The Original Vamps: Silent, Deadly, & Stylish

•September 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment


The vamp image, incorporating the requisite sex and death themes.

Occasionally fancying myself an exotic woman of mystery too, I have a special place in my heart for that early 20th century icon, The Vamp. When my friend (whose intelligent and fun horror blog And Now the Screaming Starts this is cross-posted on) suggested I write about them, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit some silent films when this aesthetic was solidified in concept and look.


Though Theda Bara (1890 – 1955) enshrouded her adult life in mystery, she was born plain old Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, OH. Hollywood producers gave her the anagram of “Arab death,” on the one hand cultivating her image of smoky, exotic sensualism — claiming she lit incense on her sets and swathed herself in tiger pelts — and on the other hand, hyping the macabre and frightening side of her.

Most recognize the term “vamp” to mean a femme fatale — an irresistible woman who leads to the destruction of those who surround her, typically men. But the term was initially coined only after the success of Theda Bara’s single surviving film, A Fool There Was (1915), in which her gleefully man-destroying character is listed in the credits simply as “The Vampire.” Based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire (1897) and Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of the same name (1897); the visual inspiration is obvious:

Sir Edward Burne-Jones' "The Vampire"

In A Fool There Was, The Vampire is seen in her nightgown several times, casting a spectral quality over her. Opaque and voluminous, they are not lingerie we are accustomed to today, but were risqué for the time, obviously derived from Burne-Jones’ sex-laden picture.

The Vampire grinning over her dead lover.

The Vampire grinning over her dead lover.

When wearing outerwear, The Vampire wore the amusingly impractical (and thankfully short-lived) hobble skirt, topped with exotic turbans and heavily kohled eyes. To seduce her victim she drops a flower and lifts her skirt to reveal her ankle — she is unashamed to show blatantly erotic skin.

What differentiated Theda from other actresses of her time was her other-worldliness, which she cultivated with her Oriental aesthetics. The horror genre is filled with tales of distant or remote lands; the audience’s presumed unfamiliarity with the locale makes the fantastic tales slightly more plausible; the storyteller prays on the public’s inherent mistrust and simultaneous attraction to the exotic, The Other. Though the most exotic location in A Fool There Was was Italy (puzzlingly portrayed as a palm tree paradise more suggestive of the Far East), The Vampire produces a non-specific and highly erotic exoticism. Not a tremendous actor, it was largely Theda’s unusual costumes and makeup on and off-screen that enshrouded her in Oriental mystique and secured her notoriety.

Theda Bara in hobble skirt and turban ensemble

Theda Bara in hobble skirt and turban ensemble

Promises of harem girls with all the connotations of master / slave dynamics and orgies have been irrevocably linked to soft, sheer, feminine fabrics that simultaneously cover and reveal forbidden flesh (see my post on Innerwear as Outerwear for more on this subject). Seemingly anticipating the Egyptian madness that occurred after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Far East captivated the imagination of the Western world. Designer Paul Poiret (1879 – 1944) made his mark on the fashion world by morphing the 19th century S-shape silhouette into un-corseted, athletic figures, and he incorporated many lose-fitting, Oriental-inspired designs to this end including harem pants, “formal” silk pajamas, and turbans. Poiret designed extravagant costumes for stage productions, hosted legendary Arabian-themed costume parties, his fondness for theatrical-scale dress-up evident in the fashions he produced for general consumption.

Paul Poiret, harem ensemble, 1911

Paul Poiret, harem ensemble, 1911

Even earlier was Emilienne d’Alençon (1869 – 1946) who performed at the Folies Bergères in the 1890s (with trained rabbits!) and was just as famous a courtesan, who wore a Art Nouveau inspired Salome costumes:

The Ballet Russe’s performance of “Schéhérazade” in 1910 was enormously successful, due in large part to the extravagant costumes of vague Eastern inspiration:

Ida Rubinstein in Ballet Russe Scheherazade, 1910

Ida Rubinstein in Ballet Russe "Scheherazade," 1910

Erte, who worked with Poiret (and with whom I am obsessed), was yet another costume designer who marketed sensual Oriental decadence for lavish stage productions.

Erte Fashion Sketch with turban and harem pants

Erte Fashion Sketch with turban and harem pants

Mata Hari (1876 – 1917), the exotic Orientalist dancer of Dutch descent who posed as princess from Java while acting as courtesan and spy, was executed by firing squad just 2 years after A Fool There Was. Rumor has it that she blew a kiss to her executioners.

Mata Hari

Similar to our Theda Bara, non?

Theda Bara publicity shot for Cleopatra

Theda Bara publicity shot for Cleopatra (1917)

Theda tapped into a cultural obsession with styles of the Far East, while exploiting the unease and xenophobia that often accompanies our regard of The Other, rolling it all into a destructive, man-eating “vampire” character. The Vamp concept was to evolve, though never to shake the ruinous qualities Theda imbued in her.


As Theda’s star waned, a new Vamp talent stepped up: Louise Brooks (1906 – 1985). If Theda was the vaguely ancient, exotic vamp, Louise was her modern flapper vamp successor. As women’s rights gained momentum in America, a powerful new woman emerged, wearing visible makeup as she walked to the voting polls, smoking and drinking and dancing in shift dresses that bared shins! Even as many women embraced this freedom, societal concerns of propriety remained and moralist detractors prophesized hedonistic anarchy. Dress also changed radically in the nineteen-teens, with fewer layers that a woman could slip into (and out of!), exposing more skin than ever. And so Louise Brooks was a very different looking vamp from Theda, even while her characters carried the torch of man destroyer.

More often than not, Louise Brooks smiles, a huge departure from Theda Bara's vamp image.

More often than not, Louise Brooks smiles, a huge departure from Theda Bara's vamp image. Here she sweetly pours a drink for her stressed out lover.

Pandora’s Box (1929) was adapted from 2 erotic plays written in the 1890s by Frank Wedekind, but updated to modern times. As many young women cut their cumbersome long hair, Brooks as the Lulu character sports her own iconic, modern bob and wears clothes un-constrictive enough that she can do light gymnastics (like swing from a strongman’s biceps), hinting at the newly acceptable athleticism for women (see my post on Athletic Aesthetics). The erotic zones had shifted and multiplied since Theda Bara’s time, moving from the ankle to the shoulders, back, legs, and breasts which were often displayed braless.

Lulu appears practically naked in this Y backstrap dress, with a whiff of rope bondage.

Having become a somewhat accidental murderess, Lulu goes into hiding and curls the famous hair, sweeping it off her forehead. Ridiculous as it sounds, Brooks’ hairstyle was so recognizable that this shoddy disguise actually succeeds in confusing the audience a little, though Lulu is discovered anyway.

Lulu is a dangerous vamp not because she’s controlling and malicious, but because she’s a beautiful young woman whose very power is derived from her lack of pretension and seeming ignorance of her own desirability, her delicious un-self-conciousness. One-upping Bara’s Vampire, Lulu was a double threat desired by both men and women, so potent was her sexual power. The Pandora of the Greek myth was not an inherently evil woman either, just one whose curiosity got the better of her, with unfortunately dire consequences. Lulu is not even interested in money or advancing her social status — she shows equal preference for newspaper moguls and paupers, all of whom are trying to exploit her. However, she shares with other vamps her unrepentantance for acts that inconvenience or even destroy others and herself — they are all animalistic, with no regrets. (As a side note, non-moral tales like these were only possible to portray in American cinema pre 1934, before the Hays Code was enacted.)

She’s an unusual vamp fatale because she doesn’t have malicious intent. “Money, they all want money!” she complains of her blackmailers and suitors alike. She’s not a gold-digger, she’s simply a careless and carefree pleasure-seeker — exactly what conservatives feared about real-life flappers and, by extension, the women’s movement.


Since these early 20th century beginnings, the vamp has been resurrected in film and fashion many times. Blood sucking, literal and figurative, has unavoidably sexual connotations, and fetish gear and goth style has both influenced and been influenced by vamp(ire) lore. Fashion photographer Helmut Newton channels the sexy and macabre themes of bondage and female sexual power regularly. Even as women expose themselves in his photos, they seem to retain absolute authority over their settings:

Helmut Newton photo, c. 1990s

Helmut Newton photo, c. 1990s

And Uma Thurman seemed to channel a bit of Louise Brooks herself with her portrayal of modern-day Mia Wallace, another beautiful, hedonistic woman whose pursuit of carnal pleasures (leading to the infamous drug overdose) jeopardizes all the men around her in Pulp Fiction (1994).

Impulse control is often explored in times of economic or political turmoil. True to point, there has been a rash of vampire productions recently including Twilight and the True Blood HBO series, but truth be told, I much prefer the original vamps!

Further Reading:

  • Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, Rebecca Arnold
  • Fashion Fetishism, David Kunzle
  • Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power, Valerie Steele
  • Seduction: A Celebration of Sensual Style, Caroline Cox
  • The Girl in the Black Helmut,” Kenneth Tynan

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New Collaboration

•September 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

huffington post logo


Thread for Thought logo


I am one of the newest bloggers for the Style section of the Huffington Post, that amazing online newspaper! It’s a no-pay gig, but I am thrilled!

First article to appear shortly.

Innerwear as Outerwear Pt 1 – Mid-Century and Today

•September 1, 2009 • 1 Comment

Balmain dress and petticoat, circa 1950

Though I love me some fashion, I confess I do not keep up with every single fashion collection that graces the runways (is it even possible, I sometimes wonder?). However, I happened to catch Dior’s Fall 09 collection recently and fell in love — both in the playful I-want-to-wear-that way and also the that-epitomizes-such-an-interesting-historical-trend way, leading to the inevitable I-must-blog-about-that-now conclusion. And so here we are.

For the couture Fall 09 collection of the Christian Dior label, designer John Galliano has played with the staples of ’50s innerwear and supporting garments by revealing them, eliminating portions of the outerwear and exposing the skeleton of what actually creates those feminine curves a la Dior’s own post WWII “New Look.” Galliano admitted that he’d been inspired by photos of Dior himself dressing his models before one of his salon shows in the 1950s. Galliano took the state of semi-dress and moved it from behind the curtain to in front of it, going one step further in his homage by presenting his 2009 collection in an intimate salon-esque setting rather than the modern blockbuster runway format. Here are a couple of my favorite items from the series:

Dior F09 - sheer crinoline skirt

The skirt is pared down to the stiff, transparent structural garment necessary to create the "naturally" feminine looks of the 1950s.

Dior F12 - opaque slip skirt

She appears fully dressed... except the outer skirt we expect is missing.

Dior F10 - transparent black dress

This has a modest silhouette but is obviously completely gauzy, ironically revealing "proper" 1950s understructures.

Let’s take a closer look at the fashions of the mid-20th century from which Galliano derived inspiration, shall we?

A tremendously successful Maidenform bra ad campaign in the ’50s and ’60s featured models in ordinary situations, dressed traditionally from the waist down, but swathed only in Maidenform bras above the waist.

I dreamed I lived like a queen in my Maidenform bra

"I dreamed I lived like a queen in my Maidenform bra,"1953 ad

It’s incredible how like Dior’s collection these ads are, non?

Dior F09 - bra and ballgown skirt

World War II necessitated rationing of all kinds: gasoline, metal, fabric, chemical dyes, and more. When the war concluded, droves of young military men returned to the States, hungry for women in all their stereotypically soft, curvy, feminine glory. Post-war women wanted to mimic glamorous actresses they’d been seeing in escapist movies all along, to replace the utilitarian suits and pencil skirts they’d adopted out of patriotic wartime necessity. Fashion responded to these desires and took advantage of the lifted restrictions to create voluminous skirts with yards of fabric, cinched waists and uplifted, pointy breasts to exaggerate the idealized curvy feminine body. And, as always, structural undergarments had tremendous import in realizing that ever-morphing, ever-exaggerated, idealized shape.

Undergarment retailers capitalized on the lifted restrictions by experimenting with color, sheer fabrics, lace and printed patterns, new fabrics like Dacron, nylon, Spandex, and rayon. These synthetic materials (several originating in government and military labs) provided durable, stretchy, lightweight alternatives to stiffer, heavier undergarments made of natural fibers like cotton and linen which needed boning for support, shape, and structure. Pantyhose were introduced in 1959, combining panties and “hose” or stockings, a mini revolution in underwear. Stockings even as late as the early 20th century were not terribly stretchy. Romanticized today (not least of all by Yours Truly), the pesky back seams had to be manually straightened and their leg shapes were predetermined. So if your legs didn’t conform, you were left with distinctly un-sexy, ill-fitting stockings with loose knees and saggy fabric wrinkles:

sagging stockings

In the late 1940s, designers like Jacques Fath incorporated corset lacings into evening wear, a risqué reference that also reflected the fashion for hourglass figures and the return of conventional notions of femininity post-WWII. While the glamorous films of the ’40s (which generally depicted wealthy society folk whose extravagant lifestyles were left suspiciously unaffected by the war raging in the real world) were the inspiration in the early 1950s, films of that mid-century decade placed their own indelible stamp upon the collective fashion ideals, shifting the trends from genteel aristocrat to slightly bawdy Everyman (or Everywoman as the case often was), creeping toward the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Marilyn Monroe simultaneously shocked and delighted audiences by going braless on and off sets, a kind of prelude to the feminist-organized bra burning episodes of the ’60s without the overt politics. Elizabeth Taylor wore a custom made slip for much of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and the sizzling posters of her call girl character in BUtterfield 8 (1960) depicted her with a heavy fur coat draped over her body-hugging slip, heightening the impact of her near-nakedness:

Liz Taylor in BUtterfield 8 poster

Liz Taylor in BUtterfield 8 poster. Note the "suitable only for adults" disclaimer!

Galliano similarly pairs outdoor coats with slips:

Dior F09 - purple outdoor coat and slip dress

In Anatomy of a Murder (1959) attorney James Stewart is forced to request his client’s wife wear a girdle in court to make her appear respectable and decent — though he admits with embarrassment that the young woman doesn’t need one to control her “jiggle” (more to the audience’s discomfort than to the precocious sex kitten character to whom he is speaking).

BEFORE: Lee Remick in sandellous pants early in Anatomy of a Murder

BEFORE: Lee Remick in sandellous pants early in Anatomy of a Murder

AFTER: Lee Remick deliberately dowdy in courtroom in Anatomy of a Murder

AFTER: Lee Remick deliberately dowdy in courtroom in Anatomy of a Murder. Though unseen, she presumably wears a girdle under her deliberately dowdy tweed skirt.

Here we see the girdle on the model, who, like Lee Resnick above, does not actually require such a supportive garment to mold her shape:

Dior F10 - no pants

In Rear Window (1954), Costume Designer Edith Head ensconces Grace Kelly’s socialite character in a dress of layered tulle, a transparent material that is traditionally used as an underlayer to provide volume to outerskirts. While this dress hardly screams “vulgar,” it’s definitely a wee bit risqué:

Grace Kelly in sheer Edith Head dress, Rear Window, 1954

The see-through wrap Grace Kelly dangles is just one layer of the same material used for her skirt, typifying the deliberately impractical, beautiful glamour popular post-WWII (a transparent wrap not only doesn't assist modesty, it doesn't shield from the cold either).

And here is a Dior creation:

This skirt has fewer layers of tulle than the example above, drawing attention to the sheerness of the material.

This skirt has fewer layers of tulle than the example above, drawing attention to the sheerness of the material which is more commonly used in lingerie.

Marlon Brando torn shirt Stella scene, Streetcar Named Desire, 1951

The steamy Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is set in humid New Orleans where characters languor in states of semi-dress. In a poignant-though-subtle twist, Kim Hunter’s ferociously monogamous character Stella walks around the apartment in a slip, in stark contrast to the false prudery of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois whose extreme, inconvenient modesty (three adults are living in a tiny one bedroom apartment) belies her previous promiscuity. Marlon Brando’s T-shirts are downright mundane to us now, but at that time T-shirts were strictly male underwear and Brando’s brutish, uncouth character was conveyed in part by the absence of a proper button-down shirt over his. He compounds his simmering sexuality by changing shirts in front of the camera, and in the famous “Stella!” scene, his shredded T-shirt actually peels off him lewdly, testament to the fragility of the undergarment:

In Rebel Without a Cause (1955), James Dean and his gang flouted conventions and, like Brando’s character, used dress (or rather, the state of near undress) to signal their outsider, somewhat misfit status, with all the sexy implications the forbidden carries.

As the posters for Liz Taylor in BUtterfield 8 did, the T-shirt or undershirt is paired with an outdoor coat for heightened impact.

As the posters for Liz Taylor in BUtterfield 8 did, the T-shirt or undershirt is paired with an outdoor coat for heightened impact.

Even in recent years, there is an increasing backlash to men displaying their underwear. This latest effort by some citizens and politicians to enact laws forbidding sagging jeans that expose boxers is tinged with a distinctly racial tone, as it’s primarily young black men who follow this trend (conceived in minority-heavy prisons where inmates may not wear belts) and who are therefore targeted with the desired sartorial censorship.

sagging jeans

Obviously the idea of the forbidden, the secret, the hidden, still offends and titillates today, and Galliano’s collection is testament to this enduring tension. With a self-conscious nod to vintage lingerie, the prominently featured seamed stockings are an erotic, romantic reference to outdated style. No longer deemed essential for respectability, girdles, garters, and conical bullet bras are relegated to pure camp and arousal, which some women choose to wear as a provocative statement that we all understand to be vintage. Dior’s collection reclaims the dampened vulgarity by exposing the contraptions that hold stockings up, that support and distort the body for added curious eroticism, and perhaps even a sense of uncomfortable indecency, a feat in this desensitized age of exposed bra straps, halter tops and micro miniskirts. Though there are grumbles relating to the appropriation of underwear worn as outerwear even today, this is not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Attitudes toward the naked body and sexuality, notions of privacy, discretion and sexual identification are constantly changing and fashion changes with them. Return for Part Deux next week for more on underwear as outerwear, this time as a political statement….


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Kennedy Fashion

•August 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment
John, Robert and Edward Kennedy, 1960

John, Robert and Edward Kennedy, 1960

With the recent passing of Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, I wanted to write something about Kennedy fashion but for better or worse, I read “The Look of Rich Tradition” article by Robin Givhan that pretty much sums up anything I would’ve said:

“their attire so perfectly captures a not-so-distant era in the culture. Those images of the Kennedy clan — so steeped in mythology — speak of a particular kind of subtly sporty American style that the fashion industry has devalued. It also calls to mind a brand of noblesse oblige politics that our culture now regards with suspicion.”

Read the full Washington Post article here.

And then read the awesome Ad Busters’ rebuttal here.

Craftiness in Coraline & Domestic Sewing Traditions

•August 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Coraline button icon

Last week I watched the movie Coraline (2009), directed by the stop-motion animator master Henry Selick who achieved recognition for his collaboration with Tim Burton in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). I was kind of blown away by his latest effort; it succeeded on many levels, but for the sake of this blog I’ll limit my enthusiasm to the crafty parts.

The loving attention to hand crafts — and needlework in particular — starts immediately with the opening credits which are done in a font that mimics embroidery, complete with visible stitches and deliberate loose threads dangling off the names:

Coraline credit in thread

The next 1 ½ minutes of credits include careful closeups  of a doll being undone, unraveled, un-stuffed, taken apart stitch by stitch, and then reassembled (note the creator’s hands are composed of needles themselves):

Coraline opening credits de-stuffing doll

There’s a lovely shot of a button drawer being pulled out and poured over,

Coraline opening credits choosing buttona needle poking through rough cloth (you can see every fibre in 3-D!) and sewing the selected button on,

Coraline opening credits sewing button

reusing the limp burlap chassis to meticulously create another doll with variations that make it resemble Coraline, down to her raincoat:Other Mother at sewing machine


Just as puppet masters created Coraline puppets in multiples with slight clothing, expression, hair and rumpled variations to make the movie, duplication and cloning are visual motifs within the movie. Coraline’s mother picks out a mass-produced gray school uniform among a rack of identical uniforms,

Mother in front of gray uniforms

all the neighbors have collections of identical animals: the burlesque sisters with their Scottie dogs (3 living, many more stuffed on shelves),

Coraline Scottie dogs on shelf

and the Amazing Bobinski with his circus mice:

Coraline Bobinski's circus mice

And when Coraline’s parents go missing, she touchingly tucks herself into bed with crudely handmade dolls of them, formed out of pillows with dad’s glasses and mom’s neck brace (a doll making dolls of other dolls):

Coraline and pillow parents in bed

Looking at the plot, we see this theme of multiplicity is a satisfyingly consistent one: the neighbor kid Wybee’s grandma has a(n evil) twin sister; the entire concept of the Other Mother and Other World with nearly identical houses, and gardens and neighbors echo and compliment each other within the framework of the story. These devices create an eerie mirrored alternate world like those in a Borges story, but also relate to the duplicate film sets (which were actually constructed by set builders, not created digitally), dolls, clothes, etc., behind-the-scenes. The evil twin / menacing other world is not exactly original subject matter for suspense-horror films which often tap into fears of duplicitousness and two-facedness, but I particularly love how the duplication appears in front of the camera and behind it in Coraline.


Crafty, homemade objects are featured prominently. Coraline’s Other Mother cooks homemade meals, creates hand-sewn outfits for her, etc. Coraline (and the viewer, by extension) recognizes these as signs of affection. Interpreted as labors of feminine love at first, they are revealed to be sinister, employed as a trap. When the Other Mother reveals her true physical form as a terrifying spider with needle hands (the same needle hands that seemed to lovingly craft the doll in the film’s opening sequence), it calls to mind the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. In her “Cell” series, Bourgeois created mini houses out of found objects like discarded doors and grating and filled them with objects related to feminine domestic stereotypes like sewing supplies, clothes, etc.:

Louise Bourgeois, Cell VII, 1998

Louise Bourgeois, interior of "Cell VII" (1998). Note the eerie hanging undergarments and miniature house.

Another Bourgeois recurring visual motif is spiders, representing her own mother and universal stereotypes of mothers (one is actually entitle “Maman“) and exploring their creepiness and yet comfortable familiarity and harmlessness:

Louise Bourseois, "Spider" (1997). Note the cage / house enveloped by the enormous arachnid.

Louise Bourseois, "Spider" (1997). Note the cage / house enveloped by the enormous arachnid, and scraps of fabric clinging to the sides contribute to the mother / domicile theme.

Compare Bourgeois’ large but protective Spider to Coraline’s Other Mother as a distinctly evil spider who deploys a web not to catch pesky insects but to entrap Coraline herself:

Coraline Other Mother as spider - front

In the final scene of Coraline, domestic bliss is achieved by unifying her family and the previously indifferent neighbors in the act of planting tulips, a pared-down version of domesticity, handiness, and community. They’re not perfect — Coraline’s mother complains about the dirt, Bobinski pulls out tulips bulbs to replace them with beets, and the end result is not the stunning spectacle of the Other World’s garden — but it is a more realistic picture of imperfect homeyness.

Now allow me to lay some incredible fun facts on you about the meticulous crafty creation of this film:

  • To construct 1 puppet, 10 individuals had to work 3-4 months.
  • About 45 of Coraline’s pajamas were screen painted with printed patterns where every dot had to line up along the seams of every frock in precisely the same place for consistency.
  • For the character of Coraline, there were 28 different puppets of varying sizes; the main Coraline puppet stands 9.5 inches high.
  • All fabric was hand woven or hand knit to achieve the correct scale.
  • The only leather the production could find that was thin enough to make the doll shoes and Mr. Bobinsky’s boots came from antique Victorian gloves.
  • Buttons and zippers were also handmade for the film to suit the scale.
  • Costumers used pins, surgical tools and tweezers to construct the garments.
  • Each of Coraline’s star sweaters took 6 weeks to 6 months to design and knit on knitting needles like toothpicks. (On the website in Coraline’s room there is a film short on miniature knits. It will blow your mind a little.)

knitting Coraline's miniature sweater


Coraline tapped into the familiarity we have with women performing acts like cooking, cleaning, and sewing: the audience presumably watches the film with knowing amusement as Coraline’s father makes a dinner which resembles the gelatinous, sludgy meals from Better Off Dead (1985). We learn that Coraline’s mother is a good cook but has prioritized professional work and has relegated the dinner chore to the inept (though good-intentioned) father. The Other Mother then lures Coraline with elaborate, beautifully presented meals and a homemade sweater ensemble.

There is a rich history binding women to sewing. “A woman who does not know how to sew is as deficient in her education as a man who cannot write,” Eliza Farrar wrote in The Young Lady’s Friend (1838). Creating, altering and mending the family’s clothing and household textiles were domestic duties that kept most 18th and 19th-century women tethered to their sewing baskets; until the late 19th century nearly all clothing was made in the home. According to Godey’s Lady’s Book, it took about 14 hours to make a man’s dress shirt and at least 10 for a simple dress. A middle-class housewife spent several days a month making and mending her family’s clothes even with the help of a hired seamstress.

Sewing wasn’t all drudgery, though. Needlework served utilitarian purposes in the home, but also allowed women to communicate and assert their individual identities, beliefs, and aspirations with creativity and skill. The anticipation of weddings and births fueled creative energy and inspired impressive handiwork which was often functional — but not always — as in samplers which showcased a woman’s cross-stitching dexterity by forming alphabets in varying typefaces, geometric borders, and picture scenes. Linens, blankets and other handmade textiles made up the bulk of a girl’s hope chest (a.k.a. “marriage chest”), preparing her for her household duties as a wife and serving as advance proof of her sewing skill and worth as a woman and future matriarch.

Early 19th century sewing sampler stitched by Elizabeth Lyle when a young girl.  The text in the center reads,"Elizabeth Lyle worked this in the eleventh year of my age. In the morning think what you have to do. And at night ask yourself what you have done."

Early 19th century sewing sampler stitched by Elizabeth Lyle when a young girl. The text in the center reads,"Elizabeth Lyle worked this in the eleventh year of my age. In the morning think what you have to do. And at night ask yourself what you have done."

Sewing circles were commonly formed by women, comprised of neighbors and relatives who would gather at a house and work on their sewing chores together. Women would sometimes swap portions of their own work with their friends who were particularly adept at a specific tasks. This happily merged what could be lonely drudgery with pleasurable socializing and political discussion (though the latter is rarely acknowledged).

Louis Henry Charles Moeller "the Sewing Circle"

"Sewing Circle" by Louis Henry Charles Moeller (1855 - 1930)

Sadly, sewing was often taken for granted as a skill — seamstresses were perceived as unimaginative lackeys who just followed instructions that any person might perform, and not as visionaries who could conceptualize how to take two-dimensional materials and connect them to form three-dimensional structures that envelope a body and yet can be gotten into easily, who possessed the skill to adapt techniques to various textures and weights, to say nothing of the artistic choices of color, style, and fit. Appreciation aside, there was a drastic interruption of this centuries-old tradition in the mid 19th century.

It wasn’t until the House of Worth (founded in 1858) when a man took the reigns of dressmaking, removed it from the home and created a pampered, decadent purchasing experience, that sewing took on any cachet or respect as a profession (see my earlier post on The Tea Gown in Fashion and Art for more on the House of Worth). The Industrial Revolution heralded the invention of the sewing machine (patented by Elias Howe in 1845), cheap labor and the growing factory system, standardization of sizes, and outcropping of distribution methods like apparel and department stores, all of which contributed to an increase in demand of ready-to-wear  garments. This was the beginning of consumers’ expectations for hyper-accelerated turnaround of new styles, necessitating ever-briefer time between designers’ visions, prototype creations, and mass market availability. It could be argued that the sewing machine eased women of much of the time consuming burden of clothing their families, but a contrary view is that the sewing machine snatched a labor of love, pride, and skill from women, not to mention the social community bonding. And though it’s distasteful to many modern women to think of being trapped in their houses all day, it was a small leap from the workrooms of House of Worth to the factories and notoriously dangerous conditions of garment factories (like the infamous Triangle Factory), exploiting the poor. Though sweatshops certainly exist in America today, many more are in developing countries with desperate-and-therefore-cheap labor forces, doubly exploited by consumer-hungry countries abroad and their own government systems which do not protect them with worker’s rights addressing age minimums, hour maximums, safety standards, etc.

Jacob Riis, Necktie workshop in Division Street tenement, 1889

Jacob Riis, Necktie workshop in Division Street tenement (1889)

In terms of household implications, the sewing machine was only the first of many labor-saving devices for the home (partially by altering sewing from a home activity to a factory one); washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners all made housekeeping easier and cut down the work time required. An important consequence of all this labor saving has been the diminished woman’s role as household manager. This gradual loss of status helped undermine the satisfaction many women formerly found in the homemaking role and encouraged them to seek more demanding employment in other places, as we see Coraline’s mother has chosen her profession over domestic work. In most industrialized countries these days, sewing, needlework, knitting, crocheting, quilting, etc. have been relegated to niche markets (still mostly women) who have self-consciously resurrected the skills for hobby, not generally necessity. This is why we all understand how Coraline is taken in by her Other Mother’s handmade overtures.

I loved Coraline not only because it was a good, creepy story, but because its meticulous production methods showcased the hand-made theme present in the narrative, a far cry from the digitally created worlds of almost all current animation (which can absolutely be well done too). I like, too, how the simple black button icon of Coraline is a symbol of sewing and domestic familiarity twisted beautifully into a tool of sinister manipulation.

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The Tea Gown in Fashion and Art

•July 21, 2009 • 1 Comment

Victorian tea cup

Due to a coveted invitation to my friend’s tea party this weekend, I have that genteel social event on my mind. And since I always have costume on my mind as well, it’s only natural that I should want to dissect a portrait of a young woman enjoying the same activity that I shortly will.

"The Cup of Tea" by Mary Cassatt, 1879

"The Cup of Tea" by Mary Cassatt, 1879

Mary Cassatt’s “The Cup of Tea” is a portrait of Cassatt’s sister, Lydia Simpson, wearing a pink gown, circa 1879 (among other date indicators, Lydia’s flat-lying skirt suggests horsehair crinolines underneath, which made a brief return to fashion between 1876 and 1882 before being replaced by the bulkier bustle). “Tea gowns,” essential garments of the late 19th and early 20th century wardrobes and invented by the tea obsessed English, are frilly, decorative, and also comfortable, often achieved by a looser fit uncommon in other dresses of the 19th century. Though Lydia’s dress appears rather fitted — you can clearly see the outline of her corset at her tiny waist and gently bulging belly — it’s possible that her arm is blocking our view of a looser fitting back, allowing her to recline more comfortably. The profile of a stiffer seated subject was famously used to portray an older, darker, more somber portrait: that of “Whistler’s Mother,” officially entitled the more clinical “Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother” (1871), and I doubt it’s a coincidence that Whistler’s mum was painted just a few years earlier than Cassatt’s sis.

Whistler's Mother, 1871

A small enough amount of lace is present in the Lydia’s cuffs so that it’s conceivable that handmade lace — a precious luxury item — was used. However, the appearance of a Great Exhibition in Paris just a year before this portrait helped popularized machine-made lace, making it more accessible and far more affordable, so it is reasonable to think that Lydia wears some. The rich silk-satin fabric advertises Lydia’s wealth, and though it is possible that Lydia’s dress was sewn with the help of the sewing machine (a major asset to the fashion industry since the 1840s), the upper class still preferred the personally designed, tailored and unique looks generated by the haute couture industry.

Charles Frederick Worth (1827-1893) was an Englishman who pioneered the haute couture experience with his House of Worth located in Paris. Founded 1858, his success corresponded with France’s Second Empire which devoted considerable energy to rebuilding the luxury textile / fashion trades Paris had been known for before the French Revolution (1789 – 99), during which all things seen as bourgeois were attacked, very much including high fashion. Worth not only capitalized upon the climbing demand for sumptuous clothes, he absolutely revolutionized the dress purchasing experience, turning it into a social event for the privileged. Instead of being visited by a doting tailor, as in the past, a 19th century woman in need of a new dress would go to her fashion house (others opened after Worth’s, though his remains the most acclaimed to this day). There she would be received in a decadent parlor filled with other wealthy society ladies, and a fashion show would parade before them, to select the styles they desired. Consultations on fabrics and trimmings would follow (these finishing touches would distinguish the same dress style purchased by different women), measurements taken, the final product being a unique work of wearable art. The elegant simplicity of Lydia’s gown makes it a possible product of the House of Worth itself.

Here is a gown from the House of Worth just a few years after Cassatt’s painting:

Day dress, 1883–85 by Charles Frederick Worth

Day dress, 1883–85 by Charles Frederick Worth. From the Met's caption: "Lavish textiles were not only used for evening wear in Worth's designs, as this day dress of cut and uncut voided velvet attests. The ensemble also provides an example of Worth's practice of incorporating elements of historic dress in his designs. The large scale of the pomegranate and floral motif follow the style of Louis XIV textile patterns."

During the High Victorian Period (1850-1885), a strict regulation of clothes was maintained. According to these laws of dress, Lydia’s high neckline, three-quarter length sleeves and sumptuous fabric show that the portrait captured a moment of the afternoon (as opposed to plunging décolleté with short sleeves which were for fancier evening activities, or if the same dress were made with less refined material like cotton, it would have indicated casual dress for mornings). As the title suggests, the primary purpose of this painting was not portraiture, but the depiction of a popular social ritual. And though Cassatt was American, she frequently depicted bourgeois Parisian society, which, “between 1870 and 1914 was thrown back on its own devices to satisfy its taste for elegance. The Ancien Regime and the Imperial aristocracy, the bourgeoisie enriched by the economic revival, and the spendthrifts, frivolous demi-monde that succeeded to the follies of the Second Empire, all provided an easy prey for the new lords of elegance, the masters of Couture and Fashion,” as Francois Boucher noted.

Madame Edouard Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1879

"Madame Edouard Pailleron" by John Singer Sargent, 1879

In John Singer Sargent’s “Madame Edouard Pailleron,” also painted in 1879, a similar look is achieved. A small departure is that Lydia wears a tea gown while Mme Pailleron wears a fashionable dress suitable for outdoor activity, and this is confirmed by her grassy surroundings. The same idealized long-waisted hourglass figure is achieved with the same long corset. She lifts her skirts enough to reveal the crinolines we assumed Lydia wore. Where Lydia’s tea gown of soft silk satin was conducive for casual indoor comfort, Mme Pailleron’s stiff dress is probably silk taffeta and more appropriate for formal public appearances. In contrast to Lydia’s ultra-feminine and youthful pink, Mme Pailleron wears somber black, obviously a fashion choice and not imposed on her by rules of mourning (see my earlier post), as she also has a large white tulle bow around her neck and flamboyant red flowers on her shoulder — unacceptable for mourning. In spite of its conservative color, Mme Pailleron’s dress is highly decorated with short, layered ruffles along the hemline (it must’ve sounded divine, rustling with her movements!), a band of beadwork around the hips and neckline, lace sleeves and lace strips draped around the skirt (machine-made, judging from the length and quantity), and taffeta bows on the cuffs and skirt. Though both women have white tulle around their necks and cuffs, that tulle is Lydia’s only dress ornamentation. As expected, the two women seem to be following the same fashion trends, the major differences only being those that can be attributed to different activities.

Lydia’s light but voluminous collar is similar to Mme Pailleron’s of the same year, and Lydia has taken it to an extreme so that it becomes reminiscent of the standing ruffs of the 16th century, which was a major social status symbol, made of that precious lace, laboriously starched, and difficult to keep clean in its proximity to the face:

”The Ermine Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

"The Ermine Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

Revival styles (or “flashback fashion” as I like to call them) was extremely popular in the 1870s, and Lydia seemed to embrace this fascination with the past. Her costume suggests an affinity for Neo-Rococo taste: the soft, curvy lines exaggerated by the hourglass corset, the fitted, three-quarter length sleeves ending in a flurry of bell-shaped white lace, not to mention the vaginal billowing pink silk, are all reminiscent of Fragonard’s Rococo painting “The Swing” (1766). This painting, along with the original Rococo movement a century earlier, was obsessed with the idea of femininity and sexuality in the eyes of the voyeur:

Fragonard's "The Swing," 1766

Fragonard's "The Swing," 1766

Lydia’s style would have been well noted, as she lived a life where to be a successful society woman, one had to keep up appearances. With the completion of Garnier’s Parisian Opera in 1874, the opera became an important place to see and be seen. Opera glasses were just as often used to observe audience members as they were to watch performers on stage, and usually by the traditional voyeurs: men. Not limited to sexual voyeurism, a man would survey his business competitor’s wife to see how well she was dressed, her appearance a direct reflection of how successful her husband was. Baudelaire wrote that woman was “the object of keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer to its contemplator.” Mary Cassatt and the Impressionist art movement was fascinated with this phenomenon, often painting these privileged voyeurs at the Opera. Cassatt continues this theme in “The Cup of Tea,” eliminating her sister’s companion from the composition and making the viewer of the painting Lydia’s voyeur — all the more titillating, perhaps, as tea time was a female ritual that men would not see at all — except in paintings.

The floral theme in “The Cup of Tea” warrants examination as well. Throughout art history, flowers have acted as a visual metaphor for a woman’s sex, and the concept of the femme fleur was especially popular in Victorian times. The melding of the flower in Lydia’s hat with the flowers in the flowerbox behind her is echoed by her bell-shaped cuffs and the rosettes making up her collar, which gives a floral illusion when viewed en masse. Furthermore, the blurred lines between hat flower and flowerbox flower create a physical unity with the house, thus suggesting a traditional psychological unity of woman with the home. Though feminist movements had manifested themselves in both fashion (with the invention of the Bloomer costume in 1849) and politics (with the women’s suffrage movement), it is clear that neither Mary nor Lydia Cassatt subscribed to these radical ideas, instead perpetuating traditional stereotypes of feminine roles in painting and costume.

But enough of Lydia, and on to more important, current issues: what will I wear to my own tea party?

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Who Inspired Michael Jackson’s Fashion?

•July 8, 2009 • 3 Comments

young Michael Jacson in sequins

In the wake of Michael Jackson’s recent sudden death, there has been a predictable spike in pictures, radio and videos runs, articles and blog posts about the star. We often have the tendency to think of style icons as Athena: “born,” emerging from Zeus’s head swathed in what was to be her trademark ensemble of full armor. This theory has been confirmed by the fact that most fashion discussion I’ve found has focused on Jackson’s “iconic style” with parades of comparative photos of current celebrities wearing military-style coats, red leather jackets, mono-gloves, aviator shades, etc. — all of which is appropriate testament to his talent and breadth of influence — and yet there has been very little discussion on what influenced the man himself. At the risk of stating the obvious, none of us live in vacuums — not even the rich and famous — and as is my wont, I’m far more interested in the idol’s own historical sartorial references, which he so successfully appropriated and interpreted that most people see him as a completely original trend setter.

Though I favor his work in the Jackson 5 (I know there are many dissenters, but I do so love Motown!), considering his youth and the parental/managerial influence present during those early years, I will concentrate mainly on his mid-to-late career, after he had emerged as a solo artist. I’ll start then with his movie debut at age 20 as the Scarecrow alongside Diana Ross’s Dorothy in The Wiz (1978), remake of the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), which introduced him to the wonderful world of classic movies. I’m not the first to see how those suave, glittery MGM musicals manifested themselves both in Jackson’s dancing and wardrobe.

Jackson regularly sported white suits (see Thriller album cover for a casual, pared down version) with matching fedoras bearing uncanny resemblance to the ensemble Fred Astaire wears with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). For those unfamiliar with that mediocre musical (for which I have an inexplicable tenderness), “The Girl Hunt Ballet” dance number is a musical-within-a-musical where Astaire and Charisse enact a ’40s film noir-style murder mystery:

Here’s Michael’s version from the “Smooth Criminal” video:

michale jackson smooth criminal lean in white suit with spats and fedora

Michael Jackson in Smooth Criminal, wearing white suit with spats and fedora. And isn't the 45 degree lean dance move a more graceful version of the Tin Man's move from the original Wizard of Oz?

Even the alternate, more informal versions of Jackson’s look consisting of black slacks, white tank top, unbuttoned white undershirt and fedora may very well have been a deconstructed vestmental homage to Astaire, one of the most formal of the musical men in film. (I admit I may be reading just a wee bit too much into this one, but isn’t the game fun?)

Michael Jackson in white undershirt and fedora

Michael Jackson in white undershirt and fedora

Michael in HIStory tour (1997) white suit:

Michael Jackson white suit HIStory tour 1997

And West Side Story (1961) undoubtedly influenced both the “Beat It” (1983) and “Bad” (1987) videos, down to the line dance choreography style. Jackson’s videos have only slightly less dubiously threatening song-and-dance gang confrontations. “Bad” even mimics the set of West Side Story‘s “Cool” number, which also occurs in a garage, moments after the Jets’ gang leader (Riff) is killed by the rival gang in a scuffle:

Bad” video (click twice on the screen below):

Beat It” video (again, click twice to view):

Michael’s signature ankle-bearing pants paired with penny loafers and white socks highlighted his dance moves, it’s true. But they also bear telling resemblance to another famous song-and-dance movie star, Gene Kelly:

Gene Kelly in loafers and rolled pants

Gene Kelly in loafers and rolled pants

Jackson’s take:

michael jackson cropped black pants and loafers

Though not a movie star, the undeniable live concert showman James Brown was explicitly credited by Michael as being hugely influential. They share a talent for energetic performances, impressive tonal ranges (not many can hit those upper registers like these two!), and love of shiny jackets and straightened hairstyles.

Jackson and Brown performing at the 2003 BET Awards in Los Angeles:

michael jackson and james brown at BET awards 2003

There was also a healthy dose of Elvis inspiration evident in Jackson, what with his penchant for gold lame and gyrating crotch moves. In an interesting (some might say disturbing) twist, Jackson actually married Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, thus tapping into his idol’s bloodline while possibly attempting to silence gay / sexual deviant rumors (the molestation trial was a mere year before the short-lived marriage).

Thus far I’ve concentrated on Michael’s fondness for classic cinema and musicals, but there were most definitely darker influences as well. His leather-and-buckle style emerged perhaps as Michael struggled with his life of imposed near-solitude and the battle for privacy he fought from the media and crazed fans. He seemed to identify with, and then project, a kind of misunderstood misfit persona, even while continuing grueling tours and recording sessions. April’s auction of Jackson’s ephemera included many of his home furnishings, sculptures, children’s race cars, and many many spangly clothes, but what caught my special notice were the Edward Scissorhands (1990) prop hands.

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands (1990)

It turns out that Jackson had aggressively lobbied for title part in Tim Burton’s movie, and I’ve since realized this interest makes perfect sense. He was dressing like Edward Scissorhands before the movie was even made, with his wan skin tone, limp black hair, and ladders of leather straps and buckles. His penchant for these leather buckles was perhaps indicative of deeper, darker insecurities; desire for restraint in others and to be restrained oneself. They call to mind mental patients’ restraints and also S&M gear, as was fitting for a man whose mental stability and sexuality were examined and questioned throughout his career.

Jackson’s interpretations:
In gold lame with leather buckles catcher kneepads in HIStory tour (1992) in Prague:

Michael Jackson in gold lame with leather buckles and catcher kneepads in HIStory tour 1992 Prague

Michael Jackson touring Bad in Maryland 1988 (before E.S., the year he moves into Neverland Ranch):

Michael Jackson Maryland 1988

The other side of the shy, misunderstood outsider was Jackson’s royal persona. His astounding collection of military jackets are protective in their stiffness, and project masculine virility and power with their broad shoulders (which temporarily mask Jackson’s narrow frame), and suggestion of violent battle. They are also commonly worn by male monarchs (who typically rely on medals rather than Jackson’s rhinestones for bling). Jackson was dubbed the “King of Pop” because of his extraordinary talent, but he shared other, less desirable similarities with kings. Like any monarch, his movement was confined to his personal properties and heavily guarded mobbed public appearances, which was undoubtedly trying. And since he achieved such fame at such a young age, like any prince or king, he had virtually no opportunity for normal, unfettered geographic exploration, and he alternately embraced this gift/curse — as in his royal military ensembles — and fought against it — as in his more threatening, soldier-based military ensembles.

Prince Charles:

Prince Charles in military uniform

Michael Jackson in fedora military shirt 1993

Michael Jackson in military shirt with child in 1993

Michael Jackson in ammo military leotard 1993

Jackson in more aggressive ammo military gear in 1993

Michael Jackson royal military jacket at Elizabeth Taylors bday celebration 1997

In royal military jacket at Elizabeth Taylor's birthday celebration in 1997

Some of Jackson’s military jackets were rather conservative, approximating their official prototypes, but many more were colorful, glitzy, and laden with sparkles. It’s no coincidence that Jackson was a huge admirer of earlier pop royalty the Beatles (he procured the publishing rights to that influential band’s songbook) whose influential album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) portrayed the Beatles in silly psychedelic ’60s military gear:

Beatles - Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

And Michael’s interpretations:

Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields at American Music Awards 1984

Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields at American Music Awards 1984

The flamboyant “King of Pop” in his royal jacket, complete with golden sash and epaulets, with presidential royalty the Reagans in conservative suits:

1984 award ceremony, in which President Ronald Reagan acknowledged Mr. Jackson's contribution to the drunk-driving awareness program

President Ronald Reagan praises Jackson's contribution to the drunk-driving awareness, 1984

As many rock stars do, Jackson walked a tightrope between hyper-masculinity and femininity. Even glossing over the gory details of the Neverland Ranch kiddie porn/molestation fiasco (starting in 1993), I would be remiss to ignore Michael Jackson’s gender and sexuality issues. He never shied from gender ambiguity: on the contrary, he seemed to revel in them. His willowy body, straightened, flowing locks, lack of visible body or facial hair, permanent eyeliner and lipstick, and surgically slenderized jawline all contradicted his signature performative crotch grabs and pelvic thrusts. “In the Closet” (1991) is delightfully questionable in meaning, possibly referring to the unwanted media attention or to his ambiguous sexuality.

Jackson’s peek-a-boo curls emulate classic stars Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake…

michael jacksons flowing locks

and bear eerie resemblance to his close personal friend who happens to be a classic movie star herself, Elizabeth Taylor:

Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1950s

Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1950s

In the “Scream” (1995) video, Michael and sister Janet are dressed in identical outfits that are clearly designed to blur dissimilarities between the siblings, not least of which being their respective genders:

michael and janet jackson scream video still

The umbrella Jackson started toting for portable shade blurred gender lines in a more subtle way, plucked from the long line of both Eastern and Western women protecting themselves from the sunlight’s harsh rays by strolling with parasols.

Michael Jackson with umbrella

Michael Jackson with umbrella, circa 2009

A geisha under a parasol (note the similar white skin and red mouth):

geisha under parasol

The body suits of the 1990s were generally worn by women, and then underneath pants. Jackson’s body suits worn over his pants, served as inner-as-outwear, much as Madonna used Gautier’s external corset/body suit in her Blond Ambition tour (1990). Though they were a female fashion, Jackson actually uses them to emphasize his crotch (Madonna did as well), both confusing gender lines and emphasizing male ones. Finally (but less interesting), the body suit has practical applications, staying put while the body underneath gyrates and writhes in dance, though I somehow doubt that’s what attracted Michael to them.

HIStory tour (1995):

Michael Jackson gold lame bodysuite HIStory tour 1997

Madonna in Jean-Paul Gautier’s Blond Ambition bustier (1990). (She sometimes wore it over pants like Michael.)

Madonna in Gautier bustier Blond Ambition tour 1992

Part of what feminized many of Jackson’s ensembles were the sheer numbers of sparkles, lending a burlesque feeling to an otherwise masculine outfit. Much of his wardrobe was designed to remain visible to stadiums of thousands, but even in smaller gatherings and public appearances, the man indulged his penchant for rhinestones. Rhinestone studded and luminescent materials have a rich tradition in the (female dominated) burlesque world, highlighting every curve and suggestive movement for the audience. Again Michael taps into an overtly sexual genre, muddling his presentation of his sexuality.

Dita Von Teese, covergirl of the neo-burlesque movement, as a sexy rhinestone cowboy:

Dita Von Teese as rhinestone coyboy

Selections from Michael’s bedazzled wardrobe can be found in this slideshow. I mean, the man had bedazzled socks:

Michael Jackson sequined socks

Guy Trebay of the New York Times wrote, “More than almost any entertainer in memory, Michael Jackson was entirely of show business, and was seldom out of costume.” His influences were culled from a wide variety of sources, but it’s striking that even as he borrowed heavily from both genders’ beauty standards, a wide timeline of popular fashion and pop culture references, etc., the celebrity influences were primarily caucasian / Eastern. His narrowing facial modifications, relaxed hair and mysterious extreme pallor externalize a complex struggle with race identity (in addition to the feminine associations  and gender / sexuality questions they raise).

Many of Michael Jackson’s fashions caught on (the red leather jacket, the single glove is making a comeback on the likes of Biance and Victoria Beckham, etc.), but many more were just so outrageous (silken face masks, male burkas) that they die with the man. One of the amazing aspects of Jackson’s style (and I think this is a typical marker of a fashion icon) is that no matter how outrageous he looked throughout his life, he was consistent in the visual motifs with which he decorated himself, ultimately lending an agelessness to the man — after shedding his afro, he pretty much looked like an indeterminate 20-or-30-something-year-old, did he not? May we all leave such a legacy, fashion, musical, or otherwise.

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