April 16, 2013
A fashion spread, Hollywood movie or advertisement usually doesn’t reflect with accuracy what everyday people actually wore at a given time. Historically speaking, to really get a sense of the fashions of the times, old newsreels, photojournalism and catalogs offer more true-to-life examples of what was in style.
One literary source is the book-length poem I Remember, by writer and artist Joe Brainard. When it was originally published—in three parts between 1970 and 1973 by Angel Hair Books—the small print runs sold out quickly. Most recently it’s been published by Granary Books. The 1,000 entries in this work all begin with “I remember . . .” and each describes a single memory from Brainard—growing up in Oklahoma in the 1940s, arriving in New York in the ’60s, making art, making friends, making a living.
As the poet and his lifelong friend Ron Padgett explains:
…the repetition in I Remember proved to be a springboard that allowed Joe to leap backward and forward in time and to follow one chain of associations for a while, then jump to another, the way one’s memory does. Coupled with Joe’s impulse toward openness, the I Remember form provided a way for him to lay his soul bare in a confession that is personable, moving, perceptive, and often funny.
The book is a time capsule, a beautiful and candid catalog of one person’s memories, however fleeting. Incorporated into those recollections is documentation of how people dressed—some styles are still worn today, while others were passing trends that are relegated to fashion history. They all share Brainard’s funny, insightful and accessible style. Michael Lally of The Village Voice agreed: “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ’40s and ’50s have universal appeal. He catalogues his past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked.” What follows are a selection of favorites:
I remember sack dresses.
I remember pill box hats.
I remember thinking how embarrassing it must be for men in Scotland to have to wear skirts.
I remember old women’s flesh-colored hose you can’t see through.
I remember when girls wore lots of can can slips. It got so bad (so noisy) that the principal had to put a limit on how many could be worn. I believe the limit was three.
I remember when “beehives” got really out of hand.
I remember when those short-sleeved knitted shirts with long tails (to wear “out”) with little embroidered alligators on the pockets were popular.
I remember plain camel hair coats that rich girls in high school wore.
I remember having a crush on a boy in my Spanish class who had a pair of olive green suede shoes with brass buckles just like a pair I had. (“Flagg Brothers.”) I never said one word to him the entire year.
I remember sweaters thrown over shoulders and sunglasses propped on heads.
If, after reading I Remember, you crave more information about the work and life of Joe Brainard, who passed away in 1994, watch filmmaker Matt Wolf’s short documentary I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard. Described on the website as “an elliptical dialog about friendship, nostalgia, and the strange wonders of memory,” the film combines archival images, audio recordings of Brainard, and an interview with poet Ron Padgett. Download the film here or check it out at the following upcoming screenings:
April 18 – 28, 2013
Festival IndieLisboa, Portugal
April 25, 26, 27, 2013
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Screening Times TBA
October 23, 2012
This weekend, I saw the documentary, The Eye Has to Travel, a portrait of the legendary fashion editor and larger-than-life eccentric Diana Vreeland. Just like her friend Coco Chanel, who was well-known for her quips, or Chanelisms as they were often called, Vreeland also had her own one-liners on life and style.
Frequently during the film Vreeland tossed around the word “vulgar.” “Never fear being vulgar, just boring,” was one of her familiar sayings. Another was “Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. I’m a great believer in vulgarity—if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”
Vulgar. I don’t hear the word that often. It doesn’t appear much in the lexicon of fashion writing these days. But I have been more attuned to it since I’ve been reading excerpts of Etiquette by Emily Post for the series on dress codes and etiquette. The lady of manners uses the descriptor repeatedly and relentlessly in the chapter “The Clothes of a Lady.”
The Oxford dictionary defines vulgar as: “1) Lacking sophistication or good taste: a vulgar check suit, 2) making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude: a vulgar joke, 3) dated characteristic of or belonging to ordinary people.”
I’ve excerpted a few (amusing) quotes from the 1945 edition of Post’s Etiquette from the chapter, “The Clothes of a Lady.” (Italics are my own.)
“The Clothes of the Lady” chapter introduction:
Not even the most beautiful background could in itself suggest a brilliant gathering if the majority of those present were frumps—or vulgarians! Rather be frumpy than vulgar! Much. Frumps are often celebrities in disguise—but a person of vulgar appearance is pretty sure to be vulgar all through.
Vulgar clothes are those which, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be, are always too elaborate for the occasion. . . . A woman may be stared at because she is ill-behaved, or because she looks like a freak of the circus or because she is enchanting to behold. If you are much stared at, what sort of stare do you usually meet?
Frumps are not very typical of America; vulgarians are somewhat more numerous; but most numerous of all are the quietly dressed, unnoticeable men and women who make up the representative backbone in every city.
On the Woman Who is Chic
’Chic’ (pronounced sheek) is a borrowed adjective, but unfortunately no word in our language expresses its meaning. Our adjective ‘elegant’—which before it was vulgarized, most nearly approached it—rather suggested the mother of the young woman who is chic.
On Principles of Taste Apart From Fashion
A lady in a ball dress with nothing added to the head looks a little like being hatless in the street. This sounds like a contradiction of the criticism of the vulgarian. But because a diadem or a jeweled filet or other ornament is beautiful at a ball, it does not follow that all these should be put on together and worn in a restaurant—which is just what the vulgarian would do.
Emily Post, obviously an anti-vulgarian, and Diana Vreeland, an advocate for that trait over dullness, would have had a heated debate about its merits or lack thereof. I’d stand on the sidelines, enthralled and entertained, as both of their maxims feel so far removed from my life, and, in my opinion, the way we describe—and clothe—ourselves today. Though I would side with Vreeland.
October 2, 2012
“I’m from the generation that came to New York to meet their idols. In my case it was Andy Warhol and Antonio Lopez.”
What do Jerry Hall, Jessica Lange and Grace Jones have in common? Antonio Lopez. Without him, these women, along with other “Antonio Girls,” as he called his coterie of beauties, might not be the household names they are today. An influential fashion world figure from the 1960s to the ’80s, Antonio had an eye for spotting talent and illustrating beauty, transforming aspiring models and actresses into pinnacles of glamour.
Spanning three decades, the Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-raised fashion illustrator’s work could often be seen in the pages of the New York Times, Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and Interview. He effortlessly invoked surrealistic, abstract and Pop art, and referenced contemporary youth culture with ease. Using pencil, ink, charcoal, watercolor and film, Antonio captured the human form and the fashions adorning it, bringing a breezy, sexy sensibility to his fashion imagery.
After working in the late ’60s with his “Girls,” Antonio moved to Paris in the early ’70s and steeped himself in French culture. That boiled down to night-clubbing with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld (whose apartment served as his crash pad), Yves Saint Laurent, Paloma Picasso and others, many of whom were subjects of his drawings, Instamatic photographs, and Polaroids from that time.
What was particularly striking about Antonio’s work was his uncanny ability to morph his illustration style from one subject or designer to the next. So by the early ’80s, he’d been hired to execute ad campaigns for YSL, Norma Kamali, Valentino, Missoni and Versace. And in a cyclical turn of events, his interpretations frequently influenced those designers’ collections the following season.
In 1987 at age 44, Antonio died far too young from AIDS-related complications. Because of the stigma at that time associated with AIDS, the fickle nature of fashion and the lack of Internet, his work had been fading into fashion history—until now!
Through October 20, you can see some of Antonio’s most renowned illustrations as well as some never before seen in Antonio’s World at the Suzanne Geiss gallery in New York City. Concurrent with the show, in September Rizzoli published Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex, and Disco, a book of his illustrations.
All Photos Adam Reich. Copyright the Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos. Courtesy the Suzanne Geiss Company.
August 17, 2012
Earlier this week, Cosmopolitan magazine’s longtime editor Helen Gurley Brown passed away at 90. Brown was famous (or infamous) for bringing blunt and colorful conversations about sex and relationships into the mainstream first with her 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl and then at Cosmo, which she transformed from a sober publication for homemakers into the lifestyle magazine for the modern career woman. With Brown at the helm–for more than three decades, from 1965 to 1997–you could expect to see cover lines like “Don’t Be Afraid of Men Who Whistle and Ogle You–Enjoy!” (June 1970), “Are Younger Men the Answer?” (April 1973) and “What to Do With (and To) Sexually Selfish Men” (January 1974). Beneath the titillating text was equally suggestive photography: the taped cleavage and exposed backs of models and actresses scantily dressed in fashions of the day (and quite the opposite of mouseburgers, the term Brown coined in the ’70s to describe herself and other drab, unimpressive-looking women).
Brown’s legacy is complicated. She helped spark the sexual revolution, but her emphasis on fulfillment by pleasing men was a form of empowerment at odds with the emerging era of second-wave feminism. When Brown called herself a feminist, it was very different from what Betty Friedan meant when she published The Feminine Mystique a year after Sex and the Single Girl. Friedan’s serious work, also a bestseller, established a contemporary women’s movement that stood in contrast to the pithy quips and scandalous instructions of what Brown would call the Cosmo Girl.
Reading Brown’s obits the past few days made me wonder how her version of feminism translated into changing Cosmo covers over the years. From its 1886 origins as a family magazine to a literary rag to Brown’s vision of the modern woman, Cosmo has always been about the cover.
It’s interesting how magazine covers, being regular and monthly, form a pretty comprehensive anthropological record, like a time lapse of cultural change. It’s a delight to flip through, and take in the period atmosphere from different decades. (Polyester! Teased hair! Nifty old typefaces! $1.50!) But you can also see how little has changed. Cosmo paved the way for the vast industry of today’s fashion magazines, and most of them have been much the same for decades. What might have been daring in the wake of the ’50s feels recycled today, and just how many Top 15 Things to Drive Your Man Crazy are there anyhow? What was ahead of its time can soon seem like old hat. Brown’s imperative for women to embrace their personal and professional pursuits with sexy abandon seems tame now that pole dancing is a form of suburban maternal empowerment, and porn is considered liberation. In that sense, Helen Gurley Brown’s old hat really was, in fact, ahead of its time.
July 17, 2012
Artist and author Leanne Shapton trained for the Olympic swimming trials as a teenager. Her newest book, Swimming Studies, which was released this month, is a quiet, weightless and elegant collection of stories about the life of a swimmer who is inescapably drawn to the water even after she is no longer rigorously competing. To continue Threaded’s Swimsuit Series, and with the Summer Olympics around the corner, I’ve excerpted part of her chapter “Bathing” along with some of the book’s images of Shapton’s swimsuits and their accompanying provenances.
Bathing implies having some contact with the ground while in the water—propulsion and speed are secondary. Bathing. Bathing: the word itself feels like a balm, a cleanse, rather than the wavy struggle of swimming. I wonder why swimming in North America feels different from swimming in Europe.
Until the late seventeenth century, the sea was regarded as a place of danger and death, the aspect of houses was directed inland, sailors were not taught to swim, in order to foster in them a true respect for the sea. The ocean stank, was dangerous, belched up seaweed and flotsam, and was full of marauding pirates and monsters. The value of any coastline was in proportion to how fortified it was. Swimming instruction as military drill for men and horses began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in northern Europe, accompanying developments in toilets and indoor plumbing.
In The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool, Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen talks about the impression physical activity made on European visitors to the United States in the 1890s: “Americans seem best to express their spiritual energy by moving their bodies, by running, walking fast, and competing in sports.”
I think of the only time my medals have come in handy, at the U.S. border crossing in Buffalo. As Jason and I pull up at the border after inching through a traffic jam from Toronto, a guard eyes us suspiciously and asks for our passports. We look a mess; the car reeks of B. O. and chicken nuggets. Vintage clothes are strewn across the backseat, moth-eaten blankets lumpily cover Jason’s camera equipment. One of my father’s art-college paintings is jammed between our luggage. I’m certain we’ll be pulled over to the side, as I often am, and interrogated. The guard gets out of his booth and asks me to pop the back. I do. Shuffling sounds, then: “Who’s the swimmer?” I smile at Jason. “I am.” The hatchback shuts quietly. The guard hands us our passports with no further questions, just “Drive safely.” Before I left my parents’ house I heaved a large tote bag into the car; in it were eight years’ worth of gold, silver, and bronze swimming medals.
While visiting Berlin, I meet an artist who swims every morning, so I ask him about the city’s pools. He quickly makes a list of those he likes in my notebook. His daily laps are done at Stadtbad Mitte, in Gartenstrasse.
I head first to Stadtbad Charlottenburg– Alte Halle, a small, pretty pool nestled in the leafy streets of western Berlin. I borrow a pair of children’s goggles from the lifeguard booth and swim short widths beside a thick red rope bisecting the pool. A labored mural of Hylas and the Nymphs overlooks the deep end. The pool is beautiful but feels heavily furnished, like a parlor. The other swimmers seem to be annoyed by my splashing.
Stadtbad Mitte, completed in 1930, is a soaring, gridded glass box. It is bright and unusually airy for a pool, thanks to its high mullioned transparent roof. (In 1945 its roof was struck by two Allied bombs—conceivably dropped by my grandfather or some friends of his—that failed to explode.) The deck is tiled in small pale gray squares; there are slurping gutters along the sides, two staircases that lead to a very shallow end, and a three-foot drop from the deck to the water’s surface that makes the pool feel contained, tanklike. There are only eight other swimmers, most doing relaxed but steady laps. In the deep end I sink to the bottom and look around. The swimmers glide calmly overhead, my bubbles rise, glittering. I push off the bottom.
In Bath, England, for a literary festival, I visit the ancient Roman baths. Usually, any ruin filled with algae- greened water thrills me, but as I walk through the boxy displays and past the projected re-creations of “Romans” wearing too much mascara, I am bored. Even the two-thousand-year-old skeleton with cavities from eating honey does nothing for me. The statues the Victorians erected around the terrace overlooking the large outdoor pool upstage the real Roman stonework, the bath’s cruder but authentic roots. What I love, however, are the Roman curse tablets: tiny outrages scratched into pieces of lead and pewter and nailed to the wall, requesting that the gods visit misfortune on the heads of whoever stole their stuff while they were swimming. One reads:
To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.
I could relate, remembering the time my coral-pink Club Monaco sweatshirt was stolen from the Clarkson pool women’s locker room when I was thirteen. One minute I belonged to The Club of Monaco. Then suddenly I didn’t. My father was furious at the theft; on the chilly drive home his incredulity at my trust in other children vibrated in the car. I cursed the girl who had taken it.
Bathing chapter excerpted from Swimming Studies, copyright 2012 by Leanne Shapton, courtesy Blue Rider Press. Images: Michael Schmelling