Survey says: A 1907-1908 Callot Soeurs Thought Experiment

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

The results were fascinating.

The Experiment:

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

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

 

First, I asked:

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

The Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Art is in the eye of the beholder, no?

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Historic Costume in California State Parks: Charmian London

Charmian London, ca 1910 (Via California State Parks)

This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture and tour of Charmian London’s clothing collection at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, CA – organized through the Western Region of the Costume Society of America.

Jack and Charmian London circa 1911, possibly at Beauty Ranch. (click for source)

Those in attendance were treated to a lecture by Jo Ann Stabb, who conducted an assessment of this collection of over 100 artifacts in 2002-3 for the California State Parks. Several pieces from the collection were on display at the Sonoma Developmental Center, including some lovely theater coats, evening shoes, a lace blouse and an evening dress. The lecture highlighted Charmian’s independent spirit and outgoing nature, and drew links between her wardrobe and the larger fashion world of each era.

Many of the garments in her collection draw strong correlations with the House of Lucille and with Paul Poiret- though it’s not likely that she purchased items from these makers. Jack London’s mother was an accomplished seamstress, as was Charmian herself.

At various times Charmian’s style was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau (especially during her bohemian days in Berkeley and Oakland), and often by her travels abroad with Jack (including trips to Hawaii and the tropics, where she would don Mother Hubbard style dresses and Kimono’s). Japanese, African and other ethnic influences can certainly be found in extant photos and clothing pieces in the collection. Not surprisingly, she had a love of fur – especially trimming hats and garments (reminiscent of Lucille).

The incredibly informative and well attended lecture was followed by lunch and a visit to the Jack London State Historic Park to see the House of Happy Walls (where Charmian’s closets were on view). Park Rangers were on hand to answer our questions, and a park volunteer played music on Charmian London’s piano – much to the delight of the visitors. (For more of my photos from this event, see the gallery at the end)

Charmian London in Berkeley Bohemian attire circa 1909.

What made this event all the more bittersweet was the news that came out last Friday: that the Jack London State Historic Park is one of many on a proposed list of park closures due to a $22 million California general fund budget cut. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, those closures are expected to begin in September and have already been approved by the California Legislature.

It will be the first time in California’s history, including during the Great Depression, that state parks have closed because of budget cuts and parks that remain open also will have reduced services.”

Proposed parks to be cut (Via CSP)

What isn’t obvious to many, is that some of these parks also house historic collections of costumes and textiles (as well as other artifacts) – and access to these collections would also be diminished.  Along with Jack London SP, and close to my heart, the Fisher Hanlon House (a historic home in Benicia Capitol State Historic Park) has a costume collection and would also be closed.

Benicia is my hometown, and my first experience with a historic costume collection was at the Fisher Hanlon House. According to one parks employee “Parks that do end up being closed will be in a caretaker status, and the collections will still be preserved.”  While officials weren’t able to confirm which parks had historic costume and textile collections, they indicated that the Governor’s Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion both include displays of historic dress. Upon further research, it seems that the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park also has historic costume, and is scheduled to close in September (For a complete list of California collections housing historic costumes and textiles, see Clothing And Textile Collections in the United States: A Csa Guide).

Now if you want to do something to help preserve these collections that are important to California’s History, I’d advise a donation:

Click here to donate to the California State Parks Foundation

Gallery of Photos:

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