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.
December 6, 2012
The Bass Weejun loafer is not named after a Native American tribe.
Suitcases sometimes are time capsules.
And a postal worker can design high-end scarves.
What follows is Threaded’s second blog roundup of sartorial curiosities from around the web, turning on their head assumptions about what we wear and why we hold onto things.
The classic loafer, and various bedazzled iterations of it, have come roaring back into public consciousness since residing on the feet of dressed-down corporates for the past couple decades. How the shoes originated with Norwegian fishermen, when preppy college students’ flocked to them and why they’re called Weejuns is explained by Nancy Macdonnell in her New York Times cultural history of the slip-on, “Loafing Around”:
Despite the Ivy League associations and moccasin construction, the loafer is neither American in origin nor named for a little known Native American tribe. Instead, Weejun is a corruption of “Norwegian.” What does that Scandinavian country have to do with the preppiest of American shoe styles? As it turns out, quite a bit: The loafer as we know it came about thanks to a combination of Lost Generation wanderlust and a growing and more general desire for comfort. Though Paris was the most famous destination for F. Scott Fitzgerald and his lesser-known cohorts, some of his peers journeyed further afield. Those who went to Norway noticed that Norwegian fisherman made themselves comfortable shoes that consisted of leather sides joined by a strip of leather across the instep like moccasins—still the way true loafers are made today.
Last year, photographer Jon Crispin’s Kickstarter campaign to document the neglected but intact suitcases of patients from the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, New York, caught my eye. Dating from the 1910s to 1960s, these suitcases were left at the asylum after it closed in 1995. Now, as time capsules, the valises, and the objects within them, tell the eerie and heartbreaking story of each patient’s life, many of whom never left the hospital after they were admitted.
Hunter Oatman-Stanford at Collectors Weekly interviewed Crispin last month about his project and the contents of the suitcases he’s been photographing in “Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients.” The everyday objects Crispin photographed, which patients felt were essential upon entering Willard—green Lucite hairbrushes, a bright yellow alarm clock, a tube of shoe cream, a gold leather belt, a sewing kit, black-and-white photos, silverware—are fascinating bits of cultural ephemera on their own. In each self-contained parcel, the contents come to represent the patient. In the interview, Crispin recalls one particular story that’s stayed with him:
One of the last cases I shot was from a guy named Frank who was in the military. His story was particularly sad. He was a black man, and I later found out he was gay. He was eating in a diner and felt that the waiter or waitress disrespected him, and he just went nuts. He completely melted down, smashed some plates, and got arrested. His objects were particularly touching because he had a lot of photo booth pictures of himself and his friends. Frank looks very dapper, and there are all these beautiful women from the ’30s and ’40s in his little photo booth pictures. That really affected me.
Lastly, did you read the story that’s been circulating on the Internet about the Texas postal worker who moonlights as the only American artist to design Hermès scarves? Kermit Oliver, who’s in his 60s, has contributed 16 paintings to Hermès since the 1980s when Lawrence Marcus, the executive vice president of Neiman Marcus, recommended him. His scarf designs, painted when he’s not working the night shift at the Waco post office, take six months to one year to create and are highly sought after. His enigmatic lifestyle and reclusive art career was documented in “Portrait of the Artist as a Postman” in the October issue of Texas Monthly:
Kermit’s wife met me at the door. She wore dish-washing gloves and an apron decorated with red chile peppers, and her hair was up in a turquoise bandanna. “You know,” she said, “we’re not visiting people.” But she welcomed me in, offered me some orange juice, and led me down the creaky plank floors of a dark, cramped hallway. The walls were covered with art: images of exotic animals, elegant ranch-life pastorals in vibrant colors, biblical allegories. We passed a framed scarf, Kermit’s first for Hermès. Displayed behind dusty glass, it was a portrait of a Pawnee Indian chief on a bright-orange background, surrounded by childlike drawings of galloping horses with flag-toting riders.
Anything that you’ve read recently that you would recommend to Threaded readers?
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.
August 8, 2012
A few years before Farrah Fawcett donned her red bathing suit, seven-time gold medalist Mark Spitz wore his stars and stripes Speedo to dramatic effect in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Tanned and toned in this photo, Spitz stands, arms akimbo, grinning and gilded with first-place medallions. If Fawcett was the 1970s manifestation of the All-American girl in her one-piece, Spitz was the male equivalent: virile and mustached, confident. (That ‘stache, incidentally, began as a form of rebellion against his swimming coach’s instructions and was going to be shaved off before the Olympics, but Spitz’s facial hair became such a part of his look that he always competed with what he referred to as his “good-luck piece.”)
While Speedos remain popular, competitive racing suits have evolved since the ’70s. They’ve become so technically advanced that the suits, and, in particular, Speedo’s full-body LZR Racer worn by the likes of Michael Phelps, were banned from competition in 2010. As Sarah Rich wrote on Design Decoded: “A suspicious number of record-breaking times were documented after competitors began wearing this gear, which includes drag-reducing polyurethane panels, buoyancy-enhancing material, and no seams—instead, the pieces are welded together ultrasonically.”
Before ultrasonic welding and mimicking sharkskin were part of the repertoire, what did U.S. swimmers of yore wear in the Olympics? Sure enough, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has some answers!
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku is famous as the father of surfing, but the Hawaiian athlete took his swimming ability to the Olympics, where he first won the gold in 1912 in Stockholm. Kahanamoku went on to win medals during the 1920 Games in Antwerp and 1924 Games in Paris and competed again in 1932 on the U.S. water polo team.
Kahanamoku set swimming records, rescued drowning fishermen, appeared in films and brought surfing to the world with international exhibitions; he eventually became sheriff of Honolulu (where he remained in office for almost 30 years).
In this portrait from 1915, he stands proudly on a beach in front of a surfboard inscribed with his name, wearing a fetching one-piece. (The suit is likely made of wool, the board solid koa wood.)
Then there’s Gertrude Ederle, 1924 gold and bronze medalist in swimming. Medals aside, she’s more well-known as the first woman to swim the English Channel. Annette Kellerman (who rather infamously wore one of the first skin-tight women’s one-piece bathing suits) attempted the 21-mile swim unsuccessfully on three occasions in 1905. But on August 6, 1926, Ederle set out at 7:08 a.m. and swam 14 hours 31 minutes to reach England’s Dover coast. With that time, she bested the five other Channel-crossing swimmers (all male) by an hour.
In this photograph, taken a year before crossing the Channel, we see Ederle standing on the beach holding an oar and some buoyant-looking contraption (Anyone know what it is?). Ederle’s wearing a suit emblazoned with what appears to be a chariot, and since her hair is done in 1920s-style pin curls, she certainly hadn’t just emerged from the water. (Not pictured here are the goggles she invented using leather and rubber, which are part of the Smithsonian’s collection.)
Also: Notice any similarities between her suit and the 2012 U.S. women’s swimming team suits?
Keeping with 1924 medalists, we turn to Johnny Weissmuller. He finished the 1924 and 1928 Olympics with five gold medals and one bronze and was heralded as one of the greatest swimmers of the first half of the 20th century.
Even then, the swimmers’ build was a ticket to advertising; Weissmuller traded his suit for briefs when he became a model for underwear company BVD. And then he traded his underwear for a loincloth when he scored the role of Tarzan. He was in six Tarzan movies before he went on to play Jungle Jim, start a swimming pool company, launch the Swimming Hall of Fame, start the failed tourist attraction Tarzan’s Jungle, have his golf cart captured by Cuban rebels, and find his face on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Seen here in this portrait of a portrait, Weissmuller perches jauntily on a drop cloth wearing a white suit, a similar style to Ederle’s and Kahanamoku’s, and well, to current Speedos, it appears. Holding his palette, the painter stands by his work and gazes not at the camera but at his apathetic subject.
And finally, Olympic swimmers Eleanor Holm and Helene Madison: Madison swam competitively for only five years, but in that time, she won three gold medals in the 1932 Games. Holm, standing beside her, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. She was en route to the 1936 Games when she was dismissed from the U.S. swimming team for a “champagne-drinking incident.” What does an international incident involving champagne look like? Apparently, Holm helped turn the boat taking the U.S. swimming team to the Berlin Olympics into a booze cruise; she had too much to drink, was reported to the team captain and got booted from the team. Devastated, she watched from the stands as her teammates competed. Despite the scandal, Holm was able to follow in fellow swimming medalist Weissmuller’s bare footsteps when she took her place on the silver screen as Tarzan’s love interest in the 1938 Tarzan’s Revenge.
In this photo, taken at the 1932 Summer Games, teammates Holm and Madison pose together on diving boards, wearing the basic aquatic one-piece and swim caps, toes pointed, waving to an unknown crowd. Not the suits typical of the day, they’re similar in cut to today’s competitive gear. Aquatic fashion, it seems, has stepped back from the flashy 1970s and ’80s to take its cues from the modest 1920s.
All this makes me wonder what it must be like to devote your entire youth to training, competing and winning, and then wake up one day realizing it’s time to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. Do you teach the world to surf? Portray a jungle denizen? Drink a little too much bubbly? Become a real estate mogul? Now that Michael Phelps has retired at age 27 as the most decorated Olympian in history, what’s next for him, besides collecting millions in oh-so-boring endorsements? Maybe he should bring back tradition and consider swinging from vines wearing nothing but a loin cloth.
June 28, 2012
Beauty resists definition. One might say it does so by definition: The subjective thing called beauty cannot be measured, quantified or otherwise objectively evaluated. Which isn’t to say we haven’t tried! Yes, the beauty pageant has been around a long time.
It was not long after Henry David Thoreau said that the “perception of beauty is a moral test” that his contemporary P.T. Barnum inaugurated the world’s first official beauty pageant, which was staged in 1854 and which was deemed so risqué that Barnum had to tone it down by asking women to submit daguerreotypes for judging instead of hosting a live show. From there, legend has it that the first “bathing beauty pageant” took place in the beach town of my youth, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where in the 1880s, the event was held as part of a summer festival to promote business. According to some digging done by Slate, although referenced frequently in literature and film, that tale may be a tall one.
The Miss America pageant was first held in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and presided over by a man dressed like King Neptune. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, D.C. took home the golden Little Mermaid trophy. And yet the beauty of this beauty pageant was secondary to commercial interests; as with many American cultural traditions, what became the Miss America pageant began as a promotional stunt, in this case promoting tourism in Atlantic City beyond the summer months.
Ever since, the bathing suit competition has remained an integral part—or, let’s face it—the integral part—of most beauty pageants. (Even after the talent categories were introduced, and the contestants started talking, which hasn’t always been successful: Remember the Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant?) Here’s a more interesting reel: a 1935 Texas pageant where the idea of beauty was so rigidly defined, in such a literal sense, that contestants tried to fit into wooden cutouts of the ideal female figure while in their bathing suits.
In the first segment in our series about bathing suits, we looked at the history. Today we see suits through the lens of the beauty pageant—the judging, the locale, the styles and requirements for entry—all of which can be seen in many items from the Smithsonian’s collections.
Such as this photo—
—on the back of which is written, by hand:
“You’ll never find me in this mob—but I was the only ‘judge’ in this beauty contest in Long Island, New York, it was my ‘first’ (in the 1920′s).” The judge was a young Alberto Vargas, a featured illustrator of busty beauties for Playboy.
Here we see an African-American beauty contest in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights era. The contestants are strutting their stuff, and Anderson shot the scene as you would at a national contest on TV—angled up, from the best runway seat—except the blacktop and chain-link fence belie the setting. An excerpt from the Oh Freedom! online exhibition reads:
In fact, many beauty pageants at that time, including Miss America, allowed only white women to compete. It was not until 1970 that the first African American contestant reached the national Miss America competition, two years after the Miss Black America Pageant had been inaugurated in protest.
Around that time, artist Malcah Zeldis addressed the racial coding of beauty pageants in this painting:
Zeldis, a youthful kibbutznik in Israel who came back to the United States and started painting satires of American riturals like national holidays, weddings, and of course, the Miss America pageant, contrasts the blond beauty celebrated at the center with the less blond, less white onlookers.
Even for Zeldis, there is a winner. Because it wouldn’t be a beauty pageant without a winner. And she wouldn’t be a winner without the tiara placed atop her head. One of those tiaras, from the 1951 Miss America pageant, made its way into the Smithsonian’s collection a few years ago. In this 2006 article from Smithsonian, Owen Edwards explains how and why it was acquired:
Then, 1951′s Miss America, Yolande Betbeze Fox, contacted the museum from her home in nearby Georgetown and offered not only her crown but also her scepter and Miss America sash. According to [National Museum of American History curator David] Shayt, the “perfectly delightful” Fox set no conditions for the display of her donations. “She just wanted the museum to have them,” he says.
Fox may have been the most unconventional Miss America ever. Born Yolande Betbeze in Mobile, Alabama, in 1930, she comes from Basque ancestry, and her dark, exotic looks were hardly typical of beauty contestants in the ’50s. But her magnetism, and a well-trained operatic voice, focused the judges’ attention.
Betbeze wore the fabled crown uneasily. In 1969, she recalled to the Washington Post that she had been too much of a nonconformist to do the bidding of the pageant’s sponsors. “There was nothing but trouble from the minute that crown touched my head,” she said. For one thing, she declined to sign the standard contract that committed winners to a series of promotional appearances. And one of her first acts was to inform the Catalina bathing suit company that she would not appear in a swimsuit in public unless she was going swimming. Spurned, Catalina broke with the Miss America Pageant and started Miss Universe.”
Quite a contrast to our stereotypes about these competitions. As with the evolution of bathing suits from shield-your-eyes modesty (More fabric! Less skin!) to boldly embracing the iconic All American Girl and her skimpier red one-piece suit (and then plastering it on your bedroom wall), bathing suits and their wearers have never stopped causing titillation. The discomfort and controversy back in the 1950s around Yolande Betbeze Fox’s Miss America win, based on her beauty among other things, and her subsequent refusal to wear her suit for promotional purposes (i.e., to be checked out some more) exemplifies the push-pull Americans have felt acknowledging sexuality, judging beauty and showing a little bit of skin.
Images: Smithsonian collections