Mod New York: The Styles they are a-Changin’

 

Time seems to be flying by since the MA Documenting Fashion course took our study trip to New York. I remember the trip with fond memories because even after growing up in upstate New York (about 90 minutes from Manhattan) and after living in the city for my undergraduate studies, I felt like I was seeing New York in a new way. While there were many highlights of the trip from visiting various archives and meeting with previous graduates of the MA Documenting Fashion course, the “main event” (in my opinion) was the Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. It pains me to say that it was my first time visiting the museum, but after going to the exhibition curated by Phyllis Magidson, I know it will surely not be my last.

I was so impressed with the exhibition for primarily three reasons. Firstly, it was a comprehensive survey of the different emerging fashion styles in the 1960’s in New York. The physical space of the exhibition was rather small (only occupied a room and small hallway) and used multicolored paneling to divide the room into different spaces, which also provided a rather psychedelic optical illusion effect through changing of color depending on the visitor’s spatial position. The exhibition situated New York fashion in the 1960’s as a reflection of the socio-political climate. The diversity in fashion styles reflect a fluidity of beliefs, and the idea of clothing signifying perhaps an individual’s political beliefs vis-a-vis a collective style of dress. Secondly, I admired the exhibition’s aim to be inclusive of a diverse range of styles of marginalized groups of people. It was not simply a showcasing of upper-class white style and dress, but one that acknowledges that 1960’s fashion is not exclusively emerging from the pages of European high fashion magazines and couturiers, but it’s also coming from the street. Fashion undergoes a synthesis, and in a way, it was more inclusive than it ever was before in the 1960s. Lastly, I was impressed by the exhibition’s attention to detail—not only in terms of the types of objects it displayed such as: accessories, undergarments and women’s fashion magazine and news articles of the time, but also attention to visitor experience. The exhibition was not only a visual exploration into New York style in the 1960’s, but a sonic one as well. In reality the exhibition would take about 20 minutes to walk through, however, with the decision to add a curated playlist to the exhibition experience featuring the musical stylings of Dusty Springfield, Marvin Gaye to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, you cannot help but want to peruse the exhibition again just to hear what might play next.

Jumpsuit of leather and ribbed wool knit, c.1963, Bonnie Cashin

Grandassa Model Pat Bardonelle at the Garvey Day Parade in 1967, shot by Kwame Braithwaite

While I was completely breath-taken by the garments on display from Emilio Pucci to Bonnie Cashin (all of which come from the Museum’s collection!), I was charmed by the other senior visitors of the exhibition. As I was writing notes, I couldn’t help but overhear the endearing conversations of older couples enjoying the garments in display, not just for aesthetic reasons, but enjoying the garments as symbol of their own personal memory. I overheard one woman saying to her friend, “It doesn’t seem so long ago, (I guess) it’s all perspective.” After I heard that, I stopped looking at the exhibition through a purely academic lens, but a personal one. I began to imagine my older family members who experienced and lived through this time in New York, and I was reminded by my aunts and mother talking about the craze of hot pants and afro-puffs and how good they used to look “back in the day” while living in the South Bronx. Fashion, in the exhibition, takes a trip through 1960’s through themes of nostalgia, politics, popular culture, while ultimately landing on the theme of  collective resilience in the face of adversity, an idea that continues to carry salience today.

By Destinee Forbes

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Dress Archive at the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York archive is an absolute treasure-trove of old clothes. Unlike the majority of other archives we have visited as a group, both in New York and London, the clothes are not wrapped in tissue or stored in boxes, but rather are hung, as if in a shop, on rails. The whole experience of being inside the archive is, thus, one of visceral, fashion-loving pleasure. All of us had to constantly fight the urge to reach out and touch everything.

We were taken through the archive by Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the museum. She showed us dresses ranging in date from the early 1920s to the 1960s. The glittering 1920s party dresses and gowns for costume balls and the brightly coloured, heavily tasseled ‘60s dresses were amazing, but what was most memorable, and indeed most pertinent to recent discussions on our course, were the late 1930s and early ‘40s WWII uniforms.

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum has a large collection of Vera Maxwell garments, including jumpsuits designed for women workers in the factories in 1942. Before creating the jumpsuit, which is both fire retardant and oil repellent, Maxwell conducted a survey of women to find out what they most wanted from their uniforms. Besides the obvious, highly functional elements, these women also requested a neckline that would prevent men from putting ice down their backs – indeed the jumpsuit is perfectly ice-proof too! However, Maxwell was keenly aware of the aesthetic elements too. Very careful attention to detail is paid in the design, such as the shape of the pockets and top stitched pleats in the front, which ensured that the fit was as flattering as possible. It is not only highly functional and utilitarian, but also a carefully made, designer garment, and Maxwell received a government award as a result.

The collection includes both her winter and summer jumpsuits. War restrictions limited the types of fabric available to designers and manufacturers, and extraneous decoration was largely prohibited, so Maxwell used elements such as pleats and darts to make her jumpsuits attractive. The summer jumpsuit is short sleeved and made of a lighter material, with red piping down the side. Again, Maxwell has used a series of pleats down the front of the garment to give it aesthetic appeal and make it flattering on the body.

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

In her other designs, she found imaginative ways to decorate. She traveled to South America, particularly Peru, and imported ornamental ribbons and braids that she used to adorn her garments. She worked hard to ensure that her clothes did not feel as though they were lacking anything. She wanted the wearers to not feel at all deprived, an aim that resonated with the fashion media of the time. Despite the shortages caused by war, the message perpetuated by magazines and films was that there was no deprivation. People used garments such as aprons to spruce up their outfits, and became imaginative, using natural objects like seashells in their jewellery. The prospect of wearing a uniform had an appeal in itself, and magazines ran articles about how to look good in military clothing. Many women who volunteered for service chose which in area to do so based on the attractiveness of the uniform. Vera Maxwell understood this basic, universal desire to look good, and channeled it in the design of her jumpsuits.  The aesthetic qualities she incorporated, as well as the highly functional elements, both contributed to her success as a wartime designer.

Sources:

Pat Kirkham, ‘Keeping Up Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain,’ in   Atkins, Jacqueline M. ed., Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-45 (New Haven and London: BGC/Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 205-228