Friday, March 27, 2009

Coach and Bonnie Cashin

Coach has just introduced a new line based on the designs of Bonnie Cashin, one of America's preeminent 20th-century sportswear designers. Cashin designed for Coach starting in 1962 and was known for incorporating hardware into her designs (including the characteristic Coach turnlock) and using bright candy colors. Her designs were functional and fashionable at once, and like Claire McCardell, she made garments and accessories that were stylish and comfortable.

I LOVE this collection. It has a lot of the creative and useful aspects of Cashin's designs as well as some of her sketches. They often use her candy colors but also come in neutrals that might be a bit more versatile for everyday use. Here are some great pieces- it all links to the same page, unfortunately, but the items I name are some of my favorites. I love the really pricey ones too, but didn't list them because they are so expensive. Sorry I can't use the photos!

Applique-top handle pouch, Bonnie Leather Satchel, Bonnie Straw Large Zip Satchel (possibly my favorite!), Leather Olive, Bonnie Mini Crossbody (the one I come closest to being able to afford...) Bonnie Foldover Crossbody (another fave- check out "more views").

I think they're true to Bonnie- fun, fashionable, and functional . Wish they weren't so pricey!

A Few Fun Things

Just a few nice things I found: First, these really great gloves by Jacques Fath from 1949. Also, on the front page of, there's a picture of a Stella McCartney jacket and a note that says "Beth Ditto has dibs." A good example of how she's serving as a fashion example. The jacket is fun- punky and metallic.


Photo by Herbert Gehr, Life Magazine, 1949.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Givhan cites an Alexander McQueen retrospective in her essay, mentioning his design talent and tailoring skills as well as many of the "misogynistic" elements of his designs. She writes, "There were many things recycled on his runway Tuesday night that one hoped never to see again: metal neck braces, metal "yashmak" or head coverings, hobbling skirts and ankle-breaking platform shoes. One doesn't have to be a graduate of a women's studies program to find these things disturbing." True. But you don't see Obama or Ditto wearing Alexander McQueen! He appeals to a different type of style icon, a punkier one who cares less about comfort and women's rights. So different types of fashions drive, and are driven by, different types of icons.

Later, Givhan writes, "But one can't put the full burden for this kind of fashion on designers. They create it because women respond. Women will do a lot of things to themselves in the name of fashion, including giving up their power, dignity and comfort." Fashion doesn't care about power, dignity and comfort, unless those things are "in vogue." The exciting thing about Obama and Ditto is that they are taking fashion and imbuing it with their power and dignity (and perhaps comfort), making those things more fashionable. That is a positive direction after many years of style icons like Paris Hilton whose priorities are pretty much antithetical to those of these women.

One last thing about the article- Givhan doesn't write about how fashion depends on money. The everyday woman is not targeted by the fashion industry not only because fashion isn't "everyday," but because the everyday woman can't afford to partake in fashion. While many women of modest means participate in fashion through creativity and personal style, the fashion industry is driven forward by designers, and designers produce expensive clothes. You don't have to be attractive to buy haute couture or high-end ready-to-wear, you simply have to have the disposable income to spend on designer clothing. Obama and Ditto do; I, for one, do not.

The beauty of it all is that fashion trickles both up and down, from icon to designer and designer to icon, from industry to the street and from the street to industry. So while I am excited at the prospect of women's power and confidence coming into fashion through icons like Obama and Ditto, and I hope to see designers that celebrate and flatter the female form gaining prominence, I don't think that fashion is ever going to be for "the anonymous face in the crowd," as Givhan writes. That is simply not what fashion is.

This anonymous face is going to continue to participate in fashion to the extent that she can, and wants to- seeking to inspire and to be inspired.

Photo of Michon Schur fashion show in 2007 by Peter Duhon, NYC.

It Girls, the Fashion Industry, and Powerful Women

The Washington Post featured a thought-provoking article by Robin Givhan, called "Fashion Loves an It Girl, but Still Doesn't Get It." The premise of the article is that while recently, the fashion industry has embraced a broad range of nontraditional style icons (Michelle Obama, singer Beth Ditto), it still refuses to produce wearable clothing for the average woman.

She mentions that today's fashion "it girls" are symbols of "power and fearlessness," women who are unafraid to show their strong personalities to the public and the media. Because Obama is 45 and African-American and Ditto is a plus-size lesbian, Givhan writes that by choosing them as icons, "The fashion industry surprised the naysayers who did not believe it had the capacity -- even when it would be to the industry's financial benefit -- to look beyond its often narrow definition of style, beauty and glamour."

One issue with this statement is that fashion doesn't one-sidedly choose its icons. To be a fashion icon, you have to be invested in fashion to begin with. Obama and Ditto would not be "it girls" if they wore Coldwater Creek (not to bash it, but not the height of fashion)- they have both consciously chosen to invest in up-and-coming designers and take risks in their attire. The fashion industry has returned the favor because they see powerful, nontraditional women who are bringing design to the public eye. While fashion icons are often women with the ideal body type of their time (and this is where Ditto and Obama are nontraditional), those that have really driven fashion throughout history are the ones at the forefront, patronizing designers that make new and fearless choices.

Givhan goes on to write. "...even as the fashion industry honors individual self-awareness and chutzpah, it continues to chip away at the dignity of women as a whole with each model that it sends down a runway. It's difficult to reconcile fashion's slobbering affection for an individual woman who is in the public eye with what they are willing to dole out to women as a group."
Here we have to remember that fashion does not encompass every piece of attire on the market. Fashion itself doesn't really deal with "women as a group"- the phenomenon of fashion (see post on the Brooklyn museum for a definition) has historically been limited to the upper classes, those with enough money to invest in frequently-changing styles and no need to wear clothes that are convenient or comfortable enough to work in. Fashions are not necessarily meant to work for the masses- they are supposed to be noticeable, and above all, new.

That being said, many great designers in the past have respected and celebrated the female form and have made clothes that were both novel and wearable. Chanel's clothes were comfortable and easy to move in, skimming the lines of the body (see this great example). Balenciaga used his mastery of construction to move away from the restrictive shapes of Dior and towards a new silhouette where clothes floated over the body in a graceful and flattering way (see here).

To be continued!

Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O'Donald, USN

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Post coming very soon!

I have been delinquent on my posting because I've been a bit OBE (overcome by events) but I am dreaming up something good revolving around this article from the Washington Post. Check back for something within the next couple of days!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gloves, Michelle Obama, and Mary Todd Lincoln

I recently read this article from the Daily Beast highlighting how Michelle Obama was not the first first lady to bare her arms on a regular basis. The author mentions Jackie Kennedy, who frequently wore sleeveless sheath dresses, and Mary Todd Lincoln, who "was known for her round, well-proportioned arms and could, on occasion, stun her husband by the depth of her d├ęcolletage." The ideal arm in Mary Todd's time was a bit curvier than Michelle's or Jackie's. In any event, these three women found that they possessed a feature that fit with the fashionable ideal, and played it up.

Here's the paragraph that really interested me:
"Mary Todd Lincoln was a major shopaholic, addicted to French fashion. In one extremely bizarre indulgence, she purchased 400 pairs of gloves over a period of four months. Gloves might be an answer for Michelle, too. She could show up on her next magazine cover buff, sculpted, and wearing those same elegant, long white kid ones. Above the elbow, of course. I’m not sure about the warmth factor, but think what she could do for the glove industry!"

First, while a web search brings up frequent references to MT's glove indulgence, I haven't been able to find the original source of this story. Anyone know if it's true? Remember, gloves were important and not always long-lasting. 400 is a large number regardless, but when you think that she probably wore 2-3 pair a day (morning and evening for sure, perhaps also afternoon if she wasn't at home) and that they were made of light-colored fabric or leather, it doesn't seem quite so ridiculous.

Second, I love the idea of reviving the glove trend! Gloves are formal and elegant and can really add a fun touch to an outfit. I have a personal penchant for gloves, but they're difficult to find if they're not the winter type. Vintage stores and estate sales have been my best sources. There is a fabulous glove store on Rue de la Republique in Lyon called Gants Favel, if it's still there (it was about 4 years ago). The process for trying on gloves- where you place your elbow on a pillow and the salesperson smoothes and fits the fingers to your hand- is a treat. There's a branch of the Italian store Sermoneta Gloves on Madison Ave. in NYC. They have a beautiful variety of leather styles, mostly for fall or winter. In NY, LaCrasia has produced handmade gloves for many years, but their website is less than stellar. The best sources for cotton gloves in a variety of designs is Finale gloves, where I got my wedding gloves.

Michelle wore a lovely pair of green gloves from J. Crew for the inauguration, which coordinated with her shoes. Those may have been for warmth, but she can branch out and wear gloves for style now that spring is coming. Opera-length (or for a twist, something like this pair) would be great for a white-tie state dinner, but there are plenty of options for daytime.

So how about it, Michelle? And one last hint- you don't have to have Michelle's arms to wear gloves, especially shorter ones. They draw attention to your hands and lenthen your fingers. Tres elegant!

First photograph: from Life, 1952, by Nina Leen. Second photograph: Model Dorian Leigh wearing pin-point taffeta dress w. full skirt by Mollie Parnis, long black gloves; from Life, 1950, by Gjon Mili.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Muriel King: Artist of Fashion Exhibit

Just a quick post to say that the Muriel King: Artist of Fashion Graduate exhibit at the Museum at FIT opens tonight, put together by the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice second-year master's students. I'm sure it will be excellent and I can't wait to see what kind of great press it will get. If you are in or around New York, please go see it! I fully intend to write a lengthy post about the exhibit, hopefully talking to the curators etc. since I can't make it up to NY. It will be up until April 4th at the Museum at FIT, located at 27th St. and 7th Ave. in Manhattan. The Museum is free and open to the public Tue-Fri 12-8, Sat 10-5. The permanent history gallery features its Seduction exhibit right now as well, which is I'm sure worth seeing.
Have you been? Tell me about it!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Brides of the Arab World Exhibit

This Sunday I went with a fashion-loving friend to see the Brides of the Arab World exhibit at the Kennedy Center, part of their "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World" festival taking place through the 15th. Luckily, photography was permitted, so I got to be a shutterbug.
The web page says that there are more than 40 gowns from all 22 countries in the League of Arab States, but I only saw about 12 or 15 gowns from about 6 different countries, if I remember correctly. I must have either missed a portion or else they were rotating. Regardless, it was a nice exhibit! The dresses were beautiful and represented a variety of regional and tribal traditions. One of the didactic panels noted that while most of the weddings themselves that take place in these countries are relatively short (prayers, the signing of a contract), the wedding celebrations are often lengthy and elaborate and vary a great deal depending on region.

Here was our favorite western-style gown, an Egyptian court dress that must be from the 1870s or 1880s:

The gold embroidery was stunning, and the lace on the sleeve ruffles was handmade.
Here's a Moroccan caftan I really liked, made of Tussah silk (wild silk) and apparently handwoven, although it seemed machine-woven to me.

Here's one last shot I really like of the first piece in the exhibit, which I think is also Egyptian. The face veil is something worn only by brides, sort of like a Western wedding veil.What a treat! All the pieces made me want to see women moving around in them, with all their drapery and dangling ornaments. Did anyone else go see this? Did you find more garments than I did? Do you think the caftan fabric is handwoven?
Don't miss it if you haven't gone; the exhibit is free and open until the 15th.

First photo of Libyan and Sudanese dresses from the collections of Mrs. Naima Bseikri and Salma Al Assal, respectively. Egyptian wedding dresses from the collection of Shahira Mehrez. Moroccan caftan from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Boubker Temli.

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All photographs by W. Robertson licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Brooklyn Costume Collection Transfers to Met

This may not be news, but I recently found out that the Brooklyn Museum's extensive and recently-catalogued costume collection is going to be transferred to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can find the press release here. I had fantasized about the collection going to the Museum at FIT, for which I have a fondness (especially because it's free). Regardless, I'm sure this will be a huge boost to the Costume Institute.

What I'm most excited about is that four thousand of the pieces from the collection have been chosen for photography, presentation through ARTstor (my fave), publishing in a catalog, and online display on a special section of the Met's website. There is also to be an exhibition next year of the Brooklyn pieces, which is going to be the beginning of a series of activities outlined in the press release. Quite the to-do!

I'm excited to see what the collection transfer will do for researchers and students. Apparently the Brooklyn museum will retain its non-Western costumes and non-fashion textiles. That leaves me wondering about any non-fashion attire. The press release makes no distinction between fashion and costume, which is easier for most people to understand but imprecise. Costume is a term used for the attire and aspects of personal appearance (which together make up "dress") particular to a culture or region. Fashion is the progression of styles in dress that are widespread and short-lived. Sometimes we wear fashionable clothing and sometimes we don't; military uniforms, work clothes, traditional attire are dress, but not fashion.

My guess is that if they have any of these items in their collection, they will remain at Brooklyn, as the Costume institute already has plenty of dress pieces in their collection. What do you think? How do you feel about the relationship between dress and fashion? Do you think exhibits of "dress" get sidelined since fashion is a sexier topic? Do curators outside the fashion world even have a clue?

Photo: A "Harvey Girl" uniform on display (dress, not fashion!) at the Arizona Railroad Museum. Taken by Jot Powers, 5/2005.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

FIT's Online Collection

The Museum at FIT now has an "online collection" feature, where you can search and zoom images of some of their garments and textiles. As of now, the collection is relatively small, and mostly consists of images that have been on display in their exhibitions over the past few years. Irving Solero's photographs are stunning, as always. While you can't save the images, they are great sources for research and inspiration. A few of my favorites: this incredible Schiaparelli evening dress, these stunning Givenchy boots by Alexander McQueen, and this 1880s afternoon dress (I love the marabou. So elegant!)

Which are your favorites? Where do you like to find fashion images?

Oscar Goes Vintage

Did anyone else notice that Miley Cyrus' Zuhair Murad gown for the Oscars was heavily inspired by Dior's Junon Dress from Fall/Winter 1949/50? I've been trying to figure out why I like the Dior dress so much more than the Murad. I think the drape of the petals is softer, and the embroidery (probably by the famed Lesage firm) is more delicate- there's an ethereal feel, true to the dress' name (meaning Juno, the goddess), that the Murad piece lacks. Also, Cyrus' seashell belt seems very "little mermaid."

The late forties to mid-fifties were present in full force at the Oscars this year, what with Sarah Jessica Parker's Dior gown (although I think Monsieur Dior would have cringed at what this does to her breasts...), Marion Cotillard's Dior (beautifully true to his fifties designs) and Penelope Cruz's stunning vintage Balmain. I'm impressed it's in such good shape, especially in that color and with that much embellishment. I need to do more research, but I'd say the dress is somewhere in the 1949-54 range.

The difference between the vintage Balmain and the retro Diors is in the bodice fit- they're all built over plenty of interior structure, for sure, but the Balmain is very close to the ribcage until just under the bust (similar to the Junon dress), while the two Diors have a more continuous curve from bust to waist.

There's plenty more I could say about the Oscars (Marisa Tomei's Erte-esque dress was #1, too much pepto-bismol pink, I loved Heidi Klum's dress but wish it fit her up top, what is it with men and pre-tied bow ties) but I'd better stop here.

Do you think structure and fullness are coming back into fashion? Are boned bodices and petticoats the wave of the future, or are we going to go the way of the grecian gown? What year do you think Cruz's Balmain gown is from?

(Photograph of Pierre Balmain and Ruth Ford by Carl Van Vechten, November 9, 1947)
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This work by W. Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.