At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you.
One of the things I was most looking forward to about our trip to New York was visiting the city’s many amazing museums and galleries, and NYC did not disappoint! The Modern and Contemporary galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art absolutely blew me away. They have an incredible collection of works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, which really complement the beautiful collection at The National Gallery in London. Having seen Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at The National, it was amazing for me to see how he depicted similarly vivid colours in Irises and Roses, both of which were painted whilst he was a patient at the asylum at Saint-Rémy. One of my favourite finds was a wall label for Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples and Pears, which detailed how he once proclaimed ‘with an apple I want to astonish Paris’. The Met also has a brilliant array of works by American artists, which you rarely get to see on permanent display in Britain. Having never seen a painting by Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko before (except in photographs) I now feel that I am a fully qualified expert!
Having written an essay on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the third year of my BA, I couldn’t wait to see the original at MoMA. On my way to the Cubism rooms, I passed by Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, van Gogh’s Starry Night and a Water Lilies series by Claude Monet – just to mention just a few!Often seen as the first truly Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is monumental in real life, nearly filling the large gallery walls and attracting a huge crowd. It is interesting to observe in galleries how everyone (myself included) gathers around the most ‘famous’ pieces, but, while I loved seeing the famous names, it was almost more exciting to see and love work by artists I had never previously heard of. I feel like I only scratched the surface of what New York has to offer – The Met is absolutely vast – and definitely feel that I now have a valid excuse to make a return trip to explore further.
The MA Documenting Fashion crew took New York City by storm last week! Stay tuned for posts about what we saw and did on our fabulous study-trip-extravaganza.
Our first visit was with April Calahan at FIT’s Special Collections department. April kindly showed us several boxes full of fashion illustrations, photographs and designs from the Twentieth Century, including the second issue of US Vogue and early designs from Chanel, Bonnie Cashin and Rudi Gernreich.
Among the treasures presented to us there was a folder containing late 1920s or 30s coloured sketches for designs made by Madame Margé, which was donated to the museum in 1957. There has been very little research done about Margé. She was born as Marguerite Norlin in 1978 in Philadelphia, and later Francophiled her name as was often the case for designers in the earlier Twentieth Century. Paris was then seen as the fashion central, but throughout the decades Margé was working it gradually shifted to include America. In New York and Chicago she owned fashion firms, selling the latest designs throughout the interwar period.
The folder at FIT contained colour-washed fashion illustrations, alongside large swatches of fabric which covered the entire page next to each design. Underneath the designs were the name and number for each piece. It is unclear whether it was Margé herself who drew these, however they are highly effective for us appreciating the clothes because of their use of colour. Rich pastel tones are used to convey the notion of what it would be like to wear such beautiful items. The drawings also show how the clothes would have looked like from behind.
The most interesting aspect of these pages was the presence of generous fabric swatches beside the drawings instead of the tiny squares of fabric customarily included with sketches. These were added so that the customer could get a real feel for the design before buying it. The size of the swatches demonstrates how important fabric was for Margé. For example, ‘Cherie,’ design number 63, includes a highly tactile piece of sheer silk chiffon floral fabric, slightly larger than an A4 paper size. The swatch includes further three-dimensional aspects of the design such as pleats, folds and drapes, and a light tortoise binding.
Although stuck onto a flat page, the contents of this folder reveal intrinsic details to the designs, and offer an alternative experience of the finished products.
The Jewish Museum recently opened a small but evocative exhibition showcasing the history of Jewish weddings in Britain from the 1880s to the mid-twentieth century. When walking through the exhibition I came across intimate, precious and rare objects relating to weddings that ranged from a local Jewish matchmaker’s recorded notes to bills for wedding cakes and other hefty expenses. The exhibition is formatted chronologically, and charts the evolution of Jewish weddings with reference to seminal historical and cultural events such as the two World Wars and the shift from predominantly arranged marriages to the custom of courtship that became popularized in the 1920s.
For an exhibition documenting the changes within the traditions of Jewish weddings over several decades, I was struck by a remarkable sense of continuity that linked the marital photographs and videos from disparate times. I was bombarded with a plethora of images that invariably featured a blushing bride wearing a white dress and armed with a veil, bouquet of flowers and, of course, a smile. The fashion rhetoric belonging to weddings is evidently deeply entrenched in tradition, as the white, fancy, and long gown continues to be mainstay of the celebratory ritual in contemporary times. Of course, the evolution of trends has inevitably resulted in modifications to the wedding dress in terms of cut, length and fabric. The general silhouette and colour, however, have astonishingly remained virtually the same. For instance, upon examining a wedding dress from 1905 displayed in the museum, I could not help but establish stylistic parallels between my conception of the contemporary white wedding dress and the clearly outdated one situated before me. This dress is, in fact, not a single garment but a silk ensemble consisting of a blouse, belt, skirt and petticoat. Richly ornate, the ruched sleeves and ruffled neck of the blouse are echoed in the matching long skirt with interchanging panels of ruffles and intricate lace details, culminating with several frilled layers at the bottom. While the outfit’s separate pieces and excess of materials render it firmly embedded in its past historical context, the modern day wedding dress is merely a pared down version – conventionally a singular dress rather than an ensemble, often containing minor lace or ruched detailing.
The white wedding dress was first popularized in the Victorian era and has persisted throughout centuries, becoming a crucial component of the white wedding phenomenon pervading Western culture. In this vein, although the exhibition focuses exclusively on Jewish weddings in Britain, the static nature of marital fashion fosters a sense of universality, as the fancy white wedding dress’ ubiquity cuts across national, ethnic and class divides.
Camille Branda, associate and personal shopper in couture and evening collections at Bergdorf Goodman since 2011, considers the shop a museum, in that it is a space defined as much by beautiful things, as the creative people that work with them. In September, we met and discussed how these elements intersect to shape one of New York’s most iconic specialty stores. It was a pleasure to wander its spaces together, and admire the craftsmanship and ideas behind the garments. And Camille has a discerning eye – before launching her own Image Consulting Business a few years ago, she led a fulfilling career as the VP of Product Development and Sourcing for The Echo Design Group, an accessory and home décor company. While there, she travelled the world to look for novel fabrics, products and manufacturers. Camille relives this experience of discovery every day at BG, as interaction with designers enhances her understanding and appreciation of the clothing. It is the constant flow of diverse people – from the designers to those that work on the window displays and customers – that make BG an ever-changing creativity hub. This is reflected in the way she talks about her job:
Everyday I arrive excited, as I approach 5th Avenue, and see the store and its magnificent window displays. This may sound silly, but it really does thrill me. We start most mornings with a clinic, directed by a designer or designer representative, who introduces us to a particular product, to understand this brand and its seasonal inspiration. We then go live and meet the customers. Curtain unfolds at 10:00 and the real show begins!
This sense of theatre is reflected in the movement and crowds that characterise the store’s ambience. And Camille clearly moves to this fast rhythm: when we met, an hour before her next appointment, she seamlessly conversed with me in between phone calls to clients and fitters. Perhaps it is the personal shoppers, who are the most integrated within the intricate spaces of the shop: they tie all the floors together in their creation of looks. And their clients, who Camille describes as more “educated” than ever, demand thorough service. In turn, she has learned much about the many individual and cultural perceptions of fashion and the body. For Camille, ‘the “one-on-one” relationship is intimate and rewarding. We talk lifestyle, goals, preferences, and challenges, as well as colour, style and proportion as we walk through the store to feel for likes and dislikes… I am not only interested in making a big sale, I want to build a relationship with customers for a lifetime.’Through close observation – the unspoken is most revealing – and listening, she is able to best advise on clothing that ‘accommodate[s] and improve[s] a customer’s personal style.’
Clothing is one element of a puzzle that shapes the picture of one’s image or style, based on self-presentation, expression, and the physical realities of the body in a certain space. In a typical day for Camille, she might style outfits, as ritualistic as that for a wedding or debutante presentation, or plan wardrobes to correspond to the minimalist space of an art gallery, a formal state dinner, or business and casual settings.This multi-layered definition of style was a thread that ran through our conversation, especially when we discussed unique characters, such as the late American heiress, horticulturalist and collector Doris Duke.Camille became fascinated with Duke after a recent visit to her mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, whose objects and decoration reflected its owner’s extraordinary life and unique outlook. Similarly, Camille’s memory of her mother, as ‘sophisticated, polished and elegant’ and‘a true style icon,’ lives on in objects and pictures, with which she surrounds herself. She joked that her mother ‘groomed [her] for Bergdorf Goodman at a very tender age,’ and a few days after our meeting, she sent me a childhood photograph of herself in a carefully constructed ensemble ‘styled by Mom.’ Taken in her bedroom, she wears a coat with a large white fur collar over a dress, accessorised with leather gloves, a bag, and an ornamented hat. Her prim crossed-legged pose completes the image.
As she grew older, Camille used fashion as her own means of creativity and self-expression. She recalls wearing a shearling coat and printed headband while in high school. The processes of styling and wearing this outfit were, for Camille, transformative experiences that made her feel ‘so cool and simply amazing.’ Through them she could assert her independence, as well as relate to the wardrobes of films, including Love Story and Annie Hall.
Camille has thus always combined the realities of fashionable dressing, with a ‘romantic, fun’ fantasy realm. Throughout her career, Camille has honed her expertise and fashion eye, and now similarly seeks to enhance and elevate her clients’ images to match Bergdorf’s own, stylish reputation.