Category Archives: Museums

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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Thoughts on Snapshots

Be sure to click for details.

I think we were all a little hard on photographs yesterday, so I thought I’d do a post in praise of them.  Not modern photos, of course; I’m going to praise the vintage snapshot.

Last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art there were some small gallerys filled with old snapshots.  I was delighted to read that they were part of the massive collection of Peter J. Cohan, a collector I’ve read about several times over the past year.  Cohan began looking through and buying vintage snapshots at flea markets in 1990.  He did not look for any particular thing, but instead he just wanted to buy what seemed interesting to him.

Twenty-three years and over 35,000 photos later, museums, including the Met,  are starting to acquire parts of the collection.  The display has the photos arranged in quirky categories: kids with cigarettes, women with guns, women boxing.

Edwardian mooners

Just like Mommy

Two variations on a theme

If it is there, they will climb it

What is it that makes vintage photos so much fun?  Sometimes it is the spontaneity, but all these photos were staged.  Perhaps it is that, unlike today where we can snap and re-snap until we like the result, the photographer of yesteryear knew she or he really had only one or two takes to get it right, and there was no way to know if it was right until the photos were returned by the developer.

Then when the photos came, all the exposures were included, mistakes and all.  Today, many people never even print their photos, and when they do, only the best are picked to become hard copies.  I took over 250 photos in New York, but only had 35 of them printed.  And that was after I’d deleted hundreds more.

I think that most vintage photo collectors are like me, that is they do look for specific things in the old photos they acquire.  I may just follow Cohan’s example and be a little more open to the fun and the oddball.



Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Museums, Vintage Photographs

Punk: Chaos to Couture, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The curtain has dropped on the latest clothing exhibition from the Met, and I’m just now getting around to sharing my thoughts.  That’s because I did not see it until last Tuesday, the day before it closed.  No photos were allowed, and I was too lazy to request them at such a late date, but you can see most of the exhibition at the Met site.

The exhibition has been controversial from the beginning, with Malcolm McLaren’s widow questioning the authenticity of many of the items on display, with questions about how big a role Conde Nast (which co-sponsored the show) and Vogue editor Anna Wintour played in the choices of exhibits, and with the lack of garments worn by major players in Punk such as Debbie Harry and Patti Smith.  Reviews have been mixed, with many reviewers being left with the feeling that something was just missing.  Still, attendance was good, perhaps aided by the heat wave.

The day I attended the show it was pouring rain, and the museum was packed.   The exhibition hall was crowded, but not overwhelmingly so.  There was no wait or line.

As you entered the hall, the first thing that one saw was a reproduction of the restroom at the Punk club, CBGB.  Was this to set the mood, to tell visitors that Punk was a down and dirty scene?  If so, they failed miserably.  I’ve seen scarier restrooms in public schools.

But the next room was the heart of the exhibition.  Here there were six juxtapositions of Punk outfits from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren with modern interpretations from Rodarte, McQueen, Balmain, Watanabe and Yamamoto.  It was a stunning display that clearly got the message across that yes, Punk is still a huge influence on fashion.  (There was also, inexplicably, a single mannequin wearing an outfit from the spring 2013 Burberry collection, with no historic reference.)

Also of great interest was a large collection of vintage Punk tee shirts, the ones questioned by the widow McLaren.  No matter.  They were quintessential Punk, and I’d even call them beautiful.

But with a few exceptions, that is where I began to question the “why” of the whole thing.  There could have been just that one central exhibit, and the message would have been clear, but instead, there were four more rooms of overkill.  Okay, maybe I’ve overstated it a bit, as I did enjoy seeing works by Zandra Rhodes, the famous Versace safety pin gown, the spray paint McQueen dress and an especially gorgeous gown from Ann Demeulemeester’s 2000 collaboration with Patti Smith.

But how many Maison Martin Margiela garments made from trash does one have to see to get the point?  And as stunning as they were, the exhibition was also heavily laden with work by McQueen (didn’t they “do” McQueen two years ago?).  Also on view was a Prada bottle cap skirt, similar to the one in last year’s show.  We were treated to an ensemble from the fall 2013 Saint Laurent collection, which I’d already seen, and hated, at Saks.

The last mannequin in the exhibition wore what can only be described as the back half of a dress, a 1998 model from Maison Martin Margiela (a gift from Barney’s, probably because it was unsaleable).  The mannequin was shooting us a bird, as final proof of how badass Punk is.  I thought it was silly.

What was missing was the feeling of the huge shift in what was shocking in 1976, to what is commonplace today.   The little bit of video and audio were confusing, and just added noise, not clarity.  I’m sure a lot of younger visitors were just left with a feeling that Punk was no big deal; that people still dress that way today.  Especially when they are greeted with this Punk display at Bloomingdale’s:

I did take a few shots of the gift shop outside the exhibition.  There might have been a lot of talk about dyi in the exhibition, but we all know that today it’s easier to just buy that Punk tee shirt.

Of course, if you are really Punk, you’ll add a bit of $8 safety pin Duck tape.

As a subject, I do believe that Punk fashion is valid, and is worthy of study and display.  But it really bothers me that the Met, with their stunning collection, has chosen for the past three years to showcase clothing from the past twenty years.  That might be okay if they were putting on more than one exhibition a year, but as it is , the last exhibition featuring purely historical fashion was American Woman in 2010.  I really hope that next year’s subject will treat us to some of the older delights of the collection.


Filed under Museums, Viewpoint

The Fashion History Museum

I’m happy to announce that the world now has a new museum devoted entirely to fashion, the Fashion History Museum.  Located in Galt, Ontario, Canada, it is the work of fashion historian Jonathan Walford and his partner Kenn Norman.  Jonathan is the curator of the collection, and Kenn is the museum director.  The Fashion History Museum was actually incorporated in 2004, but they have now opened in a permanent location in  Southworks, a restored historic industrial complex of 19th century limestone factory buildings.

You probably know Jonathan through his books, but he also has experience in the museum world, as he was the founding curator of the Bata Shoe Museum.  I’ve “known” him since the early days of eBay, where vintage sellers and buyers found a place to chat.  And I’ve always been in awe of his knowledge – and his vast collection.  Now it will be on view for all to appreciate.

There are plans to have rotating exhibitions throughout the three galleries that make up the museum.  Now, in gallery one is Paisley and Plaid – A Recurring Fashion.   It features clothing  ranging from 1810 through the 1990s that are printed, embroidered or woven with paisley and tartans.  Gallery two hosts Collecting Fashion for the Future: Acquisitions from the New Millenium.  Here are garments from designers such as  Jason Wu, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Tam.  The third gallery is devoted to accessories.  Currently showing is It’s in the Bag, an anthology of purse styles and materials.

Enjoy these highlight from the current exhibitions, and if you are in or near southern Ontario, you must put the Fashion History Museum on your list of things to see.

In the top photo: Four early dresses from gallery one Paisley and Plaid featuring (right to left) an English paisley print wool dress, c. 1848, American cotton print flounced dress, c. 1854, American blue and brown tartan silk dress, c. 1864, and an American printed wool and purple velvet dress, c. 1886

Printed wool dress by Oleg Cassini, c. 1954, and cotton tartan dress with corset hook closure by Clair McCardell, c. late 1940s – early 1950s

Right to left: View of red and black printed paisley design wool dress by Oleg Cassini, c. 1954, paisley printed silk two piece dress with culotte skirt by Norman Norell 1960, blue and red printed cotton dress and matching kerchief by Lulu, Montreal, c. 1968, and embroidered and mirror applique printed cotton caftan made in India for export, c. 1968

View of gallery two from Fashion for the Future, an exhibition of garments acquired by the museum to represent fashion since 2000. Dresses shown (left to right) include Andrew Matejny, Marchesa, Jessica Biffi, Liefsdottir, and Love-J, as well as selection of shoes by Jean Paul Gaultier, Donna Karan, Naughty Monkey, and others, under the watchful eye of vintage and antique dress forms

Another view of Fashion for the Future including dresses by (left to right)  Desigual, Steven Sprouse for Target, Roots, Takashi, and Vivienne Tam, and fascinator hats by Jacques Vert and David Dunkley

One view of Purse Anthology room featuring different styles of purses (reticules, backpacks, handbags, pocketbools) made from different materials (sea turtle, lucite, felt, etc.) by different designers (Gucci, Lucille de Paris, Willi Smith:Williwear)

To see more photos, and to read about how the museum came together, visit Jonathan’s blog.  The Fashion History Museum also has a website.

All photos and photo captions are courtesy of and copyright of the Fashion History Museum.



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Dior, Balmain, Saint Laurent:

Yesterday I went to Charlotte for a new vintage market (more about that later) and took the opportunity to see the latest fashion exhibition at the Mint Museum of Art. The Mint is one of my favorite museums.  They started collecting fashion the early 1970s, and today the collection numbers over 10,o0o objects.  I love that they have three galleries devoted to fashion and so you can visit anytime to see part of the collection.

The latest exhibition is devoted to three French masters – Dior, Balmain and Saint Laurent, with all the garments coming from the Mint’s permanent collection. It highlights the strengths of each with examples from not only the founders of each house, but also their successors.

This dress was designed by Christian Dior, labeled circa 1948.  It is actually a blouse and skirt, and is simply stunning.  I loved the glint of gold embroidered over the lace.

When Christian Dior died in 1958, a young Yves Saint Laurent was given the job of designer at Dior.   He was replaced by Marc Bohan in 1960, who designed this early 1960s suit.

Bohan was the designer of this plaid coat in the late 1960s.

The dress on the left is by Bohan for Dior, circa 1969.  The suit on the right is by Bohan’s successor, Gianfranco Ferre.

On the left is a cocktail dress by Bohan for Dior.  In the background is an evening ensemble by John Galliano for Dior.  Galliano was made the designer at Dior in 1997, and was fired in disgrace in 2011.  I was glad to see this example by Galliano.  There are many examples of designers who have exhibited despicable behavior (Chanel, anyone) but the importance of some, like Galliano, cannot be ignored.

Pierre Balmain opened his house in 1945.  His clothing often had a sculptural quality.  The suit above is from the mid 1950s.

When I came to this dress, I’ll admit, my first thought was a bit of a whine, “But I can’t see the bodice!”  But then, it morphed into, “Why the heck did they cover the bodice?”  That thought was even louder at the next dress:

I’m not a curator, and I have no museum or exhibition training, but I do know what I want to see in an exhibition.  Here we have two Balmain dresses, neither of which shows the bodice.   It’s like seeing only the bottom half of a painting!

Then it began to dawn on me that some of the garments in the exhibition were over accessorized.  These are the two biggest examples, but many of the garments were overshadowed by the styling.  I’m a person who actually likes seeing appropriate accessories with garments.  It adds to one’s understanding of how a garment was actually worn.  But when you can’t see the dress for the accouterments, then it’s time to follow the advice of Coco Chanel and remove the last accessory you put on.

So sorry about the fuzzy photo, but I just loved this great mid 1960s suit by Balmain.  Again, I have to say I found the strong accessories to be a bit distracting.

On the other hand, visitors are treated to what is often a hidden delight of couture – the interior of a garment.  In this case, we get a glimpse of the lining and trim of a coat by Oscar de la Renta, who designed couture for the House of Balmain from 1993 to 2002.

This stunning coat was designed by Christophe Decarnin, the designer at Balmain from 2002 to 2011.  Because of all the fur pieces used throughout the exhibition, I really could not tell if the fur around the neck is a part of the coat, or just an accessory.  It does seem to match the cuffs.

And finally, we get to Yves Saint Laurent.  Saint Laurent opened in 1962.  The jacket and skirt above are a great example of the beautiful ethnic-inspired clothing he designed throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Saint Laurent retired in 2002 and his couture atelier was closed.   His ready-to-wear line,  Rive Gauche, continued to be produced under the direction of Tom Ford, who designed the suits on the left and in the center.  The suit on the left (ignore distracting scarf)  is an homage to Saint Laurent’s Safari suits of the late 1960s.  The suit on the right was designed by Stefano Pilati, designer from 2004 through 2012.  Thankfully, there were no examples from the rebranded Saint Laurent Paris designer, Hedi Slimane.

I like that most of the garments are placed so that you can see them from both front and back.  I also love that you can get up-close to examine the details.  If you are ever in Charlotte, NC, the Mint is well worth the $10 admission price, especially while their excellent Fashionable Silhouettes in on view.



Filed under Museums