"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Fashion As Art–The Ensemble Of Color, Line, Culture, And History

Amanda Barkley was a slave to fashion, or at least so said her mother who, a very practical and parsimonious woman, could not see the point in ten pairs of shoes and as many socks, halters, camisoles, and jumpers.  She had grown up in France where even the wives of merchants and store clerks always looked good in their well-tailored clothes, chosen with taste, kept for years and accessorized, hemmed, and trimmed to keep up with the latest trends.  If they were not exactly in vogue, they kept up the universal French standards of couture, patrimony, and culture.

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A Frenchwoman didn’t need more than one or two outfits which she wore on special occasions; but even in her more common workaday dress she was always well turned out, attractive, and very respectable.

So Amanda’s mother came by her criticism honestly.  Her daughter’s love of fashion went far beyond modest good taste.  It wasn’t so much the clothes themselves but the number of them that offended her sensibilities. 

Yet Amanda persisted in her interest in fashion. She grilled her mother about women’s shoes – what’s the purpose of high heels? Why don’t men wear them? Where do flats and slippers fit in? – and Mrs. Barkley , as attentive to ‘teaching moments’ as any parent, but worn down by her daughter’s bullheaded drive, decided to answer as fully and correctly as she could but hoped that such dry, disinterested and matter-of-fact responses might through her daughter off the path. 

Amanda so loved to look great and had such a unique sense of style that she indeed spent more time considering what to wear than most girls.  Deciding on an ensemble, arranging and balancing elements with an eye to color, line, and statement took time and effort.  She was a trend-setter for every age group, the arbiter of fashion from fifth grade on. 

For some reason she became fascinated with clerical fashion.  She thought the Pope in his finest regalia was the coolest thing on earth, and was surprised that this high fashion had remained so long cloistered in the Vatican.

If she were a man, she thought, she would dress like the Pope.  “Look at all that gold embroidery”, she exclaimed to her mother, “and his little red slippers.”  It turns out that Benedict had an eye for style and design, and loved the traditional red shoes of the great Popes of history which, unfortunately, had fallen out of fashion. He restored the use of the red papal shoes, which were provided by his personal cobbler, Adriano Stefanelli from Novara.  To add a flourish and personal touch to the shoes, in 2008 Benedict restored the use of the white damask silk Paschal mozzetta  which was previously worn with white silk slippers.

No one except Benedict and the gay priests in his holy entourage paid any attention to the red shoes or the white silk mozzetta, and Amanda Barkley was one of the very few outside the Vatican to give the Pope kudos for fashion; and the older she got and the more sophisticated she became, the more she appreciated the very cool fashion sense of the Catholic Church.

The entire Vatican was tops in Amanda’s book.  She loved the profuse elegance of the robes of the cardinals of the Inquisition, and imagined Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, the Grand Inquisitor watching Spaniards being dismembered on the rack in his flowing red robes.

She appreciated the more modest and temperate dress of modern day cardinals and archbishops whose elegant simplicity exuded power and authority without vengeance or Biblical injunction.

“Notice the continuing red motif”, she wrote in her Harvard PhD dissertation, “its quiet assertiveness, and reserved authority.  Note the clerical collar, absent in the paintings of The Grand Inquisitor, as a muted sign of Church authority and a Papal willingness to conjoin his bishops with parish priests. Black takes center stage, although set off by the discipline of the red cummerbund, and the elegant red Edwardian sleeve buttons exude the aristocracy of the Church.”

After studying fashion history, trying her own hand at classic design, and then seduced by the anachronistic, flamboyant, and dramatic dress of the Vatican, she discovered San Francisco fashion - a mix of black, gay, Latino, and lesbian styles unique to the city. Her particular talent was an instinctive sense of what would look good from one street culture matched with another and an ability to confect creations that were never entirely derivative; attractive but never tricked out; slightly ironic but never predictably so; and above all graceful.

The eclectic, thrift shop style was just underway when she arrived on the West Coast.  Designers had begun to add pieces of an ensemble in unusual ways.  Pieces that never had ever gone together were now matched.  The old palette of complementary colors was discarded as were patterns.  Now plaids and stripes, checks and frills; hems and embroidery; broad swatches and minute detail all went together.  Retro, archived, ironic, and passé clothes, jewelry, and accessories were all in.  Sexy and folk went together.  High heels and funk; rural cracker and Broadway.

This new style was ground-breaking because it relied so much on irony, history, and cross-cultural trends.  Amanda, however, not only had no difficulty negotiating this new world of eclectic fashion; but she developed her own unique ‘art of accretion’.  It was one thing to design from with only line, color, fabric, and balance  another to cobble together fashion statements; but another altogether to understand the nature of fashion itself.

Braque and Duchamp disassembled what they saw, then reassembled to reflect the past but within a new, personal, but singularly cultural dimension.  Amanda never intended to deconstruct the fashion of Dior, Balmain, and St. Laurent; nor to reject traditionalism out of hand, but to incorporate their good taste and incomparable sense of color, line, and dimension.

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Amanda never considered herself an artist – she had been too traditionally educated to think of art in terms other than Sargent, Whistler, and Homer or the interpretive work of Kiefer and Bacon.  Yet what is art if not an expression of personal vision, zeitgeist, culture, and history?

Her mother reluctantly admitted that perhaps she had misjudged and misunderstood her young daughter.  Mrs. Barkley, in addition to her French parsimony, had had a strong dose of classicism at the Sorbonne, and was responsible for this narrow view of art. 

To her credit Amanda took her mother’s classicism seriously but politely put the rest aside.  Her maturity as a a fashion artist attested to the strength of her creative vision, her social and historical insights, and her ability not only to see beyond cultural boundaries and limitations but to borrow, amend, match, and complement them.

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