American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection
- Dates: May 7, 2010 through August 1, 2010
American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection
This exhibition offers a comprehensive overview of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, one of America’s earliest and greatest collections of fashion design. Comprising more than twenty-five thousand items dating from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, it was formed over the course of nearly a hundred years through the collective efforts of generations of Museum personnel, donors, and benefactors. While the initial goal was to provide inspiration for the American design and fashion industries (see nearby Design Lab label), a dual focus developed in the mid-twentieth century as fashionable clothes were increasingly recognized as aesthetic objects to be displayed for the enjoyment of the public. Today the collection is especially known for its rich holdings of works by the great designers of Europe and America, artists whose clothes were the ultimate expression of style for the American women who wore them.
In January 2009, the Museum entered into a landmark partnership that transferred ownership and care of the collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art while at the same time preserving its identification with, and availability to, the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition celebrates the collection, the people who formed it, and the innovative arrangement that will ensure its preservation.
Because a celebration calls for bringing out the best, the pieces on view here are extraordinary examples of their type. The exhibition is made up of six groupings that represent the collection’s major areas of strength: three showing works by significant individual designers and three including works by several different but related designers. Footwear, also a major component of the collection, is interspersed throughout the exhibition, as are pieces designated as “rarities”— unique objects that, while they come from other areas of the collection, are of such distinction that the exhibition would be diminished without their inclusion.
Consulting Curator for the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The House of Worth
Charles Frederick Worth is a key figure in fashion history. Using innovative ideas and mid-nineteenth-century technological advances such as the transatlantic steamship and the sewing machine, he was the first to build a dressmaking business of international scope. In so doing he established the blueprint for the great French couture houses of the twentieth century. One of his most significant contributions was to transform the perception of dressmaking from craft to art by raising aesthetic and technical standards and identifying himself as an artist.
The House of Worth continued for nearly a hundred years (from the 1850s to 1950s) under the leadership of three successive generations. Worth’s sumptuous clothes were the gold standard for an American and European clientele of royals, aristocrats, and social elites in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Opulent textiles were the single most outstanding feature of Charles Frederick Worth’s garments. They represented the highest quality and sophistication the renowned French luxury textile industry was producing at the time.
The first Worth garments to enter the Brooklyn Museum collection, donated in 1926, were twelve ensembles, dating from 1887 to 1905, from the wardrobe of Emma Frink Perry (1848–1926), wife of William Alfred Perry, a member of the Pierrepont family of Brooklyn. Two of those ensembles are displayed here. Other gifts followed, including the largest, from Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt (see Donor Spotlight).
French Couture, 1900-1940
The term haute couture means, in its narrowest sense, “finest sewing,” a reference to the technical virtuosity that is the essence of couture clothing. More broadly, throughout the twentieth century, it referred to the clothes themselves and to the vast French fashion system organized around the individual couture houses that produced them.
Clothes by the great French couture houses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are considered the pinnacle of fashion’s art, and costume curators prize them highly. The elements at the heart of couture fashion are innovative design, custom fitting, specialized handwork, and materials of the finest quality. Clients have been willing to pay the considerable extra cost involved for the comfort, flattering line, and sense of exclusivity that a couture gown or suit imparts.
While Worth and several other smaller houses constituted the couture industry between 1860 and 1890, many more houses opened between 1890 and 1914. The prominent designers represented here (called couturiers or couturières) all began their businesses during this period.
The Brooklyn Museum’s holdings of early couture were transformed from adequate to outstanding by a 1967 gift comprising more than 300 fashions and accessories dating from the 1860s to the 1940s from Virginia Mitchell Prince (Mrs. Frederick H. Prince Jr.).
French couturière Elsa Schiaparelli is best known for the iconoclastic bravado and unrestrained, at times brazen, originality of her work. Her career spanned more than two decades and was at its height between 1934 and 1940. While her contemporaries Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet set the period’s standards of taste and beauty in fashion design, Schiaparelli flouted convention in the pursuit of a more idiosyncratic style. As much an artist as a dressmaker, she incorporated into her work themes and imagery associated with Surrealism, the artistic and philosophical movement originating in the 1920s that, in part, explored the unconscious through works depicting dreamlike imagery of a bizarre, illogical, and provocative nature. Distilling these ideas through her own creative process, she imbued her designs with thematic elements inspired by contemporaneous events, erotic fantasy, traditional and contemporary art, mythology, and her own psyche. Her repertoire of inventive devices included experimental fabrics with pronounced textures; bold prints with unorthodox imagery and colors; opulent embroideries; outsized and exposed zippers; and distinctive buttons and ornaments that ranged from the whimsical to the bizarre.
American Women Designers, 1920-1980
The eight women whose work is displayed here were the most prominent of the female designers whose careers began in the United States between the two World Wars. Three of them, including Elizabeth Hawes, had established their own custom businesses by the early 1930s. They created luxurious, high-style made-to-order clothing for affluent private clients. In the same period, Eta Hentz designed expensive, custom-finished ready-to-wear clothes made in standard sizes.
A second wave—Bonnie Cashin, Carolyn Schnurer, Vera Maxwell, and Claire McCardell—rose to prominence during the 1940s. Working within the structure of the bustling ready-to-wear garment industry centered on New York’s Seventh Avenue, they honed their innovative skills in response to wartime restrictions and matters of practicality and comfort. Collectively, the work of these four originated the uniquely American sportswear aesthetic that was to become the country’s most important contribution to twentieth-century fashion.
Owing to the associations that most of these women had with the Brooklyn Museum’s Industrial Division and later the Design Lab, the Museum’s holdings of their works is unparalleled in scope and quality. Maxwell, Cashin, Hentz, and Schnurer each made multiple donations of their creations over a span of forty years.
American Men Designers, 1930-1980
Two different generations are represented in this group of American men designers. Mainbocher, Norman Norell, and Gilbert Adrian established their careers in the 1930s and 1940s, while the others gained prominence in the postwar period. Nearly all designed for the high-end ready-to-wear market, with a few offering custom lines for private clients as well.
As a whole, the men’s output represents a different point of view about dressing than that of the women designers. Their clothes put forward a polished, formal look for day and a glamorous aura worthy of grand entrances and the photographer’s flash at night. Reflecting the postwar resurgence of French couture, precedence is given to luxurious fabrics, quality workmanship, and fashion-forward style over comfort, adaptability, and functionality. American culture changed in this period as well, and sportswear took its place alongside a structured yet decorative and feminine look appropriate for the American woman’s expanding roles.
Clothes by these designers were donated to the Brooklyn Museum between 1954 and the late 1990s. Gifts from the sons of Millicent Rogers included some fifty items by Mainbocher, and the actress Lauren Bacall donated more than seventy works by Norman Norell.
Charles James has achieved cult status in the field of fashion as much for his legacy of unforgettable creations as for the magnetic force of his complex personality and the unorthodoxy of his creative process. Not having had formal training in dressmaking, he developed his own methodology based on mathematical, architectural, and sculptural concepts. He worked in the pure couture tradition, creating new forms for some of America’s most prominent women. The highly structured shapes of his evening designs of the late 1940s and early 1950s are what he is best known for. Yet his more subtle designs, reliant upon innovative seaming, precise cut, and skillful manipulation of fabric, are of equal importance in understanding his talent.
Charles James and Brooklyn
Charles James was closely involved with the Brooklyn Museum’s design services in the 1940s and 1950s. Constantly seeking ways to pass on his work and knowledge to future designers, he collaborated with Museum personnel on several projects to develop patterns from his custom designs that could be reproduced for the mass market. One of those projects resulted in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum’s Design Lab, A Decade of Design, which showed primarily clothing he had made for Millicent Rogers together with duplicates—created especially for the exhibition—of the patterns from which those fashions were derived.
James is largely responsible for the Museum’s unparalleled holdings of his work. Because he considered it crucial that his clothing and related materials be available for study, he convinced many of his most important clients and benefactors—among them Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil—to donate or purchase his designs for the collection.
Charles James Sketches
The more than 350 sketches by Charles James in the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection were purchased from James and subsequently donated to the Museum in 1957. Starting with three sketchbooks that cover the period from 1935 to 1940, the collection tracks James’s design process from that early period to the mid-1950s.
Drawn on ledger, notebook, typing, lined, and graph paper, as well as menu backs and other unconventional formats, the sketches provide insight into James’s restless creativity, which led him to the endless variations of the geometric and biomorphic forms that are the basis of his singular artistry in dress. Most of the sketches are annotated in his hand.
French Couture, 1946-1970
When Christian Dior established his house in 1947, he revitalized postwar French couture with his first collection, dubbed “The New Look” by the press. The decade that followed was known as the Golden Age of Couture. Clients were plentiful, and the decade’s preeminent designers, such as Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, Mme. Grès, and Jean Dessès, produced some of the most exquisite designs of their careers. The winds of change were blowing, however, and by 1960 the popularity of ready-to-wear boutiques and a youth-oriented style had begun to erode the couture industry’s client base. In 1966, in response to this trend, Yves Saint Laurent inaugurated the first ready-to-wear line to be produced by a couture house.
At the time the clothes exhibited here were made, the Museum’s reputation as a center for fashion research was at its peak, and it received donations of later French couture from many different sources. One of the largest and most important was from style icon and film producer Jane Holzer, who was also a member of the circle of New York personalities the artist Andy Warhol called his “Superstars.”
In 1942 the staff of the Brooklyn Museum Art Reference Library sent a questionnaire to seventy-five American designers requesting biographical data and sketches of their work in order to support the mission of the Industrial Division and the Costume and Textiles Department to provide resource materials to the design community. The enthusiastic response resulted in an extraordinary archive documenting American fashion design of the 1930s and early 1940s that continued to grow throughout the 1940s and 1950s. One of the many respondents, Elizabeth Hawes, contributed a sketch archive documenting her output through the 1940s. This sampling relates for the most part to Hawes garments held in the Brooklyn Museum Collection, including the “Diamond Horseshoe” and “Tarts” dresses on view nearby.
Footwear is introduced at four moments in this exhibition. Early examples are shown here, while later sections focus on the work of designer Steven Arpad and an extraordinary group of shoes collected by Charline Osgood. The Brooklyn Museum owes its extensive footwear holdings to the donations of many individuals, especially as shoes are frequently included in gifts from personal wardrobes. Yet there are four major shoe acquisitions that establish the footwear collection’s unique character. In addition to the Arpad and Osgood donations, the Museum holds an extensive assortment of historic footwear assembled by Herman Delman, founder of the exclusive Delman shoe company, and later twentieth-century footwear given by the American shoe designer Beth Levine.
Steven Arpad Shoe Prototypes
Steven Arpad’s 1947 donation to the Brooklyn Museum comprises an extraordinary group of more than seventy-five shoe prototypes accompanied by an extensive sketch archive that he produced in Paris in 1939. Arpad worked in Paris before the Second World War designing shoes for Balenciaga and the American firms Delman and I. Miller, while simultaneously operating Arpad Neccessoires, a jewelry design and embroidery business. He moved to New York in 1940 and continued his multifaceted career there. Ironically, five pairs of shoes known to have been designed by him entered the Museum in other ways. (Two of them were identified through the sketch archive.) Together, his sketches, prototypes, and finished shoes document his creative process.
The Osgood Footwear Collection
Charline Osgood was the director of the Kid Leather Guild, an organization of American manufacturers of this soft, pliable leather, also known as kidskin. In the mid-1950s, kid leather was used in America primarily for gloves. In hopes of persuading American shoe manufacturers to begin using kidskin, then routinely used in European shoes, the guild sent Osgood on several trips to Europe between 1954 and 1959 to collect the finest high-style examples. During her travels she collected more than 170 pairs of shoes, primarily by prominent Italian makers.
Upon her return Osgood gave presentations at trade shows outlining important shoe design trends. With her 1960 donation of her collection to the Museum, she included transcripts from three of her presentations. The transcripts and collection together provide an unusually detailed perspective on mid-1950s high-style European shoe design. This case presents a small selection of single shoes; a second group of footwear collected by Osgood is exhibited later in the exhibition.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, when hats were an essential part of the well-dressed woman’s wardrobe, Sally Victor was among the foremost American milliners. From the time she opened her firm in 1934, she sought to create hats that had the chic of French couture yet were affordable to the average American woman. An early participant in the design services offered by the Museum, she regularly and enthusiastically mined the depths of its vast collections for inspiration. She had a staggeringly varied repertoire of design sources ranging from African headwear to paintings by twentieth-century French artists. Between 1941 and 1964 Victor donated more than a hundred hats to the Museum. They represent not only her own creative output but also the American woman’s changing preferences in fashionable headwear.
Donor Spotlight: Sarah Hewitt (1858-1930) and Eleanor Hewitt (1864-1924)
The single largest donation of Worth garments to the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection came from the estate of the highly accomplished sisters Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt. They were the principal founders of what is now the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, which opened in 1897. The Hewitt sisters grew up in a home at 9 Lexington Avenue, and their privileged lives included trips to the House of Worth in Paris, where they were regular customers. Having had early collegial associations with the originators of the Brooklyn Museum collections, they stipulated that much of their clothing be donated to the Museum upon their deaths. The gift included twenty-two Worth ensembles ranging from simple cotton daywear to elaborate evening wear and dating from 1875 to 1902, a sartorial document of their fascinating lives.
Donor Spotlight: Millicent Rogers (1900-1953)
The Brooklyn Museum owes its extensive holdings of works by Elsa Schiaparelli, as well as by Charles James and Mainbocher, to the philanthropist, artisan, and arbiter of style Millicent Huttleston Rogers and her heirs. Rogers, a granddaughter of one of the founders of Standard Oil, had the means to buy fine couture clothing and the confidence and panache to wear even the most extreme examples. She was also an early advocate for Native American rights. Her important collection of Hispanic and Native American art, as well as the jewelry she interpreted from it, forms the collection of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico, founded in 1956 by her son Paul Peralta-Ramos.
Donor Spotlight: Austine Hearst (1918-1991)
Austine McDonnell Hearst was the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection’s most devoted patron. For nearly forty years after Charles James introduced her to the Museum in 1952, she provided monetary, material, and personal support. Before and for a time after her marriage to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr., in 1948, Hearst had a thriving career as journalist, social columnist, and radio show host, which included a program entitled “Leave It to the Girls,” formatted not unlike today’s “The View.” A consummate woman of style, she was inducted into the Best-Dressed List International Hall of Fame in 1959. Between her first gift, in 1953, of material related to one of James’s projects and her last donation, in 1991, of several Mme. Grès evening gowns, she contributed nearly two hundred outstanding fashions and accessories by important French and American designers.
Rarities: Russian Headdresses
These headdresses (kokochniks) are part of a large collection of Russian costumes and textiles acquired by Natalia de Shabelsky (1841–1905), a Russian noblewoman who was inspired to preserve what she perceived as the vanishing folk art traditions of her native country. Traveling extensively throughout Great Russia from the 1870s until the end of the century, she collected many fine examples of textile art, which included extravagant festive costumes worn by women from the land-owning peasant class. They represent the Russian sense of opulence rendered with creativity by the hands of prosperous yet common people. Much of the collection was brought to the United States in the 1930s to be sold on behalf of the Shabelsky family. The donor purchased a large portion of it as a gift to the Brooklyn Museum.
Rarities: Helen Cookman Uniforms
New York fashion designer Helen Cookman was known for interpreting masculine styles in her fashions for women. After designing the uniforms worn by Red Cross nurse’s aides during World War II, she was commissioned to conceive eleven worker’s uniforms for Reeves Brothers, Inc., a New York textile manufacturer specializing in fabrics used in the aerospace and automotive industries. Each of Cookman’s uniforms is designed with task-specific features. The uniforms were worn not only to enhance functioning but also to signify membership in a specific group and convey its attributes. They offer insights into aspects of the social and cultural landscape of mid-twentieth-century America.
Rarities: The "Gratitude Train" Mannequins, 1949
In 1947 Americans sent food and clothing to France to help relieve hardships the French were enduring in the wake of World War II. Shipped in boxcars, this relief effort was dubbed the American Friendship Train. The next year the people of France organized a gift in-kind for America. The Gratitude, or Merci, Train was a set of forty-nine boxcars (one for each state, plus one to be shared between Washington, D.C., and the territory of Hawaii) filled with objects ranging from handmade children’s toys to works of art.
For its contribution, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, governing body of the French couture industry, opted to create a set of “dolls,” or small mannequins, like the ones they had produced in 1947 for a promotion titled Théâtre de la Mode. The theme was the evolution of two hundred years of French fashion. Each of the couturiers invited to dress the mannequins chose a year between 1715 and 1906 from which to interpret a costume. Their sources included works of art, literature, and historic fashion plates. All the designers involved in dressing and accessorizing the dolls were French.
The original intention was to include one doll in each boxcar, but, recognizing the Brooklyn Museum’s reputation as the country’s most prominent center for the study of design, the Chambre Syndicale chose the Museum’s newly opened Design Lab as the repository for them all.
The Design Lab
The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection was formed largely as a result of the Museum’s early dedication to serving as a link between the art world and the industrial and design communities. This mission was manifested in various ways, starting with the Textile Study Room in 1918, followed by the Industrial Division in 1940, and culminating in the opening of the Edward C. Blum Design Lab in 1948. Each of these entities influenced American fashion designers and manufacturers by collecting a wide variety of costume and textile works and making them available to members for research. Funded primarily by the Brooklyn-based department store Abraham & Straus, the Design Lab was a state-of-theart facility housed in the Museum that included offices, exhibition space, and eight soundproof workrooms equipped with scientific and industrial equipment. In the 1950s and 1960s the Design Lab’s growing renown as the country’s leading center of fashion research acted as a magnet for many important donations, including much of what is on view in this exhibition. High fashion has historically been accessible only to a select few, and consequently the designs here represent just a small slice of the fashion world; another, broader story remains to be told.