Bard Graduate Center Response Series: Conveying Personality, Pedigree, and Prestige at a Modern Cat Show

By Sarah Stanley, Bard Graduate Center

A bench (in cat show vernacular) is a designated platform or table where breeders hold their cats when they are not being judged. To distinguish and celebrate the feline competitors, breeders elaborately decorate their cages (fig. 1). This creative practice was completely unknown to me until I stumbled upon a regional cat show in the fall of 2015. The more decorations I saw, the more I wondered about their history and contemporary significance. By observing decorations, analysing photographs and newspaper articles, and speaking with breeders and CFA officials, I began to establish an understanding of this unique practice.

Figure 1: Benching cage for a Black Persian cat, CFA International Cat Show, Pennsylvania, November 2015. Photograph by author.

Modern cat breeding became popular among the English aristocracy during the second half of the nineteenth century. Cat owners formed social clubs, which eventually evolved into competitions (fig. 2). The first recorded cat show was held at London’s Crystal Palace in 1871 and a few years later, in 1899, the Chicago Cat Club held the first cat show in America. In 1906, breeders formed the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), which today recognises forty two different breeds around the world and maintains the pedigree for nearly two million cats.[1]

Figure 2: Cat Show Judging, early 20th century, England. Image from Francis Simpson’s The Book of the Cat.

Cage decorations, usually in the form of fabric curtains, are an essential element of the modern cat show. On a practical level they visually and physically separate the large number of cats in the show venue. Although participants are not required to do anything special with their dividers, the CFA does encourage decorations. Based on my observations, most of these decorations fit into several categories. All of these categories highlight certain historical aspects of the breed or cat shows in general. Breeders most often choose to reference unique breed characteristics, pedigree, or conventions of luxury through their designs (fig. 3).

Figure 3: A luxurious cat cage, Pennsylvania, November 2015. Photograph by author.

Through my research I became interested in why breeders began to decorate their cages and how the decorations could be used as a point of entry into the social and historical world of showing cats in America. The first reports of lavishly decorated cages appear at the same time that shows begin to become cat-exclusive events. Prior to the 1930s, the most common animals to be shown with cats were birds and poultry, perhaps against better judgment. Elaborate cage decorations began when cat shows and cat owners wanted to establish their own identity in the pet world. Emphasising stereotypes of luxury and pedigree through cage decorations became a way to validate the cat and the breeders’ practice. Portraying a sense of physical comfort and lavishness remains a unifying factor among contemporary cage decorations

In the twenty first century photography is also an important component of cat show culture. Show organisers use the presence of well-known photographers to increase participation in smaller shows. I noticed a tendency to include products in the cage decorations—from pet food bags to Playboy magazine—whose designs featured the breeders’ cats as models (fig. 4). When incorporated into cage decorations, photographs do more than simply convey ideas of luxury and pedigree; like show ribbons, they convey the success and employability of the cat and the breeder. Fascination with cats in the media, often seen as a modern internet phenomenon,[2] has deeper historical roots that trace back to the popularity of amateur photography among nineteenth century cat breeders (fig. 5). Karen Lawrence, director of the Feline Historical Museum, directly correlates the rise of cats in advertising to the growing popularity of cat shows. She suggests that the first evidence of this practice in America was in an Ivory Soap ad in 1899, the same year that the Chicago Cat Club held their first official show (fig. 6).

Figure 4: Cage decorations of iCandy Cattery (Ragamuffins) featuring the packaging from a pet product for which they modeled. November 2015, Pennsylvania. Photo by the author.


Figure 5: An example of amateur cat photography, Cats Playing Chess, early 20th century. From Francis Simpson’s The Book of the Cat.


Figure 6: Ivory Soap ad featuring cats, 1899, from Karen Lawrence, “Cats in Advertising” in The Feline Historical Museum, [accessed December 2015].

As vernacular modes of display, cage decorations all work to highlight the cat—the product of the breeder’s hard work. I see the show experience as a reward for the breeder, in and of itself. The cat show is a social event that allows the CFA community to come together and celebrate its own history, high standards, and mutual love of cats. Creating meaningful cage decorations is a way for everyone involved to acknowledge the significant role cat shows play in their lives, while highlighting the personality, pedigree and prestige of the true stars of the show, their cats.


[1] Cat Fanciers’ Association, [accessed December 2015].

[2] For more information see: The Museum of the Moving Image’s exhibit How Cats Took Over the Internet, on view August 7, 2015 – February 7, 2016,, [accessed December 2015].

About the author: Sarah Stanley

Bard Graduate Center Response Series: Aesthetics and Accuracy – The Efficacy of Marie Antoinette’s Film Trailer

By Amanda Hinckle, Bard Graduate Center

In two and a half minutes, a movie trailer must capture an audience’s attention and convince them that the film is worth seeing. Director Sofia Coppola’s trailer for Marie Antoinette (2006)[1] entices viewers with sumptuous images of eighteenth century Europe, New Wave music,[2] and the alluring history of its eponymous queen, guillotined by French revolutionaries in 1793, not long after her husband King Louis XVI met the same end.[3]

The trailer’s first thirty seconds suggest a conventional period film. It opens with scenes of a palatial estate, bewigged courtiers, and Kirsten Dunst as a teenage Marie Antoinette. In a voice-over, Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa (played by Marianne Faithfull) explains that her daughter will be Queen. The images have a dark, sombre tone while ambient music plays, hinting that something is amiss; Aphex Twin’s “Jynweythek Ylow” (2001) sounds similar to a harpsichord, but slightly off from eighteenth century Bach or Mozart.

Shifting to the Palace of Versailles, the music changes, and Gang of Four’s punchy “Natural’s Not in It” (1979) blares. Marie Antoinette steps out of a carriage into a crowd of immaculately dressed French courtiers amid murmurs of “She looks like a child.” The trailer employs whispered sound bites throughout, such as “She’s a terrible Queen,” “She spends like mad,” and “She was in the shrubs, at dawn, with various men.” These accusations echo contemporary tabloid journalism, as Coppola wanted to evoke present-day celebrity culture.

Neon pink text set against a black background teases the story chronologically. “At age 15… She became a bride,” cuts to an awkward scene with the future Louis XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman. Subsequently, the words “At 19… She became Queen” flash. Extravagant scenes of gaming, pastry eating, and sumptuous dressing follow, starring a heavily rouged Marie Antoinette in a towering wig, asking, “It’s not too much, is it?” Next, “By 20… She was a Legend” marks the deterioration of the Queen’s popularity. Disembodied voices decry her spending habits and lament an impoverished citizenry, while her portrait—based on Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s well-known Marie Antoinette with the Rose (1783)—flashes on the screen with “Queen of Debt!” slapped on top of it.[4] By the end of this segment, Marie Antoinette asks, “Don’t they ever get tired of these ridiculous stories?,” again evoking celebrity reportage.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, 1783, oil on canvas, 130 x 87cm, Palace of Versailles. Credit: Google Art Project

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, 1783, oil on canvas, 130 x 87cm, Palace of Versailles. Credit: Google Art Project

Next, scenes of an affair with an officer fill the screen, accompanied by a softer, edgy song, “Ceremony” (1981) by New Order. Gossipy voiceovers filter through while bright pink and black graphics intermittently punch out the words, “Rumor,” “Scandal,” “Sex,” “Fame,” and “Revolution.” This text is attention grabbing; think US Weekly or People’s irresistibly eye-catching headlines. Images of throngs of men and women storming Versailles are intercut with those of a disinterested Louis XVI and an increasingly desperate Marie Antoinette. Ultimately, she approaches the mob, bowing down to them as the music quiets. The trailer ends as a neon pink and black “Marie Antoinette” flashes on the screen.

Period films often cause consternation amongst scholars, and Marie Antoinette is no exception. Anachronisms abound, and while costume curator Edward Maeder claimed, “Our vision is so influenced by contemporary style that we cannot be objective, and the result is always an interpretation,”[5] Coppola went further and completely eschewed historical accuracy. Instead, her film suggests early twenty first century celebrity culture. The lavish images of Versailles—ladies dressed in rich, shiny pastel fabrics, gaudy jewels, flowing champagne, and Gang of Four’s repetitive chant, “what to do for pleasure”—evokes 2006’s reigning celebrity, Paris Hilton,[6] in a bright pink, slinky dress and sporting shiny, blonde hair, partying in Los Angeles with Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Nicole Richie.  When Marie Antoinette states, “This is ridiculous,” and is given the reply, “This, Madame, is Versailles,” one might draw a parallel with Hollywood and its denizens.

According to documentary filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey, a movie maker’s goal “is to first and foremost engage the audience in the principle of the ‘suspension of disbelief’, i.e., to create a filmic reality that allows the audience to believe a story as if it were true—whether or not the story is factually correct in whole or in part.”[7] Marie Antoinette’s trailer needs to convey that the film will not only entertain but also hold true to what the audience knows of its historical subject. Coppola deliberately played with the suspension of disbelief, adding anachronistic elements such as New Wave music and bright, bold graphics. Accents and diction are also purposefully inaccurate. Kirsten Dunst’s California Valley Girl inflections are frequently jarring given that most of the other voices are British. Yet Coppola defended this choice, claiming that she did not want Marie Antoinette to feel like “a stiff period movie,”[8] actively distancing it from other historical films.

Similarly, costumes, designed by Milena Canonero,[9] featured pastels, silks, and satins to fill the audience’s senses.  Her colour palette was inspired by the famous Parisian Ladurée macarons[10] rather than period sources. For Coppola, aesthetics mattered most: “I’d rather pick a heel that is more appealing to me that was maybe invented 50 years later.  I’m not a fetishist about historical accuracy.”[11] For a general audience, she implied, the evocation of eighteenth century fashion is enough.

Most interestingly, Coppola stated that she “wanted to make a personal story and not a big epic biopic.”[12]  Accordingly, the trailer is not story-driven but instead fueled by images and sound bites that encapsulate Marie Antoinette’s presumed essence rather than her historical context. Dunst claimed, “It’s kind of like a history of feelings […] rather than a history of facts.”[13]  We only get a taste of what will happen in Marie Antoinette from the preview, but it is enough to know that the movie will focus on the protagonist’s emotional life rather than the politics of her time.

Marie Antoinette was not just a testament to the notorious Queen but also to the early 2000s. Its success, however, was mixed. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival was met with boos.[14]  One film critic, Agnes Poirier, declared, “History is merely decor and Versailles a boutique hotel.”[15]  However, at the same festival, the film finished with a standing ovation. Marie Antoinette’s total domestic gross was $15,962,471, ranking 131st among the year’s highest grossing films. Costing $40 million to make, and bringing in only $60 million worldwide,[16] it is considered a moderate financial success. Essentially, it comes down to how comfortable an audience is with departing from a conventional historical film. If one embraces Marie Antoinette’s anachronistic commentary upon modern celebrity culture and tolerates its lack of political focus—all of which the trailer displays—then the film achieves its goal.


About the author: Amanda Hinckle

Leonardo da Vinci and Dangerous Play

by Eve Zaunbrecher

Château Clos Lucé. Photo © Eve Zaunbrecher

Figure 1. Château Clos Lucé. Photo © Eve Zaunbrecher

Right across the road from our course library at the V&A, the Science Museum is currently showing ‘Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius‘, an exhibition highlighting his machines through models, interactive mechanisms, and technical drawings. In December I visited the Château Clos Lucé in the city of Amboise in the Loire Valley, where da Vinci spent the final years of his life and whose museum and grounds also hold models and drawings of his machines. I was quite struck by the similarities of both exhibitions and how they used interaction and play to engage visitors with the inventions, particularly the war machines. One major difference was that the Château Clos Lucé houses full size versions outside in the adjacent gardens, which created a kind of science playground where visitors walked along a scenic pathway and ‘discovered’ life size machines and choose to operate them. Both exhibitions encourage play, even with machines designed for violence. Though da Vinci’s work on war machines are well documented in both exhibitions, I found it fascinating that the interactions between visitors and the machines, whether young or old, seemed completely removed from the violent purpose of one invention in particular : the ‘armoured vehicle.’

Leonardo da Vinci tank drawing

Figure 2. Drawing of armoured vehicle (Popham 1030), © British Museum.

Inside the château, in addition to restored interiors the lower floors house a variety of da Vinci’s models in a more traditional exhibition space, with computer rendered videos of his inventions in action. The most interesting invention there (in my opinion) is a conical, wooden fortified vehicle which resembles a modern tank (Figure 2). This vehicle, drawn between 1487 and 1490, moves and rotates with protruding canons, an observation tower, and slanted walls to deflect gunfire. A small model in the château reveals a cross section of the tank, and the computer generated video showing above demonstrates the tank while moving and firing (Figure 3). In the weaponry section of the Science Museum, da Vinci’s tank is shown in all its destructive glory (in a much larger model), and is exhibited next to a chariot with rotating scythes (Figure 4). These two exhibition spaces clearly convey the militaristic application of the vehicle, but the largest model size is strangely the least imposing in appearance.

Clos Lucé tank model

Figure 3. Armoured vehicle model, Château Clos Lucé, Amboise. Photo © Eve Zaunbrecher.

Armoured Vehicle, 'Leonardo da Vinci and the Mechanics of Genius'

Figure 4. Armoured Vehicle, ‘Leonardo da Vinci and the Mechanics of Genius’, Science Museum, London. Photo © Eve Zaunbrecher.

In the garden near the château, life size models are placed along the serene walking paths. The outdoor tank is a slightly different design than the smaller models in the château gallery and the Science Museum (Figure 5). Visitors can enter the tank and spin it using the metal wheel inside (but it sadly cannot move around). It’s fitted with dummy guns, which makes it look pretty harmless. When I first saw the tank in the museum display, the model and video made it seem rather terrifying because it looked like a predecessor for the metal tank developed in World War I. Da Vinci’s genius has often been linked to his near prophetic qualities, and this tank is eerily prescient of the mechanised warfare that would develop four centuries later. This version is more like a Renaissance amusement park ride; making it static has taken it out of a military context and transformed it into a novelty. It looks right at home in the tranquil park and resembles a child’s playhouse instead of a mobile killing machine.

Figure 5. Outdoor model of armoured vehicle. Château Clos Lucé, Amboise. Photo © Eve Zaunbrecher.

Figure 5. Outdoor model of armoured vehicle. Château Clos Lucé, Amboise. Photo © Eve Zaunbrecher.

Both the Science Museum and Château Clos Lucé have created innovative exhibitions which allow visitors to interact with the technology that da Vinci envisioned. The creation of small and life size models can illustrate the potential of his inventions, but ironically I found that the most ‘life-like’ model was the most benign. Though the smaller, more detailed describes the killing power of the tank, the playful nature of the full size model at Clos Lucé makes it seem nonthreatening. One the one hand, the inclusion of war machines with designs for flight and manufacture downplays implied violence and instead uses models as tangible examples of da Vinci’s innovation. The intersection of violence, science, technology, and design is hardly a new phenomenon: the drive for innovation in war machines is as powerful now as it was in da Vinci’s time.

For more information:

Science Museum: ‘Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius’

Château Close Lucé & Park Leonardo da Vinci

About the author: Eve Zaunbrecher

Bard Graduate Center Response Series: A Quilt and the Responsibility of Remembrance

By Catherine Stergar, Bard Graduate Center

Figure 1 Minia Wasilkowska Moszenberg, We Never Said Good Bye, 2002. Cloth, ink, wood, leather, yarn, plastic, metal, thread, and adhesive, 14.000 x 19.125 inches. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of Minia Wasilkowska Moszenberg,

Figure 1 Minia Wasilkowska Moszenberg, We Never Said Good Bye, 2002. Cloth, ink, wood, leather, yarn, plastic, metal, thread, and adhesive, 14.000 x 19.125 inches. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of Minia Wasilkowska Moszenberg

On April 22, 1993, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel (b. 1928) addressed the audience at the opening ceremony of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC, sharing his vision for the museum: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”[1] Wiesel stressed that bearing witness meant sharing memories of the atrocities and monumental loss of life that occurred during the Holocaust. “For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories,” he declared.[2]

Today the USHMM’s principal mission is “to advance and disseminate knowledge about [the Holocaust]; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”[3] The museum houses more than ten thousand objects that are evidence of the crimes and genocide committed by Germany’s Nazi regime in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Visitors will find historical artifacts from this time period as well as commemorative items created by survivors afterward. Many of the latter are intimate, purposeful embodiments of the makers’ memories that testify to the atrocities that claimed and changed many innocent lives. One commemorative quilt at the USHMM demonstrates how an object can embody the memory of its maker, providing insight into material practices of remembrance.

In 2004, Minia Wasilkowska Moszenberg (b. 1926), a Holocaust survivor living in the United States, donated a small quilt entitled We Never Said Good Bye [Fig. 1] to the USHMM.[4] Moszenberg made her quilt in 2002 while involved in a support group with eight other Holocaust survivors, who also made quilts of remembrance; that same year, the Threads of Memory exhibition at the Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives at Queensborough Community College displayed their work.[5] Moszenberg designed and created We Never Said Good Bye to capture her memory of the moment when Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) corps forever separated her from her parents and siblings.[6] In 1941, the Nazi government forced her family to move into the Ozorkow ghetto in Poland. One day in April 1942, the SS rounded up thousands of Jews in the ghetto, including her father, mother, sister, and brother, and transported them to the death camp Chelmno, where guards killed them.[7] Moszenberg’s quilt conveys the heartbreak and trauma of this forced separation, which she calls “the most poignant time in [her] life.”[8]

Moszenberg’s mixed-media quilt depicts her father, sister, mother, and brother standing side by side outside under the sky, separated from a young Minia by a large, skull-faced SS guard with a gun and swastika insignia on his helmet and armband. Her father is frowning, and her mother, brother, and sister are weeping. The young Minia on the right side of the quilt is also crying, her eyes closed in grief. A disembodied skull wearing a guard’s helmet emblazoned with a swastika hovers above Moszenberg’s family, signifying death. They all have yellow Star of David badges patched onto their outerwear. The swastikas and yellow badges are now recognizable symbols of the Nazi genocide of European Jews. Many viewers seeing We Never Said Good Bye would not need to know Moszenberg’s personal story in order to recognize that the scene depicts a Jewish family being wrenched apart by the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, Moszenberg does not solely rely on iconography to share her message, for she also expresses it by inscribing “Separated 1942” and the quilt’s title onto two disconnected clouds in the sky.

Moszenberg’s quilt records how she remembered her father, mother, sister, and brother that day via a visual narrative that testifies to their cruel, forced division. We Never Said Good Bye functions as her memoir in material form; it is a heart-rending story preserved for other people to see and know what she and her family experienced. Moszenberg intentionally takes viewers to that excruciating moment in 1942 in hopes that those who see her quilt will empathize with her painful loss and understand “what it means to have a family and [be] torn away from and not [see] them, not able to say goodbye.”[9]

Like many artifacts in the museum’s collection, Moszenberg’s quilt provides historical evidence and educational value, but it is also a personal, visual testimony. We Never Said Good Bye conveys not only her specific story but also her resolve to remember it. She recalls her aunt, whom the Nazis separated from Moszenberg upon their arrival at Auschwitz, telling her, “You will survive, you’ll see. Please make sure that you tell what happened, what happened to us.”[10] Moszenberg understands the responsibility and value of remembrance, and she has a mission to tell, honor, and preserve her family’s tragic story. Additionally, her quilt serves the larger purpose of memorializing the suffering and loss that occurred during the Holocaust. “I would like to really have it displayed in places, not to keep it for myself […] I would like [for] people [to] see it and to be aware [of] what happened,” she said after the Threads of Memory exhibition, and in 2004, she donated the quilt to the USHMM, where it contributes to the museum’s mission as a historical narrative of and meaningful memorial to Moszenberg’s family.


About the author: Catherine Stergar

Clay and Ceramics Open Day at UCL Institute of Making

By Susan Newell, Royal College of Art

Does clay matter?  In October 2015 I attended an open day at the Institute of Making aimed at convincing visitors to answer that question with a resounding ‘Yes!’  This interactive event was aimed at ‘children of all ages’ as the ‘squidgyness’ of damp, fictile clay is something we can all relate to, from our earliest days messing around with plasticine or shaping cookie dough at home, to modelling clay in a junior school art class, or making sand castles on the beach.

Clay & Ceramics Open Day. © Institute of Making Facebook

Clay is so diverse in terms of its geology, even defining it is difficult as its qualities change according to its various admixtures such as sand (silica) or  minerals. The first stand I encountered at the Institute belonged to Clayground Collective, a group devoted to introducing this diversity to the wider public beyond potters and scientists.  Over a hundred phials of dried clay and multi-coloured slabs of raw clay were displayed from around the world, while a patchwork of specimens showed the results of different clays when either fired plain or coated with a wide range of glazes.

Clay & Ceramics Open Day. © Institute of Making Facebook

Outside there was the opportunity to make bricks using coarse clay and with other bricks provided, make a wall.  Suddenly the generations of forgotten brick-makers and builders responsible for the cityscape loomed into view.  Their skill in manipulating with practiced gestures coarse clays in cold, damp conditions, were a vital part of the continuous process of building up London brick by brick from the early modern period onwards.  History was writ large in another area inside organised by the London Archaeology Service where the ‘after-life’ of ceramics could be witnessed through an astonishing range of fragments found on the Thames foreshore.  Seemingly every century was represented from 2000 year old Roman roof tiles, finely Samian redwares, chunky, lead-glazed fragments, German stone-wares, Dutch and English delftwares, sugar cone moulds, transfer-printed tea-wares, ceramic electrical insulators to groovy 1970s table-wares.

The artists’ collective Studio Manifold facilitated three large areas where tables and clay were available for modelling, with shaping aids ranging from professional potter’s tools to knives, forks, pastry cutters, crimpers and odd bits of pointy stick.  Visitors were encouraged to express themselves in clay, an opportunity that clearly excited many of them as seven -year olds jostled with 70 year olds for places at the tables.

Clay & Ceramics Open Day. © Institute of Making Facebook

While playing with clay allowed us to experience the unique haptic qualities of the clay, Darren Ellis demonstrated the traditional skills of the professional potter, throwing vessels on the wheel.  Skills, inscribed in the body of the artisan over years of training, in this case passed down through generations of potters, were evident in the facility and speed of Darren’s movements as he worked.  Chatting away to the group encircling his wheel, he held us all spellbound by his fluent movements as pots grew before our eyes.  Meanwhile creativity of a different kind could be witnessed in the stand of artist potter and RCA postgraduate Jonathan Keep.  Keep designed and built a simple 3D printing machine, and having designed pots on the screen, encoded the necessary digital information to print them. Incredibly fine coils of clay were built up dot by dot into pots by means of a disembodied process. Digital technology now affords the artist exciting possibilities of designing shapes that could not have been created using traditional potting methods.

On the upper mezzanine were further clay and silica products at the cutting edge of technology.  Arup, the architectural practice, showed a range of state of the art building solutions using ceramic tiles designed to dispel or retain sound or heat, repel dirt, capture light etc., as well as exploiting the aesthetic qualities of colour and design. Scientists from Imperial College were also present to show their innovative silica-based artificial bone products.  It is now possible, if you have the misfortune to damage bone in an accident, to have a digitally printed 3d web-like implant that mimics bone cells and even communicates with your body, instructing it to make its own bone and eventually self-destruct, dissolving harmlessly away.

Clay & Ceramics Open Day. © Institute of Making Facebook

You may think that clay only impinges minimally on your life, enabling you to hold that comforting hot beverage or to providing a hygienic and convenient support for your food, but think again.  Clay permeates our lives in unexpected ways: we all need clay more than we think.

For more information:

Bard Graduate Center Response Series: ‘The Mixture is the Secret’ in Researching Fashion and Style

by Connie Burks, Royal College of Art

This article is in response to ‘Why is Fashion Spinach?‘ by Rebecca Sadtler, Bard Graduate Center.

Mixture is the Secret lady in black coat

Lady wearing wool coat. © Connie Burks

Reading Elizabeth Hawes’ humorous but nevertheless withering account of that ‘horrid little man’[1] fashion brought to mind the autobiography of Edna Woolman Chase, editor in chief of US Vogue from 1914 to 1952 and contemporary of Hawes. Always in Vogue is a lively and discerning account of Woolman Chase’s career, giving an insight into what is often thought of as one of the most influential positions in the fashion industry [2].

Without steering into the realm of a comparative literature study, reading these two texts prompted me to think about how the ideas that each author expresses may affect our approach to the study of material culture and design history.

Three gentlemen in trench double-breasted coats. © Connie BurksThree gentlemen in trench double-breasted coats. © Connie Burks

An often-repeated theme that exists in both these writers’ narratives is a distinction between what they understand as ‘fashion’ and the considerably more coveted idea of ‘style’. Hawes brands fashion ‘a parasite on style’ who ‘swipes ideas from style’ but is ultimately ‘developed with no relation to the public taste or need’ [3]. She advocates instead the elusive charm of style, which in contrast to a lot of fashion is ‘practical’ and ‘doesn’t change every month or every year’ [4]. Style, Hawes says, will provide ‘the right clothes for your life in your epoch, uncompromisingly’ [5]. Edna Woolman Chase, although not as explicit in her distinction between the two terms, repeatedly underlines that ‘even when every article is chosen with foresight and taste, there is still one great fashion law to bear in mind…the mixture is the secret’ [6].

Lady with blouse and skirt and her mother. © Connie BurksLady wearing a blouse and skirt and her mother. © Connie Burks

So how do we translate this supposed distinction between fashion (dictated by an outside actor) and style (cultivated autonomously) in our study of Design History? When researching a subject that is unequivocally ‘fashion’–for instance, a particular designer or fashion house–the obvious initial primary materials may include surviving garments, design sketches, patterns or toiles, catwalk presentations, press articles and promotional images and publications. However, when exploring these primary sources we are perhaps looking more at the garments as originally designed rather than looking at how they were actually worn; how they were translated, transposed and possibly even transgressed on the body of the wearer. If we’re lucky, we may find photographs or film of people (other than models) wearing the designer’s clothes. It is at this point that the designer’s intended vision is divided and diversified into numerous expressions of ‘style’. This, the putting together of dress by an autonomous individual rather than an authoritative fashion organisation, is perhaps closer to a study of style.

Two ladies wearing minidresses. © Connie Burks

Two ladies wearing minidresses. © Connie Burks

The nature of style suggests an ephemeral, abstract idea. If we argue that style is how things are worn rather than what exactly is worn then unfortunately researching and examining it is altogether more challenging. We must rely heavily on photographs and film to better understand how these garments were worn and what that may say both about the wearer and the garments themselves.

The cultural and social significance of dress and the semiotics of fashion have been greatly discussed and debated by fashion and cultural historians and it is a well-worn idea that we express ourselves and our identities through our clothing. However, as discussed by Sophie Woodward in her article titled ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, there is sometimes a tendency to analyse fashion and its suggestion of identity without a close engagement with the individual garments and the way in which they are worn together. Woodward argues that by doing this, researchers are missing a key component of dress. She asserts that ‘clothing is based upon assemblage’ and it is necessary to explore ‘relations between the items’ [7] to better understand what is being communicated by dress. Woodward suggests that the putting together of different items of clothing into an outfit is the construction of a ‘personal aesthetic’ [8] – perhaps what Elizabeth Hawes and Edna Woolman Chase would refer to as a personal style.

Studies of style or dress – of what people actually wore and how they wore it – will inevitably give a much richer, more varied and altogether more interesting insight into the history of clothing rather than a straightforward analysis of catwalk looks from a particular era. After all, as fashion scholar Aubrey Cannon states, ‘fashion is an inherent part of human social interaction and not the creation of an elite group of designers, producers or marketers’ [9]. By prioritising a study of the choices made by a group of individuals rather than the idealistic visions of one notable figure, we are likely to uncover an infinitely more nuanced understanding of the history of dress.


[1] Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 5.
[2] Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue, (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1954)
[3] Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 5; p. 9; p. 211.
[4] Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 4.
[5] Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 4.
[6] Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue, (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1954), p. 192.
[7] Sophie Woodward, ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, Clothing as Material Culture, Susanne Kuchler and Daniel Miller (eds), (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2005), p. 21.
[8] Woodward, ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, p. 21.
[9] Aubrey Cannon, ‘The Cultural and Historical Contexts of Fashion’, Consuming Fashion: Adorning the Transnational Body, Anne Brydon and Sandra Niessen (eds), (London, New York: Berg, 1998), p. 35.

Bard Graduate Center Response Series: The Challenge of Artist’s Books

By Carlin Soos, Bard Graduate Center

Although categorized as books, many artists’ books intentionally challenge historical conceptions of “the book” through alternative constructions, forms, materials, and processes, resulting in structurally and conceptually complex works that simply cannot be cared for in the same way as, say, an eighteenth-century leather-bound printed codex. While they might be books, their use of non-traditional printing materials and strong conceptual intentions often result in highly intricate art pieces that demand care similar to an assemblage or multi-media sculpture. As a transitional object bridging the murky divide between book and artwork, the artist’s book is thus simultaneously comfortable and alien in the library, a presence that complicates the roles and challenges the education of most traditionally trained librarians, book curators, and book conservators.

Constructed using a variety of materials and techniques, from letterpress and watercolor to digital printing and textiles, artists’ books are frequently exploited by makers as opportunities for alternative material and structural investigations. One of the best examples of this experimentation is a work by French artist Denise Lapointe called La Fatigue du Matériau. Structurally, La Fatigue is not unique, simply a basic Coptic stitched binding with an embossed slipcover. Yet the book’s interior imagery is particularly fascinating: all the abstract illustrations are printed using found pieces of rusted metal.

Denise Lapointe, La Fatigue du Matériau, detail, 2009. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photo by author.

Denise Lapointe, La Fatigue du Matériau, detail, 2009. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photo by author.

As a reference to chemist Antoine Lavoisier, known for his findings regarding the conservation of mass, Lapointe’s book juxtaposes the text of Lavoisier’s Law as frequently taught to school children—“Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme,” which translates as, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” As a visual expression of aggressive chemical change, rust is a conceptually appropriate material. However, rust is about as non-archival a substance as one can select. As is most likely Lapointe’s intention, the rust may potentially decay the structure, aiding in the object’s own transformation (“tout se transforme”). The decay and erosion of the object, it would seem, is part of the artists’ intention.

Denise Lapointe, La Fatigue du Matériau, detail, 2009. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photo by author.

Denise Lapointe, La Fatigue du Matériau, detail, 2009. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photo by author.

Although the artist’s book is not easily defined (and I will not attempt to do so here), most artists and historians can at least agree that it is a type of book. Categorized as such, it seems to logically follow that a library is an appropriate receptacle for this type of work.

Here is where things become problematic.

The role of the academic library seems straightforward: to collect and preserve books and other research materials so that they may be available to present and future scholars. Although the nature and mission of an individual institution skews its motivations—a medical library understandably has different aims than a rare book library—the goals of most if not all include preservation and accessibility. For the majority of the millennia that archives and libraries have existed, this limited definition of a library worked. When archives and documents consisted of inks and pigments on paper and vellum, libraries had a very specific type of object to care for. However, an increasing number of contemporary academic libraries do not have the privilege of this homogeneity. Special collections in many universities, particularly those that do not have a museum, act as repositories for a broad range of material culture, stretching the function of traditional research libraries to also care for art and historical objects. One such example is Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), which houses and cares for a number of paintings, sculptures, and non-book objects. The RBML’s diverse collection—ranging from rare editions to oracle bones—also has a growing collection of twentieth-century and contemporary artists’ books, including La Fatigue.

Given their physical properties and conceptual intentions, an understandable question might simply be if artists’ books such as Lapointe’s belong in library collections? Is the library, a place traditionally associated with preservation, the proper home for an object intimately connected to decay? With slight hesitation, I would say yes. Some institutions, such as Columbia’s RBML, have acquisition funds specifically designated for artists’ books, making these collections some of the most important supporters of the book art community. This being said, I would argue that there is a void in the training of librarians and library workers that negatively impacts the care of these objects and jeopardizes the wellbeing of these collections. Luckily this issue is starting to be acknowledged, as some Master’s of Library Science (MLIS) programs have begun supplementing their curriculums to include artists’ books education. In 2010, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the top ranked MLIS program in the United States, began offering a course entitled “Collection Development with Artists’ Books,” which seeks to expose students to the “function of these works in the contemporary art world and their growing educational role in special collections libraries.” The University of California at Los Angeles’ Information Studies program offers a class on the “Modern Art of the Book: Artists’ Books,” undoubtedly due to the influence of professor and book artist Johanna Drucker. A course of the same title, taught by Drucker, has been offered for a number of years at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, a continuing-education program that has become an industry standard in supplementing the training of librarians, book curators, and historians.

Changes in library education suggest that librarians and MLIS educators are aware of the challenges artists’ book present within library collections. As more and more programs expand course offerings to include artists’ books, the next generation of library workers is being more adequately prepared to acquire and care for these unique objects.

About the author: Carlin Soos

Rotting Flowers and Clay Eiffel Towers

Clay Eiffel Tower amidst candles, pots, and letters. Image courtesy of the author.

Clay Eiffel Tower amidst candles, pots, and letters. Image courtesy of the author.


By Sophie Chatellier, V&A/RCA History of Design, First Year

I was in Paris last weekend, and we went to see the spots where the shootings had taken place. At nightfall, people were lighting candles, standing around the two restaurants in silence. The smell of rotting flowers. Looking at drawings, poems, letters to loved ones or to the entire city. Messages written in chalk or with spraycans. Of love and of anger, the speechless void has been filled with man-made gifts. Someone made an Eiffel Tower of clay, others chains of photographs to hang from one streetpost to another. When there are no words to talk, there are hands to make.


Customised shoes. Image courtesy of the author.

Customised shoes. Image courtesy of the author.


The material culture of grief, shock and rebellion is visible everywhere in these places. People had brought candles, found makeshift ways to protect them from the winds by sticking them into half full wineglasses (symbolically, of course) or simply mugs they’d brought from home. People had sat down somewhere and made something. People had brought cards, photographs and flowers, it seems evident that that’s just what one does. But is it? My writing this (slightly sentimental) text comes maybe from the same need than that of the person who made the clay tower. The rituals of grief seem to be as old as us, yet how did they come to be, and why did they age so well? Where does our need to process grief by making things come from?


A sea of flowers and a flag. Image courtesy of the author.

A sea of flowers and a flag. Image courtesy of the author.


Across RCA 2015: Designing Ethnography

Looking at art in the National Gallery. Image: Photo by Mariepi Manolis

Looking at art in the National Gallery.
Image: Photo by Mariepi Manolis 

by Charlotte Slark, V&A/RCA History of Design, First Year

From 26th to 30th October I took part in the Across RCA Designing Ethnography workshop. Across RCA is a college-wide program which gives students the opportunity to work with peers from other disciplines, with the five-day ethnography workshop focusing on how ethnological research could, and often should, be used in the design process. Ethnography is the study of people and cultures, involving observation from the perspective of the people involved. This approach is not only useful for designers wanting to consider the needs of their potential users, but can also be a good research tool for design historians.

Our first task was to conduct a ‘Bag ethnography’. Working in pairs, we emptied out our handbags, holdalls and backpacks (scrunched up receipts and all) for each other to examine. Although the contents of each bag were different, most pairs managed to find a common item or interest during the exercise and in many cases the discussion turned quite personal, showing how useful this type of research can be in learning more about the participants.

After this introduction to both the practice of ethnography and each other, we were sent out in our pairs to do some fieldwork. Inspired by a session ‘theorising the practice’, each pair had to pick a site to make observations and conduct interviews. My partner and I, keeping in mind the group’s discussion of Bourdieu and his thoughts on class and appreciation of culture, chose the National Gallery. We wanted to pick a site that was considered as traditionally cultured rather than somewhere already geared towards a more general audience, such as the South Kensington Museums. We decided to focus on observing the general museum experience, the demographics of the visitors, the overall engagement of the space, and I in particular was interested in the way in which families were engaging with the space.

Over four hours at the gallery we made observations ranging from the way the space was used by visitors to the type of people who were visiting and how they were dressed. We especially noticed how this differed wildly between the main Portico Entrance and the Sainsbury Wing Entrance. The main thing that struck us in the galleries themselves however, was the complete lack of engagement of the visitors. We observed a lot of parents dragging their visibly bored children around and other visitors simply rushing from one ‘blockbuster’ to another, only stopping to take a quick selfie with the art. This made the one person we saw in the galleries who was actually engaging with the artworks really noticeable (pictured). We assumed that the man was a builder on his lunch break from one of the nearby construction sites. He was the only person we observed who seemed to be in the gallery because he wanted to look at art, rather than because it was on a list of places he felt he had to visit while he was in London.

Our fieldwork raised many interesting questions, but the main one we focused on, and which we presented to the rest of our group on the last day, was how can a museum or gallery better engage their visitors? This is a question with no single answer but one which I would be incredibly interested in taking further. Maybe further ethnological studies will help me along the way.

Bard Graduate Center Response Series: Why Is Fashion Spinach?

By Rebecca Sadtler, Bard Graduate Center

Fashion is Spinach cartoon

Figure 1 Carl Rose and E.B. White, Cartoon for The New Yorker, 1928. Reproduced in Fashion Is Spinach, 1938. Image courtesy of author.

In the spring of 1938, Random House published Fashion Is Spinach, a just over 330 page-long book written by American fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes (1903-1971). Its provocative title suggests the amusing, conversational tone of the prose within, which offered readers a relentless critique of the American and French fashion industries from an “insider’s” perspective. Hawes’ witty text personified fashion as “a parasite on style” and “horrid little man with an evil eye,” causing a furor among industry professionals and capturing public interest.[1]

Commentary upon this autobiographical manifesto peppered contemporary publications including The New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily,and The New Yorker as well as The Saturday Review and The American Journal of Nursing. I recently discovered a lengthy multiple choice quiz in Forum and Century magazine from 1939, which asked magazine readers to select “a dress designer who thinks fashion is spinach,” listing Schiaparelli, Molyneux, Chanel, and Hawes as four possible choices. The quiz-taker of this particular copy wrongly selected Molyneux, but as it was designed “to please” rather than “measure intelligence” I wasn’t so disappointed. Nonetheless, the quiz’s author averred, “the questions should not be difficult for the average person.”[2] I was surprised and delighted; never before had I found such evidence of Fashion Is Spinach’s popular cachet. The book’s pervasive mention within contemporary discourse evidences its wide-ranging reception, which today seems more or less confined to academic circles.[3]

Fashion is Spinach cover

Figure 2 Alexey Brodovitch, Dust jacket design for the first edition of a Fashion is Spinach. Image courtesy of the author.

Fashion Is Spinach captured my attention three years ago when I bought a seventh edition from a small secondhand bookshop in London. I was struck by its strange title, cohesive topography, playful graphics, and dynamic narrative. Elizabeth Hawes became the subject of my undergraduate thesis and my scholarship ever since. I am not alone, nor the first, with such an interest in her work. In the late 1980s, historian Bettina Berch wrote an impressively comprehensive biography recovering Hawes from obscurity, and journalist Alice Gregory’s recent articles for T Magazine have re-inserted Hawes into the milieu of popular culture where she once reigned supreme. But, why is fashion “spinach”? Where did the title come from? Did the book’s materiality contribute to its popular success, and if so, how?

Fashion is Spinach inside cover

Figure 3 Alexey Brodovitch, Interior cover design for Fashion Is Spinach. Image courtesy of author.

Like the clothing Hawes made, Fashion Is Spinach was intentionally designed. The author maintained strong, unrelenting opinions about its appearance, evidenced by correspondence between Hawes and her editor.[4] Her proposed title, inspired by a well-known cartoon that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1928, was fervently contested by Random House but ultimately prevailed, and the cartoon was featured on the book’s frontispiece (fig.1). Illustrated by Carl Rose and captioned by E.B. White, it depicts a biting exchange between a mother and child seated at a dining table. Mother says, “Eat your broccoli, dear,” to which Child replies, “I say it’s spinach – and I say to hell with it.” Well-known by the time it appeared in Hawes’s book, the cartoon is considered the epitome of the popular spirit then cultivated by the The New Yorker. Hawes powerfully harnessed this contemporary parlance, and also evoked her former role at the magazine as a fashion reporter aptly named “Parasite,” implying that fashion was fed to American women by national and international industries just as spinach was fed to children by authoritarian parents.[5] The notorious cartoon effectively enhanced the impact of the book, capturing the essence of her manifesto.

Fashion is Spinach coverpage

Figure 4 Alexey Brodovitch, Cover page of Fashion Is Spinach. Image courtesy of author.

The book’s graphic design, executed by Alexey Brodovitch—likewise despite resistance from Random House—is similarly impactful (figs.2&3). The dust jacket of the first edition plainly stated, “Elizabeth Hawes a famous American dress designer tells what is wrong with the fashion racket—and what women can do about it” (fig.2). Brodovitch’s interior cover designs utilized sharp color contrasts—black, yellow, and white—to bolster the potency of Hawes’s written sentiments, while his asymmetrical compositions and effective typographical combinations, as seen on the cover page, expressed his characteristic style (figs.3&4).[6] Additionally, his influential career at Harper’s Bazaar made the book’s direct connection to fashion more salient. Brodovitch’s success in conveying Hawes’s whimsically humorous aesthetic marked the beginning of a long-term collaborative partnership between the two designers.

The New Yorker cartoon, Brodovitch’s artwork, and the autobiographical narrative embedded in Fashion Is Spinach help account for the book’s popularity, widespread relevance, and appeal to fashion industry professionals and sophisticated, American middle class audiences during the late 1930s. Its resurrection in academic scholarship and popular journalism assert the book’s continued relevance to historical and theoretical studies of fashion, gender, consumer capitalism, and popular culture, among other fields. Conscious, material analysis of the book and the contentious debate regarding its physical creation not only help explain why “fashion is spinach,” but also situate Hawes in the wider purview of design history, hinting at new ways to approach the diversity of her professional contributions. If you’re still wondering why “fashion is spinach,” read the book now! You won’t be disappointed.

Full text of Fashion Is Spinach available at:

[1] Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion Is Spinach (New York: Random house, 1938), 6.
[2] “The Forum Quiz,” Forum and Century (1930-1940), March 1939.
[3] Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 100.
[4] Berch, Radical by Design, 73.
[5] Ibid, 73–74.
[6] Alexey Brodovitch, “What Pleases the Modern Man,” in Looking Closer. 3, Classic Writings on Graphic Design, ed. Michael Bierut (New York: Allworth Press, 1999), 50.


About the Author: Rebecca Sadtler