Sunday, January 17, 2016

"High Style:" Couture and Attitude in Twentieth Century Fashion at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 
1906–1978), "Tree" Evening Dress, Brooklyn Museum 
Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
 Gift of Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks,Jr.,1981(2009.300.991)
 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
High Style: Masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  remains at the Cincinnati Art Museum through January 24 and, oh, how worth seeing this show is! It traces from the turn of the century through the 1980s the progress of couture and the succession of great American and European fashion designers. Displayed are gowns, ensembles, hats, shoes, jewelry, and a special exhibit on American couturier of the midcentury, Charles James, whose phenomenally engineered clothes are de-construced for us in fascinating interactive displays that reveal the many-layered, disciplined structures of extravagant elegance.

Across the span of eighty years one sees clothing designs that run from such garments constructed of layers of bone, webbing, tulle, and bustles beneath yards of silk; to Halston's 1970s whisps of simply cut chiffon or crepe, draped with exquisite flair across the body.

One of the great advantages of a still show like this is that the viewer can examine as slowly and in all the detail merited, each of the exquisite items chosen for the show. Though some people sneer at the idea of fashion as art, I can't accept this as a tenable position for anyone who spends time and attention in a show like High Style. The materials used in any piece are of phenomenal quality—of a quality that they deliver significant aesthetic satisfaction in themselves. Nothing in the show—neither dressmaking fabrics, kidskin of shoes, beads of glass or stones—failed to attract the hand or the imagination of touch. Most of us see high fashion in the pages of Vogue or on televised red carpet events, where only silhouette and dramatic cut stand out; we derive no idea many sensuous elements or craftsmanship that compose the art of fashion. We see only the theatricality of color and cut.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), 
Clover Leaf Ball Gown, 1953, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan
 Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Josephine Abercrombie
 (1953, 2009.300.784) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
What is missing from a show like this is the runway. How delightful it would be to see these garments in movement on people with actual skin tones (how dismal the beiges, opals, and creams look against stark white mannequins). The Clover Leaf gown by Charles James is a unique and famous design. Ten pounds of four structured layers depend from the wearer's hips. The front hem is shorter than the back so walking will be unimpeded. Does the skirt sway from side to side, from front to back, or both? (The lace on this dress is held in place by stitches only at the top and at the bottom, where it meets the band of gold, allowing it to breath and rise during movement.) The boning in the bodice holds the wearer erect. Any woman secured into such an artwork becomes one herself. The dress shapes not only her body and her bearing, but, those adjusted, her gestures and the attitude must follow.

Mme. Eta Hentz (American, born Hungary), Evening 
Dress,1944, Brooklyn Museum Costume
 Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; 
Gift of Madame Eta Hentz, 1946 (2009.300.119)
 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 A gown by Mme. Eta Hentz, who worked in the '40s, a generation before Charles, shows a style that depends on draping rather than construction. Her Classical Greek-inspired gown swathes the body closely, calling attention to its curves explicitly rather than by fantasy. The over-the shoulder scarf requires some technique on the wearer's part—to keep it from (or to allow its) slipping; to allow it to descend down the arm or to bunch it up for greater exposure; or to wrap it around both shoulders for comfort or coyness. In this, the woman is a liquid column and the dress's movement reflects, softens, and enhances her own. This garment does not bestow triumph on the feminine; the wearer must know, own, and display it herself. This gown drapes her preexisting regal status. It is no accident that Cinderella has never been portrayed in a gown like this.

Only Charles James is represented by enough items in High Style for us to be conscious of the important fact that the clothing in this exhibition was commissioned by clients, many of whom depended on particular designers to clothe them routinely and to craft their public personae. We are aware that certain designers are chosen by First Ladies and celebrities to outfit them for occasions. We are less aware of the many women of means (afore-mentioned included) who attend to business, luncheons, and cultural events in couture. 
Madame Alix  Grès  (French, 1903-1993),
Evening Dress, 1969, Brooklyn Museum Costume
Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., 1988 (2009.300.1373)

 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unique clothing must impart or enhance the wearer's public sense of confidence. Most of us sporting ready-made can only wonder about the relationship between the dressed and the dresser, the client and the artist. A woman in the position to commission couture is an art collector, the patron of a particular creative individual she wishes to invest in, someone whose taste she admires. She is willing, moreover, to collaborate with her or him disparate ways: as a partner in the artistic process, as muse, as public face of a brand.

 Affinity must bring artist and patron together, and that bond must include social daring (enthusiasm for testing the limits of current taste and style). But that would be secondary to the taste for materials, fabrication, and ideas, of which all visual artists must be possessed. 

Even now, many would find the 1969 evening dress by Madame Alix Gres extreme, provocative for the lack of sex appeal and exposure one expects from evening wear and for the extraordinary, difficult-to-wear sleeves. The basic empire-waist sheath, ornamented not even by a collar, is maidenly to a nun-like extreme. Yet the sleeves are as voluminous and richly gathered as displaced skirts of a Charles James "Tree" ball gown, above while alluding to classical drapery. Difficult to tell in a photograph, the dress is of exquisite papery silk taffeta with a stirring sheen and lightness. 

Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973); Jean Clemént 
(French, 1900–1949), Necklace, 1938, Brooklyn 
Museum Costume Collection, The Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1955 
(2009.300.1234) Image©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shown surely not to its best effect on this stiff, colorless mannequin, is Elsa Schiaparelli's "bug" necklace. Colorful tin bugs are attached to the surface of a transparent plastic (Rhodoid) ring, giving the effect that the insects march around the wearer's neck. During the 1930's, Schiaparelli collaborated with the well-known Surrealist painters, especially with Salvador Dali, to create clothing of shocking or amusing or thought-provoking content. The necklace is from her "Pagan" series of work, which emphasized natural motifs including leaves, grapes, and ivy. Her clothing was also decorated with signs of the zodiac, musical notes, seed packs, and, famously, a lobster, after Dali.

Schiaparelli represents an extreme of couture. Her genius as an artist seems so driven by her own personality and experience, that dressing in her fashions might be close to dressing in her own, peculiar persona. 

Clothing alters the person in more ways than the visual, and those of us who have the opportunity to choose our garments do so carefully. But usually
when we look in the mirror, even from several angles, we're considering whether we look fat or thin; we're not considering how our garments support the attitudes we wish to project to the world, or how to use clothing as courage to become who we wish to be. 

High Style features some of the most exquisite clothes from the most talented hands and artistic minds, for whom precious materials are available. I think that we even we who sigh over the advantages of the elite can draw inspiring conclusions from the show—about how we and our clothing choices design one another.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"A Free, Unsullied Land" isn't a romance. On a new novel by Maggie Kast.

The world of Maggie Kast's 2015 novel, A Free, Unsullied Land  is not a place where many of us pick up a novel to go. Everything about this book surprises by it's unvarnished and fresh realism.

A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast,
2015, Fomite Press

The novel opens in 1927 in the wide world and in the Greenberg household simultaneously. The protagonist, Henriette Greenberg, is the daughter of Jewish parents who have adopted Unitarianism, the better to live the dream of leafy suburban Oak Park, Illinois. By 1930, Henriette, weary of playing second fiddle to twin brothers explicitly preferred by their parents; tired of her controlling, conventional mother; and sickened by her father's secret, prurient interest in her body, will be more than ready for freedom when she enrolls at the University of Chicago, hoping to escape from her stultifying family. 

At the opening, Kast presents the Sacco and Vanzetti trial as a way to show the deep emotional effect it has on Henriette as a girl. We find that her consciousness is much broader and more sophisticated than we expect a teen-aged heroine's to be. "As she entered adolescence she felt energized to protest. Her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote to the governor of Massachusetts…Henriette read the papers and learned about the IWW, International Workers of the World, a leader of the movement to free the two men. She rolled the organization's nickname around in her mouth, 'Wobbly, wobbly,' and read about anarchists and Bolsheviks."

Hyde Park, home of the University, is the dream opposite of Henriette's life in staid Oak Park. She studies poetry and is fascinated by anthropology—and by her T.A., Dilly Brannigan, who becomes her lover. Her brother Carl, a medical student, helps introduce her to the the fast life of jazz, leftist ideas, and interracial milieux. He also introduces her to a friend who rapes her, deepening the sexual trauma her father has already inflicted.

To give a precis of the novel's direction, though, doesn't give a glimmer of the author's ambition in telling the story of Henriette's passage from an intellectually advanced girl stumbling toward some undefined wish for more in life, to a young women satisfied that she has found her emotional direction, avocation in art, and—with the help of analysis—some resolution to her sexual dysfunction. Kast manages to portray Henriette from beginning to end as the work in process that youth has to be, sparing the reader neither the of the heights nor the sloughs nor the carnal necessities that our protagonist must experience in the development of judgment, purpose, and identity. 

Kast allows her characters' mistakes to appear without comment and for the characters to live with the consequences--often unresolved--of their actions. As a result of this unsentimental authorial approach, readers' reactions to Henriette are sure to wax and wane. While in a committed relationship with Dilly, she sleeps with another man and suffers the guilt she brings on herself. Her romantic commitment to leftist/Communist ideals lead her to undertake ill-conceived risks. She travels unannounced, alone, and unplanned to Scottsboro, Alabama during the protests over the trials of the so-called Black rapist. She ends up in jail and returns to Chicago in disillusionment, frightened to tell anyone what she's done: "No way could she stand up against spit, hands that wrote death threats, or marauding mobs. On the ground, mouth filled with grit, she'd cared only about saving her own skin." No way she could take responsibility for her own actions when she returns, and it leaves a sour taste in our mouths. We want her to be a heroine, but she just wants to suppress the episode. Though she helps a friend while she's in Scottsboro, the trip is a jejune excursion, not a courageous civil rights action. We are the ones who have to look at it realistically: She's no heroine, but a girl who put herself in danger. 

This gives a clue about why we are able to live with the slow growth of Henriette's judgment even when, as an anthropology researcher on an Apache reservation toward the satisfactory conclusion, she shockingly betrays an ancient taboo.

Because Kast provides such rich detail about a period of great social ferment, she reinforces the challenges Henriette faces in getting her moral bearings. Kast shows us a world in which nearly every aspect of life is in upheaval. It's not by accident that she set her novel when she did: The economic depression; questioning of the limitations on women; the loosening sexual mores—and the confusion all of these brought—had to make it difficult to feel certain in one's judgment about many things. And of course it's not hard to relate to from 2016.

Kast gracefully includes details that could go so badly or seem so intrusive, but which give this book a presence unlike any other. The lives of the characters are made real by what is usually left off the page. Characters ask each other if they have their birth control apparatus. Henriette's devotion to her psychoanalysis is followed throughout the book and is made to appear neither silly nor like the ultimate solution to her troubles nor only reason for her growth.

Most surprising of all, the setting for the two major characters is an elite academic department of anthropology, in which they are both specializing in Native American archaeology and ethnography. Each does field work. Kast presents this as comfortably, fluently, and unflinchingly as another novelist would present a weekend at the lake cottage. It's a rarefied world that most readers know little of, but Kast's authority is natural and we read it without a hitch or question.

During the first half of the 1930's, Kast's characters are encountering homosexuality, and unabashed racial mingling of both sexes which are clearly not far from being completely taboo. I appreciate, again, the straightforward way the author deals with these themes and details. She does not introduce anachronistic attitudes, but leaves characters testing their own feelings about them, wishing to be generous, and sometimes not sure how far they can let themselves go in abetting different lifestyles. 

A Free, Unsullied Land isn't a novel that I read in one sitting. I wouldn't recommend that anyone try: It's much too interesting. Because all the elements are unusual—the characters; their settings; their ambitions; their values and how those lead them to solve the problems of their lives; the historical moment and how its many social, intellectual, and political issues resonate in the story—there is much to consider and digest. For me this was a slow read with plenty of pauses that has yielded rich rewards. The characters and themes really stick. I know, however, that I'm going back in. A book this substantial and unusual clearly has much more for me to discover.