The Beautiful Miss Blow

Isabella Delves Broughton Blow was born on the 19th of November 1958 and died May 7th 2007. What transpired in those 48 years is a tale of creativity, betrayal and tragedy. A trendsetting prophet who loved fashion more than it loved her, she  took her life after swallowing a lethal dose of paraquat, thus banishing the painful demons that haunted her during the course of her short life. She was an original eccentric, her eye for fashion and for the designers who created them became cultural events.  Her idiosyncratic sartorial choices and how she wore them became  works of art. A woman whose talents could not be quantified. She joined the Pantheon of other ambulatory art pieces that include Daphne Guinness, Anna Piaggi and Daniel Lismore

Tarot Card XVI: Blow and McQueen running from their personal demons in this iconic image by David LaChapelle. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery London

Seeing that iconic picture of Isabella and Alexander McQueen running away from the flaming tower reminded me of the two subjects of the “Tower” Tarot having made landfall and now, like the subjects of the tarot,  are trying to runaway from their specific demons. It was like they both drove each other into madness with their symbiotic relationship. And both shared the illness of suicide; McQueen eventually took his own life a few years after she exited hers.

Isabella was just as much a product of her times as she was a product of her past: And it’s important that we study the Whole picture in order to understand this most tragic Muse. The first time I saw Isabella Blow was in a documentary about royal protract painters. In it they were contrasting traditional portraitist with a contemporary fashion shoot. There was one particular scene depicting the progress of a shoot of Fredrick Windsor, whose mother is non other than Princess Michael of Kent. A woman who is a very accomplished historical author, whose books I love to read. But in this scenario was living up to her nick name, “Princess Pushy”. It was no surprise then that she was trying to micromanage every detail in the annoyingly condescending way that only royals know how to do.

To the Manor Born: Isabella and her husband Detmar Blow at Hilles House. Photographed by Oberto Gili.

While everyone else in the crew  was playing “duck and cover” there was one lone voice who dared to stand up to HRH with the same socio-economic lilt. “But Ma’am doesn’t understand…” was her Third Person refrain to every suggestion put forth by the Princess. It was obvious that this girl was “to the manor born”, only their appearances couldn’t be more different; She was dressed in an outrageous hat and and an outfit to match. Her name was Isabella Blow. I was hooked. From that moment on I made it a point to follow her career and I was devastated when a few years later she took her own life. 

Isabella was the eldest daughter of a family who could trace their lineage back to a Page who fought alongside Edward the Black Prince. That’s a long time ago. Sadly, mental health was a recurring issue with her family since her grandfather Sir Henry John “Jock” Delves Broughton (try saying that name three times quickly) who was one of the subjects in the “Happy Valley Murders” a story which was to eventually become a book and then a feature film in the 1987 film: “White Mischief”. Worth watching if you ask me. Quick film synopsis: A high society love triangle ends tragically in a murder-suicide. Sorry, spoiler.

White Mischief: Izzie’s Grand-papa and her two-timing Step Granny. Here played by Joss Ackland and Greta Scaachi in the 1987 film. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Being that she was eldest daughter and not son, society saw her as useless since she could not inherit property. And if she couldn’t inherit property, then how could she possibly manage the family fortune? She did have a younger brother whose drowning she witnessed when she was just four years old. It was the beginning of the end for her family since she, and her other two sisters were quickly dispatched to different boarding schools. Finally when Izzie(Isabella) was fourteen, her mother walked out of the marriage and out of their lives. Her dad subsequently re-married and (no-surprise) Izzie did not get along with her new step-mama, causing life-long friction between and her father. So much so that in the end, he cut her out of his will.

But Izzie marched on, after completing her studies at Oxford, she then moved on to New York to study Art History at NYU. After that her story gets a little hazy and no amount of research brought me clarification, just obfuscation. From what I was able to glean was that while in NYC, she fell into the orbit of the Warhol Factory Crowd. Then she apparently  married a Brit who moved to Texas in order to make it in the oil business. During this time she allegedly worked as a rep at the Dallas Apparel Mart for the French designer Guy Laroche. This one I find a little hard to wrap my head around. Being that I live in Texas and am all too familiar with its suffocating provinciality, I can’t imagine Isabella working there. But I digress. After her stint in the Lone Star State, she bolted sans husband, to either New York to work at Vogue Magazine as an assistant to Anna Wintour. OR back to England to be a Nanny for Bryan Ferry’s son, Otis. Either way, can you blame her? 

Isabella with Bryan Ferry. He would prove to be a loyal friend to the end. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.

Another twist to this story was that Bryan, being friends with Wintour, secured the Vogue gig for Izzie once her nanny duties were completed. This particular story has a bit more credibility since it was recounted by her husband Detmar to a reporter for The Daily Mail newspaper. Nonetheless her friendship with Ferry lasted her entire lifetime and he was to play a pivotal role in her legacy.

Bryan Ferry remembers his longtime friendship with Isabella at  SHOWstudio

So from there, she continued her association with Vogue’s parent company Condé Nast, by moving on to work at Tatler Magazine in London. That was  where she evolved into the hat wearing eccentric we all loved. Much like her friend Daphne Guinness, she transformed herself into a walking work of art, using fashion as her medium. Taking advantage of her influential position at a major cultural platform, she went on to discover the talents of designers, models such as Philip Treacy, Sophie Dahl, Stella Tennant, Hussein Chalayan, Miucca Prada, Viktor & Rolf and most auspiciously, Alexander McQueen. A designer with whom she would embark on a creative, symbiotic relationship that ended with the ultimate betrayal.

Tragic Muse: Isabella with her beloved dog, wearing a design by Hussein Chalayan and photographed by Steven Meisel two of her many discoveries.

And as if all of this activity wasn’t enough, she also found the time to make a cameo appearance in Wes Anderson’s film: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”

Like most larger than life figures, the more Isabella expanded her persona, the harder it was to fit in with the norms & conventions of the fashion industry. Because no matter how much lip service is paid to creativity, in the end, fashion is a business. So Isabella found herself floundering from one position to the next, brokering deals and staging over the top fashion shoots. A consultancy here, a styling gig there. In the end she would wind up kicked to the curb by an industry that she loved, but that did not love her back. 

Perhaps the most telling of these scenarios was her association with Alexander McQueen. After discovering him while he was still a student at Central Saint Martins in London. She picked him from the litter and nurtured his career, eventually brokering a lucrative deal between McQueen and Tom Ford of Gucci, who was looking to expand its licensing division. Obviously she assumed that she would secure a high profile position in this new endeavor. But when it came time to sign the contract, her name was not even mentioned and McQueen did not lift a finger to correct this. This was to have a devastating effect on her, spiraling into a nadir of depression and suicide attempts. As a friend observed: “Everyone got contracts, Izzie wound up with a frock”. Sadly this is not such an unusual modus operandi in an industry that ironically idolizes women while at the same time will brutally purge those who are considered irrelevant. 

Meet the Blows: Isabella & Detmar’s lavish fantasy wedding at Gloucester Cathedral. Hat designed by Philip Treacy. Otis Ferry was one of their pages. Seeking photographer’s name for credit.

Somewhere along the line Isabella married a fellow blue blood by the name of Detmar Blow, who, like Isabella was asset rich but cash poor and who’s grandfather, in the irony of ironies also died by suicide as a result of drinking paraquat (Izzie’s poison of choice). So Isabella Delves became Isabella Blow and their wedding at Gloucester Cathedral featured all the trappings of a medieval fantasy wedding complete with pageboys and Isabella wearing a medieval style helmet designed by Philip Treacy. Together she and Detmar set about to transform “Hilles”, their little “Arts & Crafts cottage” into an eccentric’s Salon where they entertained high profile creative types as well as Isabella’s protégées. But sadly, happiness would elude Isabella on the domestic front as well when it was discovered that  she could not bear children. 

To add to her aggravation, Mother in Law from Hell appeared on the scene, demanded that Izzie and Detmar relinquish the house to her whenever she felt the need to stay there. The excuse being that since the couple was childless, it needed to be made available to one of Detmar’s siblings who wasn’t (and there were a few, despite Detmar being the eldest son). This must’ve triggered ugly memories of being displaced by her father’s new step-family, because even though Detmar wanted to fight it out, Izzie did not and the couple temporality separated.

With early protégée Philip Treacy. She is wearing one of his whimsical creations. Thanks to her society connections, his designs graced a number of royal heads. Courtesy Getty Images

Again, society rears up its ugly head to obsolesce those women who unable to serve as brood mares to the patriarchy. 

So with her marriage and career on shaky ground, Isabella sunk deeper into her funk. Electric shock therapy and hospitalization didn’t help. Her deteriorating condition  was further exposed by a highly sensational and unsuccessful suicide attempt in 2006. While stuck in traffic on a busy overpass in London, she climbed out of her taxi and thew herself to what she hoped would be her death. But no death, just two very badly broken ankles. But broken ankles or not, she flew to Dubai Fashion Week  on an imaginary expense account, passing herself as the “Elsa Klensch of Al-Jazeera” then again to Fashion Week in Bombay where she passed herself off as a Vogue representative who had flown into town in order to select the new editor of Vogue India. 

Eventually her shenanigans caught up with her and she wound up back in London broke and her reputation in tatters. But Izzie rallied, as most manic depressives are wont to do. Soon she was on her way to new adventures and projects. About a week before her passing, she posed for photographer Tim Walker, wearing a chain mail hood and mime makeup. It’s a sad picture to see; even though Isabella was not a conventional beauty, in her earlier pictures, her eyes sparkled with mischief and creativity. Here she looked like she had her life’s blood drained from her and looked much older than her 48 years on this earth. It’s a disturbing portrait, considering how her previous collaborations with Walker produced groundbreaking, iconic images. 

“All The Wine In Your Life’s All Dried Up”.  The haunting final portrait by Tim Walker

A few days before May 7, 2007, while staying at Hilles, she would take a lethal dose of Paraquat. This was her seventh suicide attempt in a little over a year and the seventh time was the deadly charm. She announced her deed to her family long after it was too late to save her from poisoning. She was hospitalized and died in her sleep a few days later. In the time that transpired between her swallowing the poison and expiring, she was busy planning her funeral. She wanted it to be as whimsical as her fashion statements. And what an event it was! The services took place in Gloucester Cathedral, where she was previously christened then married, now served as the venue for her Last Hurrah. She was brought in on a horse drawn carriage, her coffin bedecked by flowers and topped off by one of Philip Treacy’s creations.  The boys that served as pages at her wedding, where now her pallbearers. Otis Ferry (Bryan’s son and her former charge) was amount them. If Isabella Blow was over the top in life, she definitely raised the bar in death.

From Page Boy to Pallbearer:(L) Otis Ferry (far right) carries Issie’s coffin into Gloucester Cathedral. (R) Her flower bedecked coffin topped off by Treacy’s Galleon Hat. Courtesy Getty Images

Then bad news rained upon more bad news: It was announced that her family was going to have to auction off Isabella’s couture collection in order pay off her Death Tax. That’s similar to the Inheritance Tax here in the States. It’s ironic that someone who spent most of her life worrying about money was now plagued by financial obligations in death. Luckily her friends stepped in and prevented this from happening. Namely Daphne Guinness and Bryan Ferry. The Isabella Blow Foundation was created to preserve her comprehensive collection while serving as a tax shelter for her already burdened family.

Fair Weather Friend: (L)A distraught Alexander McQueen leaving the services. (R) The friends in happier days. Credits: Left: Getty Images, Right: Richard Young

It was Daphne’s brainchild to create an exhibition called Fashion Galore! honoring the memory of Isabella while showcasing her extensive wardrobe collection. Bryan Ferry contributed the song “When She Walks In the Room” which had been her favorite song of his (and my personal favorite too) to promote the event. A promotional video was created by Ruth Hogben using Bryan’s song and Isabella’s wardrobe from the exhibition. The video was shot at Doddington, her ancestral home. It’s a moving tribute and the words to the song resonate with the telling ironies of her life. “Fashion Galore!” was a tremendous success at its opening at London’s Courtauld Gallery in 2013. Then the collection went on to make the rounds of the fashion capitals of the world to tremendous fanfare. Thanks to the proceeds from the Fashion Galore exhibit, the Isabella Blow Foundation emerged; A foundation dedicated to providing educational scholarships and mental health services in the form of art therapy to those suffering from mental illness.

Daphne Guinness Interviewed by SHOWstudio discussing the “Fashion Galore” Exhibition and creation of the Isabella Blow Foundation.

Isabella managed to redeem herself in death as she was never able to in life. Perhaps in the end those “frocks” that she received as consolation prizes after getting screwed out of a deal are the keys to her immortality. Her couture collection at the Isabella Blow Foundation is now a permanent record for the study of the cultural trends of the turn of the 20/21st centuries. Her energy is palpable in the design of these confections, since she herself served as an inspiration for each and every one of them. These dresses and hats, each one a work of art in their own right, like the muse who inspired them, are forever a part of a greater legacy. 

“When She Walks In The Room” A still shot by Nick Knight from the Fashion Galore! promotional video with music by Bryan Ferry. Click on the image to watch Ruth Hogben’s moving video.

I’d like to conclude this post with the lyrics from “When She Walks In The Room” written by Bryan Ferry. Even though he composed this a prior to their acquaintance, the lyrics resonate with the ironies of her brief life. 

“When She Walks In The Room”

Lyrics by Bryan Ferry, courtesy of Universal Music Publishing

“So you talk to the walls

Always know

’cause they’ve seen it all

And heard it all before

And your fair weather friends

Fail to speak

They’re so afraid still waters run deep

And they’re don’t understand

Or perceive

That you can’t see the woods for the trees

Christmas trees you were sure

Weren’t the sort

To build up your hopes

Then sell you short

Yeah to build you up

And sell you short

All your life you were taught to believe

Then a moment of truth – you’re deceived

All the wine in your life’s all dried up

Is now the time to give up?

Like the soft paper cup that you squeeze

So you take this and that and then some more

And you make your way through the door

You make up your way through the door”

©2020 Costumes by Antonia

No portion of this article can be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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The Mother Goddess of Silk

Leizu weaving her magic
The Mother Goddess of Silk: Leizu weaving her magic. Image courtesy of Fine Art America

Since the beginning of time, silk has been one of the most coveted and elegant fabrics in existence. Admired for its beauty and opulence, silk is also valued for its versatility and durability. Silk has been used to make everything from luxurious couture gowns to military parachutes. Most top tier performing arts costume shops use nothing but silk to make everything from a peasant costume to an over the top confection for the star performer.

As a valuable commodity it made its way along The Silk Road into western sensibilities. Examples of silk have even been discovered on Egyptian mummies and on the preserved bodies of Pompeii. 

But the history of silk has some very sacred and mythical origins, where fact and fiction blend to become legend, going back over 5,000 years. And it all began with a woman named Leizu, who is also known as “The Mother Goddess of Silk”. 

The Altar in Leizu’s Temple located in Yichang, China. Honoring the Mother Goddess of Silk. Image courtesy of Barclay Travel Community.

As the legend goes, the Empress Leizu was seated under under a mulberry tree, drinking tea in her garden. Suddenly a cocoon dropped from the tree into her teacup. Leizu observed that the hot water began to soften the cocoon, causing it to dissolve into a long filament cord that she could wrap around her finger. And this was how silk was discovered. 

Not satisfied with having discovered silk filament, Leizu is also credited with having invented the silk reel (similar to the spinning wheel) to create thread from the fiber, as well as the loom! This allows the threads to be woven into fabrics. And that my friends, is how legends are made.

So thanks to Leizu’s ingenuity, silk became the number one commodity for China. So much so, that it became a closely guarded state secret, traded like valuable currency along the Silk Road. Making its way to all the major capitals of the world where it became a highly sought after status symboled for the influencers of the times. In fact, the Romans called the nation of China “Serica” which translates into “The Land of Silk”. 

Serica Silk roman togas
Silk Togas and Stolas were a status symbol in Ancient Rome here worn by the main characters in the 2000 film “Gladiator”. The Roman name for China was “Serica” meaning “Land of Silk”. Image courtesy of Universal/Dreamworks.

Silk togas were a highly valued status symbol among wealthy romans. An excellent example of this was the silken togas worn by the characters in the 2000 film “Gladiator”. Even though the film was wrought with costume anachronisms, the costume designer did get it right when she dressed the characters in sumptuous silks. 

But eventually, the art of sericulture (silk farming) made its way out of China as Chinese craftsmen migrated to other parts of the world. Soon other countries like India, Japan and even the Republic of Venice where producing their own versions of silk. Each region adding its own unique characteristic to this luxurious fabric.

Durability & Flexibility

One particular characteristic that made silk such a valuable commodity was its durability. That is because silk is a monofilament fiber. That means that each cocoon will produce only one thread that can go on for yards and yards. When they are wound together to create a cord for weaving it gives silk a great deal of strength. Until the invention of synthetic fabrics, silk had a number of industrial uses for things like surgical sutures and bicycle tires. 

But perhaps the most curious industrial use was in the manufacture of parachutes during World War II. This caused a shortage for consumers in particular silk stocking industry since manufacturing had to be diverted away from wearable goods to wartime production. But everyone did their part to pitch in for the war effort and patriotic young women gave up their silk stockings and instead painted lines in the back of their legs to give the appearance of wearing them. 

Silk Parachute
A US Marine Corps manual outlining the uses of silk in combat. Image courtesy of USAF/USMC.

This trend went on until the invention of another monofilament fiber: nylon. So silk stockings became “nylon stockings” and parachutes, well you get the picture. And this event gave birth to yet another phenomena in the fashion food chain: Wedding dresses made from recycled silk parachutes! This trend was particularly popular in Great Britain since the British people had suffered terribly during the war and experienced tremendous shortages as a result. So naturally for a War Bride to have worn a dress with such a provenance was a fashion statement that was much political as it was symbolic. 

Versatility is another quality that is attributed to silk.  Depending on how the fibers were processed, silk can be made to look like the most humble cloth or the most luxe textile.

Parachute silk wedding dresses
Necessity is the mother of invention. Two examples of parachute silk wedding dresses from WWII. Credits: (L) Creative Commons. (R) The Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC.

And it’s for this reason that performance arts organizations use silk as their fabric of choice when it comes to building their costumes. This is because, say, for example Raw Silk or Tussah Silk can be used to create a simple peasant or workers costume and as another example, Silk Satin could become a stunning evening dress or Silk Velvet can become a sumptuous cloak for royalty. All from that one little boiled larvae! 

Parachute silk wedding party
A precious legacy: Another example of repurposed parachute silk, this time for the entire wedding party! Image courtesy of Tim Collins @timcollins

Again, durability plays a huge factor for silk being the fabric of choice for costume productions.Because of its monofilament structure, self has the ability to absorb dyes very effectively. This is why silks take on such rich vibrant colors and can survive year after year even after undergoing the punishments of a theatrical or film performance. Afterwards the pieces are recycled for the next season or film. 

Cleanser of Choice
My cleanser of choice: Nowadays most silks are sent to the dry cleaners, however hand washing is the best way to go and Dr Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap is my cleanser of choice!

Finally, some of the least known but most important characteristic of silk is its insularity. This means that it keeps the wearer warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Its washability is another forgotten property, but yes, under the right conditions silk may be gently washed with a mild soap, such as Dr Bronner’s Castile Soap and cool water. Nowadays though, most silk garments are dry cleaned. 

My Fabric of Choice

Silk has always been my first fabric of choice when it comes to designing a costume. The fact that it can be processed to look like almost anything makes it an ideal material for costumes. When presented with an idea, if it can be made from silk then that’s what I am going to use for the build. I would like to share with you know, some of my past projects utilizing silk so that the reader can truly appreciate this “Goddess of all Fabrics”:

 

“Raw Silk” or “Silk Noil”

Cosplay costume made from Silk Noil. Click on the image for more about this costume.

Can you believe that coat is made of silk? The deep navy fabric is known as “raw silk” or “silk noil” and it derives its name from the silk making process because it comes from the first rendering of the boiling process. A bit like “virgin” olive oil is rendered from the first pressing. Unlike its Italian counterpart though, it is not held in the same value as the subsequent filaments that the cocoon gives up. 

This first rendering is generally scooped up and used to make a very rustic and organic fiber that is woven into the above mentioned fabric. Unfortunately since it doesn’t yet have the monofilament qualities of regular silk, it can only be woven with a very narrow loom. The usual width of this fabric hardly ever goes past 35” as opposed to the 45” and 60” standard with of most silks. 

Since most silks are now produced through mass automation, this extra step of sustainability is no longer deemed practical by the manufacturers. So that initial step of scooping up the first rendering is no longer done and its simply discarded. Making this fabric very difficult to find. According to my suppliers, this type of silk will soon be a thing of the past. 

Silk Brocade

Here are two examples of silk brocade upholstery fabric. Prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 19cc, there was no differentiation between garment and home furnishing fabrics.

These two costumes where actually made from silk brocade upholstery fabrics. Upholstery fabric is an excellent choice for making period costumes from the Renaissance to the Baroque.

That is because back then the same material could be used to upholster your furniture or your body. There was no differentiation between one or the other. So using upholstery, in particular if it’s silk upholstery, gives the garment a touch of authenticity. The costume on the left is also trimmed with silk lace that has been blended with gold thread. As is her Mop Hat too.

Silk Velvet

With the exception of the shoes and wigs, every fabric in this picture is some variation of silk.

This 18cc costume, with the exception of the wig and shoes, is made completely from silk. The jacket is silk velvet, the pants are silk peau de soie, the vest silk brocade, the chemise silk noil, hosiery mercerized silk, the lace and gold trim-you guessed it- silk. Even the bows on the shoes are made from silk! Such is the variety and versatility of silk.

Silk Faille/Moiré

Black silk and in particular, black silk Moiré, is a very popular staple for Victorian window’s weeds.

This is a very unusual finishing for silk called “Silk Faille” of “Silk Moiré”. It was very popular in Victorian times and then experienced a brief revival in the 80’s but is rarely used today. Hence the lady in the widows weeds made popular by Queen Victoria. This silk starts out in life as a “Faille”. The process of creating Faille is achieved by having the spindle on the loom skip over a few threads as it weaves the fabric, giving it a “wide whale” similar to corduroy. In order to create the “moiré” watermark, the fabric is steamed with an acidic component and then pressed with pressed with rib rollers to create that watermark effect. Click on the image to see the web post where you can see the original Victorian upon which this designed was based. 

Tussah Silk

Fantasy costume with cape made from Tussah Silk. Sarong is Silk Noil and cape appliqués are made from silk Dupioni.

Here’s another example of a variety of silks used for one costume. The cape is made from Tussah Silk which has its origins in India. It has a heavy hand and wide “slubs” which are irregularities in the weave of the fabric, giving it a rich textured look. Thanks to this weaving process, the fibers can absorb dyes with maximum saturation. The sarong is made from silk noil while the cape appliqués are made from Silk Dupioni. Last but not least, her bodystocking is embroidered with our silk thread. 

Silk Dupioni

Luxurious Silk Dupioni fabric saturated with vibrant jewel-toned colors

Silk Dupioni is also referred to as “Thai Silk” because most of its production takes place in Thailand. However, China, India and even Italy manufacture this gorgeous silk. Like the aforementioned Tussah silk, it also is considered a “slubby” fabric however, the weaving is more delicate than Tussah. This also allows it to absorb colors at high saturation as you can see from the rich texture of the costumes. Dupioni works great for renaissance and other period costumes because the organic weaving patterns give the costume a touch of authenticity. Almost as if it had been hand woven on a loom. 

Some other interesting details about these costumes: On the left, her cape, her purse and her hat are also made of silk; silk chiffon and silk velvet respectively. On the right: the coat is made from Dupioni, however her skirt is also silk chiffon. The two toned effect is called “sharkskin” weave and its created when two different colored threads are used in the the warp and weft during the weaving process. As the wearer moves the fabric shifts colors in the light. “Sharkskin” weave can also be used with different types of fabric and was very popular thigh mens suits in the 1940’s and 50’s. 

Silk Chiffon

Italian Silk Chiffon that has been enhanced with innovative weaving techniques giving the materials an almost liquid appearance.

Expanding on the silk chiffon theme from the previous post,  here are two more examples of silk chiffon being pimped up with unusual weaving effects. These two costumes where made from an Italian silk chiffon that was woven with gold (left side) and silver (right side) threads in a herringbone pattern barely discernible to the human eye. The interesting thing about this fabric is how photogenic it is. It turns into pure liquid on film.

Silk Charmeuse

Beautiful bias-cut Silk Charmeuse wedding dress for a lovely bride!

Silk Charmeuse is the “free spirited cousin” of Silk Satin. They are both woven in the same manner however, because the thread count is thinner than Silk Satin the fabric has a delicate weight but still has the high lustrous sheen. That makes it a perfect choice for 1930’s style bias cut dresses like the wedding gown in the picture. 

“Duchesse” Silk Satin

King of the Mardi Gras Krewe! His Majesty is wearing an elegant uniform made from this special type of Silk Satin.

This is a costume for a Mardi Gras King made from  Duchesse Satin. This satin woven silk has a heavy luxurious hand, making it the perfect material for wedding dresses, evening gowns and military style royal costumes like the one above. The military embellishments were specially ordered from England and were of course, also made of silk! Click Here to learn more about the tragic Emperor who served as an inspiration for this costume.

Masks!

Waste not, want not! Here silk scraps have been repurposed to create elegant, one of a kind masks. Click on the image to be directed to the Mask Gallery.

And what do we do with all those leftover scraps of silk? They are used to make Venetian style carnival masks, of course! The scraps are stretched out on the bias over a a canvas that has been lightly coated with craft glue and allowed to dry. Then it is reinforced with milliner’s wire and covered with leftover ribbons, beads, jewels etc. Waste not want not! Oh yes and the lilac fabric used as a drape on the left and right pictures is, guess what? You got it! Silk. It’s actually a “sand washed” silk , which is as the name implies, a process of washing the silk with a small amount of sand. This gives the fabric a slightly distressed look and a semi-matte finish.

I hope that you enjoyed this literary and visual journey through the world of silk. I’m sure that Leizu would be proud of how far her invention has gone so far. From helping to win a war against Facism to gracing the most upscale runways of Paris. Silk is one of those immortal fabrics that will never cease to fascinate us.

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The Proper Care And Feeding of your Costume

Working on The CRÜE project involved working with lots of unconventional materials. Often times one garment consisted of different types of fabrics and trimming that are often incompatible with each other in a regular garment. I usually sew in care labels for my clients but in this case it just would have been too many labels to sew in. Case in point, one costume was made from “pleather”, covered with holographic lamé trim and embellished with metal studs. The costume was also accented with a special fabric paint for effect; How in the world would one maintain that? The rule of thumb here is to go with the most delicate fabric and use cleaning techniques compatible with that type of fabric. In this case was the lamé which requires hand washing with a delicate soap such as Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap pictured above.

Read more about the Proper Care and Feeding of your Costume:

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a Costume by Antonia, thank you for your support of my work. Your costume was custom made by hand, specifically to your measurements. Proper care and feeding will result in years of wearing enjoyment.

Because your costume is made from non conventional materials that are trimmed with metal, I recommend special care and maintenance be applied, which may not always comply with the manufactures suggestions.

After your performance: I recommend turning your costume inside out and spraying it with vodka. Yes, vodka! Just use the cheapest bottom shelf plain vodka  (not flavored!). Pour the vodka into a clean spray bottle and spray the inside of your costume until it is fairly well saturated. Then allow it to air out for several hours until the vodka evaporates. As the vodka is evaporating, so will the perspiration and odors. I recommend doing this after every performance or as needed. Be sure to test a small amount to make sure it does not lift the color from the fabric.

You may also occasionally hand wash your costume in cool water and mild soap (excepts for the faux leather used for your body harnesses and belts. (I’ll get to below). Even though the manufactures’ instructions say that its ok to machine wash and tumble dry, DO NOT DO THIS!

The pleather, latex etc are also covered in studs and if you put it in the washer and or dryer, I can almost guarantee that you will loose all your studs and probably your washer/dryer too!

To hand wash, just soak them in cool water for about 30 minutes, gently agitate with your hand. Use a mild soap, I recommend Dr. Bronner’s Unscented Castile Soap for best results, but any mild soap is ok. After 30 minutes, gently press out the soapy water and rinse in cool water. I usually let it soak in fresh water for about 30 minutes, again agitating gently by hand. Then press out the water from the garment. If there is still any soap residue left, let it soak again in fresh water for about another 15 minutes. Press out the water and dry flat. This keeps the garment from distorting and allows it to retain its shape. If you don’t already have one, a drying rack is a good investment to ensure the longevity of your costume. The rack allows the air to circulate through the fibers so it can dry thoroughly. Once the item is completely dry, gently rebook into shape and hang folded in a cool dry place. Avoid storing it in your tour box because the fabric tends to “shrivel up” if it’s left folded for too long. If possible keep a packet of silica gel or a small block of cedar wood wherever your costume is stored to absorb moisture/humidity. This can be a problem in Houston! 

Care of your harnesses and belts: Do not immerse in water! Spray with the vodka if needed, otherwise just let it air out after your performance. You can also wipe it down with a moist washcloth and small amount of mild soap if it gets soiled. Store flat or on a hanger. You can occasionally condition the surface with a small amount of Vaseline, Baby Oil or Murphy’s Oil Soap. Apply with a soft cloth, then buff till the luster is restored.

DO NOT DRY CLEAN YOUR COSTUMES

DO NOT IRON YOUR COSTUME

DO NOT USE BLEACH

ALWAYS TEST A SMALL PATCH BEFORE ANY TREATMENT.

Enjoy wearing your costume!

Did you enjoy this post?

Please visit my website: costumesbyantonia.com

“Custom Made Fantasies From The Historical To The Hysterical”©

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Meet The Muse

Musidora
Actor, Writer, Film Maker. The Iconic Musidora

Meet Musidora

I am starting a new section in Newsletter: “Meet the Muse”, that honors cultural icons who influenced fashion, culture and the arts. The definition of Muse is generally attributed to a woman who is a source of inspiration, don’t be surprised to find guys and non-binary individuals in future posts.

Musidora as Irma Vep in “Les Vampires”

So as our first post in this category, it’s only natural that we begin with a woman with the solipsistic name of “Musidora”.  Born Jeanne Roques on February 23, 1889, Musidora , whose name means “Gift of the Muse”, was a silent screen actress, director and producer whose ghoulish exotic beauty captivated European audiences and served as a later inspiration for the likes of Theda Bara, Vampyra, Cat Woman and a dozen contemporary “Goths” such as Siouxsie Sioux and Courtney Love.

A young Musidora lets her hair down

She is best known for her starring role as Irma Vepp in the silent horror serial “Les Vampires”, directed by Louis Feuillade, who was also a ground breaking film maker in his own right. Feuillade was a great supporter of her work and went on to collaborate with her on one more film. “Judex”. After that, Musidora spread her wings, producing, writing, directing and starring on 10 more of her own films. Two of those were based on books written by her friend, the French novelist, Colette. Sadly all of her films are lost with the exception of two: “Soleil et Ombre” and “La Terre des Taureaux”. Of her collaboration with Feuillade, only “Les Vampires” still exists.

Musidora Spreads Her Wings

But just looking at those few surviving images flickering on the screen, it’s easy to see how she seduced audiences back in the day and how she continues to seduce us now. Her mannerisms and affectations look strangely contemporary and she continues to be imitated and satirized in modern culture. Everyone from Diamanda Gàlás to Elvira imitated her look. She was even the subject of a Drag satire, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” by Charles Ludlam and a 1996 update “Irma Vep” starring Maggie Cheung in the title role.

Musidora immortalized by Reneé Grau

Many filmmakers of note such as Luis Buñuel (Andalusian Dog) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis) credit her for inspiring their directorial style and the visual style of their films. The illustrator René Grau changed his painting style and began using only primary colors in her honor. So much was her influence that the French began referring to her as “La Dixieme Muse” (The Tenth Muse). Sadly with the onset of the talkies, Musidora’s acting career began to fade, but she did not let this minor detail stop her; She continued to write, produce and direct until her death in 1957.

An elegantly “toned down” Musidora

So the next time you apply thick dark eyeliner, enjoy an Ann Rice novel or consider wearing all black, remember the great debt that we owe to the Mother Muse of All Goths: Musidora.

Spawns of the Muse:  Can you name them all?

Would you like to see more of Musidora? Click on the images below to see her as Irma Vep in “Les Vampires”.

Click on image to watch.

Did you enjoy this Post? Please visit my website costumesbyantonia.com for more information about my custom made costume services, lessons and workshops.

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Meet The CRÜE!

Meet The CRÜE Tribute Band!

On Saturday January 18, 2020, The CRÜE made their debut at the BFE Club in Houston. This Mötley Crüe Tribute Band delivered a stunning performance to the delight of screaming fans. With a meticulous attention to details and a priority for authenticity, we were able to recreate the look and sounds of this iconic 80’s Glam Metal Band.

This inspired me to take a trip down Memory Lane:

Way back in 1983, in a different time, in a different world, I was a young 20 something winding down their studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, when I was conscripted by the F.I.T. Job Bank to intern for a project with a well known designer. The project involved assisting in the creation of dancer’s costumes for an entirely new concept known as a “Music Video”. So novel was the concept that the lady from the job bank said that music was meant to be heard, not watched! Remember at that time, MTV was just a fledgling second tier cable station that could not even get the broadcast rights in Manhattan! The fact that Strap Hangers in the Bridge & Tunnel communities were able to enjoy this cool new station but not the Manhattan trendsetters, sparked such an outrage that it spawned that ubiquitous ad campaign starring the top musicians of the day screaming: “I WANT MY MTV!”

Blink and you’ll miss it! Those are some badass leg warmers there!

The video was for a then unknown band who went by the unlikely name of Mötley Crüe. Or at least that was the name taped to the “Ditty Bags”. I had never heard of them nor did I ever meet the band members. Even if they did walk through Mr Legaspi’s studio, costume shop protocols dictates that anyone below the status of designer, could not speak or look at the performers, unless they were spoken to first.  Remember, the “costumes” were to be for dancers that had not even been cast yet. But the band’s name stuck and from then on my fellow internee and I would refer to each other as the “The Motley Crew”. Once my week long internship was over, I collected my mere pittance of a stipend and got on with my life. Several months later, Manhattan Cable tired of hearing the screaming demands of their audience, added MTV to their lineup. That, and another curiosity called a “24 hour news channel”, CNN. So imagine my surprise when I am sitting in my living room watching the latest “Haircut 100” video, or whatever. All of the sudden a “Premiere Video” began playing called “Looks That Kill” by non other than “Mötley Crüe”! YOWZA! I began screaming at my roommate: “LISA COME DOWN HERE! IT’S THAT VIDEO I TOLD YOU ABOUT!!!”. We watched the video together and it was really quite stunning in it’s look and presentation. It was the first time I had seen a band combine Glam and Metal and hence a new genre was coined: “Glam Metal”. Oh yes and I caught some brief glimpses of the leg warmers on the dancers that were cut and sewn by yours truly. I was a part of Rock’nRoll History. How ‘bout that?

Calling Dr. Stanislavsky! We have a serious case of over-acting here!

More importantly, who knew that nearly 36 years later I would be commissioned by a representative of “The Crüe”, a Tribute Band, to recreate their iconic Glam Metal costumes for a whole new generation! It was one of my most fun and challenging projects as I collaborated with the band members to bring back the sights and sounds of a previous era. By studying early concert footage and an abundance of images provided by The CRÜE, the original costumes were brought to life. And no, I did not have to cut and sew any leg warmers this time. Like I said, the project was challenging in the sense that many of the fabrications and embellishments were difficult to source. In particular because I live in a city that is lacking the infrastructure and skilled labor pool to support this type of business. So most of the materials had to be ordered in and finding reliable contractors to assist in the completion of the project was nearly impossible. Thankfully I was blessed to find the services of “Twisted Arrow Goods”, amazing leatherworkers here in Houston, who were able to lend their assistance to the completion of the project. Thanks to their enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of the band members, the baby was delivered in good health.

The Diligent Workers at Twisted Arrow Goods

So I would like to take you on a quick journey on the making of the Mötley schemata’s based on the original designs and given a modern twist for comfort and wearability. The authenticity of the costumes served to back up the strong performance they delivered last Saturday. The CRÜE’S masterly musicianship and spot on choreography, backed by the costumes helped to nail a killer performance, bringing us all back to those heady early days of Glam Metal.

“Vince Neil”

Doppelgänger, Vince Neil Costume

Vince’s costume was perhaps one of the most challenging to recreate. What appears to be a skimpy little harness with a codpiece and tight pants is really a miracle of engineering. Watching some of the original concert footage of the actual band, it was a bit painful to see all of the wardrobe malfunctions occurring as the real Vince sang and danced onstage. I was determined to not allow that to happen on my watch, so I made it my imperative that every component of this costume was securely anchored in place. Another challenge of this costume was finding the appropriate studs and nail heads. In particular the triangular pyramids which were sourced from a supplier in New York City. Seeing the final outcome is like seeing a the original come back to life. It’s said that in life we all have a doppelgänger and I think that Vince has found his.

“Mick Mars”

Looks that Kill, Mick Mars costume

Mick’s was probably one of the easiest to recreate as you can see the design is pretty straightforward in keeping with the artistic sensibilities of the artist. The CRÜE guitarist is  an excellent musician (actually they ALL are excellent) and so comfort was the number one priority here. My goal here was to create a costume that was totally authentic but at the same time allow the wearer to apply his art on stage to the thrill of the adoring fans.

“Tommy Lee”

Cute Dimples! Tommy Lee costume

Even though, I had seen the “Looks that Kill” video hundreds of times, I was still bedazzled by the amount of work on his pectoral and the complexity of the design. My approach was to break down the design, section by section then putting it all together. Our biggest challenge here was to reproduce the “dimpled” studs along the lower row of the pectoral. Remember, these original costumes were built way back in 1983 and some of these embellishments no longer exist. By employing a technique called “peening” we were able to recreate the “dimple” effect from a regular domed stud. It’s a pity Tommy has to sit behind the drum kit because the audience is denied seeing his cool costume. But he is a solid drummer and his tight beats leads the rest of the musicians through the set with stunning precision! 

“Nikki Sixx”

Hey Nikki you’re so fine! “Nikki Sixx” costume

Who can forget can forget Nikki with his under eye black stripes? Here, we recreated his 2 epaulets and a bias strapped body harness which was anchored to a double cross belt. It was important that every aspect of this costume be balanced, in particular because the larger epaulet was extremely heavy and sat on the right shoulder of his playing hand, it was crucial that this component sit securely  on the shoulder but not interfere with his guitar playing.

Would you like to see more?

Click here to see their debut performance at the BFE Club

Click on the image above to be directed to my YouTube Channel and you can see for yourself how their excellent musicianship and attention to detail served to nail an unforgettable performance. (Plus the costumes aren’t bad either!)

The CRÜE says: Follow this link to like us on FB!

To follow The CRÜE and their upcoming concerts please click here to be directed to their Facebook Page.

Did you enjoy this post? Please visit my website: costumesbyantonia.com your place for “Custom Made Fantasies From The Historical To The Hysterical”©

 

 

 

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The Taurean Villain

                                                           Adam Taurus Custom Made Costume

Adam Taurus Villain

Creating a costume that has never been done before is one of my favorite challenges. That’s why I was so exited when a new client contacted me earlier this year, inquiring if it would be possible for me to create a costume based on the notorious Anime villain, Adam Taurus. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity because converting something from a one dimensional image into a three dimensional article worn by a human is always a worthy challenge. An animator’s illustration may be a beautiful work of art but it can’t always translate into a wearable garment.

Challenges like this always serve to help the costume designer hone their crafting and construction skills while at the same time respecting the integrity of the original design. This particular project reminded me of the “Bard” project that I created for another client last year. 

Adam Taurus RWBY Anime Villain

In the case of Adam Taurus, there already exist many ready made costumes that are  available online, but not surprisingly, they are lacking in quality. As for his magical mask, well, forget about it. I was going to have to really work my own magic on this puppy. My client was concerned with quality and durability since he was wanting to wear his costume over and over again. So we would have to find materials that were unusual but practical. 

The suit itself was relatively simple; think of a sort of samurai cassock only that the hemline was unusual in the sense that it was asymmetrical with a sort of a ‘mudflap’ panel attached to the front left of the suit. My concern was the selection of fabric. I did not want to select conventional men’s suit fabric because it can be hot and heavy. He was going to have to be wearing this inside convention halls where the room temperatures can get pretty high sometimes due to all the other people in costume milling about. 

I wanted something that was light weight, looked sharp and had that ‘futuristic’ sheen to it. Polished Cotton was the fabric of choice. Yes, that old throwback from the 70’s and 80’s is making a comeback in this new century. It had nice hand to it and had excellent body. But at the same time it was lightweight enough for comfort. It was an easy fabric to work with and in the areas that needed build up I used light weight wadding to give shape to the shoulders and collar. For his bright red lining, I had originally thought about using silk Habotai which is traditionally used for lining. But I opted instead for microfiber polyester because again, it was breathable and the slight gabardine weave gave the overall look of the garment a good shape. 

                                            Construction Details for Adam Taurus Costume

Once the garment was assembled, it was time to work on the appliqués. As you can see from the pictures, the design is quite complex: trying to decipher the pattern was an impossibility. So instead of trying to draw it out freehand, I captured some screenshots then put the images in photoshop where I tweaked them then enlarged them to match the dimensions of the garment. Once that step was completed, I took the jpegs over to a local printing shop that had a wide format printers to have them printed out. Voila! Instant pattern!

For the actual appliqués I chose a bright red ultra suede fabric. Another throwback from the 70’s! Ultra suede is a synthetic material with suede like qualities on one side but is actually a woven fabric on the other side. So like suede, it can take on some pretty bright colors, but it can also behave like conventional fabric in the sense that the colors won’t bleed like the real thing. Plus I liked the contrast of the textured red against the glossy black fabric. I think it worked quite well, don’t you? 

                                                       More Details for Adam Taurus Costume

As mentioned earlier, the mask was my biggest challenge of all. According to the storyline, Adam Taurus was blinded and so had to wear the mask to not only hide his face but to be able to see. My goal was to make it as close to the original as possible while still allowing the wearer to be able to retain his peripheral vision. My solution was to use a heavy mylar sheet and painting it with a translucent paint that would look opaque from the outside but still allow the wearer to see. Piñata Paints by Jacquard did the trick! The overall effect worked quite well. I purposely lightened the paint application around the eye area but from a distance the mask looks almost completely opaque. 

The same Piñata Paints were used to enhance his accessories as it gave the sword and holster a nice iridescent sheen. Overall the project turned out quite well and it gave me the chance to once again work with unconventional materials, designs and concepts. Onward and upwards! 

 Ready to create your own villainous costume?

Please visit my website: costumesbyantonia.com

Call: 832-652-9180

email: costumesbyantonia@gmail.com

 

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The World’s Most Dangerous Profession

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Click on image to see the costume inspired by this image. Photo courtesy of Miramare Foundation

Let’s face it folks:

Fashion and Costume & Design can be a very dangerous profession. When I think of all of the creative notables (and those in their periphery) who have come to an untimely end whether by their own hand or by another form of tragic demise, the list is staggering:

Alexander McQueen (suicide)

Isabella Blow (suicide)

Jay Sebring (Manson Family victim)

L’Wren Scott (suicide)

Kate Spade (suicide)

Wallis Franken (death by defenestration-look it up)

Gianni Versace (assassinated)

Ossie Clark (murdered)

Gianpaolo Castellani (trampled to death by an elephant during a safari)

Irene Lentz (suicide)

And then there’s this guy:

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (death by firing squad)

Why is there such a high death rate within this profession? More than likely because of the fact that clothing design is a hybrid between art and commerce, a hybrid that is not always a harmonious one.

Take a volatile creative personality and force them to answer to the suits in the boardroom and it can easily drive a sensitive person to a violent end. Of course each case has its own subconscious triggers but the results are the same.

The Mardi Gras Krewe King costume inspired by the subject of this post.

And then there are those who die violent deaths; Being a high profile person unfortunately attracts those who wish to do them harm, as in the case of Gianni Versace or Ossie Clark. Then there is the subject of our Blog, The Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. I was inspired to write this post after being commissioned by a Mardi Gras Krewe to design the costume for their King. The inspiration was drawn from an official portrait of the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. As I worked in the creation of the King costume, I was also inspired to do a little research on this misunderstood monarch. What does he have in common with the others on this list? Plenty, please read on:

Maximilian and Carlotta in happier days. Image courtesy Fundación Chapultepec

In the U.S. we have appropriated the Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo and turned into an excuse to guzzle Margaritas and eat Mexican food without a clue as to the history behind this celebration. So widespread is the ignorance around the holiday that someone once actually wished me a “Happy Cinco de Mayo” assuming that because I had a Spanish surname I would be celebrating the holiday. I can still see the embarrassment in their face when I patiently explained that it was a Mexican holiday and I was actually Cuban-American! Oh well..

But even those who may be slightly familiar with the history behind the holiday will say that it celebrates the expulsion of the French from Mexico and the execution of the evil, incompetent Emperor Maximilian. But peel back the onion layers of history and you will find that Max was a tragic figure, who was a pawn between several superpowers of the time. A person who was a bundle of contradictions, naive, idealistic, creative and in the end: heroic in the face of tragedy. Oh yes and he designed the costumes for the army of his adopted country. 

Our subject’s story begins in the Austro Hungarian Empire. He was the younger brother of the Emperor Franz Josef and like most second sons he wound up playing second banana in domestic geopolitics. But in spite of that, he had a successful career in the Austrian Navy and later became Governor of the Lombard/Venetian Kingdom. It was here that his creative streak began to emerge when he set out to build his new home in Trieste, named Miramare Castle. He was heavily involved in the design and landscaping of the property and the result is a beautiful fairy tail palace that still exist today:

Beautiful Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy. Image courtesy of Museo Castelo Miramare

He was doing well for himself and for his wife Carlotta, when all of the sudden the fickle finger of fate intervened and sucked him into a political whirlwind that let to his tragic demise. Unbeknownst to him his older brother Franz Josef and Louis Napoleon III of France were hatching a plot to put a figurehead ruler in Mexico so that they could control the country’s silver mines and use the bullion to prop up France’s currency. However, there was a minor detail in that there was already a democratically elected president in place: Benito Juarez. He had confiscated these silver mines and other properties belonging to the oligarchical landowners of the country. Juarez had become an inconvenient person much like Allende in Chile had been to the CIA. So the two superpowers took it upon themselves to depose Juarez and install a useful idiot who would do their bidding in running the country. Sound familiar?

President Benito Juarez- Image courtesy of Museo de Arte Popular, México

According to historians, our friend Maximilian was duped by his older brother and the Emperor of France into believing that he had actually been democratically elected by the Mexicans and so accepted the offer to be their King. This might sound completely unbelievable today, but remember that news did not travel so fast back then. There was no 24 hour news cycle and sometimes it would take months for news to travel from one end of the world to the other.  So it’s totally plausible that the naive and idealistic Max would have believed this.

So he packed his bags and took his wife Carlotta along with mercenaries from the French army and set his sights on Mexico. During the month long journey to his new country, he did not engage with his ministers to learn the policies of Mexico, but chose instead to focus his energies on designing the military uniforms of his new army. Really. He also focused his energy on learning about the indigenous culture of Mexico and its flora and fauna. Evidently Maximilian had cancelled a long planned trip to Brazil to study their botany but obviously he found this new adventure to be much more challenging.

Mexican Army Uniforms designed by Maximilian. Courtesy Fundación Chapultepec

One he was established in his new country, Maximilian proved to be much more liberal and egalitarian than he was made out to be by his European sponsors. For starters, he upheld many of the reforms that had been implemented by Juarez. He championed the cause of the Campesinos and refused to return the confiscated lands to the Church and forget about the silver mines! Maximilian had barely steeped off the boat and he was already making some powerful enemies.

Unfortunately such highbrow idealism also came with a smattering of ignorance and arrogance. Even though he upheld President Juarez’s reforms, he also invited him to be a part of his new Imperial Cabinet which only served as a major insult to Juarez since he was the democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation. This was something Juarez would deeply resent and no doubt encouraged him to order his execution later on. To add to the mess, Mexico’s neighbor to the north, the US was involved in their own Civil War; As the Union began to gain the upper hand, many Confederate soldiers and their families fled to Mexico seeking asylum. (The irony here is not lost.) Maximilian welcomed them and even allowed them to keep their slaves. This is a bit oxymoronic for the man wanted to abolish the system of peonage but gave refuge to slave owners from another country. 

So as you can see, Maximilian although well intentioned, fell far short of what would be required of a person in that unenviable position. He was making enemies from all angles and the powers that be were out to teach him a lesson. But in spite of the political intrigue and betrayal that surrounded him, Max still pursued his creative bug by redecorating what would become his Imperial residence: Chapultepec Castle. Just as he did with Miramare, he worked closely with the architects and designer to create a lovely Neo-classical  style palace of unsurpassed beauty. In fact it is the only castle in North America to have been inhabited by an actual sovereign.

Chapultepec Castle- Image courtesy Atlas Obscura

To recap, the powers that be were out to get our artistic Monarch and his sensual world would collapse around him like dominoes in a southeast asian theater of war. The French never really succeeded in pushing Benito Juarez out of Mexico, he was just biding his time on the American border. The Americans in turn, invoked the Monroe Doctrine and ordered the French troops out of Mexico. Louis Napoleon had by now grown tired of his disappointing Protege and was only too happy to oblige. Besides, he was too busy invading Egypt. To top it all off, Empress Carlotta suffered a major nervous breakdown and wound up being institutionalized. And you thought you have problems?

The ill-fated Carlotta of Mexico-Image courtesy of Kunsthalle Museum, Mannhiem, Germany

The French withdrawal from Mexico gave Juarez’s army the chance to take back what had been lost earlier, the turning point being the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, hence the holiday. Maximilian and his few remaining soldiers where eventually surrounded at the city of Santiago de Querétaro. After a short siege, the city fell and Maximilian surrendered to his victors where he was summarily courtmartialed and executed by firing squad on June 16, 1867. Witnesses said that he displayed the quality of “noblesse-oblige” to the end. As he marched towards his death, he tipped his his executioners and ask that they aim for his heart, not his face so that his mother would recognize him in death. His last words were: “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva México!” Noblesse-Oblige indeed.

Execution of Maximilian by Édouard Manet-Courtesy MOMA, NY

Thus ends a very cautionary tale about the dangers of idealism, betrayal and how one person’s obsession with aesthetics made him unable to balance cultural pursuits with Realpolitik, causing him to wind up on the roster that was presented at the beginning of this post. 

Signature of Emperor Maximilian I-Courtesy Bettmann Archive

 

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She’s Like A Rainbow

The Enigma of Elizabeth I’s Rainbow Portrait.

Elizabeth I “Rainbow Portrait” ca 1600 Artist Unknown. Courtesy of Hatfield House, UK

She is one of the most ubiquitous Queens in our collective consciousness: Elizabeth Tudor has been portrayed in films, books, plays, television series and so on. Every actress worth her salt wants to play her. The whole concept of the modern day Renaissance Pleasure Faire revolves around her court. We are all familiar with her appearance from art history classes and museum visits. Our whole concept of who she was and what she represented has been inculcated into our heads by endless exposure from all intellectual angles. In her portraits we see her wearing beautiful gowns, gazing down on us with her enigmatic visage and none of these portraits is more mysterious than the quirky “Rainbow Portrait”.

Let’s start with a little bit of background here: I’m not going to get into details about her family history because all of that has been covered ad nauseam by Hollywood and historians alike. But what I want to focus on instead was her almost anal retentive  obsession with her image and how she wanted to be seen by her public. According to her biographers, Elizabeth was surrounded by a public relations apparatchik that would put a Hollywood publicist to shame. This resulted in many representations of her that are heavily embedded with symbolisms. Portraits of her could only be commissioned by approved artists and they would be given an “authorized” stencil of her face which would be used a template in order for the artist to reproduce her face. This accounts for the almost identical visage in almost every single painting. Official portraits of the Queen where usually commissioned to commemorate an official event such as her coronation or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The provenance of the Rainbow Portraits remains as much of a mystery as the cryptic symbols embedded within it.

For an art piece that has been so over analyzed, there is very little known about its aforementioned provenance. The artist is unknown and it’s not sure how it came into the possession of its first owners, the Cecils, father and son who where ministers to the Queen. It’s believed it may have been commissioned by the son to commemorate her visit to Hatfield House, the Cecil family seat.  Another curious detail is that when this painting was believed to be created, she was already pushing 70, towards the end of her life. But she is represented as a young maiden with long, flowing auburn locks cascading down her shoulders. Again, the official face template being put to good use and for good effect. Nonetheless, it’s one of the last known portraits made of Queen Elizabeth before her death in 1603.

Let’s have a closer look, shall we?

Starting from the top and working our way down, she is wearing a crown toped off by a crescent moon believed to represent Diana, Virgin Goddess of the Hunt. Diana, also represented the warrior and steward of the land, two responsibilities that were shared by Elizabeth in her lifetime.

Detail: Crescent moon toping off her crown.

Moving our eyes down along her costume, we can appreciate that it is dripping with pearls, a symbol of purity and another subtle reference to her virginity as she was known to be “The Virgin Queen”.

Detail: Multitude of pearls on her stomacher and elsewhere.

To her right, next to her face, there is a bejeweled gauntlet attached to her gorget. This represents the loyalty of her male courtiers and their willingness to throw down their gauntlet in order to defend her honor. 

Detail: Jeweled gauntlet on her gorget.

Her back collar has been stiffened with starch and fashioned into the shape of wings resembling angel or fairy wings. “Glorianna” was one of her official titles and also the title character of an opera composed by her contemporary, Henry Purcell: “The Fairie Queene”. 

Detail: Glorianna Wings

Her left sleeve is embellished with a brocaded snake holding a ruby red heart in its mouth: The wisdom and temperance of the snake holds in check the compassion and emotion of her heart. Above the snake’s head is an Orb, representing the Monarchy. Balance is maintained between the two qualities that are so important to a successful Monarch.

Detail: Snake, Heart, Orb

In her right hand she holds a rainbow and above her in Latin the words: “Non Sine Sole Iris” which translates to “No Rainbow without the Sun”. Meaning that if one wants peace and prosperity, then compromises must be met. 

Detail: No Rainbow without the Sun.

Finally, and perhaps the most curious is the cloak with the multiple eyes and ears embroidered all over. What could this mean? “I am all knowing and all seeing?” For most of her reign she fought and won against all odds. 

Detail: I see all and hear all

For Elizabeth, it was not how she was seen, but how she wished to be seen. And how she wished to be seen was as a ruler who consolidated authority, transcended time and defied the ravages of aging. As one historian explained, the imagery of “The Rainbow Portrait” represents the three pillars of her reign:

“Divinity, Virginity, Power”.

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Renfair, Fantasy, Corporate and Special Events.

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Auf Wiedersehen Kaiser Karl

                    Karl Lagerfeld photographed by Helmut Newton. Paris 1979

 

Karl Lagerfeld 

09/10/1933 – 02/19/2019

The news of Karl Lagerfeld’s passing came on the heels of another project that occupied most of my time so I had promised my readers to give him a good send off in due time. Well, here it is and I hope it does him justice. Enjoy!

This is Karl Lagerfeld:

Early design for the House of Chanel (Coco meets Mae West?)

 

And this is Karl Lagerfeld:

“Lait au Bain” photograph by Karl Lagerfeld”

 

And this is Karl Lagerfeld:

Design for Tommy Hilfiger

 

And This Too, is Karl Lagerfeld:

Portrait of Harvey Weinstein by Karl Lagerfeld

And so was This:

Costume Design for cult film “Maitresse”, 1975

But He Will Ultimately Be Remembered For This:

From his final collection for Chanel

In the spring of 1982, I was in my final semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology, when it was announced in Women’s Wear Daily that Karl Lagerfeld had been appointed to take over as Design Director at the venerable House of Chanel. It echoed like a thunderclap throughout Seventh Avenue. The breaking news was also announced at the beginning of my Fashion Illustration class which was taught by another legend in the Industry: the late Harvey Boyd. 

Professor Boyd was quite an intense individual who never shied from sharing his opinion. After sharing the news, he began questioning us about what the implications would be, when this edgy designer commandeered this Fashion Warhorse. Keep in mind that first, Karl was not French (the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture was very xenophobic) and second many of the established Fashion Houses were still being run by their namesakes, ie: the House of Givenchy was still being run by Hubert and Saint Laurent by Yves, just to give an example. So it was a risky move to bring in an outsider who was already well established elsewhere.

Young Dilettante

So we young dilettantes bandied about speculating what his first collection would look like until finally Professor Boyd announced: “I want the class to create a series of illustrations of what Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. The inspiration will be Chanel meets May West” with the caveat: “And if anyone shows me a picture of an hourglass figure in a tweed suit, they will be expelled from my class!” A tall order if there ever was one.

I’ll never know where he got the inspiration for this, maybe he had a back channel to old Karl and the design crew at Chanel (after all Professor Boyd was pretty well connected). Or perhaps this was something that he pulled out of his hat. But know this: I think he touched on the basic concept of Lagerfeld’s vision. It was his mutability. His ability to adapt and merge completely unrelated ideas to suit his client’s needs while making it totally his own.

Grand Theft Auto!

There are a lot of detractors who say that “There is no Lagerfeld Style”, well of course not! Lagerfeld spent most of his career freelancing for other fashion houses while occasionally stepping out with his own namesake collection. During the course of his profession he designed for the Houses of Fendi, Chloe, Tommy Hilfiger, Patou on and on. So much so that WWD labeled him “Fashion’s Busiest Freelancer”. But it was with the House of Chanel that he really took off. His innovations and presentations breathed new life into the dormant Couture Studio. His designs were so groundbreaking that WWD christened him with a new title: “Kaiser Karl’. And it stuck. Just like Howard Stern fancied himself the “King of All Media”, Kaiser Karl deserved this well earned nickname. He was not just a Fashion Designer, he was also a photographer, a painter, a writer, a video game character (Grand Theft Auto), a film director and a book publisher (yes, really). He truly was a Renaissance Man on the scale of David Bowie.

The “Death in Venice” Cruise Collection 2010 click on link below to watch

With great fame and accomplishments came great critics and detractors. He was accused of being a misogynist, of hating women, because of his remarks about singer Adele’s weight. Or his feud with Ines de la Fressange because she was chosen by the French government to be the new  “Marianne”. But I call out to those critics to answer this: It was Karl who hired supermodels like Stella Tennant and Jasmine Le Bon to work his runway shows when both women were well into there 50’s. Other designers would consider them to be one the hill, but not Karl; He knew the importance of catering to his bread and butter client: The well heeled middle aged woman. 

It was Karl who appointed his two successors shortly before his death: Virginie Viard for Chanel and Silvia Venturini for Fendi. Both women, women who had been his creative collaborators for over 30 years. Who is the misogynist now? OK, so maybe he said that Adele had a beautiful face and voice but that it was a pity she was overweight. I’m sure he’s not the only one who shared this opinion. Besides, two out of three is not bad!

With Model Stella Tennant Paris/Bombay Collection 2013
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCuSN6Q30Ro

 

Although Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel never met, they were creative soulmates. Both dabbled in costume design (Coco for “Le Train Bleu” and Karl for the cult classic “Maitresse”) and both where masterminds at taking the process of creating a couture collection to a whole new level. Coco Chanel liked to tie in her collections with a destination, Karl took it one step further and brought the fashion to the destination. Case in point his “Death in Venice” collection on the Lido Beach, the “Paris Bombay Collection” and my personal favorite: Chanel Resort in Havana, Cuba. All the time fusing the unique conceits of each culture while maintaining the integrity of the design concepts of the House of Chanel. 

Chanel Resort 2017 in Havana, Cuba. Notice the “Guayabera” embroidery on the Chanel Jacket and the “Spectator/Cuban” shoes. Fusing cultures. click on link below to watch:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6PEVrQNk4w

 

Most importantly was Karl’s ability to laugh at himself. Case in point being Mick Jagger’s hilarious spoof of him on SNL. Rumor has it that Karl laughed last and loudest.

He who laughs last, laughs loudest. Jagger as Lagerfeld on SNL. Click to watch
https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/versace-bathroom/2872711

Karl, worked tirelessly till the end, keeping his health problems to himself. His death came as a shock for most people because he was one of those larger than life figures who, like Bowie or Elizabeth Taylor, one thinks will live forever.

“Reincarnation” directed by Karl Lagerfeld, starring Pharrell and Geraldine Chaplin as Mlle Chanel.

 

So in closing we will not say “Goodbye” but instead “Auf Wiedersehen”.

Because the literal translation of “Auf Wiedersehen” from German is not goodbye, but “see you later”. And in truth you will never leave us Kaiser Karl, Your body of work and your legacy will live on forever to serve as an inspiration to us lesser mortals.

Jason Momoa at the 2019 Academy Awards wearing a final commission by Lagerfeld

 

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And The Winners Are! 2019 Edition

Nominees for Best Achievement in Costume Design.

The Votes are in and here are the nominees in a category that is very close to my heart: Best Achievement in Costume Design. This year the nominees are all veterans of the awards season. There are two former recipients and perennial nominees.

And the Winners Are 2019

Ruth E. Carter: Black Panther

Ruth E. Carter has been active since the early 80’s and her body of work encompasses the costumes of almost every film genre. A multiple Oscar nominee, she has worked with top notch directors such as Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Steven Spielberg. This body of work has reached its zenith with her innovative designs for the film “Black Panther”. 

The genre of science fiction is one that I personally feel is unfairly over looked when it comes to recognition from The Academy. Not to disparage the other nominees, because their efforts also merit recognition. But, Oscar nominations tend to favor historical dramas and it always pains me when I see science fiction or fantasy films get passed over in that category. Because for a historical costume drama one only needs to look at a history book for the interpretation of the characters through design. But for a science fiction or fantasy film, the costume designer relies only on their imagination. And believe me, that can be a tall order. Francis Coppola said once that a costume designer tells the story through the wardrobe and when the story is purely hypothetical, that’s where real creative genius kicks in.

Mary Zophres: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Mary Zophres is also a multiple Oscar nominee and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is her 14th collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Their films all have “a look” about them and it’s obvious that the entire Art Department works very hard to create a cohesive vision. Like some of her previous efforts such as “The Big Lebowski”, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” displays all of the quirky costuming conceits associated the Coen Brothers films. 

Here, the characters are defined by the costumes they wear. To quote Ms. Zophres: “This was like designing for six different leads with six different backgrounds”. She was particularly challenged in the creation of an amputee costume for one character. The character was not an amputee and the Coen Brothers do not always rely on CGI for special effects. So she cleverly created a shirt with four sleeves to give the illusion of being armless and allowing the actor to hide his limbs without resorting to “Cinema Verité”. 

Alexandra Byrne: Mary, Queen of Scots 

Alexandra Byrne, a former Oscar winner (Elizabeth, The Golden Age) and perennial nominee, brings a touch of fantasy to an equally fantastical film. I try to avoid movies dealing with the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth II. Mostly because of their inaccuracies. Yes, it’s a screenwriters wet dream to write a script featuring these two hellcats chewing up the scenery. The fact is they never met! And unfortunately this film steps into the same historical dog pile with the hems of the costumes dragging though.

I am not sure if the following fabric choice was due to budgetary and/or creative license, but all of the costumes were built from denim. A fabric that did not even exist at that time!. I applaud the Art Department by trying to be edgy, but honestly, it does not work. The use of this fabric as a base for all the costumes winds up giving the movie a dreary, monotonous look. 

One last abuse of creative license with really has nothing to do with costumes but it’s something that always burns my toast: Yes, Mary Stuart was born in Scotland, yes, she was queen of this country. But her Mother (Marie de Guise) was French and Mary was sent to live at the French court at the age of 5, where she lived for 14 years. More than likely her first language would have been French. So why, why, why is she always portrayed speaking with a thick Scottish Burr? So if anything, she probably would have spoken English with a French accent, n’est-ce pas? Oh yes and Memo to the Hair & Makeup Department: Mary Stuart had brown eyes, not blue. Saoirse Ronan has lovely baby-blues and perhaps they wanted to match the denim.

In short, if this movie is awarded in this category, I will stab myself in the eye with a fork and broadcast it on this blog. 

But I don’t want to waste this post by trashing her work. Alexandra Byrne also designed the costumes for the popular “Dr. Strange” for which she was passed over in 2016. This only reinforces my theory about the shortsightedness of the Academy and the way that science fiction and fantasy are ignored. 

Sandy Powell: Mary Poppins Returns & The Favourite

 

Once again, Sandy Powell pulls double duty with a double nomination for “Mary Poppins Returns” & “The Favourite”. Statistically speaking, this double nomination will also increase  her chances to grab the statue, as was the case with her double whammy nomination in 2000 for “Velvet Goldmine” and “Shakespeare in Love” and then again in 2015 for “Carol” and “Cinderella”. She has won the prize for “Shakespeare in Love”, “The Aviator” and “The Young Victoria”. 

In “Mary Poppins” she employs whimsical techniques such as hand painting the costumes for the CGI scenes in order to achieve a more even color palette. For “The Favourite” she relies on a muted palate to echo the elegant interiors of the baroque era. 

Of all of this year’s nominees, she is probably the most accomplished. Sandy Powell is one of those creative artists whose creations are so visually powerful, that sometimes they can overpower the actor’s performance. I’m thinking specifically of Jonathon Rees-Meyers playing the “Bowie” role in “Velvet Goldmine”. Anyone who had the privilege to see Bowie perform in his lifetime knows that Bowie was a natural performer who wore his costumes with panache. In “Velvet Goldmine” is appeared as if the costumes were wearing Jonathan Rees Meyers. Thankfully, the strong performances of Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppeins” and the female Trifecta in “The Favourite” worked well with the beautiful costumes. 

Sandy Powell’s creative inspiration sees her on the fast track to inherent the double crowns of the late Eiko Ishioka and Edith Head. 

All Nominees are Winners but for my money the Oscar should go to: 

Ruth E. Carter, “Black Panther”.

~*~*~*~

THEY WERE ROBBED!

“ A Wrinkle in Time”

Why was this movie not nominated?

The film showcases the beautiful femcentric designs of Paco Delgado.

Memo to the Academy: 

Please get your collective heads out of your asses 

and nominate more science fiction/fantasy movies!

Did you enjoy this post? Please visit my website: www.costumesbyantonia.com

your place for custom costume made fantasies  from the historical to the hysterical

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