Guest Review: Rei Kawakubo at Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Nadine L. Stewart

The key to approaching the latest Costume Institute exhibit [Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, on view to September 4, 2017) is to always keep in mind the telling words in its title—The Art of the In-Between.  For it is in the world of in-between designer Rei Kawakubo has been living and working for most of her career–a search that spans more than 40 years. The current exhibit allows us inside the restless mind of a strong-willed rebellious spirit.

The entire exhibit is housed in a series of stark white cylinders and boxes. There are no labels, just a brief name for each section and a number next to each piece. There is a brochure one can pick up at the entrance that contains quite a bit of information, along with many quotes from the famously taciturn designer. I advise reading it later. Concentrate on the clothes, their shapes, their materials, and their details. This is a show that demands focus.

Rei Kawakubo was not trained as a designer of clothing, she studied fine arts and aesthetics in college and evolved into fashion design. Her arrival on the international fashion scene in 1981 coincided with the emergence of other protean talents from Japan in the 1980s, including Issey Miyake and Yoji Yamamoto. (Kawakubo does not like being lumped in a group with them since she claims rightly that they are all very different.) Kawakubo says her lack of fashion training freed her, “I wasn’t limited to the confines of a pattern. Not being educated, not being taught how to design, I was able to visualize in a completely different context. And I still seem able to draw upon the unconventional.” Lack of fashion training would hinder a more conventional mind, but it is clear Kawakubo has a special view of the world. Some of this may come from her Japanese background. The influence of art of origami, folding new shapes of a flat 2-diminsional material, is visible here, as is the Japanese reverence for textiles and recycling and reusing old materials. As one progresses through the cones and boxes, there are wrapped and tied bundles, a reminder of the Japanese appreciation of package design.

The Future of Silhouette, Fall/ winter 2017-18, Rei Kawakubo

But, there is more here than references. The first garment one is confronted with is a huge ball of brown paper from her most recent Fall/ winter 2017-18 collection called “The Future of Silhouette.” It is the embodiment of her design process which, we are told, often begins with a single word or concept like a ball of crumpled paper that her design team interprets. There is no sign of the body here except for the arms, legs and head that protrude from the immense, round bundle. Kawakubo is not concerned with enhancing the shape of the body or being restricted by it. Her designs explore the space between the body and the garment itself. Commenting on one collection, Kawakubo said she was interested in, “…designing from the shapeless, abstract, intangible forms, not taking into account the body.” This turned the norms of Western fashion on upside down. One manifestation is the section of skirts form 2004. They are white cotton twill with black or pink sateen facings-stiff bulbous shapes with visible raw edges. The skirts look alike but subtle differences the placement of color and the placement of the seams make each unique. This interest in repetition progressed to explorations of popular and elite culture expressed in the “Motorcycle Ballerina” collection of 2005 and her look at the norms of good and bad taste which used cheap materials like elastic and white nylon tulle.

She moved away from aesthetic concepts to memories first in the 1990s with dresses that utilized the hoops and bustles of the 19th century often piled on the body in multiples. She returned to the past in this century 2012 with collections, that featured layers of garments evocative of birth, marriage, and death. Looking at one garment which had a childlike white lace dress with puffed sleeves sewn to its front I was reminded of how we carry our memories of these important milestones with us throughout our lives.

But it is the sight of the “Body Meets Dress” collection that shows a dramatic turn [see intro image]. This is the “Lumps and Bumps” collection. Kawakubo reassembled the human form by inserting down pads into the stretch gingham garment. This created figures that are nothing like the conventional fashion model/clothes hanger shape with narrow hips, high breasts, and long legs. These figures could be called grotesque with their asymmetric bulges making the body look deformed. And yet, the figures had their own beauty as 1997 videos of the Merce Cunningham troupe show. A former member of the company told me, the performance was extraordinary because the dancers were moving in ways that allowed their movement to be seen afresh. The costumes were also assigned to men and women with no distinction for their sex which was unusual then.

The exploration continued in 2014 when Kawakubo changed her design process again and concentrated on translating her concepts directly to design. The newer clothing is shown alongside earlier pieces, so one can see the move to pure form with the body as an armature for display of concepts. Robin Givhan, an astute observer of the fashion world, says it best, “Kawakubo’s clothes have a life separate from the body that wears them. They come with their own context; they reference themselves. The garments tell their own story.”

As you walk through the final sections with stuffed knitted forms, figures covered in brocade petals of the 18th century and samurai armor, mannequins that look like they are covered in multiple wrapped bundles and others sprouting astonishing featherwork, it seems one is seeing the entire array of age-old techniques of fashion in forms never tried before. Finally, near the end I was stopped short by two figures covered in white synthetic wadding usually used for the inner construction of a garment. They are misshapen, armless. These two pieces are from the latest collection prophetically titled “The Future of Silhouette.” It’s clear Kawakubo is not done yet subverting our expectations.

You may not understand how Kawakubo’s restless exploration of the “In-Between” affects how you see the world. But, it has. This exhibit provides a look into that mind. Kawakybo repeatedly denies that her work qualifies as “art,” believing that fashion is a “more social phenomenon.” The one thing we can be sure of—she will continue to search restlessly and her search will be a beacon in the clutter of our culture.

The exhibit does not cover the earlier years of Kawakubo’s career with the exception of 8 pieces from the 1980s which are mainly concentrated in the “Fashion/Antifashion” section. For an excellent biographical article, read Judith Thurman’s 2005 article in The New Yorker, “The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo.”

 


ME

Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!

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Knitting Water

Song of the Sea (2014)
Triple spiral visible on entrance stone at Newgrange, a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland (built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, “making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.”)

My current obsession — at least knitting-wise — has to do with fabrics and textiles whose stitch patterns seem to suggest water (spirals and waves) and those that resemble scales (as in mermaids and other water creatures).

I’m in the early stages of researching this kind of stitch patterning in the history of knitting – and while my initial instinct was to assume Celtic and Nordic traditions, Japanese and Chinese influences are quickly (and clearly) showing their relevance.

My interest and inspiration derives from an odd confluence of things: The current exhibit at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, “Mythic Creatures” from the American Museum of Natural History (which includes Mermaids, and other sea creatures); the animated Irish film, “Song of the Sea” (which tells a story of Celtic Selkies or seal-people, and which includes beautiful examples of Celtic spirals); and a knitting tradition in my brother-in-laws family, which includes a stitch pattern resembling waves. So far, my knitting has only ventured into the depiction of waves/scales (by spirals may be next).

My reworked version of “Song of the Sea” pattern by Louise Zass-Bangham.
Early stages of a project reproducing a baby bootie pattern first published in 1907.

It’s a fascination that I may not be able to fully satisfy, though seeking out different variations of wave patterns (over time ) and in different ountries has proven interesting and eye-opening. Asian countries such as China and Japan also rely on water for their livelihood, and even more clear representations come in the form of modern shadow-puppets (in China), historic Kimono designs in Japan (notably the Seigaiha Symbol).

Do you have an example to share that I’ve not considered? Please share in the comments below!

Beijing, China, (2009), Oxhide, iron, cotton, Wood, dye, tung Oil (American Museum of Natural History) currently on view at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, CA
Tsuba with design of seigaiha and other small paterns, Japanese Edo period Late 18th–early 19th century, MFA Boston

 

 

 

 

 

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Fashion Revolution Week starts April 24 (via Fibershed)

Fibershed - Local Fiber, Local Dye, Local Labor

Dig in to the Fashion Revolution: together, we can create change by re-envisioning value chains from soil to soil. Whether you want to know who grows your clothes, or how to mend and repair them, or gain a better undertanding of the role of our working landscapes in drawing down carbon, read on for classes, events, opportunities, and inspiration from the Fibershed movement and community.


FashRev 2

Fashion Revolution

Fashion Revolution Week is a worldwide campaign to raise awareness and promote change in the fashion industry. Join Fibershed Producer members Sierra Reading and Amy Keefer along with local designers Mira Blackman and Jenny Fong to refashion your clothing with mending, natural dyeing, and embroidery, at Handcraft Studio School in El Cerrito.
You can also participate at home by sharing on social media and asking #whomademyclothes? We invite you to deepen the conversation in your Fibershed by including #Fibershed in your posts and considering #whogrewmyclothes.

Find a Fashion Revolution Week event in your community.
Fashion Revolution Re:Fashion Workshop on April 25th.
Attend Fashion Revolution’s Night Out San Francisco on April 26th.
or Fashion Revolution’s Night Out Oakland on April 27th.
Join Stanford’s Revolution by Design on April 23rd.


Within

WITHIN

Textile-based gallery and studio Ogaard hosts Within, a monthlong wellness study in collaboration with Amina Horozic, including weekly panels that bring together “local luminaries in the worlds of art, design, food, business, social justice, and community.” Fibershed founder and Director Rebecca Burgess will join Jennifer Gately of the Bolinas Museum, Heroine podcast founder Majo Molfino, and Indhira Rojas of Anxy Magazine, in conversation.

April 19th, 7:00 – 9:00 pm in Oakland CA: Click here for more information and to reserve a free ticket.


Carbon Farming Education Day

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Fibershed Materials Manager Krystle Moody and friends are designing a Carbon Farming Education Day at Stemple Creek Ranch—one of Fibershed’s Carbon Farm Plan partners—as a way to gather together to learn more about Carbon Farming while sharing a casual meal produced at Stemple Creek and Fortunate Farm. Proceeds for the event will support Krystle’s Climate Ride participation. Mark your calendars for August 13th for the event; tickets reserved ahead of the June Climate Ride fundraising goal will help advance this effort.

August 13th, 12:00 – 5:00 pm in Tomales, CA: Click here for tickets and information.


textile lab

Textile Lab

Join the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator for a look at cloth that was grown, milled, and made within the region. Designer and activist Laura Sansone founded Textile Lab to rebuild regional textile manufacturing and connect sustainable supply chains, and the Regional Cloth Project does just that with a focus on Hudson Valley fibers and stakeholders.

May 2nd, 4:00 – 6:00 pm in Brooklyn, NY: Click here for details and registration.


hands on hemp

Hemp_For_Liberty_Stills_D.Hedden-45-900px

This month, Kentucky Cloth Project collaborators will gather to provide information and hands-on experiences on hemp farming and fiber processing. We welcome you to explore your regional land-based fiber system through your hands and senses. All ages and skill levels are invited, and presentations and classes are free of charge, thanks to the good graces of the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation.

April 21st & 22nd in Kentucky: Click here to learn more about the event and to RSVP.


felt decoded

felt image

Felt Decoded explores wool as nature’s technology, and the ways in which felt connects us to our nomadic past and a sustainable future. The exhibition features selected wool samples from the Northern California Fibershed, and a display copy of the Wool & Fine Fiber Book. On April 27th, artist and curator Janice Arnold will share her inspirations, design process, exhibition highlights and insights.

April 27th, 6:30 – 8:30 PM at the Museum of Craft & Design in San Francisco: Click here for details.

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History of the Nightingale, 2 years in the making, now for sale online!

*

Earlier this year, I was thrilled to share that Piecework Magazine published my article on the history of the knitted nightingale (January/February 2017). I started by explaining that “The nineteenth-century wrap that became known as “The Nightingale,” a garment worn over the shoulders in bed, was the Victorian ancestor of the modern-day slanket (blanket with sleeves) or snuggie.

Florence Nightingale Jacket in "Harper's Bazar," September 5, 1885.
Florence Nightingale Jacket in “Harper’s Bazar,” September 5, 1885.

“Also called a bed jacket, dressing gown, shawl, wrap, cape, cloak, or sacque, the Nightingale was, over time, made from different fabrics.” The research was a fun romp through the early history of nursing and Florence Nightingale’s career, the Crimean war, wartime knitting, and yes, even Fashion History (an 1856 issue of Godey’s pictured a mantle called the “Nightingale” likely based on published images of Florence Nightingale).

 

Knitted Nightingale, Originally published in PieceWork January/February 2017.

My article also included a re-worked pattern for a Knitted Nightingale, which I’m happy to share is now for sale on the Interweave website. “This pattern is based on the Knitted Nightingale in Weldon’s Practical Knitter Sixteenth Series. With the exception of the choice of ribbon color, this knitted nightingale is true to the original Weldon’s pattern. The lapels on this Nightingale are fairly wide and are intended to imitate those seen in portraits of Florence Nightingale from the 1850s. They can easily be adjusted to your own preference. Extra length in the dolman-like sleeves allows for a generous range of movement and an added sense of coziness.” It was a long-time project that began July 16, 2015, and finished with a crochet edge on May 4, 2016.

*Florence Nightingale; Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney by William White watercolour, circa 1836 18 1/4 in. x 14 1/8 in. (462 mm x 358 mm) overall Given by Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, 3rd Bt, 1945 NPG 3246

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A Curved Needle Sewing Machine

The Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum exhibit, “Staff Picks” (Through April 30, 2017) is a grouping of objects from the permanent collection, chosen by staff members from all backgrounds and positions within the organization. It includes a wide variety of objects including fashion: a fur coat, a flapper dress, a Victorian hat, ski’s and boots, ballet slippers. Not surprisingly, my ‘pick’ was clothing related. Since so many staff members choose garments, I decided to try something a little more technology related: a curved needle sewing machine.

Curved Needle Sewing Machine. c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum)
Curved Needle Sewing Machine. c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum)
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Wheeler and Wilson Ad from “California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences,” San Francisco, February 28, 1862.

Thomas Saint is credited with inventing the first sewing machine in England in 1790. Some years later, it was refined by Barthelemy Thimonnier in France, who patented a new version used by the Army in France in 1831. In the 1830s, a New York-based Quaker named Walter Hunt, continued to refine the sewing machine. He began selling machines in New York around 1832-1834.

Many manufacturers and inventors began to innovate and patent various mechanisms and sewing machine parts after this time, including the now-well-known Singer.

Ad from "Pacific Rural Press", Volume 8, Number 3, 18 July 1874.
Ad from “Pacific Rural Press,” Volume 8, Number 3, 18 July 1874.

The example at Turtle Bay is by Wheeler and Wilson, a direct competitor to Singer. Wheeler and Wilson’s first patent was registered on November 12, 1850, and they began selling machines in 1851 in Connecticut, producing machines up until about 1909. The curved needle sewing machine was favored over the straight needle machine as some thought it worked better for light fabrics, and was popular for shirt-making.

By 1864 Wheeler-Wilson’s had “Bridgeport factory was producing 40,000 machines a year, almost double that of Singer. Wheeler and Wilson would continue to lead or  match Singer in the rapidly growing sewing machine market for another five years, until the Singer marketing steamroller ran over them.” (Buckman, 67-68). Singer eventually took over the company in in 1905.

In Northern California, Wheeler-Wilson sewing machines were commonly used. Pioneer family Wills at Old Shasta had a beautiful, highly decorated Number 8 from 1872 (now on view at Old Shasta Historic Park). Advertisements appeared in the Pacific Rural Press and California Farmer, common resources for innovative farm and agricultural products, during this era as well.

Detail of Curved Needle Sewing Machine, c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum) Photo by Julia Cronin.
Detail of Curved Needle Sewing Machine, c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum) Photo by Julia Cronin.

It is challenging to date this rusty machine in Turtle Bay’s Collection: no serial number or model number are present. A serial number would help determine the date, and the model number would tell us what it might have been used for.[i] For example, a model number 8 was intended for light family use, while a number 5 was intended for shirt-making and sewing sleeves.

The circular logo, however, provides clues. Logos were used on Wheeler & Wilson machines beginning in 1870. The address the label references is its sales center at 44 Union Square, in New York, suggesting a late 1870s to 1880s date. The base, a ‘slab’ style, was used between the 1860s and 1870s. Two illegible dates printed on the seal add to the mystery. These may be patent dates, international award dates, or office opening dates: 1867 or 1851 or 1862 (Londres[2]) and 1867 or 1887 (Paris).

Further Reading:

Buckman, Jack. Unraveling the Threads: The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Singer Company, America’s First Multi-National Corporation. Dog Ear Publishing: Indianapolis, IN. 2016.

Frederick Lewis Lewton. The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1930. Originally published in The Smithsonian Report for 1929: Publication 3056. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1930. pp. 559

Porter, William A. , Artist. Factories of the Wheeler & Wilson M’F’G. Co., Bridgeport, Conn. / Wils. Porter, del., 81. [1881] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004662453/. (Accessed December 18, 2016.)
Notes:

[1] Model number http://www.sewmuse.co.uk/w&w.htm “No. 5 machine. Specially designed for shirt making or other work involving sewing sleeves.  It was available with double motion at extra cost and only one style of table was available in either Black Walnut or Mahogany.” “No. 4 machine. Referred to as ‘Large’ it was only available in a standard table of either Black Walnut or Mahogany.”

[2] Londres, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Filipino language name for London.

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Mermaids and Silkworms: A Review of Akihiko Izukura: The Way of Natural Textiles

2017-01-28 10.59.51-1wtmk

A recent vacation to Maui afforded me the opportunity to visit the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to see their current (and staggeringly beautiful) exhibit “Akihiko Izukura: The Way of Natural Textiles” (on view through March 19, 2017).

Stepping into the exhibit we were greeted with a large installation of hand-made silk orbs suspended in a large silk tube (“Eternal”). The desire to step inside the tubes and explore was strong, and we quickly learned that if we removed our shoes we could do exactly that.

2017-01-28 10.49.01wtmkIt was a magical experience to be in, and surrounded by silk made by tens of thousands of silkworms and hand-spun on an Edo period (1603-1868) spinning wheel by master craftsman Akihiko Izukura in only three months. Not surprisingly, “Eternal” was created to reflect the artists inspiration from the natural world, employing natural shapes, dyes, and materials. By contrast, the suspended panels of fabric surrounding the tube, 24 in all, took the artist three years. These panels show a variety of textures and patterns, but all created natural feeling permeable membranes.

2017-01-28 10.56.07wtmkThe reality of his work was informed by a small case containing the spinning wheel, dyes, silk-worm cocoons and other materials used with information on the craftsman’s history and process.

“Akihiko Izukura was born in 1942 to a family with a long history as Obi weavers in Nishijin, Kyoto, Japan. After formal studies at university and working in the family textile business he began his own personal journey into Ito-Shirabe (research on thread) learning complex ancient structures of weaving and braiding, mastering techniques of the Edo period that were nearly lost. His experience took him further into the ancient complicated techniques of ‘Ra’ (gossamer) and “Kara Kumi’ (braiding).”

2017-01-28 10.51.33wtmk“Years of research and hard work led him to his current philosophy of creating fabric or garments honoring sustainability and symbiosis with nature and the silkworm. His elaborated dialog within weaving, netting, braiding, entwining and dyeing led him to discover relationships between nature and man. his current work Senshoku-do includes eight methods: dyeing, reeling, spinning, plying, with four textile methods of weaving, braiding, netting and entwining.”

No wonder I was drawn to this work! Ancient techniques, research, and deep study of the history of thread certainly explained the amazing pieces on display. Quiet contemplative music filled the galleries, and as we left the larger objects behind we came to objects with more obvious purposes and more commercial appeal. Beautiful wall hangings, scarves, Kimono, obi, dresses, and jackets created using the same techniques (some of which were for sale).

2017-01-28 11.05.04wtmk2017-01-28 11.03.11wtmkTextures, colors, and woven shapes all seemed to reflect the experience we had been having in Maui – reminiscent of water, fish, seaweed and even mermaids.  Mariano Fortuny and Issey Miyake both felt referenced in the creation of the garments and textiles, especially the mermaid-like dresses that hung suspended between large swaths of fabric. A jacket in yellows and oranges at once reminded me of Fortuny, Miyake, and the way light filters through the ocean.

I left the exhibition feeling as if I’d been in an ethereal underwater world with shapes that reminded me of some of the more challenging knitted pieces I’d attempted to create myself. If you happen to be so lucky as to be in Maui – run don’t walk to see this marvelous show. (The exhibition catalog sold you in less than 3 weeks).

For an arm-chair tour, visit the gallery below:

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Fashion Encyclopedia wins at American Library Association

I’m thrilled to share that the Fashion Encyclopedia I helped create has just won a prestigious award at the American Library Association! I continually find myself grateful to all the wonderful contributors for their hard work and diligence!

“The most noteworthy reference titles published in 2016 have been named to the 2017 Outstanding References Sources List, an annual list selected by experts of the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). The list was announced January 22, at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta.

The Outstanding Reference Sources Committee was established in 1958 to recommend the most outstanding reference publications published the previous year for small and medium-sized public and academic libraries. The selected titles are valuable reference resources and are highly recommended for inclusion in any library’s reference collections.”

Included on this list is Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe.” by Jose Blanco F., Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and Heather Vaughan Lee, editors. ABC-CLIO.

For a full list  of award winners please follow the link:
http://rusa.ala.org/update/2017/01/outstanding-reference-sources-announced/

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Exhibition Review: Proust’s Muse

House of Worth, “Lily Dress,” evening gown, 1896; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
House of Worth, “Lily Dress,” evening gown, 1896; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Proust’s Muse:

The Countess Greffulhe

Museum @ FIT

Closes January 7, 2017

By Nadine Stewart

The term “Fashion Icon” gets flung around in our times. Celebrities whose images flood social media are deemed “iconic” even though their style is derivative, achieved only through the help of a well-paid stylist. We are now in a time of transition. Our national fashion icon, Michelle Obama, is stepping out of the spotlight and the nation is wondering who can replace her.

With those thoughts in mind, a visit to Proust’s Muse: The Countess Greffulhe  reminds us what a real fashion leader can be. Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay was indeed a beauty with auburn hair a fine figure, and the money to engage the best couturiers to design for her, but what made her memorable was her personal style. She was determined that her gowns would be distinctive, so participated in the creation of her dresses to insure her dress would be memorable. It was said that she would rather appear “bizarre,” instead of “banal.” Proust wrote, “Each of her dresses seemed like. . .. the projection of a particular aspect of her soul.” She inspired this intensely sensitive author, who based several of his characters on her persona. For both of them fashion “was a mark of individuality, an emotional language, and a form of art.”

The first galley of this exhibit, originally on display at the Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode, establishes who the Countess was through photographs and rare film clips. There are pictures of the Countess herself posing for the photographer Paul Nader and of Proust, but we are also reminded that she was a leader of her time in more than fashion. There are pictures of Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes, the composer Gabriel Fauré, the scientist Marie Curie, and, the most controversial of all, Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, focus of an anti-Semitic political scandal that roiled France for more than a decade. The Countess supported him too—a stand that placed her against many leaders of French society.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

De Greffulhe’s unique taste over the decades of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth is on view in the main gallery. Elisabeth married Count Henry Greffulhe on 1878 when she was 18. Even then her taste was elegant, as can be seen by an exquisite black lace bodice from 1884-5. It was worn over a colored dress, so the intricacy of the lace and jet bead trim would stand out. Color was obviously important to the new bride as can be seen by a pink silk satin day dress embroidered with brown floral motifs from the late 1880s and an 1894 garden party dress from Worth, a confection of pink silk crepe Mousseline over silk satin printed with orchids. Next to this gown is a pleated silk taffeta dressing gown in another favorite, green, a color that highlighted her auburn hair.

House of Worth, tea gown, circa 1897; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
House of Worth, tea gown, circa 1897; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

This was a demanding customer. She insisted designers showed her their best and then, often ordered them to make something different. The result could be the green tea gown with a large navy cut velvet print reminiscent of the pomegranate figured fabrics of the Renaissance.

This was also a figure who managed to lead fashion through changing times as can be seen on the next platform which shows the new silhouette of the early twentieth century. One standout is a long column of a gown covered with the metallic embroidery inspired by the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

The Countess loved “the gaze of others.” Nowhere else in the exhibit is this more evident than an evening cloak made from a Russian court robe and the dress she wore to her daughter’s wedding. The cloak or khalat from present-day Uzbekistan, encrusted with gold embroidery, was presented to the Countess by Czar Nicholas II. Jean-Philippe Worth converted the robe to a long opera cloak which she wore to great acclaim at the state visit by the Russians.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

There has probably never been a mother-of-the-bride dress like 1904’s “Byzantine Gown” of bronze colored silk taffeta covered with silver and gold embroidered and sparking with sequins. At the bottom is a wide band of fur, originally sable. We are told the Countess timed her entrance perfectly, pausing just long enough at the top of the church stairs to give the crowd a full view. Apparently, the strategy worked. The press barely mentioned the bride, lavishing praise on the mother’s dress!

nstallation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

The 1930s were a period when couturieres flourished in Paris. Designers like louiseboulanger, Jeanne Lanvin, and Maggy Rouff emerged and contributed to the Countess’ wardrobe. By this time, she was older, but still exercised her great sense of what in the new decade would complement her. By this time, the Countess had abandoned pink, feeling it was too youthful. Most of the garments from the 1930s are black, including an amusing coat with a Surrealist influence. The fabric looks like black bricks, trimmed with a lush black fur pockets and cuffs.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT.  Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

But, the Countess still loved green. This love shows up in flowing robes inspired by the Ballet Russes covered with Orientalist embroidery.

The gowns are stunning, but the accessories wall shows the Countess’ attention to detail. For a sense of mystery, there are fans replete with delicate paintings, lace, and sticks of mother-of-pearl and stockings embroidered with silk flowers. A proper lady in society had to have gloves. The Countess inherited a long pair from the Age of Napoleon, delicate ivory trimmed with gold sequins, but she had the latest as well. Her black satin evening gloves from the 1930s came from Caroline Reboux. They have remarkable puffs that extend from the wrist to the elbows. She was never without a hat, a list for a trip specifically laid out the need for at least 6 hats in different colors. Most moving, is a small hat from the 1940s when France was at war. It is an “Occupation Hat,” made of braided cellophane straw and ribbon worn when her townhouse had no heat and she lived in her servants’ quarters. Style under adversity.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT.  Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT. More images available here.

The most famous, enduring example of Countess’ style is Worth’s “Lily Dress,” which occupies center stage. Black velvet covered with appliques of ivory silk lilies and leaves that run the length of the dress and train, it is a gown whose pearls and sequins would sparkle in the lights of a Belle Époque ball. It is cut with a long princess line which flattered the Countess’ figure. A wide ivory silk berth collar would have drawn attention to her face. The Countess clearly knew the power of this dress. She was photographed twice in it by Paul Nader in front of a full-length mirror. She was clearly aware of her uncle, the dandy Robert de Montesquiou’s words— “A photography is a mirror that remembers.”

In one of his novels, her admirer Proust wrote the words that sum up this unique woman. A character based on the countess says, “I shall know I’ve lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me.” Another character answers, “Never fear, my dear, so long as you dress as you do, people will always turn and stare.” Sixty-four years after her death in 1952, we’re still staring in awe.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

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The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day

Released in September, “The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day” is a beautiful, full-color coffee table style work from French sociologist Georges Vigarello. Though not a fashion historian, Vigarello is an historian, and research director at the The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, a leading French institution for research and higher education in the social sciences.

Published in English for the first time, the book is a scholarly look at the cultural implications of the human form, as a “symbol of status, sexuality and the aspirational quest for physical and moral ‘perfection’.”

The shape of both mens’ and womens’ bodies are explored and illustrated through paintings, silhouette portraiture, sketches and line drawings, as well as caricatures and cartoons. What is unexpected is the true focus on the history of silhouettes as an art form, and how their creation changed over time. The book primarily focuses on the 18th century, with the invention of the word “silhouette,” and runs up through 2012 (though modern chapters are quiet brief). An interesting, though densely worded, coffee table book it’s likely something I will dip into slowly over time.

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New Book in the CSA Series: “Knock It Off,” a history of design piracy…

If you’re a member of the Costume Society of America, you know from their most recent (October) newsletter that the CSA Series has changed hands, and is now being published through Kent State University Press and managed by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Prior to this, the CSA Series was published by Texas Tech University Press,  managed by Phyllis Spect. Phyllis is still managing the tail end of that relationship, and to that end a new book in the series from Texas Tech has been released:

Knock It Off: A History of Design Piracy in the US Women’s Ready-to-Wear Apparel Industry by Sara B. Marcketti and Jean L. Parsons is a 240 page volume of extensive research, with photos to match, exploring a fascinating and incredibly relevant subject.

From the back cover:

The authors analyze legal and apparel industry documents; governmental reports; and their own primary research conducted in museums, archives, and special collections to shed light on arguments both for and against design piracy.”

Much of the book also appears to focus on the Fashion Originators Guild of America (FOGA), which attempts to protect original design. I’ve waded into a few of its pages, and hope to have a chance to learn more from these esteemed authors. Add it to your reading list!

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