Dissertation Discussion: Barbora

My three bibles for the past few months: D.V. by Diana Vreeland, Allure by Diana Vreeland and Memos: The Vogue Years edited by Alexander Vreeland

What is your title?

“Fake It!” Examining the myths and realities in the life and work of Diana Vreeland.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

Ever since I’ve watched The Eye Has To Travel for the first time, I was fascinated by Diana Vreeland and the way she shaped the industry almost singlehandedly. Her stories, too, are quite something: Vreeland, her sister and nanny were the last people to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen in 1911; Charles Lindbergh flew over her garden on his first trans-Atlantic flight; she almost took down the British monarchy when Wallis Simpson came to her lingerie store to order some special garments for her first weekend away with the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward; and she attended Hitler’s birthday party in the early ’30s, sending a postcard to her son afterwards with the note “Watch this man.” Apparently so, anyway. I wanted to find out more about what prompted her to create such an extreme background for herself, the reason behind all the myth and fantasy which surrounded her, the obsession with “faking it” and everything else about her, really. Actually, I think I fancied the role of a detective for a few months, attempting to untangle what really went on in her head and her life.

‘Vogue’ December 1, 1965 Cover | Wilhelmina Cooper by Irving Penn | Diamond cage deisgned by Harry Winston (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

‘Vogue’ July 1, 1969 | Veruschka by Irving Penn (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Most interesting research find thus far?

I was lucky enough to go to New York to visit the Diana Vreeland Papers Archive at the New York Public Library. Flicking through the original pages of her teenage diary, handling her passport and birth certificate (the date of her birth is no longer a mystery!) and finding out what she was up to on a day-to-day basis through the Smythson leather diaries she kept between 1950 and 1985 was quite amazing. There are some peculiar entries where Vreeland notes when she is due to start her pills – once green, then yellow, then pink. Very intriguing. Sadly, I only had two days in New York and so could only go through four boxes out of the sixty-something the library has. Might have to go on another trip soon! I think about a month should do it, mainly because Vreeland’s handwriting makes it quite a challenge to decode what she was actually trying to write down. Oh, and one more thing: the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue online archives are very dangerous if you don’t have much time – they suck you in!

‘Vogue’ April 15, 1969 | Bert Stern (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Favourite place to work?

I got into a very bad habit of working from my bed. So most of the time I can be found there, surrounded by mounds of paper, pastel-coloured highlighters and books. If I manage to persuade myself to face the outside world, I head to Starbucks (but only one that has comfortable armchairs or sofas!), and have a huge mug of soy matcha latte. I fear to look at my bank statement and find out how much I spent at Starbucks in the past couple of months. And there’s still time to go… Strangely, I find libraries quite distracting, but in Starbucks I get the work done.

Starbucks should probably have its mention in my acknowledgements as the place which provided constant fuel for all the writing.

What my bed looks like most of the time now. Also, pastel-coloured highlighters are a must, as is colour-coding!

The Met Gala – A Forgotten History

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.

The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.

Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile.  For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the Looking Glass," which translates into Chinese as "Moon in the Water," suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator's created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer - a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. "When 'Moon in the Water,' is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy." Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” which translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator’s created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer – a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. “When ‘Moon in the Water,’ is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy.” Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

A porcelain- inspired couture gown included in "China Through the Looking Glass". Image: Carolina Reyes

A blue-and-white porcelain- inspired couture gown included in “China Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibition pointed out that the story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchannge between the East and the West. It was originally developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. However, because of its popularity potters in the Netherlands, Germany and England began to produce their own imitations with a particular willow pattern, causing Chinese craftsmen to begin producing their own hand-painted versions of the willow pattern. Image: Carolina Reyes

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache.

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Image: Carolina Reyes

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the "Party of the Year" now known as the Met Gala.

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the “Party of the Year” now known as the Met Gala.

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the MET

De RIBES 1

Jacqueline de Ribes by Richard Avedon; de Ribes as ‘The Last Queen of Paris’ in Vanity Fair; and the designer adjusting her logo.

Showcasing 60 or so ensembles from Countess Jacqueline de Ribes’ wardrobe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style visually traces the life of de Ribes, a Parisian-born aristocrat whose sense of style and unconventional approach to dress had captivated the (high) society of her day. Now 87 and living in Paris, most of the gowns on display stem from the Countess’s personal archive and span the early 1960s to the present. These are arranged in a series of tableaux from daywear, eveningwear (the bulk of clothing on display), her own designs, to the exotic costumes she devised for dramatic entrances at masked balls. A devoted client and friend of the couturiers of her time, de Ribes was renowned for asking for specific modifications on the couture gowns she ordered, making her own adjustments, combining ‘high and low’ (although ‘low’ seems an ill-suited term for the ready-to-wear de Ribes purchased), and finally launching her own design business in the early 1980s.

Despite the constraints of an aristocratic milieu in which women’s accomplishments were limited to figuring in ‘Best dressed lists’ – something de Ribes mastered early on, entering Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed list in 1956 – the Countess found in fashion a way of channeling her independence and creativity, which would culminate in the launch of her own brand ‘Jacquelines de Ribes’ in 1982.  Yves Saint Laurent had encouraged her to re-consider: ‘He told me I would suffer too much.’ Her husband reluctantly consented, yet resisted risking his own money in the venture. If de Ribes had stood as ‘a muse to haute couture designers,’ she exceeded that role on many levels. It is a point that the exhibition seeks to make, emphasizing her unique sense of style, her role as designer, and her different endeavors in theater, television, interior decorating, and charity events.

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Yet for all its attempts to convey a more complex portrait of de Ribes, the exhibition falls back at times onto the long-worn tropes that precisely reduce women to the passive role of muse. Introducing her through the lens and pen of Richard Avedon and Truman Capote as one of the ‘swans’ of ‘impeccable elegance,’ the opening panel fails to clearly frame the issues at stake. There is a certain blurriness between her historical characterization and the discourse through which she is ‘advertised’ to the exhibition viewers: the panel notes her ‘precocious sophistication,’ ‘aura of exoticism,’ and ‘innate and self-taught talents,’ seemingly conflating at times her sense of style with an idealized (elite) femininity, and therefore playing to the allure that such discourses arguably retain today. Dramatic lighting effects and a classical music score only further obscure (quite literally) the exhibition’s critical engagement with the material on view. Put forward as a sort of conclusion, quotes from de Ribes that thrive on the classic fashion-elegance-style triumvirate stand as a final blow to a well-intended goal.

It is regrettable that exhibition does not attempt to unpick the loaded implications of de Ribes’ characterizations at the time, but rather ambiguously draws on them. This is despite the exhibition’s focus on de Ribes as a designer, and as a ‘wearer’  – someone who retains agency in asserting a personal identity through fashion, momentarily alleviating the weight of social prescriptions. As Elizabeth Grosz has noted ‘the past contains the resources to much more than the present.’ By addressing that past less obliquely, the Jacqueline de Ribes exhibition could have done more than thrust us back into a time capsule of glamour.

 

Sources:

http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2015/jacqueline-de-ribes

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/haute-ticket-jacqueline-de-ribes-at-the-met

Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Histories of a Feminist Future
,’ Signs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Feminisms at a Millennium (Summer, 2000), p. 1019.

Tags: exhibition; glamour; couture; style; Jacqueline de Ribes; MET