On our recent study trip to New York, one of our first visits was to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Associate Curator at the Museum at FIT and former MA Documenting Fashion student, Emma McClendon showed us some highlights from the storeroom. We saw a range of items including everything from a decadent velvet evening coat from 1923 to a three-piece Chanel suit from 1965. One item that particularly caught my eye was a pair of black suede platform sandals. Emma asked us what year we thought they were from, and our guess was sometime in the 1970s, but it turned out the shoes were actually from 1949. High-heeled platform shoes are often associated with the 70s because of the rise of second-hand dressing.
The platform shoe rose to prominence in modern western fashion in the 1930s. The wedge heel had been a popular style in the 30’s, but in the second half of the decade the separation of the toe and heel sections created the trend of the platform shoe, which lasted well into the 1940s. Salvatore Ferragamo is credited with popularizing the style in the late 1930’s with shoes like his famous rainbow platforms. These early examples show the elevation of heel over the toes, which would become increasingly pronounced throughout the 1940s. In the example we were shown at FIT both the platform and the heel have been raised a considerable amount, and the difference between the platform and heel heights is more pronounced. By viewing both films and photographs from the 1940s the prevalence of the high-heeled platform shoe is obvious, but it has perhaps gained an even more immediate association with the 1970s.
In the 1970s there was an increased interest in second-hand dressing. Where in earlier decades buying clothes from a thrift shop was seen as something shameful, in the 1970s it became trendy. The ‘youthquake’ of the 1960s unleashed the trendsetting power of young people, especially teenagers. In the 1960s and 70s shopping for second hand clothes became popular within youth culture. Young girls began to buy the platform sandals that were popular in the 1940s, and restyle them to their own tastes. The popularization of vintage clothing led to our misidentification of the platform shoes as something created in the 1970s. The trend of shopping for vintage clothing has continued and even grown throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Old styles regain popularity and maintain a place in the public imagination through this practice. The platform shoe is once again a stylish and desired item today, because there has been a resurgence of popularity for 70s styles. The cyclical popularity of the platform lends credence to the saying that everything old becomes new again.
The MA Documenting Fashion crew took New York City by storm last week! Stay tuned for posts about what we saw and did on our fabulous study-trip-extravaganza.
Our first visit was with April Calahan at FIT’s Special Collections department. April kindly showed us several boxes full of fashion illustrations, photographs and designs from the Twentieth Century, including the second issue of US Vogue and early designs from Chanel, Bonnie Cashin and Rudi Gernreich.
Among the treasures presented to us there was a folder containing late 1920s or 30s coloured sketches for designs made by Madame Margé, which was donated to the museum in 1957. There has been very little research done about Margé. She was born as Marguerite Norlin in 1978 in Philadelphia, and later Francophiled her name as was often the case for designers in the earlier Twentieth Century. Paris was then seen as the fashion central, but throughout the decades Margé was working it gradually shifted to include America. In New York and Chicago she owned fashion firms, selling the latest designs throughout the interwar period.
The folder at FIT contained colour-washed fashion illustrations, alongside large swatches of fabric which covered the entire page next to each design. Underneath the designs were the name and number for each piece. It is unclear whether it was Margé herself who drew these, however they are highly effective for us appreciating the clothes because of their use of colour. Rich pastel tones are used to convey the notion of what it would be like to wear such beautiful items. The drawings also show how the clothes would have looked like from behind.
The most interesting aspect of these pages was the presence of generous fabric swatches beside the drawings instead of the tiny squares of fabric customarily included with sketches. These were added so that the customer could get a real feel for the design before buying it. The size of the swatches demonstrates how important fabric was for Margé. For example, ‘Cherie,’ design number 63, includes a highly tactile piece of sheer silk chiffon floral fabric, slightly larger than an A4 paper size. The swatch includes further three-dimensional aspects of the design such as pleats, folds and drapes, and a light tortoise binding.
Although stuck onto a flat page, the contents of this folder reveal intrinsic details to the designs, and offer an alternative experience of the finished products.
Museum at FIT website with image from the Comme des Garçons, Spring 2015 runway show
Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, 76.125.1
Detail of “Little Horses” dress
I first met Colleen Hill, associate curator at The Museum at FIT during a visit to the museum archive to research garments by Emmanuelle Khanh in 2008. We bonded over our love of 1960s fashion and French culture. I met Ariele Elia, assistant curator, in 2011 at an exhibition opening—she was dressed as an 1890s tennis player and I went in 1860s croquet wear. And on 13th January the three of us caught up over coffee on 7th Avenue.
What were your reasons for choosing this career path?
CH: I’ve loved fashion, museums, and writing for as long as I can remember. I can’t imagine a job better suited to my interests.
AE: From a young age I was exposed to the inner workings of the fashion industry. My mother started off as a fashion designer, but ended up owning a series of women’s apparel boutiques. While working in her stores I enjoyed learning about the business side of fashion, but was more fascinated with the creative process of the designers. In college I majored in Art History, and almost went on to pursue an M.A. in that field, until I realised Fashion History existed. However, this was not a viable career option in California. So I moved to New York to continue my studies and could not be happier about that decision.
Your current project?
CH: I’m opening an exhibition in February 2016 called Fairy Tale Fashion. It will use both historical and contemporary garments to illustrate more than twelve fairy tales, including well-known stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” In addition to offering a brief history of the fairy tales and their significance, the show will highlight their direct references to fashion.
AE: Currently I am co-curating an exhibition titled Global Fashion Capitals, set to open in June 2015. The first half of the exhibition looks at dynamics that allowed Paris, New York, London, and Milan to become established as global powers in fashion. While the second half of the exhibition explores emerging cities that attempt to rise as new fashion capitals, including Istanbul, São Paulo, Seoul, Mumbai, and Shanghai.
Your current object of fascination in the collection?
CH: I’m currently researching a hooded, red cape from the eighteenth century.
AE: I am fascinated with Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress from 1921. While researching for Faking It, I had found a few versions of this dress that I had assumed were unauthorised copies, including the one in our collection. Recently I had discovered that Eva BOEX, a French atelier was authorised to create copies of the dress. The description of her version is very close to the one in our collection, so I am hoping to find a sketch to confirm my findings.
Can you discuss your curatorial vision? What do you enjoy most about curating? What aspect do you find most challenging?
CH: I’ve organised numerous exhibitions in the Fashion History Gallery at The Museum at FIT, which are intended to be straightforward, educational, and, of course, historical. Within those parameters, I tend to select topics that are subtly provocative. For example, I’ve curated exhibitions about the role of women in the fashion industry, gender and fashion, sustainable fashion, and lingerie. I aim to put together shows that are accessible and entertaining, but also intelligent.
I find nearly every aspect of curatorial work to be enjoyable, but identifying a small but crucial bit of research is especially rewarding.
Like most curators, I would imagine, one of the most challenging aspects of my work is meeting short deadlines.
AE: I have curated a few exhibitions in the museum’s Fashion and Textile History Gallery. I love to investigate interdisciplinary topics within fashion such as fashion and technology and fashion law.
The aspect I enjoy most about curating is studying an object. It is incredible what a garment can tell you by just observing it.
One aspect that I am constantly working to improve is editing. There is so much information a curator would like to tell their public; however a curator must synthesise the content into a digestible form. I don’t want to overwhelm someone visiting the museum for the first time, but I also want to maintain an academic standard to a fashion historian. It’s a difficult balance!
Can you name an exhibition that marked you?
CH: My earliest museum memory is going to see Colleen Moore’s fairy castle at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It’s essentially a massive, meticulously constructed doll’s house. I was completely fascinated by its beauty and intricacy, and also the way it was presented—with only one part of the castle lit at a time, allowing the visitor to focus on its details. I’m obviously still interested in fairy-tale worlds!
AE: Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion (2007) was the first fashion exhibition I had seen. I was in awe over the incredible shapes of the garments designed by Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. It was here that I realised there were other people that spoke the same language I did.
Can you discuss a personal fashion memory?
CH: I found a copy of Radical Rags by Joel Lobenthal in my local library when I was ten years old. I became completely obsessed with it. The book affected the way I dressed, my interest in music, and my future career choice.
AE: I always have fond memories of my mother getting ready for work. She was a huge fan of Donna Karan in the 90s. Her 7 easy piece collection worked perfectly for my mom and her busy schedule. She always looked so elegant in her black wrap skirt, body suit, and large gold belt. I wish I could emulate her style.
Can you discuss an item of clothing or an accessory that you no longer have but still think about?
CH: I purchased a pair of Dr. Martens when I was about 14. They were brown with a subtle cheetah print. Since the shoes were second-hand, they didn’t even fit well, but I wore them with everything.
AE: When I was about 10 I owned a pair of glitter jelly heels. In the heel was an Eiffel Tower that floated in water and glitter like a snow globe. I wish I would have kept them!
If you could be dressed by any past couturier, who would it be?
CH: André Courrèges.
AE: Charles James. I absolutely love the architectural shapes he created! He made the women he dressed look so elegant. I wish I could have his Butterfly dress remade in lavender.
The MA class admiring a beaded dress from the 1920s.
Muslin copy of a 1920s Chanel dress.
On one of our museum visits in New York, we were lucky enough to be shown a selection of objects from the Fashion Institute of Technology Archives. On arrival, we were greeted by an alumnus of our course, Emma McClendon, now an assistant curator at the museum at FIT, with whom we discussed our similar academic and Courtauld experiences, and then our not so academic love of Percy Pigs that we had brought over as a souvenir from the UK.
Her colleague, Liz Wei, then brought us to a study room in which we came face-to-face with the garments, fashions and trends that have graced our books, seminars and imaginations. On a packed, non-descript clothing rail were some of the most beautiful and well-preserved examples of dress from America and Europe ranging from the 1920s to the late 60s. We were shown couture, eveningwear, daywear, sportswear, and everything-in-between-wear from European designers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Paul Poiret. We were also shown examples of ready-to-wear and couture by American designers such as Adrian, Charles James, Phil Macdonald and Claire McCardell.
We were able to get familiar with the objects (without actually touching them) and see the minute details of stitching, beading and construction, and really gain an understanding of the craftsmanship of these beautiful garments. Having discussed these objects in an abstract manner in seminars and readings, we were able to finally see the objects themselves and fully appreciate the properties and themes that encapsulated fashion in the interwar period in a tangible way.
Unlike other fashion archives, FIT also functions as an educational institute, and so has a unique set of muslin copies of select objects. This allows design students to physically interact with garments that would otherwise be too delicate to handle. This allowed us, as dress historians, to grasp an understanding of dressmaking techniques, and see the innovative and diverse methods of construction employed by couture designers, tailors and home dressmakers in these historical garments.
Fortuny tea dress curled up in its storage box.
Detail of pleats on the Fortuny dress.
Despite the feeling of deep reverence for all of the objects introduced to us, for me, there was one standout object. Unlike the other garments hanging on the clothing rail, this garment was curled up inside a square white box. Furled up in a whirl of finely pleated silk, was a stunning, peach-coloured, Mariano Fortuny dress and belt from the 1930s. When the dress was unravelled, the intricate tight pleats sprung forth to reveal the long, elegant sheath and the Venetian glass beads that decorated the seams. The pleating, loose-fit and columnar style of the dress reflected its original intent as a Tea Gown, to be worn without a corset, and on more relaxed social occasions, entertaining at home. This garment encompassed concepts of modernity, machinery and the changing activities of women in the 1930s, despite its classical inspirations. Remarkably, this notion of modernity still survives within the garment today, with the endurance of its tight pleating that would rival Issey Miyake’s authority of the technique. Indeed, the gown is as fresh as a Pleats Please garment available for purchase today. Much like Miyake’s technological textile research, Fortuny experimented with machinery and techniques to create his unique pleating system, a process that is still a mystery to this day. Only a few pieces of archival information on his pleating process remain. This method used a pulley system and included heated ceramic rollers through which the silk was passed to create the tight folds. Though this is still speculative, as Fortuny kept the process a well-guarded secret and it seems never recorded it. Women would have to resend their dresses to Fortuny to be re-pleated, if they had been flattened from sitting, or been dampened.
Detail of the top of the Fortuny dress.
Detail of the bottom of the Fortuny dress.
The technological innovation of Fortuny’s pleating, the modernity of the garment, its classical sources and its relatively intact condition, seem almost anachronistic and belie its era. It was this clash of temporalities, the captivating mystery surrounding Fortuny, and its resonances in contemporary fashion that provoked a visceral response in me.