Mary Tuma: Fabric, The Body and Mariano Fortuny


Jennifer Heath, a UC Press author (The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics and Land of the Unconquerable) recently turned my attention to contemporary artist Mary Tuma. Having only seen a photograph of her ‘tall fashions,’ and knowing that her work stemmed from in interest in liberating women, I became intrigued and wanted to know more.

A native of Oakland, CA she earned a BS in Costume and Textile Design from University of California – Davis.

Her artists statement notes:

internal systems III, 2008. poly-satin ribbon, yarns and string. variable. By Mary Tuma.

“My work addresses the issues of the transformation of the body and the spirit through the use of clothing forms applied to found objects or placed within a contextual environment. The use of old fabrics and found objects is important in creating a work or environment that evokes a feeling of loss, or distant memory.”

Not surprisingly, given her interest in crochet and sewing, her work reminds me of Ruth Asawa’s basket-like sculpture. Heath filled me in a little bit more on her recent work, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice: “[It’s] huge. . .  but based on the fashions of Marino Fortuny, the kind of Greek revival dresses that helped liberate women from corsets. To Mary, these are meaningful in terms of  the Arab Spring (she is half Palestinian). The Three Pillars just went to a show in Kuwait. . . .  Mary teaches fibre arts and fashion at UNCC.” Mariano Fortuny’s designs (worn by the likes of Lillian Gish and Isadora Duncan) and their influence on Tuma’s work seemed a unique connection. Happily I had a chance to ask Tuma about her work directly:

Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (Kuwait) By Mary Tuma (Photo Via Jennifer Heath)

Fashion Historia: What is the significance of fashion history in your current piece, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice?

Mary Tuma: “Fashion is a human rights issue. One can see this clearly in the current debate over the right or requirement of women of Islamic faith to wear head scarves. Mariano Fortuny’s work has always stood out in my mind as a great example of the fashionable un-corseted natural body of woman— a celebration of unaltered human form. For me, his work speaks volumes about woman’s right to exist in her natural form apart from cultural shackles. Of course Fortuny’s Delphos dresses (on which I based formal aspects of my piece Three Pillars) were inspired by ancient Greek statuary, which serves as a reference to a culture involved in early experiments in democracy. So, for that reason, the Fortuny model seemed very appropriate for a piece about the current “Arab Spring,” which is what Three Pillars addresses. For me, democracy is also a feminist issue, and is meaningless if it’s not. As the Arab World changes, it is my hope that women will step up and take an increasingly integral role in forming new governments and creating policy. So Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (which also spells LUV by the way!) is my way of hoping to inspire feminism in the face of changes and to inspire women to stay in the dialogue.”

Fashion Historia: How did your education at UC Davis help prepare you for your work as an artist ?

Mary Tuma: “My education at UCD Design prepared me in many ways to function as an artist working in fiber materials and methods. Apart from learning to work with dyes, garment forms, etc., I took some very important classes that directed my thinking. History of Costume (with JoAnn Stabb) was one of these and it was where I first learned about Fortuny and his amazing work.

Homes for the disembodiednext piece, 2000, remade 2003. 50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire. approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

I have been fascinated since then with the mystery of the permanently pleated silk. Three Pillars was my first experiment in playing with permanently pleating silk after a student brought me an article from the web on how to “fake” it! The other two very influential classes were Textiles of the World 1 & 2…. These three courses have influenced my direction with my work in a sort of constant way. I did go on after earning my BS in Textile and Costume Design from UCD to study Women’s Fashion area at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Costume Design for Theater at Humboldt State University. Of course all of these experiences contributed to my knowledge base and have given me a unique perspective from which to work. My MFA is in Fine Art from the University of Arizona, where I studied Fibers with Gayle Wimmer. It was at the University of Arizona where I began to feel the difference between Art, Craft and Design and where I was able to negotiate between these areas to develop my practice.”

I’m thrilled to be able to share this unique use of fashion history in contemporary art. I think Mary Tuma’s work a new iteration of the 1980s ‘art to wear’ movement (which holds strong ties to California). I’d love to have your thoughts and comments on her work.

Additional Resources:

For more on Classicism in fashion see the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s online exhibition Goddess (2003).

For more on Mary Tuma, please see the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding.

*Image above is of a Mariano Fortuny Delphose dress (1930) via the MET, CI (2009.300.2606, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the estate of Mary Boocock Leavitt, 1974)


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Climate change and silk batiks in North Carolina

Moulin, batik on silk, 54″ x 36″ By Mary Edna Fraser

One sometimes finds art and fashion in strange places. A few days ago, I discovered this unique collaboration between a scientist and a silk batik artist. It plays into my personal interest in both hand-crafted objects and the environment. The exhibit opens tomorrow with a special reception, remarks by the artists and a book signing:

“Our Expanding Oceans: The Blending of Art and Science”

Thursday, June 23, 6 pm – 9:30 pm

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

This unique exhibit features more than 50 hand-dyed silk batiks, each inspired by aerial and satellite imagery as well as conceptual perspectives of our environment, and permeated with color to produce stunning visual effects. Developed as a comprehensive exhibit by artist Mary Edna Fraser and scientist Orrin Pilkey,* the collection explores major elements of global climate change, from melting ice sheets to rising seas.

More information on this unique collaboration between science and art can be found at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

For more of Mary Edna Fraser's Expanding Oceans series, click this image.

*Full Disclosure: Please note that Orrin Pilkey is the author of The World’s Beaches from UC Press, my employer.

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Tuesday Teaser: Ballet, Rodarte, and the Kingdom of Style

Last week, Fashion blog Kingdom of Style put up a thoughtful and visually stunning post on the connections between the design duo known as Rodarte, Black Swan and the links between dance and fashion. It highlights a new collaboration between ‘big name’ fashion designers and the English National Ballet.

Coupled with the coverage of the capsule collections Rodarte made for Pitti Uomo and Pitti W, it turned into quite a Rodarte-focused week around many blogs (see Exhibiting Fashion and The Fashion Informer for examples).

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Curator Interview: Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now

Newly open at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco is Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now ( from June 17-October 23, 2011) featuring 65 re-interpretations of the the traditional Korean textile Bojagi (Bo-Jah-ki), or ‘wrapping cloths’ by both Korean and international artists. It’s similarity to the western craft of quilting and patchwork, I was immediately drawn to the idea of this exhibition. According to the museum’s press materials:

In-yul Heo Embroidery Bojagi (Replica), 2010 Hand-embroidered silk (Via Museum of Craft and Folk Art)

“Traditional Bojagi was made from leftover pieces of cloths or papers, which were elaborately embroidered together and was a primarily non- professional activity, engaged in by women in a folk art tradition. Function determined the form and the result often created beautiful abstract patterns. Bojagi were made to protect and to decorate items and gifts wrapped inside them as alternatives to boxes and chests. Bojagi stored precious objects, clothing, bedding and covered food in the home. Although this folkloric custom continues in the country, today, the craft of Bojagi has had a great influence on contemporary artists from Korea and around the world. Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now brings together contemporary artists from Korea, and ten other countries that are inspired by this Korean folk art.”

Guest curator Chunghie Lee, adjunct faculty in the textile department at the Rhode Island School of Design, graciously agreed to answer a few questions I had for her about the exhibit:

Fashion Historia: Do you have a favorite piece in the show?

Chunghie Lee: “There are three that stand out to me the most. One conventional piece exemplifies what bogaji is and the other two because of the artist’s vision to push the meaning of bogaji and interpreted it in a whole different light. Interestingly, all three artists have completely, different backgrounds – one textile, one architecture, and the other a painter. Being Korean, and having a textile background Sora Lee’s ‘Harmony 2010’ work encompasses the traditional Samsol technique with all hand stitching, bring the calmness and serendipity atmosphere in life – 79” by 79” off-white work (raw silk). The work silently speaks of the patience and endurance that the no-name women might have lived in the past.

Kuzina Cheng "Over the River" (Image provided by Chunghie Lee)

The second piece is done by a recent RISD student of mine, Kuzina Cheng. Having just completed her sophomore year at RISD, she pushed and challenged herself, making a 60 inch by 12 feet piece with pocketed flaps. The pockets fluttered when they were filled with wind and her piece stretched across to “wrap” the canal in Providence. The canal was where she found peace in her hectic school year, to her it was her precious place. She challenged to wrap something, which essentially cannot be wrapped or kept – water and wind. Upon first glance, one may not recognize the piece as bojagi inspired, but she has stayed true to the meaning behind bojagi in an innovative way. I was impressed by her thought process and that at such a young age, she had accomplished something so big.

The third artist focused in more on the unique characteristics of bojagi. She was very interested in the use of transparent fabrics and the use of light. Catherine O’Leary transformed bojagi into something functional and fashionable. Having a painting background, she works intuitively and picked up on the bojagi characteristics immediately. Her pieces are light and look mysteriously dimensional, as if able to float away if you didn’t grasp onto it tightly. These dresses are unlike anything ordinary, they move with the body and have voluminous bottom making one feel like they are in a fairytale. She is a natural talent, does as she goes, and because of that none of her pieces are the same and all one of a kind.”

Catherine O'Leary, "Wearable" (Image Via Chunghie Lee)

Fashion Historia: Is Bojagi something you have a close personal connection with? Was it something you grew up around?

Chunghie Lee: “Contrary to what one might think, I did not grow up around bojagi. Even having been a fiber artist for most of my life (my undergraduate B.F.A. was furniture design and much later year M.F.A. on fiber-weaving and dyeing), I was oblivious to this cultural tradition. I was first exposed to it by my mother-in-law when she handed me down her precious clothes. At such a young age of 20, I didn’t realize the importance of it. It wasn’t until I was invited to come to the US as part of the Korea Metal and Fiber Artist exhibition in 1991. The tour lasted for 3 years and went across the US and parts of Canada. During the tour, I was unexpectedly asked to give a presentation about something Korean related. I quickly did some homework and looked into bojagi. As I researched into this deep rooted Korean tradition, I learned about the nameless woman and the male dominated society that Korea use to be. I had heard stories about it before, but never paid much attention. After the presentation, I have been working closely with bojagi. In 1999, I was lucky enough to be presented with another amazing opportunity, RISD had asked to me teach at their school. Speaking about it was one thing, but teaching it uncovered my passion for this Korean cultural tradition. Soon enough, without realization, I found myself in the middle of it all – I was spreading awareness about bojagi not only in the US but all over the world including from Canada to Europe and of course, Asia. It took me by surprise when I came across an article of myself being described as the bojagi ambassador. I think that was when it all hit me. Since then, I have been invited to shows and have held my own exhibitions. One of my major curated shows was held in France, in conjunction with the European Patchwork Meeting in Alsace, France, where I showcased works of bojagi, joomchi (Korean traditional textured paper) and quilt. To my surprise, people from nearly 50 countries attended the show. I still have two more one person show in this year, one in London and the other in Utania in the UK. Bojagi keeps bringing me unexpected surprises and countless opportunities, I cannot imagine my life without it now.”

Thanks so much to Chunghie Lee and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art for their help with this post. I’d love to hear from those who attend the show (open through October 23, 2011), for reactions and commentary. Below, are a selection of the 65 pieces included in the exhibit (Click one for a slideshow):

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Worn Through Wednesdays: Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns

Mark Hutter works by the light of the window (Via Colonial Williamsburg)

Today’s book review over on Worn Through is from Mark Hutter, a hugely important scholar in his field. He is the Senior Tailor in the Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and currently serves as a Vice President for the Costume Society of America.

Please enjoy his review of the just released, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns edited by Susan North and Jenny Tiramani.



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Teaser Tuesday: Behind the Scenes in Hollywood

The fantastically choreographed work of director Busby Berkeley

So happy to share this brief, but highly entertaining clip “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood (1934).” It’s an endearing look at a simpler time and tells a nice story  of a college football team visiting with Busby Berkeley‘s chorus girls on set, and one of them has a chance at a screen test. Glamorous young women in their every-day clothes, and young men in nice suits. It seemed useful for film and fashion historians. I’d love to hear your thoughts:


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Researching my own Collection: A 1940s Folk Jacket

Green Coat Images via Etsy seller missfarfalla

For Christmas last year, I asked for and received this marvelous 1940s felt jacket sold by Etsy seller missfarfalla. I was enamored with its unique ‘Western’ version of folk art, the hand work (applique and embroidery), not to mention that it was one of my favorite colors.  I particularly love the cactus, palm tree and the tiny sequins that decorate the piece. It’s unlined and smells strongly of old wool – but it doesn’t have any holes or noticeable weak spots.

Once the jacket was added to my small, odd and sporadic collection of vintage clothing I began to wonder about it’s origins and meanings. I did some light research, but my sporadic schedule left me with more questions than I had time to answer. I found some other similar jackets being sold online and noticed that most other available jackets had polychromatic embroidery and applique, where as mine had only white figures with modest embellishments. I suspected that this meant mine might be earlier than the others.

Slowly, though, as winter vacation drew to a close my free time quickly disappeared and I put the jacket away in my closet… Until yesterday. Sunday evening, I took the jacket out to take a closer look.

A question came to into my head that I hadn’t thought to ask before: Was it machine made? In looking at the seam along the bottom (where the green connects to the white band at the bottom), I quickly saw that it was in fact sewn by machine with gold thread – but more interestingly, I found writing in the seam!


It repeated that phrase, along with what might be some kind of copyright mark, three times along that seam. Until yesterday, I had thought that the jacket contained no label at all. I’ve always thought that the insides of garments yielded far more information than the surface decoration, and I’m surprised at myself that I hadn’t given this a more through going over in the first place. Unfortunately, this ‘label’ didn’t get me very far in identifying any possible significance for the figures. Thus far – I’m guessing it was a tourist item and made for export in Mexico (given how prevalent they seem to be in vintage shops). But I can’t help wondering if it was based on some earlier form of the garment that was actually a part of Mexican culture.

That said, I did come upon a similar jacket in Worn Journal, indicating its significance in popular culture :

The Shining (1980), Costumes by Milena Canonero


Other examples:

Via Etsy Seller: aliciahanson Oceanside, CA
Via Vintage Detail



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Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art

As many of you know, I’m an avid knitter. I’ve previously written about knitting from a variety of perspectives: ‘vintage’ inspired pattern books (Ohio Knitting Mills); the new(ish) street art trend for Yarn Bombing, as well as crafting and gender. Though I’m amazed by the work of avant garde designer Sandra Backlund, I really don’t know if it’s possible to emulate her patterns. In contrast to Tove Hermanson‘s cry for more modern and experimental knit patterns, I crave historicism and ‘vintage charm.’

My "Hush Hush" 1920s knitted nightie (of lace Merino)

And so, for the last six weeks I’ve been knitting a 1920s shift dress with a lovely feather and fan pattern detail and some ribbing.  It has been slow going – small needles and tiny yarn with lots of details. I just finished it this week and I have to admit that it’s satisfying to have come this far. About half-way through the project, I received a copy of the paperback, Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art and so wanted to start reading it immediately. I resisted the temptation, and now that I’m finished with my dress, I get to explore the book!

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art by academic and knitter Susan M. Strawn (formerly of Interweave Press, and now a professor at dress and culture at Dominican University), is thoroughly researched and includes a good index, resources list and detailed endnotes. It is heavily illustrated (300+) with paintings, photographs, posters and vintage advertisements. It covers “The First American Knitters” (Chapter 1) of the 1700s through “Knitting Redefined” (Chapter 12) which brings the book up to 2007.

Not surprisingly, a good portion of the book connects women’s and children’s knitting to military activism and patriotism (especially during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII). It includes fascinating posters and slogans such as “Remember Pearl Harbor, PURL HARDER” and the red cross campaign slogan,”Our Boys need Sox, Knit Your Bit” (seen below). After thumbing through it, one really gets a clear message that the perception  of knitting transforms frequently in American popular culture – though it always seems to have been found valuable. Knitting America includes a few paragraphs on Native American knitting, and interestingly, that the popularity of knitting seems to have wained in the 1920s (it seems that due to the high demand for hand-knitted items in WWI, people were just burnt out on it by the 1920s).

Page 98-99 (From Chapter Six "The Knitting War")

The book also includes 20 historical knitting patterns, including various military socks, baby clothes, a particularly intriguing purse from the 1890s, as well as mittens, scarves and ties. The patters seem to be based on both actual historical garments (the Zoar Mittens below are from the Ohio Historical Society) as well as historical printed pattern instructions. covers the idea of knitting in American history with amazing breadth – everything from Civil War Reenactment Knitters (pg 49) to the emergence of ‘art knitting’ (pg 192) to Native Alaskan Qiviut Lace Knitting (pg 71) to Amish and Mennonite Knitting (p6 65) and even includes a photograph of Sojourner Truth knitting in 1864 (pg. 40).

Page 60-61 (Chapter 4: Traveling Stitches) including Pattern for 1880s Zoar Mittens

Of the 20 patters included in the book, I have my sights set on either the 1950s Men’s argyle socks (164) or 1930s Baby Soaker (pg 127) reprinted from the The Farmer’s Wife, March 1939. If anyone has tried out any of the patterns, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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