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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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:
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:
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?
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.
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-classicalstyle palace of unsurpassed beauty. In fact it is the only castle in North America to have been inhabited by an actual sovereign.
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 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.
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.
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 retentiveobsession 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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
And this is Karl Lagerfeld:
And this is Karl Lagerfeld:
And This Too, is Karl Lagerfeld:
Portrait of Harvey Weinstein by Karl Lagerfeld
And so was This:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 increaseher 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
It’s with tremendous pride that I announce, my award winning costume installation, “Titania Takes a Quantum Leap”, has been selected to be a part of the Venice Art Biennale. “Titania” is a multi media installation featuring alternative fabrications and LED technology. It was originally presented at the “Creatures and Models” conference in San Francisco, California. This juiced exhibit was sponsored by LucasFilm and judged by the senior art department heads at Industrial Light & Magic studios. “Titania Takes a Quantum Leap” was awarded Best in Category (Costumes) and “Best In Show.
“Titania” was also selected to be exhibited at the “Brave Destiny” group show at the WAH Gallery in New York City along with the works of Robert Venosa and Alex Gray.
Now “Titania” will take another “Quantum Leap” across the Atlantic where she will be a part of the prestigious Venice Art Biennale as a part of the “It’s Liquid” Group.
I will be completely honest: I have not yet seen the film “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the new biopic about singer Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. Having been fortunate enough to have seen Queen in concert during the mid 70’s, I know that my opinion will be clouded by preconceptions and comparisons to the real deal. When I saw them in concert, it was at a relatively small venue that accommodated maybe 500 people as opposed to the later performance venues consisting of football stadiums that could fit 100,00 plus souls. It was a time when Freddie still sported that sexy shag hairdo that gave him the air of a sensuous Persian Prince and not the obnoxious crew cut and mustache which gave him the air of a convenience store employee working the night shift at 711 or a leather cruiser at the Catacomb Club of San Francisco.
But the story I am about to tell, no doubt transpired during this time; Since it was at this performance that Freddie was sporting onstage a fashion confection that was a result of a creative collaboration between himself and another product of London’s early 70’s glam scene: Fashion Designer Zhandra Rhodes.
Now a bit about Dame Zhandra first: She is one of these creative dynamos who moved back and forth seamlessly between the wearable art world and high society fashion. She was a textile artist who first came into the public consciousness by designing the engagement dress of Princess Anne (Charles’ Sister, Prince Harry’s Aunt). This was really quite an accomplishment at the time. Zhandra Rhodes was a product of London’s Swinging 60’s, while the Princess Royal still used her Mother the Queen’s couturier. So her choice of designers for the most important day of her life was nothing short of a youth quake and the result was an ethereal fashion fantasy which still holds up today.
From there Dame Zhandra went on to design costumes for early glam rock stars like Mark Bolan, then for operas, other royalty, celebrities etc etc. On personal note, I had briefly seen Ms Rhodes at an opening night performance of ‘Giocconda’ at the San Francisco Opera in 1979. She was wearing a lampshade on her head and her hair was dyed purple. Really. Quite a sight to behold. I had also seen several years later, her costumes for the San Diego Opera’a ‘The Magic Flute’. Her use of color and texture were a feast for the eyes but in no way upstaged Mozarts beautiful music.
But I digress: thanks to Dame Zhandra’s zig zagging professional trajectory, it was only natural that her path crossed with Freddie Mercury’s. According to her, it all began when the phone rang at her studio. It was Freddie saying that he and Queen guitarist Brian May needed costumes. They met up at her studio later that evening, where she had Freddie and Brian try on a variety of tops, having them moving about to get a feel for how the garments would translate onstage. Freddie was drawn to one particular gown which was meant to be a wedding dress for another client. He loved how the pleated fabric draped on his body as he moved. So Zhandra, in a thunderbolt of inspiration, took a pair of scissors to the waistline and Voila! The gown became a tunic and Freddie said yes to the dress!
Brian May also benefitted from Zhandra Rhodes’ sartorial creativity, she confected a very colorful custom painted tunic whose sleeves we engineered in such a way that it would not interfere with his virtuosic guitar playing. Thinking about this heady collaboration between these two iconic entities, it got me to think why she never collaborated with that other Glam Icon: David Bowie. I did a pretty extensive internet search with no results, so one can only speculate as to what might have been.
So yes, that night in 1976, in that small crowded theater in San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to see Queen make their US debut. It was a blindingly theatrical show featuring strobe lights, special effects and of course, Freddie’s pleated tunic. Freddie had a stage presence almost like Bowie’s. According to Ms Rhodes, the tunic has since been banished into the costume food chain and is now experiencing a second life as a rental piece at an Oklahoma costume warehouse. Considering the way costumes are refurbished at those place, I fear that Freddie’s tunic is only a shadow of its former self and no longer viable.
But, Dame Zhandra did collaborate with “Bohemian Rhapsody” costume designer Julian Day, to reproduce the infamous tunic. She even reproduced several copies to be exhibited in theatre lobbies around the world. So please enjoy these images and perhaps now that I have published this post, I may actually go out and see the movie after all. Pre-conceptions optional!
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We are all familiar with the ubiquitous family of reality TV. But they were not the first set of siblings whose good looks and social connections made them fodder for social commentary and scandal. Back in the 17cc there existed a brood of Franco-Italian cousins and sisters whose comings and going would give the Kardashians a run for their money.
Let’s look at the similarities first so that we can better understand the comparison: Like the Kardashians these girls and one brother were part of a large extended family. They had a patriarch who enjoyed wearing dresses, although I must point out that the 17cc patriarch’s dresses were more ecclesiastical as opposed to Caitlyn’s designer gowns. Think moreCassocks & Miters as opposed to Dolce & Gabbana. Like the Kardashians, they were ubiquitous in every sense of the word. Their lives were the subject of tabloid gossip, often times re-enacted publicly in commedia dell’arte satires for the masses to enjoy. I am sure that if the videocam had existed back then, at least one of them would have wound up on a home made sex-tape.
The Mazarinettes, with their Southern Italian good looks made for a shift in what was considered a standard of beauty for the 17th cc. The same way that the Kardashian’s dark haired mediterranean beauty and voluptuous physiques created an impact on 21st cc sensibilities. Up until each respective clan made their appearance on the scene, the zeitgeist of both times was the frail/fair slender gamine. This brood made their impact on what was considered aesthetically acceptable centuries apart from the Kardashians. But I think that’s where the similarity ends and for my money, I think that the Mazarinettes story is much more compelling than their reality TV counter parts.
The girls earned their name from their Uncle, Cardinal Jules Mazarin who was the King Regent during the minority of LouisXIV and was later the chief counsel to the King once Louis was all grown up. Such influence made the Cardinal one of the most powerful men in France and as the cliche goes: It’s lonely at the top. So in order to address his need for companionship, the Cardinal decided to bring his family over from Italy and set his nieces up in pivotal positions throughout the royal houses of Europe, thereby increasing his sphere of influence. This was accomplished by arranging important political marriages along with sizable dowries and sometimes just downright pimping them out to important members of the Sun King’s court.
So let’s start out with how this Italian clan got their foothold on one of the most important royal courts of Europe.
Jules Mazarin himself was no slouch;In his early years he studied profusely at university and developed a talent for ingratiating himself to powerful and influential men. One of these being Cardinal Richelieu of France (yes, the same guy in the Monty Python skits). In those days men of modest means but noble lineage were able to climb their way up the social ladder through the church. Following the deaths of Richelieu, then Louis XIII, he proceeded to rule France through the regency of Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother.
The rest, they say, is history. Cardinal Mazarin worked hard to secure his place in the French Court and as mentioned earlier, one of the means to his end was to bring in his comely nieces from Italy. The first batch to arrive were Marie, Hortense and Olympia. Followed by a few years later by Laure, Anne-Marie, Marie-Anne (not a typo) and a distant cousin Philipe-Jules. Thanks to the Cardinal being in good graces with Anne of Austria, the Queen Regent took this young brood under her wing and made sure that they were on equal footing as the Princes of the Blood.
Each one of these individuals has their own unique story but I think that the two most compelling were Hortense and Marie Mancini. For starters, the Mancini clan was able to trace their family lineage back to the Roman Empire via the Consul Lucius Hostilus Mancinus who fought Hannibal in one of the Punic Wars. The girl’s father, Baron Lorenzo Mancini was an alchemist who practiced astrology and necromancy. The mother was the sister of the Cardinal and was the one who requested that her daughters be sent to Versailles following the death of her husband under mysterious circumstances. It brings to mind another dark magician who met a tragic demise: Jack Parsons,but we need to save his story for another blog.
From their portraits one can see that these girls had a light in their eyes that captivates the viewer and undoubtedly had the same effect on the gentleman (and a few ladies) of the court. Marie Mancini’s story is the most poignant for having been the first “girlfriend” of a young Louis XIV. Thanks to her socializing with other Princes of the Blood, she was able to develop a “puppy love” relationship with the young Dauphin. So much so that youngLouis actually wanted to marry her. But neither her uncle the Cardinal nor Louis’ mother, Queen Regent Anne, were going to allow any of that; Both adults were interested in a more politically important alliance with another superpower at the time, so Louis wound up marrying the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain. No matter that Marie could trace her bloodline back to Ancient Rome! Neither the Queen Regent nor the Cardinal thought that Marie’s lineage was exalted enough to marry the future King of France. And so the cookie crumbles. However, in the end Marie wound up OK. Her uncle had secured a marriage with a guy named the Duke of Colonna who on his wedding night was surprised to find that his bride was still a virgin! It appeared that even though Marie had many admirers, they were all affairs of the mind.
Louis XIV, having had his lovers crush undone by the grownups, decided to console himself by entering into a romantic relationship with Marie’s sister: Hortense. Now this girl is definitely one for the books! Hortense was a girl of many talents and misadventures. After playing holler back girl to the Dauphin, she then took up with a political refugee from England who was exiled in the French court. A guy named Charles Stuart. Like Marie with Louis, Hortense fell head over heels for this young English swain. But this time her uncle thought that this penniless guy who had no prospects, was unworthy of his niece and so forbade the union. But then the fickle finger of fate saw Charles reinstated on the English throne as Charles II and the cardinal realized he made a mistake. He made a counter offer to Charles along with a handsome dowry if he would take back Hortense. But Charles had moved on, or so it appeared.
The Cardinal continued to drive a hard bargain in the attempts to marry his favorite niece off to other influential heads of Europe but alas, striking out every time. The fact that Hortense was a bit of a party girl who enjoyed flirtations with both men and women did not help to bolster her cause. However, the Cardinal (and Hortense) finally managed to bag an up and coming aristocrat who was also the richest man in Europe. Enter Charles de La Porte de La Meilleraye. This mouthful was not only the richest man in France but he was also a nephew of the late Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin’s first mentor.
So on the surface though it appeared to be a good match, it proved to be anything but. Eight days after her wedding, Uncle Jules died, leaving Hortense a vast chunk of the family fortune, now making HER one of the riches people in France. Unfortunately what would have looked like a fortuitous circumstance would unravel into a nightmare for poor Hortense. That’s because her husband, Armand, was conservative, repressed, reactionary and cruel. Think of someone who was a cross between OJ Simpson and Ted Bundy and you get the picture. He was a total foil to Hortense’s vivacious, popular personality. I am not even going to list here the misogynistic actions of this creep. Just google his name if you want to know more.
But our heroine, Hortense would have none of this and immediately flew into the arms of another-woman. Can you blame her? It was another French aristocrat by the name of Sidonie de Courcelles. They were both only sixteen! So you would think her husband would find this amusing but no, he wound up locking them both up together in a convent where they continued their affair. This time wearing nun’s habits no doubt. Bad move dude on the part of De La Porte if you ask me.
So thus began a convoluted sexual odyssey for our heroine. She escaped from France disguised as a man and would continue to rely on cross dressing whenever she needed to make a quick get away. During her exile in England, she took up again with here old flame, Charles II AND one of his daughters. Anne, Countess of Sussex was her name. Hortense’s relationship with Anne was so volatile that they actually once settled a score with a public fencing match in the middle of St James’ park wearing only their nighties! Much to the delight of the gentlemen strolling through the park. The only comparison I can think of would be if Meghan Markle and Katherine Middleton engaged in a mud wrestling match in the middle of the Serpentine at Kensington Park. That’s the level of scandal we are referring to. Hollywood where are you?
Somewhere along the way she reconnected with her other sister Marie ( who was also miserable in her marriage albeit not as badly as poor Hortense). For awhile the two sisters lived in the court of the Sun King under his protection. The girls began shuttling around between the capitals of Europe in an effort to escape the claws of psycho Hubby Armand. It should be noted that in every city where these girls sought refuge, their homes would be transformed into Salons offering a venue for popular artists and writers of the time. But alas, Mr Personality kept rearing his ugly head and making poor Hortense’s life a living hell.
Later on Hortense would have an affair with Louis I of Monaco (yes, a Grimaldi whose descendant married Grace Kelly) and so on and so on. She lived out the rest of her years in England under the protection of subsequent monarchs and engaging in the profligate lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, until her death in 1699.But as the saying goes, there is no rest for the wicked and upon her death, hubby from hell reappeared and had her body exhumed so that he could take it back to France. So that she could be given a proper burial? Noooo…..boys and girls. So that he could keep the decomposing corpse by his side as he traveled through France. Yep, until royal decree demanded that he finally bury her.
Some relationships are hard to shake but this is ridiculous!
The rest of the “Mazarinettes” lived flamboyant lifestyles and also caused scandal throughout the courts of Europe. But their antics paled in comparison to those of Hortense and Marie. Thanks to their Uncle’s machinations and the sizable dowries he bequethed, the girls were able to secure some good catches. Their husband’s names reads like a history book of who’s who in the 17cc. I focused mainly on the two Mancini sisters because their lives were so unbelievable. Being that this is a costume blog, I also wanted to focus one the court costumes of Hortense. Since she was the one with the high profile lifestyle, she became a bit of a Fashion Plate and this sensibility was obviously reflected in her style of dressing as shown in the pictures posted here.
The Early Baroque/Restoration period was a transitional one in every sense of the word. Almost every costume conceit imaginable was represented on the style of dress. And you can see the transitory nature of this period in the different styles of dress worn by Hortense. In her earlier portraits you can see here trussed up in ribbons from the late Italian Renaissance and from there she goes to exposing a nipple which was a typical conceit of the French Mannerist painting style. In Louis’ court you see her in a very elaborate riding gear ready to engage in ‘La Chase’ with the Sun King. Finally there are the later ’swooning gowns’ of the Restoration court of Charles II. These dresses gave the wearer a ‘disheveled’ appearance with the bodice pulled down to almost exposing a nipple. Yes, these gowns were engineered to fall right off the body at a moments notice in order to facilitate an intimate trust with his majesty whoever he or she may be.
Another highlight of my visit to the David Bowie Is exhibit was the fact that the Brooklyn Museum is also home to the iconic installation by Judy Chicago called ‘The Dinner Party’. This groundbreaking example of feminist art had been on my bucket list since its debut in 1979. Since it’s premiere, the art piece made the rounds of all the famous museums of the world and somehow I would always keep missing it. In 2002, the installation finally found a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum, so being that it coincided with the DBI exhibition I was doubly motivated to attend.
This is one of those installations that is so spiritual and so moving, it felt like I was visiting the Sistine Chapel or some other holy place of great importance. The story of this work is virtual dinner party attended by important women who had been overlooked by history. Each setting represented one of these women and on the tiled floor where written in swirling letters the names of other women who were somehow related to the invitee. For example below the place setting for the author Mary Wollstonecraft was the name of her daughter Mary Shelley.
Although Judy Chicago was a classically trained artist with an MFA from UCLA, she desired that this particular work of art be created using materials and techniques traditionally and condescendingly referred to as “Women’s Work”. Sewing, embroidery, pottery, weaving were used to create each place setting in a beautiful presentation. Ironically, these skills are still looked down upon by the patriarchal mindset of the art world and it is something that I have personally experienced in my career as a designer. Its always been my opinion that if women were mechanics and men were seamstresses, a pair of jeans would set you back 30k while an automobile would be sold for clearance at Walmart for $19.99! So kudos to Judy for elevating these skills to a high art form that is respected and appreciated. The irony was not lost on me as I took in the exhibit that in another room in the same building they were honoring the costume makers who helped to create the persona of David Bowie.
This opus started as a labor of love for Judy, she was inspired to create art that would not only honor the memory of these forgotten women but to also, as mentioned previously, elevate women’s skills that had been relegated to the category of ‘crafts’, to the realm of fine art. It was a process that took years to create, thanks to the efforts of 400 volunteers who worked tirelessly to create this epic. When it finally premiered in 1979, it was universally panned: one misogynistic wind bag (who also happened to be a well known art critic whose name will not be mentioned) crudely dismissed it as “vaginas on a plate”. After the show closed she was $30,000 in debt and the laughing stock of the art world. But out of every crucifixion comes a great resurrection and over time the installation began to tour all over the world to mounting critical acclaim. Until it finally found a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum.
Each dinner setting features the name of the guest and her plate is in the shape of a vulva. Like the vulva, each plate is unique and no two are alike as are the richly embroidered table cloths underneath. The guests include actual historical figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Margaret Sanger, but also mythical ones such as the Primordial Goddess and Kali. I honestly wish that I could show pictures of each and every one of those place settings because of their unique beauty and detail, but alas, after my altercation with the security guards and the Bowie exhibit, I was trying to stay on my best behavior.
I have highlighted some of guests who resonated with me personally. But I encourage all of those reading this to take the time to see this exhibit and bring a daughter, a sister, a mother. They will thank you for it. In the mean time you can find out more about the exhibit by clicking the link here.
A few more guests:
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