How long can a theatrical costume survive? I'f you're ever worked in a costume shop, you know how hard the stage, lights, and actors are on their costumes. Most well made stage garments need constant cleaning and repair just to get them through the run of the show. Which is why the story of Ellen Terry's Lady MacBeth Costume is so remarkable. Covered in natural, shimmering beetle wing sequins, and famously immortalized by John Singer Sergeant, the dress is more than 120 years old, and has found a new life. Read more about it in the Daily Mail Online.
Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth, by John Singer Sergeant
As soon as the statues have all been handed out, fashion critics start making their binary lists of who did and did not "get it right" on the red carpet. We at Daisy Fairbanks headquarters don't usually like to participate in the snark parade. But I'd like to send kudos to Marisa Tomei for the stunning vintage 1950s couture dress she wore, by designer Charles James.
Let's zoom in on the bodice so we can see the impeccable construction there.
So lovely, amazing structure.
Unfortunately for Ms. Tomei, she ended up on many "worst" lists, though some critics said it was due to stylistic choices of hair (up-do?) & makeup (red lips?) or that it needed different jewelry (the diamond and sapphire sunflower earrings from Van Cleef & Arpels, while lovely, are an odd pairing.) I wonder if those who were quick to criticize knew the importance of the dress, or if they were simply looking at it as another satin & chiffon gown by another unknown designer. Would they be the same people who would see a painting by Jackson Pollock and quip that their toddler could do better?
No matter what critics think, we're happy to know that there are a least a handful of stars who understand and respect fashion history. Charles James may be little known in contemporary fashion circles, but in his day the gowns he created were known to be of the highest quality. Today his dresses are rare, and highly prized by fashion collectors and historians.
For the Oscars, Firth entered into a collaboration with Gary Harvey, a designer known for making dresses out of other items, from jeans to newspapers. She writes that "Gary’s design is made from 11 different dresses. He has scoured Southeast London for the right pieces, from Cancer Research shops to vintage boutiques, such as 360 DEGREES-VINTAGE in Greenwich." The owner of the shop, on her facebook page, writes that "he bought the very best gowns but the end result was fantastic."
Hmmm. Livia Firth is a beautiful woman. The dress looks, how shall I say this, patched together at best. But regardless of the result, is it really "green" to take apart 11 of the very best gowns at a high end vintage shop and cut them to pieces to make one dress? Said Firth, “It’s really beautiful—it’s pretty but also has a message.” We're not really sure what that message is. If it's that wearing vintage is a good idea, we agree, but we'd rather use the example of Marisa Tomei.
I'm sure Ms. Firth's heart was in the right place, and I applaud her mission to promote sustainable fashion. Of course the idea of recycling is a good one - if the thing you're recycling is otherwise unuseable. Perhaps the dresses had no major label to which they could be attributed, but that does not make them obsolete.
And for the sake of irony, we noticed that Ms. Firth's dress is poorly derivative of another famous dress - The Butterfly Gown by none other than America's first couturier, the aforementioned Charles James.
--- UPDATE ---
Our friend Jody at Couture Allure has been in contact with the designer, who now says that "not one of these garments was suitable to wear in its current state, due to distress, damage or decay."
This elicits another "hmmm..." from us. Either the dresses were the best stock from an upscale vintage boutique, or they were damaged & decayed, but it's doubtful they could be both. Mr. Harvey also asserts that the dresses "were sourced from the millions of dresses available in the second hand market-place, there is literally tons and tons of vintage clothing out there," a claim that we also refute. There are not millions of original 1930s dresses of the "very best" quality, good enough to be resold at a quality vintage boutique. In fact, they have become much more rare as the years go by, and as some of the very best get cut to shreds for "repurposing."
There's a documentary film coming out this spring that celebrates the work of Bill Cunningham, the grandfather of street style photography. While New York may not be the center of the universe as far as I'm concerned, we on the left coast can still enjoy the idea of spontaneity and creative expression that happens in the real world, outside the magazines and away from the catwalks. Are you as excited to see this as I am?
My new BFF Mr. Ferguson (who commented in person on my earlier post!) kindly alerted me to the fact that there are a few more of his delectable metal mesh dresses on ebay. It's such an honor to be contacted by the designer!
These dresses are all one of a kind. Here's what I know about Mr. Ferguson, courtesy of the ebay seller:
Mr. Ferguson has designed costumes for The Joffrey Ballet; other designs are in collections worldwide as well as the permanent collection of The Museum of the City of New York, other selected exhibitions include "Goddess: The Classical Mode" at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, 2003, and "Goddess" MoMu, Belgium, 2004.
"Reviving a technique used in the 1920's for metal mesh bags, Douglas Ferguson's late-twentieth century silhouettes overlay classical references on a medieval chain-mail-like material. Like other conflations of recognizable period styles, his designs have the paradoxical effect of being outside time. It is a strategy used by costume designers in theater and the cinema,by illustrators in comic books, and more recently, by creators of computer games, to suggest utopias and dystopias, the future and imaginary parallel realities…Ferguson has devised his own techniques for patterning their surface, exploiting the durability of enamel paints used for cars to create his coruscating designs. Although the mesh is kept in relatively unaltered rectilinear panels, individual components of the material, quatrefoil links, may be removed to modify the shape of each pattern piece. The minimum intervention required by the material, which flows over the body's contours, results in a structural simplicity similar to that of the uncut draped garments of the Greeks." (Goddess: The Classical Mode, by Harold Koda, Director of The Costume Institute, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
There has to be more to the story - I have so many questions. Were the dresses commissioned for each photo shoot? How many mesh dresses were made? Was the mesh itself made or commissioned by the designer? I'd also love to see more designs, perhaps for the stage, or in other materials.
If you're reading this Mr. F, and wouldn't mind an email interview, please contact me!