Wednesday, April 28, 2010



By Polly Guerin

Dear Frida: I admire your fortitude, your originality and personal oeuvre that identified with Mexico, your beloved homeland. We recognize you in dozens of self-portraits with your bold unibrow and mustache, the flower crown in your hair and the native costumes you preferred wearing as a symbol of your Mexican heritage. As an iconoclastic artist you painstakingly rendered striking, often shocking images that often reflect your own pain and turbulent life. Yours was a journey that began as a self-taught artist and evolved over time with kudos of the international recognition.
No matter where she traveled, whether in Paris, New York or her native country Frida fashioned herself elaborately in the Tehuana costumes of Indian maidens, creating an identity that clearly was unique and captivating. She painted using vibrant colors in a style that was influenced by indigenous cultures of Mexico. Frida Kahlo (born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon, July 6, 1907-July 13, 1954) was one of four daughters born to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent, in the Mexico City, suburb of Coyoacan. She was born amidst political chaos in her homeland and throughout her life Frida preferred to claim 1910 as the year of her birth which coincided with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910).
Some say that Frida adopted the Tehuana form of costume to hide her legs. There may be some truth to it. A polio survivor at fifteen, Frida’s young life was dramatically altered due to a tragic accident. Frida had entered in the premedical program at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, but that ended when she was gravely injured in a trolley car accident three years later when she was eighteen years old. Despite spending a year in bed and enduring more than 30 operations recovering from fractures of her back, collarbone, ribs and a shattered pelvis, shoulder and neck injuries. The injuries left her broken as a youth and debilitated throughout much of her adult life. She suffered a life of constant pain and often had to wear a body brace to support her weakened condition.
One wonders what Frida could do to while away the dreary hours of recovery. It was during this year of convalescence that Frida began to paint with oils. Her paintings were mostly still lifes and self portraits filled with the bright colors of Mexico’s native folk art. Her talent evolved dramatically with self-expression and her profound reactions to life that she produced in surrealistic style in her paintings. About a third of her body of work, about 55 paintings, consists of self portraits. In some she stares out passively, in others Frida’s oeuvre was fantastic and sometimes gory depictions that symbolically articulated her own pain. Revealing different states of her mind are portrayals revealing her heartbreak, abortion and miscarriage. Yet there was a feeling of realism in many of her works which she rendered with real images in the most honest, straightforward way.
High up on a scaffold, the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera sat contentedly high on his perch doing what he loved doing, painting grand public murals with political themes. She encountered the larger than life Diego in such a manner but had actually met him first as a schoolgirl. At 21, Frida fell in love with Rivera, whose approach to art and politics suited her own. Although he was 20 years he senior, they were married in 1929 and she became his third wife. The two became intertwined in a tumultuous marriage. Although as a couple, they remained childless one can observe Frida’s anguish of miscarriage in her painting. During most of their life together Frida was often immobilized in a cast in her bed, or confined to a hospital room awaiting an operation or recovering from a surgery. Her torment was abetted by Diego’s incorrigible philandering, once with Frida’s own young sister, Cristina. Yet, Frida remained loyal often referring to him as her "Baby. "
Frida took great pride in keeping a home for Diego and loved fussing over him, cooking for him and even bathing him. Their love proved sustainable. The couple traveled to the United States and France, where Frida met luminaries from the worlds of art and politics, and had her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City in 1938. Though they divorced in 1939 the two remained inseparable and remarried in 1940. Frida’s painting “The Two Fridas,” a double self-portrait, painted in 1939 at the time of her divorce from Diego is believed to be an expression of Frida’s feelings at the time.
She delighted in children and had many pets including the mischievous spider monkey that appears in “Self-Portrait with Monkey.” She loved visitors and often begged friends and “lovers to visit, not to “forget” her. Sadly after a lifetime of great fortitude and constant pain Frida Kahlo died at the age of 47. The legendary artist has of late been transformed into a veritable cult figure with numerous books and films depicting her life. At one time there was even a cult of young women who would affect the Frida Kahlo look, simulating Tehuana costumes, the flowered headdresses and long skirts of the artist. In a lovely tribute to Frida Kahlo this Deco Diva and her iconic works continue to attract admiring followers.

Friday, April 16, 2010


By Polly Guerin
Dear Dorothy: Long ago dining was no ordinary affair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s restaurant. It was a memorable experience with its regal reflecting pool topped by skipping water sprites, and above hovered huge iron birdcage chandeliers. “Isn’t this a marvel?” my companion said. “It’s the best ambiance in town.” Indeed I did agree. The design environment was an incredible style, a fairytale-like setting enhancing the pleasure of our self service lunch. As we sat at a table at the edge of the reflecting pool we took it all in as the rightful ownership of typical New Yorkers. The birdcage chandeliers were pure decoration for no birds were noticed, but I shall never forget that it was Dorothy Draper who installed this enchanting environment, which was nicknamed "The Dorotheum." Sadly the restaurant no longer exists. Gone is the reflecting pool, the darting water sprites and the birdcages, all banished to oblivion and replaced with the museum’s new wing.
To Dorothy, public space represented a place for people to come and feel elevated in the presence of great beauty, where the senses could look and feel and absorb the meaning of a quality of life. Her design vision looked away from the period room styles of the past and moved forward into modernism with what became known as “the Draper touch.” Her oeuvre embraced an explosion of vivid, splashy colors, oversized prints, aristocratic flourishes like big, Baroque white plasterwork and most striking chessboard tile floors. Most stunning was her signature ‘cabbage rose” chintz, paired with bold stripes and intricate mirror frames over fireplaces. It was refreshing it was daring, it was the new wave of decorating with panache.
Carleton Varney, the biographer of “The Draper Touch,” said of his mentor, “People came to Dorothy because she did the unexpected, and had this brilliant sense of color. She took a world that was drab and dreary and made it colorful. In 1937 she made the Hampshire House like an English country house with flowered chintzes. Dorothy was wealthy and had every social credential, which is why all the best hotels in the world came to her. Dorothy hardly bothered with private homes; her creative and unique style was reserved for hotels and large spaces which were her m├ętier.” Her society friends admired her particular blend of French and English elements and her distinctive taste gave her the ability to take control of a hotel project in all aspects of design right down to the designs for menus, matchbook covers, and the staff uniforms. As such she decorated the sprawling Greenbrier Hotel, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in an enchanting blaze of color, stripes and chintz.
Decorating was not a recognized profession back in the 20s and 30s and decorating was mainly a male dominated occupation. Although women of a certain class did not work back then that did not stop Dorothy. With no other credentials than her incredible good taste, sense of color and decor Dorothy Draper became a self-taught decorator (no professional schools existed) and opened the Architectural Clearing House, arguably the first ‘official interior design business in 1923. Therefore, Dorothy Draper stands alone as the first person to “professionalize” the interior design industry in the United States.
In her day, Dorothy was the prima donna of the decorating business. Talk about branding Dorothy had it all. She gave decorating advice in her regular column for Good Housekeeping magazine, designed fabric lines for Schumacher, furniture for Ficks Reed, Heritage, and also designed theaters, department stores, commercial establishments and private corporate offices. Dorothy dominated the decorating business well into the 50s and designed the interiors of jet planes (Convair & TWA). She did a line for Package and Chrysler in the 1950s including a pink polka dot truck. The cosmetic industry acquiesced to her genre enlisting her creative for the Dorothy Gray cosmetic firm.
No doubt, it bodes well if you’re born into the right circles and have acquired class, bearing and distinction. No wonder Draper was able to parlay her blue-blood background into big business, particularly at a time when it was considered daring for a woman to go into business for herself. She had connections to the high society social world. Born a Tuckerman, to a wealthy and privileged family in 1889, the six foot tall debutant from Tuxedo Park grew up in New York surrounded by the best of American upper-class WASP style. Like so many young women of her era she wanted out of the confines of this society and did so by marrying Dr. George Draper, FDR’s personal physician and brother to actress Ruth Draper. However, when her husband asked for a divorce in the 1930s, it was almost a fortuitous ending to her marriage; her ambition took off with new zeal and highly visible commissions followed.
Much of Draper’s oeuvre survives to this day. Imitators may aspire to create the Draper Touch but can never truly repeat her brand of creativity. Her eye-popping colors and never before seen combinations, such as aubergine and pink with a splash of chartreuse and a touch of turquoise blue elevates one’s visual surprise and pleasure as does the white furniture frames embracing oversized floral print chintz. Thank you Dorothy for making a world that was drab and dreary into a colorful symphony of color, joyful prints, shiny black and dull white contrast, pristine white moldings, mirror and furniture frames de rigueur interior design.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Claire McCardell creator of “The American Look” (c)
by Polly Guerin

Dear Claire: Paris can still claim its title as Haute Couture fashion capital of the world but American Sportswear, the concept of mix and match coordinated pieces is duly a credited to your creative innovation. As a pre-eminent American ready-to-wear fashion designer in the 20th century you understood the new independent woman and her active lifestyle from living in suburbia and chauffeuring children to school and husbands to the train station to engaging in sports activities, the gym and cultural pursuits. McCardell was a woman of her time. She knew what women wanted and patterned many of her design ideas after her own wardrobe needs.
McCardell gave new meaning to term ‘Casual Chic’. Stylish, functional, affordable and versatile the coordinated garment pieces produced the concept of “separates” that made dressing from day into night and weekends spontaneous and comfortable. Her easy-to-wear approach to fashion is synonymous with the term ‘leisurewear’ and produced a loyal following among women of the pre WWII era, who rejected the formality of the French Couture. Women owe you a debt of gratitude to McCardell’s design concepts for even today casual wear is a mainstay of the American woman’s wardrobe.
McCardell freed women from wearing the structured undergarments such as corsets, crinolines and girdles underlying the corporeal restrictions and dictates from Paris in the 40s and 50s. In her book, “What Shall I Wear?,” (Simon & Schuster 1956) she wrote that McCardellisms were ‘A glossary of terms that speak to me of fashion…and haven’t very much to do with Webster.’ She referred to separates as Strip-Tease or Matches: Clothes in pieces. You can wear all of them at one time or only two or three pieces, but they all go together and are made of related fabrics.
Cultivating the cult of soft, fabric draping and gathering to accentuate the natural shape of the body McCardell fashions had vast appeal, not only for their easy-wear facility but they were relatively inexpensive. These versatile separates and dresses were produced in materials borrowed from men’s wear, lingerie and even children’s wear incorporating natural-fiber fabrics such as cotton, twill, gingham, denim and jersey. McCardell knew a woman’s need for pockets and pleats were plenty. She was the first with the “riveted look,” using work-clothes grippers for fasteners and ornamentation and snappers made it easy to snap jackets, blouses and pants on and off. When the advent of WWII brought shortages of leather McCardell put her models in fabric Capezio ballet slippers, often matching the fabric of the garment. The fad caught on and gave the ballet slipper new meaning as footwear.
Tying and wrapping were one of the hallmarks of McCardell’s design oeuvre. The 1938 MONASTIC DRESS, described as any loose, shift-like dress without a waistline, to be sashed at the whim of the customer, proved a popular easy-wear fashion. McCardell wrote, “It was a full and shapeless forerunner of the pleated Grecian sheath and all the other unwaisted dresses. It seemed to have no form. But when it was belted, it did great things for the female figure.”
The POPOVER DRESS, (1942) a versatile wraparound, coverall sort of dress could be used as a house dress, a bathing suit cover-up, dressing gown or glamoured up as a party dress. These dresses were not only a favorite for active women but they also accommodated the inexact sizing and fit of ready-to-wear apparel. When it was introduced it sold for $6.95. McCardellism interpretation of the Popover, “Something that goes over everything. It is an apron one day, a bathrobe the next, a dinner dress, if necessary, with lots of beads.”
McCardell had a series of short term jobs before becoming the assistant to fashion designer Robert Turk who was head designer for Townley Frocks Inc. Opportunity came quite suddenly for the young McCardell when Turk drowned in a swimming accident and she stepped up to design the 1931 collection. She continued as designer till Townley closed is operation in 1939. Hattie Carnegie then hired McCardell to work for her famed dressmaking firm, but that affiliation did not last but one year due to Carnegie’s clients who wanted more elaborate fashions. Then onto a brief stint with Win-Sum, a low-end manufacturer until Townley reopened in 1940. With her distinct style and the importance of her design oeuvre the company soon began issuing its fashion collection under the label “Claire McCardell Clothes by Townley.” She was the first American Designer to have name recognition. By the end of the forties, Townley was Lord and Taylor’s best ready-to-wear seller. In 1944, McCardell was a highly acclaimed American designer and received numerous awards and she eventually appeared on the cover of Time magazine May 2, 1955. BECOMING A FASHION ICON
As a child, McCardell (1095-1958) lived in Frederick, Maryland, the daughter of Adrian and Eleanor McCardell and her early interest in fashion emerged serendipitously. Playful and creative she would cut figures from her mother’s fashion magazines and create paper dolls and fashion imaginary garments. It is not surprising that the spirited young girl began sewing her own clothes as a teenager. After first attending Hood College in Maryland she switched to Parsons in 1925 to pursue her interest in fashion and received her certificate in Costume Design. After years on Seventh Avenue as the recognized pioneer of American sportswear, she returned to Parsons in 1944 as a critic and instructor.
In her book McCardell wrote: "My idea of clothes is the dress that dances well, walks well, sits well; the bathing suit that you can swim in; the ski suit that’s warm; and the house dress that can receive unexpected guests. " A fascinating garment in her collection was the Diaper bathing suit, made of light cotton, with a panel that wrapped up between the legs, and was secured by thin strings. Thank you Claire McCardell we are indebted to your design ingenuity that gave us the ‘AMERICAN LOOK.’