Sunday, December 27, 2009

Twelve Noteworthy Women

For the month of December, we are taking our cue from the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first week, we offered twelve of our favorite blings, then to commemorate our TV appearance, Timeless Girls in Hats, we focused on the twelve hats we wore for the show. Last week, following the tradition of many publications, we looked back on the year, recounting twelve of our favorite (personal) events of 2009. As the year comes to a close, again following in the footsteps of many of the publications we love, this week we’d like to spotlight twelve people we admire.

Because this is a style blog, and because style is mostly the prerogative of women, we won’t be featuring any men, even though many admirable men come quickly to mind. But because we’re idiosyncratic, we’ve also taken the liberty of naming a few women whom we admire for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with style – unless you count the style with which they pursued their passions and lived life on their own terms. Some of the women below were on both our lists; some are our individual special favorites. Jean’s list is first and Valerie’s follows, but other than that the names are in no particular order. Rather than the traditional nine ladies dancing, we feature only one lady dancing, but we have five ladies painting, one lady singing, two ladies working with animals (actually, one lady and one dame), two ladies of style, and two ladies who are harder to categorize.

So many extraordinary women are not on the list. This is not because we don’t love them. If anyone would like to send in additions to the list, we would be more than happy to do a separate post on our readers’ favorites.

(And don't forget: the last airing of Timeless Girls in Hats is Monday, December 28, at 9pm. See our December 9 posting for details.)

Jean says:

I have selected six women who have continued to fascinate me over the years. Some are responsible for making the world a more interesting place and others for making it a better place, and most for making it both. Half are contemporaries continuing to make a difference while the other half are dead, but not forgotten. To leaven the loaf, so to speak, I've interspersed the three tragically deceased women with the living movers and shakers. Join me as I run down my list.

Karole Armitage

The American choreographer/dancer once tagged the "punk ballerina" by Vanity Fair, Karole seamlessly combines classical ballet with modern dance in her work. With training as diverse as the Geneva Opera Ballet and Merce Cunningham, she launched her choreography career in 1978 and continues the dichotomy by requiring her dancers to have backgrounds in both ballet and modern techniques. She represents the next generation of female dancer/choreographers that followed Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp. She was quoted in Dance Magazine as saying that "People who do only one or the other get left out." Rather than left out, she's front and center.

She has produced works commissioned by Mikhail Barishnikov for the American Ballet Theater and by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet and collaborated with fashion designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix. Longtime partner of artist David Salle, she is as brainy as she is talented: Her recent piece, based on physics, string theory and black holes, named after the science tome "The Elegant Universe", premiered at the 2008 World Science Festival. She has Broadway credits too: Last year, she choreographed the Tony Award-winning musical "Passing Strange", with an all-black cast which ran from February through July 2008. Most recently, she choreographed "Hair", the American Tribal Love Rock Musical which opened in March 2009, won a Tony for best musical revival and for which her choreography received a Tony nomination. On Dec. 17, 2009, the Guggenheim Museum announced that Karole Armitage's "Made in Naples" will be in its lineup of events on Feb. 7 and 8, 2010 for the spring season of the institution's "Works & Process". Her new piece, inspired by the Neapolitan character Pulcinella, will feature sets by Karen Kilimnik inspired by Tiepolo's drawings and costumes by Alba Clemente based on the Commedia dell'Arte tradition.

In the 1980's, Karole used to rehearse in a loft on lower Broadway. At that time, I was on the board of directors of B. Muse Dance Theatre and took classes in the same space in the next time slot (given by Kate Thomas, that company's choreographer). I used any excuse to show up early for a glimpse of Karole at work. I'd often run into her at Stephen Petronio Dance Company's annual NYC gala performances and gush over her latest work. Her longevity and continued creativity are wondrous. Upon her return from 15 years abroad, she re-formed her company "Armitage Gone!" and last March revived her punk classics from the late '70s and early '80s that featured music by Rhys Chatham and David Linton. That her work holds up so well and that she continues to produce thought-provoking work and to thrive, three decades after first hitting the spotlight, gives me hope for the future of modern dance. Hooray, Karole. You're not in Kansas anymore!

Nancy Cunard

Born in 1896, this great granddaughter of Samuel Cunard, founder of the steamship fortune, was an heiress, poet, editor and writer. She is instantly recognizable from her art deco period portraits with armfuls of African bracelets. In addition to publishing her own poetry, she founded The Hours Press in 1928 in Normandy, France and was the first to publish Samuel Beckett. She allegedly became the paramour of many of the famous writers of the 1920s and 1930s such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot. In Paris, she mixed with Modernists, Surrealists and Dadaists, met Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Wiliams, and was photographed by Cecil Beaton and Man Ray.

Nancy Cunard fought fascism in Spain, worked for the French Resistance and exposed the horrors of the French concentration camps. However, it was her involvement with civil rights which cost her most dearly. Her relationship with black pianist Henry Crowder and her publication of "Negro" (with input from Langston Hughes, Theodore Dreiser, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. du Bois) in 1934 caused her family to disinherit her. Although she lived another thirty-one years and continued to support human and civil rights, she was in poor physical health and suffered from mental illness. Her eventual deterioration was exacerbated no doubt by her alcoholism and self-destructiveness.

In March of 1965, when she was was found sick and penniless on the streets of Paris and was taken to the hospital where she died, Nancy Cunard weighed just 60 pounds. The positive message in her life was the fact that rather stay in a comfortable cocoon of wealth and privilege, she confronted life head on. For more than four decades, she "mattered". She was quoted as saying "I've always had the feeling that everyone alive can do something that is worthwhile." She got that right.

Norma Kamali

In my mind, this FIT-trained native New Yorker is synonymous with glamour. Some of her most iconic designs are her most famous: Her sleeping bag coat (one of Valerie's personal favorites), first created in 1975, has been periodically reincarnated; high-heeled sneakers; an entire collection in sweatshirt material; parachute nylon jumpsuits; and a series of greco-roman shirred, draped, shoulder-padded evening dresses. The latter are my personal favorite since I wore a white one to my NYC wedding party (at Exit Art Gallery in Soho on April 19, 1986!). Norma's parachute designs are part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute. More than just a pretty face, she is a woman of diverse talents: Norma Kamali has won numerous awards for fashion design (Coty and CFDA awards), for writing and directing videos (including a Live AID fundraiser), for her 6 West 56th Street headquarters (AIA's Distinguished Architecture Award) and for commitment to NYC public School Education (Pencil Award). She was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in 2002. In addition to founding her On My Own (OMO) line in the late 1970s, she successfully collaborated with choreographer Twyla Tharp to produce costumes for Twyla Tharp Dance's "In the Upper Room" in 1986 and for her company Tharp! for "Sweet Fields" and "Route 66" in 1996. She designed the memorable Emerald City costumes for the 1978film version of the musical "The Wiz." Our regular readers will recall that Valerie and I had the pleasure of meeting Norma at her store on Fashion's Night Out and that our September 13 posting opens with a shot of me and Norma. Included here is a shot of Valerie and Norma from that evening. Norma makes my top picks because she reinvents herself, continues to be creative and remains incredibly relevant more than three decades after the the start of her career.

Frida Kahlo

This Mexican painter was influenced by her own and European cultures, by Realism and Symbolism, and by the turbulence of her personal life. An iconic and recognizable figure who single-handedly made the uni-brow fashionable, she was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon in 1907 to a Hungarian-Jewish father and Spanish-Mexican Indian mother. She sustained injuries in a bus accident at age 18 so severe that they required more than 30 operations and affected her health for the rest of her life.

During her long recuperation, she began to paint. At 22, she married muralist Diego Rivera and entered into the defining relationship of her life, marked by cycles of infidelity, betrayal, retribution and/or forgiveness. Despite her infirmities, Frida traveled and painted and entertained the likes of poets, revolutionaries and industrialists such as Pablo Neruda, Leon Trotsky and Nelson Rockefeller.

Her symbolic paintings are snapshots of her experiences, many of which are self-portraits, sifted through the prism of her emotions. It is impossible to separate her life from her work. Since her death in 1954 at the age of 47, she has taken on an almost cult-like following. (It is interesting to note the number of Frida "clones" when googling her image.) She was immortalized on film by Salma Hayak and remains an inspiration to artists, painters, bon vivants and -- doll-makers! The wonderful Frida doll (see photo), with uni-brow and watermelon hair ornaments, is just such an example of her continuing influence.

Jane Goodall

Anyone who read or watched National Geographic in the 1970s and 1980s knows Jane Goodall for her groundbreaking research with chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives. It is fitting that Dame Jane Goodall is an English US Messenger of Peace, since she was instrumental in alerting the world to the plight of chimps and the threats to their survival (poaching, trapping, killing and selling body parts). She is the ultimate "ist" -- biologist, ethologist, anthropologist, primatologist, conservationist and activist. Along with Dian Fossey who lived with mountain gorillas (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the movie of Fossey's book, "Gorillas in the Mist"), and Birute Galdikas who studied orangutans, Diane was dubbed one of "Leakey's Angels" for her work in Gombe National Reserve in Tanzania.

Jane Goodall caused a stir in the scientific community by "naming" rather than "numbering" her chimps, which she studied for 45 years, beginning in 1960. No stranger to controversy, she continues to follow her own path. She had been a staunch member of Advocates for Animals, a Scottish organization against the use of animals for medical research, zoos, farming and sports. However, in May 2008, she split with the group over her support of the Edinburgh Zoo's primate enclosure which she though was a "wonderful" facility that provided an alternative to their current situation in which one out of six living in the wild is trapped and killed. In addition to her UN duties, she continues to work with the Jane Goodall Institute. The world is a much richer and more wonderful place with her in it.

Isabella Blow

As iconic as the sleek flappers of an earlier era who were immortalized by Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz, Isabella was truly unique. An impoverished British aristocrat, she became an accomplished fashion editor and stylist but is perhaps best known as the discoverer and muse of designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy. She was given to extremes, extravagance and hyperbole. Her voice was described as "very loud, cut glass" and her lipstick was blood red, to match her hair. Her headgear ran the gamut of shape, size and color and included lobsters, flying saucers, crocodile teeth, pheasants and feathers. She raised the wearing of cocktail hats to an art form. She was given to memorable utterances such as: "My style icon is anyone who makes a bloody effort!" and "If you don't wear lipstick, I can't talk to you." Nicknamed "Dizzy Izzy" in the British press, she became infamous for her outrageously eccentric hats.

Born Isabella Delves Broughton, she directly attributes her love of fashion and crimson lipstick to her distant, detached mother. Ten years after four year old Isabella witnessed her two-year-old brother's drowning in the family's outdoor pool and her mother's leaving the body on the lawn to go upstairs and apply her lipstick, her mother abandoned her and her sisters and divorced her father. Despite all this, Isabella says her fondest fashion memory was trying on her mother's pink hat.

Isabella hailed from a long line of eccentrics: her grandmother, whom she called "the cannibal", was a female explorer who allegedly tasted human flesh in Papua New Guineau. In the 1940s, her grandfather, the notorious Sir Jock, who ran through most of the family fortune to pay his gambling debts, figured prominently in Kenya's Happy Valley White Mischief case. Although acquitted of murdering Lord Erroll, his much younger wife's lover, he later returned to England, drank poison and committed suicide. The father of Detmar Blow (her second husband whom she married in 1989) also committed suicide by poisoning.

Isabella Blow was an extremely successful magazine editor, credited with launching the modeling careers of Sophie Dahl, Honor Fraser and Stella Tennant. She worked for Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley. Unfortunately, her wild side had a dark side too. Prone to depression, she constantly fought against personal unhappiness. As her protegees went on to make millions, lapping her editorial career and her paycheck, she retreated into more frequent dark moods. Diagnosed as bipolar, she underwent therapy. Unable to have children, she unsuccessfully underwent fertility treatments. She and her husband separated. She reportedly was haunted by her own inability to "find a home in a world she had influenced". Although she and Detmar reconciled, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Like her grandfather and father-in-law, she poisoned herself by drinking weed killer. When she died in May 2007, she had already survived nearly a half dozen suicide attempts. Despite her downward spiral, her fashion legacy lives on. The highlight of her London memorial ceremony was the large number of attendees sporting wild hats as a last tribute to her enduring style.


Valerie’s List

Diana Vreeland

Vreeland has countless feathers in her cap, but I remember her most for the stunning fashion layouts she did for Vogue in the ‘60s. Page after page of stunning photography. Photographs that made you want to go everywhere, and work for Vogue as the water carrier, just for the privilege of traveling to the exotic places in the photographs. Vreeland was not a standard beauty, but understood her great features and made them all work for her. Everyone over thirty should take a look at her in her modified yoga pose below. There are reasons we get out of shape, but Vreeland proves we are not without options at any age.

Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim loved art, whether she was wearing it, selling it at her galleries or exhibiting it in her Venetian palazzo. She also loved artists, going so far as to marry two (Laurence Vail and Max Ernst), and dally informally with those who were otherwise engaged. The early photo shown here of Peggy in the highest fashion of the day was taken by Man Ray. The later photo shows her at her palazzo (now a prime museum in Venice), wearing the sunglasses she became so well known for. I love the photo of Peggy seated among her art. (I'm only sure I recognize the Magritte.)

Notice the awful Miss Marple-like sturdy shoes she's wearing here. (Sturdy is the kiss of death when applied to women's shoes.) I'm guessing she had foot trouble. It makes me feel just a tad better to think that, with all the money she had, and all the connections, she still couldn't wear a wonderful shoe after a certain point. Guess that's why she got the glasses - to draw attention away from her feet.

Georgia O’Keeffe

A pioneer in many ways, O’Keeffe created stunningly original artwork at a time when few women were recognized in the field. More handsome than beautiful, she dressed very severely, and had her own recognizable style. (She led the NY/Tokyo/Paris black or black and white look by more than fifty years.) Even in advanced age, O’Keeffe had a presence few could match.

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, who has a Ph.D. in animal science, and is the author of several books (among them Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism, has led an extraordinary life shaped by her autism. Grandin designs humane slaughterhouses, and theorizes that autism allows her greater insight into the way animals think. (Her explanation, based on the similarities between the structure of the autistic human brain and the animal brain, is compelling and persuasive.) When inspecting slaughterhouses with problems, Grandin has been known to get down on hands and knees to help her see what animals see, with the goal of making the passage more comfortable for them. (It is no accident that the photo above shows her eye to eye with cattle, and not towering above them.) Grandin has little interest in fashion, but is known to have a fondness for cowboy shirts.

Romaine Brooks and Tamara de Lempicka

Both painters who chronicled the zeitgeist of their times, Brooks, born in 1874, specialized in strong featured women, often in men’s wear or androgynous clothes. While she painted both before and after WWI, the atmosphere of her work is imbued with the pre-war aesthetic. The painting of the woman with dachshunds is Una, Lady Troubridge; the woman in the hat (above left) is Romaine Brooks.

Tamara de Lempicka (born 1898) is an iconic painter of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Shown here (above right) is Autoportrait: Tamara in the Green Bugatti. Calm and self possessed behind the wheel, the aura she radiates is completely different from that seen in Brooks’ self portrait (or in the portrait of Lady Troubridge), but they all share spirit, independence, power and will.

La Môme Bijou

This photograph taken from Brassai’s masterful The Secret Paris of the Thirties raises countless questions, and answers none. Brassai himself did not know who she was. Clearly she is a woman who has fallen on hard times. Yet she continues to face the world. She makes sure she has her make-up on before she goes out, and decks herself in all her finery. Like any self-respecting woman, she wears a hat. Bedraggled though it is, it is a sign that she continues to make every effort to be presentable. In the end, this particular private war will be lost, but she’s going down fighting.

Bonus Noteworthy Woman: Susan Boyle

She beat the odds, had confidence in herself, got on TV, got a great new 'do, put out a CD and has sold more than a million of them so far. And all in less than a year. Way to go, Susan!

1 comment:

  1. what a cool post! I am especially excited to learn more about Norma Kamali, the name is familiar but she sounds like she's my kinda lady! Big old coats and everything made of seatshirt fleece? Yay!

    Keep rocking ladies!!