashing inspired by the Renaissance on the collar, a ruff around the neck and sleeves that recall paintings from the Tudor court. The gown is displayed next to an 1852 painting which shows young couple enjoying the sight of an Irish castle glowing in the early evening light. It is this combination of art and cultural items of the period with its dress that make this exhibit so memorable.

A view of the Historicism Section of the exhibit, Note the stove and the dress next to it with similar design motifs! (via Wadsworth Atheneum’s Twitter account)

Curator Lynne Zacek Bassett has chosen five themes to tell the story of the period—historicism, religion, nature, color and “fancy” design, and emotion. The historicism section expands on the information we were given as we entered the gallery. It begins with a gown that shows the evolution from the neoclassical “empire” style. The simple cotton muslin from 1815-20 is embroidered with leaf or “paisley” motifs and features slashing on its tiny puffed sleeves. Much more elaborate is the next pairing, an 1830s silk dress with a lower waist, voluminous puffed sleeves and a fuller skirt covered in gold bullion embroidery with large paisley motifs on the border.  Next to this gown is a parlor stove also embellished with similar fancy motifs.

Two paintings in this section underline the way Romantics used the fashions of the past. An Italian Renaissance work from 1574 shows a noblewoman wearing a robe with sleeves that have a puff at the shoulders and an open neckline edged in a standing ruffled collar, next to her portrait is the portrait of Mrs. John Bliss from around 1826. Mrs. Bliss’ dress could have been lifted by her dressmaker from the 1574 portrait. She is wearing the same style sleeve and collar.

Striking use of color and pattern were another characteristic of the Romantics.  New dyes discovered by scientists of the Industrial Revolution allowed women to decorate themselves and their interiors with layer on layer of pattern. Magazines published patterns that enabled women to make “fancy” items themselves. People consumed turkey red calico, exquisitely embroidered aprons and pelerines, made beaded bags and fanciful caps. The clothing in the section which includes two beautiful embroidered silk aprons and a beaded bag from 1833 give us an idea of how deep this love of embellishment ran.

American silk dress with gorgeous ruching, c. 1840-45 (via the New York Times)

Religion, at least the Protestant version of it, was another major influence. The Second Great Awakening sparked emotional camp meetings across the country.  Believers glorified Gothic architecture believing its arches were from the most perfect period of Christian history. The arch was also a reminder to look to the sky for the Lord’s help and was repeated over and over in the art and fashion of the day. Clothing changed again in the 1840s. The huge sleeves collapsed, the waist lowered still more, and the bodice neckline dipped to the edges of the shoulders. A fine example of the new look is a silk satin dress from the 1840s with a bodice covered in ruching and a wedding dress, pelerine, and reticule commissioned by an American missionary in Burma for her sister. The wedding dress is a sign that even the very devout loved beautiful clothing, perhaps in spite of themselves! The love of the fancy recurs in this gallery a fan edged in Gothic arches, and reticule decorated with canvas work, and a beaded watch chain amply decorated with religious symbols, the gift of a young women to her special beaux.

Closely connected to the religious fervor of the Romantics was their love of nature. There are so many examples of this in literature, the poems of Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, all poets who claimed their poetry came to them in a rush of divine inspiration which they wrote down without editing or revising. In the United States artists, especially those of the Hudson River School, glorified the nation’s landscape with huge panoramas of the waterways and mountains set against spacious skies. Colors were supposed to combine with nature, not stand out, like the while columns of neoclassical buildings. Clothing followed these rules too. A dress in this section is one many women of the 1840s would have owned—a silk gown in a “drab” color. The olive green color would have blended in perfectly with the surrounding landscape.

Finally, the Romantics were proud of their passionate nature. This passion could delve into sentimentality which was considered a virtue, another change from the careful calculation of the preceding Age of Reason. This was the era the white wedding dress came into vogue. Queen Victoria was married in one, of course, but the color white was a symbol of purity. So a white wedding dress would emphasize the bride’s pure state as she entered matrimony. The dresses in this section are examples from the states of a woman’s life. There is a beautiful wedding dress from 1836, a rare calico maternity dress, an equally rare nursing dress with a gather panel in the front that allowed the breast to be exposed, a housedress, and finally, a mourning dress from the mid=nineteenth century. Mourning was the ultimate expression of emotion and wearing the proper mourning garb was an important part of a woman’s life. However, the ultimate expression of sentimental love and sorrow was the proliferation of hair jewelry. There are some beautiful examples here, including a bracelet of braided hair with a miniature of a young woman with flowing blonde hair festooned with a garland of flowers and a complete set—brooch, earrings, and bracelet—with tiny “acorns” that symbolize the oak tree, considered a protection from evil.

At the end of the exhibit we are reminded that the Romantic influences return even in our technocratic age. The exhibit closes with some examples from the present day, including the Steampunk and Goth movements. There is a stunning gown by Alexander McQueen from 2007. The black velvet dress has silver beading which appears to shoot across the bodice like a bolt of jagged lightning. McQueen was fascinated with the macabre and dark side of history. This dress honors an ancestor who was executed as a witch in Salem. McQueen’s successor, Sarah Burton, used the Goth theme in 2013, with a short coat that references Renaissance priest and boots that recall Puritan fathers of the seventeenth century. One of the most interesting pieces her is a “Vampire Suit” created by Jean Paul Gaultier, but styled by the owner Richard Patrick Anderson to create his own special mood.

“How did granny details become so compelling?” Vogue magazine asked in Fall 2015 as part of feature on the resurgence of Romantic fashions. Gothic to Goth shows us that The Romantic influence never really went away, and that its aesthetic is vital enough to be reinvented by generation after generation. By showing the many strains that fed Romanticism this exhibit carves out a special place in the spring/summer exhibit season. You will think about this one for a long time.


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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CSA Western Region announces mini-Symposium and tour in Edmonton, Canada

The Costume Society of America Western Region, in conjunction with the University of Alberta, Edmonton presents the international conference: Dressing Global Bodies: Clothing Cultures, Politics and Economics in Globalizing Eras, c. 1600’s-1900s to be held July 7-9, 2016.

ec13ca1c-b605-42e2-a35a-e29581ea1b65On Sunday, July 10, 2016, following the International Conference, CSA Western Region is hosting a morning mini-symposium and an afternoon tour of the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village (transportation is included).

Although the Royal Alberta Museum is closed for renovations, attendees will get a private look at special pieces from their collection. The morning will include a special slide tour of local textile collections by guest speakers, and attendees will hear from the 2014 Jack Handford Intern about her experiences at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and the benefits of this semi-annual award. After enjoying a box lunch attendees will depart via provided transportation to the Ukranian Culture Heritage Village, a living history museum.

Schedule:

8:45-9:15 Registration

9:15-12 Morning program at the Museum Theatre:

  • Slide tour: Highlights of the Costume Collection of the Western Canadian History program.  The collection houses over 25,000 articles of dress and domestic textiles related to life in Alberta.
  • Paper: Hutterite Samplers and Embroidered Calligraphy, Lucie Heins, assistant curator Western Canadian History.

Coffee break

  • Paper: Costume Storage: Addressing Conservation and Curatorial Interests at the de Young Collection Jack Handford Internship presentation by Christina Frank, MA.
  • Paper: An introduction to Ukrainian textiles in Alberta, Larisa Cheladyn. Slide presentation of costuming and household textiles, with some reference to religious and other unique items will be the preparation for our afternoon tour.

12 – 1:30 Catered lunch at the museum. Have your lunch in the sunny theatre lobby or outdoors in the museum’s park-like setting above the North Saskatchewan River valley.

1:30 Luxury coach to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a 160-acre living history museum tracing the history of Ukrainian settlement in east central Alberta. Enjoy a one-hour tour by costume curators Joy Schellenberg and Becky Dahl. Participants will have one hour on their own at the Village before traveling back to Edmonton on the bus.

Registration and more information here.

Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village

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Fairy Tale Fashion at the Museum at FIT, a guest exhibition review

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It is with great pleasure that I present to you a guest review of Fairy Tale Fashion (on view through April 16, 2016 at the Museum at FIT in NYC) by Nadine Stewart:

We live in a post-modern age, a world in which we constantly hear about the wonders of technology, the stunning array of new sources of information, and the variety of the global marketplace. The world of fairy tales seems banished, its tales too full of old virtues and fears to be relevant to us today. And yet, we long for fantasy, for wonder, for a world of imagination in which many of the answers are hidden or obscure.

This is particularly true of the world of fashion. Though we often dream of clothes that will fulfill our dreams, the language of the fashion world often encourages us to engage with the ever shifting trends of the global marketplace. The world of dreams that fairy tales illuminate is too often discounted.

Yet the fantasy that fairy tales give us has been seeping back into the current fashion world. Perhaps it was there all the time and we simply ignored it. Fairy Tale Fashion shows how rich these influences are by linking garments and accessories to fifteen tales that range from the familiar stories of the Brothers Grimm to The Wizard of Oz, G. Frank Baum’s yarn from the beginning of the 20th century.

The idea for this exhibit had been percolating in the back of Curator Colleen Hill’s mind for some time when she saw pictures of Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2014 collection that used fairy tale influences extensively. Now, after researching the subject for over a year, she says she is surprised no one had explored the subject before, especially since the concept of a garment with magic powers is so central to many of the tales. Indeed, Hill feels our obsession with shoes, the accessory that has morphed into an object of dreams for many women, is one of the first examples of the onset of fairy tales in our carefully assembled uniforms for work and play.

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22734337717_8290a63fa4_zOne is reminded of the pervasiveness of fairy tales in the first gallery, whose theme is “Fashion and Story Telling.” The first garment we see is a red hood. The memories of Red Riding Hood come flooding back. One wall is full of illustrations of famous authors like Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel, artists whose work in linked forever with the stories they illuminated. Below these pictures is a case of storybooks, old and new, including and ingenious pop-up book from the 1950s that tells the story of Cinderella. The newest book re-tells the Cinderella tale with characters dressed in David Bowie costumes and a Karl Lagerfeld fairy! Across from the books hang the photographs of Kirsty Mitchell, an artist who creates her own world of dreams. Her elaborate pictures show a wonderland of beauty with swirling butterflies, fields of blue wildflowers, and women in diaphanous gowns.

But it is in the main gallery where enchantment takes effect. Exhibit designer Kim Arkert has created a special space through the use of draped translucent scrims that separate each story section. An enchanted forest is created though simple graphics of dark twisted tree branches.

Hill went back to the old versions of these stories. Many of the plots have a dark side with none of the relentless sunny optimism of Disney. This gives the curator the chance to include film clips of older movies, such as Jean Cocteau’s surreal Beauty and the Beast from 1944 and three lively versions of Cinderella, two by film pioneer Georges Melies from 1899 and 1912 and one by George Nichols made in 1911. The clips remind us that these stories have been a source of inspiration for artists over the centuries long before Walt animated them.

But, it is the clothes that tell the story. Hill has chosen a mix of garments and accessories that show influences from the 18th century to present.  Because this is not a show featuring one designer this exhibit gives us a chance to see a wide range of fashion from the 21st century that utilize stunning techniques. this is apparent in the first section which features a series of red hoods that ranges from a simple wool hooded cape from the 18th century to a version by Comme des Garcons with a huge patent leather hood and a cape of wide strips of red fabric that hang like streamers from the neck.

24404864291_aa9d5fc8c1_zFurther long,  Charles James’ Sirene and Swan gown, dresses that are iconic examples of masterful construction,  stand near a mermaid gown by Jean Louis Sajaji appears to float like seafoam with an astonishing train that bubbles up into space. In the Cinderella section two of the most interesting gowns relate to Cinderella’s life before she was transformed by her fairy godmother. The London designer Giles contributed a white evening gown with a sheer overlaid surface that appears to have been burned. It stands next to another masterpiece of distressed material, a gown by Yoshiki Hishinuma made of sheer fabric covered with film that was torn by hand and heated to crimp the material unevenly. The destruction of the material on both gowns makes them more interesting that some of the sparkling sequined dresses nearby.

In the modern fashion runway show designers strive to create a story for the creations. Thom Browne always has a such a theme. In 2014 his models paraded down the runway wearing surreal animal heads. His tweed suit with raw seams from that collection is  topped by a stunning “bear head,” a frame wrapped with tweed. It is the perfect fashion version of an enchanted fairy tale prince. Next to the “bear” is Browne’s version of “Rose Red,” a woman’s suit notable for the fabric Browne created from graduated circles of wool dripping with red lace.

Mixed in with the gowns are iconic accessories—a “glass” slipper that is actually clear acrylic spun from a 3D printer, a poison apple bag by Judith Leibner that glitters temptingly, and, of course, shoes by the current king of fantasy shoe design, Christian Louboutin. His ruby slippers, red shoes, and glass slippers sparkle with crystals, but his “Lion” stilettos in for the Beast story are the most captivating with their rhinestone claws and embroidered toes that give the effect of dainty lion’s paws.24461063546_c8143f829e_z

Not all the clothing was directly inspired by a fairy tales, but this exhibit shows us how much imagination and fantasy is at work in the world of fashion. We look to that world to recreate and re-establish ourselves. Today, even with a world full of high tech fabrics and materials, we still are drawn to the fantastic. In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will debut its annual exhibit from the Costume Institute. This year’s theme is fashion and technology. A look at the preview pictures shows many garments that could clothe fairy tales figures today. Fairy Tale Fashion reminds us we still hunger to re-invent ourselves in the garments of our dreams. There’s always room for a magic garment or two no matter how modern we are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Fashion Encyclopedia (Vol. 3 edited by yours truly!)

 Clothing and Fashion-19935376

I’m thrilled to share that a project I have been working on since 2012 has finally come to fruition (that is three years people!). Now available, Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe is a four-volume encyclopedia edited by Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and (myself) Heather Vaughan Lee, along with General Editor,  José Blanco F.

I wrote about 10% of volume 3 (1900-1945), and served as the volume editor. I was honored to work with an amazing group of historians, curators, collection managers, writers, and friends and I sincerely thank all of them for their contributions to this project.

While I don’t expect that very many individuals will buy this book, I do hope that it is picked up by libraries and university fashion departments. If you think your library/institution/department might be interested, you can print the flyer or you can now buy it directly from Amazon (at a slightly discounted price).

2015-12-14 16.57.31 12366263_10103698058592813_2693048397538750191_nContributors to Volume 3, 1900-1945 include

Shelley Foote
Katherine Hill Winters
Melinda Webber Kerstein
Brenna Barks
Arianna Funk
Tove Hermanson
Clarissa Esquerra
Priscilla Chung
Nadine Stewart
JoAnn Stabb
Lisa Santandrea
Marcella Millio
Patricia Cunningham
Inez Brooks-Myers
Monica D. Murgia
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Fashion History for the Holidays: Fashion A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today

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Recently released from Rizzoli, is a new gigantic visual reference for fashion history from expert Caroline Rennolds Milbank titled Fashion: A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today (October 27, 2015). The forward from Harold Koda is overshadowed by the wealth of images: 1400 images on 320 pages. While the text is minimal, it is informative and interesting. Not your typical fashion history book, it explores a number of trends, types of clothing, and designers in not often seen images (those well versed in fashion history will present the ‘newness’ of this approach).

photoFor example, the spread on page 32 includes 10 photographs of fashions from 1867 with the text noting:

Two views of a Mrs. Bates show her seated in a black silk dress with jet embroidery and also standing dressed for an outing in a short paletot jacked and flat hat worn low on her forehead. A white cotton or linen waist with ribbon and other trimming, worn with a solid or plaid skirt makes an appearance. Christine Nilsson, the blonde and blue-eyed Swedish singing sensation, wears what is being called a suit, a fitted paletot and matching skirt in striped silk.”

The uncluttered design presents beautifully on the page, though historians may find it frustrating to have to flip back and forth to the end notes for citation information for all the photographs. Admittedly, however, the endnotes DO provide a wealth of fascinating information.

I think it would make a wonderful coffee table book – and it makes me wish I had a coffee table!

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#Fashionbooks: The History of Modern Fashion by Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl

Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl are the authors of the new book, The History of Modern Fashion (September 2015), and they were gracious enough to answer a few questions about their new publication from Laurence King, the publishing process, and their vision for the book. Nancy Deihl was my advisor in graduate school at NYU’s program in Visual Culture Costume Studies and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share her work. This new book covers the history of fashion from 1850-2010 and is lavishly illustrated. It’s a must have for fashion historians, students, and enthusiasts (and with the holiday’s approaching would make a great gift!)

How did the book, as a project begin, and develop? How long did it take to research, write and publish?

The publisher, Laurence King, based in London, approached the fashion design department at FIT about the possibility of a fashion history book. Daniel teaches in that department and was definitely interested in the opportunity and asked me to join him.  It took us over six years to research and write and have it brought to print.”

My assumption is that you intend it to be used as a fashion history textbook with some cross over appeal to the general market. How do you see it’s ‘place’ in the world? Especially in comparison to other fashion history survey’s out there (such as Tortora or Mendes/de la Haye)?

The History of Modern Fashion works well for textbook use. We organized the book using a decades approach, knowing that that’s how many (if not most) instructors organize the material for a course on modern fashion.  And we start with 1850 because that’s also a typical marker for a class.  The 1850s and 60s were notable in terms of developments of the designer system and also technologies, both important for laying the groundwork for 20th century fashion.

We also made sure to include subheadings, a glossary, and really explicit captions so every word is an opportunity to inform!  We feel – and the feedback we’ve gotten so far backs this up – that it fills a niche for lots of different levels of instruction.  The general public seems to be enthusiastic as well.  I spoke at an NYU alumni event last week – and as you know Steinhardt alums range from musicians to physical therapists – and there was a fantastic response to the book!”

Six hundred images is a LOT! How did the image selection/research/publication process go?

Yes, 600 images is a lot.  Images are crucial to this project so we are grateful that everyone at LK understood that.  We were very lucky that the picture editor, Heather Vickers, who has done a number of books for LK, was extremely imaginative and just wonderful to work with.  We did lots of sleuthing and had a wish list and although not every picture we wanted was traceable (or affordable) the results are extremely satisfying! And the Special Collections department at FIT was instrumental in helping with images – making many, many available to us.”

Anything in particular you’d like your fellow historians to know about this book, the process, or the research?

This was a big project.  We learned so much along the way – not just about fashion history but about research and collaboration and communication. We certainly got to know each other very well through this collaborative process.  At the beginning we were colleagues who were only slightly acquainted; by the end of the process we could finish each others’ sentences!!

One of our favorite aspects of the writing is the ‘sidebars’ that are part of each chapter – self-contained, fun (we hope!) profiles of memorable characters and fashion ‘stories.’”

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Shoemaker Chris Francis and the Body as Agent Symposium

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It was my extreme honor to be a speaker at the Body as Agent Symposium on October 10. The sold out crowd was rife with artists, historians and fashion history/art to wear enthusiasts and I couldn’t have been among a more receptive crowd. Presenters, hand-picked by curator Inez Brooks-Myers, included Melissa Leventon (historian), Ana Lisa Hedstrom (Shibori Master), and other artists such as Carol Lee Shanks, Chris Francis, emiko oye, Dolores R. Gray, and Suzanne Lacke. Of these, several stood out as ‘crowd favorites’ (as well as my own).

Hands down, the favorite and most impressive of the group was the well spoken (though quiet) Chris Francis. His amazing (and fast) trajectory as a wearable shoe artist are impressive. His private clients include many musicians such as members of Prince’s band, Journey, and others. Self-taught, his (completely wearable) shoes are entirely handmade and reference major artists, art movements, literature, music and others.

These included Dali, Picasso, The Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, Cubism, Dadaism, Tramp Art, Punk Music, Devo, Salvatore Ferragamo, You Can’t Win by Jack Black, and other contemporary and historical culture issues. His materials (and inspirations) are often ‘found’ objects, or inspired by his current city of Los Angeles, as well as his steel working hometown in Indiana. His background includes carpentry and “building” as he put it, with a love of mechanics. He is also a sometime painter, and has sometimes used that medium as a ‘jumping off’ point for his creations.

Opium den shoes inspired by “You Can’t Win’ by Jack Black, by Chris Francis. At the symposium, he noted that these shoes could have been worn while others ‘smoked’ the opium pipe ‘and looked up’.

These included Dali, Picasso, The Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, Cubism, Dadaism, Tramp Art, Punk Music, Devo, Salvatore Ferragamo, You Can’t Win by Jack Black, and other contemporary and historical culture issues. His materials (and inspirations) are often ‘found’ objects, or inspired by his current city of Los Angeles, as well as his steel working hometown in Indiana. His background includes carpentry and “building” as he put it, with a love of mechanics. He is also a sometime painter, and has sometimes used that medium as a ‘jumping off’ point for his creations.

Some of his shoes have architectural references, and he has toyed with including mechanical elements to the shoes (though this makes them slightly less wearable, and a little more dangerous). He is a self-identified former ‘punk’ who taught himself design and pattern making by reading and buying textbooks from a design schools curriculum (he didn’t name which school). His punk shoes included a stiff mohawk made from old broom, and actual material (flyers?) from the walls of the old CBGBs in New York.

Chris Francis, 2015. Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum. CF: ” I’m actually trying to mimic the motions of machines rather than making shoes that just resemble a machine; I want to actually get to the motion because I love industrial design.” This pair of shoes also references his own painting, which strongly referenced cubism.

Of his Devo boots (the main image used to promote the current exhibition, the opening image here), he explained that he often sees colors and/or shapes while he’s listening to music (I believe, this is called synesthesia) and had been listening to “lots and lots” of Devo, and appreciating its mechanized sound, correlated the design to the music. I can’t wait to watch as is career and the world continues to inspire his work. His work has humor, thoughtfulness, and interesting references. All of which makes his work entertaining and aesthetically pleasing. It reminds me of the work of Gaza Bowen (especially her sculptural shoes), though I can’t quite put my finger on the ‘how’ of that feeling.

The exhibition, Body as Agent, is on view through in Richmond, CA through November 15. Chris Francis had a solo show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles that closed September 6, but additional information and images are still available online. You can hear an audio review of that show via KCRW’s design show DNA.

 

 

Salvatore Ferragamo’s 1939 wedge, the inspiration for Chris Francis’ version.
Inspired by asking himself the question “What if Ferragamo were in the studio and collaborated with me on a shoe?” by Chris Francis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Chris Francis’ boots, inspired by Devo on view at Body as Agent in Richmond, CA

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Guest Exhibition Review: Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

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I’m very pleased to present a review by my friend and fellow Costume Society of America Western Region Board Member, Brenna Barks.

“Back to …” By Brenna Barks

There is an intimacy present in objects of material culture that is often lost in exhibitions and academic studies. This can be especially true of clothing. It is not only worn on the body, but reflects an extremely personal choice either to express or hide identity, to reveal or armor ones self against the rest of the world.

This feeling of intense, almost uncomfortable intimacy permeates Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibition currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. While raw and somewhat intrusive, it is an extremely relevant intimacy as the exhibition is designed to delve behind the tabloids and the public persona of a world-famous musician, to reveal the girl her family knew, loved, and lost.

It gives the feeling of going through Amy’s belongings in the way that her family must have done after her death. In addition to various family items, it includes her clothing from childhood through the height of her career. Things that she most valued and kept, and which her brother, Alex Winehouse, and his wife, Riva (as co-curators with Liz Selby of the Jewish Museum in London) decided best represented Amy to include in this exhibition.

First among these items are her school sweater and tie worn in both grade school and the Sylvia Young Theatre School. They could be anyone’s jumper (sweater) and tie, but they are displayed so that you can see the name labels sewn into them. The objects are shown next to private photos from Amy Winehouse’s school days. These photos reveal for visitors that even a young Amy knew what her style was, and how to express it despite a school uniform.

Cynthia Winehouse (“Nan”), Amy Winehouses’ grandmother. Photo credit: Winehouse family

The exhibition suggests that much of Amy Winehouse’s unique style could be traced to her grandmother, Cynthia Winehouse. Alex and Amy Winehouse’s “Nan” was a strong, larger than life personality whom they both felt they could talk to (and smoke a sneaky cigarette with behind their parents’ backs). She married towards the end of World War II, and believed strongly in looking her best. Evident inspirations in Amy’s style are reflected in pictures of her Nan from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Clothing displayed from both Amy’s private and public life, the theme of intimacy remains. Several portraits from early in her career, taken in her home, were displayed along with a smattering of her wardrobe. The exhibition design aimed to display objects in the same way that Amy would have seen them every day on her clothes rail at home. Her brother Alex revealed that while she often wore stiletto heels and mini dresses in public, she was happiest in the tracksuit bottoms and cut off shorts she wore at home – albeit, as the home photos show, with her hair and make-up impeccably done.

The clothing is a delightful mix of this casual attire, exquisite designer scarves from Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint-Laurent, Hermes and others mixed with fast-fashion and thrift shop scarves, comfortable bedroom slippers next to platform heels – including some by Christian Louboutin, all hanging alongside the thrift shop finds like a pink bowling jacket Amy had customized, or a pair of braces (suspenders) found in a charity shop. There seems to be a definite mix in Amy’s “closet” of her at-home clothes and some of the dresses she performed in, as though she didn’t have a true stage wardrobe. This revelation seems to reveal that despite her public persona she managed to remain true to her authentic self by wearing her own clothes on stage, not what a stylist or her fans wanted, but what she felt comfortable in. This variation of formal and casual helps present a more realistic picture of the woman, as any of our closets would do.

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Installation view from Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. Photo: Ian Lillicrapp. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.
Amy Winehouse performing in a Luella dress at Glastonbury in 2008

A couple of her outfits are set apart. The black and white gingham, Arrogant Cat mini-dress that she wore not only in the “Tears Dry On Their Own” music video, but for several on stage performances is set apart to demonstrate just that she often wore her own clothing on stage or in videos. To quote the catalogue, this dress, combined with the bowling jacket and other casual pieces she was often seen wearing in public “reflect the grass roots nature of her style and her down-to-earth nature.” Then there is the Luella Bartley dress she sang in at Glastonbury, which was apparently too small even for Amy. This is set apart to discuss her stage persona and how even with her “down-to-earth” style, fame enabled her some designer collaborations and perks, though in the end, she preferred her own clothes, it seems.

The references to Amy’s Jewish heritage are very subtle, but that seems in keeping as it is meant to reveal the woman, rather than a perception of her. The exhibition opens with a family tree of the various Jewish, largely Eastern European emigres to London who make up the Winehouse siblings’ background, various name changes over the years as the family assimilated and became Jewish Londoners, rather than immigrants. The catalogue delves deeper not only into the family history but the history of Jewish London, a community that Amy was deeply connected to through cultural if not religious ties.

There are various objects throughout the exhibition that quietly reinforce this identity. A few pieces from her beloved Nan; photographs at her brother’s bar mitzvah, or other family gatherings at the synagogue; and a cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food by Cynthia Roden, which was a present from her brother with a message from him directing her to the recipe for chicken soup if she ever suffered “a loss of faith.” You get the impression that music was the central passion of Amy Winehouse’s life, with the large record collection, the guitars, the music school performances, but that her Jewish identity was strong and so much a part of her it didn’t need mentioning or overt displays.

The exhibition ends with a quote from Amy’s application essay to Sylvia Young Theatre School:

I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell out concerts, and sell out West End and Broadway shows. For being … just me.”

Respectful, intimate, and engaging, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait gives viewers a fuller picture of the iconic singer as a real person, so that you leave knowing that she accomplished just that.

The exhibition will be on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through November 1, 2015.

Thanks so much to Brenna for this review! For anyone not able to make it to the exhibit, the Associated Press provides this glimpse of the London version of the show in 2013:

 

*Image credit: Mark Okoh, Camera Press London. Amy at her home in Camden town, 2004.

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Help save the Helen Larson Costume Collection @FIDMMuseum with #4for400

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Today, the FIDM Museum launches the #4for400 project, a fundraising campaign for the acquisition of the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection. If successful, this remarkable collection will be kept in tact and available for research, exhibition, and inspiration.

The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection ranges from gowns worn by Queen Victoria (along with the clothing of 3 Empresses and 10 Princesses) to stunning couture creations of the twentieth century. It includes 22 haute couture designers including Paquin, Doucet, Chanel, Callot Soeurs, House of Worth, Fortuny, Lucile, Felix, Beer, and Lanvin.

These pieces were collected by Helen Larson, a successful Southern California collector and entrepreneur who understood the importance of fashion history. It is the only collection of this caliber in the world. The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection encompasses more than 1,400 pieces and represents 400 years of history (A man’s red velvet jerkin is the earliest piece, dating to 1600)– but this critically important collection could be broken up and lost forever. The Museum has until the end of 2015 to raise the remaining $2 million needed to purchase the collection for our institution. Without these funds, the collection will be dispersed or absorbed into another private collection, inaccessible to students, researchers, and the general public.

Here is how you can help:

  • Follow the FIDM Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for details.
  • On 8/4 (TODAY!), donate $4, $40, $400, or $4,000 (or more!) by texting “MUSEUM” to 243-725.
  • Share, Like, Re-Gram, and Re-Tweet #4for400 posts from the FIDM Museum.
  • Forward this post to friends who are also interested in preserving fashion history.
  • Ask your favorite celebrities/politicians/persons of interest to support #4for400 on social media.
  • Join the #4for400 Open House (Today!) at the FIDM Museum, Los Angeles from 3:00 – 7:00 p.m. (with refreshments, raffles, music, and gallery tours).

All donations to the FIDM Museum are tax-deductible. If you would like to donate by check, make it out to “FIDM Museum and Library, Inc.” and mail it to

FIDM Museum #4for400

919 S. Grand Ave, Suite 250

Los Angeles, CA 90015

 

P.S. Follow the Twitter action here.

PSS: To the folks at FIDM Museum, I say “May the 4th be with you” 🙂

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Guest Book Review: Fashion Victims

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Way back in February, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell kindly provided a guest post on Fashion Historia (“When Redskin Was the New Black”). Now, Mark Hutter has generously provided a review Chrisman-Cambell’s book Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (Yale University Press, 2015). Hutter is the Senior Tailor in the Department of Historic Trades at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His studies focus upon the social, political, industrial, and economic contexts of 17th and 18th century clothing. Hutter is a long time member and officer of the Costume Society of America. Enjoy!

Discussions and depictions of fashion in France on the eve of the Revolution have long focused on the visible extremes of the era and have often heaped blame for the extravagances directly on the ill-fated head of the Queen. In folklore and many traditional histories, the fashions, particularly those of the court, are dismissed as excessive frivolities, the Queen as vain, and the Revolution is justified as the inevitable means of righting these wrongs amongst others. Only in recent decades has an academic approach been applied to better understand the extraordinary complexities of the relationships between fashion, politics, economics, industry, media, celebrity and the makers, wearers, and observers of la mode Ancien and le mode Révolutionnaire. In her new book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Anoinette, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell masterfully discusses and explains these complexities with the familiarity of an eyewitness and the hindsight of the best of historians.

Some authors have undertaken broad studies the immense subject of this revolution in fashion and politics. Daniel Roche’s Culture and Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ancient régime (1994) and Madeleine Delpierre’s Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century (1998) have served as the best introductions to the age. Other scholars have provided deeper analysis of certain aspects of the tumultuous era: Richard Wrigley, Politics of Appearance: Representations of Dress in Revolutionary France (2002); Clare Crowston, Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1765-1791 (2001); Jennifer Jones, Sexing “La Mode”: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France (2004); Caroline Weber, The Queen of Fashion, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tremendously successful Dangerous Liaisons exhibit and catalogue (2006), sensuously illustrated the seductive relationship between Ancien Régime literature and fashion.

In Fashion Victims, Chrisman-Campbell seamlessly reconstructs the most complete depiction of the glitter before the gore, but she is not blinded by it. Fashion, both the manufacture and the consumption of it, is proven to be a powerful political machine. La mode was simultaneously reflective of and influential upon the shifting morals, philosophies, and alliances that resulted in the great social and governmental changes of the Revolution. The changes in French fashion- sartorial, ideological, and political- resonated globally. Chrisman-Campbell does not rely on her own words to convince the reader of the scale and importance of fashion, but draws from an impressive array of period authors, including many original manuscripts, as well as works unpublished since the eighteenth century. Her depth of understanding adds new insight to more familiar sources. Chrisman-Campbell skillfully translates old French, maintaining the nuance of the original commentators, and adds to these a compelling narrative and analysis of her own. The result is unrivaled.

The depth and quality of Chrisman-Campbell’s research and the intelligence of her interpretation is exemplified by her sustained discussions of particular phenomena and influences within fashion. The chapters on à l’Américaine and Anglomania, prove these trends to not be quaint mimicry but reflections of France’s international dialogue. Chrisman-Campbell teases-out the origins and importance of the coiffeur confections known as poufs, and the overt fashion victims who were les petite-mâitresses, and shows them not as mere fancies and faddist but as three-dimensional commentaries on the age, as timely, ephemeral, yet influential as the modern magazine cover and celebrity. The chapter on Figaro brilliantly demonstrates the circular relationship between fashion in media and fashion in reality.

Fashion Victims is as elegantly illustrated as it is written. The author tirelessly sought out every garment and scattered fragment purported to have association with Marie Antoinette; the best documented pieces are shown. The cast of the Court and the Revolution are introduced in countless portraits, some familiar and many not. The careful pairing of period prints with images of related extant objects and contemporaneous descriptions adds greatly to the reader’s ability to visualize the detailed styles…and the personalities, discussed. It is Chrisman-Campbell’s intimacy with these personalities, politics, and fashions that enables her to make them again understandable, and perhaps even desirable.” — Mark Hutter,

 

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