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Hello all. Today we’re trying something new: a virtual conversation between Kay and our Mind of a Designer contributor, Julia Farwell-Clay. The goal: to share our joy at the attention given to an artist’s clothing, alongside her paintings and famous photographs of her by other artists, in the exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.  If you’re in the New York area, get to the Brooklyn Museum as fast as you can, because the exhibition closes on July 23. But good news: two more cities will host the show before the year is out. Links are at the end of the post. 

—Kay and Ann

Julia: A few weeks ago, I wrote to Kay to ask if she was going to say anything more about the Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Brooklyn Museum, since she had posted earlier about her enthusiastic intention to go. I had already bought the Living Modern book and leafed through the pages in wonder. I knew that I would go see the exhibit in December, when it comes to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. I thought maybe I could write about it then. Kay responded with an invitation to come to New York and see the show with her. How could I resist?

Kay: Resistance is futile, Julia. Seriously, everybody had been telling me about this exhibit, but I just hadn’t made it to Brooklyn yet. (Yes, I embody the stereotype of the Upper West Sider who considers a trip to Brooklyn, which is across the water—as adventure travel.) When you wrote me about it, I realized that what I needed most of all was to see Georgia O’Keeffe’s art, images, and clothes with a fellow knitter and textile freak. I also felt I’d benefit from your deep knowledge of art history. How I thought it would go: we would stand in front of one of O’Keeffe’s masterpieces, you’d say something perceptive about it, and I’d nod as if you had just given voice to exactly what I’d been thinking. That actually happened a couple of times!

J: It was a Thursday afternoon, and the museum was quiet. We filtered through the rooms dedicated to the show with only a few dozen people, passing and being passed in turn. Everyone was deep in thought, studying the details the cards on the wall were pointing out to us: fine stitches, fabric choice independent of prevailing fashion, sartorial touches unique to the artist, how the the way that Stieglitz had posed her early on informed how every other photographer who came after would see her. How this woman controlled her own image, even after her death.

K: I enjoyed the paintings, and the photographs of O’Keeffe (such small prints in those days!), I really did. But when there are clothes to look at, it is hard for me to focus on anything else. I wanted to drink in these striking clothes. To know how she made them, or where she bought them. There was a feeling of snooping. Respectful snooping, admiring snooping, but snooping.  A card on the wall said that when O’Keeffe moved to New York as a young woman in 1918, she still likely made her own clothes, as she had as a teacher: “She took pride in her handiwork, as she preserved some of her early garments for well over sixty years.”  It also noted that she favored, cottons, silks and wools, and simple, strong silhouettes. In 1918! We are only now catching up to her easy-to-wear but still elevated sense of style.

J: My first impression from the show was that  Georgia O’Keefe knew who she was. Her practical approach to clothing eliminated a daily concern for what to wear but assured her striking appearance. O’Keeffe established her style early on, while still a self-possessed and confident teenager. Several of her hand-sewn outfits, all in ivory silk crepe, are displayed on mannequins in the first gallery where the fineness of her stitches can be admired up close. As much as she was an artist, she was an expert fabric manipulator, embroidering and embellishing with skill and restraint. Just the rolled hem of her sleeve cuffs are enough to make your heart skip a little. Not far away from these magical ensembles, the curators have hung the painting “Shell and Old Shingle VI,” whose cufflike form matches the refined little wrist detail of the blouse nearby, the first of several such juxtapositions throughout the show.

K: These early dresses were so virginal. They definitely were of their time, but so simplified and loose fitting that they seem modern. Walking down Columbus Avenue the other night, the au courant shop windows showed smocks and muu-muus, flowy garments with touches of lace, that would fit right into the young Georgia O’Keeffe’s wardrobe. (The short shorts with halters, not so much.)

 J: As much as she rejected prevailing fashion, I admired how O’Keeffe’s clothes reflected her environment: black and white in New York, her palette softening with workman chambray and white canvas in New Mexico. It speaks to the artist in her, absorbing, reconfiguring clothes as ideas. Kimonos from her trip to Japan, a Balenciaga suit from one of her trips to Spain; adopting and then sticking to what works so that certain clothing shapes and combinations, like wrap dresses or headscarves, became motifs in her life just as flowers or doorways or flat topped mountains became motifs in her canvases.

K: It’s certainly true that O’Keeffe was a mold-smasher, so I was surprised—and delighted—to see that she was a shopper. For someone who spent so much time studying whitewashed skulls and desert landscapes, she had a great eye for a cute dress or shoe from Saks Fifth Avenue. When she liked something, she worked it into her repertoire. She controlled her look; her look did not constrain her. She did not get entrenched in the severe black-and-white ensembles of her Stieglitz portraits. She had a stunning Pucci dress! (OK, it was black and white, but a joyful eyeful.) She had several Marimekko dresses, bought early on in the Marimekko timeline. The fabrics were not the huge florals we recognize as Marimekko, but stripes that are still in production today, and a dress with a graphic scalloped hem. There was a rackful of pastel wrap dresses. Many photos, throughout the years, show her in a distinctively Western-style “X” belt. It was made by Mexican silversmith Hector Aguilar, but O’Keeffe likely bought it at Saks or Neiman Marcus.

All of this was wonderful to learn, but what tickled me the most was a display case filled with O’Keeffe’s shoes. Ferragamo slippers and flats, and some purchased at Saks. Plenty of black, but also pale blue. I laughed out loud (a polite museum laugh) at the card, which said, ” When O’Keeffe found a shoe she liked, she would acquire it in multiples and in different colors.”  Note to museum people: every woman I have ever known does this. A good shoe is hard to find. I’m glad Georgia O found some.

J: As someone who makes clothing to wear and thus presents myself “as a knitter”—quite selfishly—I cannot resist O’Keeffe’s sense of “being” an artist, where nothing in her life was outside of the making of art. A room is even dedicated to the perfection of her domesticity, her decoration style at Ghost Ranch minimal with spare regional touches like a silver squash blossom necklace she never wore but hung on her bedroom wall as the room’s only decoration. A chapter in the exhibition’s book praises the efficiency of her household: talented people who kept things humming along allowing her to devote maximum attention to her painting, but clear that how things were managed, was an extension of her “work.” As much care went into planning to assure everything that followed would be full of ease, lacking in distraction and consuming of time or energy. No responsibility was abandoned for the sake of art, because everything was the art.

where to see Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.
Brooklyn Museum, Now through July 23.
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North carolina,  August 18-November 19, 2017.
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MAssachusetts,  December 16, 2017 to April 1, 2018.



About The Author

As a blogger, writer, teacher, lecturer, designer, and catalyst in the knitting world, Julia Farwell-Clay has for the past ten years dug herself ever deeper into the world of textile traditions and personal decoration. She is the designer of all of the patterns in Modern Daily Knitting Field Guide No. 7: Ease, and  has been published as both a writer and a designer in Knitty, Interweave Knits, PomPom Quarterly, and Twist Collective, among others.


  • Your mention of Ferragamo flats made me think of the Pappagallo flats that were de rigueur for trendy young things in the 1980s. I had two pair: one black and one brown. Both showed toe cleavage. Ah, memories!

    Anyway, lovely peak at Ms. O’Keefe’s wardrobe!

    • To this day I have to stop myself from saying Famolare when I mean Ferragamo. Remember those crazy things? I have never had a pair of Ferragamos but the Famolare craze did not pass me by. I looked *amazing* in those wavy wonders.

      • Famolare! OMG! My BFF in college had a couple of pairs of those. I have not thought about them for years, but I was fascinated by them at the time. Thanks for the blast from the past!

      • I too had Famolares! XXO

  • Enjoyed this. Thanks! Doubt I’ll be able to catch the exhibit any where, so the tour was great.

  • So glad this show is coming to the Peabody so I can easily drive down from Maine to see it! And all winter! Thanks for the notice–

  • So how about that painting that looks like a shawl (in blues) JFC get on that! So wish it were coming to a museum near me. Maybe I’ll have to go to Boston.

  • PS the book links takes you to a book on decluttering. Is that part of the GOK message?

    • Lol! Thanks ML!

    • Thank you for catching this!

  • Love the pictures, exhibit info and your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks, Julia.

  • I wonder when we will see the clothing of Matisse or Picasso. How about deKooning or Pollock? Steiglitz, O’Keefe’s husband, comes across as a sharp dresser in photographs. Or what about Klee? With his eye for color and pattern, his clothes must have been fabulous.

    Of course, they were all men.

    • What is interesting and missing here is the idea of an”artist’s garb” which was something that was increasingly popularized by O’Keefe’s mentors and contemporaries, most of them men. In the gendered culture of the day (and ever after) women had/have no choice but to be continually evaluated objects, so it was a liberty male artists enjoyed to choose to position themselves as works of art in their personas by dressing the part. Many of the artists of the Aesthetic Movement like Rossetti and Whistler had adopted “artist dress”, women such as Frida Kahlo and Sonia Delaunay also come to mind. But O’Keefe’s archive is extensive and beyond much of what others had left for us to examine. It’s easy to wring ones hands over the potential for sexist impulses here (others’ and our lamentable own), but that’s too simple a reaction to what O’Keefe intended. To know her work and her ideas is to complicate the matter. We see her attempt to “ungender” the identity politics of art, and meanwhile to see the bridge she built between the privilege of galleried artistic production and the unrecorded domestic artistry of talented women: what Alice Walker called “our Mothers’ Gardens”, the daily acts by women (for Walker specifically Black women) whose only artistic materials and spaces were their kitchens, their sewing, and their gardens. But yes, I agree I would love to see male artists excavated for their self-fashioning. We have portraits and photographs of them, formal and informal, so the biographical evidence is there. Some were exacting wardrobe masters at work: Sargeant sometimes sewed costumes for his sitters (ah! You thought all those white dresses were mere happenstance?), Matisse staged tapestries and draperies for studio sittings and collected graphic clothing items he used again and again. Sadly, our only evidence is in a frame, so the responsibility falls to a visionary curator to build the evidence. I shall eagerly wait for that show with you.

    • I have thought about this a lot this morning. Just thought I’d jump in and ‘think out loud’ with you.

      I usually begin by asking: How are we (the viewing public) better informed by viewing an artist’s lifestyle? In most instances? Not much better informed. And yet… we all can’t help but be captivated by an artist’s biographical details – details that can often supersede the work (and which cause many an Art Historian great headache in re-directing our collective attention).

      The act of looking is political. And famous women artists have never had much success in total re-direction of that act of looking. Georgia O’Keeffe proclaimed agency for herself as an artist and even as an ‘image’. She was an astute modernist. And she willfully conveyed her own singular vision through her intellectual work, and through her own reverse gaze through photographs in which she is the subject.

      I think that’s why it’s relevant, and that’s why more can be revealed by viewing her modernist aesthetic as it pertained to home, clothing and self. It’s something that’s copacetic with the notion of Modern Woman, and the creation of the image of modern woman.

  • I was in NYC last month and I didn’t know about this exhibit! I’m so disappointed that I didn’t get this on my radar, because this exhibit looks fascinating. [contemplates a late-winter visit to Boston/Salem]

  • I enjoyed this post so much. I saw the exhibit about a week before you did, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t splurge for the book, but I think I’m going to have to own it so I can learn even more about O’Keeffe and her clothes and her image making. If anyone is going to see it in Brooklyn in the next week or so, be sure to download the museum’s app–you can get answers to your questions about any of the pieces!

    • You’re the best Beverly! Thanks for plugging the app! (Full disclosure for anyone reading this, my daughter is one of the team who answers questions sent through the app, so I am very enthusiastic about this.) Questions are answered promptly, the Ask Brooklyn Museum team are happy to answer follow up questions, and continue the conversation as long as you’d like. The app functions like texting, you can even send photos of the piece you have questions about. I might be biased, but I think the ability to ask questions and discuss the exhibit with knowledgeable museum staff, while you’re in the gallery, is pretty awesome. I had a lovely chat with one of the team, Rachel (not my daughter, she passed me on to one of her co-workers). Rachel had me walking around the gallery looking at pieces I’d passed by and not thought twice about on first viewing. Her insightful comments made me see them in a whole new way.

  • I loved seeing this when Kay first posted, and I visited the museum’s website for more. What joy to see this column! I can never get enough O’Keeffe. It interests me that her clothing is all in neutral colors well-suited to her and her painting so colorful.

    I have looked to her art for color inspiration. Right now I imagine a Brambling shawl in the colors of her Sun Water Maine or a shawl for autumn in the shades of Rust Red Hills.

    Oh and I had a pair of Ferragamo flats in the late 1960s that I loved.

  • So glad it will be in Salem. A short hop from Plymouth.

  • Oh, boy! It’s going to be at Reynolda House next! Mom, I think I’ll come down to see you in W-S and we can visit the exhibit together.

  • Great post and it is a great exhibit. Apparently @throughtheloops (Kristen Kapur) and I were there at the same time, but too engrossed in the exhibit to notice. Next time there is a something like this might I suggest a MDK outing. I’m always up for a great museum trip

  • Really enjoyed this, thanks!

  • Oooh! PEM is nearish to me. So glad I’ll have the chance to see this exhibit – thanks for the heads-up!

  • I thought I missed it completely when I didn’t make it to Brooklyn while in NYC last week and I was so sad (14 year old son = Mets game instead, sigh). But the exhibit is going to Winston-Salem next & I live here in North Cakalakee! Wooooohooooo…overjoyment ensues!!! :o)

  • Your writing and photos gave me a wonderful sense of what this exhibit is about! What fun – thank you for posting this, particularly for those of us who won’t be able to see it. Claire

  • Such a great blog! I did visit Georgia O’Keeffe Museum while in New Mexico so time ago and so appreciate Georgia’s sense of panache. Who knew she’s one of us? Saks? Love it! Thanks for this, made my day. This Jersey Girl May trek to Brooklyn after all….

  • pfft this is the worst.

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