the ornament bookshelf
Phyllis Magidson and Donald Albrecht, eds. 2017. Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip. Monacelli Press: 160 pp., hardbound $45.00.
If you loved Mad Men and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you’ll want to take this trip back in time to New York in the sixties and early seventies. Mod New York—the catalogue to the 2017 show of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York—begins in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, and ends in 1973, the year of the landmark “Battle of Versailles” fashion show pitting American designers against their French counterparts in a literal walk-off. It encompasses both the hemline wars and the Vietnam War, pep pills and birth control pills, Halston the milliner and Halston the designer, Women’s Liberation and unisex dressing, Black Power and the Black and White Ball.
It was the period when the American ready-to-wear industry came of age. These clothes were not just worn but, often, made in New York; at the time, the U.S. had a robust garment manufacturing industry, now virtually extinct. Though First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy may have clung to the “Paris copy”—an American-made authorized knockoff of French couture—Seventh Avenue designers were increasingly striking out on their own, putting their names on their labels for the first time and their faces in ads and editorials. They were selling clothes “specifically created for the active lifestyles and conservative pocketbooks of Americans” that prioritized “practicality, functionality, and high quality.”
Though New York was home to the big department stores, it was also the epicenter of a boutique boom. The concept began in 1955 with Mary Quant’s Bazaar in London and soon crossed the Atlantic along with Quant’s miniskirts and mod aesthetic, part of the wider British Invasion. Paul Young’s Paraphernalia, Abracadabra, and Joan “Tiger” Morse’s Teeny Weeny catered to young, cash-strapped consumers and celebrated novelty, individuality and innovation—a precursor to today’s “fast fashion.” (Vogue editor Diana Vreeland coined the term “Youthquake” in 1965.) Boutiques were fun, not formal; the clothes were disposable, sometimes actually made out of paper, “a timely by-product of technology ideally suited to the shift silhouette.” They sold out quickly, only to be replaced by the next big thing. Department stores responded by building boutiques within their stores, like Henri Bendel’s famous “Street of Shops.”
By the end of the sixties, however, boutiques were already passé; they went out of business as the New Bohemians turned to antique stores, Army surplus stores and ethnic markets for inspiration. The book follows fashion through shift dresses, evening pajamas, feathered cocktail dresses, minis, midis, and maxis, the simple silhouettes growing wilder each year as prints evolved from Pop Art to psychedelia. Designers represented include the “Three Bs” of American style—Blass, Beene and Brooks—as well as lesser-known virtuosi like Pauline Trigère, Sarmi and Chester Weinberg, and European labels including Courrèges, Pierre Cardin, Pucci, and Foale and Tuffin. Fashion photographs and ads show the dramatic hair and makeup, hats, tights, and jewelry that often accompanied these colorful clothes. By the end of the book, the prim pillbox hat has given way to pants, once taboo for women. As designer Michael Fish pointed out, “You have to think differently before you can dress differently.”
Helene Verin. 2019. Arsho Baghsarian: A Life in Shoes. Schiffer Publishing: 128 pp., hardbound $24.99.
The subject of this miniature coffee table book has a resumé that stretches from Christian Dior in the 1960s to Stuart Weitzman in the 2000s. But she remains largely unknown except among footwear aficionados; hopefully, Arsho Baghsarian: A Life in Shoes will change that.
Drawn from the designer’s 30,000-plus-piece archive at the Fashion Institute of Technology Library, the book combines an abbreviated biography with a greatest-hits collection catalogue. Arsho (short for Arshalus) was born in Turkey to an Armenian tailor and dressmaker, who encouraged her love of drawing and crafting. Both of her grandfathers had died in the Armenian genocide, and the Baghsarian family eventually moved to the US to escape anti-Armenian sentiment. Arsho completed high school in Brooklyn, then studied fashion design at the Pratt Institute.
But she hated sewing, and she was more comfortable brainstorming behind the scenes than fronting a fashion line. (Weitzman called her “a sketching machine.”) In 1963, Baghsarian—fresh out of school—was hired to design shoes for Christian Dior New York, where she replaced Kenneth Jay Lane, who had left to launch his jewelry empire. Lane’s departure notwithstanding, she was in illustrious company; the legendary Roger Vivier was the shoe designer for Christian Dior Paris. Baghsarian reveled in the chance to “use Abraham French silk, which was $30 per yard, for the lining of shoes—and no one asked why.” From day one, she enjoyed almost unlimited creative freedom, which allowed her already prodigious talent to flourish. Furthermore, it was the 1960s, when “anything goes and anything is doable,” as Arsho stated.
A 1968 press release noted that Baghsarian’s many innovations included “leather mosaics, abstract flowers on shoes, the ‘nude foot’ look, carved wooden heels, and the use of psychedelic patterns.” She loved working with snake, lizard and alligator skins, which were soft and reasonably priced, and could be handpainted in fantastic colors. She always designed her own buckles and paid as much attention to shoe’s linings as the uppers. “Heel shapes have always fascinated me” she says. The book’s cover features her trademark spool-shaped heels. Fit always came first, though; her heels may be sculptural, but they’re a sensible height.
At the time, high-end shoes were still being produced in the United States, and a prototype could be designed and made in a single day rather than weeks or months—a boon for a hands-on designer like Arsho. But production was slowly moving overseas. After stints at I. Miller, Palizzio and Andrew Geller, Baghsarian began a long professional partnership with Jerry Miller of the Margaret Jerrold company, which owned Shoe Biz and Shoestrings. Miller foresaw that the future of American shoemaking lay in the developing world—not just for financial reasons, but because success required a fresh supply of new materials and inspiration. Already fluent in French, English, Armenian, and Turkish, Baghsarian learned Italian and Spanish so she could seek out new factories and craftsmen. At the height of her career, she was making six trips per year to Europe, as well as journeying to China, Brazil and the Philippines.
When Miller retired in 1986, Calvin Klein offered Baghsarian a job, but she declined because Klein wouldn’t let her put her name alongside his on the label. Stuart Weitzman snapped her up, and “Stuart by Arsho” was born. Baghsarian remained with the Weitzman company until her own retirement in 2008.
Verin, whose previous book profiled “First Lady of Shoe Design” Beth Levine, sometimes veers into dry business history, and the book gets a bit choppy and clunky as she tries to shoehorn an exceptionally long, varied and prolific career into a small, jewel-like package. But the result is a mostly happy compromise between a gorgeously illustrated picture book and a serious appreciation of the accomplished woman behind the covetable kicks.
Elizabeth Herridge. 2016. Bringing Heaven to Earth. Chinese Silver Jewellery and Ornament in the Late Qing Dynasty. Ianthe Press in collaboration with Paul Holberton publishing: 200 pp., softbound $60.00.
Herridge’s book is essentially a catalogue of an American collection bought from the market between 2004 and 2012, which is very late for the large wave of Chinese jewelry imports into the United States that began in the 1970s, when the People’s Republic of China established relations again with the U.S. The forced discarding of jewelry occurred during times of political change in China, like after the Revolution of 1911, and following events like the Cultural Revolution. It has never been clearly explained how the jewelry was gathered for sale, but likely it was often involuntary surrender.
Most of the collection described by the author consists of intact metal jewelry of silver, gilded or of gold, involving soldering; a few are necklaces joined mostly by un-soldered metal links, with the balance necklaces strung on string. The latter all appear on string that either looks new or not worn, which suggests they were probably restrung by Chinese merchants or possibly after export to the West. Many American designers at that time bought Chinese components, which they then re-strung to their own styles. My own experience with intact, strung Chinese necklaces that were old almost always showed evidence of wear on the stringing. Other then court necklaces, the neckwear in this collection were often atypical for Chinese.
In order to find parallels in the literature, I consulted three books in our research library: M. Duda 2002 Four Centuries of Silver: Personal Adornment in the Qing Dynasty and After; H. Hang 2005 Precious Adornment Kit: Ming, Ching to People’s Republic of China’s Era, Female Traditional Silver Ornaments; K. A. Lingley 2007 Excelling the Work of Heaven: Personal Adornment from China.
There was little congruence with the extensive jewelry in these books, although materials, techniques and many motifs were similar. Chinese jewelry is well known for its utilization of a large number of similar motifs, often combined to form phonetic rebuses, as well as copying archaic designs. Lingley’s catalogue of the Shyn Collection, acquired during the course of their Chinese jewelry import business from the beginning of the renewed China trade, should have had many matches, but did not. Further research strongly suggests that some of the pieces were made for the export market, as seen in a Spink auction catalog from 1991. Like tiger claws mounted for jewelry, two shark teeth combined with a gold cicada were designs for the foreign market. The author has also suggested that other pieces were not for domestic use.
The concluding chapter of Herridge’s book attempts to discuss the socio-religious reasons for the symbology in this batch of primarily silver jewelry, as well as the art historical reasoning behind Chinese art. These are laudable goals, but it must be made clear that how jewelry is made depends on it having fit on the human body, as well as the technical aspects of jewelry manufacture. Forms of jewelry like flexible bracelets and necklaces often employ framed unit-construction, which enables the jewelry to conform easier on the body as well as to ease construction. Thus, serial imagery often occurs, as it is easier to make multiples of a component. Much Chinese metal jewelry is made with a repertoire of pre-made dies or stamps, although there are pieces in Herridge’s catalog that involve repoussé, engraving or chasing that is not of serial manufacture.
Robert K. Liu
Madhuvanti Ghose, ed. 2016. Vanishing Beauty. Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects from the Barbara and David Kipper Collection. Yale University Press: 272 pp., hardbound, $65.00. .
This book commemorates the gift of four hundred pieces of jewelry and ritual objects donated by the Kippers to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Kipper collection covers primarily personal adornment from the Himalayas (Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan), Mongolia, Afghanistan, China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Jewelry experts knowledgeable about these areas of the world contributed essays.
Well-produced, with excellent photographs, especially the numerous full-page or double-spread closeup shots, this feature adds much to the book’s utility. Extreme closeups enable both lay and experts to really see the crafting, and often aids much in the interpretation of techniques, but is not common in books on ethnographic jewelry. Inclusion of vintage or historic photographs, and contemporary images of people wearing their adornments places the jewelry in context and function.
Almost half the volume is on Himalayan jewelry and ritual objects, although oddly, the dZi beads shown are not identified, given how important such beads are to Tibetan culture and religion. Central Asian personal adornment covers primarily Turkmen (often covered in the ethnographic literature) and that from Uzbekistan, especially Bukharan jewelry, rarely written about in Western books. Often massive, ornate and heavily enameled, this type of jewelry must demand wearers strong in body and mind. A section on South Asian folk jewelry shows the exquisite nature of their goldsmithing and the general excellence of Indian metalsmithing. Also covered is the jewelry of the vast Indonesian archipelago, including a chapter on the silver jewelry of the Miao, most of it recent.
Robert K. Liu