Downtown, Uptown: From the Dry Goods Store to the Palace of Consumption- Part I

This is a two parts post,  presented first in May 2013 at the our annual symposium.

In 1835, the wealthy merchant Seabury Tredwell bought the house on 29 East Fourth Street in New York City. “The elegance and beauty of this section cannot be surpassed in the country,” said the Morning Herald of the neighborhood. Indeed, the wealthiest and most fashionable families in the city chose the Bond Street area as their place of residence, away from Lower Manhattan’s congested streets.

However, in just a few years, Tredwell’s once fashionable residential address found itself in the heart of another commercial center, with hotels, theaters, stores and restaurants surrounding it on all sides. New York City’s former mayor, Philip Hone, lived not far from the Tredwells. In 1850 he noted in his dairy that “The mania for converting Broadway into a street of shops is greater than ever.”

Bond Street, 1857  http://merchantshouse.org

Bond Street, 1857
http://merchantshouse.org

MHM_Leung_facade-564x1024

29 East Fourth Street
The Merchant’s House Museum

Between the 1850s and the turn of the century, the industrialization of America made many Americans money more quickly than they could spend it.  In New York, the architects McKim, Meade and White erected magnificent palaces along Fifth Avenue for those who wished to display this wealth. Commerce chased wealth and fashionable residential neighborhoods kept one step ahead of commercial centers in a steady northern migration up the island of Manhattan.

Beginning near Bond Street, commercial palaces were built to replace the residential ones. Eventually, the northern march of commerce reached Union Square. One of the stores to follow this path was Lord and Taylor.  On Monday, November 28th, 1870 the new Lord & Taylor department store at 901 Broadway, opened its doors. 10,000 costumers were said to use its elevator in the first three days of operation. The steam elevator, still a novelty in New York City at this time, enabled shoppers to arrive at ease on higher floors, where thanks to the advent of industrialization, more and more merchandise waited for their heart’s content.

The steam elevator at the new Lord & Taylor store on opening day, November 28th, 1870.

The steam elevator at the new Lord & Taylor store on opening day, November 28th, 1870.

This highly ornate cast-iron, five-story palace, joined other downtown businesses that sought to establish themselves among the smart set, like Tiffany and Company and the downtown dry goods store Arnold Constable. The  New York Times described the building as honest, “proclaiming itself to be iron at first glance. Its wealth of filigree acknowledges with all honesty what it is made of and could not have been in stone for millions. The decoration is sparse, though airy and graceful, and merits more than anything else the appellation of iron lace-work.” By not attempting to imitate the appearance of stone, like some other stores, Lord & Taylor’s new cast-iron façade communicated both innovation and modernization.

Lord and Yalor Broadway and 2oth, 1870-1904

Lord and Taylor at Broadway and Twentieth Street, 1870-1904. Special Collections and FIT Archives

Lord & Taylor’s history begins in the early decades of the Nineteenth Century. In 1826, with a $1,000 loan from his wife’s uncle, the English immigrant, Samuel Lord opened a dry goods store at 47 Catherine Street. In those days, Lower Manhattan was the center of New York City, and Catherine Street its hub for shopping and socializing. Just a few years earlier, across the street on the corner of Cherry, Henry Sands Brooks opened his men’s clothing store, named at first H. & D.H. Brooks & Co., and later simply Brooks Brothers. Not far from there, on Chambers Street, the twenty two years old Alexander T. Stewart opened his dry goods store in 1823. It would later become one of the most successful department stores in New York.

Lord and Taylor Catherine Slips

The Catherine Slips, early 1830s.
Special Collections and FIT Archives.

Catherine Street was ideal for commerce because of its proximity to the Catherine Slip and the Brooklyn horse ferry. By the time Lord & Taylor opened their doors, the bustling Catherine Street was already lined with “furniture shops, shoes shops, tin shops, cloak shops, meat shops, bread shops, candy shops, crockery shops, pawn-brokers shops, sugar shops, hat shops, dry-goods shops, groceries and markets.” These stores hired “pullers-in,” young, tenacious men who aggressively hustled costumers in.

To distance themselves from the market mentality of the street, Lord  &Taylor had a strict no “pullers in” policy. In addition, prices were not negotiable. In two decades this practice would become a standard for department stores around the world, but in the 1820s and 30s it was quite an innovation.

Catherine Market, 1850.  NYPL Digital Gallery.

Catherine Market, 1850.
NYPL Digital Gallery.

Lord & Taylor Sales Slip, 1838.  The History of Lord & Taylor, 1826-1926.

Lord & Taylor Sales Slip, 1838.
The History of Lord & Taylor, 1826-1926.

Lord & Taylor was almost an instant success. In the next few years it grew rapidly, first expanding to the adjoining building on 49 Catherine Street, and later moving into a four story building down the street, where shelves were full to capacity with bolts of English fabrics for women’s dresses, and with blankets and linens.

The fast growing population forced the city residential areas to expand north,  a trend that must have been felt by Samuel Lord, who, while still on Catherine Street, purchased a coal yard at the corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets. In 1853 he opened the new Lord & Taylor on that site. The building featured the first large glass-domed central rotunda in the city, an innovation that flooded the shopping floor with natural light. Lord & Taylor were among the first dry goods stores to sense not only that the fashionable crowd had started moving uptown, but also that it was looking for a new kind of shopping experience.

Lord and Taylor store at Grand and Chrystie Streets,  opened 1853.  The History of Lord & Taylor, 1826-1926.

Lord and Taylor store at Grand and Chrystie Streets, opened 1853.
The History of Lord & Taylor, 1826-1926.

Lord and Taylor ‘s second location on Grand Street, corner of Broadway,1860-1874.  Special Collections and FIT Archives.

Lord and Taylor ‘s second location on Grand Street, corner of Broadway,1860-1874.
Special Collections and FIT Archives.

The great world fairs, such as London’s Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, and the New York Crystal Palace in 1853,  were the stimulus, if not the inspiration, for the growth of dry goods stores into department stores. The display of quantities of goods in a large well- lighted space, in addition to the high ceilings and architecture of iron and glass, simulated the experience of the world fairs, with the advantage of being able to actually purchase the goods.

In addition, urbanization, mass transportation, and mass production were key factors to the development of department stores. The Industrial Revolution enabled all of these factors to exist at the same time, reaching a new peak in the mid-nineteenth century.  In New York, A.T. Stewart was the most innovative of the bunch, erecting in 1846 a six story marble building on Broadway at the north side of City Hall Park. The “Marble Palace,” as it was called by New Yorkers, featured plated- glass windows along its façade and was hailed by the Tribune as “a real sensation.” Carriages, transporting costumers to and from the store, lined the street, most likely contributing to the already chaotic traffic on Broadway.

A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace, 1851. The  New York Historical Society.   v

A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace, 1851.
The New York Historical Society.
v

Further uptown, at Grand Street, Lord & Taylor also enjoyed the “carriage trade,” as evident from the following advertisement, from August 2, 1854:

SPECIAL NOTICE TO THE LADIES- The paving of Grand Street with Belgian pavement is now completed from Broadway as far as the store of the undersigned, and Ladies who have been prevented during the last three months from reaching our store in carriages, are informed that the interruption is now removed.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1850-55. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1850-55.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How hard it must have been to board and descend these carriages in the fashions of the 1850s,  when several layers of stiff petticoats and a horsehair crinoline were necessary to achieve the fashionable full skirts, reaching sometimes seven yards in circumference.

The Lord & Taylor advertisement shows us not only that Grand Street has become an important commercial area but also that retailers were targeting women shoppers in particular. A.T. Stewart, for example, employed handsome young clerks to “please the ladies.” Spaces like the “Ladies’ Parlor” on  the second floor where shoppers could study their appearance in full-length mirrors, offered  ideal environment for women to leisurely shop and socialize.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1855. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1855.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1850-55. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1850-55.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That shopping became an important social status is evident from a poem written in 1857, titled “Nothing to Wear”:

Nothing to wear! Now as this is a true ditty,

I do not assert- this, you know, is between us-

That she’s in a state of absolute nudity

Like Powers’ Greek Slave or the Medici Venus;

But I do mean to say I’ve heard her declare,

When at the same moment, she had on a dress

Which cost five hundred dollars and not a cent less,

And jewelry worth ten times more I should guess,

That she had not a thing in the wide world to wear!

 Referring to a young lady of Madison Square, this poem illustrates that wealthy New Yorkers had become obsessed with shopping for luxury goods. One’s clothing, house, furniture and leisure activities determined her social standing. In addition, promenading had also become a symbol of wealth and status. As James Fenimore Cooper noted in a letter to his wife in 1850, New York City is “a great arena for women to show off their fine fathers in.“ The industrial revolution provided not only more wealth to more families, but also cheap immigrant labor, which in turn freed mother and daughters to spend more time outside the home in leisure activities.

Broadway, 1868. Harper’s Weekly, February 15, 1868.

Broadway, 1868.
Harper’s Weekly, February 15, 1868.

Madison Square, 1889.  Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1889.

Madison Square, 1889.
Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1889.

Please come back next week for part two of this post in which I will continue to explore how department stores in New York evolved during the Nineteenth Century to the fashion emporiums they are today.

 


Selected bibliography

The history of Lord & Taylor 1818-1926

Lourdes M. Font and Trudie A. Grace, Summer Afternoon: Fashion and Leisure in the Hudson Highlands 1850-1950. Cold Spring, New York: Putnam History Museum, 2012

 Jan Whitaker, The World of Department Stores. New York: Vendom Press, 2011.

 Weisman,Winston. Commercial Palaces of New York: 1845-1875. The Art Bulletin  Vol. 36, No. 4 (Dec., 1954), College Art Association.

 Nan Tillson Birmingham. Store: a Memoir of America’s Greatest Department Stores .New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978

Hendrickson, The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America’s Great Department Stores,155-156

M. Christiane Boyer, Manhattan Manners: Architecture and Style 1850-1950. New York: Rizoli, 1985.

llyod Morris, Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life from 1850 to 1950. Syracuse University Press, 1996

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Guest Post: Fashion’s Other Grace: In Defense of Ms. Mirabella

By Cary O’Dell

Next to “wearable” and “practical,” her name might be the two most controversial words in fashion today.  When it is spoken—if it is spoke at all—it’s often whispered.  Such is the still lingering pall over her.

Her.

Grace Mirabella.

From the day she was named the controversial successor to Diana Vreeland as editor in chief of Vogue in 1971 until her departure from the magazine in 1988 (to make room for Anna Wintour), through the lifespan of her eponymous monthly “Mirabella” to her current life, Grace Mirabella has often inspired a certain amount of disrespect.

Grace Mirabella in an undated photo

Grace Mirabella in an undated photo

Andy Warhol called her “middle class.”  Vreeland was once alleged to have dismissed her as “the secretary.”  And her era at the helm of the fashion bible is sometimes today degradedly referred to as “the beige years,” named for the middle-of-the-road color of paint applied over the shocking colors that once adorned Vreeland’s office after Vreeland vacated.  (There is actually some controversy whose idea the beige was—Mirabella’s or someone at Conde Naste’s.  But, regardless, no one ever seems to mention the color of Anna Wintour’s work walls.)

Mirabella's controversial memior, In and Out of Vogue, Doubleday, 1995 (Courtesy Doubleday)

Mirabella’s controversial memoir, In and Out of Vogue, Doubleday, 1995 (Courtesy Doubleday)

Granted, some of the Mirabella backlash has been brought on by the lady herself.  In her very informative, entertaining 1995 memoir, the aptly titled In and Out of Vogue, Mirabella doesn’t hold back.  Within its pages, she has some very blunt and not so kind things to say about Anna Wintor, Polly Mellen, Christian Lacroix and others.  Perhaps as bad, Mirabella dared to not worship at the Cult of Diana.  Not that she says anything negative about the incomparable Vreeland, only that the Vreeland Mirabella presents in her book is focused on the woman and not the image Vreeland carefully crafted around herself.  Actually, if anything, Mirabella’s recollections about her former boss/predecessor are the probably the most fascinating remembrances of the great fashion doyenne ever put down.  That Mirabella was excluded from the recent Vreeland-related work “The Eye Must Travel” is probably that book and film’s most egregious short-falling.

But, as tough as she might be on other, Mirabella is equally candid about herself.  She bemoans her own occasional passiveness and her life-long reluctance to play the fashion game.  She also bravely charts the moment she knew that her idea of fashion was no longer in keeping with the culture.  After witnessing a 1980s Met gala where all the women were outfitted in outrageous Lacroix confections, Mirabella observed:

 [O]ften they were tortured:  their crinolines didn’t permit them to sit down and they had to turn sideways to fit through doorways.  When I saw this, and the glee with which so many women swallowed it up, I realized that it wasn’t Lacroix, it was I who was falling out of step with them.

Throughout her career, Mirabella was never the archetypical fashionista.  She was never a size zero.  And even Vreeland, her one-time mentor, considered her too “approachable,” not possessing of the regal air that both DV and Anna Wintour either possessed or carefully cultivated.  Furthermore, Mirabella hailed from New Jersey, not the exotic locales that other up-and-coming editors either came from or, in the case of Vreeland, pretended to come from.  She was the daughter of two working class parents, not a debutante.  She worked her way up the ranks in fashion and at Vogue, slow and steady, gaining respect for her diligence and common sense.  Probably only in fashion can someone’s solid work ethic and practical nature be held against them.

Cover from Grace Mirabella's tenure at Vogue (Courtesy Conde Nast)

Cover from Grace Mirabella’s tenure at Vogue (Courtesy Conde Nast)

When Mirabella was named editor in chief of Vogue in 1971, after the firing of Diana Vreeland (who had been in the magazine’s driver’s seat since 1963), she was not only attempting to fill a pair of larger than life shoes, she was also about to embark, with the book, into a challenging new epoch, perhaps one of the toughest eras ever for fashion.

By the dawn of the 1970s, the “ladies who lunched” were giving way to women entering the workforce.  The rise of second-wave feminism (temporarily?) marked fashion as the enemy.  If bras weren’t necessarily being burned, then surely most of the Vreeland-sanctioned fantasies that “Vogue” had been showcasing up to that time were being rapidly discarded.  Fashion was at a crossroads.

Mirabella bravely took on the challenge and broadened the magazine’s focus, introducing more text into the publication and elevating its overall content.  She ran stories on women’s health, politics, the then pending ERA and other topical issues.

Cover from Grace Mirabella's tenure at Vogue (Courtesy Conde Nast)

Cover from Grace Mirabella’s tenure at Vogue (Courtesy Conde Nast)

But fashion was not excluded.  Mirabella just strongly believed in an easier more effortless (and dare we say it?) American type of style.  Under her tutelage, “Vogue,” along with continuing to celebrate the work of YSL and Ungaro and other masters, also became an early advocate of Halston, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and, early in his career, Isaac Mizrahi.

Mirabella’s Vogue also helped to redefined (or revived) the American beauty standard by giving steady exposure to a host of American-bred beauties like Lauren Hutton, Karen Graham, Patti Hansen, and Lisa Taylor.  It was also during her tenure that “Vogue” placed its first woman of color on its cover; model Beverly Johnson became that inaugural cover girl with the August 1974 issue.

If some of the fashion-flock objected to Mirabella’s evolution of the magazine, consumers didn’t.  During her almost two decades in the editor’s office, circulation of the magazine rose from 400,000 to 1.2 million.  Hence, when Wintour took over in 1988, she inherited a very healthy vessel.

Meanwhile, the changes Mirabella imposed in fashion journalism have remained.  No fashion monthly today limits itself to just clothes coverage.  They assume—rightfully—that their readers are interested in fashion AND the world around them.

Mirabella magazine, debut issue, June 1989 (Diandra Douglas in extreme close-up) (Courtesy News Corp.)

Mirabella magazine, debut issue, June 1989 (Diandra Douglas in extreme close-up) (Courtesy News Corp.)

I won’t go so far as to say that fashion would have died if Mirabella hadn’t come along when she did.  But I do wonder if Vogue would have survived the 1970’s without her.  And, yet, today, despite her powerful Vogue legacy and the subsequent artistic and philosophical success, if not long term financial success, of her own Mirabella magazine, which was on stands from 1989 to 2000, Grace Mirabella’s contributions to fashion seem regularly ignored or dismissed by many.  She is not seen on the red carpet of the Met’s annual fundraiser.  She has yet to be feted by the CFDA, though other lesser luminaries have already been honored.  And, as mentioned before, she has been largely excluded from any Vreeland retrospectives or tributes, though few knew Vreeland better or worked with her longer.  And except for a February 2012 fete hosted at The Mark in New York in her honor (attended by Isabella Rossellini, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Mary McFadden, Vera Wang, and others), few other appropriate tributes truly celebrating the revolutionary now 83 year-old former editor or her contributions to fashion.  Perhaps too many contemporary fashion power brokers are not aware of Mirabella’s mighty influence or are too scared to potentially vex Anna Wintour, the woman who poached Mirabella’s “Vogue” perch back in 1988, to pay proper homage.

In any event, regardless of multiple career accolades or none, even in the mercurial world of fashion, Grace Mirabella’s influence as a style arbiter and magazine visionary will be felt for decades to come, if not in perpetuity.  We are still very much operating and existing within Grace’s world, whether we choose to acknowledge her by name or not.

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Guest Post- Carmen: An Appreciation

By Cary O’Dell

carmen2

Carmen Dell’Orefice (or simply Carmen, as she is often billed) is a glorious, living contradiction.  She earns her living as a fashion model; she is 80 years old.

Her very existence defies logic, or at least assumptions.  With the possible exception of a 70-year old football player (which, so far, doesn’t exist) or a 7-foot tall jockey (also not yet in existence), nothing else is more of an anomaly.

According to popular thought, fashion models are supposed to have the life spans of Mayflys.  Women in the field are, supposedly, destined to be “over” by the age of 21, 25 at the most.  But anyone who still thinks that hasn’t been paying attention.  Kate Moss is almost 40 and is still working; Naomi Campbell is 42.  Other mannequins are also defying the age stereotype:  Christy Turlington, Lisa Taylor, Lauren Hutton and China Machado.

But Carmen predates them all, and brings with every one of her appearances half the history of American fashion.

carmen--red

Carmen in Elizabeth Arden ad: Courtesy of Elizabeth Arden

She began gracing magazine covers, advertisements and catwalks when she was 15 years old in 1946.  She scored her first cover of “Vogue” a year later, in October of 1947.  She was part of the original group of supermodels–along with Lisa Fonssagrives, Dorian Leigh and Dovima—that existed before the uber term was even coined.

From behind the lens she has been photographed by a who’s who of history’s greatest photographers Irving Penn, Avedon, Scavullo, Cecil Beaton, Horst, Melvin Sokolsy, and Erwin Blumenfield.  Many of her images are now fashion touchstones, images transformed into icons.

She began being celebrated as fashion’s “older” model when she fully reentered the industry in her 40s.  And that was over 40 years ago.

Yet despite several high-profile, well-chosen print appearances in advertisements for Isaac Mizrahi and a gorgeous campaign for Rolex, and some celebrated runway appearances, the world doesn’t see enough of Carmen.

carmen3

Rolex ad: Courtesy of Rolex

Not only does she look as good as any 20 year-old working today, she’s an inspiration.  She’s a living, breathing (and well-spoken) advocate against not only ageism in fashion but ageism in any field, in society at large.  Think of the message that could be sent if one of the major fashion bibles (“Vogue,” “Harper’s Bazaar,” et.al.) were to return Carmen, today, to one of their covers.  Along with a reeling rash of positive publicity, it would upend innumerable criticism and assumptions held by the fashion flock, fashion onlookers and fashion criticizers.

carmen--young

Photo by Horst; originally published in Vogue

But it is more than just good will that should compel brands and publications to incorporate Carmen more.  It’s also good business.  After all, it’s not just 21 year-old girls who buy clothes and cosmetics.  Real adult women could greatly benefit—and respond—to the images of other real adult women looking back at them from the magazine page or from the television screen, visual proof that these clothes, these accessories are wearable to a “mature” woman, not just a high-schooler.  According to the latest US Census the median age for the US population is the highest it’s ever been and will only rise further as the Baby Boomers continue to exit middle age for their so-called “senior” years.  Carmen, and other over 40, over 50 models, can serve as role model and inspiration, in short, the very role we’ve always wanted fashion models to be.

Carmen is already listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the world’s oldest working model.  She was also in the news a few years ago when it was revealed she was among Bernard Madoff’s many victims.  So, along with everything else, she’s a survivor.  Yet another way her visage and her image could be used to excite and influence.

Carmen will be turning 81 on June 3rd.  Thankfully, she shows no sign of retiring any time soon.  In fact, I think she’s just getting started.

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Exhibition Review: Punk: Chaos to Couture

The punk aesthetic has always solicited strong reactions, for it seems that the music, the fashion and the lifestyle thrive only in moments of internal or external adversity. The latest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has incited cries of both praise and protest, and it is these conflicting reviews that hint at the possible success of PUNK: Chaos and Couture.

D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is worth noting that this exhibit not about the history of punk. It is not about the fascinating individuals behind the movement, it is not about the music, and it is not about how punk impacted society. This is a fashion retrospective, one that primarily illustrates how the punk movement inspired haute couture. The exhibit documents the elevated use of safety pins and of found material, as it illustrates the mimicry that will always exist in the fashion world. What is surprising is the beauty that the punk movement inspired – multiple decades of creation inspired by destruction.

D.I.Y.: Hardware. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

D.I.Y.: Hardware. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Viewed at the right pace, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, fades into the memory as a brief, pulsating music video – predominately black and white, with spatters of neon color and a blurred, creative focus on calculated carelessness.  From the music to the facsimile of CBGB’s restroom (at its height of sordidness), sound and texture are an integral part of the exhibit. Walls of draped vinyl play the supporting role to many of the designs sold in Sex and Seditionaries at 430 Kings Road. With names like Brutal, Rape, and Sperm, the tee shirts are a strong reminder that the punk aesthetic was not always a welcome addition to the runway. As the grainy video violently changes, images whip across the screen, diverting attention from some modern interpretations of punk design by Balmain, Burberry, Wantanabe, and others. These sweaters and jackets in decorated plaids and uneven stripes have risen to couture standards with careful tailoring and fine fabrics; these haute couture garments are a successful combination of elements of punk fashion and the creativity that is found in the learned craft of clothing construction.

Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The use of high contrasts continues into the second space, a temporary temple to studs, chains, and asymmetry. The hall is mock-grand, with pillars and enclaves carved from Styrofoam, and etched with pseudo-graffiti that exposes the fragility of the design. In this room, Versace’s golden safety pins and Givenchy’s cashmere and studs replace the rips and tears of original punk fashion. Rebellion is again contained in couture finishing techniques and the loveliest of leather. This coupling of punk references with more successful elements of formalized fashion design is the dichotomy that provides the aesthetic with a lasting appeal.

D.I.Y.: Bricolage. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

D.I.Y.: Bricolage. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over time, studs, chains, pseudo-bondage have evolved to become a harmless representation of anger – a rebellion packaged as sexy and dangerous with a hint of forbidden passion. These clothes allow others to play a role and to safely express emotions that can be shed as easily as a coat or unzipped as easily as a dress. Designers have captured the creativity of the punk music; they have removed the wrath, but have left a sprinkling of seduction and rebellion in the form of a raw edge or possibly indecent show of skin. Fashion is a pivotal part of the performance!

In the next gallery, white Styrofoam changes to shining, molded plastic walls – the backdrop for recycled fashion or bricolage. By far the best display of creative work, this collection of D.I.Y. artworks includes pieces by Maison M. Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Comme de Garcons and other designers who have transformed broken porcelain, plastic bags, pearls, paper mache and paper into truly interesting and sensuous works of art. One has to actively resist touching the materials of these pieces – just listen to the ever watchful guard! Most notable is Margiela’s minimalistic bodysuit constructed from a white shopping bag, with handles lying close to the chest like two, hard plastic pendants. The elegance of this bodysuit, the pearl vest, and the porcelain necklace seem to be an incongruous extension of the many of Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s ideas; while their inclusion in the show is questionable, it is appreciated.

The exhibit ends with a collection of painted garments and a mangled mass of useless, extra sleeves. Comme de Garcons’ elegant statement pieces are lost among the paint splatters and politically charged slogans, confirming that this setting may not be the best stage for Kawakubo’s work, which usually has a more powerful presence. Throughout the exhibit, the most effective pieces are the subtle reinterpretations, the minimalistic designs that provides a brief respite from the rapid pace of the music and the strobe-like, large-scale videos.

D.I.Y.: Destroy. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

D.I.Y.: Destroy. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

PUNK: Chaos and Couture celebrates rebellious fashion, embracing an anthem of “no future” in one of the finest, historic art institutions in the world. It is this tension between tradition and rebellion that makes many of the garments on view interesting. These garments are not pure punk, but instead are subtle jabs at the industry – a poke of a safety pin, perhaps. Or maybe a brush against a metal stud.

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Exhibition Review: Artist/Rebel/Dandy

With a turned leg, a pair of trousers displays the athletic curves of a calf. The garment, a tribute to fine tailoring, was constructed from broadcloth, a rich fabric that retains its shape despite its age. Though sedate and small, this pair of trousers defines the dandy at  Artist/Rebel/Dandy at the RISD Museum.

An initial, towering image of George “Beau” Brummell reminds visitors of his unforgettable presence in the 1800s. Brummell, with both a tall stature and the grandest of personalities, rose through social ranks with the help of daring, innovative fashions, and his tenuous standing within society was founded on fashion’s vacillating fascination with novelty and singularity. Though his life was both recorded and ridiculed by his contemporaries, Brummell’s highly constructed image became the foundation for all men seeking sartorial individuality and expression.

Brummell’s impact on fashionable society is best understood while reading the critiques of those outside his social circle. Many portrayed Brummell and other dandies as effeminate and foppish, but critics were clearly fascinated by their looks and lifestyle. The words of these critics share exhibit space with the words and effects of notable dandies including Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Andy Warhol, and Max Beerbohm. As with Brummell, critics admired and chided these men for their attentiveness to dress and their uninhibited lifestyles; lifestyles that occasionally led to exile and penury.

Amidst the stripes and checks and the names of famous designers, the exhibit unfolds not chronologically but thematically, while exploring various interpretations of dandyism through the 19th century to the present day. Punk jerseys are in proximity to letterman jackets, while Fred Astaire’s white bow tie is only yards from recent works of Sruli Recht. This collection of suiting and accessories exemplifies the romanticism, the historicism, and the impetuous innovation of dandies throughout time. Artist/Rebel/Dandy affirms the admirable role of creatives who continue to secure a place for individual expression within menswear.

“Dandyism isn’t image encrusted with flowers. It’s a way of stripping yourself down to your true self. You can only judge the style by the content and you can only reach the content through the style.”
– Sebastian Horsley

Found on risdmuseum.org

From risdmuseum.org

So rarely do we see an exhibit devoted to the development of menswear, one that so thoughtfully presents each collar, button, and the magnetic personalities that carefully chose them.  Artist/Rebel/Dandy is on view in the Chace Center Galleries at the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design until August 18, 2013.

RISD Museum
20 N Main St
Providence, RI 02903
Phone: (401) 454 6500

Hours
Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 am–5 pm
Thursdays, 10 am–9 pm

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Guest Post: In Defense of Trends

By Cary O’Dell

Almost as frequently as the fashion fleet rings the death knell for the couture, various writers and bloggers also chime in with another bit of fashion “news.”  Namely that fashion trends are now a thing of the past.

In late 2012, the UK’s “Daily Mail” ran an article titled “And the biggest fashion trend of 2013 will be… No trends at all! Industry experts predict style for the year ahead” while Australia’s “Daily News” reported, “Fashion trends look like no trends at all.”  America isn’t immune either.  In August of last year, the “New York Times” ran the story “Freedom of Choice:  In Fashion, Are Trends Passe?”

Additionally, for years, in its entry on “Fashion,” the “World Book” encyclopedia, after recapping the predominate styles of prior decades (shoulder pads for the 1940s, bell-bottoms for the ‘70s, etc.), have pronounced that “contemporary” fashion is in a perpetual state of “do you own thing.”

pads

So is it true?  Are fashion trends off trend now?  If it is, then we have fully entered into a brave new world of post-fashion fashion:  dressing without key, popular elements which each season easily designates us as “fashionable.”

bellbottoms

What does this no-mode fashion world look like?  It would appear to be hundreds of designers, thousands of looks of beautiful, well-made clothes but no central theme or themes to anchor them around.  A stunning, creative and potentially overwhelming cacophony of styles that might border on schizophrenia for both the industry and the consumer.

In an post-trend world, it will only be designers with a truly trademark style (Chanel comes to mind) that will convey one’s fashion savvy.  Trend-less fashion will also, no doubt, bring about the revenge of conspicuous label, wearing pieces that proudly scream, by name, Versace! or Lauren!

Certainly, to some extent, the decline of trends is true.  Though there are certain “macro trends” that we all adhere to–after all, we are not all walking around in hoop skirts and Nehru jackets–

the days of dictatorial fashion (when Dior’s changing hemlines and skirt widths kept a generation of women continuingly updating their wardrobes) are over.  And sometimes the designating of true trends is not easy to suss out with the process not aided with a few too many beautiful but unfocused photo stories in even the most prestigious of fashion bibles.  Also not helping is the spreading out, but ultimate diffusion of, fashion news resources thanks to everything from the internet to the home shopping channels.  (The latter who love to have their hosts blather on about all sorts of alleged trends from “the New York runways,” all the better way to shill poorly-made pant suits.)  Recently as well, some major retailers—H&M, Forever 21, among others—are stepping up their role in the trend-setting aspect of contemporary fashion.  As detailed in Elizabeth L. Cline’s book “Overdressed:  The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” big retail chains work fast to flood their stores with particular styles thereby creating in the mind of their customers a current existing mode.  With alarming quickness, these same stores yank their floor inventory and replace it with a new fleet of looks (pseudo-trends? Micro-trends?), giving consumers an excuse to shop and buy more.  It some ways, it’s very good business; stores are now setting trends, not just following them.

overdressed

But, this said, real, smaller but still notable trends do emerge and take a hold within fashion and within the culture.  The resurrection of the omnipresent peplum as one of fashion’s most dominant recent style accents is proof of a trend’s emerging and enduring power.

By its very definition, fashion is about trends; one is either in or out of fashion.

That trends emerge at all in any sort of organic way is always a minor miracle.  With over 200 shows during New York Fashion Week alone, editors and observers have to deal not only with a sensory overload but also a cacophony of styles and statements.  Still it is the job of the fashion press to distill what they see and to pluck out the season’s most prevalent and “correct” looking looks.  Thankfully, with the wide palette available before them—and even with such rampant individualism and creativity on display—there can still be found enough commonalities to achieve a quorum, a few key colors, patterns, silhouettes, or historical resurrections to hang our fashionable hat upon.

Dress by Alice + Olivia.

Dress by Alice + Olivia.

I have long thought that fashion is only peripherally about making one look beautiful or glamorous.  Fashion’s role, rather, is to make you look exceedingly, strikingly of the moment, conveying, if only for a instant or two, that the wearer is socially savvy, cosmopolitan, and cosmically in-the-know.  That is the power of fashion.  And that power can only be communicated via constantly shifting fashion trends; beauty ideals don’t change fast enough for that.

Furthermore, trends, organic or manufactured, will continue to define fashion if only due to the extraordinary need within the framework of the industry (i.e. the dollars, the financial bottom line).  The goal of fashion has always been to make you out of fashion.  Like the Forever 21 business model described above, the business of fashion cannot survive without, frankly, people buying far more clothes than they need and fashion’s season by season constantly shifting styles is what greases the wheels of this important cycle.

Despite the negative press, fashion trends will endure as we seek out ways to dress to simultaneously stand out and belong and as long as the fashion industry wants to stay in the red.  And you can bet your black-and-white peplum on that.

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You Are Invited

It’s almost time for the Fashion and Textile Studies annual symposium. This year the relationship between fashion and the industrial revolution will be examined in thirteen  fascinating papers. I will be talking about the evolution of department stores in the greatest city on earth- New York.

Please join us if you can, coffee and snacks on us!

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