For the love of Paisley


I am happy to present Of Ravens and Writing Desks’ first ever guest post from my Worn Through colleague and one of my dearest friends, Monica D. Murgia.

Monica has an MA in Fashion & Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice from FIT. Her focus was curatorial, with an emphasis on twentieth century fashion designers. Her current research interests surround American fashions from 1935-1965, artistic collaboration with fashion designers, and current technological innovations that impact the fashion system. Monica has also taught several courses in fashion design, focusing on history of costume and the creative process. She writes about teaching fashion at Worn Through, and explores the relationship between fashion and art on her own blog. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and to like her on Facebook!

A few weeks ago she visited the Allentown Art Museum exhibit, The Paisley Pattern: Woven Shawls from Asia to Europe, and knowing about my passion for Indian and Kashmiri shawls — I did an entire chapter about them in my master’s dissertation — kindly offered to do this guest post for me.



I recently went to see an exhibit on Franz Kline at the Allentown Art Museum.  After taking in that show, I wandered around the other galleries in the museum.  Much to my delight, there was a wonderful exhibit on textiles.  The Paisley Pattern: Woven Shawls from Asia to Europe was a small show, but expertly done.

Paisley Shawl, 1860. Possibly France, maker unknown.
On Mannequin: Scarf, 1820. American, maker unknown.

The show’s focus was specifically on woven shawls.  These objects were prized possessions during much of the 19th century.  Fashion moved at a much slower rate.  Clothing was not disposable. Garments had to last years, and were passed down.  Because of this, many garments had to be made of conservative colors.  Shawls and scarves added variety and flair to a wardrobe.  Paisley shawls from Kashmir, India were the most sought after.  Kashmiri shawls were meticulously crafted with the best fibers, dyes, and weavers.  The shawls were woven in sections on small looms by several weavers.  Once the sections were complete, they were stitched together to create the final product.

Patka, 1815 – 1825. Jammu-Kashmir, India, maker unknown.

These paisley shawls were worn by upper class Indian and Persian men.  However, Dutch and British colonization of India introduced Europeans to Kashmir shawls.  The exotic and beautiful patterns caused an immediate fashion craze.  Textile manufacturers throughout Europe started to replicate these patterns on jacquard looms.  Jacquard looms are mechanical looms that can create complex designs with the use of punch cards.  These punch cards controls a series of operations in the weaving process.  France and Scotland became major mass producers of paisley designs via jacquard looms.  This mass production made paisley more accessible to the middle class throughout Europe.

Shawl, 1840. France or Scotland, maker unknown. Detail above.
Paisley Slippers, 1990s. Stubbs & Wootten, North America.
Purse, late 1900s. North America, maker unknown.
Paisley Shawl, late 1800s/early 1900s. Possibly Scotland, maker unknown.

The exhibit showed some wonderful examples of real Kashmir shawls and those that were produced abroad.  A favorite detail of mine was on a shawl from 1870.  The embroidered signature of the workshop is visible.

Paisley Shawl, 1870. India, Kashmir, maker unknown.



The shapes of the paisley shawls manufactured in Europe also changed.  In the 1850s, the shawls were long and rectangular.  This was to accommodate for the crinolines (hooped petticoats) and full skirts that were fashionable during this period.  As the bustle replaced the crinoline, shawls became square.  The change in silhouette meant that there was less to cover, hence smaller shawls.  Americans coped with lack of access to paisley prints by embroidering them onto shawls and scarves.  The museum had several great examples of paisley motifs embroidered onto white muslin scarves.

Full Plaid Kirking Shawl, 1840. Probably Paisley, Scotland, maker unknown.


Scarf, 1900s. Bharat, India, maker unknown.
Scarf, 1830. American, maker unknown.

I was really impressed with the wall text and featured textiles.  The curator explained such a complex history in a way that was easy to understand.  The selection of objects really reinforced the main points.  The paisley on display was so dazzling.  The complexity of design, use of color, and the skill of embroidery were on my mind long after I left the exhibit.  It’s amazing how well-made items can last such a long time.  Seeing how these shawls survived 150 years (or more) makes a wonderful case for sustainability.  All of the scarves and shawls are still stylish, even now.  I would love to own something so well-made and so beautiful.  Knowing that well-made fashion and accessories can last several lifetimes says it all: Quality over quantity.

Detail, Paisley Shawl, late 1800s/early 1900s. Possibly Scotland, maker unknown.


‘Dress is at one and the same time a science, an art, a custom, a feeling.’

— Honoré de Balzac, 1799 – 1850[1]

I own a number of exhibition catalogues, most of them pertaining to fashion and textile exhibits. It is a joke among my friends that I own more books and catalogues about clothes than I own actual clothes. Catalogues are tricky things; you at once must please the academics, inform the layperson, and appeal to the person who wandered in on a whim, or the insistence of a friend or colleague, and whom you have to win over.

This is not an easy balancing act to do.

To take two catalogues from my collection, FAMSF’s Pulp Fashion, and their Balenciaga and Spain: the former appealed strongly to the person on the street and (yes, I have checked) even to the layperson. It contained full-colour photographs of the pieces as presented in the exhibit, with a (very) little bit of information. The latter pleased the academics: it opened with a facsimile of a statement in appreciation of the designer from Baroness Phillipe de Rothschild, dated 1973. Most of the photos are archival, and there are several essays with very small print. The academics loved it. Most of the laypeople, however, seemed disappointed. They wanted something to remember the exhibit by, not a reference text on Balenciaga. Of course, it is possible the two exhibits had different target audiences for their catalogues. Not all exhibit catalogues are designed to appeal to everyone.

But some of them are.

I reserved my place on the upcoming Costume Society of America behind-the-scenes event for FIDM’s FABULOUS! exhibit several weeks ago. There is to be a catalogue-signing session, and I had convinced myself that I could just wait until the event to get my copy … Then Monica Murgia tweeted that she had received hers and was in raptures. Then Two Nerdy History Girls did a review. Then the FIDM Museum Blog did a recap of the opening and began to discuss pieces from the exhibit, and, well … What’s the Carrie Fisher quote? “Instant gratification isn’t fast enough”?

So, my copy of the FABULOUS! catalogue arrived two weeks ago. I have been petting it ever since.

It is truly fabulous. 370 full-colour pages featuring the fantastic images and detailed information that patrons of the museum have come to expect from the blog (meticulously run by Rachel Harris), and previous catalogues.

The FABULOUS! exhibit is a retrospective, displaying and celebrating the last ten years of acquisitions by the museum, ranging from an early nineteenth-century gentleman’s court suit, to the multi-coloured ‘hightop’ trainers of the 1990s. The catalogue is broken down into six sections based on time period, and spans 210 years of fashion history. Each section opens with a detail photo of one of the objects, and a fold-out timeline covering the major developments and events in art, fashion, politics, and science during the time period; with a one-page essay on the facing page placing the events – and the garments, accessories, and images – within the correct context. What follows are page after page of exquisite photographs by Brian E. Sanderson, with succinct, but elucidating descriptions of each object, often including its provenance and history, by curators Kevin Jones and Christina Johnson.

I cannot find a fault. And I have tried. Even the section on Scottish textiles – I did an entire (not very good) ‘virtual exhibition’ and wrote more than one paper on tartan during my post-graduate studies – was impeccable.

It is perhaps not as informative as the Balenciaga catalogue, but I do not turn to exhibition catalogues as the ultimate reference tool when I am doing research.  I look to them for images of the garments I have been reading about; for the sort of concise context FIDM is so good at providing in its catalogues; and for the reference section.

I, myself, am rather ignorant of ‘modern’ fashion history. I studied the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. With the help of the FIDM Museum blog – which is firmly ensconced in my GoogleReader feed – and now the FABULOUS! catalogue, I have embarked on an independent study course, of sorts, educating myself not only about twentieth century fashion history, but how to be objective about my own century.

This is extremely fitting since FIDM is first, and foremost, a school.

The museum was conceived in 1973, ‘when the Fashion Design Department insisted that students studying clothing design and construction examine garments firsthand in order to fully understand textile drape, pattern structure, and finishing techniques’.[2] The faculty were the first donors, raiding their own private collections to aid their students’ learning.[3]

It has grown by leaps and bounds and does not simply comply with, but sets a standard of excellence in exhibits, incorporation of modern technology … and catalogues.

19 November can’t come fast enough.

All images courtesy of FIDM Museum Blog

[1] Jones & Johnson. 2011: 13.

[2] Ibid: 6.

[3] Ibid: 6.

Savagery and Satire


2b. the employment, in speaking or writing, of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, etc. in exposing, denouncing, deriding, or ridiculing vice, folly, indecorum, abuses, or evils of any kind.

—     Oxford English Dictionary

I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through my work… Let’s break down some barriers.

—     Alexander McQueen[1]


When I applied for my masters programme I was very specific that I was a history of dress scholar, I did not bother with fashion.  My interests were lodged firmly in the past, and I did not have time to deal with all that superficiality and consumerism and modernity.  I dealt with muslins and the rise of the British cotton and imitation shawl industries and things that were real, in the superior and oh-so-defensive tone of someone who has newly embarked on a course of study, as the only member in her entire department doing a dissertation on dress studies can be.  Utterly and completely neglecting that today is tomorrow’s history, and that today’s socio-political issues are just as equally represented in today’s clothing, even if not described in the flowery language of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell.

I was writing my final essays, finishing my internship, and dealing with life, the universe, and everything when the news of Alexander McQueen’s suicide broke.  I felt a slight sadness that anyone would be so unhappy as to take their own life, but thought nothing more of the topic.  I’m afraid I didn’t really know who he was.  I didn’t even know it was time for the Autumn/Fall shows.  I had “serious” academic work to be getting on with, after all.

It was not until previews of the upcoming show and teaser images from the revolutionary new catalogue began to flood my Twitter feed that I sat up and took notice.  The jacket with the antelope horns on the shoulders caught my attention instantly, as did the eerie photography and aesthetics.  There was something about the garments and the atmosphere of the photos that appealed to my former wannabe-goth, thirteen year-old self.  But other than noticing that it was taking place in New York in May, and that I live in California so would not be able to attend, I simply admired the photos, thought “oh, that’s the sort of thing he did”, and went on to the next link.

But the teasers kept coming.  They became full articles, discussing the revolutionary new way in which the catalogue had been photographed (museum collections cannot be worn as a rule, but since these were all still within the House’s collection, they were placed on models who were then photoshopped to look like living mannequins); or discussing the designer himself.  Then, I purchased the catalogue, and a “well, maybe when I’m on the East Coast in July I’ll see if I have time” became “I must see this”.

I was embarrassingly late in becoming an Alexander McQueen fangirl.  I still prefer historical or technical discussions of clothes to current fashion, and I am happy to admit that I am completely out of my comfort zone.  And yet, I think that is the way McQueen himself would have preferred it.  There is something about his work that evinces an intense emotional engagement from me, and clearly I am not alone.

The exhibit is drawing record-breaking crowds.  I arrived to see it on a Monday, when The Met is normally closed, thinking the lines would be shorter. I was so, so wrong. I was surprised to discover that the normal entrance fee was doubled to $50, that Savage Beauty was the only thing you would see for that, and what’s more, I could still see the lines nearly out to the street from the side entrance.  As I had at least another 24 hours in New York, I resolved to be there before the museum opened the next day to “beat the lines” (that sound you hear is hysterical, ridiculing laughter, by the way).  The museum opened at 09:30, and I was there well before then, but the lines were already absurd.

The signs at the ticket kiosk said that the wait to see Savage Beauty was only fifteen minutes, but after climbing two flights of stairs and seeing the line, I had a rather sudden premonition that this could not be the case. . .

Nearly half an hour later I was perhaps two-thirds of the way through the line and still could not even see the entrance to the exhibit.

. . . I may have gotten bored.

I do not know how long I actually waited, but I would happily have waited longer.

The exhibit is nothing short of awe-inspiring. For McQueen, the show was the most important part of what he did; the garments of a collection could not be designed until he had a concept for the show itself.[2] The Met exhibit’s creation of atmosphere and attention to detail seems almost a recreation of the designer’s own process.  Each and every room is different, and specifically designed for the collection it showcases.  From the plain concrete walls and raw wood platforms of the “Romantic Mind” collection that displays McQueen’s earliest work – creative reconstructions of the traditional tailoring he learned while an apprentice on Savile Row – in the first room, to the opulent, gold-leaf walls lit by flickering (electric, of course) candelabra for the opening room to the “Romantic Nationalism” section – which features the sharply tailored pieces of his Widows of Culloden collection in their bright red McQueen tartan, and the soft, flowing shapes of The Girl Who Lived in the Tree with its references to British Imperial wealth – about midway through the exhibit.

Each and every mannequin’s head is covered, the only exceptions being the “Romantic Mind” room which featured headless mannequins, and the “Cabinet of Curiosities” room, where some of the bizarre and whimsical jewellery pieces or more unsual hats could not be displayed except on an uncovered bust. Each masque fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the room.  Gold, bevelled pieces for the “Romantic Nationalism” room described above, burlap sacks for the room featuring the shipwreck-themed Irere collection, and futuristic faux-metal headpieces recreating the bizarre hairstyles of the Plato’s Atlantis runway show which introduced the “armadillo” platforms for the final “Romantic Naturalism” room.

Despite the variety of the masques, this manages to create a sense of cohesion in an extremely diverse exhibit.  It also continues a tradition of McQueen’s, who would intentionally obscure the features of his models, either through make up, veils, headpieces or masques; he also rarely used “supermodels”, not wanting the overall message, or visual impact of the show to be overshadowed by the model’s own fame.[3]  He even said, when he was accused of misogyny and encouraging exploitation of women in his shows (specifically Highland Rape), “We’re not talking about models’ personal feelings here… We’re talking about mine. Models are there to showcase what I’m about, nothing else. It’s nothing to do with misogyny. It’s all about the way I’m feeling about my life.”[4]  The masques, even for featureless mannequins, are very much in keeping with this mentality because despite their uniqueness, they complete the look, and almost become “background” forcing you to look only at the clothes and the designer’s vision.

The other two elements that most impressed me were the use of video, sound effects and music, and the recreation of some of the runway shows.  I became aware of the background sound and music in the second room, which features the darkly gothic Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection, as well as his posthumous Angels and Demons.  The walls are covered in what look like old, tarnished mirrors with grand, gilded frames.  There is a fan for one particular outfit, which has a cape that billows dramatically as a result; but it is the sound of eerie instrumental music – sophisticated haunted house music, really – and wind as if through vast corridors which subtly reinforces the ambiance of the entire display.  The Cabinet of Curiosities features a number of videos of McQueen shows, making you pause that much longer to take each one in.

After leaving the “Romantic Exoticism” room, which is music-box like in its use of turntables and mirrors, you are faced with McQueen’s VOSS runway show in miniature.  A mirrored box where you confront your own reflection transforms into a display case for mannequins wearing dresses from the collection and an image of the white tiled, sanatorium surgical theatre it originally took place in with its own mirrored box in the middle as the background.  The lights go down on the mannequins, and the background image comes to life, becoming a video of the final moment of the runway show in which the walls of the box within the box come crashing down, shattering on impact with the floor, and revealing a nude woman whose body is completely opposite to those of the models that have just been dancing around her.  She is not tall, she is very curvaceous and of a larger size, her face is completely obscured and moths and other insects flutter about and over her.  The entire display then fades back to the mirrored box it was when you approached it, and you are once again confronted with your own reflection.

I had never before realized just how important context was for museum displays of costume.  The catalogue had featured a rather plain dress: black with a gold damask print painted on it, but in the bottom left corner the pattern had not been finished and instead drips of gold paint run down as though the painting had been halted part way through and abandoned to dry however it might.  I simply thought it was an interesting pattern effect, nothing more. But in person, within the setting, I had a completely different, deeply emotional reaction. After the first, gilded “Romantic Nationalism” room, you are taken into a room with ravaged wooden floors and walls, in the background “God Save The Queen” is played on an electric guitar, in what can only be described as an ironic way.  In conjunction with the tattered, torn, and ripped lace, leather and chiffon that makes up the other garments from the Highland Rape collection, my perceptions of this black dress with gold damask print were entirely transformed. My favourite course while doing my masters was my Jacobitism to Romanticism class which looked at the material culture of Scotland, particularly during the Jacobite uprisings, so it is perhaps the historical context that made this room so memorable to me.  Yet, the combination of sound and visuals, followed immediately by the quiet, ethereal hologram of Kate Moss is still my favourite.  It had what can only be described as a visceral impact on me and my opinions of this collection. Altering them forever.

As a visual display the exhibit is undeniably stunning.  There were several pieces where I wished there were mirrors behind stationary mannequins so that I could see the backs or fronts that were turned towards the walls, but that would have disrupted the aesthetic presentation.  My biggest complaint was with the information panels.  Not the labels for the garments, but the descriptions featured to explain each room and collection.  McQueen frequently, and sometimes violently, protested the stereotypes and labels he was given by the press.[5]  He hated being considered the “bad boy of fashion”, or having himself and his vision reduced to the “Michael Cain syndrome” as he referred to it, of the East End, Cockney boy made good.[6]  Bolton’s panels and his preface to the catalogue do not put McQueen in this box, but they create a loftier, more romantic one: a modern version of Rousseau’s Noble Savage; a misunderstood, melancholy prophet showing us all “the truth”. This seems in direct contrast to Susannah Frankel’s statement in her introduction to the catalogue that “… as a human being, he was far more complex, elusive, and indeed magical than any reductive media incarnation”.[7]

People, though, are usually far more comfortable with “reductive media incarnations” than with complexities and things that are uncomfortable, even while they flock to them. The museum needs to make the artwork accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and to introduce a strange and perhaps completely unknown designer to an ignorant public. McQueen himself even acknowledged that “… Any interest in the clothes is secondary to interest in the designer”.[8]  And this is true of all art. The public is just as fascinated by Pablo Picasso the man as they are by his art, being violently offended when Arianna Huffington dragged him off a pedestal and into gritty reality with her biography in 1989.  Tickets for biopics about Jackson Pollock or Vermeer – fictitious or not – would not sell if we did not want to see the myths writ large.  But, all the hype is nothing if you are not a good designer, craftsman or artist, and McQueen certainly was.  Whether or not fashion (said in the same condescending tone I embarrassingly used to employ) is truly art is still publicly debated, though.

In April the New York Times ran a piece on big museums “finding a place” for fashion in their exhibition schedules, which seemed to come to the conclusion that it was merely a cash cow to fund “proper” art exhibits.  In July another article ran in conjunction with the opening of the Madame Grés exhibit in Paris, asking point blank whether fashion was really art or deserving of such major museum attention. That fashion exhibits sell is clearly indicated by not only the lines in my own photos above, but the fact that the Met is open on Mondays just for the McQueen exhibit, and able to charge twice its normal admission price.  And get it. It is even staying open until midnight this weekend to try and meet the demand to see the exhibit during its last few days.  These are unprecedented measures and changes.  The Met has never been open until midnight.  Or on Mondays.

But does popularity validate that something is art?  There are arguments that say yes, and arguments that say no.

Another NYT review suggested that having the House itself financially and artistically involved in the exhibit was limiting and that if fashion wanted to be taken seriously as art, it needed to be removed from its commercial environment and “treated as art”, complete with analysis, comparison, and even criticism.  I agree with the author, Holland Cotter, that in order to treat it seriously, it must be analyzed the same way as all other ar tforms, within the proper socio-political context, and even on occasion drawing some negative conclusions, and that this cannot be done when you have the owners of the objects breathing down your neck and demanding to be made to look good. But that sort of treatment usually happens in conferences and reviews, not exhibition catalogues. However, Cotter claims this happens in other Met catalogues, which I can neither confirm nor deny, this being the only exhibit, and only catalogue I have ever had contact with.  But, in my experience it is highly unusual for museums to say “well, you know, Edward Weston is considered this amazing, early photographer… but we just can’t tell”.  They are trying to sell their product.  And in fact, according to psychology researcher Paul Bloom in his TED Talk, that is perfectly normal. We place a huge amount of importance and value on how a particular artwork is perceived by others, and that influences how much value we have for it. And well established museums and their curators will carry more weight in determining something’s importance and value, than say, well, me.

And yet, Cotter’s article does make one wonder if the reason fashion isn’t considered art isn’t due to this corporate, and arguably biased involvement in its museum display.  Would it be taken more seriously if it was removed from all of that and treated as any other form of art or craft is?  But then again, without the funding a fashion house can provide, would the Met have even been able to mount such an extraordinary exhibit?

For me, Alexander McQueen was a satirist.  He did not write poetry or prose (that I know of), but he took our taboos and forced us to look at them full on, even if they made us squirm; he took our standards of beauty, our perceptions of women, our ideas about history, our stereotypes and our conformities and blew them out of proportion, distorted them into the ridiculous and made us reconsider and think about them, even if we didn’t necessarily like what we thought or felt afterwards.  He was like Jonathan Swift, suggesting the Irish eat their babies in lieu of potatoes during famine.  He was occasionally grotesque, but satire often is, and that is its power.  There was a NYT opinion piece in April suggesting that the only real political and social change comes through satire.  Once we are made to realize something is ridiculous, we are no longer intimidated.  It can be changed.

McQueen himself seemed uncertain whether he was an artist or not.  Towards the end of his life he spoke of going back to art school, but always referred to himself as a designer.[9]  I believe he was an amazing craftsman – the skill used to create his garments attests to that – and a true artist.  Fashion, and particularly his shows “which blurred the boundary between runway show and a new kind of installation art” were simply his medium.[10]  McQueen even said, “For me, what I do is an artistic expression which is channelled through me. Fashion is just the medium”.[11]  The irony that he was discussing people’s perceptions of beauty through fashion is not lost on me. Nor was it lost on him.

The exhibit is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever seen.  Anyone who cannot make it in this weekend should avail themselves of the video walkthrough on the Met’s website (next to the last, at the bottom of the page, though as a proper little acolyte, I highly recommend all the videos).  It is almost as good as being there, and there is less danger of being elbowed in the ribs (all those people in the photos above… yeah, they’re in the exhibit with you).

I regret very much that I came to appreciate this man only after he had died. But I feel that to try and place him in a box whether you are a media outlet or a museum is unfair.  He said that if we wanted to know him, we should look at his work.

I think the best homage we could give him would be to do just that.


Austen, Jane. 1961. Sense and Sensibility (New York, Signet Classics).

Bloom, Paul. ‘The origins of pleasure’ TED Talks. TED [27 July 2011], .

Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Cotter, Holland. ‘Designer as Dramatist, and the Tales He Left Behind’ The New York Times. The New York Times [4 May 2011], .

Fabrikant, Geraldine. ‘Museums Are Finding Room for Couturiers’ The New York Times. The New York Times [20 April 2011], .

Frankel, Susannah. 2001. ‘Alexander McQueen’, Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers (London, V&A Publishing).

Knox, Kristin. 2010. Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation (London, A & C Black).

Kristof, Nicholas D. ‘The Power of Mockery’ The New York Times. The New York Times [16 April 2011], .

Pieri, Keri. ‘Because Only Kate and McQueen Matter Today: Met Exhibit Pics’ Stylecaster. Stylecaster [29 April 2011], .

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘The Fall from Nature’, The Western World, Dr. John P. Farrell, ed. (New York, Penguin Publishing).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘Morals of Nature’, The Western World, Dr. John P. Farrell, ed. (New York, Penguin Publishing).

Wilson, Eric. ‘A Mannequin in Every Sense’, The New York Times. The New York Times [13 April 2011], .

Winchester, Simon. 1999. The Professor and the Madman (New York, Harper Collins Publishing).

[1] Bolton: 130.

[2] Ibid: 24.

[3] Ibid: 22.

[4] Frankel: 20.

[5] Ibid: 14, 16 – 19, 20; Bolton: 17; Knox: 7.

[6] Frankel: 20.

[7] Bolton: 17.

[8] Frankel: 20.

[9] Bolton: 231.

[10] Knox: 7.

[11] Bolton: 92.


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