Tag Archives: museums

Vintage Miscellany – August 25, 2019

1932. It’s almost chilly here in the Western North Carolina mountains so maybe fall really is on the way. Here’s my dream hiking ensemble: snappy pullover sweater, rolled cuff trousers, high laced boots, and a hat that’s part tam, part beret with hair neatly tucked away inside. Was she posing, or simply caught in a pensive moment?

And now for some news…

When I first started writing this blog around fifteen years ago, most museums I visited did not allow visitors to take photos, so I carried a sketchbook to record the highlights of fashion exhibitions. Today, most museums do allow photos, due mainly, I’d think, to social media. When people started documenting every small detail of their lives on Facebook and Twitter (and later Instagram) museums very quickly realized that every post on these sites was free advertising.

There are still plenty of people who object to the practice, saying that the photo has become more important than the experience. To some degree I agree with that thought. We’ve all seen people rushing through a museum or historic site, camera in hand, ready to get that perfect Instagram shot.

I try to use a strategy when visiting an exhibition that I want to photograph for this blog. Ideally, I view the entire exhibition, reading the show notes and absorbing the message the curator is trying to put out there. Only after looking and thinking and studying, I go back and take photos of what best tells the story.

This strategy works best where an exhibition is located all in one area of the site or museum. Often, in house museums like the Biltmore Estate, it’s just not reasonable to take the photos separately from the first viewing. Things are just too scattered about. But I do find I learn more and see more when I have the opportunity to look at an object twice.

 

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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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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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Keep Moving Forward

Last week I took some time to visit a local history museum in a nearby town.  I’d been there before, several years ago, and remembered that at that time there was a no photo policy in effect at the museum.  I was hoping the policy had changed, because there is one artifact in particular that I wanted to photograph.

That artifact is a 1947 wedding dress that was made from German parachutes.  The bride’s brother, knowing that his sister was to be married and that fabric was in short supply, liberated the parachute silk near the end of the war.  He sent it home, where his sister had the dress made for her wedding two years later.  What makes this artifact so interesting is that there are photos of the bride wearing the dress, plus photos taken of the couple quite recently.

It’s a great story, one that I wanted to share here.  So many times we remember wars just through the battles, but it is important to know that every person, whether in combat or not, is affected by war.  This wedding dress is a reminder that history is not just dates and facts, but also people’s lives.

I would tell you more about the bride and groom, but unfortunately, the display was stuck in a far corner, and the print on the display so small that it could not be read.  When I was last in the museum, the dress was in a glass case at the front, prominently displayed.  Last week, it was a seeming afterthought in an unrelated exhibit.  Even if photos had been permitted, I could not have gotten decent shots of the dress.

I don’t like being harsh about local history museums.  They are often staffed solely by volunteers, and the budget is usually tiny.  They have important stories to tell, and as a whole this museum does an admirable job.  But it seems to me that they could do a lot better by this important dress.

Because I still have Amanda Grace Sikarskie’s Textile Collections:  Preservation, Access, Curation, and Interpretation in the Digital Age on my mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about what exactly is needed by small museums.  I’m sure that if I were to ask the lovely docent at this particular museum what was needed most, she would say, “Money.”  In fact she mentioned several times about things that were needed but they do not have the money.

But when I got home and read through my Twitter feed, I found these words from Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT:

A museum is like a shark, it needs to keep moving forward or else it will die.

Of course I don’t know the context of the quote, as it was taken from a talk she made at a recent conference.  But I do think she pointed out what is a big problem – that people have changed the way we interact with the world, and our museums can either capitalize on these changes, or die.

To start, museums really do need to rethink their photography policies.  Like it or not, people are recording their lives through their smartphones. The smart institution uses this to its advantage.  Every time a visitor tweets or Instagrams, or makes a Facebook post from a museum, that museum gets free advertising.  I can’t tell you how often I see a post on Instagram  by someone  visiting a fashion exhibition that has a friend make a comment  and tag a friend with, “We’ve got to see this.”

Smart institutions make it easy for visitors to share a photo opportunity.  This is my friend Linda, trying on a crinoline and reproduction mid 19th century dress at the Charleston Museum.  They have an entire dress-up area as part of the textile gallery.  Linda does not share my passion for fashion history, but she dressed up in the spirit of fun, and shared the photo.

In the fifteen years that I’ve been actively pursuing fashion exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  I started out sketching at these exhibitions because of all the no photos rules.  But now I find that rarely  is an exhibition off limits to photographers.  Yes, there should be rules, like no tripods and such, but most visitors are just wanting a photo or two to share on Instagram.

One of the big arguments against photos in museums is that they counteract the introspective examination of the art or the exhibit.  That may be true, but there is not a lot of private contemplation happening at the Met’s Costume Institute blockbusters, or at the Mona Lisa, or in the Impressionist galleries of any museum.  However, you can overcome this problem by going through an exhibition twice – once just to study the artifacts, and then a second time to take photos.

I’m saying this, not to criticize museums, but to point out that while all over the world museums are in financial trouble, not all problems are going to be solved with money.  Maybe the key to survival is to come up with ways to make visitors feel like they are part of the museum.  Having a good photo policy is just one tiny step in that direction.

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Currently Reading, Textile Collections, Plus a Bit About Museums

In order to really understand the nature of this book, you have to pay close attention to the subtitle.  The words Preservation, Access, Curation and Interpretation in the Digital Age tell us that this book is not about textiles so much as it is about the ways that computers and other digital devices have opened up new possibilities in the world of textile collection management.

As such, Textile Collections by Amanda Grace Sikarskie, is not for everyone.  But I could not resist the title, and thought that at least part of it would be relevant to a private collector like me.  Not only was that thought correct, the book also contains a lot of food for thought in the area of fashion and textile exhibitions.  And if you are a regular reader, you know how that interests me.

Textile Collections has four major themes, as stated in the subtitle.  Of the four, I found the chapter on curation to be the most interesting.  The use of the word curate has, since the advent of social media, changed.  Traditionally, curators have been museum keepers who plan exhibitions and who determine what will be on view and what will be said about it.

But  Sikarskie points out that this idea – that museums dispense knowledge without taking anything back from the exhibition’s viewers – is quite old-fashioned.  In other words, it can be a passive activity, much like watching TV or listening to a recording, as opposed to enacting a play or creating music.  But the computer has made it easy to not just watch or read, but to interact with web content.  Blogs and Instagram and even newspaper articles allow the reader or viewer to voice his or her opinion, or even better, to add to the knowledge presented.

Silarskie argues that people on the web “curate” all the time.  We choose which photos to post on Instagram.  We create outfits on Polyvore.  We choose articles and images to reblog on Tumblr.  Of course, museum curators tend to dislike the appropriation of their job title.  But, the meanings of words are not static, and changes happen all the time.  And while I was a teacher, that term can be applied to anyone who teaches.  Might not the same be said of anyone who “curates”?

Much of the issue as laid out by Sikarskie centers around how a traditional museum that is used to having complete control of their collection and how it is displayed can adjust to a generation of young museum-goers who are used to interacting with things they see displayed on the internet.  In a way web users have moved past the old model of having information fed to us.  We have become used to posting replies on blogs, commenting on Instagram, liking on Facebook, and re-tweeting on Twitter.

As I’ve said many times, the comments here are often the very best part of The Vintage Traveler.  I’m praised for sharing my knowledge, but I can tell you I learn just as much from you readers.We interact and share and ask questions.  We find answers and go deeper.  I value every email and reply I get, as I know that is how we increase the body of information concerning clothing history.

So, how is this sort of interaction to be achieved in a museum setting?   Sikarskie used the example of how some museums are putting  i-pads or computer stations in exhibitions with which visitors can “interact.”  But the goal is not accomplished because the information on the device is also static.  I started thinking about how when I encounter an ipad in an exhibition, I tend to flip through the photos, and that is pretty much it.

Then I remembered how ipads are being used at SCADFASH.  Instead of having ipads stationed around the room, they are carried by docents who use them to engage visitors in a conversation about the objects on display.  This gives the visitor a chance to tell his or her stories, and I’m sure the students at SCADFASH have heard some great ones.

We are all historians.  Yes, some know more history than others, and have worked very hard to develop this knowledge.  But one does not need to have a history degree in order to share important stories about the past.

I’ll finish this up with a link to an interview with fashion curator Timothy Long.  Long tells about how he got into curation, and a bit about his job at the Museum of  London.  He works directly with the fashion collection at the museum, which he shares on social media.  His Instagram posts are like  treasure boxes being opened.   But what I found to be really interesting was that Long was not originally  in favor of using social media in his job, and that the museum actually had a policy forbidding it.  But things change, and now the Museum of London has a growing audience through Mr. Long’s creative posts.

 

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High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Weeks ago I posted about my trip to Atlanta to see the Oscar de la Renta exhibition at SCAD FASH and the Iris Van Herpen show at the High Museum of Art.  For some reason I neglected to show my other photos from the High Museum.  It was the first time I had been to the High Museum in years, and I was lucky in that they also had a special exhibition, Hapsburg Splendor, Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections.  That show has ended, but I still want to show you some of the incredible items they had on display, all borrowed from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The painting above, by Gyula Eder, is of the Crown Prince Otto and Queen Zita arriving at the last Hapsburg coronation in 1916.  It was painted thirteen years after the fact, eleven years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been dissolved.  The young crown prince, or  Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius, as he was christened, lived until 2011, but never ruled.

At the end of WWI, the royal family was forced into exile, but someone took good care of their things, including the brocade and ermine outfit the four-year-old crown prince wore to his father’s coronation.

There were some spectacular clothes in the exhibition.  This poor photo of an truly outstanding dress can’t begin to show the richness of these royal clothes.  This dress was worn by Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi as she was often called.  The wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, she was known for her slim figure which was emphasized by the styles she wore.  Sisi was assassinated in 1898, and did not die immediately because her tight corset kept the stab wound from bleeding.

This 1905 court dress belonged to Princess Elisabeth Kinsky, who was lady-in-waiting in the Hapsburg court.  The train was detachable, which made the dress a lot more useful.

It wasn’t just the ladies who got to dress in fine clothing.  This jacket belonged to an imperial and royal chamberlain, around 1910.

And it wasn’t just the humans who got to dress in finery, as the horses were also decked in gold trimmings.  This horse and sleigh took up an entire display room.

The high also has a wonderful permanent collection of art and decorative objects.  I have focused in on the ones that are fashion and textile related.

Above is Alma Sewing, by Francis Criss, 1935.  We see Alma in her sewing shop, surrounded by her tools.  We also see Criss, reflected in the bulb of Alma’s lamp.

Two Ladies Testing the Water, by Jacob Wagner, 1891.  One lady is corseted, but the other appears not to be.

The Blue Mandarin Coat, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, 1922.  This is a stunningly beautiful work, with the use of color and light.  The name of the model is, unfortunately, not known.

The High Museum has an impressive collection of American quilts.  This one Freedom, was made by Jessie Telfair in 1975.

I was thrilled and surprised to see this quilt, which I’ve posted photos of here in in the past in my review of American Quilts by Robert Shaw.  It was such a treat seeing it in person.

Is it just me, or does this snake seem to be smiling?  The maker of this circa 1875 through 1900 quilt is unknown.

In case you can’t tell because of the lack of perspective, this is a full-size chair.  Called Crochet, the chair is made from cotton crochet doilies dipped in resin.  Made by Marcel Wanders in 2006, I thought it was interesting that an item that was used to decorate chairs in the past had been used to actually make the chair.

And finally, the dog-lover that I am could not resist this huge portrait of a shaggy fellow. Thanks to CMJ, I know this painting is Wrecks 2 by Alex Katz.

I must say that I loved my visit to the High Museum.  It is worth a full day of exploration, even without the special exhibitions.  My one concern is the high cost of a visit.  Tickets for adults are $19.50, and parking is an additional $10.  I felt like the price was worth it, but can’t help but wonder if the cost might keep some people from taking advantage of this great resource.

 

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Daughters of Revolution, Grant Wood

Click to enlarge

One of the best surprises at the Cincinnati Museum of Art was this painting by American artist, Grant Wood.  You are probably aware of his most famous (and most parodied) work, American Gothic, but Daughters of Revolution is probably the work of his that has the most interesting backstory. What looks like at first glance a simple statement of the  patriotism of three women is actually a statement about hypocrisy.

Wood painted Daughters of Revolution in reaction to an conflict with the Daughters of the American Revolution.  In the late 1920s Wood had been commissioned to make a stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Because he was not happy with the quality of glass available to him in the United States, he obtained the glass from Germany.  When the local branch of the DAR heard about the German glass, their protests kept the work from being dedicated until many years after Wood’s death.

Thankfully, Wood was quick to show the country what he thought of this interference.  The painting shows three daughters, one who looks suspiciously like George Washington and another like Benjamin Franklin, posing in front of the famous patriotic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware.  To Wood it was significant that the painting was made by German American artist Emmanuel Leutze, who painted it in Germany using the Rhine as a stand in for the Delaware.  One daughter is wearing pearl earrings (from the Orient), another is holding a teacup (made in England using a Chinese design), and the other is wearing a collar made of fine lace (Belgian, perhaps?).

His point made, Wood continued his assault by making his subjects look like anti-revolutionaries.  What could be more common and sedate than three little old ladies sitting around in their nice clothes drinking tea and talking about their glorious ancestors?

I’ve noticed on the internet a trend toward referring to older people as “cute” or “adorable.”   I think a close examination of this painting shows the folly in that practice.

A side note:

Daughters of Revolution originally belonged to actor Edward G. Robinson, who according to one source, bought it directly from Wood.  The Cincinnati Art Museum obtained the painting from Robinson’s estate in the 1970s.

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