This book is the companion to the exhibition of the same name which featured highlights from the Brooklyn Museum’s incredible clothing collection. This exhibition was planned to show off the collection after it was transferred from Brooklyn to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By the late 1990s, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum was in trouble. Clothing and textiles are hard and expensive to maintain. A lot of skill is necessary for preservation and conservation. The museum had cut back on costume displays because they feared it was too damaging to the textiles. The solution was to transfer the collection to the Met where the financial situation was much better.
This transfer was not universally popular (but what is these days?), especially when it became known that many of the pieces never made their way from Brooklyn to the Met. The entire collection had been recataloged, photographed, and assessed. Many items, presumably those of which there were better examples already in the Costume Institute, were sent to auction. Included was a large portion of a donation to the Brooklyn Museum by designer Elizabeth Hawes and several of her clients.
The costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum has an interesting history. It was started in the early days of the twentieth century, not as an historical or artistic collection, but for design inspiration. The earliest pieces collected were examples from other cultures, and one curator made yearly buying trips to Europe in order to collect traditional costumes and textiles.
The textile above was the type of object being collected in the early twentieth century. It is a Russian wedding veil, and was added to the Brooklyn’s growing collection of textiles in 1931. Textiles were shown in the Textile Study Room, which had opened in 1918. After the outbreak of World War II, the museum sought out designers and textile manufacturers and offered their services in the field of design inspiration. It was during this time that American designers such as Bonnie Cashin and Carolyn Schnurer began their association with the museum. This ultimately led to contributions to the collection by these designers.
After the war ended, many American designers continued to look to the world for inspiration. Starting in 1946, Carolyn Schnurer traveled the world in search of inspiration and textiles. Each year’s resort collection was based on her trip to a different country. The photos above show part of 1950’s “Flight to India” collection, in which Schnurer had the fabrics she found in Europe adapted to her needs. You can see how she took the idea of a sari and fit it into the current fashion.
Of course, today we’d be hearing all sorts of cries of cultural appropriation. In reading this book, it struck me just how much of twentieth century fashion was somehow based on borrowing from other cultures. It also struck me just how much more rich fashion history is because of these appropriations.
This 1944 dress from Madame Eta Hentz, was based on two Greek garments, the chiton and the himation.
In the mid 1920s, French designer Suzanne Talbot based this dress on the toga.
Jeanne Lanvin adapted the Japanese obi as the train of the 1923 dress.
Couturier Emile Pingat used motifs based on those of American Plains Indians in 1891.
Madame Gres produced Greek inspired dresses throughout her long career, this one in 1937.
Even Bonnie Cashin, who is generally not classified as the type to indulge in “ethnic” fantasies, took the poncho from South America and turned it into a fashion statement.
It’s hard to imagine our wardrobes were they to be stripped of all the cultural influences, but still the internet is quick to pounce on any trace of cultural appropriation. Some, of course, would be considered by many to be justified, as in the using of sacred garment to create fashion. But most might be looked on as part of the broader picture, of fashion as design sponge.
High Style by Jan Glier Reeder is the catalog that accompanied this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. I bought it at the Cincinnati museum when I saw the exhibition, as I like to do, especially when a museum is free. It helps the museum, and it gives me a nice remembrance. I like and enjoy it, but it’s not the sort of useful book that I would recommend for other to buy.