“To write about fashion, to discuss its impact and importance, always means to transform the fleeting and transitory into the statue-like and permanent, if only through black letters on a white sheet of paper. Fashion as a topic remains embroiled and disputed because of its alleged lack of substance–in artistic as well as metaphysical terms. The profound and eternal are considered worthy of intellectual analysis; what is transient and fugitie will nearly always be equated consciously or unconsciously with the facile and futile. Yet herein lies fashion’s most absorbing fascination: it challenges us to transpose transitoriness, also the hallmark of modernity, into a medium of high regard, while maintaining its distinct characteristics; to theorize and analyze, yet not to petrify.”
–Ulrich Lehman in Tigerspring: Fashion in Modernity (MIT Press, 2000)
I’m very pleased to announce that the winner of our “Pick your favorite German fashion icon” Facebook contest is reader Helen Steele – Congratulations!
Helen’s winning entry says: “I’d have to pick Brigitte Helm, the actress from Metropolis. As Maria/Robot she features in some of cinema’s most iconic images. She also wears a rather covetable collared dress in the film, very A/W 2011! Her own style encapsulated both the ‘vamp’ look of the silent cinema era and a softer, more elegant Art Deco style.”
Helen will receive a free copy of Berliner Chic
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.
Berliner Chic offers a wealth of theoretical references, a historical framework, and a rich bibliography, as well as plenty of charming anecdotes, engaging stories, and ample photographs. One can imagine the reader packing this book before a trip to Berlin and using it as an alternative travel guide.”
—Mila Ganeva, University of Chicago and author of Women in Weimar Fashion.
By happy accident I have just received a spare copy of this enticing new book and I’d like to share that wealth with you! To enter to win a copy of Berliner Chic: A Locational History of Berlin Fashion by Susan Ingram and Katrina Sark, simply:
“Like” the FashionHistoria page on Facebook, then add a comment on your favorite German fashion or style icon.
A winner will be announced next Friday – Thanks for reading!
The Fall textile exhibit will focus on THE KNITTED LACE OF ESTONIA and its manifestations in relation to the alternate Estonian knitting disciplines, as well as the knitted lace in the cultures of Russia, Shetland, Germany and other geographic enclaves where lace knitting became the spirit of the soul.
Nancy Bush, sharing her love of Estonia, will be taking a curatorial role and will develop educational programs coordinated with the exhibit. September 17, 2011 to February 4, 2012, with a Friday evening opening party on September 16.
An invitation is extended to lace knitters, who have ventured into the cultural knitted laces of the exhibit and who would like to share their accomplishments, to submit photos of their work for consideration as to inclusion in this exhibit.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently retired to Stratford, Ontario from a career in teaching in the school of Animation, Art and Design at the Sheridan Institute of Design and Technology, to say that Joseph Hisey has a background in art and design history is putting it mildly. He is a Past Chair of the Costume Society of Ontario, a contributing correspondent for the Canadian Antique Collectors Association and a freelance costumer for local regional theatre and vintage clothing collector.
In April 2012, he plans to lead a costume and textile study tour to U.K. for members of the CSO and CSA. He also has a blog of his own jhisey.blogspot.com. For Fashion Historia, I asked Hisey if he would give us his point of view on the “Little Black Dress”
It seems that our interest in “The Little Black Dress” is as acute as ever. In response to the 50th anniversary of the film “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising are focusing on our infatuation with this cultural icon (on view through August 13, 2011). Although this fashion mainstay has been the stuff of editorials since the publishing industry began, contrary to popular beliefs, the use of black in fashion did not begin with the 18th century practice of mourning; black as a distinctive garment color can be documented back to the 15th century.
Since the Renaissance, it was the dye of choice for many who wanted to express their power and authority, hence its domination of the male business wardrobe. At the very least, this neutral hue obscured dirt before commercial cleaning services were available. The mordant used was expensive and unstable. Consequently, a “true” black became a status symbol. Artists such as the 16th century Italian, Bronzino, painted black garments worn by the scholarly and 17th century Dutch masters introduced us to the religious and political powers of a new, prosperous middle class. By the early 19th century, black in fashion re-emerged from a hundred-year absence in paintings by Goya, Ingres, Tissot, and Sargent, all experts in depicting contrasts of lace, satin, and velvets against the starkness of black.
Our assumption that black was reserved for mourning is perhaps due to the influence of Queen Victoria and the influence she had on Western society. Regarded as exotic, with connotations associated with the Spanish court, the appetite for black became more pervasive by the second quarter of the 19th century. Fashion journals, such as Le Folet in France, described its use by the late 1840s for evening wear, as recorded by Ingres in several of his portraits. Whether this was the choice of the artist or the client, we will probably never know. In her book, Ingres in Fashion, Aileen Ribeiro dedicates an entire chapter to the black dress and the artist’s penchant for it.
In Whistler, Women and Fashion, authors Susan Grace Galassi and Helen M. Burnham go to great lengths to discuss the impact of the black dress from a portrait of Lady Meux, painted in 1881. Ambiguous at best, Whistler’s representation of her black velvet dress is defined more by the contrast of the white fur garment draped around her figure, than by the details revealed through his brushwork. Her jewels highlight her status and affluence, and provide a source of contrast that is otherwise not apparent in the image.
By the 20th century, the simple black dress became a standard in the fashion world. Exposure through the press and popular films elevated it to “must have” status. Edith Head was credited with the title, “costume supervisor” on Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and the dress created by Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly caused a sensation and demand for this fashion staple. So ingrained in our psyche is this dress that at auction, in 2006, one of three working copies by Head brought an astounding $923,187.00!
Perhaps then, this is the success of “The Little Black Dress.” It remains mysterious, ineffable, and possesses a fashion allure that extends beyond gender or class. Dress it up or dress it down, “The Little Black Dress” is truly a chameleon in the closet.”
Today, I’m sharing with you a guest post by former California resident Monica Murgia. Murgia is a fellow fashion studies blogger, college fashion design teacher and a graduate of the FIT program, Fashion & Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice. This short article is based on a research presentation Murgia gave in May 2011 to the California American Studies Association annual conference.
Los Angeles-based fashion designers have a distinct style, much different than their New York counterparts. This April, Reuters noted: “The City of Angels has carved out a niche for itself as a host for casual brands like American Apparel and as a manufacturer of quick-turnaround ‘fast fashion’ and small orders for emerging designers. Fashion is the city’s largest manufacturing industry, and employs more people here than in New York. (1)
This might be a surprising statement for those not familiar with the fashion world. Most would identify New York as the American fashion capital. But the fact is, California has long been a fashion leader, and this isn’t the first time the Golden State has eclipsed New York.
Two cataclysmic events, the Great Depression and World War II, created a change in the needs of American women. The active California lifestyle and the Hollywood film industry both affected the demand for a different style of women’s clothing. It was during this time that California established itself as a fashion capital.
American film played a large part in showcasing the California fashions in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The theaters were public places of congregation. Women would go after work to watch the news and see a feature film. Hollywood was providing entertainment to help citizens escape their glum realities of economic depression and war. Historically, this was a time when the entire film production took place in California. Actresses like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West captivated audiences with their style and glamour. The movie industry, and its costume designers, exerted a direct influence on fashions that were available in stores.
Much like today, when actresses were seen on film, women clamored to imitate their styles. Independent fashion designers and manufacturers began sprouting up throught the Golden State. Vogue noted the growing power of California on the horizon: “Throughout the 1930s Vogue juggled issues of innovation and ideas with Paris on the one hand and Hollywood on the other, giving equal credence to both camps . . . Paris was working on a seasonal time scale, Hollywood was years in advance.”
It is noteworthy that New York was not mentioned as an innovative fashion capital at the time. The popularity of the fashions seen in film spurred major department stores to feature pop-up California departments. However, the California departments were not permanent fixtures of the stores.
What made California fashion appealing was that it exuded fun, relaxation, and youthfulness. American women idolized youth, a much different ideal than that of Europe: “How we Americans rebel against looking our age. The French will trade adolescence for sophistication any day.” The youthful look was achieved by using non-traditional fabrics, like unbleached muslin, and appliqués of flowers and horses. Youthfulness was, and still is, the most coveted quality of the American look. Hollywood films had created a young, attractive woman as the national ideal and symbol of patriotism.
The biggest California export during the 1930s was Play Clothes. Play clothes, or sports togs, originated in California. As the name suggests, play clothes allowed women freedom of movement while enjoying in activities the outdoors. They were appealing because they allowed for a lifestyle full of sports, gardening, and sunbathing – all popular activities in the Golden State. Virginia Pope of the New York Times makes it abundantly clear that Californians created and reigned supreme in this casual style:
“It began, if memory does not fail us, when women on the other side of the continent began to wear smocks of muslin in glorious hand-dyed shades over their beach togs or in their gardens. Some bright mind spied the styles and brought them back to Broadway. Since then, fashion scouts have been increasingly on the alert and have trekked westward in growing numbers.”
Play clothes were durable, informal, and inexpensive. They were also easy to wear and wash: “The big idea is to play in togs that are comfortable and at the same time good looking; that are of smart fabrics which will stand hard wear, won’t crush easily, and will bear the rigors of the wash tub or manipulations of the cleaner.”
Aside from play clothes, California next biggest export were pants for women. Pants, or slacks, were much more important for the women of California than the rest of the country. Travelers to the West came back reporting having seen slack-clad women, well dressed ones, too, on the streets and in the shops of California cities. Clothing manufactures based in California carefully and strategically crafted and advanced the cut and fit of pants.
Pants, or slacks, for women were becoming an accepted wardrobe staple. However, certain regions were more open-minded to this change. California was a whole-hearted pioneer. Other vacation destinations including the Riviera and Palm Beach allowed women to wear pants. Slacks were not as accepted in northern East Coast cities, like New York and Boston. Slowly, the traditional dress codes were erodes to allow women to wear pants, although this took decades to be accepted across America.
Each year, American consumers accepted and purchased more California garments. Designers based in the Golden State brought a youthful elegance to the American Look. The women that flooded the workplace during WWII could also be smartly, and appropriately dressed. Women adopted a more functional wardrobe for work and now indulged in active pastimes.
Although the California may still have to defend its position as a fashion leader, the evidence is quite clear. Every time a woman wears pants or active wear, it is a legacy of the Golden State.
 Watson, Linda. Vogue Fashion. New York: Firefly Books, 2008, 52.
 Pope, Virginia. “From California”, New York Times. 22 June 1941, D6.
 Mulvague, Jane. Vogue: History of 20th Century Fashion. London: Viking, 1988, 151-2.
 Pope, Virginia. California Sports Togs. New York Times: 18 December 1938, 58.
 Pope, Virginia. Outdoor Frocks Ready for Playtime. New York Times: 17 April 1938, 78.
Jennifer Heath, a UC Press author (The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics and Land of the Unconquerable) recently turned my attention to contemporary artist Mary Tuma. Having only seen a photograph of her ‘tall fashions,’ and knowing that her work stemmed from in interest in liberating women, I became intrigued and wanted to know more.
A native of Oakland, CA she earned a BS in Costume and Textile Design from University of California – Davis.
Her artists statement notes:
“My work addresses the issues of the transformation of the body and the spirit through the use of clothing forms applied to found objects or placed within a contextual environment. The use of old fabrics and found objects is important in creating a work or environment that evokes a feeling of loss, or distant memory.”
Not surprisingly, given her interest in crochet and sewing, her work reminds me of Ruth Asawa’s basket-like sculpture. Heath filled me in a little bit more on her recent work, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice: “[It’s] huge. . . but based on the fashions of Marino Fortuny, the kind of Greek revival dresses that helped liberate women from corsets. To Mary, these are meaningful in terms of the Arab Spring (she is half Palestinian). The Three Pillars just went to a show in Kuwait. . . . Mary teaches fibre arts and fashion at UNCC.” Mariano Fortuny’s designs (worn by the likes of Lillian Gish and Isadora Duncan) and their influence on Tuma’s work seemed a unique connection. Happily I had a chance to ask Tuma about her work directly:
Fashion Historia: What is the significance of fashion history in your current piece, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice?
Mary Tuma: “Fashion is a human rights issue. One can see this clearly in the current debate over the right or requirement of women of Islamic faith to wear head scarves. Mariano Fortuny’s work has always stood out in my mind as a great example of the fashionable un-corseted natural body of woman— a celebration of unaltered human form. For me, his work speaks volumes about woman’s right to exist in her natural form apart from cultural shackles. Of course Fortuny’s Delphos dresses (on which I based formal aspects of my piece Three Pillars) were inspired by ancient Greek statuary, which serves as a reference to a culture involved in early experiments in democracy. So, for that reason, the Fortuny model seemed very appropriate for a piece about the current “Arab Spring,” which is what Three Pillars addresses. For me, democracy is also a feminist issue, and is meaningless if it’s not. As the Arab World changes, it is my hope that women will step up and take an increasingly integral role in forming new governments and creating policy. So Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (which also spells LUV by the way!) is my way of hoping to inspire feminism in the face of changes and to inspire women to stay in the dialogue.”
Fashion Historia: How did your education at UC Davis help prepare you for your work as an artist ?
Mary Tuma: “My education at UCD Design prepared me in many ways to function as an artist working in fiber materials and methods. Apart from learning to work with dyes, garment forms, etc., I took some very important classes that directed my thinking. History of Costume (with JoAnn Stabb) was one of these and it was where I first learned about Fortuny and his amazing work.
I have been fascinated since then with the mystery of the permanently pleated silk. Three Pillars was my first experiment in playing with permanently pleating silk after a student brought me an article from the web on how to “fake” it! The other two very influential classes were Textiles of the World 1 & 2…. These three courses have influenced my direction with my work in a sort of constant way. I did go on after earning my BS in Textile and Costume Design from UCD to study Women’s Fashion area at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Costume Design for Theater at Humboldt State University. Of course all of these experiences contributed to my knowledge base and have given me a unique perspective from which to work. My MFA is in Fine Art from the University of Arizona, where I studied Fibers with Gayle Wimmer. It was at the University of Arizona where I began to feel the difference between Art, Craft and Design and where I was able to negotiate between these areas to develop my practice.”
I’m thrilled to be able to share this unique use of fashion history in contemporary art. I think Mary Tuma’s work a new iteration of the 1980s ‘art to wear’ movement (which holds strong ties to California). I’d love to have your thoughts and comments on her work.
For more on Classicism in fashion see the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s online exhibition Goddess (2003).
For more on Mary Tuma, please see the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding.
*Image above is of a Mariano Fortuny Delphose dress (1930) via the MET, CI (2009.300.2606, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the estate of Mary Boocock Leavitt, 1974)