Fashion History Talks! In conversation with author and curator Keren Ben-Horin

“Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language.” –Keren Ben-Horin

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The Fair-Isle Jumper (1923) by Stanley Cursiter. The City of Edinburgh Council. 2014 Artists Rights Society, NY/DACS, London.

T-shirts. A jacket. Blue jeans. Garments we all own–and have always owned–and yet perhaps have never really taken the time to consider. Where exactly did these staples of our everyday wardrobe come from? And what is their historical and cultural significance? A recently published book The Sweater: A History takes readers on a sartorial and around-the-world journey through the life of one of the world’s most ubiquitous garments, asking readers to re-examine a garment we might otherwise continue to take for granted.

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Vintage postcard, 1908. Collection of J.M.

As with most items of clothing, the sweater’s origin is rooted in practicability and function, being used as both protection from the elements and as a source of warmth–and weight loss. Wait, what? As the book reveals, the term sweater was coined in the 1880s from a garment used in Regency England that helped its wearers lose weight by…drum roll please…inducing sweating! Suddenly it all makes sense! Another interesting etymology discussed in the book is the origin of the term “cardigan,” which comes from the title given to James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), a controversial British officer of the Crimean War.

 

This book is full of interesting tidbits and information, many of which were provided by the book’s editor and contributing author Keren Ben-Horin. The Art of Dress is thrilled to have Keren as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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Fashionably dressed young women, mid-1920s. Collection of J.M.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? The more I study fashion history the more I appreciate the unique perspective it offers on human experiences. I get very frustrated when fashion is dismissed and thought of as frivolous and superficial, especially in academia. In my writing I use fashion to paint a narrative of social, cultural, and political change. Fashion is a very sensitive seismograph of change and it’s an accessible tool for self-expression. Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language, it’s a tactile commination tool that anyone can use to say something about who they are, what they are, and where they are in their lives.

Woman's Sweater, 1928 (hand-knitted wool)

Woman’s Sweater, 1928 (hand-knitted wool) Schiaparelli, Elsa (1890-1973)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Fashion can be art. One of the things that I have learned working on The Sweater: A History is that when it comes to sweater design, many designers use yarn the way a painter uses brushstrokes- that is, as an artistic tool of self-expression. Throughout the book we bring so many examples of designers who not only take inspiration from art but also experiment with materials and forms to produce garments that are wearable works of art. We show designs from contemporary designers like Sandra Backlund, Julia Ramsey, Alice Lemoine, and Johan Ku, who create sweaters that are keen to wearable sculptures. Another, earlier example is of course the famous Elsa Schiaparelli, tromp l’oeil bow sweater, which she developed with an Armenian knitter. The unique technique this knitter introduced to Schiaparelli combined two strands of yarns in contrasting colors alternating between the face and the back of the fabric to create patterns, the result is a tweed-like effect which Vogue in 1927 described as “an artistic master piece,” [1] and Schiaparelli herself said it was “reminiscent of the impressionist school of painting.”[2]

 

Another example that I love is a collection of elaborate, strikingly beautiful sweaters by designer Paul B. Magit which he developed with the artist Erté. When Magit approached him with this idea to collaborate, Erte was already 93 years old! They worked together and chose twelve artworks that Erté created during his twenty-year tenure at Harper’s Bazaar. Magit interpreted them into gorgeous jacquard patterns, very technically intricate, and showed them on oversized sweaters and sweater dresses.

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Fashionably dressed young women, mid-1920s. Collection of J.M.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Claire McCardell is my favorite American designer past and present. Her designs still look modern today. She revolutionized the ready-to-wear market and how young women dressed, I wished she was more widely recognized. My current favorite has to be shared between Raf Simon and Dries Van Noten. Although they are so different stylistically I do adore them equally!

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BBB Captain James Hogan wearing football uniform with the letter “Y”, c. 1906. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington D.C.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I recently finished the book Gods and Kings: the rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano by Dana Thomas. I picked it up at the sale table in the MET store, excepting not much more than a good read. The book, however, is so well researched and it rekindled my appreciation of both designers. I learned so much about their design process, down to the details of how specific clothes were conceived. It sent me down the rabbit hole that’s YouTube to watch old videos of runway shows.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? I would say Orlando with Tilda Swinton has wonderful period costumes. Another movie of hers that I love not only for the costumes (although not a period movie) is I Am Love. Her wardrobe was designed by Raf Simons and it perfectly reflects the restraint and severity of the character.

FINAL COVERcroppedThe Sweater: A History was written by Jane Merrill, Gaile DeMeyere and Keren Ben-Horin. As with many fashion historians, Keren is a wearer of many hats–all of the fashionable variety of course. Historian, author, adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Berkeley College in New York, Keren was also a fashion designer for over a decade. She recently curated an exhibition Cutting Edges: Israeli Fashion and Design, which runs April 21-July 30, 2017 at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in Manhattan.

Citations:

[1] Vogue, December 15, 1927.

[2] Elsa Schiaparelli, Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli (London: V&A Publications, 2007)

Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Janine of Guermantes Vintage

“For me vintage clothing fuses these two ideas — the power of a transportive essential memory, and the magic and sublime quality of art, the mythic quality that clothing can impart to its wearer.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.49.20 PMFor the longest time, I associated the term “vintage” with only the most accessible of period garments. I often come upon cotton shift dresses from the 1960s in my local thrift store, even 1950s dresses can be purchased at any local Buffalo Exchange! And yet, in all the times I used to speak about vintage clothing, I never once considered pieces from the 1920s or 1930s, instead assigning those rare items a museum-worthy status. il_fullxfull.989183928_g9uhThe garments and accessories from these bygone eras were unattainable in my mind, meant to be admired but never worn… That is, until I came across @guermantesvintage, the Instagram for the Etsy store of the same name. No cotton 1960s shifts here, shop owner Janine’s store is reserved for only the most rare and divine of pieces, hand-selected by Janine herself with many coming from her personal collection. Heartbreakingly beautiful, mouth-watering sweet, emotion-invokingly beautiful–only a few of the  phrases that come to mind every time I browse Janine’s Instagram or online shop where at any one time, one can find a 1930s Vionnet day dress or a 1920s Halloween costume. Janine’s discerning eye is as playful as it is seductive and her collection runs the gamut from 1970s Zunitoon rings (“Zuni tribe Native-American made silver and inlaid stone rings depicting popular cartoon characters”) to exceptionally-rare WWII silk lingerie sets sent home by soldiers stationed overseas to their sweethearts at home. Janine most recently made her archives available on an online museum and, lucky for us, she recently took the time to answer some questions from The Art of Dress!

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.04.12 PMWhy is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? When I first started my business back in 2012 I was really inspired by Proust’s ideas about memory, and the power of an object (like the famous Madeleines, for example) to have a transportive power. I feel that historic textiles has a similar effect and power. Clothing is pregnant with cultural information and additionally carries the mark and essence of those who created and owned it.

Proust also notably wrote about the transportive power of clothing through his narrator’s obsession with the Duchesse de Guermantes (who, by the way, was inspired by the real-life Countess Greffulhe, whose incredible wardrobe was the subject of twin exhibitions in Paris and in New York this past year! I nearly cried when I saw it!) This obsession was hinged largely on her exquisite clothing, which was as powerful to him as a great work of art.Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.04.55 PM

For me vintage clothing fuses these two ideas — the power of a transportive essential memory, and the magic and sublime quality of art, the mythic quality that clothing can impart to its wearer. I get a lot of questions about the name “Guermantes.” The name represents my feelings about vintage textiles and their importance, both as signifiers and as art objects.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.44.34 PMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I personally do see pieces in my collection as art, definitely. but I don’t think the label of “art” in this case so significant. Textiles are incredibly important, fascinating, and beautiful, whether they are referred to specifically as ART or not. In my experience, fashion and textiles are at least as moving and emotionally and aesthetically impactful as great works of fine art.

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1930s Halloween costume recently for sale on GuermantesVintage on Etsy.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: I’m not big into labels and designers, generally, and I admit I don’t follow modern fashion at all. I do really love Lanvin’s robes de style and Worth’s evening gowns. But in my own collecting I definitely prefer unusual examples of everyday clothing, often handmade by the original owner. I’m obsessed with antique circus and Halloween costumes for example. My current holy grail item is an original lingerie set made of silk WWII escape maps. I’ve been looking for one for the longest time. I only know of a couple examples: one set owned by the Imperial War Museum, and a few pieces in the Museum of London collection. I have a huge collection of WWII lingerie from east Asia, which soldiers stationed abroad would send home to their sweethearts. Those pieces are so much more special to me than any of the designer pieces I’ve had.

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One of many rare sets of WWII lingerie sets in Janine’s personal collection.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I love Beauty in Exile, by Alexandre Vassiliev. It’s a great book about the impact and contribution of Russian emigrees to the fashion world in the early 20th century. I was a Russian major in college so it’s really the perfect book for me. A lot of designers and houses that were quite influential and created beautiful work have largely been forgotten.

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1920s dress featured in the online museum at GuermantesVintage.com.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? Salome (1923) comes to mind. The overall aesthetic of that movie is really surreal and cool. Very unusual costumes and set design. The costumes were designed by Natacha Rambova and inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play.