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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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer

As a part of my need to play catch up (I took on too many projects recently), I’m starting a summer series to share the giant stack of new books that have come through my front door. And you’ll be happy to know that I’m focusing on the good ones! I (and a few contributors), will be covering everything from the fashion illustration history, some major new works cover 20th century fashion history, new works on the field of dress, Hair (and more as the books roll in!) Stay tuned !

First on my list of ‘must read’s’ this summer is the giant, beautiful and highly informative Fashion and the Art of Pochoir: The Golden Age of Illustration in Paris by April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary (Thames & Hudson, November 2015). The fact that the book is dedicated to Dr. Lourdes Font (“whose passion and vast knowledge have inspired an entire generation of fashion historians”), tells me that these authors are on point and know their stuff (#FontFan over here!)

Highly illustrated and beautifully designed, the book appears to be a happy marriage of style and substance, full of interesting looking, well-documented essays (yeah for footnotes in a legible size!). The book covers 1908-1925, and focuses on the “centuries-old hand-stenciling technique known as pochoir,” though it does include a good many photographs for garment comparison. I love this time period, and love that this book is an easy reference to the well-loved and such famous illustrations and artists. I can’t wait to dig in !

“Collectively, the ten publications featured in this book document a fashion revolution, in terms of both the clothing depicted and the practice of fashion illustration itself. The groundbreaking illustration styles seen in the pages of these albums and magazines were born out of the need to represent the rapid modernization of fashionable dress that occurred in the first two decades of the century.”

Want more? Support the authors and Buy The Book


Heather (Vaughan) Lee 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. More on Heather’s career can be found here.

Founded in 2011, Fashion Historia explores the history of fashion (and related events and exhibitions) with a focus on California and the West Coast. It includes book reviews, historical research, theoretical discussion and invites feedback from other scholars in the field. Contact Me Here.

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Tempting finds on the Fashion bookshelf…

It seems to me that the pace of publishing in the fashion history field has been growing exponentially since I left graduate school. At that time, I remember being told by a professor that fashion books were few and far between, and the best place to find them was at The Strand (an amazing used bookstore in Manhattan).

Now though, the books just keep on coming. As readers may have seen over the last few weeks, I’ve been attempting to review many of them. Primarily, these have been coffee table books like Debutantes: When Glamour Was Born, beautifully produced exhibition catalogs like Pearls and Hollywood Costume and much-needed monographs like Jean Patou. For more book reviews check out the  “Books & Resources” subject area on the site.

Of course there are a number of books that I just haven’t had a chance to properly review, and I thought it would be a good idea to mention them here, so people have more of an idea on what’s just come out:

Gilded New York: Design, Fashion & Society (November 2013) of which the Sam Roberts at The New York Times said ““Forget the 1 percent. Consider them gracious and empathetic compared with the denizens of Gilded New York during two decades of excess from 1885 to 1905. This lavishly illustrated volume illuminates the mansions, costumes and other accouterments of the people whose philanthropy helped produce the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera, but whose self-indulgence also gave big money a bad name.”

Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 (September 2013) An exhibition catalog that the Wall Street Journal describes as “the fascinating history of weaving techniques, raw materials and design patterns shared through links of trade between cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa and the New World. . . . Authoritative essays on export routes, textile technology and global trends in taste complement fine photographs of textiles from around the world.”

Colette’s France: Her lives, her loves (October 2013) A heavily illustrated biography, with a beautiful cover, ForeWord Reviews describes by saying “Her beauty and brilliance are captured strikingly in this artful, sensual biography.”

Amazing books in this field continue to surprise, delight, and educate — I’m looking forward to the coming year of reading. And I don’t anticipate that the pace of fashion publishing will slow down anytime soon (especially as the divide between print and digital continues. Fashion books lend themselves well to the physically printed medium — at least for now!)

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