The Met’s Deep Dive Under the Surface of Camp Fashion

2009 ensemble by Indian designer Manish Aurora.

The clothes are witty, glittery, and scandalous at the Met’s blockbuster fashion exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion, on view through September 8, but make no mistake – the fun and frivolity are packaged (at least in the opening galleries of the exhibit) in a way that asks visitors to go deep beneath the surface and look at the three centuries of societal norms that provocateurs have shattered through style, clothes, and living large.

The kaleidoscope of outrageous fashion in the final gallery is the sensory payoff to the journey, but visitors who race through and don’t read the label copy in the first part of the show will have missed the point: the show is a chronology of how some brave (or rich) rule-breakers did things that have become stereotypes for gay and camp sensibilities and dress in the 21st century.

1998 ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier merging menswear with a woman’s 18th c. corseted gown.

The pose of male models inspiring Renaissance bronze statuary, the balletic inclinations of Versailles’ Sun King, the cross-dressing Brit couple whose families shunned them, and the proclivities and scandals of literary genius Oscar Wilde are used to tell the roots story of “camp” sensibility that went viral in Madonna’s Vogue, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Cardi B’s appearance in Mugler at this year’s Grammys.

To drive the point home, the curators have matched ancient treasures (Renaissance sketchbooks, Versailles costume sketches, and Wilde manuscripts from Oxford) with modern fashions by designers who spoof classical statuary (Westwood), out-do Versailles excess (Lagerfeld), and create dandies (YSL).

Peter Hujar’s 1975 photo of Sontag and her 1964 manuscript of “Notes on Camp.”

The beating heart of the show is the presentation of Susan Sontag’s 1964 listicle of “camp” sensibility. Her original marked-up manuscript is flanked by works and tributes by her fanboy Warhol.

Sontag and Andy hold court over a room filled with treasures of the Met’s collection that illustrate her definitions and classifications – Art Nouveau, 19th century Gothic sensation, 17th century court fashion, flapper dresses, Tiffany lamps, and wispy gowns created from all-over feathers. Dozens of divine objects are there to enjoy while listing to the stabbing rhythm of Sontag’s typewriter keys. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of her work that captivates visitors who diligently work their way around the room.

Judy Garland’s 1938 Ferragamo sandals and 2018 resort shoes by Alessandro Michele for Gucci.

A great approach is the “high camp” and “low camp” corridor, which illustrates designers’ unintentional icons of camp, paired with over-the-top takes and sartorial commentary.

Just compare Judy Garland’s Ferragamos with athletic-inspired Gucci resort shoes by Alessandro Michele, or Poiret’s 1912 touch of mink on an Asian-inspired evening ensemble with Mary Katrantzou’s blatant Orientalist snark in 2011.

An interesting curatorial decision: the celebrity fashion is not obviously identified – you have to “know” that it’s the Duke of Windsor’s evening suit, that the turban belonged to Carmen Miranda, or that the bejeweled Bob Mackie was worn by Cher.

Mugler’s 1995 Venus – an embroidered bodysuit + a velvet and satin dress.

Younger visitors have no trouble linking the vintage Mugler to Cardi B, but at least one young man pointed to a bejeweled suit and said, “That’s so reminiscent of Liberace” without realizing that the jacket had actually belonged to the iconic superstar.

The finale room is so packed with over-the-top couture and campy statement pieces that the IDs really don’t matter. It’s a Coney Island of camp with dozens of creations vying for your attention overhead, up and down, and in the middle of the room.

People wander every which way, trying to take it all in – a futile endeavor.  Even on the second, third, or fourth visit, you’ll find something you’ve never noticed before.

Fashions in the Camp Eye gallery, including Moschino’s TV Dinner dress.

The room is alive with color, quotes, cultural references, social statements, and an explosion of unconventional materials – Patrick Kelly channeling Josephine Baker’s banana dance, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino gown channeling Budweiser’s graphics, dresses that look like Tiffany jewelry pouches.  It’s over the top and all too much, which is the point.

Congratulations to the curators for presenting Wilde’s prison tome, De Profundis, on loan from the UK, and the vintage vogueing video that shows Pose fans the source material from the Harlem ballrooms.                                                                                 

Look at our favorites here. If you can’t get there, read the Met’s essays on each gallery, see their picks, and read the quotes on the walls.

Here’s the promo produced by the Met that explores answers to the question, “What is camp?”

And here’s a 2-minute look back to how this year’s celebrity invitees answered their invitation to the May gala. Bravo:

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!

Ye Olde Hip-Hop Brings Met Armor to Life

It’s Showtime NYC troupe. Photo: MetLiveArts

Nimble knights and knaves again take the stage tonight amidst the horses, banners, shields, lances, and heraldry of the Metropolitan Museum’s Hall of Arms and Armor in Battle! Hip-Hop in Armor, part of MetLiveArts.

The amazing dancers from It’s Showtime NYC are putting on their gauntlets and knee guards to show spectators what it’s like to bring medieval and Renaissance armor to life in a co-production with the Met’s Department of Arms and Armor.

The static state

Tonight’s program is the third in a series of performances, running through spring, where street-style choreography presents a modern interpretation of chivalry, battles, honor, mysterious tales, and ghosts.

The dancers took a crash course in the days of old from curators in the Met’s Arms and Armor department and got to learn how to apply accoutrements that are normally relegated to the mannequins and cases in the popular hall.

Bashford Dean, the Victorian world traveler and collector who began this department over 100 years ago, would have loved it, since he is a man that also liked to dress up in similar regalia.

Kester Esterphane makes chivalry and armor come alive

The troupe from It’s Showtime have created several dance pieces, including one that tells the story of a long-dead king who springs to life from his medieval tomb to terrorize craft thieves who try to steal his stuff.

Rising up dressed in an authentic chain-mail tunic, the king brings zombie-like commotion to the tale and answers the choreographic question: How does a dancer bring a feeling of terrifying mayhem to the stage when he’s wearing that many pounds of heavy, constricting steel?

A conversation with curators revealed that although visitors see the armor displayed in static form, all of the engineering involved makes it incredibly flexible. So, asking dancers to try it on and create new moves actually shows off something that isn’t apparent about the Met’s incredible collection.

Knaves face wrath of an angry king’s ghost.

Congratulations to the curators of Arms and Armor, MetLiveArts, and the It’s Showtime NYC dancers for such a fantastic concept and program! More! More!

It’s Showtime will perform it’s pieces several times tonight and reappear like knights of old on February 8, March 22, April 12, and June 7.

And in case you think this is the first time the Arms and Armor curators have ever tried to put a new twist on a medieval subject, take a look at one of Bashford Dean’s brainstorms when movies were just starting to be made in Queens.

Yes, he talked to Barrymore and other early actors and directors of American cinema on just how to get people interested in the past. Here’s a link to one of Bashford Dean’s media pieces that also brought the knights back to life:

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.

Native Inventions in Spotlight as imagiNATIONS Center Debuts in New York

Sixth graders listen to explanation of Native American innovation map

The sixth-graders were having the time of their lives cramming into the rocking kayak, finding secret treasures from far-away cultures in the drawers, and comparing sturdy lacrosse sticks made from natural materials.

It was all part of the joyous opening day of the new imagiNATIONS Activity Center, on the ground floor of the Smthsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, right off Bowling Green in downtown Manhattan.

NMAI officials blessed the proceedings with percussion and chant, but the genuine thrill was seeing the kids pour into the new center to listen to and experience a new take on science, math, and engineering.

Tip of a contemporary surfboard – originally invented by Hawaiians.

When you walk inside, a wonderful wall summarizes the story – a map of North and South America populated with technical inventions by Native Americans over the last several thousand years! It’s a brilliant summary of the fresh ideas that you’ll encounter around the corner.

Although this sparkling, new, inspirational ImagiNATIONS Activity Center was conceived for children, rest assured that any adult museum lover will be blown away by discovering the technical innovation story too.

Although the first settlements in Manhattan and Broadway itself were created by native populations, city dwellers often get so overwhelmed by towering skyscrapers that they don’t immediately connect native cultures with what exists downtown.

Yup’ik kayak frame created by Bill Wilkinson of Kwigillingok, Alaska from spruce, cedar, driftwood, and walrus bone

OK, maybe no one is reading the news on steles in Mayan hieroglyphics anymore, but the much of the work displayed here is made by living, breathing native artists. The next time you’re stuck on a subway because of a signal malfunction, consider the fact that in the Andes, the community assembles each year to repair their chasm-crossing fiber foot bridges. Now, that’s a commuter maintenance plan!

Or consider that Arctic kayaks are custom designed to suit each individual’s weight and shape.  Or that cool surfer dudes in Hawaii are simply carrying on a wave-riding tradition that extends back thousands of years.

Cold weather waterproof kayak-hunting system

Every step makes you stop and think.  How is it that the Mayans were one of three cultures to invent concept of zero in mathematics? What brilliant minds perfected making waterproof parkas from carcass leftovers or salmon skin?  Or the engineering it takes to design watercraft that doesn’t tip?

Sixth graders learn how igloos are engineered.

The mannequin in the corner displays recently crafted components of “system dressing” for hunting from kayaks in freezing waters.  The parka has waterproof stitching and attaches to the kayak opening.  The visor includes walrus whiskers that aren’t just decoration – they transmit subtle, silent vibrations to the visor that tell expert hunters that their prey has shifted course.

Everything you experience in the center was designed to help teachers inject something new to supplement schools’ math and science curriculums. But the fun factor for learners of all ages is truly off the charts.

You’ll experience how all the significant contributions made by native people in food, architecture, sports clothing, agriculture, and engineering really add up in day-to-day modern life. You’ll want to get into the kayak and open all the drawers yourself.

Port Authority executive Janice Stein and colleague who loaned steel cables from the Bayonne Bridge

From attending the opening, we were able to meet the people from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who donated a piece of repair cable from the recently upgraded Bayonne Bridge for the engineering display. Perfect for seeing and touching to see how Andean fiber cables compare to urban steel.

We also heard the story of how the kayak overhead made a 4,000 journey on a sea plane, a ship, and a truck from the workshop of Bill Wilkinson in Kwigillingok, Alaska to Anchorage to Seattle and to New York City.

Take a look at our Flickr album and make a trip to the Battery as soon as you can. The center, like the NMAI, is free, fully staffed, and open seven days a week.

Exploring drawers of textile samples.

Take your own kids, your neighbor’s kids, or your inner child and get your hands on that igloo downtown and think about what you owe the people living south of the border for the invention of chocolate.

When Jewelry Has Its Own Idea

Organic geometry: Kazumi Nagano’s brooch of folded linen paper and other materials.

Can jewelry actually speak? The Cooper Hewitt curators thought so when they went through the expansive collection that a donor had assembled, as shown in Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection, on view in New York through May 28.

Lewin, who donated her collection to the Smithsonian, was passionate about collecting fairly conceptual wearable art pieces – works that reflected pop culture, or held great symbolic meaning, or told a story that was significant to the artist.

Around 150 bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and rings are on display in the show. They’re all intriguing works on their own, each telling a story, but the selections are nicely classified into sub-groups, such as Nature, Symbol and Metaphor, Memory, and so on.

Nature: Daniel Kruger’s necklace with pressed flowers and leaves.

Some groups tell the art-for-art’s sake story; other groups are made of materials with charged significance. But all reflect the deep thought that jewelry artists give to their work and the delight the wearer has in either sharing the story of the piece or just keeping its secret to themselves.

The show emphasizes how ground-breaking artists have conceptualized jewelry to go beyond the constraints of simply pretty, glitzy, or decorative ends.

For example, the paper necklaces by Kiff Siemmons speak to the artist’s interest in pulling dramatic shapes out of lowly materials and in cross-cultural collaboration – in this case, working with artisans from Oaxaca’s Arte Papel who are expertly reviving pre-Columbian paper making technology with traditional, plant-based dyes.

Attai Chen’s paper, paint and coal necklace from Nature section of the show

In the portion of the show where jewelry reflects society and the human condition, designer Deganit Stern Schocken used crushed soda cans and zircons in a piece named after Israel’s largest checkpoint, evoking the daily West Bank anxieties of passing between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The fact that Estonian artist Kadri Malik incorporated a large shark tooth in her “It’s Getting So Dark” necklace gives the piece a voice that speaks volumes, even if the wearer doesn’t say a word. The same is true for Attai Chen’s dark riff on nature — dramatic necklace formed from paper, paint and coal.

Art Smith’s 1948 Modernette Cuff Bracelet reflecting the art world’s interest in biomorphic forms

The show also touches on the history of post-war wearable art by innovators in America and Europe, including a biomorphic piece by Sixties jewelry maker Art Smith, who was connecting the dots among the cultural influences he was seeing in painting and dance studios from his Village studio.

What about other art for art’s sake? The curators showcase collection pieces that are colorfully painted, baubles incorporating found objects, and art that simply conveys the joy of pure, clean, abstractions.

Lewin certainly had fun collecting and wearing provocative pieces, and the curators also seemed to have enjoyed displaying these fascinating works in a context that suits them.

Take a look at some of our favorites in our Flickr album.

To give an idea of how kinetic artist Friedrich Becker conceptualized his work in motion, here’s a video showing how his ring activates to convey its story when worn:

This show focuses upon an international array of artists. But for anyone that wants to dig deeper into the roots of American studio jewelry 1940 – 1970, art historian Toni Greenbaum  describes how artist-made jewelry came to its cherished place in the art and design worlds today: