You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘fashion’ tag.

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Let’s talk briefly about this crazy Chinese prom dress fiasco.  What happened is that a (wasp-y) Utah high school senior found an elegant red silk cheongsam, also known as a qipao in a thrift store.  The form-fitting curves of the high-necked Chinese dress suited her and she put some pictures of herself on social media—only to be derided by a priggish young man of Chinese American heritage who wrote:

My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress…I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the shameful treatment of early (or contemporary!) East Asian immigrants, the excesses of American consumerism, all sorts of colonial ideologies…these are all subject to meaningful and broad-ranging ethical criticism. However, a brief look at the history of the cheongsam quickly illustrates the problems of “cultural appropriation” politics.

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The cheongsam was originally a baggy robe-type dress worn by women of the Manchu.  The Manchu were northern horselords who made up a mighty branch of the Tungusic peoples.  During the chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty (as ignorant, incompetent emperors and their crooked enablers drove the empire to ruin, famine, and civil war), the Manchus poured out of the north and conquered all of China.  Han people wore the cheongsam to ingratiate themselves with their red-tasseled Manchu overlords…but over time the dress became much less conservative and began to hug the form.  In the 1920s, with influence from Western flapper fashions, it evolved into a stylish and often tight-fitting dress (with high leg slits) for socialites and upper-class women…and for demi-mondaines, before it entered the broader culture of East Asia and South East Asia. Should we decry the colonialism of Manchu war lords? Do we need to call out the puritanical sexism of the original dress which was meant to cover women up…or the sexism of the later dress which was meant to show off women’s bodies?  Ultimately the Han appropriated the dress from their Manchu conquerors (and then conquered Manchuria which is now the northern part of the people’s Republic of China).  Should this Utah teenager have taken all of this in to consideration and worn a high-waisted Empire gown (oh wait that reflects the excesses of the Napoleonic era and should only be worn by French people) or a satin tunic gown (shades of ancient Greece) or an elegant pleated fancy dress with mameluke sleeves (nooooo! Orientalism!)?

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Every style of outfit has wound down from ancient antecedents which have mixed together over the millennia.  Culture is not a tiny stagnant tarn—it is like the water cycle of Earth. Great rivers mingle and wind down to the common oceans only to be swept by the clouds back to the uplands and return again and again.

It should be obvious now that I really dislike the entire concept of “cultural appropriation” as a smear directed at people who admire or utilize elements of many different culture (this makes sense: I write an eclectic generalist blog and paint flounders from all of the world’s oceans).  Am I supposed to only write about or paint middle aged Anglo-Saxon type men? What would you say about an artist like that (assuming you went deep into the alt-right to find such a freak)? I can hardly imagine a more racist or sexist thing!

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China Trade (Wayne Ferrebee, Oil on panel)

It may (maybe) be that cultural appropriation is an appropriate charge to level at mean-spirited or willfully ignorant use of imagery and ideas. Things like the black-faced minstrel tradition or (goodness help us) “Little Brown Samba” or super-sexualized harem pictures from les artistes pompiers spring to mind.  But even these are more complicated than they seem at first.

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Mermaid Appropriation?

Does that mean everyone has to know every part of the history of every image, decoration, literary concept, garment, religious symbol, allusion?  Such a world sounds ideal to me, but I think it might be an impossible (it seems like the culture critic in this case did not think out all of the historical ramifications of Chinese fashion history).

The world is more global than ever before and the prom-dress kerfluffle has made it all the way to social media in actual China.  People there are confused.  They see the dress as a compliment to the Middle Kingdom.  American teenagers are wearing traditional Chinese outfits to their formal dances. It reflects the prestige and rising strength of China.  It is (gasp) a compliment!

Maybe inner-city rappers angry about suburban white kids trying out their dope beats and mad rhymes shouldn’t be so angry.  When people want to copy your style it doesn’t always mean they want to monetize your music or enslave your ancient kingdom state or belittle your ancestors.  People might admire you! You might be winning!  Just please don’t write anything like little brown Samba.  I’m afraid that to stay atop the ever-changing terrain of the humanities you may have to at least look some things up and maybe please use your brain.

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Iggy Azalea has stolen the Tokyo Olympic Mascot’s look! or is it the other way?

In the arts and humanities ideas exist on an (ever changing) gradient.  Talking about this and thinking about people with different backgrounds and perspectives—learning their histories– is the point.  But the shifts in this gradient come from politics which is a treacherous realm. Come to think of it, maybe the critic of the prom dress was trying to use the internet to claim the mantle of victimhood and aggrandize himself in the process.  Well done. Mr. Lam, on appropriating the culture of the United States of America!

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Is that a Frenchwoman in Roman garb?

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May 22 is World Goth Day! The holiday originated in the United Kingdom in the far distant year of…2009—jeesh, this not exactly Saturnalia we are talking about here. Goth Day does not celebrate ancient Germanic people from southern Sweden, medieval black letters, or elegant architecture based around arches so much as it celebrates the “Goth” subculture of alternative lifestyle devotees who wear severe or fetishitic rock-and-roll outfits (often black or deep red). There tends to be lots of piercings, dramatic make-up, and outre hairstyles in Goth fashion, as well. Wikipedia says the Goth scene originated in England in the early 80s as a sort of offshoot of punk…but come on we already had things like Walpole and Strawberry Hill and movie monsters and Odilon Redon. So I will go ahead and say contemporary Goth subculture seems like an outgrowth of a series of profoundly ancient cultural/aesthetic movements (punk merely being one of the more recent of a long line of progenitors rather than a sui generis single parent).
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Whatever the case, I like Goth fashion, which appeals to my taste for the bizarre, the dramatic, the anachronistic, and the complicated. I probably would have liked it even better when I was a teenager and my favorite color was black, but I was too lost in my own world to notice what other people thought was fashionable back then. According to Professor Internet, there are now all sorts of offshoots and subgenres of “Goth” some of which are quite amazing, ludicrous, or scary. We’ll get back to them another day. Today (World Goth Day!) we are just going to put up some straightforward corsets, boots, and riding cloaks and call it a day. Enjoy the miscellaneous fashions and let me know if you think of a new gothic topic for the coming year. I am starting to run out!

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Mauve

Mauve

In 1856 the 18 year-old chemist William Henry Perkin was desperately looking for a way to synthesize quinine–since the British Empire relied so heavily on the Peruvian bark as an antimalarial agent throughout its many tropical colonies.  The brilliant young chemist failed to find a replacement for quinine, but he instead found a brilliant purple-pink chemical “mauveine” the very first aniline dye (the toxic aromatic amines today serve as precursors to numerous industrial compounds).

Sir William Perkin (Arthur S. Cope, 1906, oil on canvas)

Sir William Perkin (Arthur S. Cope, 1906, oil on canvas)

Perkin’s discovery lead to a revolution in purple dyes which had historically been costly, rare, and fugitive.  Suddenly cheap synthetic purples were everywhere—particularly mauve, which was named for mauveine.   Perkins named his dye after the French word mauve (French for a particular sort of purple mallow flower).

Victorian style dress with unfaded purple dye

Victorian style dress with unfaded purple dye

Today we understand mauve to be a slightly blue-grayish shade of magenta, but the original usage may have been different.  Mauveine dyes fabrics to a brilliant glowing purple—initially—however the synthetic purples created from this dye are also fugitive.  The fabrics quickly faded and left succeeding generations with a somewhat attenuated color (which is what we thibnk of as mauve). Some of the pre-Raphaelites even painted whole canons of works which soon changed colors as the purples faded.

A contemporary mauve

A contemporary mauve

Many succeeding generations of new artificial dye have long since swept away mauveine (although Perkins became rich and was knighted for his teenage discovery).  We now have brighter purples which do not fade (like the quinacridones and diozanines in my paintbox). Whatever the virtues of the original color, mauve, as it is today understood, is a beautiful purple.

Windflowers (John William Waterhouse, 1902, oil on canvas)

Windflowers (John William Waterhouse, 1902, oil on canvas)

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The color burgundy is named after Burgundy, the famous red wine.  Burgundy, the famous red wine, is named after Burgundy a historical territory in eastern-central France.  Burgundy, the historical region of France, is named after the Burgundians, an ancient Norse people who allied with the Romans, back when the Roman Empire ruled Gaul.  The Burgundians, like the Goths, seem to have originated in Scandinavia in pre-history.  Whereas the Goths moved from Scandinavia to the Baltic island of Gottland (which means Goth Land), the original Burgundians apparently moved to the Baltic island of Bornholm (which means Burgundian Home).  From Bornholm, they become involved in the affairs of northern Europe first as raiders and mercenaries, then (as the Roman Empire blew apart) they became colonists and administrators. At least that is more-or-less what historians believe happened… During the Middle Ages Burgundians became divorced from their Scandinavian/Gothic roots and they have long been French (Burgundian nobles sometimes playing a big role in French history).

A burgundy gown in the style of late Medieval Burgundy... (from sevenstarwheel)

A burgundy gown in the style of late Medieval Burgundy… (from sevenstarwheel)

Irrespective of the origins of the name, the color burgundy is a gorgeous deep red hue entirely fitting for an ancient race of cutthroat warriors.  Burgundy is darker than cordovan and a truer red than oxblood or maroon.   It is the magnificent dark red of undiluted alizarin crimson.  Because it is such a vivid color, it tends to stand for sensuality, power, and violence.

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Despite this wildness and darkness (or maybe because of it), burgundy is a very popular color in fashion and beauty.  It was particularly en vogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was my then-girlfriend’s favorite color for lipstick and clothes.  I distinctly remember seeing it everywhere back then.   Today, the radiant sun of fashion does not shine quite so directly on burgundy, but it is still a popular color in sports, automobiles, and homegoods.   According to the internet, burgundy remains a favorite color for lipstick in the Goth subculture (i.e. among teenagers and young adults who enjoy melodramatic and fetishistic costumes). So burgundy has made a full circle from the Goths of Roman times to the Goths of today.

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Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus, the European cornflower is an aster which once grew as a weed across Europe (particularly in grain fields). As agriculture has grown more sophisticated (and herbicides more puissant), the cornflower has become uncommon to the point of extinction in its native habitat. Yet the cornflower is far from gone: its bright blue color means that some enthusiasts grow it as an ornamental garden plant. Additionally, in the era before herbicides and intensive agriculture, cornflower seeds frequently contaminated planting seeds—which meant that the cornflower traveled to Australia, the Americas, and Asia where it quickly became invasive.

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The cornflower, also known as the bachelor button or knapweed is the national flower of Germany.  It has long been traditional for unmarried men to wear one in their buttonhole (although I abjure this practice myself).

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

The most famous aspect of cornflowers is their dazzling bright blue color which inclines very slightly towards purple. For centuries, this color has been a favorite of tailors, decorators, dressmakers, and artists. Cornflower blue is thus a classic traditional name for this brilliant midtone blue: indeed the color was very much a favorite of Vermeer. The name is still very much in use, so it is perfectly correct to imagine some charlatan or fop of the Restoration era donning a cornflower coat of the same color as the bridesmaids will be wearing at your cousins’ wedding next week.

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Have you ever read “In Praise of Folly” by the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam?  It is a magisterial work of humanist values which helped frame the Protestant Reformation (although Erasmus himself always remained a dutiful Catholic priest).  The essay takes the form of a classical panegyric, in which the goddess Folly sets out to praise herself and her unrivaled influence over human affairs.  After a thoroughly convincing enumeration of Folly’s worldwide power (a list which particularly aims at the excesses of temporal and spiritual princes), Erasmus ends his treatise with the concept that only true Christian devotion can combat folly–a somewhat disappointing conclusion if you happen to be skeptical.

"You'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

“You’ll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me.”

Today’s post actually has almost nothing to do with Erasmus…or does it?  Ferrebeekeeper has already evinced an unhealthy interest in architectural follies, fanciful structures with no apparent purpose other than to amuse or divert the great lords who commissioned them.  Today we praise the color folly, a brilliant orange-pink crimson.       Folly is most famous as a fashion color and finds frequent use in lipsticks, nail polish, and lady’s apparel.  The name was first applied to the color during the roaring twenties as a booming chemical industry brought all sorts of new dyes and paints to market (also the name suits the euphoric giddiness of jazz-age excess).

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Folly is not just used in nail polish. The flag of Nepal (which is arguably the strangest national flag because of its double pennant shape) has a folly-colored background.  The pink-crimson of the Nepalese flag is the national color—it represents the mountain rhododendron and the brave yet joyful hearts of the Nepalese people. The rhododendron is not alone, there are many beautiful roses, zinnias, and azaleas which share the hue.

The Flag of Nepal

The Flag of Nepal

Folly is actually one of my favorite colors.  I am not praising it ironically.  I do wonder how we named such a pretty color with such a scandalous name.  Fortunately, it is probably only a devoted fashionista or a history buff who would use the name folly today (everyone else would probably say “bright rose” or “orange-pink” or some bespoke name made up by copywriters), but how did we stumble into the name in the first place?  Did some clever flapper decide to pillory her era by evoking the spirit of Erasmus? Folly is great, but its name is folly.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination.  At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market.  Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy.  There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s.  The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic).  Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning.  Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day).  In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp.  As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced.  In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe.  Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color.  Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain.  To quote  suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us.  At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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I am sorry it has come to this.  I have to write an article for Star Magazine about Elvis movies—a task which requires me to watch all 31 Elvis movies in a short amount of time.  Naturally I’ll write a post about the, um, insights into celebrity, aesthetics, and the national character which the experience has afforded me.  However, at the moment, I am neck deep in go-go girls, guitars, and musical routines about water skiing.  Today, therefore, I am simply posting a photo of contemporary pop princess Katy Perry wearing a beautiful crown and a Byzantine-themed Dolce & Gabbana gown at the 2013 Met Gala.  I am sorry to do this to you (and I am stunned that Miss Perry has somehow sneaked into my blog by putting on a crown a second time).   I will shamefacedly admit that she looks very beautiful and Byzantine in her jewels and beadwork.  This year’s fashion theme at the Met Gala was “punk” and anyone who regards Byzantine royalty as fitting into that criteria cannot be wholly bad (maugre the gossip evidence).

Katy

In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair.  Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete).  The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence.  Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon).  My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:

And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.

In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone.  The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading.  When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.

Ancient Electrum belt buckle in the form of a gorgoneion

A Gorgoneion decoration on an Attic ceramic vessel from approximately 490 BC

Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture.  Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.

Hellenic Gorgoneion ornament

Gorgoneion from the House of Mosaics in Eretria (4th c. B.C.)

Roman Gorgon Mosaic from the first century AD

In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil.  The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.

Gorgoneion mosaic found in Pompeii's House of the Centenary

Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world.  Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rodela de la Medusa de Carlos V (Filippo y Francesco Negroli, Milán, 1541)

Carved Gorgon's head at Versailles

Gorgoneion (Thomas Regnaudin, ca. 1660, Carved wood)

Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image.  The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.

I haven’t written about colors or about mammals for a while.  In order to brighten up your day with some endearing animal pictures, I have decided to combine the two topics by writing about the color fawn. This color is a pale yellow brown which is named for the delicate coloring of fawns (baby deer).  Actually the fawns of most species of deer have fawn-colored bellies while their backs are a darker brown with delicate white stipples.

A Fawn-colored Alpaca

The color fawn is often used to describe domestic animals such as cows, alpacas, and rabbits, however the animal which is most likely to be fawn is humankind’s best friend, the domestic dog.  Great Danes, chihuahuas, French bulldogs, boxers, and bull mastiffs are all often fawn-colored–as are an immense number of mixed-breed dogs. Some scientists speculate that the ancient wolves which were first domesticated in the depths of the ice age may have had yellowish fawn-colored coats (as do some extant sub-species of smaller southern wolves).

Pug Puppy

Mastiff Puppy

French Bulldog

Anatolian Shepherd

Great Dane

According to the stringent rules of dog-shows fawn dogs must have black muzzles, so yellow labs do not qualify.  However, judging by the photos returned when one image searches fawn dogs, it seems that many dog-fanciers are untroubled by precise use of the term.

The color fawn is also used to describe clothing.  Although today the color is not at the apogee of fashion, there were times when it was.  Since it was particularly appropriate for riding clothes, there are aristocratic eras when the color was regarded as the pinnacle of elegance and so it is not uncommon to come across 18th century portraits of foppish aristocrats wearing a veritable rainbow of fawn.

Portrait of David Garrick (Thomas Gainsborough, 1742, oil on canvas)

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