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.

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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.

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Fall 2013: New Links

Over the summer, many of us traveled to participate in internships, present papers, and attend conferences. There is always something new to discover in our field, and some of our research led to online discoveries: new websites or updates to some of our favorite online resources.

Of course, we’d like to share our findings with you. On the right side of our page, we’ve added a few more links:

1. A digital archive of Les Modes, a fashion periodical (1902 – 1934)

2. The digital collections of the Library of Congress, which includes free downloads of high-resolution images

3. The digital collection of the National Gallery of Art, this also includes free downloads of  high-resolution images

4. LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a beautiful online collection with many illustrations, fashion plates and photographs of museum objects.

5. The University of Oregon has a great digital collection of photographs

6. The Museum at FIT continues to update its digital collections.

7. The digital collection of the Yale Center for British Art

8. The online database of the Staten Island Historical Society, which includes the collection of photographer Alice Austen

9. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas

10. The Bridgeman Art Museum

We’ve also added another website, The Cutting Class, to our list of friends.

Have you found any digital archives over the past few months? We’d love to hear about your recent discoveries!

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Upcoming exhibitions of fashion

This fall season in NY is going to be an exciting one for those of us who love fashion.

Here is a list of some of the upcoming exhibitions, if you know of any other please post it to our facebook page. Thank you!

Gilded New York at the Museum of the City of New York

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Brooklyn Museum

Interwoven World: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk at the Museum at FIT

running until mid-November and worth visiting RetroSpective at the Museum at FIT

Irving Penn: On Assignment at Pace/MacGill Gallery

And in the spring:

Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the newly renovated Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

This is part two of a paper I presented last May at our annual symposium. You can read the first part here.

Christmas Shopping on Grand Street, 1890. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Christmas Shopping on Grand Street, 1890. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

By the late 1850s the Grand Street area was established as the new shopping district, but society had already moved north to live.  Nathaniel P. Willis, editor of The Home Journal, described the smart set as those “who keep carriages, live above Bleecker Street, are subscribers to the opera, go to Grace Church, have a town house and country house, [and] give balls and parties.”

Grace Church, c. 1890.  NYPL Digital Gallery.

Grace Church, c. 1890.
NYPL Digital Gallery.

A.T. Stewart, always ahead of the game, moved his store in 1862 into a cast iron palace on Broadway between Ninth and Tenth Streets.  Fully embracing the industrial age, A.T. Stewart bid farewell not only to lower Manhattan, but also to the marble of his former palace. Outside, cast iron formed an elaborate and fashionable façade while inside cast iron columns supported the building, enabling open spaces to become the distinctive department store architecture. The large open interiors, washed with natural light from the great glass dome, embodied the new style of consumption— drawing in crowds of shoppers who were free to leisurely study the vast array of local and imported merchandise.

A.T. Stewart’s store at the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, C. 1869. The New York Historical Society.

A.T. Stewart’s store at the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, C. 1869. The New York Historical Society.

A.T. Stewart’s eight floors fashion emporium employed over 2,000 men and women. One visitor observed that this immense establishment was arranged as follows:

There is one general superintendant, with nineteen assistants, each of whom is the head of a department. Nine cashiers receive and pay out money, twenty- five book keepers keep the record of the day; thirty ushers direct purchasers to the department they seek; two hundred cash boys receive the money and bring back the change of purchases; four hundred and seventy clerks, a few of whom are females, make the sales of the day; fifty porters do the heavy work and nine hundred seamstresses are employed in the manufacturing department. Besides these, there are usually about five hundred other persons employed about the establishment in various capacities… 

This account demonstrates that the traditional dry goods store has fully bloomed into a department store, providing employment to many and a substantial income to some.

sewing room AT Stewart 1875 Grafton

The Sewing Room at A.T. Stewart’s, 1875.
Frank Leslie’s.

The 1860s gave birth to New York’s most famous shopping district—the “Ladies Mile”. Historians define the Ladies Mile as a stretch of blocks from Fourteenth to Twenty Third Streets along Broadway and Sixth Avenue and later up Fifth Avenue. As the city’s elite society started another migration northward, now residing around Union and Madison Squares, store owners felt compelled to follow.

Twenty Third Street. 1885.  NYPL Digital Gallery.

Twenty Third Street. 1885.
NYPL Digital Gallery.

Though A.T. Stewart remained successful in its Ninth Street location, most downtown establishments that made the move to Grand Street area in the 1850s, relocated further north to the Ladies Mile in the 1860s. The stores enjoyed a constant traffic of shoppers who were transported to the area in Carriages and public horse drawn trolleys from every direction- up and down Broadway and from the two rivers.

If boarding a carriage was challenging with the fashionable clothes of the 1850s, it must have been as hard, if not harder, when in the 1860s the horsehair crinoline gave way to a new invention. The cage crinoline, a petticoat of flexible steel hoops, invented in 1856, was mass produced in factories and sold ready-made in the department stores built of the same material. The light weight steel supported even the widest skirt, freeing women from the cumbersome weight of the petticoats, yet allowing skirts to achieve an even wider circumference. The increasing use of sewing machine, invented in the late 1840s, meant that elaborate trims were more easily applied to dresses. Decorations such as machine made lace, embroidery and ribbons were now more affordable, permitting even women of lesser income to participate in fashion.

Cage Crinoline, 1868. Victoria & Albert Museum

Cage Crinoline, 1868.
Victoria & Albert Museum

“New Omnibus Regulation.”  Punch, 1858, NYPL Digital Gallery

“New Omnibus Regulation.”
Punch, 1858, NYPL Digital Gallery

The invention of the sewing machine is largely credited for propelling the dry goods trade along Ladies Mile, not only for its ability to increase production, but also because it became available for domestic use. Union Square and the surrounding area of Ladies Mile was also becoming a center for the selling and promoting of domestic sewing machines. The most famous was the Domestic Sewing Machine building, where fashion shows displayed imported dress models from Europe. These models were later translated into paper patterns published and sold in the company’s Fashion Review magazine. The paper patterns would have been taken to a local dress-maker, several of them residing along the ladies mile, or cut and sewn at home.  The fabric, trims, undergarments and accessories to go with the dress would have been offered and religiously purchased at the new palaces of consumption- the grand department stores.

Two Piece Dress, c. 1859. The Museum at FIT.

Two Piece Dress, c. 1859.
The Museum at FIT.

Building of the Domestic Sewing-Machine Company,  corner of Broadway and Fourteenth Street.  Harper’s Weekly, 1872.

Building of the Domestic Sewing-Machine Company,
corner of Broadway and Fourteenth Street. 
Harper’s Weekly, 1872.

Although department store owners chased elite society, leaping from one district to another in an attempt to remain close to the trend setters, it is evident that by the 1860s the new commercial palaces catered no less to the rising middle classes.  Fashion, so it seems, was democratized by technological advances. The department store adopted several marketing methods to appeal to all classes, yet the newest of them all was the window display. For the nineteenth-century shopper, window displays created a sensation. Presenting the goods behind a glass window for the shoppers’ scrutinizing eyes, was in many ways an extension of the mind-set of the open space interior, which allowed visitors to roam the sales floor uninterrupted This new approach to shopping made luxury goods seem more accessible to more people. The German historian Uwe Spiekermann notes that “when gazing into the shop window, even a person with little income believed that the world was at his feet.”

Macy's Christmas Window, 1884 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Macy’s Christmas Window, 1884
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

As America entered the Gilded Age, the middle and upper classes’ appetite for consuming fashion grew even more.  Store owners who survived the panic of 1873 could not expand fast enough to appease this hunger. Barely surviving the economic downturn, Lord & Taylor recovered and continued growing, gradually adding more and more buildings along Nineteenth and Twentieth Streets, eventually taking up the whole block. But, by the turn of the century, society had set in motion yet another cycle of migration northward.

As Commerce came in place of elite residence, the once fashionable districts of Union and Madison Squares were abandoned for the new, more desirable neighborhoods, which lay above thirty second street up to the edge of Central Park. While American millionaires dwelled in private palaces along Fifth Avenue, the middle class had the department store. By the end of the decade most major Ladies Mile department stores adopted a new Fifth Avenue address which epitomized the luxury and wealth most associated with the Industrial revolution. For the masses visiting Lord & Taylor, B. Altman’s, Henri Bendel, and Arnold Constable among others who had found a new home here, the commercial palace became a symbol of potential social mobility, attained by the mass consumption of luxury goods.


 For selected bibliography see part I of this post

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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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