Fashion History Talks! In conversation with historical novelist Susan Holloway Scott

“Fashion history continues to be perhaps our most tangible link to people from the past.”  –Susan Holloway Scott

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Image selection taken from Scott’s Instagram account @susan_holloway_scott_author

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Portrait of the author.

Susan Holloway Scott is not your typical costume designer. Her designs do not appear on the theater stage nor on a movie or television screen. In fact, her creations do not even require fabric, thread or a sewing machine. To truly see and experience Scott’s designs, all that is required is your imagination. Scott is an internationally celebrated author of over fifty books of historical fiction. Like any historical novelist, her well-researched books are based on real historical figures and events but she sets herself apart by enriching her books with incredibly detailed, historically-based descriptions of her character’s clothing, making her books that much more enticing for the historically inclined. Who doesn’t love a little romance and adventure with their fashion history?

Years of research and a genuine passion for history and, of course fashion history, inform Scott’s work making it a delightful and insightful read. It is a passion that informs her novels but also her Instagram page where she has a devoted following to whom she shares the beautiful historical portraiture that undoubtedly inspires her work. She is also the other half of the blog Two Nerdy History Girls, co-founded with historical romance author Loretta Chase. There you can find the research behind many of Scott’s books including her latest novel I, Eliza Hamilton, about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. So much more than the wife of Alexander Hamilton, she was a powerful, enigmatic heroine in her own right–and stylishly dressed at that! The book was just published in September by Kensington Books (available now on Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

It has been exactly two years since I started @the_art_of_dress Instagram and exactly two years that I have been following and inspired by @susan_holloway_scott_author. I am thrilled to feature her now on The Art of Dress!

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 7.05.41 AMTell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. Like many of the people that Cassidy has profiled here, my fascination with historical fashion began early. I pored over fashion books, and went to museums to draw the clothes I saw in portraits. I sewed my own clothes, and they always had historical influences (with weirdly mixed results when I look back on the photos!) I went to design school, determined to become a costume designer, but after a year I‘ll freely admit that I chickened out. I transferred to a liberal arts university, and studied art history instead.

But my obsession with historical clothing and fashion hadn’t gone away; it had simply morphed in another direction. I continued to study and read on my own, learning whatever and wherever I could, and I still do. I find inspiration not only in books and journals, but also in portraits as well as in actual garments in museums and other collections. When I began to write and publish fiction, I always use dress as a way to make my characters and their actions more real, and more sympathetic to readers. So in a way, I did end up in costume design, but I use words instead of textiles.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 8.22.40 AMWhy is the study of fashion history important to you? There is nothing more personal and more unifying than clothing. It’s one of the few things that is truly universal: everyone wears clothing, and any deliberate choice that’s made in dressing becomes a personal fashion statement. Fashion isn’t limited to Parisian couture. The 19thc farmer’s wife in Kansas tying the bow on her calico sunbonnet a certain way was making as valid a fashion statement as the French heiress in a Worth gown. Because of this, fashion history continues to be perhaps our most tangible link to people from the past.

As a writer, what a character wears and how s/he wears those clothes can reveal so much. I don’t mean a head-to-toe laundry-list, like a red-carpet description, but the more subtle things. Clothing can reveal an individual’s personal status, social rank, morality, nationality, ambitions, sexuality, taste, age, health, self-confidence, patriotism, and a thousand other things besides.

And, of course, so many of the clothes of the past were just so beautiful that they’re irresistible.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 7.13.41 AMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I believe it is. That question is probably tied in to the larger one – What is art? – which can be endlessly debated, and has no right or wrong answers, either. It’s so completely subjective. But to me, fashion is art because it represents the same degree of thoughtfulness, of self-expression, and of conscious choices, that characterizes more traditional and accepted types of art like painting, drawing, and sculpture. I know that there are critics who believe that fashion exhibitions have no place in fine art museums, but to me their sheer popularity proves how much people admire and respond to clothes and fashion. That’s proof enough to me that fashion and art should be seen not as rivals, but as sisters from the same family.

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Ensemble, Alexander McQueen, autumn/winter 2008-9, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: 

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Scott used this painted silk Robe à la Polonaise, c1780 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as inspiration for Hamilton’s wedding dress.

Since my favorite period of both history and historical fashion is the 18th century, and there are no known “designers” (except, perhaps, Rose Bertin) from that era, I’ll give the crown to all those now-anonymous mantua-makers who created such memorable garments with phenomenal skill, dedication, and creativity. As for a contemporary designer, for me it’s McQueen – both the sorrowfully missed genius of Alexander McQueen, and the house that continues with his name under his brilliant successor Kate Burton. No other fashion house combines the past with the present so imaginatively and so provocatively, and with such dedication to sheer craftsmanship. I can always be seduced by beautiful hand-stitching, beading, and embroidery.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? One? Only one? ::sigh:: Then let me make that one a book that’s out-of-print, but easy to find second-hand: Ingres in Fashion: Representations of Dress & Appearances in Ingres’s Images of Women by Aileen Ribeiro. Any fashion history by Ms. Riberio is going to be a winner, but this one (primarily featuring early 19thc French dress) is just gorgeous, with some of the most ravishing and detailed images of clothes, accessories, and jewelry to be found in any book.

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Mia Malkowski in Jane Eyre with Costume Design by Michael O’Connor.

If you had to recommend one film for the costumes alone, what would it be   The 2011 Jane Eyre, with costumes by the incomparable Michael O’Connor. Not only did the costumes perfectly reflect each character, but they were also exquisitely accurate to the period, with a lived-in quality achieved by flawless accessories.

This costume from Jane Eyre perfectly shows Jane transformation into a wealthy heiress and independent woman at the end of the film.

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“Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton)” by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.

Can you share an excerpt from one of your books that shows how you “dress” your characters? Sure! Here’s a short excerpt from I, ELIZA HAMILTON.

It’s January, 1780, and twenty-one-year-old Eliza Schuyler has come to visit her aunt at the Continental Army’s winter encampment in Morristown, NJ. Today she’ll be presented to Martha Washington, wife of the army’s commander-in-chief – and if Eliza is lucky, her paths will also cross with Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton.

I’d dressed with great care for this presentation. I wore a blue silk Brunswick jacket, close-fitting and edged with dark fur, and a matching petticoat, quilted with a pattern of diamonds and swirling flowers. My gloves were bright green kidskin, and on my head was the one extravagant hat I’d brought with me, its sweeping brim covered in black velvet and crowned with a profusion of scarlet ribbons. I had a weakness for tall hats, for I felt they added height to my small stature, and kept me from being overlooked in a crowd. Lady Washington was said to be a lady of fashion, and before the war, she’d ordered the finest of everything from London. I hoped she would appreciate the effort I’d made in her honor to dress with fashion and taste, even in the middle of a military encampment.

But I’d other reasons, too. The general’s aides-de-camp were quartered in the same house, and followed the general’s orders from his office. There was an excellent possibility that I might encounter Colonel Hamilton, and I wanted to be sure he took note of me. . . .

As we arrived, the bustle of activity around the house was like a beeskep surrounded by swarms of the busiest of bees coming and going. Soldiers and horses, wagons and sleds and sleighs, and all of them moving briskly on the army’s business. The cold air was filled with the sounds of orders given, of barked conversations, and the jingle of harnesses and the creak of wooden wheels over the packed snow. There were several small fires with men clustered about them for warmth, and bright flags on staffs that proclaimed that this was in fact the army’s headquarters.

My aunt and I climbed down from our sleigh before the house, and I followed her up the steps to the sentry. Among so many men in dark cloaks and uniforms, I felt like a gaudy parrot in my bright clothes. I also felt acutely female in the midst of so many men, and though I held my head high and pretended to take no notice, I sensed every eye upon me as I stood there on the whitewashed steps, my skirts swaying in the breeze and the bright ribbons of my hat dancing around my face. I might be short, but no one was overlooking me now….

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An earlier example of a Brunswick jacket Portrait of Lady Mary Fox by Pompeo Batoni, 1767. According to Colonial Williamsburg’s glossary of colonial lady’s clothing the Brunswick is, “A three-quarter length jacket worn with a petticoat, the Brunswick was an informal gown or a traveling gown. It had a high neck, unstiffened bodice that buttoned, long sleeves, and frequently had a sack back (loose pleats) and a hood.”

More of Scott’s books can be found for purchase here. You can also find out more about her on her website, and  author blog, as well as her history blog. She is also on Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Anna Yanofsky of The Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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From ancient Coptic textiles to contemporary haute couture, the historic dress collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a treasure trove of culturally and historically significant pieces. I have spent hours browsing the seemingly endless online database (437,732 items have been digitized to date) and, while I have shared many pieces from the collection with you on my Instagram, there are thousands upon thousands of objects that I have yet to discover!  For most of us, browsing online is the closest we will ever get to examining these exquisite pieces up close. I can only imagine what it would be like to physically handle, examine and research this world-class collection. It is another fantasy entirely to get paid to do it. And yet for Anna Yanofsky, Collections Manager Assistant at the The Costume Institute, dreams really do come true.

The Costume Institute is the name for the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories representing “five continents and seven centuries of fashionable dress, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children, from the fifteenth century to the present.” Anna has worked at the Institute since graduating (with me!) in 2012 with her Masters in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but she has loved fashion ever since she was a young girl. Her passion for the subject is inspiring and I am excited to present her Fashion History Talks! below. Thank you Anna!

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This 18th century robe à la polonaise is one of Anna’s favorite garments in the Costume Institute at The Metropolitant Museum of Art where she works as a Collections Management Assistant.

Please provide readers with a description of your job and how it relates to the history of fashion and dress: My title is Collections Management Assistant in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In my role I spend a lot of quality time with objects of all shapes, sizes, and kinds. The Collections Team is responsible for the proper storage and care of objects–which involves strategizing the placement of objects within the space we have available, and packing them archivally to suit their needs. Each object presents its own unique challenges based on its materials and structure. In addition we are constantly pulling and presenting pieces for curatorial viewings and conservation treatments.

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Marion Cotillard in Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine, December 2012.

Why is the study of fashion history important to you? My professional dedication to the study of fashion history is born of a nascent obsession with fashion that I can never remember not having. I may have been the only 8-year-old watching Style with Elsa Klensch on weekend mornings and paying for my copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar with my wadded-up allowance (four dollars because I was in the fourth grade). Fashion magazines were my ticket to an alternate universe of beauty and style. In those magazines I was not only transported through editorials, but I was also reading about art, politics, and culture. As I advanced in my education, I realized that fashion history is the study of so many topics at once: world history, design, materials, technology, sociology, and much more. A fashion object or photograph can educate you fully and deeply about a moment in history, or a culture, or an economic principle. Fashion is an entry point into looking at the world around us in a more profound way. Also, it is accessible. We all get dressed. We all express our identity and place in time and space through the clothes we wear. We are all participating in fashion on some level.

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Grès, Strapless evening dress (detail), Spring/Summer 1964,©Stéphane Piera/ Galleria/ Roger-Viollet from Another Magazine, September 12, 2012.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Some fashion is art; some is not. There are a select few designers who put ideas into clothing and treat fashion as a medium for conceptual communication. And then there are those who sell clothes in a more utilitarian way. Couture as it is traditionally constructed, with the highest attention to skilled craft, is undoubtedly artfully made–but even couture isn’t necessarily art. The complicating factor of this topic is always commerce. Clothes are made to be sold and worn and discarded for something newer and better each season. This leaves many with the perception of it as an impure artform, one created for profit rather than the expression of inspiration and creativity. However, when you see certain garments, there is little denying that they capture the essence of artistic creation as aptly as a painting or sculpture.

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Madame Grès, photographed by Crespi for Femina, April 1949.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Just one? I’ll say that ever since I laid eyes on a garment by Madame Gres I have had an utter fashion history crush on her. The pleating of her dresses is simply extraordinary in person and symbolizes a Classicism

that is eternally chic. Her designs are powerful in such a feminine way. In spite of the flow of the yards of fabric she uses, the tight pleating creates a firm structure–to her bodices especially–that leave them with a protective, almost armor-like quality. The effect is totally dichotomous. She also had a career that spanned decades successfully (from the 1930s to the 1980s), with some of her most interesting designs emerging in the 1970s. I thought that Raf Simons’ interpretation of the Christian Dior aesthetic was so beautiful and modern while still respecting the history of the house. His most recent eponymous menswear collection featured photographs from the Robert Mapplethorpe archives in a very pleasing way. I am a sucker for a photographic print in textile form! I am excited to see how he can revive Calvin Klein.

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Cover of Teen Vogue photographed by Sean Thomas, December 2016.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I know this isn’t a book, but subscribe to Teen Vogue! Their recent coverage of political and social issues has been so incredibly smart. I’ve heard a lot about how shocked people are by the fact that a fashion magazine–geared towards teenage girls, no less–could have such adept coverage of complex issues, but I’m not surprised. My consciousness was raised on fashion magazines. There is no exclusionary binary between a love of fashion and an interest in the complexities of the world. In fact, they are so much more related than people may initially think. A balance of beauty and brains are what we should all be encouraging in each other. Also, subscribing to quality content is so important in this moment. We need to financially support the sources we appreciate.

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The No. 7 issue of the environmentally conscious publication A Green Beauty features Anna’s latest article on fast fashion and can be digitally downloaded here.

 *First image of model Cara Delivigne in Christian Dior Haute Couture by Raf Simons. Photographed by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful for W Magazine, December 2013.