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.
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