Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram

One of the many marvellous things about research is that you don’t just find out what you wanted to know, you discover what you didn’t know you needed to know. So when I embarked on reading for an article I was writing on pockets for Cos I rediscovered the wonders of Bernard Rudofsky’s 1947 book on the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ As well as discussion of the efficacy of clothes historically and globally, the author reflects on what he deems to be good and bad examples of current attire – Claire McCardell scores well for clever design combined with utility, expressing clean, modern ideals, while others fare less well …

Amongst the many treasures to be found in the book, my favourite is the series of plates representing what Rudofsky claimed was the degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothes.  These are not fashion illustrations, but rather diagrams that are a brilliant and very modernist, rational view of menswear at the time. In each, the futile excess of 1940s tailoring is expressed in colourful, reduced plans of the relationship between a specific aspect of dress and the wearer’s body.

In one we see an outline of a man, his attitude clearly indicated by his upturned nose. Although we are given nothing more than his silhouette, the surface of his body is covered with bright dots each indicating one of the 70 or so buttons he carries ‘needlessly’ on his body each day.  Rendered in rainbow hues to denote which garment these belong to – from ‘drawers’ to overcoat and gloves – the image, along with Rudofsky’s clearly exasperated tone, give the impression that men positively rattled with superfluous buttons, when, as is pointed out, a few well placed zips could replace all this unnecessary detail.

A similar diagram shows that two dozen pockets are also at play in the same space.  These are again shown as bright, geometrical forms clustered across the figure. And let’s not forget ‘The Seven Veils of the Stomach’ – the layers of clothes piled onto a man’s body each morning and shown in a diagram that resembles the cross section of a tree.

In the exhibition the first two diagrams were shown on glass, with an illustration of a fully clothed man behind them, to enable visitors to see how each related to the clothed body. While these are amusing, they highlight the ways dress can evolve way beyond our needs and potentially lead to discomfort for wearers. This includes tailoring, which is so often seen as the more sensible of gendered clothing types.  While they may ignore aesthetic imperatives, what these clear, beautifully designed diagrams do is make us stop and think – about the layers of our clothing, and yes, whether what we carry on our bodies really is modern.

You can download a PDF of the book and read more about MoMA’s 1945 exhibition here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3159

MoMA is revisiting this theme for a forthcoming exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? Find information here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Logo for MOMA’s A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant-Garde (Photo: Dana Moreno)

On Tuesday 6th of December, the second day of our trip, we spent a full day at MoMA on our own. The aim was to soak in MoMA’s art and design galleries related to the period 1920-1960, as well as two temporary displays: One and One is Four: The Bauhaus Photocollages of Josef Albers and A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant-Garde. Visiting these displays brought about the opportunity to see the different artistic movements and ideas from the European and Russian Avant-Garde that were translated into design and fashion during the early twentieth century.

Organized by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Curator of Drawings and Prints, and Hillary Reder, Curatorial Assistant, the latter exhibition brings together the development of one art movement, the Russian avant-garde from 1912-1935, for the first time at The Museum of Modern Art, and features 260 works from different disciplines including paintings, sculptures, posters, illustrated books, magazines, film, theatre set and costume design, drawings, prints, and objects. All pulled from the Museum’s Russian avant-garde art collection, the most extensive outside Russia, the exhibit provides a brief but intense analysis of the movement’s range of styles, media and social functions.

Wall display with works of Kazimir Malevich, 1916-1918. (Photo: Dana Moreno)

The exhibition, open a few months prior the hundred year anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, depicts the developments of early Suprematism and Constructivism, as well as avant-garde photography, design and film, by Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lyubov Popova, Alexandr Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova and Dziga Vertov, among others.

The first part of this exhibition illustrates the absorption of French modernism in works by Kandinsky and especially Rozanova and Lyubov Popova. With the birth of the artistic movement in 1919, Parisian styles were carefully studied (like works by Picasso and Matisse), which, along with the ideal of a total re-organisation of life and a new form of artistic expression available to the masses, gave life to a number of abstract paintings, design and fashion by making use of fundamental geometric shapes like squares, rectangles, circles, crosses and triangles in a limited range of colours.

El Lissitzky, The New and Globetrotter. Figurines for the opera Victory Over the Sun by A. Kruchenykh, 1920-1921. (Photo: Dana Moreno)

This provides us with a powerful visual introduction to next term’s special option, Documenting Fashion 1920 – 1960; from the social context of Europe and its relationships with Russia to reciprocal influences in art, film, design and fashion. On the latter, constructivists preferred simple geometric shapes and complementing basic colours in their avant-garde designs. Some of the artists worked in textile factories,  later on becoming actively involved in other processes of textile and fashion production and design. With their way of working with materials in such an abstract manner, their aim was to design garments that could be a reflection of practicality and their vision of art.

Vladimir & Georgii Stenberg, Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (The Man with the Movie Camera), 1929, Lithograph. (Photo: Dana Moreno)

Russian constructivism had an immense influence on fashion, a point not only clear in collections of the 1920s and 1930s, but also in later decades. The work of Russian constructivists, along with other international artists, helped establish ideas central to ready-to-wear fashion and mass production, as well as characterizing the previous idea of modern sportswear. Constructivism would also be influential in pieces like the Pierre Cardin’s space-age paper dresses from 1960, which were inspired by art of the early 1920s and were seen as progressive clothing indicative of a utopian society of the future.

A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant-Garde is on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until March 12.

Kara Walker

By Aric Reviere

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, MoMA, 1994.

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Paper, Overall 13 x 50′ (396.2 x 1524 cm). Gift of the Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josee Kravis. Photo from http://www.moma.org/collection/works/110565?locale=en.

I wanted to begin my series of contributions to this blog with a bit of reflection upon my undergraduate work and a brief exploration of some of the fundamental intellectual questions I hope to pose in the year to come. In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.

Walking into the first temporary exhibition hall at MoMA this past June, I was struck by this Walker work, which the curators installed on a gigantic stretch of wall. To say the work dominated the incredibly spacious gallery would be an understatement, but in typical 21st century fashion, a stream of visitors from all over the world merely glanced at the piece, posed for a snapchat to demonstrate their level of cultured privilege, and ultimately made their way into the adjacent chambers in search of MoMA’s treasure trove of modernist masterpieces. For me, however, the work presented an opportunity to view in person for the first time the palpable power of Walker’s aesthetic. The apparent paradox of a contemporary African American artist creating work almost exclusively in the antiquated Victorian tradition of silhouettes initially drew me to the work of Walker as a young Art History student at Davidson College. As a reductive art form, specifically in the sense of portraying a visual landscape through only the juxtaposition of black against white, the silhouette–at least in my humble opinion–possesses a highly racialized history. In other words, despite how the art form renders a figure as a black object in contrast to a stark white background, that figure almost exclusively in the history of the silhouette is presumed to be white. Further visual cues, such as dress and the physiognomy of a figure, convey the race, gender, and social status of the object of the artist’s gaze. Walker, however, transforms the genre into a visual platform of subversive alternative histories, clearly denoting through the physiognomy and dress (or lack there of) the diametric black versus white paradigm. This work specifically portrays a series of distinct vignettes in a larger collective story, but ultimately the delineation between the white, well dressed bodies of the figures in the far left section contrasts starkly with the rampant nudity and sexuality of the black bodies portrayed throughout the work with often hyper-exaggerated physical features including a gigantic penis and the stereotypical coon based imagery of over large feet.

Ultimately, Walker’s work represents a starting point for many of the issues I explored in my undergraduate thesis, a reaction to Paul Gilroy’s theory of the Black Atlantic. As I look forward to the work I will conduct this year, however, issues of racism, power, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of my academic work because in many ways these have each impacted my life in distinct fashion. Given my immense level of privilege as a white, American male from an upper middle class background, viewing the way the white, European Imperial/Colonial apparatus visually defines blackness in opposition to glorified constructs of purified and superior white identities speaks more profoundly to the perversion and exploitative nature of white patriarchal hegemony than it is representative of true black identities. For me, questions like how does European femininity in the 1920s re-appropriate primitivism and the sexuality of the black body to facilitate its own liberation from Victorian domesticity are central to understanding how European modernism, feminism, etc. emerged. The intersectionality of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and (perhaps most relevant for this course) the history of dress all speak to the way certain power structures legitimize and perpetuate certain identities. That is what fascinates me and Walker’s discursive work subverts such a vehicle of hegemonic identity propagation to truly question how we perceive our world and its history.

MA Study Trip to New York City: High Fashion in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Revue Blanche

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

Toulouse Lautrec 02

Detail of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

Our MA New York City study trip fortunately coincided with ‘The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters’ exhibition currently on view at the MoMA. As the name suggests, an amalgam of images capturing bustling fin-de-siècle Parisian culture through Lautrec’s lens are arranged thematically for visitors to enjoy. From nightlife culture in dance halls and pubs, to female performers and prostitutes, the exhibition highlights Lautrec’s diverse portfolio. Lautrec’s representations of subjects and venues that fall short of respectability signal his repudiation of his aristocratic roots and the snobbery that characterized high-class culture. Plagued with a genetically generated illness that resulted in severely stunted growth and reliance on a cane to walk, Lautrec’s abnormal appearance perhaps contributed to his artistic affinity to more obscure subjects such as bohemians, prostitutes and criminals.

While the exhibition underscores the democratic nature of Lautrec’s art, a perusal of several of his posters led me to think otherwise. In particular, his images of women in lavish dress connote an air of exclusivity. For example, La Revue Blanche is a poster that features a woman wearing an ornate dress paired with ample accessories. Her long-sleeved dress is decorated with a sea of orange polka dots that stand out from the garment’s deep midnight blue hue. Its exaggerated puffed sleeves culminate at the woman’s elbows, becoming tight around her forearms and wrists. Matching light grey fur pieces wrap around her left hand and envelop her neck and shoulders. The fur accessories are embellished with red designs that are sea-creature-like in shape. Intricate swirls of dark and light green feathers dramatically emanate from the round hat that secures a translucent, but dotted, veil covering her ivory complexion. The variety of colours, embellishments, textures and volumes of the woman’s dress convey an opulent sense of style, diluting the sense of ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ characterizing Lautrec’s oeuvre. The woman’s stern facial features further create a barrier between her and viewers. Her pursed lips and slightly furrowed eyebrows form a surly and unwelcoming expression.

In addition to the woman’s elevated fashion, the poster’s stylistic affinity to high fashion illustrations contributed to my perception of its prestige. Despite the historical time difference, I detected several parallels between La Revue Blanche and early 20th century illustrations featured in high-class magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The isolated woman positioned against a blank backdrop, seemingly unaware of onlookers in the midst of walking or moving, is a standard compositional framework of high fashion illustrations. Moreover, the inaccurate rendering of details and imprecise brushwork are stylistic trademarks of illustrations that convey a sense of dynamism and capture a passing moment. The uneven application of jagged dots on the woman’s dress, the patchy colour gradations and undelineated contours in Lautrec’s poster reflect this loose style.

Despite the chronological implausibility of Lautrec’s connection to early 20th century high fashion illustrations, the woman’s dress and features still convey an air of sophistication and elegance that belies the bohemian thrust of his art.