Studio 54 Designers Turn Swimsuits into Evening Wear

Studio 54 fashion: Fiorucci blouse by Antonio, Stephen Burrows dress, and Zandra Rhodes gown. Courtesy: Pat Cleveland

The Seventies fashions in Studio 54: Night Magic, on display through November 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, slip, slide, drape, glitter, and sometimes seem like they’re not even there.

The entire point of going to the Studio 54 nightclub – assuming you could get in – was to shimmer, startle, reveal, exude fabulousness, and shine, shine, shine in the crowd and on the dance floor.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, a masterful curatorial achievement, pumps the music, flashes the lights, and runs the videotape while showing off the wunderkinds that made the Seventies 54 scene drip with glamour – Halston, Calvin, Kamali, and Burrows.

See our photos in our Flickr album.

Norma Kamali’s swimsuit top and skirt made for dancing

Although Halston and others made custom gowns for clients (and there are plenty for Liza and Liz in the exhibition), the show highlights one of their other fashion innovations that the 99 percent adopted in the Seventies ­– the swimsuit. If you had a great body, fantastic hair, and dramatic make-up, you could just throw on a bathing suit, tie on a net skirt with little sparkle, and you were ready for the club!

Designers like Kamali and Sant’Angelo partnered with fabric companies to innovate body-hugging solutions, and turned out sexy bathing suits that doubled as disco-ready separates.

One of the galleries features the fun, transparent dance skirts Antonio designed for Fiorucci that he featured in the 1977 “Fiorucci Fantasy” event he staged at Rubell and Schrager’s Queens club, The Enchanted Garden, which predated Studio 54. A video shows how Antonio’s supermodels set the New York fashion and nightlife scene ablaze.

Studio 54 coverage in the Daily News, May 4, 1977. Courtesy: Ian Schrager

For all of its influence in pop culture, it’s hard to think that Studio 54 had a lifespan of only 33 months between 1977 and 1979. The exhibition explores all of facets of the phenomenon – paparazzi, the daily tabloid fodder, Grace Jones, Andy Warhol’s goings-on, disco jeans, Interview magazine, fashion shows, and product launches.

It’s surprising to think that Doris Duke, Alan Greenspan, Lillian Carter, and Bella Abzug were just as likely to be in the club as street performance artists, Bianca Jagger, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Halston’s 1979 beaded chiffon ensemble for Liza Minelli.

To transform the old Twenties theater and TV studio into Studio 54, Schrager and Rubell tapped into the technical and artistic community to figure out how flying disco poles, set changes, and special effects could be orchestrated into a continual surprise for the partygoers. When the musical Chicago closed, designer Tony Walton repurposed his dramatic neon “Roxy” sign as a centerpiece for 54’s stage.

Some of our favorite items are the opening night guest list, Ron Galella’s celebrity photos, Antonio’s costume sketches for opening-night show by the Alvin Ailey dancers, the slideshow of their rehearsal by Juan Ramos, and the giant sapphire that Elizabeth Taylor famously wore to the club in 1979 (it’s in a safe).

Original celebrity photo portraits and Richard Bernstein illustrations for Warhol’s Interview magazine covers

Congratulations to the Brooklyn Museum staff who found and presented this amazing exhibition that lets everyone into Studio 54 to celebrity-watch nearly 40 years after the door closed on the party, and to show us how its influence still reverberates today.

Virtual Visits with a Fashion Icon and Rock History

Poster Inspiration with Anna Sui at Poster House

There’s no fashion designer more rock-and-roll than Anna Sui, who will be (virtually) at Poster House tonight (October 19) to show posters from the Sixties and Seventies and explain how they’ve inspired her eye-popping, fun, funny, and magical runway looks.  Take a peek at our Flickr album of her retrospective this year at MAD Museum, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

Poster House, New York’s newest museum, has one of the best line-ups of virtual events in the City, so get in on this special “Poster Inspiration” event with Anna tonight at 6:30pm. Tickets are only $5, so chip in a few dollars extra to keep their programming rolling.  This week, Poster house is also hosting “Lippert & Lowry: Fireside Chats” on Instagram (October 21) and a virtual tour of their fantastic poster archive on October 22.

Anna Sui channels Sixties Fillmore psychedelic in her MAD Museum show this year

Continue the rock-and-roll vibe with Thursday’s morning virtual tour of “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” by the New-York Historical Society (October 22). Revisit the legendary Fillmore East and West. Find the links to this and so many other great museum events on our virtual events page here.  Here’s a few:

  • A double header on Agnes Pelton’s show at the Whitney: On October 20, curator Barbara Haskell will answer your questions live, and she’ll be back on October 22 with the panel that had been postponed, “Seeing Agnes Pelton.”
  • On October 20, makers are invited to a panel at the Cooper-Hewitt on to learn how to launch a design project, which is part of National Design Month.
  • On October 23, the Met will host artist Dred Scott speaking about Jacob Lawrence.
  • On October 24, horticulturalists can get an insider’s look at the medieval gardens as the Fall season begins at the Met Cloisters.

    Gardens at the Met Cloisters

There are also more chances to catch the Morgan Library’s virtual tour of the Hockney show, a full line-up of paranormal goings on at the Merchant’s House Museum, and more tours at the Tenement Museum. Take a look and register for as many of the topics and events that you can fit into your schedule.

Most events are free, but an extra thank-you donation helps everyone, big and small.

Reopening Update

Just a reminder to fashion fans that the Met will soon open its much-delayed fashion extravaganza, which should have debuted the first Monday in May.  It’s coming and we’ll keep you posted about a virtual event the Met has planned to give everyone a preview.

Jacob Lawrence’s Modern Lens on American History

The Battle of Bennington, painted in 1954 – …again the rebels rushed furiously on our men. – a Hessian soldier

Nearly 65 years ago, a young WWII veteran immersed himself in history books up in Harlem and envisioned a modern way to bring key episodes of early American history to life on canvas.  Today, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art are pouring over his 60-panel series – reassembled for the first time in decades – in the remarkable exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, on view through November 1.

Known for his enormous body of work chronicling the African-American experience, Lawrence’s American history series is largely unknown. That’s why attending the show and working your way around the room to learn about each episode is such a revelation.  Which episodes did he pick? How did he use modern, angular style to depict the struggle for independence and economic progress?

Sacagawea and her brother reunite

His series “Struggle: From the History of the American People” brings forgotten pieces of history to life and depicts many from a new angle – Patrick Henry’s rousing revolutionary rhetoric, regional skirmishes against mercenaries, the enlisted man’s view of the perilous Delaware River crossing, and treasonous whispers that risked undermining the Continentals.

Inspired by the Mexican muralists, WPA storytellers, and the city around him, Lawrence chose dynamic composition, symbolic colors, and an everyday person’s experience of historic events to create an intriguing, historic, and emotional narrative. Take a look at some of our favorites in the exhibition on Flickr.

1940s American history book opened to map of Lewis & Clark’s 1804-1806 expedition

Inside the gallery, the Met presents two of the books that Lawrence consulted as he planned the series as well as his funding proposal to produce a much more expansive work from the American Revolution through World War I. The notes on display show that Lawrence had the parts of history that could tell the full American story all thought out. Unfortunately, the series wasn’t funded.

The panels on view are hung in the order they were presented at Charles Allan’s gallery in 1956-1957, beginning with the lead-up to the American Revolution. Lawrence tells the story his way through conflicts, close-ups, and long shots, working in stories of Black combatants and women, like Margaret Corbin who manned the guns at Fort Washington.

1956 painting of the Battle of Lake Erie – if we fall, let us fall like men, and expire together in one common struggle – Henry Clay, 1813

Many of the events he depicts from the early 1800s have largely been forgotten –impressment of sailors by the British, the Battle of Lake Erie, and the destruction of Washington D.C., and the Battle of New Orleans. The series ends with epic undertakings by everyday Americans – the building of the Erie Canal and the westward migration to the Ohio and beyond. It makes you want to learn more.

If you are in New York, be sure to see this important show in person; otherwise, take a look through this series in the Met’s website. Click on each image to read the backstory of Lawrence’s take on that slice of American history and the quotes he selected for each work. Go on a visual journey with an American modernist master here.

Listen in to this recent program produced by the Met in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – the same library where Lawrence did his research in the 1950s.

Listen as the Schomburg’s director Kevin Young, arts curator Tami Lawson, and the Getty’s associate curator LeRonn P. Brooks discuss Jacob Lawrence, his scholarship, the WPA, Harlem, and the milieu from which his art emerged. Hear how a genius was made:

Other major works by Jacob Lawrence are on view at the Whitney Museum – he is a featured New York artist in Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art and his War Series, created after he returned from serving in the Coast Guard in World War II, has its own special gallery inside the collections show on the seventh floor.

 

Travel the Sahara Superhighway at The Met

12th – 14th c. terracotta equestrian statue from the Middle Niger civilization (Mali).

As you confront the stone monolith in the entry, get prepared to see art you’ve never before encountered, learn about empires you didn’t know existed, and fill in the blank spot on what you know about African history.

Beauty and cultural discoveries are everywhere in a first-of-its-kind exhibition on Saharan artistic legacies in Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, on view through October 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Large 12th – 13th c. gold pectoral, found at a burial in northwest Senegal, with elaborate filigree. Courtesy: IFAN, Senegal

The shifting sands of the Sahara are echoed in the centuries of shifting artistic traditions, migrations, civilizations, religions, and cultural affinities of the Saharan people. Take a look at our Flickr album.

This gorgeous show is one of the first to tie and unite the threads of the sub-Sahara’s nearly invisible history for Western audiences. Western approaches to art history have traditionally made it appear as if the people on a large content were a monoculture with no beginning, end, or history. The show brings a deeper artistic and historical context to work that has always suffered from just being lumped together as “African art,” or worse, “primitive art.”

Scholars on two continents are starting to piece the story together, reflected in the exhibition’s design. The alcoves are a primer to walk back through time to understand the region’s complex history, which covers deserts, oases, and farming areas that are the size of Europe. For centuries, the region was criss-crossed by trading routes (the “Saharan superhighway”) through which caravans delivered luxury goods, exotic raw materials, news, and new cultural influences.

Pre-1659 royal tunic, a European import from the Ardra kingdom (south Benin) via Mandé trade routes. Courtesy: Museum Ulm

Wooden or fired clay depictions of warrior kings on horseback from the 3rd through 19th centuries line the exhibition’s central path. Settlements, archeological sites, and kings are named, with the vast region’s artifacts, architecture, and traditions of storytelling joyously placed into a proper context.

There are plenty of national treasures, such as the gold pectoral from Senegal and lively terra cotta sculptures (likely made by women) from Mali, made with the highest levels of craftsmen between the 12th  and 14th centuries. Another highlight is the still-vibrant 8th-century woven tunic from Niger, one of Africa’s most ancient textiles.

The exhibition explains how Islam gradually, peacefully became the dominant religion in sub-Saharan Africa, displacing the previous belief systems. As is the case with other world cultures, artists continued to merge and adapt older, more traditional symbols and forms with the new.

Wood sculptures of Mali’s Bamana people, from the 15th to 20th century

An intriguing 15th-century Italian map-painting documents Mansa Musa, a 14th-century emperor from Mali, who achieved global celebrity status for his over-the-top pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo and was inspired to develop Timbuktu into a center of Islamic scholarship.

The display of Bamana sculptures, dating from the 15th to 20th centuries, in the rear gallery is the show’s dramatic conclusion, although the walls depict incredible resist-dye textiles made by early 20th century women in Mali and couture-level embroidery on pure white status garments of the Timbuktu elite from the Sixties.

Senegalese kora made before 1878, used by griots to perform social narratives.

The show was an epic undertaking by the Met  – organizing a narrative and objects to tell two thousand years of relatively unknown history; first-time loans of national treasures from the museums in Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania; arranging for an 8,000-lb. monolith to be shipped across the Atlantic to New York.

The epic histories recounted by griots playing traditional instruments over the centuries play a large role in the exhibition. Koras and percussion instruments are on display, and music permeates the galleries.

Here’s a peaceful walk through the exhibition with music by Toumani Diabaté with Ballake Sissoko:

For an in-depth understanding of this ground-breaking show, join in on this conversation with Met curator Alisa LaGamma and scholar and writer Manthia Diawara:

Learn more about the epic history of the Sahara in the Met’s exhibition guide.

Tenement Museum Opens Window via Virtual Visits

Kitchen on the Tenement Museum’s virtual tour of the Moore family residence

We’re happy to see that the Tenement Museum, one of NYC’s most beloved cultural centers, is not only offering in-person neighborhood walks again, but hosting virtual tours of the cramped quarters where our European immigrant ancestors first gained a foothold in America. This week, there is an opportunity (October 15) for everyone to climb those narrow stairs on Orchard Street, see the neighborhood (October 17), and help sustain the museum.

Check out everything that’s happening in NYC museums online on our virtual events page here.

And speaking of small history museums, we also want to mention the virtual events being programmed at the Merchant’s House Museum, which continues to persevere despite the massive construction project happening on the other side of its 1830s walls. Check out their pre-Halloween programming this week and throughout the month, and see what it’s like inside the place deemed Manhattan’s “most haunted” house.

Disco reigns supreme at Brooklyn Museum’s Studio 54: Night Magic

On our list this week, we also want to draw your attention to:

  • The Fashion Institute of Technology and Museum at Eldridge Street’s presentation on Berlin’s fashion industry in the 1920s (October 13)
  • The Morgan Library’s discussion of European blockbooks in “Print-on-Demand in the 15th Century” (October 15)
  • The Brooklyn Museum’s program with three Studio 54-era disco divas, who talk about how their music shaped the era ($10 on October 15)
  • The Bard Graduate Center’s presentation on Eileen Grey and architectural drawings (October 17)

For Tiffany fans on October 13, the New-York Historical Society will show off its spectacular collection. If you’ve never seen the upstairs Tiffany gallery at NYHS and heard the stories behind the lamps, do not miss this.

Last week, the Whitney had to postpone its Agnes Pelton panel, but curator Barbara Haskell will be answering questions on October 20 in a virtual event.

Take a look and register for as many of the topics and events that you can fit into your schedule. Most of the events are free, but it’s always nice to add a thank-you donation.

Reopening Update

Poster featured at El Museo del Barrio graphic arts exhibition, Taller Boricua: A Political Print Shop in New York

The Bard Graduate Center Gallery had just opened its much-anticipated exhibition on Eileen Grey when the pandemic forced its closure. We’re happy to let New Yorkers know that BGC is opening up the doors to the in-person exhibition for two weeks, October 13-28. Reserve your timed tickets now.

We also checked out the newly reopened El Museo del Barrio to see the graphic arts exhibition on Taller Boricua, which presents over 200 works by artists at this historic print shop. There were plenty of visitors yesterday pouring over the works produced by activist Puerto Rican artists over the last 50 years. The museum at 104th and Fifth is open Saturday and Sunday.

Welcome back to the Museum Mile!

NYC Museum Virtual Events on Hockney, Pelton, and Design

David Hockney, Self Portrait with Red Braces, 2003. © David Hockney. Photography by Richard Schmidt. Courtesy: The Morgan

This week has a full line-up of (mostly free) programs featuring new exhibitions and topical issues from the art world and beyond. See the list of everything you can participate in on our virtual events page.

We welcome the reopening of the Morgan Library with this week’s most-talked-about exhibition on David Hockney’s portrait drawings from the National Gallery in London. This week’s virtual schedule gives you two opportunities (October 6 and 9) to take a virtual tour, but get the free tickets now since they are going fast!

This week on October 8, you’ll also get an opportunity to learn more from the Whitney about Agnes Pelton and her transcendentalist work from the curator herself, Barbara Haskell. Although the show originated in Phoenix and went to Santa Fe before its New York stop, the Whitney’s given over an entire floor to for you to enjoy the tranquility, spiritualism, and meditative power of Ms. Pelton’s works. Although Ms. Pelton participated in the historic 1913 Amory Show, she’s had zero recognition until now.

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Courtesy: Phoenix Art Museum

Although the Cooper-Hewitt still hasn’t opened its doors, you’ll have an opportunity to celebrate the National Design Awards and National Design Month on line. This week features a virtual salon on October 8, but their website has a full roster of design, education, and maker events, too.

We also want to draw your attention to:

  • New-York Historical Society’s evening with Carl Bernstein and Maggie Haberman ($20 on October 8)
  • A live encore presentation from the New York Transit Museum on the cultural history of the 20th Century Limited (free on October 9)
  • October’s Sci Café from AMNH on hive minds and politics (free on October 8)

For Hamilton fans on October 8, Fraunces Tavern Museum will host an author who will dig up all the dirt between General Washington and his nemesis, General Charles Lee.

Last week, we joined ETHEL on the Met’s balcony on Friday night (a weekly digital event), and really enjoyed the digital effects that were added to a beautiful performance. We also dropped into the Brooklyn Book Fair courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Take a look and register for as many of the topics and events that you can fit into your schedule. Most of the events are free, but it’s always nice to add a thank-you donation.

Reopening Update

Dancing dress by Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, as shown in Studio 54: Night Magic

It was great to be back at the Brooklyn Museum this week, where the community was enjoying the sunshine on the front plaza while waiting for timed ticket entry to the fantastic exhibition, Studio 54: Night Magic.  If you plan to go, budget enough time, because the time-capsule exhibition is massive.

For budget and safety reasons, only two floors of the museum are open, but that did not stop any of the art-seekers from checking out many of the special shows, study center, and permanent American gallery works. The first floor features an installation filled with amazing, inspiring photographs by a ground-breaking Parisian artist. Wow! Do not miss JR: Chronicles or Studio 54!!

Welcome back, Brooklyn!!

Amy Sillman Gets Shapes to Talk at MoMA

1957 Arp sculpture and view of works by Leger, Frankenthaler and Bonticou

A big, red blob on the fifth floor at MoMA is the welcome sign to one of the most engaging exhibitions in New York ­– the come-hither array of modern artworks in the latest Artist’s Choice show, Amy Sillman: The Shape of Shape, on display through October 4.

But here’s the catch for MoMA visitors – the show has more than 75 works but no labels, no identification, no dates. Just the clue that Amy chose works to explore the role of “shape” in modern art. Small artworks are arranged knee-level on risers (kind of like stadium seating), with larger paintings tilted against the wall.  A few are hung in the traditional way, but it feels as if MoMa’s collection is looking at you and hankering for a conversation. Check it out in our Flickr album.

Rectilinear frame conversation between 1989 Albert Oehlen painting and 1935 “Construction” by Gertrude Green

In our first visit back to the re-opened MoMA, visitors circulated through the room, looking intensively, talking about what they saw, and discussing how pieces might be connected. Although the gallery guide was available via QR code, no one during our visit appeared to seek it out. Everyone seemed quite content to parachute into 110 years of modern visuals and just go for the ride.

What did Amy choose? Abstracted forms, organic shapes, human bodies, and not-bodies – all arranged in a way that makes you feel that one is somehow related to its neighbor. You can’t quite describe why the entire room felt like a tight ensemble, even though one piece might feel like fun and the next a little scary.

It was interesting how unsettled visitors felt by 1970s works by Christina Ramburg and Julian Schnabel. This is exactly what Amy was going for, according to what we overheard her tell students in the gallery yesterday. She wanted to evoke the anxious feelings that most artists experience as they paint, draw, and sculpt and to reflect the times today without being didactic.

Along the east wall – 2008 acrylic by Charline von Heyl, 1920 Arp sculpture, and 1976 drawing by Jay DeFeo

Amy came of age during the Seventies when museums and intellectuals had given abstract expressionism its “heroic” status and crowned minimalists and conceptual artists as successors in the march of modernism. For this Artist’s Choice exhibition, Amy examined MoMA’s vast archive from a different perspective, looking at famous and not-so-famous creators whose work evoked myths, an interest in shadows, tension, anxiety, bodies, and whimsey.

Shadowy Black figures in a dark painting by Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mukarobgwa are echoed by a shadowy figure in a work by Leger. The tiny 1920 stacked Arp sculpture seems to be playing a “Mini-Me” role next to the large, layered 2008 Charline von Heyl acrylic.

Shadows also play key roles in a Lois Lane painting paired with a Kirschner wooduct. See for yourself and make a connection. Download Amy’s zine here to learn more about the works she chose and how she installed them. (She designed it during the quarantine months when the show was shut down.)

Here’s a short overview of the show hosted by MoMA painting/sculpture curator Michelle Kuo:

But you should really dig into the in-depth conversation (with over 10,000 views!) between Amy and Michelle, if you’ve ever been to art school or painted. They talk about art making, art history, Amy’s inspiration from Munch’s little-known litho of a woman hugging a bear, and the way she chose lesser-known works that could have a conversation with you in 2020:

More on MoMA’s reopening
MoMA on 53rd Street is open every day with timed ticketing, and now that the free-ticket offer has concluded, it seems easy to find a time to visit. The Queens outpost at P.S.1 is open until 8:00pm Thursday through Sunday, and is currently showing the acclaimed (and long-anticipated exhibition) Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration through April 4.

Join Live Virtual Events at NYC Museums

Tour “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met this week

Are you missing your favorite New York museums? We’re happy to report that many of the cultural powerhouses, like the Whitney, The Met, and MoMA have reopened, although timed tickets in the opening weeks have been a little hard to get.

There’s a quick and easy way to get inside, however, by attending one of the live virtual programs being offered.  Check out our new page on events! As you can see, there’s a lot of opportunities to connect.

1929 “Calla Lily Vendor” by Alfredo Ramos Martinez in The Whitney’s must-see exhibition “Vida Americana”

New York museums have been keeping their events going online, and joining in is a great way to meet curators, docents, tour some blockbuster shows, and join in on the discussions happening around town about art and the social-justice movement (past and present), women’s issues and history, and even listen to ETHEL play classical music from the virtual Met balcony on Friday night.

For smaller museums, the virtual events have been a great way to broaden programming to a national or international audience.  In recent on-line programs produced by Fraunces Tavern, it’s been nice to see colonial history buffs from Virginia and New England join in on the discussion. At last week’s New York Transit Museum’s talk on the 20th Century Limited, a few UK railroad enthusiasts joined in the chat room!

Hear about the preservation of Washington and Hamilton’s hangout, Fraunces Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest buildings this week

So, it’s a great way to be in the virtual room where it’s happening with others who love history and conversation as much as you do!  Take a look at the array of topics and events and register.

Most of the events are free, although after the months-long shut down here, it’s always nice to give a thank-you donation.

Reopening Update

This week, we’ll welcome the opening of the Guggenheim and Jewish Museum along Fifth Avenue and the International Center of Photography at its new home on Essex on the Lower East Side, where the Tenement Museum has begun neighborhood walking tours again.

Welcome back!!

Enjoy this beautiful four-hour meditative Met Live Arts performance by Lee Mingwei and Bill T. Jones at The Met this week

Resistance and Power via Fashion at FIT

2016 jacket by Kerby Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss powerfully protesting racism in the fashion industry

Although the doors to the museum exhibition are shut tight, the Museum at FIT still allows full access to its spring show Power Mode: The Force of Fashion through its online exhibition.

The power of resistance and how clothes convey the message are among the themes explored. Hand-crafted items such as jackets slashed with anti-racist graffiti, T-shirts silkscreened with bold words, and pink pussy hats are shown (and discussed) alongside high-end designer appropriations of messages, causes, or culture.

The exhibition presents actual 19th– and 20th-century uniforms – templates of precision, force, and authority – next to creations in which high-fashion designers channel this concept of “power” through military colors or styling.

Power to resist 2017 – a T-shirt from the Women’s March T-shirt and a feminist statement by Maria Grazie Chiuri in her first collection for Dior

The show explores examples of economic power via “status dressing” over three centuries and shows how the authority of a man’s traditionally tailored suit was adapted to white-suit statements by women showing power – not only by the marching and protesting suffragettes of the last century, but also by the current crop of female politicians in the United States.

Take a close-up look at the details in our Flickr album and read more about individual items on the show’s website.

Curator Emma McClendon gave a lot of thought to the visual cues, economic issues, and shifting societal backdrops for as she selected the items for this show.  Join her on a walkthrough to find out what lies beneath the surface of everyday, extravagant, and elemental clothing choices :

Status dressing – 1991 gold-plated necklace by Karl Lagerfeld criticized for its cultural appropriation of hip-hop street culture

Building a Retail Empire on Wearable Art

Vera’s 1950 silk “Fish Scroll” scarf, featured on the cover Harper’s

So many of the great female entrepreneurial success stories begin at the kitchen table, and the story currently being told by the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann, on view through January 26, is no exception.

Fashionistas today may be too young to remember when the American height of chic was to sport a scarf by Vera. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Vera pretty much had a lock on the retail market for bold, colorful silk scarves through major department-store behemoths.

The exhibition is a tribute to a woman who took her love of painting, travel, nature, and culture to the wardrobe and accessory drawers of all fashionable American households, and ended up partnering with many top manufacturers to push her aesthetic and flare into mid-century modern homes.

Vera’s silk scarves, based upon watercolors, hung as art at MAD

Although her name is not well known by young people today, MAD’s exhibition is a fitting tribute to a woman who virtually invented the concept of “lifestyle” brand. It’s hard to believe that an aspiring artist born in Connecticut in 1907 would grow up and develop her company to pack such a punch in retail.

A graduate of Cooper Union and Traphagen in the 1920s, during the Depression, Vera and her husband set up a silkscreen on their little Manhattan kitchen table and began printing her paintings on surplus parachute silk. Within a few years, her beautiful silks were being retailed at B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, and other nice shops in the city. Her joyous prints were a success!

Vera’s 1960-1965 silk blouses with paintings of blue poppies and woodland images

Building her business through the war years, Vera took her first foray into fashion in the 1950s, creating tops and blouses that she came to market as “wearable art.” Rather than simply printing yards of repeating patterns, she went a step further – engineering prints in panels, so when pattern cutters and sewers assembled her shirts, her beautiful patters would strategically appear in the final product, enhancing cuffs, collars, edges, and hems.

Of course, everything was priced for the widest possible market, so a woman seeking a bit of fashion flair could buy a Vera without blowing her budget. She followed the art-plus-commerce philosophy – a Bauhaus innovation – and maximized accessibility of mid-century modern design by expanding into home textiles, tabletop accessories, and dishes.

1979 “The Birches” china dining set for Mikasa with matching tablecloth

As her business grew, Vera came to rely upon the next generation (Perry Ellis got his start with her) to keep the design development chugging along while she traveled to Asia and other parts of the world to feed the constant demand for new inspiration for her collections.

MAD has assembled a beautiful, loving exhibition of Vera’s output, showing how her original watercolor work made its way into her commercial ventures – scarves, clothes, and home décor. Perhaps most remarkable is that this powerhouse kept traveling, painting, and channeling joy into her textiles well into her eighties – an inspirational lesson in love of life, art, craft, and culture.

1971 “Northwest Coast” silk scarf

Thank you, Vera! Long may your prints wave!

And thank you to MAD for sharing Vera’s lifetime of creations and inspiring story!

See more photos of this wonderful exhibition in our Flickr album.