I recently joined the Fashion Council, a part of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I have a passion for learning and creative dress and meeting like-minded people so the Fashion Council seemed like a good fit. I also love the feeling I get just being in the gorgeous building of the MFA-it makes my soul feel clear and nourished with my favorite part of human activities: art.
The first event I attended was an afternoon tea with Dana Thomas, Author of Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
It was an electrifying afternoon in so many ways. Besides the scrumptious scones and tea and excellent company, I found Dana Thomas to be a fasincating storyteller. Her book is nonfiction and so well-written that it feels like you are at your favorite bar sharing cocktails with a friend who is telling you some really great stories.
The stories that stood out to me: John Galliano didn’t start out as a fashion designer. He wanted to be an illustrator, but when he was assigned to create a fashion show, he created something so amazing it changed his entire future. Fascinated by the fashion of the 1800’s fashion (aren’t we all?), he dyed parchment paper with tea and wrote with a quill by candlelight to create his line of long coats and ruffled shirts.
I LOVE this!! I have always loved getting completely swept up into a concept. For example, to write my mystery novel I bought an antique typewriter and surrounded myself with my inspirations: Grace Kelly, Hitchcock, a Maltese Falcon, Billie Holiday, etc.
Now I don’t understand the difference between high fashion and regular fashion. I mean, I do understand that something hand-stitched would be more expensive than something machine-stitched, but what is it about a gown that makes a designer feel they can charge $20,000.00 for it, while a similar gown in similar fabrics is $50.00? Is it lined in platinum? Is the thread made of gold spun by the very hands of Rumpelstiltskin? I don’t know, and I wanted to find out, hence my journey into the Fashion Council.
Back to Dana Thomas…
Another favorite story snippet: Thomas said the brass ring for any artist in any genre is to create something totally new. It’s also incredibly rare. Enter Alexander McQueen. Like Galliano, McQueen grew up in a poor and violent neighborhood. He wanted to empower women through their dress and so he created the “Bumster.” I know, it’s a hilarious name for pants, and how in the world would anyone think that lowering the waistline of pants would be empowering to women? It’s great if you never sit down, or aren’t crawling on the floor with kids. Of course most people wearing high fashion are probably not crawling on the floor with kids. But in any case, it seems the opposite would be true—that creating butt cleavage would be disempowering to women, focusing on yet another body part instead of our creativity and brilliant minds. Of course fashion is about the body and not the minds. ANYWAY, McQueen wanted to empower women and he had read that women with longer torsos appeared more “menacing,” less vulnerable. And so the “Bumster” was created to elongate the torsos of women. Also, with longer pants women would have to wear heels, another paradox as heels are generally considered to be a real pain and therefore not empowering, but from a pure fashion viewpoint, heels make you taller and therefore bigger and more powerful looking. He also made sharper shoulderlines. So now you had a taller woman with sharper shoulders and a longer torso and for McQueen, a more powerful woman. Fabulous.
So Thomas’ theory is that it was no accident that McQueen killed himself and Galliano had a nervous breakdown in the same time frame. She blames the descent of luxury fashion into mid-level “fast fashion”. Enter Marketers stage left, Exit artists stage right.
I listen to this art vs. commerce conundrum every day with my husband, George Howard. George has made it his life work to help artists make money. He is always fusing art and commerce, but I see how tricky the balance is. The money tends to push out the art and it always seems to be about more product, which results in less quality and creativity. Even the most brilliant fiery prolific artist can’t physically make 20 new paintings a day, or write 10 new songs in a day, or create 5 inspired new fashion lines a year. And when they are forced, well, something’s gotta give. Also, George has always been passionate about Hermes, a store I find obnoxiously overpriced and stuffy. But his passion has forced me to learn more about Hermes and why they feel that it’s appropriate to charge $30,000.00 for a handbag. In our quest to avoid cheap materials made by children in a sweatshop somewhere, you know you’re getting a lot of care in your Hermes goods, created by adults who have apprenticed and reached the top of their game as far as craftsmanship. Worth $30,000 for a purse? I still say no. But I bite the bullet and buy George his $300 teacups for his birthday and by the time we’re 70, we’ll have enough Hermes cups to have a real tea party.
So what did this Fashion Council afternoon tea inspire me to do? To stay true to my own creative vision; to not feel crazy when I dress in a ballgown to write my ballgown scene in my novel; to understand that many luxury shops have lowered that quality in the name of mass production and therefore I was right all along in buying vintage; and there are a lot of fun and interesting people in the world who share my passion for artists—being artists, encouraging artists, supporting artists… as George always says: More Art = Less War and we can all support that!