Category Archives: Museums

Batik Textiles of Java at the Art Institute of Chicago

For my last post about the museums in Chicago, I want to show you what to me was a revelation. Being a teenager in the 1960s and 70s, I thought I knew batik, that ubiquitous dorm room decorator fabric. It was cotton with designs painted in hot wax to make a resist, then dipped in indigo. So I was not prepared for the range of colors and designs on exhibit in the textile galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The process of dying batik is not terribly old, dating only to the early 19th century. It was developed on the island of Java, located in Indonesia, and used in traditional Javanese garments.

Because this was so new to me, my time spent looking at the batiks was one more of discovery than of learning, and my post will be pretty much the same – a visual introduction to some of the most beautiful fabrics I’ve seen in a while.

The fabric above was dyed in the early 20th century by Eliza van Zuylen. It was fashioned into a sarong, which is still intact.

These pieces are huge, as they were intended to wrap the body. This piece is a ceremonial hip wrap called a dodot.

The closeup shows that this is a forest scene, with all the universe of Java.

This stunning hip wrapper was made in the early 20th century.

This sarong was one of my favorites. Made around 1930, this piece is unusual in that it was stamped using a copper plate, rather than drawn by hand. The printing process was developed in order to speed up the production time, but it also meant a drop in the quality of the design.

The topic is that of a moonlit garden; the artist is Obin, who has been working to re-establish traditional batik techniques since the 1970s.

Click to enlarge

At first look I thought this hip wrapper was patchwork, but no, it is entirely hand drawn and dyed. Made in the mid 20th century, it symbolized the afternoon garden. Note the difference in pattern on the two halves. That meant the wearer could change the direction of the wrap for a whole new look.

This early 20th century shoulder wrap shows the influence of the large Muslim community in Cirebon, on the north coast of Java.

On display until September 17, 2017.

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Making Mainbocher at the Chicago History Museum

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Chicago was a visit to the Chicago History Museum, and the highlight of the museum was a current exhibition, Making Mainbocher. You may know the name Mainbocher, as he was a major designer from 1930 through 1971. Though he got his start in fashion in Paris, Main Bocher (as he was originally named) was from Chicago, and the exhibition began with a look at his time in the city, and the influences the city had on his long career.

Bocher always loved the arts, and during his school days in Chicago he studied drama and music. He later started a course in illustration at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and to help make ends meet he worked at Sears, Roebuck, answering customer complaint letters, a job that later he credited with teaching him the value of good customer service.

At nineteen, Main Bocher left Chicago, and never again lived there. In the years before World War I he lived in New York, with long stretches in Europe. He had just had his first major commission as an illustrator (above) when the US entered the war. He enlisted, and remained in France until the outbreak of the next war. During the 1920s Bocher tried fashion illustration, and ended up at Harper’s Bazar as an artist. The exhibition had quite a few examples – typical 1920s illustration, all signed Main Bocher. His big break came in 1923 when he went to work for French Vogue. In 1927 he was made the editor.

But Bocher felt he had more to offer in fashion. He quit his Vogue position to open his own couture house. Unfortunately his timing was poor, as a few months after he quit, Wall Street crashed. He put the plan on hold while he scraped together the money to start the business. In 1930 he opened his salon, named it Mainbocher and Frenchied up the pronunciation. He was forty years old.

Things were slow at first, but his persistence paid off, and the business became a great success. Probably the biggest boost to Mainbocher came in 1937 when Wallis Simpson had him design her wedding dress and trousseau for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor.

The earliest clothes in the exhibition date from 1937. The dress on the left is actually two pieces, a tunic over a long dress. The coat in the middle is really beautiful. It is a wool tweedy plaid cut on the bias, and has a lovely drape. Mainbocher donated these two pieces to the Chicago History Museum in 1968.

This suit is also from 1937, and is quite special as it is one of the designs that originated with the Duchess of Windsor’s trousseau. Her version was grey with blue and white accessories.

This suit belonged to Mrs. Stephen Ingersoll of Chicago. I’m not sure it is possible for a suit to have a prettier neckline.

When it became obvious that Paris was going to fall to the Germans, Mainbocher and his partner (who was also his illustrator) Douglas Pollard, left France and settled in New York. To raise money to restart his business, Mainbocher partnered with Warner Corsets with a line of corsets. As far as I could tell, this is the only time Mainbocher did a line of any type of ready-to-wear.

The two evening dresses above (1945 and 1946) are good examples of Mainbocher’s philosophy toward embellishment. The dresses themselves had spare, elegant lines. Mainbocher added the decoration so to eliminate the need for jewelry.

This dress is from 1945, and was made for Mrs. Watson Armour III. The dress was originally designed in yellow, but Mrs. Watson requested it in grey.

One of the real strengths of the exhibition is the presence of a book of facsimiles of the original sketches and swatches. Here is the same dress in the original yellow.  Almost all the designs had the accompanying sketch, and it added so much to the show.

During WWII, the scarcity of materials forced designers to develop ways of stretching the wardrobes of their clients. Mainbocher made cocktail aprons that matched his gowns. He continued the idea with the 1947 gown on the right. He also came up with the idea of the embellished evening sweater, which went on to be a classic of the 1950s.

This 1951 ballgown rated  its own revolving pedestal. It was a good way to see how Mainbocher used four different colors of satin to make the skirt.

Mainbocher was a master of the strapless gown, which he first designed in 1934. By the late 1940s it was a big part of what he was best known for.

And while Mainbocher is best known for his ball gowns, I do believe that his suits are my favorites.  There were only a few suits in the exhibition, but they were all stunning. The original sketch shows that the applied motif on the jacket and the waist band is also in a matching off-white silk blouse. Details matter.

Possibly my favorite in the entire exhibition, this navy suit dates from 1948.

I love Mainbocher’s continued use of the self-applique. It adds detail without being obvious. This was another case where I really wanted to go up and unbutton the jacket so I could see the rest of it.

I need to see this dress as well. The bodice has an interesting criss-cross that tends to mirror the points of the lace decoration of the skirt.

In the 1960s when the fashion world was going mad, Mainbocher continued to do what he did best – making beautiful clothes for women who wanted to look sophisticated. 1964 and 1966.

In the 1940s Mainbocher did a bit of uniform design work. In 1942 he was contracted to design uniforms for the WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

I especially loved this grey and white seersucker work uniform.  It is actually a dress with jacket.

In 1948 Mainbocher redesigned uniforms for the Girl Scouts of America.

And in what is probably the chicest nurses’ uniform ever, he made this one for the student nurses at Passavant Memorial Hospital (which is now Northwestern Memorial in Chicago).

It was a beautiful exhibition, and I left feeling like I really knew what Mainbocher was about. Curator Petra Slinkard did an excellent job, and if you are in the Chicago area and have not seen this show, it is well-worth the time and effort to see it.  Closes August 20, 2017.

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The Art Institute of Chicago

High on my list of things to do in Chicago was a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was so great that I went twice, so I could spend extra time with some of the works I found to be most fascinating. First, I have to say that I was actually surprised by the scope of the collections at the Art Institute. Sometimes we (or maybe I should say I) make the mistake of thinking about artists through their most familiar works and need to be reminded that most artists made works that, while not as well-known, are still masterful. The Art Institute has its share of the most famous, like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884, but it is crammed full of lesser known delights from Winslow Homer, Auguste Renoir, and many others.

I could write about the collections at the Art Institute of Chicago for days, but I’ll be limiting this review of my visit to things mainly of interest to textile and clothing fans.

This work by American artist Charles Demuth is titled Spring. Can you guess why?

This is actually a painted collage of textile samples of the sort that were sent to makers and designers to advertise the new season’s fabrics. The year was 1921, and Demuth was commenting on how the changing seasons were now marked by what people could buy rather than by nature.

John Singer Sargent is best known for the wonderful society portraits he painted, so this work, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frescati, Italy, 1907, was a delightful surprise. I love pictures that show women actively involved in crafts. And I would love to see what Jane von Glehn, the woman portrayed, was herself painting.

It seems as if a woman sitting with her sewing has always been a popular theme for painters. Maybe because having the work helped the sitter hold the pose. Anyway, here’s a pretty example from Renoir, Young Woman Sewing, 1879.

This portrait, Madame Pastoret and her Son, was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1791/2. I usually find works by David to be gloomy, but this one seems to be cheered a bit by the reddish-brown furniture.

The unmistakable work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, The Weaver shows weaver Luz Jimenez using a traditional loom with a back strap.

I think my favorite gallery was one containing several works by Winslow Homer. The painting above, Croquet Scene from 1866, might be familiar to readers of fashion history books.  It is commonly used to illustrate the dress elevator, a device that drew up the skirt to protect it while the wearer was participating in outdoor activities.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have never seen the above painting by Homer, Mount Washington.

When this was painted in 1869, a type of nature tourism had taken hold in the eastern United States. While real pioneers were roughing it on their way west, wealthy Easterners could experience nature while staying in grand hotels and wearing fashionable clothing.

Peach Blossoms, from 1878 is another example of the types of outdoor scenes Winslow Homer created. The placard notes pointed out how the manner in which the blossoms were painted shows how he was influenced by Japanese prints.

Is she wearing pants? I could not tell. This is Nouvart Dzeron, A Daughter of Armenia, painted in 1912 by Chicago artist Ralph Elmer Clarkson. It wasn’t just Paul Poiret in Paris who was pushing “exoticism” in 1912.

Another favorite was Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting is so large that you feel yourself being drawn into it. The artist used math to figure the perspective, but the wet stones give an air of complete immediacy.

So often parodied, but still, so very good, Hopper’s Nighthawks is one of the best known works in the Art Institute.

Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 better known as Whistler’s Mother, was there on loan from the  Musée d’Orsay. The Art Institute does have large holdings of Whistler’s work, which were displayed along with his mother in a special gallery.

Another example of the influence of Japanese printing, The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt was painted in 1893. The museum has a large collection of Japanese prints, and it was interesting to view them after reading about how so many Western artists in the late Nineteenth Century were influenced by them.

And finally, another American woman artist, Georgia O’keeffe, was well-represented. I’ve seen reproductions of this painting, Sky Above Clouds, IV many times, but I had no idea of the magnitude of it.  The painting is twenty-four feet long and is hung above a stair landing.

I just found out that a major exhibition Georgia O’keeffe: Living Modern will be traveling to Winston-Salem, NC later this summer. If you are in the New York area, better see it before it closes at the Brooklyn Museum in July. In December it travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

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National Museum of the US Air Force, Dayton, Ohio

One of the big surprises on our recent trip across the Midwest was the National Museum of the US Air Force. It wasn’t one of my choices, but it did end up being a favorite.  I’ve been in enough military museums to know that there are always plenty of textiles, usually in the form of uniforms, but this one proved to be loaded with things of interest.

The museum is huge, and it begins with the earliest of days of aviation. It is appropriate that the museum is located in Dayton, the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright, pioneers of winged flight.

It’s important to note that the Wright Brothers got started in transportation with their bicycle shop in Dayton. Opened in 1892, by 1896 they were making their own brand of bikes. The bicycle was not just a toy; it was an important method of transport, and was especially embraced by women. I was happy to see an example of a Wright bicycle in the museum, and was especially happy to see that it was a woman’s bike.

Starting with World War I, there were plenty of uniforms on display. Most of these items belonged to Stephen Thompson of Dayton, and includes a sock with a bullet hole. Thompson was shot in the leg and because of the unavailability of medical help, he used his own pocket knife to remove the bullet. The bullet is there somewhere.

These items belonged to Lt. Robert Wanamaker, who survived the war, and Lt. Fred Morton, who did not. Wanamaker was shot down by German ace Ernst Udet who took some of the fabric from Wanamaker’s plane as a souvenir. Even though he was badly injured, Wanamaker autographed the scrap for Udet! When they met again in 1931, Udet returned the fabric to Wanamaker.

When the war ended, many french women embroidered banners in appreciation of all that American squandons had done in service to France.  This illustration by George Barbier was in a 1919 issue of fashion magazine Gazette du Bon Ton.

The museum had a display of six of the banners. I’m sorry this photo is so poor as these were so beautiful.

As expected, there were lots of World War II leather jackets. Members of flight crews sometimes decorated their own jackets, but in many cases there was one member of a crew who became the unofficial designer. The jacket above was worn and decorated by Robert Dean of Dayton. All the bombs are dated and labeled.

Artists at the Walt Disney Studios designed many of the official  squadron insignia.

You can’t really tell, but that is Donald Duck and his nephews on this jacket worn by nurse 1st Lt. Evelyn Ordway, on the bottom right of my photo.

All the above items were worn by nurses, most of whom flew on evacuation missions and tended to the wounded. It’s interesting how different the items the women wore for their work from the official uniforms.

The museum has a large display of items from woman flyers and pilots.

WASP stands for Women Airforce Service Pilots, a paramilitary group of women pilots who were trained to fly non-combat aircraft.

There was also an area dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen.  This jacket belonged to Colonel Edward Gleed.

There was an interesting exhibit on the Holocaust, and the role of the Air Force in freeing captives in concentration and prisoner of war camps.

On a much lighter note, there was a nice tribute to comedian Bob Hope, who did fifty-seven tours for the USO, entertaining American troops.

During the Korean War, American airmen took to decorating their headgear. At the top, a Korean painter decorated this helmet with scenes from Korean life. The middle cap was painted with the Thunderbirds emblem.  On the bottom cap, Major Joseph Turner kept a record of his 101 missions.

The museum does a really good job of showing a wide range of uniforms and personal artifacts.  Had this museum just contained aircraft, I’ve have been looking for the nearest bar.

But even some of the “planes” were amusing.  This is not a UFO; it’s an Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar, a 1950s attempt at making a vertical takeoff craft. It was an expensive failure, but an fun ending to our visit.

The National Museum of the US Air Force is located at Wright Patterson air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It’s free and well worth a visit.

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Benjamin B. Green-Field, or Chicago’s Bes-Ben

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Chicago this spring was to see the Mainbocher exhibition (more about that later) at the Chicago History Museum. I had a feeling that there would be more of interest there than that exhibition, and I  was not disappointed. I was delighted to see that the fashion gallery was named for Chicago milliner Benjamin Green-Field, who worked under the label, Bes-Ben.

Benjamin and his sister Bessie, (get it? Bes, Ben.) opened a millinery shop in Chicago in 1919. The business was successful, and by the late 1920s there were five Bes-Ben shops in Chicago.  In 1939 Bessie got married and left the business. As WWII loomed, Benjamin had to get creative as materials began to get scarce and were eventually rationed. He began to incorporate non-traditional millinery materials into his designs. Everything from toy animals to playing cards became a part of a Bes-Ben hat.  Women loved them.

The Bes-Ben material is scattered around the galleries, but it’s not hard to recognize it when you see it.  This hat was designed in 1957 to celebrate the opening of an exhibition in Chicago of the work of Pablo Picasso.

In an area devoted to the industries and stores of Chicago, I found this display of five Bes-Ben hats.

“Women’s hat, black velvet with chenille bees, early 1960s”

Top: “Navy straw with applique butterflies, 1956”

Bottom: “Grey wool with floral embroidery, 1960s”

“Woman’s hat, black linen with embroidery and mirrors, 1958”

Bes-Ben hats did not come cheap, but at the end of each season all remaining hats were put on sale for five dollars each. The only catch was that you had to be outside the store at 2 am the day of the sale, when the hats were thrown out of the window.  Lucky catchers of hats paid their $5 and went home with a real prize!

Not only were his hats whimsical, Green-Field himself was a bit of a character. He wore this suit in the 1970s.

Today, Bes-Ben hats are highly collectible – the crazier the design, the higher the price tag.

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Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form at the James A. Michener Art Museum

Worth, Evening Coat, 1924, cherry red voided velvet and ermine. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1982. 82.34.

I can remember the first fashion exhibition I saw, probably around 1995.  At that time very few museums were staging exhibitions dedicated purely to fashion, and one pretty much had to go to New York or London to see historical dress shows. But by the mid 1990s, museums that had collections of clothing started realizing that fashion attracted viewers, and so now we are living in a time when many museums treat us to all sorts of fashion-based exhibitions.

That first exhibition I saw was on shoes. It was, simply put, a room lined with shelves on which all sorts of old shoes were displayed, along with short descriptions and dates. I can’t help but think of how far museums have traveled in the twenty-five or so years since I was first thrilled to see a room dedicated to shoes.

Today, while some major institutions are still hung up on proving fashion is art, others are putting on exhibitions that show the larger relationship between fashion and art. Several years ago the Andy Warhol Museum put together a fantastic show highlighting the relationship between the artist and designer Halston. Currently at the Brooklyn Museum, one can explore the style of artist Georgia O’Keefe. And at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA, visitors are currently being treated to the role of fashion in the career of American Modernist painter and photographer, Charles Sheeler.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Criss-Crossed Conveyers, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927. Black and white print. 9 ¼ x 7 3/8 in. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Until I got an interesting email from friend and fellow blogger Mod Betty, I had no idea there was a connection between Sheeler and fashion. I knew him as a painter and photographer of the industrial. But Mod Betty had been to the preview for Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form and she knew I’d be interested in it.

As Sheeler was working to establish himself as a painter and photographer, he took a job as photographer at Condé  Nast, the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair.  Between 1926 and 1931 he photographed society women and actresses wearing the latest fashions.  The question is, how did this work, which he disliked, influence his other art? Can one see a connection between the fashion Sheeler photographed and his later work?

I found several Sheeler photos in the July 1, 1926 issue of Vogue. These early fashion works by Sheeler seem to be similar to other fashion photography of the day.  But as time went on, Sheeler developed a style that was more in keeping with his other work.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Bobbe Arnst, Vanity Fair, July 1, 1928. © Condé Nast.

This 1928 photo of Bobbe Arnst has an almost sculptural feel.  Sheeler was as interested in the geometry present in this picture of a woman and her dress as he was in his photograph of a Ford industrial complex seen above. It was a feature of his work that continued through the years.

Worth, Evening Dress, 1924-27, ivory satin, silver metallic machine-made lace, mine-cut brilliants. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mr. Robert Winthrop, 1986. 86.60.38.

There is also the intriguing idea that the designs of 1920s fashions with their geometric motifs also influenced Sheeler’s work. To show this, clothing was borrowed from other museums and was placed in context with Sheeler’s photographs and enlargements of details in his work. In the exhibition, the Worth dress above is placed before a backdrop of an enlarged section of a Sheeler painting.  To see how effective this is, Mod Betty has posted some of her photos of the exhibition on Flickr.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Helen Menken, Vanity Fair, October 1, 1931. © Condé Nast.

The exhibition also shows some dresses with photographs that show similar styles.  Sheeler took the above photo in 1931.  The designer of the dress is unknown.

Gilbert Adrian for MGM Studios, Evening gown, 1931, silk, velvet, and metal. Gift of Mrs. Thomas E. Burns Jr., The Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University. Image courtesy of the Drexel Digital Museum Project. Photograph by Dave Gehosky.

But a similar dress is on view, this one designed by Adrian in 1931, worn by Greta Garbo in Inspiration.

Another interesting aspect of Sheeler’s career was that, for a short time in the early 1930s, he designed knit fabrics for William Heller, a New York textile company.  The museum did not include a photo of the textile designs in their press kit, but you can see examples on Mod Betty’s flickr page. They are geometrical in nature, and one can see echoes of the designs in paintings made years later.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Barn Abstraction, 1946, tempera on paperboard, 21 ½ x 28 3/8 inches. Collection of Joseph P. Carroll and Dr. Roberta Carroll, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York.

Unfortunately I’m not going to be in the Doylesville area this summer, but I do hope some of you will be and can take in what looks to be a fantastic show. And thanks to Mod Betty, I have two exhibition passes to give away to someone who will use them.  So if you are in the Doylesville or Philadelphia area, or will be traveling there before July 9 when the exhibition closes, please email me at thevintagetraveler@gmail.com before April 6, 2017.  If more than one person can use the passes, I’ll put the names in a hat and do a drawing.

Thanks so much to Mod Betty for sharing the exhibition, and for the passes.  And thanks to curator Kirsten Jensen at the James A. Michener Art Museum for bringing this important aspect of Sheeler’s career to light.

 

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Designed for Drama at Biltmore, Part II

Continuing on with my latest visit to Biltmore Estate, the next costume is from The House of Mirth.  It’s especially fitting that a film based on a work of novelist Edith Wharton be included, as Wharton was a friend of the Vanderbilts, and actually visited Biltmore in 1902 and again in 1905.  For Christmas in 1905, Wharton gave George Vanderbilt a signed copy of The House of Mirth.

The suit above was worn by Gillian Anderson in the 2000 film version of the book.  I like how the shoes are peeking out from the slightly shortened walking suit.  The view in the mirror is a nice touch as well.

I did not see Sleepy Hollow, mainly because I just could not imagine Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane.  His plain black suit is on the left, while the prosperous Baltus Van Tassel costume is on the right.

These two costumes were also worn in Sleepy Hollow, but not by a featured actress.  Background characters wore these, and my guess is that they were not originally made for Sleepy Hollow, but for another film.  Recycling of costumes saves time and money, and is still a common practice.

This tweed suit was worn by Jude Law in the role of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

This ensemble was worn by Rachel McAdams in Sherlock Holmes.  It looks like a cape, but is actually a weirdly constructed coat-like garment with very deep sleeves.  It was much richer and more interesting in person.

George Vanderbilt was a great lover of books, and in his library are all the great books of his time.  Henry James was another favorite, and he too visited Biltmore in 1905.  The next few costumes are from the 1996 adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady.  Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer wore the above dress.

Another thing to notice about this exhibition is how well the garments coordinate with each room.  I’m sure a lot of time was put into the decision of where to place which garments, as the dresses seem to be made for their surroundings.

I have not seen the 2011 version of Jane Eyre, mainly because I’m not a fan of the story.  But, I thought the costumes were very well done.  Above is a dress worn by Mia Wasikowska who played Jane.

We expect to see costumes by the main characters, but those worn by the supporting cast are also interesting.  On the left is Judi Dench’s costume as Mrs. Fairfax, and on the right is what Sophie Ward wore to portray Lady Ingram.

The last film featured is the 2012 version of Anna Karinina starring Keira Knightly.  Of all the movies shown, I found these costumes to be the most confusing.   Someone might want to help me out with the timeline of the story, but I thought it was set in the 1870s, the period in which it was written.  But the clothes ranged from full out crinolines of the early 1860s to the bustled and trained dressed one might expect from a mid 1870s setting.

The white dress above was worn by Alicia Vikander as Kitty, and the suit and coat was worn by Matthew MacFadyen as Vronsky.

Sorry about the terrible quality of this photo, but I had to use it as example.  The crinoline has deflated, with the fullness of the dresses all at the back.  I just could not wrap my mind around the differences in styles represented.

I really enjoyed Designed for Drama.  The Biltmore Company really does work hard to make sure all the aesthetics are covered.  What you can’t see are all the terrific floral arrangements which add to the overall experience.  It’s such a grand house, and a glimpse into a lifestyle that most can’t even imagine.

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