MoMA Signs Off with Brancusi

Brancusi’s 1930s marble Fish

MoMA is taking a four-month break while it reinstalls its collection in its expanded 53rd Street home. For nearly a year before it closed its doors, MoMA provided a beautiful gathering space devoted to a much-loved modern master in a beautiful show Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.

Always packed with admirers, you could frequently hear visitors exclaim upon turning the corner and entering the sculpture gallery exclaim, “Wow!”

There they all were – Brancusi’s marble The Fish sculpture that seemed to be swimming, the soaring Bird in Space, and the primal tall oak Endless Column.

1910 marble Maiastra, a mythical Romanian bird with a pedestal created from another sculpture

Everything was drawn from MoMA’s expansive collection. Every viewpoint joyfully represented what contemporary audiences love about Brancusi’s work. View it in our Flickr album.

Hard to believe that the epic Maiastra was created in 1910 or that this innovator grew up as a woodworker in the rural Romanian countryside and walked across the continent to relocate to Paris to be where the early modernist practice and philosophy were percolating.

For a fun look at how it all began for Mr. Brancusi, watch the film that MoMA created using footage shot by his buddy, Man Ray here and also listen to a jazzy playlist of Brancusi’s favorite songs and atonal orchestral hits of the day.

Brancusi’s work is the epitome of Modern to the contemporary eye, but it wasn’t always that way. One of the most beloved pieces in the room was initially considered a blasphemy to art when it was first exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Listen to MoMA tell the story:

MoMA on 53rd Street reopens on October 21. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City remains open.

New York Says Good-bye to Basquiat

Grid of 1982 works on the second floor

The toughest ticket in town for several months has been the free admission ticket to view the superb Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the new Brant Foundation art study center in the East Village, on view through May 15.

Since few have been lucky enough to get in the door, we’re giving you a peek inside through our Flickr album, featuring some of our favorite works on all four floors of the renovated space along East Sixth Street.

The show features over sixty of Basquiat’s works, primarily from 1981-1982. The paintings, drawings, and sculptures were created just after Basquiat stopped spray-painting building surfaces and doorways. It was a rough-and-ready time in the East Village, nearly a decade before the neighborhood became immortalized in the first draft of Rent.

1982 acrylic Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump

Basquiat became known to downtown New Yorkers by signing his ubiquitous graffiti with “SAMO”.  Although he dropped that signature in 1979, he never truly put away his spray can, shifting instead a more gestural mix of spray paint, crayons, and acrylics on wood panels and canvases that display his painterly genius, urban smarts, and social commentary.

The wide galleries and large, airy windows of the gallery space contrast to the voice and vision screaming out from every large work on the wall.

Section of 1981 oilstick and acrylic Per Capita

Many skulls, spirits, pop references, classical allusions, punky lettering, and gestural color are from 1981, the same year Basquiat had his first solo show in Modena, Italy. Per Capita brilliantly mixes sports, race, and economics with messy, riotous references to a deified African-American Olympic boxing legend and scratchy, handwritten national income statistics.

Basquiat’s 1982 work continues in the same vein – the year he was included in a prestigious solo show in glamorous Soho back home. The exhibition includes – but does not identify – the famous 1982 Basquiat skull painting acquired in 2017 by Yusaku Maezawa for $110 million, which was the subject of a one-painting show last year by the Brooklyn Museum.

1982 Dos Cabezas from a private collection.

The second floor displays a high-rise grid of Basquiat’s work from 1982, including a double portrait of himself and Andy.

Witnessing the scale and scope of this output by this 21-year-old genius is astonishing…just a fraction of the thousands of works he created before expiring just six years later.

Several later works are included. Two spectacular works from 1984 are Gold Griot, a magical man-spirit painted on a massive slatted wood panel, and Grillo, an elaborate three-dimensional installation on loan from the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which co-sponsored this exhibition.

Detail from 1987 Unbreakable, loaned from a private collection.

Unbreakable from 1987 finishes up the show just before you exit through the back door beyond the gift shop, walk between the ancient buildings, and emerge onto East Seventh Street.

Enjoy walking through the show here.

Fashionable Fabric Takes Center Stage at FIT

Wool: Mila Schön’s 1968 double-faced wool coat and 1985 Azzedine Alaïa trench

The Fabric in Fashion exhibition at the Museum at FIT through May 11 makes a good point – people today do not pay much attention to the fabric in their clothing, but that’s a break with the consumer culture of the last several centuries.

Fabric telegraphed what status you had, what season it was, and how much money you might have spent on a fabulous outfit. In a clever twist, the show opens with a muslin dress in a period shape lit with all types of cross-cultural patterns and images, evoking fancy French, African, and American textiles.

FIT shines a light how traditional fabric and synthetic creations have been used in high fashion since the 18th century, starting with the stories of wool, silk, and cotton.

Take a walk through the show in our Flickr album and on FIT’s own website.

Silk sheath evening gowns – 1950 crepe by Guy Laroche and 1999 silk faille by Oscar de la Renta

Dresses from the FIT archives demonstrate the extreme flexibility of wool, which has been spun and woven since ancient times. Some wool fabrics are as light as silk, while others are molded, shaped, and bonded to create architectural forms that were as right for 19th-century women’s sportswear as they were for Carnaby Street.

The silk ensembles selected from the FIT archives show off a wide range of that fabric’s ability to drape, shape, and burst into dramatic architectural forms when buttressed by the right underlining and interfacing.  The show features silky satiny wedding attire, embellished damask gowns, stamped and gilded silk velvet Fortuny masterpieces, and sculpted Schiaparellis – demonstrating how a silk’s weight is key to its potential use.

High-fashion knit: Alexander Wang’s 2015 mesh dress inspired by Nike’s Flyknit

Side-by-side Claire McCardell dresses show how a single cut (in this case, her ubiquitous “popover” design) can be casually chic in cotton or elegant in silk.  Jersey dresses and synthetics – rayon and even Nike’s Flyknight by Wang – are featured, telling the story of how knits and synthetic went mass market by the 1970s.

Couture fabrics and innovative weaves, however, steal the show. An elaborate 1859 silk dress showcases how a single width of ottoman fabric morphs into velvet and fringe. It may not be to the taste of a contemporary eye, but is a true masterpiece of fabrication.

You are able to take a close-up look of how a strip of artfully printed metallic satin enhances a silk velvet Fortuny from the Thirties.

Couture textile: Bob Bugnand’s 1958 silk faille dress

Then turn to examine the high art of fabric from French fashion houses of the Fifties — Bob Bugnand’s matching silk faille dress and mink-trimmed coat and Jacques Griffe’s evening vision in Lurex jacquard.

But all the high-end fabric isn’t flashy. A standout is the austere, minimal evening cape, created from gazar silk developed by the Swiss textile house of Abraham specifically for Balenciaga – a key ingredient to the stunning architectural shapes for which the house was known in the Sixties.

Watch here to observe FIT’s behind-the-scenes work to make all the fabric exhibition magic happen:

Enjoy a glimpse of the multimedia that opens the show!

Hilma af Klint and Innovations in Large-scale Abstractionist Art

“Adulthood,” from Group IV, the Ten Largest on stages of life,  developed in 1907 via mystical revelations during sceances.

Over a decade before Kandinsky and Malevich discovered the transcendence of non-objective painting, a spiritual thinker in Sweden was creating hundreds of giant abstract canvases, automatic drawings inspired by biomorphic shapes, and a series of squares that predated Albers by half a century.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, the Guggenheim’s surprise blockbuster running through April 23, introduced the world to the glorious visions of a woman who believed that spirits were guiding her to create a temple laden with images that explored transcendentalism.

Armed with the best painterly education, Hilma soon abandoned her impressionist landscape leanings of the 1880s and by 1906, dedicated her life to channeling spiritual thought through references to biology, evolution, planetary discoveries, radio waves, and other scientific forms that were invisible to the eye.

1915 painting from Group IX/UV, The Dove, depicting planetary and astrological symbols

She began by creating large works representing big thoughts that she claimed were channeled to her by spirits via seances, but later developed a more personal style.

Take a look at Hilma’s work on our Flickr album. And listen to the audio tour of the show here.

And hear what the Guggenheim has to say about this remarkable, innovative, and otherwise unknown painter:

Photo-Science Pioneer Atkins Debuts Work in New York

Plate from Anna Atkins’ 1849-1850 Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

The New York literary and art world have spoken: nearly 150 years after photography pioneer Anna Atkins faded into obscurity, her work is receiving the tribute it deserves in the NYPL’s Wachenheim Gallery off Fifth Avenue – gorgeous, hand-crafted compositions of ephemeral marine flora in hand-stitched volumes, using a untested, new technology.

Volumes of Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, on display through February 17, is a show that has it all – an artistic first, a publishing breakthrough, Victorian time travel back to Darwin’s day, and a resurrection story of a visionary woman rescued from history’s dustbin. Although this innovator was born in 1799, it’s the first full full-blown retrospective of her work.

The show centers on the achievements of a female amateur botanist, who came up with an ingenious method to use one of the latest technology breakthroughs to transform her specimen collection of British algae into the world’s first book illustrated entirely through photographs. It’s also the first scientific book illustrated that way.

In a day where smartphones have made image taking (and making) ubiquitous, Anna’s show takes you back to the time before photographs, where meticulously observed drawings, sketches, and a watercolor box were the only means available to record the floral wonders of the world.

Anna’s 1823 spondylus shell illustrations

As a talented young artist, her scientist father commissioned her to illustrate his translations of Lamarck.

In 1842, Anna heard about a family friend’s accidental discovery of cyanotypes – basically blueprint technique – and she had a brainstorm. Instead of making drawings of plants that would require tedious hours of replications by hand, maybe the new technique could let the sun do the work.

She treated paper with a mix of chemicals, arranged her botanical specimens on top, and exposed it to the sun.

1860s printing frame with prepared cyanotype paper and specimen

The photographic impressions were incredible – detailed and beautiful. The task of documenting her collection of complex, seaside plants now didn’t seem so overwhelming.

Although this is a tiny show, the gallery experience delivers quite an aesthetic impact  – rows of rare prints in blazing blue, delicate images of marine plants that compel close study, and exquisite hand-stitched bindings on multiple volumes, lovingly created for family and friends. It’s a maker tour de force.

In her day, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was considered a triumph of technology, art, and science.

From an artistic perspective, you simply can’t stop admiring Anna’s work. Seaside stuff simply never looked this good. Take a look at our Flickr album.

Volume III of Anna Atkins’ 1853 publication

Most of the gorgeous books and artworks in the show have been acquired by NYPL. The curators have added a range of other items to put Anna’s achievement in context – early herbariums, Anna’s own watercolors, a frame used for making cyanotypes, and Henry Talbot Fox’s first book promoting all the ways that his “photographic drawing” invention could be applied.

To drive the last point home, the curators included a 1839 magazine that wrote about Talbot’s invention. But upon closer inspection, there’s something quite curious: No one had yet figured out how to use photographs as publication illustrations, so the magazine commissioned a woodcut to replicate what a “photographic drawing” looked like!!

Album of 74 artistic cyanotypes created in 1861 by Anna Atkins and her friend, Anne Dixon

Anna’s cyanotype techniques allow her pages to still dazzle 175 years after they were made, compared to other early photo techniques whose images have faded and remain barely visible to the modern eye.

Later in life, Anna collaborated with her childhood friend on artistic arrangements of botanical specimens that went way beyond algae.

The show is dazzling and should serve as an inspiration to anyone with a passion, a collection, and the creativity and drive to take a personal project and see it through to the end.

Walk through the show with our Flickr album.

50 Shades of Pink at FIT

Jeremy Scott’s 2015 crazy-fun leather and zipper ensemble for Moschino, featured on posters for the show.

Everyone has an opinion about the color, and that’s brought to bear on the fun, irreverent, and insightful show at the Museum at FIT, Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, and Powerful Color, on view through January 5.

FIT’s downstairs gallery shows a retrospective of pink in fashion in the first room, anchored by Gwyneth Paltrow’s pale pink Ralph Lauren slip-gown that everyone remembers from the 1999 Oscars.

A stroll around the room is chronological, beginning with a fancy and frilly girly-girl two-piece ensemble from the 1850s, through ice-pink Chanel from the flapper period to pale pink plasticized space-age Courréges coats to the hot-pink satin features on Eighties society-ball statements by Adolfo and others.

Courréges logo and exquisite details on 1972 coat.

There’s even a full pink immersion installation of My Little Pony, Hello Kitty, and Barbie to make the point that for much of the 20th century in the West, pink has been associated with little-girl things.

Through the doors to the main gallery, curator Valerie Steele shows us the facets of how pink functions in a global society, as a transgressive color, as a wry joke, and even a power statement when applied to menswear.

One of the most interesting facts about pink is hidden in tiny label copy inside the first historical tableaux – a gorgeous 1775 silk brocade robe á la française on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and man’s suit from the same Pompadour Pink period.

Men and women in pink, 1775 style.

The word “pink” only entered the English language in the eighteenth century – the same time that the word “rose” was coined in French.

So, yes, despite the color’s appearance in the natural world prior to the burst of fashionable plant cultivation in the 18th century, it really took off as a response to horticulture that was reflected in fashions for both ladies and men.

From there, the exhibit explores how pink came to be associated with gender-specific kids’ clothes in the early days of Western consumer culture and how it was adapted as a “like life” color in lingerie and lingerie-inspired outerwear.

There are iconic pinkish women-as-flower dresses by Charles James from the Thirties and Fifties, and examples of Schiaparelli’s “shocking pink” reimagined by the house that bears her name today.

Rei Kawakubo’s 2005 biker-ballerina leather and pink gingham ensemble for Comme des Garçons.

It’s a great contemporary touch to see how punks and Rei Kawakubo subverted pink, and how Janelle Monae, Rihanna, and rappers have used it for their own pop-shock purposes.

See details of our favorites in our Flickr album. For fun, we’ve arranged the photos in chronological order and zoomed in on the embroideries, draping, embellishment, and masterful stitchery.

As usual, FIT has done an outstanding job on the digital side of the exhibition. Take a look at the exhibition website and FIT Flickr site, showing full-length photos of the ensembles. Listen to the audio tour of the show.

Enjoy curator Valerie Steele’s tour of the show here:

 

Catholic Inspiration for Fashion at the Met

Balenciaga’s 1967 silk wedding dress in the Romanesque Chapel at the Met Cloisters

The brilliant installation of haute couture in the historic halls of the Met Cloisters, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, closing October 8, also serves as a surprising showcase for the spectacular medieval art residing in the same space.

Curator Andrew Bolton’s thoughtful placement and narrative creates a genuine conversation between European couture and religious-themed works made over 500 years ago at both the Cloisters and the Met’s Fifth Avenue location.

The Cloisters show starts spectacularly with Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding dress dramatically casting shadows across the floor of the largest room at the Cloisters, the Romanesque chapel with its outsized arch and crucifix.

Closeup of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2007 evening ensemble printed with 15th c. image of the Virgin by Jean Fouquet.

The jeweled pieces of German stained glass are echoed by Gaultier gowns, and Craig Green’s avant-garde ensembles created from Islamic prayer rugs are at home amidst the 13th century tapestries in the Hall of Heroes. Looking at each contemporary expression fully reflects the magnificent artwork resting just a few feet away.

Hidden spaces, leafy cloisters, underground tombs, light-filled corridors, and dark, secret corners of the Treasury all provide surprises and context for exploring visitors – Valentino’s Garden of Eden dress, Galliano’s Machiavelli gown for Dior, Dolce & Gabbana’s gold silk-and-metal macramé wedding ensemble, and McQueen’s crown-of-thorns headpiece.  Seek and you will find.

Sleeve detail of monastic paper taffeta 1969 evening dress by Madame Grés.

Take a look at our Flickr album to see many close-up the details of all the clothes and surrounding artwork.

The Met has gone all out to make the connections between clothes and the Catholic themes explicit, providing innovative high-res photos, several brief videos and blog posts. Read more about the themes here.

Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, gives an overview of all the inspiration and documentation of the exquisite clothing, jewelry, and inspirational art work in the show in this video here.

Closeup of Olivier Theyskens’ 1999 evening dress with a hook-and-eye closure in the shape of the cross. From the Crusades section of the show in the Gothic Chapel.

Click here to walk through every room of the Cloisters with Andrew Bolton and hear him explain how he made the selections according to the surrounding artworks.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

Highlights include a procession of works from Gianni Versace’s last collection, Gaultier’s hologram votive dress, Mugler’s floating angel, and the loft high above it all, populated by ethereal figures wearing choir robes by Balenciaga.

1984 dress by Thierry Mugler from his Winter of Angels collection, part of the Celestial Hierarchy at Fifth Avenue

Here’s a link to the Met’s walkthrough video.

An important part of the Met’s undertaking is a spectacular mini-exhibition of incredible works of clothing art from the Vatican, which took significant negotiation. Here, Andrew shows highlights of the items on loan from the Vatican, some of which have never been displayed abroad before.

Walk through the Met’s Vatican section of the show here.

Weitzman’s Historic Shoes at NYHS

Crystal reproduction of Weitzman’s 2012 “Million Dollar Sandals”

It’s a clever journey through one man’s shoe collection. Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes, on display through October 8, zigs and zags through the fourth-floor gallery of the New-York Historical Society, presenting new insights to shoes and the history of American women in the workplace (and dance floor) through three centuries.

The emphasis is on history with a dash of celebrity and tons of glitter and glamor. See what we’re talking about in our Flickr album here.

The introduction, dedicated to collecting, provides glimpses into how and why shoe collections begin in the first place – wedding memories, baby mementos, and even Revolutionary archeology (go, shoe buckles!). Whether it’s everyday people or museums, it seems that there’s always a reason to collect shoes.

Ragtime era 1912-1914 beaded cross-strapped shoes

The presentation section of the show describes how footwear can be transformative – taking a dowdy career girl into an elegant, champagne-sipping flapper.  Or, more recently on Broadway, taking Cinderella to the ball or Billy Porter (aka Lola) to the town saved by Kinky Boots.

The shoes here show the progression of fashion and pop culture of trends and dance crazes that required show-off shoes.  First, it was “artistic” women who needed embroidered footwear to peep out under those Fortuny gowns. Then, it was ragtime music and high-buttoned shoes.

Eventually it was all about those small-heeled, strappy statement makers for the Charleston and Tango in the Jazz Age. Women were moving so fast, that they needed to make sure the shoes stayed on their feet.

1930 silk and satin Frank Bros. T-strap shoes

Next, the show tells the history of shopping in New York entirely through shoes – the evolution of Ladies’ Mile in the 1860s, the department-store-as-entertainment trend of the 1890s on Sixth Avenue, and window shopping.

It chronicles the rise of collection shoes sold exclusively at Saks (before the shoe department there had its own zip code) in the Forties and the rise of the designer label.

Delman 1948 leather and rhinestone evening sandals

Fads, styles, and designs like spectator pumps, platforms, high-buttoned shoes, Mary Janes, T-straps, and slingbacks are all there to tell their stories – the women who wore them and the men and women who created them. There’s even a nod to the provocative gold and silver sandal craze inspired by Hollywood sirens starring in Biblical epics and toga dramas of the 1930s and 1940s.

Back toward the end of the gallery, NYHS pulls out the history book and takes you on a brief journey to a time when the United States was the center of the global shoe industry.  They make it clear that working in the industry, beginning in the 1850s, was a way for women to step into the greater economy.

1954-55 embroidered Ferragamo “Madonna” sandals with Tuscan needlepoint lace. Originally made for Sophia Loren

By 1900, the United States was largest shoe producer in the world, and women were one-third the shoe industry labor force and 20 percent of the total American workforce. By 1910 in the era of Ragtime, eastern Massachusetts and New York City were shoe manufacturing capitals of the world.

The show puts a spotlight on Beth Levine and the other female designers who began their own labels and the current generation of concept shoe designers emerging from New York City schools (part of a program launched by Weitzman).

Fashionistas have been flocking to this show since April. Be sure to see it before this weekend so you can begin to look at your own shoe collection through an entirely new lens.

1950s silk and rhinestone pumps by Mabel Julianelli

More photos of Stuart’s remarkable, historical collection here.

Fashion Man-About-Town on a Bike

Bill’s jacket, bike, and Nikon

Bill Cunningham’s stuff isn’t going anywhere.  It’s going to stay right inside the New-York Historical Society, a tribute to the man that made “as seen on the street” a go-to source of what’s happening in style on the sidewalks of New York.

To celebrate its acquisition of Bill’s photographs, letters, and personal mementos from a life spent documenting clothes, people, and fashion, the NYHS has populated its second-floor micro-gallery with his early hat designs, his own instantly recognizable blue jacket, and his Nikon in Celebrating Bill Cunningham through September 9.

Take a look at some of the show’s highlights here.

A 1960 beach hat made from raffia and rooster feathers — wearable art

The NYHS show features hats and dramatic evening hair ornaments that Bill designed under his own label after he arrived in New York, back in the Fifties. It’s a piece of his life story that few know, so it’s nice to see the fantastic feathered “wearable art” that delighted his clients. His summertime Hamptons shop sign is even preserved here.

When women stopped buying hats in the Sixties, he switched careers to fashion journalism, first for Women’s Wear Daily, then as a stringer for big-city papers throughout the country.

Bill began taking photos at fashion shows in 1966, and soon embarked upon a fun project – finding interesting building facades around the City, getting period clothes that matched the building’s year, and asking friends to pose. Here’s our Flickr album of a few spectacular photos from this project, which the NYHS showed in 2014. Read our coverage here.

Bill Cunningham covering a fashion show

The work for which Bill is best known is tucked into a little case – his work for The New York Times — the photo-mosaics that Bill assembled from the candids he shot.  Society types, people going to work, edgy downtown twentysomethings – they were all part of Bill’s mosaic. Real people showing real style.

One day it might be black-and-white polka-dots spotted around town; another day, the story might be bright yellow. If there was a particularly severe streak of hot, cold, rainy, or windy weather – particularly during Fashion Week, Bill would show us the person-on-the-street fashion and gear solutions that he admired most.

Everyone became used to people-watching through Bill’s eyes and lens.

2009 coverage in The New York Times

Anyone planning a high-end charity event in New York sat on pins and needles on the night of the event, hoping “Bill would make it” and anxiously asking others on the committee, “Has Bill arrived?” If he did, you could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that your friends and charity cause would get some real estate in the precious pages of The New York Times.

Always low-key, Bill often bicycled to two or three events in one night, quietly snapping pictures and then heading off to see which ones were the best.

Steady streams of gallery goers have been popping into the tribute show to get close to a legend who held a unique place in the New York social and fashion scene. All day long, people are sitting at the far end of the gallery, quietly watching the documentary and listening to this humble icon speak for himself.

Still from 2011 Bill Cunningham New York

Women Rise Up for Cruelty-Free Hats

1885 satin evening dress embellished with swans’ down. Collection: Brooklyn Museum collection, The Met.

While early 20th century American women were still lobbying for the vote, activists first scored a victory for the environment – convincing the United States government to change the laws to protect wildlife and lobby the millinery industry to remove the mania for birds and feathers from the fashion equation.f

The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, running through July 15, presents a neat three-gallery exhibition that tells a forgotten tale of the citizen uprising and activism that led to a major environmental win for wildlife. Take a look at some of the items in our Flickr album.

The exhibition uses its Audubon watercolor collection to maximum effect.  The final gallery of the show displays JJ’s life-sized depictions of gorgeous water birds in their native habitats, providing an emotional counter-punch to the dozens of disturbing 19th-century hats, muffs, fans, and headgear adorned with plumage of the same creatures in the first gallery.

Must-have 1894 accessory, a gold aigrette with diamonds and feathers from breeding Great Egrets. Collection: MCNY

The show tells the story of the fashion feather craze that swept the world of high society in the 1880s and 1890s across America and Europe – a mania that resulted in large-scale destruction of birds, nesting grounds, and habitats. Destined for millinery shops in major cities, birds were shot and nests ransacked for exotic plumage, fluffy down, and entire bodies of wild and domestic birds that could be artfully arranged across shoulders and on brims.

Aigrettes, a delicate diamond-encrusted tiara, with wisps of egret feathers, were fashion accessories in extremely high demand. Hunters laid in wait for Great Egret males during mating season just to get these little wisps for the European and American trade.

Audubon’s portrait of the majestic male hangs in the final gallery. Its label states that in 1902, London alone received shipments of 1.5 tons of this wispy plumage, representing a sacrifice of about 200,000 birds and perhaps three times that number of trampled Great Egret eggs.

Audubon’s life-size 1821 watercolor of the then-endangered Great Egret. Collection: NYHS

Audubon’s Birds of the World could only be purchased by super-wealthy patrons, but smaller, individual prints of the massive, famous set were widely available and people loved them. Armed with binoculars and inspired by Audubon’s journeys, societies of bird enthusiasts took to pastures and woods to document and enjoy local species across the eastern United States from the 1880s on.

Gallery 2 tells the stories of these early environmental leaders, such as publisher George Grinnell who pioneered Audubon Magazine and Mabel Osgood Wright of Connecticut who used photography to document local bird species and educate others about them.

But even as they enjoyed the diversity of bird species around them, bird lovers, scientists, and environmentalists of the 1890s were horrified by the magnitude of the destruction.  Every fashionable woman on the street was wearing or carrying some accessory with a bird, bird part, or feather. The magnitude of the problem, they knew, was unsustainable.

Contemporary reproduction of an early 20th c. Audubonnet, which uses ribbons, not feathers

They faced daunting odds, since the millinery trade employed thousands, retail giants were benefiting, and the average fashionista simply didn’t want to know.

Emboldened by the activist strategies surrounding suffrage, the concerned women and men protested, lobbied, and offered solutions. One solution was the Audubonnet, a wildlife-friendly design approach that advocated dramatic ribbons and bows to replace wildlife on hats.

Copy of a 1900s newspaper ad selling featherless ladies’ hats.

By 1904, the fashion and retail pendulum swung in favor of the activists. Saks and Gimbels started promoting Audubonnets, and the industry agreed to abandoned the use of exotics and restrict itself to domestic birds and fowl, such as pigeons, doves, crows, hawks, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, and the like.

Buyers felt good about moving away from destructive fashion and sporting eco-friendly looks. The ribbon and artificial flower trade boomed. By 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed, banning bird hunting and killing and protecting all bird parts, feathers, nests, and eggs of hundreds of species.

Naturalists, scientists, activists, the Supreme Court, and Theodore Roosevelt all played a part in shifting environmental consciousness and politics of the time – a larger story than this exhibition tells but one that’s outlined in the first-floor TR galleries across the street at the American Museum of Natural History.

Audubon’s 1833 life-size watercolor of the Common Eider, once endangered by down gatherers disturbing eggs and nests in the wild. Commercial farms now raise them and collect their down.

The AMNH’s historic 1902 diorama of the Pelican Island water bird habitat, created to inspire New York audiences to protect endangered wildlife, is long gone from the museum.

But what a pleasure to see the NYHS Audubon watercolors continuing to do the job that JJ intended them to do — amaze, inspire, and bring the wilderness and the birds he loved to life on Central Park West.