Feathers and Fashion Volume 40.4

ROSEATE SPOONBILL WATERCOLOR (Platalea ajaja) by John James Audubon (1785-1851), circa 1831-32. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Photographs courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. Audubon admired these prehistoric-looking wading birds, the largest North American member of the ibis family. The beauty of their feathers brought the species to the brink of extinction by 1920. They survived after the Audubon Society dispatched wardens to protect them and urged the passage of strict conservation laws. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement.

The centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is a milestone for the field of ornithology, but the fashion world deserves to share in the celebrations, too. The passage of the Act—which prohibited the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds and regulated America’s commercial feather trade—was the direct result of women rallying together to resist the fashion for extravagantly beplumed hats that had devastated bird populations worldwide.

      In honor of what the National Audubon Society has declared the “Year of the Bird,” the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibition “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” blended fashion, activism and conservation science to honor the early environmentalists who helped turn the tide of public opinion against so-called “murderous millinery.” At a time when “ethical” and “sustainable” are once again trendy style buzzwords, the show served as both a cautionary tale and a call to action.

THE BIRD ON NELLIE’S HAT SHEET MUSIC, 1906. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, hats were essential year-round accessories for respectable women. But they were more social conventions and decorative accoutrements than practical sources of warmth or protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote French art critic Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise Art in Ornament and Dress (L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement). Hats increasingly incorporated not just feathers but bird’s wings, heads and even entire bodies.

Far from being seen as barbaric or macabre, these avian accessories were initially admired for their natural beauty, artful craftsmanship and scientific interest. At a time of rapid urbanization, they brought city dwellers closer to nature; there was a corresponding fad for terrariums and aquariums. In February 1900, Vogue described a chic Parisienne wearing a “little toque . . . adorned with a few upright wings of some sort of South American bird, the sleek feathers of which gleamed like jewels.” The dead birds might be mounted on wires to create the illusion of movement. Sometimes they were framed in a bucolic mise-en-scène of leaves, twigs, dead mice, and reptiles. Advances in taxidermy in the 1880s and ‘90s affected hats as well as hunting trophies.

Hats served as posthumous perches for everything from petite songbirds like starlings, parakeets and hummingbirds to large and flamboyant birds of paradise, peacocks and even owls, reanimated with glass eyes. Milliners might amp up their exoticism by assembling Frankenfowl hybrids from the head of one bird and the wings or tail feathers of another. Plumes were dyed colors unknown in nature, or formed into trompe l’oeil flowers.

RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER EARRINGS of preserved hummingbird heads, gold, metal, unidentified maker, probably London, England, circa 1865. Animal parts and insects decorated late nineteenth-century jewelry. In 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty as well as scientific fascination, the dazzling birds’ heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches, and fans. 

      “Colibri”—the French word for “hummingbird”—was slang for a frivolous person, making the diminutive creatures especially fitting fashion emblems. In 1889, the Parisian milliner Madame Josse created a toque trimmed with cut jet and “a dragonfly made of the breast-feathers of humming-birds,” according to the Millinery Trade Review. The English called hummingbirds “flying gems,” referencing their value as well as their beauty. The birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats, fans and pieces of jewelry; in 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method of setting them in gold and silver mounts. An example in the exhibit showed a pair of hummingbird-head earrings circa 1865 with the beaks tipped with gold.

Indeed, feathers adorned every part of a fashionable woman’s body. The enormous Roseate Spoonbill was a favorite of fan-makers; it was nearly extinct by 1920, though it rebounded after the Audubon Society dispatched protection wardens to its colonies. A bustled ice-blue satin evening gown of 1885 featured a swansdown-trimmed collar and train. Swans were an attribute of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, making their feathers an appropriate feminine ornament. Like the gown’s velvet underskirt and lace cuffs, swansdown was both expensive and sensual. It also played a part in beauty rituals, formed into powder puffs. Just as birds use their extravagant plumage to attract potential mates, so do people. 

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

      A delicate gold and diamond tiara—worn by a bride on her wedding day in 1894—sported trembling egret feathers instead of an aigrette, the feather-like spray of jewels named for the white bird who wears a lacy cape of plumage during nesting season. Egret feathers were scornfully dubbed the “white badge of cruelty” by wildlife advocates. They were worth a princely twenty dollars per ounce in 1915, according to The Tropic Magazine; as a result, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction. In 1902, about a ton and a half of egret plumes were sold in London, representing around 200,000 adult birds (and the destruction of two to three times that number of eggs).

 

GREAT EGRET WATERCOLOR (Ardea alba) by John James Audubon, 1821. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. The National Audubon Society adopted a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol in 1953. The sheer splendor of their aigrettes positioned the Great Egret on the edge of extinction by the early twentieth century. With conservation laws, the species has rebounded. AIGRETTE HAIR ORNAMENT (from a Snowy or Great Egret) of egret feathers, gold, gold wire, diamonds, J.H. Johnston & Co, NYC, 1894. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Mary S. Griffin, 1961. Mature Snowy and Great Egrets develop wispy feathers along their breasts, heads and tails during their breeding season. Because of this fleeting growth, these feathers were among the rarest milliners used.

HERRING GULL WATERCOLOR (Larus argentatus) by John James Audubon with George Lehman, 1831. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. ACCESSORY SET OF HERRING GULLS, feathers, silk, including muff and tippet, unidentified maker, USA, 1880–99. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009. This unusual muff and tippet, made with four adult Herring Gulls harvested during breeding season, demonstrates how accessory manufacturers exploited these birds.

 
At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone.

      Birds and birds’ wings were popular trimmings for the low, brimless hats called toques that trended in the Edwardian era, lending dimension and visual interest to minimalist style. “It’s the toque that dominates,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. “Birds, alas! entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat.” Though seagulls may not seem exotic today, the large Herring Gull species nearly went extinct due to its popularity for hats and other accessories around the turn of the century. A gruesome highlight of the show was a matching muff and tippet set made of carcasses from four adult Herring Gulls; their distinctive red markings indicate that the gulls were killed during breeding season, when their plumage was at its most spectacular.

 

MME. FAUCHÈRE TRADE CARD, circa 1894. Numerous feather traders, importers and manufacturers were located in New York City. Many of the feathers incorporated into clothing and hats were imported from South America, South Africa and Africa. Game and plume hunters from Florida, Texas and Louisiana supplied many of the domestic feathers. 

 

      Women were not the only fans of feathers, however; the nineteenth century was the great age of men in uniform, and the exhibition included a military hat brandishing an exotic scarlet plume. But it was women—often the very elites who helped popularize feathered fashions—who were the first to respond to the trend’s alarming consequences for the environment.

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including  Birds Through an Opera Glass  (1889), became important field guides. 

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), became important field guides. 

      At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone. South America and Africa (particularly France’s African colonies) provided the lion’s share of exotic birds. By 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of 300 million birds per year. This grim toll was exacerbated by the fact that birds were hunted when their feathers were at their most magnificent—that is, during mating and breeding seasons, which magnified the problem of hunting birds by disrupting their reproductive cycles and dooming their orphaned chicks to death.

GEORGE BIRD GRINNELL (1849–1938). Born in Brooklyn, Grinnell played a seminal role in American conservation. In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society (1905). He launched it from its publication Audubon Magazine as “an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs.”

      The growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Plumage League (later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889 and, in America, a series of regional Audubon Societies, named for ornithologist John James Audubon. (Fourteen life-sized watercolors of birds—depicted living, flying and in their natural habitats—from his landmark 1838 book The Birds of America were on display.) The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905; in 1953, it adopted an egret as its symbol.

In Gilded Age New York, socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall staged tea parties to try to persuade their rich friends to stop buying hats with real plumage. Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, campaigned passionately against wearing feathers during a residence with the Metropolitan Opera, offering her fans autographs in exchange for a promise not to wear feathers. Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithology student at Smith College, established a campus Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned her classmates’ hats.

Politicians and many in the fashion and feather trades pushed back against these protests; after all, jobs were at stake. A cottage industry of “willowers”—often Italian immigrants, sometimes children—who specialized in lengthening the short strands of inferior ostrich feathers were among those affected. The Act impacted these laborers as well as feather importers, hat manufacturers and retailers. Surprisingly, some naturalists and ornithologists rallied to the defense of the feather dealers, pointing out that their destructive tendencies had been exaggerated by ignorant if well-meaning activists, and it was not in their financial interests to hunt birds to the point of extinction.

However, the feather trade was not just devastating to bird populations but to the greater environment; gulls, for examples, are instrumental in keeping shorelines clean. It also impacted the fashion workers who toiled in dangerous conditions in tenements to create feathered hats. Eventually, these widespread moral and environmental concerns were codified into law in the form of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This landmark legislation is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, including the Snowy Egret, Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane. It also paved the way for later legal protections of wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

A similar statute, the Importation of Plumage Act, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1922. In France, where a guild of plumassiers—the artisans who dyed, shaped, processed, and sold feathers for use in apparel—had been active since the sixteenth century and retained considerable political power, change was slower to come. But it was undoubtedly hastened by formation of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) in 1912, as well as by World War I, which inaugurated a new era of minimalism in French fashion.

UNKNOWN WOMAN WEARING AN AUDUBONNET. American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections. The Audubon Society also addressed the feather craze by promoting “birdless hats” trimmed with a variety of ribbons, flowers and fabric.

      Feathers from game and poultry destined for the dinner table remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. Milliners found creative ways to lend exoticism to non-endangered farm fowl like ducks, geese and chickens, or create artificial exotic “birds” out of commonplace feathers and glue. Ethical “Audubonnets” were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and twists of fabric; Audubon chapters commissioned leading milliners to design them.

The tradition continues today. Paris-based Lemairé, which has been supplying feathers to haute couture houses for more than a century, routinely makes feathers from common barnyard birds look like exotic specimens. British milliner Stephen Jones, whose work has crowned the heads of Princess Diana and the new Duchess of Sussex, has long used farm fowl feathers and artificial feathers in his elaborate headpieces, in compliance with Audubon Society guidelines.

As feathered hats and frocks have cycled back into fashion in recent months—seen at royal weddings, on the red carpet and on the runways of design houses like Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Alexander McQueen—the morality of wearing feathers is once again being debated, just as many women are reluctant to wear fur or leather. Even down-filled winter coats are increasingly advertised as being “ethically sourced” and “cruelty free.” In February of this year, the Trump administration reversed a key provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saying it poses a burden for utilities and energy companies; wildlife advocates argue that this move effectively guts the law. Maybe the Audubonnet will make a comeback?

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” showed April 6 – July 15, 2018, at the
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024.
Visit their website at www.nyhistory.org.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Campbell-Headshot.jpg

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she explains the history behind the “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, tracing a fascinating line between exploitation and activism.

Stepping Out Volume 40.3

Stepping-Out-Title.jpg

SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Leslie-Clark.jpg

Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Iris van Herpen Volume 40.3

Iris-van-Herpen-Title.jpg

IRIS VAN HERPEN. Photograph courtesy of Jean Baptiste Mondino, Iris van Herpen and the Phoenix Art Museum.

A great deal of passion must reside within Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. An initial stroll through the capacious Steele Gallery, turned over to van Herpen’s “Transforming Fashion” at the Phoenix Art Museum, makes an immediate visceral jolt that gathers strength visually. Instead of succumbing to an ambiguous desire to flee what appears to be a disturbing alien command center, time begins to slow and the exhibition increasingly captivates, exercising upon one a more cerebral curiosity over the installation. Fifteen distinct collections of forty-five ensembles, dating between 2008 and 2015, are arranged mostly along two very long rows staged with vocalless sentinels garbed in the astonishing, unsettling aesthetic that physically transforms them. But the real experience takes place internally, as the world van Herpen has created is housed in a phantasma of dreams, revelations, nightmares, hallucinations, visions. It is unlikely that many will embrace it; observe it yes, willingly enter it, probably not.

      Since the young designer’s first collection in 2007, at the age of twenty-three, her work has transcended the shock value she is known for in the “gowns” designed for celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Björk, and Tilda Swinton. Her works are designed for the female form of which we are accustomed, but the body is really a springboard for sculptural compositions that serve her drive for incorporating modern discoveries and innovations into her collections. They have become an important vehicle for arriving at a place where her experimentations reveal something seminal and descriptive about the nature of the human body through the power of dress. A dialogue considered necessary, she has described, as being “between our inside and our outside.”

      Science and technology are her muse and the primary stimulus to her creations. And it is here that van Herpen’s evolving aesthetic vision is most consistent, reflecting a personal desire to plunge into and plumb the depths of what modern technology offers the human experience, positively and negatively. We have been living in such a world for some time; so van Herpen’s work is a venture in making sense of our quickly changing temporal landscape. It is one that no longer quantifies life in futuristic imaginings but in the daily here and now, whether we embrace it or endeavor to escape.

MICRO DRESS from 2012 collection of metallic coated stripes, tulle and cotton. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      “Looking around me,” she has written, “I consider what I can’t see as much as what I can see, and that transformative focus creates freedom in my work. Each garment and every collection is an embodiment to new understanding and discovery, on the conceptual level, on the level of materiality and on the level of femininity. It’s my search for new forms of femininity through organic silhouettes, delicate craftsmanship, innovation and the collaboration with other artists, architects and scientists.”

In her collections, van Herpen uses 3D printing for garment construction and materials such as laser-cut acrylic mesh and resin. More recently in Lucid, from 2016, one of her more fascinating iterations, she chose lucid dreaming as the subject, where the dreamer, while exercising some sense of control, is aware of dreaming. “When I design,” she says, “the draping process most of the time happens to me unconsciously. I see lucid dreams as a microscope with which I can look into my unconsciousness.” In a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley, Lucid manifests what van Herpen terms “the fine line between reality and unreality,” a useful theme that can be drawn throughout her collections. Astonishingly, one of the dresses was composed of five thousand TPU-92A-1 transparent hexagonal laser-cut elements, a thermoplastic polyurethane. This use on a grand scale of a modern material inspires some sense of awe.

From 2012, Micro is a collection inspired by scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner’s works. Gschmeissner uses Scanning Electron Microscope  (SEM) technology to reveal the plastic universe of microorganisms and how beautiful they are in their infinite diversity. With this collection van Herpen set about trying to make visible a world unseen by us but still an equally vital one, inhabiting and sharing the same plane as our own.

Gschmeissner’s photographs are taken of specimens that are chemically fixed to preserve their inherent structures, but van Herpen veered in a different direction, interested in taking another path, desiring rather to create more imaginative organisms than ones that actually exist. It too is a plastic world and the forms swirl, grow and change, bulge, encapsulate, shoot off into space. Whatever the collection, the overarching theme is repetition and reiteration. It is everywhere in van Herpen’s work and sharpens her desire to exalt and honor the inner and exterior movement that all living organisms possess.

 

RADIATION INVASION DRESS from 2009 collection of faux leather, gold foil, cotton, and tulle. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

      2009’s Radiation Invasion marked the beginning of the challenging themes that resonate throughout her annual collections and van Herpen’s grappling with some understanding of technology’s role in society (and perhaps, rule thereof) and how it inevitably affects the physical body and spirit. The idea seemed to stem from an intercontinental phone conversation that caused van Herpen to question the unimaginable flow of digital information that takes place and how it is everywhere, ubiquitous in its presence, drowning us, but also lifting us to spheres we cannot possibly anticipate. She began to develop more thoroughly a simple concept based on repetition, endless repetition, communicating energy and powerful forces, both fascinating and repulsive. It has dominated her work ever since, possessing her, driving her passions.

How can humanity possibly survive in such an environment? Van Herpen’s answer seems not to be reticent: survive we must; just make it work for you in the best way creatively possible.

“Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” shows at the Phoenix Art Museum,
Phoenix, Arizona, through May 13, 2018.

INSTALLATION VIEWS. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

CLEB_Contributor.jpg

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Benesh reviewed the astonishing Iris van Herpen show at the Phoenix Art Museum this March, during a stay in the city to attend the Heard Museum Indian Fair. Both museums have fascinating and probing permanent collections as well as temporary, such as the van Herpen show at PAM and the jewelry of Richard Chavez at the Heard.

Tattoo Exhibition Volume 40.3

Tattoo-Title.jpg

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville bemoaned the ephemerality of tattoos: “These mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed.” How does one display—much less demystify—this “living parchment” in a museum setting? A touring exhibition organized by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris—and most recently seen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (November 19, 2017 - April 15, 2018) —offers a novel solution: silicone torsos, arms and bottoms decorated with tattoos commissioned for the show from prominent contemporary tattoo artists like Chuey Quintanar, who was born in Mexico but moved to Long Beach, California, as a child, and Leo Zulueta, who grew up in Hawaii and draws inspiration from traditional Micronesian tattooing. (Zulueta refuses to copy traditional tribal designs faithfully, however, considering it disrespectful.) The Los Angeles installation highlights the city’s own rich tattooing history and contemporary skin art scene. Today, Southern California is known for the black-and-gray style of finely detailed, single-needle tattoos, which spread from East Los Angeles via the U.S. prison system.

      Some of these tattoos offer so much coverage that they resemble clothes more than ink. Tattoo traditions have much in common with textile production. Needles “embroider” the skin; carved tattoo blocks recall those used to block-print textiles. The Ainu women of northern Japan wear textiles embroidered with patterns similar to those used in their tattoos; a gorgeous embroidered robe is on display. The show privileges full-limb or full-body tattoos over the more familiar Pokemon characters, roses, or “tramp stamps.” One Ed Hardy design on display is a single giant squid covering the entire body, except the lower arms; it was created for a surgeon, who wanted to be able to roll up his sleeves to scrub in without revealing his tattoo. Japan, in particular, is associated with “bodysuit” tattoos; though they were outlawed in the late 1800s, they remained in favor with the yakuza, perpetuating the link between tattoos and crime that persists in Japan (and elsewhere) today. 

      As trendy as tattoos may be, they have a five-thousand-year history, covering almost every continent and every time period. The oldest known tattoo was discovered on the body of a fifty-three-hundred-year-old mummy found in the Alps. Tattoos have been used to identify, beautify, mark rites of passage or physical maturity, and confer protection, fertility, or healing. England’s National Maritime Museum has mounted excellent exhibitions on the seafaring history of tattoos, but this show’s anthropological approach allows for a broader geographic, thematic and temporal scope. It reminds us that “tattoo” is both a noun and a verb; if there is one thing these disparate global tattooing traditions have in common, it is that the process is as important as the end result. 

Tattoos have always been made and worn by men and women alike. In some tribes in Borneo, men carve tattoo blocks but women are responsible for the tattooing. Among the Ainu, tattooing is performed exclusively by and on women, including around the mouth. Indigenous Arctic women acquire chin stripes to indicate that they are ready to marry. Jessie Knight became the first full-time, professional female tattooist in the U.K. in 1921; she took several years off after she got married, returning in the late 1930s just in time to ink the men and women fighting World War II. 

Tattoos have functioned as signs of status as well as brands of shame, combining physical and psychological pain. In the nineteenth century, criminals were branded with tattoos. Simple pictures inked on the hands of prisoners in the Russian gulag told their life stories: their crimes, their years behind bars, their number of convictions. Victims of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust were tattooed, for identification as well as humiliation. A haunting photo shows twelve-year-old concentration camp survivor Aljoscha Lebedew displaying his tattoo, a mutilation he would bear for the rest of his life. But many of these painful reminders have now been appropriated as badges of honor. Prison tattoos are a thriving and respected subgenre. Grandchildren of concentration camp survivors have voluntarily had their grandparents’ identification numbers inked on their arms as indelible memorials.

YONYUK WATCHIYA “SUA.” An exhibition print, from Bangkok, Thailand, 2008-2011. Photograph by Cedric Arnold, courtesy of Galerie Olivier Waltman. KORURU OR PARATA (gable mask) of carved wood, white pigment, paua shell, Maori, New Zealand, nineteenth century. Photograph by Thierry Olivier and Michel Urtado. WHANG-OD OGGAY. An exhibition print, from the Philippines, 2011. Photograph by Jake Verzosa.

TATTOOED SILICONE TORSO. Leo Zulueta, 2013. Photograph by Thomas Duvall.

      If tattoos seem to be everywhere today, they are also under threat. Several indigenous tattooing traditions were outlawed or erased by missionaries in the aftermath of the so-called “Age of Discovery,” when Western explorers and traders first encountered tattoos. In 1876, Thomas Edison patented an electric steel pencil that inspired some of the first electric tattoo machines, which were advertised as being faster and less painful than tattooing by hand. This technology—quickly adopted worldwide—popularized tattoos and paved the way for intricate new pictorial styles, but also led to the demise of time-honored techniques. Many artists working today have gone back to the old-fashioned methods. Traditional Maori tattooing—an exceptionally painful blend of tattooing and scarification, using chisels to cut channels into the skin, including the face—is enjoying a renaissance in modern-day New Zealand, a “so old it’s new” expression of cultural pride. But new technology is continually revolutionizing tattoo art. The show ends with a silicone arm sheathed in a glow-in-the-dark “sleeve” tattoo that can only be seen under black light in a nightclub.

The exhibition is wonderfully varied in its materials; in addition to silicone forms, video and photography, there is a wealth of historic tattoo-making equipment, from needles and blocks to small sculptures made of the compressed ashes of cremated monks or burnt religious manuscripts, used for making ink in Myanmar. If there is a fault to this otherwise extravagant display, it is of being too big; one can only look at so many electric needles before one’s skin begins crawling with revulsion—or itching for a tattoo of one’s very own.

     Get Inspired!

 
 

Campbell-Headshot.jpg

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving an award for the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she gets under the skin of the “Tattoo” exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Beijing's Ethnic Costume Museum Volume 39.1

Beijing's Ethnic Costume Museum

CLOTHING GALLERY, with spinning fixtures and weaving looms in foreground. Such textile furniture has also been preserved in other museums. Photographs by Robert K. Liu and Patrick Benesh-Liu/Ornament; shot hand-held, with high-ISO and no flash, to prevent light damage.

China is a land rich in museums—by the end of 2013, there were almost twenty-seven hundred known institutions. We first covered exhibitions at Chinese museums in 1982, when my brother David and I co-wrote about Qing Dynasty jewelry in the Museum of Treasures, Beijing. This was shortly after China was opened to Americans, after President Nixon’s visit, when my brother was working for American television news. Since then, we have had occasional coverage of exhibitions there: in 2000, “Forbidden City” by Carolyn Benesh; in 2008, when Patrick Benesh-Liu made his first visit to China, and reviewed the Shanghai Museum of Art. In 2013, I returned to China after an absence of sixty-seven years. Having left Shanghai as a child of eight, China was so different, yet still so familiar in essence. During our whirlwind trip through Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, and Jinze, we visited museums in each city. Our review of the Warring States beads exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass in 2013 was an example of such coverage.

 

      To Read The
  Complete Article


Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. In this issue Liu writes about the Ethnic Costume Museum in Beijing, which he visited with Carolyn and Patrick in 2013, on a return to China after sixty-seven years in the United States. While going through the recent move of the Ornament office, he restudied some ancient stone beads in its study bead collection, marveling at both the skill of ancient and contemporary stone beadmakers, especially those who did replicas or imitations.