Renaissance of Roland Barthes, an interdisciplinary conference on the late critical theorist's influence on various subjects, will be held at the CUNY Graduate Center on April 25-26, 2013 at 365 5th Avenue (btw 34th and 35th Streets), NY, NY 10065. I will be presenting on Barthes' contributions to fashion and dress theory on Thursday, April 25 in a panel from 2:15pm-3:45pm (room 8402), moderated by CUNY's chair of fashion studies, Eugenia Paulicelli.
In Fashion This Year: Roland Barthes and Dress Theory
The study of dress is a subject that, more so than almost every other cultural discipline, has historically been met with derision in its efforts to become a widely respected field of academic study. Its long road to acceptance among research universities and similar field authorities was aided in part by its examination and interpretation by academics from other disciplines, especially during the second half of the twentieth century. Through his cultural criticisms in the 1960s, French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) became one of these influential interdisciplinary figures in the developing field of fashion theory. While Barthes was not the first theoretician to apply his particular methods to the study of dress, with the publication of his various critical essays, and culminating in his seminal work Le Système delaMode (The Fashion System) in 1967, he was the first to present an exhaustive analysis of the various connotations and denotations evoked by the products of the fashion industry. Through his application of the tenets of Sausserian semiology, Barthes explored the debasement of cultural “signs” that he claimed were manifested in the language of women’s fashion magazines, in what he termed “written clothing.” Coincidentally, he published this new methodology at a time when, as history would later elucidate, the evolution of fashion itself was also undergoing radical changes. As one of the earliest commentators of various aspects of mass culture, Barthes’s intellectual scope was far-reaching. His contributions to the study of fashion were invaluable to the development and scholarship of dress theory and, in the twenty-first century, his writings continue to incite discourse on a subject that still often receives far less academic attention than is merited by its significance to the social sciences and to a greater understanding of human history.
Posted by Jessica Barber on April 18, 2013 in
Cameron Silver, the owner of the L.A. luxury vintage shop Decades, is known for dressing Hollywood stars for the red carpet, using a remarkable eye for seeing contemporary style in vintage clothing. With his book Decades: A Century of Fashion, he demonstrates the sophisticated knowledge of fashion history that undergirds his success as a retailer and stylist. A survey of 20th-century women’s fashion, the book is beautiful, but it’s also smart, recalling styles often written out of fashion chronicles. Its history of the 1970s, for instance, includes not just the sexy “satin-skinned beauties” of Studio 54 but also the “prairie-chic sensibility” of Laura Ashley's maxi dresses. Contrasting muses—Cheryl Tiegs versus Bianca Jagger, for example, or Joan Crawford's tough-minded “Consumer” versus Rita Hayworth's eye-candy “Consumed”—add further nuance, reminding readers that decades do not come with simple, one-note themes. (Google Books offers some limited previews of the book.)
Silver is also, inevitably, the co-star of a Bravo reality show called Dukes of Melrose, whose dramatic tension derives primarily from the conflict between his big-spending ways and his budget-conscious business partner Christos Garkinos. Silver thinks like a museum curator, justifying expensive purchase by their rarity and long-term potential, Garkinos like a merchant, wanting rapid stock turns. On shopping expeditions, Silver also indulges his somewhat outré personal style, picking up things like a mink sweatshirt as well as merchandise for the store. (For examples of his personal style, see Silver's Coveteur page.) I talked to Cameron Silver by phone in late February, shortly before the show's debut.
DG: What makes a garment vintage?
Cameron Silver: That's the million dollar question. Originally it was a garment that was at least 15 or 20 years old. But now with the change in fashion and designers retiring or dying or jumping ship, fashion becomes collectible much faster and can be considered vintage in a much shorter period of time.
DG: What is special about vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: I think vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have. And truthfully, almost everything modern is derived from the past.
DG: There is a very literal style divide: If you were in the 1930s, you couldn't have worn clothes that were 40 years old. It would have looked absurd. But someone today can wear anything from the '20s on.
Cameron Silver: It is true. In the 21st century, we are able to look at the 20th century in a very modern way, which is one of the points of the book. You can wear anything from the last 100 years and look contemporary with the way you style it. And that is a really interesting point that you make, that one could never have done that in the 1930s. I think that is a cool point.
DG: A dress or suit or jacket can be glamorous, but aside from the specifics of a given garment, is the idea of vintage glamorous itself?
Cameron Silver: I think it is in the eye of the beholder and it really depends on what you are attracted to. My personal aesthetic is that I believe in the democratization of glamour and I like everything glamorous day to evening, and that is really what we do in the store. But just because it is vintage doesn’t mean it's glamorous. There are plenty of things from the past that would be 180 degrees from glamour.
DG: I was getting not so much at the idea that anything old would be glamorous, but whether this sort of concept of “the vintage” has itself become glamorous, at least in the eyes of certain audiences.
Cameron Silver: I think that the notion of saying something is vintage as opposed to just used gives it a certain panache. I think that is one of the reasons why the period when something is called vintage keeps getting closer and closer to present day. There is a little extra validity in saying, “This is vintage” as opposed to just saying, “This is old” or “This is used.” It doesn't necessarily mean it is glamorous, but it makes people feel like it is glamorous.
DG: Why has the popularity or at least the visibility of vintage fashion—whether it is high-end very glamorous sort of couture gowns that you would find at Decades or the sort of more everyday clothes that somebody might sell on Etsy—increased so much? What is the appeal?
Cameron Silver: For lack of a better definition, it is just—it is cool. It makes you seem like an insider. People who wear vintage tend to be the fashion leaders, not the followers.
I think that is the reason why so many celebs were interested in vintage initially, especially like the late '90s, early 2000s. It separated them from the pack of generic, fashionable stars. They were the ones that found and discovered something one-of-a-kind and unique, with history. A celeb in vintage really owns her style as opposed to a celeb in something borrowed from a designer. It's like, “Where did she find that dress? Who is this designer? When was it made?” It becomes a much more, in a sense, glamorous story.
“Vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have."
DG: Do you have favorite examples of that?
Cameron Silver: I’d say specifically Nicole Kidman, because she was an early supporter of Decades and I had felt that she really defined her persona very effectively following her divorce from Tom Cruise by wearing vintage designer clothing. We dressed her, famously, for the New York premiere of Moulin Rouge and she word this great vintage white Azzaro jersey dress and it was a brand that people had not heard of in a long time. It really sparked interest in Nicole Kidman as not just a fashionista, but as an insider, as an icon. I think vintage is very successful in pushing people's credibility in the fashion world.
DG: Is that because if you go wrong with vintage, maybe you go more wrong? Is it riskier, so that when you pull it off, you look better?
Cameron Silver: I am going to say if it was right 50 years ago, it's right today. I mean, if you are looking at vintage in a modern way. I think there are more risks in wearing modern designer clothing. You rarely see a celeb ripped to shreds in something vintage. It happens way more often when it's someone trying too hard to wear something very editorial that is off the runway.
DG: So vintage has a kind of timeless quality. Is there a generational divide? Is wearing vintage more popular with younger people?
Cameron Silver: I think a lot of people initially get that assumption that it is for the kids. But our clientele is very broad, from teen to well into their 80s. I think that it knows no age barrier. I think the notion that if you wear something that you could have worn 40 years ago that it looks wrong, I don't think that is necessarily the case.
A stylish woman can wear something that has been in her closet 40 or 50 years. And quite often, we have customers who come into the store and they're like, "I had that 30 years ago!" And they like it again. They wish they had kept it or they'd had the money to buy it then. Obviously I don't want to see an 85-year old woman in a micro-mini Alaïa, but I would love to see her in an Alaïa trench coat. Just because it is an Alaïa trench coat from the '80s doesn't mean that she can't wear it. When we are looking at vintage clothing in a very modern way, it makes it easier for any generation to shop with us.
DG: You write in your book, “I participate in the creation of effortless seeming glamour, acknowledging that the illusion of perfection doesn't come naturally to everybody.” The idea of the effortless is very important to the idea of glamour. What is it that people don't see?
Cameron Silver: For example, I am, on Sunday, fitting an actress who is starting a new show on ABC and we are doing like a zillion different fittings. There is so much going on. We're going to try something like 200 dresses, I bet, for four or five appearances. Things will get altered, and we are going to use every secret weapon we have. Obviously your undergarments are more important than your outer garments. So today I was schlepping, picking up stuff from stores and showrooms. The process is not necessarily glamorous. The results can be. But it takes a lot of work.
That is also a very American approach to glamour. I always look at my Parisian friends who will go to a black-tie gala and they will just wear—like woman will wear a pair of black tux pants and a little tank top and a marabou-feathered jacket and put her hair back and some sexy heels and lipstick. We are a little bit regimented in America with our glamour.
DG: I wonder how much of that is worrying about things that are going to be recorded photographically.
Cameron Silver: Yes. I have a friend Sarah DeAnna who has got a book called, Supermodel YOU. She is a very successful model and the book is about using techniques that supermodels use in every walk of your life. As we were talking about ideas for when her book comes out and marketing, I said, "Everyone is a model now because everything gets documented" in the sense that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Everyone needs to know how to give their best face. Nothing is candid any more. It doesn't matter who you are. If you are getting photographed, it is going to end up in some social media.
So imagine what it is like when it is ending up on a social media with 2,000 or 3,000 photographers at the Oscars. It takes a lot of extra work to kind of enter the storm.
DG: Speaking of behind the scenes, you now have a reality show, Dukes of Melrose, on Bravo. What made you want to do the show?
Cameron Silver: I agreed to do it at a very vulnerable moment. [Chuckles]
I was super burnt out. I was like, “OK, I'll do it.” I still question why I agreed to do it, to be perfectly honest [chuckles]. But I am hopeful that the show will ultimately be a great example of infotainment, giving an insider's experience of the world of Decades and fashion, fashion history and also be entertaining. It is also the way the industry works now. I want to keep growing, I kind of have to do it. Michael Kors did his show, Rachel Zoe has done her show.
DG: Reality shows all thrive on conflict, as does any drama, which is the opposite of effortlessness. Have you had any concerns about whether revealing that behind-the-scenes stuff, or even playing it up, would damage the glamour of Decades and the looks that you create?
Cameron Silver: For sure I have reservations about it. I'm not a producer on the show. I won't watch any of the episodes. Whatever I did, I did authentically. I am sure there will be many, many moments where I am not seen in my best light. But I think true glamour reveals its underside. And I think that, as Marlene Dietrich said, “Want to buy some illusions?” It is all illusions.
Cameron Silver: And when you go behind the white swinging doors of Decades to the back office that is where sort of the Wizard of Oz bag of tricks gets revealed.
And I don't really mind that. I always liked the storm of being in the backroom. Or the fact that when you go behind the doors of Cartier, or where I used to work at Boucheron, it is not as perfect as it is on the sales floor. The beauty and magic of retail is that then you get on the floor everything is supposed to look seemingly perfect.
DG: Mystery is another key element of glamour. How does wearing vintage create mystery?
Cameron Silver: I think primarily because you just don't know what it is. The fashion pundits can't predict what you are wearing when you step out of that limo. It breeds individuality. I love the idea that all these fashion pundits at the Oscars have no idea what this actress is wearing. There is something rather intoxicating about not knowing the answers right away.
DG: In the book you tell a story about how once you were at one of these vintage shows full of, as you put it tactfully, “decidedly unspectacular merchandise” at the Santa Monica Convention Center and you found this perfect black velvet Halston gown. How often today do you find such buried treasures? Or now has the market gotten so developed that you do most of your scouting in closets of people you know have great taste?
Cameron Silver: I was at that same show at the Santa Monica Civic about two weeks ago. And I found the most gorgeous gold, sequined early '30s mermaid gown. I found the most amazing custom couture I. Magnin dress that was really like a bonded sample of Dior. I still have that eye that no one else has. So I may not find everything at that show, but I always find some gems that not everyone's eye might be accustomed to.
But I think that this gold sequined dress is the most amazing dress. It is so good. And we have a picture—it was purchased by the dealer--with the original owner, who was a radio personality, wearing it. It is so cool. And it was hanging on a hanger and I noticed it is actually extremely sexy and I couldn't believe that no one had picked up on the dress. But, you know, they just—not everyone can find the gem.
DG: So I was going to ask you whether the vintage market has developed so much that you can't find such treasures, but obviously you can.
Cameron Silver: You still can. I don't know if the layperson can do it as easily. It is not like you are going into a thrift store and finding the dress for $25. But it is still possible to find good things.
DG: Do you have to be really small to wear great vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: Not at all. Again, I believe in the democratization of glamour. I also believe in democratization of being sexy. It is a little bit more difficult with older pieces because I think that if somebody was larger, that the clothes weren't really offered for a woman to wear of a broader size range. Nowadays it is completely different and there are so many options for a woman. I dressed Melissa McCarthy for the Oscars last year. We made a custom dress with Marina Rinaldi.
If you dress your decade, there are certain body types that work better for certain decades. Adele wears quite a bit of vintage and she is not a stick. She is deliciously curvy.
DG: You write that the '30s “made fashion unapologetically effortless” and you contrast them to the '20s. You write that “in the 1920s the rebels all looked alike,” which is interesting, but “in the 1930s, getting dressed became a mode of self-expression.” What was so special about the 1930s?
Cameron Silver: I think it's just '30s are really synonymous with the bias cut. The beauty of the bias cut is it has kind of no construction. That is one of the most effortless ways to dress. You just lift your arms in the air and let the dress slide down your body. Wear your hair up; wear your hair down. I love those '30s gowns. They are so modern looking.
DG: Do you have a favorite fashion period?
Cameron Silver: I'm very 1970s. I love it for several reasons. It is really the acceptance of American sportswear having an international audience after the great fashion showdown at Versailles 1973. American designers suddenly had an international forum to sell. I love the minimalism of the '70s. I'm a very Halston—that's very much my aesthetic. But at the same time I love Saint Laurent Russian collection. And it's really what everyone references still today, is all of those great '70s look.
DG: Is that the aesthetics of the clothes or something about their social and cultural meaning?
Cameron Silver: I love the fantasy of the '70s because it's kind of a return to Weimar, Germany. It is super decadent--you're thinking of the Studio 54 culture. It is sort of like people are acting like it is the end of the world. In a sense, to some degree, it was because the '80s came and AIDS and Reagan. Fashion in the '70s is really flamboyant yet it is often really pure.
If you look at American sportswear and in the early '70s you still have a lot of the countercultural effects of the past and then the late '70s start to be about the beginning of power dressing. I grew up in the '70s and I completely relate to them.
DG: At the conclusion of your book, you write, “As designers demonstrated over and over again via self-referential homage, they just don't make fashion the way they used to. Thank goodness they don't or I would be out of business.”
Cameron Silver: Very true.
DG: What do you mean by, “They don't make fashion like they used to”?
Cameron Silver: We live in a world of immediacy and disposable fashion, and the quality isn't there. The quality is so inconsistent. I am just amazed when I am wearing some expensive suit by an Italian or French brand and the button falls off the jacket the first time I’ve ever worn it. I think it is just crazy. So I think that quality is the main thing and also the exclusivity. It is just everything is everywhere. Every department store to me feels like I am shopping in a duty free. Shopping Barney’s in New York, the ground floor, looks no different to me than Terminal 4 at Heathrow.
DG: Is there anything that you would like to say about anything about glamour?
Cameron Silver: I have this philosophy that everyone should live their life like they are walking on a red carpet. That is not to say you need to be in a gown all the time, but there is just a certain confidence and certain—I’m trying to think—there is just a certain—I don’t know. I just think that glamour is democratic and everyone should have a little glamour in their life. It makes the world a little bit more beautiful.
Dita Von Teese is glamorous when she works out. It is possible to be glamorous all the time. You always—you will certainly attract attention if you live your life a little bit more glamorously.
Stylists often advise against dressing in a head-to-toe vintage look, which is advice I hate. And in the same breath that people will exclaim how much they admire vintage glamour, they say they could never do it themselves. Well, why not? Why should the glamour of a bygone era be unachievable now? I decided long ago to do vintage looks whenever I please, so long as they “fit” the occasion. Though I would certainly attempt an ornate, historical era for a special occasion, the eras I like best are the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, in particular ca. 1925 to 1945, flapper era through the war years. So I’ve chosen a few conservative daytime looks from those eras, plucked from my Pinterest boards, that I think are most accessible.
I would argue that the 1920s were the start of the modern fashion era and that styles from that era forward are relevant and appropriate for almost any modern setting. 1920s styles could be sleek and pared down or ornate and hand-crafted, and day dresses and suits were abundant in the era. So deciding on what 1920s looks to wear to, say, the office shouldn’t prove difficult. For example, see this Lucien Lelong suit and sweater ensemble. While the suit jacket is obscured in the photograph, the skirt certainly looks simple and professional enough, with the hemline falling just below the knee. And the sweater features a bold yet tasteful geometric design. Though I probably would not wear the hat all day indoors, I would not hesitate to wear this look – including the little clutch handbag and simple chain necklace – to the office or a business meeting during a cool-weather month in Washington, D.C., which is where I work.
See also these two mid-1930s day looks. One, a solid, light color, tea-length skirt with a front kick pleat and self-belt with square-shaped metal buckle. It’s paired with a solid, dark color blouse with a high color and large, statement buttons. The shoes are dark pumps in a classic style. The second outfit is a sailor-inspired day dress in tea length, paired with classic spectator pumps and a smart hat. Again, I would not hesitate to wear either of these looks for business purposes, though I would probably skip the hat and gloves unless I wanted to go “full (vintage) drag.”
The 1940s day looks I might chose include a beige suit with sharp shoulders, three-quarter length sleeves, and a nipped-in waist. The matching skirt is front-pleated, with the hemline just below the knee. The accent color of the hat, ascot, and gloves is a dark green. The hat and gloves are a bit fussy for a modern business look, but I would do the ascot or else a blouse underneath.
The second 1940s show four comparatively casual, daytime looks that could be worn just about anywhere, hats optional.
Finally, I’ve included a photo of myself, just to show this can be done. I was headed to an Art Deco Expo in 2008, wearing a 1930s day dress and hat. I’m careful where I wear original garments, as they tend to be fragile. But the dress I’m wearing would be fairly simple to re-create in new fabric. The handbag was a Whiting & Davis metal mesh in white, a fairly easy style to obtain. The jewelry was modern and of a simple, classic style. The shoes I wore that day were modern, inexpensive Mary Jane pumps.
The main difficulty would be in finding these vintage looks. For ornate vintage styles and looks, there’s rarely a good substitute for the original, except for sellers who specialize in reproducing bygone eras (such as ReVamp Vintage). For simple styles, it’s often easier to find modern garments that look period-appropriate than to find original vintage garments that fit and are in good condition. Personally, I mix and match reproduction and original and sometimes sew my own. Vintage patterns of nearly all eras seem abundant on Ebay, Etsy, and many other vendor websites.
I would be delighted to see more people incorporate vintage styles in modern settings. I would, however, have an important word of caution on attempting these looks. In my opinion, it’s important to approximate the hairstyles (and, for that matter, the shoe styles) of the era one is trying to achieve. Or at least the hair length. They clearly “go” together – which is one reason we perceive them as so elegant and polished, no? There’s no point in doing a head-to-toe vintage look only to ruin it with an incongruous hairstyle. Plus, it would distract me to no end (in a bad way), and I just know (or, let me imagine) you wouldn’t want to do that to me.
Shutterstock, the huge stock-photo house, has put together an infographic displaying the trends in what its users are downloading. Its data confirm what our Vintage Week suggested: the idea of “vintage” is hot. “If you combined all the searches for ‘Cats,’ ‘Dogs,’ ‘Retro,’ and ‘Hipster,’ you still wouldn’t beat the number of searches for ‘Vintage,’” says Shutterstock.
Vintage Week is stretching into this week as well. Stay tuned for more posts.
Solanah: Everyone will give you a different answer, but I define it as anything made approximately 20-80 years from now. Antique is anything older than 80 years old, and newer than 20 is second hand.
DG: Who does wearing vintage appeal to?
Solanah: A variety of different people, whether they are interested in alternative fashion or want to outwardly express their interest in nostalgia.
DG: What do you think of mixing vintage and contemporary pieces? Do you ever wear contemporary outfits?
Solanah: I love it, and yes, I do! Though the farther I get into vintage fashion, the more difficult it is for me to mix decades. I admire it on other people, but often find myself feeling a bit “off”. Lately I’ve been trying for a more classic look by mixing vintage and modern garments. And I do wear modern jeans and cozy sweaters pretty regularly. I’ve been loving some classic/modern fashions lately and hope to balance some with my vintage wear.
DG: Beyond the character of any specific garment, is there something glamorous about the idea of “vintage”?
Solanah: There is something glamorous about vintage, and I think it reaches back to the image women used to live up to. It was very glam, very ideal, especially if you’re talking about the mid-century. Even in camping gear women were supposed to be perfectly coiffed and pretty. At that time it was oppressive, but I think women are starting to own glamorization again. They choose it because it makes them feel good, not because they are expected to be glamorous 24/7.
DG: You’ve said that you “love to be authentic” in your style. What makes your style authentic?
Solanah: For me it means “real.” Not so much about having all the items in an outfit perfect, right down to the correct dates, but more of wearing things the way women wore them originally. And wearing what they really wore, not what Hollywood portrayed. I love slacks, and sweaters with the sleeves rolled up, and comfortable shoes like loafers and flat boots. For me, that’s authentic, because I feel more connected to the everyday woman.
DG: Some people treat vintage as an overall fashion look, some as a lifestyle, and some as simply the characteristic of a given piece. What’s your approach?
Solanah: I would say a little of each! For me it can and often does take over my entire outfit, and others it’s and accent, or a nod to yesteryear. As far as lifestyle goes, I have adapted some old fashioned ways of life into the modern world.
DG: What does dressing in vintage mean to different groups of people? To you?
Solanah: It can mean very different and often opposing things to different people. Some people, mostly those in western religious communities, view it as a traditional, and modest form of dress. It re-enforces traditional gender rolls. This situation seems like a minority.
For the most part vintage is a rebellion against the negative aspects of modern society. Not to be confused with completely turning back the clock, but rather bringing forward the attractive, and leaving the negative behind. Lately fashion had quite a few hiccups, when viewed objectively it’s so confusing and really has no collective foundation. I think people crave clarity and originality, and vintage fulfills that. It’s also something that is obtainable for all social classes, it can be found in high end boutiques, or discount thrift stores.
DG: What are some of your favorite vintage garments?
Solanah: Casual wear is my favorite find. Slacks, denim, sweaters, and coat. Though I have a huge and never ending collection of 1940s hats, I just can’t say no to them.
DG: In 20 years, today’s clothes will be vintage, at least by some definitions. Can you imagine yourself wearing any of them in 2033?
Solanah: This is a really tough question, because on one hand we have so much in terms of clothing, it’s difficult to imagine it being treated the same way we treat vintage clothing today. Right now much of our decades of clothing is rare. It was made of natural fibers, which can decay and be recycled, these garments have an expiration date. But clothing today is completely different. The fibers are so synthesized or combined with natural fibers, there really is no organic circle of life for these garments. We’ll have them for much longer than what we’ve been previously accustomed to, and I think they may come back into our wardrobes as necessity more than anything. What else are we going to do with all these garments? They won’t die.
DG: Is wearing vintage more popular among younger people (however you want to define “younger”)? If so, why?
Solanah: I think simply because people don’t want to look like they’re still wearing fashions from their heyday. It can be difficult to pull off, but honestly I think the older you get, the better you can wear vintage! I’ll always remember an elderly woman I saw walking down the street who was dressed to the nines in a 60s suit, pillbox hat, and matching gloves, pumps, and purse. She was the best!
DG: What’s your favorite era? Is that because of the styles, the history, the culture, or some combination?
Solanah: My favorite era can be defined as the years controlled by the second world war. It appeals to me for so many reasons, much of it not being fashion related. Mostly to do with the short taste of liberation women experienced, and the strength they showcased before being forced back into the home. I admire what they did with what little they had, and how they dealt with the hardships and tragedies. This was reflected in the styles adapted, I really love the make do and mend and DIY aspect of the war era, as it’s something I can be creative with.
DG: You’re well known not only for writing about vintage fashion but for modeling it in fashion shoots on your own site and also for the store you used to work for (that’s actually how I first became aware of you). What’s the secret to a good vintage fashion picture? How important are the poses you strike to how you feel about the outfit?
Solanah: In our shoots we tried to emulate a lot of original fashion portraits from magazines and ads. They really showcased the garments well, and I think there’s a certain strength in “striking a pose”, rather than the very casual, candid poses we see a lot of today.
DG: What do people who wear vintage fashion have in common (if anything)?
Solanah: The most obvious is a love for the past, but I have found many vintage enthusiasts are very involved in various forms of fantasy, fiction, and escapism. Or “geeky” interests, if I could put it simply. Fantastical television shows and movies, comic books, anything that diverts away from the confines of the modern world. I think it has to do with how different people deal with the pressures of modern living, there are those who adapt well and embrace it, and those who need to step back and slow down.
DG: Wearing vintage every day seems like a lot of work--just for the hair styling alone. What’s the most challenging part? Time-consuming? Satisfying?
Solanah: It can look as though that’s the case, but compared to a modern woman’s beauty regimen, it probably takes about the same amount of time and effort. Most vintage wearing women do wet sets at night and wake up with curls. Whereas a non-vintage woman might spend most of her morning curling or straightening her hair with a heat device. When I do that it takes me about a minute or two to do my hair in the morning, but looks like it took an hour. It takes the same amount of time to get dressed comparatively, and I keep my makeup simple: tinted moisturizer, eyeliner, powder, lipstick. I do love getting dressed up, in stockings and hats, and heels for lunch with friends or a cocktail party. Feeling that kind of glamorous is nice every now and then, the kind where you really put in effort and it shows.
DG: Who inspires your look?
Solanah: Fellow vintage lovers, WWII women workers, old family photos, really any “real” people. I don’t take much inspiration from the airbrushed publicity shots of movie stars, because that type of style just isn’t a huge part of my lifestyle.
DG: Who do you consider glamorous?
Solanah: The type of women who has a certain something alluring and enchanting. She doesn’t necessarily have to look glamorous, or live a glamorous life, but she does hold her head high and has the confidence of an individual in charge of their own life and loving it.
DG: What’s your most glamorous place?
Solanah: My dressing table is my most glamorous place. It’s where the magic happens.
A few years ago, I found myself in an artist's studio in central Baltimore, browsing a collection of vintage mahogany gear molds the artist found in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in the city. That day, I took home one of the molds – it's now mounted in my dining room – and a reminder that the sad photos of decrepit factories and boarded up houses only tell part of the story.
Baltimore has a history of innovative approaches to real estate problems. In the seventies, the Dollar House Program led to the revitalization of several neglected parts of the city (some of which are now Baltimore's most popular – and pricey – communities). More recently, a vibrant architectural salvage industry has sprung up around the city. In addition to small, focused operations, like the artist I found selling those restored gear molds, Baltimore his home to several impressive architectural salvage organizations.
These organizations collect furniture, artifacts, and architectural elements from buildings that are slated for destruction or renovation. They usually pay for what they collect, but also provide a service by removing some of the stuff from the building.
The salvage companies then resell the goods, either as-is or after some cleaning and/or repurposing. (The NatGeo show "Abandoned" follows a Pennsylvania architectural salvage company through the whole process.)
One of Baltimore's best known salvage operations is Housewerks, a carefully curated shop (and workshop) located in a nineteenth century building that once housed the Chesapeake Gas Works. Owners Tracey Clark and Ben Riddleberger scout the city (and beyond) for furniture and architectural components that are interesting – and glamorous. (The surroundings at Housewerks are dramatic enough that the space is frequently rented out for parties and weddings.)
"There's such an elegance to old pieces that isn't in evidence today," says Meg Fairfax Fielding, the author of the Pigtown Design blog, and a close friend of Clark and Riddleberger. "It's about buying the elegance, craftsmanship and workmanship of a bygone age. Even in the most mundane industrial pieces, you find beautiful patterns engraved on the gears, or an elegant swoop to a leg of a work table. There was much more care taken when making and designing an old industrial piece."
Baltimore artist Sean O'Harra turns salvaged materials into gorgeous furniture and home accessories, all of which are imbued with a sense of history, thanks to the reclaimed wood and metals he chooses. "Old materials, like old growth woods, have more character," he explains. "Sometimes they're filled with nails and they might be hard to work with, but they have a better feel. It's like they had a past life."
O'Harra and Fielding agree that people are drawn to the inherent glamour of vintage materials, whether they're raw or have been reworked to create something new. "We're honoring our past and what came before us," says Fielding.
But both add warnings. Fielding notes that, like so many other things that are glamorous on the surface, architectural salvage requires a great deal of dirty, gritty work for both sellers and shoppers. "You have to be willing to pick through stacks of old marble, old bathtubs and old mirrors to find the piece you are looking for," she says. "Most salvage yards are filthy!"
O'Harra's concerns relate to the popularity of vintage materials and what that means for quality. "A lot of antique shops and pickers jumped on this bandwagon and make things that people see as interesting. But a lot of times, I think there's not a good marriage between materials. People eat it up because it's aged, but it doesn't always look aesthetically pleasing to me."
O'Harra also laments the increased popularity of newly made objects with a vintage look, which is at odds with his environmentally-conscious approach to reusing materials. "A lot of what you see is not vintage – it's recast materials made with new wood. That's not the right thing. These are one-off objects that shouldn't be mass-produced."
There's no doubt that architectural salvage has been good for Baltimore as a city and good for the individuals on both ends of the salvage transactions.
But together, O'Harra and Fielding's comments raise good questions: What would happen if a company mass-produced vintage "style" furniture while adopting a careful, detail-oriented, old-fashioned approach to construction?
Is that combination - mass-production and high-quality construction - even feasible?
And would it be a good thing overall? Or would it detract from the glamour of true vintage pieces?
Born in 1965, Liza D., the proprietor of the two-year-old online shop Better Dresses Vintage, grew up in the New York suburbs as the daughter of an advertising copywriter (“a real-life ‘Mad Man,’” she says). “Growing up,” she says, “the emphasis was on education, the arts, and manners. My mom was a very strong influence. She taught me about taste, and all aspects of etiquette.” An accomplished seamstress, her mother also taught Liza how to recognize and appreciate quality garments—knowledge that she now turns to hunting for vintage treasures. (Here she wears a 1950s sundress at home.)
DG: How did you get into the vintage business?
Liza: My lifelong appreciation of all things lovely, old-fashioned, and well-made led me to buy and wear vintage clothing. Not exclusively or every day, but enough to seek it out as both superior to, and more affordable than, most modern options.
After having my first child, I left my full-time position as a medical journalist at WebMD, and began doing part-time contract writing and editing from home. I'm also a ballet teacher, although I haven't taught for a while and miss it terribly. Anyway, as I continued to shop for and enjoy vintage clothing, I noticed the growing popular interest, and realized I could turn my longtime hobby into a business. I was fortunate enough to be able to reduce my contract work, and focus on researching all aspects of starting up an online shop. Of course, the best part of the process was acquiring the stock! Everybody loves treasure hunting. And I enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories.
DG: Who are your customers?
Liza: I'd say there are two main groups, with plenty of overlap: the youngsters who think vintage clothes are "cooler," and the oldsters (including me) who know vintage clothes are "better." The younger customer wants to be hip. The older customer wants to recapture a look and feel which they may, in fact, have never experienced firsthand. But they know there's a certain sense of elegance, of propriety, of beauty, that you cannot get from a "Real Housewives" dress. They are looking for glamour.
My customers range in age from tweens to retirees, with the bulk falling somewhere in the middle (college- to middle-age). What I find most wonderful is that they come from around the world, with half of my sold items heading to the UK, Scandinavia, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Liza: Good question! And one that generates heated debate among those of us who deal with, and in, vintage! I think we agree that the defining factor is the generational difference. Items from an earlier generation are vintage, items from the current one are not. But what's a generation? That depends which dictionary you consult. Sure, it's the span between parents and their children, but is that 20, 25, or 30 years? For me, it would be 35-40+ years!
Personally, I consider true vintage to be at least 25 years old. Online selling venues (eBay, Etsy, et al.) use a more liberal definition. Some venues, in an attempt to cash in on its recent surge in popularity, are suggesting vintage be defined as 10 years or older! But these venues are using the term as just another key word—a tag meant to generate search-engine hits and increase profits. The more they can lower the standard and expand the definition, the better for their bottom line. Sure, we sellers want to make money, but those of us who appreciate the difference between true vintage and old clothes are using the word "vintage" differently. For us, it's a meaningful descriptor, not merely a search term.
DG: Whom does wearing vintage appeal to?
Liza: 1) Those who appreciate quality. Most, if not all, garments produced a generation (or more) ago were of superior quality to those produced today. Even the most pedestrian items, intended for and marketed to working-class people, were made to last. If a dress or skirt or shirt has survived wearing and washing for 50 years, there's a very good chance it will survive a good while more, without too much effort or special care. If you have $60 to spend on an outfit, how should you spend it? You can buy the hot new trend at the mall or local big box, and wear it a few times until it falls apart, or starts to look weird because the seams have shifted or the fabric pilled in the wash. Or, you can take that money and buy yourself the vintage version—one that not only inspired the current trend, but will probably be around, looking just as good, the next time that trend rolls around.
2)Those who value individuality. It's everyone's fashion fear—showing up at an event in the same outfit as someone else. With vintage clothing, the chances of this happening are very slim, indeed. In a way, wearing vintage is like having your own unique, custom-made wardrobe—only much more affordable. And savvy vintage shoppers know that you can be "on-trend" in vintage as easily as you can in cheaply made, or prohibitively expensive, modern equivalents. Check out the Vintage Fashion Guild's Vintage Inspiration series to see how today's hottest trends are inspired by vintage.
3) Those who appreciate designer quality, but not designer prices. Most of us can't afford a couture gown or even a ready-to-wear designer outfit. But if it's style and quality, not conspicuous consumption, you're after, then vintage is a terrific option. Yes, it's true that label-conscious vintage shoppers have upped the demand for certain vintage brands to the point they are no longer affordable to the average buyer. But there is still plenty of top-notch vintage to go around. And if you're willing to look beyond a particular label, logo, or designer, you can get the quality and craftsmanship you seek at a fraction of the cost.
4) Those concerned about the environment and social justice. Vintage is the embodiment of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Why buy new, when you can get a better-quality, made-to-last garment that's uniquely yours (and, more often than not, was Union-made under fair labor laws right here in the U.S.A.)? Time and again we hear about the deplorable conditions in overseas garment factories. Who wants to wear something made by underpaid, overworked children? Not me. And not my customers. Vintage clothing is entirely guilt free.
DG: What inspired the name and logo for Better Dresses?
Liza: Oh, that's easy. The entire story is on my "About Us" page. Here’s the relevant portion [slightly edited because the photos were rearranged—vp]:
Wondering where the store got its name? Well, some of you may be too young to remember, but not that long ago, any fine store that sold a variety of goods had a Better Dresses department. A few still do. Here are mid-century photographs, peering into the better dresses department at two different stores. The one on the left is somewhere is in suburban New Jersey, the one on the right in the mid-west. Neither a location associated with the finer things in life. Yet each, to me, could be a glimpse into heaven.
Our logo was inspired by this photo of a fashionable young woman walking in front of the famous Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan (having stayed there myself I can tell you, you need a waistline that tiny to fit comfortably in their rooms)
I have no idea who she is, where she's headed, or why she's there. But she perfectly captured the mid-century look and feel I wanted for my shop, so I based my logo around her.
DG: Is wearing vintage more popular among younger people (however you want to define “younger”)? If so, why?
Liza: I’d say that the more recent decades are most popular with younger customers, probably because, as mentioned above, those years just before they were born are seen as "the good old days" and carry a certain cache or hipness as a result. And of course, popular TV series such as Mad Men (60s) and Downton Abbey(10s), and movies such as Titanic (10s) and The Great Gatsby(20s) have a strong influence on current trends. No one likes to be trendy more than young people, and the more adventurous, and savvy, among them want the real thing. So they seek out what could be called "trendy vintage."
DG: What do people who wear vintage fashion have in common (if anything)?
In general, I'd say that most people who wear vintage fashion have a respect for and curiosity about history beyond their own generation, and a desire to be different and stand out from the crowd (not necessarily in a "look at me" or outrageous sort of way). For example, the prom dress buyers. They might be looking for something a bit more modest than what's available at the mall, or they might want that extra bit of confidence from knowing that no classmate will show up in an identical dress.
DG: Beyond the character of any specific garment, is there something glamorous about the idea of “vintage”?
Liza: Absolutely. Vintage, particularly mid-century and earlier, connotes glamour—both real and imagined. Every generation romanticizes the past. And not just any past, but very specifically, the time just before we were born. Those years, we argue, were "the good old days." And while the idealized version of the 1950s, say, may not stand up to scrutiny when it comes to politics or social justice, the clothes actually were better. You'd be hard pressed to find a garment today, at any price, that compares in quality with a utilitarian mid-century garment from your hometown Sears. So when we see a 1950s advertisement of a wasp-waisted model impeccably dressed and impossibly poised, we may be misguided in romanticizing her mid-century life as glamorous, but we're dead on about the superiority of her clothes. They really were spectacular. They were glamorous. Today's offerings just don't compare.
DG: Whom do you consider glamorous?
The usual iconic old-Hollywood movie stars, of course. Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant all come immediately to mind. But for me, my mom, with her elegance, poise, and style, has always been the embodiment of glamour.
Liza's glamorous mom
DG: Some people treat vintage as an overall fashion look, some as a lifestyle, and some as simply the characteristic of a given piece. What’s your approach?
Liza: Well, as I mention in this blog post, I caution against head-to-toe vintage. Sure, we're free to dress as we see fit, but personally, I do not want to look like an out-of-work actress seeking a role in a 40s film noir or a 70s Blaxploitation film. My simple solution? Mix vintage with modern, or wear all vintage but keep the grooming and accessories current. For example, if you're wearing a 1940s dress and shoes, I'd probably steer clear of bright red lipstick and a victory rolls hairstyle. People are consistently surprised when I tell them that the dress or skirt I'm wearing is vintage. When it's mixed with modern pieces and contemporary styling, they don't know it's vintage, they just know they like it.
As for a vintage lifestyle, I'm not sure what that means. If it's about graceful living and gracious manners, and an emphasis on analog over digital interactions, I'm all for it. If it's about eschewing equal rights or avoiding Novocaine, count me out. I have no great desire to wash my family's clothes on a washboard, nor am I ready to give up my remote control or my right to vote. I could easily live without my cell phone, but I'm not ready to isolate myself from modern society and popular culture, or to actually live in the 1950s.
DG: What’s your personal style?
Liza: I wish I had one! Truth is, I like several different looks, from flowy and feminine to traditional and tailored. I suppose that my overall goal is to look polished. I can usually pull it off when I dress up, taking the time to get things just so. But day-to-day, in jeans and a fitted t-shirt, it's tougher. And the older I get, the more challenging it becomes. I can no longer jump straight into enhancement. These day, I find I'm spending a good deal of time on triage.
I admire people who, regardless of the particular fashions they prefer, manage to always look appropriate, and somehow effortlessly “done.” My mom used to comment on this. Her favorite example was Johnny Carson, whom she described as looking as if he'd just been dry-cleaned.
The key, of course, is tailoring. If your body is reined in appropriately (think “foundation garments”), and your clothes fit perfectly, you’ll look pulled together. Price, labels, none of that matters. And never underestimate the power of good posture.
DG: You have a wall of customer photos on your site. What’s their purpose? How do you choose them?
Liza: The main purpose is to show potential customers that real people, living normal lives, can and do incorporate vintage clothing into their modern wardrobes with great success. But mostly, I just love to see the clothes on happy customers, and I think they like to see themselves there, as well. The only photos I don't post are ones that for whatever reason would be inappropriate in some manner, or potentially counterproductive. Here's a perfect example that didn't make the customer photos wall, but got its own blog post.
DG: What’s the biggest challenge to buying or wearing vintage clothes?
It's the same challenge we face in buying and wearing modern clothes—the fit. With vintage, you start at an advantage, as vintage clothing was made to flatter the body, not to present well on a hanger. But, you still need to know your measurements. Not the ones you wish you had, or think you have, but the ones you actually have.
Next, you must realize that unless you happen to have identical proportions to the manufacturer's fit model, nothing you buy off the rack—vintage or modern—will fit perfectly. It can happen, but it's unlikely. With certain garments—those with lots of stretch or meant to fit loosely—it's not an issue. But with anything tailored, a precision fit is key. It's the difference between you wearing the clothes, and the clothes wearing you. It's how you achieve that polished look.
You need to know your body—both the measurements and the proportions (long torso? narrow shoulders? wide hips?). And you need to know the basics of what can and can't be altered at reasonable cost by your local seamstress or tailor. This is crucial, because knowing that certain garments can be altered to fit you perfectly really changes the way you feel about shopping. Many of the things you might love, but wouldn't have bought because the measurements were slightly off, now become possibilities. And given the comparatively low cost of vintage clothing, even adding in some pricier alterations won't undo the savings.
I have nearly everything I buy (both vintage and modern) altered to fit me better. The difference it makes, for not much money, is incredible. Take my advice, and go have every dowdy, straight skirt in your closet pegged. It will set you back $5-$10 a pop, and you'll instantly look and feel like a million bucks. You can read about that here. Same goes for baggy jackets, or dresses with an unflattering hemline or sleeve length.
DG: What do you look for when you’re scouting for items for your shop?
Liza: I look for age, condition, quality, uniqueness, and desirability. I've become increasingly choosy over time, and I now can easily leave behind items I might have taken with me in the past. I buy lots of things that are not necessarily personal favorites, but that I can easily imagine on a friend or former customer. If it's interesting, fun, unusual, or just a great example of a particular era, I'll get it for the shops. If not, I'll leave it for someone else. I am not motivated by labels. Sometimes a label is a sure indicator of quality. More often, it's a sure indicator that you're paying too much, and are being taken advantage of. I know quality when I see it. It doesn't necessarily come with a particular label attached.
DG: Any stories of great finds?
Liza: Lots! But more than individual items, my stories are about the experiences I've had while on the hunt. Sure, I've found a true gem here and there—a well-known label or particularly desirable item. But I am much more enamored of the people I've encountered, and the stories I've heard, than of any individual item. I've blogged about a couple of these already, and intend to write more in the future. Here are a couple of the stories: Queen of the 60s Shift Dress and That's About It for the Clothes, Do You Want to See My Donkeys?
Still to come is the tale of my time spent with Mrs. H, the Woman With 400 Long-Sleeved Blouses, and my most recent encounter with a fun and wacky local vintage seller moving out of state and wanting to offload her mountains of stock. I bought 99 items from her, and barely made a dent.
DG: What are some of your favorite vintage garments?
DG: What’s your favorite era? Is that because of the styles, the history, the culture, or some combination?
Liza: I have two favorite fashion eras: 1) late 1870s to early 1880s, with the smooth, princess silhouette and minimal bustle:
2) the late 1940s to early 1960s (mid-century, from New Look to Mad Men):
As for culture, I’d welcome a return to a more mannered, and even a slower-paced way of life. And remember not having to worry that anything and everything we say and do can be made instantaneously and irretrievably public? Today, you have to be on guard in a way that's entirely new, and more than a little anxiety provoking. Everyone makes mistakes. We fall down, we say stupid things, we do foolish things in our youth (and beyond). But nowadays, these gaffes, which until fairly recently would simply vanish with the passage of time and lack of a permanent record, are eternal, and can easily end a career or ruin a life.
The notion that previous eras were culturally or historically superior, however, with no real problems of consequence, is pure fantasy. No, I don’t want to live in a time of slavery, or when women were considered chattel, or when it was a crime to be gay. This is just scratching the surface, of course, but the good old days weren’t all good. The clothes were great, yes, but I can still wear them. And if you can sew, you can make them. We needn’t go backward.
No, I’d rather stay in the present. I would, however, like it very much if these three things could be undone:
1) the new and misguided educational tenet that self-esteem is more important than service to and respect for others
2) the policy change that shifted network news from a public service to a revenue stream, resulting in “if it bleeds it leads” and creating the terrifying illusion that we live in constant danger, culminating in today’s over-supervised, perpetually dependent children and that most loathsome of all modern phrases: “play date”
That would be just about perfect.
DG: What’s your most glamorous place?
I love Bergdorf Goodman. It's elegant, sparkly, serene. It's luxurious, but not ostentatious. [In the photo to the right, Liza tries on an $8,000 gown at Bergdorf's, just for fun.] Much of Manhattan is glamorous. Even the grittier areas are made glamorous by the constant, purposeful bustle of industry. More places: The Waldorf Astoria. The Chrysler Building. The lobby of the Woolworth Building. Just exquisite. Oh, and the TWA terminal at JFK (if you can just imagine out the sweats-and-Crocs-clad modern travelers). These are places where you should feel uncomfortable if you're not nicely dressed. Oh, and Paris, of course.
On a personal note, the single most glamorous place I have ever been is the kitchen of a friend's parents' home, many years ago, in the late evening. Everything in the uncluttered, darkened space spoke of a life of incomparable glamour and privilege. The Lear Jet catalog on the otherwise empty counter. The pristine, sparklingly bright refrigerator, containing only a large, cut-crystal bowl of fruit salad, a bottle of champagne, a jar of capers, and waiting for the maid on the top shelf, a silver tray holding a bowl of raisin bran and a tiny pitcher of milk. With no other options, we were forced to drink the champagne.
In a 1912 New York Timesarticle bylined Margaine Lacroix, the designer who only four years earlier had shocked Paris with her sexy dresses opined on the question, "Do Women Like Eccentric Clothes?" She argued that they do not. "Now, as ever, the woman of society does not wear bizarre clothes," she wrote.
You will say, are not the great Parisian houses, or at any rate a number of them, turning out numbers of extraordinary eccentricity? You are quite right. They are. And to that I can only reply that those models are created but not worn...
[T]he eccentric models one sees belong to the same order of things as those strange and beautiful birds one hears about in tropical countries. Glittering and beautiful with all the colors of the rainbow they die in a day or, in other words, they are exported. Then, stripped of their peculiarly bewildering eccentrities, they are modified to form the new fashion.
These daring gowns suggest new ideas, evoke new fashions, but in their entirety no woman of good taste accepts them. If an actress wears them, perhaps, occasionally, she does so only on the stage. I speak, of course, of the actresses who stand high, not of those aspirants to fame who do not care how they are remarked if only they are noticed.
Margaine Lacroix worked within--and celebrated--the then-fashionable curvy silhouette. "Would it be rational to suppose that women would cover up that hard-earned grace with eccentriticies that could not show it to advantage," she wrote. "In short, the silhouette--that is what women want to-day, and they put it above all else, certainly far above the bizarre."
Are we in our narrow skirts less free than our grandmothers in crinoline? Unless we stupidly exaggerate the skirt we are indeed much freer, and exaggeration, as I have said, the woman of taste avoids scrupulously.
In short, the women of taste in general do not care for the bizarre, and if caprice drives some of them to it they quickly weary and come back to the rule that a lady does not like to be stared at.
Poiret's eccentricity and flamboyance gave him a place in fashion history, eclipsing the once-famous Margaine Lacroix. But it was Coco Chanel, with a simplicity that would have been strange to both of them, who sensed where fashion and culture were really headed.
Left off the Racked list, because she's largely been forgotten, was the pioneering pre-World War I designer Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix, known in her day simply as Margaine-Lacroix. Susie Ralph, a British fashion historian, is engaged in a one-woman crusade to restore this once-prominent designer to her rightful place in history. Here, introducing an exhibit on Margaine-Lacroix, she explains how the designer's skintight, corsetless designs shocked Paris in 1908:
In 1908 Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix sent three mannequins to the Longchamp race-course clad in her form-revealing robes-tanagréennes. These corsetless dresses caused a sensation among Paris’ fashionable crowd - a riot according to some newspaper reports. Worn without corsets and slit to the knee on one side over the most transparent of underskirts, their impact on the fashion world was instantaneous and resulted in major press coverage not only in Paris but around the world. In today's parlance the style immediately "went viral"....It was Margaine-Lacroix’s daring vision that brought to an end the ideal of the rigidly corseted hour-glass figure, and ushered in the new, slim twentieth century silhouette.
Although worn without corsets, Margaine-Lacroix's dresses were anything but baggy. They were cut and seamed to give the wearer va-va-va-voom curves. “For Mae West,” wrote Colette in a 1938 essay on the star, “the age of vice is not 1900 but 1907 or ’08: the era of giant hats made popular by Lantelme, the clinging dresses of Margaine-Lacroix.”
For all their raciness, Margaine-Lacroix's designs captured the imaginations of mainstream critics like Mrs. Jack May of the British weekly The Bystander. “From no single aspect does this elegance offend the eye, the exquisite simplicity of the silhouette affording the absolute relief and pleasure,” she wrote of the dress to the right. “Carried out in the delicate green of a young sapling leaf, the harmony undisturbed, save for a great butterfly motif worked in padded relief in Egyptian colourings, few women would be ale to resist the claims of so persuasive a possession.”
For more on Margaine-Lacroix, watch Susie Ralph's lecture here (the intro is in Italian, but the lecture is in English).
'Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen' on view at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, Oct. 18, 2012 - Jan. 12, 2013.
With this post, we introduce our newest DG contributor, Jessica Barber. (If the post's formatting looks odd, please adjust the width of your browser window. TypePad can produce some odd effects with photo placement, and they aren't Jessica's fault.)--vp
Last month I had the great pleasure of patronizing the beautifully curated costume exhibition Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, in a seemingly unlikely venue for such a topic: the New York Public Library. The exhibition was organized by the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn's estate several years after her passing in 2003 at the age of 96. (The museum is renowned for its extensive costume collection, which contains more than 40,000 objects.) In collaboration with the NYPL, the exhibition included not only many of the costumes from the actress's long career in stage, film, and television, but also examples of the casual everyday wardrobe that helped solidify her as an icon of “rebel chic.”
The fashion and costume designers represented in the exhibition were a veritable who’s who of Hollywood names: Valentina, Howard Greer, Muriel King, Irene, and Cecil Beaton, to name a few. Exhibited alongside garments and accessories were other film and stage ephemera such as posters, playbills, lobby cards, and even a makeup kit used by Hepburn, with various brushes, lipsticks, and Max Factor concealor still inside.
Black silk evening gown by Walter Plunkett, worn by Hepburn as Amanda Bonner in 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.4, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. Designed to accent her 20" waist, this gown was colored red by the MGM publicity department for the lobby card, right.
Original lobby card for 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.3.14, Gift of Christopher P. Sullivan.
Katharine Hepburn, Self-portrait as Coco Chanel, 1970, watercolor on paper; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.58, Gift of Katharine Hepburn
One of the most important points the exhibition illustrated was Hepburn's high level of involvement in crafting her characters' wardrobes. More than many of her contemporaries, Hepburn was acutely aware of the importance of dress not only to the characters she portrayed but to the overall storyline as well. She worked closely with the designers of her film and stage ensembles (famed costume designer Edith Head once remarked that one "did not design for her," but "with her") and she even made sketches of her own costume designs. The muticolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina that she wore as Jamie Coe Rowan in the 1942 film Without Love was one of many dresses that Hepburn personally sketched, noting details of the fabric choice, the construction, and how the skirt "simply floated."
Hepburn was also known to sketch self-portraits of herself as the characters she played. These captured the qualities she wanted to convey with each. Among the sketches included in the exhibition was her watercolor self-rendering as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, whom she played in the stage musical Coco (1969). Chanel was a hardworking couturière who was known for her stern personality, and this trait is skillfully conveyed by Hepburn's characterization.
Multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina, worn by Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan in 'Without Love' ; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.62, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan, wearing a multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina in 'Without Love' .
Cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown by Irene, Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.12.3, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Also of particular note was how meticulously well-crafted and in rather good condition many of these garments were, such as this shirred and appliquéd cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown designed by Irene and worn by Hepburn as Mary Matthews in State of the Union (MGM, 1948). As any designer for the stage or screen will tell you, this is not always the case. Between the forgiving eye of the camera (or the forgiving distance of the audience from the stage) and the many retakes and rehearsals, the film and theatre costumes in museum collections are notorious for their shabbiness. But even from behind a wall of Plexiglas, it was clear that much care had been put into their detailed construction. This is no doubt also a reflection of how involved Hepburn was in the process of designing and creating them, and of the high standard to which she worked. As the exhibition text noted, she often had recreations of her costumes made for her everyday wardrobe, so it is no surprise that they were made to stand the test of time.
Slacks and jodhpurs worn by Katharine Hepburn at the NYPL. Image credit: The Associated Press.
Of course no clothing exhibition of Katharine Hepburn's would be complete without at least a passing mention of her well-known preference for trousers in her everyday life. The exhibition included many pairs of slacks and jodhpurs skillfully installed on half-mannequins in poses that playfully evoked her unabashed preference for this masculine style, when it was still unheard of for women to express such sartorial sentiments.
With four Academy Awards for Best Actress (and eight additional Oscar nominations), Katharine Hepburn remains the most decorated actress in American film history. Even ten years after her passing, she continues to charm the public with her style, wit, and enduring performances. As noted in the exhibition brochure, perhaps Calvin Klein summed up Hepburn’s mass appeal best when he presented her with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985: “She has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She’s vibrant, she’s outspoken, she’s hardworking and she’s independent…and, fortunately for all of us, she’s never been afraid to be comfortable.”
(Note: The exhibition opened to the public in October 2012, and three months is the generally accepted upper limit on exhibitions featuring costumes and textiles because of their fragility, so the exhibition closed in January 2013. But, you can still download a PDF copy of the handsomely illustrated exhibition brochure here).