Category Archives: Museums

Shaping Craft + Design at Black Mountain College

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, as in the case of Black Mountain College.  One of the last places one might expect to find a progressive thinking school, and in many ways the heir of the Bauhaus, would be a small Appalachian town.  But in 1933, the college was formed using the principles of progressive education as envisioned by educator John Dewey.

It was to be a school where students were not to be saddled with the worry of grades, but instead were encouraged to find their own way through a study of the liberal arts.  Central to this study was the incorporation of art and craft, so much so that Black Mountain  is often mistakenly thought to have been an art school.

Also in 1933, Hitler and the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus, and so artist and teacher Josef Albers and his wife, weaver Anni Albers, were invited to join the faculty at Black Mountain.   Until the school closed in 1957 it was a hotbed of creativity, with the faculty and workshop teachers a who’s who of modern art and craft..

Today the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center works to preserve the legacy of the college.  Located in downtown Asheville, it is a little gem of a museum which features changing exhibitions dedicated to the work that came out of the college.  Just ended was a showing of some of the crafts produced by the college’s teachers and students.

The cover of the exhibition catalog, shown above, is a weaving by Don Page, Orange Fabric with Changing Threads.  It, and the piece below, Delicate Fabric with Stretched Threads, were made while Page was a student under Anni Albers at Black Mountain in the late 1930s.

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This weaving was made by student Lore Kadden Lindenfeld as a student at the college in the late 1940s.  Both student’s work follow Anni Alber’s insistence that form must follow function.

Above you can see a notebook of the designs from the weaving class, 1935, and a woven linen sample by Andy Oates.

This shuttle loom was an original from the black Mountain College Weaving Workshop, and has recently been restored.

Of course I was most interested in the textiles, but there were many fascinating objects from other crafts.  This hanging wire sculpture was made by artist Ruth Asawa.

Okay, I’m sorry, but I forgot to note the name and artist of this print, and I can’t figure it out from the catalog.  But I had to show it because it is so reminiscent of one of my all time favorite textile prints, A Fish Is a Fish by Ken Scott.

And finally, my new favorite chair, Lady Murasaki’s Fan Chair, by Robert Bliss.

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Season’s Greetings

I sat down to compile The Vintage Miscellany, but soon realized that there was not much of note to share.  I’m guessing people were too busy celebrating Christmas to be spend much time on the internet.  So instead of the regular feature, I hope you enjoy this fun video card from Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum.

My thanks to Jonathan and Kenn of the Fashion History Museum for sending it my way.

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Between the Springmaid Sheets

The main reason I went to Columbia, SC to the South Carolina State Museum was to see an exhibition on a famous ad campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the clothes that the ads inspired.  I almost forgot about it, and I must thank April for reminding me.  I’ve written about this series of ads, conceived by the owner and president of Springs Mills, Colonel Elliott White Springs, so in order to best enjoy this post, I suggest you read it first.

Colonel Springs was a WWI flying ace and a real character.  It seems as though he didn’t really want to be in the textile business, but what can a man do when he inherits six or so mills?  In Springs’s case, he took over the mills, but in order to satisfy his creative urges he turned ad man as well.  His story is well documented in a book he wrote, Clothes Make the Man, which is a collection of his letters (some of them written to a fictional character, Joe Fisk) with some short stories and company history thrown in.  The book was sold through the ads; you sent him a dollar and he sent you a book.

The ads, which were first used in 1947, used sexual innuendo and double-entrendres along with paintings of girls showing their underwear.  At the time, they were terribly risque, but today would get not a second look.  The ads caused an avalanche of protest among other companies and the public.  There were days when Springs received over a thousand letters, mainly from women, complaining about the campaign.

Many of the letters were printed in the book, and the exhibition had lots of them scattered around to read.  It’s really interesting to read that women were actually complaining about ads that used a woman’s body to sell products.  Could it be that the 1950s housewife was really a feminist?

Colonel Springs operated on the idea that there was no such thing as bad publicity, and he was right.  The ads continued in various forms until he died in 1959.  The company was wildly successful, with the main weaving factory containing 8000 looms.

In 1948 Colonel Springs got the idea to make printed fabrics based on the girls in the ad campaign.  There were several different fabrics developed, and Springs had them made into all kinds of products.

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No photos were allowed in the exhibition, but I did stand outside and take a few shots of the clothes.   One thing that really impressed me was how the Springs family kept everything.  After reading about so many companies who threw all their historical records away, it was a treat to find one that seemed to have an idea of its cultural and historical importance.  All the items on display are from the Springs Close Family Archive.

All the pictures on the walls are the original artwork for the ads.  The second one, the girl with her skirt flying up, was the first ad in the campaign.

The first garment is a sports set of a crop top and a skirt and is made from the original print.  It still has the Cole of California tags attached.  The other two outfits, the little girl’s and the woman’s, are from a print called Persian.  The woman’s dress was by designer Carolyn Schurner.  Note the matching handbag.

This is a a view of Persian from the Spring 1961 issue of American Fabrics.

In the case in the background, you can see a cape.  I thought it was a ladies cape, but they had an ad in which Colonel Springs himself was wearing it.  In later years he assumed a fake persona, Martin McMartin St. Martin,  for some of the ads, and this is the cape he wore in the ads.  The shirt is from a print I’d never seen, and it looks like a Hawaiian shirt with sailboats and a bathing beauty, with the Springs name thrown in.

The plaid coat, which is lined in the Persian print, belonged to Colonel Springs.  His chair in his office was upholstered in the same plaid.  The other jacket is made from the Persian print.

This short video tells more about Colonel Springs and his famous campaign.

Today, we have come to accept the fact that sex sells.  The scandalous Springs ads seem quaint to us.  But there is another side to some of the ads, one that did not cause a bit of a stir at the time.  If you watched the video, you saw an ad featuring an Indian man in a hammock made from a sheet with a beautiful Indian stepping out of the hammock.  The caption reads, “A buck well spent on a Springmaid Sheet.”

The ad was criticized highly for its sexual overtones, but nowhere in the correspondence of Colonel Springs did anyone seem to notice that it was racist.  Today that ad could never be used, not because it insinuates the man and woman were having sex, but because it refers to the man as a buck.  Several years later there were other ads that referred to Black men as bucks as well.  We may have not made progress in the portrayal of women, but it is good to know progress is being made in matters of race.

Several years ago my mother-in-law, who would have been 89 at the time, recalled this ad, and how she and her sister-in-law were snickering at it.  Their mother-in-law wanted to know what was so funny, so they sheepishly showed her the ad.  She read it, and with a very confused look declared that there was nothing at all funny about Indians taking a nap.

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South Carolina State Museum

Click to enlarge.

Last week I drove to Columbia, SC to visit the South Carolina State Museum.  This museum is a multi-purpose institution, with exhibits ranging from art to history to science and technology.   One of the most interesting things about the museum is the 1894 building in which it is housed.  It is a former textile mill, Columbia Mills,which was a large producer of cotton duck.  The building was given to the state in 1981 after the mill closed.

Some of the original textile-making equipment was saved, and is now installed as an exhibit.  Above are spinning machines.  The museum cleverly produced the look of many rows of machines by the use of mirrors.  There are actually only two machines.

This is a dobby loom from around 1940.  It came from a textile factory in Aiken, SC.  The cloth you see on the loom is what was being made when the factory closed in the early 1980s.

The product of the Columbia Mill was cotton duck, which is a heavy canvas used for tents and conveyor belts and such.  This is one of the last bolts produced before the “Duck Plant” closed.

 

A lot of the museum is concerned with cotton mill village and rural life in the past.  There was a great interactive model of a large mill village which showed how the village was pretty much an extension of the factory.  And they had a “country store” set up, with all kinds of products that made me want to go shopping.

It’s my guess that most states have a museum of this sort – a mini Smithsonian that is concerned with the history and industry and natural history of the state.  (Though North Carolina has an art museum, a history museum and a natural history museum.)  All the ones I’ve ever visited are well worth the time if only for the wonderful randomness that is often encountered.

I actually had a reason for my visit.  The museum had a special exhibition of items from Springs Mills in Fort Mill, South Carolina.  The company is best known for their production of Springmaid sheets and fabrics, but beginning in 1948 the company was also known for their racy ad campaigns.   I’ve written about this in the past, and tomorrow I’ll share a few things from the exhibition.

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Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910s-40s at MOCA

As I said in my review of Front Row: Chinese American Designers , the Museum of Chinese in America was one of the highlights of my recent trip to New York.  Two fashion exhibitions plus an excellent permanent exhibition made for a great morning being immersed in a multi-faceted learning experience.

Even though the museum’s focus is the Chinese  in America, Shanghai Glamour was all about the emergence of the modern woman in Shanghai, China.   After the end of the Opium War in 1842, the British victors were able to dictate the creation of “trade cities” in China.  These cities were made to tolerate a Western presence and were to allow trade with them.  Shanghai was one of the trade cities.  By the 20th century there were large British, American and French populations in the city.  It was an increasingly cosmopolitan place.

The exhibition shows how the women of Shanghai created their own distinctive style of dress, which was based on Chinese traditional dress but incorporated elements of the West.  The look was feminine, but modern.

In my top photo, on the right is a ensemble worn by a Shanghai courtesan in the 1910s.  The pants were cropped to expose a bit of leg, and the geometric pattern was a “foreign” element.  By that, I mean it was not traditionally Chinese.  Also the use of buttons on the jacket was a Western element.  That high collar was called a sycee collar.

The green dress is a 1920s dancing dress.  You can see the influence of 1920s Western dress, but the fitted bodice and high collar are uniquely Chinese.

These two dresses are both qipao, which some would call cheongsam.  The qipao came into being in Shanghai in the 1920s, and by the 1930s it was floor length and well established among the modern women of the city.  The qipao on the right is trimmed with metal-thread embroidery that used traditional Chinese motifs such as the dragon.  The dress on the left is made from a semi-sheer fabric, and would have been worn with a slip beneath.

The blouse and skirt on the right is typical of that of a Shanghai student of the early 1920s.  Picture this on a young woman with bobbed hair.

The qipao in the center of the photo dates from the 1930s, and shows a departure from the traditional cut of the sleeves in that the sleeves are set-in instead of being cut in one piece with the bodice.

The qipao on the left is from the early 1940s and is made from an embroidered silk.

The garment on the right is a 1920s  vest worn over a blouse.  Look carefully to see the art nouveau design of the textile.

The light colored qipao is made from devore velvet on a georgette foundation.

The purple qipao was the latest style in 1932.   What made it so fashionable was the decorative trim that was applied to all the borders.

In the 1940s the qipao returned to calf-length and the sleeves were generally longer.  The embroidery trim on the black qipao uses traditional symbols of prosperity and longevity.

The shoes worn by the Shanghai modern woman were the fashionable shoes of the West.  Foot binding was on its way out, having been outlawed in 1902.  These shoes are not Chinese, but are from the collection at FIT.  Photographs and drawings of the period show the women of Shanghai wearing similar styles.

The Chinese title of this magazine was Xinzhuang tekan, or New Dress Special Issue and it is dated June 1926.  In it are both qipao and styles that are more Westernized.  There does not seem to be any relation with the American or the French Vogue magazines.

The exhibition has more dresses, accessories and items in print, and gives a clear picture of how this modern woman emerged.

Shanghai Glamour is on display until November 3, 2013.  It really is a rare chance to see modern Chinese garments of this era in the US, as the majority of them are from the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China.

I’m sorry about the photo quality, but the room was dark in order to help protect the textiles.  Click to enlarge for a better view.

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Museum at FIT – RetroSpective

One of the great treasures of the fashion history world is the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.   At any time there is at least one exhibition, and often there are more.  And quite incredibly for a city where everything is expensive, the museum is free of charge.

The exhibition this summer has been RetroSpective, in which the relationship that fashion has with past fashion is explored.  This is a topic of special interest to vintage clothing lovers like me.  It seems like we are always discussing the past influences that show up on the runway or in more recent fashion.  As this exhibition shows us, fashion has long looked to the past for inspiration.

The top photo is from a 1999 gown by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, in which you can see references to the fashion of 16th century England.

On the left is a man’s embroidered coat and vest from around 1790.  The ensemble on the right, featuring a raffia coat with embroidery, is by designer Walter Van Beirendonck.  It is from his 2006 Relics of the Future collection.

Don’t forget to click!

This installation shows how fashion has gotten inspiration from the robe à l’anglaise of the 18th century.  On the far left is a silk damask robe à l’anglaise, circa 1765. The look of  wide hips is created through the use of panniers – pads or hoops at the sides.    The gown next to it is from 1951, by French couturier Pierre Balmain.  The fullness of the skirt mimics the effect of panniers, and the bottom of the corseted top reminds one of the stomacher of the robe à l’anglaise.

The black dress is a circa 1923 robe de style, a look associated with couturier Jeanne Lanvin.  Again, note how the side fullness of the skirt is reminiscent of the 1765 panniers.  Finally there is a 2009 dress from Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada. Her dress, constructed from bands of ribbons, has panniers shaped by wires.

The dress in front is a circa 1810 Empire style gown of silk.  It is styled after the long gowns of ancient Greece.  The red dress is from American designer, Norman Norell, a 1962 homage to the Empress Josephine.  The Empire waist also was popular in the early 1910s.

This display shows the lasting influence of the crinoline of the 1860s.  On the far left is a circa 1860 dress, the skirt of which would have been supported by crinoline cages like the one hanging beside it.  The look became popular again in the 1950s.  The early 1950s green satin dress is by Anne Fogarty, who was famous for this silhouette.   (I loved seeing this, as I have the same dress, but in a dark red velveteen, in my own collection.)   In the case in front of it is a folding plastic crinoline from the 1950s.

The crinoline influence can also be seen in a 1996 gown by Japanese designer Yoshiki Hishinuma.  Look carefully and you can see the cage beneath the skirt.  On the next ensemble, you can’t miss the cage.  It’s by Thom Browne, 2013.

Here’s a better look at the  Yoshiki Hishinuma dress.

As impracticable as it might seem, the bustle of the late 1880s has been revived numerous times.  Starting on the right you see a circa 1939 silk gown by Elsa Schiaparelli, in which the effect of a bustle is created through the use of gathers and a huge bow.  The bustle also made a comeback in the 1980s.  The black velvet and dotted gown is a 1988 creation of Carolina Herrera.   On the left is a denim and silk creation by Anna Sui, 1999.

Elsa Schiaparelli, evening dress, black and bronze shot silk taffeta, circa 1939, France, courtesy of Mrs. Michael Blankfort.

The dropped waist, fringe, and straight silhouette of the 1920s have been widely copied.  The red dress is from 1925, and is by Lenief of France.    The black dress beside it is from 1961 and is by Marc Bohan for Dior.   Next is a black wool from Norman Norell, 1965.  You can also see the fringe effect in the pink Carolyne Roehm dress from 1988.  Finally, the blue wool jersey dress is from Rifat Ozbek, 1986.

This dress must have been very popular, as I’ve seen quite a few 1960s copies with the same concept of the fringe being made from strips of cloth.

Norman Norell, evening dress, black wool crepe, rhinestones, circa 1965, USA, gift of Lauren Bacall

On the left is a 1960s Harry Gordon  paper dress.  On the right, a Sarah Caplan for MPH,  non-woven Tyvek dress, 1999

In the 1960s designer Paco Rabanne became famous for his dresses made of plastic and metal links, and which were reminiscent of Medieval chain mail.  In 2004 Yohji Yamamoto used a similar technique using triangles of chambray connected by metal links.

And to finish, here is a grouping of clothes, inspired by the 1980 and the 1990s.  Right to left:
 Dries Van Noten plaid cotton, silk,  and stretch satin ensemble,  2013
Anna Sui, Rainbow Grunge, 1993
Stephen Sprouse,  man’s leggings, printed spandex, 1985
Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga printed canvas, striped knit dress, 2004
Mike Bidlo, painted tweed suit, 1982

In all there were over 100 items on display, including quite a few standout items not shown here – a Pola Stout fabric Adrian suit, dresses by Claire McCardell, a 1950s Dior suit, and Thea Porter from 1973.  Over all, it was an afternoon well spent!

All images courtesy and copyright of The Museum at FIT.   RetroSpective is on view until November 16, 2013.

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Front Row: Chinese American Designers at the Museum of Chinese in America

One of the highlights of my trip to New York was a visit to the Museum of Chinese in America.  My timing was perfect because they were staging two fashion exhibitions, this one and another on fashion in 1920 and 1930s Shanghai (more on that later).

One happy by-product of the on-going success of fashion exhibitions is that even museums that are not normally thought of as fashion museums are finding ways to feature fashion in accordance with the theme of their collection.  Could it be that people are finally beginning to see that fashion is an important cultural theme?  Let’s hope that is the case.

Front Row: Chinese American Designers showcases the work of sixteen designers who work in America and who are of Chinese heritage.  Some, like Vera Wang and Anna Sui, are quite well-known.  Others, like Jade Lai and Wayne Lee, were new to me.

 

These two outfits are from Anna Sui.  That cute dress is from her Pirate collection of 2007, and was a favorite of mine.  I’ve always admired Sui’s work, even though I’m not the type of person to actually wear her clothes.  The silver studded set is from 1994, and it made me wonder why Sui was not represented in the Punk show at the Met.

This ensemble is from the current collection of 3.1 Phillip Lam.  The coat is made of neoprene and leather.  How about those boot/sandals?

This gown is by Jason Wu, and there is plenty to love.  It’s blue, it’s made of tulle, it has spangly star sequins.  I’ve been in love with Wu’s work since seeing the dress he designed for Michelle Obama, and this did not disappoint.

Left to right:  Zero waste cape, Yeohlee, 2008.  Leather dress, Derek Lam, 2012.  Circle dress, Yeohlee, 2012.  Circle top, Yeohlee, 2012

Here’s a close-up of the Derek Lam dress.  Note the way the sleeves and bodice are cut and also the top-stitching.  The back of the dress is linen.

I’m so sorry about the quality of this photo, but I had to show this dress by Zang Toi from 1991.  It is actually a sweater, embroidered with Chinese folk motifs.  The yellow dress in the background is by Peter Som.

 

This ballgown is by Vera Wang, 2013.  I’m so glad this red dress was chosen for the exhibition, instead of one of her white wedding dresses.

Even if you can’t be in New York before this exhibition ends in September, this museum should be on the list of things to see for any visitor to the city.  Their permanent exhibition tells the story of Chinese immigration to the US.  It’s a fascinating, often tragic, story.

I also want to say how nice and helpful the staff was.  The young men at the reception desk steered me toward the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.   They wrote directions to the restaurant and even told me what to order.   How nice was that?

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