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.

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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The Bard’s Final Fantasy

Enter the Fantasy Portal.

Are you ready to be a Warrior of Light and defend your Empire?

I loved working on this project! As a designer there is nothing more challenging or satisfying than bringing a costume to life which has never been made before.

Often times an artist may create a sketch of a character without thinking how this can translate onto the human body.

The challenge was to create something wearable and functional but to retain the “character” of the Bard and I was deeply honored to bring her Fantasy Bard’s costume into reality.

Front View among the materials used were Silk Noil, vintage Peau de Soie and wool challis

So here is the story of how I brought the Bard to life!

Back View detail
 
My client and I worked closely to bring her Bard’s costume to life for her to wear at the FanFest in Las Vegas.
The Bard’s costume featured a series of organic and inorganic fabrications that help bring her character to life.
Sleeve detail
For the organic effect I selected some unusual and hard to find fabrics including silk noil, trimmed with vintage Peau de Soie and wool Challis.
There fabrics which are very hard to find or no longer manufactured. I coupled this with more contemporary futuristic materials such as holographic Mystique spandex for the appliqués.
At her fitting. The fantasy unfolds!
 
Much attention was placed on the details in order to replicate the character’s costume as accurately as possible. 
She found the Lodestone!
 
Yes, the Bard found the Lodestone and I am sure the costume helped!”
 
~*~
Find out how I can create a custom costume fantasy for you too!
Please visit my website:
832-652-9180
costumesbyantonia@gmail.com
 
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*David Bowie Is Everywhere!*

Costumes by Antonia visits David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum NY

Finally made to the Holy Grail for all Bowie fans. The closing week of the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This all encompassing exhibit has been touring the world since its premiere at the Victoria & Albert Museum 5 years ago. The fact that it only made two pit stops in the United States speaks volumes to The Thin White Duke’s worldwide appeal. This particular blog entry is of such a deeply personal nature, that I have procrastinated forever in posting this. 

David’s measurements! From one of his designer’s fitting books.

In spite of the fact that the presentation was disorganized and overcrowded, it was the content of the exhibit that overcame any drawbacks resulting from the ineptitude of the Brooklyn Museum. After all, we are talking Bowie here, and we all know that he was a ‘Mortal with potential of a Superman’. And I don’t want to totally trash the museum either; to their credit they did resolve some of my concerns. But according to one of my sources at the museum, even they acknowledged that they had gotten in over their heads with this exhibit. 

Like some cat from Japan: Designer Kansai Yamamoto discusses his collaboration with Bowie.

David surrounded himself with the best talent: the best designers, the best directors, the best musicians. Talent that matched, but never surpassed his own. The show was a comprehensive overview of his collaborations as a performer, artist, writer, painter. Bowie the Artist. The shear breadth of his artistic accomplishments is overwhelming. Since this is a costume blog, the main focus will be his costumes. However I am including samples of his other facets because otherwise it would not do him justice.

Portraits by David of Yukio Mishima & Iggy Pop
David’s portraits of Yukio Mishima & Iggy Pop

I should start out with this caveat: there where no photos allowed in the exhibit so these pictures where taken clandestinely and at great personal risk. My apologies in advance for the poor quality of some of the images. In fact at one point when I was attempting to take a picture, a hand appeared in front of the lens belonging to an angry security guard who demanded that I stop on pain of banishment from the museum and confiscation of my pictures. So there was A LOT I could not capture: His costume from when he appeared on Broadway in “Elephant Man”, the Bauhaus costume from his “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the Kabuki cape designed by Kansai Yamamoto. And so on.

Photo Interuptus! The hand of an irate museum security guard photo bombs by pictures.
Photo Interuptus! The hand of an irate museum security guard photo bombs by pictures.

My attempt here is to present his costumes and how they would have been worn within the context of his performance. As mentioned earlier, David collaborated with the top creative talent and as a costumer and technician myself, I was in awe over the beauty and detail of his clothing. The delicacy of the tailoring conceits and the detail of the embellishments are incredible. It’s hard to believe that the enormity of the effort that went into creating a garment that was often times intended to be worn only once.

From the 1980 Floor Show. Costumes worn by David & Mick Ronson.
From the 1980 Floor Show. Costumes worn by David & Mick Ronson.

The first time I saw Bowie perform was in the “1980 Floor Show” which was broadcast in the USA on the “Midnight Special” TV series. It was a Rock’n’Roll cabaret with dancers, costumes, a guest appearance by singer Marianne Faithful and everyone’s favorite trans model Amanda Lear, who took time away from her duties as Salvador Dali’s muse in order to serve as MC for the show. Not a bad line up.

Storyboard from the 1980 Floor Show
Storyboard from the 1980 Floor Show

This production was the most blindingly theatrical presentation that my 16 year old eyes had ever seen. The originality of the costumes inspired me to grab a pencil and sketch pad. Aladdin Sane’s Thunderbolt of Enlightenment struck my brain causing a deluge of creative juices to start flowing and as I result I was sketching costumes furiously through the entire show. How’s that for inspiration?

The infamous 'Third Hand' costume with the missing hand, thanks to the TV censors!
The infamous ‘Third Hand’ costume without the third hand, thanks to the TV censors!

The costumes for this show were showcased in their own particular vitrine. They now only had David’s costume but the one worn by guitarist Mick Ronson. Mick is often overshadowed by Bowie’s supernova, but let’s not forget that he had a hand in the creation of the man, before Ziggy broke up the band. 

Some exquisitely tailored suits by designed by Ola Hudson and a later creation by Alexander McQueen for his 50th Birthday concert.
Some exquisitely tailored suits by designed by Ola Hudson for the album “Pin-Ups” and a later creation by Alexander McQueen for his 50th Birthday concert.

The first time I actually saw Bowie perform live onstage, in the flesh, was for the ’Thin White Duke Tour’ also called the ‘Isolar Tour’ on February 6, 1976 in San Francisco. To say that it was an out of body experience would be an understatement because I was completely consumed by  his presence. I am not the first person to say this. The energy and charisma he exuded onstage was something every performer can only dream of achieving. It was a true out of body experience. Un-psychotropically enhanced.

Thin White Duke: The draping on the sleeve lent grace and fluidity to his movement when he performed  on stage.
Thin White Duke: The draping on the sleeve lent grace and fluidity to his movement when he performed on stage.

The concert began with a screening of the surrealist film ‘Un Chien Andalou’. The cinematic collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel best known for the close up of a girl’s eye being sliced open by a razor blade. When this happened the screams of horror from the audience was deafening! As the film came to its conclusion, the projection screen rose and the band began to play the intro to ‘Station to Station’, eventually a spotlight popped on our guy as the sang the lyrics about his return. Not knowing what kind of fashion statement he would make, he was dressed in black and white which went well with the stark fluorescent lighting.

The "unexpurgated" artwork for the "Diamond Dogs" album cover by Guy Peellaert
The “unexpurgated” artwork for the “Diamond Dogs” album cover by Guy Peellaert

The ‘Thin White Duke Tour’ was the most amazing piece of theatre I had ever seen up until then. Having out done the ‘The 1980 Floor Show’. 

"Ashes to Ashes" Pierrot/Major Tom costume designed by long time collaborator Natasha Korniloff. The pictures do not do this costume justice. Behind is the lesser known 'Screaming Lord Byron' from "Blue Jean" video.
“Ashes to Ashes” Pierrot/Major Tom costume designed by long time collaborator Natasha Korniloff. The pictures do not do this costume justice. Behind is the lesser known ‘Screaming Lord Byron’ from the “Blue Jean” video.

Feeling fully recovered from my out of Bowie-body experience, I decided that this concert was something that must be repeated’.  So I hoped into my Ford Pinto (don’t laugh, it WAS 1976) and drove down to L.A. to catch the show again at the venerable L.A. Forum. This time I was able to relax and enjoy the show. Gloating with delight hearing the audience’s shrieks when the girl’s eye was slashed in the opening film. No more out of body experiences this time. I was just an observer. As expected Bowie delivered another out of this world performance.

From the "Elephant Man" Playbill
From the “Elephant Man” Playbill.

So fast forward to the 80’s and by now I was a college student living in New York. ’Scary Monsters’ was constantly spinning on my turn table (kids, if you don’t know what that is, Google it). The third and last time I saw Bowie perform live was on Broadway in ‘Elephant Man’ and needless to say, it was the most amazing piece of theatre I had seen up until then. Only Bowie can out do Bowie., so all his previous opera.  What a performance! He opted out on the prosthetic makeup and chose to use his body language and voice to convey the pathos of the lead character. 

Periodic Table of Bowie. Click on the link to learn more about this alchemical egregore.
Periodic Table of Bowie. Click on the link to learn more about this alchemical egregore. His widow, Iman, is listed as one of the “Noble Metals”.

My college and my apartment were both located in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and in a stroke of Kafkaesque synchronicity, so was Bowie’s. According to a friend who had it on good authority that our Hero had a loft somewhere south of West 23rd St, so we took it upon ourselves to case every single single building in the vicinity until we came upon one building around West 20th @ 9th avenue that yielded results. We were reading the names on the mailboxes and one of the tenants went by the name: “Bewley Brothers Music”. Ya Think?! Eureka! 

Pencil drawing by a young David. Foreshadowing early incarnations of characters that would manifest as characters later on in his career.
Pencil drawing by a young David. Foreshadowing early incarnations of characters that would manifest as characters later on in his career.

We stood in front of the mailbox pondering our next move: Should we ring the door bell? What if he answers? What if he invites us up? What do we say to him? This reverie of ‘what ifs’ was rudely interrupted by the booming voice of a very irate doorman: “Had it ever occurred to you kids that he may be going in and out the back door?!” Well, these two junior stalkers in training made a dash out the door to the back alleyway of the building but to no avail; we were unequivocally asked to leave the premises by the same irate doorman. 

David being assisted into his 'Dark Angel' costume by Angela and (perhaps) Coco Schwab.
David being assisted into his ‘Dark Angel’ costume by Angela and (perhaps) Coco Schwab.

I lived in the Chelsea district for several more years and as time passed I became one of those blasé jaded New Yorkers who is not impressed by celebrity. Yes, I did spot him once or twice in passing and my heart would jump ever so slightly. But I was determined to stay in ‘Blasé New Yorker Mode’.  To the point where one day I was grocery shopping at the local A&P supermarket and as I was browsing the produce department, I could see out of the corner of my eye that someone was trying to take my shopping cart. Without turning my head I grabbed the cart away from the interloper and shouted in my most nasally Manhattanese “That’s MY cart”. I heard a crisp British accented male voice mutter “Oh sorry” as he slipped away. Yes, The Thin White Duke was a grocery cart thief! 

All roads lead to Bowie: Nikola Tesla corner on 40th & 6th Ave. Bowie played Tesla in his last film appearance "The Prestige".
All roads lead to Bowie: Nikola Tesla corner on 40th & 6th Ave. Bowie played Tesla in his last film role in “The Prestige”.

As time progressed, I moved on to other musical styles and to other cities. I hadn’t purchased a Bowie album or even listened to his music in years. I was vaguely amused by my younger relatives fascination with him and was pleasantly surprised to find one of my nieces apartment covered with Bowie poster when I visited her one Thanksgiving. But when I heard the news of his transition on January 10, 2016, it all came flashing back to me. The Stars did look very different after that. Tears would not stop flowing. Every time his name was mentioned, my eyes would water up. In fact I’m in a bit of a ‘Weepy Devotchka’ mode right now as I type this.  The impact that he had on my life, my choices and values was something that cannot be quantified. In many ways he saved my life, lifting me out of the mundane and the cruel to a realm that was both sacred and sublime. 

For more information regarding my costumes services please visit my website:

832-652-9180
costumesbyantonia@gmail.com

 

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