Wednesday, July 20, 2011

La Galleria del Costume

Collections:  If you have the opportunity to visit Florence, you must make a point of setting aside some time for the Gallery of Costume at the Pitti Palace.  This collection of clothing is an often overlooked gem  in a city of notable collections.  My best advice to you, is to visit the palace ticket office at your earliest opportunity to check on the opening times for this gallery.  Access to the collection is sporadic at best.  I have been able to visit numerous times and the one thing you can count on, is that you can't always count on seeing this collection.  If you are lucky enough to gain access, you will probably have the collection all to yourself!  Unlike the Victoria and Albert museum in London, you won't have to fight for a good view.  I particularly like their arrangement of floating display cases.  It allows for the exploration of the garments from all sides and if you happen to be sharing the space with others, it disperses the crowds nicely.  Unfortunately, catalogues on the collection are no longer available.

Galleria displays

The collection is located on the 3rd floor of the Pitti Palace, in a series of salons which enhance and contextual the costumes.  Usually the rotating exhibits are displayed in a chronological order reflecting the evolution of dress, along with anterooms of specially themed exhibits on accessories or particular periods.  The costumes represent a wide range of manufacturing centers.  Naples seems to have been a preferred shopping source for many in the second quarter of the 20th century and what surprised me most was the large collection of 19th century dresses labelled "C. Donovan" New York.  Interestingly, I have yet to see one Worth on display in their collection but Fortuny and Ferragamo are well represented.

Black Chantilly lace over yellow silk satin, circa 1865

Yellow and cream striped silk over pale blue underskirt, circa 1878

Roller printed cotton in pale grey, circa 1837

Black silk, circa 1915
Silk Tulle embroidered in gold thread, circa 1823
Recollections:  Of special note, on my last visit, was an exhibition on the exhumed costumes of Eleanora of Toledo, Cosimo I de'Medici and their son Don Garzia.  These dated circa 1562.  Mounted on large flat sheets of foam core, they were angled within their cases for easy viewing by the public.  Heavily stained with the remains of body fluids and with large areas of the silk missing due to disintegration, the display relied on the drawings of costume historian Janet Arnold to "flesh" out what the viewer was studying.  Portraits of the three added to our understanding of how these garments were worn and the importance of dress at the time.  Notice the bodice and details in the portrait of Eleanora of Toledo below and compare them to the remaining fragment removed from her tomb in the 1850's.  They are so strikingly similar it poses the question, "Is this the actual dress she wore when she was buried?"  It would not be unusual for many women to be buried in their best clothing or even wedding apparel.

Eleanora of Toledo

Satin & Velvet bodice Fragment, 1562
Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, 1560-1620
Ambitions:  To re-visit this collection in May of 2012.

Friday, July 8, 2011

That Little Black Dress

Collections:  I remember an exhibit in London at the Fashion and Textile Museum entitled, "Little Black Dress".  It was around 2008 or 09 I believe.  I thought that it might be fun to muse on the subject myself, since, as a collector, one is always presented with the opportunity to acquire one.  I don't know how other collectors feel on the subject, but I have noticed that the sheer quantity of black or white garments available from dealers or on ebay demonstrates the historical popularity of these neutrals.

Contrary to popular assumptions, black isn't nor has it ever been solely used for observing the ritual of mourning.  We probably inherited that opinion, like so many others, from our Victorian grandmothers, who were obviously influenced by the Queen herself.  Black can be seen in the portraits of the fashionable as early as the Renaissance and 19th century artists, such as Ingres, Whistler and Tissot were masters at capturing its subtleties.  In fact, this neutral was quite expensive to produce due to the instability of the dyes and consequently the most expensive textiles could be acquired in black.  It has denoted rank and authority, hence its popularity in men's wear, and of course has had strong religious associations for many cultures, like the Anabaptists, Amish and the old order Mennonites, the Dutch Reformers of the 17th centuries, and Muslim faiths.  Add to this, the fact that it hid dirt well, in an age when cleaning textiles was next to impossible, and its popularity must have been born more of neccessity than preference.

But when exactly did we throw away our Victorian notions and associations with death and embrace that highly prized, "Little Black Dress?"  An editorial staple since the 20th century phenomenon began.

Ingres, Madame Le Blanc
Whistler, Madame X
While both artists were masters at catching the nuisances of black, Victorian society was particularly shocked by Whistler's portrait.  Not so much the colour, but the lack of sleeves.
Below, the use of black for women's sports wear.  When Bonnie Butler, the daughter of Rhett and Scarlett, needed a new riding outfit, Rhett wanted to defy convention by ordering one in blue.  "A basic black broadcloth is what li'l girls wear." So Mammy admonished!

Riding outfit, circa 1860

Edwardian Swimsuit
Why are the hottest of pursuits performed in black?  Luckily, tennis and croquet costumes were generally in white.  (We'll address it next time)

Victoria 1862
Forever our associations with the use of black. Until......

Black velvet and jet ball gown, circa 1895
Victoria & Albert Museum

Beaded Tulle, circa 1910
Pitti Palace, Florence

Lagerfeld, 1988
Trompe l'oeil dress.  
Necklace, belt and bracelets are actually beaded on the garment!

cuff detail

Dior, Taffeta

When Barbie had influence!

Who could forget what Audrey did for this neutral.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Or when a woman is seeking to upstage her unfaithful husband, black is always the right choice!

Recollections:  Like any collector, I try to acquire as wide a representation of the development of dress as I can.  The advantage to collecting black or white garments, is that the eye is free to concentrate on the silhouette and not be distracted by the textile. Still, having said that, whenever possible, a neutral garment will be passed on or traded as soon as a more interesting coloration makes itself available.  When re-creating, I will accent with black, but have yet to tackle the all black costume.

Authors vintage collection, circa 1908


Black point d'esprit over black satin.  Jet beaded decoration.  Cream lace with turquoise blue velvet trim.

Ambitions:  If you are not familiar with the fairly new Fashion and Textile Museum in London then be sure to put it on your list for the next time you visit.  Their focus is on fashion from 1950-present.  An area that is just beginning to draw the interest of other institutions.
Have a favorite "little black dress"?  I'd be happy to take care of it for you!  Want to share a story or memory?  Feel free to comment.