Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center

The current exhibition on show at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the MET has been given the title Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Rather than exploring a theme, as Judith Clark has so brilliantly done with Vulgar at the Barbican Centre, the MET’s assistant curator Jessica Regan presents viewers with a mix of fashion with no unifying theme or trend or feature other that the 50 pieces were acquired over the last decade, and that each may be termed a ‘masterwork’.

HOUSE OF WORTH (French, 1858-1956) Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926) BALL GOWN, 1898, haute couture | Light blue silk satin brocaded à la disposition with yellow and ivory silk; embroidered with silver sequins, clear rhinestones, and clear and silver seed beads; trimmed with ivory cotton lace, black silk velvet, and light blue silk mousseline | Brooklyn, Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965 (2009.306. 1324a, b)

A decade since the MET’s last acquisitions show, blog.mode: addressing fashion, in 2007, Masterworks marks a shift in the collecting strategy of the museum when it comes to fashion. The phrase ‘Unpacking Fashion’ speaks to this. The set of the exhibition is formed from crates, suggestive of the archives in which the garments are stored to best preserve them, from which they are then unpacked for display. But the term also refers to the academic practice of unpacking an idea, a point, a proposition in order to understand its significance. Why is a sculptural, slashed tulle gown by Viktor and Rolf worthy of being exhibited in a museum? What makes it seminal, important, a masterwork?

The dress in question is not part of everyday dress trends seen on women walking down the street; it was not mass produced, indeed it was worn by only a handful of people. It may not warrant a significant space in an encyclopaedia of Western fashion, but the challenging design and painstaking skill of its construction make it worthy of celebration. No one else, quite simply, has made anything like it.

VIKTOR & ROLF (Dutch, founded 1993) Viktor Hosting (Dutch, born 1969) Rolf Snoren (Dutch, born 1969) BALL GOWN, spring/summer 2010 | Blue polyester tulle, and black silk-synthetic moiré embroidered with white plastic sequins | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2011 (2011.8)

The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery is organised chronologically, with each garment accompanied by an in-depth explanation, or rationalisation, of its presence in the exhibition. Designers represented range from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. The design advances of new names – Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – and less widely known – Noritaka Tatehana, maker of the extraordinary heel-less shoes favoured by Daphne Guinness – are acknowledged.

Left: MADELEINE VIONNET (French, 1876-1975) EVENING DRESS, 1929, haute couture | Dress: pink silk tulle, embroidered with pink rayon floss; slip: pink silk gauze and crepe de chine | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.248a, b)  Right: JOHN GALLIANO (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) EVENING DRESS, spring/summer 1999 | Peach nylon lace | Gift of John Galliano, 2000 (2000.168)

HOUSE OF BALENCIAGA (French, founded 1937) Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895-1972) DRESS, 1967, haute couture | Green silk gazar | Gift of Judith Straeten, 2015 (2015.711)

The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the end of the exhibition features ensembles donated by designers on the occasion of the retirement of long-serving curator Harold Koda in January this year. These represent specific masterworks long and especially admired by Koda and include a design, re-made for the occasion, from Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. This stands alongside an intricately embroidered frock coat by Raf Simons for Dior, across from a screen featuring tributes from the great and good of today’s industry.

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) DRESS, 2015; original design: spring/summer 1983, haute couture | Black silk crepe embroidered with pearls, clear rhinestones, and red, green, gold and orange beads | Gift of CHANEL, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.632)

HOUSE OF CHANEL (French, founded 1913) Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) SUIT, spring/summer 2011 Jacket and skirt: navy and cream cotton-acrylic nylon-polyester tweed with ivory nylon net; blouse: ivory rayon twill | Gift of CHANEL, 2013 (2013.157.1a-e, h)

Left: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) ENSEMBLE, autumn/winter 2014-15, haute couture | Coat and waistcoat: black silk faille embroidered with polychrome silk and metal thread, silver plastic sequins, and clear and iridescent glass beads; blouse: black brushed-wool twill; trousers: black wool flannel | Gift of Christian Dior Couture in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.256a-d)  Right: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Christian Dior (French,1905-1957) “MYSTÈRE” COAT, autumn/winter 1947-48 | Black wool melton and dark green silk taffeta | Gift of Irene Stone, in memory of her daughter Mrs. Ethel S. Greene, 1959 (C.I.59.26.2)

The lingering question posited by Masterworks is that age old debate: is fashion art? It is clear what the MET believes. The first work you see as you come down the stairs into the exhibition is an expertly crafted Viktor and Rolf dress which resembles a painting smashed over the head of a mannequin – an attempt, surely, to reinforce the point that each garment should be viewed with the same attitude as that afforded by a Van Gogh upstairs. Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge, has commented on the Costume Institute’s renewed mission ‘to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.’ It is a vow restated by this thoughtful exhibition, with extraordinary skill and innovation displayed and emphasised by curious pairings and dramatic exchanges – no more so than in the vivid red of a John Galliano for Martin Margiela coat in conversation with its 18th century inspiration.

Left: MAISON MARGIELA (French, founded 1988) John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) ENSEMBLE, spring/summer 2015, artisanal | Coat: red brushed wool needle-felted with red silk chiffon trimmed with red rayon velvet; bra top: black nylon net embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold plastic sequins; briefs: black polyester rib-knit embroidered with gold metallic thread, gold plastic sequins, and gold glass bugle beads; shorts: black cotton denim | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Insititute Gifts, 2015 (2015.541a-f)  Right: French COAT, 1787-92 Red wool broadcloth Purchase | Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1992 (1992.65)

ISSEY MIYAKE (Japanese, born 1938) BUSTIER, autumn/winter 1980-81 | Red moulded polyester resin and cellulose nitrate  | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2015.61)

Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 5 February, 2017.

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.

White Dresses, Summer Heat & Fashion Illustration

Georges Lepape, "Les Cerises", 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Lepape, “Les Cerises”, 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Summer is at least attempting to begin here in London – we have intermittent, weak sunshine – so let’s be encouraged by the potential for warmth and look to the new season’s wardrobe.  Scanning editions of the wonderful Gazette du Bon Ton in the History of Dress collection at The Courtauld, I have noticed the continued fascination for white dresses, sometimes trimmed with primary colours, often left blank for maximum impact.  Of course, this makes perfect sense, white reflects the light, giving a cooling effect, but also has an emotional resonance – it looks nonchalant, we can imagine the feel of delicate fabrics against our skin and perceive white clothes to be fresh and airy.  Even though this impression may be difficult to maintain if you do not inhabit the luxurious realm of Gazette’s fashion plates.

A.E. Marty, "Les Jeux de plein air", 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

A.E. Marty, “Les Jeux de plein air”, 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Barbier, "Un peu...", 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Barbier, “Un peu…”, 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Charles Martin, "Et oui voici mon coeur", 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Charles Martin, “Et oui voici mon coeur”, 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Editor Lucien Vogel employed an elite cadre of artists to populate his publication’s pages.  These illustrators understood how to convey dress in detail, while simultaneously conjuring the mood and environment in which it might be worn. The pochoir technique that the journal used for its plates added luxurious depth to the images – as stencils were used to apply form and washes of colour that were applied by hand, allowing gradation in tone and brush strokes (you can see a more current version of the technique here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkXu21_fSGU ).

Pierre Brissaud, "Rentrons", 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Pierre Brissaud, “Rentrons”, 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Lepape, "La Belle Journee", 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Lepape, “La Belle Journee”, 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

7 A.E. Marty

A.E. Marty, “Au Loup”, 1921, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

In its summer editions, Gazette featured illustrations that showed the ways weather, movement, activity and emotion could all be encapsulated in a rectangle of well-designed print on heavy, textured paper.  Here are a few examples for you to enjoy – and perhaps consider as summer fashion inspiration. From Georges Lepape’s 1913 cherry picker, dressed in Paul Poiret, to the minimal lines of tennis dress shown in bleached out heat in Chastel’s 1924/25 image.  This selection shows fashion illustration’s importance as a medium, and conveys the enduring appeal of the white summer dress …

Benito, "A Las Baleares", 1921, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Benito, “A Las Baleares”, 1921, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Chastel, "Sur La Terrasse", 1924, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Chastel, “Sur La Terrasse”, 1924, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Dissertation Discussion: Aude

What is your title?

Spectacular bodies: Paul Poiret and the display of Haute Couture (still working on it).

What prompted you to choose this subject?

I was struck by the ‘grand narratives’ that seemed to be applied to Paul Poiret’s work and life – his rise to stardom in the 1910s as the ‘king of fashion’, or as he was characterized at times Poiret ‘The Modernist,’ and his downfall in the postwar years as the couturier who would (ironically) ‘reject’ modernism. My work is an attempt at nuancing some of the assumptions that surround the couturier, notably in the years following the First World War, by looking at his involvement in the costuming of music-halls, his use of actresses in advertisements, and the relationships of power between these performers, their audience, the couture clientele and the (bourgeois) couturier.

Most inspiring research find so far?

Poiret’s acting role in Colette’s La Vagabonde (alongside Colette herself) shown at the Théâtre de l’Avenue in 1927. The fact that La Vagabonde has a sort of redemptive tone in its attempt to legitimize the hard-working actresses of the music-halls is particularly interesting in light of Poiret’s own difficulties in combining the sort of excess his persona and clothing were seen to produce and the bourgeois values of the Third Republic.

Favourite place to work?

I spent three days in Paris in the various buildings of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for research on Poiret. The Richelieu site was a highlight, and I have to admit that consulting microfilms there made me feel that bit more professional.

The 1923 February cover of Les Modes with Mistinguett as its cover star. The gown is misattributed to Paul Poiret (the magazine apologizes in the next issue)

The 1923 February cover of Les Modes with Mistinguett as its cover star. The gown is misattributed to Paul Poiret (the magazine apologizes in the next issue)

 

Paul Poiret, En Habillant l’époque (1930)

1002nd Night photograph
Poiret photograph of marbling
Poiret photograph of mannequin

Summary 

Paul Poiret’s memoirs ‘En Habillant l’époque,’ which literally translates as ‘Dressing the Age,’ were written in 1930, almost two decades after the height of his fame. At the end of his manuscript, Poiret wrote that though he continually felt ideas for new dresses germinating ‘under his skin,’ his glory days had passed. Poiret traced his fascination with dress to his childhood family. He dedicated his memoirs to his mother, who he considered supremely elegant, and described how his sisters gave him a forty-centimetre wooden mannequin, which he lovingly draped in silks, in both Parisian and Oriental styles.

Poiret cast himself as an artist-designer, whose vision of femininity radically differed from that of the early 1900s fashion he encountered during his tenure at the couturiers Doucet and Worth. He claimed that he waged war on corsets, which had divided women’s bodies into two distinct peaks, comprising the neck and breasts on one side, and the hips and buttocks on the other. However, he recalled how his more holistic outfits, with their narrow hobble skirts, made women cry, gnash their teeth, and complain that they could not walk, or get in and out of a car easily. Overall, however, Poiret regarded his relationship with women as mutually beneficial. He likened the women he dressed to orbiting planets, who relied upon ‘his sun’ to shine; but simultaneously considered that his favourite mannequin Paulette, a ‘vaporous’ blonde, with the cylindrical shape of a cigarette, was a true collaborator, because she brought his designs to life.

Response 

Poiret considered that his primary innovation in fashion was relinquishing the etherealized palette of rose, lilac, powder-blue, maize-yellow and white that had dominated French women’s clothing from the eighteenth century, in favour of opaque, Fauvist tones, including royal blue, strong greens, reds and violets and acidic orange and lemon hues that made women’s silhouettes ‘sing.’ Poiret’s incorporation of these bold hues, alongside Orientalising components, such as the Minaret ensemble of 1911, which featured turbans and hip-skimming lampshade tunics, alongside harem pants, introduced an expressive, if still decorative, vision of womanhood. Rather than blending into the background in pastel tones, the women he dressed would stand out for their exoticism. A photo-plate from Poiret’s Arabian Nights-themed party, the 1002nd Night, of 1911, shows non-Western attitudes to the body, as guests of both sexes in turbans, belted kaftans and variations upon the Minaret outfit, crouch or sit cross-legged upon a Persian rug. Extravagant feathers, which emerge from the guests’ turbans, contribute a festive and frivolous air to proceedings.

Still, the photograph’s grainy, cinematic greyscale imbues the image with a nostalgic air. One gets the impression that the colour and vibrancy of the original party resonated with memories of a vanished world. Interestingly, Poiret wrote that after his experimentation in the early 1910s, colours in fashion became ‘anemic and neurasthenic’ once more. Poiret’s memoirs, with their slate-blue leather skin, blue-marbled inside cover, and black and white photographic inserts, did not only reflect the colouristic limitations of publishing in 1930, but express their distance from the Orientalism that made the author’s reputation.

poiret cover