Thursday, June 30, 2011

Material Girls

Collections:  Costume collections the world over are a rich resource for the fashions of the elite.  Often, the cult of celebrity has fueled the flames of fashion to reach for the ridiculous as well as the sublime.  Certainly this has been true of the fashions of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Luckily for those of us interested in the dress, manner and customs of the past, a wealth of "material" survives.  While many of the clothes that make up the great collections of the museums of the world have documented fashionable dress for most of the past 300 years, the identity of their owners has been lost. But, having said that, certainly the influences of a handful of women can be seen.  My tribute is to the ultimate "Material Girls".  Those women who influenced the generation that shared the stage with them.
18th century display, Museum of Costume, Bath

At the court of Louis XV of France, Madame de Pompadour was certainly the "it" girl.  She met Louis at a masked ball for 5000 at Versailles.  The ball was part of the celebrations for the marriage of his son, the Dauphin.  Her uncle worked in the cabinet and secured an invitation for her.  She came dressed as Diana, Goddess of the Hunt.  Louis, along with 15 men of the bedchamber, came dressed as a forest of yew trees.  One observer recounted how she ran in and out of the forest of men looking for the king.  She certainly was on the hunt.  She had such an enormous impact on the manners, customs and design of her day that a colour was created to honor her.  "Pompadour Pink".  A well educated women, she is shown below in a portrait of grace and refinement.  Set in her boudoir, the artist has chosen to contrast her beauty and fashionable appearance against a desk laden with architectural prints, sheet music and published volumes.  He wanted us to see that not only was she well educated, but that she was a great patron of the arts and writers of her day.  She even supported Diderot with the publication of his Encyclopedia.

Her gown is of the newly fashionable painted silks.  These were a reaction to the cheaper Indian printed cottons that were threatening the silk industry in France.
Brocaded Silk, MET collection
Madam de Pompadour

Detail of fly fringe decoration

Within a generation of the death of Madame
de Pompadour, the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette arrives at the court of Versailles.  At 13, she will marry the grandson of Louis XV and heir to the throne. Literally the first fashion victim, she and her ladies were a product of the time.  So interested was she in her appearance, that her dress maker, Rose Bertin, was given apartments within the palace.  They met to discuss and plan the Queen's attire twice a week.
Rose Bertin
Marie Antoinette
Unfortunately, nothing of the fabulous wardrobe of Marie Antoinette survives.  At least, not that can be accounted for by hard evidence such as bills, journals or any paintings.  The French Revolution swept away any attributions.  Although, the shoe that she wore to the guillotine has survived.  The dress below, has been attributed to the workshop of Rose Bertin.  It is fascinating to ponder the possibility that this garment once donned the body of the ill fated queen.
Collection of Royal Ontario Museum
Collection of Kyoto Costume Institute
Certainly, the Toronto example, is less exaggerated than the court example on display in Japan.  Like the silk worn earlier by Madam de Pompadour, it has been hand painted.

Empress Eugenie of France
When the dust of the French Revolution had settled and Napoleon had had his day, the time was ripe for another fashionista.  The empress of the second empire, Eugenie.  The ultimate clothes horse, it is said that she changed her clothing on average 7 times a day!  It is also claimed that she never wore the same gown twice and that when women were invited for the week to the hunting lodge at Compeigne, they packed 28 changes of clothing.  A great beauty in her day, she shocked society by wearing eye liner and rouge.  Talk about an age of conspicuous consumption.  Is it surprising that under her patronage the couture industry in France began?
Crinoline supported gown, circa 1865
At the same time, England had its' own fashion icon.  Alexandra, Princess of Wales.  Like the late Princess Diana, she too set the trends for a generation.  The princess seam was designed to take advantage of her 18" waist.  The dog collar necklaces and her favorite color, lilac, to note two more.
Princess Alexandra of Wales, 1883
Museum of Costume, Bath 1896
Gown of Princess Alexandra
Do the material girls end here?  Not on your life.  We will revisit this fascinating costume heritage again.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The New Look

Collections:  Lately their has been a lot of interest in the clothing styles of the 20th century.  Particularly in the realm of couture.  Many museums have been investing money in the launch of several block buster shows around this art form and actively collecting contemporary examples while they are still available.  When Christian Dior launched his collection of 1947, it was dubbed the "New Look".  Was it really?  Designers usually look back to the past for inspiration.  Hoping to interpret it in a new and contemporary context.
Dior admitted that his inspiration for his full skirts, rounded shoulders and small waists came from his childhood memories of his Edwardian mother.
"Aimant", 1956

Seven layers of pink tulle and taffeta with black Chantilly lace.  
Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum

My Edwardian Recreation

Perhaps success can be all about timing.  The post war years demanded an escape from both the Great Depression and the past six years of world conflict. While his evening wear was evocative of the past, new stiffer materials generated a different silhouette free of the mechanics of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Personally, I think that his real genius lay in his interpretation of the suit.  A form that had been so much a staple of the utility dressing of the 1940's, in his hands it was elevated to a new level.  Suitable for day and evening wear alike.

"Oblique" 1950

It could be argued that Dior only picked up in 1947 where pre-war designers had left off.  Once again, Hartnell comes to mind.  When the newly crowned royal couple embarked on a state tour of France, Hartnell was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth, later referred to as "The Queen Mother", to create her wardrobe.  One stipulation, she was still in mourning for the late King George V and the colours chosen for her wardrobe had to reflect this.  (Black, white or Lilac were traditional) It is said that Hartnell studied earlier royal portraits, many by the mid 19th century painter Winterhalter, for his inspiration.  The collection, all in white, was a huge success!

Another time.  Could this really be 1937-38?
From a special exhibition last year in the Queen's Gallery, London

At Versailles

Recollections:  I remember the dress below from my childhood.  My father had taken me to the Royal Ontario Museum to see, what else, the mummies and the dinosaurs.  As we climbed the grand staircase at the second landing, I caught sight of the gown below.  It marked the entrance to the costume and textile galleries of the 1960's installations.  We passed by, but this dress, which was worn by Queen Elizabeth II, still stands out in my memory.  Satin appliqued with green velvet maple leaves.  Funny how clothing can do this.  Time, place, event.  Whether your own reality or not, it evokes so much.
Hartnell, Maple Leaf Dress

                                                     Collection of the Royal Ontario Museum

Ambitions:  I would love to own a Dior some day, but chances are, I will have to make a copy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Everything's Better with a Little Bling!

Collections:  On my last textile tour to London in 1997, we had the good fortune to visit the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace.  This school was established by one of Queen Victoria's daughters in the later half of the 19th century and is dedicated to the teaching of the needle arts.  Embroidery, beading and lace making to bespoke orders along with services in cleaning, packing and the conservation of heirloom textiles.  Many of their commissions come from the House of Windsor and they are the workrooms that created the lace on Kate Middleton's wedding gown.  They have also created the embellished work on the coronation robes over the past century.
Tapestry Conservation

Gold filgree

Their tours range in length from 1.5 to 2 hours and allow access to the conservation areas and demonstrations by students of a variety of techniques.  If you appreciate these art forms, then you really must put this on your list of things to do in London.  It will certainly be on my list for my tour in the Spring of 2012.

Embroidery can trace its origins back thousands of years, certainly pre-dating any written records.  It seems that people have been particularly keen to adorn themselves and their surroundings in surface ornament.  Perhaps the greatest period in living memory has been the decade of the 1950's.  Next to the Edwardian age, it is most certainly my favorite.  In England, Hartnell on behalf of the royal family, created sumptuous beaded works in his atelier.  The coronation dress above and the princess Elizabeth's wedding gown would have been his two most important commissions.

In France designers such as Dior would have employed firms like Lesage to execute their embroideries. Or, more likely, have purchased from existing designs extracting promises of exclusivity from the firm.  Today, the house of Lesage offers courses in Paris much like the Royal School of Needlework.  Even the shoes were beautiful.
"Venus" by Dior, 1947

"Venus" and "Junon", MET collection
detail of Embroidery

Lesage for Pierre Balmain

Hartnell, state gown for Queen Elizabeth II


Roger Vivier

Recollections:  Several years ago a friend of mine was emptying out her mother's house.  She gave me access to her mom's closet before the contents were to go to auction.  Can you imagine!  Her mother was quite involved with a number of charity events in the late 1950's and early '60's.  Unfortunately the dresses were stored in an area under the eaves of the house.  Water damage over a period of nearly 60 years ruined many garments, but I was still able to walk away with about 12-15 dresses.  They make up the bulk of my collection for this period of design history.  This dress even came with the original newspaper clipping!

Globe & Mail, 1957
Embroidery Detail (machine embroidery)

Ambitions:  Yesterday, I ran a workshop on embellishment techniques.  The focus was primarily for quilters.  Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to really dig into the subject, but we will over the next few months.

Perhaps one day I will try my hand at creating an embellished '50's gown.  The patterns exist so half the work is done.  Now, I need to find the supplies!

Vogue Vintage pattern 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Other Side of Me

Collections:  Although I have been an avid quilter for the better part of 35 years (!)  I attended my first major quilt show only last November.  If you haven't been to the Houston Quilt Market, or any of the other huge shows, then you really have no idea what has been happening to quilters and their art form since the 1980's.  Forget your grannies double wedding ring, it would be taken to new heights in the hands of any one of these artisans.  Hundreds of talented quilters share their works and submit to the scrutiny of amateur and professional judges, knowing that their work will be seen by countless thousands.  The calibre of the work is truly humbling and at one point I was ready to throw out my needles and threads and give up my attempts all together.  Apart from the inspiration that you can get at one of these major events, you can also find supplies and materials ranging from yard goods to threads, embellishments and dyes to help you achieve your own unique work.  For those of us wishing to hone our skills, classes for every level are accessible too.  I hope to include a quilt collection on the textile tour of the U.K. next year.  Remember to mark your calendars for the Spring of 2012!

Two of my favorite pieces.  I still can't believe that the parrot was made from fabric and not painted!

Recollections:  Over the years, many of my own works have been given away as gifts.  A wedding, a baby, or a 90th birthday, all seemed like the right reason to share my work.  Some, I have managed to hold onto including the few shown here.

Ambitions:  Their always seems to be current projects.  I like to work on several different things at once.  A simple but striking combination of yellow, white and red.  I'll be keeping this one for my stash.

Details of the wall hanging for an embellishment workshop that I am giving to my sewing group.  "Crazy for You" is the title of a workshop on embroidery, beading and applique for crazy quilting.