Category Archives: Museums

William Ivey Long: Costume Designs 2007 – 2016

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I’m always up for a good surprise, and that’s what I got when visiting The Mint Museum recently. I was going to meet a long-time online friend, Lynn Mally, who writes AmericanAgeFashion, and I hadn’t really thought too much about the exhibitions. I knew they were showing theater costumes from William Ivey Long, but since the show wasn’t “historical” I wasn’t too enthused about seeing it.  I was wrong.

One of my first thoughts about this show is it is a fantastic example of just how much clothing exhibitions have changed from just a few years ago. This is not a bunch of costumes lined up to show how pretty or extraordinary they are. Instead, the visitor is treated to mood boards, sketches, fabric swatches, historical inspirations, and, yes, some pretty spectacular costumes.

Long is best known for his work on Broadway, but he also did the costumes for a famous North Carolina play, The Lost Colony. This drama has been presented during summers since 1937 at Manteo, NC, and as a youngster, Long’s family all worked on the play. In 2007 the theater’s costume shop was destroyed by fire, and William Ivey Long was called on to design new ones.

For each play featured in the exhibition, there were tables set in front of the display to show Long’s design process. One of the first steps is to establish a color palette, which Long does using watercolors.

Using historical references, and in this case, photos of the costumes that were destroyed in the fire, Long made detailed sketches for each character. Swatches of potential fabric choices were obtained, and studied until narrowed down to the ones that would be used to make the costumes.

It’s a bit jarring to see theatrical costumes so close up, as they are designed to be seen at a distance. So close one can see that Queen Elizabeth’s fine gown is not silk and gilt, but polyester and metallic trim. Her strings of pearls are obviously fake. But it is how the costume translates to the audience that counts.

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This costumes are from Little Dancer, a play about artist Edgar Degas, and the girl who inspired his famous sculpture.

Here you see the material that gave further meaning to the costumes. Long’s sketch is surrounded by the material he used to develop each costume.

You can tell that these dresses are representing the 1930s, right? While these are not faithful representations of what women wore in the 1930s, to me it was obvious what period of fashion they represented. These are from On the Twentieth Century.

And here are some of the swatches Long worked with in his design process. I love how he used the plaid, but cut it on the bias.

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These costumes are from an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This costume was designed for Laverne Cox for her role in the remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can only imagine how amazing this show was!

Long put thought into the smallest detail, including the accessories for Cox’s role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

In 2015, Fox presented Grease Live! with  Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit in the starring roles. And while it may be hard to image Grease without Travolta, Hough was a superb Sandy. There were several of Long’s costumes on exhibit, including these from the Hand Jive sequence.

A real strength of this exhibition was the use of video to show the costumes as they were seen in the shows.

And here’s Lynn, standing proudly beside the costume we “draped”. Another strength was the hands-on activities like this one. There was also the opportunity to design a costume using a clever set of drawing templates. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get a photo of our efforts.

How do costumes help develop the character on stage? The Mint gives visitors an opportunity to think about how the costumes relate to the character.

My thanks to The Mint for such a beautifully presented exhibition. You can see William Ivey Long: Costume Designs 2007 – 2016 in Charlotte through June 3, 2018.

 

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Early Southern Stitchery at MESDA, Winston-Salem, NC

Last weekend it was my great fortune to attend the MESDA Spring Seminar, Stitching a Southern Identity: Defining Female Culture in the Early South. MESDA is the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and is located at the southern edge of Old Salem, a Moravian town dating to 1766. The museum is located in a converted Kroger supermarket, and dates to 1965.

I signed up for this seminar on a whim. I’d planned to go to Williamsburg, VA for the Costume Society symposium, but a conflict prevented me from getting to make that trip. So this was a bit of a consolation prize, but as it happens, I’m really glad things turned out this way. I was pushed out of my comfort zone of 20th century clothing, and into a field about which I probably knew less than any of the other participants, at least it seemed that way by the learned conversations going on around me. And I can’t remember ever learning so much in two short days.

As the title suggests, this was all about the manufacture and decoration of textiles, mainly for use in the home. Most of the research presented was on samplers and quilts, but we also saw quite a bit of  other types of embroidery and of weaving. Without a doubt, my favorites were the samplers.

The word sampler tends to pull up an image of a school girl practicing her stitchery, and that’s a valid thought. But what was so surprising to me was the skill these girls exhibited in their work. Because girls tended to not only sign samplers, but also recorded their ages, we can see just how young these stitchers were. Even eight-year-olds were doing embroidery that would put me to shame!

Today samplers are valued not just as charming reminders of past childhoods, but also as historical documents. A girls would often include the names of family members, where she lived, important dates. But what is really interesting is how researchers today can look at a sampler and see so much more than the bare facts. This unusual sampler was stitched by Salley Keais, in 1793 in Washington, NC.

Researcher Marquita Reed was able to piece together a very good family history, just from the names and dates on the sampler and through searches in period newspapers. Her research helped explain the mermaid and the ship as it was found that hers was a family in the shipping business.

Another great sampler is this one by Sarah Hatton McPhail of Norfolk, VA. Other samplers of a very similar composition, including one by Sarah’s sister, were known to have been made in the Norfolk area. This tends to suggest that this was the style taught by the girls’ teacher. The fact that similar samplers were produced in the same school is a big help in identifying samplers, and has even led to the discovery of multiple samplers made under the direction of a particular teacher.

This close-up shows just how skilled Sarah was. She was eight years old at the time.

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This remarkable sampler is part mourning tribute, part family register, and part scrapbook. The stitcher, Mary Ann Colboard, made this sampler in 1821 in Charleston, SC. It is thought that they are mourning the death of Mary Ann’s stepfather. The church is easily recognizable as St. Philips, where Mary Ann was married the year after she completed this work.

We also learned about quilts and other bed coverings. This is part of an album quilt. Each square was made by a different woman, and then put together and quilted by Catherine Palmer, near Charleston in 1848.

The squares were appliqued. Each maker would cut out a design from printed chintz (often combining elements from three of more different prints) and then stitch the new design to a square of cotton. Then it would be assembled and quilted.

Even though this quilt is attributed to Catherine Palmer, it is very possible that she had help in the form of her slaves. Documenting the work of slaves is extremely difficult as their labor was an expected part of the household work and was not often noted. However, careful examination of quilts often reveals that the stitching was done by more than one hand. It stands to reason that these other hands could have been enslaved.

Weaving was another task often carried out by slaves. Again, curators and researchers take what they know about a piece and try to determine whether or not it is possible that the item was made by an enslaved person.

It’s not possible for all the museum’s textile holding to be displayed all the time, but I was really surprised when the curatorial associate opened this cupboard to reveal a trove of handwoven coverlets and blankets.

I was surprised to see a few wallpaper covered bandboxes. For some reason I tend to associate them with the North, maybe because they are so seldom seen for sale here in the South.

Boys of the Powell Family by Samuel Moore Shaver, Knoxville, TN, circa 1850-1869

Just so you won’t get the idea that MESDA is just needlework, here are some details from their great collection of paintings. You will also find furniture, pottery, silverwork, clocks, books, woodwork and architectural elements, and ironwork.

I’ll close with this portrait of Mary Hawksworth Riddell and her daughter, Agnes Riddell. It was painted in the early 1790s by Charles Peale Polk (of the famous Peale family of artists).

I love that this sweet picture includes a basket of needlework.

My thanks to MESDA for such a rewarding experience. You can see more of their collection online.

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Getting Exercise at the Biltmore Estate

One of the things that amazes visitors to Asheville’s Biltmore Estate is the size of it. As a kid of twelve years visiting for the first time, I could not believe that this was the country home for three people. What was not explained back then was that it was home to the George Vanderbilts, but also a “hotel” for their friends, family, and acquaintances. Visitors to the estate were common, and many of the bedrooms were set aside for them.

The house was finished in 1895, and it was located way out in the country outside the very small city of Asheville. For people used to New York and Newport I can imagine that visitors wondered how they would spend the time at the estate. What would they do?

In planning Biltmore, Vanderbilt took this into consideration. He built a large library for the book lovers, and there were walking trails – eventually as far as Mount Pisgah which was fifteen miles away. He also built an indoor recreation area.

The gymnasium had been a popular idea for several years. Doctors and educators had begun to see the importance of exercise as a structured activity. But Vanderbilt’s gym area was not all work. He also had a two lane bowling alley.

It would not have been appropriate for the men and women at Biltmore to go traipsing around the house in their exercise attire and bathing suits, so a line of changing rooms was built between the bowling alleys and the indoor swimming pool.

It’s pretty much impossible to get a photo of the pool that shows it properly. It is in a tiled and vaulted room, with the deck built around three sides. It’s a large space, but feels a bit claustrophobic, as the walls are so close to the pool. If the tilework looks a bit familiar to those of you in New York, that is because it was designed by architect Raphael Guastavino, who worked extensively in New York, and designed many of the early subway stations.

There was once an outdoor swimming pool, which has been filled in.

The gym had some basic exercise equipment like the rowing machine above, but it was mainly an area for free exercise. On the wall you can see a row of “Indian” pins or clubs, which an exerciser used to swing around and build up the arms.

Or one could workout on the parallel bars, or use the wooden dumbbells located on the wall. There are even two showers.

This image is from an 1895 book, Artistic Work and Gymnastic Games by Henry S. Anderson and Stanley Schell. I love the thought of women thus attired in the Biltmore gym.

 

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Exhibition: Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie at Biltmore Estate

For the past four years or so Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC has had a spring costume exhibition. And by costume, I mean movie and television costumes, not historical dress. This year’s exhibition featured the costumes from the 1997 film, Titanic.  I know the movie has a lot of fans, and if you are one, you really need to see this one. You have until May 13, 2018. And I’m showing here fewer than half of the costumes on view, so if this is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.

First I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the movie, which I’ve seen only once, way back in 1998. I didn’t hate it, but I’m not a fan of tragic endings. Also, I’m not as well-versed in pre-1915 fashion as I’d like to be, so feel free to disagree with any of my observations and opinions. And keep in mind that these are movie costumes, and as such have to portray more than just historical accuracy.

The exhibition started with the above suit, worn by Kate Winslet as Rose Dewitt Bukater as she boarded the Titanic. This is one of my favorites, and it seems to me to be one of the best as far as what a young rich woman would have actually worn in the situation. There is, in fact, a photograph of a very similar suit in a 1912 Les Modes fashion publication, which must have been designer Deborah L. Scott’s inspiration for this suit.

A quick note about accessories: some of the ones you’ll see in my photos are the ones used in the movie, like Rose’s parasol. The gloves, however are different, with the movie ones being short little gauntlets that turned back to reveal a purple lining. It’s a very charming detail, and shows just how much thought was put into the overall look.  Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, who was with me on this visit, thinks the hat is different as well.

Many of the clothes in the exhibition were the ones worn by Winslet, but you also get a good look at those worn by minor characters, including the men. That’s Captain Smith on the right, with the Countess of Rothes. Note the way the skirt drapes into that center piece. A couple of other dresses had the same treatment, which I thought was interesting. I did find a similar dress by Lucile (who was on the Titanic), though that center piece was not so prominent.

This dress was worn by Kathy Bates as Molly Brown (before she became unsinkable). In 1912 the trend was toward a slightly above the natural waist waistline, which is seen here, and in most of the dresses in the exhibition. I thought the skirt looked a bit full to be the height of fashion in 1912. At the time of the sinking, Brown was 44 years old, and photos of her after the sinking show her wearing a skirt with a similar silhouette. And according to photographs, she seemed to be partial to black.

This is another Molly Brown costume. Surely she didn’t wear black all the time, and I could not find if she was in mourning at the time. I think the fullish skirt looks odd.

More black, this time worn by, I think, an extra. I have a few questions. Was there really that much emphasis on the center front of the skirt? Wasn’t 1912 a bit early to be seeing so much black in women’s gowns? Shouldn’t this skirt be slimmer?

This costume was worn by Rosalind Ayers as Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile), so I guess it could be assumed that this is meant to be one of Lucile’s own creations. I did find a similar 1912 Lucile dress, but without the weird skirt detail, and without the train. And also without all the black.

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All these dresses were worn by extras. According to interviews with  Deborah L. Scott, most of the costumes for the main actors were designed and made by her team, but many of the extras wore actual period clothing. They also sourced vintage fabrics and trims and incorporated them into the newly made costumes. These dresses could be made of old fabrics, as they sure looked right to me.

There were two outerwear pieces worn by Frances Fisher as Ruth Dewitt Bukater. One of the strengths of the exhibitions that have been at the Biltmore Estate is the setting. The clothes just looked so right in this Belle Epoque house with all its fanciness.

Others are not so fortunate, having been put in Plexiglas cages placed in the visitors center and the estate hotels. This cape seems to have been made with a combination of new and old materials. In the movie it is seen with the muff and hat seen in the previous photo.

But back to Rose. Again we are faced with quite a bit of black. This was a beautiful dress, though, and it’s no wonder Jack fell for Rose while she was wearing it.

If memory serves me correctly, this dress was worn by Rose in a dream, and was the white version of a black and red one she wore to a dance.

The one dress that was pretty much made just for effect was this one, the dress Rose wore when she and Jack went into the water. It was important for the dress to flow and float attractively.

The day we saw this exhibition was a warm and breezy one, and the staff had opened many of the windows. That allowed a nice breeze in some of the rooms, and gave movement to many of the costumes. This one was especially pretty with the motion. An unexpected result was that the shoes, which were just placed on the floor under the dresses were in full view. With these I could even see the (modern) label!

I know this photo is really bad, but it’s important that I show the context. The wind was blowing back the dress so that the shoes, which were meant to only peek out a tiny bit, were in full ugly view.

Something else that really surprises me about the Biltmore exhibitions is that they have always used the ugly plywood platforms you can see above. A little dark neutral paint would look a lot nicer. I mean, really! Plywood in a Belle Epoque mansion?

One of the great parts of the Biltmore Estate tour is that it includes the downstairs. For the exhibition they placed the clothes of the lower class passengers in a recreation of the dance party scene in the servants area.

This is I suppose, a dressing gown. It was worn by Rose, and a chair where she deposited it. I just can’t see this as a late Edwardian garment, though it does give a nod to the popularity of “Oriental” themes. And the robe itself looks cheap in reality. I am not a fan.

I really think Rose’s clothing should have been a bit lighter, though artists like Coles Phillips did portray young women in black in 1912.

Some of the costumes have been on display before, but I read that this is the largest Titanic costume show yet presented. Now that it has been organized, it might possibly be seen elsewhere in the future.

The lengths we go to in order to get the good photo.

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Women Airforce Service Pilots

Last fall I was on Topsail Island, NC when my fellow museum-loving friend and I stumbled across the Missiles and More Museum.  Despite the unappealing name of the museum, we decided to check it out, and we were so glad we did. To me, the most interesting display was one on the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. The exhibit was there because nearby Camp Davis was one of the 120 bases that utilized the services of the WASPs.

The WASPs came about in 1943 because there was a shortage of male pilots. Women were recruited in an effort to free up men for combat flying, as the women were to do domestic, noncombat flying only. They ferried planes and military personal from place to place, and they towed targets used in artillery practice.

At Camp Davis the WASPs towed targets behind their planes as they flew over Topsail Island where men were learning how to shoot at a moving target.  It was very dangerous work. Over the two and a half years the WASPs were activated, thirty-eight of them were killed.

 

In order to become a WASP, a woman had to be between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five (later lowered to eighteen and a half), be at least five feet tall, already have had flight training and be an experienced pilot. After the program was announced, over 25,000 women volunteered, but most were not qualified. 1,830 were accepted, with 1,074 actually finishing the training and becoming WASPs.

Probably the most surprising thing I learned was that WASPs were not technically in the military. They had all the training an Army pilot had, wore uniforms, marched, and did daily calisthenics. They were military in everything except name.

It meant that when the WASP was disbanded near the end of the war, the women were not entitled to any recognition or benefits. It was not until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a bill sponsored by Senator Barry Goldwater that the WASP was recognized as a military division.

I love that the WASP had their own mascot, Fifinella. This was a product of the Walt Disney Studios, who supplied quite a few cartoon characters as military mascots.

Today there is a National WASP World War II Museum in Sweetwater, Texas, where most of the WASPs received their training. Friend Lynn at AmericanAgeFashion sent their 2018 calendar to me. It’s full of both vintage photos of the women, and photos of the surviving WASPs today.  This museum is definitely on my list of things I need to see.

In the July 19th issue of 1943, Life magazine did a feature on the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, which a month later became part of the WASP. The cover girl was Shirley Slade of Chicago. (Love her little horse pin!) You can see this feature at Google books. Many of the most commonly seen photos of the WASPs came from this Life article.

If you want to know more about the WASP, I suggest you listen to the two-part episode on Stuff You Missed in History Class.

 

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Katharine Hepburn – Dressed for Stage and Screen

I sort of hate posting about this exhibition, as it is closing, but despite my best intentions, I was unable to attend it until late last week. It was the Upstate History Museum’s  (in Greenville, SC) very first showing of fashion and costume, and they really did lead off with a winner. The show came from Kent State University Museum, which acquired the personal clothing of Katharine Hepburn around ten years ago. I saw this show in 2010 at Kent State, and had really enjoyed it, and since it was so close, decided to see it again.

When Kent State acquired the clothing, they learned that some of the pieces were identified with the name of the production, but others were not. Since I saw the show seven years ago, it appears that some more pieces have been identified, as there were some additions that I did not see the first time around. Someone has haved the very pleasurable task of watching Hepburn’s films with an eye out for the museum’s costumes!

Included in the show are garments Hepburn wore on stage, on screen, and in her personal life. There were quite a few costumes in her possession because if she really liked a particular garment, she would buy it when filming was completed or when the play’s run was over. In some cases, if she could not get the original, Hepburn would have the designer make copies for her personal use.

This green jumpsuit may be such a copy. It was made for Hepburn in 1939 by the designer, Valentina, and was worn in the stage production of The Philadelphia Story.  You can see Hepburn wearing it, or the original, in the photo behind the mannequin. There is also an very similar natural silk one in the collection.

Also from The Philadelphia Story, this gown was also designed by Valentina. The belt is a reproduction. Hepburn also wore this dress in 1973 (thirty-fours years later) when she portrayed Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.

This dress was worn in another stage production, The Lake of 1934. Remember that famous Dorothy Parker quip about Hepburn’s acting, “She  runs the whole gamut of emotion from A to B”? This is the play being referenced.

Hepburn continued to grace the stage, even after she found fame in Hollywood. These three costumes are from Coco, a 1969 musical in which Hepburn played Coco Chanel. Cecil Beaton designed the costumes, but to add a bit more authenticity to the production, Hepburn went to Paris and purchased some of the real deal. The suit on the left is by Chanel; the pantsuit and gown are by Beaton.

 

Stage Door, 1937, gown by Muriel King. I don’t tend to think of Hepburn as the frilly type, but this proves she could carry it off when necessary.

Hepburn wore this gown in 1949’s Adam’s Rib, opposite Spencer Tracy. In the movie poster seen behind the dress the dress is tinted red so it would stand out from the others wearing black. This dress was designed by Walter Plunkett in 1949.

This gown was designed by Irene, and was worn in 1948’s State of the Union.

UPDATE: I added this photo from Liza at Better Dresses Vintage to illustrate one of the things we discussed during our visit, the quality of workmanship of Hollywood costume departments. Being able to examine the clothes this closeup really lets you see the great skills of the sewers in those costume shops.

In 1967 Hepburn made her last movie with Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. These two ensembles were not actually used in the film, but were the outfits she wore in publicity photos for it. They both show signs of additional wear, and so Hepburn must have worn them in her private life.

Katharine Hepburn also did special productions for television. These two costumes were worn by her in the 1979 production The Corn Is Green. Considering she was seventy-two years of age at the time, she had a pretty impressive figure. She did have a little help from corsetry.

I’m afraid I have to title this photo, “Costuming Gone Bad.” These two are from Love Among the Ruins, which was filmed in 1975, but was set in 1911. The green robe/coat garment was made from a lovely silk, and I really liked it, but that red!  The fabric appeared to be a cheap poly, and the trim was that stuff people used to use to trim lampshades. And so many feathers! I simply do not understand what the designer, Margaret Furse, was thinking. But what do I know? Furse won a costuming Emmy for this made for TV film.

Here’s a selection of Hepbrun’s famous slacks. There are thirty-one pairs in the collection, though not all were on exhibit. Many were custom made to fit Hepburn’s specifications. The jodhpurs were bought at Abercrombie and Fitch. The blue jacket may be the one she wore in On Golden Pond.

Hepburn also had her shoes custom made. There are six of these brown single strap shoes in the collection.

Two trays of Hepburn’s makeup, and you can barely see a hairpiece in the upper right corner.

I had some company on this visit, Liza, the owner of Better Dresses Vintage. Having another fashion history lover with whom to discuss and critique the clothes really does enhance the experience of a visit to an exhibition.

These clothes will be heading back to Kent State where they will be on view from February 2, 2018 to September 2, 2018.

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One Woman’s Clothing at the William King Museum of Art

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Thanks to the phenomenon of the Advanced Style empire, older people are no longer invisible in the style world, at least the ones who are a bit colorful and eccentric are not invisible. But what about the rest of us?

We recently went on a little Christmas holiday to Abingdon, Virginia to attend a performance at the wonderful Barter Theater and to stay at the Martha Washington Inn. This was my Christmas “present” as we no longer indulge in physical gifts. I’ll join the hundreds of older people who tell you to spend your money on experiences rather than objects. Unless that object is really great, then spend away, is my philosophy.

I found out, purely by accident, that the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon had a fashion exhibition going. What serendipity!

The exhibition was of the type that I love – that of one woman’s clothes. The woman was Fran Keuling-Stout, of whom I’d never heard, but that’s not surprising. She and her husband lived in the small Virginia mountain town of Big Stone Gap, though the museum did sneak in a mention that they also maintained a residence in New York City. And we also learned that Fran had three major fashion loves – Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, and Giorgio Armani. She was born in 1946, so she was a few years older than me, but of the same generation.

In the photo above, you have left to right: McQueen, Lauren, Lauren

How refreshing it was to see an older woman celebrated for a sense of style that was not kooky. Yes, Fran obviously had some money in the bank. The coat above was from Alexander McQueen. But still, here was a woman who knew what she liked, and just went for it.

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Most of the garments in the exhibition were things I could picture myself wearing. Maybe not in small town North Carolina, but definitely in NYC. Which left me wondering if she wore her McQueens in Big Stone Gap. I hope she did.

One thing that left me confused about the exhibition was a display case full of Fran’s sneakers and other flat shoes. I somehow missed the explanation at the museum, but when I got home and started looking into Ms. Keuling-Stout, I learned that she was known for her sneakers. No impossible stilettos for her! She loved pretty clothes, but knew that comfort (and stability) were also important. You can see a pair of her dress flats above, paired with a lot of Armani.

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Speaking of comfort, these dresses give the illusion of structure, but all are knit; all by McQueen.

I learned that Fran died unexpectedly last year at only seventy years of age. But I found a video of her talking about clothes, that makes me appreciate how she lived her life. And she talks about sneakers.

 

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