Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, Part 1

I wasn’t too disappointed about not having a trip to New York City planned for this summer until I read about Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I even gave some serious thought to forgetting about our trip to Chicago, and instead, planning to head to NYC. But as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary, as I discovered that the exhibition would be traveling to Winston-Salem, NC, a mere two and a half hours’ drive from my home.

There’s so much to show and to say that I’ll be dividing this exhibition review into two, and maybe even three parts. O’Keeffe’s life is well-documented, so I’ll keep the biographical information to a minimum. It won’t be so much her art and life that I’m writing about, so much as the way she lived her life. And that was in a very modern way.

For a while, O’Keeffe worked as an art teacher, and she sometimes did illustration work for Vanity Fair magazine. It is thought that the fashionable work above was used by her as an example in her classroom. It’s very much a work of it’s time, 1916-1917, but I’d never have guessed it was by O’Keeffe.

After a time teaching in Texas, O’Keeffe moved to New York, and the first group of garments in the exhibition date to her time in the city. Several themes are shown. O’Keeffe was consistent in the details she liked in her clothing. She followed fashion in her own way. She loved black and white, and often wore a combination of the two to produce a desired effect. She and her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, carefully crafted her image using her clothing.

Take the dress above. It is one of the garments in the exhibition that has been attributed to O’Keeffe. She was, like many women of her time, an accomplished needlewoman. Many of her clothes from her years in New York are thought to have been made by her. You can tell that this dress dates to the 1920s, even though it might not be considered the height of fashion. She loved ties, and here you can see them at the neck and the wrists. And this dress is in a shade of white.

There were four dresses in the same shade of creme. The one you get the best look of is dated to 1937, but it looks  earlier to me, maybe early 30s. But regardless, it shows O’Keeffe’s commitment to the color over a period of years. All the dresses are made of silk, and all seem to be expertly home-sewn. It is possible that O’Keeffe made all these dresses.

Because there is such a good photographic record of O’Keeffe’s life, the many photos of her were used to help date the garments, especially the later ones.

It’s regrettable that my photo is so poor. My “real” camera malfunctioned, with the flash stuck in the on position, so I had to rely on cell photos. Still, I hope you can appreciate this grouping of the other main color in O’Keeffe’s early wardrobe – black.

The cape on the left has a label, Zoe de Salle, who, it seems, specialized in capes. Is it the same cape as in the iconic photo used in the exhibition promotion (the one at the top of my post)? No, as that photo was taken by Stieglitz in the early 1920s, and Zoe de Salle’s salon dates from 1936. Still, it’s a look she turned to on many occasions.

The dress on the right was probably made by O’Keeffe in the 1930s. Of interest is the white tie at the neck and the white cuffs. And although this dress looks like it has a fitted waist, what you are seeing is actually a cummerbund.  O’Keeffe was photographed wearing this dress for years. A favorite, perhaps? From the archival photographs, it looks like she had two versions of this dress, in wool and in silk. It appears that she loved vertical pleats and tucks.

This 1920s coat also appears to be made by a dressmaker, though the quality is not as high as some of the other garments. Still, you can see touches of O’Keeffe’s style in contrasting white on black collar.

These three white blouses are also in the “attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe” category. Stylistically, they date to the 1930s. The one on the right is the plainest, being made like a shirt, from silk. The other two are a bit more interesting to ponder.

click to enlarge

Can you see all the pintucks? If not, be sure to enlarge the photo, because they are an important feature in this 1930s blouse. The tucks are quite finely executed, and the question has been brought up (on Facebook), was it possible for a hobbyist sewer like O’Keeffe to execute such a difficult design, with the tucks providing all the shaping of the blouse?

Click

And what about this one, with the complicated crossing of pintucks, and the faggotting between that panel and the small ruffles? Would a busy artist have the time to devote to such a time-intensive sewing project?

We’ll probably never know for sure, but do note that the blouses have elements that put them squarely in O’Keeffe’s style, with the tie at the neck and the vertical lines of the pintucks. Consistency of style is one of the hallmarks of O’Keeffe’s clothing. When she found what she liked, such as a little tie at the neck, she stuck with it and adapted it to fit the fashion of the day.

Starting in the late 1920s O’Keeffe had been spending her summers in New Mexico. Stieglitz died in 1946, and O’Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949. Over the years she had painted New York many times, and the painting above, of the Brooklyn Bridge, was her last. It’s full of symbolism, with the dark of the bridge representing the city, and the blue sky New Mexico. As a final nod to Stieglitz, there is a heart in the center.

Next, O’Keeffe in the desert.

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Museums

14 responses to “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, Part 1

  1. Thank you very much, enjoyed this side of a lady I only knew as an artist. Your words brought out the art in the garments !
    Arlene Cocke

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  2. I always tend to think of O’Keeffe in N Mexico. I always envision her alone? I knew of her husband however the artistic collaboration is so fascinating .the feminine side (gauzy white ruffled blouse is also something I have never expected. Thank You Lizzie For This. Really just great.

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  3. Hope you’re doing okay over there, Lizzie. Back-ups for back-ups is a good thing these days. Just light rain over here.
    Enjoying your review! Did you see Marcy T’s post on the show? (http://blog.marcytilton.com/?post_id=105&title=georgia-okeefe-sewed–dressed-like-she-painted)

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  4. Thanks so much for this detailed review. I love the pintucks, and thought that her painting of the Brooklyn Bridge also was a nod to the her passion for the vertical.

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  5. janet

    I am a fan of O’Keeffe’s work. Thanks for this article. I believe such a talent could easily express herself in many areas.

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  6. ceci

    I’ve been enjoying reading about this exhibit……we don’t seem to get the fashion related ones close to me so its all vicarious.

    ceci

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  7. I don’t think the pintucks would have been a problem for someone who seemed to sew as well as she did. I wonder if she learned to sew from someone or just picked it up on her own? Many women of that era did learn from their mothers or other women and ready made was not always as well done even then. Do you know if she used a machine or sewed by hand? I would expect a machine as they were fairly common by then.

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    • Ruth, She must have had instruction at one point, if these items were made by her. They are the work of someone with real skills. Most of the garments are a combination of hand and machine stitching, though the 2 linen blouses and one of the silk dresses are entirely hand stitched. All those little pintucks are hand stitched.

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