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.

Vanessa Bell, Patti Smith and Creative Living at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Vanessa Bell at Durbins, 1911, Unknown. Presented by Angelica Garnett, 1981 and 1988-92. Part of the Vanessa Bell Collection. ©Tate Archive, London 2016.

There is a beautiful coupling of portraits in one of the central rooms of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Vanessa Bell exhibition, which places together two images of Molly MacCarthy, one a painting from 1912, the other a papier collé of 1914-15, linked by a small, everyday gesture that frequently goes unremarked. Each holds her hands in a distinct gesture, fingers pyramided together as they sew. Enhanced by Bell’s abstracted style, MacCarthy sits absorbed in solitary handwork, fabric hanging from the point of the triangle her fingers form as she mends or makes, eyes cast down to inspect each detail. In each she is encased in an armchair, a domestic interior, which, at first glance reinforces her feminine work and links them to traditional ideals of women kept within the confines of the home.

Collage of two Vanessa Bell portraits of Molly MacCarthy

Vanessa Bell, Self–Portrait, c. 1915, Oil on canvas laid on panel, 63.8 x 45.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 5050 – B1982.16.2 © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Yet seen together, as creations by a woman, empathetic to her toil, and placed within the context of this exhibition, the images become a statement about life and creativity. As you move from room to room the argument that art and craft, home and work are inextricably linked becomes sharper and clearer. From the opening display of portraits of family and friends, through cases of Omega workshop textiles, Hogarth Press book jackets, and on to still lifes, landscapes and interiors, it is clear that reductive notions of femininity and the role of creativity are challenged repeatedly and successfully.

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, Image: 53.3 × 40.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 3353 – B1992.14.2 © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, c. 1912, oil on board, 40 x 34 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Bell was a woman born in Victorian times, with all that era implies, but who was turned towards the future, exploring and taking part in the creation of modernity, modernism and modern womanhood.

Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s, 161 x 174 cm, Private Collection, © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Bell’s work, with its intimacy, warm, off-toned hues and experimentation with multiple mediums provides an insight into women’s evolving role in the early 20th century, and the need to recognize all forms of ‘feminine’ creativity as art.

Photograph of Vanessa Bell photo album

In the accompanying Legacy exhibition, Patti Smith’s poignant photographs of Bloomsbury icons, including Woolf’s walking cane and the pond at Charleston, set amongst Bell’s photograph albums, further this thesis. Art is shown as part of living, life as an act of continuous artistic challenge and invention, and femininity as a mutable expression of self within modernism and its continued influence.

Patti Smith photograph from the Legacy exhibition

Patti Smith photograph from the Legacy exhibition

Vanessa Bell and Legacy: Photographs by Patti Smith and Vanessa Bell are at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4 June 2017

Sources:

Sarah Milroy & Ian A. C. Dejardin, eds., Vanessa Bell (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2017)