Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Sketches, Dresses, and Fashion Plates in the Archives

During our MA study trip to New York City we were fortunate to visit several excellent archives. Our very first stop on Monday, to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections archive, kicked off the week with a look through fashion illustration’s past. Among the items shown that day were several lady journals dating back to the eighteenth century. An anthology of La Gazette Rose, a Parisian ladies’ magazine, displayed high quality coloured fashion plates from the early 1870s. The plates, interspersed throughout the volume, show women posing in various outdoor settings adorned in sumptuous costume, creating an intriguing contrast between their hyper-decorated dresses and the simplicity of nature.

Fashion plates from La Gazette Rose. Photo by Jamie Vaught.

Paul Poiret objects were also on display, including two early catalogues and a fan from his perfume shop Rosine. The albums, Les Robes de Paul Poiret of 1908 and Les Choses de Paul Poiret 1911, show Poiret’s fashions in the pochoir technique­–each limited edition album was laboriously hand stenciled and coloured. The fan, a souvenir from Rosine, featured multiple scents on the back in divided columns.

Yona sniffs the Rosine fan to see if any perfume scents remain. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Finally, we looked through a wealth of mid-twentieth century designer sketches. When we were invited to browse them at the end of our visit, Harriet and Barbora took on that task. Their exploration of several large boxes found inventive sketches by designers like Balmain and Balenciaga.

Harriet and Barbora find a Balenciaga sketch in FIT Special Collections. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Balmain sketch. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Later that day, we visited the storeroom of the Museum at FIT. While there, we saw clothing from the 1920s to the 1960s, including a brilliantly beaded dress from the roaring 20s, daringly cut dresses from the 30s, and a full Dior ‘look,’ complete with matching floral cocktail dress, heels, head wrap, and shawl.

Dior look in the FIT storeroom. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Later in the week we stopped by the Parsons School of Design and were introduced to the sketches of former students well-known in the twentieth-century American market: Claire McCardell, Mildred Orrick, and Joset Walker. While at Parsons we also saw a luxurious red evening gown by McCardell and publicity albums from Orrick and Walker.

Group at the Parsons Archives flipping through McCardell, Orrick, and Walker sketches. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Our last archive visit was to the Brooklyn Museum where we viewed their collection of playful sketches by Elizabeth Hawes, as well as her publicity albums. Though the museum gave most of their fashion collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, they retain sketches like Hawes’ artfully rendered designs. Hawes’ sketches stand out for their attached fabric swatches and humorous names, like ‘Go Home and Tell Your Mother,’ ‘The Clinging Tina,’ and ‘Chicken Little.’

Sketches by Elizabeth Hawes. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Group looks at sketches and books by Elizabeth Hawes at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to visit each archive. A special thanks to April Calahan at FIT Special Collections, Emma McClendon at the Museum at FIT storeroom, Wendy Scheir at the Parsons Archives, and Lisa Smalls and Deirdre Lawrence at the Brooklyn Museum.

Finding Elizabeth Hawes: Dress, Art & Politics – An Interview with Gavrik Losey

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Elizabeth Hawes advertisement, 1938

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Elizabeth Hawes advertisement, 1938

A few months ago, April Calahan and Karen Trivette of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections in New York contacted me to ask if I would interview Gavrik Losey for their Oral History Project. I was thrilled – I am a great admirer of all things FIT, and its Special Collections department was crucial to my research for The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear & the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York (IB Tauris 2009). Indeed, I used many of the fascinating interviews with people connected with American fashion held there to help me to understand the period and its significance.

Of course the fact that it was Gavrik Losey they had asked me to interview was the real draw. Gavrik’s mother is Elizabeth Hawes – celebrated designer, journalist and political activist, and the opportunity to ask him about his memories of growing up under her influence was not to be missed. His father is of great significance too – theatre and film director Joseph Losey was as politically engaged as Hawes, and so Gavrik’s experiences with his parents would open up a key period in American history.

We met this week at The Courtauld on a hot September day, to film the interview. It was fascinating to hear Gavrik’s memories – ultimately I will write about these in more detail, but I wanted to give you a taste of the touching, funny and evocative stories he had to tell. So here are a few of the many things I learnt about in a discussion that lasted well over an hour and which gave amazing insight into Elizabeth Hawes’ significance and so much more.

Gavrik’s earliest memory of his mother relating to dress is picking up pins off the floor of the workroom at her 59th Street establishment. He also learnt how to press clothes at an early age – his mother’s advice? Only iron the parts of each garment that will be seen … He went on to describe her mix of artistry and pragmatism as a designer and her drive to make clothes that fitted contemporary women’s lives. Her interest in colour theory – the idea that each personality type has an appropriate colour palette – extended into the salon’s interior and even their home. Hawes loved to have walls of different shades to set off the ensembles being shown …

He remembered how his mother loved to drape fabric to create new garments – and travelled everywhere with a little, to-scale mannequin, so she could devise new creations. Oh, and that she made samples to her own size, so that she could wear each new collection once it had been shown …

He also told of her wicked sense of humour – which made itself known in the names she gave her garments, including a dramatic multi-coloured striped gown called ‘Alimony’ – which came with a bag in the shape of male genitalia – Gavrik still has this memento of Hawes’ satirical approach to fashion …

He spoke at length about her relationships with contemporary artists and the influence of art on her work. I was especially interested to hear about the impact of Kandinsky on her use of geometric forms and flashes of colour and varied textures in her designs. Look at examples from the 1930s, for example in the Met’s collection, and this insight will open up your eyes to their meanings, I am sure …

Another aspect of his parents and his own life was the importance of political engagement. Gavrik spoke movingly of the harsh impact of FBI investigations into his parents’ activities and the terrible toll this took on their lives and work. It was heartbreaking to hear how agents turned clients and friends against Hawes, warning them of her left-wing sympathies. These files only became available after her death, so she never knew why New York became such an unwelcoming place for her when she returned in the late 1940s to reopen her business after undertaking union and war work.

I am still processing all the incredible things that Gavrik spoke about – he was incredibly generous with his time and his memories and thoughts about his mother’s life and work. It is wonderful that – once catalogued – his interview will be housed at FIT and available to researchers wanting to understand women, dress and politics, issues as fundamentally entwined within Hawes’ work as they are within our wider culture.

Find out more about FIT’s Special Collections here
And see some of Elizabeth Hawes’ designs here:

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/search?keyword=elizabeth+hawes#archives

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!/search?q=elizabeth%20hawes&sortBy=Relevance&sortOrder=asc&offset=0&perPage=100&pageSize=0

Fashion is Spinach

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 21.12.04I have been thinking a lot about Elizabeth Hawes recently – about her ability to combine politics and fashion and her varied career that encompassed multiple books, as well as her couture and readymade fashion designs. Working in Paris in the 1920s as a sketcher – copying couture design, but also sending information on trends back to America from resorts such as Biarritz, gave her unique insight when she returned to New York the following decade and began designing. Vassar-educated, she brought a sharp eye to all she saw, and developed a keen wit to cope with some of her travails – especially when working within the constraints of department store readymade ranges. What is so compelling about her is the tensions her interests brought to her work – combining socialist ideals with a dress business was not always easy and her writing reflects her exasperation, as well as her inspiration, derived from the fashion industry.

Working, as she did, within a number of fields, she was able to reflect on these experiences in ways that are fascinating to examine now. At the moment, I’m looking at her 1938 book Fashion Is Spinach. If you haven’t read it –then do! It is lively and entertaining, but also a sharp, opinionated critique of the ways women are sold fashion, rather than encouraged to develop longevity through personal style. Throughout, her fascination with fashion and its potential to shape identities remains constant. I’ll write more once I’ve started to develop my research on her, as I want to think further about fashion and politics as themes within her work. For now though, here are a few choice quotations to whet your appetite:

‘I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day. For thousands of years people got along with something called style and maybe, in another thousand, we’ll go back to it.’

‘Some people seem to like it [fashion]. There are a good many people who don’t, but just accept it as inevitable, throwing away perfectly good old clothes and buying new ones every year.’

‘The only useful purpose that changes in fashion can possibly have is to give a little additional gaiety to life.’

‘Chic is a combination of style and fashion. To be really chic, a woman must have a positive style, a positive way of living and acting and looking which is her own.’

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Sources & Images: Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion Is Spinach, New York, 1938

New York Fashion Networks Stitched Together Through Sketch

Documenting Fashion goes to NYC Part 3

Eric de Juan

Eric de Juan fashion sketch embellished with glitter (1967-69). Caption reads: “Oriental silk in multi-hues fashions this gown…its waist and neckline, embroidered in beading that echoes the tones of the dress.” Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

Elizabeth Hawes’ early career as a copyist was defined by sketching. Between 1925-1928 she would attend Paris fashion shows, acting in disguise as a genuine client, but in fact discreetly memorizing and then sketching the ensembles shown. It was through the power of her pen that she used the sketching medium to convey moods and communicate ideas from high fashion in Paris, and then disseminate these to networks of mass-production fashion counterfeiters. Hawes’ story gives a sense of how international fashion networks operated through this humble artistic medium, and was one that I reflected on when visiting archives on our recent study trip to New York.

Sketch from the Burleigh Subscription Company. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

Sketch from the Burleigh Subscription Company. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

During our time in the city we visited three manuscript and library archives:  The Fashion Institute of TechnologyParsons New School of Design and Condé Nast. Visiting these collections bought about the opportunity to see the different types and styles of fashion sketches circulating within New York during the early twentieth century. Seeing the volume of drawings gave me a sense of how this medium held a certain power in parallel to photography, within interconnected fashion design, copying and publicity networks.

FIT

Students viewing sketches in the Manuscript Collection at FIT. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora.

On our visit to the Parsons New School archive we viewed sketches by designers Claire McCardell and Mildred Orrick. The bulk of McCardell’s works from the early 1930’s to the late 50’s were produced for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks, it was her working sketches from this period that particularly fascinated me. The minimal front-facing designs were made up by few lines, on geometric limbless figures, positioned to the left of the page; bar a few quick notes scribbled in the corners, masses of blank space was left on the many sheets. McCardell’s simple colorless designs were completely contrasted with the more commercial sketches we viewed at FIT.

‘Yellow Pants’, Claire McCardell fashion sketch for Townley Frocks, (1951). Image Credit: Parsons New School of Design Archive.

‘Yellow Pants’, Claire McCardell fashion sketch for Townley Frocks, (1951). Image Credit: Parsons New School of Design Archive.

Assisted by April Calahan, whose academic interest is in this area of dress history, we saw examples of other designers’ sketches, including Edward Molyneux’s colorful, detailed fashion plates with risqué titles for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925), plus sketches from the Bergdorf Goodman custom salon collection, showing gowns and millinery from Dior and Balenciaga (1930-1969). Both sets of sketches, intended for client and documentary purposes, were emblematic of contemporary fashion moods that populated the fashion press, evident on our visit to Condé Nast’s archive, in which we viewed sketches artists were commissioned to produce for Vogue magazine. Proving the importance of this modest, yet romantic artistic medium for contemporary fashion networks and the creation of elevated lifestyle brands.

Lucile

Edward Molyneux’s sketch for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925). Caption reads: “♯1 ‘Where the Shannon River Flows’ Black Taffeta with grey and green stripe afternoon gown.” Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora.

Though the medium imbued designers, department stores and the magazines with prestige, sketching was also a quick and discreet way to copy and disseminate designs. This was evident in the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches at FIT, the subscription service, founded in 1948, which disseminated sketched copies of fashions shown at couture shows. Reminiscent of contemporary Pop Art, the drawings were coloured with brightly concentrated acidic gouache washes. The quantities of reproduced sketches were a reflection of popular networks of copying and mass production in New York. I was fascinated with how this contemporary artistic theme crossed into the business of fashion sketching. Seeing how these networks of fashion sketching operated in New York was a fascinating experience that I hope will influence my study of dress history at the Courtauld.

 

Cardinal1

Black Rose ballgown from the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

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Black hooded dress from the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora