“Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language.” –Keren Ben-Horin
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.
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!
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.
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,”  and Schiaparelli herself said it was “reminiscent of the impressionist school of painting.”
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.
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!
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.
The 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.
 Vogue, December 15, 1927.
 Elsa Schiaparelli, Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli (London: V&A Publications, 2007)