A Tale of Two Elspeths: Forgotten Couturières and their Impact on Modern Fashion

Next Saturday the Fashion and Textiles Studies program at FIT will hold their annual symposium. To get you excited, we will share some of the papers that will be presented in the week to come.  We hope to see you there. The event is free and open to the public.


 A Tale of Two Elspeths: Forgotten Couturières and their Impact on Modern Fashion

By Kathryn Squitieri

The birth of modernity in women’s fashion can be defined as the simplification and streamlining of clothing, as well as respect for the integrity of the material, relying on the concept of drapery rather than cutting to fit an artificially molded body.[1] While Poiret’s innovations during the early years of modern fashion are constantly discussed, it is unfortunate that little recognition is given to the many other important, innovative designers of the early twentieth century. Fashion magazines are filled with advertisements and articles about unheard of couturiers that were quite successful at the time, and who should be studied as much as Poiret and Chanel.

Enter two Elspeths: Elspeth Champcommunal and Elspeth Phelps. Both were British couturières designing for royalty and wealthy clients in London during the early 20th century, and both had incredibly long and successful careers, starting in the nineteen teens and continuing into the nineteen fifties. So little is known about them, however, that at first glance one might believe they are the same person, especially since they were born and died within ten years of each other, worked in London in the same district in the 1930s and 40s, were both married with one daughter, and at different times both worked on the same street. Not to mention they were both named Elspeth. Yet, they were two distinct people.


Elspeth Phelps was born Constance Elspeth Phelps in Portugal in 1876. She opened her London couture house in approximately 1906, and not only designed gowns for high society, but designed costumes for the London stage that were built in her salon. She is credited as a costume designer for dozens of shows, and clothed stars such as Lily Elsie and Irene Castle in ethereal confections of tulle and lace. A pioneering businesswoman, she grew her house by purchasing other struggling dressmaking businesses, including that of Kate Reilly. At the height of her success she became amalgamated with the London house of Paquin. In 1926 she reopened her house as Elspeth Fox-Pitt Ltd., and continued as a Court Dressmaker until the late 1940s.

Elspeth Champcommunal (or Champco as she was called by her friend Virginia Woolf) was born Elspeth Mary Hodgson in 1888. She married a painter, Joseph Champcommunal, and eventually used this French identity to open a couture house in Paris, where her simple designs of striking fabrics and innovative trimmings were revered as much as those of Chanel or Molyneux. In 1916 she became the first editor of British Vogue and championed British fashion designers, including Elspeth Phelps. In 1933 she became head designer at W. W. Reville-Terry. When Reville-Terry and the London branch of Worth merged in 1936, Champcommunal became the head designer at Worth London, a position she retained until the late 1950s.

The objective of this paper is to tell the stories of both Elspeths and show that they were similarly important to the world of fashion as those designers who are frequently studied by fashion historians. They just happen to have been forgotten.

Kathryn Squitieri holds a BFA in Costume Design, a BA in Geology and a minor in Computer Science from Brooklyn College. Before attending FIT, she worked as a costume design assistant on the productions of HAIR on Broadway, RENT Off-Broadway, and numerous other theater productions in New York City. Most recently, she helped dress mannequins for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Guggenheim. Last summer she coordinated and supervised a team of conservators in the creation and dressing of custom mannequins for the costume exhibition PERSOL MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS: 30 stories of craftsmanship in film at the Museum of the Moving Image. She also assisted in dressing Bryan Cranston’s costumes for From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White’s Transformation in Breaking Bad, also at the Museum of the Moving Image. In addition, she has worked as a contract conservator at the Brooklyn Museum and as a dresser and collections assistant at the Putnam History Museum in Cold Spring, NY.

[1] Nele Bernheim. “Modernism in fashion.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, July 2, 2009.

Posted in Symposium | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

MODERN METROPOLIS: The New York Skyline in Textile Design, 1890-1940

Next Saturday the Fashion and Textiles Studies program at FIT will hold their annual symposium. To get you excited, we will share some of the papers that will be presented in the week to come.  We hope to see you there. The event is free and open to the public.


MODERN METROPOLIS: The New York Skyline in Textile Design, 1890-1940


Kyla I. Katigbak

View of the New York Skyline from Brooklyn c.1930.  Samuel H. Gottscho, Midtown skyline from Brooklyn, gelatin silver print, c.1930.  The Museum of the City of New York,

View of the New York Skyline from Brooklyn c.1930.
Samuel H. Gottscho, Midtown skyline from Brooklyn, gelatin silver print, c.1930.
The Museum of the City of New York,

Many consider the New York skyline to be the greatest American visual export of the twentieth century, advertising the progress of American industry and design. With piercing and crenellated silhouettes comprised of soaring steel and gleaming glass, skyscrapers such as the Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings helped define the modern New York skyline and served as awe-inspiring symbols that captivated many imaginations of the period.

In my paper, I will begin by highlighting how the New York skyline became a source of design inspiration for many textile designers from the 1920s through the 1930s. Textile designs such as Manhattan by Ruth Reeves directly captured the contemporary fascination with progress and modern urban life, while other textiles, such as one also entitled Manhattan by Stehli Silks, concentrated on stylized representations of this frenetic cityscape.

Over time, designers influenced by twentieth century art and design movements such as Cubism, Futurism, and Art Deco, further abstracted these depictions, resulting in two distinct styles: imagined cityscapes and highly stylized patterns that recalled the geometric form and ornamentation of New York City’s architecture.  In this section of my paper, I will present textiles and garments such as a jacket from the Museum at FIT’s collection with a screen-printed imagined cityscape to illustrate the former, while a dress by Chanel featuring geometric sequin embroidery mimicking a city skyline will represent the latter. These will be shown with related objects such as stills from the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, a painting by Tullio Crali entitled Cityscape, and a photograph of a store window designed by Louis Lozowick for Lord & Taylor to illustrate the global reach of this phenomenon in various artistic media.

Ruth Reeves, Manhattan, c.1928, Block-printed cotton, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Ruth Reeves, Manhattan, c.1928, Block-printed cotton, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

With the advent of World War II, the interest in the urban metropolis began to wane.  As the exodus out of the city gained popular support in the post-war years, the depiction of the modern metropolis faded from the public imagination. I conclude by describing this decline in detail and briefly show the fashion for depicting idealized suburban and country life, which ultimately replaced these metropolitan motifs.

Kyla Ibañez Katigbak earned her BS in fiber science and apparel design from Cornell University and is scheduled to complete her MA in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in May 2014. She worked for several years in product development for Elie Tahari, Ltd. and has interned at the Ralph Lauren Library and the Costume Collection at The Museum at FIT. She was a Krueger Intern at The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and is currently interning with their textile conservation department. Upon graduation she will be returning to Ralph Lauren where she will work as the Coordinator for the Rare and Historical Design Division of their archive.


Posted in Symposium | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shop Girls: Department Stores and the Fashionable Working Woman

Next Saturday the Fashion and Textiles Studies program at FIT will hold their annual symposium. To get you excited, we will share some of the papers that will be presented, in the week to come.  We hope to see you there. The event is free and open to the public.


Shop Girls: Department Stores and the Fashionable Working Woman

By Kristen Haggerty

As department stores became a fixture of life in the late nineteenth century, the shop girl emerged as a new breed of working woman. The shop girl was not a blue-collar factory worker, nor was she a member of the bourgeoisie. She lay somewhere in the middle, hired for her respectability and deportment, and taken care of by the paternal system of the department store. In Shop Girls: Department Stores and the Fashionable Working Woman, I will briefly trace the origins of the department store, and then concentrate on the period from 1870 to 1920. These were fifty years in which American cities grew and developed, and the roles of workers and women in society drastically changed.  I will explore the culture and convictions surrounding these girls, including the live-in system at many department stores, their daily work, the fashions they wore, the pursuit of matrimony, and the “moral anxiety” inherent in an occupation that did not fit neatly into Victorian ideas of the working and leisure class. The shop girl was a central focus for many contemporary writers, such as O. Henry and Theodore Dreisner, who utilized her as a character in the burgeoning genre of short fiction to illustrate the unique timbre of modern urban life. Their trials and tribulations became a trope for newspapers of the time, and they were immortalized in works of art. Shop girls were barometers for the democratization of society that began in the Industrial Revolution and continued through to the twentieth century, as class barriers became less distinct.


The Shop Girl. James Tissot, 1883.

The Shop Girl. James Tissot, 1883.

Kristen Haggerty graduated summa cum laude from Wagner College with a BS 
in arts administration. She has a background in theatrical costuming and an avid 
interest in living history and historic dress. Kristen has held internships at Plimoth 
Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg, and The Museum at 
FIT. Her graduate thesis will be written on the history of costumed interpreters at Plimoth Plantation
Posted in Symposium | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Clothed in the Cosmos: Astronomy in Textile & Fashion Design, 1920-1945

Next Saturday the Fashion and Textiles Studies program at FIT will hold their annual symposium. To get you excited, we will share some of the papers that will be presented in the week to come.  We hope to see you there. The event is free and open to the public.


Clothed in the Cosmos: Astronomy in Textile & Fashion Design, 1920-1945

by Vanessa Garver

Elsa Schiaparelli photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1928.

Elsa Schiaparelli photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1928.

Astronomy, an important area of study since classical times, is a science that informs the way people experience and interpret their place in the universe. This understanding of the scale of our world and the laws of nature shapes the philosophies and aesthetics of all creative people, including textile and fashion designers. Learning that our galaxy is not alone but one of billions, or witnessing the massive human-wrought destructive power of a nuclear weapon, can affect the concerns and decisions of anyone on Earth who is inclined, or forced by the circumstances of their time, to notice. In the study of modernism in fashion and textile design, much has been written about the revival of classical ideals in connection to drapery, but it is less understood that many of the designers known for their interest in classical ideals were also interested in astronomy.  “Clothed in the Cosmos: Astronomy in Textile and Fashion Design, 1920-1945” investigates how an interest in astronomy influenced the aesthetics and motifs in the design of fashion and textiles, framed within the time period beginning with the opening of the Wilson Observatory in California in 1917 and ending after World War II.

Vanessa Garver was raised in Atlanta, Beijing, and Shanghai, and received a BA 
in art history from Carleton College. She has interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organic textile company Rubie Green, Lonny Magazine, and F. Schumacher. Worked for three years at the Appraisers Association, an arts nonprofit, as the design and communications coordinator. Most recently, she interned in the archives of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. 
Posted in Symposium | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

On this day in fashion history…

Valentina photographed by John Lee, 1951

Valentina photographed by John Lee, 1951

To the fashion world and her glamorous clientele, the Ukrainian-born New York-based couturier Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee was known simply as Valentina. Born on this day in 1899, Valentina came to America in 1923 with her husband and opened her first shop on Madison Avenue in 1928 with thirteen dresses from her own wardrobe. Like her contemporary Chanel, Valentina would make a name for herself designing simple yet elegant clothing that she herself would wear. Tall and slender with dark hair and a pale complexion, Valentina was a striking figure–and subsequently her own best model. “She made wonderful clothes, but nobody looked as well in them as she did,” said designer Bill Blass who collaborated with the designer in the 1970s.[i] Vogue and Life magazines often covered the designer’s collections where she starred as the sole model.

Valentina modeling her own design in Vogue, November 15, 1944

Valentina modeling her own design in Vogue, November 15, 1944

Valentina modeling one of her designs in Vogue, February 1, 1945

Valentina modeling one of her designs in Vogue, February 1, 1945

A delightful montage of photographs of Valentina modeling her designs accompanied a 1951 article in Vogue entitled Valentina’s One-Woman Show: “Indeed, her whole business is just that. She is her own model (as photographed here); buys all fabrics; does all designing; does the selling; supervises the fittings; and–with her spiced accent, her transposed phrases, her black-and-white convictions–is indispensable at all times.”[ii]

Valentina's "One-Woman Show" featured in Vogue, February 1, 1951

Valentina’s “One-Woman Show” featured in Vogue, February 1, 1951

Valentina became a celebrity in her own right, as famous for her impressive roster of celebrity clientele, who included Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn, as for her charismatic personality and personal style. She remained a fashion fixture throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, one of a small handful of designers who gave a face to American couture (quiet literally!) during a period dominated by French tastes. Valentina’s timeless elegance is perhaps attributed to the simplicity of her designs, whose emphasis on the line and curve of the body’s anatomy still appeals to us today. “Simplicity survives the changes of fashion,” Valentina said in the 1940s, “Fit the century, forget the year.”[iii] Valentina’s couture business closed in the late 1950s. She died in 1989 at the age of 90.

A rayon crepe Valentina gown, c. 1940, in the collection of the Museum at FIT

A rayon crepe Valentina gown, c. 1940, in the collection of the Museum at FIT

[i] Bernadine Morris, “Valentina, a Designer of Clothes for Stars in the Theater, Dies at 90,” New York Times, September 15, 1989, B5. [ii] “Valentina’s One-Woman Show,” Vogue, February 1, 1951, 180-181. [iii] Morris, “Valentina.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Symposium: Modes of Modernity


We are so thrilled about the topic of this year’s annual symposium organized by the students of FIT’s MA program Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice. The students will explore modernity and modernism in 20th century fashion in eleven fascinating papers. The event is free and open to the public.

We hope to see you there!



Posted in Symposium | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

I Love Those Earrings!

Since ancient times earrings were women’s prized possession. Whether small little studs, large chandeliers, skillfully set with gems, or playfully designed with ready-mades, earrings are the final touch, that extra little bit of style that frames the face and finishes up the look. 9780764345166Earring are under the spot light in a new publication, a book titled I Love Those Earrings (Schiffer Publishing) by Jane Merrill and Chris Filstrup.  Lucky me, Jane and I are co-authors of two upcoming fashion history books (more about that in the near future) so she agreed to answer some questions and share her experience of researching and writing.

Keren Ben-Horin: Hi Jane, congratulations on the wonderful new publication, the book has some spectacular illustrations. First things first, why earrings?

Jane Merrill:  Beginning with ancient Celts, Greeks, Scythians and Egyptians, people wore gorgeous and intricate earrings that exhibited personal style.  The more you look the more you see about their beauty, how the wearers glamorized themselves, and the cultural context.  I was living in Paris when I began to study earrings – in antiquarian fairs and shops, and in museums.  I discovered that earrings often don’t show up in reproductions, whereas in paintings especially from the Renaissance to now they provide the fascinating detail.

08-38 Merrillredgold

Red gold from Jane Merrill’s private collection

Jade earrings from Jane Merrill's own collection

Jade earrings from Jane Merrill’s private collection

KBH: Tell us a little bit about the arrangement of the chapters.

JM:  My co-author, Chris Filstrup, and I surveyed from ancient examples to the present.  Most sources skip the medieval period as having no earrings which isn’t true.  We chose to subsume the Georgian jewelry style within Romanticism, 1815-1840, which seemed to suit earrings very well.  The book has women talking about their earrings, men (like pirates and athletes, Chris’s chapter) who wear earrings, designers doing intriguing things, and how earrings fit into my life, too, as a journalist and one time semi-hippie.

Borden earrings from Jane Merrill's private collection

Borden earrings from Jane Merrill’s private collection

KBH: Out of the periods covered, which is your favorite in terms of earrings design and why?

JM: Victorians of Europe and America sit in the middle of our book because their era was an apex for partisanship, invention, and charm.  Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria earrings made from teeth of his stag quarry, and women who were “sportive” themselves or spectators of their beaux and husbands wore miniature racing shells, croquet mallets, etc. in their ears.  Then there were the earrings made of every color hair but red (too flashy) and whimsies like the vogue for housefly or exotic natural motifs post Darwin.

Grace Rose. Fredrick Sandys.

Grace Rose. Fredrick Sandys.

Portrait of Empress Eugenie. Frantz Winterhalter.

Portrait of Empress Eugenie. Frantz Winterhalter.

KBH: Can you explain why a certain type of earrings was adopted in a specific era or culture?

JM: Availability of precious metals is a story in itself.  For example one of my favorite pairs in the book is gold sculpted women’s heads, with tiaras, and earrings – earrings wearing earrings. The modeling is exquisite and when they were fashioned in Crimea in the fourth century B.C. there were abundant gold artifacts being made.  The Supplies of natural pearls kept shifting, so that when the pearl trade in the Persian Gulf was depleted, other sources were sought.  Even on Elizabeth Regina’s gowns not all the pearls were real, although the ones in her earrings were.

KBH: were earrings popular at some periods more than others? Why do you think that is?

JM: Wimples, hats and usually veils are anathema to earrings. Decolletage, hair bobs and up-dos encourage them.

KBH: Tell us a little bit about the research process. Where did you begin? What kind of sources were you looking at? Where did you find the greatest abundance of information?

Birds nest earrings.  A la Vielle Russie

Birds nest earrings. A la Vielle Russie

JM: Does one have guided tours of La Vielle Russie and Verdura, and meet gemologists and curators of jewelry to write on earrings, or write on earrings for these dazzling opportunities?  I’ve fastened on earrings every since putting in order my mother’s jewelry box.  Also, much jewelry appears on the Internet that is fugitive, as soon sold, and sellers were kind enough to assist me with many of the images.  I regret to say that, many years ago, I wimped on an assignment for Town & Country to go down into the diamond mines, from fear.

KBH: The book features some remarkable women who enjoyed splurging on jewelry. Can you give us one or two examples? How did jewelry, politics and power intertwined?

06-02 PoissardeAmandaGroveHolmen

Possardes. Source: Amanda Grove Holmen

JM: There are so many.  Cleopatra dissolved a pearl and drank it to impress Marc Anthony; the Virgin Queen’s last suitor, a French prince, gave her an earring in the shape of a frog to remember him by; Louis XIV when he was a dauphin gave his first love Marie Mancini a perfect pearl drop, the La Peregrina, that later would be in the jewelry collection of Elizabeth Taylor; Mrs. Lincoln shopped for lovely earrings that are in the MFA in Boston, probably beyond her husband’s means; and Josephine Baker and Mae West outdid everybody in the Roaring Twenties.  Frida Kahlo put exciting earrings including some unmatched ones into her self-portraits.  Women also have worn earrings that bespeak their politics: for example, the engraved gems attesting a woman’s faithful allegiance to the memory of Charles I, and the grisly fashion for teeny model guillotines in the wake of the French Revolution.

Marie Louise de Parma. Anton Raphael Mengs.

Marie Louise de Parma. Anton Raphael Mengs.

KBH: How did mass production influence the style of and the fashion for earrings?

JM: One of my valued informants, Ulysses Grant Dietz, Senior Curator of the Newark Museum, explains the “bread and butter” jewelry suddenly available to all from mid-19th century.  He says that between 1850 and 1950, more women’s earrings in 14 K and 18K were made in Newark than any other city on earth.   In 1872, a Newark manufacturer also introduced machine production of the so important little earring findings.  The Providence Jewelry Museum (Rhode Island), located in an old factory, has hundreds of drawers of beautiful steel dies once used to make intricate costume jewelry.

KBH: Tell us about the “Suffragette” earrings

JM: In England and also the U.S, women fighting for the right to vote might wear on their person purple, white, and green:  purple for pride and triumph; white for purity; and green for hope or spring. Even if not of precious gems these are rare.


Suffragettes earrings. Source: Edith Horwitz

Suffragettes earrings. Source: Edith Horwitz


KBH: What changed for earrings in the new millennium? Do we see any new technologies coming in? How do they influence the aesthetic?

JM: Different materials, from paper to plastics to palladium, CAD, and a patent for earrings in sync with a heart beat.  Today people apply their beliefs about living to the earrings they create.  For instance, you see mismatched silver earrings by Mocium and earrings made of fascinating shards of antique Chinese porcelain, cut woods, coral, and old coins by a silversmith who travels the world for inspiration.

Belperron earrings.  Verdura

Belperron earrings. Verdura

KBH: Jane, thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. Finally, do you have any advice for young researchers who want to publish their work?

JM: If you don’t want to bore your significant other to tears, find someone as obsessed as you are and collaborate on learning what fascinates you both.




I Love Those Earrings can be purchased here



Posted in interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fashion Mystery Solved


Hagar Cygler with Hannah

I am very excited to share a conversation I had over email with Hagar Cygler, a talented, young, Israeli artist. Cygler recently published a book which started with a visit to the flea market; she was looking for photographs she could cut and experiment as preparation for a project she was working on. In the photographs she bought that day, a women kept showing up. Cygler was intrigued by this woman who captured her imagination and sent her on a detective-like chase. The result is a fascinating project that examines our hyper-documented present by looking at the past.

Keren Ben-Horin: Hello Hagar, congratulations on the new book. It must be very exciting.

Hagar Cygler: Hay Keren. It is very exciting. I have been waiting for this for a long time.

KBH: tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background and what you do when you are not chasing anonymous women from the 1980s?

Hana Book_05HC: Well, I live and work in Tel-Aviv, Israel. I earned my BA in photography from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, but as soon as I graduated I realized I am not going to be a photographer. I do have a studio where I mostly shoot for exhibition catalogs and for other artists. I use my studio for my art which, for the most part, is not photography. I do crafted work that almost always uses photographs as a starting point. Some of the photos are of my own family, or people would give them to me or I’ll scout flea markets. I’m also working on an archive for Batsheva Dance Company. It’s a fascinating project that allows me to continue and work with my favorite material- old photographs.

KBH: How did you get to Hana?

HC: I met her by chance. I was invited to be a part of the last ceramics biennale in the Eretz Israel museum in Tel-Aviv. I needed a large amount of photographs for the object I was making. I stopped by the flea market in Jaffa and bought a random pile of photo albums. When I started going through them I realized they belonged to the same family and I took out the photos I liked. At some point I started to see a repeating pattern of composition in some of the photos- these are the photos of Hannah standing at the hallway of her apartment and modeling a different outfit every time.


KBH: Tell us a bit about the blog

HC: Hannah’s photos looked so much like the fashion blogs I follow and I thought for sure, if she could, she would have had a blog like that. So I did it for her. I opened a blog called same place, same haircut, different outfit. Every day I posted a new picture.


KBH: You had 46 photos of Hannah in the same place and position. What happened after you posted all 46 pictures?

HC: The reaction was great, people got really excited and started asking questions about her I didn’t really know to answer. When all 46 pictures were uploaded I felt I had to continue with the project, it felt like this has to be a book.

KBH: Why a book?

HC: There’s something about the medium of blogs that feels temporary. We scroll through quickly to consume more and more. The huge amount of data is distracting and doesn’t let us really submerge in what we see. A book is more permanent, repetitive. It doesn’t constantly change like a blog and you can always go back and re-look at images. After I experimented with the blog, I felt Hannah needed a permanent platform because I didn’t have more photographs to update the blog regularly.

KBH: How were you able to get the rights for the photographs?

HC: I assumed that because I found the photographs at the flea market, most chances Hannah was no longer alive and I was looking for her children or relatives to release the rights. I was looking for clues in the photographs which led me to a building in Herzeliya. One thing led to another, I remembered places I saw in the photos and somehow I found myself in Hannah’s old building talking to her neighbor who told me everything about her.

KBH: What did you find about Hannah?

HC: Hannah was a loving, charming woman who was in love with her husband until the day she died. She loved kids but did not have children of her own. She always bought chocolates and gifts to all the kids in the neighborhood. She was very warm and sweet. Her love of fashion was nurtured even in her native country Hungary, before she immigrated to Israel in the 1960s. She loved to splurge on clothes. The neighbor introduced me to Hannah’s relatives who released the rights and also told me more about Hannah and her husband.

KBH: What was people’s reaction to Hannah’s photographs?

HC: There is something heartwarming and charming about Hannah, anyone who shows interest in the pictures ends up falling in love with her. One of the most common reactions is of disbelieve that people throw away photographs. It always stirs a conversation about how we retain memory and the way we handle different objects in our lives.

KBH: What do you mean?

HC: We tend to capture memory through objects: mementos from places we traveled to, diaries, endless number of photographs. Even people living in a minimalist space would still leave things behind when they are gone. The work I did for the ceramic biennale was based on the experience of having to throw away my grandparents’ belongings after they passed. We gave away what we could, but there were still things we had no choice but to trash. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a pile of photographs that my grandfather had taken. They had no visual value, but the fact that he took these made them valuable, and for me that was where the memory endured. The gap between the image and the material as indicator of memory intrigued me and resulted in a series of ceramic photographs.

Cygler's work at the Ceramic Bianalle Photo : Leonid Padrul, © Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Cygler’s work at the Biennale for Israeli Ceramics. Photo : Leonid Padrul, © Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

KBH: Why do you think Hannah captured your imagination? What drew you to her personal history?

HC: Hannah is like sunshine on a rainy day. Every time I felt tired or depressed I looked at her pictures again and they made me happy. She is very authentic, not pretentious at all and she always makes me smile. At the beginning, I didn’t care much for her personal story. The research was really just to get the rights from the family. But after I learned about whom she was, it intensified all the emotions I had to begin with.

Hana Book_04

KBH: What can we draw from Hannah about how visuals are made and consumed today?

HC: Hannah’s photos are a fascinating mirror to the way we take pictures today. We feel that technological advances changed us. At the end of the day, we use the same tool to get to the same point. We shoot ourselves the same way, in the same places, and for the same purpose- to document a moment we want to remember. The fact that technology is faster and more accessible doesn’t change the way we pose in front of a camera, we still want to look our best.

KBH: What do you think changed in the 30 years since she took these pictures?

HC: In our culture everyone is taking pictures and sharing them instantly, we don’t have time to digest. The anticipation for the developed film, choosing which ones to print, putting pictures in an album, and giving out pictures to friends was a process that allowed us to scrutinize, to absorb. The culture has changed, it became more complicated. At the same time, Hannah’s life in retrospect might seem simpler but she is doing exactly what many other fashionable women are doing today.

KBH: Hannah’s husband is the silent, yet active partner, why do you think they took the photographs?

HC: That’s a great point of view. When I imagine the situation, I visualize Hana asking Yosef to take her picture just before they leave the house in the outfit she chose for the day. Pictures of hers in a house robe, make me think that it might have become their private joke. From the family I know that Hannah loved photographing and being photographed, she is very present in every picture. Yosef tends to slightly slant the camera or a sliver of his finger is visible, I think it’s charming. There’s love in the pictures, you can see it in Hannah’s gaze.


KBH: I absolutely love the ease and confidence of a woman with a body that doesn’t conform to fashion norms, and clothes that were probably not fashionable when they were worn. Yet she takes pleasure in dressing up and she is obviously admired by the eyes behind the lens.

HC: Indeed, there’s confidence and ease in front of the camera that stems from their relationship. As for the body image, you have to remember that 30 years passed, and although Hannah is not exactly a top model, I do think she could have been a Burda or hand-knitting catalog model- representing a “normal” body type. You also have to remember she lived in Israel in a time when fashion from Paris or New York arrived her in a delay of a few years. She was also a factory worker and her husband was a plumber, even if she wanted to spend more on fashionable clothes she probably wasn’t able to afford it.

KBH: Is the book sold in the US?

HC: It’s available online at my Etsy store and on the publisher’s website.

Hana Book_03

KBH: What’s next for you?

HC: I would love to rest. I am still collecting materials, people always come by with things they have found, I am sure something will start cooking in the studio soon.

KBH: Hagar, thank you for taking the time to share your work with us. Do you have any advice to young researchers of fashion history who want to publish their work?

HC: Thank you! Wow. I think mostly to work hard. If you believe what you have is good, don’t wait for someone to discover you. There are so many outlets today to get to a wide audience without mediators, so keep working and keep trying. If you think I can help or advise, I am always happy to help, shoot me an email.

Hana Book_02

Posted in interviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Guest Post: After Yves

By Cary O’dell

Such is the power and influence of Yves Saint Laurent that when he announced his retirement in early 2002 from his namesake fashion house, it was reported not only in the fashion press but via all aspects of the world media, from CNN to the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times.

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent

The retirement of Saint Laurent represented not only the stepping down of one of fashion’s great (greatest?) grand masters, it also represented a seismic change within the culture, one that we are only now, I think, are beginning to fully appreciate.

Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, was the last of his kind, the final purveyor of a particular but important type of fashion:  subdued, reserved, understated, and elegant above all.  His were the clothes—day and evening—that for years formed the uniforms for the Ladies Who Lunched.  And though these “ladies” are often mocked and derided for who they were/are and what they represent, it was their fashionable sensibilities (not to mention their bank accounts) which, for decades, kept fashion alive and afloat both in America and abroad.

After YSL’s stepping down in ’02, preceded by Givenchy’s and Bill Blass’s earlier exits, I began to wonder just who would now dress the lunching crowd?  With Saint Laurent’s end, it seemed fashion was absolutely no longer about proper gentlemen working in quiet workrooms.  Instead, it was now populated by a bunch of (in comparison) young turks, who were flashier, splashier and funkier.  And, try though they might, desperate though they might be, I did not see the elder ladies of fashion running off to the showrooms of Versace, Viktor & Rolf, Stella McCartney, or even Prada for their daily dress needs.  And though the houses of Givenchy, Chanel, and Balenciaga all endure, the clothes produced by their current lead designers are often far removed from the spare silhouettes and uber-classic stylings favored by their house founders.  For a time, at least, clients could turn to the work of Valentino but now, even that classicist has—as of 2007 -constructed his final garment.

Granted, fashion has always had a place for the eccentric designer, one has to think no further than Schiaparelli’s powerful influence during the 1930s to acknowledge that fact.  But these extreme witticisms were always tempered by a band of gifted cutters and tailors able to craft the most spectacular suits and eveningwear (think Dior) for even the most proper and socially-conscious of women.  Today, however, with the possible exception of the newly revitalized House of Dior and Vivienne Westwood when she feels like it, “safe” (yet stylish) labels are completely outnumbered, overtaken by the likes of The Row, D&G and Gaultier along with a lot of other radical visionaries.  Even the Met has gone avant-garde; this year’s annual Costume Gala was, as you probably heard, devoted to the Punk aesthetic.

PUNK: Chaos to Couture at Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo courtesy of the MMA)

PUNK: Chaos to Couture at Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo courtesy of the MMA)

But, never fear, we are not on the verge of rash of criminally under dressed society ladies.  If designers for this set no longer exist, that’s okay, for the “ladies who lunch” themselves, by and large, aren’t that much of the populace either.  Nan Kemper passed away in 2005.  Mrs. Astor in 2007.  Loulou De La Falaise in 2011.

Brooke Astor

Brooke Astor

This is not to say that all fashionable “women of a certain age” don’t still exist and don’t still need to be DRESSED.  It’s just that, nowadays, these women are different.  Today, the women who lunch look like Jane Fonda or Sophia Loren and have the bodies and mentality of Cher and Tina Turner.  Jane, Sophia and Tina are all grandmothers, as is Goldie Hawn and Jessica Lange.  Helen Mirren is a sex symbol at age 67.  And Betsey Johnson (always her best customer) is 70.  These women, and their kind, grew up wearing Westwood from Westwood’s punk phase and the color splashes of early Stephen Sprouse.  Later, they lapped up Lacroix.  Today, then, these women, even though in their “golden years,” they are not ready to wear cap sleeves and muted twin sets—nor would we want them to.

Helen Mirren (photo courtesy of FanPop.com)

Helen Mirren (photo courtesy of FanPop.com)

Still, despite this shift in customer, it nevertheless behooves fashion to try to keep alive some of the grand traditions of some of the old masters not only as homage to a great fashion tradition, but also because it’s good business, something that no fashion house these days can afford to ignore.  After all, Nancy Kissinger is still with us and still needs clothes.  And even the most chi-chi and forward-thinking of 50-plus women don’t want to wear leggings and hoodies everyday.  And, hence, an important customer base awaits, as do their closets.

Designers should (and must) find a way to be fully grown up without being stuffy, to be dignified without being anything less than “modern.”  As mentioned, Dior, now in the hands of designer Raf Simons, has shown his ability to marry the most important edicts of the House with a great modernity.  And when she is indulging her vintage sensibilities rather than her punk tendencies, no one cuts a better, more dignified and stylish suit than Vivienne Westwood.  Finally, Chanel, as interpreted by Lagerfeld, can still be depended upon (most of the time) to bring us something classic and stylish and not overly outré. 

But these designers shouldn’t be the only ones.  Even if their numbers have dwindled, the “ladies who lunch” still cast a profound, influential shadow, one whose current state and needs fashion should embrace and learn from, not turn its back on.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Then & Now

Left: Alice Austen, June 1888. Photograph by Captain Oswald Muller. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.  Right Christian Lacroix for Schiaparelli. Scanned from Vogue September 2013.

Left: Alice Austen, June 1888.
Photograph by Captain Oswald Muller. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.
Right Christian Lacroix for Schiaparelli. Scanned from Vogue September 2013.

Posted in Then&Now | Tagged , , | Leave a comment