Chanel in the Jazz Age

The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cooper Hewitt have collaborated on an exhibition, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” which is currently on view in New York and will later be on view in Cleveland from Sat, Sept. 30, 2017 through Sun, Jan. 14, 2018. For this exhibition they requested the loan of several pieces from the Kent State University Museum. One of the pieces that is being lent is an amazing dress by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from 1926 which is made of long blue ombré fringe (KSUM 1997.71.7 ab).

Because the dress is complicated and no one from the Kent State University Museum would be accompanying it to Cooper Hewitt, back in March, members of the staff of the Kent State University Museum traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art to meet with the staff there to discuss how to dress the mannequin.

The process of dressing this piece is challenging both because it requires decision making about how to properly assemble the pieces and because the fringe is unwieldy, requiring the participation of at least two people. The dress has a base layer of silk crepe with a long strip of fringe attached to a band of the crepe. When put on the body the strip of fringe has to be wrapped around a couple of times then fastened with a hook-and-eye at the right shoulder. We can be fairly confident of the correct way to assemble the dress because there photographs by Edward Steichen of Marion Morehouse wearing the dress. These photographs were taken in 1926 and show both the front and back.

The dress is stunning and one of the highlights of our collection. The complexity of the dress is difficult to see when it is displayed fully dressed on the mannequin. These images of it being dressed highlight the challenges of this particular dress and the ingenuity of its design.

Sara Hume, Curator

 

Pauline Trigère in the 1940s

It has been a long time since we have posted anything to this blog so this is a long overdue post. We just opened an exhibition about “Fashions of the Forties: From World War II to the New Look” and many of the pieces have interesting stories. For this post, I will focus on the work of Pauline Trigère, who actually had a personal history with the museum.

Trigère was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Paris in 1912 and spent her childhood in France. She began her career working for the couture house Martial et Armand. Along with her mother and husband and children, she left Paris in 1937 on the eve of the war. She first found work in New York working for Hattie Carnegie, but she quickly began designing for herself.

The Kent State University Museum has two pieces from the early years of her career. We have a short navy cape from 1941 and a green and black wool jacket from 1942. The navy cape has a brightly striped lining that is nearly concealed when the cape hangs straight.

Kent State University has a long relationship with Pauline Trigère who was friends with the Museum’s founders, Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman. The Museum had an exhibition of her work in 1994, which she attended. In addition to contributing a number of her garments, Trigère also donated her sketchbooks and archives to Kent State. The sketchbooks are now held by the June F Mohler Fashion Library which lent several sketches for the exhibition. One of the sketches shows a almost plain black dress with matching black cape lined with a brightly striped fabric. This design is clearly reminiscent of the short cape featured in the exhibition and dates to 1948. Trigère designed by draping directly on the form rather than first sketching out ideas meaning hese sketches were done by a sketch artist from finished garments rather than by Trigère herself.

Sara Hume, Curator

Front or back

Now that we have been at our 1920s inventorying project for over a month, we have discovered a number of interesting trends and encountered unexpected problems. We have realized, for instance, that the most popular colors for dresses besides black and white were pale green and a pinky-orangey shade which an earlier museum employee frequently described as “shrimp” as in “evening dress of shrimp georgette.” (If our museum had a café I would push to offer a dish called shrimp georgette because it frankly sounds delicious.) We have also realized how difficult it is to distinguish the front from the back of 1920s dresses.

Determining which is the front of a dress is surprisingly common difficulty. In fact we have an earlier blog post involving this very problem. For 19th-century dresses, the problem is uncommon because of the close fit of the bodice with darts as well as the trains and bustles in the skirt. However, the problem creeps in during the 1910s and 20s as the fit loosens and the bust is de-emphasized. In general, dresses from the 1910s are so intricately fastened with snaps and hooks and eyes (and more snaps) that there is a clear front and back. On the other hand the very complexity of the dresses often makes it difficult to figure out what parts are going to end up where, until it is on the form. This very problem crept in with this remarkable dress by Lucile.

Lucile 2004.28.4 frontback
Silk taffeta and tulle evening dress, Lucile, ca. 1918, KSUM 2004.28.4.

After some confusion we positioned the waist stay so that it fastened in the front. The sash wraps around the bodice and fastens with hooks and eyes at the hip. The skirt is completely asymmetrical with layers of silver lace on one hip and a fold that makes it slant to one side. The dress is in fragile condition but in far better shape than any of our other pieces by the designer. After we photographed the dress, we discovered another dress by Lucile which had a very similar construction for the bodice. However, on the second dress, which was too fragile to mount on a dress form and photograph, the bodice unambiguously fastened in the back. After seeing this we concluded that the peach confection we had just photographed had been dressed backwards! Oops. The dress is so fragile we are loath to put it through the stress of being dressed again, but we really should correct our mistake. The picture here shows the dress on backwards, although I think the error is understandable.

As you get into the 1920s the problem becomes rampant. The cut of the dresses are so simplified that they become little more than 2 rectangles sewn together with openings for the neck and arms. The neck opening is generally either rounded or a V. Often the only difference between the front and the back is the depth of the neck opening. To make it more difficult to determine front and back, very few dresses have any tags or labels inside. We have a few tells we look for to help us figure things out: Where are the sweat stains in the underarms? Which side has the deeper neck opening? (although some dresses have deeper neckline at the back, so this one can be tricky) Is there shirring at the shoulders? (shirring is rows of gathering threads, which were generally done on the front of the dress), Is the skirt longer in the back? (the hemlines are often very irregular that it is not as simple as it seems).

Here are a few examples of some of our dresses seen from the front and the back. In an effort to maximize efficiency as we photograph all of the dresses from the 1920s, we usually only take pictures of the front. And as you can see from these examples, little information is gained by seeing the back. If anyone else knows how to figure these things out we would love to hear from you in the comments!

1920s in Bloom

As we continue to go through our 1920s dresses, we have discovered countless variations of floral motifs.  Flowers have been applied to the dresses through embroidery, printing, beading and even ribbonwork. While different flowers from roses to chrysanthemums and daisies are recognizable, many of the motifs are so abstracted or stylized that it becomes difficult to identify as a flower let alone a specific species. The following gallery shows some of the variety in color, texture and style that we have found.

For more information about the project to inventory our 1920s collection, see this earlier post and this one.

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Wedding inspiration from the 1920s

As I described in an earlier blog post, we are undergoing a project to inventory our entire collection of dresses from the 1920s. Many themes pop out at us as we are going through the drawers. In fact, the drawers themselves seem to be organized by color. In the first few drawers we have found a number of wedding dresses as well as dresses that could provide inspiration for today’s brides. A couple of the dresses have the full-skirted style known as the “robe de style” although most are the more typical cylindrical silhouette, so closely identified with the decade. There is also an almost complete lack of lace although there is plenty of silk satin and beading. We hope you enjoy the photo gallery!

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Survey of the 1920s collection

The Kent State University Museum collection includes over 400 dresses from the 1920s. These dresses include some marvelous examples of embroidery, beadwork and fringe. In order to showcase the depth of this collection, we are planning an exhibition of fashions from the decade, scheduled to open this September. As the curator of this exhibition, I realized that there are some shortcomings to our existing cataloguing of these pieces.

Although the KSU Museum has a vast collection (over 30,000 pieces in total) our staff includes only 6 full time employees, supplemented by the invaluable help of student workers and volunteers. Over the years, the record keeping in the museum has been inconsistent. The 1920s collection pose particular challenges. The delicacy of the silk chiffons coupled with the weight of the beading often results in serious condition problems. The general practice is to store such dresses lying down in drawers rather than hanging in closets. Because of space limitations we have to stack the dresses in the drawers. It is very difficult to know what the dresses in the drawers look like and very few of the dresses from this period have been photographed. In order to choose pieces for the exhibition, I would wind up rifling through the drawers anyway, so I have decided to systematically go through all of the dresses in the drawers, photograph them, and make sure they are correctly identified in the database.

Beaded 1920s dresses
A couple of the dresses waiting to be photographed.

I am working with my student intern, Leann Schneider to tackle this project. It is our hope to post ongoing updates from our project on this blog. The drawers hold wonderful treasures from the period as well as all sorts of surprises. We have made it through one drawer so far and these pictures showcase a few of the finds. Already we have corrected a number of errors in the records including mismatched photographs and pieces that are incorrectly dated as being in the 20s but actually belong to other decades. Three of the best pieces from the drawer are all by coincidence pale green silk chiffon and are included in the gallery below.

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Updating the Fashion Timeline exhibition

Silk brocade skirt and bodice, ca. 1765 on exhibition in
Silk brocade skirt and bodice, ca. 1765 on exhibition in “Fashion Timeline.”

At the Kent State University Museum we have a permanent exhibition, “Fashion Timeline,” that surveys historic fashions from the 18th century through the mid-20th century. (Website).  Because of the fragile nature of costumes, we cannot leave the same pieces in the exhibition indefinitely. We have to rotate the pieces regularly, so that means there are often new pieces on exhibition.

Whenever we add a new piece to the Timeline we photograph it. Ultimately our goals is to photograph all of the pieces in our collection. However, with over 30,000 pieces and only 6 full time staff members, we have our work cut out for us. Over the past couple of weeks we have been photographing our most recent additions to the exhibition. This blog post features images of one of the pieces we have just put on view. To see pictures of the dress being replaced, check out our earlier blog post.

This matching bodice and skirt dates to around 1765. The textile is a magnificent brocaded silk. The close-up photographs give a sense of the texture of the ribbed silk and the brocaded floral patterns. The stomacher with the peach bows is a reproduction, which the Museum Director Jean Druesedow created from silk which she carefully dyed to match and ribbons.

Sara Hume, Curator