27 February 2014

Winfred Rembert Beyond Memory

Chain Gang Picking Cotton, 2001.

DH, friends Alex and Robin, and I recently viewed an exhibit of paintings by Winfred Rembert at the Danforth Museum, a community art resource in Framingham, Massachusetts.  Mr. Rembert, an artist of color born in Georgia in 1945, experienced the horrors of growing up in the Jim Crow south and, in the aftermath of an arrest during a civil rights protest,  found himself sentenced to a chain gang for seven years.  While in prison he also learned to tool and work with leather. Several years after his release, he married Patsy Gammage, who encouraged him to tell his personal history in the medium in which he was already expert - carved and dyed leather. 

This material has a slight sheen, hence the bit of glare in my amateur photography, but the glare at least serves to highlight the richness and detail of the low relief carving.

In the images of chain gangs picking cotton, there is a wrenching contrast between the almost choreographic deployment of men, all in cinematic black-and-white stripes, and the reality of back-breaking, mind-numbing work.  An article about another exhibit of Mr. Rembert's work relates that men of color received heavy sentences for misdemeanors and so were over-represented in the stripe-wearing chain gangs.

In the Ditch, 2005.

Throughout his work, Mr. Rembert records costume - apparel and accessories - as a marker of status and social order, from prison garb to work clothes to Saturday-night finery, but it is the striped convict uniforms that seize the viewer's attention.  In his book The Devil's Cloth, historian Michel Pastoureau explains the origins of the convict's stripes:

The Devil's Cloth begins with a medieval scandal.  When the first Carmelites arrived in France from the Holy Land, the religious order required its members to wear striped habits, prompting  turmoil and denunciations in the West that lasted fifty years until the order was forced to accept a quiet, solid color.  The medieval eye found any surface in which a background color could not be distinguished from a foreground disturbing. Thus, striped clothing was relegated to those on the margins or outside the social order - jugglers and prostitutes, for example - and in medieval paintings the devil himself is often depicted wearing stripes.  The West has long continued to dress its slaves and servants, its crewmen and convicts in stripes. - Michel Pastoureau
Picking Cotton with Boss Men, 2007-8.
The Georgia convicts wear a uniform, but the blue-clad mounted guards do too -  only the horses register as individuals in the undulating, endless white and brown sea of cotton bolls. 

Loading Cotton, 2009.

Mr. Rembert began picking cotton at age six. His depiction of farm laborers reaching the end of a row of cotton shows sharecroppers dressed in work attire made from the material they are harvesting. The scene is less benign, though, than the period trucks, colorful clothes and hats might indicate, as agricultural workers were exploited in the sharecropping system.

Loading Cotton, detail.

The Mud Hole, 1996.

Other paintings capture episodes throughout Mr. Rembert's life: wearing a flowing white robe during his river baptism, an animated church service with men in black suits and women in their Sunday frills, and men after work, milling about in casual, Breugel-like groupings that form a contrast to the regimented rows of workers depicted in the chain gang and cotton-picking scenes.  At work, people are regimented in appearance and in action; at play, they decide what to wear and where to go.

Hungry Eye, 1998.

Nowhere is the freedom afforded by recreation more evident than in the wonderful depiction of a hot night spot, the Hungry Eye, where each man and woman flaunts his or her individuality in dress and demeanor.  Hats, neckties, necklines, rows of buttons and other fashion details are all lovingly depicted, and there is not a stripe in sight.

Hungry Eye, details.

There is a recent independent film about Mr. Rembert, All Me: the Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, whose work is important for both its historical and artistic merit.

01 February 2014

Color Revolution - 1960's fashion

Exhibition title.

I caught the last day of a small but fun exhibit, Color Revolution, at Lowell's American Textile History Museum. On display from September 14, 2013, until January 26, 2014, the display featured yardage, clothing, accessories as well as publications, such as Vogue, Seventeen and the trade magazine American Fabrics.

I felt every year my age, as I recognized some of the fabrics and fashions from that era, when I was busy surviving middle school, grades 6 - 8 in the American educational system. Back then, girls took home economics  - shortened to "home ec" - and boys took shop class. My formidable home ec teacher, Mrs. Bowen, whose girdle gave her excellent posture, led us through the basics of cooking and sewing.  Home ec, a casualty of a number of cultural and fiscal forces, later morphed into something called "consumer science," enrolling both boys and girls.  There was something to be said for making sure that young people, on whatever educational track, knew the basics of clothing construction, nutrition and how to feed themselves.

Pantsuit, yardage and caftan.

During the time covered by this exhibit my public school system allowed girls to wear trousers to school for the first time, but trouser-wearing women were not welcome everywhere. According to guest curator, Madelyn Shaw, the pink pantsuit in the image above allowed the wearer, if refused seating in a restaurant, say, to retreat to the ladies' room, remove the offending trousers and re-enter the restaurant sporting just the tunic top, now considered a mini-dress.  The bonded rayon pantsuit, designed by Suzy Perrette, was manufactured in New York, and this show is also an elegy to American clothing manufacturing.

Dresses, tennis outfit and yardage.

In the image above, the short pique dress that is second from the right was donated by the curator herself, and made in 1967, using a commercial pattern. Until 1986 the Bureau of Labor Statistics included home sewing as part of our gross domestic product, and this is reflected in the fact that quite a few items in the display were created by home seamstresses. Set-in sleeves were a bit of a challenge for the home stitcher, but otherwise the simple lines of popular A-line and sheath styles were easy to sew. The visual interest came from the eye-catching colors and patterns.

As you can see on the wall behind the garments above, the exhibit was organized by contemporary, color-related song titles, which continuously looped, giving an aural dimension to the display. Since I grew up near Detroit, the sound-track of my adolescence was of course Motown; I did the dishes while listening to the Supremes on the kitchen radio.

Center, 1969 dress by Geoffrey Beene. 

The hard-to-miss solid yellow dress in the image above was donated by Helen Delich Bentley, a former US representative from Maryland and an expert on maritime affairs. Yellow is now a step-child of the fashion world, but it is a color that demands attention and makes the presence of its wearer hard to ignore.

Left: Leo Narducci outfit. Right: dress of aluminized polyester film.

The allure of pleats stretches (pun intended) from the early 20th-century neo-classical dresses of Fortuny to the "PleatsPlease" line by Issey Miyake and the suit in the image above forms a link between the two.  Synthetic fibers, like the polyester used in the suit above, were viewed as time-savers for working women, as, unlike silk, synthetics could be machine-washed and, unlike cotton, did not need ironing.

The exhibit also tracked the dead-end trend of throwaway fashion, exemplified by paper dresses and gimmicky clothes like the "aluminum" gown above, produced by General Fabrics of Marion, Ohio, as a marketing tool for the makers of Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil.

While the aluminum dress is an artifact, the fashionista can still purchase dresses by now-iconic Marimekko company, begun by a husband-and-wife team in Finland, and popularized in this country by the retailer Design Research. Marimekko translates, roughly, as "Mary's little dress."

Marimekko dress in multiple colorways.

The heavy cotton fabric for these intensely-colored dresses was silk-screened, which brings us to an interesting observation.  This bright color palette was available, in silk-screen inks used on cotton and linen at any rate, in the early 1950's. Although textile color chemistry for synthetic fibers may have lagged behind a bit, there was plenty of eye-popping, even "psychedelic," color in the 1950's. So, colors we often associate with the 1960's were available a decade earlier.  For example, Tammis Keefe (1913 - 1960) designed fashion accessories and domestic linens in saturated, vivid colors during her career.

What then was the impetus for the explosion of boldly-colored, large-scale floral, paisley and abstract prints for apparel?  The exhibit hints at some of the influences - textiles designers had greater exposure to the culture and colors of exotic locales, such as India and even Hawaii, the origin of some of the garments on display.  Carnaby Street, Scandinavian designers, costume for color television and live performance would all have had an impact, too.

Left: dress by Jorot Creations, Paris, c. 1962.

Some of the personal stories associated with the garments are quite moving.  The long dress at the left in the image above was lent by Cynthia Ehrenkrantz, whose late husband, architect Ezra Ehrenkrantz, always took her measurements with him when he travelled, so he could order something made especially for Cynthia, such as this tri-acetate knit confection from Paris.

Pant-dress and swimsuit with cover-up.

While some of the apparel on display could be worn today, the majority of the garments are very much "of their time," such as the sleeveless outfit on the left, above, wide-legged trousers with tiered layers beneath a sashed tunic top.  It's a bit ambiguous whether it's a dress or a pantsuit, but the print and coloration are most assertive.  In the curatorial remarks for this dress, Ms. Shaw tactfully quotes Dorothy Liebes (1897 - 1972), a noted textile designer, "There are no bad colors, just bad color combinations."

Accessories, including scarf by Vera.

Blouse, Emilio Pucci, mid-1960's.
The exhibit includes items by Emilio Pucci and Vera Neumann, but, somewhat surprisingly,  I didn't notice anything by Lilly Pulitzer, who founded her eponymous company in 1959, producing clothing, in bright floral prints, that was very popular, at least in warm weather, for many women in the mid-Western suburb in which I grew up.

Center: Dress by Lanz.

The dress in the center, above, was, as noted by curator Shaw, clearly related to the style of artists such as Peter Max, but also, I think, to album covers and images such as Milton Glaser's 1966 Bob Dylan poster.  In this long garment areas of flat color ooze and puddle in a bright print so busy it's hard to determine the repeat of the pattern.

Indeed, with these large scale prints the observer loses comprehension of the fabric as having any repeat at all  - the dress is  more like a canvas for a single motif, with perhaps a partial repeat at best.  In addition, although the commercially-made dresses were factory-produced, due to the over-size scale of the fabric design, each garment would have had the printed design placed in a unique way once the garment was constructed.  It's as if the nonconformity trumpeted by the age demanded that even factory-made clothing be individualistic.

As one of the exhibit-related activities, scholar Regina Lee Blaszczyk spoke about her latest book, The Color Revolution (ISBN 978-0-262-0177-0) I didn't make it to the lecture, but I look forward to reading the book.