Category Archives: Museums

Paul Poiret Coat, Circa 1912

Several months ago I posted that the Fashion History Museum was raising funds to acquire an evening coat by Paul Poiret. Thanks to all who helped with the fundraising (and that included around $600 donated by The Vintage Traveler readers) the coat was added to the museum’s collection, and is now on display in their latest exhibition, Made in France.

I was lucky to be able to see and examine the coat as, believe it or not, this coat was found here in North Carolina!

The story begins last spring, when Jonathan and Kenn from the museum traveled south from Ontario to deliver their Lucile dress to a small exhibition at a local Titanic attraction. They then spent the afternoon with me, viewing my collection and talking fashion history. They mentioned that they had an appointment in Asheville to see a Poiret coat, which really floored me.

As it turned out, the coat was in the possession of Melinda and Jeff of Style and Salvage Vintage, whose business is located here in my little town of Clyde. I didn’t know them at the time, but Jonathan put us in touch, and I eagerly took up their invitation to go to their business and see the coat.

It is a simply stunning garment, beautiful in photographs that don’t fully show just how great an object it is. The gold bits are metallic lace, that wonderful substance that was so prized in the 1910s and 1920s. The exterior of the coat is gold silk, and the interior, which shows through the lace, is the most luscious shade of green.

So how did such a rare object come to be in Western North Carolina. I won’t give the details, but Melinda and Jeff were at a sale that advertised old clothes and costumes. Not known for being shy, Jeff asked the seller if there were other garments not currently in the sale. The answer was yes, there were more, and so arrangements were made to view the rest of the clothing.

While going through the racks, Melinda spotted the gold lace, held her breath, and pulled the coat out. She already knew it was special, but I would have loved to have seen her face at the moment she spotted that label!

The seller, who was working on behalf of an organization that actually owned the clothes, agreed to let Melinda and Jeff take the coat on consignment. They then set about searching for the perfect buyer for the coat.

That led them to contact Jonathan and Kenn,who after seeing the coat, put it on hold and began fund-raising. This February they again traveled south, and this time returned home with this very special garment. After a bit of restoration, the coat can now be enjoyed all all who are lucky enough to visit the Fashion History Museum this spring and summer.

It just goes to show that there are still marvelous things still hiding in attics and warehouses and who-knows-where else. My thanks to Melinda and Jeff for sharing this story, and for letting me use their photos.

 

 

 

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Fashion Exhibitionism

One of the on-going themes here at The Vintage Traveler is fashion exhibition, and what works (for me, at least) and what does not. I come to this conversation purely as a consumer of exhibitions, not as a scholar of the subject, nor as a maker of exhibitions. So I was pretty excited when the theme of this year’s Museum at FIT symposium was Exhibiting Fashion.  Because the symposiums are live-streamed, I had planned to take it all in last Friday.

If you missed it, then you are in luck, because you can still view all the talks and discussions. There are six hours of content, so you may not want to watch it all. Some of the talks are more relevant than others. You’ll know within a few minutes of watching one if viewing it is of interest to you.

I’m not going to attempt to go into all the topics that were discussed, as that would take an entire book. But there were so many things said that really resonated with me, and there were a few things that I wish had been said that were not.

If you know Valerie Steele (curator at the museum) from her writings and interviews, you know that she has a few opinions about what makes a great exhibition. I’ve heard her say on numerous occasions (including in the symposium) that an exhibition has to be more than just a display of pretty dresses.  And while I have no problem at all in spending a few hours looking at pretty dresses, fashion display has certainly moved past that mindset.

Much was said about how to translate the behind the scenes research into a visual display. While it is always possible to just lay it all out in the display notes, once an exhibition designer gets too wordy, then I’ve noticed that people stop reading. What is more effective is for the exhibition designer to evoke a context to which the viewer can relate. The use of everything from props, hair and makeup, Mise-en-scène , and juxtapositions can add meaning without a word being written.

But to paraphrase Lou Taylor, it really all comes down to the garment itself. The exhibition rises or falls on the selection of what is shown.

Several of the speakers touched on the point that I always try to make, and that is an exhibition does not need to be a huge production designed to pull in massive crowds (that is, to generate a lot of income for the museum) in order to be a fantastic experience. The small and more intimate exhibition can lead to insights not possible when you are jostling for position with hundreds of other viewers.

I was hoping someone would mention the huge walls of mannequins, three and four tiers high, with dresses that are impossible to see past the basic silhouette and a bit of sparkle. Unfortunately, that practice is left to me to say just how much I hate this trend in fashion exhibition. As Lou Taylor said, it all comes down to the garment, so what’s the point if the garment can’t be properly seen.

A lot was said about museum exhibitions as entertainment, as opposed to the museum as a place of education. As a former educator, I can tell you that the two are not mutually exclusive, and several presenters made the same point. Yes, fashion exhibitions are entertainment, at least they are to me. At the same time, I love leaving an exhibition with a new insight or bit of knowledge.

Another point that was briefly hinted at was the fine line between getting a point across and beating the museum goers over the head with the point. The best example I’ve seen of going too far was the Met’s 2013 exhibition on Punk. I’ll not rehash it here, as I wrote a review. Still, I hate leaving an exhibition feeling battered.

If you only have time for some quick viewing, I suggest you look at Julia Petrov’s talk on the history of fashion display. It’s fascinating. It starts at 55 minutes into the symposium.

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Vanderbilt House Party at Biltmore Estate

For the past several years, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC has partnered with Cosprop to mount a costume exhibition in the house. Previously they have displayed costumes from Titanic and Downton Abbey, one year they displayed movie wedding dresses, and another, dresses from films inspired by literature.

This year’s fashion exhibition was a bit different, and more ambitious. Cosprop was hired to reproduce some of the actual clothing worn by the Edwardian Vanderbilts, the owners of the estate. To do this, photos were studied, along with other records such as newspaper accounts, letters, bills of sale and other family documents. It’s not entirely possible to know exactly how a garment that had long ago disappeared looked, especially as to color, but enough evidence was uncovered to give John Bright of Cosprop the information needed to recreate quite a few looks.

In the cases where clothing was recreated, the photos on which they were based was displayed along with the garments. The couple above is Adele and James Burden, two of the first visitors to Biltmore, soon after George Vanderbilt moved into the house in 1895.  Adele’s blouse was beautiful, but the sleeves look a bit deflated compared to the photo of her wearing the blouse. This was, after all, 1895, the era of the huge puffed sleeve.

We sort of joked that James’s ensemble can still be bought today at Ralph Lauren.

Most people can’t really relate to the fact that this was George Vanderbilt’s country home, and that the dress code there was much more casual than you would find in a house belong to the robber baron class in New York. There is a multitude of photos showing the Vanderbilts in outing attire. That’s George, ready for a walk around a small part of his estate.

There were several of these tweed and boots ensembles for men on display, but I was surprised that there was no real woman’s walking ensemble represented. Outdoor activities were a big part of what went on at Biltmore, with trails galore, even one that stretched the fifteen miles to the Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge.

This is the photo from which George’s tweeds were modeled. That’s daughter Cornelia before a swim, 1910.

When George Vanderbilt planned and built Biltmore, he was not married. He met and married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898. Their only child, Cornelia, was born in 1900.

In the above vignette, George’s suit was reproduced from a photo of him taken in 1900, but “Edith’s” dress was borrowed from another Cosprop project, the 2000 film, The Golden Bowl. Quite a few of the garments in the exhibition are Cosprop products that were not specific to Biltmore. I don’t know why the decision was made to include these garments, but I suspect it was because of the expense. It’s a lot cheaper to rent an existing dress than to make a new one.

This lovely waist and skirt were recreated from a 1900 photo of Edith.

To me, this was probably the most effective recreation, with the design team going so far as to screen-print the exact pattern of the dots on the ribbon stripes of the blouse. There was an interesting little video for visitors to explain how many of the design decisions were made. Even though this is based on a black and white photo, through research they were able to determine Edith’s favored color palette, and to make a good guess at the actual colors used.

Here’s another recreation from a photo. This is Edith just before her marriage to George in 1898.

Her waist looks much more corseted in the photo.

Here’s another pretty waist and skirt combination. If it looks familiar, that’s because this was designed for the 1985 film, A Room with a View. 

Let’s not forget that there was a little girl in the house, and this setting was based on a 1904 photo of Cornelia and her aunt, Pauline Dresser Merrill. I really love Pauline’s travel ensemble.

Unfortunately, they left out Iwan the wolfhound, who was in the original photo.

And here is Cornelia again, along with her cousin John Brown.

John and Cornelia, 1906.

Not only were the Vanderbilts and their guests represented, but we get a glimpse of the staff as well. Here is the gentleman’s gentleman getting out Mr. Vanderbilt’s motoring accessories.

And this is Martha Laube, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s lady’s maid.

A group of guests have made themselves comfortable in the third floor living hall.

And just down the hall a maid is busy unpacking a visitor’s trunk. Much of the third floor was for house guests.

The basement had multiple functions.  Here was located the kitchen, the laundry, and the food and serving supplies storage. It was also the location of recreation rooms, including this bowling alley.

Past the bowling alley and a line of changing room is the indoor pool. Here on the diving platform are two bathing suits that probably would have never been seen together, The one at top is circa 1920, and the one at bottom is ten years older. Both are a bit too new to fit in with the rest of the clothes on display.

This gymnastics girl was right on point. I would have loved to get a closer look at her shoes. Which leads me to one of my issues with Biltmore clothing exhibitions. The clothes were just out of range to get a really good look, I could not tell if these were antique or newer that just look old.

After the trek through the basement, the tour planners wisely bring the visitor back to the fancy side of things by going back to to the first floor and the magnificent banquet hall. This is where one “dressed” for dinner. Above we see the recreated  Worth dress of George’s sister, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly.

And here is Florence.

Also in the banquet hall was this dress, worn by Edith in 1903.  The dress in the background is from Cosprop’s inventory.

If you visit Biltmore, be sure not to miss the Legacy Museum located near one of the hotels. They do changing exhibitions, with the current one being on travel and recreation. The notes on this motoring duster were not exactly clear, but I am pretty sure it is antique, as is the Louis Vuitton trunk.

There were also lots of photos showing the Vanderbilts and guests at play on the estate. I wish they had recreated Edith’s outing suit.

I really appreciate that Biltmore has a commitment to doing a costume show every spring.  Tickets are not cheap, but they really do try to make the visit as aesthetically pleasing as possible. The floral arrangements alone are worth seeing.

And if you go, why not try the most appropriate dress, as these members of Atlanta Time Travelers did? That’s my friend Liza on the right, along with Randi and Bobbie Jo. Their attire enhanced everyone’s experience!

Finally, here I am with Edith, Iwan, Cedric, and George. The photo prop was based on an actual photograph from 1903. Thanks to Liza for the photo.

 

 

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Cinematic Couture, Part III

I bet you could have guessed that this set of costumes is from Downton Abbey.  Though spread over several years, the three dresses in front represent the Crowley sisters, Edith, Sybil, and Mary.  Edith’s dress is from the fifth season, and so is from the mid 1920s. If you can remember, Edith was the “plain” sister. In the middle is a Sybil dress, circa 1912, as is Mary’s red dress on the right.

In the background are Earl and Countess Grantham, the girls’ long-suffering parents.

From the back we can see there is more to Edith than meets the eye.

One thing I love about SCADFASH is that the place fosters conversation between visitors and docents. There was a pair of young women who were touring the exhibition at the same time a us, and it surprised me that neither of them had seen Downton Abbey.

If ever a movie in recent memory was known for the hats, it was Titanic. Because of the lighting I was not able to be a really good shot of all of them. And I really could not get one that shows just how massive some of these were.  I wonder if women during this period had neck problems from trying to balance those things on their heads?

When looking at costumes, I find that I get more from seeing the ones from the movies and programs I have actually seen. Take this one, for example, and imagine Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, as she prepares to make the mistake of a lifetime by marrying the wrong man.

This costume was worn by Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. 1920s fashions are really tough on even the slimmest body, but Kidman actually looked pretty great in this dress and coat.  I’m not sure why this is not so successful on the mannequin because it really is a nice coat and a great dress,

It does look better from this angle. You can at least see the pretty work on the dress.

It has a light blue lining with a cut-work  cotton dress. The brown embroidery on the cut-work really does enhance the brown of the coat. Thanks to Liza for this photo.

Cosprop is owned by John Bright, who is also a collector of historical dress. Much of his collection can be seen on his website, The John Bright Collection.

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Cinematic Couture at SCADFASH, Part II

Let’s start Part II with this great costume from Elizabeth. This silk velvet gown was worn by Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth in this 1996 film.  The designer was Alexandra Byrne, who co-incidentally designed the costumes for the currently showing Mary Queen of Scots. It would be interesting to compare the costumes for Mary and Elizabeth in both films.

I loved the way this one was mounted with the mannequin’s arms spread wide to show some very spiffy sleeves.

In 1989 designer James Acheson won the Oscar for best costume design for Dangerous Liaisons.  This exhibition had three dresses from the film, which was set in eighteenth century France. These costumes show just how much work goes into a costume drama of this magnitude. The dresses we saw were worn by two of the more minor characters (and older women to boot) but the detail and design might make one think these dresses were the true stars of the show.

The back view shows the fashionable sack back.

This dress was worn by actress Mildred Natwick as Madame de Rosemonde. It was her last film role. She was eighty-three years old at the time!

This costume was also worn by Mildred Natwick. What a way to end a long and varied career!

And finally, this gown worn by Swoosie Kurtz, who at forty-five was a youngster compared to Natwick. Still, it’s great seeing “older” women dressed fashionably, and not in dark colors as is so often the case.

These four costumes are from The Duchess, which starred Keira Knightley, and which won a best costume design Oscar for designer Michael O’Connor.  I need to say at this point that there were, in fact many men’s costumes on display as well, but a simple suit with knee pants tends to be over-shadowed by a lavish silk gown.

Both of the gowns is this set were worn by Knightley.  I have been reading a lot about eighteenth century fashion lately, but I have so much to learn. Still, costumes from this period always seem to be oddly over-ornamented.  Feel free to correct me if I’m wildly off base.

That is a hair style I’ll never understand. I do try, however not to make judgments about the clothing, hair, and make-up of people in the past.

Since costumes have to be practical, they often don’t have historically correct closures. It’s not very often that one sees a zipper in a pre-1930s costume these days, but eighteenth century bodices seem to present access problems. This dress was closed using hook and eyes.  And the stomachers seen above in the Dangerous Liaisons costumes above were sewn (rather than pinned) shut. Was the actress literally sewn into her robe?

The three costumes above were worn by Jenna Coleman in the BBC television series, Victoria. This program is about the young Victoria, and so begins in 1837 as she ascended to the throne.  Here is my favorite of the entire exhibition, a nautical-inspired riding habit. You can’t tell from my photo, but the red band on her cap is lace. Very queenly.

The other costumes from Victoria were not as successful. I thought this dress, used in a ballroom scene in the program, was too shiny. Okay, it looked cheap.

And I hate this photo because it does not convey just how interesting the robe is, and not in a good way. The exhibition guide tells me that the fabric was specially digitally printed, I’m assuming to replicate the original, but it just looks like someone’s old drapes, especially with the gold fringe. I’ve looked at stills from the show, and on film it looks much better, which is what matters.

Update: And now, thanks to Liza, I have a much better photo of this robe, not that it improves the robe a whit.

The crowns were not part of the loan from Cosprop, so SCAD student Tina Gancev designed and 3-D printed the one in the exhibition. They are amazing.

I’ll finish up next time with costumes from the twentieth century.

Update: Spelling correction.

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Cinematic Couture at SCADFASH, Atlanta

I had the great fun of driving to Atlanta to spend the afternoon with friend Liza at the latest exhibition at SCADFASH, Cinematic Couture. As the name tells us, this was a show of film costumes. SCADFASH does not have a huge permanent collection from which to mount lavish exhibitions, so they rely on shows that travel. This one is from Cosprop, a UK based costume house.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because the exhibitions at Biltmore Estate I written about have also used Cosprop.  If you are a fan of British costume dramas, you have seen Cosprop’s work. They have provided costumes for everything from Downton Abbey to the 1996 version of Pride and Prejudice.

I was a bit concerned that this exhibition would be a repeat of costumes we had already seen, and there was indeed a bit of overlap. However, it was the experience of seeing the same garments at two different venues that ended up being one of the biggest revelations of this visit.

There’s so much that I love about SCADFASH exhibitions, so I’ll start there. The big first thing is the ability to get close to the garments. At Biltmore some of the garments are behind glass due to their being displayed in unmonitored locations. The dress, above left, is an embroidered wool dress worn by Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane, a film about how Jane Austen became the writer we know, and most of us love. We didn’t give it much of a second look when we saw it at Biltmore.

But here we can see the same dress as presented at SCADFASH. The mounting was so much better, but it was being able to actually see and appreciate the details that made the difference. The dress at Biltmore was in a hotel public space, and the windows caused so much glare that the dress sort of disappeared into the glass cage.

I’m always amazed at all the work that goes into just one costume. This dress was hand embroidered, though some of the others had smaller areas of machine embroidery.

Well, I’m sorry that the back view is poor, but the point is that you can see the back.  Most of the costumes are displayed on circular platforms that are pulled away from the wall enough so that visitors can go behind most of the garments. The docent who was assisting us said that was a deliberate choice because so many visitors were trying to squeeze behind the exhibits to see the backs. So thanks SCAD for making it easy for us.

Just so you’ll not think I’m picking on Biltmore, here’s another comparison shot. This dress was worn by Emma Thompson is Sense and Sensibility. On the left is the dress at SCADFASH, and on the right you see it at Biltmore. While the glare on glass is still distracting, I like the mount better, especially the way the shawl is draped.  And the fit just looks better as well.

Again we are treated to the back of this costume, with that lovely little train. You could see the back at Biltmore as well, but it seemed a bit cramped in that glass box.

Here you can see the lovely texture of the dress and of the shawl, but you can also see one big old blaring anachronism: shiny modern synthetic gloves. We had a bit of a discussion with the docent, and then the curator appeared and we had a word or two with him as well. As it turns out, Cosprop sent the gloves used in the films, but in many cases they were too small to fit on the mannequins’ hands. We tried to point out that the exhibits would look better with no gloves at all than with these silly shiny things.

It seems like Jane Austen is always a favorite, and my guess is that costumes were chosen at least in part because they were likely to have been seen by most visitors.  This costume was worn by Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.

And this was worn by the other Bingley sister, Mrs. Hurst.  I don’t have a photo of the dress representing the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet, but her dress was quite plain in comparison to the richer city girl Bingleys.

This is a button from Mr. Darcy’s waistcoat. The button is hand embroidered, but the buttonhole looks machine made to me. Still, it shows an amazing concern toward the details.

My last Regency/Austen photo is this crocheted silk pineapple purse. It was carried by Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion.  It just goes to show how one special little piece can really make one’s costume.

In my next installment we’ll go back in time to the Georgians, and forward to the Victorians.

 

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Fabulous Fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Part II

You might have guessed that the next theme addressed by Fabulous Fashion is color. First up is this 2013 dress which is a reinterpretation of a 1952 dress made from fabric designed by artist Ellsworth Kelly. This dress was made by Calvin Klein Collection.

If it is difficult to imagine that dress as originating in 1952, the museum has kindly provided visitors with a photo of the original dress, along with Kelly’s study for it.  Anne Weber, the woman in the photo, actually sewed the dress using the Kelly-created fabric.

I am sorry about the fuzziness of this photo. I am working on this; I promise.

Left to right:

Charles James, 1955 Pagoda Suit. There are solid color versions of this suit, which better show James’s trademark structure. I actually did not recognize this as a Charles James until the docent pointed it out.

Issey Miyake, 1994 Flying Saucer Dress. This style of Miyake’s folds flat like a paper lantern.

Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, 1971 bodysuit and skirt. Haute Hippie.

This 1962 palazzo pants ensemble was designed by Italian Irene Galitzine. The difference in color of the skirt and the jumpsuit is due to the jumpsuit being beaded. This piece was getting a lot of attention from the crowd, and it deserved it.

This cheerful top and skirt was one of my favorites. It’s by Stephen Burrows, made in 1971 for his boutique within the Henri Bendel store in New York. Burrows is one of those designers that I remember fondly from my teen years, and I still have a very soft spot for his designs.

Here we have moved from color to metallics.  It’s always fun to see a Paco Rabanne creation (left, 1966), though I’m also reminded of what Audrey Hepburn said about the Rabanne dress she wore in Two for the Road. She referred to is as the most uncomfortable thing she’d ever worn, and that it was impossible to sit in it.

On the right is a late 1960s dress by Norman Norell. Even though this dress was ready-to-wear, the beads and sequins were each sewn on by hand, taking about 250 hours to bead one dress.

I felt like this Geoffrey Beene dress from 1994 was the star of the metallics section. It’s hard to compete with a dress named “Mercury” that truly lives up to its name. I hope future generations remember the Beene name.

I say that because so many in the tour I was in had never heard of the designer of this gown, Anne Fogarty. Now I don’t really put Fogarty in the same category as Beene, but she did play a big role in keeping the big skirt with crinoline look alive throughout the 1950s.

I wanted you to see just how lovely that metallic lace is.

At this point I felt like the whole structure of the exhibition of design elements, sort of fell apart. This was a mini-section of black and white, and while I was puzzled at its inclusion, I was also delighted by it. How can one not love a classic Chanel suit sandwiched between a skeleton ensemble of 2011 by Bernhard Willhelm and a 2018 coat (yes, this is one piece) by Rei Kawakubo. The unexpectedness of this display made it all the more relevant.

And then there were hats! This Bes-Ben hat, circa 1965, was the subject of much subject speculation. I’m pretty sure it is a rooster, but others saw more exotic birds.

By Stephen Jones, this hat was based on the London Tube (subway) map. 2008

Here we were treated to the mistress of draping, Madame Gres. This dress, circa 1981, is truly about the back, but I would have really loved a peek at the front as well.

 

And like any good fashion show, this one ended with wedding dresses. This circa 1959 gown was designed by Pierre Balmain.

Every fashionable bride in 1968 should have worn a dress like this one from American designer Gustave Tassell. Unfortuanately that was not, if my own recollections of late 60s wedding can be trusted, the case.

And finally, because this is Philadelphia, we have some of the wedding ensemble of Grace Kelly, who married in 1956. On the left is her copy of – not the Bible, as I expected – but of  Bride’s Manuel: A Manuel of Catholic Devotion with Mass for the Marriage Ceremony and the Nuptial Blessing. 

The cap which anchored her veil was designed by Helen Rose and was made by the costume department at MGM. The shoes were from David Evins. Princess Grace donated these items to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with her dress, which is, according to the docent, too fragile to mount and display. That’s a pity because many of the visitors were looking for the dress.

And there you have it. If you are going to be in the Philadelphia area anytime this fall or winter, treat yourself to an afternoon of Fabulous Fashion.

 

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