FIT Challenges Designers over Shape, Physique, and Fashion’s Future

Red carpet looks for curvy women: Roberto Cavalli’s ensemble, LaQuan Smith’s see-through for Kim Kardashian, and Christian Siriano’s dress for Leslie Jones

Against the historical context provided by examples of how women (and men) have pushed and pulled their bodies into fashionable silhouettes since the 1750s, The Museum at FIT asks a broader, more contemporary question:  Why don’t designers today create attractive clothes for women who don’t fit into a size 2?

The exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, on display through May 5, begins with a thoughtful video in which young New York designers, including Christian Siriano, call for change in the industry to give plus-size women fashion-forward off-the-rack options that project youth, style, and pizzazz.

As usual, FIT has an excellent website for the show, where you can step through 250 years of fashion history in sequence to see and read about how the concept of the “ideal” body has changed.  For some of our favorite items, see our Flickr album.

1845-1855 corset with metal eyelets and 1865 Scottish dress buoyed by hooped crinoline

The 1800s fashions on display from the FIT archive pair undergarments – like corsets, crinolines, and bustles – to demonstrate how fashion emphasized the importance of tiny waists through most of the 19th century. The swags covering protruding bustles eventually gave way to the no-corset looks of early 20th century artistic women who worshipped the exotic excesses of Paul Poiret.

The curators focus on the roots of fashion-induced body issues back then, too. An iPad shows the proliferation of fashion illustrations that draw women with impossibly tiny waists. Nearby, they show evidence from their collection to bust the myth that all corsets were laced tight enough to achieve an 18-inch waist. Simply not true. The illusion of that “ideal” was created with wide skirts and pouf sleeves.

When powerful structure was in: a 1981 dress by Mugler and 1986 jacket by Donna Karan

From there, the show moves through the next 100 years, providing examples of tube silhouettes of the Twenties, languid body-skimming styles of the Thirties when women used girdles to achieve the “ideal” body, the built-in structure of Dior’s New Look, and through to more recent times.

Although the intricate architectural cut of a Thierry Mugler dress would not normally be paired with a soft-tailored jacket by Donna Karen, the curators note that the “ideal” shape for women in the 1980s was athletic, fit, and toned. The pairing of these two designers shows how the impact of powerfully shaped fashion worked for equally well for Grace Jones or for powerfully shaped women who inhabited the C-suite.

In more recent times, the show makes the point that designers and image-makers increasingly shifted the “ideal” shape to the super-young and super-slim, encouraging completely unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies. Men and women obsesses over diets and fitness to achieve body shapes that are fairly impossible goals.

Two padded looks: a 1996 statement dress by Rei Kawakubo and the 1994 Wonderbra

The show concludes where it started – with a conversation about how designers, fashion fans, and the rise of social media are influencing and showing how real women dress today.

A fantastic red-carpet evening gown that Siriano designed for Leslie Jones after a Tweet storm ensued about designers not offering to dress a larger woman serves as the cornerstone content of the show. One dress says it all – class, elegance, beauty, sass, and bravery all summed up in one statement-creation.

Listen to what Christian and the other passionate young designers have to say about where fashion must go for the good of all:

If you have more time, listen to the conversation between Valerie Steele and Tim Gunn, which led FIT’s all-day seminar on this topic. This conversation digs deeper into lack of industry and designer support for less-than-ideal-sized women and concludes with ideas on what emerging designers can do to bring about change.

Norell Classics, Capelets, and Culottes at FIT

1965 sequined silk jersey mermaid dress by Norell owned by Lauren Bacall

When Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, or Jackie Kennedy entered a room wearing a daytime or evening ensemble by Norman Norell, you noticed them and not the clothes. Wearing Norell, you could always be assured you looked like perfection personified.

Considered to be the “American Balenciaga,” the Museum at FIT pays tribute to this master in its retrospective exhibition, Norell: Dean of American Fashion, on view through April 14.

The show emphasizes his signature elements – for example, dramatic capelets on everything from evening wear to outerwear, self-belted coats with closings inspired by kimono fastenings, sailor-suit bows, and sequined mermaid dresses where each tiny disc was applied by hand to the liquid silk jersey.

Details: bound buttonholes on the bolero jacket of 1968 evening gown

Norell’s key to success was that he injected couture details into what ladies could purchase off the rack at Bergdorf’s – silk interlining, bound buttonholes, bias-cut buckram interfacing inside hems.

Although he started designing costumes for Broadway shows and for Paramount at their Astoria silent-movie studios back in the 1920s, Norell’s design education really went into high gear in the 1930s working Hattie Carnegie.

When she brought back couture from the Paris shows, Norell pulled apart each dress, lining, and gown as if he were tapping into King Tut’s tomb, breaking down each outer layer until he understood what was inside.

Norell was inspired by the exacting techniques of the master couturiers – refining, adjusting, and experimenting how to build interior structures that appeared deceptively simple but remained rock-solid when a powerful, beautiful woman entered a room.

To see Norell’s colorful clothes in action, watch this fashion-show sequence from That Touch of Mink, a 1962 movie starring Doris Day.

Norell hit his stride in the Sixties as slimming styles, trapeze coats, clean lines, and understated classy details set the tone for elegance, ease, and active, modern women. A-list celebrities and stars snapped up his Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear at a time when the only other option for this kind of elegance was couture.

Elegant 1961 evening culottes, a Norell invention

He even invented culottes so that women would look good getting in and out of cars, whether they were on the go around town or exiting limos on the red carpet.

Since Norell’s name isn’t that well known today, Jeffrey Banks, co-curator of the exhibition, wanted to set the record straight. Norell was ahead of his time with color blocking and mixing sequins subtly with non-glam fabrics like wool jersey. And he was the first designer in America to have his own fragrance.

Listen as Jeffrey, Stan Herman, and Ralph Rucci testify to the pretty-much-perfect vision that Norell brought to American fashion.

If you can’t get to the show before it closes, see it here in FIT’s online exhibition. Take a look at the beautiful clothes in photos by FIT and our Flickr photo album.

And here’s a look back to our post on FIT’s past tribute to the style of Lauren Bacall, who donated her entire wardrobe, including her Norell pieces, to the Museum at FIT.

Club 57 Rejects at MoMA 35 Years Later

Music poster for Club 57

They didn’t fit in to any of the scenes back in the Eighties, but now they have their own show at MoMA in a basement club all their own – just like in the old days.

Entering Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983, on view at the Museum of Modern Art through April 8, you’ll be required to find the right way downstairs, peek behind curtains, and lurk around corners where transgressive, challenging art is on display.

The show is a tribute to the ultimate DIY art scene in Alphabet City at a time in New York when things were just plain tough.

Housed in the basement of the Polish National Church on St. Mark’s Place, the misfits invited their friends to imagine and create performance art on a regular basis.

Klaus Nomi’s cape, from his 1978 New Wave Vaudeville finale

Although Danceteria and The Pyramid Club were contemporaneous music scenes, Club 57 was the place to create characters, imagine scenarios, revel in kitsch, celebrate “bad” art, and create performance art or a DIY film festival every night.

The kids – many classmates from School of the Visual Arts – created and handed out flyers to entice the adventurous to witness the uncensored experimentation.

It’s where Keith Haring, Joey Arias, Ann Magnuson (MoMA’s guest curator), and others spent their formative years dressing up, wigging out, and pushing boundaries.

The show displays ephemera from those years and experiments, from Klaus Nomi’s transparent cape (when he appeared as the closing act in New Wave Vaudeville in 1978) to Clayton Patterson’s flyers based on the latest in new technology in 1983, the color Xerox. See it, start to finish, in our Flickr album.

Kenny Scharf’s recreation of his 1979 Cosmic Closet

The installation is on two levels, but downstairs is where it’s all happening. Silkscreened posters by John Sex poke out of the dark. A secret hideaway reveals Kenny Scharf’s black-light psychedelia “Cosmic Closet.”

Hand-crafted calendars by Ann Magnuson illustrate the variety of activities that took place nightly – film screenings, performance, music, and lady wrestling.

Collaged and Xeroxed zines, drag performances with small casts of thousands, and graffiti art jolted life into a subculture struggling to make ends meet, live in a city clawing its way back from financial ruin and high crime, and trying to make sense of the mysterious illness that was plaguing the gay community.

Richard Hambleton’s 1983 Shadowman series

One person’s trash is another one’s art. And the reverse is true — Basquiat was busy sprinkling his moniker all over the decaying walls of the East Village, and Richard Hambleton’s epic Shadowman paintings were popping up in the neighborhood where you’d least expect them. The street and the art were in an ever-renewing cycle.

This immersive journey back in time is stupendous. Be sure to hang out in the basement to watch two or three of the videos from Club 57’s heyday.

For now, take a walk through the show with Frank Holliday, one of the founding members of Club 57.

Also, watch and listen to the artists recollect club experiences during MoMA’s opening night party.

Mod New York Pops at MCNY

1967 mohair coat by Bill Blass from Saks and Leo Narducci’s evening culotte, sold at Bendel

It’s been 45 years since New York fashion leaders entered the “Battle of Versailles” with Paris designers and came out victorious, establishing New York City as the world’s fashion capital.

Although the show only makes passing reference to this epic throwdown, the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition, Mod New York: Fashion Takes A Trip, on view through April 1, shows Seventh Avenue’s evolution to reach this epic turning point.

MCNY has plucked 70 ensembles (plus accessories) from its costume collection to tell how fashion, pop, and mod moved through the wild, epic decade of the Sixties to the classic ease of the Seventies, mixing in works by influential French designers with our own. See our favorites in the Flickr album.

1961 custom embroidered satin evening gown by Sarmi, worn by client to JFK’s inaugural ball

The show’s entrance (outside the gallery) previews the theme of the show and also showcases the vibrant Sixties fashion dolls by Harlem’s Ruby Bailey, which have been lovingly restored by MCNY’s costume collection team.

Inside the main gallery, MCNY features an intriguing timeline of New York City fashion firsts alongside world events and a “Black is Beautiful” wall that provides context for the influence of Uptown style and street fashion throughout the decade.

The gallery show tells the story of how early fashion got a jolt of electricity when Jackie Kennedy stepped into the White House in the early Sixties, sporting cleanly tailored looks by Oleg Cassini and Dior’s Mark Bohan.

1964 Chester Weinberg dress from Bendel and 1965 vinyl dress by Joan “Tiger” Morse

Sleek Givenchy and high-society Audrey-Hepburn ruled, as shown by nearby Vogue spreads from that era. MCNY throws in some of New York’s own – Mollie Parnis dresses, ladylike Beth Levine pumps, and jewelry by Arnold Scaasi that complimented his elegant evening designs for celebrities and first ladies.

Around the corner, there’s a color, fabric, and geometric-shape explosion, with a vibrant “youthquake” display – Mary Quant miniskirts, Courrèges and Cardin space-inspired looks, and the allure of sparkly synthetic and vinyl knee-high boots from 1964 through 1966.

The New York designers featured here include Donald Brooks, Chester Weinberg, Anne Klein, and Geoffrey Beene, along with the electrifying dresses and ensembles created by Deanna Littell and others for Henri Bendel, where Geraldine Stutz created the boutique-within-a-store retail concept and Andy Warhol illustrated shoes.

1971 boots by Beth Levine, 1969 glazed apple-seed necklace by Azuma, and late 1960s pendant by Kenneth Jay Lane

The Paraphernalia boutique, where Betsey Johnson go her fashion start, gets a nod, too.

The “new Bohemia” style follows, featuring even more over-the-top mash-ups of color, pattern, tribal influences, and pizzazz. Flower-power, psychedelia, and cross-cultural references even work their way into accessories — Beth Levine’s embroidered and embellished boots and Kenneth Jay Lane’s Etruscan-inspired pendants.

Pucci and Bohan are still bringing it from Europe, but Weinberg, Blass, Beene, Betsy Johnson, and the Serendipity boutique are adding their innovations from New York streets and hippie culture.

The show concludes with selections from the Seventies, which reverts back to a less-is-more aesthetic with the advent of supple, slinky Quiana jersey and, as Vogue dubbed it – “the new ease.”

1973 fluid jersey dresses by Scaasi and Yves Saint Laurent

In New York, it was the era of Halston and Stephen Burrows, who created dresses that moved in a disco, and did not distract from the women who wore them. Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, and Geoffrey Beene went with them to duke it out in Versailles, and the exuberant, easy nonchalance of the American designers and multiracial models won.

Listen in as stylist Jacqui Stafford and fashion expert Susan Swimmer walk through the show and discuss how the Sixties continue to influence fashion and red carpets today, with comments by the show’s curator, Phyllis Magidson

Modern Japanese Design from Humble Plants Blossoms at Met

2017 immersive bamboo sculpture by Tanabe Chikuunsai IV

Ancient grasses are the medium through which master craftsmen have made eye-popping, intricate statements, as evidenced in the Metropolitan’s exhibition, Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection, running until February 4.

The show opens with a dynamic, undulating tiger-bamboo sculpture installation by Tanabe Chikuunsai IV, a modernist descended, trained, and influenced by three previous generations of acclaimed Japanese bamboo innovators.

In fact, families passing on the secrets and traditions in three different regions of Japan is a featured theme of the show. In many cases, work by fathers and sons is shown side-by-side, such as the intricate works by Tanabe’s own great-grandfather and grandfather, and the stunning sculptures by Honma Hideaki and his father, Honma Kazuaki.

Mid-19th c. hanging cicada-shaped basket collected by Moore

The show showcases contemporary and 20th-century bamboo art from the Abbey Collection (which will eventually be given to the Met) alongside 19th-century pieces collected and donated to the Met in different eras.

For example, the Met received a bonanza of Asian art from Tiffany’s artistic director of silver, Edward Moore – over 80 textiles, bamboo baskets, metal work, and ceramics – from his overseas journeys in the 1860s and 1870s.

Beautiful gold-and-lacquered bamboo pieces that he collected are displayed in this show, alongside kimonos, painted screens, and netsuke-toggled containers featuring images of bamboo growing wild.

Modern lines of 1940s Peony Basket by Maeda Chikubosai

There’s also a unique bamboo and rattan bowler hat from the 1880s, courtesy of the Abby Collection, which injects a bit of the “Pacific Overtures” feel to the show, demonstrating how Western influences began to creep into Japan and push artists, such as Shokosai, to use traditional materials in contemporary life. In this case, snappy items sported by fashionable celebrities.

Despite the centuries in which craftsmen shaped large and small specimens of some of the more than 600 species of these grasses, bamboo work remained classified as “craft” versus “art.”

By 1929, however, the up-and-coming generation of bamboo innovators finally accomplished what their artistic ancestors had not – full recognition by the Japanese art hierarchy that their creations were on a par with painting, other types of sculpture, and fashion.

2014 sculpture by Honma Hideaki next to 1983 panel by his father, Honma Kazuaki

An example is Sakaguchi Sounsai’s fruit tray, one of the first pieces of bamboo works accepted into a government-organized national art exhibition. Kudos to the Abbey Collection and the Met for showing how Japanese artists took a humble plant and made it blossom into a dramatic, rich, intricate statement reflecting modern times.

Take a look at everything on the Met’s website and our favorites on Flickr, which shows some of the Moore and Abbey-collected works in chronological order.

To get an idea of the skill involved in transforming these natural materials, watch this time-lapse video of The Gate, the dynamic, undulating installation dominating the show’s entrance, created by a team led by bamboo artist Tanabe Chikuunsai IV.

And listen to Hiroshi Sugimoto, the famed photographer, looks at Tosa Mitsunobu’s 15th-century Bamboo in the Four Seasons screen, also included in this show at the Met, describing how a two-dimensional work brilliantly uses nature to convey the passage of time.

MoMA Picks Fashion Items with Modern Impact

1970 looks envisioned by Rudi Gernreich people in the Year 2000

The MoMA design department came up with a list of 111 clothing items that have had an impact on the world and is presenting them for your reflection through January 28  in Items: Is Fashion Modern?

Capri pants, graphic T-shirts, jumpsuits, backpacks…they’re easy to identify, but do you really know where they came from or where they’re going?

The design team dug deep, interviewing experts, commissioning new designs, and taking you on quite a journey from what seems familiar but has deeper implications and meanings.

Each item on the list gets more-or-less the same treatment: familiar examples, a little historic context, audio by experts intimately familiar with the prototype and its societal significance, and maybe videos providing a little more background. (Go, Beatnik video, next to the felt berets and black turtlenecks!)

Close-up of MoMA-commissioned jumpsuit by Richard Malone, made from recycled acrylics

There are sections on shaping undergarments, luxury items, expedition wear, and power dressing. Check out our Flickr album of some of our favorites, and be sure to check out the video of the graphic T-shirt installation.

The MoMA team gets the digital gold star for using sound, video, social media, and social platforms to explore each item on the list. Hear the many voices who contributed to the show – designers, curators, fashionistas – on MoMA’s terrific audio tour.

For example, everyone knows “the little black dress” but MoMA calls it “a concept” and then displays everything from Gabby Chanel’s original 1920s bugle-beaded innovation to Gianni’s safety-pin number to subversive top-shorts combos for a hip-hop crowd by Rick Owens.

It’s nice to see all the versions while listening to FIT’s Valerie Steele on the audio tour and to watch the gallery video of how the laser-cut nylon pieced dress by Nervous System symbolizes the LBD’s future.

1997 A-POC Queen by Miyake Design Studio — one tubular piece of cloth knitted by an industrial machine from one thread.

And as for the future, there are plenty of visions: Gernreich’s 1960s take on what people would be wearing in the Year 2000. Donna’s Seven Easy Pieces from the Eighties are still being treasured as components for a totally modern dressing solution.

It’s remarkable to think that the Miyake Design Studio’s innovative, red-hot one-thread tubular computer-knit everything-in-one piece first debuted in 1997 and that paper shift-dresses weren’t born yesterday.

A soft, doe-colored Halston Ultrasuede shirtdress is featured in one of the final galleries, but there’s nothing about its demure look to suggest the societal fashion mania that ensued during the Seventies for this washable suede-like innovation.  It was one of the decade’s had-to-have items.

There’s plenty of flash, surprise, and history to go around. Sign up for MoMA’s free course on Fashion as Design on Coursera and poke through MoMA’s YouTube channel for insights on Saville Row suits, fashion lifecycles, digital dresses, and more.

Take a walk with MoMA’s design curator Paola Antonelli though this enjoyable, provocative show:

Also, MoMA produced a set of videos to provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the garments commissioned especially for the show, such as futuristic biker jacket by Asher Levine and James DeVito. Step into their atelier as they enhance their design:

Cooper Hewitt Serves Up Decade of Twenties Style

1923-1926 Callot Soeurs velvet evening dress, embroidered with pearls and metallic thread. Collection: MCNY

Booze-filled nights, cocktail artistry, designer scents, dancing the night away in half-hidden clubs, and high style provide the context for the Cooper-Hewitt’s gigantic show, The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, closing on August 20. If you go, plan on spending some time contemplating two floors of beautiful things that made this decade a design stand-out.

From the time of New York’s first Armory Show in 1913, the appetite for primitive art, artistic dressing, and design innovations just kept growing. The end of World War I encouraged German, Austrian, and French designers to look west to find new markets and clients, and New York in the Twenties was ready for something completely different.

As the curators show, the trans-Atlantic influences, designers emigrating to New York from Europe, and newly liberated women enjoying the cigarettes, cocktails, music, and dance all added up to an explosion of change.

1927 silver coffee service, inspired by cubism and skyscrapers, designed by Eric Magnussen for Gorham

The Twenties became a watershed decade for innovations in fashion, jewelry, furniture, art, and design on both sides the Atlantic. View all the beautiful things in the show here.

The two-floor show is grouped by theme, chronicling the initial cross-pollination of new European designs into high-end American lifestyles and choices – modern geometric designs in diamond bracelets, hair bands replacing tiaras, cubism gone wild, the De Stijl and Wiener Werkstätte revolutions in design-think, and how everyone was interested in Frank Lloyd Wright.

1920s diamond geometric bracelet by Mauboussin with colorful clusters of rubies

New York high society could not get enough of the meticulous craftsmanship and new geometries in design emanating from Europe. If you had the cash, you traveled to Paris to scoop up designer duds and art glass, but the appetite for what each continent had to offer was a two-way street: Europe could not get enough of Josephine Baker, jazz, and New York’s new, ever-expanding skyline. The Jazz Age is loaded with vases, armchairs, and even a wastebasket drawing inspiration from super-tall buildings sprouting in Manhattan.

The show also highlights the craze for “primitive” elements of design, Egyptian motifs inspired by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the stuff that started to be made when party goers discovered the joy of cocktails.

There are fabulous bracelets from Cartier worn by high-society style makers and celebrities (e.g. Mae West, Gloria Swanson) and perfume containers that doubled as collectible art.

1955 copy of 1918 Gerrit Rietveld chair, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright

Couturier Jean Patou even commissioned a perfume presentation styled to look like a cocktail bar as a wink to the fact of Prohibition on the other side of the Atlantic. Of course, he offered ladies’ drinks when they came to his Paris salon, commiserating about alcohol deprivation in America.

The array of armchairs that have been assembled are a mini-exhibition on their own – from Gerrit Rietveld’s astonishing 1918 primary-color chair to Breuer’s iconic 1925 Barcelona chair to the 1929 steel-tube-and-rubber chair by René Herbst. It’s hard to look at them and see them as from an era different than our own today.

The curators make the point that a watershed moment in design was the 1925 Paris Exposition of International Arts. The excitement over the new designs was so intense that department stores in the United States offered to hold a traveling exhibition of 400 objects. After people across the US got a whiff of what new style was all about, the appetite for modern furniture, vanity table items, and textiles exploded.

1920s form-fitting “California” style wool knit bathing suit. Collection: Kent State

Clothing plays a role in the show, but the displays include more accessories and jewels. Beautiful evening dresses by Chanel and Callot Soeurs are featured, along with a pair of exquisitely preserved sparkly dancing shoes and a modern knit bathing suit that really revealed all of a woman’s curves.

Touring the show, you’ll learn how jewelry changed with the times during the Twenties. Shorter, looser-fitting dresses on ladies moving to the latest dance styles demanded longer, looser necklaces, or sautoirs, that swung in time to the music, too. More open T-strapped and ankle-strapped shoes were embellished to make those dance moves even more dazzling.

There’s a lot to the fashion story during this decade. Join two fashion historians and Cooper Hewitt curators, as they talk about the fashions of the Jazz Age in New York and Paris.

When DIY Fashion and Couture Were the Same Thing

John Sebastian’s 1967 performance cape, jacket, and pants, which he tie-dyed himself

Imagine a time before designer logos, no one asked “who you are wearing,” and your sartorial status was ranked according to DIY embellishments and colorful, theatrical approaches to materials that telegraphed a strong social-political message.

The current show at Museum of Art and Design (MAD), Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, on display through August 20, is a tribute to the Sixties and Seventies when Hollywood, rock royalty, rich kids, hippies, and living-off-the-land types all marched to their distinctive fashion beats.

At Columbus Circle, two floors of fashion take you on a journey through hand-crafted masterworks of several copacetic subcultures who carried out the youth revolution over sixty years ago — acid trippers, antiwar protesters, peace-and-love advocates, commune dwellers, hashish users, Dashiki wearers, and the all-nature/all-natural advocates.

100% Birgitta’s crocheted 1969 Rainbow Ensemble with Large Pendant

In a war on conformity and Mad-Men style, the counterculture of Southern California, the San Francisco Bay, and the Village turned to wild color, hand-dyed fabric, tribal inspiration, oversize accessories, personalized embroidery, and repurposed materials to declare individuality and a better, more peaceful world.

John Sebastian’s tie-dyed cape, shirt, and pants on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame remind you that long before Gwen Stefani, rock stars once styled themselves and made their own clothes. Theatrics and performance was important, whether it was Woodstock, street theater, or East Village happenings.

Apple Cobbler’s Mickey McGowan made custom shoes and boots from brocade (no leather) and traveled with a suitcase full of client foot patterns, ready to spring into action whenever a rock drummer needed to replace his favorite footwear. In the late Sixties, the must-have item for starlets was a colorful crocheted seaside ensemble by 100% Brigitta.

Nina Huryn’s 1971 painted tooled leather jacket, typical of custom pieces she made for rockstar clients

Take a look at the installation views on MAD’s website, and then go in for a closer look on our Flickr album.

By the late Seventies, some clothing artists, such as K. Lee Manuel, were making one-of-a-kind pieces and selling them through small wearable-art-style shops. Others like Nina Huryn continued doing custom pieces for Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and other rock superstars. At least one — Christopher Crookedstitch — had a team of craftspeople staining homespun cotton, making self-fringe, and applying beads in a teepee workshop.

On the other hand, you might just do your own thing, such as the hand-embroidered, appliqued U.S. Army coat made as a protest or the highly studded and embellished Levis jacket that transformed a machine-made uniform into a work of art. MAD shows a small collection of winners from its 1973 Levis contest (when it was still named the American Craft Museum).

1970 man’s vest from a rice sack by Sandra Van Meter, who dressed her family in humble handmade clothing

Although the clothing isn’t as flashy, the exhibit showcases the caftans and simple linen clothes favored by less-is-more commune dwellers. Although the curators feature some fairly fancy embellished pieces by designer Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, they also note that she founded the home-sewing pattern company, Folkways, which offered a template for anyone to take a slightly historical style (think pioneers and buccaneer shirts) and craft it into their own personal statement.

The do-it-yourself component is only emphasized by a framed Simplicity pattern from the Seventies.

Don’t miss the spectacular tie-dyed panels by Marian Clayden, who also had a fashion label and designed all the textiles for the original production of Hair. Although it’s not a technique in fashion today, confronting work by this master will let you experience why the mystery and transcendence of her craft led so many to get out the Rit dye and try it at home.

Close up of tie-dyed hanging by Marian Clayden

Thanks to the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington State, who originated the show.

The Woman Behind the Beautiful Bags

Judith channels the era of the space race with a futuristic smoky Lucite egg with gold frame and chain, 1968

You’ve seen them on the red carpet, in the hands of First Ladies, and gleaming cases at Bergdorfs. Tiny glittery sculptures sized to fit in the palm of a hand.

The show at MAD, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story, which closes August 6, gives a well-deserved look at the innovator behind these creations, showcases the many ways Leiber elevated the evening bag, and tells a dramatic story of how an immigrant came to the United States with technical knowledge and flair for an up-to-then unexploited corner of the accessories market.

Take a walk through the show with our Flickr album.

The exhibition in MAD’s Tiffany galleries is an ethereal, low-light showcase of some of Leiber’s most dazzling creations. Putting the primary focus on her lifetime output of handbags-as-art, her life story is conveyed discretely in an understated corner through a few photos and an illuminating timeline.

Leiber’s 21st century Mondrian-inspired bag, 2000

Growing up in Budapest, Judith went to London to take liberal arts courses and intended to study chemistry there to enter the booming European cosmetics business. But the 1939 outbreak of World War II forced her to go to Plan B – sticking close to home and working with the Hungarian luxury brand, the House of Pessl, learning the craftsmanship of fine ladies’ handbags.

As the show notes, with the advent of train travel and emphasis on ladies’ luggage, handbags became a fashionable accessory in the mid-to-late 19th century. With its spas, lavish restaurants, and pastry palaces, Budapest catered to the aristocratic trade in just about everything, including carrying cases and bags. Leiber was in a good spot to learn from the best and became the only female member of the local handbag guild.

Presented to Hillary Clinton in 1997 for her husband’s second inaugural.

When Germany took over Hungary in 1944, she and her family were relocated to a ghetto where they endured economic deprivation and witnessed persecutions that came to an end when Russia liberated the city in 1945.

Channeling her skills into creating bags for military buyers, Judith met and married a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps – Gus – who would take her back to New York, encourage her to start her own business, and eventually run her company.

Her big break in the New York Garment District was supplying a handbag to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower at her husband’s 1956 inauguration. Although Judith was working for designer Nettie Rosenstein, everyone heard about the Judith Leiber-designed handbag and she made a splash.

Leiber’s first rhinestone bag 1967 – an ingenious solution to hide a discolored brass frame

Ten years later, Judith began her own handbag company. Good thing that she was able to do it all, from making a pattern, to designing the frames, and executing it all right down to the finish. When a brass frame arrived in her workshop with surface defects, she had the idea to cover the defects with rhinestones, and launched the look that would distinguish her at inaugural balls, New York society galas, and Hollywood premieres – the jewel-encrusted minaudière.

The side gallery is packed with her signature pieces, crystal-covered minaudières crafted to resemble animals, food, and Chinese-inspired dressing table items. On the other side of the exhibition is a small case with wax sculptures by Lawrence Kallenberg, who worked a lifetime with Judith to create the 3-D templates that the Italian foundry uses to fabricate the brass cases.

The exhibition is a beautiful display of her lifetime of work, featuring both the first bejeweled bag and her last design in 2004, emphasizing the inspiration she took from 20th century artists and textiles of world cultures. Among the most stunning creations are bags made from embroidered antique obis, Asian ribbons, and even American patchwork quilts.

Penguin minaudière, 1991

Suspended in air and shown off in mirrored cases, the curators create a mood that allows visitors to contemplate how Leiber’s eye, wit, and skill transformed the lowly carryall into a lifetime of unique, ingenious, dazzling art.

See the beautiful bags here.

Bard Resurrects NYC’s Crystal Palace

The domed Crystal Palace depicted on a commemorative window shade

With its exhibition New York Crystal Palace 1853, the Bard Graduate Center gallery is offering an exquisite experience of one of the 19th century marvels of New York – the enigmatic 1,500-paned glass structure that rose on what is now Bryant Park.

In 1853, New York was trying to claim its place as a culture capital. Two years prior, London had mounted its world-class exhibition in its beautiful Crystal Palace, and New York wanted to do Europe one better.

By this time, New York was dominating in global trade, so the City thought it could elevate American taste (and spur consumer appetite for luxury goods) by assembling technology innovations, art, and manufactured items all under one big domed glass roof.

Why not build the world’s largest cast iron and glass exhibition hall on the edge of the city at 42nd Street next to the Croton Reservoir? For 50 cents, visitors could spend the day inside and people watch to their heart’s content.

Showpiece parlor furniture, an 1853 armchair by Julius Dessoir

It would be the largest building that anyone had ever experienced – so big that it had its own police force and you had to buy a guidebook.

The exhibition selects some choice items from New York collections – many which were indeed exhibited under the dome in 1853 – to tell the story of the endeavor, give a feeling of what a wonder it was, and bring you back to a time in New York when parlor furniture was the rage, ladies were just venturing out for ice cream on their own, and oysters were still so plentiful in the harbor that they reigned as the best quick snack for lunch.

Take a look at the galleries exhibition on the Bard website, but see a close-up view on our Flickr album.

Although the physical exhibition ends July 30, the Bard team offers a through-the-looking glass digital site, where you can actually stroll through the interior and examine different items along the way. The journey takes you by evocative sculptures, beautifully crafted musical instruments, spectacular parlor furniture, and vitrines filled with over-the-top ladies’ hats.

High-tech Singer sewing machine for home and business

The technology section features the latest in fire engines, Eli Whitney’s original model of his 1794 cotton gin, Colt’s revolvers, a pyramid made of innovative cotton rope, and the revolutionary iron sewing machine. To show how it worked for industry and the home, Singer had women demonstrate this new labor-saving device.

In-gallery and online interactive walk-through tour of the Crystal Palace

The scope of the exhibition was so massive – the footprint of Bryant Park between 40th and 42nd Streets – that publishers offered guide books so that visitors wouldn’t miss a thing.

Helpfully, Bard provides you with digital access to the free July 23, 1853 Crystal Palace supplement from the Illustrated News, modeled upon a period newspaper.

For a thrilling view, you can go up to the 270-foot tall, 8-foot wide platform of the Latting Observatory (New York’s first authentic skyscraper) and get a bird’s eye view of the city all the way out to Jamaica Bay. Or duck into the saloon below for smash, the cocktail of the day, a shaken-not-stirred icy mix of brandy, lemon, mint, and sugar. (And consult the guidebook to find out which saloons allow ladies to sip alcohol.)

There’s also a digital guide to other 1853 attractions, including how to take an omnibus over to the Hippodrome and where to find Matthew Brady’s studio.

Must-have tophat displayed and available from John Genin’s downtown mega-store

It’s all so lively, that it’s sad to learn that the entire edifice came crashing down in a dramatic fire in 1858, which likely adds to the mystery. The curators have found a tiny, insignificant piece of its melted glass from the Museum of the City of New York’s collection. Treasure it.

If you have three hours, watch Bard’s symposium on how it all came together – the palace, the exhibition, and the digital experience that will provide everyone with hours of 19th century summer fun in the City: