September 11, 2012
Forget spectacular leaf colors and cooler temperatures: it’s the onset of “Fashion Week” in September that announces the Fall Season. Like new seasons in music, theater, dance, and art, Fashion Week signals a fresh start. What is new and wonderful? How shall we invent ourselves this time? Demure and understated? Flashy but chic? Undecided?
In addition to being a favorite sport for clothes hounds, fashion is a hot topic in the culture world these days. Project Runway has legions of fans. Yet, fashion is also emerging as a resonant topic in the museum world. Such high-visibility exhibitions as “Aware: Art Fashion Identity” at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2010, and the Costume Institute’s 2010 show, “American Women: Fashioning a National Identity,” as well as its 2011, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” have placed fashion center-stage in contemporary explorations of identity.
Fashion Week first premiered in 1943, the brainchild of advertising maven Eleanor Lambert. The media-savvy Lambert, whose clients included Jackson Pollock and Isamu Noguchi, had helped found the Museum of Modern Art. But her greatest passion was fashion. In 1940 she created the “International Best Dressed List” (which she would curate for decades), and in the midst of World War II, she decided it was time to de-throne Paris and declare America’s fashion pre-eminence by launching Fashion Week in New York.
At the same time, Diana Vreeland was emerging as a force of nature at Harper’s Bazaar. Editor Carmel Snow hired her in 1936, and she quickly made a name for herself with her column “Why Don’t You?” These outings were wildly eccentric, with Vreeland cheerfully asking such questions as, “Why don’t you…rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?. . .(and) twist her pigtails around her ears like macaroons?”
During the war, Vreeland became a great promoter of American designers. Writing about the launch of Fashion Week in 1943, she extolled the “integrity and talent of American designers.” Rather than Parisian couture, she argued that the dominant style had become American, with exciting new designers standing for “American style, and the American way of life.”
Vreeland’s unblinking eye paid attention to everything that surrounded her—sartorial, literary, artistic. For her, attitude and gesture were key: “You gotta have style. . . .It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody.” She put her stamp on every part of the magazine, choosing the clothes, overseeing the photography and working with the models. “I know what they’re going to wear before they wear it, what they’re going to eat before they eat it, (and) I know where they’re going before it’s even there!”
Photographer Richard Avedon, who collaborated with her for nearly 40 years, said “Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline and created a totally new profession. She invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies.” With Vreeland, the focus shifted from social class to personality: “ravishing personalities,” she enthused, “are the most riveting things in the world—conversation, people’s interests, the atmosphere that they create round them.”
In her 26 years at Harper’s Bazaar (1936-62) and her near-decade at Vogue (1962-71), Vreeland conveyed her visionary sense of style through remarkable photographs. At Bazaar, she collaborated notably with Louise Dahl-Wolfe on such historic shoots as the January 1942 resort fashion story shot at architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona house “Ship Rock”—in which Vreeland herself appeared as a model—and the March 1943 cover that introduced a then-unknown Lauren Bacall, who was consequently whisked away to Hollywood to co-star with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.
Vreeland—who always spoke in superlatives—established a distinctive look that exhorted her readers to be bold, brave and imaginative: “fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world,” she once declared. “If it’s not there in fashion, fantasize it!”
When she left Vogue in 1971, she mused, “I was only 70. What was I supposed to do, retire?” Metropolitan Museum of Art director Tom Hoving invited her to become Special Consultant to the Met’s Costume Institute, and she quickly embarked on creating a 3-D fantasy world that wasn’t confined by a magazine spread. Lights, props, music and stage sets were all rolled out to create exhibitions that celebrated subjects ranging from the Ballets Russes to Balenciaga. Her shows were enormously popular sources of inspiration for contemporary audiences, and revitalized the Costume Institute. Before her death in 1989, Vreeland curated 14 exhibitions and successfully campaigned for the acceptance of “fashion as high art”—the idea that garments were as masterful as such traditional artworks as painting and sculpture.
In her 1980 book Allure, Vreeland dared people to live with passion and imagination. One’s creativity had to be in constant motion, she argued, because “The eye has to travel.” I asked Ricki Peltzman, owner of Washington’s Upstairs on 7th boutique and a recognized fashion curator, to assess Vreeland’s lasting impact on fashion. “Fashion is about style. It’s personal. Every day we show the world how we feel without having to say a word. And no one said it better than Diana Vreeland.”
August 27, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites thoughts and commentary from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson recently wrote about Olympic athletes. Today, as the political conventions get underway—the Republican National Convention in Tampa from August 27-30, 2012, followed by the Democratic National Convention September 3-6, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Henderson recalls the era when national conventions were first broadcast on television.
Who do you trust?
In 1972, an Oliver Quayle Research survey reported that CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America”—more trusted than anyone else in public life, although, that’s not including such 1970s pop stars as Cher or Paul Newman.
Trust. Today, it is an eye-popping notion that a network newsperson would have that kind of status. How many of us even watch nightly network news? The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism reports that between 1980 and 2011, the three commercial networks lost 28.4 million nightly news viewers, or 54.5 percent of their audience. Does Swanson still make TV dinners? Do people even know what a Swanson TV dinner is?
The man embraced by postwar audiences as “Uncle Walter” is the subject of historian Douglas Brinkley’s new biography, Cronkite. It is a richly detailed chronicle of a media figure who both personified his era and who radiated an unblinking authenticity in years before “trust-but-verify” became the nation’s cultural watchword.
During World War II, Cronkite was a war correspondent for United Press International. He was not one of the “boys” Edward R. Murrow nurtured to prominence during the war, but instead he joined CBS in 1950 and distinguished himself by covering the first televised political conventions in 1952. Brinkley writes that Cronkite was tagged the first national “anchor” when the CBS press office needed a word to describe what he would be doing at the conventions. They decided to say “he is going to anchor for us,” and from then on he was routinely referred to as their “anchorman.”
The “cool medium” proved a highly-receptive stage for Cronkite’s calm and reassuring personality, and his on-air convention coverage helped make television a major influence in American politics. Cronkite was also a riveting storyteller. He could hold his audiences’ attention for sometimes as long as seven hours at a stretch. Brinkley enthuses, “Cronkite blazed like a meteor,” and just as Murrow “had linked Great Britain to America with his voice during the Second World War, Cronkite brought the Chicago conventions into the living rooms of America.” Few Americans had ever been to a political convention, and now watched enthralled as the avuncular Cronkite demystified the machinations of convention politics.
For the next 30 years, Walter Cronkite reigned as an iconic broadcast news personality. Compared to today’s media mash-up of raucous 24/7 competition. Cronkite was a pioneer in a time when “the broadcast media” consisted of just the three commercial television networks—NBC, CBS and ABC and television was just finding its way into American households—in 1950 only 11 percent of American families had one, but by 1960, 88 percent did. Cronkite was there as the medium recast the American political landscape to fit its visual demands: how did a candidate “look” on TV? What “image” did the small screen transmit into people’s living rooms?
Looking back, it is amazing how networks were once pinioned for “monopolizing” news reporting: unlike today, the issue 50 years ago wasn’t about network political affiliation or persuasion, but about the exclusive power held by the three major networks. In The Making of the President, 1960, Theodore White quoted journalist Walter Lippmann warning how the Big Three endangered freedom of the press by monopolizing the dissemination of broadcast news—a mind-boggling concept in 2012.
Of course, we all know how the story goes. Fissures in the broadcast news monopoly began appearing in 1980 with the formation of CNN as the first 24-hour news network. Over the next few decades, the exponential growth of cable and Internet outlets transformed news delivery from a system that “broadcast” to a large, mainstream audience, into a vast web of “narrowcast” channels focused on audiences with niche interests.
Television news today is a world that lacks, and perhaps, doesn’t need a “Walter Cronkite.” The nation experienced vast political and social changes under his 30-year watch, from landing a man on the moon, to the assassination of a sitting president, to the war in Vietnam. His clout was such that when he reported from Vietnam in 1968 that the war was “a stalemate,” President Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”
The year Cronkite was chosen “most trusted” was the year a bungled burglary at the Watergate changed the trust landscape forever. At the same time, technologies were expanding audience access to an exploding multiplicity of channels. New access meant new rituals: there is little demand today for the TV dinners of the 1950s and Cronkite’s signature signoff—“and that’s the way it is.” But in all fairness, there was little demand back then for baby arugula or Greek yogurt.
The loss of the evening news ritual is partly the result of a democratic hunger for information. Unfiltered and 24/7, media is an unmediated cosmos.
Today, who do we trust? We trust the person holding the smart phone, the iPad, the remote—the person facing the screen, not the one beaming back at us. And that’s the way it is.
View several portraits of the famous newscaster at the National Portrait Gallery, including one with astronaut John Glenn and journalist Daniel Ellsberg.
July 9, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson recently wrote about new technologies and the 1940 Census.
With the 2012 Summer Olympics opening in London on July 27th, I decided to explore the Portrait Gallery’s images to see what historic or current Olympians we have in our collections. What I discovered was a fascinating group of very different characters connected only by their supreme athletic excellence.
First, some Olympics background: the modern Olympics were reconstituted in Athens in 1896, with fourteen nations and 241 athletes competing in forty-three events. After being occasionally interrupted in the 20th century by disorganization and war, the Summer Olympics today are held every four years. For the XXX Olympiad in London this summer, an estimated 204 countries and 10,500 athletes will compete in 26 sports.
The Portrait Gallery’s earliest Olympian is Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968, right), a Hawaiian swimmer who helped popularize the sport of surfing, both in Hawaii and on the mainland. From 1912 to 1924, he won three gold and two silver Olympic medals in swimming. He lived in Southern California in these years, working as a character actor in Hollywood movie studios and surfing on his long, pine surfboard.
Sports in 1920s America flourished in a “golden age,” notably in swimming, tennis, golf, baseball, and boxing. One of the most famous American swimmers was Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003), who competed in the 1924 Summer Olympics and won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay team and bronze for the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle races. Ederle would win lasting fame two years later as the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Two works in the collection commemorate this athlete: a 1925 photograph of her with her swim gear and a 1963 oil painting.
One of the key figures in women’s tennis was Helen Wills Moody (1905-1998), who dominated U.S. courts between the wars. Numerous photographs in the gallery capture her on the court and a 1936 terra cotta bust of Moody demonstrates why she was nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face.” She won 31 Grand Slam titles, including seven singles titles at the U.S. Championships, eight at Wimbledon, and four at the French Championships. At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, she captured gold medals in women’s singles and doubles. These Olympics marked the last time tennis was an Olympic sport until 1988.
An extraordinary image in our Olympian collection is Leni Riefenstahl’s photograph of American track and field star Jesse Owens (1913-1980) at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl was commissioned by Hitler to film the Olympics to promote “Aryan racial superiority.” But when Owens became the most successful athlete of the Olympics, he couldn’t be ignored. He had been a star of college competitions, and in Berlin generated international headlines by winning four gold Olympic medals—one each in the 100-meters, 200-meters, the long jump, and as part of the relay team. Riefenstahl’s still photograph of the African-American champion is a remarkable document of his personal “triumph of the will.”
In more modern decades, the Gallery’s Summer Olympics collection continues to represent track and field champions. Carl Lewis (b. 1961) was a pre-eminent American sprinter and long jumper from 1981 through the mid-1990s, winning ten Olympic medals, including nine gold, in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and long jump events. Two 1984 photographs by Neil Leifer show Lewis celebrating his success, including one picturing the athlete leaping into the air with the Statue of Liberty behind him. He won his last Olympic event in 1996, and in 1999 was voted “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee (b. 1962) was also one of America’s greatest athletes. At the 1984 Olympics, she won a silver medal in the women’s heptathlon; two golds in the heptathlon and women’s long jump in 1988; a gold and a bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992; and a bronze at the 1996 games, which were her final Olympics. A black and white photograph in the collection from that year shows Joyner-Kersee facing away from the camera in contemplation. Sports Illustrated voted her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
The Gallery’s most contemporary Olympic champion is swimmer Michael Phelps, who is competing this summer in London. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 games in Beijing, Phelps won sixteen medals: six gold and two bronze in Athens, and eight gold in Beijing. He was the most successful athlete at both events, and his eight gold medals in 2008 broke U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz’s seven-gold record set in 1972.
Like the Olympic athletes competing this summer, the Gallery’s sports figures inspire us with their remarkable stories. For about two weeks in the July and August heat, we’ll happily watch and cheer and be thrilled. Get the popcorn ready!
April 24, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson last wrote about the real-life stories of American socialites who married into British nobility.
Recently, I gave a talk called “Going Gaga: Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture,” in which I began with George Washington and ended with Lady Gaga. Outrageous? Yes, but early American culture embraced role models who evoked “character,” while later the emergence of a mass media culture shifted our focus to “personality.”
When I give talks like this, people often ask me what characterizes a role model in today’s celebrity culture? Not the notorious figures of tabloid headlines, but iconic figures people want to emulate and who somehow encapsulate “stardom”—movie stars like Gable or Hepburn, dancers like Baryshnikov, rockers like Springsteen. It is a difficult thing to explain, except that we know it when we see it. Last week, for example, I saw the New York City Ballet dance a Gershwin medley with choreography by George Balanchine, and I was transported. Gershwin’s wonderful music and Balanchine’s magical movements transmitted sheer, heart-thumping genius. No other music, nor any other choreography, could have combined to create this unique sense of something extraordinary.
Similarly, when I was growing up my parents played a lot of Louis Armstrong LPs, and even as a child, I understood that Armstrong was “special.” I certainly didn’t know about his role as a pioneering jazz figure then, but I knew I liked the sound of the ebullient personality that came through in his gravelly voice and, of course, in his astonishing trumpet-playing. They would have been overjoyed at the news of a fresh Armstrong recording being discovered and released this spring!
On January 29, 1971, Louis Armstrong played his trumpet in public for what is believed to be his last recorded performance. The occasion was the inauguration of a fellow-Louisianan, Vernon Louviere, as president of the National Press Club. Keeping with a Louisiana theme, Louviere was sworn in holding a bottle of Tabasco sauce instead of a Bible, and the dinner in the Ballroom featured such New Orleans specialties (and Armstrong favorites) as red beans and rice, and seafood gumbo. The evening’s emcee was the witty British television journalist David Frost, newly-knighted by the Queen and popular on both sides of the Atlantic for his high-on-the-radar interview programs.
Armstrong’s performance at the black-tie gala was recorded on a limited edition LP of 300 copies. The original liner notes by Ralph de Toledano explained that the 69-year-old jazz legend had been in such poor health that his doctors warned him not to play for more than ten minutes, but the crowd’s warmth and cheers stretched his performance to half an hour. De Toledano reported, “He played, he sang, he scatted.” Joined by longtime band-mates Tyree Glenn and Tommy Gwaltney, he showed no frailty as he rollicked through such favorites as “Rockin’ Chair,” “Hello, Dolly,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Mack the Knife,” and a never before recorded “Boy from New Orleans,” a musical autobiography that he sang to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Today, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings made this historic performance widely available. Listen to his rendition of “Hello Dolly” here.
Released as part of the Smithsonian’s 11th annual celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, “Satchmo at the National Press Club: Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours” is the culmination of a multi-year collaboration involving the Press Club, Folkways, and the Louis Armstrong Foundation. Press Club executive director William McCarren explained that although his organization is known worldwide for news and history, it is also “a venue for music and the arts and a forum for entertainers of all kinds.” That “one of the world’s great entertainers found his way to our stage. . . is a pleasure to tell,” and the Club was happy to help make this “great gift to the world” available to all.
The album’s subtitle refers to how Armstrong often signed his letters—“Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours.” Nearly three dozen of his favorite Louisiana recipes are included in the recording’s liner notes, as they were in the original pressing. Now, you too can feast on such Armstrong favorites as shrimp mousse, Louisiana caviar, or Walter McIlhenny’s “Frogs a la Creole.” Where else will you find Armstrong’s version of “Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Punch” or his real-deal “Sazerac Cocktail”?
Armstrong died five months after his Press Club appearance. This newly-released 58-minute recording includes not only his historic performance, but tracks from a tribute concert that Tyree Glenn and his band performed at the Press Club shortly after Armstrong’s death, featuring such classics as “Mood Indigo” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
The recording will be released on CD and digital download via Folkways as well as through such retailers as iTunes and Amazon. According to D.A. Sonneborn Armstrong, the associate director of Folkways, the recording has “a wonderful live quality. Armstrong was in fine form that evening. We all wish we could’ve been there, and now we can!”
March 14, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. Today, the National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson, inspired by the Cora Crawley character on PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” traces the real-life stories of few American socialites who married into British nobility. She last wrote for us about Clint Eastwood’s visit to the National Museum of American History.
In a recent New York Times interview, marking the end of “Downton Abbey’s” second season, series creator Julian Fellowes discusses the Gilded Age “dollar princesses” who were the models for the character of Cora Crawley, the rich American who marries the Earl of Grantham.
“I’ve read all these things,” Fellowes told the Times, “like Cora is supposed to be Mary Leiter. She isn’t really – she’s one of that genus, of which Mary Leiter is a famous example.”
I broke into a wide smile as I realized that Fellowes had given me a slim, but very real academic connection to this wonderfully addictive sudsfest. Just before joining the staff at the Portrait Gallery in 1975, I was hired by Nigel Nicolson to research a biography he was writing of a young Chicago woman who became Vicereine of India at the turn of the 20th century—Mary Leiter Curzon.
Heir to the Marshall Field retail business her father co-founded, Mary Leiter moved with her family to Washington, D.C. in the 1880s. She was an immediate social sensation, a beautiful “swanlike” figure who quickly became close friends with the young first lady Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover Cleveland. Leiter’s social success followed her to London, where she met Lord George Curzon. Married in 1895, she and Curzon moved to Bombay three years later when he was appointed Viceroy of India. Mary’s elevation to Vicereine remains the highest position an American woman has ever held in the British Empire.
The centerpiece event of the Curzons’ tenure was the 1902 Delhi Durbar, organized to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII. Mary wore an astonishing dress designed by the House of Worth known as “the peacock dress.” The gown was an extravagance of gold cloth embroidered with peacock feathers, and Mary wore it with a huge diamond necklace and a pearl-tipped tiara. One could only imagine the eye-popping reaction of Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Dame Maggie Smith), to such an over-the-top confection floating down Downton’s halls.
Mary Leiter Curzon was one of perhaps 350 wealthy young American women, Fellowes estimates, who married into the cash-poor British aristocracy between 1880 and 1920. Winston Churchill’s mother was an early example. The daughter of a New York financier, Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill in 1874. She has been called the forerunner of the wealthy American women who came to England in the late 19th century to marry titles—a species novelist Edith Wharton immortalized in The Buccaneers. Jennie was remarkably lovely, and her portrait was in high demand because of her status as one of the era’s leading “PB’s,” or “professional beauties.” According to Consuelo Vanderbilt, “Her grey eyes sparkled with the joy of living and when, as was often the case, her anecdotes were risqué it was with her eyes as well as her words that one could read the implications.”
The vivacious Jennie had numerous affairs that included even the Prince of Wales, and embraced the idea that living well was the best revenge: “We owe something to extravagance,” she pronounced, “for thrift and adventure seldom go hand in hand.”
Another of the famous “dollar princesses” was Nancy Langhorne, a renowned Virginia-born beauty. While her sister Irene married Charles Dana Gibson and became a prototype for the Gibson Girl, Nancy moved to England, where she was sought after socially for her wit as well as her money. In 1879, she married William Waldorf Astor, who had also been born in the United States, but had moved to London as a child and been brought up in the manner (and manor) of the English aristocracy. After their marriage, the Astors moved into Cliveden, a country house much like Downton Abbey, and which, during the Great War, served like Downton as a hospital for convalescing soldiers.
Lady Astor’s real distinction was to be elected to Parliament in 1919. Her husband served in the House of Commons, but became a member of the House of Lords when he succeeded to his father’s peerage as Viscount Astor. Nancy Astor then ran and won his former seat in the Commons, becoming the second woman to be elected to Parliament but the first to actually take her seat.
These American-British marriages were all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, and an entire industry emerged to help facilitate matchmaking. A quarterly publication called The Titled American listed the successfully anointed ladies, as well as the names of eligible titled bachelors: “The Marquess of Winchester,” one citation read, “is 32 years of age, and a captain of the Coldstream Guards.” It was a resource much like Washington’s social register, The Green Book, or contemporary online resources like Match.com.
Novelist Wharton, a member of New York’s Old Guard, relished writing about the nouveau riche as a “group of bourgeois colonials” who had made a great deal of money very quickly in industry. Denied access to social position by the established upper crust, they crossed the Atlantic and acquired titles that transformed them, she wrote, into “a sort of social aristocracy.”
In acquiring prestige by title, the “dollar princesses” are estimated to have contributed perhaps $25 billion to the British economy in today’s currency. These wealthy American women are also credited with helping to preserve such stately English homes as Highclere, the actual country house featured in “Downton Abbey.”
The accommodation between old status and new money is well-reflected in this exchange between Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern), the Earl of Grantham’s American wife, and Violet, the Dowager Countess:
Cora: “Are we to be friends then?”
Violet: “We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”
Ok, for fun—two other favorite Dowager Countess quotes:
—“I couldn’t have electricity in the house, I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about.”
—“What is a weekend?”