Guest Book Review: Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers

Some readers will be familiar with my good friend, Katie Netherton, who has previously written guest book reviews for me elsewhere. Katie earned her Masters degree from New York University in Visual Culture: Costume Studies in 2002. Most recently she worked on the historic documentation project at the Brooklyn Museum and the Gordon Conway archive at The University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center.

Millicent Rogers in Charles James (Via Stirred, Straight Up, with a Twist Blog)

While we were at NYU, Katie researched and wrote a paper on Millicent Rogers and was in fact the one who brought this book to my attention almost a year ago. The Wall Street Journal recently discussed the book in an article titled “She Wore it Well.” It was also recently tauted in Women’s Wear Daily, who points out this tasty tidbit about Rogers: “When she moved to Hollywood in 1946, Rogers stayed at Valentino’s former house, Falcon’s Lair” and reminds us of her strong connection to the master American couturier, Charles James. The author of Searching for Beauty, Cherie Burns, who recently guest blogged for Huffington Post on the connection between Charles James and Millicent Rogers, has a number of upcoming events scheduled for September and October in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, including the Millicent Rogers Museum.

I’m very pleased to share with you Katie Netherton’s review:

Cherie Burns’ new book, “Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers,” explores the life of style icon Millicent Rogers, a fashion risk taker, art collector, jewelry maker, elegant decorator, and pinnacle of taste and flair. The author seeks to reveal Rogers’ character instead of strictly talking about her style and fashion sense, as many of the previous writings on Millicent Rogers have done. It’s refreshing, and well-deserved. Besides her impeccable collection of fashion and relationships with several important designers, Rogers had many accomplishments worth discovering as well. She was extremely creative and spent her life looking for ways to express herself. She was also very generous, with both her time and resources. She was a mother, a daughter, a wife, and an independent woman in a time when many women strictly followed the rules.

At times, Burns’ writing can seem disjointed, as if snippets from The New York Times and The Washington Post society columns were cut and pasted. But, no author has done such an in-depth job when it comes to sorting out the (sometimes hard to believe) details of Rogers life. Because so many of the well-known stories about Rogers seem to have been passed down over time without a known source, they seem more like legend than fact. By using first-hand accounts from family and friends, including time spent perusing unpublished family photographs, the author is able to shed some light on Rogers’ life and develop her character for the reader. There is little written about Rogers’s personal life, particularly about her personality. Time consuming as I’m sure it was, Burns has done an impeccable job bringing her to life.

Mary Millicent Rogers was born into a prosperous family. Her father, Henry (Harry) Huttleston Rogers, Jr., was the only son of Henry Huttleston Rogers, who along with William and John D. Rockefeller, presided over Standard Oil. Her mother was Mary Benjamin, also from a prominent family. Burns dives right in exploring Millicent’s debutante years and her several marriages and divorces over a short period of time. This well-researched section of the book is filled with quotes from various newspapers and family recollections. This time in Rogers’ life developed her sense of independence, but also reinforced her tie to her family’s money.

A brunette most of her life, Millicent sported a flapper’s short haircut when she stepped out as a soon-to-be young divorcée in 1926. She married again the following year. (The Peralta-Ramos Family archives via St. Martin's Press)

Burns slogs through Rogers’ marriages to Austrian Count Ludwig Salm von Hoogstraeten, Argentinean ArturoPeralta-Ramos and American Ronald Bush Balcom. Rogers had three children: Peter with Salm and Arturo and Paul with Peralta-Ramos. Her last marriage to Balcom ended in 1941. Although she never married again, Rogers had several relationships with public figures such as Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl and Clark Gable. Burns delves into these relationships as well, providing clarity where no other work on Rogers does.She paints a picture of an independent woman who was never fully satisfied with one man, one location, one of anything. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her husbands (or her lovers), but that she was always on the move to what was next, what would open her world just a bit more, whether that was a new relationship or a new house. Burns writes about Rogers as a real person, with heartaches and failed relationships, family dysfunctions and complicated mother-son relationships, and at the end of the day, a woman on a life-long quest for happiness.Burns does an excellent job unearthing Rogers’ generosity. Whether it’s her involvement with recuperating soldiers at her house in Virginia during World War II or her efforts to support the work of the Indians of Taos, she could be selfless when it came to her time and money. She was always willing to help, and seemed to feel that it was important to offer her resources for good.

A display of jewelry at the Millicent Rogers Museum

It is enjoyable to read about Rogers’ time in Taos, particularly since Burns lives in Taos herself. The reader can truly see the author’s love for her home. It lends an air of truth to her description of how Rogers must have felt upon her arrival at the Western outpost. Rogers’ time in Taos, although short, seems to be where she felt most at peace. The rheumatic fever she caught as a child and that plagued her throughout her life was beginning to catch up with her. Her untimely death at age 50 brought her adventurous life to an end. She never once let her fragile health get in the way of exploring new vistas. She was buried in Taos, wrapped in an Indian blanket and wearing some of her favorite Indian jewelry that she had been so avidly collecting. A fitting resting place for an extraordinary woman.

Burns includes a bibliography, never before seen photographs and extensive endnotes, all helpful for those interested in Rogers’ life. She gives Millicent Rogers the kind of attention she deserves, and now her life can be remembered not only for how stylish it was, but also for its generosity, vivacity and kindness.

Further Reading on Millicent Rogers:

In My Fashion by Bettina Ballard, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1960.

The Glass of Fashion by Cecil Beaton, London: Artillery House, 1989.

Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest: The Millicent Rogers Museum Collection by Shelby J. Tisdale, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2006.

The Power of Style by Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins, New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.

*Millicent Rogers (Via the Millicent Rogers Museum)

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The Burning Man Series: Nevada’s Desert Dress

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I’m pleased to present the first in a new series for the month of August, that will focus on the Burning Man festival (which begins August 29). Each Friday, a different guest writer will present their  point of view on this annual festival in the desert.

Jan Loverin, Curator of Clothing & Textiles, Nevada State Museum's, Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Research Center

First, I’m happy to present Jan Loverin, Curator of Clothing and Textiles Nevada State Museum’s Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Research Center who happily provides some context for the festival, for those who are unfamiliar. Loverin has a B.A. in Biology from Whittier College and a M.S. in Home Economics from the University of Nevada-Reno. She has worked (part time) at the Museum since 1985. She has written numerous articles and presented papers nationally and internationally. She is also a long-time member of the Costume Society of America.

Nevada once again becomes a mecca for art and community with the 25th year of the Burning Man Festival. For the past 21 years this event has been held on the Black Rock desert, north of Reno and  has become one of the largest social gatherings in the northern hemisphere.

Nevada has historically been recognized as the home to massive gold and silver mining, legalized gaming, prostitution and world class entertainment. Now we are known for the spectacular, awe inspiring, Burning Man Festival and the community of Black Rock City.  This temporary community of over 40,000 people inhabits the playa for seven days, creating a unique society based on a gifting economy, radical self expression and  self reliance.  This phenomenon has dramatically changed the look of our state.

Northern Nevada, particularly Reno, becomes a haven for the thousands of visitors who pass through on their way to the Black Rock Desert,  seven miles past the small town of Gerlach.  When the event begins we watch as the highways become crowded with fully packed and loaded vehicles heading toward this desert community and when it is over, we again watch the exodus of very dirty and dusty vehicles as people leave and go back to their daily lives.

Photo by Geoffrey Nelson (Via Dusty Couture)

While there have been many articles written about the concept of Burning Man, I am here to tell you that it is wonderful, freeing, transformative, dirty, fun, entertaining, richly rewarding and a place to shed your current persona and adorn yourself HOWEVER YOU WANT…… as long as it’s not current normative dress.

That’s right, costumes are an essential part of being a “Burner.”  While theoretically, it is a place for total freedom of expression, it is not without some elements of conformity.  Feathers are in(See note 1 below), boots are in; wings, stilts, crinolines, and ballet tutus are in; nudity and body paint are in; utili kilts are popular, as is wearing underwear as outerwear.  Headgear and various forms of artistically created hairstyles (usually created to reduce the effects of wind and dirt) are essential and costuming for night is illuminated with elaborately constructed ensembles of el wire, glow sticks, fiber optic fabric, and accessories of fire.

Burning Man has once again put Nevada on the worldwide map.  Burners are a part of our culture…with pre and post decompression events throughout the year,  and exhibitions of art at local museums, and it has created a sizeable impact on our economy.  Burners are as much a part of Nevada as showgirls, strippers, and Las Vegas night life. Burning Man has also has created a profound effect on us Nevadans.  For a state that has been known for its conservatism, it has opened our eyes.  Yes, you can create a society and tear it down 7 days later, leaving no trace. Yes, you can create a community of bartering(see note 2 below) and exchange and have it work.  Yes, you can create magnificent art and have the sky as a backdrop. Yes, you can dress up and put on a new and different outfit to become new and different person. Yes, Burning Man works for Nevada.

As the curator of clothing and textiles at the Nevada State Museum, I am fascinated by the creative genius of Burning Man and in my opinion, this festival has embraced the natural beauty of Nevada’s desert landscape as a place of freedom, survival and community.

Thanks so much to Jan for giving us this brief introduction to the festival (and the Burning Ban Series). Tune in next Friday for another installment with a different point of view.

Bibliography

Clarke, Rachel. “Radical Conformity: Fashion Trends at Burning Man.” Popular Culture Association National Conference, San Francisco, CA, 2008.

Nelson, Geoffrey. A Tribe of Artists: Costumes and Culture at Burning Man. Exhibit Catalog Nevada Museum of Art, 2007.

*Image via LibreInk Blog Photo by Frederic Larson of the San Francisco Chronicle.

1. $teven Ra$pa. Arts Advocate & Special Events Producer for Burning Man wrote me this afternoon to make sure people understand that “Feathers–especially feather boas– are not “in” on the playa. They are on our list of things NOT to bring to Burning Man because they create MOOP (matter out of place) as they shed. In fact, feather boas can be confiscated by our Gate crew to avoid littering the playa with possible loose feathers, so it isn’t good to encourage people to show up with feathers.”

2. $teven Ra$pa. Arts Advocate & Special Events Producer for Burning Man also wants to make sure everyone understands clearly the culture of giving at Burning man: “Jan mentions “bartering” and the emphasis of Burner culture is gifting–giving something without the expectation of return. It is that spirit of giving that permeates everything at Burning Man: from self expression to the generosity of theme camps to the massive works of art.”

Thanks so much to $teven for pointing these subtleties out!

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Middle Ages & 18th Century Fashion at the Getty with CSA: A Recap

 

If I had only one word to describe this past weekend’s CSA event at the Getty, it would have to be “opulent” – if only for the quantity of gold and silver on display.  CSA Members and guests were treated to tours of not one, but two fashion exhibitions by two extremely knowledgeable curators at the Getty. Elizabeth Morrison, Curator of Manuscripts gave a masterful overview of Fashion in the Middle Ages (on view through August 14), and Charissa Bremer-David, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts provided many insights into Paris: Life & Luxury (it closed last weekend at the Getty, but opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on September 18). I am extremely grateful to Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell for helping to arrange such an amazing and successful event for our members.

Left to right: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Charissa Bremer-David (Curator of Sculpture & Decorative Arts) and Elizabeth Morrison (Curator of Manuscripts) at the Getty

Though Fashion in the Middle Ages was curated by Margaret Scott (and also wrote the companion book), Morrison proved to be extremely familiar with all its intimate details. Most impressive of course, is the amazingly small and incredibly detailed image: Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius dating to about 1460 – which Morrison helped CSA attendees understand on several levels. It is the centerpiece of the exhibition, and the photograph below just doesn’t do it justice (the introductory image shows a close-up detail).

CSA member hand (for scale) & "Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius", attributed to the Coëtivy Master, in the Consolation of Philosophy, c1460–70 (Getty)

Morrison’s talk covered everything from the history of dyes, and textiles (I was especially fond of the ‘cloth of gold’ discussion) to sartorial shifts (including both clothing and accessories – especially interesting was her discussion of the iconic conical ‘princess hat’), as well as sumptuary laws and class distinctions. (Favorite tidbit: “According to a law of 1463, short gowns that revealed men’s buttocks were restricted to the upper classes.” (see the man in the red tights on the extreme left of the image below).

The Emperor Sigismund Arriving in Siena (detail), in The Story of Two Lovers, French, c.1460–70 (Getty)

This exhibition was timed to coincide with the Morgan Library’s “Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515” (which closes September 4). Exhibition catalogues for both are available -and in varying degrees of detail. Those looking for a shorter discussion should look to the Margaret Scott’s book for the Getty, as it is slim and only $20, while those looking for significant detail and large illustrations, Illuminating Fashion is about 2 inches thick and costs $85.

Note the men's Banyon at the left (Installation view of Paris: Life & Luxury at the Getty Center showing the accoutrements of a gentleman's study, including globes, a clock, and fine furniture via Getty)

Paris: Life & Luxury, was an especially unique experience and curator Bremer-David had arranged for the exhibition to include different kinds of objects together based on the hours of the day that they might have been used – providing marvelous context and understanding of everyday luxury of 18th century life.  This, of course included clothing – primarily from the LACMA collection, but also some incredibly beautiful paintings. Men’s banyons, and dressing caps, as well as women’s attire were on display within their proper settings (including furniture, clocks and other decorative objects).

My two favorite rooms were “Morning: Rising & Dressing” and “Morning: Fashionable Pursuits of the day.” These two rooms included the many of the textile and fashion arts and I was especially fascinated with the tools used for sewing, embroidery and knitting (yes knitting!) The Skein-winder (or devidoir) of gilt bronze (1740-50) and a lacquered wood shuttle (a navette) dating (1750) on loan from Les Arts Decoratifs, Musee des Arts in Paris were both exquisite.

Skein-winder (devidoir) 1740-50 Gilt Bronze, wood, ivory & wool (Les Arts Decoratifs)

In terms of textiles, my two favorite pieces were the silk-satin bed hangings dating to 1690-1714 and the Robe a la Francaise with gold metallic lace trip dating to 1760-65. The bed hanging had been acquired some time ago (1979, I think) with little provenance information, and is somewhat mysterious – though incredibly beautiful. It had never been exhibited before, and is not likely to be seen again. For those interested in learning more on the Robe a la Francaise, be sure to check out the online slideshow complete with audio from Chrisman-Campbell on this dress. We were lucky enough to be standing in the center of the Fashionable Pursuits room at noon – and the brilliant sounds of a re-animated 18th century clock chimed out its bells. The curator had us stop and listen, and we were all transported back in time to the 18th century. It was magical. You can hear several 18th century clocks, and even download them as ringtones from the Getty’s blog.

Woman’s Robe à la Française and Petticoat, circa 1760-1765 via LACMA

Though this CSA event sold out, much of the information provided on these tours is available in book form, or from the Getty’s website. If you’re in Los Angeles, I encourage a visit to Fashion in the Middle ages before it closes next weekend. A slideshow of the highlights from “Paris: Life & Luxury” including some wonderful zoom-able images, are available via the Getty site.

CSA members attending the Getty program last weekend.

References:

Bremer-David, Charissa, Peter Bjorn Kerber, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell and Joan DeJean Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.

Scott, Margaret. Fashion in the Middle Ages, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.

van Buren, Anne H. (Author) and Roger S. Wieck (Editor) Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515, D Giles Ltd (London) & The Morgan Library (New York); 2011.

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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.

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.”

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:

Gallery of Photos:

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