'40s fashion inventions [vintagedancer.com]

’40s fashion inventions [vintagedancer.com]

 Fashion Agony

I realize that fashion in the presentation of fashion is an ever-changing thing, but it seemed to me in the old days that clothes were intended to engender happiness. Models smiled.

No longer, it seems. The tack now seems to be drama: these aren’t women such as one encounters in life, but supercharged, attitudinous goddesses who, for whatever reason, cling closely to their handbags.


























And what drama do we find below? Ought we to be admiring her hair, or dialing 911? She appears to be just staggering to her feet in the wake of some ghastly experience.




Of course I’m not the intended audience for Prada or Dior, except, I suppose, as I may be titillated by the implied challenge: Have you got the bucks? Can you afford these creatures?



An artist’s compositions tend to employ characteristic devices. For example, these two Bruegels use the foreground oblique (the triangular shape beginning at one corner), block it with a tree at the edge of the canvas, and then zigzag into the distance.

Bruegel - The Magpie on the Gallows 1568Bruegel - Return of the Herd (November) 1565












Corot uses a foreground screen of trees and then a subordinate distance visible beyond.

Corot - cathedral of Mantes 1860 42x55cm Corot - Concert Champetre 1844











And so on. How striking, then, is the wonderfully varied work of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). No doubt his variety of means was driven in part by the fact that he did a lot of sets–the examples here are from “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”–and it would have been pretty boring to have one after another done the same way. But whatever his motivation it’s impressive to see how boldly inventive, to say nothing of masterful, his views could be.


views of Edo #58

Here Hiroshige uses the foreground oblique, like Bruegel. The far shore zags back, and then the whole composition is boxed in with the dark blue above and below so that the eye stays in the bright and lively middle.

An advantage Hiroshige has, for which European artists have no traditional equivalent, is the use of the red text blocks, which draw the eye across the central space as well as picking up the robes of two pedestrians, and the square one, which is rhymed by hat, umbrella, and whatever-it-is to the right.


Edo #6

Above, this would be a pretty humdrum village view with the foreground oblique, except that the view is interrupted by the swoops of drying material that Hiroshige hangs from the left edge as if it were a pole, and then drives right off the right side in an unapologetically abstract stroke. The color of the square text block matches the lower part of the sky. Again, the dark blue at the top.


Hiroshige Edo #78

Here, a pretty severe landscape of horizontal bands, enlivened by those wonderful sail shapes. The darkening blue keeps the front pair from falling out of the bottom of the composition.

And finally, this improbably asymmetrical extravaganza of orange, green, and delicate off-white fading to black at the top, picking up the black in the lantern and fixing it, as the sails above were fixed by the water. Notice the trees–how delicately and suggestively they are drawn, rhyming the rooflines of the buildings. That little bit of dark gray sky holds the lantern in place, and keeps it from floating away.

How novel and unexpected is the whole design. You have to admit that Hiroshige really knew what he was doing.

Hiroshige Edo #99


One Hundred Views of Edo #58, #6, #78, and #99. All images from Wikipedia, which shows the whole series.


I think of the ’50s and ’60s as a visually as well as socially discordant period—the Gray Flannel Suit on the one hand, and hippie tie-dye on the other. But some things made sense. Perhaps it was only that television was still in its comparative infancy, but the Kennedy-Nixon debates, for example, were presented as a spirited discussion of issues without distractions. The visuals were dull as ditchwater, but the point was to offer a clear look at the candidates, not to torque up the viewers with spectacle.




As opposed to the set for the most recent Republican debate, below—rampant visual clamor.


nyt 11-10-15

Of course you might defend the set as quite in keeping with the antics of the candidates, but perhaps we won’t go there.

But while the shapes and colors were gross and distracting, one must admit that the lighting was held in enough that the candidates’ faces stood out against the background. As compared with the most recent Democratic debate . . .



. . . which went from bad to worse. It was as if the set designers had instructions to demonstrate that Fox has nothing to teach CBS about vulgarity, and to ensure that nothing a candidate could do or say would distract attention from the venue. In the long shots, as below, it took a moment even to find the bodies amidst all the shrieking visual clutter. Closeups were even worse, with constantly changing, bright white, face-size labels popping up right beside the faces of the speakers, and shadowy shapes slowly drifting across the stars and bars.



At least there wasn’t a soundtrack under the voices–ardent, pulsing undertones to accentuate the drama of the thing, in case arguments over Wall Street machinations and Paris attacks couldn’t sustain viewer interest on their own.

No doubt that comes next.




The other day I looked down at my coffee table, which is typically a jumble of odds and ends in the process of being read, and there was Swann’s Way sitting on the current issue of the New Yorker. Proust and Jeb Bush–the odd couple, surely.


Proust & New Yorker