Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Audrey Hepburn Auction, Louboutins, and Jennifer Lopez

On December 8, Kerry Taylor Auctions, an antique and vintage fashion and textile auction house out of London, held its "Passion for Fashion" sale, including items from the estates of Audrey Hepburn and 70s supermodel Marie Helvin. There were also touring exhibitions of highlights from the Audrey Hepburn collection, in New York and Paris in late November and early December.
Having worked for Augusta Auctions, a comparable American auction house, in the past, I am particularly interested in these items (and their sale prices)! Hepburn was Hubert de Givenchy's muse, so there are understandably a large amount of Givenchy pieces in the sale. There are also a number of earlier pieces, including some early Fortuny and Paquin pieces. Images and descriptions of the lots are available here and the final hammer prices are here. The two highest prices I could find were 20,000 and 50,000 pounds for lots 98 and 293, respectively.

Lot 98 (here) is a stunning Chanel couture cocktail dress from the 1920s made of over-printed lace (where the colors are printed over the floral design on the lace itself). It is listed as in "fine" condition, and this particular kind of lace in Chanels' work is rare. 20,000 is nearly four times the upper estimate of 4400 pounds, which means two people probably wanted this dress very much! I wonder if the Costume Institute at the Met and/or Cora Ginsburg in New York were represented at the sale.

Lot 293 (here) is a Givenchy couture cocktail dress and jacket in black chantilly lace, worn by Hepburn in "How to Steal a Million" (1966). Its 50,000 pound hammer price was over twice its upper estimate. Although a beautiful example of Givenchy's work, it seems as though most of the significace of this piece lies in its connection with the film; therefore, I suspect it was bought by a collector and not a museum (although I could be wrong).

On a sillier note, last night Jennifer Lopez performed her song "Louboutins" on the season finale of So You Think You Can Dance. The routine opened with Lopez (wearing silver or nude Louboutins-- it was hard to tell) on a bed attached to a giant shoe with a red sole. She calls Santa on the phone and asks him for a pair of Louboutins-- "you know, the ones with the high heels and the red bottoms." The song is about leaving a "part-time lover," and the chorus is a repetition of the phrase "I'm throwin' on my Louboutins, I'm throwin' on my Louboutins." While I personally think the song is pretty silly, this is a HUGE popular culture appearance for Loubs. They're quite well-known, for sure, but not only does Lopez use the designer's name as the title for her song and repeats it ad nauseum in the chorus, this performance (on the season finale of a show with an enormous viewership) is also supposed to mark her return to performance after a hiatus of about two years. The focus on Loubs is, as usual, about lifestyle and not quality or even appearance. The character in the song isn't "throwin' on her Louboutins" to go out and look sexy, she's putting them on to walk out the door on her lover (others might choose running shoes). I focus on Louboutins relatively frequently, so I'll not overanalyze all this, but I consider it a big step in the apotheosis of the Louboutin shoe as symbol of conspicuous consumption and glamourous lifestyle.

What do you think? Do you like the song and/or the performance? How do you feel about what this says about Louboutins?
Image of Audrey Hepburn holding her Roman Holiday Oscar by Ralph Morse for Life, 1954.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Report from Boston: Fashion and Popular Culture

A few weeks ago I attended the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA) conference in Boston to give a paper on The Jetsons and Space-Age fashion (for more on space-age fashion, see this post). Being a popular culture conference, there were presentations on all topics from Harry Potter to the decorative arts to popular architecture, and the keynote was on one of Boston's most beautiful cemeteries, Forest Hills. I heard a variety of wonderful presentations, including one on taxidermy in early twentieth-century interiors and one on sociobiology and the protagonists in children's fantasy literature, but I am going to focus my report on some of the research I heard having to do with fashion.

The "area" I was speaking in was called "Fashion, Appearance, and Material Culture," which is a rather broad area but which made for some interesting dialog between presentations. One of my favorite presentations was by an artist and graphic designer named Donna Catanzaro, who collects images and creates digital collages that address topics such as feminism, war, and the environment while remaining riotously funny. The piece on which she focused her presentation was this one, called "Swimsuit Shopping." Catanzaro despises bikinis, and she shows a number of bikini-clad mannequins with their heads separated from their bodies being steamrolled by a group of waitresses in lobster suits (from an old Atlantic City restaurant), along with a mushroom cloud that references the bikini's name (taken from the Bikini Atoll, the site of America's Operation Crossroads nuclear testing in 1947).

Catanzaro commented that at first, she had chosen pictures of women in bikinis rather than mannequins, but when she dismembered them via photoshop for her image, the result looked too much like carnage. She also realized that removing the head from an image of a woman in a bikini depersonalized the image, so that it felt less like there were dead bodies strewn about her picture. The end result is a combination of headless female torsos and mannequins, both feeling equally artificial. Does this imply that the head of a woman is what makes her distinct, or human, and that just her body alone isn't enough to create an identity for her? It's a very interesting idea to explore. A number of her other images are at her website, Check it out!

Victoria Pass, a doctoral student researching fashion and Surrealism at the University of Rochester, discussed Chanel and Marcel Duchamp's female alter ego "Rrose Selavy." She focused on similarities in the ways in which they marketed their personal images in order to market their art and design. Chanel is not a designer that I would immediately connect with Surrealism, so the comparison was a very intriguing one. The idea of marketing the artist or designer themself in order to promote his or her work is one that has pervaded the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries, especially in the past few decades.

While I sometimes feel that Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick are overly discussed these days, I very much enjoyed the presentation of Yale doctoral student Madison Moore on Edie Sedgwick and her glamourous image. Moore's work focuses on glamour as performance, a deliberate act combining style and drama that creates an intentional "fabulousness." Instead of being something superficial or simply gaudy, Moore argues that glamour reveals our social and cultural anxieties. He's recently written a wonderful blog entry on Rihanna's image and how she and other style icons dress themselves as if they were on a photo shoot, in a sense creating fashion editorials before they are made. I would love to take a look at style icons throughout the century-- right now I'm thinking of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor-- and examining the relationships between their public attire and concurrent, or subsequent, fashion editorials.

Bareket Kezwer, from the Parsons graduate program, gave a presentation on Louis Vuitton's brand image and the global art market. I was fascinated by how far-reaching the LVMH conglomerate is, and how wealthy and powerful its head is. It seems as though every part of LVMH's marketing kicks back to some other branch of the LVMH empire, and they really own a large part of the world's art market. Louis Vuitton itself has an incredible history, beginning in the nineteenth century (and one of the most amusing things about the LV logo is that it was originally conceived in order to prevent counterfeiting--it's now one of the world's most counterfeited logos).

Laura Camerlengo is looking at 19th century miser's purses, particularly examining their representation in a variety of literary sources including Sketches by Boz and Vanity Fair. Using literary sources can be a rich and challenging strategy for a fashion researcher, much like using art-- you must recognize the author's style, context, and creative license in order to glean meaning from their references, but the result can be a deep cultural understanding of fashions and objects that is nearly impossible to gain from other sources.

These notes are just a very shallow gloss on the research that was presented. I'm going to continue to follow all of these researchers in the future, knowing that they will be leading fashion studies down interesting and significant paths.

Which of these researchers' work do you find the most interesting? Are there other topics in fashion and popular culture that you' d like to see explored?
Image of woman in bikini by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life, 1943. Image of bomb over Bikini Atoll by Frank Scherschel for Life, 1946.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Power Jeans, Isabel Toledo, and Christian Louboutin

Today's post is a potpourri of sorts, covering a few items of interest that have come up in the last week or so. First, some current events: on Thursday night (11/5), the Textile Museum will host a program sponsored by the Swiss Embassy called "From Switzerland to the White House: The Story Behind the Inauguration Dress." The event will focus on the creation of Isabel Toledo's Lemongrass Coat and Dress, worn by Michelle Obama to her husband's inauguration, following the garment from the fabric stage through the finished product. Toledo, her husband and noted illustrator Ruben Toledo, and the creative director of the Swiss company that produced the fabric will participate in a panel discussion moderated by the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan. The event is $25 for TTM members and $45 for non-members and will be followed by a reception with Swiss wine and chocolate (yum!). For more information, check the TTM website here (scroll down to Nov. 5 for the phone number). If I were not already speaking at a conference in Boston on Thursday, you can bet I 'd be there in a heartbeat. I think it will be a great opportunity to hear not only about Toledo's creative process but to think about the designers and creators of the fabric of high-fashion garments, something that is frequently overlooked.

Speaking of Robin Givhan, who is an excellent writer and astute observer (but who does not originally come from a fashion studies background), the Post's Style section recently featured
a short piece by her on Christian Louboutin's first visit to DC. I was intrigued by the fact that he had avoided coming to DC during the Bush administration because he greatly disliked the president-- I'm not surprised, but I do feel as though he ought to recognize that the entire city and its environs aren't governmentally owned (just most of it)! In addition, some of the Marymount students I teach were involved in his shoe-signing event at Neiman Marcus, something he loves to do and an opportunity for fans to witness his very charming (and oh-so-French) personality.

Finally, to some commentary. The Wall Street Journal recently featured a short article by Christina Binkley called "The Relentless Rise of Power Jeans." It focuses on how, in Binkley's words, "jeans are now a legitimate part of the global power-dress lexicon, worn to influential confabs where the wearers want to signal they're serious--but not fussy--and innovative." She then goes on to describe situations in which "power jeans" are successful in sending an appropriate signal, and they ways in which they must be carefully chosen and appropriately accessorized. The article does an excellent job of recognizing the power of "authoritative casual" dressing. In the right instances, a less-formal garment while remaining neat and businesslike instantly sets the tone that you are the one in charge, setting the dress code; you don't need to put on a suit to be powerful. For a man to wear power jeans among his dress-panted peers gives the appearance that he is the most relaxed one of the bunch, that he was confident in the propriety of his clothing and that the others fell to business casual because they weren't sure what the rules were.

In addition, it's a lot harder to get power jeans right than dress pants. Business casual has superseded the suit as most men's everyday workwear, so the oxford shirt/dress pants/matching belt and shoes combo is a no brainer for most guys. Power jeans, however, require more nuance-- they're not just your faded weekend jeans with a slouchy fit. Not only do they need to be dark and well-tailored, they need to have just the right shirt, belt, shoes, and perhaps sport jacket to accompany them. As Binkley says, "getting power jeans right involves lots of no's." So by wearing power jeans successfully, one not only demonstrates that they are at ease and in command of a situation but that they have good taste and well-developed sartorial skills.

One last thing to note is the menswear's gradual march from casual to formal, which has been progressing since the early 19th century. Around 1820, men wore a frock coat (with a "skirt" down to the knees on all sides) for informal daytime events, and a tailcoat for formal daytime and evening events. By the 1860s, the sack coat (effectively our modern suit jacket) had been introduced for very casual daytime wear and the frock coat had been relegated to formal daytime status, while the tailcoat was worn only in the evenings. By the 1880s, the sack coat remained informal, while the morning coat or cutaway was accepted as semi-formal daytime attire and the frock coat was worn only for the most formal daytime occasions. Tailcoats were still worn for evenings. By the turn of the 20th century, tuxedos were added to the mix as a less-formal evening alternative (a dressy form of the sack jacket). By the 20s, American men wore sack-jacket suits for virtually everything and tuxedos or tailcoats for evenings. In this image of King George V in 1927, notice that the man at the far left wears a sack coat, the man greeting the King wears a morning coat, and the King and his friend wear frock coats (extremely stodgy and outdated at this point).

As we are now, virtually no one (but the Brits at Ascot) wears a morning suit (which is a shame, because they're very nice-looking). Only conductors wear white tie and tailcoats. We now no longer wear suits for work. So the power jeans begin to work their way into the rotation. Who knows-- we may be wearing them to gala events in 50 years!

What do you think? How do you feel about the use of power jeans? Do they work in your field, or not? Do you think they'll eventually become the new suit? Would that be good or bad (or simply fashion)?

Photo by Michael Rougier for Life, March 1955.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fashion and Aspiration: Glamour's Plus-Size Models and Our Body Perceptions

In this month's Glamour Magazine is a feature on "the new definition of gorgeous," featuring seven plus-size models: Crystal Renn, Lizzie Miller, Amy Lemons, Ashley Graham, Kate Dillon, Anansa Sims, and Jennie Runk. All seven of them pose nude together (strategically covered), showing off the soft smoothness of their bodies and their ample curves. The feature seems to be a result of the dramatic response to the appearance of a nude (again, strategically covered) photo of Lizzie Miller in September's Glamour, sitting, smiling, and sporting a tummy roll. Women all over the country expressed their relief at finding a gorgeous picture of a woman in a magazine who "looked like them," curves and all. This month's article notes that this image was "just one of more than a hundred of full-figured women (they've) run in recent years, so (Glamour's editors) were surprised when it hit a nerve." Their theories? The recession has us in a "back-to-basics" mood, celebrities have recently spoken out against our less-than-perfect-body-hating fashion culture, Michelle Obama takes fashion risks, and perhaps we're finally tired of the bone-thin models we've seen everywhere for ten or so years. I agree with Glamour's editor-in-chief, Cindy Leive, that it was probably the combination of Miller's belly roll and unabashedly confident smile that did it. The photograph's statement was, "I know I have a belly roll. There it is. I haven't chosen a pose that minimizes it. I'm not hiding it. I'm still hot and feel great about my body! Check me out."

The article by Genevieve Field (which I highly encourage you to read) reveals the difficulties models have in being over a size four (and most runway models are closer to 00). First, sample sizes made for fashion photo shoots aren't made above this size (the writer mentions that designers sometimes make a one-off garment for a larger celebrity, which happened when Queen Latifah was Glamour's cover girl).

Second- and a bit of a surprise to me-, most designer fashion labels don't make sizes larger than 10 or 12, and it's not because there isn't a market for it. The article quotes Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD, as saying "We know that larger-size women will pay almost anything for good-quality clothes that fit, and luxury brands could benefit greatly from serving that need. But there remains a deep stigma against going plus-size in the high-end fashion market. Find a brand that's willing to be its image and licensing revenue by doing this, and you will find a progressive company." So while designers know it could increase their sales to offer larger sizes, it's seen as "selling out," in a way- as becoming less fashionable and less exclusive, a stain on their brand image that might affect their prestige and sales among current customers. As it is now, not just any woman can wear Dior- you have to already bring a fashionable body shape and size to the table before you can try on--or model--the garments (that is, unless you are interested in haute couture, which is even more astronomically expensive and has a minuscule market of celebrities and heiresses).

But fashion will always be exclusive and unreasonable, and I don't think there's anything that can be done to change the fact that underweight bodies are our current fashionable ideal. Fashion is driven by novelty and dictated by excess and leisure. High fashion is only accessible to those with enough disposable income to invest in trends that will inevitably become obsolete and that demonstrate a certain level of status. A white dress that's dry-clean-only, four-inch heels that would never allow you to do any manual labor, over-the-top accessories that get in your way and serve no purpose other than decoration-- there's a reason you don't see housekeepers and waitresses wearing these things. These clothes say "I have money to spare, and it's not because I work at a menial job." Similarly, a fashionable body shape might say, "I can afford a gym membership and health food and I choose to limit my intake because maintaining my body shape is a high priority for me." When rail-thin models become unfashionable, it will simply be because the industry is tired of them and wants a new look, not because they've changed their philosophies. I'm not making any value judgments here, saying that fashion is good or bad; I'm simply stating what fashion is and always has been.

But here is where the change can, and perhaps is, happening. The article mentions "aspirational imagery," a marketing strategy that creates in the viewer a connection with a depicted look-- the consumer imagines an ideal situation created by a product they are seeing advertised. Some who commented on the Glamour article argued that the editors were inspiring women to be content with obesity or unhealthy lifestyles and encouraging them to be complacent about their bodies. But I think we, as a society, have confused "healthy" with "fashionable." Many standard models have unhealthy bodies, and these models, while "plus-size" by industry standards, are far from obese; they are actually sizes 10-14. Two of them, Crystal Renn and Kate Dillon, were previously "straight" (standard-size) models, and found success and happiness in their (now plus-size) work once they allowed their bodies to come to their natural sizes. Another, Amy Lemons, is quoted as saying, "every body has its own healthy weight--it's the one you get to by eating and exercising right, not by pushing yourself to the brink."

In my eyes, the big problem with fashion's underweight ideal body is the prevalence of aspirational images that are so far from what many healthy women look like. Almost every woman that is depicted as beautiful or stylish is also a waif, which makes women connect poise, attractiveness, and sex appeal with a very thin body. The wonderful thing about these images of normal-sized women is that they are stunningly beautiful, confident, and well-dressed. They create aspirational imagery that removes the stick-thin factor from the imaginary situation and allows female consumers to imagine themselves as stylish and attractive without having to lose ghastly amounts of weight. This is an important and healthy change, and one that I am confident that Glamour will continue (see their pledge at the end of the article).

Of course, there is still plenty of unattainability and fantasy in models. For one thing, there is still very little representation of models between sizes 4 and 10 and above size 14. Many-- most?-- of us have imperfections absent in the models we see, regardless of size-- a larger nose, stretch marks, ears that stick out, etc. That doesn't mean that we're bad and they're good-- but it does mean that we don't look like most models. That is where body image will always be a bit of a challenge, and where the importance of detaching value from the fashionable ideal is crucial in establishing our self-esteem and that of young women.

So, while I don't predict that Vogue will feature any substantial plus-size spreads in the near future, Glamour has taken an important step in relating to its target audience and helping women everywhere connect to beauty and style. Because, as Field says, "a generous helping of fabulous--as long as it's extended to women of all sizes."

What do you think? I am very curious to hear comments on this issue.

Read the original article here, as well as an interview with Crystal Renn here, and see a slideshow of the photo shoot here.

Photos of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, plus-sized by today's modeling industry standards. Photo of Monroe by J.R. Eyerman for Life, February 1946; photo of Taylor by Peter Stackpole for Life, February 1950.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Christian Louboutin Re-releases "Love" Shoes

My friend and colleague Julie Ann Orsini, who co-curated the exhibit "Sole Desire: The Shoes of Christian Louboutin" with me a couple of years ago at FIT, just brought a very exciting piece of news to my attention: Louboutin has released new versions of the "Love" shoes for fall 2009!

One of our favorite pairs of Louboutins (featured in the exhibit), the love flats were designed in the 90s when Louboutin saw a picture of Princess Diana looking mournfully at her feet. He says that he thought she might smile if she were looking down at these shoes (the Net-A-Porter website says he "wanted her to always have love at her feet"). They were one of the pairs that helped launch his career (and they're even early enough to lack his now-signature red soles, which weren't introduced until later in the 1990s). They're dear, but my complaint with them has always been their rather dowdy and dated shape.

But... drumroll please... they have been revamped (pun intended) and are now for sale again! Net-a-porter carries patent-leather flats, lower-cut and rounder-toed than the originals and with gold lettering instead of beige (here). They also carry suede pumps in a beautiful, classic shape with the letters in rhinestones across the front (here). The CL stores carry black patent pumps with silver lettering, burgundy patent pumps with lilac lettering (ooh!), black flats with bone lettering, and black suede flats with red patent lettering. I have also seen them on Ebay as black pumps with red lettering. I am in LOVE with these (I know, I know)- they are timeless, classy, sweet, and feature an insider reference to his early days of designing.

Do you like them? Would you ever drop the cash? Have you seen them in person?
Which are your favorites? (I think mine are the rhinestone pumps or the black pumps with red lettering).
Photo by Walter Sanders for Life, n.d.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Unusual Coat at Anderson House and Japanese Fashion at the Textile Museum

This Friday at 12:30, I'm giving a free 20-minute "Lunch Bite" presentation at the Society of the Cincinnati Museum at Anderson House on Massachusetts Ave., where I recently completed an internship. I'm going to focus on an object in their collection, a coat belonging to an original member of the Society that dates from around the turn of the 19th century. It's very unusual in its materials and construction and has led me down an interesting path, on which I'll elaborate more in my talk. I'll also put the coat in context and talk a little bit about men's summer clothing around this time period.

There are some very interesting things happening at the Textile Museum, just around the corner from Anderson House on S street. I've interned there in the past as well, and I'm a huge fan of this museum. Their Textile Learning Center, on the second floor, has a lot of hands-on features that explore the basics of textiles. Currently on exhibit is a group of their recent acquisitions, and opening in October is an exhibit of contemporary Japanese fashion from the collection of Mary Baskett, focusing on seminal designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garçons) and Yohji Yamamoto. These three designers have been at the head of avant-garde fashion design for the past thirty years and continue to revolutionize the field.

This brings me to a very exciting event taking place from October 16 through 18: the Textile Museum's Fall symposium, titled "From Kimono to Couture: The Evolution of Japanese Fashion." I know I sound like a radio ad for the Museum's fall events calendar, but I think that this symposium is going to be a great commentary of research, analysis, and commentary from some very eminent scholars in the field. Harold Koda, the Curator in Charge at the Met's Costume Institute, is presenting, as well as Sharon Takeda, Senior Curato and Head of the Costume and Textile Department at LACMA (the LA County Museum of Art, which has an excellent collection and great online database). At the end of the Sunday session is a "show-and-tell" of Japanese textiles, where participants can bring in a textile from their collection, which I think is a nice idea to get those who aren't presenting to be involved in the program.

It is a rather expensive event- if you register before October 2nd, it's $220 for Museum members and $265 for non-members, and $180 for students. Being underemployed and no longer a student, I will probably have to live vicariously thorough my colleagues at the Museum, but I would highly recommend that you attend if you can! Complete information is available here.

First photograph by Al Fenn, 1952, Life. Second photograph by Michael Rougier, Life.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Report from NYC: "Fashion and Politics"

The third exhibit we saw in New York a few weeks ago was also at the Museum at FIT- "Fashion and Politics." The museum maintains a permanent exhibition on the history of fashion in their museum gallery, whose contents and theme change about every six months. Previous rotations have focused on subjects such as garment construction ("The Tailor's Art"), color ("She's Like a Rainbow"), and exoticism ("Exoticism," appropriately). This choice of subject was obviously a timely one, and connects well to Michelle Obama's inaugural ensemble shown downstairs in the Isabel Toledo exhibit (although I didn't note any indications to the visitor connecting the two exhibits).

The museum's extensive collection boasts some relevant and interesting examples of political fashion, including an "I like Ike" dress, and RFK scarf designed by Oscar de la Renta, and--my favorite-- an anti-prohibition handkerchief that reads "More Beer Less Taxes."*

For each history gallery rotation, there are two narratives--one, the development of western fashion from the 18th century through the present day, and two, the rotation's particular focus. The problem with this rotation was that while fashion and politics have intersected for a long time, there are times when it is difficult to find garments or accessories that are overtly political. There were some obvious gaps in the show, especially in the 18th and 19th century sections as well as in parts of the 20th century. The curators dealt with this by incorporating pieces with associations to a particular social movement or group, such as the late-19th-century Aesthetic movement or the mid-20th-century middle class.

This was a bit iffy to me. The definition of "politics" can certainly be broad, but I felt it was stretched in some areas and not in others without a strong overarching cohesion to the whole show. The Aesthetic movement certainly had an impact on fashion and art, and was widely lampooned in the press, but its agenda was entirely nongovernmental, as far as I know. Similarly, while the middle class certainly became a formidable socio-cultural entity during the middle of the 20th century, the exhibit didn't clearly link it to particular political movements in a meaningful way.

So while this was an enjoyable, digestible exhibit, and the garments and accessories were nicely displayed, I felt that the Museum was pushing the show's thematic boundaries to fill holes between its strongest objects. Perhaps if the exhibit text had made mention of the broad definition of "politics" and more clearly connected certain pieces to the theme, the exhibit would have felt a bit stronger.

What do you think? Has anyone seen the exhibit? How would you deal with the issue of objects that connects to an exhibit's theme in a less-than-obvious way? What do you consider "political" fashion?

The exhibit is up through November 7th. For more information, look here.

All photographs by Nina Leen for Life, April 1952.
*I can excuse their grammar this time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Report from NYC: "Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out"

While we were in NYC, my husband and I stopped in at my old stomping grounds, the Museum at FIT, to see two interesting exhibits. Today's post focuses on what was by far our favorite exhibit of the weekend: "Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out."

While Isabel Toledo has recently come into the public eye because of the coat and dress set she designed for Michelle Obama to wear at this year's inauguration ceremony, her work has been exhibited at FIT for years, and her husband Ruben, a noted illustrator, designed the "spinning wheel of fashion" motif used in the Museum at FIT's permanent history gallery.

Specifics of the exhibit, as well as more details about Toledo herself, can be found at the online exhibition webpage here. What I'd like to focus on is why this was the consummate Good Fashion Exhibit, enjoyable both to me and to my "layman" husband.

The exhibit took place in the Museum's downstairs galleries, a large, square, versatile space with a sort of lobby area usually used for an introductory section. The lobby section featured Michelle Obama's inaugural ensemble as well as an opening didactic panel and a wraparound timeline of Toledo's work. The first didactic introduced Toledo and also gave an overview of the structure of the exhibit, telling the visitor what the thematic sections were and how they were arranged. This was one of my favorite elements of the exhibit's text, because it let the visitor know exactly what to expect and helped them orient themselves within the exhibit, so they would never be wondering whether they had missed a section or if they were progressing along the correct path.
Speaking of which, another aspect of the exhibit that I enjoyed was its layout: each corner of the large, square space past the lobby featured a thematic area focusing on one element of Toledo's design. They did not have to be viewed in order, so visitors entering from either side of the space would have an equally coherent experience. There was a central circular area that featured a variety of Toledo's works, arranged to loosely correspond with the thematic section they were facing. This allowed the visitor to easily transition from section to section and see how all of the themes tied together.

Within the sections, didactic text was informative but brief, accessible without being simplistic; my husband read it all and understood each section and its connection to the overall exhibit. In addition, the didactics made reference to specific garments being shown, connecting the thematic ideas to the pieces in concrete ways. Many of the object labels also had silhouettes of the flat patterns of the piece being displayed, allowing the visitor to get a sense of how Toledo sculpts with fabric and turns 2 dimensions into 3 in innovative ways. There were a few garments that were mounted flat in order to display their unique shapes when off the body. The exhibit also featured some of Ruben's illustrations of Isabel's pieces, which were a great complement to the garments.

My only-- and small--gripe was that the mannequins weren't absolutely my favorite- their faces were a little stylized and they had built-in wedge feet, which was a little odd- but frankly, they allowed plenty of attention to be given to the garments and acted as proper bodies underneath them, which is all you can really ask for from a mannequin!

My husband raved about the exhibit when we left, which says a lot considering he knew nothing about Toledo going in and we had already done one fashion exhibit that morning ("The Model as Muse").

This was an A++ exhibit! Kudos to Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, and the staff at the Museum at FIT.

Has anyone else seen it? How did you feel about the exhibit? What elements are most important to you in a fashion exhibit?

"Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out" is up at the Museum at FIT until September 26.

Photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, USAF, January 20, 2009.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Report from NYC: "The Model as Muse"

I have been terribly delinquent in posting recently, since I've been so busy I've had to resort to Chef Boyardee at home (but that's another story). My hope is to now make up for it with some good posts!

This weekend I went up to New York City to see some great fashion exhibits. My brave and patient husband accompanied me, and was able to give me commentary from the viewpoint of a fashion and museum "layperson." The first exhibit we went to see was "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which closed on Sunday. I blogged about this a while ago in the context of the "sexy" exhibit (here) and I wasn't sure what to expect, thinking perhaps it might kowtow to popular celebrity supermodel obsession.

My fears were unfounded. I thought the exhibit was not only enjoyable and well-designed, but highly academic! I would identify the show's "big idea" as "models have played a vital role in the world of fashion since the 1950s, and that role has changed fundamentally in each decade." Each section of the exhibit examined approximately one decade, explaining the fashion milieu of that time period, exploring the role of the model (sometimes the different roles of different types of models, such as the house or "cabine" models and the magazine models) in that milieu, and highlighting a number of important models and their contributions to the history of fashion design and merchandising. Each room set the stage for the time period in design and mood, using music ("C'est Si Bon" for the 50s, "My Generation" for the 60s, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the 90s, etc.) and video clips, usually from fashion-centric movies.

This show faced a major challenge in that it used garments on anonymous, identical mannequins to convey ideas about very distinctive individuals whose appearance and particular way of wearing clothes had a lasting influence on designers, artists, media, and the public. The curators used fashion photography, magazine spreads, and videos to make sure that the models themselves were the exhibit's central focus, while the clothing on mannequins served to reinforce the design side of the equation. The first room re-created a magazine spread of Charles James dresses worn by famous models in a nineteenth-century-esque drawing room scene, putting James dresses from the Costume Institute collection on mannequins in poses similar to those of the original photograph, which was shown behind the mannequins. There was even a cameo appearance of some rococo furniture from the museum's collection as set pieces. Other rooms used a similar method, showing clothing famously worn by models and re-creating iconic scenes. A few conceptual garments really captured the interplay between model and designer: a spread of dresses by John Galliano for Dior that created the look of a Stockman dress form with an evening gown being built upon it, each named for one of Dior's famous cabine models, and two dresses at the very end of the show that were part of a collection by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, in which the models were masked and wore sheer lab-style coats over their garments, creating a sort of homogenous anonymity.

There were a few flaws with the exhibit. I wasn't crazy about the very stylized mannequins, nor the hair and makeup that had been applied- it worked okay in certain areas, but it was terribly distracting in others (the 1950s room, for instance). The sound clips could have been a little longer so you didn't hear them over and over again when you were going through each room. I wish the Dior dress at the very beginning, in the recreation of "Dovima with the Elephants," wasn't touching the raffia on the ground (mylar please!).

There were some things I really loved- the light fixtures that looked like photo shoot lights, the fact that most of the photos were given space to speak for themselves, the layout and trajectory of the exhibit.

And there was one thing that I both loved and really didn't like: the text. It was beautifully and profoundly written, academic but engaging, almost poetic at times. It really tied the curators' ideas together and provided the conceptual starting point for all the objects in the exhibit.

But there was a LOT of it. Even I, who almost religiously reads every word of didactic text, got tired of reading. My husband commented that while he enjoyed the exhibit, everything he learned from it came from my explanations, because he attempted to read the didactic panels but quickly fell into TLDR (too long, didn't read) mode. The text was crucial to a real understanding of the exhibit's narrative, and yet it was inaccessible to anyone who wasn't willing to put in the time and mental energy to follow.

So the target audience of the exhibit was people like me, which is legitimate- not every exhibit has to be made for multigenerational families, the general public, etc. The Met's visiting public, however, is a broad group composed of a whole lot of tourists and a whole lot of art enthusiasts, and any fashion exhibit is likely to have a big draw for those who don't necessarily have a background in the subject. I wonder if the exhibit might have been more educational if the text had been pared down, and those of us who wanted to delve deeper could have read more in a brochure (which they didn't have) or the catalog.

Overall, B++ exhibit. Enjoyable, educational, relevant to the field- but perhaps it could have been tweaked to be more accessible without compromising too much of its content.

Did any of you see the exhibit? What did you think? How do you feel about didactic text and the balance between depth and readability?

Magazine photo of Naomi Campbell by Brigitte Lacombe, Time Europe 9-18-1991.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Space-Age Fashion, 40 Years Later

I have a particular fondness for space-age fashion after having written a paper on the Jetsons and space-age Fashion (which, incidentally, I'm presenting at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association in November). Appropriately enough, the Daily Beast's Fashion Beast site features a short article and a slideshow of space-age fashion around the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

So what, exactly, is space-age fashion, and when did it come about? Suzanne Baldaia gives an excellent definition in her essay "Space Age Fashion" in the book Twentieth-Century American Fashion, ed. Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (Oxford: Berg, 2005). Her list of “primary visual signifiers” of space-age fashion includes rockets, spaceships, spacesuits, space helmets, spaceboots, astronauts, planets, the moon, and black space with stars. Additional signifiers include the color white and shiny, metallic textures and details, especially in silver, aluminum and steel. These signifiers do not have to be present in order for a garment or accessory to be space-age, but they must be manifest in certain elements of the object, such as a streamlined silhouette, metallic elements, or oversized hardware.

The writer at the Fashion Beast, Renata Espinoza, points out these signifiers and mentions the most seminal designers of space-age fashion: André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin, and Paco Rabanne (who I think is less important than the previous two, although he did design costumes for Barbarella in 1968). Courrèges was known especially for his white "moon boots" and miniskirts, which he introduced in 1965. I think Cardin is the most revolutionary of the three, especially for his 1967 Cosmocorps collection (of which there are some images in the daily beast slideshow- see the children's versions in the picture). Rabanne designed mostly in a chain-mail style with linked pieces of metal, plastic, or other materials.

The current examples in the slideshow are interesting. There's an image of a Louis Vuitton ad, which, rather than being futuristic, evokes a time when we were only dreaming of space travel (although it seems rather backward to be retro when we're considering such a massive accomplishment). The later images in the slideshow show more neutral, minimalistic designs, which the author suggests might be more appropriate for our newest space ambition, Martian travel (she's assuming Mars is a bit like Tatooine, I think). I was skeptical at first, thinking that these outfits (save the YSL dress at the end) had none of Baldaia's signifiers, and were therefore not "space-age" at all. But perhaps "space-age" has a new meaning forty years later, and just as our space destinations evolve, so do our space signifiers. I'm just not a big fan of the schlumpiness of some of the outfits- perhaps a combination of minimalist, technological, and adventure-ready will become our new space-age (inspired by the author's Star Wars idea, I'm thinking something like this- indulge me).

What do you think? What are our new "space-age" signifiers? Will we return to the original styles as a retro kickback? Are we too focused on earthly issues right now to be space-age, or will we look to space as an escape? How do you feel about these fashions?

First image, Pierre Cardin "Cosmocorps" collection for children, photo by Pierre Boulat, Life, 1967.
Second image, André Courreges fashions, photo by Bill Ray, Life, 1968.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Smithsonian Conference Report Part II- Objects, Ideas, People

Tuesday morning at the Smithsonian workshop I attended a few weeks ago began at the National Museum of American History, one of my all-time favorites. We met with an exhibition development team who had finished a 10% plan for a possible upcoming exhibit and shared their process with us. One of their tips for making a compelling exhibit is lesson number two from the workshop:

There are object people, idea people, and people people.

There are, of course, infinite ways to classify and categorize museum visitors. For the purposes of writing text, one usually focuses on three levels of interest: the person who literally walked in to come out of the cold and has no interest in your topic, the person who is curious and knows a little about your topic but is not formally educated in it, and scholars of the topic who have come to learn more (or to catch your errors). The "object/idea/people" people classification basically means that when visitors come to a museum, they are primarily motivated by one of three things: they want to see interesting artifacts ("the real thing"), they want to learn more about certain ideas and concepts, or they want to learn about and relate to interesting people. Of course most people like all three, but have one primary interest. I would classify myself as an "objects" person: I've got my nose an inch from the glass looking at every detail, I want to know who made it, who sold it, who used it, what mark each of them left on it, I want to know how it fits into the design and aesthetics of its time (or doesn't), etc.

So what does this mean for exhibit development? It helps us remember to maintain balance and connection between the three groups in order to hold the interest of a varied audience. An exhibit that is mainly about objects can keep idea and people people interested by incorporating the stories of the people who made or used them and the ideas behind why they were created or why they are now in a museum, for example. Ideas are perhaps the hardest of the three to exhibit and require some thinking out of the box; our speakers suggested using words in an interactive way, with touch-screens or other AV components that allow the user to manipulate text and connect ideas in a manual and visual way.

What kind of visitor are you? Do you have any good ideas for how to exhibit ideas? Have you been to an exhibit that addresses these three interests well (or doesn't)?

As a side note, the Museum at FIT has opened their exhibit on Fashion and Politics, which will certainly be worth seeing. I'm planning on going in early August to see it and the Model as Muse exhibit at the Met and I'll report back on my thoughts!

Image of the Star-Spangled Banner (before recent conservation), Life, photo by Ralph Crane.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Merriweather Post's Fancy Dress Costumes at Hillwood

The exhibit on Marjorie Merriweather Post's fancy dress costumes at Hillwood House and Gardens is closing this weekend. I highly recommend going to see it. I was fortunate enough to get a tour from the curator, Mr. Howard Kurtz. While the exhibit only contains five costumes (four of Mrs. Post's and one belonging to one of her husbands, E. F. Hutton), it is a rich and interesting show. The exhibit space is a little unorthodox- it's in the dacha, a small squarish building with freestanding curved walls on the interior- the exhibit flows along the outer walls and the outside of the curved walls, into the space enclosed by the curved walls, and finishes along the outside walls again. Kurtz has done an excellent job arranging the objects so that they are accessible and make narrative sense- there are costumes located in three of the corners and inside the curved walls, didactic panels along the outside walls, and ephemera throughout. For me, the ephemera really makes this exhibit, even though the costumes are the most visually exciting part- Mr. Kurtz has found objects, such as invitations, photographs, costume patterns, etc. that put the garments in context and help familiarize the concept of the fancy dress ball, something fairly far removed from us today. The visitor understands not only what a fancy dress ball was but how it was a part of the lavish escapism of the disillusioned 1920s. Mrs. Post herself helped create the narrative by keeping only four of her fancy dress costumes, each of which happens to fit into one of the four main categories of fancy dress (these may not be worded exactly the way Mr. Kurtz words them, but the gist is the same): Literary , Historical , Allegorical, and Folk/Ethnic.

Get to the show before it's gone! For more information, visit the Hillwood website.

"Mab's Fashions," showing fancy dress costumes, Life, 1924.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Smithsonian Conference Report Part I- Making Exhibits into Positive Social Experiences

I spent last week at a workshop run by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service and Smithsonian Affiliations called "Creating Museum Exhibitions." The workshop was attended by a group of museum professionals and students from Puerto Rico and some members of the Maryland Association of Museums, the Virginia Association of Museums, and Humanities Councils that participate in the Smithsonian's "Museum on Main Street" program. The workshop was exhausting- we went to two museums a day for lectures, tours, and discussions, had homework (evaluating certain exhibits), and were assigned a group exhibit design project, which we mostly worked on at lunch and at the end of the day.

The week was very well spent. While I'd learned a fair amount of exhibit planning in grad school, hearing fresh ideas and reexamining old ones was great. I think the best part about the week was getting to meet all the curators/designers/educators/exhibit planners/fabricators/collections managers/exhibit writers/etc. etc. that work at the various Smithsonian museums and have a window into their work. Everyone we met with was generous with information and advice and happy to help us take what we saw and put it into practice at our institutions.

The first exhibit we took a look at was the new permanent Commercial Aviation Hall on the ground floor of the Air and Space Museum. I actually went to this museum so many times when I was a kid that we had to put a moratorium on visits, since it was the only place my brother ever wanted to go. I hadn't been in many years and didn't remember the old aviation hall much- apparently it was pretty forgettable. This one is not. The thing that stood out to me the most about this particular exhibit was how engaging it was, which brings me to my first "lesson of the week:"

Exhibits should be positive social experiences.

The designer for this exhibit emphasized that people learn best when they're having a good social experience, so for an exhibit to be successful, it should foster interaction and be a good thing to attend with others. That's not to say there aren't great exhibits that can be appreciated alone in quietude, but especially for this kind of show, the opportunity for engagement with others is key. One of our instructors during the week put it this way: most people who attend exhibits (especially at the Smithsonian) aren't necessarily looking for a grand learning experience or an opportunity to ponder the world-- they're looking for a successful family outing. If no one fought, fussed, or got tired, bored, or overwhelmed, then the exhibit served its purpose for them. Again, the scenario is slightly different with a different target audience, but multigenerational families are the demographic to which many museums reach out, and perhaps the one on which they can make the greatest impact.

The Commercial Aviation Hall accomplishes this on a variety of levels. It has two screens on some of its interactive touch-screen activities, so others can watch while one person plays. It has a large mirror with a "checklist" of everything required to be a stewardess in the 1950s (and it's amazing how much visitors interact with mirrors!). It has a platform you can stand on to simulate flying in a 1930s airplane-- when you press a button, the platform shakes and rattles and makes noise. It's probably big enough for two kids, but there's also plenty of room around for people to watch.

Plus, the exhibit has all the other features I like in a good air and space show- a clear narrative, cool engines, stewardess costumes (although it would be awesome if they could get the American Indian Museum to make them some mannequins), ephemera, and they even address a controversial topic- segregation in airports and on airlines. We were discussing how the exhibit could also help visitors address their fears of flying. There's a personal section at the end about current air travel that features a number of suitcases you can open and close (and I was excited to hear that even the Smithsonian sometimes buys props from Goodwill!). And to keep it current, they have a "leading edge" section at the end which is updated with the latest aviation news.

Have you been? Did you have a positive social experience? How do you feel about exhibits as "successful family outings?"

I think it's a wonderful exhibit, made even better by my chance to see the educator, curator, and designer share their thought processes. I can't wait to take my family.

And as a treat, here's a link to the youtube video of the installation of the nose of a 747 into the gallery. It's lots of fun to watch.

Photo by Thomas D. McEvoy of the "Spirit of Saint Louis" undergoing conservation at the Smithsonian in 1948, Life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Smithsonian Creating Museum Exhibitions Workshop

Just a quick note to say that my post will be late this week, since I've been at a workshop offered by Smithsonian Affiliations and SITES on creating museum exhibitions. It has been wonderful and I can't wait to post on it-- but it is taking up absolutely all of my time! So in the meantime, get to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival if you can, and I'll blog soon on this week's experiences.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dumbarton House Lecture and Dior Resort 2010

Last night's lecture by Mary Doering at Dumbarton House was excellent and a wonderful accompaniment to the current exhibit there, Preparing for the Ball (see these previous posts). Mary discussed a number of interesting topics relating to the development of textile design and production, trade, women's and men's fashion, women's and men's everyday dress, and hygiene. I ended up feeling sad that it was only an hour long. I would have loved to hear her delve more into menswear and the shift from visual ostentation to luxury defined by quality of material and construction, which began in the eighteenth century and became a definitive change after the French Revolution. Mary did not focus solely on the United States, but explored the trade network that surrounded America and western Europe during this time (England, France, India, China, the Carribean as a port, etc.). Textile trading and manufacturing really drove global trade and technology in many ways: the British, for example, tried to create a cotton weaving and printing industry to rival India's, but struggled to make their dyes colorfast (a trick the Indians had mastered by understanding mordants, the metallic compounds added to many dyes that make them bond to their substrate textiles). Every garment and textile from this time period is a mystery to interpret, since they could have been woven in one place, printed in another, sewn in yet another, and then sold somewhere else.

On a different topic, I am very enamored of John Galliano's Resort 2010 collection for Dior. While I'm not crazy about the model's hair, the clothing is very reminiscent of traditional 1950s Dior daywear. It may not be the most avant-garde of collections, but I would love to wear pretty much everything in it. Some of the pieces could be interpreted as a little mature, but I think it's all downright classy.

What do you think? Do you like the collection or is it too stodgy for you? What fashion events are you planning on attending this summer?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Revolution in Fashion: Clothing of the Federal Era Lecture at Dumbarton House

Tonight from 7:00-8:30 I'm heading to Dumbarton House in Georgetown for a lecture by collector Mary Doering on Federal Era costume (see this post). I am looking forward to seeing what she talks about! I wonder if she's going to focus on America, since that is the region to which "Federal Period (approx. 1780-1820)" really applies-- it encompasses Directoire (1795-1799), Consulat (1799-1804) and Empire (1804-1814) in France. It was truly a "revolutionary" period in many ways, since the French revolution had a huge impact on fashion in the West-- Fashion had previously been closely associated with the French luxury industries, which were in turn closely associated with the aristocracy, which was not "in style" during or just after the revolution!
I will update after the lecture. Is anyone else attending tonight?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vintage Clothing on the Internet

Today I wanted to write on the many sources of historical clothing on the internet, as part guide and part commentary. As with all internet-sold products, prices and quality run the gamut, so it's good to know where to look. In addition, these sites can serve as good research sources, for valuation (of course) and simply as a guide to what's out there (i.e. how many Paquin bodices are for sale, does anyone else own a dress from Abraham and Straus at the turn of the 20th century, etc.).

A few guidelines for buying or researching historical/vintage clothing on the web:

- Except for certain websites (which I will note), take all dates with a grain of salt. Photos are your best source of information, but even they can be misleading. Compare sites to one another and do your own research before you decide what a piece is and how much it is worth.

-Prices can vary wildly, from a few dollars to thousands, and they don't always correlate with actual value. Bear in mind rarity, condition, design quality, and design recognition, as well as the market- certain types of pieces go in and out of vogue for collecting.

-There are different types of collectors (those who want to wear the clothes they buy, those who collect, including museums, and those who deal) and certain sites are geared toward each, which will affect pricing and stock.

-Check each site for a Museum or Archive section, where they list some of the best pieces they've sold. It's a good research resource.

There are innumerable "vintage clothing" sites on the web, so I will only list some significant highlights.

Ebay: Ebay can be a great source for all types of buyers. The best clothing is not usually on Ebay, although sometimes high-quailty live auctions will concurrently auction on Ebay. If you are aiming to wear the piece and are willing to make a final purchase (many sellers don't have return policies), this can be a great place to start as the prices are often significantly lower than elsewhere. Because sellers are not always specialists and pictures are not always complete or clear, be sure to do your own research and be willing to deal with a few surprises. Caveat emptor: here, and at other generic vintage dealers, you will have to put up with labels like "ROCKABILLY/mod/wiggle dress/HARLOW era/Lucille Ball/MUST SEE!!!!111," which drive me crazy.

Generic vintage dealers: If you type in "vintage clothing" to Google, a huge variety of sites come up. Some of these have high-end pieces, but most of them are average quality (which is what most people look for when shopping vintage). The prices tend to be higher than Ebay's, sometimes significantly. Frankly, if you're just looking for some fun vintage pieces to wear, I suggest you go to a nearby vintage store or buy cheap on Ebay rather than shop at these sites. The irregularity of sizes makes trying on pieces a necessity if you're going to drop some cash on them. This website is for very serious collectors or for research (most of the pieces are over $1000). It features very high-quality garments, many by designers, with good pictures. The interface is a little bit clunky and searching for the work of a specific designer is hard, but it's easy to spend hours looking at pieces. There's also a celebrity wardrobe section for collectors of that genre. Augusta: For the purposes of full disclosure, the owner and operator of this site is a friend of mine and I have worked for her auction company in the past. Ms. Augusta's website isn't currently carrying a large amount of pieces, but what she has is excellent. She is extremely knowledgeable and her dates and descriptions can always be trusted. For a bigger selection, take a look at the "Auctions" section of her website- Augusta Auctions hosts fashion auctions about twice a year where one can buy a variety of clothing at textiles at a wide range of prices.

Vintage Textile: While I'm not nuts for their mannequins, Vintage Textile sells a variety of rare garments in good condition (museums have been known to purchase from them). Most of the dates are reliable, although not as solid as at Antique-Fashion. Most pieces are very expensive unless you look in the "treasure hunt" section.

Cora Ginsburg: The crème de la crème. This doesn't count as true internet historical clothing, since you can't buy from them over the internet. Owned by the widely respected expert Titi Halle, the Cora Ginsburg showroom in NYC is open by appointment for serious collectors and frequently sells to museums. The website has some beautiful costumes and textiles that are very useful for research and browsing, and the dates and descriptions are always accurate.

Happy hunting!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Marymount Portfolio in Motion/Peter Som on Teen Vogue website

Marymount University's Portfolio in Motion fashion show, which I blogged about here, was recently featured on Teen Vogue's website. The picture includes some of my students along with Peter Som. Enjoy!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Upcoming events at Dumbarton House and Hillwood Museum

The Dupont-Kalorama Museum Consortium, a group of 10 museums in the Dupont Circle/Kalorama area of Washington, D.C. (near Embassy Row- easily accessibly by Metro from the Dupont Circle stop) is hosting a Dupont-Kalorama Museum Walk weekend tomorrow, June 6, from 10-4 and Sunday the 7th from 1-5. The walk features free admission to all 10 museums and a variety of special activities, including one that I would have loved as a child and would be going to if I were in town this weekend. It's Dumbarton House's Costume Family Days, with kid-friendly costume-themed activities including turban-making and block-printing, a fiber artist on Saturday, and a visit from "Dolley Madison" on Sunday, as well as access to "Preparing for the Ball," the excellent costume-focused exhibition which I wrote about here.

Later this month, on Wednesday, June 17, collector and scholar Mary Doering (who lent a number of objects for "Preparing for the Ball") will be giving a lecture titled "A Revolution in Fashion: Clothing of the Federal Era" at Dumbarton House for $8 ($5 for students). The DH website gives quotes of "historical context" for her lecture on menswear and womenswear. The quote pertaining to menswear reads:
The nineteenth-century preference for wool…over elaborately embroidered or decorative silks conveyed a growing professional sobriety appropriate for commercial centers such as Georgetown and the developing Federal City of Washington. These dark wool suits were the precursors of the standard male business attire worn today….

This is a topic near to my heart, since I wrote my thesis on George Washington's attire and contrasted his sartorial choices to those of his European contemporaries (as well as the impact of import and manufacturing on fabric availability in early America, the growing informality of English clothing throughout the 18th century, the differences between Washington's everyday and portrait dress, his clothing and accessory choices as President and as former president, etc. etc. etc.). I will be very interested in hearing what she has to say!

Finally, on June 24th at lunchtime (12:30-1:15), curator of costumes and textiles Howard Kurtz will give a curatorial talk at Hillwood Museum on Marjorie Merriweather Post's dresses from the 1920s that will be on display at the house. Kurtz is also Associate Professor of Theater at George Mason University and Production Manager for the GMU Players Mainstage Season, as well as the costume designer for Olney theatre in Olney, Maryland.

Are any of you attending these events? Let me know and I will see you there!

Photograph of Marjorie Merriweather Post at Hillwood in 1965 by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"The Model as Muse" and the Challenges of a "Sexy" Exhibition

I'm dying to get up to New York to see a few exhibits, chiefly the Met's Costume Institute exhibit "The Model as Muse." "Model as Muse" was also the theme for the Costume Institute Gala, an enormous celebrity-studded fundraiser that happens every year (this one was headlined by Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs). The topic is very thought-provoking and one that should make for a good exhibition, incorporating photography, art, and fashion design. It also happens to be a "sexy" topic that appeals to our celebrity-crazed popular culture, where supermodels are just as well-known as the fashion designers whose work they wear.

Exhibitions on "sexy" topics present their own set of challenges. While museums frequently struggle for funding and visitors, exhibits on topics relating to pop culture and current fashion often attract big-ticket sponsors and hordes of museumgoers outside the usual demographic. This not only boosts the museum's bottom line, it has the potential to expose visitors who have come to see a single exhibit to the museum's permanent collection, advancing the institution's mission and setting the stage for repeat visits-- all a dream come true for any museum director.

But it gets more complicated than that. Fashion exhibits almost always run the risk of over-emphasizing display, becoming more like retail windows than museum galleries. In any exhibit, the objects must speak for themselves and have appropriate visual context and arrangement, and the best fashion exhibitons remind the viewers that there are more layers to fashion than simply the merchandising and consumption stages.

Secondly, while I am all for the incorporation of multimedia elements (especially interactive ones) into museum exhibits, I hate to attend shows that make me feel like I've just walked into an Abercrombie and Fitch store, with music blaring and videos flashing at me from every side. Multimedia elements should complement and reinforce the exhibit's narrative, not distract from it. This applies, of course, to all exhibits, but it can be particularly enticing for designers of "sexy" exhibits to incorporate multimedia and sound elements more than usual.

There is also the issue of strings attached to exhibit funding, although this is more of a problem with monographic shows being underwritten by living designers or current fashion houses. Conflicts of interest between designer PR and a museum's ethical obligation to be neutral--I think museum text is a type of journalism--can become an issue when the museum is relying on the design house for the resources to create the show. Even if there is no money attached, it never benefits a museum to displease a designer or design house, so negative or critical commentary must always be tempered with a certain level of deference (in some ways, dead artists and defunct houses are far simpler to work with!).

Finally, the curators and exhibit designers must remember the mission of their institution, which, for the Met, is "to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards." That means that exhibits of current fashion can (and should!) be exciting, stimulating, attractive, and "sexy" while also being in-depth, contextualized, well-researched, unbiased, and relevant, reminding the viewer that the pieces exhibited are works of art of "the highest level of quality."

I am excited to see what the Met has done with such a loaded topic, and how they've handled all these challenges! Take a look at the exhibit's website, including a video overview of the gallery (I love the opening vista, a recreation of Richard Avedon's famous photo for Dior, "Dovima with Elephants").

Photo of model Catherine Deneuve by Loomis Dean for Life, 1961.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chanel's Resort 2010 Collection

Chanel presented their 2010 Cruise/Resort collection on May 14th in Venice, once a favorite beachside haunt of Coco's. Resort collections, now frequently called Cruise collections, fall between Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer seasons and were traditionally aimed at the socialites headed off to spend their winters at a sunny and chic resort town. Lagerfeld's Chanel show was quite an event, taking place on the sand with a boardwalk for a runway. The pieces are a creative blend of traditional Venetian motifs (the cocked hat, the lorgnette sunglasses referencing carnival masks), 30s café society (the wigs, for one thing), and classic Chanel (striped sweaters, simple and elegant evening dresses, etc.). Since Chanel really made a name for herself in the French resort town of Deauville by adapting seaside sportswear for an upscale clientele, this collection (like Lagerfeld's Spring/Summer 09 Couture collection) harkens back to Coco's original visions.

This dress (and its accompanying hat) nod strongly to the nineteen-teens, when Chanel had her first commercial successes, as a milliner as well as a designer.
Here, a 20s-style dress (see one of Coco's originals at the Met here).
This men's look is very 30s Palm Beach with a few Edwardian touches thrown in- the high collar, the hair parted at the side, the close fit of the jacket.

There are many more interesting looks in the collection. What do you think? Are they wearable? Appropriate? True to Chanel? Or is a Cruise collection irrelevant right now?

Speaking of resorts, I'm off to the beach (although it's not a fancy one). More next week!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Marymount's Portfolio in Motion and Peter Som

Friday, April 24th was Marymount University's annual Portfolio in Motion fashion show, featuring designs by students in the Fashion Design B.A. program (including the "senior lines" of three garments by each of the graduating design majors). The show was staffed and coordinated by students in the Fashion Merchandizing B.A. and the garments were modeled by Marymount students, so it was a great opportunity for students all around. As faculty, I was able to attend the Friday afternoon reception, luncheon, and fashion show and meet this year's featured designer, Peter Som. Every year, an eminent fashion designer comes to Portfolio in Motion, watches the show, says a few words, and then sits with the graduating designers and gives them individual feedback on their portfolios. Past designers have included Michael Kors, Cynthia Rowley, Carolina Hererra, and Pauline Trigere, to name a few (there is a complete list and more information on PIM here).

Peter Som is a young designer and graduate of Parsons who began his career at Bill Blass before starting his own label in 2001. While Som's bio describes his style as one of "unstudied elegance and refined sensuality," I prefer's description of his Fall 2009 collection: "upbeat... ladylike without being stiff, and full of optimistic color and tactile interest." Som aims to create ladylike but unfussy clothes and enjoys mixing prints and patterns; in his own words, he explores "the clash of delicate/feminine with bold and graphic."

I particularly like this dress, this coat and this outfit from the Fall 2009 collection, which was apparently shown by appointment since he is no longer working with his financial backer (according to The design quality is there for sure, so hopefully it won't have too negative an impact on business.
Peter himself was a delight- professional, kind, humorous, and relaxed. He took his time with each student's portfolio, dispensing helpful comments, gentle criticisms, and encouraging praise and really helping them create the strongest possible portfolio for interviewing. I learned a great amount from listening to him and I am very grateful for how helpful and considerate he was with each student!

The entire Portfolio in Motion event was exquisite: the catwalk design, music, modeling, and (of course) the clothing were all great. It's not meant to be a carbon-copy of an industry show, and while I can't say I've ever been to one of those, I think I'd prefer this kind for sure- it was upbeat, with sharply choreographed modeling by women of a variety of shapes and sizes who were really owning the garments they wore. I think it really highlighted all of the students that worked on putting the show together.

The theme of this year's show was "Enchanted Garden" (which, coincidentally, is an idea that meshes well with Som's aesthetic).
Here are some highlights:

The last shot is of some faculty and students with Som as he reviews a student's portfolio. I'm fourth to the right of Som, in the green suit (sticking out my purple shoes next to my purse under the table).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Coco Avant Chanel

April 22 marked the French release of the film Coco Avant Chanel, a Warner Bros./Sony Pictures movie about Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's early years. Chanel is played by Audrey Tatou, of Amelie and Da Vinci Code fame. The screenplay is based on Edmonde Charles-Roux's biography of Chanel titled "l'Irreguliere" (The Non-Conformist), considered to be the authoritative work on the "true" Chanel story (Mademoiselle Coco loved to cultivate flowery stories about her life, and the house of Chanel sometimes maintains intrigue about certain uncertainties surrounding elements of her designs). It will be interesting to see a movie-industry take on the story (a good, if not entirely complete, synopsis of which can be found on Wikipedia here); there may be an interesting dialogue between the almost-inevitable additions and embellishments added to make the movie interesting and the fictitious claims made by Chanel in her lifetime.

Apparently Karl Lagerfeld, who is the current designer for Chanel, is overseeing (but not creating) the costume designs. I think he does a wonderful job of reinterpreting Mademoiselle Coco's design ideology for the 21st century, so his understanding of her work will be an asset, I'm sure.

I'm not sure yet where the movie ends; I wonder if the film will touch on the break in her design history. She shacked up with a Nazi during World War II (which damaged her PR in France...) and reopened her house in 1954, gaining widespread success- especially in the United States-in the early 1960s.

Younger fashionistas and the public, who tend to associate Chanel with Lagerfeld's designs, the Chanel suit, and the quilted bag, will hopefully be educated on the more complex and nontraditional elements of Chanel's design credo- sportswear, the appropriation of "lower-class" materials in haute couture, impeccable tailoring skills, and the stripping away of excess adornment, to name a few. These are the things that I really love about Chanel, much more than two-tone shoes and tweed cardigan jackets. Also, every Chanel design incorporates some element that is personally important to her-- the black and white, the camellia, etc.-- all of which are more significant after learning about her history.

If you're interested in more reading, Cecil Beaton's diary includes notes on his lunch dates with Mademoiselle Coco, at that point a relatively elderly woman. Talk about a fiesty old lady- she seems to have been quite the piece of work (which is no surprise).

I have yet to figure out where the film is showing in the states, since it's in French and seems to be appearing only in select theatres. If anyone finds it, let me know!

Here are a few links:
The NY Times review
The trailer (in French)
Some stills from the movie, courtesy of Fashionologie. Looks great!

Undated photo of Gabrielle Chanel, c.1920, from the Life Photo Archive.
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