May 2, 2013
If you want to lose a few hours, head over to the online fashion archive of designer Zandra Rhodes.
Born in 1940 in southeast England, the pink-haired, flamboyantly dressed Rhodes was first exposed to fashion by her mother, a fitter for a Paris fashion house. She immersed herself in sartorial studies, and more specifically textile design, when she enrolled in the Medway College of Art and then the Royal College of Art before opening her own London boutique with Sylvia Ayton in 1967, the Fulham Road Clothes Shop. She got her break in 1969 when Diana Vreeland featured a few of her pieces in Vogue. From there, Rhodes began selling clothes at Henri Bendel, among other well-known boutiques, and she’s been quite prolific ever since.
Over 500 pieces from the designer’s collection and thousands of sketches spanning her almost 50-year career were made available to the public this past March in a project developed by the University for the Creative Arts in England (where she was made the school’s first chancellor in 2010 and where her mother had been a teacher when it was called Medway). While the Zandra Rhodes Digital Study Collection emphasizes Rhodes’ most prolific period, from the 1970s and into the ’80s, it also ventures back to when she began designing in the mid- to late ’60s and covers her career through the present.
She’s not only attracted attention and made a name for herself as a result of her bright shock of hair, but also because she has a keen eye for textiles, silhouette and color, and designs that are chock-full of historical references like hobble skirts of the 1910s, drop-waisted looks from the 1920s and tailored construction of the 1940s. Celebrities, dignitaries and punk luminaries including Freddy Mercury of Queen, Diana, Princess of Wales, Jacqueline Onassis and Debbie Harry all wore or have worn her designs. And she was bestowed the honor of Commander of the British Empire by the Queen in 1997!
While pieces of her collections can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, this new digital collection is a one-stop archive of her work. It’s also meant to serve as a tool for fashion students. Sort through her designs by season (The Cactus Cowboy Collection! The Magic Carpet Collection! The Shell Collection!), objects, techniques, textile designs and fabrics. A series of videos, including tips on screen printing, patternmaking and hem stitching contribute to the richness of this educational resource. And “Ask Zandra” provides insightful facts and historical commentary about her collections.
Click on random collections for the most surprising, and satisfying, way to peruse the online archive. And with other archives from museums and private collections going digital, including the soon-to-be-launched Europeana Fashion, it’s only a matter of time before the fashion studies tool kit is almost entirely virtual.
To see a few Zandra Rhodes originals, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened show, Punk: Chaos to Couture, open May 9 – August 14, 2013 in New York City.
April 24, 2013
Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Virginia. Although she encountered one hardship after another, with sheer determination, a network of supporters and valuable dressmaking skills, she eventually bought her freedom from her St. Louis owners for $1,200. She made her way to Washington, D.C. in 1860 to establish her own dressmaking business and met first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Just after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, in 1861, the FLOTUS hired Keckley (also spelled Keckly) as her personal modiste. Keckley took on the role of dressmaker, personal dresser and confidante, and the two women formed a special bond. Mary T. and Lizzy K., a new play written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, explores their relationship.
Much has been researched, written and analyzed about Keckley’s life as a result of the unusual friendship. In 1868, Keckley published a detailed account of her life in the autobiography Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. A thorough study of her dressmaking legacy is still being uncovered, though, explained Elizabeth Way, a former Smithsonian researcher and New York University costume studies graduate student who worked for the Smithsonian last summer researching Keckley.
Prompted by Mary T. and Lizzy K., which runs through May 5, 2013, at the Mead Center for American Theater at Arena Stage in Washington, Threaded spoke with Way about Keckley’s dressmaking handiwork.
Are Elizabeth Keckley designs plentiful today?
Not that many still exist actually. And even with those pieces that do exist, there’s a question as to whether they can be attributed to Keckley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices, that the first lady wore during the second presidential inauguration. There’s a buffalo plaid green and white day dress with a cape at the Chicago History Museum. At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, you’ll find a black silk dress with a strawberry motif that you’d wear to a strawberry party, which was a 19th-century Midwestern picnic tradition, but it’s disputed as to whether or not it’s a Keckley. Penn State has a quilt that Keckley made from dress fabrics, and other items are floating around in collections. For example, Howard University has a pincushion with her name on it.
You mentioned it’s difficult to attribute clothes to Keckley. Why is that?
At the time, no labels or tags were used. And because fabric was so expensive, dresses were often taken apart and reconstructed as a completely different dress using the same material. She made clothes for many official women in Washington, so one way to determine a Keckley dress is if any of those women kept a journal and noted that kind of detail within it.
I assume she followed fashion conventions of the mid- to late 19th century, but did she have a specific style?
Her style was very pared down and sophisticated, which a lot of people don’t imagine when they think of the Victorian era. Her designs tended to be very streamlined. Not a lot of lace or ribbon. A very clean design.
How did she build such a thriving business as an African-American woman in the mid-1800s?
She was very skilled at building a client network, which was very notable considering she was a black woman and previously enslaved. She consistently made friends with the right people and got them to help her, which was not only a testament to those people, but also to her. She had incredible business savvy.
Would she sew the entire dress?
When she started out, she would do the complete dress, sew it up, add the trim, everything. As she became more successful, she was able to hire seamstresses to do some of the sewing and she trained people to help with the construction. Generally, she would work on the fit of the dresses.
Was Mary Lincoln wearing only Keckley while she was the first lady?
Mary Lincoln liked to shop. She would go to New York to shop at the department stores, which were just emerging at that time. You could buy ribbon and trim and anything unfitted, like a cape. It was just the beginning of mass production. But any kind of dress had to be made by a dressmaker because the fit was so specific that it had to be customized. Mary Lincoln was said to order 15, 16 dresses each season, which took about three months to make.
While Mary Lincoln was known, and criticized, for an overly youthful style that embraced bright colors and floral patterns, the dresses made for her by Keckley that have survived are the opposite of that style—Keckley really designed with very clean lines.
Where did Mary Lincoln, or other women for that matter, find out about fashion trends?
Fashion at this time copied France line for line. Whatever was happening at the French court was what women in D.C. wanted.
Elizabeth Keckley was an incredible businesswoman and was also known for her beauty.
In her memoir, she recalls that people thought she was beautiful. The Washington Bee, the African American newspaper, treated her like a black socialite within the African-American community. She dressed well—she was not gaudy or showy, but more pared down and refined. She was known for being elegant, upright and appropriate—the Victorian ideal.
How did that Victorian approach play into Keckley’s designs?
The Victorian ideals permeated all levels of American culture and determined what it meant to be an appropriate woman no matter who you were. There were so many social rules about what you had to wear in the daytime and nighttime, and Keckley’s garments all followed those rules, especially for Mary Lincoln, who was in the public eye so frequently.
How long would it take for Keckley to make one dress?
I’m not exactly sure. Maybe two, three weeks. To drape the fabric, cut the fabric, use a sewing machine on some parts and hand-stitch others. Also, remember—she was making multiple dresses at a time, and by the time she was a successful dressmaker in Washington, she also had seamstresses working with her.
What was Keckley most known for amongst women in Washington who wanted a dress from her?
Her fit and her adeptness when it came to draping fabric on the body. She was known to be the dressmaker in D.C. because her garments had extraordinary fit.
What were the dressmaking tools she would have been using at the time?
A rudimentary sewing machine, which is at the Chicago History Museum, pins, needles. She may have measured with inches but because that system was so new, she could have used another marking system for measurement. And she may have used a drafting system that came out in the 1820s for patternmaking.
How much was Keckley earning at the time when she was making dresses for Mary Lincoln?
When Keckley first moved to D.C. and worked as a seamstress for a dressmaker, she made $2.50 a day.
She recalls in her memoir that when she became a dressmaker, she made a dress for Anna Mason Lee who was attending a reception with the Prince of Wales in 1860, which was a very high society event in D.C. Captain Lee gave Keckley $100 to purchase lace and trim for his wife’s dress. So while that doesn’t quite speak to how much she was earning, it does put things in perspective and speak to the level of cost and the timeline of moving from a seamstress to a dressmaker. In fact, when she bought the trim from Harper Mitchell, the trim store, for Lee’s dress, the shop gave her a $25 commission for the purchase. That $25 was already ten times what she was making as a seamstress when she first came to Washington. Working as a dressmaker was the highest-paying opportunity women had during that time period, and Keckley’s dresses were known to be very expensive, the envy of women in Washington.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
April 11, 2013
“We knew that nostalgia goes hand in hand with style as the driving force behind all these decisions. What art succeeds or gets remembered and functions again? What has shelf life? What makes it? It’s all nostalgia. We knew we were engaging in that. History is always as close as the person you’re talking to and what they’re talking about.”
—Art Club 2000, Art Forum, February 2013
In 1993, seven students from Cooper Union formed an artists’ collective called Art Club 2000 with the help of Colin de Land, who gave them an exhibition at his gallery, American Fine Arts. There, they showed “Commingle,” a series of staged photographs shot around New York City in which all the members of the collective wore clothing purchased at the Gap (and returned shortly thereafter because of the store’s lenient return policy).
Twenty years ago, the Gap, which had been around since 1969, was on an upswing, rapidly opening stores all over the country. It was also determined to create a more upscale image with aspirational ad campaigns. The late 1980s’ “Individuals of Style” campaign, for example, was a series of black-and-white photographs of actors, writers, musicians and cultural influencers posing, very seriously, in Gap clothes. Following that, in the early ’90s, it launched the “Who Wore Khakis” campaign, a collection of archival images of famous historical figures sporting khaki pants, turning an otherwise ordinary garment into a must-have.
A selection of Art Club 2000′s (AC2K) images is included in the New Museum’s current exhibition, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” a collection of works from artists including Alex Bag, Rachel Harrison and Felix Gonzalez-Torres who represent what the art world looked like 20 years ago. Patterson Beckwith, a member of the now-defunct group, spoke with Threaded about the role of the Gap in AC2K’s “Commingle” series and what it’s like to look at those Gap-filled images years later.
The Gap in the early and mid 1990s positioned itself as aspirational through the sale of very basic clothes. The brand tried hard to convey a certain lifestyle that AC2K responded to with sardonic criticality in the “Commingle” series. What did the Gap represent in 1993 to AC2K?
The early ’90s were a time in New York City when we were first starting to see Starbucks on every corner. The Gap had recently opened on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and on St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue near Cooper Union. They’d just opened 20 locations in Manhattan and there were loads of ads in bus shelters—it was kind of in your face and we were responding to that.
How did that overabundance of the Gap translate to your art practice?
We wanted to create an art show focused on the idea of institutional critique. We were studying with Hans Haacke at Cooper Union who was using research, reportage and photography in his work. We decided we wanted “Commingle” to be a critique of institutional critique. We had to select an institution, and we chose the Gap. Normally, an institutional critique might examine a museum or gallery that the work is actually in. We were doing something a little different, but we were looking to how Hans Haacke’s journalistic style and research had informed his work.
How did you research the Gap? What did you find?
This was pre-Internet so we started in the library and found a few business magazine articles and interviews. We applied for jobs at the Gap, we hung around the stores, we took pictures inside the stores – but we needed more information. We went through the trash at Gap stores and all their corporate culture was getting thrown in the garbage—sales manuals, employee handbooks, flashcards, handwritten notes from one shift manager to the next.
Nostalgia seeps into these AC2K photos now, 20 years later, as we remember, rather sheepishly, the styles we once wore. Because the Gap’s look at that time was so ubiquitous and so distinctively Gap, how did the relate-ability and familiarity of the garments play into your work?
We were dressing up as people who shopped at the Gap. We would pick the most ridiculous, brightly colored Gap fashions of the summer of 1993 and put them together as we saw people wearing them. Because there were seven of us in the group, it could be difficult to agree on anything, but we all thought it was fun to dress up. Even if we weren’t into fashion, we could all put on costumes and take pictures.
It calls to mind the work of photographer, Cindy Sherman, who uses ordinary clothing and makeup to transform herself, rather powerfully, into very specific characters in her photographs.
Yeah, what we wore were clothes you’d see in the stores at the time, relatively normal stuff. We might not have actually been wearing the clothes ourselves, but it was being worn—as strange and horrible as some of that stuff looks 20 years later. The photo in Times Square where we’re wearing sunglasses, and dressed in denim and bandanas and boots—we’re really playing a character. We’re playing a whole variety of characters throughout the series.
Gap clothes in the early ’90s were androgynous. As is apparent from the New Museum show, discussions about identity politics, gender roles and sexuality were present in art, and in culture in general, at that time. How did the unisex look of the Gap clothes in the “Commingle” series reference those conversations?
We were 19- or 20-year-old art school students studying with Hans Haacke, Laura Cottingham, Doug Ashford and that’s what we were learning about. It was on their minds and so it was on our minds.
In the cycles of fashion, the androgyny thing was kind of hip at that moment. And we were fine with people looking at the photos and not being able to tell the gender of some of the people. I think the Gap clothes definitely helped with that, especially in creating a kind of uniform. We enjoyed playing around with androgyny and gender roles and not shying away from the idea that your identity is wrapped up in how you present yourself and what you choose to wear.
The locations in which the photos are taken—a coffee shop, library, movie theater, furniture store – have a generic feel to them, just as the clothing does. Together they create very ambivalent tableaux. What were you trying to achieve?
We were introduced to the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the idea of constructed reality photography that had been gaining popularity at the time—photography that is based on cinema. The idea that every photo is really constructed influenced our thinking.
How did the shoots come together?
We operated like a fashion editorial shoot. There was a division of labor—makeup, scouting locations, styling, selecting clothes. We wouldn’t necessarily go shopping together. Like a fashion editorial, a change of location would mean a change of clothing. Even though we’d never done fashion shoots before, somehow we knew that was something we were supposed to do and so that’s what we did.
This interview was edited and condensed.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star is open through May 26, 2013, at the New Museum in New York City.
April 9, 2013
Anything is possible with sunshine and a little pink!
It all began with an orange juice-stained dress. American fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer, who died this weekend at age 81, started her iconic clothing line out of necessity. She had moved to Palm Beach, Florida, in the early 1950s after eloping with her then-husband, Peter Pulitzer, who owned citrus groves in the area. She opened an orange juice stand and while working there, discovered that squeezing juice was a messy business. To camouflage the inevitable stains, she said, she designed brightly printed sleeveless dresses. The style was a hit with customers who began to request their own dresses, and she began selling the vibrant floral shifts in addition to O.J. Her short, easy-to-wear pieces took off and she left the juice biz to focus on fashion design.
The “Queen of Prep” (as in preppy) as she became known, became the president of Lilly Pulitzer Inc. in 1959. Her iconic jungle and floral prints in shades of pinks, orange, blues and greens were manufactured by the Key West Hand Print Fabrics company in Key West, Florida.
Because of her pedigree—her mother came from the Standard Oil fortune and she married into the Pulitzer publishing family—Lilly Pulitzer seamlessly situated her brand amongst the blue-blooded set. From the 1960s to the ’80s, her Florida-vacation-in-a-dress shifts were worn by her former high school classmate Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, socialite and artist Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman and anyone aspiring to a Lilly lifestyle. Lilly herself summarized that lifestyle when she said, “The Lilly girl is always full of surprises. She lives everyday like it’s a celebration, never have a dull moment, and make every hour a happy hour.” Basically, her clothes were worn by the antithesis of any Molly Ringwald character from a John Hughes movie.
The brand hung on until 1984 when Pulitzer closed its struggling operation, but it was reborn when Sugartown Worldwide Inc. purchased the rights to use the company’s name in 1993. Today, Lilly’s legacy can be found in dresses, maternity clothes, stationery and bedding in department stores and Lilly Pulitzer stores around the country. (Apparently, as pictured above, Lilly prints can be found on Jeeps.) And they’re also on the backs of sorority sisters, as indicated by the special-edition Lilly Pulitzer collections made exclusively for them.
April 5, 2013
Have a look at the paintings of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and other Cubist painters whose work included hard, geometric forms and visible lines. As these artists were working in their studios, fashion designers, particularly those in France, were taking cues from their paintings. With la garçonne (the flapper, in French) in mind, the designers created fashions with the clean lines and angular forms we now associate with the 1920s-and with Cubism.
The styles we’ve come to connect with Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore and other American actresses on the silver screen in the Jazz Age can be traced back to Europe, and more specifically, a few important designers.
- Jean Patou, known for inventing knit swimwear and women’s tennis clothes, and for promoting sportswear in general (as well as creating the first suntan oil), helped shape the 1920s silhouette. Later in the decade, he revolutionized hemlines once again by dropping them from the knee to the ankle.
- Elsa Schiaparelli’s career built momentum in the ’20s with a focus mostly on knitwear and sportswear (her Surrealism-influenced garments like the lobster dress and shoe hat came later, in the 1930s).
- Coco Chanel and her jersey knits, little back dress and smart suits, all with clean, no-nonsense lines, arrived stateside along with Chanel No. 5 perfume and a desire for a sun-kissed complexion in the early 1920s.
- Madeleine Vionnet made an impression with the bias-cut garment, or a garment made using fabric cut against the grain so that it skimmed the wearer’s body in a way that showed her shape more naturally. Vionnet’s asymmetrical handkerchief dress also became a classic look from that time.
- Jeanne Lanvin, who started off making children’s clothing, made a name for herself when her wealthy patrons began requesting their own versions. Detailed beading and intricate trim became signatures of her designs.
As these designers were breaking new ground (and for some, that began in the 1910s), their looks slowly permeated mainstream culture and made their way across the pond. One of the best ways to see how these couturiers’ pieces translated into clothing with mass appeal is to look at a Sears catalog from the 1920s, which was distributed to millions of families across the United States. As Stella Blum explained in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties:
. . . mail-order fashions began to fall behind those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years. Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless touched even the cheapest wearing apparel. The art movements in Paris and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 managed eventually to make their influence felt on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and in the ghettos of the large cities.
Ordinary Parisians were almost completely over wearing the knee-length, dropped-waisted dresses by the mid- to late 1920s, but in the United States, the style was increasing in popularity. In Flapper Jane, an article in the September 9, 1925, issue of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven wrote:
These [styles] which I have described are Jane’s clothes, but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.
The flapper look was ubiquitous enough to make its way into illustrations and comics. The comic strip “Flapper Fanny Says” tracked the trials and tribulations of the eternally young and somewhat androgynously stylish Fanny. The invention of cartoonist Ethel Hays in 1924, the strip remained in print into the 1940s under different artists.
Around that time, John Held Jr.’s drawings of long-legged, slim-necked, bobbed-haired, cigarette-smoking flappers were making the covers of Life and the New Yorker. His vibrant illustrations, along with those of Russell Patterson and Ralph Barton, captured the exuberant lifestyle–and clothing style–of the time.
Looking back, we can now see how art inspired the decade’s fashion trends and how those fashions fueled a lifestyle. That, in turn, came just about full circle to be reflected in yet another form of visual representation—illustrated depictions of the freewheeling flapper culture—that kept the momentum of the decade going.