Friday, September 10, 2010

Summer recap and last chance to see "Art by the Yard" at the Textile Museum

Photo of myself and a friend at the Mod Madness event, checking out some Lucienne Day tea towels. Photo courtesy of the Textile Museum.

After an extremely eventful summer, I am back and hoping to start posting more regularly again! I have just started work as the new part-time Collections Assistant at Dumbarton House, a Federal-period historic house museum in Georgetown with a great collection of decorative arts. This summer I was cataloging and rehousing Sewall-Belmont House and Museum's phenomenal collection of textiles related to the fight for women's suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment, including a number of significant banners used for picketing the White House in the nineteen-teens which may be on display before long!

Some of this summer's most interesting textile events have surrounded an exhibit at the Textile Museum on S Street in Washington, D.C. called "Art by the Yard: Women Design Mid-Century Britain." The exhibit closes this Sunday, September 12th, so if you have not yet been to see it I highly recommend that you go! The show focuses on textile designs by Lucienne Day, a pioneering British textile designer in the mid-century Modern style. Beginning with her groundbreakingly abstract "Calyx," the galleries showcase her imaginative, appealing, and sometimes humorous designs with ample yardage. I particularly like the back gallery, which has a room featuring textiles in situ with furniture designed by her equally famous husband, Robin Day and also shows some of her delightful tea towels. Too bad the repros cost such a fortune in the gift shop! The final room also includes the work of two of Mrs. Day's contemporaries, Jacqueline Groag and Marian Mahler.

My only complaint with the exhibit was that I felt there was far too much text-- many of the didactics elicited the dreaded TLDR (too long, didn't read) response, even from me (and I am a big reader of didactics). Still, the pieces were extraordinary, the exhibit arrangement flowed well, and the mounts were fantastic as always (with a salute to my friends in the conservation lab, Anne Ennes and Esther Methe).

The first event I attended this summer that was associated with the exhibit was a lecture by the esteemed Titi Halle, director of Cora Ginsburg LLC (possibly the best dealer of historic costumes and textiles in the country). Her talk, entitled "Cutting Edge: Textile Artists of the 20th Century," was a primer on 20th-century textile design from Raoul Dufy's work for Paul Poiret to the Bauhaus and the Weiner Werkstatte to designers of the fifties and sixties, including Mrs. Day and showed some wonderful images of examples from the Cora Ginsburg collection. It was a great refresher for me and a good basic introduction to the subject for anyone interested.

The second event I attended that was linked to the exhibit was purely for fun-- it was an evening event called "Mod Madness" that linked the mid-century theme of the exhibit to the popular fixation with Mad Men and included a bar, food for sale, a DJ and jazz combo, a silkscreen-your-own T-shirt station, and a "best mid-century dressed" contest (I was a runner-up but not a winner... next time!) It was very heavily attended, by professionals, hipsters, and museum dorks (that's my category) young and older (mostly women, but that seems to be the usual situation with museums!). Tickets were only $10 and included one ticket for a non-premium drink. A great time was had by all and I think it was a great event for the TM, although I have not heard any details from their staff. Hope to see more like it! I have noticed that young professionals are the new hot market for museums, so I expect there will be many such events in the future.

Enjoy the exhibit at the TM this weekend- and remember, they're open 10-5 on Saturday and 1-5 on Sunday and have a suggested donation of $5 (but pay what you can/want).

Did you attend either of these events? Any other great textile or museum-related events this summer? Did you enjoy this exhibit?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: American Woman at the Met

The Met now has a great feature where you can access the collections database records (including images) for all the pieces shown in the exhibition from their website, here (the second link). While it's out of order, it's a good virtual visit to the show!

This weekend's museum visits were very fruitful! We went to American Woman first thing, so we were not swamped by other visitors (although the Picasso exhibit was packed to the gills). Overall, I was very happy with the show. It was extremely different from The Model as Muse in many ways. Model as Muse was a highly academic show, with a lot of text and a lot of garments. I really felt that it contributed to the scholarship of the field-- read my full review here. American Woman at least seemed to be a much smaller exhibit, with fewer garments overall, and much, much less text. Outside of an introductory didactic and an approximately 200-word didactic for each room, there was no instructional text, just "tombstone" labels for each garment. Any additional information was included in the audio guide, which I got just to see how it was. Thankfully, Sarah Jessica Parker's narration was not distracting-- it just sounded like she was reading an audiobook. I'm assuming curator Andrew Bolton wrote the audio guide text, but I didn't see any credits for its author anywhere. The audio guide was pretty nice-- not particularly deep, but offering additional insights and notes on the pieces, and drawing particular attention to certain objects. I wasn't left wondering about the objects, and it was obvious how they all fit into the particular archetype demonstrated in each room (as a reminder, the archetypes were The Heiress, The Gibson Girl, The Bohemian, The Suffragist, The Patriot, The Flapper, and The Screen Siren).

I did want to know more about some of the accessories, including shoes and hats, most of which were not identified. It's possible that they came from the museum's prop collection, of antique but not particularly valuable pieces that are used for display purposes but not accessioned into the permanent collection. Something that totally stymied me was the presence of at least three Fortuny pleated "Delphos" dresses in the Bohemian section that were entirely ignored by the text. They were worn underneath wrappers, by Liberty of London for the most part, which were credited in the labels. The Fortuny tea gown/evening dress, both historicizing and strikingly modern and meant to be worn over an uncorseted body in a time when corsets were generally worn by all proper ladies, would have fit perfectly into the discussion of The Bohemian. It's possible that the Fortunys shown were reproductions, but I doubt that, considering that the Met has at least ten Delphos dresses and that the luminosity and uniqueness of the gowns' colors were characteristic of true Fortuny pieces. My only other guess is that the Fortuny gowns were from the Met's own collection, and as they wanted to feature only pieces that had come from the Brooklyn collection, they didn't mention them. I'm stumped!

The set design (by Nathan Crowley, a Hollywood Production Designer for films such as The Dark Knight) was unbelievable. Each room was painted in an appropriate backdrop for the archetype (for instance, the Heiress section had curved walls-- like most of the rooms-- and was painted to look like Mrs. Astor's ballroom in Newport). As in Model as Muse, some of the sets incorporated pieces from the Met's Decorative Arts collection, such as chairs and chandeliers. I think this is a great idea and assists both in appreciating the garments somewhat in situ and getting a chance to view pieces that might otherwise be stuck in storage. It is a real treat that they have the resources to create such elaborate sets! My only complaint with each room was that the lighting made it very difficult to see some aspects of the costumes. I'm not talking about the overall light levels; although they were low, that is necessary to preserve the pieces. It's that the lighting was spotty, with patches of dark and light, so that there was a subtle mottling to the illumination. This made it hard for me to discern details on some pieces-- although it may have been intentional, as low lighting hides a multitude of problems in damaged or fading garments!

I felt that the sections on The Suffragist and The Patriot, put together in one room, were sadly lacking. The Suffragist section featured about three or four suits from the teens, accessorized with a suffragette banner and some sashes-- not much of a sartorial statement. The Patriot section featured only two ensembles, both of them uniforms. These are interesting pieces and great early examples of women's military service-- but even combined with the Suffragist suits and the large screens showing contemporary video footage, I didn't feel that they really filled their own section. I also don't feel as though these are particularly strong American female archetypes (and I feel somewhat the same way about The Bohemian), although I understand that their depiction of strong, independent working women fits in well with the overarching ideas of American female identity that Bolton is getting at.

The Flapper, and her taboo-breaking sexual and behavioral freedom, is perhaps the best known of the archetypes and certainly had the fullest exhibit room. There were a couple of nice day ensembles, highlighted as appropriate for the career woman (read: working class person) that the Flapper typically was, although I didn't really think they were appropriate work clothes-- more like sportswear. The evening dresses were stunning. This was one room in which Julien d'Ys' hair dressings were NOT distracting-- in others, they were very irritating, particularly in The Heiress and The Gibson Girl, where the pompadours were multiple feet high and wide. I understand wanting to stylize, but I felt that in many cases it took away from the display of the objects.

The exhibit ended with The Screen Siren, which featured some video footage and a number of slinky '30s gowns. I was expecting to see more American designs in this section-- Adrian, perhaps, or some more American film designers. There was a notable piece by Travis Banton, but it was a film costume, and while striking, I wasn't certain it really fit in since it wasn't really "fashion." The other thing that irked me about this section was something that I saw in a few other places in the exhibit: less-than-stellar mannequin dressing. Many of the mannequins were dressed extremely well, but a few caught my eye in a bad way-- a Worth gown or two from The Heiress didn't have smooth, filled-out torsos, and there was a cluster of James gowns in The Screen Siren that made me shudder. James gowns are particularly difficult to dress because they are so sculptural. These gowns were not the most architectural of his pieces-- they were examples of the "Sirene" gown (aka the shrimp dress, see here)-- but they are still meant to fit exceptionally well and, as they are all custom-made, require appropriate mannequin modifications to look right. These appeared as though they had just been placed on the mannequins, which I'm sure is not true, but they were ill-fitting and gapped in a number of places, and I thought it made it difficult to really appreciate their intended look. Perhaps I am biased because FIT has custom mounts for all their James gowns-- but I think that is really the appropriate way to display them. See the difference here.

There is one more point I want to mention. I will not go into detail about Robin Givhan's review of this exhibit, a) because this post is already epic and b) because I don't want my blog to turn into a collection of reviews of Robin Givhan articles, BUT in her review (here), she says, "...based on this exhibition, the beauty ideal has always been slender. Those athletic Gibson Girls were practically waifs. The Flappers -- at least the ones who naturally fit the clothes and did not have to bind their bosoms so they would be fashionably flat -- were small-boned and almost fragile. Even the Screen Sirens, celebrated for their womanly curves, are tiny compared to a contemporary actress.... In our upset with the present, we have re-imagined a past of buxom beauties that mostly did not exist."

She is both right and wrong. While the ideal body of the American female archetypes discussed in the exhibit has frequently been fit and athletic, it is not true that "buxom beauties" were never actual ideal body tpes of the past. The Heiress, while fragile, was probably able to be heavier than today's models thanks to the aid of her corset. The Gibson girl was seen as tall and healthy, if still svelte. The Bohemian, Suffragist and Patriot had some more room to fit in their dresses-- they were ideally busty and shaped like an inverse teardrop, wearing empire-waisted dresses and peg-top skirts. Flappers were boyish and frequently thin, although the emphasis was on a lack of definition of curves and not necessarily on waifishness. The Screen Siren ideal is perhaps the most difficult to fit-- tall and thin but just curvy enough to make a bias-cut dress interesting. The thing is, the pin-up girl of the 40s was certainly voluptuous-- and what about Marilyn Monroe? "Buxom beauties" existed-- just outside of the 1890-1940 time frame.

That aside, Givhan's point is that the ideal bodies seen in the exhibit were no fairer to the everyday woman than is the oft-discussed stick-thin ideal of today. That is true. Fashion isn't fair-- fashion just likes novelty. Ideal bodies will come and go, but if they get any healthier it will not be because fashion has decided that that's the best thing for everybody-- it will be because we're bored.

The final room in the exhibit was an oval with video and still photo projections of well-known "American women," from Katharine Hepburn to Michelle Obama. There was a particularly fabulous juxtaposition of Josephine Baker in her banana skirt with Beyoncé in her "Single Ladies" video. I felt it helped challenge the visitor to think about the characteristics of today's American woman. It also fit well with the concluding didactic, which emphasized that while these archetypes never represented a majority of real women at any point, they all combine to help name the characteristics we associate with American womanhood: vitality, boldness, and sexual, social, and artistic freedom. While I am not sure that this was a significant contribution to research in the field, it was a digestible exhibit that will teach its visitors some interesting social and fashion history and perhaps leave them with the sense it left me-- that American women are, above all, independent.

What did you think of the exhibit? What were your favorite pieces? What thoughts did you depart with?

Photo: Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong w. filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl at Pierre Ball, Berlin, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life, 1928.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

American Woman Hype

I'm very excited to see "American Woman" at the Met and "Night & Day" at FIT this weekend, although I'm a little apprehensive about the crowds at the former-- and not only because it's opening weekend. This exhibit has received more hype than any other fashion exhibition I've seen in a long time! Last week's Costume Institute Benefit Gala, frequently called "the party of the year," had (as always) a huge celebrity draw and was co-hosted by none other than Oprah, along with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (who co-hosts the party every year) and Gap's Executive VP for Global Design, Patrick Robinson. According to the exhibit's press release, the Gala is "The Costume Institute's main source of annual funding for exhibitions, operations, and capital improvements." Most curators I know would happily give up an appendage for a source of funding and publicity like that! Since the party's red carpet shots are shown on news, fashion, and society pages everywhere, the public is more aware of The Costume Institute than usual these days, which draws attention to the new exhibit.

In addition, "American Woman" is being sponsored by Gap, who has released a line of embellished t-shirts inspired by each archetype explored by the exhibit (the heiress, the Gibson Girl, the haute bohemian, the suffragist, the patriot, the flapper, and the screen siren). While the t-shirts are cute enough, I personally find them overpriced for how simple they are. I think the suffragist is my favorite, or perhaps the screen siren-- but I'd be much more likely to consider investing if they were $15 or $20 cheaper.

As if that weren't enough, Gap has also coupled with designers Alexander Wang, Rodarte, Sophie Theallet, and Thakoon to create unique gowns that were worn to the Gala by Vera Farmiga, M.I.A., Kirsten Dunst, Kerry Washington, Jessica Alba, Riley Keogh, Zoe Kravitz, and Jamie Bochert (all this comes from the Gap website). The gowns, now displayed in a Gap pop-up store on Fifth and 54th, are being sold in an online silent auction, with the proceeds benefiting the Costume Institute. Bidding opened yesterday and will last until May 31st.

Goodness gracious, what a lot of publicity for a show! Something about it turns me off, although I should, of course, be happy that a fashion exhibit is getting this much attention. I think that between this and Sarah Jessica Parker's narration of the audio guide, I am afraid it's going to be too fluffy and commercial. I had some of the same worries, however, for "The Model as Muse," and I was stunned by how academic and thorough it was. And, as the Gap was founded in 1969, I don't have the same fears about conflict of interest in content as I would if it were, say, a monographic show being sponsored by the living designer whom it was featuring.
I am ready to plunge in and see how the exhibit is!

Has anyone seen it yet? Did you like it? Do you think it will be too fluffy or will it satisfy pop-culture lovers and museum dorks like me alike?

Image by Charles Dana Gibson, undated (c.1903, I think), from the Time/Life image archive

Monday, April 26, 2010

Upcoming Exhibitions: "American Woman" and "Night & Day"

My trips to Manhattan for exhibits are much too few and far between, and when I go, I have to pack in as much as I can. In a couple of weeks, I plan on visiting the shows "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" and "Night and Day" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum at FIT, respectively. "American Woman" features garments from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, now housed at the Met (I discussed the transfer here), and will focus on changing perceptions of American femininity in and through dress. This could be a broad and thought-provoking exhibition because it is not only examining the work of American designers but all designers who dress, and have dressed, archetypal American women. I'm also excited to see it because I have spent a large amount of time discussing American designers and the American market (and their differences from their French and European counterparts) in the course on the great designers that I taught at Marymount this semester. When I met the wonderful Isabel and Ruben Toledo last week (more on that later, once I get pictures!), Ruben laughingly commented to me that he thought it was funny that Andrew Bolton was curating this show, since he is British! But perhaps an "outsider" can more easily recognize those things that are archetypically American. One thing that rubs me the wrong way is that the sample Audio Guide clip on the exhibit website is narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, but perhaps that has more to do with my views on Sex and the City (which I will keep to myself-- you're welcome) than any hints at "selling out." If costume exhibits were completely divorced from pop culture, I don't know if anyone but me would come, anyway!

The second exhibit, "Night and Day," is a rotation of The Museum at FIT's History Gallery, which is always a chronological display of fashion history from the 18th through the 21st centuries but features different garments and a different theme every 6 months. This one focuses on the rules for appropriate dress according to time of day. I'm particularly curious to see what they come up with for the late 20th and early 21st century, as we no longer have hard-and-fast rules as to what must be worn when. Perhaps there will be some pieces that blur the day/evening line. I'm sorry that I will be catching this exhibit at its tail end. If you have the chance, go now before it's too late!

Has anyone been to "Night and Day?" How about FIT's show "American Beauty," which recently closed but was focused solely on American designers, many of whom are not well known? Are you as excited to see these exhibits as I am?

Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life, 1941.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Japanese Fashion and Textiles; Isabel and Ruben Toledo at Marymount

I finally made it to the Textile Museum to see "Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection," which closes on Sunday (I mentioned it here on the blog before it opened). The exhibit is excellent for many reasons, and if you have the chance to see it this weekend, by all means go.

For a costume exhibit-- or any exhibit, really-- to be successful, it needs to be both scholarly and engaging, which to me means 1) readable didactics and labels, 2) a layout that displays the objects to their best advantage while protecting them from damage and allows for easy viewing and movement within the space and 3) a coherent and digestible "big idea" or takeaway message. This exhibit did quite well on all of these fronts, although I had a few minor complaints.

While at first glance I considered the didactics too long (I prefer 150-200 words or fewer), I found them both concise and informative. There were only four didactic panels: an introductory one that explained the designers featured and the collector of their pieces, and one for each of the featured designers (Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo). The label copy was not displayed; instead, it was featured in spiral-bound books that could be taken at the start of the exhibit, and each ensemble was numbered at the base of its mannequin or mount for reference in the catalog. I suppose they chose to do this in order to make the exhibit space as clean as possible, and not clutter it with labels, which are often difficult to place. Still, I had to go back and get the book because I didn't realize it was a necessity at first, and I feel as though many museumgoers would have missed it altogether and simply wandered through the space guided only by the larger didactic panels on the designers. Because of the unorthodox features and enigmatic style of these garments, as well as their connections to the design philosophies of their makers, labels were absolutely necessary in this exhibit and anyone who missed the label copy probably felt more confused than enlightened. My one other gripe with the labels was that some of the objects that seemed the most intriguing were left unexplained (an ensemble on a strangely posed mannequin by Kawakubo, and a shorts suit by Miyake, for example). Otherwise, I felt that the didactics and labels were quite well-written.

Besides the clothing itself, the most striking element of the exhibit for me was the way in which the garments were mounted. Most of them had custom interior mounts that were attached to the ceiling and floor by long wires, which allowed the pieces to take their proper shape as though being worn but also to speak for themselves, uninterrupted by distracting mannequins. My guess is that these mounts were provided by the owner, at least in part-- while the exhibit was sponsored (by the cosmetics company Shisheido, among other organizations), the production and installation of custom mounts for all of these pieces seems as though it would be prohibitive both in time and in cost. There were other pieces mounted on simple, appropriate mannequins, and a few pieces mounted flat or on custom-carved foam mounts. One piece was shown quasi-flat, so that the pattern could be appreciated, but with a subtle body shape in the foam support that suggested its look when worn. I was very impressed by the quality of the mounting in this exhibit, and few things are more important to costume exhibits than proper display!

The exhibit also had irregularly angled white wooden "floors" built up underneath the garments, which served as a kind of "set" and also prevented visitors from walking too close to, or underneath, the pieces on display. While I am certain these were labor-intensive and time-consuming to produce, the result was excellent-- it was just the kind of subtle backdrop that best accents these types of garments and eliminated the need for unsightly stanchions or guardrails.

Finally, one of the smartest things about the exhibit's arrangement was that it began with work by Yohji Yamamoto, continued with Issey Miyake, and finished with Rei Kawakubo (and some of her colleagues at Comme des Garçons). At first, I was suprised that the show did not begin with Mikaye, who is the oldest of the three and considered the field's pioneer. Starting with Yamamoto, however, both made best use of the space (the exhibit starts in a smallish hallway that would not have had room for all of the Miyake pieces) and made conceptual sense. Yamamoto's pieces are the easiest for Westerners to understand; they blend Western and Japanese fashion sensibilities and are the most "wearable." Miyake's are fun and innovative, and a little more difficult to accept aesthetically, and Kawakubo's are the most intellectual and least "beautiful" in a traditional Western sense. By beginning with Yamamoto and ending with Kawakubo, the visitor is introduced to foreign concepts bit-by-bit, and is warmed up by the time he or she reaches the most challenging garments.

While I would have liked to learn a bit more about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection and transience) that was hinted at, but not named, in the didactics, I felt that the exhibit did an excellent job of introducing both the layman and the fashion scholar to pieces that are at once unfamiliar and important. I appreciated that the didactics emphasized that the collector wears these pieces in her everyday life, showing that the designers are not creating these objects as pure art but as clothing to be worn.

There is much more to say about these designers and why they are so important to contemporary fashion but I will save that for another day. I want to end by saying that Marymount University (where I teach) is soon holding its annual Portfolio in Motion event, where fashion design and fashion merchandising students produce a fashion show and host a eminent designer, who receives an award and reviews the portfolios of the senior design students. I blogged about last year's event and featured designer Peter Som here. This year, the event takes place starting Thursday, April 22nd and continues into the weekend, and our featured designer is none other than Isabel Toledo, who designed Michelle Obama's "Lemongrass" ensemble for the inauguration and an exhibit of whose work I thoroughly enjoyed last year. She will be accompanied by her husband, celebrated illustrator Ruben Toledo. I am beyond excited about their attendance, both for my own sake and for the students'. Tickets for the opening show and cocktail reception are $100, but you can attend the subsequent shows (without the Toledos) for only $15. More information can be found here.

What do you think of these designers? Have you seen the exhibit, and how did you feel about it if you did? What do you think is most important in an exhibit like this?

Photo by Mark Whiting,

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Katie Couric in Harper's Bazaar

I have finally returned from a far-too-long hiatus centered around a trip to Southeast Asia and the subsequent readjustment to normal life, which itself was interrupted by unprecedented snowstorms that have shut down the entire Washington area! Now, however, I'm back, and while my first intention is to write a post on the fabulous textiles I encountered in SE Asia, I've decided to begin instead with a brief post on an article by The Washington Post's Robin Givhan. The article focuses on a story in this month's Harper's Bazaar about CBS anchor (and UVa alumna, I might add) Katie Couric.

I have covered Givhan's reporting in the past (see these posts), and generally admire her writing and obersvation, although I feel that her lack of a fashion studies background is a handicap to her full understanding of some of the topics she covered. The article on Couric centers not on the text of the Bazaar article but on its photography, by François Dischinger. Givhan writes, "(The photos) are an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.

There's nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner -- Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels -- to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.

Is Couric dressed in a manner appropriate for a network anchor? These images demand that viewers define -- or redefine -- their terms."

There are two main images of Couric that accompany the article (at least in the online coverage): one depicts her in a beige, one-shouldered, above-knee-length Calvin Klein collection dress sitting at a glass desk in a modernist white office, and the other shows her in a short, dark skirt and blazer by Giorgio Armani, black hose, and a pair of Louboutin booties. She clutches the blazer closed at her chest and no shirt is visible underneath. In this second picture, Couric stands boldly atop two TV sets, one showing her (in?)famous interview with Sarah Palin and one showing her interviewing President Obama.

It's obvious that the photographer wanted to convey confidence, power, and yes, sex appeal. Couric is, after all, the first woman to anchor the evening news solo on one of the "big three" broadcast networks. While the article seems to emphasize her interviewing prowess, she is portayed as the anti-Barbara Walters: young, modern, in-charge -- and sexy.

In fact, it seems as though leaving sex appeal out of the picture would diminish her powerful image. In our culture, sex appeal has become an essential part of a woman's strength; asexuality, dowdiness, or even the downplay of one's assets for the sake of propriety smacks of a lack of confidence and creates the sense that a woman is not at home with her femininity. This is not a particularly new idea, especially since Sex and the City brought almost-nymphomaniacally sexually aware third-wave/post-third-wave feminism to the forefront of popular culture.

Givhan takes this sex-appeal-as-power in a different direction, as well, recognizing the difficulties of maintaining this kind of fashionable image (particularly when it comes to shoes):
How can she walk in those? Pure grit-- that's the explanation. And yes, please infer that if those four-inch stilettos don't draw tears from the woman wearing them, then neither will some ambitious colleague's backstabbing ways. Fashion, in this sense, is power.

There is, of course, the depth of the phallic symbolism of high heels to be plumbed here as well, but plenty of articles have already been written on that subject. And, to be honest, I don't think that would be particularly pertinent in an examination of Katie Couric.

As Bazaar fashion/special projects director Laura Borwn phrases it, "When coming up in the industry, you tend to dress the way people think you should dress. (Couric) has earned the right to be sexy if she wants." In these photos, Couric is indeed participating in the dissemination of this idea. Yet Brown adds that, after all, Couric was "doing photos for a fashion magazine, not Newsweek." I think that any analysis of Couric in these photos, and not just the photos themselves, must acknowledge that Couric's participation here was mostly as a fashion model. These are not news photos, nor are they strictly fashion journalism; they are that frequently seen combination of portrait and fashion shoot that combines chosen aspects of a person's personality and appearance with other desirable attributes to create a celebrity image.

Givhan states, "Certainly, some will see the pictures as further proof of why she is all wrong for the job. They will probably be the same people for whom Couric has accumulated a personal work wardrobe of blacks, grays and pinstripes -- a more sophisticated, yet still reserved, alternative to the news-anchor cliché of Crayola-colored blazers." These people, and perhaps Givhan as well, would do better to analyze Couric's personality, and personal image, through the clothing she wears on and off the job in public life. Those "blacks, grays and pinstripes" are far more telling about the real Couric, and her personal idea of what it means to be a powerful woman, than the outfits in which she was dressed by the Bazaar staff. How does sexuality play into this? Only a good look at Couric's wardrobe choices, which deserves more thought that I can give it here, would tell.

What do you think? How do you perceive Couric? How do you think our culture interprets sexuality and its relationship to feminine power?

Photo of Couric by Sylvain Gaboury for Life, 09 Mar 2000.
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