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

By Heather Vaughan Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harpers Bazaar. 1960. Vol. 93. 97.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Review: Paris, Capital of Fashion

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Flannel Shirt.

By Heather Vaughan Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Jacobs grunge collection for Perry Ellis from Spring 1993.

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

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

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


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

Sources:

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

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

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Eisenhower Jacket

By Heather Vaughan Lee

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


Olive drab “Eisenhower” U.S. Army Field jacket, worn by Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II and was made sometime between 1944 and 1947. Kansas Historical Society, 1983.3975.1.1

The Eisenhower jacket (also known as the M-44, the “Ike” Jacket, ETO jacket (European Theater of Operations) and officially, the “Wool Field Jacket M-1944”) was first issued by the Army in November 1944 . It had been developed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and his tailor, Sgt. Michael Popp (1905-1968) during World War II (1939-1945). The Jacket became standard issue and along with other military clothing, inspired civilian clothing and uniform styles.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92) https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2014/11/11/the-ike-jacket/

Eisenhower and his tailor, Sgt. Michael Popp (1905-1968), redesigned the standard field jacket into something more practical and attractive. Lacking proper pattern paper, Sgt. Popp had used bedsheets to make the early drafts of the jacket (“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951, 3). It was completed in March of 1943. It would become “a coveted jacket popularized by one of the war’s most-photographed personalities” (Blount 2001). Eisenhower was so pleased with the job Sgt. Popp had done that he awarded him a bronze star (“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951, 3). Popp remained on Eisenhower’s staff until he was discharged in December 1945.

“A Blouse for Ike.”1951. Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) 24 Jun, 3. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402234982/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

In June 1951, Popp noticed that Eisenhower was still wearing his old uniforms and designed him a Summer new one (using measurements from memory). The jacket was to be hand-delivered by Popp’s wife.

About a month later, Ike’s gratitude for the gift was reported in the local newspaper, with an additional note that “Sgt. Popp doesn’t know it, but I’m a little bigger around the waist than I was during World War II. I may have to reduce a little.” (“Ike to Reduce to Fit Suit.” 1951)

The Army continued to issue the Ike jacket until 1956, when they began phasing it out, and was completely gone from inventory by October 1960 (Parkinson 2014). After President Dwight D. Eisenhower died in 1969, he was buried in an M-44 jacket in Abilene, Kansas (Parkinson 2014).

You can learn more about the Ike jacket, military uniforms, and how military dress influenced both mens and women’s fashion during wartime, in Artifacts from American Fashion, now available for pre-order.

Sources:

“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951. Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) 24 Jun, 3. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402234982/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

“Ike to Reduce to Fit Suit.” 1951. Dayton Daily News. July 1. Pg 78. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402227463/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

“Jacket Uniform.” N.d. Kansas Historical Society. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://www.kshs.org/museum/musobjs/view/307342

Blount, Jim. 2001. “Michael Popp, Hamilton tailor, created popular Eisenhower jacket.” Journal-News (Ohio) Wednesday, July 4. Accessed October 29, 2018. http://www.20thcenturygi.com/index.php?topic=145.0;wap2.

Parkinson, Hilary. 2014. “The Ike Jacket.” National Archives Pieces of History Blog. November 11. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2014/11/11/the-ike-jacket/


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

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Great War

By Heather Vaughan Lee

In the coming weeks and months, I’m planning to give you a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. Some of you might recognize some of the research and topics from my #52weeksoffashion tag on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. The book covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.

World War I, originally known as the Great War, was the defining event of the early twentieth century. Primarily a European conflict, it was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, and Japan). United States President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did his best to keep America out of the war until 1917.

The end of this War to end all Wars” falls on November 11, 1918 (originally known as Armistice Day) and it is why we have Veterans Day as a Federal Holiday on November 11 each year.

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.
“Brodie” style World War I combat helmet, 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, active between 1917-1918. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture).

In Artifacts from American Fashion, several of the entries discuss the impact of WWI on the daily lives of Americans. The World War I Combat Helmet (see above) not only explores the development of the “Brodie” style helmet, American wartime economy and culture, but also highlights what returning soldiers experienced at the end of the war. By the time the war ended in 1918, the United States had solidified its role as a world power. Many citizens wanted to return to the peaceful years of isolation before the war, but that was not to be. The returning soldiers had seen parts of the world that most Americans had never visited. Women who had taken on traditionally male tasks and jobs during the war were not interested in returning to a role that limited them to the kitchen and soon would gain the right to vote.

More significantly, the entry takes a deep dive into the experiences of the 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, a segregated African American Division comprised of four infantry regiments active between 1917-1918. Despite Jim Crow segregation, and their initial assignment to menial labor duties, the 369th Division of the 93rd earned the nickname, “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were awarded medals by the French, but their own American government failed to acknowledge their sacrifices. The 93rd Division began the journey home in late January 1919, arriving back to the United States in mid-February. The 369th Infantry had the honor of marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City before being demobilized on February 28 at Camp Upton, New York.

Another entry focuses on women’s experiences of World War I by taking a closer look at an American Red Cross Uniform. Although the early war years in Europe affected the United States and its industries, its own declaration of war began a major shift in women’s daily lives. Filling jobs left vacant by men serving on the front lines, many women began working outside the home for the first time. The idea of patriotism also grew tremendously, and women’s humanitarian efforts increased dramatically in support of the boys ‘over there’ (Benton 1994, 56-57).

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.

Recognizing that patriotism was high, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) asked his fellow Americans to contribute their time and energy to the Red Cross relief effort. Millions responded by offering their voluntary support.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Red Cross had 8,000 trained nurses ready for duty. Its Nursing Program had produced 20,000 registered nurses by 1918. World War I and its demands helped the fledgling organization grow. After the United States declared war demands flooded the still-small organization.

If a woman wasn’t out working, it was her duty to economize in her household. Excess expenditure was considered unpatriotic. Patriotism was even exhibited in the details of women’s clothing: more obviously through military-inspired styles and more subtly through the lens of economy via wool conservation and home sewing. The growing responsibilities women had during World War I directly influenced their desire for greater rights and freedoms in the post-war era. It emboldened them to fight for their right of representation, and they had gained the right to vote by 1920.

For more on how Americans’ daily lives were affected by World War I, see Artifacts from American Fashion (available November 30, 2019).

Sources:

“The American National Red Cross.” 1917. The Ladies Home Journal. September.

“Combat helmet from World War I used by the 93rd Infantry.” N.d. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Division. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.155.298

Doering, Mary D. 1979. “American Red Cross Uniforms”. Dress. 5 (1): 33-48.

King. Gilbert. 2011. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called ‘Black Death.’ Smithsonian Magazine. October 25. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/#jDBb4mevkKsQHLE5.99

Patton, James. 2018. “The Brodie Helmet.” Kansas WW1. February 28. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.kansasww1.org/the-brodie-helmet/


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

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New in Print: A mysterious set of silver knitting needles

By Heather Vaughan Lee

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

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

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

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


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

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Tammis Keefe, A Rockstar of Mid-century Whimsy

By Amanda Kramp, Guest Contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Heather Vaughan Lee

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

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

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

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

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

Power Suits and Chanel in the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Fashion in California: Amen Wardy and Fashion Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

By Sarah C. Byrd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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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).

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