Artifacts from American Fashion: Ruth Cohn’s Shirtwaist dress by Rudolf Gowns

By Heather Vaughan Lee

Woman’s Shirtwaist Dress
Designed by Rudol, c. 1955
Checked silk taffeta, 1999-69-2
Gift of Ruth and Sydney M. Cohn, 1999
Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of my favorite parts of working on Artifacts From American Fashion was doing the background research on the individual objects. They not only offered general examples of clothing worn in the United States at a given time, but also really allowed me to drill down on the individual who wore it, designed it, or sold it. It was an opportunity to get up close and personal with the details of history, and share it with readers.

Take, this shirtwaist dress for example: In the 1950s women wore shirtwaist dresses so much, that they became the de facto “uniform” of the ideal woman in mass media. They represented domestic bliss, conformity, and femininity. Based on the style of a man’s shirt, the shirtwaist got its start in the 1890s, becoming a practical garment for working women. Its’ fascinating history includes labor and class issues, War-time rationing, and post-war French haute couture. It had been and continued to be worn in the home for light housework, reaching its zenith of popularity in the 1950s, as epitomized by idealized TV housewives like Donna Reed and June Cleaver.

Made in New York in the 1950s, this shirtwaist dress of checked silk taffeta was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Ruth and Sydney M. Cohn in 1999. A prominent Russian-Jewish couple, Ruth (Gold) was probably born in Russia in 1911 or 1918 and Sydney, to Russian-immigrant parents in Philadelphia in 1913. Ruth and Sydney “met at a USO social in Philadelphia during World War II and married in 1945.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009)

The Cohns appear to have had direct connections to the fashion industry. During the 1920s and 1930s, Sydney’s father Benjamin worked in the garment industry as a buyer for Gimble’s (of women’s coats and suits) (Women’s Wear Daily 1953). Sydney Cohn also worked in the garment industry, working for 18 years at Kaufmann’s Department store (Women’s Wear Daily 1981). He worked his way up from an assistant, to women’s sportswear buyer, and eventually senior vice president and general merchandise manager (Women’s Wear Daily 1981; Women’s Wear Daily 1963).

Ruth Gold Cohn, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, raised their two sons (a rabbi and a doctor). After her children were grown she “earned a master’s degree in counseling from Penn.” (Downey 2009)

She was also an activist and leader for Jewish charities for the elderly (requiring a high-end wardrobe). For 40 years, the Cohn’s were regular attendees at charitable events, such as The Rainbow Ball to benefit Philadelphia Geriatric Center. Besides this shirtwaist dress, the Cohns donated eighteen other articles of clothing and accessories to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including a 1970s evening gown by Pauline Trigere (American, 1908-2002), a pair of 1970s platform shoes by Pierre Cardin (Italian, b. 1922), and a 1980s evening dress by Geoffrey Beene (American, 1927-2004). Both she and Sydney died in 2009, and at that time had 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren (Philly.com. 2009).

“Shirtwaist Formality.” 1954. Women’s Wear Daily. New York. Vol. 88, Iss. 24. (Feb 4). 4.

Ruth’s shirtwaist dress includes an “Original by Rudolf” label. Rudolf presented similar “Formal Shirtwaist” dresses in February 1954 that were described as “peppy and young” by Women’s Wear Daily (“Shirtwaist Formality” 1954).

Rudolf Gowns had a long history in dressmaking. The company was established as the Marx Singer Company, in 1915 by Carl Marx and William Singer (Women’s Wear. 1917) Afterwards it became Singer & Rudolf in 1923, and then Rudolf Gowns in 1928 when William Singer left (Women’s Wear, 1923; Women’s Wear Daily, 1928). Thereafter, Rudolf Gowns was managed and run at 530 Seventh Avenue by Max Cory Rudolf (1896-1977), and his wife Clara (1898-1968) who had immigrated from Austria-Hungary to Manhattan in 1913.

The company was known for dancing, dinner, cocktail, graduation, and bridesmaids’ gowns and dresses. After their son Charles (1921-1994) joined the firm in the late 1940s, Rudolf’s success on Seventh Avenue became more apparent. Featured in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Rudolf gowns were modeled by actress Deborah Kerr (1921-2007) and photographed by Cecil Beaton (British, 1904-1980) (Vogue 1948, 1957; Harpers Bazaar 1946, 1960). There was even a collaboration with French designer Hubert de Givenchy (b. 1927) in 1954 (Vogue, 1954). That same year, Givenchy provided Audrey Hepburn’s (1929-1993) costumes for the Hollywood film, Sabrina, and received a good deal of publicity and praise.

Advertisement: Rudolf (Rudolf)
Vogue; New York Vol. 110, Iss. 5, (Sep 1, 1947): 114.
Advertisement: Rudolf (Rudolf Gowns)
Vogue; New York Vol. 109, Iss. 7, (Apr 1, 1947): 90.

High-end department stores sold Rudolf gowns, including Saks Fifth Avenue (Vogue, 1957), Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, and I. Magnin (Vogue, 1954), among others. The company closed in 1962, but Charles Rudolf returned to the industry in 1964 under the name Rudolf, Inc. with more affordable gowns in Misses sizes to be designed by Bernard Browner. (Women’s Wear Daily, 1964). The new company did not last long and finally liquidated in 1965 (Women’s Wear Daily, 1965).

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her new book, Artifacts from American Fashion (November 2019, ABC-CLIO) is available wherever books are sold.  More posts by the Author »

Further Information

 “Advertisement.” 1928. Women’s Wear Daily. New York. Vol. 36, Iss. 128. (Jun 1). 4

“August de Lorenzo Is New Resource.” 1965. Women’s Wear Daily; New York Vol. 110, Iss. 51, (Mar 16, 1965): 51.

“Cohn resigns posts held at Kaufmann’s” 1981.  Women’s Wear Daily; New York Vol. 142, Iss. 12,  Jan 20: 6. 

Downey, Sally. “Ruth Gold Cohn” Philadelphia Inquirer 2009. August 2.

“Executive changes: Cohn named buyer at kaufmann’s.” 1963. Women’s Wear Daily. Aug 08.

“Fashion: Evening News: Largely Collar.” 1954. Vogue; New York Vol. 123, Iss. 3, (Feb 15): 76, 77.

 “Fashion: Outlook: a sun-coloured season.” 1957. Vogue; New York Vol. 130, Iss. 10, (Dec 1, 1957): 146, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151, 152, 153, 154, 155, 156, 157.)

Harpers Bazaar. 1960. Vol. 93. 97.

“Mrs. Exeter: Mrs. Exeter’s Favourite Rule: Dressing for Dinner.” 1954. Vogue; New York Vol. 123, Iss. 6, (Apr 1): 120, 121.

“Shirtwaist Formality.” 1954. Women’s Wear Daily. New York. Vol. 88, Iss. 24. (Feb 4). 4.

“Singer & Rudolf Successors to Marx.” 1923. Women’s Wear. New York Vol. 27, Iss. 11, (Jul 13). 20.

“The Dresses: Chas. Rudolf Back, Opens Dress Firm.” 1964. Women’s Wear Daily; New York Vol. 108, Iss. 44, (Mar 3, 1964): 40.

“What The Trades Say.” 1917. Women’s Wear. New York Vol. 14, Iss. 4, (Jan 5). 6.

“Women’s Shirtwaist Dress.” 2018. Philadelphia Museum of Art. http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/93329.html (Accessed March 22, 2018).

Vaughan, Heather. 2009. “Icon: Tracing the Path of the 1950s Shirtwaist Dress.” The Journal of American Culture. Vol. 32. March. 29-37.

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Guest Review: Paris, Capital of Fashion

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

The ambitious goal of trying to fit the whole history of Paris fashion into one exhibition was always doomed to fail. Paris, Capital of Fashion (on view to January 4, 2020) at the Museum of FIT isn’t a lazy show by any means, but it’s an uneven one and—much like the boulevards of Paris itself—spirals out in a lot of different directions.

Worth & Bobergh, Blue ribbed silk ball gown, 1866-67, France, Lent by The Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Richard H.L. Sexton and Eric H.L. Sexton, 1962.

There is, as the French say, un embarras de richesses. Standouts include an eighteenth-century corset and panier; a rare Worth & Bobergh crinolined gown; an equally recherché Christian Dior gown designed for Lucien Lelong before launching his own couture house in 1947; a lacy Chanel LBD; and a Madame Grès goddess dress I hadn’t seen before (naturellement, it’s in Hamish Bowles’ collection). The black and white gown Yves Saint Laurent designed for Dior—worn by Dovima in Richard Avedon’s famous 1955 photo with elephants at a Paris circus—is here, as is John Galliano’s hooped Marie-Antoinette gown for Dior, shown on the runway on a model with powdered hair and red slashes on her neck.

18th-century French inspired dress in black velvet with wide border of gold metallic lace; appliqué; sequins and tassels; boned décolleté bodice with flared sleeves; skirt with wide panniers and train; costume for Gladys George in “Marie Antoinette.” Adrian, film costume worn by Gladys George in the MGM film Marie Antoinette, 1938, USA. The Museum at FIT, 70.8.2

But there are just as many missteps and missed opportunities. Christian Lacroix merged the exuberant spirit of the Belle Epoque with ‘80s excess, but the only Lacroix gown in the show is a snooze. An over-the-top film costume from 1938’s Marie-Antoinette feels out of place among all the couture pieces. The French fashion vernacular has been so widely disseminated that it’s fair to assume that visitors will immediately connect Stephen Jones’s corset-inspired top hat for Dior with an historic precedent (like the Mainbocher corset in Horst P. Horst’s 1939 photo) even if no such corset is on display. But other references may be more obscure. There are contemporary embroidered coats for women inspired by eighteenth-century menswear, but the only actual eighteenth-century embroidered coats are upstairs in the Minimalism/Maximalism show.  

Some of the most iconic objects have been exhibited elsewhere in New York in recent memory, including an eighteenth-century doll’s grand habit from the Fashion Museum in Bath that was a centerpiece of last year’s Visitors to Versailles show at the Met, and Charles Frederick Worth’s “Spirit of Electricity” gown, on loan from the Museum of the City of New York. The latter may have been made in Paris, but it tells a quintessential New York story: it was worn to Alva Vanderbilt’s masquerade ball in 1883 and alluded to the recent electrifying of the city’s streets. A red -feathered Chanel evening cape looks like an afterthought from the museum’s Fairy Tale Fashion show. It’s always nice to see old friends, but these re-wears give the show an unwelcome sense of déjà vu, and one can’t help wishing that these fragile if famous objects had been spared in favor of seldom-seen treasures. There’s a lot of Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano but only one Jacques Fath and one Jacques Heim, and there are major gaps in the early twentieth-century timeline. (To fill them in, head uptown to the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s meaty and meditative French Fashion, Women, and the First World War.)

The show may be centered on Paris but, thematically, it’s all over the place. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the museum’s awkward configuration that the show opens with a parade of largely non-French gowns, illustrating the Parisian influence on international fashion before visitors have actually been to Paris. Here you’ll find a Paris-made Dior dress and its Lord and Taylor knockoff, American gowns modeled in the so-called the Battle of Versailles in 1973, and an authentic Chanel suit displayed alongside its licensed, made-in-the-USA copy, which is not a true copy at all but missing pockets, the quilted lining, and other couture finishing techniques.

Once you get past the disorienting outer gallery, the installation displays the Museum at FIT’s typical visual flair. There’s a platform of voluminous Worth gowns, and an inner room lavishly decorated to evoke the salons and gardens of the Palace of Versailles. A wall of accessories—called articles de Paris in the nineteenth century—includes fin-de-siècle hats, shoes by Christian Louboutin, and Jeff Koons’ Mona Lisa bag for Louis Vuitton. But there are typos in the labels, and a dearth of contextual material like fashion plates, magazines, and photos; for that, you’ll have to turn to the catalogue and the museum’s Fashion Culture podcast series.

In the catalogue, curator Valerie Steele eschews the usual couture-centric “genealogy of genius” narrative—charting the course of couture from Worth through Poiret to Chanel and Dior—and instead sets out to examine the “cultural construction” of Paris fashion through a broader global narrative. She cites Daniel Roche’s definition of a “capital” as a “concentration of power” rather than a physical place; it’s why outsiders often mistake New York for the capital of the U.S., and Los Angeles or San Francisco for the capital of California. Louis XIV recognized that fashion is a potent form of soft power and lent state support to France’s fledgling fashion and textile industries in the seventeenth century, virtually willing them into existence. As fashion journalist Grazia d’Annunzio, a contributor to the catalogue, points out, the Italian fashion industry only enjoyed this kind of official patronage under Fascism.

The court of Versailles—a concentration of political, economic, and aesthetic power if ever there was one—makes a problematic origin story for Paris fashion, however. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was considered the antithesis of Paris; there was a tense fashion standoff between the court and the city. It wasn’t until the château was amalgamated into the greater metropolis, both physically and figuratively, in the twentieth century that it became synonymous with “Paris” in designers’ minds. Pierre Balmain and Dior gave their gowns French names referencing the ancien règime; Elsa Schiaparelli created a blingy black velvet and gold evening cape inspired by the château’s Apollo fountain, included in the exhibition. Versailles has been used in fashion advertising and photoshoots, along with other Parisian landmarks like Eiffel Tower and the Place Vendome. It’s easy to forget that the Battle of Versailles was, first and foremost, a fundraiser to finance the restoration of the palace to its former glory; the Americans may have “won,” but the French got the prize in the form of a refurbished cultural showpiece.

Along with the Sun King and his royal descendants, the prevailing French fashion archetype was (and is) the Parisienne. “The innate taste of Parisian women was often cited as an important reason for the success of Parisian fashion,” Steele writes. If London was grudgingly acknowledged as the capital of menswear, French fashion was synonymous with femininity. This distinction became especially important after World War II, when several rival “fashion capitals” emerged, stepping into the void created by the Nazi occupation of Paris. Meanwhile, in France, foreign-born designers like Mainbocher, Galliano, Azzedine Alaïa, and Guo Pei were acclaimed according to their perceived “French” traits.

The catalogue essays largely focus on the reception and interpretation of Paris fashion in these new centers of soft power, including London, Shanghai, Milan, New York, and Melbourne. It has become a cliché to call a city “the Paris of the East/Midwest/Arabian Peninsula,” but these cities consciously defined or positioned themselves in relation to Paris. While the essays—by an international lineup of scholars including Christopher Breward, Antonia Finnane, and Sophie Kurkdjian—are thought-provoking, they don’t necessarily relate to each other or to the exhibition, and they’re no substitute for a much-needed illustrated checklist of the exhibition pieces.

Paris, Capital of Fashion is on display through January 4, 2020 at the Museum of FIT.


Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of several fashion history books, including Fashion Victims and the new book Worn on This Day.

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Flannel Shirt.

By Heather Vaughan Lee

1950s wool flannel blue plaid shirt by Pendleton Woolen Mills of Oregon. Shaun Turpin wore this shirt in the United Kingdom between 1988 and 1990 as a part of a grunge outfit. He donated it to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1994 for their fashion exhibition, Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads & Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties. (V&A T.134-1994).

Popular in the Fall and Winter, wool plaid flannel shirts have long been associated with the rugged outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1990s came to represent the Grunge music scene that originated in that area. Developed by Pendleton Wollen Mills (in Oregon) in the 1920s, colorful flannel shirts started out represent blue-collar work such as logging, along with outdoor recreation such as hunting and fishing.

The Beach Boys in Pendleton Shirts in the 1960s (via Pendleton).

The Beach Boys, (whose original name had been “The Pendletones”) helped to popularize the Pendelton flannel more widely, especially the Umatilla wool shirt, among California surfers in the 1960s (Pendleton 2019).

The shirt took on new meaning during the 1990s when Grunge music, and vintage, retro, and thrift-store fashions took center stage, thanks in large part to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Hole. The style was especially popular with members of Generation X, who were young adults and teenagers at the time.

With the 1991 release of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” album, Grunge (and the requisite flannel shirts) hit the mainstream. Grunge music, Gen Xers, and the flannel shirt took center stage in popular films such as Singles (1992), directed by Cameron Crowe and Reality Bites (1994) directed by Ben Stiller. The films depicted Gen-Xers and band members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney wearing flannel in the Pacific Northwest.

Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film, Singles.
Costume Design by Jane Ruhm .

Fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs (b. 1963), Calvin Klein (b. 1942), and Anna Sui (b. 1964) picked up on the trend and incorporated grunge into their collections in the early 1990s. Grunge style one of the prime examples of the workings of the bottom-up fashion trends of the late-twentieth-century whereby street styles were adopted by designers and clothing manufacturers and then copied massively by the mainstream market.

Marc Jacobs grunge collection for Perry Ellis from Spring 1993.

Among the most newsworthy grunge collection was the Spring 1993 Perry Ellis collection designed by Marc Jacobs. The collection earned Jacobs the nickname “guru of grunge.” He even sent a sample of the collection to Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana) and Courtney Love (of Hole). Love has said,  “Do you know what we did with it? . . .  We burned it..” (Madsen 2013)

By the late 1990s, the grunge era of music had ended, though Grunge-inspired styles returned to runways and streetwear several times during the two decades following the early 1990s. Ironically, twenty-five years later, Grunge fashions have returned as a new ‘retro’ fashion. Marc Jacobs reissued his original 1993 Grunge Collection in November of 2018, complete with a Dr. Martins boots collaboration (Yotka 2018).

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

Sources:

Madsen, Susanne. 2013. “The story of Marc Jacobs’ controversial 90s grunge
collection.” Dazed & Confused. August. Accessed August 19, 2019.
https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/16706/1/marc-jacobs-for-perry-ellis.

Yotka, Steff. 2018. “Marc Jacob’s Grunge Collection for Perry Ellis Is Back! See Every Look.” Vogue. November 7. Accessed January 7, 2018. https://www.vogue.com/article/marc-jacobs-perry-ellis-grunge-collection-reissue-lookbook.

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New in Print: A mysterious set of silver knitting needles

By Heather Vaughan Lee

While working as part of the curatorial staff on the 2017 exhibition Material Culture: Form, Function & Fashion at Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum, I became fascinated with a small silver case containing six steel double-pointed knitting needles.

Mrs. Hepsibeth Gardner Edwards, wife of David N. Edwards, 1860s (Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association)

The set of six size-two needles is kept in a Nantucket-made silver case engraved with a name and date, “Hepsibeth A. Edwards, 1840.” A fascinating history revealed itself as I researched the needles. The stories that surround the set reveal a complex web of politics, religion, industry, handcraft, and creativity in our ancestors’ daily lives. Discovering how these knitting needles and others like them were used, by whom, and why provided insights into our collective cultural history as well as inspiration for some fun knitting projects.

I’m thrilled to share that my research on these needles, along with a complimentary pattern for my adaptation of a vintage Sunflower pincushion, have just been published in the Winter issue of Piecework Magazine (Long Thread Media).


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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Tammis Keefe, A Rockstar of Mid-century Whimsy

By Amanda Kramp, Guest Contributor

Editors Note: I’m thrilled to share this guest post by the Assistant Curator of Collections at Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum in Redding, California. Amanda was the curator of an exhibit of handkerchiefs, currently on view, and positioned directly across from the Iconic Fashion exhibit I curated at Turtle Bay. Just another reason to go and see what’s new and up on the walls!

Adventurous and career-minded, Tammis Keefe was a wildly successful Mid-century textile designer and colorist. Born in Los Angeles in 1913, she was on track to secure a degree in higher mathematics when her world was forever transformed during a visit to the Chicago World’s Fair and the Chicago Art Institute in 1933. Inspired to switch her major to painting, she enrolled in the Chouinard Art School, now California Institute of the Arts. From there, Keefe was recruited to Disney Studios, as was a common practice at the time. Later, Keefe moved to San Francisco and worked as Art Director for Arts & Architecture magazine, one of the leading periodicals of architecture, art, and music in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

While in San Francisco, Keefe met Dorothy Leibes who was renowned for her innovative, custom-designed modern fabrics for architects and interior designers. Keefe obtained a position as colorist and print designer in Liebes’ San Francisco studio, and later in 1948, in her New York studio.

Keefe’s career skyrocketed as her work was featured in advertisements featuring trends in modern textiles. She went on to design home furnishing fabrics such as curtains, upholstery, and wallpaper, as well as kitchen linens like towels, tablecloths, cocktail napkins, and placemats with matching napkin sets.

She also designed shirts for men and women, Christmas cards, playing cards, glassware, dishware, and product advertising and packaging. As one of the first textile artists to sign her work, she became well-known for her creative and whimsical illustration style and her application of bright, bold, and contrasting colors. Her pieces have been featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and can be found in numerous collections, including Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Today she is best known for her highly collectible handkerchiefs, linen kitchen towels, and scarves.

Keefe’s designs are whimsical, witty, and vibrant, reflecting the post-WWII sentiments of relaxation, comfort, and prosperity while including a variety of aesthetic expressions that appeal to many personal tastes. She was often inspired by her travels around the globe and by her love of nature and animals, but she also implemented figural and ornamental motifs. Keefe had a sharp wit that came through in many of her imaginative designs. She is best known for her handkerchiefs and scarves. It is estimated she produced over 400 designs in her lifetime!

Sadly, Tammis Keefe passed away in 1960 from lung cancer. However, her prints were so popular and beloved that they were reprinted by Michael Miller Fabrics in 2013. The company donated all the royalties from the Tammis Keefe line to fund cancer research.


Amanda Kramp is the Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Having worked at about half a dozen museums, she’s produced an eclectic range of exhibition content relating to sugar plantations, shipwrecks, Pre-Columbian ceramics, Bigfoot, forestry products, textiles, and cocktail history, to name a few.

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Iconic Career Fashion of the 1980s at Turtle Bay (Redding, CA)

By Heather Vaughan Lee

A rare opportunity to curate a fashion exhibition of objects held and worn by local collector presented itself to me back in April, and I jumped at it. Now an exhibit at Turtle Bay Exploration Park and Museum, and in collaboration with the Redding Fashion Alliance, the exhibition explores the 1980s high fashion career-wear of local Redding resident Aleta Carpenter.

Carpenter’s private collection includes iconic examples from the 1980s and early 1990s by major designers such as Valentino, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Judith Leiber. It includes a ball gown, a dinner dress, finely tailored suits, as well as hats, shoes, and beautiful handbags. On view through January 12, 2020, this Iconic Fashion exhibit focuses on the excesses of the 1980s, women’s growing role in the workforce, and how couture and high fashion responded to the growing American career woman. Presenting new research, the exhibit also explores the popularity of the Southern California couture boutique Amen Wardy. Overall, the pieces reflect the culture and economy of that time, and also have stories to tell about California politics and fashion history.

Aleta Carpenter, at the opening of Iconic Fashion Exhibit at Turtle Bay, September 2019.

Aleta Carpenter (B. 1946) was a Sacramento lobbyist at a time when there were only a handful of female lobbyists in California (in the mid-1970s). Her career developed along with her wardrobe of professional attire. And she grew to understand that clothing could communicate ideas and change perceptions, including how women were viewed in the workplace. Her professional wardrobe evolved into an iconic collection of demi-couture and ready-to-wear. By wearing these fashions in the California State Capitol, to important political events, and to social functions, she gained a reputation as one of the best-dressed women in the Capitol.

The American economy was strong in the 1980s, and more women were entering the workforce. Fashion designers recognized their need for appropriate professional, yet stylish, attire that displayed their economic power and status. Those who could afford it spent extravagantly on luxury goods. Chanel suits, Rolex watches, Gucci shoes, Judith Leiber bags, and designer denim have since become iconic symbols of 1980s prosperity.

Power Suits and Chanel in the 1980s

The United States became increasingly status-conscious during this time. Fashion insiders and designers had discovered the professional woman. Clothing became ostentatious as Americans began “dressing for success.” The baby boom generation flourished during the economic growth of Ronald Reagan’s conservative presidency. The new business wear standard for working women became the man-tailored power suit, reflecting her economic and professional power. The 1980s silhouette featured the strong shoulders and narrow waistline that defined the power suit.

The classic Chanel suit would become an icon of modernity, with a weighted chain in the jacket hemline, perfect tailoring, and luxurious finishings and fabrics. It became a symbol of status and power in American popular culture.

Chanel Boutique, 1989, France
Aleta Carpenter Collection
Vogue, May 1989, “Fashion: The New Summer Standard.”

Beginning in 1983, Karl Lagerfeld (German, 1935-2019) took over as head designer for Chanel, bringing a youthful flare to the traditions of the brand. Included in the exhibit is a Lagerfeld-designed Chanel suit that was featured in a Vogue fashion editorial in May 1989, “Fashion: The New Summer Standard.” The article drew connections between class, power dressing for women in business, as well as the tradition of wearing white cotton in the summer heat. The following year, actress Julia Roberts appeared in a remarkably similar costume in the film Pretty Woman (1990), custom-made in the style of Chanel, by costume designer Marilyn Vance (watch for it in the clip below at the 45-second mark).

Another 1980s Lagerfeld for Chanel suit, made of denim, reflects the creation and rising popularity of designer denim, which transformed the traditional workwear into an exclusive luxury fashion. In the mid-1980s, high fashion designers including Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean-Paul Gaultier included denim skirts and jean jackets on the runway. Lagerfeld got much attention for his use of denim beginning in 1984 as a part of his strategy to appeal to a more youthful customer. Women’s Wear Daily put this suit by Lagerfeld on the cover of its September 26, 1986 issue to preview for Chanel’s Spring 1987 ready-to-wear show in France.

Chanel Boutique Suit, Spring 1987, France
Purchased at Amen Wardy
Aleta Carpenter Collection
Women’s Wear Daily cover, September 26, 1986 (preview of Chanel’s Spring 1987 ready-to-wear show in France).

High Fashion in California: Amen Wardy and Fashion Island

Sajbel, Maureen. “Amen Wardy: Couture in California,” WWD, March 3, 1987, 28.

Due to many social and political events and commitments, a revamp of my wardrobe was in order. I fell in love with a Bob Mackie dress I saw in Vogue, and my daughter-in-law suggested that Amen Wardy was probably the only place in Orange County I might find it. I didn’t, but Amen and I struck up a lovely friendship because I wore his clothes so well (and was such a good customer!). Visits to his shop became an afternoon’s entertainment as Amen served us champagne in his private dressing room and brought out racks of clothes for me to try.”– Aleta Carpenter

The Amen Wardy Boutique at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, CA was a glamorous mecca for haute couture shoppers seeking exclusive labels. Oscar de La Renta, Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, James Galanos, Bill Blass, and Bob Mackie designs were shown during weekly fashion shows in his 2,300 square-foot mini-ballroom.

Sajbel, Maureen O. “The Wonder World of Amen Wardy,” WWD, February 4, 1985., 11.

After opening his first boutique in 1977, he moved to Fashion Island in 1982. Socialites and celebrities such as Joan Collins, Joan Rivers and, even the famous accessories designer Judith Leiber, all flocked to his boutique. He featured a Chanel Boutique in 1984, quickly expanded to a 31,000 square foot space, and had a steady Valentino ready-to-wear clientele by 1987. By 1988, his customers regularly traveled from across the country to frequent his shop.

One client noted, “You’re treated like a queen, and he remembers what you have in your closet.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “the bulk of Wardy’s best customers, are mature, social women of a certain age and an advanced level of financial security; women accustomed to service, at home and elsewhere.”

I absolutely adored working on this project, and hope to build on my initial research. If you happen to find yourself in the far Northern California area, please visit the show, and let me know what you think!


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »


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Guest Book Review of Fashion, History, Museums: Inventing the Display of Dress by Julia Petrov

By Sarah C. Byrd

Sometimes, a critical history does little more than answer the question of how we ended up here. Julia Petrov’s recent publication, Fashion, History, Museum: Inventing the Display of Dress (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019) on the history of fashion exhibitions (more broadly defined as the display of dress) is not that kind of text. Although Petrov asserts that the book is “not a how-to-guide or reflection on best practice” (p5), this thorough study delivers straightforward information that presents a rich analysis of not just how the practices develop but also why it matters, effectively supplying readers with insights to evaluate curatorial choices in contemporary practice. It is the many subtle “whywe are here” connections that makes the book stand out. However, if you don’t know anything about the history of fashion in exhibitions, you will have a strong foundational understanding after reading Fashion, History, Museum: Inventing the Display of Dress

The book’s objective to define and describe “the varied representations of historical fashion within museum exhibitions in Britain and North America … over the past century” (p2) may appear to be overly grand in scope and exclusively focused at the same time. However, Petrov quickly assuages most of those concerns in the introduction. As anyone involved in fashion studies will know, the terminology is never consistent over time, in different regions, among individuals, or even within institutions. The choice to include fashion and dress in the title speaks to this potential confusion since the two lay in such close meaning. Petrov sets out definitions of fashion – and even the seemingly straightforward use of “historical”– then revisits them in subsequent chapters. A further rationale is provided to explain the use of case studies and overarching methodology, as well as the choice to approach chapters thematically instead of chronologically. The delineations are logical and suggest that a successful critical study will identify specific cases to relate ideas instead of meandering through an endless list of material. Highlights from selected chapters are offered in this review, although each merits a more robust consideration than space allows.

Figure 4.2. Undated postcard showing installation view from an unknown museum; a mannequin in an eighteenth-century dress has been posed alongside contemporaneous decorative arts to demonstrate stylistic continuity. Author’s collection.

Despite its deeply academic approach, the book is clearly written from start to finish, avoiding complex jargon and dense sentence construction. The eight chapters are relatively short, approximately 20-30 pages each, which also aids in the readability. Petrov doesn’t shy away from humor with chapter titles like “Foundation Garments: Precedents for Fashion History Exhibitions in Museums” (Chapter One) and “Window Shopping: Commercial Inspiration for Fashion in the Museum” (Chapter Two), but the content provokes serious reflection. For Instance, “Window Shopping” does much to probe into the relationship between commerce and clothing within the museum. This section successfully demonstrates the important role the fashion industry has had in supporting the creation of collections and exhibition methods. It also acknowledges the reciprocal ways that museums functioned to support designers and promote the industry,  as early as the first call for a fashion museum in the early 18th century. Incredibly, Petrov does not betray any hint of bias towards or against this often-controversial relationship, instead allowing the reader to interpret the information for themselves. However, the issue returns in “Intervisuality: Displaying Fashion as Art” (Chapter Four) and is given more pragmatic discussion.

In “New Objectivity: Social Science Methods” (Chapter Three), Petrov’s layered timeline of case studies emerge as a highly effective format for critical analysis. Examples are pulled from a range of institutions – the familiar Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum are alongside Yeshiva University Museum, The Museum at FIT, the Smithsonian, and many others. That the author expresses familiarity with such a wide assortment of exhibitions is telling in the scope and depth of research backing the text. The effective force of this chapter, though, is how the author’s critiques develop, subtly questioning curatorial intentions before concluding with a powerfully direct assessment.

“To display fashion in this way is to understand it as an expression of society, yet this is all too frequently an unquestioning and superficial reproduction of existing social norms around dress…. These exhibitions perpetuate accepted ideologies, such as capitalism and nationalism, and affirm social rituals, such as monogamy and heterosexuality, as being normative.” (p88)

The precision highlights why a survey of the past is needed to reflect deeply on established practices.

Figure 4.6. Costumes in collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on permanent display in 1939. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Tableaux Vivants: Displaying Fashion as Art” (Chapter Five), “The Body in the Gallery: Revivifying Historical Fashion” (Chapter Six), and “The Way of All Flesh: Displaying the Historicity of Historical Fashion” (Chapter Seven) offer a unified build of ideas that shift greater focus onto exhibition choices and their implications. However, in these sections, more questions are proffered than answered. In discussions of the theater, the most salient comparisons surround the performance of museum labor in exhibition design or staffing (see LACMA’s Fashioning Fashion, 2011, and Oliver Saillard/Tilda Swinton’s Impossible Wardrobes, 2012). In these contexts, the so-called fourth wall is broken. Whether or not this is an effective method to foster awareness of the work behind the scenes, or if it presents an overly idealized version of reality, remains a question. In a complex review of bodies, Petrov briefly acknowledges the issue of race in mannequins, a subject that begs for more critical study. Using pointed examples, such as Benjamin Moore’s “neutral” white paint color (a common choice for displays) and the Caucasian features of many figures, the argument builds to present how ethnic diversity is erased through these choices. “To literally whitewash out the embodied markers of race in order to fit a visual priority is an example of the privileged nature of aesthetics in museum discourse.” (p165) This critique underscores the message of the Museum’s Are Not Neutral campaign* (created in 2017 by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski) and will be a useful rebuttal for anyone suggesting aesthetics outrank other priorities. The thread of missing content lingers in what parts of history exhibitions choose to present to audiences, with a nod to trends in collecting. She astutely describes the museum as “a place of wish-fulfillment, where the fact of absence is made present only insofar as to make it more poignant.” (p175)

Petrov has written a remarkable resource for the field of fashion studies suitable for both newcomers who will appreciate the abundance of history and references, as well as seasoned practitioners that may see their own work in a different light. She resets the timeline for the first exhibition of fashion, not content to rest on the citations of past scholars. Importantly, Petrov argues for better documentation of the exhibition-making process in order to create a better foundation for more in-depth studies and to legitimize fashion curating. These are weighty topics, and this text should be required reading for those in the field. Thankfully Petrov’s confidence as a writer provides occasional relief though the entertaining discoveries of research, sharing extended quotations from Punch and other wry journalists. Once the chuckle leaves, however, the reader may be left reeling in the realization that the perspective has hardly changed. Therein lies one of the most striking aspects of this book: that the issues that seem to plague every fashion exhibition, from mannequin heads and wigs to gaps in the collection, have been with us from the start. Perhaps with the addition of this book, we can collectively start to sort out solutions.


Sarah C. Byrd is a fashion historian, archivist, and educator. As an archivist, she has worked on a range of projects for both private clients and large corporations including Condé Nast and Ralph Lauren, where she helped develop the menswear archive. Her independent research focuses on early twentieth-century women’s novels and related films, the history of American cults and communes, and the role of exhibitions in education. She holds an MA in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology where she teaches in the Graduate Studies Programs, in addition to NYU Costume Studies MA and the Textile Arts Center.

*https://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/changing-the-things-i-cannot-accept-museums-are-not-neutral/

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Notes on Camp: An Exhibition Review

The Final Galleries of the Met’s current exhibition, Notes on Camp

Editors Note: I am pleased to share Nadine’s Stewart’s review of the Met Costume Institute’s Annual Spring exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion. Critical reviews are always hard to write, and so often they aren’t. I’m grateful to Nadine for writing this review. Enjoy!

By Nadine L. Stewart

Camp: Notes on Fashion (through September 8, 2019), this spring’s offering from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a visual exploration of an essay written by critic Susan Sontag in 1964. Sontag was writing at a time when gay culture was rarely discussed seriously. Stonewall and the advent of the gay rights movement was five years in the future. So, this view of style and taste was novel when it appeared in the Partisan Review. Sontag acknowledged that “camp” was a difficult subject to define, writing “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” She added that Camp could serve as a signal, a code for certain groups, like gay subcultures in cities at a time when coming out as gay could be dangerous.

However, writing about Camp is one thing: defining it clearly is another. Sontag lists 58 different definitions. Reading them and trying to remember and apply them as one goes through this exhibit of 250 items is a task that can only end in frustration. It is best to enjoy the excess on display and not be too analytical.

That said, the first part of the exhibit, which attempts to trace the origins of Camp, is the most interesting. The first thing one sees is a small bronze from the Renaissance posed in “the contrapposto stance”—one hand on the hip thrust to the side. This is the “Beau Ideal,” the perfect male body in the Camp lexicon. After looking at the ideal body and pose, one moves into the next set of galleries which show Camp’s origins in the seventeenth century. Louis XIV the Sun King of France, and his gay brother Philippe, also known as “Monsieur,” are shown here along with prints of court masques and festivities where the costumes were over the top.

Portrait of d’Éon by Thomas Stewart (1792), at the National Portrait Gallery

I found the story of Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) more fascinating, probably because I had never heard of this French diplomat and soldier who lived openly as a woman in England. The portrait of the Chevalier decked out in a top hat sporting the cockade of the Revolution, and a print of him fencing in pants under a full skirt are fascinating glimpses of the life of the first openly trans man in British history. Unfortunately, there is no mention of Macaroni’s, those “pretty gentlemen” who emerged in the late eighteenth century. Certainly, their dress qualifies as Camp. They occupy an important place in fashion history, and their omission is mystifying,

Eighteenth century illustration of a Macaroni (Learn More from The Costume Society)
The narrow halls meant to emphasize secretive, hidden Camp culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

After several mentions of eighteenth-century cross-dressers, Oscar Wilde and Christopher Isherwood round out the historical section on Camp. Unfortunately, this part of the exhibit had low ceilings and narrow halls, which made it very crowded. It was difficult to see the works on display or read the labels. According to Curator Andrew Bolton, this is to emphasize the secret, hidden world of those who followed Camp culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I found this effort to include repression in the actual design of the exhibition very annoying. I don’t think it was necessary to enclose visitors in such a compressed space to make us feel “the secretive, clandestine nature of camp’s origins.”* I visited this exhibit three times, and every time the people in these galleries with me seemed confused and constrained. I can’t imagine a person in a wheelchair who could negotiate this part of the exhibit. I found myself wondering if accessibility even came up in the planning of this part of the exhibit.

The next gallery, which is large and roomy, displays Sontag’s Camp inspirations in the Met’s collection. There are a wide range of pieces that show an interest in Art Nouveau furniture, Tiffany lamps, one of Marie Antoinette’s court portraits and an eighteenth-century polonaise gown, a Caravaggio, and a Surrealist-inspired suit by Elsa Schiaparelli. Sontag’s script is on a ticker at the top of the gallery and forms a prelude to the rest of the exhibit, which aims to illustrate how her essay inspires and influences Camp culture today.

Warhol’s Tomato Soup Cans alongside the Souper dress and Sontag

At the rear of the gallery is an effective display of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art silkscreen of Campbell Soup cans, the Campbell Soup paper dress from the 1960s, and a Warhol self-portrait. This section also features Warhol’s 1964 screen test videos of Sontag herself. This section added a human element since it enabled us to actually see Sontag, the person. I wish there had been more about Sontag. Who was this person who wrote so authoritatively about taste? Her words are everywhere, but as a person, she remains a blank page. This was also one of the few places in the exhibition where pieces from 1964, the year the Camp essay was written, are shown. 1964 was a pivotal year when the forces of the decade were coming together in full force. I wish there had been more effort to place the year in perspective.

Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Evening Dress (1951) and Thierry Mugler’s ‘Venus’ Ensemble (autumn/winter 1995-96) Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/BFA/Zach Hilty

The next section is called “Failed Seriousness,” another narrow hallway where garments from the past are shown with the Camp creations they inspired and displayed in windows that line both sides of the room. For example, A Lanvin-Castillo lavender tulle gown next to a Victor and Rolfe one, which is essentially the same dress turned upside down. Another pairing shows a Thierry Mugler “Venus” from 1995-6 which plays off the Botticelli painting Birth of Venus next to a strapless black velvet Balenciaga distinguished by a skirt lined with rows of pink ruffles. Some of the pairings like the Balenciaga-Mugler one–seem random. Quotes from Sontag’s enormous list that attempted to define Camp more precisely are above each pairing. It didn’t clarify the subject for me. I found myself looking up and down, trying to understand how the pairings illuminated Sontag’s words. It didn’t help that the voice of Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow player repeatedly in the gallery mixed with muffled voices (who turned out to be a vast array of fashion designers) reading from the list of Camp definitions.

Alessandro Michele for Gucci, Marc Jacobs P

The final gallery has glitzy walls of double-decker vitrines on all four sides with a low cube of more vitrines in the middle. It’s like a display in a luxury mall–130 garments and accessories, most from the 1980s to the present. Here all Sontag’s 58 definitions could be boiled down to one word–MORE. Many of the garments in this gallery come from the ateliers of well-known designers. Bob Mackie is represented with a heavily beaded ensemble for Cher. Nearby there is a witty trompe-l’ œil dress by Alessandro Michele for Gucci flanked by two dresses by Thom Browne. Michele is also represented with a clever take on a Grecian chiton shown next to two takes on Classical dress by Karl Lagerfeld. There is too much Moschino, at least 15 ensembles, many of them by Jeremy Scott. These garments strain to be subversive, but are simply over-the-top and not in an interesting way. A prime example something called the TV Dinner Dress, which simply ugly by the aesthetic standards of any period.

In all this glitz the scene-stealers are probably the enormous ruffled dresses created by Tomo Koizumi, a Japanese designer who was discovered on Instagram and who showed his dresses in New York in February for the first time. I couldn’t fit Koizumi’s clothes into any of Sontag’s categories. They defy definition. I did find myself wondering about the obsession that would drive a designer to create clothing out of literally miles and miles of ruffled polyester organza.

Only three African-American designers were shown, which is a huge omission. For example, I noticed a recreation of the famous “banana” skirt worn by Josephine Baker in the 1920s by the late Patrick Kelly, a couturier with an extraordinary connection to Camp. He collected Black memorabilia of African-American stereotypes, such as “Aunt Jemima’s,” “mammies,” “Black Sambos” and figures in minstrels shows. He included these images in his work in a sly, sophisticated Camp style that subverted and satirized their bigoted impact. Some of that work surely deserved inclusion here but was omitted. Why?

Patrick Kelly, “Ensemble,” autumn/winter 1986-87
Josephine Baker in her famous Banana Skirt

As I was about to leave, I noticed a small headdress in the center case which was devoted to outrageous pieces like the enormous double flamingo from the newly relaunched House of Schiaparelli (and the trademark image of the exhibit). This piece was a turban topped with a small, pile of sequined fruit. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian film star of the 1930s and 40s, wore it. Miranda became trapped in her Camp image in the United States, which lead to the decline of her career. Her headdress is presented without a picture of Miranda or a label. Most visitors to the gallery walk by with no idea of the story behind it. There were few examples from Latin America, surely this one Latina star from the past deserved to have her story placed in context. Otherwise, why include it at all?

That is true of the entire second section of Camp. The human element that made the history section engaging is missing. Pictures of gay culture and parades would have enlivened the final room too and given a better understanding of the place of Camp taste in society today.

Camp: Notes on Fashion brought back the memory of another exhibit I saw several years ago at the Museum @ FIT. Fashion Underground: The World of Suzanne Bartsch was full of couture by the likes of John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Vivienne Westwood. However, it also featured wildly creative costumes created by people from a wide variety of backgrounds—gay, straight, uptown, downtown, black, white—to wear at Bartsch’s parties. Some videos and photos gave one a visceral snapshot of the 1980s club scene. I remember being surrounded by what seemed like an endless array that showed the influence of the street, something that is missing in here. There was a wit and a sense of subversion that is lacking in Camp, no matter how beautifully crafted the couture garments are.

This is the Costume Institute’s most theory-driven exhibit ever, but in the end, it is simply confusing. The concept is just too ephemeral as even Sontag seems to acknowledge. Her 58th and final point in the essay gives what she calls “the ultimate Camp statement: it is good because it is awful.” Then, she qualified it saying, “Of course, one can’t always say that.” I was reminded of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s test for identifying hardcore pornography when I read this. He wrote simply “I know it when I see it.” This was also written in 1964. Both Stewart and Sontag were struggling to define very slippery concepts then.

The Costume Institute has tried to define Sontag’s definitions by illustrating them with actual garments, but fusing fashion and the musings of a philosopher is difficult work. Sontag’s words defied definition in 1964, and they continue to frustrate those who try to define her today. Camp: Notes on Fashion does establish the subversive taste it tries to illustrate has moved from the background to the foreground of fashion. It makes one wonder how Sontag’s theories will be viewed fifty years from now. Will her work still have the same respect, or will it seem tiresome and old-fashioned?

* Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator In Charge, Costume Institute, https://fashionista.com/2019/05/met-costume-institute-camp-notes-on-fashion-exhibit-review

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ME

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

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Heavenly Bodies: A Review

By Nadine L. Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Treacy hat in the Boppard Room at the Cloisters

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

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

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

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

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

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ME

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

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

 

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Don’t Miss The Royal Pageantry of VISITORS TO VERSAILLES

By Nadine L. Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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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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