Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Past, Present, Future in Clothing

This week is the second of my first year of graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University where I'm working towards an MFA in Costume Production. The first week of class was exhilarating! I felt truly inspired and challenged. One of my favorite classes was Costume Design with the talented Susan Tsu. Quotations on design were handed out and students read and discussed the quotes to discern the role of the designer and artist in society. Both famous and unknown people authored the quotes. One of my favorites that I felt partained directly to my interests in both historical clothing and costumes was this...

"The look of the past can be discovered only through its art, viewed with knowledge that art represents it in its own characteristic style. Only the style can be reproduced - the actual look of the past, without art, is irrecoverable. It went out with the light of its own eyes and, like its odors, is gone forever. There is no historically authentic look that is not the look of an artistic style." - Anne Hollander, 'Seeing Through Clothes'

Whether these words are true or not I have not yet determined, but the quote is powerful.

I could argue that a historically authentic look can be achieved. A completely historically authentic look is attempted infrequently - rarely does a person procure the appropriate materials, pattern the original shapes, and stitch a garment according to the style of the original. But it can be done, can't it? At any rate, it can be done well enough that it does not have its own characteristic style - or does it?

I loved the part - "like its odors, is gone forever." Partially because I'm not sure that this is always completely true. It recalls to mind hours spent pressing original garments in the collection of Penn State University. Many of the garments, especially the 1920s and 30s dresses and evening gowns, under which few undergarments were worn, smelled distinctly of perspiration when steamed. Disgusting, but also somehow beautiful. How often are we able to recover smells from another time? The odor of a person that is now dead and buried. Their smell is locked into that garment. It's sad - you and I will probably have clothing that outlives us! Such a pertinent reminder of how short our lives really are. The odors wafting from the freshly steamed clothing took my mind to another time and place. An evening party, everyone dressed in stunning silk evening gowns, lavish jewelry, shoes, and hairstyles. Dancing and laughter. And who was the young woman who wore the gown? She was doubtlessly beautiful, as all young women are. Was this her favorite dress? Did a young man propose to her in this gown? Did she have her heart broken wearing this frock? Generations from now, will someone hold my dress lovingly and wonder who wore it? So many thoughts rush through my mind as I relive the experience. Such a wonderful reminder of the beauty of life that must be enjoyed each day while we are here on earth.

What does this quote say to you? Do you think it's true?

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  1. Lindsey,

    Thank you for such a thought provoking piece…I actually pondered it most of the morning. I have not permitted myself the luxury of creative thinking for some time, so I am grateful to you. That being written, here are some of my thoughts…

    I have to say that the first two sentences I am in total agreement with the author. I have always and will continue to appreciate original garments as pieces of artwork…much like a Van Gogh or a Picasso if studied amazement arises. After looking at just a few original Victorian garments, I am stunned at the complexity of thought and the seamstress’s artistry. I also have seen repairs and design changes to some of those pieces of clothing and my mind does wonder…what happened to cause this repair? What this frock grabbed at the last second and hand stitched (some times not painstakingly) to prepare it for a life event, or was it changed out of necessity?

    Years ago, out of ignorance or just out of the desire for something pretty to wear, I would wear original clothing. It was out of appreciation, for the quality of the garment, but the thought of preservation, not so much. After reading your thoughts, my mind was curious about the former owners’ experiences in those pieces of clothing, and how it mixed with mine. Would their eyebrows be raised or would mine? When I close my eyes I can recall an experience where I had the privilege to examine a Federal private’s sack coat from the Gettysburg National Park Service’s collection…and as I leaned in closer to examine the coat I thought I could smell wood smoke. I don’t know if it was real or my over active imagination. My thoughts turned to what did this person (we don’t know if a man or a woman dressed as a man) see or experience.
    However, I was just thinking about a movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, where in one of the scene a character stated something to the effect…that if this inexpensive watch was buried in the sand and some years, decades, centuries later some one dug it up it would be priceless.

    I admire the craftsmanship of those who reproduce period clothing, be it for themselves, or for others. This is where I am in agreement with the last sentence of the quote, in that historically authentic costumes are art, as are the originals.

    Clothing styles change, they come and go, appreciation of certain artists comes and goes, but who we are as women or should I write people should not be thought of as flippant.

    Thanks so much,

  2. Audrey,

    Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I love your description of your examination of the original coat in the Gettysburg National Park Service collection - how neat!!! I love the experience of looking at original clothing because you feel so close to the original wearer - not in a creepy ghost way. It is such a great reminder of the beautiful aspects of humanity.

    I LOVE your thoughts on wearing vintage clothing and wondering what the original wearer would think could they see you - would their eyebrows be raised or would yours by the experiences that were had in the garment. How neat! Wouldn't that make a neat play or movie - following the life and experiences that occurred in a garment or piece of jewelry?

    Thanks so much for the wonderful thoughts!


  3. What a thought provoking post! I find it fascinating that clothing seems to embody the essence of the person that wore the garment. Sometimes it is the odor, but in another sense it is something else altogether. For example, at this summer's exhibition of Grace Kelly's dresses, people flocked to see her dresses - as a representation of her.
    Whether or not one can recreate a historical garment exactly is debatable. I'm not sure I'd want to hand-stitch and embroider an 18th century gown, but I suppose one could try.
    I hope you'll post more about your experiences in the MFA program. You are living my dream....