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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Canoeing Fashion in 1903 and the United States Postal Service

At the end of March this year, the USPS made an announcement about a forthcoming stamp featuring American author Henry James (1843–1916). What you might not know is that the USPS hired me to consult on the accuracy of the fashion depicted on the stamp.

1904 Boating party (note hats and dress styles)

The stamp features a profile of the author in later life in the foreground, with a scene from his The Ambassadors (1903) in the background. It was the depiction of the two characters in a canoe that were of concern, so I focused my efforts on boating attire in and around 1903 (as the author did not provide very detailed description of their clothing). (Fascinating side note, Boston outlawed kissing in canoes in 1903)

Society in general was much more formal at this time. From what I understand of the female character, ironically named Madame de Vionnet, she was beautiful and somewhat refined.

She would have more likely been wearing a hat – a straw boater or a picture hat (especially as James included a mention of a hat). She would have been wearing wrist-length puffed sleeves, had a defined/corseted waist, and a pigeon or bloused top (yes, much more formal, even for a ride in a boat). She may have been dressed in all white, or she may have had on a dark skirt with a white blouse (aka shirt and waist). Her blouse would more than likely have been high-necked.

Note style of women’s dresses: high necked, long sleeves, bloused shirt over defined waist (also hats):

The man’s attire would also have been more formal – with a stiffened arrow collar and bow-tie, and with the addition of hat. This image of photographer Edward Steichen on his honeymoon in 1903 suggests the style I mean:

Unfortunately, I was contacted to review the stamp fairly late in the process, and so despite the information I provided, no alterations were made to the stamp (pictured below). Nonetheless, it was still an interesting excuse for research and learning more about the connection(s) between fashion and literature. (For those who want more, there is Henry James and the Art of Dress)

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North State opportunities for Fashion History

My new diggs, in Redding, CA are providing me with a great opportunity to explore and learn new elements of fashion and its history in a part of California that isn’t well documented. This past weekend, I went to French Gulch Old West Days (about half an hour North of where I live). A few of the activities sounded intriguing – “Mountain Men Exhibits” and “Craft Booths” as well as re-enactors in costume. Many of the historical and educational institutions here were closed for the day, because they planned to be in attendance there – including the Shasta Historical Society and Shasta County Library.

I’m eager to explore the resources of both places, along with the costume collection at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Below, are a few of the images I dug up from the Shasta Historical Society’s website. Can’t wait to dig in and learn more!

Bland, Carrie Tuggle sitting in her wedding dress (no date given, though she was born in 1877) Shasta Historical Society
Full length photo of woman in wedding dress holding bridal bouquet. Reverse: "Virginia M. Wood Redding - married William A. Banigan - Anderson July 14, 1923" Shasta Historical Society.
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