February 26, 2013
On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a sweet yet socially inept young woman who is tricked by her cousin into allowing a barber to lop off her hair. With her new do, she is castigated by everyone: Boys no longer like her, she’s uninvited to a social gathering in her honor, and it’s feared that her haircut will cause a scandal for her family.
In the beginning of the 20th century, that’s how serious it was to cut off your locks. At that time, long tresses epitomized a pristine kind of femininity exemplified by the Gibson girl. Hair may have been worn up, but it was always, always long.
Part and parcel with the rebellious flapper mentality, the decision to cut it all off was a liberating reaction to that stodgier time, a cosmetic shift toward androgyny that helped define an era.
The best-known short haircut style in the 1920s was the bob. It made its first foray into public consciousness in 1915 when the fashion-forward ballroom dancer Irene Castle cut her hair short as a matter of convenience, into what was then referred to as the Castle bob.
Early on, when women wanted to emulate that look, they couldn’t just walk into a beauty salon and ask the hairdresser to cut off their hair into that blunt, just-below-the-ears style. Many hairdressers flat out refused to perform the shocking and highly controversial request And some didn’t know how to do it since they’d only ever used their shears on long hair. Instead of being deterred, the flapper waved off those rejections and headed to the barbershop for the do. The barbers complied.
Hairdressers, sensing that the trend was there to stay, finally relented. When they began cutting the cropped style, it was a boon to their industry. A 1925 story from the Washington Post headlined “Economic Effects of Bobbing” describes how bobbed hair did wonders for the beauty industry. In 1920, there were 5,000 hairdressing shops in the United States. At the end of 1924, 21,000 shops had been established—and that didn’t account for barbershops, many of which did “a rushing business with bobbing.”
As the style gained mass appeal—for instance, it was the standard haircut in the widely distributed Sears mail order catalog during the ’20s—more sophisticated variations developed. The finger wave (S-shaped waves made using fingers and a comb), the Marcel (also wavy, using the newly invented hot curling iron), shingle bob (tapered, and exposing the back of the neck) and Eton crop (the shortest of the bobs and popularized by Josephine Baker) added shape to the blunt cut. Be warned: Some new styles weren’t for the faint of heart. A medical condition, the Shingle Headache, was described as a form of neuralgia caused by the sudden removal of hair from the sensitive nape of the neck, or simply getting your hair cut in a shingle bob. (An expansive photograph collection of bob styles can be found here.)
Accessories were designed to complement the bob. The still-popular bobby pin got its name from holding the hairstyle in place. The headband, usually worn over the forehead, added a decorative flourish to the blunt cut. And the cloche, invented by milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908, gained popularity because the close-fitting hat looked so becoming with the style, especially the Eton crop.
Although later co-opted by the mainstream to become status quo (along with makeup, underwear and dress, as earlier Threaded posts described), the bob caused heads to turn (pun!) as flappers turned the sporty, cropped look into another playful, gender-bending signature of the Jazz Age.
Has there been another drastic hairstyle that’s accomplished the same feat? What if the 1990s equivalent of Irene Castle—Sinead O’Connor and her shaved head—had really taken off? Perhaps a buzz cut would have been the late 20th-century version of the bob and we all would have gotten it, at least once.
February 14, 2013
It was during the Roman Empire that St. Valentine is said to have left a note to his jailer’s daughter, “From your Valentine” before his execution on February 14. Today, thanks to St. Valentine, cards expressing one’s heartfelt emotions, a. k. a. valentines, are given to that special someone.
To defer to a classic idiom: It’s a day to wear our heart on our sleeve.
We use the phrase casually, to mean exposing our true emotions, making ourselves vulnerable and letting it all hang out. The phrase is so pervasive that from Ringo Starr to Eminem to Carrie Underwood, those words-turned-lyrics have found their way into a range of musical genres.
But, what kind of sleeve? And why on a sleeve and not a pants leg or around your neck? There’s no clear answer. But many legends attempt to get at the heart (it is Valentine’s Day, after all!) of the matter and may explain the source of the saying. The three most popular stories:
1. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Claudius II believed unattached men made better soldiers so he declared marriage illegal. As a concession, he encouraged temporary coupling. Once a year, during a Roman festival honoring Juno, men drew names to determine who would be their lady friend for the coming year. Once established, the man would wear her name on his sleeve for the rest of the festival.
2. Around that same time, it’s speculated, when a knight performed in a jousting match in the king’s court, he’d dedicate his performance to a woman of the court. By tying something of hers, like a handkerchief, around his arm, he’d let the court know the match would defend the honor of that woman.
3. Or, we can credit Shakespeare, where it may have first been recorded in writing:
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
– Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, 56–65
In the circa 1603 play, Iago confesses to treacherous acts and says that by “wear[ing] my heart upon my sleeve,” or truly exposing himself, he’s basically invited black crow-like birds to peck away at him.
So maybe this Valentine’s Day, forgo the cloying Hallmark cards and flavorless Russell Stover chocolates. Take a risk of letting the “daws” have their way with you by affixing your darling’s name onto your arm. Or better yet, if you really, really mean it, ink it right into your flesh.
One step too far? Okay, how about just plastering pictures of your honey’s face onto your legs to show the world what he really means to you.
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?
September 28, 2012
Artist Yayoi Kusama established the Church of Self-Obliteration and appointed herself the “High Priestess of Polka Dots” to officiate at a gay wedding between two men in 1968. For their nuptials, she also designed the couple’s wedding outfit: a two-person bridal gown. (And instead of a Bible, they used a New York City telephone book for the ceremony, she told Index magazine.)
Since the wedding dress wasn’t included in the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, we can only imagine what it might’ve looked like. Nonetheless, from the late ’60s-specific paintings, sculptures, collages, videos, posters and fliers included in the show—that closes this Sunday, September 30!—we can presume what the lucky couple would’ve been wearing.
At 83 years old, Kusama is arguably the be-spotted queen of dots, known for obsessively painting them on everything throughout her prolific career— canvases, chairs, cats, clothing and bodies. This compulsion, along with a work-yourself-to-the-bone drive, propelled Kusama to leave New York City in 1973 after a 16-year stint and check herself into a psychiatric hospital in Japan, where she has lived and made art ever since (although not before greatly influencing the work of her contemporaries, including Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd).
As a young, struggling Japanese artist in New York in the 1960s, she established the avant-garde fashion label Kusama Fashion Company Ltd., sold for a time at the “Kusama Corner” in Bloomingdale’s. Dresses were adorned with spots or, inversely, were full of holes (might this have been Rei Kawakubo’s early inspiration?), including those that were smack-dab on the wearer’s posterior. Her designs were see-through, silver, gold, or complete with phallic protrusions, another Kusama signature. As recounted to New York magazine by Kusama:
“An evening gown with holes cut out at the breast and derriere went for as much as $1,200,’”while her See-Through and Way-Out dresses were popular with “the Jackie O crowd.” She designed the “sleeping-bag-like Couples Dress” to “bring people together, not separate them,” while the Homo Dress, “with a cutout section placed strategically in the rear,” went for fifteen dollars.
Just like the polka dots, soft protuberances were frequently incorporated in Kusama’s clothing, art, and everyday activities, like shopping at a supermarket wearing a dress and hat adorned with those hand-sewn phalluses. In a 1998 interview with Index magazine, Kusama addressed the proliferation of phallic symbols: “I liberated myself from the fear [of sex] by creating these works. Their creation had the purpose of healing myself.”
Kusama’s exploration of the human body went beyond an anxiety associated with male genitalia and sex. She staged happenings around New York City, and in performances she called Self-Obliterations, she painted spots onto naked bodies. As she explained to BOMB in 1999, referring to herself in the third-person, “Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe. This is magic.” And to Index she reasoned, “If there’s a cat, I obliterate it by putting polka dot stickers on it. I obliterate a horse by putting polka dot stickers on it. And I obliterated myself by putting the same polka dot stickers on myself.”
For more on Kusama’s relationship to clothing, fashion, and the human body, head over to her show at the Whitney before it closes this Sunday and make sure to spend some time with the primary sources and found materials in the show. And if Kusama’s work leaves you with an insatiable craving for polka dots, consider her spotty handbag collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
September 14, 2012
Yesterday, while riding the F train into Manhattan from Brooklyn, I saw Elizabeth Sweetheart. She was sitting on the subway, wearing lime green from head to toe, glowing. Her hair, backpack, necklace, nail polish—everything—was that vibrant shade. Before she got off the train in downtown Brooklyn, I introduced myself to her quickly and asked if I could snap her photo on my phone. I don’t know what prompted me to ask the only other question I had time to blurt out before we arrived at her stop – How long have you been dressing in green? Her response: 16 years. And then she was gone.
With New York Fashion Week winding down, and one waiflike model after another taking to the runways wearing designer clothes most of us could never afford, I found Elizabeth, and her decade-and-a-half-long monochromatic look, to be a refreshing reminder of what style can also be. Of course, watching the shows to see what’s on the fashion horizon (patterns, prints, bold colors, if you’re curious…) and what trends we can expect to trickle into stores like H & M and Forever 21 is one fun way, yes. But, as Elizabeth’s sartorial inclinations reinforced, it can also be a decision to not take things too seriously and do it your own way.
We’ve seen these kinds of D.I.Y. stylistic interpretations throughout history, and to equally satisfying results. Take, for instance, this dress, highlighted in a recent post on the Smithsonian’s Around the Mall blog about how the Institution’s costume collections, although historic and D.C.-based, contribute to the New York Fashion Week conversation:
Feedsack dresses were an economic necessity for the hard-hit farming families of the 1920s and ’30s. But that doesn’t mean women didn’t take pride in creating one-of-a-kind designs. The bag manufacturers even began responding to market demand, according to the American History Museum, by printing ever-more colorful patterns on their products. Fashionable and frugal, the feedsack trend continued through WWII with regional contests for women to show off their skills.
But back to Elizabeth. So there she was, a petite, 70-something-year-old woman, squished between two people on the F train, just being her vibrant self. After taking her photo and exchanging a few words, I posted the image on Facebook only to learn that not only is she a New York institution, but she’s also just a lady who can be seen running errands in Carroll Garden, Brooklyn, in one of her many pairs of hand-dyed green overalls. As she explained to New York Magazine in 2008: “I’m from Nova Scotia, where green is in your surroundings. I missed nature when I moved to New York. I started wearing green nail polish, and it spread all over me.”