Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Garments and Textiles from the Federal Period at Dumbarton House

Before I write about yesterday's Dumbarton House tour, I want to cover Linda Eaton's excellent presentation on the textile trade and the federal period from last Thursday. Gleaning the most interesting tidbits from my copious notes was difficult, since everything she spoke about was fascinating to me (I did, after all, write my thesis on George Washington's attire...), but here are some of the most insightful bits:

-the textile industry comprises both agriculture and manufacturing, since it includes both the farming process (cotton, linen, wool) and the weaving/finishing/printing processes . It therefore serves a unique place in the development of a fledgling nation like the United States during the federal period.

-Because textiles were frequently woven, finished, and worn in different places, tracing the origins of a garment or textile can be particularly tricky. Even the subject matter of a textile's imagery can be deceiving-- textiles with motifs of American Independence were printed for the French market in the mid-1780s!
- City directories can be a useful source of research information. Eaton used the New York City directory, which identifies trades, to find 8 calico printers in the city in 1811.

Eaton spoke about dyestuffs, printing methods, types of textiles, and a number of other fascinating and specialized topics that I won't recount here- but needless to say, it left me with many ideas for research and a deeper appreciation for Federal Period garments and textiles that leads me to the next topic- last night's tour!

Yesterday evening, I attended a Curator's Tour of the exhibit "Preparing for the Ball: Costume of the Early Nation" at Dumbarton House, led by curators Scott Scholz and Mary Doering. Mr. Scholz is the curator at Dumbarton House, and Ms. Doering is a celebrated costume collector whose pieces comprise the majority of the exhibition. It was a delight for a number of reasons. First, Dumbarton House is a beautiful building with nicely appointed period rooms (Scholz told us that they are aiming to phase the rooms into an approximation of their appearance at the time of residence of the house's first owner, Joseph Nourse). Second, the combination of insights from Scholz, who focused on objects in the House's collection, and Doering, who focused on attire and textiles from her collection, was very enlightening. Finally, our small tour, made up mostly of costume enthusiasts, was treated to the additional expertise of two costume curators/conservators from the Smithsonian Instititute who had come to see Doering and join the tour and generously shared their knowledge with us.

My only gripe was that we didn't have enough time! There were a number of objects of interest in the house both within the exhibition and as part of the period rooms, but because we were running behind I didn't have enough time to take a good look at them all. Many of the costumes from Doering's collection had been purchased from Cora Ginsburg, the premier garment and textile dealer in the United States (now Cora Ginsburg LLC, run by Titi Halle). A quick aside- an associate at Cora Ginsburg, Leigh Wishner, sometimes guest lectures in the FIT Fashion and Textile Studies program and lent us a pair of her Louboutins for our exhibit!

My favorite pieces from the exhibit were a blue damask man's banyan (dressing gown), a green wool morning dress from about 1800-1815 (I need another look to tell more specifically!), and a white silk evening gown in Dumbarton House's collection. There are also a number of fashion plates from the federal period, many from Ackermann's Repository of Fashion (LACMA has a number of these as well).

Photo of Dumbarton House by dbking on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Curator's Tour at Dumbarton House

Last Thursday night, I had the pleasure of attending the Curator's Choice Lecture at Dumbarton House in Georgetown. The presenter was Linda Eaton, curator of textiles for Winterthur Museum and Gardens, and she spoke about the textile trade and the federal period. It was an engaging and fascinating lecture and I will write all about it in conjunction with a post on another Dumbarton House event that I am planning to attend tonight, the "Dumbarton at Dusk" Curator's Tour led by Scott Scholz and Mary Doering. I will be at the 6 o'clock- there's one at 7 as well.
Look for a new post on both of these events in the next day or so!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hats, Milliners, and New Orleans (plus Aretha Franklin, Paris Hilton, and SJP)

Hats have been out of fashion since the late 1960s, when all of the traditional rules of couture and propriety were thrown out the proverbial window and replaced with a combination of anti-fashion and ready-to-wear that wasn't interested in following anyone's established dictates. Toppers have survived in some African-American churches and in Britain to some extent, but--even as creative accessories at the racetrack-- they are essentially worn as nods to the fashion rules of the earlier part of the century.Aretha Franklin's inaugural hat and these fanciful numbers worn by Paris Hilton and Sarah Jessica Parker are examples of hats making their way into the fashion scene this year, but I'm not expecting them to pick up any time soon. We're still too focused on bags and shoes as our accessories du jour, and they're easier to pull off with our current (very casual) hairstyles.

Millinery is, therefore, an all-but-lost art, which makes it exciting to find the rare example of a skilled milliner who designs and produces her own hats and maintains her own shop as well! New Orleans' French Quarter boasts Fleur de Paris, a custom millinery shop that also does couture and ready-to-wear (although the shop is mainly hats). I had a chance to chat a bit with milliner Kimberly Benn about her pieces, which she makes in a variety of materials (felt, straw, etc.), blocks to size, and embellishes, either to the customer's taste or to be purchased off the rack. Hats are worn for Mardi Gras balls, high school Homecoming courts, and other formal events in New Orleans, so she has more of a clientèle than she might in a location like Washington. Here are a few of her pieces that I particularly like:
White Rider with Black and White Trim
Brown 5-inch with Brown and White Trim (beautiful on)
Orange, Rust, and Gold Cocktail Hat
There are many more on the site, which I encourage you to explore. Wish I could have gotten one!

While I think this kind of millinery is classic and beautiful, and I wish more people were brave (and wealthy) enough to wear it, it's not fashionable. Her designs don't change much, not because of a lack of creativity, but because they're not dependent on fast-moving, broad-reaching changes in fashion trends. When hats were in fashion, designers created new pieces every season and styles in millinery changed as quickly as- or more quickly than- looks in clothing (much like shoes and handbags today).

What do you think- will hats ever become fashionable again? When and where will we wear them? Do their appearances on celebrities mark a change in accessory focus or merely a creative vintage look?

Tune in soon for news on the Marymount University Portfolio in Motion Show with guest designer Peter Som (starting tomorrow)!

Images of hats and sign from front window display of Fleur de Paris, taken with permission by Whitney Robertson. Ad for Stewart and Co. Paris Millinery from the New York Times, 1924.

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Interview at "The Curated Object"

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed for Joanne Molina's excellent blog, "The Curated Object: Decorative Arts Exhibitions and Curiosities." Joanne asked me some really thought-provoking questions about costume history, exhibitions, and fashion. Here is the interview. Check out the rest of her blog, too!

I will post on my trip to New Orleans, especially my visit to a fine milliner's shop, later this week.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fashion and the Recession

I've been trying to predict a bit how the recession and fashion will interact, and have been thinking that two factors would prevail- austerity (with luxury still there, just quietly, in the details) and escapism/fantasy. has a feature called "The Cool and the Crazy," looking at how runway trends for Fall 09 have seemed to go in one of those two directions: "[Designers] either strip things down to the essentials and concentrate on core values, or they throw caution to the wind and go deliriously wild."

Fun to look at, but a little disappointing. Frankly, none of the design choices are particularly surprising considering the designers who made them- more traditional designers for the "Trad" features, and bolder ones for the "Rad" pieces. Also, watch out for a particularly snotty comment about "Rad" model Lara Stone. I have a difficult time taking catty journalism seriously. Ick.

Have you noticed these trends surfacing in fashion? Do you see other relationships between fashion and the recession?

This weekend I'm going to visit some wonderful shops and a fabulous milliner in the French Quarter. I'll report back next week!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Louboutin- Fetish and a New Website

David Lynch and Christian Louboutin took their Fetish shoe and photography exhibit to the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, and were both present for the recent opening party. The exhibit first took place in 2007 at the Galerie du Passage in Paris. We exhibited one of the fetish shoes created for the exhibit, a black ballet shoe with a heel so high that the toe of the shoe rests on the ground, in the Louboutin exhibit at FIT in March of 2008 (co-curated by yours truly and the wonderful Julie Ann Orsini). I find it interesting that the women in the slideshow of the Moscow opening are wearing relatively tame Louboutins- I would think you'd go all out for the Fetish party instead of wearing the Decolleté or Simple Pump, which are pretty basic as far as Loub shoes go.

Take a look at Louboutin's relatively new website. It's sort of Alice in Wonderland meets Baz Luhrmann- very quirky. Very him. There is plenty of great information on Louboutin himself in the "Louboutin World" section, but my favorite part is, of course, the collection. The "total madness" page has the shoes in little glass cases with butterflies, which is very much in accordance with his approach to the shoes; he has said that he likes to display them like little lovebirds in a pair.

As for the shoes themselves, my favorites are:
Under High Heels, the Escatin in cherry patent with gold trim- very fun, flattering, creative shape
Under Extremely High, the Jefferson Plato in Navy lizard- it's a peep-toe slingback boat shoe in lizard! I like the navy because the color scheme is preppy and traditional but there's so much funk to the whole look, and the navy and white look great with the red soles.
Under Flats, the Adona Lim Flat in any of the colors, especially the Python. I'm not usually crazy for his flats since he's so known for the red sole, which you can see better in the heels, but these are very attractive, eye-catching and wearable.
Under Total Madness, I love the Marie Antoinette shoe, which even has an eighteenth-century hairstyle complete with sailboat on the ankle strap!
Finally, under Total Madness, there is a fetish shoe from the David Lynch exhibit that is for sale- a burgundy patent pump with a 14cm heel. Not the craziest of the fetish shoes but probably the only one that is marketable.

What do you think? Which shoes are your favorites? Do you enjoy the new website?

Photo for Life Magazine by Nina Leen, April 1948. Louboutin would love these shoes, since he knows all about using toe cleavage to be provocative.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Muriel King, Dumbarton House, and Marjorie Merriweather Post

Today's your last day to go see the Muriel King exhibit in NYC! If you can't make it (like me, unfortunately), explore the online exhibit.

Also, there are some great exhibits going on in the DC area that I will be trying to get to soon and blog about! The first is at Dumbarton House in Georgetown and it is called "Preparing for the Ball: Costume of the Early Nation." The exhibition features the collection of Mary Doering and is co-curated by Doering and Scott Scholtz. It runs until July 4, and there are two exciting special events that accompany it: First, curator's tours at 6 and 7 on April 28th ($5 or free for students with IDs- kudos to them for offering a student discount!). Second, there is a Curator's Choice Evening Lecture on Thursday, April 23 at 7:30 for $10 ($5 for students with ID) featuring Linda Eaton, Curator of Textiles for Winterthur Museum and Gardens. I plan on attending both, so if you're going, send me a comment and we can say hi!

The second exhibit is at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens (tagline: Where Fabulous Lives- I love it!) in NW Washington. It is called "An Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Post's Fancy Dress Costumes of the 1920s" and will be up until July 12 (suggested donation $12, full-time college students $7). There is also a lecture by Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion, on "the social aspects of costuming, especially those employed by Mrs. Post. Ms. Weber will speak about the social history of 1920s costumes and the ways that fashion has been used as a tool to assert legitimacy and power over time." The lecture is $15 for the public and $7 for students. Sounds great! Again, I plan on attending.
Finally, keep your eyes open for what Michelle Obama is wearing in Britain. I wasn't nuts about her Isabel Toledo outfit worn to see the queen- a little boring- but I loved her chartreuse Jason Wu coat and her J.Crew outfit with the celery-green skirt. I think celery is going to be a big color this summer.

Image of dancing dress, Europe, 1909, from Wikimedia Commons.

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