Guest Review of “China: Through the Looking Glass” Ends Sept. 7 #ChinaLookingGlass

Once again, Nadine Stewart was gracious enough to write this review of the Met’s current fashion exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass (through Sept 7). I’m happy to be able to share it with you, given the recent controversy faced by the MFA Boston over their Kimono exhibit:

The latest exhibit by the Costume Institute is like a sumptuous banquet with many, many rich dishes, so many it’s difficult to choose. The purpose is to show the many, many ways Chinese themes have fascinated and inspired Western fashion. This is tricky territory. The imaginary East is a construction of the West and is under attack as a product of colonialism. The exhibit acknowledges this objection voiced most notably by Edward Said, but states that the purpose of the exhibit is “driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typically more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.” The exhibit sprawls over 30,000 square feet and includes the 140 haute couture pieces from the 18th century to the present day displayed in the museum’s Chinese galleries and the Anna Wintour Costume Center downstairs.

The experience (and it can only be called an “experience”) is amplified by the art direction of filmmaker Wei-Kar Wei, who has selected a range of films that have dramatized China in the Western mind. They range from the “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 movie about opium smoking, to “The World of Susie Wong,” a 1950s romance about prostitution and redemption. In the background on the Chinese galleries is the art that inspired this fantasy. It’s a lot to take in.

Moon in the Water gallery

Curator Andrew Bolton has described the arrangement of the exhibit as “film stills.” Label copy is minimal. This is to encourage one to absorb the total experience in each gallery, not focus on small details. There is a great deal of Yves St Laurent, who staged a famous China show in the 1970s and devised the signature perfume Opium. John Galliano seems to appear everywhere too, most notably, in the gallery titled “Moon in the Water” where his fantastical gowns seem to float above a small “lake.” But, there are many other treats to look for—a gorgeous red velvet jumpsuit by Paul Poiret covered with a shawl embroidered with alternating rows of embroidery and fringe, a gown by Alexander McQueen inspired by Chinese painted wallpaper displayed across from elegant gowns from the 18th Century with intricate painted Chinese motifs, and exquisite robe a la franchise with the strip after strip of Chinese florals accented with gold thread, and a 1924 robe de style by Jeanne Lanvin.

The possibilities are endless. The themes in each gallery could be the nucleus of a smaller exhibit.

The Asian galleries upstairs create a dreamlike background for the parade of gowns, perfume bottles, and, even a tiny, delicate Philip Tracey headpiece of a Chinese cityscape. Transition comes in the hallways. One is a tribute to Chinese-American Film star Anna May Wong who was stereotyped as the villainous “Dragon Lady” and the docile “Lotus Flower” till she quit Hollywood and decamped to Paris. According to Bolton, Wong’s screen persona fed the fantasies of Western viewers and cemented their visions of the inscrutable East.

People’s Republic of China gallery

“Dreamy” is not what one would call the themes of the other transitional gallery, which deals with the influence of Communist China and the utilitarian “Mao Suit,” a drab unisex garment that still inspired Western fashion. “The Red Detachment of Women,” a ballet from the Cultural Revolution plays high on the wall. The gallery also features Vivienne Tam’s famous suits and dresses printed with multiple images of Mao as interpreted by Andy Warhol.

Downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume galleries the pace seems to quicken, partly due to the enormous projections of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” on two central walls. One gallery is dedicated to the cheongsam or qipao, a development of the 1930s, which evolved from the loose robes of the Manchu court to the form-fitting gown of the film stars of Shanghai. They are displayed opposite the fashions they inspired. I felt this gallery was too full and crowded. It was hard to see the pieces and movement in that space was limited by the fact that there was a film playing on the back wall. People tended to stand and watch the film, so I had to maneuver around them to get a closer view of the garments on display. I should add that I did not have this feeling in the rest of the exhibit. Even though there were plenty of people in the galleries upstairs, I did not feel like I had to strain to see the pieces.

Manchu Robe gallery

 

Out in larger space downstairs, those Manchu robes are displayed, each with a haute couture gown. The embroidery on the Manchu robes is fabulous. I wished I could get closer to see it. The Western couture glitters. It occurred to me that sequins are the gold thread of our time. The music in this gallery is thundering and relentless. Here some more detail would have been helpful. The symbols on the Chinese robes have great meaning even down to the number of claws on a dragon. It would have helped understand the tremendous transition over the centuries from court robes to high-end fashion if there had been a bit more explanation here.

Special mention must be made of the gorgeous headpieces by milliner extraordinaire Stephen Jones. They are elegant, often whimsical, and witty. They always add the perfect grace not to each mannequin.

I had two wishes as I went through this massive exhibit. The Museum at FIT did an exhibit on “China Chic” in 1999. I found myself wondering how it would compare with this one. Also, the Met did a fine exhibit earlier this year on the art of the Plains Indians, which contained many garments that showed how the Native American and European cultures influenced each other. Since this is another culture that is often appropriated by fashion, it would have been wonderful to have them both on view at the same time.

In the end, the exhibit is gorgeous. It’s been extended through Labor Day Weekend, so you still have plenty of time to see it. Put on your most comfortable shoes and enjoy the dream.”

 

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Save the date (October 10): I’m Speaking at “Body as Agent” In Richmond, CA

I am so excited to have been invited to speak at the Richmond Art Center’s symposium, accompanying the exhibition, “Body as Agent: Changing Fashion Art.” The exhibition opens on September 12, and the symposium will be on October 10, from 10am-4:30pm.

This symposium is held in conjunction with the exhibition Body as Agent: Changing Fashion Art. The exhibition shows wearable art, still featuring chic clothing and accessories, but has added the vibrations of upcycling which enhances the visual vocabulary of artists. In addition, this exhibition of California artists further expands notions of clothing to include works of art with garment forms serving as metaphors for social, political and social issues as found in painting, photography, print making and sculpture.”

I’ll be speaking right after lunch, and space is limited, so register now by following this link:

Symposium Registration

($35 registration fee includes a box lunch.)

 Full Program

10:00 Welcome, Inez Brooks-Myers, Richmond Art Center Board Vice President
10:10 20th Century Artwear: Heritage and Inspiration, Melissa Leventon, Principle, Curatrix
11:10 Creating the Obiko Digital Archives: Documenting the Bay Area ArtWear Movement of the 1970s
and 1980s, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Artist/Shibori Master
11:40 Q&A
11:55 Lunch and time to view exhibition
1:30 Reconvene
1:35 Elizabeth Ginno’s Costume Etchings at the 1940 Exposition on Treasure Island, Heather Vaughan
Lee, Fashion Historian
2:05 Carol Lee Shanks, Artist
2:25 Chris Francis, Artist
2:45 Break
3:00 emiko oye, Artist
3:20 Dolores R. Gray, Artist
3:40 Suzanne Lacke, Artist
4:00 Q&A
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“Alamo a la Mode: Defending the Importance of Dress” in #SanAntonio

The Costume Society of America’s 41st Annual National Conference “Alamo a la Mode: Defending the Importance of Dress” is being held in San Antonio, Texas this year, May 27-30 and I’m happy to count myself among the presenters !

My paper, “Hidden Treasures: The Importance of Dress at Turtle Bay Exploration Park” (3:20pm on Friday, May 29) will include a wide swath of history related to local, state, national, and even international fashion trends, as well as some Ethnographic and Archeological ‘clothing’  (and a good, but surprising, dose of honest-to-goodness Couture!) Also, Nadine Stewart who contributes exhibition reviews regularly to Fashion Historia is presenting “The World According to (the Men of) The Illustrated Milliner, 1900-1920” at 8:30am on Friday.

Though I’m only going to be there for one day, I’m still eager to see the presentations by my colleagues. Here is a run-down of those presenters headed out from my own ‘golden state’ of California. I hope to see you there (Seriously! please leave a note in the comments, I’d love to meet readers!)

Paper Presentations:

  • Shu-Hwa-Lin (with Li King) “Street Fashion styles influence by Chinese culture”
  • Shelly Foote “The Growth of the Ready-to-Wear Industry in California”
  • Meghan Grossman Hansen “The Michel Arnaud Fashion Photography Archive” (at FIDM)
  • Judi Diwanis “Men’s Nineteenth Century Period Patterns: Preserving the Craft”
  • Anne Bissonnette “Chemise Dresses and Embodiment Practices in France 1778-1799”
  • Sarah Woodyard “‘To her Ribbands and Lace, and Caps give a Grace’: Fashioning Gender in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Caps”
  • Kelly-Reddy “Best The Politicization of Fashion in Virtual Queer Spaces: A Case Study of Saint Harridan and Tomboy Tailors”
  • Heather Vaughan Lee Hidden “Treasures: The Importance of Dress at Turtle Bay Exploration Park”

Poster Presentations:

  • Beverly Chico “The Importance of Hats in Children’s Literature”
  • Shu-Hwa-Lin “Exploring Chinese Design theory from Dragon Robes”
  • Helen S. Koo (with Seoha Min) “Exploration of 3D Texture Design Technique with Organza Fabric”
  • Casey Stannard “Robe de Style Revisited”
  • Marie Bodtkin “The Feminine Gaze: Female Fashion Photographers from Midcentury America”

2015 Brochure Now Available
Register Here

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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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The Kimono: Two Exhibits, Two Reviews

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Right now two major museums, on opposite coasts of the United States, both have exhibitions on the Kimono. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has Kimono for a Modern Age (through October 19, 2014) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has Kimono: A Modern History (through January 4, 2015). This unique situation requires a unique review. And so, I’m happy to present two simultaneous reviews of the two exhibitions by two experts in the field: Brenna Barks agreed to review the LACMA exhibition, and Nadine Stewart reviewed the Met’s exhibition. Below are their reviews. Happy Reading!

Kimono for a Modern Age

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through October 19, 2014)

Guest Review by Brenna Barks

Little attention is paid to what can be called the decline of the kimono in Japanese fashion. Most museum-goers, and thus most museum exhibitions, concentrate on the “expected”: what is seen as the traditional, soft, delicately patterned kimono that so inspired the Impressionists and the patrons of Japonisme. Indeed, this is the majority of kimono. However, kimono – like all clothing – followed fashion. And the fashion during the last “heyday” of the kimono is the subject of the Kimono for a Modern Age exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Leading up to and immediately after the second World War, while the traditional patterning remained popular, a new style of kimono emerged: the meisen. The fabric for meisen is unusual in that the warp and weft threads were stencil dyed individually before being woven, creating a marvellous faux-ikat pattern. These patterns were typically large and boldly coloured, contrary to the expected tradition.

Woman’s Kimono with Large Dewdrops (mizutama), Japan, early Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1935, purchased with funds provided by Grace Tsao, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Much has been made of the influence that the West had on the patterning of meisen – and LACMA does point out the references to Art Deco motifs or motifs taken from famous Western painters, such as Matisse, in the exhibition. But what LACMA does with their exhibition of over 30 meisen is to properly place them back into context within the Japanese tradition. Yes, there are Western art influences, but predominantly meisen were reinterpretations of Japanese art: landscape paintings, calligraphic motifs, and more often new, bold re-imaginings of traditional Japanese kimono patterns such as arrows or dewdrops.

Some of these re-interpretations can even be seen as forms of protest against American occupation after World War II. At least two meisen in the exhibition feature the Japanese war flag of the rising sun being not-so-subtly worked into the pattern. One in blue as a vague “star” pattern, another into what would otherwise be an image of dawn over a village. Or perhaps instead of open protest, these patterns were a silent message of surviving patriotism and a hope that they would rise again after re-inventing themselves as well as their traditions? LACMA masterfully and tactfully addresses the subject of war and occupation, tradition and fashion head-on through the display of such kimono and their thoughtful, well-written tombstones about each piece.

With the increasing popularity of Western clothing due to ease of wear and maintenance, the kimono declined rather sharply in popularity after the war. The meisen, while largely ignored in the West until now, was in many ways the last hurrah of this beautiful garment. The Kyoto kimono industry closed for good in the early 2000s; so few Japanese people today know how to wear it that schools exist to teach the proper wearing of the kimono, or simply to dress clients when occasion calls for traditional clothing. The LACMA exhibition not only fills this gap in the history of the “symbol of Japan”, but inspires visitors to question what the term “fashion” really means: it does not necessarily mean a shift in shapes and hemlines, but can mean the re-adaptation of tradition and the extended survival of an ancient garment into the modern age.”

Kimono: A Modern History

Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 4, 2015)

Guest Review by Nadine Stewart

Over Robe (Uchikake) with Long-Tailed Birds in a Landscape Period: Edo period (1615–1868) Date: second half of the 18th century Medium: Silk and metallic-thread embroidery and stencil paste-resist dyeing on silk satin damask Credit Line: Gift of Charles Zadok, 1959 Accession Number: 59.46

Kimono: A Modern History is a stunning exhibit, not to be missed. The fifty kimonos on display span the period from the eighteenth century to the present day, a time when the kimono evolved from a garment worn by the nobility and the peasantry. Though “kimono” literally means a “thing to wear,” this exhibit shows how much more this garment has meant to Japanese culture over the centuries and how it has influenced fashion in the rest of the world.

The first things on display are swatch samples from the Edo Period (1615-1868), exquisite examples of tapestry weaving in silk and silver thread. In one piece the fighting dragons are made entirely of tiny French knots. In another, we see Western ships with their flags, a reminder that Japan opened up to the West in this period, which would mean a new set of influences and textiles techniques would come flooding into the country. The kimonos in this section are the elegant silk padded kimonos for ladies of the nobility. The fabric of each one is an example of the highest level of craftsmanship–damask grounds overlaid with couched gold thread and silk embroidery.

Elegant as they are, the kimonos are not the only items featured here. A beautiful inlaid cosmetic box with brushes and combs, a large screen showing dancers whose fluid sleeves accentuate their movement, and an etiquette book on how to dress give a sense of the special place the kimono had in this society. The entire exhibit is full of objects that amplify the kimono story from elegant prints that show members of the Japanese court mingling with Western men and women suits and bustles to a “Basket Derby” from 1880-97, a city style made from simple reeds to be worn by the Japanese dandy with his walking stick.

Working class kimonos are just as beautiful as the kimonos for the nobility. Firemen in Japan wore heavy cotton kimonos with figures painted inside for protection as they fought the many fires in a nation of wooden buildings. The kimonos were soaked with water as the men fought fires. The designs inside were only seen during festivals when they were turned inside out. Even rarer, is a farmer’s kimono of recycled rags and a coverlet kimono worn over a person in bed, painted with image of a lobster, the symbol of longevity.

Woman’s evening coat Date: 1910–20 Culture: France Medium: Silk velvet, silk satin collar, cuffs, and lining Credit Line: Lent by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mr. William B. Gannett

A significant section of the exhibit shows how Japan and the West influenced each other from 1868 to 1912. The Japanese adopted Western chemical dyes and weaving techniques, while the Western fashion was swept up in beautiful images from Japan as these pieces from the collection of the Costume Institute show. A lush pink silk velvet opera cloak by Jean-Charles Worth is displayed next to a kimono robe made by Tashimaya Department Store for the foreign trade. It features short kimono-like sleeves and a simpler printed fabric with Japanese-style motifs. Finally, a light green wool Western-style robe with frog closures features embroidered flowers, which are a fine example of Japanoism.

As Japan moved into the twentieth century, the influences changed, the artistry did not. Modern inventions like cameras, express train tickets, and sheet music appear. Tow kimonos show sobering signs of the nation’s increasing militarism—one shows the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War and another, antiaircraft guns, tanks and planes backing Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Kimonos for the masses appear sold in department stores with design influenced by Art Deco and the De Stijl movement. There is even a child’s kimono treasured by Frank Lloyd Wright with a pattern of wisterias climbing over abstract trellises.

The Exhibition Catalog (Click to purchase)

After World War II, Japan began an effort to preserve its cultural heritage, preserving and honoring the craft of the kimono makers, weavers, and dyers through the Living Treasure Movement. Three kimonos created by these artists give testament to the beauty of their work. At the end of the exhibit are garments from prominent Japanese designers, who have brought the nation to the forefront of fashion while honoring their unique traditions—Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, and Yojhi Yamamoto, and one more designer, Bonnie Cashin. Her simple black wool kimono-style coat shows her love of the Japanese kimono. It was a design she repeated often though her career.

Kimono: A Modern History is tucked into the Arts of Japan Galleries in the Met’s Asian Arts Wing. The galleries surround the lovely basalt Water Stone (1986) by Isamu Noguchi, whose soothing sound pervades the galleries. It underlines the timelessness of the fashions displayed here and their lasting beauty. This is a fashion exhibit from another perspective, a valuable reminder that Western fashion is not the only fashion.”

A very special thanks to Brenna and Nadine for cooperating on these reviews for Fashion Historia. Can’t make it to New York to see their exhibition? You can buy the exhibition catalog, but the Met has all 170 objects from the show available online for you to look at (sans curatorial insights/labels/wall text) . While there isn’t an exhibition catalog to accompany LACMA’s show, they have created this beautiful video:

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*Image: Utagawa Kokunimasa (Japanese, 1874–1944). Swimming at Ōiso, Distant Views of Mount Fuji, 1893. Meiji period (1868–1912). Japan. Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints; ink and color on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1960 (JP3382a–c)

**Image: Woman’s Kimono (kosode) with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, late Taisho+ (1912-1926) – early Sho+wa (1926–1989) period, Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyo+-kasuri meisen), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.2012.130.9.

**Image: Woman’s Kimono (kosode) with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, late Taisho+ (1912-1926) – early Sho+wa (1926–1989) period, Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyo+-kasuri meisen), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.2012.130.9.

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My Nightstand: Schiaparelli in “Fashion and War in Popular Culture”

I’ve had the same book resting on my nightstand for months now: Fashion and War in Popular Culture by Denise N. Rall (Intellect, (March 15, 2014). It’s there for those now increasingly rare moments when I have a little free brain space (and time) to pick it up. My main interest has been Chapter 4 “In the service of clothes: Elsa Schiaparelli and the war experience” by Griffith University Professor, Annita Boyd.

1940. “As her status as an Italian in Paris is becoming risky, she sets off to live in New York until 1945 and continues to help France through many initiatives across the Atlantic.” (Schiaparelli.com)

This chapter focuses on how war, and the military, influenced Schiaparelli’s design – but it also offers some valuable information on what she was up to during the war (and how those experiences later influenced her work). I’ve not read much about her career during and after the war, so I was immediately drawn to this particular essay.

As explained in Boyd’s essay, Schiaparelli’s career was viewed as a failure after the war and her work was seen as ‘out of step with post-war sensibility.’ – Boyd examines this notion, but also offers information on what Schiaparelli was doing during these years (1945-1954 and 1955-1973). This in itself makes the book worth it’s (quite affordable) price.

Very little has been written on Schiaparelli during this time. It is fascinating stuff: she was accused of being anti-French (for promoting French couture in America); of being a fascist for wearing a hat; but smuggled American money to friends in Europe in a hat, toured America lecture about French couture in 1940; and volunteered (along with her daughter) for the American Red Cross in New York. The all too brief chapter goes on to discuss how Schiaparelli’s military and surrealist influenced designs failed to take hold in the post war years, and also to discuss the recent Schiaparelli revival.

1940. Elsa Schiaparelli in New York Legion of Honor, George Hoyningen-Huene.

Other essays in this book include historical and more recent military and fashion interactions, including: “Fashionable fascism: Cinematic images of the Nazi before and after 9/11” by Kylee M. Harman-Warren;  “The discipline of appearance: military style and Australian flight hostesss uniforms 1930-1964” by Prudence Black; and “Battle dressed – clothing the criminal or ‘the hoddie’ in Britain” by Joanne Turney.

PS: You can follow author Annita Boyd on Twitter at @AnnitaBoyd

 

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Important New Books on Fashion in Museums from Yale

The pace of fashion publishing continues to impress me. When I was in graduate school, new and important fashion history books were few and far between. But now, it’s hard to keep up! Yale Press, in particular, continues to set the bar high for new and necessary books for the fashion historians library. Aside from the new Charles James: Beyond Fashion from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition in New York (a MUST have and a MUST see, if you can), there are a few others that you might not have heard about. Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, edited by Patricia Mears, is an excellent resource and documents the recently closed exhibition from the Museum at FIT (Nadine Stewarts review of that show is available here).

Exhibiting Fashion: Before and after 1971 by Judith Clark and Amy de la Haye is an extremely important work for the field, and something that has been needed for quite some time. It chronicles the work of curators such as James Laver (1899-1975), Doris Langley Moore (1902-1989) and Anne Buck (1910-2005) in several case studies. It also discusses, at length, the importance of Fashion:An Anthology the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert by Cecil Beaton in 1971,

Additionally, it provides an admittedly incomplete inventory of fashion exhibitions since 1971. While Lou Taylor’s book, Establishing Dress History does much to document fashion collections and their history in text, Clark and de la Hayes’ book not only discusses the history of exhibitions of fashion, but does so in an oversized, illustrated volume (including photos of historic exhibition catalogs, as well as installation photos).

The inventory of exhibitions focuses primarily on major exhibits from England, Australia, France, Canada, and the United States (although a few from the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Italy, Germany, Belgium are also included). The U.S. exhibits listed were held primarily in New York and Philadelphia; though it does also list some from Boston; Kent, OH; Saint Paul, MN; Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (It doesn’t begin listing exhibits from the de Young until the year 2000 and The Museum at FIDM’s first listing is in 2003). My feeling is that this book leaves the door open for further work on the history of fashion collection and exhibition in the United States.

 

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Charles James: Beyond Fashion (Exhibition Review)

I’m extremely excited to have this exhibition review from fashion historian Nadine Stewart, of the brand new show “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit opened last week and runs through August 10, 2014. For those not able to make the trip, there is  the exhibition catalog, Charles James: Beyond Fashion (Yale University Press, 2014).

When I was a little girl I collected Moddess advertisements. I was too young to understand what Moddess was, really too young to even read, but every month I turned eagerly to the back cover of Ladies’ Home Journal where a full page color ad showed me a world far away from my suburban neighborhood. No one I knew had gowns like the ones I saw there. No one lived in rooms like the ones I saw in the ads. I stared at these pictures for hours and dreamed.

I had never heard of Charles James. He was not a household word in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Many years later I learned that Charles James was behind the 1948 ad campaign that launched my dreams. For it was James who persuaded Cecil Beaton to photograph five gowns so “any woman at a difficult moment can imagine herself a duchess.”

Charles James: Beyond Fashion took me into the world of the designer who launched those ads. Charles James’ goal was to “help women discover figures they didn’t know they had,” to make them fit of his dreams of perfection. Curators Jan Glier Reeder and Harold Koda of the Costume Institute have presented much more than a show of beautiful clothes. They have sought to analyze the architecture of James’ garments so we can gain an insight into the mind that created garments unique in the history of fashion. To a large extent, they have succeeded.

The exhibit is divided into two parts in two different galleries on different wings of the museum. James’ earlier work is shown in the lower level of the north wing. This is location of the new Anna Wintour Costume Center, which is the home of the Costume Institute. Of special interest is the small, overcrowded room, which shows James’ archive because it is here the curators, begin to wrestle with how James developed as a designer.

The walls are lined with James’ sketches. Here too are pictures and an album from an English childhood in the privileged upper classes of England, including life at Harrow where he met Cecil Beaton. After time in Paris studying art, James eventually went to Chicago where he opened a millinery shop in 1926. This experience was surely key in developing his sculptural technique. A milliner has to think in the round, knowing that all angles will be visible on the head. How he learned this craft is mysterious. James claimed he worked right on the heads of his clients, but that is unlikely unless he was draping a turban style. It is more likely that James blocked the hats to the proper size and then adjusted the fit and brim on the client. Three of his hats are on display. All show the asymmetric lines he would become known for.

Next to the hats are two small bolero jackets, whose label informs us that James shaped the collars using millinery techniques, steaming, pulling, and shaping the material so it curled around the neck at just the right angle. There are also dress forms, including the “Jennie,” a flexible form the designer developed so he could adjust it for different postures. A video from the time shows James constructing it.

Further along the same platform is a tiny blue baby jacket made for his son with an unusual armhole shaped like a flattened oval. Behind it is an adult version of the same jacket displayed with several sewer elbow pipes. Apparently, the pipes inspired the shape of the sleeve, a good example of the unconventional way James visualized in three dimensions. The center vitrine displays another James’ innovation—the down-filled jacket, a design so advanced it wouldn’t re-appear again until the 1980s.

You can also get a glimpse of James’ waspish personality from a typewritten list he wrote in the 1960s where he ranked the rest of the fashion world with statements like: “Photographers who I felt unable to catch the essence of fashion—Horst and Avedon.” Even more cutting was his assessment of Erte. “Illustrative of designer artists whom I abhorred and thought their pretension to represent fashion disgraced it.” Ouch.

Next to the archive room are the garments James felt were some of his best—tailored coats with seams that curve and shape the body yet allow a “breeze of air to linger between body and fabric.” Made of firm wools like melton, flannel, and cavalry twill, James’ coats look like they could stand-alone. He seems to have learned from his mistake, made around 1936—the bias-cut coat in loosely woven plaid featured in the recent exhibit at The Museum at FIT. That coat stretched out of shape since James was still learning the how to handle bias draping. The coats on display show James’ millinery training at work in the curved collars and molded bust lines that fit the body without the use of darts.

Also on view in this room are a number of cocktail dresses, suits, and evening gowns, including the Diamond Dress (1957), the Sirène (1951-52), and the Taxi Dress (c. 1932). Video animation gives a valuable insight into the way his clothing was constructed.

This would be enough for most exhibits, but mounted in the Special Exhibitions gallery in the south wing are the gowns James is famous for—15 ball gowns whose construction amazes the fashion world today. Each is mounted on its own platform, which allows viewing from all sides. Instead of label cards, each has an animated screen attached to a robotic camera. As the camera roams over the dress, the screen highlights crucial details. Pattern pieces float apart so one can see the shape and then are applied to a form so we can understand how they fit together. To get the unconventional shapes he wanted, James used unconventional materials like nylon mesh, millinery willow, polyester horsehair braid, and blocking net–materials used by milliners. He also used Pellon, a nonwoven interfacing that contains nylon and synthetic rubber among other materials to expand the shape of many of his garments, like the famous Clover Dress (1953). This was the 1950s when “wonder fibers” were advertised in Vogue. James bent them all to his vision.

James would have liked all this analysis. He wanted the public to learn from his work. He made up muslins of his dresses especially for a 1948 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. These are now visible in a separate room at the entrance of the second gallery. In their midst sits the Butterfly Sofa (1950), made for the de Menil family home in Houston, an early example of ergonomic design and a mark of James’ only attempt at interior design. Next to this room is a 1949 portrait of his client, Millicent Rogers, resplendent in a James gown. Rogers looks out at us with a haughty, bemused smile as if she knows none of the women who appeared at this year’s Met Gala will ever outshine shining society swans who were dressed by Charles James.

After looking at this exhibit one can conclude that designers can learn from James, but his world will never come again. Those days of couture splendor I dreamt about many years ago were ending even then. What remains is his body of work that illustrates his belief that “A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time.” James’ design principles still inspire. They can still make us dream. It’s worth visiting this exhibit several times to absorb them.

 

Video of the exhibition can be seen here:

Koda, Harold and Jan Glier Reeder. Charles James: Beyond Fashion. New York and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

Mears, Patricia and G. Bruce Boyer. Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

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Last Minute Exhibit Review: 1930s Fashion at the Museum @ FIT

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I’m happy to share with you this last minute, guest exhibition review of Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, from historian Nadine Stewart. On view at the Museum @ FIT through tomorrow (April 19, 2014) the exhibition catalog is available for those unable to see the show in person.

ELEGANCE IN AN AGE OF CRISIS: FASHIONS OF THE 1930s

By Nadine Stewart

The fashions of the 1930s are often overlooked. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted its retrospective of American fashion in 2010, the focus was on fashion in films. We look back on the time and think of the breadlines and Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. But the Thirties was also a time when fashion became truly modern. This spring’s exhibit at the Museum @ FIT showed the range of fashionable dress, featuring men’s and women’s clothing for all occasions.

This was a time when clothing was cut to fit and show off the body without constricting it with corsetry or padding.  Designers of women’s clothing worked with a new concept—the bias cut that allowed the clothing to drape and fall fluidly. Chief among the designers working with the new cut was the great dressmaker Madeline Vionnet. One could get the sense of her mastery of draping by examining a black crepe gown with gold lame accents. Its intricate twisted back highlighted the back—the new erogenous zone to the 1930s. But the exhibit does not limit itself to flowing draped pieces by Vionnet. An ivory silk dress with subtle pin-tucked flowers and an orange dress made entirely of cutwork fabric gave an indication of her range. Exhibited with these garments were those of designers she influenced—Madame Gres, Claire McCardell, Elizabeth Hawes, and Valentina. The exhibit also singles out several designers whose reputations have been obscured or forgotten by the passage of time—Jean Patou and Augustabernard. Amid the masterfully cut and draped garments is one misfire that shows how difficult working with the new bias technique could be—a coat by Charles James in a loosely woven wool plaid. Curator Patricia Mears explained in the video that accompanies the exhibit, the coat fabric stretched so badly after it was finished James had to add an interlining of organza to keep it in shape. The mistake reminds us just how new this technique was.

Detail, Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk georgette evening dress with pintucks, 1930, Paris, museum purchase | © Eileen Costa (Via Museum @ FIT Blog

The elegance of the age really comes out when one viewed the men’s bespoke tailoring. This was a the age of the English Drape, a suit with a generous cut that adds stature to a man’s physique without appearing bulky. Notable among the suits displayed were the suits of London House, a Neapolitan firm founded by Gennaro Rubinacci. His tailors eliminated inner linings, producing suits whose cut and drape preceded Armani by many years.

One is given a whiff of the influence of Hollywood too. The soft, beautifully crafted shoes of Fred Astaire are featured in the cases at the beginning of the exhibit as is the famous red sequined gown and cape from The Bride Wore Red. There are also several bathing suits in the new stretch fabrics of the 1930s, which displayed the curves of movie starlet’s bodies in their publicity shots. The Hollywood pieces don’t dominate the exhibit. Instead, they fit in to give a full perspective of the period.

Sportswear like a jumpsuit for an aviatrix that could be worn out for cocktails, evening lounge wear for men and women made of silk and velvet, and even, a wedding dress round out the room. As one emerges from the gallery, there’s an intriguing case of hats which shows the progression from the deep-crowned cloche of the Twenties, which covered the head, to the perky fedoras of the Thirties which sat on the head at rakish, improbable angles, a jaunty antidote to the dark economic times.

Elegance in an Age of Crisis resets our perception on the 1930s establishing the decade as a time of importance in the history of Twentieth Century fashion—a time that opened the door to the modern era of design.

*Via the Museum @ FIT Blog, “Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014. | © Eileen Costa.”

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