Category Archives: Museums

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

I’ve been really eager to visit the Smithsonian Design Museum, the Cooper Hewitt ever since I discovered their Object of the Day feature.  Unfortunately for me, the museum had been closed for renovations during my last two trips to New York, but because it has recently reopened I put it at the top of my visit list.  I’m so glad I did, as it was one of the highlights of my New York trip.

While the Smithsonian collections are more associated with Washington, DC than with New York, it is quite appropriate that this branch of the museum is located in New York City.  The core of the collection and the idea of a museum of design started with two New York sisters, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, granddaughters of railroad pioneer Peter Cooper.  Cooper had founded the Cooper Union school in New York, a free institution of learning in the fields of applied sciences, such as engineering and architecture.

In 1895 the Hewitt sisters decided to start a working collection of design for the school, and the next year the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration was opened.  The women, being products of the Gilded Age, had traveled widely and had collected objects that they thought to be great examples of design.  The collection included everything from textiles to bird cages.

The sisters were aided in their collecting by rich friends, such as J.P. Morgan and members of the Astor family.  The members of their social class often remembered the collection in their wills, and so the collection continued to grow.  The sisters died in 1924 and 1930, but the museum continued on at Cooper Union until 1963, when the museum was closed.  Public outcry led to the collection being acquired by the Smithsonian in 1968.  In 1970 it was moved to its present location, the Andrew Carnegie mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

It is worth a visit to Cooper Hewitt just to see Carnegie’s “understated” mansion.  While the house looks quite extravagant to our modern eyes, by Gilded Age standards it was understated.  At the top you can the main staircase in the house.

There were quite a few exhibitions going on at Cooper Hewitt, but to me the topper was Hewitt Sisters Collect, a sampling of the original collection assembled by Sarah and Eleanor.  The French parchment and ivory fan above is a good example of what the sisters acquired, possibly on one of their trips to France.

There were several 19th century bandboxes in the collection.  This one, a scene of Sandy Hook Lighthouse, was gifted to the collection in 1913.

This piece of silk on linen embroidery was given to the collection by J.P. Morgan in 1902.  The piece is from the 17th century, and is Portuguese.  Can you see the centaurs shooting arrows at dragons?

Here is another textile from the Morgan gift.  It’s a French brocade, circa 1700.  To see more photos of each of these objects and to learn more about them, click on the links I’ve provided.  They go to the Cooper-Hewitt website, where every object in the exhibition is pictured.  It’s a remarkable resource, and it’s not just for the Hewitt Sisters Collect exhibition.  Almost every item on display in the museum has a page on the website that tells more about it and shows more photos.

Making Design fills a large gallery and pulls items from the collection to illustrate the elements of design: line, form, texture, pattern, and color.  It’s my understanding that the items in the exhibition will change, so more of the extensive collection can be seen.

This hanging was made by artist and weaver Lenore Tawney in linen wool and silk in 1959 and 1960.

The textile, called Abacus, was designed by artist Paul Rand in 1946. He used an actual abacus and laid it on photographic paper to create the design.

This is a bound volume of the 1924 issues of French fashion periodical, Gazette du Bon Ton.  The illustration, or pochoir, is of three Jeanne Lanvin fancy ball costumes.  Illustration by Georges Lapape.

What looks like a 1960s pop art textile is actually a piece of a mid 19th century hand woven overshot coverlet made in Georgia.

From Japanese designer Issey Miyake we have a folding skirt and top.  See the origami-looking square on the floor?  It unfolds into a garment like the pieces on the mannequin.  To see how it works, you’ve got to see the videos (scroll down the linked page to see them).

Anyone care to guess what this item is?  You can find the answer in the on-line exhibition, but guessing might be more fun.  I’ll give the correct answer tomorrow. Hint:  it is not a textile.

Cooper Hewitt has lots of fun activities for visitors to become immersed in the design process.  In a room called the Process Lab, I took a stab at making a jacket more high tech by adding a pocket for a cell phone on the sleeve and built-in gloves with conductive finger-tips.  I wish I’d thought of a solar panel on the back that powered a heating system in the jacket.  That is what I really needed for the frigid New York weather!

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Fashion Journal – Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Met

Almost ten years ago some online friends and I were discussing the newest thing on the internet – the blog.  It’s hard to imagine today when there are millions of blogs, including quite a few  “written” by cats, that a mere decade ago most people had never even heard of blogging, much less had read or written one.

But we were looking for a new way to share different aspects of the things concerning fashion history that interested us.  I had started a journal in which I recorded the things I saw and loved at fashion exhibitions.  Originally this blog was only scans of the pages from that journal, along with a very few comments.  I only posted once a month or so.

Soon I began thinking about the other things that I was learning that ought to be shared.  I began showing my vintage finds, along with pretty much writing my thoughts out loud.  Not that anyone much besides my fellow blogging buddies were actually reading the blog, which was originally called Lizzie’s Vintage Travel Journal.

Time passed, my friends went on to other adventures, but I kept blogging.  Eventually I stopped showing my journal pages.  I can’t say exactly why, but it was probably because I was doing reviews of all the exhibitions I saw anyway.  And even though I stopped showing the pages, I’ve kept on making them.

I find that physical journaling is a very different activity from writing a blog, even though a blog is a type of journal.  My journal contains many different types of work from drawing to cut out pictures to collage.  Many of the drawings are done on site, and if I know that a particular museum is drawer-friendly (in other words, there are places to sit) I’ll take my journal along on the visit.  In cases where I know I’ll not have time to stand or sit and draw, the journal stays at home and the pages are made there.

In celebration of my ten year anniversary I’ve decided to reinstate the original concept for a day every month or so.  I have a lot of exhibits to catch up on from the years when I did not post them.  Some are better than others, but all show what I found to be of interest in each exhibition.  You can see my older entries by looking at the “Journal” category in the side bar.

The first exhibition I’m showing is one that I did not really like, Punk: Chaos to Couture, at the Met.  I even had a hard time coming up with a concept with which to work in the journal.  Finally, I decided to just focus on two things I found to be interesting.

From the box at the top which you can’t read:

The very early punk tees by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were fantastic, but Widow McLaren claims most of them are fakes.

Should I go into the fake punk tee business?

 

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Museum Selfie Day

In case you missed it, January 21 was Museum Selfie Day, a selfie being a photo a person takes of him or her self.  The development of the cell phone camera that can take photos both forward and backward has made taking one’s own photo very easy. Instagram and twitter have given the selfie an audience.

Quite a bit has been written about the practice of selfies in museums.  As you probably would expect, writers are divided in their opinions on the practice.

Those who oppose the practice say that selfies are akin to notches on a gun.  In a culture where many seem to think that if you don’t have a photograph of yourself doing something, then it really didn’t happen.  Each selfie is a notch on the gun of life, proof that one has actually seen a landmark or a work of art.  In addition, selfies are distracting to other museum-goers.  It’s hard to seriously contemplate Rembrandt when people and their cellphones keep getting between you and the art.

But what really seems to bug some critics is that museums are supposed to be “serious” places of learning.  The constant snapping of photos is replacing the proper examination of art.

On the other hand, supporters of museum selfies argue that the practice is a good way to get people to actively engage with art.  Taking a good selfie requires that the photographer study the work of art carefully.  And allowing selfies might encourage participation by reluctant museum visitors (teenagers) who might otherwise be focused on texting friends or playing the latest online game  while the family tours the museum.

If my twitter feed is any indication, many museums have embraced the day.  Institutions large and small tweeted their support of #MuseumSelfieDay.   I’m sure that some of them have decided that “If you can’t beat them, then join them.”  Camera phones are not going to go away and people are going to use them.  More and more museums have taken down the no photos signs, partly because it’s just too difficult to police camera usage.

But other museums seem to be genuinely delighted that they have their own social media day.  They have people on their staffs who see social media for what it is, a part of people’s lives that is here to stay.  They already have accounts on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and so are reaching a lot of people that way.  Having an event like #MuseumSelfieDay allows a museum to use those accounts to encourage visitors to come in and participate.

This is only the second year of #MuseumSelfieDay, so I suppose it is a bit early to see if the promotion is having any effect on attendance on that day.  But there seemed to be good participation, so if you are serious about your museum visits, I suggest you not plan one for selfie day next year.

In looking for a photo for this post I realized that while I don’t have a museum selfie of myself, I do have lots of photographs from museum visits.  Ever since the camera became available to travelers, it has been used to document their journeys.  In looking back at a lifetime of travel photos I find that the most interesting ones are the ones that contain images of my family and friends, and to be honest, me.   And in collecting vintage photos, it is the people in each that makes it interesting.

Consider the photo of my husband that I used to illustrate.  Would the photo of the sculpture be as meaningful to me if he were not sitting there?  I doubt that without his presence that I’ve even remember where the photo was taken, but with him sitting there the events of an entire day come flooding back into conscious memory.  We had spent the day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and had finished up by spending the last hours of the afternoon touring the museum there.  The bears provided a welcome resting spot and a good photo opportunity.

I really don’t see the selfie as a new phenomenon, but rather as a new version of an old one.  While I don’t feel the need to photograph myself at every place I go, I can’t help but look at photos taken decades ago and get pleasure from seeing my face on the road, having fun.

Me, 1999

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Waist Management: A History of Unmentionables

The Fashion History Museum has a newly opened exhibition at the  Peel Art Gallery Museum in Brampton, Ontario,  Waist Management  It’s all about how undergarments have been used to help women achieve a fashionable silhouette, something that is apparent in just one photo from the display.

A while back I wrote about selling items from my collection and how I’d do it only if I were convinced that the person wanting an item wanted it more than I.  The truth is I’ve also been known to actually give things away if I know someone needs it.

Back in the very early days of Ebay I was smart enough (actually that would be lucky enough) to buy a bit of the lingerie line that Emilio Pucci designed for Formfit Rogers.  At the time it was considered to be a poor alternative to the wonderful silk jersey vintage Puccis that were already getting nice ending prices on the auction site, but the lingerie was cheap and so I bought a few miscellaneous pieces.

After the onslaught of fast fashion made of tissue paper thin poly, the thin nylon Formfit Puccis soared in price.  They were seen not only as wearable clothing, but gained deserved respect as a part of fashion history.

Several months ago I was mindlessly browsing the site I love to hate, Pinterest, and noticed that the Fashion History Museum had begun posting parts of the collection.  In their lingerie section was a Pucci Formfit Rogers matching bra and girdle.  I was pretty sure I had a matching piece, and a quick look through my catalog revealed that I did have a matching robe.

I emailed Jonathan at the museum to ask if he would like to have my piece for the museum’s collection, and of course he did.  I sent it off along with another donation and an ad that showed that this design dates to 1969.

I was delighted to get the photo in my inbox last night.  Knowing that something I had accumulated is now being used to educate others about fashion history is a great feeling.

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Emilio Pucci in America, Georgia Museum of Art

Emilio Pucci skiing at Reed College in the uniform he designed for the ski team there, 1937. Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Yesterday I took a museum day.  The Georgia Museum of Art in Athens had just opened a new fashion exhibition and I was anxious to see it.  The topic was Emilio Pucci, who needs no introduction from me.  What many might be surprised to know is that Pucci actually attended the University of Georgia in Athens after transferring from the University of Milan.  He then went on to Reed College in Oregon.

As the title tells us, the exhibition was not a comprehensive study of the career of Emilio Pucci, nor was it a history of the company.  It was about how the Italian Pucci had relationships with American institutions and companies.  The exhibition is quite small, and there are a few gaps in what was displayed, but overall it gives an excellent view of Pucci’s American relationships.  Photos were not allowed (although there was no sign stating such, and it took getting my hand slapped to find it out) and the photos supplied for press do not show any of the clothes as they are displayed, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to use your imagination somewhat.

Probably the best known collaboration between Pucci and an American company was that with the lingerie company, Formfit Rogers.  Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s Pucci designed undergarments and sleeping attire for Formfit.  On exhibit was a panty girdle, and four matching lingerie pieces in blue.

Braniff hostess modeling in a pink Pucci uniform holding an umbrella standing in the front part of a jet engine. Braniff Airways Collection, History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections Department, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas.

Between 1965 and 1974, Pucci designed uniforms for the stewardesses of Braniff Airlines.  The ensembles included everything from head to toe: hats, scarves,dresses,tunics,pants, leggings, shoes, and boots.  Archival photos show that the stewardesses were allowed to mix and match the pieces, though the staff was provided with clothing that corresponded to various activities and which involved two in-air clothing changes.

Braniff hostess wearing a pink Pucci uniform and a bubble helmet standing in front of a Concorde airplane at the Paris Airshow, 1967. Braniff Airways Collection, History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections Department, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas.

The exhibition had this tunic, and it also had the plastic bubble hood.  Archival photos show that the women often wore the tights with a solid dress.

Group photo of early Emilio Pucci hostesses uniforms for Braniff. Braniff Airways Collection, History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections Department, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas

Group photo of early Emilio Pucci hostesses uniforms for Braniff. Braniff Airways Collection, History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections Department, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas

The bubble hood was only used for a short period because of its tendency to malfunction.

My favorite outfit from the exhibition was a circa 1955 two-piece swimsuit and matching cape that Pucci designed for Canadian-American swimsuit designer Rose Marie Reid.  The print was a tiny Venice theme, and while I could not find a photo of it online, there is a similar Reid piece for sale.  That set just went to the very top of my wishlist.

I was really hoping that there would be some of the very rare pieces that Pucci did for White Stag in 1948.  They did have the copy of the Harper’s Bazaar in which the pieces were shown, but no actual garments.  And there was no mention of the mid 1950s collaboration between Pucci and the McCall’s Pattern Company, nor was there any mention of the patterns he did for Vogue in the 1960s and 70s.

Even though this exhibition was quite small, I’m glad I took the time to go see it.  The clothing was very well presented, and the lighting was good enough so that the details could be easily examined.  It is well worth a drive if you are in Georgia or the western Carolinas.

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Thoughts on Museum Visits

Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Copyright Paramount Pictures

Recently I’ve come across two articles about museum-going.  The first, which was about how museums are good for you, I linked to several weeks ago.  The second one was in The New York Times last week, and was called “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum.”  The title pretty much sums up what the article was about.

I guess I was not surprised to read that people are actually putting works of art and museum visits on their “bucket lists.”  As a person who loves museums, I’ve got a few left in the world I want to see before I kick the bucket.  But in our crazy speeded-up-take-the-photo-and-go world it appears that people are more concerned with announcing to their Facebook followers that they saw Van Gogh’s Starry Night than they are with actually seeing the art.  According to the article, visitors spend about fifteen to thirty seconds looking at a piece of art.

In some of our large museums one could spend only fifteen seconds in front of each piece of art and still not see everything in one visit. The author of the article, Stephanie Rosenbloom, suggests that it is better to focus in on just a few works that are of great interest than to try and see everything.  I know that when I visit a museum, I’m most interested in the works that show fashion, or in works that involve textiles.  I might spend fifteen seconds at a work that does not interest me, but ten or more minutes on the ones that do.  And I’ve been known to spend entire museum visits at one work that really resounded with me.

Rosenbloom also addresses that most polarizing of modern phenomena, the selfie.  Love them or hate them, the selfie photo is a part of our culture, and it is one of the ways to prove to the social media world that one did actually see the Venus de Milo.  Some museums are actually encouraging the practice as a way to identify with a work, much like Audrey does with the Winged Victory of Samothrace in 1957’s Funny Face.

Even if you do not want to read the article, you must click to it if only to see the photo of people in front of the Mona Lisa. Small wonder that so many people who view it say that the painting is overrated.  When I saw the Mona Lisa in 1991, I was completely moved by it, but then my viewing experience was very different from the one we see in the photo.

I was with a small group of friends in Paris and time was very limited.  One of the group really wanted to bee the Mona Lisa, so we tightened up our schedule to allow for a short visit.  In was a cold day in early April and we were at the Louvre when it opened.  We went straight to the Mona Lisa .  Even though the painting is under thick glass and at that time you could get no closer than six feet, we had the best possible viewing of her.  We had beaten the crowds, which were lighter than normal anyway due to it being off season, and so we spent a good thirty minutes looking and marveling and discussing the work.

As we left we went by the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory, and that was all we had time for.  I’m sure some people would think we did not get our money’s worth because we saw so little of the Louvre, but it was the most magical and memorable hour of that trip to France.

Maybe it is because I’ve been lucky enough to see many of the world’s great museums, but today I’m just as satisfied spending an afternoon in one of the many lesser known, but still wonderful museums.  Some favorites are the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Greenville County (SC) Museum of Art, and the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC.  And next week I hope to spend the day at another favorite, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens.  They have a new exhibition on Emilio Pucci, who briefly attended the nearby University of Georgia, but I’ll also be spending some time with my favorites in their permanent collection.

UPDATE:  Please feel free to share your own small museum recommendations and museum visiting hints.

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We’ve Been Punked

From the very beginning I was less than enthused about the Met’s Costume Institute’s Punk exhibition.  My biggest concern was that with all the wonderful objects within the Met’s costume collection, it was sad that they were yet again focusing on fashion from the past twenty or so years.  And then, before the Punk show opened, Malcolm McLaren’s widow made the claim that some of the objects were fakes.

This was not a new claim.  In 2008 McLaren himself had studied objects that had come from the same source as some of the Met’s punk items, and had found them to be fakes. Artist Damien Hirst had spent about $150,000 on punk clothing from Simon Easton, who was selling the stuff through eBay.  After the items were viewed by a former punk and seller of reproductions, Camden Jim, who recognized some of the designs as the ones he had sold at Camden Market,  Hirst became alarmed and contacted McLaren, who found that most of Hirst’s items were fake.

In the meantime Christie’s Auctions, who had some of the Easton material had concerns and called in McLaren to examine the items they had obtained from Easton.  Easton’s Ebay account was suspended.

To backtrack a bit, in 2006, the Costume Institute, in preparation for their Anglomania exhibition, acquired quite a few Westwood/McLaren punk items.  These were a prominent part of the exhibition and accompanying catalog.  When the Hirst fakes were exposed in 2008, it soon became evident that there might be some problems with the Met’s items as well.  At the time, Andrew Bolton, the associate curator responsible for the purchase and the Anglomania exhibition said that the pieces bought from Simon Easton would be reviewed.

At this point the story goes cold until February, 2013.  Malcolm McLaren had died in 2010, but his widow started questioning the validity of objects that were to be shown in that summer’s Costume Institute exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture.  She wrote to the Met outlining her objections to several of the items that were to be in the exhibition.  Along with Paul Gorman, who had worked with McLaren to try and establish the authenticity of many items, she gave detailed reasons why some of the objects were “wrong.”  A spokesperson for the Costume Institute replied that  “the provenance of all the punk pieces in our collection and in the upcoming exhibition have been verified”.

But now it appears as if they were not.  Paul Gorman, who examined the Met’s McLaren/Westwood holdings in May 2013 wrote a detailed report on his findings – a report that was not good news for the Met.  Not only did he believe that a large number of the garments were fake, others were suspect, and still others were misdated.  After the Punk exhibition came down, other experts were called in.  As a result, two bondage suits with the Seditionaries label were marked for de-accession. Both suits had been in the Anglomania exhibition of 2006.

However, the two suits in question are still on the Met’s website, but very recently the listing designation was changed to  “Attributed to Vivienne Westwood” and “Attributed to Malcolm McLaren”.  Around thirty other objects now have “Attributed to” in the item description, and photos of most of these items have been removed.

Just as disturbing is the faulty dating of objects.  Gorman gives the example of a pair of bondage trousers that were dated to 1976, but the trousers have the Vivienne Westwood Red label – a label that was established in 1993!  In his article on his blog, Gorman shows the museum’s page on the trousers (2006.253.18) which has a photo of them and the label.  When I looked up the page today, I see that the photograph of the label has been removed.

You should read Gorman’s detailed blog post, and judge for yourself.  I  see some very shoddy scholarship in action here.  As a very small-time collector I can tell you that it is very difficult to always get dating and attribution correct.  But even with my limited resources I want to be as accurate as possible, and I am always willing to admit when I am wrong, no matter how much I want to believe otherwise.  Should not our institutions be the same?

 

Thanks to Sarah at TinTrunk for the Gorman article.
 

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