Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fashion is history.

So if you have not seen the NY Times article on fashion's place in museums then don't bother at this point because I'm about to point out why it has a seriously misled point of view.

It really is pointless to argue that fashion is superficial and it has no place in the academic world because it has arrived, folks, and its not going anywhere. Fashion as history has fought the same battles that any other "alternative" history has fought. And by "alternative" I mean, anything that is not the old, rich white man's version of history. Emerging social histories fought for their relevancy back in the 1960s, and fashion has been fighting the same battle in academia since before the 1990s.

Yes, it is true that fashion exhibitions are popular with the public because fashion as a general subject is popular. But who is to argue against something that brings in revenue for museums that are struggling financially more than ever in this downward trending economy? Also, just because museums and academia are finding a place for costume exhibitions doesn't mean that the public in general understands how fashion can be used to tell the stories of the past. Isn't educating one of the basic missions of a museum? Imagine the surprise for those lucky wanderers of New York's Met or Chicago's Chicago History Museum or L.A.'s Los Angeles County Museum of Art when they find themselves face to face with a turn of the century gown that demonstrates how couturiers freed women from rigid corsetry or how garment factory workers used the emerging ready-to-wear industry to uplift their position in life. Conserve, share and educate. That is what museum's are doing with their costume collections just as they are with their paintings and photographs and other forms of "art."

Dresses featured in Chicago History Museum's exhibition Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum that demonstrate how couture fashion "trickled down" to ready-to-wear fashion. Christian Dior (on right) circa 1953 and Sophie (on left) circa 1954 could both have been purchased at Chicago's Marshall Field's in their different departments of course.*

What it comes down to, honestly, is that dress, in all its different forms, is something we use everyday. And whether or not you are plucking t-shirts out of the half off bin at Express or strolling into Dior on Avenue Montaigne, dress expresses identity. Dress has acted as an expression of identity since before the Etruscans draped their first chiton in the 6th century B.C. and will continue to do so forever. Therefore, it is not hard to connect how fashion can give us a tangible window into the societies of the past, whether it's a gown from the couture house of Gabrielle Chanel from the 1920s or an English red coat from the Revolutionary War.

So, believers in fashion, continue to support the arts, in all its forms, by visiting the exquisitely well thought out fashion exhibitions being featured in museums across this country. Thank you and goodnight.

*Information from the catalog of the exhibition, which can be purchased here. (One example of the scholarly work that goes into a fashion exhibition.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Favorite Old Thing of the Week

"The entire point of the original mod movement was to reject the naff rocker look, to dolly-bird yourself up in the sharpest suit or neatest op-art jacket, and make yourself over into your personal best, regardless of external circumstances." --Vogue, May 2011

Spring is the most appropriate time of year for a makeover in all aspects of life. Here's to adopting mod as a fashion and life philosophy as a young person in 2011. Join me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The History of "Stuff"

You don't have to be a history buff to be obsessed with shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, or Auction Kings. If you are a history buff, however, and you have not stumbled upon these shows before then I heartily suggest you do. The recent rise in popularity of shows such as these has peaked my interest into why people are fascinated by them. If you do not know, the basic premise of these shows is the buying and reselling of people's old things (sort of the high brow version of garage sales). Of course all of them go about it in their own unique way, but all of them could not exist if there was not a market for what they do.

One of the reasons that I think people are attracted to these types of programs is because people love the history of "stuff." And as someone who wants to eventually pursue a master's degree in material culture/decorative arts, the relevance of these shows has really caught my attention. The greatest thing about these shows is that they include the history of whatever object is being sold/bought, so the viewer actually understands why its worth whatever it is being sold/bought for. I intend to do some further research into this topic and see what others have said about it.

Now the granddaddy of all these shows has got to be Antiques Roadshow. The premise of AR may be very different because there is no buying/selling going on, but the core value of the show is very much the same as the others because people are bringing in their old stuff to learn more about it and find out how much it is worth. While costume items are few and far between on shows such as these, the costume nerd inside of me jumped for joy when I was watching a rerun of AR this past week and saw this:

The appraiser places the date of the portrait between 1805-1825 based on the costume the man is wearing. For the appraiser, J. Michael Flanigan, to have that sort of knowledge of costume, when he is listed as an expert in furniture and folk art, shows that the relevance of costume is becoming more and more significant. Changes in men's fashion are more subtle throughout history, and the presence of the high collared waist-coat and shirt with ruffled necktie, also known as a cravat are seen in both the Empire Period (1790-1820) and the Romantic Period (1820-1850). Stay tuned for more posts on shows such as these! In the mean time, check them out for yourself on the History Channel, the Discover Channel, and PBS!

(picture and video courtesy of

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Favorite Old Thing of the Week

Norman Norell: Conservative Elegance

Norman Norell, seen in the picture at the left with models, was an American designer throughout the middle of the 20th century. Norell is among the group of American designers who gained prominence during WWII because of the lack of communication that was available between France and America at the time. French fashion had reigned superior for centuries, but because French designing was cutback significantly due to Nazi occupation, magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar began to feature more American designers.

During the early part of his career, Norell worked with Hattie Carnegie, another prominent American designer. After partnering in the company Traina-Norell for 20 years, Norell finally broke off on his own in 1960.

Norell's aesthetic is known for its precision tailoring, simplicity, and elegant femininity. Some of his signature looks include his sequined mermaid gowns, as seen on Marilyn Monroe in the picture above, his short jersey dresses, his nautical themed looks featuring bows, buttons and belts, and his elegant suits.

Norman Norell remained a prominent figure in the fashion industry until his death in 1972. Norell, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigere, Charles James, and Gilbert Adrian are some of the American designers that helped resurrect fashion in America and abroad after the world had experienced two decades of depression and war. In the picture to the right, Norell is seen in his signature red tie along with some of his signature looks. He was truly an American classic.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Downton Abbey

On the recommendation from my wonderful boss at the Chicago History Museum, Meghan Smith, I spent the majority of Sunday watching "Downton Abbey," a series put out by PBS as part of their Masterpiece Classic series. It is currently on Netflix Instant Streaming for anyone who wants to check it out for themselves. I was intrigued first and foremost because Meghan said the costumes were fantastic, and secondly because the time period it is set in, the 1910s, pre-WWI, is possibly my favorite period in history for a collection of reasons. As I began to watch the episodes I was delighted by the plot line, along with the costumes, which were designed by Sussanah Buxton. The story of Downton Abbey consists of an old world Victorian family, the Crawley's, and the world that they and their servants live in. The story is filled with scandal, betrayal, love, family duty, and inheritance against a backdrop that consists of a traditional 19th century family and their servants trying to maintain order and propriety in a social atmosphere that is rapidly changing. Needless to say, I was completely enveloped by the aesthetic and the story, and was disappointed to find out that the second season of the series is not due out until next year.

Dress during the Edwardian Period, the first decade of the 20th century, reflected much of the same aesthetic as dress had during the last half of the 19th century. This aesthetic was a highly-corseted, conservative look with a high neckline, long sleeves, and long skirts. The most prominent silhouette at the beginning of the 20th century was a "S-Shape" silhouette. This look had an exaggerated bust and bosom and tiny waist and was created through the use of tight corseting. The costumes of Lady Violet Crawley are reminiscent of this style of dress even though by 1912, the time the series begins in, this silhouette had been largely replaced by a simpler straight silhouette with an empire waist. The fact that Susannah Buxton chose to keep Lady Violet in a more traditional style of dress shows her attention to detail and to the characters themselves, because Lady Violet is and would be in real life if she had existed a very traditional character who is attempting to withstand the radical social changes occurring in the world around her.

The costumes of Lady Mary, the eldest daughter, and her two younger sisters, Edith and Cybil, are much more reflective of pre-WWI dress after 1910. Many women still wore corsets with this style of dress, although they were straight and less restrictive than the corsets required to achieve the "S-shape" of the previous decade. The empire waistline was very prominent as well as oriental influences, as seen in the picture with the chinoiserie style embroidery on Lady Mary's dress.

Just wanted to show one last look at a gorgeous image from the film of the three Crawley sisters. The fashion of the 1910s were changing in ways that had not occurred in the past because changes were happening throughout society for women that had not occurred in the past. Downton Abbey does a wonderful job of capturing the unseen war between the Victorian-minded traditionalists and the social revolutionists that were fighting for change in Europe and America at the time. Look out for my new Favorite Old Thing of the Week coming up in the next couple of days.

Thanks for tuning in,