Heavenly Bodies: A Review

By Nadine L. Stewart

HEAVENLY BODIES: FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION
MET CLOISTERS
THROUGH OCTOBER 8, 2018

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is a title that seems simple on the surface. Its stated purpose is to show the influence of the Roman Catholic faith on designers of fashionable dress. However, the question arises—what IS “the Catholic Imagination?” Why is its influence so compelling that even designers who have left the faith or who are scarred by it are inspired by its power?

It is a broad topic to be sure, one that encompasses memory, history, and emotion. To answer this question, the Costume Institute, under the patient direction of Curator Andrew Bolton, has mounted its largest exhibit and in two locations: the Met Fifth Avenue building and the Cloisters, its branch in the upper reaches of Manhattan devoted to the art of the Middle Ages. Because I feel much of the mystery and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church evolved in the Middle Ages, I chose to approach this exhibit in two parts and explore the Cloisters’ portion of the exhibit first.

I get a sense of mystery every time I visit the Cloisters. It is an intimate space, so it is a good place to feel the intense faith and singular focus of the medieval world when the Church was all-powerful. There were no other doors to the divine then. The worldview and the view of time were entwined with Biblical time. It seems the right place to start to try to comprehend the mystery of the Catholic imagination.

The first sight of fashion comes right at the entrance to the museum in the Romanesque hallway. One sees the glittering of crystals which cover a heavy floor-length jute gown with shoulders built up above the ears and long sleeves like tubes that hang below the hands. Jeweled rosaries can be seen twisted around both of the mannequin’s arms that peek from the sleeves. The austere piece by Victor and Rolf from 1999-2000 is more like a religious statute than a garment. That impression is reinforced by the two wooden statues of the Madonna from twelfth-century France on each side.

A turn to the left takes one into the Fuentiduena Chapel, another Romanesque space dominated by a giant crucifix. This chapel is devoted to showing the influence of the sacraments of the Church—marriage, communion, and baptism. Some of the simplest dresses on display are here, including a simple white cotton poplin shirtwaist subtly decorated with inserts of sheer crosses designed by Azzedine Alaia in 1992. However, the eye is inevitably drawn to one of the most iconic creations in couture history—Balenciaga’s wedding dress and coif-like headdress from 1967. The restraint and simplicity of this garment show a creative strength that can only be drawn from great craft and imagination. It’s a far cry from the glitz and glitter recently on display at the Met’s Gala and gives a sense of the strength of belief that sustained Balenciaga, a man raised in the very traditional Spanish Church.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967)

Next door two long black capes by Valentino stand on high pedestals amid the arches of a smaller Romanesque cloister. The mounting of these robes is one of the unique features of this exhibit since it requires visitors to look at them in a new way. One is covered with black velvet appliques that echo the arches surrounding it. Like the Victor and Rolf garment at the entrance, these figures look like religious statues.

Bolton has chosen to place part of this exhibit around the outdoor garden of The Cuxa Cloister The garments here are influenced by the religious orders. Each is simple, depending only on cut for its effect. Two of the eight garments on the west side are by an American, Claire McCardell, whose black Monastic Dress of wool jersey set new standards in American style in 1938. Its simple pleated lines secured by a belt made it a garment that could be worn by many women with many different body types. Monastic robes must be adaptable to many different bodies too. They render them the same before God. There’s another lesser known McCardell here, the “Cloister Dress” of cream colored wool jersey with dolman sleeves and a slightly dropped waistline. Designed as a wedding dress during the 1940s, it too can flatter many figure types due to its simplicity.

The monastic line-up includes dresses by Madame Gres, including two stunning taffeta Gres gowns with enormous sleeves like exaggerated choir robes from 1969. Along the south wall are more Valentino’s with severely simple lines interspersed with two Rick Owens’ menswear from 2015-16. These sweatshirt-like robes are distinguished by “peephole crotches,” a witty touch that was influenced by the bawdy monastic figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Owens’ garments are a good reminder that the range of fashion inspired by the Catholic Church are not always ethereal, otherworldly garb.

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) 1969
Jean Paul Gaultier (French, born 1952). “Guadalupe” Evening Ensemble, spring/summer 2007 haute couture.

The Early Gothic Chapel is devoted to another important Catholic influence—Mary, the mother of Christ, who is venerated above all women. All three of the dresses here are by John Paul Gaultier, two stunning silk jersey pieces in the color blue, the color associated with Mary the Virgin. One features a red heart on the chest pierced with a dagger. Stained glass inspires a third gown with fractured images of the Virgin and Child much like the window behind it.

In the Gothic Chapel, the influence is “Goth” dress which started in England in the late twentieth century. Religious symbols are an important component of Goth dress along with the color black. The centerpiece of the Gothic Chapel is a gown and headdress by John Galliano for Dior in 2006-7 influenced by the Crusaders and Joan of Arc. The mannequin is lying down like a tomb sculpture wearing a gown encrusted with black paillettes, silver metallic embroidery with a section of silver armor on the left shoulder. It is topped with a fantastical headdress of silver wire and cascading crystals. Goth designs by Gareth Pugh and Oscar Theyskens flank Galliano’s showy piece—all in black, of course!

Downstairs in the Glass Gallery, the fashions are inspired by the Garden of Eden. At each end of this gallery are 2014 Valentino ball gowns, both exquisitely embroidered. One has the figures of Adam and Eve in the Garden based on a painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder. The other is covered with gold wheat. Wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist which becomes the body of Christ. Also, in the hall are witty creations by Junko Takahashi from 2011. They are mini-dresses and platform shoes covered with images taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the early 16th Century. The inclusion of these pieces is interesting because Takahashi is Japanese and raised outside the Catholic Church, unlike the other designers in the exhibit who were exposed to the Church when they were young. I’m guessing that Takahashi, who is drawn to dramatic images, was inspired by the weird images in Bosch’s painting which are unique in the history of Western art.

Valentino SpA, 2015–16, courtesy of Valentino, Italy, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

At the end of the gallery hiding behind a door to a confessional is another Galliano, a red gown of linen twill coated in rubber inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, a work condemned by the church. It’s a reminder of the dark side of the Catholic imagination that periodically condemned works that challenged its dogma.

The Treasury contains the most precious artifacts of the Cloisters. First on view is a striking silver crown of thorns made for Alexander McQueen. Its stark simplicity is powerful. The crown of thorns is one of the most revered symbols of the Christian faith, so McQueen’s decision to recreate it for his “Dante” collection in 1996-7 was a bold one. It raises the question—does use of such a symbol on the fashion runway diminish it?

Behind another set of glass doors, we find works used in religious sacraments, such as chalices and reliquaries. There are also two chasubles, poncho-like robes worn during Mass. These are more recent creations, one made for John Paul II in 1997 is of cream silk covered in multicolored crosses. The other was designed by French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for World Youth Day also in 1997. This one struck me as curious. It too is cream with rainbow stripes that run vertically down the middle of the front and back. The official reason for the stripes was that they were a tribute to nature, but the rainbow stripes are also on the flag of the Gay Pride Movement. An article in Interview[1] from 2016 states that Castelbajac told John-Paul about this connection, but the Pope replied, “But Jean-Charles, there is no copyright on the rainbow.” So, the Pope, 500 bishops, and 5,000 priests wore the rainbow colors that day. This is the only mention, thought very tangential, of the Church’s teaching on theological teaching against homosexuality. Many of the designers in the exhibit are gay, but we get no hint about how this doctrine of the Church affected their psyches and imaginations.

Philip Treacy hat in the Boppard Room at the Cloisters

Upstairs in the Boppard Room, three straw hats by Philip Treacy are mounted in front of an altar featuring three Netherlandish busts of female saints. The hats are based on headdresses for the Virgin and are reminiscent of nun’s headdresses with wings that encircle the head. They seem to soar about the head glittering slightly from a dusting of gold.

The last gallery contains another bride. This one by Dolce and Gabanna is all gold lace and trims. The figure is really like a religious statue of the Virgin that might be carried through the streets in a saint’s day celebration. The figure with its very Italian influence shares the gallery with work the evokes Northern Europe from McQueen’s “Angels and Demons” collection of 1997-8. The labels tell us that McQueen’s favorite period in art history was fifteenth-century Flanders. Though he references the period with its color and imagery, it is worth remembering that this was a time when the Church was being challenged there.

Heavenly Bodies took on a huge, difficult subject. The exhibit aims to show us how religious faith of the Roman Catholic Church affected fashion and its creators. It isn’t always easy to understand the spirituality behind what can be seen as just clothes—fine, beautifully crafted clothes, but still, clothes for the very wealthy. However, in the intimate chapels of the Cloisters, it is possible to sense the spiritual undergirding of religious inspiration. Not all the garments convey the power of the religious inspiration, but a few, like the pure lines of Balenciaga wedding gown, can take one to another place. It’s worth a trip to the Cloisters to touch that feeling if only fleetingly.

Note: There’s another benefit of making the trip to The Cloisters. It’s situated in the midst of one of New York City’s most beautiful public parks, Fort Tyron. You can walk through gardens with a beautiful view of the Hudson River as you go to and from the exhibit. It’s truly a lovely day trip.

A 5-minute overview of the Cloisters exhibit for some additional visuals and details:

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Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!

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[1] Trey Taylor, “Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Reflects on His Past,” Interview, November 1, 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/jean-charles-de-castelbajac-1

 

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California Fashion History: Davis Schonwasser Co.

Baby Bathrobe dated 1910-1920 from Davis Schonwasser & Co

I recently received some beautiful vintage baby clothes from a very dear friend, and one piece was a beautifully embroidered silk baby bathrobe bearing the label “Davis Schonwasser Co.” The sales tag suggests that the garment dates to 1910-1920, but I (of course), wanted to know more and couldn’t help diving in head-first to do a tertiary bit of research (this is by no means complete or exhaustive, but it is interesting).

Baby Bathrobe dated 1910-1920 from Davis Schonwasser & Co

As it turns out Davis Schonwasser & Co was a luxury department store, among the likes of City of Paris, I. Magnin, The White House, and a number of other long-time retail establishments of San Francisco. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 1996, “The city nourishes and cherishes traditions, celebrates the idiosyncratic and mourns casualties. And casualties there have been, even among classics: I. Magnin and Ernie’s have closed. So has the original Fly Trap, Winterland and Davis Schonwasser with its creaky wooden floors. We also miss the White House, the Fox Theater, Solari’s lentil soup and Townsend’s creamed spinach. The list goes on.” (Steger 1996)

L.E. Davis in 1903 via "Cloaks and Furs"

Several publications name different “Davis’s” and “Schonwasser’s” associated with the store. According to author Michael Zarchin, “Two Jews who combined their efforts to establish and run successfully a ladies’ and children’s ready-to-wear store known to San Franciscans for many generations were Samauel Schonwasser and Max Davis. Back in 1856, Mr. Schonwasser, an importer and dealer in dry goods, [first] established a small shop…. ” (Zarchin 1952, 47)

The Industry publication, Cloaks and Furs, suggested in 1903, that “L.E. Davis, of Davis, Schonwasser & Co., of San Francisco, is one of the new-idea men of the cloak an suit world. As long as two years ago Mr. Davis, in an interview with the writer, declared that such a thing as universal style had gone out of existence.” (Cloaks and Furs 1903, 46)

A newspaper clipping from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, dated Feb. 27, 1907, noted that Davis, Schonwasser, & Co was established in 1873 and it has been suggested that a “Schonwasser was independent of Davis at least before 1885.” (Carey 2014) Several San Francisco based city directories indicate that the store was in business as early as 1894. According to the 1902 Crocker-Langley San Francisco directory for the year, the store was run by “Max Davis and Emll G. Schonwasser” and sold “ladles’ and children’s furnishing goods.”

Davis Schonwasser Co, 1909 (Via Bancroft Library)

The San Francisco Evening Bulletin article mentioned above also explains that, “prior to the great fire was located at Post and Grant Avenue.  After the fire, and until removal to these new quarters, the firm’s business has been carried on at California st. and Van Ness Avenue.” The 1906 Earthquake and Fire prompted a move to their most famous location, opening there March 1, 1907. This was a time when, “Van Ness Avenue became a temporary downtown during the period that the real downtown rebuilt. Major dry goods and department stores such as the White House, the City of Paris, The Emporium, Davis-Schonwasser, D. Samuel’s Lace House . . . were some of the businesses that located here.” (Kostura 2010, 18)

"Looking down Sutter St. showing "The White House, Davis Schonwasser Co., and The Sloane Building, San Francisco, California, 1908"

This “new’ building had an elegant cache as well. “It was designed by George Adrian Applegarth, an Oakland native. He trained in Paris at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1906 was in New York working on his graduate project. He stowed away on the next ship to Paris to collect his diploma, then returned to San Francisco. He ended up in a partnership with Kenneth MacDonald Jr., who may have been his collaborator on this building. The building is still a retail venue today, although the façade has changed somewhat.” (Time Shutter)

Made of painted satin ribbons laid vertically and horizontally with machine valenciennes lace trim top and bottom edges. Slot and stud front closure, laced back, large bow top front; whalebone stays. Seller: Davis Schonwasser, San Francisco (de Young Museum)

Several Bay Area museums hold costume examples within their collections. The de Young has a corset (c.1904-1908), described as being of French origin and donated by Mrs. Gordon H. True; and the Oakland Museum of California has a never-worn black “Geisha Waist” shirtwaist dating to between 1904-1910. Interestingly, the label of this piece has the former address of “128 to 134 Post St., San Francisco, Ca.” and was donated by Deanna Vickers.

One presumes that these two donors were the original owners and clients of the store, but that it completely unverified. In a letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was noted that Eleanor Maini Wollenberg was at some point, the accessories buyer for Davis- Schonwasser, and “with military precision, Admiral Nimitz would come see [her] twice yearly to pick out a purse for his wife.” (San Francisco Chronicle 2001, 2) Fashion shows were a common occurrence between 1900-1911, and were often held in cooperation with the surrounding department stores (as is described in a number of articles in the San Francisco Call).

The company appears to have had a conscience as well: In 1909, the store sold a doll to raise funds for the benefit of the California Women’s Hospital (San Francisco Call 1909), and in 1911, Davis Schonwasser supported the suffragette movement, but joining with other department stores by displaying yellow items in their windows (San Francisco Call 1911).

Little is documented of their children’s wear today, but the retailing journal The Corset and Underwear Review described a window display seen in 1918,  “Attractive clothing and nursery accessories for infants and young children formed a display in four windows at Davis, Schonwasser & Co., San Francisco, for the fall lines recently received by the various sections of the baby departments. The new and enlarged windows are in tones of cream, with pale blue and pink for the ribbons and other touches of color. The first window showed a nursery scene, with a mother in morning frock and apron, seated at the right, holding a baby in her arms.” (“Infants’ Wear” volume 12, 86)

Later years are even less well-documented in archives and history books, though it was active in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s at least. The company supported the San Francisco Opera’s 1950 season, and it was listed in the Bluebook of Leather and Shoe Businesses as late as 1958. By 1964, however, the location had become a Hibernia Bank office.

If you have information on Davis, Schonwasser, & Co, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Sources:

For another interesting tid-bit on a former employee of the Children’s department, check out this oral history from Harvard.

Carey, Thomas. 2014. Librarian, San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library, correspondence with the author. April 16.

Cloaks and Furs. 1903. Volume 33, 46

Kostura, William for the San Francisco Department of City Planning. 2010. Van Ness Auto Row Support Structures: A Survey of Automobile-Related Buildings along the Van Ness Avenue Coridor.

“Letters to the Editor.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 6, 2.

Perspectives in vernacular architecture, Volume 9, By Vernacular Architecture Forum, Edited by Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch, 2003, University of Tennessee Press.

San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 1907. California Pioneer Society subject file. Feb. 27.

Steger, Pat. 1996. “Staying Power,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 21.

Zarchin, Michael Moses. 1952. Glimpses of Jewish Life in San Francisco: History of San Francisco Jewry. Distributed by the author.

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