Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Material Culture Minute: Dressing Down

Like many in the field of material culture, I spent several days last week in New York City visiting the Winter Antiques Show, the American Antiques Show, and a handful of other institutions to take-in the sights and sounds of Americana Week. Yes, there were plenty of special objects to be had (for a price, of course) at the shows and at auction. One highlight (per my taste) includes a set of botanical markers made from iron posts and bottle tops featuring hand-written plant names under magnification (so you can read them from a standing position). The dealer selling the set also had several fascinating early nineteenth-century snuff boxes on hand I will describe in more detail in an up-coming post.

In addition to viewing the shows, I spent one afternoon at The Morgan Library & Museum, one of my favorites. I was there for a new exhibition called The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives. In usual Morgan fashion, the objects were spectacular, but the interpretation was not as dynamic as it could be. The exhibition divided a spread of amazing diaries into categories such as love, war, and everyday life, drawing connections between today's penchant for blogging and the comparable size of historical diaries and today's smart phones. It would have been interesting to see these objects in conversation with related documents, books, or objects. Regardless, I recommend the museum and exhibitions highly, particularly for paper and book lovers.

Finally, I dragged two of my colleagues to E. 67th Street to Didier Aaron, Inc., a gallery, to take in their exhibition titled The Master of the Blue Jeans. The exhibition, which was smaller version of an exhibition by the same name that was in Europe last year, featured a handful of "everyday" seventeenth-century people wearing jean, or denim, probably known then as fustian (a blend, typically made from wool and cotton or linen, but, like the history of most textiles, the history of this cloth is complex).1 The "Master's" identity remains a mystery. Despite this, the imagery was fascinating. First, I had no idea that denim was worn or that it existed in the seventeenth century. Of course, Florence Montgomery's Textiles in America outlines the term's history, tracing it to the fourteenth century when it was a worsted (wool) textile.2 Per the catalogue, we learn that "Blue was commonly used for working class clothing throughout Europe, and especially in Flanders, Spain, Italy, and France"3. The fabric was likely dyed used woad or indigo, the latter of which did not require a mordant.4 Second, I was thrilled to see several images that featured individuals with disabilities. For example, a woman featured in Woman Begging with Two Children, is depicted using a crutch. You can view a small example of this painting at the gallery's web site (see the thumb nail at the far right toward the bottom of the web site). Also, a gallery staff member chatted with us graciously for several minutes about the paintings, the exhibition, and more.

If you have any interest in denim or everyday life in visual culture, I highly recommend that you contact the gallery to purchase a catalogue or visit before the exhibition closes on 4 February. Since the paintings are for sale, it is not likely that we will be able to see them all in one place again any time soon. Investigating the early history of this fabric's role in everyday life would be fascinating.

Next At Home posting on Chapter 1: 2 February 2011.


1. Marzia Cataldi Gallo, "The Master of the Blue Jeans and the Mystique of Blue," in The Master of the Blue Jeans: A New Painter of Reality in late 17th Century Europe (Paris: Galerie Canesso, 2010), 22-23.

2. Florence Montgomery, "Fustian," in Textiles in America, 1650-1870, 1984 (New York: W.W. Norton and the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, 2007), 244.

3. Gallo, 24.

4. Gallo, 24-25.

Further Reading

John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea that denim was worn in the seventeenth century, let only earlier! That sounds like a really interesting exhibit. I wish it were there longer!

    P.S.--Is this the same NYC trip where you saw Barbra Streisand?