Commentary Archive

Book Review: The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th Century Women Designers, edited by Nancy Deihl. Bloomsbury 2018.

Nancy Deihl has edited a fascinating compilation of sixteen essays each of which examines an American fashion designer whose work has been all but forgotten. The chosen examples are women who were successful in their day, and their style encompasses everything from custom-made to ready-to-wear, as well as demonstrating interconnections with the entertainment industry and fashion media. As such, it is a book that relies on forensic research of fashion history, and exposes the rich narratives of individuals who helped to build the American industry.

I was thrilled to see Tina Leser included in the list of contents. I have long admired her work, having become fascinated by the beautiful hand-painted blouses and dresses I saw in museum collections when researching my book The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear & The Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York.  Written by FIT Special Collections Archivist April Calahan, the chapter reveals new details of Leser’s life and career that illuminate her progress and the significance of her work.

It is so interesting to read about her early married life in Hawaii in the mid-1930s, and how her glamorous, sportswear-inspired style developed when she opened a shop opposite a chic hotel, whose clients quickly became her key customers.  Here, she imported leading designers from the mainland, including Nettie Rosenstein, and gradually built her own signature look, before she switched to the East Coast herself.  She was prompted to move by a series of external events, from a shipping strike that cut off her wholesale supplies, to the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.  Once in New York, she began to work with manufacturer Edwin H. Foreman, and continued to grow her business over the coming decades, to become a significant member of America’s fashion industry.

What Calahan’s essay eloquently shows is the way Leser’s career developed to include international influences in her use of fabrics and design elements, as well as her commitment to outsourcing production to other countries. She was, as such, a pioneer of globalisation, looking, for example, to Indian tailors to make up her designs, and seeking to create mutually-beneficial partnerships with her collaborators. Although not always as successful in execution, her dedication to overseas artisans is admirable, and adds a new layer of understanding to her well-known love of Asian references in her designs.  Dhoti-inspired evening dresses, for example, are the perfect encapsulation of her version of the American Look – simple, fluid jersey forms given emphasis through their Indian silhouette.

Calahan’s chapter demonstrates the book’s strength as a whole – it celebrates female creativity and business knowledge – and will surely, as Deihl states in her introduction to the compilation, inspire further work on America’s myriad fashion talents.

Florence’s Nightdress Case & Embroidered History

 

Where do you keep your nightwear? Squashed under your pillow? Or neatly folded in a beautifully embroidered case that you made yourself?

In the first decades of the 20th century, the latter was the more likely answer. Magazines contained examples to make and customise. Placed on the bed below your pillows, a nightdress case reflected the value of garments in an era before readymade fashions meant clothing was less precious.  Importantly, they also signalled feminine accomplishment and style. Monograms, elaborate designs and artificial flowers could all be used to personalise the case.

 

Women’s magazines advised that these cases should resemble ‘boudoir cushions’ – pretty and delicate – a foretaste of the nightdress itself.  They were part of a large repertoire of handmade items that populated the domestic sphere – demonstrating women’s skills and care for themselves and their home.

I am lucky to have an example made by my maternal grandmother in the early 1900s.  She embroidered her case with a curling ‘F’ for her name – Florence – and embellished her whitework stitches with the flowers that mimicked those she loved to arrange in vases and draw.  She decorated the edges with scallops and daisy-shaped eyelet embroidery. She also left us other tokens of her craft skills – crocheted bags, and a little baby blanket trimmed with pink ribbon.

Such items connect generations of my family, recall my grandmother’s life over one hundred years ago and speak of the way young women were brought up to create things for themselves and their families.  Nightdress cases may have fallen out of fashion, but they are still treasures of our past.

Spotlight On: ALOK

ALOK is a gender non-conforming performance artist of color based in New York. They use self-fashioning as a type of self-narration to break harmful racial and gender stereotypes that people impose on their body. For them, style is not only a form of self-expression, but also a form of political activity. Often spotted wearing brightly colored outfits, mixing different materials and prints together and always serving looks, Alok uses color as a way to make their body unapologetically visible within a white heteronormative cis-gender society.

 

Photo sby Elif Kulick

As a performance artist, Alok uses the body as both medium and object of activist work. The body, especially the stylized body, within their performance is a means of reifying the notion that social categories do not make individuals coherent or complete functioning beings in society, but rather one’s understanding of self does. It is through the acknowledgment that these social categories are harmful and imposed on marginalized bodies as a method of erasure where the individual can free themselves through the knowing of self.

 

Alok fights to make their body and their being artful in order to show not only their beauty and strength but also their status as a desiring subject. Alok takes on the challenge of using their style to tackle the question of, “what does it look like to live a visible and fulfilling life as a trans person-of-color?” Through dress and personal style Alok imagines this futurity.

Photo by Alex Hopkins

Dress and style then becomes a strategy of the visible process of and individual working to know themselves and understand themselves in a world that deems them as othered.

 

To embody creativity, which Alok does in their art, is to embody new hopes and visions of a future where people can color outside of the lines.

Exhibition Review: Bruce Davidson Retrospective at Sala Rekalde, Bilbao

Unobtrusively nestled into the Sala Rekalde’s building in the city center of Bilbao, Spain, the largest career spanning retrospective of American photographer Bruce Davidson left its mark on this artistically rich gem of a city. Comprised of over 200 prints shot primarily in black and white, Davidson’s work was exhibited in various rooms with 16 themes, each accompanied by display cases in the center of each room with magazine and newspaper printings with photographs from Davidson’s career.

 

The experience of witnessing Davidson’s photographs in person was truly enchanting. The prints are poignant and evocative, and convey a stronger sense of Davidson’s vision that cannot simply be replicated on a screen. The way the light in the building reflected off each glossy surface of the photograph, and the details and movement captured in each shot left the viewer with a visceral and emotional reaction to Davidson’s work.

 

Spanning the duration of his career, the retrospective highlighted some of Davidson’s most famous series from the 1960s, including Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street, and photographs from the Civil Rights Movement.

Brooklyn Gang, New York City, 1959. Coney Island, Kathy fixing her hair in a cigarette machine mirror Magnum Photos

Montgomery, Alabama, 1961. National Guardsmen protect the Freedom Riders during their ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi Magnum Photos

The retrospective also included images from Davidson’s travels to the U.K. during the 1960s, with photographs from London, Scotland, Wales, and Yorkshire. Currently residing in London, these images were particularly exciting to see, as Davidson captured an experience of what it was like to live in these cities 60 years ago.

London, U.K. 1960 Magnum Photos

The reason behind my trip to Bilbao to see the retrospective was specifically for Davidson’s Subway photographs from 1980, the topic of my dissertation. The exhibition displayed early photographs of the series which were taken in black and white, as opposed to the majority color images I explored in my dissertation. Seeing the photographs first hand in conversation with and situated within Davidson’s career was an invaluable experience, and extremely beneficial towards my research.

Subway, 1980. New York City Magnum Photos

The exhibition concluded with photographs Davidson took in Southern California between 2008-2013, which were particularly evocative personally, having grown up in Los Angeles. He captured the essence of Los Angeles through his depiction of beaches, high-rise buildings, palm trees, and traffic, which evoked a sense of home and nostalgia that concluded the retrospective on a perfect note.

Los Angeles, 2008 Magnum Photos

Pairs in Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’

 

Starting in 1979 Richard Avedon began a project, commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Texas, documenting the American West. He spent five years traversing the western part of the United States taking portraits of average, overlooked people. The project concluded with an exhibition of selected works and a catalogue called In the American West. The magical quality of these photographs is in the immediate connection the viewer forges with subject. Looking at these photographs you begin to feel as though you know the person in the portrait. Part of this comes from the equalizing way Avedon went about taking each photograph:“I photograph my subject against a sheet of white paper about nine feet wide by seven feet long that is secured to a wall, a building, sometimes the side of a trailer. I work in the shade because sunshine creates shadow, highlights, accents on a surface that seem to tell you where to look. I want the source of light to be invisible so as to neutralize its role in the appearance of things”.  Avedon created a blank slate where the personality of the subject could be freely expressed without any distractions. In this neutral space, the sartorial choices of the subjects come under greater scrutiny and become even more symbolic of their inner lives. What struck me as particularly interesting in these photographs was they ways in which Avedon photographed pairs and how their bodies interacted within the frame.

In Rusty McCrickard and Tracy Featherstone, Dixon, California 1981 a man and woman stand staring directly into the camera. The woman is dressed in matching tropical print shorts and a button up top, while the man wears jeans and no shirt. Their hands are clasped together in the centre of the frame. The man’s bare chest seems to blend with the white background and create a sense of negative space, contrasting with the woman’s vibrant print. While the man physically takes up more space due to his size, they share the frame fairly equally.

In John and Melissa Harrison, Lewisville, Texas, 1981 there is a sense of harmonious shared space as well. John stands facing the camera straight on. He holds his daughter in the crook of his left arm so that she dangles upside down in front of him. Her right foot hooks around his neck mirroring the angle of his bent arm. His dark clothing contrasts with her white shirt and diaper. Although he, like Rusty McCrickard in Rusty McCrickard and Tracy Featherstone, Dixon, California 1981, is larger than Melissa their intertwined bodies form one unit that sits in the centre of the frame.

In Teresa Waldron and Joe College, Sidney, Iowa, 1979, Teresa stands as the centre of the frame. She hooks her index finger into the pocket of Joe’s jeans, thus linking them together. Her white cowboy hat frames her face, while her light-coloured striped tank and dark jeans contrast with Joe’s silky shirt and lighter-wash jeans. Joe’s prominent, shiny belt-buckle draws the eye to him, yet his body is only partially in the frame. The portrait focuses in on Teresa, while Joe is pushed to the side.

In Jonathan and Sam Stahl, Gilford Montana, 1983 this is taken a step further. While Jonathan, on the left, is prominently featured, Sam, on the right, is only half in the frame. Their matching checked shirts gives the feeling that they are connected. Sam’s arm seems to disappear into the Jonathan, thus enhancing the sense that they are one unit. That being said Jonathan is in the centre while Sam is cut off by the frame, almost as if Avedon capture their image while walking by them. The dynamism he finds in the contrast between bodies in his In the American West series is truly captivating.

The Yukata, Happi, and Obon Festival: A Slice of Japanese Summertime

 

In Japan, warmer weather marks the switch from the traditional silk kimono to the cotton yukata. Both with similar silhouettes, the kimono’s fabric is a heavier silk worn typically with an underlining for more formal gatherings or occasions, while the yukata is a casual and unlined garment worn as daily wear or at summer festivals.

Kimono (Furisode)

The yukata is slipped on like a wrap dress or bath robe, and folded right under left. The obi, or the sash used to hold up the yukata, is then wrapped around the waist 3 to 4 times and tied in a distinct bow worn on the back. The yukata is accompanied by geta, or wooden flip-flop sandals raised on two wooden platforms.

Yukata’s are traditionally worn both in and outside of Japan each summer during Japanese-Buddhist gatherings called Obon or ‘Bon’ festivals. A celebration to honor one’s ancestors, Obon festivals are held during June, July, and August around the world. Japanese people gather with their local communities adorned in yukatas or happi coats (a ‘half’ kimono consisting of straight sleeves, and imprinted with a distinctive monogram of one’s Buddhist temple or family crest.)

Yukata

These festivals are a form of celebrating the ancestral spirits through traditional Japanese dance called Bon-Odori. Yukatas and happi coats are accessorized for the dances with flowers, towels, fans, or kachi-kachi, small wooden hand instruments. The Bon-Odori is the focal point of the Obon festivals—each song, or ondo, accompanied by taiko drums. The songs range an extensive scope of sentiments: from upbeat and carefree like Mottainai, Shiawase Samba, and Sakura Ondo, to slower and more contemplative dances like Tanko Bushi.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Do7XbGFOZiE

Obon festivals bring people of Japanese heritage together—whether they take place in Japan or someplace else in the world. The yukata and the happi coat are the garments that link people to their Japanese roots, and allow its wearers a beautiful means of expression of their culture through their clothing.

Although I won’t have a yukata or happi this year, and cannot attend my usual Pasadena Buddhist Temple and Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Obon Festivals, I am looking forward to finding an Obon this summer in London. Let’s dance!

 

By Arielle Murphy

All photographs are with permission from the author, Michelle Han, and Jennifer Gee.

The Red Coat and Remembrance in Leon Bridges’ music video for Bad Bad News

The scene begins with a panorama shot of a dimly lit train station at night. A woman with long dark brown hair in a red coat walks away in the background. The camera slowly advances toward her until it abruptly changes positions so that it is no more than a few feet behind her– acting as a looming shadow. The woman hears a fain whistle and turns her head in surprise, a second wolf whistle follows not too long after. The second whistle causes her to turn to face the camera. Her red coat hangs off of one of her shoulders exposing her bare skin. Understated gold hoop earrings and a gold chain frame her face.

The woman in red decides to walk in the direction of the where the whistle came from. She walks with conviction, courage and also caution. The sound of her shoes creates a pulsing beat that slowly transitions into the percussive introduction of Leon Bridges’ song, Bad Bad News.

The music becomes layered as the woman runs down the train station stairway into a dimly green tinted tunnel. The green of the tunnel contrasts and compliments the red she wears. The video (directed by Natalie Rae) then changes scenes to one of Bridges entering a rehearsal space where his band is playing his new song and he begins to let the rhythm move him. The scene switches to the one of the woman in red (played by model, Paloma Elsesser) who stands framed by a series of archways as she begins to slowly move to the music.

The music video continues with the woman frantically moving through the streets of New York trying to find the man from the train station. In various parts of the video she beings dancing as she is overcome by the rhythm, however she holds tension in her body. Her dancing becomes a personal battle between enjoying herself and feeling ashamed or guilt of some sort.  The way in which she wears the coat echoes this duality, the coat protects her, or shields her, in her ability to decide how tightly it is cinched at the waist, but also reveals her vulnerability as it continues to fall off her shoulder.

The emphasis of the woman’s red coat throughout the music video evokes themes of remembrance and also acts of violence against women. Muldisciplinary Canadian artist, Jamie Black, explores similar themes in The REDress Project which collects red dresses and installs them in public spaces as a reminder of violent crimes committed against Aboriginal women. Black’s work hopes to make visible the gendered and racialized crimes committed against marginalized women that often go unnoticed.

The REDress Project, Jamie Black, 2014, www.redressproject.org

The red coat is a haunting presence in the music video. It is as if it possesses its own identity apart from that of the wearer. Perhaps it is to reflect the collective fear that women still face as they walk home alone.

By Destinee Forbes

For more info on the REDress project click here.

To watch Bad Bad News by Leon Bridges click here.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style Exhibition Review

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, currently on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum, brings the luxury, modernity, and romance of traveling by sea during the 20th century. While the exhibition covers all aspects of ocean liner travel, including décor, promotion, and engineering, I was particularly struck by the room detailing Life on Board. Life on Board features a stunning array of cruise-wear ranging from the turn of the century to the late 1960s. The show gives room to show everything from high-end couture worn by first class passengers in the 1920s and 1930s to bikini’s worn by the deck pool in the 1960s. This broad range gives a comprehensive overview of golden age ocean liner fashion in the 20th century, and the changes to life on board as the century progressed.

As you enter the ‘Life on Board’ room a screen with an ocean scene creates a ship deck ambiance. The pool-side scene featuring bathing suit looks from different decades is set against this blue sky and sea backdrop. A mannequin languidly lounging behind the “pool” sports an Emilio Pucci bikini from 1968. The bikini has been styled with large, white sunglasses and a matching headscarf. The pattern, of different shades of blue and aqua, and accessories give the mannequin a distinct, almost psychedelic, youthful 1960s glamour. Sitting next to the Pucci-clad model is a more conservatively dressed mannequin dipping a toe into the pool. She is dressed in a Jantzen one-piece bathing suit from the 1950s. In between the two seated mannequins is a standing mannequin wearing a bathing top and shorts made by Viking in the mid-to-late 1920s. Finally, the mannequin in the very front is placed to look as if she is diving head-first into the pool. This athletic mannequin is clothed in a two-piece yellow bathing suit from 1937-39. The contrasts between the different colours, eras, and styles of bathing suits gives a broad sense of life on deck throughout the golden age of Ocean Liner travel. The reclining and active mannequins placed against the blue-sky background allowed me to feel as though I were truly witnessing a poolside scene on the deck of a grand ship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, displayed directly opposite the pool-side scene, is a re-creation of the Grand Descente. The Grand Descente was an elaborate staircase that led into the dining room, from which fashionable first-class passengers could make a memorable entrance and show off the latest fashions. The staircase is recreated as a series of plain back platforms elevated one above the other. The austerity of the staircase in the exhibition allows attention to be drawn to the garments. Behind the mannequins is a screen, onto which, a procession of models in gowns is projected, thus giving the sense of movement associated with the Grand Descente to the still mannequins. The ceiling above the display is black with countless small, lights, giving the appearance of a glittering, glamourous night sky. The mannequins display three gowns worn by New York socialite Emilie Grigsby in the 1910s-1920s, and a men’s evening ensemble worn by US Diplomat Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr. The outfits all enhance the glamorous image of ocean liner travel in the early 20th century.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting clothing from different decades and different occasions. By placing elegant 1920s couture across from bikinis from the 1960s, the viewer gains a sense of how much ocean travel changed during the course of the 20th century, but how it remained a glamourous endeavor.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum until June 17th.

By Olivia Chuba

All photos taken by the author

Are You Educated in Art?: Vogue and Taste

The other night my dissertation research had me searching through Vogue’s 1944 issues and while I didn’t find what I was looking for, I did come across an article that stopped me in my tracks. As an (aspiring?) art historian, the editorial titled “Are You Educated in Art?” in the January 1, 1944 edition of Vogue caught my attention. In this two-page spread art critic Frank Crowninshield instructs the reader about Western art history in the form of fourteen questions. Crowninshield provides answers to various questions ranging from the use of archaic Greek statuary to the influence of Picasso.

Although this questionnaire comes across as an art history pop-quiz, the text insists that it “has little more to do with your discernment and taste than with your study-book knowledge; for, in the appreciation of art, one may know all the facts and still be a Philistine.” The use of the word “taste” here is integral to the reader’s reception of this article. IAntje Krause-Wahl describes that in this period, “Vogue increasingly saw it as its responsibility to guide their readers in the principles of good taste. Jessica Daves, who in 1952 followed Edna Woolman Chase as editor-in-chief, explicitly formulated this when she described the magazine as a ‘vehicle to educate the public taste.’”

The use of art and the acquisition of art historical discernment played an integral role in Vogue’s discourse on how to obtain taste. Later, in July 1945 Vogue even devoted an entire issue to the Museum of Modern Art which featured Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” on the cover. Thus, the 1940s Vogue reader not only knows the latest fashions but she also acquires other skills crucial to being an ideal society lady such as knowledge of art history and an interest in modern art. Indeed, women’s magazines such as Vogue act as “instruction manuals” of femininity. This direct appeal to its reader to cultivate their taste and learn how to properly appreciate art, provides an excellent example of the way in which fashion magazines work to construct femininity and teach artistic literacy.

By Abby Fogle

Sources:

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge (1994), 47.

Crowninshield, Frank. “Features/Articles/People: Are You Educated in Art?” Vogue 103, no. 1 (1944): 48-49, https://search.proquest.com/docview/879229981?accountid=10277.

Krause-Wahl, Antje. “American Fashion and European Art—Alexander Liberman and the Politics of Taste in Vogue of the 1950s” in the Journal of Design History Vol. 28, No. 1. (2015).  doi:10.1093/jdh/epu041.

“Embroidered in Dyes” – Fabrics and Fashions by Footprints from the Gunnersbury Museum Collection

Dissertation time has come for us MA students. My research on Footprints, a London-based fabric printing workshop active during the interwar years, has led me to Gunnersbury Museum, a local history museum based in Gunnersbury Park, London. While the museum is currently closed for renovation, the curators were kind enough to let me research their small but exciting collection of Footprints artefacts.

Footprints was established at Durham Wharf, Hammersmith in 1925. It produced hand block printed fabrics and garments which were sold at Modern Textiles, a small shop opened by Elspeth Anne Little at 46 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge in 1926.

Footprints was mainly staffed by female art students or recent graduates of the Central School of Arts and Crafts. It was initially run by Gwen Pike, a painting and block printing graduate of Birmingham School of Art. After Pike’s death in 1929 the workshop was taken over by Joyce Clissold, who had previously worked at Footprints as a Central School student. Clissold did most of the designing and carving of the lino blocks, while her employees prepared the dyes and did the printing.

Clissold eventually opened a shop called Footprints at 94 New Bond Street in 1933, followed by a second shop at 22 Knightsbridge in 1935. Both shops were located in London’s fashionable West End and attracted celebrity customers such as the actresses Yvonne Arnaud, Gracie Fields and Anna Neagle.

At Footprints, one could purchase lengths of hand block printed and painted fabrics, or small ready-made items such as scarves, shawls or hats. Customers who desired custom-made garments had their measurements were taken by ‘Madame Blanche’ – the working name of the in-house dressmaker Mrs. White.

Footprints jacket dating from the 1930s with ‘Huntsmen’ design in black and red on unbleached linen. At Gunnersbury Park. Photograph: Nelleke Honcoop

etail of ‘Huntsmen’ jacket. Photograph: Nelleke Honcoop

The Shawl of her Dreams!

Footprints also advertised their fabric painting and printing services directly to dressmakers, which I discovered through an early publicity leaflet I came across in Gunnersbury Museum’s collection. In the leaflet, Footprints’ fabrics were described as “embroidered in dyes”. They were hand block printed and painted in “lovely colours, vivid or demure; designs flamboyant or modest”. For even more novelty and exclusiveness, the dressmaker’s own design could be carried out by Footprints.

The leaflet’s cover is gorgeously illustrated with a printed design of a fashionably short-haired lady. Seen from the back, she wears a fringed shawl with a bold floral design in blue, green, pink and purple. The illustration reminded me of a photograph from the Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection, which is the largest collection of Joyce Clissold and Footprints artefacts. In this photograph taken around 1927 Joyce Clissold poses wearing a shawl of her own design.

Joyce Clissold wearing a shawl of her own design, c. 1927. At the Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection. Photocopy: © Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection.

Finally, the leaflet conjured up a scene at a dressmaker’s establishment where the customer, or “Madame”, lays her eyes on just the perfect addition to her wardrobe: “That five minutes in the showroom on the way to be fitted. That’s when Madame’s eye roves… The SHAWL of her dreams! The SCARF that just goes with the tailor-made. The irresistible little COAT. The intriguing POCHETTE. She falls to it so gladly”.

Oh, imagine how it must feel to find your dream shawl, or any other kind of garment you wish to add to your wardrobe, embroidered in dyes of lovely colours…

Detail of cover of Footprints leaflet, undated. At Gunnersbury Museum. Photograph: Nelleke Honcoop

By Nelleke Honcoop

Further reading:

Clark, Hazel. ‘Joyce Clissold and the “Footprints” Textile Printing Workshop’. In Women Designing: Redefining Design in Britain Between the Wars, edited by Jill Seddon and Suzette Worden, 82–88. Brighton: University of Brighton, 1994.

Gunnersbury Museum is currently closed for renovation, but will reopen in June 2018. See: http://www.visitgunnersbury.org/collections/.