The Wednesday Word: Ulrich Lehmann on why Fashion is worthy of study

Erwin Blumenfeld, Audrey Hepburn (1952), New York Audrey Hepburn is wearing a hat designed by Blumenfeld and made by Mister Fred, one of New York's most talented milliners. Blumenfeld here uses a system of mirrors showing the front and back of the hat and allowing infinite repetition of the motif.

“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)

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Winner of Friday Freebie! Berliner Chic

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

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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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Friday Freebie! Enter to Win a Copy of Berliner Chic

"Hey wait," you say, "I want that book!"

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!

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Knitted Lace of Estonia (Lacis Museum in Berkeley)

September, 17, 2011 to February 4, 2012 at Lacis Museum of of Lace & Textiles

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.

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The Burning Man Series: Nevada’s Desert Dress


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.


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.


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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The Little Black Dress, revisited

Guest author, Joseph Hisey

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 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.

L to R: Hubert de Givenchy re-creation of the LBD from the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Courtesy of Hubert de Givenchy Couture. Valentina, c. 1947-1950, FIDM Museum Collection. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, 1985; FIDM Museum Collection.

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.”

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Guest Post: Monica Murgia on California Playclothes

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] (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.”[2]

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.[3]

California Fashions from 1941 Exude Fun and Youth. Pope, Virginia. California. New York Times: June 22, 1941, D6.

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6]

California Slacks. Vogue: 15 April 1939, 54.

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.

[2] Watson, Linda.  Vogue Fashion. New York: Firefly Books, 2008, 52.

[3] Pope, Virginia.  “From California”, New York Times. 22 June 1941, D6.

[4] Mulvague, Jane.  Vogue: History of 20th Century Fashion.  London:  Viking, 1988, 151-2.

[5] Pope, Virginia.  California Sports Togs.  New York Times: 18 December 1938, 58.

[6] Pope, Virginia.  Outdoor Frocks Ready for Playtime. New York Times: 17 April 1938, 78.

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Mary Tuma: Fabric, The Body and Mariano Fortuny


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:

internal systems III, 2008. poly-satin ribbon, yarns and string. variable. By Mary Tuma.

“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:

Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (Kuwait) By Mary Tuma (Photo Via Jennifer Heath)

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.

Homes for the disembodiednext piece, 2000, remade 2003. 50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire. approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

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.

Additional Resources:

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)


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