Guest Book Review: Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography

By Kimberly Chrisman Campbell

Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography
By Laurence Benaïm (Rizzoli Ex Libris, March 2019)

Originally published in French in 2002, Laurence Benaïm’s biography was the basis for Yves Saint Laurent, the first of 2014’s two biopics about the iconic designer. Kate Deimling’s new translation preserves the florid, novelistic quality of the French original (it may remind readers of Edmonde Charles-Roux‘s similarly overripe-yet-authoritative biography of Coco Chanel). But while this English version is welcome, it’s a bit more than fashionably late.

At a dense 544 pages, it’s tempting to call the book the definitive biography of Saint Laurent, but it has some major gaps, both chronological and substantive. It ends with Saint Laurent’s retirement in 2002, and while it has been “updated” for reissue in English, the updates are not to the text itself. The author has written a new preface and extended the timeline in the appendix by 11 pages, bringing it up to the present day (That’s where you’ll find bullet point references to Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, the work of the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, and various auctions, retrospectives, perfume launches, and corporate takeovers, plus the deaths of Saint Laurent, his partner—in life and business—Pierre Bergé). Bizarrely, she’s even added a playlist. Yet, she has neither expanded nor reevaluated Saint Laurent’s story, nor has she seen fit to include a single image.

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé

Moreover, Benaïm, a respected fashion journalist and scholar, seems to have fallen into the journalistic trap of trading objectivity for access. In addition to Saint Laurent and Bergé, she interviewed Saint Laurent’s premières, clients, chauffeurs, and muses. The book is overly worshipful—Benaïm praises Saint Laurent as nothing less than “the sum of all the couturiers of the twentieth century: Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga, Dior, Schiaparelli, and also Givenchy” —and detailed to a fault. Surely, we could have been spared teenage Yves’ pretentious poetry?

A very young Yves

Saint Laurent was still a teenager when he went to work for Christian Dior. The couture cobbler Roger Vivier described him as “a thin young man with glasses on his nose who looked very serious. . . . There was something very strict, very diligent about him, which clashed with the traditional image of a fashion designer.” But Dior knew talent when he saw it. As the painter Bernard Buffet, told L’Express: “People said that Christian Dior was a magician. But his final accomplishment was surely, at the most essential moment, to make the right young man appear—not to replace him, but to continue his legacy.” At the age of just 21, the shy, bespectacled beanpole inherited Dior’s mantle following his sudden death in 1957. Within a few years, he was head of his own namesake couture house. (He poached half of his staff from Dior’s atelier).

Benaïm deftly teases out lifelong themes like Saint Laurent’s love of theatre (“he had grown up with the idea that fashion was costume”); his ties to Algeria, where he was born; and his physical and emotional fragility. She is less insightful when it comes to another constant in his life: his relationship with Bergé, whom he met for the first time at Dior’s funeral. Bergé remains a cipher, probably because he cooperated with the author. Saint Laurent, too, comes off as positively monk-like in his single-minded pursuit of elegance; Benaïm glosses over the less savory aspects of his character, such as his self-destructive streak and his petulance (he blamed “bad models” for his failed Winter 1963-64 collection). A master sketcher, he would disappear for weeks of intense drawing before beginning each collection. He then left it to his poor seamstresses to work out how to bring his visions to life, which they frequently managed only with great difficulty. It’s a shame, because Saint Laurent is less interesting without his flaws, as anyone who has read The Beautiful Fall, a chronicle Saint Laurent’s rivalry with Karl Lagerfeld, or the dishy oral history Loulou & Yves will appreciate.

Saint Laurent presided over the death of haute couture, which was done in not by any single designer but by changing economics and gender roles, and the rise of the Nouvelle Vague youth culture. It was not a seamless transition: the Chambre Syndicale banished Pierre Cardin for five years when he dared to show a pret-à-porter collection. But while other couturiers bemoaned the rise of ready-to-wear, Saint Laurent embraced it. Without going as far as André Courrèges, who pushed fashion forward into the Space Age, Saint Laurent embraced street style as a way of experiencing the youth he himself had been denied. But he also had to face reality: the women who could afford couture were seldom young or slim. While Dior built shapewear into his dresses so they could flatter any figure, Saint Laurent’s “made the chest disappear and were off limits to anyone measuring over thirty-five inches,” Benaïm writes.

The media frequently pitted Saint Laurent against Coco Chanel, fresh off her postwar comeback, contrasting her restraint with his theatricality. But Benaïm points out that they actually had a lot in common. “He shared Chanel’s aversion of styles that were small, precious, flowery, or cutesy—woman as trinket.” Saint Laurent’s early solo collections included trousers, “suits without padding, slim coats, light, porous wool pieces,” and lots of black. The jeweler Robert Goossens nailed the difference: Saint Laurent had Bergé to shield him from the harsh realities of life and business, while Chanel combined Yves’ creativity with Bergé’s formidable and sometimes frightening energy.

Yves Saint Laurent surrounded by his models at the thirtieth anniversary of the haute couture house, Opéra Bastille, February 3, 1992.

While “YSL’s” androgynous chic was perfect for the 1970s, he was out of touch and out of fashion by the late 80s. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the house’s 30th-anniversary show at the Opéra Bastille in 1992 a “veterans’ retreat in a devasted city.” Saint Laurent couldn’t understand the appeal of couture’s latest enfant terrible, Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose clothes looked like they had come from “a brothel in Germany,” he complained. Yet “the whole world was shocked,” Benaïm writes, when Saint Laurent announced his retirement in January 2002; he was, after all, only 65. His couture business retired with him. In October of the same year, Tom Ford presented his first collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. The “Rive Gauche” would be dropped in 2004, as there was no longer any need to distinguish ready-to-wear from couture. Hedi Slimane brought back the couture operation in 2015, though he axed the “Yves”; today, the house is known simply as “Saint Laurent.” Maybe that was the impetus for this tardy translation: to remind the world of the man behind the monogram.


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 Fashion Victims (2015) and the forthcoming Worn on This Day (November 2019).

Continue Reading

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

________________________________________________________________________

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!

More posts by the Author »

Continue Reading

The Motorcycle Jacket: From Mussolini to knitwear and biker gangs to toddler styles?

*

“Sportswear Knitted Fashions: Ski Coats Copy Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket Or Fan-Shaped Yokes.” 1933. Women’s Wear Daily, Sep 01, 12.

Sometimes I come across the strangest things while doing research. Many are aware of the more traditional elements of the history of the Motorcycle jacket, and its association with twentieth-century rebellion, youth, and masculinity.

Its history lies in World War I and aviation attire, but the standard asymmetrical motorcycle jacket style was defined in the late 1920s with a Schott Brothers design called the “Perfecto” (Schott 2019). They were the first to put a zipper on a jacket, and the look took hold. Hollywood films of the 1950s, combined with rock-and-roll style solidified the image of the tough, rebellious biker with slicked-back hair, spawning the greaser trend. By the 1970s the black leather jacket was being used by New York City Punk musicians and gay subcultures who added studs, chains, safety pins and other personalization’s. It is an iconic representation of twentieth-century American culture.

However, I recently unearthed two odd tidbits about the motorcycle jacket’s trajectory:

Did you know that Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket impacted knitwear styles in 1933? Or that you could clothe your 2-year-old in a Marlon-Brando-Perfecto-Style leather motorcycle jacket as early as 1955?

Apparently, after Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883- 1945), Italy’s Fascist leader, appeared in American newspapers and newsreels inspecting and leading 10,000 of his troops in a celebratory parade from a motorcycle in late May of 1933, Bradley Knitting Company (of Delavan, Wisconsin) began producing skiwear inspired by his look. Mussolini motorcycle coats were made of beige and brown wool with metal buttons with a matching knit cap.

And then there’s this square-looking six-year-old in a tie-wearing the more recognizable version of an ‘authentic’ motorcycle jacket in 1955 by Los Angeles-based, California Sportswear. . .

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50.

Schott, Perfecto jacket, black leather, circa 1980, USA. Museum purchase, P89.29.1. (Museum at FIT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Mussolini is warmly applauded when he leads a rally at Rome driving his own motorcycle Date: May 1933

Further Information:

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50. Accessed April 1, 2019. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/1523286761?accountid=12536.

DeLong, Marilyn, and Juyeon Park. 2008. “From Cool to Hot to Cool: The Case for the Black Leather Jacket.” In The Men’s Fashion Reader, edited by Andrew Reilly and Sarah Cosbey, 166–179. New York: Fairchild Books.

Duffy, Keanan. 2009. Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style. New York: Universe Publishing.

Podolsky, Jeffrey. 2014. “Cruising the History of Biker Jackets.” New York Times Magazine. March 4. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/…/on-view-cruising-the-history-of-biker-jackets/

Schott. 2019. “The Classic American Success Story.” Accessed April 1, 2019. https://www.schottnyc.com/about.cfm


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 forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

Continue Reading

Revisiting a “mini history of the maxi dress”

Jezebel is re-promoting a maxi dress article they published in 2015 that mentions something I’d written on the subject from 2008.  The 1,000+ comments (and counting) on that post are a gold-mine in terms of how attitudes have changed in just four short years.) In the nearly 11 years since I wrote on the maxi, the dress has maintained its perennial prominence in the summer zeitgeist. In my article for Monica Sklar’s former Worn Through blog, I said

Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya in “Dr. Zhivago”. Phyllis Dalton received an Oscar in 1965 for best costume designer.

“One of the earliest appearances of the “Maxi-Dress” was in 1968. The New York Times highlighted a cotton lace version by Oscar de La Renta he created for Elizabeth Arden Salon. More notable designers such as YSL, Dior, Cardin, Biba, Halston, and others would latch on to the style as well. Maxi-lengthed skirts had begun to outdo the mini skirt in 1967, and the dress (as well as the maxi coat) soon followed. Maxi styles quickly grabbed hold in London. Doctor Zhivago (1965) is often credited with igniting the craze for the Maxi style (along with the tandem trend for ‘Midi’ style skirts) due to its use of large flared coats over suit trousers. However, it was not until the 1970s that the maxi dress lodged itself firmly in the American mind (in all its polyester splendor), along with similar caftan and boho styles. By the late 1970s, it had become associated with the unfashionable and out of date (such as Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company)”

But there is more to this story than that, as I recently found out.

As I noted in 2008, the maxi style in general, got its start in popular culture with Doctor Zhivago in 1965. Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, costume designer Phyllis Dalton created  “Cossack blouses with neckband collars and wide billowy sleeves, and coats trimmed with fur from head to toe; and the maxi, or ankle-length, skirt” (Halsey 1986, 595). The film was released theatrically on Dec 22, 1965.

A short seven days later, on December 29, 1965, a little-known Parisian couturier named Jacques Syma photographed what might be considered an early version of a maxi dress as a part of his forthcoming spring collection.

Geraldine Chaplin in “Doctor Zhivago” 1965 MGM Cinema Publishers Collection

Dec. 29, 1965 – Noticing her youth and charm, Jacques Syma chose Laura Ulmer, daughter of the famous author and composer Georges Ulmer, as his inspiration for his Spring collection. ”Merida”, a long toile sleeveless dress with a large stripe along the hemline and a smaller stripe higher up, is low-cut in the back. (Credit Image: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS)

In March 1966, the Paris Spring collections appeared in Vogue magazine, and the cover showed Barbra Streisand in a floral print maxi. Inside, Paris showed off its Spring couture in a fashion feature photographed by Richard Avedon, and including many long dresses worn by models and actresses Jean Shrimpton, Marisa Berenson, Minnie Cushing, Françoise Rubartelli and Geraldine Chaplain (one of the stars of Doctor Zhivago) designed by Balmain, Lanvin, and Ricci. (“Fashion: THE YUM-YUM TREE IN PARIS.” 1966. and Delvin 1966). These dresses were in stark contrast to the mini-skirts and micro-mini’s popular at the time.

Lanvin and Ricci designed long dresses from Vogue, March 1966.

One of the first time the word ‘maxi’ appeared in American newspapers was a July 1966 syndicated report from Paris focused on Jacques Syma‘s collection that included the micro-mini skirt and its counterpart the maxi skirt. It appeared in newspapers across the United States (De la Fontaine 1966), helping to spread the style(s) further. Laura Ulmer, Syma’s counter-part was a model, singer, and YeYe Girl (Young, camp-y, French Pop icons of the 1960s)  (Deluxe 2013).

The New York Times later explained that the maxi began “gaining ground” alongside the mini on the streets of New York and Paris beginning in 1966 (Emerson 1968, E4). It became a part of the 1960s Youthquake and had been established in the mainstream by the 1970s. Some might argue that it’s trajectory and popularity coincided with the feminist movement of the era. It would make sense then, to see it re-emerge (and have staying power) in the current cultural climate.


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 is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

 

 

Further Information:

Halsey, William Darrach and Emanuel Friedman. 1986. Collier’s Encyclopedia, with Bibliography and Index, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=KMUJAAAAIAAJ&q=Dr.+zhivago+maxi+dress&dq=Dr.+zhivago+maxi+dress&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiA9pGj9a_hAhUTO30KHX_tDlcQ6AEIPjAE.

“Fashion: THE YUM-YUM TREE IN PARIS.” 1966. Vogue, Mar 15, 78-78, 79, 80, 81. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/897870673?accountid=12536.

Devlin, Polly. 1966. “Fashion & Features: INSTANT BARBRA.” Vogue, Mar 15, 68-68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 152, 154. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/897870648?accountid=12536.

de la Fontaine, Yvette. 1966. “Hemlines are Long-long, Short-short.” Women’s News Service. July 22. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144995582/?terms=%22Maxi%2Bskirt%22

de la Fontaine, Yvette.1966. “‘Ye-Ye’ Modes Favorites in Paris.” Women’s News Service. Jan. 16. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144160376/?terms=%22Jacques%2BSyma%22

Emerson, Gloria. 1968. “Fashion: Alas! The Poor Mini.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Feb 04, 1. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/118326156?accountid=12536.

Deluxe, Jean-Emmanuel. 2013. Yé-yé!: the girls of ’60s & ’70s French pop music. Los Angeles, California: Feral House.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Hair: An Illustrated History

Hair: An Illustrated History   By Susan J. Vincent

A Review by Tamsen Young

Hair is both deeply personal and distinctly public. It can be a form of individual expression or organizational control. It can be an emblem of belonging or it can reinforce difference. As a topic of study, hair spans the entirety of human history. From biology to anthropology, gender identity to ethnic identity, politics to hygiene, hairstyles to hair care – the subject of hair is exceptionally broad. A scholar could pull any strand and find rich material to research.

Advertisement for Edwards’ Harlene, c.1890s. ‘Mama, shall I have beautiful long hair like you when I grow up?’ asks the girl, as she learns the lesson in the performance of femininity while watching her mother wield a hairbrush. Welcome Library, EPH154:20. Photo: Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Hair: An Illustrated History (Bloomsbury Visual Arts 2018) is both lavishly illustrated and well researched. Susan Vincent focuses on how, over the past 500 years, hair practices have participated in the creation of social identities and fashionable ideals for both men and women. Some of Vincent’s finds are touching, such as this excerpt from a 17th-century letter by a husband describing the hair of his wife, who had recently passed, “It was by many degrees softer then the softest that euer I saw…This is the onely beauty remaining of her that death had no power ouer…[and] a part of her beauty that I am confident no woman in the world can parallele.”

The introduction begins by looking at how visual codes of hair color, texture, and style have been used to judge character, personality, health, and overall acceptability.

“Once given the interpretive key, which include hair colour and texture, any observer could thus ‘read’ appearance to unlock the moral truth within.”

Certainly, hair has been used in the West to identify and group folks by social status, profession, political group, age, gender, and ethnicity. But the author is quick to point out that hair is also objectified. For centuries it has been used as a stand-in for a person (think reliquaries to baby or love lockets), as well as an impersonal commodity, creating a market for hair from the 18th century to today. During the 19th century the “cult of hair” reached fever pitch, and hair work was made or purchased for items such as jewelry, scrapbooks, purses, or parlor decorations. Vincent includes a photograph of an incredible knit cap, circa 1850, made entirely from human hair!

As a result of such demand, the author tells tales of hair stolen from young women in Boston, Pennsylvania, and London towards the end of the 19th century. However, when she turns to the contemporary market, Vincent barely mentions that today’s hair trade, whether legitimate or illicit, has a tremendous impact on communities around the world. Vincent does note anthropologist Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement, a 2017 book entirely about the human hair trade, but she could have added a few sentences on some of the troubling effects of this global commodity prized by the West.

An early nineteenth-century male hairdresser attending a woman. Comb and scissors, the tools of his trade, are to hand in his coat pocket. The high points of his starched shirt, the seals hanging from his waist, and his fitted pantaloons, fixed with a strap beneath the instep, show him to be a modish fellow who pursues the latest fashions. Colored engraving, no date (early nineteenth century). Wellcome Library, ICV2046L. Photo: Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Following her enjoyable introduction, Vincent delves into the themes of the book and does a fine job of maintaining a lively tone throughout. Chapter One focuses on “the practice of haircare and its associated material culture.” Vincent discusses tonics and potions used to solve the “problem” of hair. Interestingly, the same issues have concerned us for the past 500 years: hair growth, hair loss, hair removal, hair texture, and hair color.

Chapter Two looks at the variety of providers of hair care services, from servants to salons, and the social customs and traditions that arose around them. Did you know that barbers were once notoriously providers of condoms?

Chapter Three examines the practice of shaving and shows how it was not just a means to “manage” hair but also served “to punish and control, to shame and disempower.” Auschwitz still houses nearly two tons of hair shaved from the heads of prisoners. The razor, an important tool, gets significant attention in this chapter as well.

The following chapters are “Case Studies.” “The practice of being hairy” dives into the attraction and aversion to facial hair on men (and women), introduces us to new words like pogonotrophy(1), and takes measure of the fashion, culture, and counter-culture of beards. “The politics of appearance” examines ways that the English politicized hair during the 17th and 18th centuries. “Social challenge: The long and the short of it” covers bobbed hair in the 1920s and the long hair of hippies in the 1970s, but oddly leaves out any mention of the afro and the “black is beautiful” movement.

While Vincent states clearly that her book centers on “the key ways that [hair] has been managed over the last five hundred years,” its research is mostly limited to those of European descent. Not every subject can be covered in a book of this scope, but the author misses a number of moments when she could address non-western cultures and customs. Since she focuses on British and American histories, why omit afro hair or the Black British or African-American experience? In chapter two, for example, “From servant to stylist,” Vincent could have taken the opportunity to discuss how hair salons and barber shops are important cultural centers for the African American community. Or in chapter six, “Social challenge,” when she brings up school dress codes, she had the chance to discuss how natural afro hair has been controlled and even banned. There was some discussion of hair in relationship to queer culture, but given how much new research exists in this area, this topic was also marginalized (For example, the books Queer Style and A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk were left out of the bibliography).

“We have a hair genealogy, and I hope this book helps illuminate our place in it.”

Hair: An Illustrated History is an entertaining and informative work. It appears at a time when there is a growing body of scholarship on a variety of hairy topics. Since many books on hair are compendiums of essays, Vincent’s book stands out. Her anecdotes are charming, and she finds absorbing ways to relate the histories of hair and appearance to the human experience. She includes a wide array of engaging images of people and their hair practices and uses a rich assortment of primary sources. Curious readers can easily dig more deeply into the extensive endnotes and bibliography.

Hair is a well-written and enjoyable read that draws you in and takes you on a journey around a surprisingly rich topic, although Vincent’s “hairy genealogy” in global terms is not for everyone. No book on hair can be encyclopedic. We hope Sarah Vincent has a companion volume in the works.


Tamsen Young has over 20 years of museum experience. She currently heads the department of Digital Media for The Museum at FIT where she oversees web development, online collections, video production, in-gallery media, digital marketing, and social media engagement. In 2014, the online presence for the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion won an American Alliance of Museums Silver Muse Award in recognition of the highest standards of excellence in the use of media & technology for Digital Communities. In 2015, Tamsen was keynote speaker at the Digital Fashion Futures conference organized at MoMU by Europeana Fashion and presented “A Small Museum Goes Global” at the Museum Computer Network conference. She founded the blog Hair is For Pulling in 2011. More posts by the Author »

  1. The cultivation or growing of a beard
Continue Reading

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:

________________________________________________________________________

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!

More posts by the Author »

[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

 

Continue Reading

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:

 


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!

More posts by the Author »

 

Continue Reading

Survey says: A 1907-1908 Callot Soeurs Thought Experiment

There is always an ongoing debate as to weather fashion is art. Because it serves a function, many would argue that it does not fall into the art category. I disagree. I decided to do an experiment with a select group of fashion scholars who would be asked to look at a gown, be given minimal information about it, and asked to report what ‘art and social’ movements they saw represented.

The results were fascinating.

The Experiment:

I wanted to not only see if there would be consensus, but also to get a ‘snapshot’ of current thinking and assumptions among academics in the field. The dress I choose was this Callot Soeurs from 1907-1908, owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the American “Dollar Princesses” and at one time the richest Woman in America. The dress is held in the Hillwood Museum  collection.

The dress seemed to have a lot going on, and served my purpose well. I provided three images of the dress, the designer, the date: That was all. The survey was supplied to the Costume Society of America members-only listserve and an online academic Facebook group dedicated to the study of fashion history. These were people I considered my colleauges: knowledgable and honest. I wanted their own understanding of early 20th Century fashion and history to dictate their responses. I had my own thoughts and conclusions about the dress, but I was eager for a ‘group think.’

 

First, I asked:

And then I asked, “Why?” I provided no definition of terms, on purpose. I didn’t want my bias to interrupt their own understanding and perception. As responses began to come in, I added a place for people to include their names, as well as any comments they had.

The Response

The responses came in slowly over about a 24 hour period. 25 people responded, and some supplied comments in an extra ‘comment’ field to ask questions. The online debate started almost immediately, which was thrilling.

The response confirmed most of my assumptions about the style of the dress, but many new and interesting points were brought to my attention, via the “Why.” Some seemed far fetched, or stretching. Some seemed bang on. Here are a few of the arguments:

The lily-shape of the skirt and the curves of the bodice are emblematic of the “organic” shapes of Art Nouveau, and the colors and embroidery seem like classic Aesthetic dress.”

Some of the forms seem to reflect the curvilinear/flora forms of art nouveau. On the other hand there is a geometry to some of it that suggests the arts/crafts influence. The suggestion of hand work details around the top also seem to connect to arts/craft”

The feather-image embroidery, and some of the few geometric details are reminiscent of native american inspired motifs. The panel across the breast seems vaguely suggestive of a thunder-bird image.”

While this does look like it is embracing the more relaxed style of artistic/aesthetic dress and the more movement-friendly designs championed by dress reformers, I wonder usually associate those both with specific ideology and something that is hard to pin down without more information (who owned it, how it is constructed). I think the surface design does reflect art nouveau aesthetics, which seems to be more of a style and easily identifiable from just looking at images.”

It [Rococo revival] was a very prevalent trend. Look in Les Modes and other magazines at the time and you will see portraits from the 1770s and 80s reproduced, such as Antoinette, and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. Also not the hair and the hat size, and compact that with the 1780s.”

Artistic is a guess, but how else does one explain such over-the-top decoration. The light blue embroidery looks more like Rococo than Art Nouveau. URI has a collection of fabrics with some Rococo Revival designs.”

The wheat shelves are often used in banners and flags, coats of arms, etc. The wheat sheif is often held in the talons of an eagle or held in the arms of the goddess. The wheat can also symbolize the workers. That is the political. Some of the elements make reference to military dress. The breast plate, the stripes, the two embroidered pendants at the front of the skirt. The ribbonwork on the bodice.”

 

Click here for the full results of the survey (as a spreadsheet).

I’m eager to hear what others think of this little thought experiment, and am hopeful this post generate additional debate and conversation. What did you see in the dress? What did you agree with or disagree with? The responses were so varied, and people saw so many different elements within the dress, it seems it must be art.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, no?

Continue Reading

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

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

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

Rudofsky’s sculptures

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

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

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

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

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

The goals of this exhibit are ambitious:

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

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

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

Spanx by Lucy Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Ibid. 94.

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

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

 

Continue Reading

Guest Review: Rei Kawakubo at Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Nadine L. Stewart

The key to approaching the latest Costume Institute exhibit [Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, on view to September 4, 2017) is to always keep in mind the telling words in its title—The Art of the In-Between.  For it is in the world of in-between designer Rei Kawakubo has been living and working for most of her career–a search that spans more than 40 years. The current exhibit allows us inside the restless mind of a strong-willed rebellious spirit.

The entire exhibit is housed in a series of stark white cylinders and boxes. There are no labels, just a brief name for each section and a number next to each piece. There is a brochure one can pick up at the entrance that contains quite a bit of information, along with many quotes from the famously taciturn designer. I advise reading it later. Concentrate on the clothes, their shapes, their materials, and their details. This is a show that demands focus.

Rei Kawakubo was not trained as a designer of clothing, she studied fine arts and aesthetics in college and evolved into fashion design. Her arrival on the international fashion scene in 1981 coincided with the emergence of other protean talents from Japan in the 1980s, including Issey Miyake and Yoji Yamamoto. (Kawakubo does not like being lumped in a group with them since she claims rightly that they are all very different.) Kawakubo says her lack of fashion training freed her, “I wasn’t limited to the confines of a pattern. Not being educated, not being taught how to design, I was able to visualize in a completely different context. And I still seem able to draw upon the unconventional.” Lack of fashion training would hinder a more conventional mind, but it is clear Kawakubo has a special view of the world. Some of this may come from her Japanese background. The influence of art of origami, folding new shapes of a flat 2-diminsional material, is visible here, as is the Japanese reverence for textiles and recycling and reusing old materials. As one progresses through the cones and boxes, there are wrapped and tied bundles, a reminder of the Japanese appreciation of package design.

The Future of Silhouette, Fall/ winter 2017-18, Rei Kawakubo

But, there is more here than references. The first garment one is confronted with is a huge ball of brown paper from her most recent Fall/ winter 2017-18 collection called “The Future of Silhouette.” It is the embodiment of her design process which, we are told, often begins with a single word or concept like a ball of crumpled paper that her design team interprets. There is no sign of the body here except for the arms, legs and head that protrude from the immense, round bundle. Kawakubo is not concerned with enhancing the shape of the body or being restricted by it. Her designs explore the space between the body and the garment itself. Commenting on one collection, Kawakubo said she was interested in, “…designing from the shapeless, abstract, intangible forms, not taking into account the body.” This turned the norms of Western fashion on upside down. One manifestation is the section of skirts form 2004. They are white cotton twill with black or pink sateen facings-stiff bulbous shapes with visible raw edges. The skirts look alike but subtle differences the placement of color and the placement of the seams make each unique. This interest in repetition progressed to explorations of popular and elite culture expressed in the “Motorcycle Ballerina” collection of 2005 and her look at the norms of good and bad taste which used cheap materials like elastic and white nylon tulle.

She moved away from aesthetic concepts to memories first in the 1990s with dresses that utilized the hoops and bustles of the 19th century often piled on the body in multiples. She returned to the past in this century 2012 with collections, that featured layers of garments evocative of birth, marriage, and death. Looking at one garment which had a childlike white lace dress with puffed sleeves sewn to its front I was reminded of how we carry our memories of these important milestones with us throughout our lives.

But it is the sight of the “Body Meets Dress” collection that shows a dramatic turn [see intro image]. This is the “Lumps and Bumps” collection. Kawakubo reassembled the human form by inserting down pads into the stretch gingham garment. This created figures that are nothing like the conventional fashion model/clothes hanger shape with narrow hips, high breasts, and long legs. These figures could be called grotesque with their asymmetric bulges making the body look deformed. And yet, the figures had their own beauty as 1997 videos of the Merce Cunningham troupe show. A former member of the company told me, the performance was extraordinary because the dancers were moving in ways that allowed their movement to be seen afresh. The costumes were also assigned to men and women with no distinction for their sex which was unusual then.

The exploration continued in 2014 when Kawakubo changed her design process again and concentrated on translating her concepts directly to design. The newer clothing is shown alongside earlier pieces, so one can see the move to pure form with the body as an armature for display of concepts. Robin Givhan, an astute observer of the fashion world, says it best, “Kawakubo’s clothes have a life separate from the body that wears them. They come with their own context; they reference themselves. The garments tell their own story.”

As you walk through the final sections with stuffed knitted forms, figures covered in brocade petals of the 18th century and samurai armor, mannequins that look like they are covered in multiple wrapped bundles and others sprouting astonishing featherwork, it seems one is seeing the entire array of age-old techniques of fashion in forms never tried before. Finally, near the end I was stopped short by two figures covered in white synthetic wadding usually used for the inner construction of a garment. They are misshapen, armless. These two pieces are from the latest collection prophetically titled “The Future of Silhouette.” It’s clear Kawakubo is not done yet subverting our expectations.

You may not understand how Kawakubo’s restless exploration of the “In-Between” affects how you see the world. But, it has. This exhibit provides a look into that mind. Kawakybo repeatedly denies that her work qualifies as “art,” believing that fashion is a “more social phenomenon.” The one thing we can be sure of—she will continue to search restlessly and her search will be a beacon in the clutter of our culture.

The exhibit does not cover the earlier years of Kawakubo’s career with the exception of 8 pieces from the 1980s which are mainly concentrated in the “Fashion/Antifashion” section. For an excellent biographical article, read Judith Thurman’s 2005 article in The New Yorker, “The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo.”

 


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!

More posts by the Author »

Continue Reading
1 2 3 33