Georgia O’Keeffe’s Clothes
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.