Tag Archives: 1930s

Hands off: Surrealist art and fashion

As of late, I’ve been thinking more and more about 1920s and 1930s design, and about the fact that many of my favourite fashion designers were the ones to blur the lines between art and fashion. Wearable art is a term that is often thrown around when writing about these people, and it’s one of my favourite ways of thinking about well-designed clothing and creative styling.

Elsa Schiaparelli in Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn 1931. Photograph by Man Ray

Elsa Schiaparelli in Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn 1931. Photograph by Man Ray

Elsa Schiaparelli is well known for having been influenced by surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray, among others. But I would take it even further than to simply state influenced or inspired by – the more I read about her, the more I find these so-called inspirations would more aptly be described as collaborations. The reason these aren’t credited as collaborations I suspect in part has to do with gender, but it is most likely largely due to how much respect fashion vs. art is accorded. Fashion then (and now) is still seen as a lesser  form of art, as a capitalist industry as opposed to one interested in symbolism, deconstruction or self-expression. While Man Ray and Dalí are both respected as some of the 20th century’s most important artistes, Schiaparelli remains a name known mostly in the realm of frivolity and fashion, associated with high society and the colour pink.

A perfect illustration of Schiaparelli’s artistic talents are some of the gloves she designed in the mid-1930s. In Schiaparelli’s collection for winter 1936–37, she produced suede gloves in both black and white, with red snakeskin fingernails to replicate human hands. The black gloves were worn with Surrealist suits with pockets that looked like miniature bureau drawers, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dalí (if you come across a photo of those suits, let me know! I’m dying to see what they look like).

Made in Paris, France, Europe. Winter 1936-37 Designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, French (born Italy), 1890 - 1973  Black suede, red snakeskin 9 3/8 x 3 3/8 inches (23.8 x 8.6 cm)

Gloves by Schiaparelli, Winter 1936-37 collection

These playful gloves were created around the same time as Picasso painted hands to look like gloves for a Man Ray photo. Rumour has it Schiaparelli was inspired to flip-flop the concept and create a pair of gloves to look like hands.

Man Ray, Hands painted by Picasso, 1935

Man Ray, Hands painted by Picasso, 1935

Man Ray,  »Study of Hands », (negative solarization) 1930

Man Ray, »Study of Hands », (negative solarization) 1930

gloves by elsa schiaparelli

A lambskin belt next to suede gloves with gold metal talons, both made by Schiaparelli around 1936

There’s something about these gold talon ones though that I love even more – isn’t there something about them that screams hard femme? “Look, admire, but I can fuck you up if you cross my boundaries?” Perhaps over seventy years later, I’m queering this a bit too much to my own fancy, though.

This was hardly the only time Schiaparelli incorporated hands into her designs: I’m absolutely enamored by this belt, from two years earlier.

Evening belt Elsa Schiaparelli  (Italian, 1890–1973)  Date:     fall 1934 Culture:     French Medium:     silk, plastic Dimensions:     Other: 29 in. (73.7 cm)

Evening belt by Schiaparelli, Fall 1934 (silk, plastic)

The Met describes it as follows:

An ultimate expression of Schiaparelli’s interest in Surrealism, this belt was shown in the fall 1934 collection along with other pieces featuring the hand motif, such as a jacket, cape and handbag with hand-shaped fasteners. The hand was seen in many Surrealist artworks, such as those by Man Ray, and Schiaparelli used it in remarkable ways to accent her clothing designs. The wearer is literally embraced around the waist by the belt, an image echoed in the well-known jacket from the fall 1937 collection, featuring a woman with her golden sequined hair draped down one arm and her arm and hand wrapped across the body and waist, again embracing the wearer. The design was inspired by a drawing by Jean Cocteau for Schiaparelli.

Glove Hat      Object:      Hat with gloves     Place of origin:      Paris, France (gloves, made)     Date:      1936 (made)

Glove Hat designed by Schiaparelli, 1936

Another artist who also happened to be photographed by Man Ray (Kiki de Montparnasse, Lee Miller, Schiap – which badass creative women of the 20s and 30s weren’t?) played with gloves around the very same time is Meret Oppenheim.

Meret Oppenheim  "Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers" 1936

Meret Oppenheim “Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers” 1936

Meret Oppenheim Glove (1985) Silk-screen and handstitching on goat suede

Meret Oppenheim Glove (1985) Silk-screen and handstitching on goat suede

While these were created much later in her career, I find them no less interesting!

And since I am a fan of Man Ray’s portraits, here are some solarized portraits of Oppenheim for good measure.

Meret Oppenheim Man Ray (American, 1890–1976)  1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Meret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Now I’m off to daydream more about

recommended reading:

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ottawa’s vintage clothing fair

many people ask me where my love and knowledge of vintage clothes began. for a while, i found it difficult to pinpoint. as long as i can remember, i’ve always been drawn to fashions from bygone eras, poring over the descriptions of decadent garments from the past in my favourite books, or oggling the outfits in old advertisements i found in tattered magazines or black and white films. it wasn’t until i began thrifting on my own as a teenager in small town ontario that i realized vintage clothes belonged in my closet, on my body – not just in storybooks and period pieces. but my knowledge of them? that has a very different starting point; not in books, but in very much in the flesh.

i first found out about ottawa’s vintage clothing fair from a little flyer in an antique shop in peterborough, back in 2005. i had seen a smattering of vintage clothes here and there in antique shops, or had stumbled across the rare find in thrift stores, but had never been to a vintage clothing store, let alone an entire bazaar or fair. i had some cursory knowledge thanks to helpful folks in livejournal communities, namely vintage_look and thriftwhore, where i learned things like how zippers or buttons could tell you what decade your find was most likely from, along with what was valuable and what was a dime a dozen.

but the stories behind the clothes, what decades they are from, the real nitty-gritty? those are the kind of things you learn about from meeting and talking to vintage sellers. and once a year, a great gang of canadian vintage sellers bring their best wares to the ottawa vintage clothing fair, ready for all the grubby hands and curious questions.

photo of the ottawa vintage clothing fair in 2005

now that my closet is pretty much full and my bank account still tight, the appeal of the vintage clothing fair for me now isn’t so much the shopping experience: it’s the people, the stories, and how much you can learn about vintage clothing. as much as i enjoy browsing gorgeous garments on etsy, it’s not quite the same as touching 1930s velvet, as seeing the vibrant colours of the prints, asking the seller the story behind the item.

not to mention the venue! this year i hear it has changed, but in years past it has been at the chateau laurier. absolutely gorgeous.

chateau laurier ottawa 2006

julia at the vintage clothing fair in 2007

this will be my fifth time attending the vintage clothing fair now, and i still vividly remember the stories behind most of the items i’ve purchased there over the years. here are most of them:

vintage clothing in julia's closet

a purse and a set of earrings i nabbed at the vintage clothing fair back in 2006.

a purse and a set of earrings i nabbed at the vintage clothing fair back in 2006.

this dress no longer fits me, but i think it is one of my all-time favourite finds. i think i paid something like 40 or 50 dollars for it, since it wasn’t in the best of condition. the last time i could squeeze into it was shortly after i had been very ill and lost a lot of weight, and luckily holly norris took these beautiful photographs of me in it then.


one of my favourite fall dresses!


the story behind this strange skirt is what really makes it.

the woman who sold it to me told me it belonged to her aunt. (background: usually, when you buy vintage, it is kind of standard to ask if it came from a smoke-free or pet-free home, but you usually don’t get this much detail) she went on to tell me her aunt was a devout jehovah’s witness, who never smoked, drank, or married. this seemed like a bit of a “wink wink nudge she died a virgin” type situation. all of these factors did not make the garment pristine, however. it has little stains around the waist, but that makes me love it even more (and made it affordable; it was originally priced at $40, then marked down to $30, then i snagged it for $15) and the story makes it all the more precious to me. it makes me want to be particularly debaucherous every time i wear it.

most of the other items i’ve purchased were earrings or small pieces of jewelry, some of which i’ve unfortunately lost, like this precious brooch:

another thing i thought about last time i went with annemarie back in 2010 was how the online market for vintage clothing in the last few years (or as i often refer to them, the “post mad men” years) had become slightly oversaturated, especially with lax rules about what constitutes “vintage” over at etsy. it’s not rare to see pieces from the 80s and 90s online listed as vintage, but you don’t really see that at the fair. it is not rare to come across top hats from the 20th century, or halloween costumes from the 30s! and even though that’s not what i go there to buy, it is fascinating to see such quality vintage goods all in one lovely place.

tips if you attend a fair like this one? i’ve told a lot of friends to go, so i’ve given these tips out before:

  • arrive on time, and with cash. there is an ATM on site but who likes to pay those overcharge fees anyway? i tend to be very strict with my budget, and only take out as much cash as i can spend. that way you can’t splurge on a 300$ gown you don’t need and will wear once just because you saw it and it fits you and it is beautiful.
  • dress for the occasion. now this doesn’t mean getting decked out to the nines, trying to impress fellow bargain hunters with your gorgeous duds. if you’re going here to buy things, you will be trying them on. so dress appropriately! wear something that’s easy to slip in and out of. i almost always wear a slip, so i can know how much wiggle room i have.
  • ask questions. as i said, i learned almost everything i know about vintage from asking sellers question after question. it can be short and sweet, just asking what decade a dress is from and how they know that, or you can go into detail.
  • be patient. give yourself a lot of time. in my experience there have always been large crowds, whether you show up at 10 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. take your time, don’t let people push you, and be polite with others.
  • be gentle with the goods. most sellers will ask you to leave a piece of id behind when you head to the change room, but what they really want from you is to be gentle with their items. try on dresses by putting them over your head, not stepping into them. assess whether the garment has stretch to it or not before jerking at the seams. don’t force it. there are literally thousands of other items for you to try on, you’re sure to find at least something that suits you.
  • don’t take photos of yourself in the change room. or do. whatever. if you’re anything like me, however, these photos will lead to you kicking yourself five years later as to why you didn’t buy that gorgeous dress.

now you’ve got almost a week to prep – november 18th – off you go, and be sure to show me your fantastic finds after you’ve conquered the crowds! see you there.

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currently: taking a different look at glasses

i’ve been thinking a lot about glasses these days; glasses as a fashion accessory, as a necessity, as a signifier of intelligence, desireability, gender or class. what do your glasses say about you? as someone who has worn glasses since two thirds of my life, how strange is it to hear people with perfect vision say they “wish” they needed glasses? how differently do i feel about wearing glasses now, as a young professional woman, than i did when i was a young girl? i’ve written about it before, but it shouldn’t surprise me that i have a lot of thoughts and feelings about something i choose to wear every single day.

vision as represented in photography has really been ringing my bell these past few months. i recently rewatched two old favourites of mine this past week, man with a movie camera (1929) and la jetée (1965). thinking about the camera as almost a pair of glasses for the viewer, permitting the audience to see things in a clearer way – or even, to see things they would otherwise never be able to.

i’ve also kind of been completely besotted with surrealist photography, something i knew very little about before this summer thanks in part to a fantastic exhibition on at the musée national des beaux-arts du québec right now. to be honest i’ve never been too smitten with the surrealist movement more generally, but this exhibition has offered a different perspective…  thinking about the possibilities the early days of accessible photography provided, combined with an incredible cocktail of creative uppity artists and feminists makes my heart beat just a bit faster.

a new pair of frames are in the mail, and i’ve got some other thoughts about glasses stores i’m slowly but surely processing. in the meantime, here is some eye-candy: literally.

Women with fire masks, Downshire Hill, London, 1941. Lee Miller

Lee Miller, by Man Ray

Lee Miller, by Man Ray

film still from Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera). 1929

Vertov, a Soviet film director, redefined the medium of still and motion-picture photography through the concept of kino-glaz (cine-eye), asserting that the recording proficiency of the camera lens made it superior to the human eye. In a double image in Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera), the eye is superimposed on the camera lens to form an indivisible apparatus fit to view, process, and convey reality, all at once.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Parabola optica (Optical Parable), 1931; gelatin silver print; 9 3/4 in. x 7 1/4 in. (24.77 cm x 18.42 cm); Collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser; © Colette Urbajtel / Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Parabola optica (Optical Parable), 1931

WILLIAM WITT The Eye, Lower East Side, NYC, 1948  gelatin silver print, 10 3/4 x 12 inches

The Eye, Lower East Side, NYC, 1948 by William Witt

From Ken Russel's "Teddy Girls" series (1950s)

From Ken Russel’s “Teddy Girls” series (1950s) thanks andi!

Jaromír Funke

Film still from Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound," 1945

Film still from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” 1945

as always, click the photos for more details and links!

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