Heavenly Bodies: A Review

By Nadine L. Stewart

HEAVENLY BODIES: FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION
MET CLOISTERS
THROUGH OCTOBER 8, 2018

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is a title that seems simple on the surface. Its stated purpose is to show the influence of the Roman Catholic faith on designers of fashionable dress. However, the question arises—what IS “the Catholic Imagination?” Why is its influence so compelling that even designers who have left the faith or who are scarred by it are inspired by its power?

It is a broad topic to be sure, one that encompasses memory, history, and emotion. To answer this question, the Costume Institute, under the patient direction of Curator Andrew Bolton, has mounted its largest exhibit and in two locations: the Met Fifth Avenue building and the Cloisters, its branch in the upper reaches of Manhattan devoted to the art of the Middle Ages. Because I feel much of the mystery and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church evolved in the Middle Ages, I chose to approach this exhibit in two parts and explore the Cloisters’ portion of the exhibit first.

I get a sense of mystery every time I visit the Cloisters. It is an intimate space, so it is a good place to feel the intense faith and singular focus of the medieval world when the Church was all-powerful. There were no other doors to the divine then. The worldview and the view of time were entwined with Biblical time. It seems the right place to start to try to comprehend the mystery of the Catholic imagination.

The first sight of fashion comes right at the entrance to the museum in the Romanesque hallway. One sees the glittering of crystals which cover a heavy floor-length jute gown with shoulders built up above the ears and long sleeves like tubes that hang below the hands. Jeweled rosaries can be seen twisted around both of the mannequin’s arms that peek from the sleeves. The austere piece by Victor and Rolf from 1999-2000 is more like a religious statute than a garment. That impression is reinforced by the two wooden statues of the Madonna from twelfth-century France on each side.

A turn to the left takes one into the Fuentiduena Chapel, another Romanesque space dominated by a giant crucifix. This chapel is devoted to showing the influence of the sacraments of the Church—marriage, communion, and baptism. Some of the simplest dresses on display are here, including a simple white cotton poplin shirtwaist subtly decorated with inserts of sheer crosses designed by Azzedine Alaia in 1992. However, the eye is inevitably drawn to one of the most iconic creations in couture history—Balenciaga’s wedding dress and coif-like headdress from 1967. The restraint and simplicity of this garment show a creative strength that can only be drawn from great craft and imagination. It’s a far cry from the glitz and glitter recently on display at the Met’s Gala and gives a sense of the strength of belief that sustained Balenciaga, a man raised in the very traditional Spanish Church.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967)

Next door two long black capes by Valentino stand on high pedestals amid the arches of a smaller Romanesque cloister. The mounting of these robes is one of the unique features of this exhibit since it requires visitors to look at them in a new way. One is covered with black velvet appliques that echo the arches surrounding it. Like the Victor and Rolf garment at the entrance, these figures look like religious statues.

Bolton has chosen to place part of this exhibit around the outdoor garden of The Cuxa Cloister The garments here are influenced by the religious orders. Each is simple, depending only on cut for its effect. Two of the eight garments on the west side are by an American, Claire McCardell, whose black Monastic Dress of wool jersey set new standards in American style in 1938. Its simple pleated lines secured by a belt made it a garment that could be worn by many women with many different body types. Monastic robes must be adaptable to many different bodies too. They render them the same before God. There’s another lesser known McCardell here, the “Cloister Dress” of cream colored wool jersey with dolman sleeves and a slightly dropped waistline. Designed as a wedding dress during the 1940s, it too can flatter many figure types due to its simplicity.

The monastic line-up includes dresses by Madame Gres, including two stunning taffeta Gres gowns with enormous sleeves like exaggerated choir robes from 1969. Along the south wall are more Valentino’s with severely simple lines interspersed with two Rick Owens’ menswear from 2015-16. These sweatshirt-like robes are distinguished by “peephole crotches,” a witty touch that was influenced by the bawdy monastic figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Owens’ garments are a good reminder that the range of fashion inspired by the Catholic Church are not always ethereal, otherworldly garb.

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) 1969
Jean Paul Gaultier (French, born 1952). “Guadalupe” Evening Ensemble, spring/summer 2007 haute couture.

The Early Gothic Chapel is devoted to another important Catholic influence—Mary, the mother of Christ, who is venerated above all women. All three of the dresses here are by John Paul Gaultier, two stunning silk jersey pieces in the color blue, the color associated with Mary the Virgin. One features a red heart on the chest pierced with a dagger. Stained glass inspires a third gown with fractured images of the Virgin and Child much like the window behind it.

In the Gothic Chapel, the influence is “Goth” dress which started in England in the late twentieth century. Religious symbols are an important component of Goth dress along with the color black. The centerpiece of the Gothic Chapel is a gown and headdress by John Galliano for Dior in 2006-7 influenced by the Crusaders and Joan of Arc. The mannequin is lying down like a tomb sculpture wearing a gown encrusted with black paillettes, silver metallic embroidery with a section of silver armor on the left shoulder. It is topped with a fantastical headdress of silver wire and cascading crystals. Goth designs by Gareth Pugh and Oscar Theyskens flank Galliano’s showy piece—all in black, of course!

Downstairs in the Glass Gallery, the fashions are inspired by the Garden of Eden. At each end of this gallery are 2014 Valentino ball gowns, both exquisitely embroidered. One has the figures of Adam and Eve in the Garden based on a painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder. The other is covered with gold wheat. Wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist which becomes the body of Christ. Also, in the hall are witty creations by Junko Takahashi from 2011. They are mini-dresses and platform shoes covered with images taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the early 16th Century. The inclusion of these pieces is interesting because Takahashi is Japanese and raised outside the Catholic Church, unlike the other designers in the exhibit who were exposed to the Church when they were young. I’m guessing that Takahashi, who is drawn to dramatic images, was inspired by the weird images in Bosch’s painting which are unique in the history of Western art.

Valentino SpA, 2015–16, courtesy of Valentino, Italy, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

At the end of the gallery hiding behind a door to a confessional is another Galliano, a red gown of linen twill coated in rubber inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, a work condemned by the church. It’s a reminder of the dark side of the Catholic imagination that periodically condemned works that challenged its dogma.

The Treasury contains the most precious artifacts of the Cloisters. First on view is a striking silver crown of thorns made for Alexander McQueen. Its stark simplicity is powerful. The crown of thorns is one of the most revered symbols of the Christian faith, so McQueen’s decision to recreate it for his “Dante” collection in 1996-7 was a bold one. It raises the question—does use of such a symbol on the fashion runway diminish it?

Behind another set of glass doors, we find works used in religious sacraments, such as chalices and reliquaries. There are also two chasubles, poncho-like robes worn during Mass. These are more recent creations, one made for John Paul II in 1997 is of cream silk covered in multicolored crosses. The other was designed by French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for World Youth Day also in 1997. This one struck me as curious. It too is cream with rainbow stripes that run vertically down the middle of the front and back. The official reason for the stripes was that they were a tribute to nature, but the rainbow stripes are also on the flag of the Gay Pride Movement. An article in Interview[1] from 2016 states that Castelbajac told John-Paul about this connection, but the Pope replied, “But Jean-Charles, there is no copyright on the rainbow.” So, the Pope, 500 bishops, and 5,000 priests wore the rainbow colors that day. This is the only mention, thought very tangential, of the Church’s teaching on theological teaching against homosexuality. Many of the designers in the exhibit are gay, but we get no hint about how this doctrine of the Church affected their psyches and imaginations.

Philip Treacy hat in the Boppard Room at the Cloisters

Upstairs in the Boppard Room, three straw hats by Philip Treacy are mounted in front of an altar featuring three Netherlandish busts of female saints. The hats are based on headdresses for the Virgin and are reminiscent of nun’s headdresses with wings that encircle the head. They seem to soar about the head glittering slightly from a dusting of gold.

The last gallery contains another bride. This one by Dolce and Gabanna is all gold lace and trims. The figure is really like a religious statue of the Virgin that might be carried through the streets in a saint’s day celebration. The figure with its very Italian influence shares the gallery with work the evokes Northern Europe from McQueen’s “Angels and Demons” collection of 1997-8. The labels tell us that McQueen’s favorite period in art history was fifteenth-century Flanders. Though he references the period with its color and imagery, it is worth remembering that this was a time when the Church was being challenged there.

Heavenly Bodies took on a huge, difficult subject. The exhibit aims to show us how religious faith of the Roman Catholic Church affected fashion and its creators. It isn’t always easy to understand the spirituality behind what can be seen as just clothes—fine, beautifully crafted clothes, but still, clothes for the very wealthy. However, in the intimate chapels of the Cloisters, it is possible to sense the spiritual undergirding of religious inspiration. Not all the garments convey the power of the religious inspiration, but a few, like the pure lines of Balenciaga wedding gown, can take one to another place. It’s worth a trip to the Cloisters to touch that feeling if only fleetingly.

Note: There’s another benefit of making the trip to The Cloisters. It’s situated in the midst of one of New York City’s most beautiful public parks, Fort Tyron. You can walk through gardens with a beautiful view of the Hudson River as you go to and from the exhibit. It’s truly a lovely day trip.

A 5-minute overview of the Cloisters exhibit for some additional visuals and details:

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

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[1] Trey Taylor, “Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Reflects on His Past,” Interview, November 1, 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/jean-charles-de-castelbajac-1

 

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A critical eye falls on MOMA’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern”

Editors note: While it is always nice to have the recommendation of a ‘good’ fashion exhibit, it is also beneficial and important to explore exhibits that don’t work, have problems, or are otherwize not recommended. These kinds of reviews are few and far between in the blog world. Nonetheless, I asked Nadine to write this review, knowing that she had found problems with MOMA’s exhibition. I encourage you to read her assesment and leave your thoughts in the comments (questions are welcome as well!)

In 1944 a provocative exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art curated by Austrian-born architect Bernard Rudofsky which asked the question “Are Clothes Modern?” In his accompanying book for the exhibition, Rudofsky minced no words in his opinion of fashion. In his view fashion “is based on envy and the urge of imitating the envied. It presupposes the existence of an aristocratic minority—aristocratic in the sartorial sense—that sets the ‘style’ and the pace of style rotation.”[1] He felt fashion is undemocratic and “fits the totalitarian state perfectly,”[2] harsh words for a country emerging from a war against two totalitarian states to hear.

Rudofsky’s sculptures

He was particularly critical of the changing fashionable silhouette. The exhibit featured sculptures of distorted figures—a woman with a “bustle body” who looked like a centaur, another with a huge mono-bosom. He had particularly harsh words for women’s hats, pointing to their artificiality. “Alas, we do not think any more of adorning our heads with a wreath of flowers. Women’s heads are frequently garnished with the artificial kind. They are traditionally arranged on a platter which by common consent is spoken of as a woman’s hat.” [3] Rudofsky felt that all fashion was completely frivolous and had no place in the modern society he foresaw developing in post-war America.

On December 20, 1944, he told the New York Fashion Group, an association made up of the city’s most influential designers, fashion journalists and industry executives, that he was looking forward to “the day when fashion and fashion makers will be forgotten like a nightmare—on this day we shall have made one big step toward a more intelligent way of living.”[4] Vogue’s response was spirited. “‘Are Clothes Modern?’ Vogue answers, ‘Emphatically, yes!’ and wonders that the bright-eyed, up-to-the-next-minute Modern Museum could ask such a question seriously. Granted that men’s clothes have too many buttons, pockets, are tradition-bound. But women’s fashions? Whom has the Modern Museum been looking at? Have they been rummaging through the files of their historic film library?”[5]

American fashion was just emerging from the war years when most of the fashion world was restricted by the rationing laws. So, to Vogue’s editors, “fashion is first cousin to modern furniture, modern engineering, modern housing, modern transport.  If by modern we mean ‘characteristic of the present time’ …and that’s what Webster means.”[6]

Rudofsky’s predictions for the world of fashion did not come true, Indeed, he ended up working in the fashion world himself. He established Bernardo’s, a company that made elegant simple sandals what were the embodiment of his view that clothing should be simple and body-affirming. No stilettos for him.

Seventy years went by. Exhibits of fashion became more and more numerous and drew large crowds. These exhibits and increasing scholarship in the field established the fact that fashion was not simply about women’s clothes, but a design field that influenced men and women of all ethnicities. So, MOMA now has its own exhibit of 111 items that the curators have decided transcend fashion since they are deemed iconic, like the white t-shirt, that continue to be worn year after year.

The goals of this exhibit are ambitious:

Items: Is Fashion Modern? explores the present, past—and sometimes the future—of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today. …. Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers, the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.[7]

That’s a tall order. The wall text at the entrance explains this exploration will be done by linking each item with three-part explanation composed of “archetype,” “stereotype.” and “prototype.” These leaves one wondering what those words mean. In an accompanying video Curator Paola Antonelli explained: “The stereotype is . . . close your eyes, and if you think of that item, what do you see?” That didn’t clear it up for me, but I was able to figure out that “archetype” meant the history of the garment which was covered in voluminous wall text. Many of the garments on display can probably be purchased at a big-box store, which is a good thing since MOMA has exactly four dresses, one coat, one shirt, and 4 head coverings in its collection.

The “prototypes” were works of art MOMA commissioned specifically to show how artists are inspired by the “iconic” pieces on display. According to the exhibit’s thesis statement they were intended “to respond to some of these indispensable items with pioneering materials, approaches, and techniques—extending this conversation into the near and distant futures, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use.”[8]

Spanx by Lucy Jones

You find yourself wondering why this was necessary. Often the pieces were confusing. Artist Lucy Jones created a version of Spanx for a wheelchair-bound woman. The seated figure was on a stool, not a wheelchair, so it took a while for me to figure out the meaning of what the side zippers on the Spanx were for. If I had any “conversation” after viewing this, it was to ask why the figure couldn’t have been mounted in a wheelchair, or, at the very least, with some suggestion of wheels.

Pia Interlandi, Little Black (Death) Dress, 2017. Photo by Sarah Dotson

Another piece veered in the direction of science fiction. Mounted at the end of a long platform on the little black dress, it was the recumbent figure of a woman in an embroidered black body bag. Artist Pia Interlandi, who specializes in designing garments for the deceased, dyed the shroud with thermochomatic ink. As one watched, it slowly lit up showing blue hands of mourners on the last garment. I found myself wondering how these pieces connected to the “stereotype.” The whole process was tiring.

The exhibit is mounted in the enormous gallery on the sixth floor, which has the effect of diminishing the “items” on display [see opening photo]. There are few pictures to show how these garments are worn, so the gallery looks like it is full of items that a large group of people simply left there. It diminishes the meaning of each item too. A red hoodie, which is supposed to evoke Trayvon Martin and his tragic death, simply looks like it was randomly hung there by the installation staff. To be successful, an exhibit has to blend the text, the objects, and images. It is difficult to connect the research and theory displayed on the walls with the objects themselves. There are voluminous labels with each piece, but they are often close to the floor and printed in very tiny type.

At the end of the exhibit is a huge wall chart that aims to show the interconnectedness of the pieces on display. One would need binoculars to read it since the text is small and high on the wall.

I was happy to see Rudofsky’s sculptures on display. It was like seeing some old friends, but it was hard to figure out how they fit into this exhibit.

Since Rudofsky was so interested in the concept of the fashionable body, he probably would have liked a smaller exhibit that just opened at The Museum @ FIT. The Body: Fashion and Physique examines how the fashionable “ideal” body has changed over time, using garments from the eighteenth century to the present day. The show is focused and thought-provoking.

The curators should have kept Rudofsky’s original title since this exhibit is not about “fashion,” which is a phenomenon of change spurred by the zeitgeist of the time. It about “clothes,” what we wear—a different subject.

After I trudged through Items: Is Fashion Modern? I found myself wondering how long it will be before MOMA examines fashion again. Seventy years?

[1] Bernard Rudofsky, Are Clothes Modern?: an Essay on Contemporary Attire (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1947), 232.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Ibid. 94.

[4] Bernard Rudofsky, speech to meeting of the Fashion Group International, New York, NY, December 20, 1944.

[5] Vogue, February 1, 1945, 121.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638?_ga=2.19712240.970171872.1514665663-1731633683.1514665663

[8] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638?_ga=2.19712240.970171872.1514665663-1731633683.1514665663

 

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Another Prince Tribute

There is no way I can write a definitive history of Prince’s Fashion a few hours after his shocking death. The scope and depth of his impact both musically and culturally, are far too great. Suffice it to say, stylistically, the man was on par with the likes of David Bowie, Freddy Mercury, or Michael Jackson (and in retrospect seems to me like a mash-up of those three). The Cut (New York Magazine’s blog) has a good slideshow of his style.

His looks were often gender-bending, and that seemed only to bolster his sex appeal. He frequently pushed the envelope – both in the way he dressed on stage and in balking corporate music control.  He frequently used ‘shock value’ in his stage style in a career that spanned four decades.

Prince in Assless Pants at the 1991 MTV VMA’s

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I’m sure in the flood of tributes to come, more memorable outfits will surface. But for my money, nothing was better than the first time I ever heard or saw him, which was in the 1984 film, Purple Rain. Below is his costume from that film, by costume designer Marie France. Following that is a performance of “Purple Rain” that just might make you cry.

Prince's Purple Rain Costume, Accession No.: 1987.124.1-5 Gift of PRN Productions. (Minnesota Historical Society)
Prince’s Purple Rain Costume, Accession No.: 1987.124.1-5 Gift of PRN Productions. (Minnesota Historical Society)

 

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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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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

5 Amy Winehouse 540px*

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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Issey Miyake to Western Wear to Amazons at CSA Western Region Symposium

 

Issey Miyake’s Tattoo (1970)

The Western Region of the Costume Society of America held their symposium this year at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR, on October 11. I was fortunately enough to attend and was treated to seven lovely papers (some works in progress), and two lively discussions with attendees on the papers presented, as well as on the state of the western region and what members want more (and less) of. Attendees were very engaged in the discussions, more than I’d seen at a regional level.

The papers topics were based loosely on the topic “From the Street to the Catwalk, Cultural Influences on Contemporary Fashion” and the Museum of Contemporary Craft made for a wonderful setting (especially because of their exhibit, Fashioning Cascadia, which ended that day.

After opening remarks, the Annual Business meeting, and a short talk by CSA National President, Kathy Mullet (who is a Western Region member), the papers were presented. Given by Brenna Barks, Clara Berg, Meghan Hanson, Jennifer M. Mower, Linda Florence Matheson, Ilana Winter and JoAnn Stabb, the papers were varied – both in their topics, as well as in the progress of research. Topics included

  • Issey Miyake’s use of Japanese revival style,
  • GLBTQ style clothing in a regional museum,
  • a preview of the Michel Arnaud Fashion Photography Archive at FIDM,
  • pre-WWII WPA sewing rooms,
  • Street to runway fashion from the 40s-80s,
  • A history of Rockmount Ranch Wear, and
  • Romaine Brooks’ Amazon/Tuxedo fashions and their influence through history

It was also a good mix of emerging professionals and well –seasoned presenters. Regional diversity was good too – presenters were from Fresno, Los Angeles, Davis, Seattle, and Corvalis, covering three states (California, Oregon, and Washington).

Happily, attendees were also given packets of information with abstracts for all the papers presented, and much discussion was generated by the topics in the symposium wrap-up. I was glad to get to spend such good time, considering these interesting topics. It makes me glad that there is still so much research left to do! Below are some photos I took from the Fashioning Cascadia Exhibition:

Photo Oct 11, 8 26 30 AMwtmkPhoto Oct 11, 8 25 40 AMwtmk  Photo Oct 11, 8 26 45 AMwtmkPhoto Oct 11, 8 26 34 AMwtmk

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Guest Exhibit Review: Bill Cunningham’s Facades at New York Historical Society

 

Currently on view at the New York Historical Society (through June 15, 2014), “Bill Cunningham: Facades” is a photography show from the now iconic photographer and the results of an eight-year project to document the architectural riches and fashion history of New York City which pairs models in period costumes with historic settings. Nadine Stewart, Fashion Historian, has graciously provided a review here for those not able to see the exhibit in person, or for those looking for some analysis of the show. Thanks again to Nadine!

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you should do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”

— Bill Cunningham

Today Bill Cunningham is an icon. Readers of the New York Times can follow his analysis of street styles and social life every week. He was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary. He’s followed fashion tirelessly both in New York and abroad for 35 years. When he began, it was a lonely quest. Now bloggers copy his work every day. None of them have the knowledge or wit to equal him.

“Facades” covers an early period in Cunningham’s career. It’s a smaller, quieter exhibit across the park from the glory of the Charles James exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet its images resonate just as strongly. The pictures were taken in the late 1960s when he was transitioning to his special brand of fashion photography from earlier work as a milliner and fashion journalist.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City, ca. 1968-1976 By Bill Cunningham, Gelatin silver photograph, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham

Beginning in 1968, Cunningham shot a series of 88 gelatin silver prints that matched iconic New York architecture with historic fashions–a range that stretches from the eighteenth century to the 1950s. His model for this eight year project was his neighbor in the Carnegie Hall Artist Studios, Editta Sherman, a fellow photographer who became his partner and muse. Together they scoured thrift shops, flea markets and auctions for vintage clothing. One find, later photographed in front of St Paul’s Chapel, was an eighteenth century man’s coat and vest scrounged for a secondhand shop on Ninth Avenue. In the end, they used 500 outfits at 1800 locations.

In 1968, New York was considered a decaying hulk. Historic buildings like Penn Station were being torn down to make way for an uncertain new future. Preserving the past was still being debated. Some city planners felt that the only way for the city to develop was to cut its link with the past and tear down older buildings. Cunningham clearly disagreed with this approach, a feeling that comes through in the loving way he photographs each building, finding angles a less informed observer would have missed. Editta was the perfect muse for this project. A striking image of Editta in a graffiti-covered subway car dressed in Edwardian splendor, sums up the grittiness of the time, but Editta sits proudly, no giving in to the squalor around her. Her presence is powerful as it is in every picture. She modeled with flair and style—a 56 year old muse who threw herself into each pose whether she was portraying a Victorian grande dame, a flapper from the 1920s, or a swinging mini-skirted girl from the 1960s. Cunningham used his background as a milliner to provide her with hats that punctuate the picture and echo the architecture in the background—like the towering fur toque Editta wears in a close-up in front of the Guggenheim.

Though the pictures were taken 37 years ago, they show a clear relationship between architecture and fashion that informs us today. They are not simply historical dress-up. Each shot shows an understanding and a love of the city. They have a freshness that contemporary fashion photography with its Photoshopped perfection often lacks.

Editta Sherman died in 2013 after she and Cunningham were evicted from Carnegie Hall, their home of 60 years. This exhibit gives us a vision broader than fashion history or iconic New York architecture. It gives us a sense of what type of spirit it takes to survive in a dystopian time.

–Nadine L. Stewart

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Punk Style: An Interview with Monica Sklar

My colleague Monica Sklar, has just published a new book, Punk Style (available as of January 16, 2014; Bloomsbury) and I’m happy to say she agreed to an in-depth interview for Fashion Historia.* Sklar obtained her PhD in Design-Apparel Studies from the University of Minnesota. She has taught several college-level courses in dress and retailing, worked in art and design museums/galleries in multiple capacities, and has published widely on the subject of subcultural style.

The following are her answers to a few key questions to help understand the history and evolution of Punk style.

FashionHistoria: How do you define Punk style? What do you think are the key elements of Punk fashion?

Monica Sklar: Punk remains an esoteric and amorphous concept. So it is difficult to define and to categorize its components as punk or not punk. In Punk Style, I deliberately allowed interviewees and all sources to self-identify as punk, rather than coming into the project with preconceived parameters.

In the beginning, punk-styled apparel was self-made or pieced together through bricolage. It was available for purchase only through specific channels, like small boutiques and fetish retailers, ads in fanzines, or punk events. From its 1970s origins through its various present-day incarnations, punk is commonly rooted in those who are in some way disenfranchised from society. Self-identified punks may be critical of mainstream art, politics, popular culture, consumerism, lifestyles, or sexual and social mores. Punk dress was rooted in a desire to be ironic and anti-hegemonic; it reinvented mainstream styles to critique society via bricolage and appropriation.

Many elements of punk dress, such as combat boots, studded belts, and vibrantly dyed hair, have become iconic and stable in popular culture, yet symbolism and meanings have changed throughout time. Not all of those who self-identify as punk share the same perspective on sub cultural dress.

The Bromley Contingent: (Sex Pistols fans), Anti-clockwise. Debbie Juvenile, Siouxsie, Phillip Salon, Spunker Severin, Simon Barker, Soo Catwoman, Linda Ashby, Sharon Hayman (?) (via punk77.co.uk)

The stereotypical image is of a sneering youth wearing something akin to a leather motorcycle jacket, tattered black band logo T-shirt skinny-fitting bondage pants or ripped jeans, combat boots, studded or safety pin metal accessories, and vibrant body modifications such as heavy cosmetics and/or a colored Mohawk. These signifiers are rooted in fashion designs, sub cultural trends, and popular street styles that have been incorporated into punk dress since the 1970s. However, they may not tell a complete story of punk style. It would go on to include the items from hardcore and Goth and skaters and hip hop too.

When asked to describe punk dress in general, many self-identified punks interviewed for Punk Style responded with the phrase “I guess” and other qualifiers and pauses, suggesting they were trying to put themselves in the shoes of someone else looking in on the punk scene; they were trying to describe what an outsider might see. While their answers did support the idea that punk has an iconic look, they also reflected the understanding that this look is often merely a caricature, presenting only a narrow viewpoint. In contrast, they answered with confidence to the question “describe punk dress as you personally have worn it” and other related inquiries into their own punk styling.

Today, punk style has a forty-year history, with a host of influences and a myriad of characteristic pieces that make up the look, as well as flexibility to include new components. Origins of the key aspects of punk style—which include the color black; heavy accessories; boots; clothing that is tattered and manipulated; piercings; tattoos; unnatural hair colors; facial hair; band logos; and jeans, T-shirts, and hooded sweatshirts—have become fragmented and fractured through various subgenres under the punk umbrella.

The most important thing is that it’s punk by the wearers definition

FH: In terms of the history of fashion, what do you feel are the most important origins or touchstones for punk style; it’s influencers, icons, and predecessors?

Vivienne Westwood dressed as Margaret Thatcher for Tatler Magazine

Sklar: As I describe in Punk Style, New York and London in the 1970s were areas of great impact on what would become the aesthetic aspects of punk style, however it was developing in many places at the same time and has continued to evolve. In London Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were innovators, introducing looks that would come to epitomize punk, through their boutique. Social groups, such as the Bromley Contingent, explored a host of exciting clothing styles as well. In New York, musicians like Richard Hell and the Ramones were crucial and derived their look from street styles. Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic had the first punk clothing store in the US and would go on to start their widespread line of cosmetics/hair dye. Scene leaders within geographic regions or new related movements such as hardcore, riot grrrl, and cyberpunk, for example, would change the visuals to suit new motivations and their dress would be widely copied. An increase in subcultures interrelating with punk, such as skinhead and rockabilly, brought more styles into the fold.

Punks styles’ predecessors were social, art, design and political waves including the Situationists, Lettrists, hippies, beatniks, greasers, mods, Dadaists, surrealists, and even mid century modernists, and the arts and crafts movements. Tech progressions have strongly impacted its current incarnations. Basically whoever incorporated DIY and “status quo challenging” ideas into their style could be said to have helped shape punk style.

FH: How do see Punk style manifesting now and in the future?

Sklar: Maturation and accessibility are two major benefits and complications of punk style today. Original punks of the 70s and 80s are now parents/grandparents, homeowners, leaders in their professions, though many are burned out or deceased. Yet new adolescents declare themselves punk daily, and those two groups have limited experiences in common. But, punk can be related to both of them in different ways. The style reacts over time to have new cultural relevance and individuals have changing budgets, bodies and lifestyle.

As technology has increased access to one another and to products, more people can partake in acquiring punk style. Yet, some would argue it then lacks the intimacy and commitment that once was a key factor in developing the “look.” I think the future will see more normalization of iconic punk styles such as colored hair, tartan plaids, body modifications, and new ideas coming into the fold to continue to differentiate that in-the-know punk person from the rest. Some would say that the normalization means it is watered down if it lacks shock and commentary. Others would argue that mainstream acceptance of more diverse appearances is a “win” for a battle punk was fighting against repression and conformity.

Many thanks to Monica for taking the time to answer these questions – please feel free to leave yours in the comments section below!

*Some may remember that I am a former contributor to Monica’s blog, Worn Through.

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Weekend Reading: Smithsonian’s 101 Objects that Made America

Marian Anderson’s Fur Coat (1939)

Just a few days ago the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine landed in my mailbox. The entire issue is dedicated to the 101 objects (out of the 137 million in the Smithsonian’s collection) that are the ‘most important’ in American history and culture (arguably, of course). More than a few objects of clothing and textiles made the cut.

Each is accompanied by a small contextual essay and an illustration (usually a photograph of the actual object, but occasionally illustrations are included).

Neil Armstrong's Space Suit (1969)

Some of the essays are written by surprising people. For example, Martha Stewart penned the essay on the Singer Sewing Machine and Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote the essay on her own judges robe.

The essays are available in part or in full online, and grouped by theme: Wild America, Discovery, Voice, Power, Invention, Community, Happiness, America in the World, and Freedom. It’s a good issue and a unique look at the history of the U.S. The weekend’s approach is a good excuse to seek out the issue, sit down and read it (especially those for those with historical leanings).

What articles of clothing would you have included that they left out?

Neil Armstrong’s Space Suit (1969)

Lincoln’s Top Hat (1865)

Marian Anderson’s Fur Coat (1939)

Cesar Chavez’s Jacket (c. 1990)

Justice O’Connor’s Robe (1981)

Lincoln’s Top Hat (1865)

Singer Sewing Machine (1851)

Levi’s Jeans (1873)

Aids Quilt (1987)

Ruby Slippers (1938)

Michael Jordan’s Jersey (1996-97)

Muhammad Ali’s Gloves and Robe (1974)

World War I Gas Mask (1917)

U.S. Olympic Hockey Jersey (1980)

Star Spangled Banner (1814)

 

 

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