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, http://www.donnacat.com/. 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.
Creative Commons License
This work by W. Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.