Gertrude Stein: Identities, Words and Art

It’s not often that I get to work on fashion related books at my day job,* though it does happen occasionally. I have several coming down the line, so you might hear about them from time to time.

Accompanying an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (opening today), Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories by Wanda M. Corn and Tirza True Latimer includes a detailed look on Steins creation of her public persona and the role fashion played in her identity.

According to the authors, “Stein and Toklas had perfected their late-life look by the time they met [Cecil] Beaton in the mid-thirties. From the very beginning of their friendship, the two women shared an interest in dressing distinctively.”

Gertrude Stein at Balmain Fashion Show , 1946, Horst P. Horst, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Horst P. Horst Estate (Via the Contemporary Jewish Museum)

The New York Times Style Magazine recently provided an excerpt of the chapter titled “Dress” which chronicles both Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Tklas relationships with their appearance and with ‘fashion’ in general.

As girls they spent time at dressmakers, shoemakers, and milliners, where they acquired day dresses and casual shoes for home life; heels, suits, hats, and gloves for the public sphere; and gowns for special evening events. . . . Alice’s hats, a friend wrote, “were all in perfect condition, kept in their original pretty boxes from the most famous milliners. She had superb examples of inlaid feather work by Paul Poiret, huge black-and-gold birds of paradise. . . .

Happily, the exhibition includes vests, pins and other articles worn by Stein, and the book includes photographs and famous artwork featuring Stein’s image. I’ll be attending the opening this evening, and if I can, will post some additional photos.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c.1927, Photograph, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Via CJM)

A whole host of museum and literary events are planned in collaboration with this exhibit, including a UC Extension Course, lectures on Stein’s ties to queer and artist cultures, among many others. Full details can be found here. After the exhibition closes at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, on Sept 6, it will travel to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. where it will run from Oct 14 through Jan 22, 2012.

Volunteer Kathleen Dowling handles a vest from the Gertrude Stein personal effects collection, working to create custom interior supports for the vest for display. (Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Via Cultural Compass)
Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in wallpapered room, 1938, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's (Via CJM)
Gertrude Stein Wearing Balmain Suit, 1946, Horst P. Horst, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Horst P. Horst Estate (via CJM)

 

Photo Sources:

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Cultural Compass

*Full Disclosure: My ‘day job’ is a publicist for the University of California Press.

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Motherhood: Donna Reed & The Shirtwaist Dress

In the mid to late 1950s television began to reinforce the shirtwaist as a mother’s uniform on family comedy TV shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and later, The Donna Reed Show.  These shows reinforced the idea that a responsible or “good” woman [or mother] is well put together at all times, and that her place was in the home. [i] With the advent and prevalence of television, women were shown doing housework in the most perfect of ensembles, including Dior inspired shirtwaists, with high heels, and pearls.  Early television shows, such as The Honeymooners had been slightly more realistic and less idealistic than later shows such as Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Donna Reed Show.

In addition, the later 1950s saw a dramatic shift in terms of influence as television began to outweigh all other media types.  Television Historian Mary Ellen Zuckerman explains that, “by the mid-fifties it was clear that television could attract larger audiences than any of the older media, even with the cut-rate subscriptions increasingly offered by magazines” (203).

Television characters affected how women felt about themselves and their capabilities, both in terms of motherhood as well as in terms of appearance.[ii] In 1959, Donna Reed was given an award for her character on The Donna Reed Show from the founders of Mothers Day (The American Mother’s Committee), reinforcing the notion that women should be mothers who strive for perfection (Chapman; Fane 107).  William Roberts, who created the characters for The Donna Reed Show described her character as “wife, mother, companion, booster, nurse, housekeeper, cook, laundress, gardener, bookkeeper, clubwoman, choir singer, PTA officer, Scout leader, and at the same time effervescent, immaculate, and pretty” (Fultz 118).  Moreover, her character and unrealistic perfection helped to solidify the shirtwaist dress as an icon of female perfection for American Culture.

-This has been an excerpt from my 2009 article on the Shirtwaist Dress, published in the Journal of American Culture.


[i] Of “the goodwife “Her setting was the home and she was seldom seen outside it.  Her uniform was the apron and later, the housedress”  (Meehan 34).

[ii] “Titles such as ‘Do You Make These Beauty Blunders?’” suggested just how close women could be to making mistakes and did little to alleviate the anxieties about personal appearance that were also being fostered by films, and later, television”  (Walker 193).

Sources:

Vaughan, Heather A. “Icon: Tracing the History of the Shirtwaist Dress” Journal of American Culture, Vol 32, Issue 1 (March 2009) pp 29-37.

Chapman, Priscilla. “Donna Reed Wins citation for Television Family Show.” New York Herald Tribune 20 May 1959.

Fane, Xenia Flyer.  “Television Image of the Father: A Comparison of the Father Image Held by Home Economics Teachers with the Image Perceived by High School Students on Commercial Television.”  Diss. New York U, 1965.

Fultz, Jay.  In Search of Donna Reed.  Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1998.

Meehan, Diana M. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-time Television.  Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Walker, Nancy A. Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines.  Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2000.

Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995.  Westport: Greenwood P, 1998.

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Yarn Bombs, Knitting and Gender

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A friend recently drew my attention to the 80 feet of new yarn in downtown Berkeley – suggesting that I was the culprit. I was not, but ever since reading The Culture of Knitting by Joanne Turney I’ve become fascinated with this particular iteration of street art / graffiti. Bansky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was the first time I thought remotely about graffiti as art, but it wasn’t until I watched the trailer below that I began to think of yarn or knit bombs as a gendered pursuit – though I have to wonder about showing images of mothers ‘yarn-bombing’ with children in tow. This potential film brings up a number of questions for me: Does it have the same level of danger associated with it? Are there substantial legal troubles? Do businesses like it better than ‘traditional graffiti’ (now there’s an odd turn of phrase)? Do people consider it art, or merely decorative ?

I do hope that Sarah Gonzalez gets to make and release her documentary, I’d be curious to see the artists profiled and find out of they have the same legal troubles that standard graffiti artists face. In the Bay Area at least, it seems that knitted street art has more staying power and less of a stigma. It seems somehow more egalitarian, and that anyone (or any knitter) could participate. Does that also mean that the artists are less respected? How do male graffiti artists perceive this format – and will it eventually loose its cache once a museum does an exhibition of yarn bombs? I’m curious to see where this goes…

*Image via Berkeleyside

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Natacha (Rambova) in the News

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times brought with it a mention of Natacha Rambova – the woman who’s fashion and costume design career I’ve been researching for the last eight years. It always thrills me to come upon new (or not-so-new research). Times reporter, Chris Erskine, took a road trip to Crown Point, Indiana where Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino were married.

(Lake County Courthouse, in the county seat of Crown Point, Ind., is where silent star Rudolph Valentino was wed. Via the Los Angeles Times)

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Familiar Territory

Many of you will be familiar with my work on @WornThrough, where I have written articles on fashion history and managed the book review section for the past four years.

Branching into my own territory, I hope to be able to share a little more of my own interests and research with you directly. I’m looking forward to your comments and reactions, and hope you’ll enjoy this new adventure.

~Heather

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