Monday, August 13, 2012

Jacques Fath, 1912-1954

Born, in 1912, to an upper middle class family, Jacques Fath knew at an early age that fashion design was in his blood.  As a young boy he was interested in drawing, design and fashion and was inspired by the theatrical setting of his grandfather's studio, with its collection of old textiles and furnishings.  A play space that he and his sister would fondly remember and he would credit many years later.  At an early age he demonstrated a flair for colour and a love of fabrics which would later lead him to draw fashion silhouettes and the eventual redesigning of his mothers hats or dresses worn by his sister.  The desire to create would take him to costume museums to study the past, or the book sellers to source reference material on the history of dress. These historic references would be invaluable to the designer in the early 1950's. He would turn existing garments inside out to study their construction and eventually asked a tailor to teach him the basics of cutting and construction.  

By 1937, the 25 year old, opened the House of Fath at 32, Rue la Boetie.  The pre-war years were difficult until his marriage in 1939.  His wife's celebrity as a cover girl and his good looks would make them one of the most photographed couples in Paris, but any further successes would have to wait until his honorable discharge from the war in August 1940.  It was against the difficult backdrop of a world at war that he found his first successes.  Using yards of tartan, and mocking the German occupiers, he designed a number of tunic dresses and peasant skirts that made Parisian women feel feminine and sporty at the same time.

His wife and muse
His wife became his muse, she was the model, Genevieve Bouchet.  He often described her features as perfection and he used her body as a mannequin in his atelier for working out his designs.  The ideal woman must be, "Tall, very thin, with a long neck and a perfect bosom, a very important feature.  She must also have a tiny waist and rounded hips; long, shapely legs; slender, elegant ankles; and small feet." 

Difficult shoes for the average woman to fit indeed!  

Young, glamorous and beautiful, Jacques and his wife used their celebrity status as much for marketing purposes as they did for pleasure.  They could be seen everywhere and their yearly themed balls, held at their home the Chateau de Corbeville, were highly anticipated events.  The guest list could top 800 and included the press as well as society patrons and hollywood stars.  Genevieve personified the early '50's desire for a return to femininity and the editors of the style magazines were happy to take her lead.  

"One cannot understand the workings of haute couture without the realization that it is based on publicity." Jacques Fath

Chateau de Corbeville
Like Jacques Doucet nearly 100 years earlier, Fath embraced his French heritage in his surroundings and manner.  The opulence of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette seemed to provide a wealth of inspiration along with the silhouettes of the Second Empire and the Fin de Siecle.  The post war world seemed ready to embrace all things French and wealthy Americans patronized the art, products and fashions to be found in Paris, but for some unknown reason they did not come to the House of Fath.

Jacques and Genevieve decided to use their celebrity status once again and they traveled to the United States on a three month tour that took them to seven cities across the country.  Packed in her suitcases, Genevieve's wardrobe consisted of 35 outfits for day and evening, 17 hats, 16 pairs of shoes, 10 handbags, 4 umbrellas, and numerous other accessories.  She was his walking billboard.  Everywhere they went they were enthusiastically received.  The free press was invaluable to the House of Fath, and so too, was the new insight of the demands of the American consumer to the designer.  Upon his return to Paris, Fath re-tooled his collection and established an agreement in 1949 with Joseph Halpert, a Seventh Avenue manufacturer.  Soon, Fath designs could be found in retail establishments like Neiman Marcus.  The label read, "Jacques Fath for Joseph Halpert" and royalties came from every garment sold.

1947, MET collection

House of Fath, 1957

Label: Jacques Fath Paris, c. 1953

Fath, Bettina and Miro
Perhaps part of the success of Jacques Fath was his ability to predict trends.  In this, he relied on his choice of models.  They became the most sought after mannequins in all of Paris and the epitome of grace and elegance to millions of women worldwide.  He favored a modern, younger, more sensuous female and he supervised their appearance in regards to hair styles, make up and deportment.  The resulting publicity photographs that graced the magazines at this time are now appreciated today as an art form.  This period would be the beginning of the celebrity model.

Bettina, circa 1950-51

Vogue France, 1952

2 piece evening suit, 1950

Hat, Spring-Summer 1951

Fern embroidered organza, 1950

Bettina.  Fath's favorite model

Pleated swing coat
July-August 1952
Suit above comes with detachable pleated chiffon overskirt.  The ultimate way to take a cocktail suit to a dinner suit.  Lavish pleating, along with embroidery by the House of Lesage, are hallmarks of Faths work.
Spring 1951

Jacques last collection would be shown in 1954 and was a symphony in gray.  He would die a few weeks later of Leukemia in the American Hospital of Paris.

"Fifty years from now,  Parisian women will no longer have hips; their bosoms will diminish.  Tomorrow's woman will be an eternal little girl;  there will be no place for the mature woman." 
Jacques Fath

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Museum at F.I.T.: A Personal Odyssey

Founded in 1967 as a support for the educational programs of the Fashion Institute of Technology, this museum is one of only a few in the world devoted exclusively to the fashion arts. With 50,000 garments, 15,000 accessories and 30,000 textiles dating from the 5th century to the 21st century, it's holdings put it on par with many of the larger museum collections in the world. By anyone's standards, this is one impressive permanent collection.  Composed of two main galleries, with an exhibition schedule that rotates every six months, the museum can always be accessed at any time of the year.  Their shows are innovative, informative and best of all, intimate.  If you are really lucky, you may find yourself alone in the gallery, and in the presence of greatness.  

My experience and memories of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, are relatively new.  It wasn't until 2006 that I discovered its existence! It was October of that year that I found myself with some free time after taking my design students to Manhattan for their term break.  I had already done my duty with walking tours focusing on the architecture of the 20th century and a day long stint at the Metropolitan Museum discussing the evolution of furniture styles and so I treated myself to a day off and spent it shopping for textiles in the garment district.  Turning the corner at 7th Avenue and 27 Street, to my surprise, I saw the museum signage.  It has been on my personal itinerary ever since then.
c. 1750 French Stay/stomacher
While the collection has its share of 18th through 20th century artifacts, it is how the collection is used that makes for such a fulfilling visit.  While on my last costume tour to the U.K., I was struck by how collections such as the one at Platt Hall still relied on the old exhibition format of evolution in a chronological context and how uninteresting that approach was.  This has never been my personal experience with the exhibits at F.I.T.  Through juxtapositions, director and chief curator Dr. Valerie Steele, has been able to demonstrate the many aspects of fashion and its relevance to todays patrons and designers alike.  She is able to contextualize apparently desperate items in a way that makes you think beyond the obvious.

"By exploring fashion's past, we can better understand its present and future."
Dr. Valerie Steele

c. 1830 dress

What I also like about the exhibitions at this museum is the amount of attention paid to the collecting and displaying of work by contemporary designers.  This seems to be a major mandate and from my point of view, it helps to have an interpreter and guide through the often confusing amount of material available. Once again the curatorial staff at F.I.T. are able to clearly and concisely leave me with a greater awareness of the design influences around me.

Alexander McQueen

Themes which I have personally explored with their aid have ranged from a look at "Colors in Fashion" through the recent exhibition, "Fashion, A-Z"

As you can imagine, the garments displayed were chosen for their predominant colour palette.  Colour was explored through its historical and symbolic meaning, both in a western and non western perspective.  Do you have a favorite colour?  You probably do.  What does it say about you?

Roberto Cavalli, 2003

Blue:  In antiquity it was considered a second rate colour.  Not as difficult to acquire as red or black and often associated with the Celts and Germans.  Two groups considered barbarian by the Romans.  The Christians associated it with virginity and purity.  Take a look at the original, "Madonna".  Not the rock star.  Today, blue is one of the most fashionable colours to consumers.  What does "true blue" mean to you?

James Galanos, 1955-6
Red:  The "Scarlett" woman.  Danger and warning as seen in nature and street signs.  During the French revolution, women wore red ribbons around their neck, "a la guillotine" It can symbolize both life and death and so has a duality not seen in other colours.  Asian brides prefer it, for its connotations to life's blood and fertility.  A royal colour, we see it in the uniforms of the British monarchy.  It was once one of the most expensive colours to create.

Norman Norell, c. 1962
Yellow:  It takes a bad rap.  Treason and cowardice.  Used to label the disenfranchised. In 18th century Europe it became fashionable along with all things Chinese.  Not always in fashion, but, like orange, embraced when it is.

My favorite exhibit was in the spring of 2007.  "Ralph Rucci:  The Art of Weightlessness".  It celebrated the career of alumnus, Ralph Rucci.  I have to admit that I had never heard of this designer  before, but I was at once captivated by the exhibition and became a devotee of this mans talent. (See my earlier posting on Chado: Ralph Rucci)

Ralph Rucci

The exhibition included numerous garments from the two previous decades of his work and was a celebration of his 25 years as a couturier.  The first American designer since Mainbocher to be invited to show his own haute couture collection in Paris.  In 2006, he received the first award for Artistry of Fashion, presented by the Couture Council of The Museum of FIT.

Installation at the museum

Detail of leather sequin  blouse

Four Seasons collection

An incredible gown, beaded and sequined by the firm Lesage, captured in fabric the spirit of liquified malachite.  

The Museum at F.I.T. has also partnered with other institutions.  "Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum" treated me to a collection that, once again, I was not aware of.  The show was as much a celebration of couture as it was of the city and women of Chicago.  Here, the emphasis on provenance, so often lacking in costume collections, provided the viewer with a greater understanding of the wealth and society of this mid-western city.  (It has made me acutely aware to keep complete notations on the garments in my own collection)  Not only did the exhibit reveal the tastes and aspirations of the women who purchased these examples, but also the native sons who put American fashion on the map.  Main Rousseau Bocher, Mainbocher, born in Chicago in 1891 and Charles James whose maternal family came from Chicago and where he began his career as a milliner.

Mainbocher, c. 1938

Charles James, c. 1954

Balenciaga, c. 1955

Worth,  teagown, c. 1900

My latest visit to Manhattan and The Museum at F.I.T. did not disappoint.  "Fashion, A-Z"  Part Two, is currently on until November 10, 2012.  My only regret is that I did not see part one.  Divided into two parts, the show features roughly 60 design examples, arranged, you guessed it, alphabetically by designer/house.  This show is a tour de force of the museums holdings and does not pretend to be anything more than a celebration of years of collecting.  The experience is like being invited into a fashionistas closet.  Sometimes, particularly on a hot day, that is good enough.

B is for Balmain, 2002

C is for Comme des Garcons, 2002

J is for Charles James, 1955

K is for Rei Kawakubo, 2005

M is for Margiela, 1997

I can't express enough how enriching my experiences at the Museum at F.I.T. have been.  If you have never been to this museum before, you must put it on your bucket list.  Visit their web site, for more details and images from their collection.  The event calendar lists upcoming symposia and exhibitions.  The best news of all, a companion book, to be published this fall by TASCHEN, will feature more than 500 photographs from the museum's collection.  Be sure to put it on your gift list.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A FAN-tastic Museum

"dearest Albert came upstairs to my sitting room and gave me four fans and a beautiful sapphire and diamond brooch".  9, February 1840.  Queen Victoria

So wrote the young queen the day before her wedding.  Obviously, by 1840, fans were an important enough accessory to be deemed  a suitable gift alongside fine gems.

Often, while in Greenwich, I have noticed a sign post for the Fan Museum and thought to myself that someday I must visit there.  It was on my latest Costume and Textile study tour that I made sure to include it on the itinerary.  Like many specialist and private collections, this museum is not to be missed.  Though small, the museum is actually incorporated into two 18th century townhouses, the displays are interesting enough to hold your attention for easily a couple of hours.  With four rotating shows per year, you can always be assured of seeing something new every time you are in Greenwich.

For the benefit of the visitor, a display of fan making tools, processes and definitions was presented in the first display room.

Anatomy of a fan
Birth of Venus, 18th century fan paper, Gouache

The collection consists of extant examples of fan papers, as seen above, as well as a variety of styles covering the 18th through the 20th centuries.  With a strong background in design history, I was struck by how well the fan represented the period in which it was produced.  Colours, materials and motifs were all reflective of the "modes" of the day and the creativity of exploiting new and exotic materials such as, tortoiseshell, nacre, bamboo, straw work, and early plastics competed successfully with the more expected paper fans.  In this one accessory were reflected beauty, the fine arts, fashion, technological advancements and imperialistic ambitions.

Typical folded paper fan, circa 18th century

Tortoiseshell Brise Fan
Nacre Brise Fan
Carved Bamboo
18th century Straw work 
Early 20th century plastic

Display cases were beautifully arranged and clearly labelled allowing a number of people to view their contents without getting into each others way.  Themed, they allowed for insightful comparisons between fans of differing materials and stylistic periods.

Chantilly lace fan, mid 19th century

The Brise fans were my favorite. By definition, it is a folding fan consisting of sticks only, forming a flat surface when open.  A ribbon or cord is threaded through upper slots to hold the sticks together.  Fashionable in the 1830's, it might very well be of the type presented to Victoria by her cousin Albert.

Brise Fan detail
Display from Kyoto Fashion Museum
Our earliest recorded images of fans seem to be made of feathers.  While the first fans were probably made simply of palm fronds, once they became a fashionable accessory, they tended to employ more exotic and consequently expensive materials.  Like women's hats of the late 19th and 20th centuries, entire birds could find themselves mounted, especially during those Edwardian shooting parties, when the ladies would use feather fans of more native species such as, pheasant or grouse.

Jacobean lady with ostrich feather fan

Fans in the mid 19th century often combined elements such as painted silk, lace, feathers and ribbon embroidery.  The example below, while not from the collection of the fan museum, is an interesting example.  When closed, the "guard" is very beautiful and takes on the appearance of a nose gay.  Note the inset of the tiny mirror and gold filigree.  These details employ nicely the mid century interest in the Rococo Revival.  This fan once belonged to the Empress Eugenie of France.

With the advent of photography, the historian is allowed a wonderful opportunity to study the way that fans have been held, displayed and used.  The young girl below, circa 1860, is holding a fan as a suitable accessory which emphasizes a social position that further distinguishes her from her fellow contemporaries.

Mistress of Napoleon III

Souvenir fan of Paris Exposition

The Aesthetic Movement of the 1880's saw the rise of the fan to a decorative motif and ornament worthy of display on wall coverings, china and even in drapery treatments!  Peacock feathers were particularly characteristic of this period as western Europe embraced "Japonism".

By the end of the 19th century it was for formal wear that the fan really grew to outrageous proportions.  This was easily achieved with the use of the male ostrich feathers.  Longer and more luxurious than those of the female.  These fans were very high maintenance and the feathers had to be steamed by a "ladies maid" and the curls worked over a kettle.  When not in use, they would be folded away and stored in their protective boxes, in themselves, often a work of art.

Fan attitude
Feathers were often dyed in fashionable colours
The Wheel vareity, "en cabriolet"

1895, applique of lace, feathers and painted birds on silk
Mother of Pearl & Inlaid Guard

Fans remained popular well into the second quarter of the 20th century.  The example below reflects the influence of Paul Poiret and the Ballet Russes, both in it's colour and pattern.  While the fan remained popular amongst debutantes and those being presented at court, after the Second World War they seem to have faded from use.  Now, mainly of paper, they are only seen at the beach, picnic, or worse yet, in the souvenir shops that populate tourist areas.  

Circa 1914

I have only touched upon the holdings of this museum superficially.  The Fan Museum presents a fascinating and thought provoking experience as only a specialized collection can.  If you make it there, remember to plan ahead and arrange to have afternoon tea in the conservatory with its' view of the walled garden.

The Conservatory

Note:  I would like to thank and acknowledge my friend Penny Knapp for graciously allowing me to reproduce her photographs in this posting, as well as, my previous post around this tour.