I love you. From my first visit, the work of the many artists you house captured my heart. Your impeccable selection and displays of works of amazing contemporary arts leave me in awe every time I visit.
Whether it be the bands playing folk museum in the summer and fall or events hosted each season to engage with the community, I always feel welcome by your engagement efforts. Your range of artists challenges my intellect in ways your peers do not. However, your selection of art is the constant reason for my enthusiasm. The often rotating installations and the artists you introduced me to factions of contemporary art I would never have been made aware of. It has also introduced me to many of my favorite contemporary artists, including Jenny Holzer and James Turrell. Through these different artists and topics, I have learned more about the human experience than I have at any other institution.
I am constantly immersed by your interactive installations, which allow me to experience the world of art in new ways at every visit—exposing me to works that ask one to walk into the unknown. Whether that be a literal pitch-black room full of sounds where one cannot see a thing or an exhibit that explores the world through the eyes of someone deaf, the institution provides art that shows a new perspective on the human experience. As an institution, Mass MoCA has also shown me that art can be more than just a reflection of society hung on a wall; it can be an experience happening in real-time, meant to be shared with the person next to you. To be shared with humanity as a tool of connection.
For this reason, you are the perfect place to go with the ones I love. I have taken many of my best friends and family there for birthdays or even on school breaks; I would rally a group to go experience the art together. The outreach made by your museum educators and instructors has exposed me and my loved ones to a further understanding of the art on view when we visit. The institution is a cornerstone of the North Adams community.
Mass MoCA, you have constantly inspired me with art from across the art world. And for that, I cannot thank you enough.
I miss those days when I lived in the neighborhood and could drop by unannounced in the afternoon. A quick visit to get refilled. Just the two of us. Teasing me with so many exhibits in that intimate space. Since 1987 you have been a home for creatives on Wooster Street in SoHo, reminding us of a time when artists lived and created in expansive, light-filled lofts. A legacy of a time now gone; the ghosts of Leo Castelli’s and Paula Cooper’s original galleries lingering in the cobbled streets.
You kept me sane then, living in that madness near Holland Tunnel traffic and the many tourists visiting the city. The only real art space left is speaking the truth, as the old places turned into mall stores and sham storefront galleries with art dealers selling Damien Hirst lithographs.
Remember our Hipkiss in the back room? Those massive, kelp-like forms, stretching, rising more than 7 feet, enveloping us in a graphite narrative of intricate, imagined lifeforms. Towers of vegetation grew around us, even as we stood watching; like a wall shielding us from everyone else.
I love you for your rare and singular focus. Drawing. Always seen as the poor cousin to painting. All the other galleries uphold painting as the ideal. Ha! Painting. As if painting would even exist without the foundational drawing. The very beginning of all art, from the first markings of prehistoric humans on cave walls. A dynamic line, expressing all emotions in pressure, width, depth, and inherent lyricism. You have championed that line for decades, right at the center of where art lived. Claire Gilman and Isabell Kapur gracefully curated. Always focusing on the foundation.
Remember that time you showed me your foundations? Susan York captured their weight and presence in monochromatic, charcoal simplicity. Rich and smooth like the rock itself. That narrow hallway squeezed in almost as if the granite piers of the foundation were pressing in on me, their miniature replicas shoring me up. I changed then, only making pared-down images with the barest bits of information. I didn’t have the strength for more than one tone. Maybe I was just lazy or evolving or just missing you and these helped me to remember.
Come spring I will visit again when the buds appear. A time for regrowth and renewal.
By Maria Martin, February 14, 2024 (written on February 5)
Dearest National Gallery in Prague,
I have been a loyal visitor for the past decade. Today as I write this, you are turning 228 years old. Founded by a Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts responding to a decline of public taste, you have since provided public access to art for the people in Prague.
You have multiple locations in historical buildings across the city, which alone holds so much history. My two favorite locations must be the Sternberg Palace which dates to the 17th century and the Trade Fair Palace, a prime example of Czech Functionalist architecture. Both buildings juxtapose one another but showcase an exquisite timeline of Czech architectural history. Your current museum director Alicja Knast who has held this position since 2021, is so inspiring, being a woman head of one of the largest museums in Central Europe.
Your exhibitions are thoroughly thought out and distinct. One of my all-time favorite exhibitions I went to was Amidst Smoke Rings: Portrait of a Modern Artist. Curated by Petra Kolářová, Collection of Prints and Drawings, the exhibition focused on the depiction of artists as smokers and its relevance to Central European culture. The design of the exhibition left me speechless, though simple, the entire space was a muted light gray, and the walls were adorned with translucent curtains resembling smoke. It was captivating and it didn’t take away from the art, it only enhanced it. I have always admired your extensive collection of Old Masters from Bohemia ranging from Bartolomeus Spranger to Petr Brandl. I was lucky enough to visit the Petr Brandl: The Story of a Bohemian exhibition last month, curated by Andrea Steckerová, Collection of Old Masters. I was able to learn more about Baroque artists from Bohemia which I believe aren’t celebrated enough.
You always prioritized making creative spaces accessible for the youth, be it an interactive workspace or turning your café into a bar at night. I remember going to my first art performance exhibition at the café called Masquerade, paying homage to the queer community in Eastern Europe. I was able to surround myself with other young creatives and the entire event was run by students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (AVU). I thank you for keeping the Czech culture alive and supporting the future Czech artists that will follow. It is why I study art history and the reason I have grown fond of museums.
Dearest Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles,
You were a catalyst in my life, whether I recognized it at the time or not. My love for art had been rebirthed after a day trip with my mom to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Although only founded in 1979, MoCA has made an immeasurable impact on the art world and art lovers everywhere. Contemporary art is constantly evolving, change is inevitable, and the museum fosters and embraces the art that results from change. With a museum so current, a mission to actively support the creation of new work and produce original scholarship is essential, and it has been done successfully in the last 45 years. In the hands of director Johanna Burton, someone dedicated and tenured in contemporary art, the mission continues to stand strong.
In downtown Los Angeles, MoCA stands as an icon for contemporary art, being the only artist-founded museum in the city with a long track record of groundbreaking collections and exhibitions. Growing up in southern California and near the capital of creativity that is Los Angeles, I’m aware of how much pop culture and new media are prevalent in a young Californian’s life. Unfortunately, I will not make it back home to visit Mapping an Art World: Los Angeles in the 1970s-80s. Curated by Clara Kim, Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, and Rebecca Lowrey, Associate Curator, we can revisit what constructed the MoCA we know today, its collaboration and influences in Los Angeles, and the presence it has held for so long. Digging into the archives, representative ephemera tells the story of not only the museum itself but also the time and disparate art scenes that L.A. fostered. Even apart from this specific exhibition, the MoCA holds a story of California, a place that I know well and have always called home.
I remember seeing Lauren Halsey: we still here, there during a visit. An installation work created in the museum by Los Angeles native Lauren Halsey emulates a cavernous and immersive space that she developed and changed through the course of the exhibition. It is so rare to see a living artist create artwork that is living and adapting as well within a museum. I remember never seeing anything like it, only to learn this was the place where you could see everything like it, constantly. On the same visit, I stood in front of Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1949 as they were actively conducting a conservation of the piece and holding a “Q&A” with the conservator, all while the piece was displayed in the gallery. This was the first piece of art I remember seeing in person and recognizing immediately, marveling at the size and the fact that I was looking at a real-life Jackson Pollock. I discovered so much in one visit, a museum world that I had not yet breached and a peek into what museums could be. I love what MoCA has done for me, it changed my thought processes toward museums. It sparked a connection and curiosity between me and art once again, and I can wholeheartedly connect where I am now back to my first visit. And at the time, it brought my mom and I to a common ground, something we could share admiration of for shared reasons.
Dearest Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland in Maine,
Every time my leather-laced boots meet the polish of your wooden floors, I am almost overwhelmed by the welcoming feeling of familiarity and serenity. Since opening long before I was born in 1948, you have served as a little sanctuary between all the gift shops and cafes on the charming Main Street of Rockland, Maine.
Showcasing artworks that reflect the essence of the rugged landscapes I have traveled to, forests dense with rain-slicked trees emitting the sweet smell of summer balsam, fields of swaying grass that dance with flowers trimmed with lace, and misty seas that rise and fall in melancholic mania. Yet, amidst these familiar vignettes, your art still unveils worlds I’ve not yet traveled, ample for exploration. As I stroll through your winding hallways, I feel good among other visitors and staff who find a home in you. From the security guard with a soft and inviting smile to the gentle touch of Wyeth’s granddaughter’s tapping finger on my shoulder, every interaction further reminds me of the gentle nature of our home and the tenderness of Maine.
Your glass panels housing depictions of prickling pine trees meeting the horizon of the vast ocean serve as a window to the world beyond the text that anchors your walls. As I gaze past my reflection, I transcend my surroundings, pushing past the curtains of consciousness. I become enveloped in a cacophony of cries from gray gulls, the gentle sighing of the wind, and the ever-crescendoing crash of waves. In that fleeting moment, you and I stand harmoniously, eerily still in a cold isolation that only a fair few could find comforting.
Awakening from my reverie, I become grounded by the reassuring creak of your hardwood floors that guide my curious and wanderlust footsteps through your labyrinthine galleries. I can’t help but think of the meticulous work your guardians have done to make you so very splendid. The direction of Christopher Brownawell keeps the breath flowing within you, and the curation of Jaime DeSimone weaves a spanning web of cultural richness. Through every exhibition, I witness your unwavering desire to bridge the gap between the past and present, wonderfully executed by Ann Scheflen.
In the embrace of your pigment-rich walls, I find a home lush with inspiration and wonder. A striking example of escapism and enrichment through art is what you are. Quietly standing in a still town, you’re humble yet endlessly magnificent. I love you.
This Spring, two AHMP students spend an entire semester studying abroad. Neige is in Paris, where classes start at the École des Métiers de la Culture et du Marché de l’Art (ICART), steps from the Champs-Élysées and close to the Arc de Triomphe, the Grand Palais, and Place du Trocadéro. ICART is a premier school in Europe dedicated to the pursuit of careers in the arts. Enjoy some of the great photographs Neige took in her first week and wait for photos from Renee who is currently in Florence soon!
Hello everyone! I’m Stella, a rising senior AHMP student and this summer I had the incredible experience of interning through the ArtBound program in Berlin, Germany at SomoS Arts, an art gallery and artist-in-residency space located on the border of the Neukölln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods.
While at SomoS I got to help promote, plan, and execute the exhibition Gauche Obsessions, a solo-show by William Beck, and I aided in the preparations for our upcoming show Enraptured by Benedict Yu, both artists being artists-in-residence at SomoS. Some of the things I did at SomoS include writing for social media and press releases, designing promotional graphics, taking notes on how each artist-in-residence’s projects are progressing, visiting other artist residencies and studio spaces around Berlin, and assisting with the preparation for exhibitions, workshops, and events.
I not only got hands-on experience working in a gallery setting, but I also got to see how an artist residency program is conducted and I absolutely cherish the community that I made at SomoS with the residents and team. Having the opportunity to learn about the arts scene in the heart of Berlin was an unmatched experience and I feel so lucky to have been able to do this. If anyone has any ArtBound questions or questions about Berlin in general please feel free to ask me!
By Emma Sosebee (AHMP’23), Thursday, July 13, 2023
The wives or daughters of fishermen, otherwise known as fishwives, were an essential part of the local economy and culture of Scotland until the dominance of industrialization in the mid-twentieth century made small-scale fisheries obsolete. While their husbands or fathers were off at sea, these women––in combination with caring for their large families––were responsible for cleaning the men’s fishing lines and attaching a variety of new bait, gutting and cleaning the day’s catch in freezing water, and carrying heavy loads of freshly prepared fish for miles to sell at city markets or from house to house. Besides their physically demanding jobs and sharp tongues, these women were also known throughout the country for their distinctive dress. In an effort to increase fashion history scholarship that focuses on working-class communities, this essay will discuss the outfits that Scottish fishwives commonly wore while laboring and for cultural celebrations.
Although existing documentation of the usual uniform worn by these women is unfortunately scarce, past interviews with former fishwives of Newhaven (a district in the City of Edinburgh, Scotland) provide some insight. Their work clothing was relatively simple, and consisted of a navy blue cot, otherwise known as a petticoat, made out of thick flannel; a dark, possibly wool, gown put on over top; and even a white and navy woolen brat––the word for cloak in the Scots language––for days with harsher weather conditions (see fig. 1 and 2). Both their petticoats and dresses were significantly shorter than the ankle-length garments that were common at the time. While they displayed more of the leg than was typical for women’s fashions, the rather practical calf-length gave fishwives greater freedom of movement and kept their skirts clean. To finish off the look, these fisherwomen typically wore dark wool stockings and black leather lace-up shoes with short heels.
Many historic photographs seen nowadays that exhibit the clothing of Scottish fishwives were heavily staged and thus show the women in their traditional ‘gala-dress,’ rather than their working uniform as discussed above (see fig. 3 and 4). These gala-dresses were worn on special events only; namely, for Sundays, Harvest Thanksgiving and other festivals, and the Fisherlassies’ and Fisherwomen’s choirs. When describing such outfits, the 19th-century writer Lady Eastlake claimed: “With a heavy load of petticoats as of fish . . . She was laden with clothes, petticoat over petticoat, striped and whole color, all of the thickest woolen material.”
Fishwives in their gala-dress were generally observed wearing two layers of heavy woolen petticoats tied around their waists. Both were made of a broad, vertically striped fabric (see fig. 5 and 6). The first petticoat was often made of a vivid red and white material, but the second one’s colors differed depending on location: Newhaven women usually wore yellow and white, whereas those from Fisherrow (a harbor and former fishing village, now incorporated into the town of Musselburgh in Scotland) wore blue and white. The yellow or blue and white petticoats had a kind of padded undergarment, or bustle, to assist in supporting the weight of the creel (i.e., woven basket) worn on a fishwife’s back. A cotton apron of blue and white stripes, pinned to the inside of the second cot, and a medium-sized pooch––the Scots term for pocket (see fig. 6)––were also tied around the waist; as famously shown in depictions of fishwives, their aprons would be kilted up over the top petticoat and pinned to hang in a neat point in the front. Furthermore, the women would don shor’goons, which were long blouses with short sleeves, of various colors and patterns.
The finishing touches to the upper half of the gala-dress were the addition of a broad satin ribbon, tied into a bow and pinned to the wearer’s chest with a brooch, as well as a shawl that would be draped over their head and shoulders. Sometimes, fishwives could also be spotted with stiff white caps over their hair. Similar to their daily outfits, they wore white worsted stockings and high-quartered shoes. What is most interesting is the fact that the entirety of this festive costume lacked any buttons or hooks and eyes; instead of having such efficient closures, which would have required sewing to be attached, these outfits were held together by a multitude of ties and pins and made putting them on quite the hassle.
Both the atypical length of the petticoats seen in the daily, functional uniforms of fishwives, as well as the elaborate and haphazardly assembled outfits they wore on special occasions, undoubtedly stand out in fashion history. As a consequence of the global turn toward industrialization, the economic and social role that such hardworking women of Scottish history played is over; within the last few years as well, the majority of the remaining generation of former fishwives have passed away from old age. Nevertheless, thanks to the documentation provided by charmed 19th and 20th-century writers and photographers alike, the intriguing fashion of these traditional fisherwomen lives on.
About the Author
Emma Sosebee (she/her/hers) is a 2023 graduate of the AHMP program and one of the curators of Claire McCardell: Practicality, Liberation, Innovation at The Museum at FIT (April 5-16, 2023). Throughout her undergraduate career, Emma developed an enthusiasm for how arts institutions care for their numerous objects. She hopes to pursue her interest in the collections management field and is currently an intern in the Collections Department at The Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York.
An Interview with AHMP alum and Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) Assistant Curator Darnell-Jamal Lisby, by Dina Pritmani, Friday April 21, 2023.
Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Cleveland Museum of Art Assistant Curator of Fashion and Curator of Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession, currently on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, sat down with Dina Pritmani, AHMP (’24) to answer a few questions. Darnell joined the CMA in 2021 to develop projects rooted in fashion studies that range across the museum’s various curatorial departments. Before coming to the CMA, he had gained experiences and worked at other institutions such as the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where as a MuSe intern he helped research the 2018 landmark exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, and The Museum at FIT. Darnell is a proud AHMP alum, who has published extensively on academic and mainstream platforms, including the Fashion and Race Database, Cultured magazine, and Teen Vogue. Starting out with an AAS in Fashion Merchandising, he received his Bachelor of Science in the Art History and Museum Professions (AHMP) program here at FIT before continuing finishing his MA in Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, also at SUNY FIT.
DP: Many Congratulations on the Egyptomania exhibition! Thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I would like to know more about the background of the exhibition. What inspired you to organize an exhibition with this theme? Why is the topic so important?
D-JL: Like most people, ancient Egyptian culture intrigues me as well. After seeing a handful of recent collections by different ateliers, inspired by ancient Egyptian art, I thought it would be pretty timely to execute the project. Additionally, when I started curating the show, it was the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of Tut’s tomb, so again, I thought it would be timely to produce this exhibition.
DP: How do you create a narrative or theme for an exhibition, and what strategies do you use to engage and educate your audience?
D-JL: Like any curator, you try to find glaring stories that connect the various objects I was thinking about compiling for my checklist. One of which was about cultural appropriation and if it applies to the use of ancient Egyptian culture as inspiration. Finding topics, like cultural appropriation, that connect with contemporary events are accessible ways to engage the audience. Furthermore, I used the broader topic of ancient Egyptian art and culture as inspiration for fashion to peak audience’s interest and then guided them to the denser topics like cultural appropriation and identity.
DP: Could you walk us through the process of curating the exhibition, from selecting the artwork to designing the installation?
Well, it can get complicated, making it difficult to convey in a few short words. With said, I looked at different topics that I felt inspired to explore such as, cultural appropriation, the identity of ancient Egyptians, and how we and audiences over time connect with ancient Egyptian culture. From there, based on the budget I was given, I had to be very deliberate about which contemporary fashions spoke to the topic as well as ancient Egyptian art from the Cleveland Museum of Art collection that helped support the theses. Additionally, I had to lay out the history of Egyptomania and early Egyptological research that spurred the Egyptomania movement; thus, I had to pull examples across the CMA collection from decorative arts to drawings to help develop that foundation. As part of the CMA strategic plan, which strategic plans help guide the mandates of each museum employee, I also had to think about an intervention in our CMA Egyptian gallery (The second photo attached is of the intervention). Interventions are ways that you can bring outside art into permanent collection galleries, emphasizing new ways to analyze various works of art and collections. I wanted to have one of the fashions that I chose displayed in the Egyptian gallery, in which I chose a Givenchy ensemble from the fall 2016 collection the Givenchy archive graciously allowed me to use. Some of the other houses I displayed include Chanel, Balmain, and Cartier. Additionally, I wanted to highlight Egyptian fashion design voices, so I incorporated two gowns by Egyptian designer Yasmine Yeya for her house Maison Yeya and a purse by Sabry Marouf. Once I developed the checklist, I had to develop the didactics, illuminating what I found in my research that I was developing as I chose the checklist. Once the didactics went through rigorous edits, then it was time to work with the exhibition design team to create the physical show. I worked with them to create the blueprints and what inspirations I wanted to evoke. Lastly, in conjunction with the conservation team, headed by Sarah Scaturro, who was the former chief conservator of the Costume Institute, we figured out what type of dress forms we wanted to use. We also partnered with renowned costume dresser, Tae Smith to help dress the forms. After that, the rest is history… All things considered, the point is that each part of the process requires collaboration with departments from project management and exhibition design to production and conservation. To reiterate, every decision always comes back to the budget. Because I’m starting the fashion department here at the CMA, jumping to have the same budgets as somewhere as the Costume Institute at the MET is unrealistic, so I had to manage what I could with what I was given to do my best to give audiences the best experience as possible.
DP: Who inspired you to become an art curator, and how did you get started?
D-JL: After studying Andrew Bolton’s career way back in high school, it was his journey that encouraged me to become an art and fashion curator. I started just like you, in the Art History and Museum Professions program at FIT, taking in every bit of education and internship experience I could. After finishing the program, I matriculated into the MA in Fashion and Textiles Studies FIT Graduate program, and again, I absorbed as much as I could through my education and internships.
DP: What are some of the challenges you face as a curator, and how do you navigate issues such as limited budgets, conflicting stakeholder interests, and ethical considerations?
D-JL: I think the biggest challenge is just getting institutions to understand the value of fashion in the art historical realm because once that’s understood, life becomes easier from budgets, stakeholders’ interest, and ethical considerations. As mentioned, budgets can be tough, but at some point, you must go with the flow and know that God will provide a path moving forward. Philippians 4:6-7 is one of my favorite quotes to reference, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Of course, everyone’s path to peace is different, but this is my recipe. I think understanding that also understanding that in a place like Cleveland, which is not a fashion center, my work is going to be a slow burn to get a certain level of international recognition that leads to various degrees of support, from financial to cultural. And that’s okay. I think most people think they’ll be the next big thing, but staying true to yourself and going along with the process will take you where you need to be. I think, especially when I was an AHMP major, we could change the world. That’s still true, but it’s going to take a lot more politicking than one can imagine. Also, being one of the Black curators in the world involved in this work and heading my own department is a blessing certainly that I thank the CMA for, but also using my platform to expand representation in fashion and pulling up others along the way is what I live for.
DP: What are some of the most memorable exhibitions you’ve curated or participated in, and what made them stand out for you?
D-JL: When I helped curate the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition with Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and Julie Pastor at Cooper Hewitt, I had the best time exploring the stories of all the people Smith knew during his life and how much they loved him. It was those stories that helped develop the exhibition and accompanying assets. When I curated the Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession, I found all my research discoveries very exciting too, like understanding that the ancient Egyptians were unified by religion, not racial identity – as race is recent construct in our human history. I also loved dressing the mannequins and physically mounting the exhibition, seeing all the work we did at the CMA come to life.
DP: How do you see the role of fashion curators evolving in the future, and what do you think are some key trends and challenges facing the field?
D-JL: Fashion curators will continue to push boundaries, including searching for new topics that lean into contemporary culture to discovering new contributions by unsung figures and cultures, because fashion is such an accessible medium that touches on so many audiences’ lived experiences. I think the biggest challenge right now for fashion historians is not being afraid to tackle dense topics. As curators, our jobs are to make a complicated topic layman. Moreover, looking to diverse perspectives and celebrating a broader degree of contributions is very important and will help solidify fashion as a critical part of academia.
DP: Thank you so very much for taking the time to answer the questions. Many Congratulations on Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession!
Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession will be on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art until January 24, 2024. The exhibition website has more information and extras on related events and more. Follow the work of Darnell-Jamal Lisby.
About the Author
Dina Pritmani is a junior at FIT’s AHMP program, and currently a Facilitator in The Museum at FIT. Dina is passionate about Western Asian Art, jewelry design, and learning about ways to decolonize museums. The interview was an opportunity to discuss these aspects with a Museum Professional as part of an assignment for MP 361 “Museum Professions and Administration.”
What Shall I Wear? The What, Where, When, and How Much of Fashion was the only book Claire McCardell wrote in her lifetime; just two years before her death, the book was originally published in 1956 by Simon and Schuster of New York. Accompanied by a variety of delightful illustrations created by Annabrita McCardell––whose specific relation to the designer is now unknown––the text is quite practical in essence. Witty and sincere, the book reads like a fashion advice column: from how to tie a scarf to suit one’s figure to sharing the importance of creating a signature look, McCardell used her professional insight to help American women in the 1950s dress with intention for any occasion. Though developing a sense of fashion may feel elusive due to the industry’s ever-changing trends, McCardell’s belief was that any woman could train her eyes to recognize good style and get her wardrobe in line; all it takes is a good teacher.
What is most interesting about What Shall I Wear is how much of the book remains appropriate for women’s lives (and, really, anyone interested in fashion) today, despite its 67-year-old status. As a product of an America quite different from the contemporary period, the book obviously has its moments of traditional 1950s thought––from glove etiquette to suggestions for appeasing one’s husband. Nevertheless, many of the designer’s ideas about fashion and how women should dress were relatively progressive for her time. In the first chapter, “What is Fashion,” McCardell addresses what I would argue was her most important philosophy: that clothes are for real people, and should therefore be designed in ways that are fully functional for the wearer. She adds that clothes are “made to be worn, to be lived in. Not to walk around on models with perfect figures.”
On a similar note, the designer also uses her introduction to remind her audience that there is no such thing as a “type” to fit into––if something in fashion does not feel right, there is no reason to force yourself into a certain style just because it is popular on the runway or the city streets. She recommended women wear the fabric or silhouette they feel best in, have fun, and play around. Fashion, though it can be intimidating to the average person, “isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.”
Instead of trying to confine women to a particular style––in which she very well could have used the book to only promote her latest collections––McCardell’s What Shall I Wear humbly served its readers by acting more as a general fashion guide. Better yet, it helped women of all ages to regain a sort of individual agency; to the American designer, understanding Fashion with a capital ‘F’ was not about conformity. A person’s chosen style should reflect their own imagination, thought, time, and energy. In other words, “The more yourself in your clothes, the better.” Evidently within her sportswear she stressed physical ease, but McCardell also hoped to impart the importance of “mental ease.” Above all, a woman should wear what makes her feel confident and comfortable.
With chapters on what clothes to pack for different trips, suggestions for mothers worried about their teenagers’ following certain trends, and even a helpful glossary of fashion-associated terms the designer labeled as ‘McCardellisms,’ What Shall I Wear was a necessity for 1950s women who were looking to both develop their personal taste and to understand the fashion world at large. The book’s reissue in 2022 with a foreword by contemporary fashion designer Tory Burch speaks to McCardell’s continued relevance within the industry.
About the Author
Emma Sosebee (she/her/hers) is a senior in the AHMP program and one of the curators of Claire McCardell: Practicality, Liberation, Innovation, on view at The Museum at FIT starting April 5th. Throughout her undergraduate career, Emma has developed an enthusiasm for how arts institutions care for their numerous objects. She hopes to pursue her interest in the collections management field upon graduation.