Pierre Cardin 1922 – 2020

Pierre Cardin was born July 7, 1922, in a small town near Venice, Italy. When he was a child his family moved to Saint Étienne in central France, where Cardin went to school and was then apprenticed to a local tailor at age 14.

After the war he moved to Paris where he began working as an assistant at the House of Paquin. One of his first jobs was creating some of the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, Beauty and the Beast

Cardin then worked briefly with Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior before opening his own atelier in 1953. The following year he launched his ‘bubble’ dress, which brought him to the attention of the fashion media.

In 1959 Cardin made his first pret-a-porter collection for Paris’s Printemps department store – an initiative that got him temporarily kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale. Although he was allowed back in, Cardin eventually split from the Chambre Syndicale to create and show collections on his own terms. 

He, along with André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne, Yves St. Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro, reshaped French couture in the 1960s for the younger woman. Textiles with modern art prints and man-made materials were embraced. Tailored mini dresses, pant suits, and car coats didn’t over-emphasize the female form but instead played up a liberated, Space-Age streamlined chic. 

By 1970, Cardin was licensing his name and focussing on ready to wear. “The numbers don’t lie,” Cardin said in a 1970 French television interview. “I earn more from the sale of a necktie than from the sale of a million-franc dress. It’s counterintuitive, but the accounts prove it. In the end, it’s all about the numbers.”

Throughout the 70s, as his name began to appear on everything from bed sheets to chocolates, Cardin invested his wealth into a massive portfolio of Paris real estate. Cardin was everywhere – in 1986 Cardin worked a deal in the Soviet Union to sell his clothes made in Russia under his label. By 2009, Cardin estimated his worth at 1.4 billion dollars. 

The Fine Arts Academy, of which he had been a member since 1992, announced his death on December 29, but the exact time, place, or cause of his death were not revealed.

This Year in Fashion – 2020

The zoom meeting became a popular way of only half dressing for work…

Not since World War II has so little and so much happened at the same time to the world of fashion. Fashion has remained virtually unchanged this year – there has been too small an audience to make much of an impact. Some manufacturers will be even re-offering their spring 2020 collection in 2021. While luxury market sales plummeted, the fashion industry has been forever altered and COVID-19 can be blamed for much of the disruption but not for everything. 

There was already a growing awareness of how damaging every aspect of the fashion industry is to the environment. Wage inequality for those working in the fashion industry was heightened by reports from China of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims being forced to pick cotton. It will be interesting to see if and how the fashion market will react because a ban on slave-cotton would lead to a global shortage of the textile.

COVID did bring traditional in-store shopping to a near standstill, expediting the death of many chain and department stores: Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant, Aldo, Le Chateau, Top Shop… Many of the chains were teetering for years and/or were unsustainable in expensive long-term leases. Department stores have been slowly dying since the 1980s, and the few who survive the full length of the pandemic will have to reinvent their business model. Some are reorganizing or have been bought out but in the current world of fashion, without fundamental changes any restructuring is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fashion businesses that have survived have had online sales to thank, especially if they were purveyors of athleisure: yoga pants and leggings, T-shirts and fleece hoodies – the only part of the market that was unscathed by the pandemic lockdowns.

Dress of the Year at the Bath Fashion Museum – a hazmat suit, pink latex gloves and face mask, worn by Naomi Campbell for a transatlantic flight in March (paired up with a camel coloured cape)

The season-system of fashion collections was already fading. Dior and Chanel have asserted they will stay with traditional collection show launches, but more designers are switching to smaller online launches through social media that coincide with their collection’s availability.

What COVID-19 is doing to fashion is erasing a decade’s worth of gradual progress. Fashion is fast-forwarding to a new era where designers have to consider how to create and market their clothes in a new way. Where is the cloth sourced? Do the dyes pollute? Are living wages paid? Is the workplace inclusive? Do the clothes promote body positivity?

The globalism movement of the late 20th century inadvertently created a movement for cultural identity and individualism. This is made evident in the rise of nationalistic governments, but it has also resulted in the conscious consideration of others, ensuring everyone is heard, and reconciling past injustices. Fashion will be reflecting this even more in coming seasons.

Chromat, Spring/Summer 2020

The most common question I am asked as the curator of the Fashion History Museum is if I think fashion will become more casual, or if we will see a return to glamour. My answer is that both will happen as it becomes more acceptable to express yourself on your own terms – whether that’s in sweatpants or full drag.

2020 saw the passing of two important Japanese designers who shaped late 20th century fashion, Kenzo Takada, and Kansai Yamamoto, as well as Italian shoe magnate Sergio Rossi and Italian born French designer Pierre Cardin, who was the last of his generation of postwar French couturiers who steered fashion towards a more youthful chic in the 1960s. The year also saw the birth of a new garment that has entered virtually everybody’s wardrobe – the mask. It will be interesting to see how long face masks will continue after the pandemic has passed.

Hat Flirtations

I have posted before about fan and hankie and parasol flirtations that can supposedly be used to speak across a ballroom floor to engage a suitor. However, these were really just marketing opportunities by makers of the products, starting in the 1850s when George Duvelleroy, a Parisian fan maker, invented fan language and printed it up on cards. Here is a new one I had never heard of – hats. I found this undated reprint, probably from the early 20th century, online.

Glossary – Sewer or Sewist

Portrait of a Woman Sewing, by Charles-Antoine Coypel, France, 1746

I created a bit of a brouhaha on the FHM facebook page yesterday. I posted about the word ‘sewist’ with a reference to a New York Times (NYT) article on male sewers. The article was introduced with the tagline “The word “sewist” — an increasingly popular gender-neutral term for people who sew — appeared for the first time in The Times yesterday, as noted by the Twitter bot @NYT_first_said.” I took this statement to suggest two things. Firstly, that the word was created and/or becoming popular because it was gender-neutral and secondly, that the NYT were taking credit for being the first paper to print the word, thereby coining it into English language etymology.

I asked readers on the FHM facebook page if they felt other words to describe sewing were sexist. I couldn’t think of any terms that were specifically denoting gender, other than seamstress, but this word is now generally considered archaic, like murderess, authoress, and actress. Most words for needleworkers are already gender-neutral: sewer, stitcher, designer, pattern-maker, stylist, milliner, seamster… You might think dressmaker is gendered, but that’s the product not the maker, and tailor may be assumed to be male due to historical precedence and profiling, but a tailor is not always a man anymore than a nurse is always a woman.

One poster felt seamster was gendered because it was a masculine form of seamstress. Although her point was reasonable, feminized versions of words don’t necessarily suggest the non-feminized version applies only to men (ie: murderer, author, actor), but that didn’t seem to agree in the poster’s eyes. She was apparently offended as her comments then became more pointed and personal, ending the discussion.

Apparently I misunderstood the NYT navel gazing statement when it was pointed out that the NYT was only talking about the NYT printing the word for the first time. One poster found an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1986 that uses the word ‘sewist’, which makes me wonder why the NYT even bothered to point out that they used a 35 year old word for the first time…

In the end, Threads magazine (the ‘sewists’ bible) had the best explanation. In an article from 2012, Threads found the earliest usage of the word ‘sewist’ dates back to 1964. The word gained a popular following in the 2000s with online sewing bloggers who felt it elevated home sewing because it was created from a combination of the words ‘sewer’ and ‘artist’.

‘Sewist’ gained popularity because the most commonly used word ‘sewer’, which according to an etymological search has been around since the 14th century, can also be a conduit used for waste disposal – a 17th century use for the same heteronym (word that is spelled the same but pronounced differently).

So although the word ‘sewist’ is not gender-specific, that is not the reason it was created. However, no dictionary defines the word sewist, so you can’t use it in a game of scrabble.

Kenzo Takada 1939 – 2020

Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada was born in Himeji, Japan, on Feb. 27, 1939.  After leaving university where he was studying literature he enrolled at the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. 

In 1960, Kenzo won a prize from Soen magazine and began his fashion career designing girl’s clothing for the Sanai department store. In 1964 he received ten months of rent in compensation for being evicted from his apartment block which was to be torn down for the Tokyo Olympics. With that money he travelled to Paris where he restarted his fashion career freelancing – selling sketches to designers.

In 1970 he opened a boutique called Jungle Jap (he wanted to overshadow the pejorative meaning with a positive spin). The walls of his boutique were painted in wild floral patterns and his first collection used kimono fabrics and folk wear influences from around the world in an East meets West aesthetic. In 1976 he renamed his business Kenzo. In 1977 Jerry Hall and Grace Jones were among the models who appeared in a fashion show of his clothes at Studio 54 in New York.

A men’s wear line was introduced in 1983, a jeans line followed in 1986 and in 1988, a perfume was created. Things were going well until 1993 when his life partner died and his business partner had a stroke. Kenzo sold his company to LVMH that year for approximately 80 million U.S. but stayed on as designer. In October 1999 he decided to step away from the fashion industry due to the frenetic pace and unrealistic demands ““Everything has changed, from the way we make clothes to the way information spreads and how many seasons there are now,” he complained to The South China Morning Post. The label is currently under the creative direction of Felipe Oliveira Baptista.

Kenzo focused on his art for the next 20 years, until January 2020 when he launched a lifestyle brand called K3. He died from complications from COVID-19 on October 4 at the age of 81. 

A Retort to the New York Times Article: The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection

When I read the September 29 New York Times article ‘The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection” by Vanessa Friedman, I felt I had to correct some of her misconceptions and generalizations about why it may seem black designers are not included in museum collections/exhibitions. Firstly, Friedman doesn’t seem to understand that, regardless of colour, fashion has always been primarily about wealth and privilege. Even when stained and frayed jeans are chic, the wealthiest among us buy designer versions for stupid amounts of money.

There are different types of museums with fashion collections, and different mandates amongst those institutions. Some collect couture and designer fashions that legitimize fashion as an art form; some have a broader spectrum and also collect everyday manufactured and brand-name clothes; some fashion collections are focussed on a specific regional history, culture, or one type of fashion or textile (shoes, hats, lace…) 

True fact – Western fashion was invented by white people. It was born from the Italian Renaissance, developed significantly under Louis XIV’s reign, and was democratized by the French and Industrial revolutions. Since 1870, fashion has come from Parisian haute couture, mass-manufactured brands, 7thavenue and other designer ready-to-wear, and independent tailors and dressmakers. There are no museums, not even those that count scores of thousands of artifacts, that have a complete representative collection of any one of these categories.

Ethnographic fashions are usually housed in different departments of museums. This is because of the curatorial expertise required to research, identify, and care for the vast amount of information needed to understand the history of dress from hundreds of global cultures. Most curators working with Western fashion probably don’t know all the meanings of the motifs that appear in Chinese embroidery, or the various dyeing techniques used by Japanese weavers, or what garments are worn by Zuni girls in the Squash blossom ceremony, or by married Dutch women in Markermeer… nor should they. Fashion is a massively huge topic and every culture has a different story.

With the exception of clothes labelled by the maker and those that came with provenances from donors, museums don’t know who made or designed most of the garments and accessories in their collection. For example, Elizabeth Keckley, who made Mary Todd Lincoln’s clothes are not labelled – it is only because of her association with the president’s wife that her story is known. Even Anne Lowe is known largely because she made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. These two black women worked as dressmakers and had it not been for their famous clients their identities would likely be forgotten to history, along with the millions of other independent dressmakers, tailors, shoemakers, milliners etc.

The American fashion industry didn’t even promote American designers, black or white, until World War II. It was only when American fashion was cut off from Paris that fashion journalists, in search of something to write about, began reporting on domestic fashion. Most designers until then, (and many still today) worked anonymously or behind a brand name. More information is being unearthed about these previously-unknown designers and makers, but this requires a massive undertaking of research that the internet has only made possible in the last twenty years and omissions aren’t going to be corrected overnight.

Although a few black designers are well known, like the usual triad referred to by Friedman in her article (Lowe, Burrows and Kelly) there are clothes in collections likely not identified as being by black designers because the designer’s name doesn’t appear on the label, such as Anthony Mark Hankins who was J.C. Penney’s in-store brand fashion designer for years. As well, unlike an Asian name, black names don’t always trigger racial identity. Let’s face it, unless you knew otherwise, Patrick Kelly sounds like a red-haired Irishman. There are also black designers whose work is exceedingly rare to find extant examples, such as Khadejha, whose Kanga cloth minis and maxis were displayed in the windows of Gimbels department store in 1967, and Jules Parker whose feathered swimwear and metal breastplates were featured in a Jet magazine article in 1974.

Since Stephen Burrows wowed Paris alongside four other American designers at the ‘Battle of Versailles’ fashion show in 1973, black fashion designers have become more visible and numerous in the fashion industry. There are hundreds of black designers working today and their clothes will filter into museum collections in the coming years as they are offered up for donation by their current owners. Very few museums buy contemporary clothes, as limited budgets for collection purchases are saved for the rarest pieces that scarcely include anything made within the last fifty years. 

Finally, museums that have representative collections of black designers may not have those pieces on display all the time. Aside from an exhibition about black designers, is it even relevant or appropriate to tell the audience the racial background of every designer? What about their gender identity, sexual orientation, political activity or religious affiliation? Sometimes a fashion exhibition is just about clothing – its construction, ornamentation, inspiration, and beauty, not who made it. As well, Most museum exhibitions are developed with the idea that they will attract a large audience. This is why Dior has been the topic of so many exhibitions in museums around the world over the past few years. A museum about ships may have many stories, but the Titanic will always bring in the biggest crowd.

In short, museums collect primarily what they are offered and most collections simply don’t have a lot to pull from when it comes to fashions by black designers for a variety of reasons – even the Met’s Andrew Bolton combed eBay and Etsy for a particular Stephen Burrows dress for his upcoming exhibition. Friedman probably doesn’t go out of her way to buy fashions by black designers and offer them to museums for posterity but does that make her a racist?

RBG and the lace collar

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week I didn’t memorialize her on this blog because i didn’t consider her a fashion influencer or icon. However, in the week since her death, her collars have become a symbol of feminism, justice, democracy, and revolt. Numerous articles like this one and this one have been written about her that talk about how her lace collars became a symbol of her legacy. So, with that in mind, I have to recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an influencer that the fashion world lost in 2020.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Kandahar Designs

Last week we received a donation of some clothing primarily from the 1970s to the 1990s. Amongst the items was a late 1970s striped grey cotton ‘A’ line sundress with the label ‘Kandahar Designs – Boston’. A few google searches resulted in an interesting back story

In 1970 or 1971, Eli Zelkha was heading down to Florida for spring break with Archie — (his last name is never revealed), a pre-med college mate from Colgate University in upstate New York. On the trip down they talked about what they would be doing that summer. Archie had $5,000 and suggested the two go to Afghanistan to buy ‘cool stuff’ to resell. During their summer they purchased a very expensive Bengal tiger skin rug, scores of antique 19th century Afghani rifles, and 800 men’s wedding shirts from dealers in Kabul.

When their purchases arrived in the United States, the tiger skin rug was confiscated, there was no interest in the rifles from collectors, and the shirts were used, stained, and mis-sized. All they could do was try to salvage what they could from the shirts, so they dyed them to cover the stains and then consigned them through boutiques. One shop offered to share his booth at an upcoming New York sale in lieu of payment for some shirts, and the shirts were a hit. Mademoiselle magazine snapped some up for a fashion shoot, and other fashion mags and leading stores followed.

The next problem was filling orders. By 1972, Eli and Archie had moved from being importers to manufacturers when they hired tailors in Afghanistan to make the items to order. As the interest in ethnic clothing grew, especially after Yves St. Laurent’s success with ethnic-inspired collections, the two expanded the business, hiring fashion designers to remake Afghani clothes and textiles into Western styles, like sundresses.

The venture was a huge success until 1979 when the Iranian revolution lead to Russia invading Afghanistan. Even though ethnic fashions were already cooling in popularity, Eli bought out Hindu Kush, a competitor clothing business that sourced similar clothes. He then attempted to shift production to different styles of clothing, but the business failed.

There is a great article that tells the story in more detail, as well as the video below, with Eli Zelhka telling his story first hand. BTW, the owner of Hindu Kush was Tom Freston who went on to found MTV in 1981, and Eli Zelhka went on to head the team that invented Ambient Intelligence in 1998.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Max Raab

Max Louis Raab was born in Philadelphia on June 9, 1927 to Herman and Fanny Raab, who owned a family-operated apparel company that specialized in making shirtwaists – affordable blouses worn with skirts by women of all classes for a variety of tasks and trades.

When Max returned from wartime service, he began working with his brother for the family business. Max soon realized that the postwar world was upwardly mobile and tastes and pocketbooks were allowing for a higher end product, especially for the younger teenage consumer in the growing post war suburbs. 

Max defined the new suburban preppy look by taking the tailored man’s shirt and turning it into a full-skirted shirtwaist style dress for women. Their new upscale country look was perfect for the suburbs that was neither the city nor the country, and was launched in 1958 under The Villager label. Around the same time he also launched Rooster ties, which made square ended straight grain ties in great textiles.

The Villager dresses were typically made in cotton or cotton blend fabrics, the style was the ultimate WASP dress, appropriate for the office, school, home or date night. The style was also quickly picked up by Hollywood, who used shirtwaists as go-to looks for TV moms.

Produced in men’s shirting, and then prints from companies like Liberty of London, textile artist Marielle Bancou Segal was brought in in the mid 60s to create prints in the textile studios of Kenmill, in New England. The brand was typically sold through a shop-within-a-department store locations that catered to the preppy chic customer. A younger line was created in the 60s called Lady Bug fashions that featured turtleneck sweaters, kilts, tights, slacks and simple dresses. The look grew into a collegiate look popularized by actresses like Ali McGraw, who wore Villager clothes for the filming of Love Story in 1970.

1970 was also the year, Raab recognized that fashion was heading a different direction and he sold all his companies to Jonathan Logan and turned his interest towards film production. Max returned to the fashion industry in 1974, setting up the company J.G. Hook, which specialised in women’s sportswear, often with a nautical flair. In 1989 he opened Tango, a necktie manufacturing company.  Max Raab was dubbed ‘The Dean of the Prep Look’ by Women’s Wear Daily. In 1998, Max sold off his share in the company and retired. He died in 2008.