During WWI, the USA found itself cut off from European art and design, a source they had depended on for centuries of aesthetic guidance. At the same time, Greenwich Village avant-garde designers, many of whom were women, were challenging the conventions of feminine fashion. They were drawing connections between a liberated, un-corsetted silhouette and the traditional dress of non-European cultures. These factors converged, briefly, in the unlikely setting of a natural history museum.
New York City’s Bard Graduate Center is currently showing a small focus gallery exhibition entitled “An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915 -1928.” Curated by Bard alum Ann Tartsinis, the show focuses on this unique moment in the early twentieth century when curators from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) were actively soliciting textile and fashion designers to work with objects and art in the museum’s collection. These artifacts, drawn from the museum’s Native American, Central American, and Southern American holdings had been acquired through early nineteenth century ethnographic studies that included some practices which by today’s standards are dubious at best and nothing less than theft at their worst. By encouraging designers to explore authentic artifacts, museum staff hoped the pairing would provide inspiration for inventing a true “American” style. What they produced continues to be a compelling body of work sparking questions about nationalism, appropriation, and inspiration.
WORN’s New York editor, Sonya Abrego speaks with Ann Tartsinis.
What drew you to the subject and how did you come across this material?
When I was doing my graduate studies I was in Professor Michele Majer’s modern textiles class and I found an illustration of Charles W. Mead’s Peruvian Art—help for students of design in a textile survey, and I was very curious as to what this was; who was Charles Mead? It isolated the Peruvian Bird motif and showed designers how to apply it to modern textiles, and he was the curator of Peruvian art at the AMNH and there’s this bigger story of the Anthropology department engaging with artists and designers at this time. I started to scratch at the surface and uncovered this really fascinating moment when four men who were later called “the fashion staff” actively pursued American designers in the hope of finding a new modern style.
Where do the objects in the exhibition come from? Are they still in AMNH?
All of the ethnographic objects are from AMNH. But the rest come from a variety of institutions in the region. There is a fantastic c.1920s batik style kaftan dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, well as numerous contemporaneous textiles that are from the museum at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), as well as the Smithsonian museum of American History and the Brooklyn Museum.
Do you have pieces you find particularly interesting?
The Siberian fur coat, which is probably from the Koriak culture, where Japan and Russia meet. It’s a reindeer hide coat with beaded tassels; it’s a dancing coat and it was extremely influential to quite a few designers. One is Jessie Franklin Turner (known for her sinuous 1930s tea gowns) who, in 1917, when she was the head of the custom department for Bonwitt Teller in New York, made a line of negligees and a tea gown based on the coat. We have a drawing of that, of one of the negligees, and a reproduction of the actual item that was produced in Vogue. We have the source object, the drawing that the designer was inspired by, and the image of the final piece. It’s rare, in this story, to have all those parts.
Also, there is a dress from the RISD museum that uses the H. R. Mallinson & Co. (a silk company) and one of their prints from the American Indian series. It is a Sioux war bonnet print which is created in a drop-waisted day dress, very 1920s silhouette, with lace ruffles… it’s a facinating collage of contemporary design using this pretty avant-garde print.
Was the 1919 Exhibition of Industrial Art and Textiles (an exhibition in the museum showing the designs alongside the pieces that inspired them) something that was well-received? Was it a popular show?
It was only up for two weeks. It was perceived to be popular. M.D.C. Crawford, who is one of these key four members of the fashion staff, was a journalist for Womens’ Wear (now WWD), and at that time he wrote that it was extremely popular and it was considered popular by the museum itself. The trustees were supportive of it and happy with the popular outreach that they gained.
One of the many intriguing things you touch upon is who these people were. They were into this Greenwich Village, bohemian culture that included a lot of designers and artists. Do you see the aesthetics expressed in these pieces as part of the Greenwich Village avant-garde or do you think it’s a separate thing?
It’s definitely part of the avant-garde. A lot of the designers who took advantage of the museum activities were from the Greenwich Village avant-garde and there was kind of this melting pot moment that happened in New York in reaction to the effects of WWI. These designers and artists—a lot of them women who were embracing this new woman ideal—are educated; they have careers and they are not really looking to marry. They are part of these circles that are pushing the boundaries in terms of fashion and embracing artistic dress.
So this caftan silhouette, sandals and bobbed hair and, most importantly, the abandonment of the corset, this is connected to the story at the AMNH. A lot of the silhouettes that the curators are advocating based on ethnographic sources like Native American dress and the Koriak fur coat are fuller, looser silhouettes, so I think there is a melding between the two ideals that allow the new woman to function. The garments aren’t as restrictive and there is more mobility.
When I was looking at the show I felt my sentiments a little divided. I can appreciate the idea of stepping away from European influence in art and design, of looking to inspiration from this continent at a time when the nation was challenged with the war in Europe. I like that they were valuing original work and stylistic traditions from the Americas as compelling and inspirational. However, although these items existed in ethnographic collections here in New York, in terms of cultural property, they were not the curators’ property to give. Where do you situate this practice in terms of cultural imperialism?
You’re absolutely correct: they certainly were not the cultures that these curators could offer as freely as they did. Contextually, at this moment in the United States, their attitudes were part of broader theories of Central and South America as being the purview of the Unites States. So while these men, these curators, their activities certainly brought up questions of appropriation and cultural property they weren’t really acting out of the norm of the moment. However, looking back, I do think it’s a really sticky situation. I’m fascinated by their efforts to inspire American designers but the material that they were defining as American was not theirs to offer.
The project, even at the time, brought criticism from other curators at the AMNH; it drew criticism for appropriation, and these other curators thought it wasn’t appropriate for contemporary American designers to take the material, cite it, and use it as their own. The four fashion group curators did advocate inspiration over citation (i.e. copying) which gave them a little bit of room to get behind this movement, but with designers there were still some direct citations.
Today we get to hear from Native American scholars and activists speaking out against appropriation of Native American design traditions. I’m thinking of outlets like ‘Native Appropriations’ and ‘Beyond Buckskin’ calling out Urban Outfitters for their “Navajo” prints or Paul Smith for his “Electric PowWow.” Was this exhibition an antecedent to these practices? Is there any connection?
The connection is there but it’s tenuous. This project was an isolated moment in the AMNH’s history. Recent scholarship in the Anthropology departmebt does not talk about this at all, and it’s not really part of the museum’s mission even if it was part of their popular outreach at that time. I think modern designers will look to museum collections, and indigenous collections as well, for inspiration. And I think it is useful for designers to look to museums, but it’s the issue of citation. When you’re talking about meaningful, spiritual items being appropriated and placed on contemporary garments I would hope that companies and designers would at the very least acknowledge their sources or ask permission. The Urban Outfitters example is extremely troubling.
I think there is a considerate and appropriate way for designers to engage with museums. I don’t think the connection between cultural institutions and industry is a bad relationship. Museums hold a variety of inspirational material and industry can learn, either from what’s been successful in the past, or through techniques and methods that have been used by other cultures.
Artists and creative people are going to seek these out anyway. They might as well look at an original source with some history behind it instead of mixing and matching vague ideas.
I encourage everyone to visit the exhibition to see some amazing original material, think about how cultures have informed one another, how design circulates between cultures and how traditions of the past informed modernity. Cultural appropriation’s history is a tangled one. This show presents museum objects which embody multiple vexed relationships. It is also accompanied by a thorough image-rich catalogue, well worth seeing if you can’t make it to the show, that contextualizes all these issues in depth.