Seeing the costumes from the Ballet Russe made me curious about costuming in general during this era. This led me to do some investigating, and I was really happy to find some images of theater costumes designed by the students and faculty of the design school Bauhaus. Back in November, I wrote a bit about the Bauhaus influence on the design world. (New to my blog? You should check out: Trigere vs. the Utah Tailoring Mills)
Costumes for Triadic Ballet, designed and created by Oskar Schlemmer. Image courtesy of Freelancer Frank.
Bauhaus (or Staatliches Bauhaus) was a German design school that operated from 1919-1933. Founded by Walter Gropius, the school’s mission was to promote a synthesis of the arts. Importance was placed on considering how to unify all aspects of design, from typography, fashion, architecture, interior design and so on. (Gesamkunstwerk is the precise term in German) The school attracted many fantastic designers. A recognizable Bauhaus style emerged because many that attended the school were interested in functionality and minimalism.
Geometric forms, balanced compositions, and a sort of futuristic looks are all telltale signs of Bauhaus design.
Costume for Triadic Ballet Image courtesy of Body Pixel.
Bauhaus encapsulated the very ideal, utopian collective that many creative types wish they could be join. Every art and design discipline was represented at the school. I was familiar with some of the Bauhaus teachers, including:
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), a Hungarian born artist and painter that emphasized the integration of new technology and industrialization in design. Moholy-Nagy taught several courses in diverse media, but was most interested with manipulating photography. He considered cameras to be a “new eye”, capable of seeing and capturing the world in ways in which the human eye cannot.
Josef Albers (1888-1976), the famed color theorist and Modernist painter.
Anni Albers (1899-1984): a textile designer, weaver, and printmaker that helped pioneer many young women’s careers.
yet knew very little of Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), the instructor responsible for direction and development of these costumes.
Wire Costume (Draht-Kostum) from Notes and Sketches for the Triadic Ballet (Das triadische Ballett) by Oskar Shlemmer. Image courtesy of MoMA.
Schemmer joined the faculty at Bauhaus in the early 1920s. He taught a variety of courses, including sculpture. His main role at the school revolved around the theater. He choreographed and designed costumes for the school’s performances.
Costume for Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer. Image courtesy of Anne Cann.
Like many of the instructors at Bauhaus, Schlemmer was eager to translate his art into everyday life. He wanted to take his sculptures and make them come to life. Many of the performances at Bauhaus worked on translating this concept into a reality.
Dancer in White (Tanzerin in Weiss) from Notes and Sketches for the Triadic Ballet (Das triadische Ballett) by Oskar Shlemmer. Image courtesy of MoMA.
Shlemmer’s first international success as a costume designer was with the Triadic Ballet. It premiered in Stuttgart in 1922. This avant-garde ballet explores how modern technology and design literally transform the human body.
Dancer in White designed by Oskar Shlemmer. Senac University Center recreation of the original costumes by the fashion and design students and faculty. Later, these costumes were donated to the Bauhaus Institute. Image courtesy of Angela KC.
Many of the costumes transform the dancers into geometric shapes – making them resemble children’s toys. The geometry of the costume echoed the design principles taught at Bauhaus – thus elevating the status of the school as the ballet toured the world.
Notes and Sketches for the Triadic Ballet (Das triadische Ballett) by Oskar Schlemmle. Image courtesy of MoMA.
Costume for the Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmle. Image courtesy of Flickr.
Abstract Dancer (Der Abstrakte) from Notes and Sketches for the Triadic Ballet (Das triadische Ballett) by Oskar Schlemmle. Image courtesy of MoMA.
Abstract Dancer by Oskar Schlemmer. Image courtesy of ArsCenter.
The ballet also explored how technology impacted design. Many of the dancers appear to be the personification of electricity. Wire and metal were used to construct many of the costumes. The stage lighting illuminated these costumes, making them shine. This gave the illusion that the costumes were fitted with electric lights.
Spiral (Spirale) from Notes and Sketches for the Triadic Ballet (Das triadische Ballett) by Oskar Schlemmer. Image courtesy of MoMA.
Spiral by Oskar Schlemmer. Image courtesy of unw0man.
Figurines of Schlemmer’s costume designs were exhibited at the Societe des Arts Decoratif in Paris in 1930. MoMA also had a retrospective of these designs in 1938, showcasing the figurines as well as the notes and sketches appearing in this post.
I have a serious relationship with my shoes. For years and years, I’ve been devoted to the highest and most impractical stilettos. There is just something about slipping on a pair of heels that is transformative. It changes the way I feel, the way I walk, and obviously the way I look. My motto has always been: “The higher, the better!“
Recently, I’ve been trying to be more practical with my shoe choices. I’m just too active to constantly parade around in 6 inch heels. While I’ll never quite kick the heel habit, I’ve been making an attempt wear more conservative heights. It has definitely been difficult! A dress like this just wouldn’t look the same with a pair of flats. And try as I might, practical shoes with an elegant design are difficult to find.
This image served as a friendly reminder of just how important it is to be kind to your feet. “Elementary mathematics” allows the average woman to pour her foot into a 6 inch heel. With a few measurements and calculations, the impossible becomes possible.
I have to admit, the image makes me cringe. All of the body weight is placed on the ball of the foot and toes. The front of the ankle and shin are also stretched considerably. Clearly, nothing is impossible. But maybe my New Year’s resolution is one I should stick to.
The state of the American economy is often on my mind. While things seem to be getting better, I can’t help but wonder how my generation is going to be recorded in history. Will we be remembered as “the lost generation” – with no careers, no health insurance, and no possibility of owning a home – or could we be the ones to turn the country around?
In America, we are lucky to have talented, creative, problem-solving people. We also have a lot of uneducated consumers. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to The Attic. The Attic is one of many businesses that encourages customers to recycle clothing. Customers can buy, sell, or trade cast-off garments. I adore these places, because I always seem to find something unique. Best of all, they are affordable and reduce environmental waste. Some of my favorite places are Crossroads Trading and Beacon’s Closet.
After I made a purchase at The Attic, they gave me this coupon. I had just finished reading about the dangers of fast fashion, and the point really hit home:
It seems like history is repeating itself. I think if my generation looks to the what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, we could be inspired to turn things around.
The 1920s had been a time of economic prosperity for America. The following decade would be a sharp contrast; the 1930s began with a Great Depression and ended with a World War. The Great Depression (1929-1939) left over 13 million Americans unemployed; 34 million people belonged to families with no regular full-time wage earners.
Creating jobs and decreasing competition of foreign imports was critical to pulling America out of its economic depression. And in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the American fashion industry that would make a large contribution to turning the economy around.
In 1932, Dorothy Shaver, the former president of Lord & Taylor, became the visionary of an independent American fashion system that could pull the nation out of economic turmoil. She began to advertise American fashion designers in the same way French couturiers had been publicized for decades.
With strategic advertising, Shaver single handedly launched the careers of many young American designers, and even invented the term “American Look“ to promote the new fashions:
All through the 1920s the French label was to fashions what the pound sterling was to international exchange. Vogue decreed as an article of faith that only Paris could make a gown. But early in the 1930s Dorothy Shaver sensed that the American designers were about ripe on the vine. Quite alone, she began to push them, an act that won their gratitude. She invented the phrase, “The American Look,” and in the process of promoting her fashions, injected a new mood into department-store advertising.
 “No. 1 Career Woman”, Life Magazine, 12 May 1947, 125
Dorothy Shaver c. 1941. Image courtesy of Life Magazine.
American designers rose to the occasion. They focused on designing functional garments that were easy to wear and mass-produce. While keeping costs low, it also forced designers to employ innovative construction techniques and use of materials Keeping the entire design process in America also assured the highest quality control. Think about the difference between today’s garments and those from previous eras.
Dorothy Shaver with American designers, May 1945. Image courtesy of Life Magazine.
We can take a similar approach today. Here are a few tips:
Shop local: You know that great store down the street? Help them stay in business by being a patron. If they are pricey, save up to buy one stellar item that will last you years, instead of many disposable things.
30-day nothing “new” challenge: Try something different. For the next 30 days, don’t purchase anything new. Try buying everything you need secondhand. Try thrift stores, flea markets, Craig’s list, eBay, or organize a swap with friends.
There are so many benefits to shopping this way. You keep Americans employed. You’ll develop a unique style. And you’ll even help the environment. Waste not, want not. Here are some of the great “new” things I found at The Attic:
Scarves are my favorite accessory. They add a certain type of retro chic to any outfit. I have a rather large collection, and like what they add to an outfit. My boyfriend tells me that when I wear a scarf, it transforms me into a flight stewardess – which is a good thing considering the healthy fascination many of us have with uniforms.
What is it about deconstructing uniforms for daily use that is so appealing? It has to do with the meaning a uniform.
Uniforms create a very specific identity of the wearer. Exclusivity is the central appeal. Usually, one must complete a training, pass certain tests, and become inducted into the group before the uniform is awarded to the individual. What I love is the structured, put together look each of the attendants has. Even though there is a uniform, each stewardess seems to express her own unique personality. Apparently Italian espresso company Lavazza thinks so, too.
Some groups are more exotic than others. I particularly like Braniff International Airways (now defunct). Between 1965 – 1977, Emilio Pucci designed the stewardess’s uniforms. What an amazing fashion collaboration! Pucci designed the uniform with the concept of sportswear – various layers that could be added or subtracted according to the weather. Braniff’s marketing company, Jack Tinker and Associates, took this idea a bit further with a TV ad called The Air Strip. Tres sexy! Marty from Flight.org had to say the following:
In the television commercial, a hostess casually takes layers of her Emilio Pucci uniform for the duration of the commercial in the form of a strip tease, while the narrator uses subtle sexual references to describe her behavior. He concludes with the tag line, The air strip is brought to you by Braniff International, who believe that even an airline hostess should look like a girl. Note that the term hostess is used rather than flight attendant or stewardess. It was believed that branding them as hostesses would make the cabin crew and the airline more appealing to the male population.
Thanks, Marty! Great analysis. (Loved your site, too!) Watch the video here:
If the airline wasn’t out of business, I bet lot of men would be buying tickets right about now . . .
So now, if you are curious like me, you want to see some of these actual uniforms. Well former stewardess, err, hostess Gail C. Saleinus has her entire private collection of uniforms on her website Modcolors.com. Gail, I absolutely adore you for sharing these:
OMG I love this fuchsia shift with the scarf. Gail, it is a classic!
You don’t look crumpled at all, totally chic!
I am going so ape right now . . . these are amazing!!
Gail, really – this is too much for me! These clothes are AMAZING. I want them all! If you ever decide to part with them, call me first!
What a lovely parasol umbrella!
I used to have a Scottish terrier, too. So cute :)
*Sigh* A Pucci uniform and Neiman Marcus shoes. Can my job please provide such a uniform??
Emilio and the gals.
Chic ladies like Gail even inspired a line of Barbies. No doubt inspiring young girls to dress like the hostesses.
Watch another video here.
Halston made some uniforms, too. I’ll have to fill you in on those tomorrow!
This seems to be a question on everyone’s mind. Arguably, fashion has been the orphaned child of the art world. While appreciated or noted, fashion still is deemed a frivolity and not an art. This was most likely caused by fashion’s origins. Prior to 1860, design was in the hands of the consumer, who would have garments made by a dressmaker. This changed with Charles Frederick Worth.
Liberator of the Fashion Designer:
What distinguished Worth from his couture colleagues was his attempt to link fashion to art. He sketched designs and made collections, which was unusual for this period. Dresses were ordered from a dressmaker, according to the desire of the client. Nothing was ready-to-wear, and the idea of dictating fashion to customers was unheard of. Worth was a pioneer of dictating fashions by the use of sketches and introducing collections that were inspired by his trips to museums and galleries.
Sketching? What’s that you said? Trips to museums and galleries for inspiration? Hmm, this sounds kind of artistic!
Worth did not, however, create slavish reproductions of period styles; instead, as is usual with revival style, he selected elements from different sources, and often different period, and fused them together into new and contemporary garments. (Jiminez, Leventon, 18).
So Worth was selecting works of art as inspiration, deconstructing them, and re-contextualizing there elements in a different medium in fashion. I think we’re onto something here.
Under Worth, Parisian fashion was transformed into the epicenter of Haute Couture. Haute Couture designs are distinguished as made-to-measure, one-of-a-kind garments made from luxurious fabrics, and sewn and adorned with extreme attention to detail.
Worth Evening Gown, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Worth’s fame was centered on his fashioning of the Court of the Second Empire. The commencement of Worth’s career as an international couturier started with the patronage of Princess Pauline de Metternich, an Austrian princess married to an Ambassador to the French court.
Princess Metternich by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Metternich was close friends with the Empress Eugenie and an admired figure. (Quick recap of the era: it was the Second Empire. Meaning that Napoleon III was in power. Shortly after the marriage of Napoleon III to Eugenie de Montijo, a court was formed and the demand for fashion was ushered in.) Worth aspired to make her a gown as a method to be exposed to court. Worth’s wife brought a collection of sketches to Metternich, from which she ordered two dresses. Once Metternich wore the dresses to court, Worth became a craze.
Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies in Waiting (all in Worth!) by Winterhalter
So with some influential backing, positive cash flow, and creative freedom, Worth was determined to establish himself as an artist. As we already know, Worth was dictating the fashions with 4 themed shows a year. He was also the first to use live mannequins to show the clothing. (Hmm, I’m sensing fashion shows are the equivalent to art exhibitions.)
Next, Worth started directly inserting his signature on each piece, aka labeling.
Hey, don’t artists sign their works?
Later, Paul Poiret worked at the House of Worth (although after Worth’s death – his sons took over) and absorbed the artistic ideology. Poiret stated:
I am an artist, not a dressmaker.
Poiret with mannequin
At work on his own label, Poiret went a step further. He titled his garments instead of numbering them, like most couturiers did at the time. Poiret moved away from the corseted body, and explored unusual, unrelated elements in his designs. Here we see the lampshade dress.
Lampshade Tunic Dress, 1913
Back to the matter at hand. It seems that fashion designers work in the following ways:
Start with an inspiration source. (Usually a work of art)
Deconstruct elements of the inspiration source
Reconstruct these elements in a different media to create a new form
Exhibit (Fashion show)
Wait, why would someone say fashion isn’t art? Maybe I need to check what the definition of art is. Here’s what the all-powerful Wikipedia says:
Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.
Maybe we should look at some of the reasons other people think that fashion isn’t art
1) An important reason for fashion not having attained the same recognition as other forms of art is that there are traditions for serious criticism within the visual arts, music, literature, and film, while this is almost totally absent from fashion. (Svendsen, 93)
It is true that most fashion magazines don’t criticize designers in editorials. The criticism is far more subversive than that. If a designer isn’t in the fashion magazine, the editor has already deemed the designer to be unworthy of mention. The ultimate form of criticism in the fashion world is to be completely ignored. Page prices in Vogue are upwards of $5,000. Would you waste $5,000 talking about something you didn‘t like? And BTW, you may just want to watch The September Issue. You’ll see just how critical fashion magazines can be.
2) Genuine fashion must be functional and, therefore can only be classified as applied art or craft. If a garment is not wearable, it is not fashion. But it just might be art. (Suzy Menkes, International Herald Tribune)
Say what? There has been a movemenet in contemporary art focused on usability. Example? Look at this sculpture/container. Is it art? Yes. Is it fuctional? Yes. I think Ms. Menkes idea is flawed because functionality is a design quality that art has now moved towards.
This post could go on and on, but I’d like to end with a contemporary fashion designer that blends art, fashion, and functionality like no other: Hussein Chalayan.
Cyprus born Chalayan studied fashion design in England. He made his big debut with a collection called The Tangent Flows. He made clothes, buried them in his yard, and dug them up again. Here’s a picture:
The Tangent Flows Collection, close-up
Wow, someone wearing it!
Please watch this video:
I loved the coffee table skirt. Furnish your home and wardrobe in one easy step (ok, maybe two steps to put it on).
While Chalayan is a master of fashion construction, did you notice how much emphasis he puts on exhibition, installation, and social commentary? Did the work elicit an emotional reaction from you? Did you feel something? Anything? Well then, my friend, it is fashion as art.
My grandmother died a year ago, and at times I still have difficulty dealing with her loss. We were very close. She was lucky enough to have died a very peaceful death. She was not ill, she was in her home, and she had lived a long, rich life. These facts made her unexpected death both sad – “But she was in great health! What happened?” – and a relief “She wasn’t suffering, and she was in her own home“. That was the way she wanted to go. She would have hated a nursing home.
To use the old cliche, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. I don’t believe that death is the end, it’s just a transformation into an unknown realm. What this realm is, well, that is debatable. Religions address it, atheists deny it, and there are a whole lot of other ideas in between.
Intellectually, I accepted her death and transformation to this other place. Yet emotionally I was very sad. She’s not here anymore! Talk about confusing the senses.
I came to realize that, like many people, I never formed a solid idea about death, dying, and the meaning of life. It was simply too frightening. I just knew I didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want anyone I love to die. End of story.
So, in an attempt to come to terms with death, I looked for a book. Lo and behold, I come across Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. This book immediately made me smile just looking at the cover. The premise? To use philosophy and jokes to explore the meaning of death, life, and the afterlife.
I am a firm believer in humor. Give me a comedy any day. Written in seven parts, Cathcart and Klein address the anxiety and delusion of death (Dead! Whatcha gonna do about it?); a definition of eternity (Eternity when you least expect it); immortality (Immortality the old-fashioned way on the soul train); near-death experiences (Post mortem life: postcards from the other side), suicide (Death as a lifestyle choice); and scientific breakthroughs (Biotechnology: Stop the presses!).
The authors explored philosophical movements, theology, and anthropology to talk about why we avoid dealing with death and our own mortality while weaving in jokes and humor to defuse our anxiety.
What I took away:
The idea of immortality was discussed. Since earth can only support a certain population, we would need to stop giving birth to more humans. This means that at a certain point, there would never be any children, no first loves, no real new ideas. And living forever has another downside: once you do everything, there will never be another new experience. Thus, resulting in an eternity of ennui (boredom).
Cloning and passing on your genetic information in other ways was taken into consideration, but ultimately that’s not really you either. Why? Well, the natural human clones “identical twins” are genetically the same, but are very different. This is because they experience life in a different way. Nature vs. nurture comes into play, making them two very different people.
Double Mint twins – genetically the same, developmentally different
I felt I had a better lease on life and death after this book. And I had a bunch of good jokes.
Well, all this talk about death reminded me of a documentary series I watched a few months ago called How Art Made the World. It’s a 5 disk collaboration between the BBC and Cambridge University.
The final DVD? To Death and Back. For centuries, artists have been creating images of death. These images are terrifying and, paradoxically, reassuring. These images remind us of our mortality help us to deal with the great unknown and the fact that the world will go on when we are no longer alive.
Pictures of ancestors and of generations gone by help us to overcome the idea of our own death. This is a unique issue. Human beings are the only life form that realizes mortality. Through art, we try to come to grips with our own death. Art takes the natural world and lets us have control over it. The psychological impetus for art is to bridge the gap between this knowledge and fear, and lets us feel comfortable with it.
To prove this theory, 2 psychologists, Solomon and Greenberg, conducted an experiment on 2 groups of students. They flashed a series of words: rose, sneaker, fajita, and flower. The catch? One group of students received these same words, but with the word dead flashed in between the transitions. Dead only appeared for a fraction of a second, but it was long enough to speak to the subconscious mind of the group members.
After the words were flashed on the screen, a series of images was presented to the student of prominent dead figures. Examples: Marilyn Monroe, George Washington. The students were able to look at these images freely. They could spend as much time looking at the images as they wanted. Each student was timed. The students who received the message with dead interspersed looked at the images for significantly longer amounts of time.
You can skip to minute 15 to see the interview – or you can watch the entire clip, too! :)
I also found another study by the same psychologists based on death and supporting people with similar values.
I’d like to conclude with a quote:
Through experimentation, psychologists discovered that groups of subjects who had been made to think about death wanted to look at pictures of the dead far longer than groups who hadn’t. It was as though seeing pictures of people who had died reassured them that they, in turn, would one day be remembered too. -How Art Made the World: To Death and Back
Hmm, maybe all along I have been dealing with death . . . and maybe all of us interested in art and design are coping the only way we know how.