Variety is the spice of a Visiting Fellow’s life. And life at the BGC research center on West 86th Street (with views of Central Park from my window) is proving to be as richly stimulating – and, as I detail here, as varied – as I had anticipated.
Today, I spent a good part of the morning in the rarefied and hushed loveliness of the BGC library, which is a truly specialised and extensive resource for the decorative arts and design history. I felt it was my professional duty to take the invitation to select as many books as I dare with due seriousness. The weighty stack of classic texts now perched on my desk reads like a Who’s Who of fashion studies: Bolton, Kirkham, Steele, Arnold, Martin, Koda. The list goes on.
At lunchtime, I hot-footed it down the street to take a look at the Bard’s very own 4-storey gallery space. I have been itching for weeks to get to the current exhibition, ‘An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928’, as its subject offering seems to be almost tailor-made to my own research interests. Although small in square footage (it loses out to a glorious exhibition on William Kent in space terms), the content of ‘An American Style’, curated by Ann Marguerite Tartsinis, is anything but inconsequential. The exhibition covers a slice of American history from the outset of the First World War through to the end of the Twenties. It charts the work of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and its project to forge a distinctively ‘American’ design idiom and to diminish the reliance on European tastemakers. To this end, the AMNH gave textile designers and manufacturers unprecedented access to its collection of indigenous objects for inspiration purposes, and supported this with lectures, research skills, classes and manuals to assist the designers’ use of the archives. The AMNH project reached a climax in 1919 with its Exhibition of Industrial Art in Textiles and Costumes featuring contemporary interpretations of traditional artefacts such as Andean weavings and Native American dress.
My favourite exhibit? A woman’s ethereal silk dress from c.1928 with a most-fashionable dropped waist and tiered skirt featuring a delicate, feathery ‘Sioux War Bonnet’ design by Walter Mischke. Divine.
And, finally, why the amphibian titling of this blog entry? This evening I am attending the ‘Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation Seminar in New York and American Material Culture’ to be delivered by the brilliant Ann Fabian, Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. The seminar is titled ‘Collecting Frogs and Toads’ and will explore the career of Mary Cynthia Dickerson (1866-1923), curator of herpetology at – none other than – the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Now that’s variety for you.