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.
April 1, 2013
A campaign in Massachusetts is determined to put an end to wearing saggy pants by enforcing a law enacted back in 1784 and amended in 1987. According to Section 16, “Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” under the “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order”:
A man or woman, married or unmarried, who is guilty of open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars.
Up to three years in jail and a few hundred dollar fine just for wearing your pants low?!
Omar Reid, president and founder of the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts, doesn’t think it’s such a minor offense. He initiated the campaign, upcoming billboards and the accompanying video “to address the growing issue of young men walking in the streets of our communities without regard and respect for themselves and their community.” Reid explains:
For the BMHAM it’s a behavioral health issue in our neighborhoods and communities that must be addressed the entire community….This is just the beginning of our public strategy to encourage parents, schools, police, social service agencies, housing agencies, faith-based organizations, along with men and women in our community, to take a collective stand and tell our young men and boys to pull those pants up.
How does Reid not recognize that punishing someone for wearing pants at butt level isn’t exactly going to imbue that person with respect for his community—and that the long-term consequences are likely to do more harm than good?
While the Massachusetts campaign may seem straight out of an Onion article, sagging pants have been a hot topic since the early 2000s, particularly because states, cities and local communities around the United States have tried to enact laws that would provide fines, penalties, potential jail time for those who sag. Memphis, Tennessee, Delcambre, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas are just a few of the cities to try to enforce anti-sagging laws to mixed results, including a successful “Urkeling” enforcement strategy derived from the character Steve Urkel from the television show “Family Matters.”
The enforcement of these laws is controversial because the majority of people who choose to make this fashion statement are young African American males. As a result, prosecution is generally equated with racial profiling, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to write the blog post, “Why does the ACLU care about saggy pants“:
Government policy-makers have no right to dictate or influence style, nor do they have the right to protect themselves and the greater public from seeing clothing they dislike. In fact, clothing is a form of expression protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. A governmental body seeking to regulate content based expressive conduct, such as wearing saggy pants, must show that a substantial government interest exists in regulating the conduct, that the interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and that the regulation actually furthers that government interest. The courts have been clear that government cannot ban speech simply because others find it distasteful. There is no evidence linking saggy pants to crime or public safety.
President Obama has even weighed in, calling anti-sag ordinances “a waste of time.” In a New York Times article from 2008, he explained:
“Having said that,” he continued, “brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on.”
“Some people might not want to see your underwear,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m one of them.”
Wearing one’s pants really low makes the wearer walk penguin-like. The person waddles around, maintaining a stilted gait so that the pants stay in place. Cinched with a belt, in extreme cases underneath the backside with boxers visible, the pants make legs look overly short. Oversized shirts elongate the torso leading to skewed, caricature-like proportions.
Remember when it was totally acceptable to wear men’s boxer shorts as regular shorts in the early 1990s? How about corsets as outerwear? Or, ever see a woman whose leggings are stretched so taut across her derriere that her cellulite is visible through the Lycra? And let’s not forget super low-rise jeans with thongs peaking out. The list goes on and yet, you don’t hear towns passing laws against these styles, which are just as, or even more, explicit. What we have is a double standard.
Saggy pants got started in prison. Men weren’t allowed to wear belts for fear of self-harm and uniforms weren’t exactly well-tailored. That meant that more often than not, prisoners wound up wearing drooping pants. Outside of incarceration, the low-rise look stuck and ex-prisoners would identify one another by continuing to wear that style in public.
That look got co-opted by the hip-hop community and made its way into pop culture when groups like Kriss Kross wore their pants low (and backwards, but that’s another story, one that continues today with one of the members still wearing his pants backwards 21 years later) in music videos.
Today, everyone has an opinion on the subject, and teens’ views are as much a reflection of this issue’s divisiveness as are those of grown-ups. The Charlotte Observer posed the question, “Should people be punished for wearing saggy pants or exposing midriffs in public? Should wearing saggy pants be banned?” in its Young Voices section and responses varied. Adrian Delgado, 18, was strongly against the fashion: “I think that they should ban sagging pants because it just looks ridiculous seeing someone sagging.” Aaron Nash, 17, had more moderate views: “There should be a punishment for doing such actions as sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs but not that severe, coming from a young perspective. All sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs are just a fashion statement.” And Mario King, 18, supported the style: “I don’t think the government has the right to tell people how they can wear their clothes that they worked hard and paid for.”
Does a violation on a permanent record for sartorial choices really have more lasting positive effects than negative ones? Doubtful. As Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the N.A.A.C.P. stated in a New York Times article, “I think to criminalize how a person wears their clothing is more offensive than what the remedy is trying to do.” Plus, wearing saggy pants is the punishment itself; much like the hobble skirt from the early 20th century, the movement-stilting, limp-enabling, malfunction-prone clothing is awkward enough to make you think twice about the price you pay for fashion.
March 22, 2013
If your wardrobe is seriously lacking the next time you have a red carpet event on the horizon, consider taking a trip to The Way We Wore. The vintage boutique, its proprietor Doris Raymond, and her upbeat staff are the subjects of a new series called “L.A. Frock Stars,” which premiered last week on the Smithsonian Channel. Over the course of six episodes, the docu-reality show follows Doris and members of her charismatic team as they travel from California to Texas to New York on the hunt for rare fashions to stock in her Los Angeles shop.
We’re not talking run-of-the-mill thrift store finds. From beaded floor-length gowns to ostrich feather-adorned party dresses to one-of-a-kind Christian Dior jackets, the pristine garments and accessories in the LaBrea Avenue boutique have been purchased by A-list celebrities, stylists, designers, and serious vintage clothing aficionados who trust Doris’ eye. In between traveling alongside Doris on her treasure hunting shopping marathons, the viewer is exposed to educational tidbits from her encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, a refreshing feature that distinguishes the show from its superficial, “What Not to Wear”-style reality television counterparts. We spoke with Doris to learn more about her passion for vintage.
How did you get into this line of work?
In the 1970s, I had bought a ring in the shape of a triangle with a carnelian stone and on either side of the triangle was marcasite. Someone saw it and commented, “That’s a really great Art Deco ring.” I said, “What’s Art Deco?” I went to the library and researched it, and from that research, I wanted to find out more of the context. When you get a little back story about an object, it amplifies the value and makes you appreciate it much more. So yeah, my career basically started all over a ring.
From watching the show, everything at The Way We Wore seems special – unusual, collectible, rare – and the garments have an attention to detail that we see less and less of these days. With the thousands of incredible objects you handle each year, when do pieces really stand out?
I could tell stories from the ridiculous to the sublime. Not to sound like a fashion snob, but oftentimes, the ones that blow my socks off and stick in my mind are the ones that cross the boundary from fashion into art.
One of my favorite examples is a Sonia Delaunay cloche and scarf that I bought in North Carolina about 20 years ago. Someone who had worked for me went to the State University of New York to become a curator and her first exhibition was about Sonia Delaunay. I had never heard of her until that point. The show, and her work, left quite an impression on me, especially because of Delaunay’s Cubist influences. The way she put things together was so identifiable that wouldn’t you know, six months later I’m in an antique store in North Carolina and I see this cloche and scarf and I think, “This can’t be,” but I bought it. And that began a journey of spending two years and many thousands of dollars meeting with experts on Delaunay. After two years, I received a certificate of authenticity for the cloche and scarf. I would say that was the most sublime experience.
How about something on the more ridiculous end of the spectrum?
Anything that makes me chuckle or laugh out loud is a piece that I want, either for myself or for the store. Several years ago, I was in Chicago and I bought these 1920s earmuffs and the actual ear coverings were composition faces – similar to a kewpie doll – with fur around each muff. It looked like you’re wearing heads around your head. That piece I have kept in my office.
So you’ve held onto the earmuffs, but how do you decide what to keep and what to sell?
I would say that everything from my collection is for sale because I’ve learned through the years that when you let go of something, something better will replace it. If I happen to have a client come in who is a good match for something that’s not visible in the store, I’d rather pass it on. I take on the role of foster parent. There’s nothing I can’t let go of except for my books. I keep my books because I use them for reference.
You come upon clothing that has been worn by historical figures on momentous occasions. How interested are you in the provenance of the garment?
Before I opened my store, I was a collector first. After I opened my store in L.A., I had to change my eye and my criteria for retail because 99 percent of my customers are less interested in provenance.
I recently sold two Native American garments to one of my favorite customers. A week or so after she bought it, I called her to let her know it had come from Rudolph Nureyev. The woman I got the pieces from was an extremely close friend of Nureyev’s and an executor of his estate. I thought she’d want to know. I rarely toot that horn until after it sells because I feel like the value of piece is in the garment itself, not who owned it.
Generally, it’s more widely accepted for people to wear vintage clothing these days. How have you seen the culture of vintage evolve?
There’s a reverence and respect for elements of the past regardless of the form it takes. With clothing, that appreciation has increased in the past decade because of social networks and platforms like eBay, where people began to have more exposure to the vintage clothing culture that exists. People began appreciating what was in their closets and what was in their relatives’ closets rather than just throwing everything into a dumpster, which is the way things were done in the past.
When I started wearing vintage in the late ’60s, early ’70s, my mother said, “Don’t tell people it’s used.” Buying at thrift stores was an indication that you couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. That was the case – I couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. But it wasn’t something I was embarrassed about.
Once you attach value, things change. And I think that has a lot to do with celebrity dressing, with people like Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, and Renee Zellweger wearing vintage. It has become acceptable to wear vintage without having a stigma attached to it.
The Way We Wore boutique is on the more expensive end of the vintage clothing store spectrum with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to up to $50,000. How do you compare your shop to the thousands of other vintage shops in existence?
Unless you’ve invested time in understanding the different types of vintage, coming into a store like mine can be off-putting because every piece is curated, cleaned, repaired, and the prices reflect that. My business is for more seasoned vintage clothing shoppers who understand the value of what they’re getting.
L.A. Frock Stars airs on the Smithsonian Channel, Thursday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.