Swashbucklin’ In Brooklyn


Sunny days at the Brooklyn Museum. More archives, more Hawes…

Taking inspiration from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals song title, I have been summoning my inner buccaneer of late with a couple of research visits to Brooklyn Museum (and more planned on my itinerary after the Thanksgiving Holidays).  In some ways, the Brooklyn collection is ‘the big one’ in Elizabeth Hawes terms (although it seems crass to compare archive with archive since they all are treasure troves [enough with the pirate metaphor, already!]).

Even though I’d done my homework prior to my trip (which involved some hand-wringingly anxious moments negotiating access to the research library at the museum, which is currently in a state of construction and off limits to most visitors), I wasn’t quite prepared for the dizzying volume of Hawes-related holdings that awaited my arrival.  I had asked to view the Hawes ‘scrapbook’ collection as a starting point (I haven’t yet set eyes on the Hawes sketchbook collection, also held at Brooklyn, which promises another tsunami of source material).  My jaw positively dropped when I was faced with a trolley loaded high with leather-bound ledgers, each approximately A2 in size, and weighing a significant amount also.  It was necessary to engage the help of a museum volunteer to load each ledger into a cradle in order to support the fragile pages as I carefully and systematically worked my way through the content.  And these ledgers, the original Hawes press books from the 1930s, were crammed with content: ad after ad after ad. It was utterly bewitching and bewildering in equal measure.  This was Hawes print advertising numbering in its thousands – all of it brilliant in terms of pitch and pithiness (repro rights debar me from citing any of it here, unfortunately).

It was just as well that the content of the press books was mesmerising.  Yes, I did gasp (sotto voce since I was in a library) as I turned some of the pages.  The actual signed letters to Hawes from Vionnet, Schiaperelli, Patou, Louiseboulanger, Mainbocher and Chanel were a complete surprise that made my standing at a book cradle solidly for over five hours wholly rewarding.  What did I learn from my visits?  One of the lessons was that, along with the buckling of swash, archive work also requires a good helping of old fashioned stamina.