This weekend the Apparel Designer Network had a field trip to the Peabody Essex Museum to see their marvelous exhibit, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art, Image, Style. The exhibit was unique in that it showcased not only some of the artist's own work including some pieces of sculpture and photographs, but also pieces of her personal wardrobe.
O'Keeffe was a popular subject for her spouse and well-known photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, and there are many of his photographs of her on display often juxtaposed with the very same articles of clothing she wore for the picture.
His were not the only images of her, though, there is an early painting of her on display as well as numerous photographs of her by imminent photographers from that time such as Ansel Adams and Steven Weber. Her personal mystique, artistic vision, and unusual style obviously intrigued many. There are images from her youth such as a yearbook image from Chatham Episcopal Institute, a boarding school in Virginia, where, although well-liked, she is described as an 'unusual girl'.
By the time she was thirty, she had already had her first solo show in New York, thanks to Steiglitz, who was also a notable art dealer, and she had moved to New York as well. This is when her career began to really take off. She began painting some of her most iconic pieces, the large abstracts of flowers that she is so well known for, as well as cityscape paintings of New York. Stieglitz and she married in 1924 and he continued to promote her work which also began to incorporate scenes of Lake George, NY where the couple often spent their weekends. Her career was thriving in a male-dominated field; her pivotal exhibit at at the Museum of Modern Art in1946 was the museum’s first ever retrospective of a female artist’s work. She still holds the record for the largest price paid for the work of a female artist for piece bought at auction in 2014.
It was in 1929 that she made her first visit to New Mexico and would fall in love with the landscape there. After this she began splitting her time between New York and staying in New Mexico, which she called "the faraway". She bought a house at Ghost Ranch and threw herself into the work that defined the latter part of her career. She was almost fifty when Steglitz passed away and a few years later she moved permanently to New Mexico, which would be her home for the remainder of her life. Photos of her in her studio show her surrounded by the sun-bleached bones she would drag back from her long desert walks. One caption in the exhibit explained that she loved painting the spaces between the bones and the view of the piercing blue sky through the those spaces. Anyone lucky enough to make the trip to the Georgia O'Keefe museum in Santa Fe, NM can even book a tour of her home and studio in Abiquiu where they can also see some of her work in the same spaces in which O'Keeffe created them.
Everything about her work, home, and method of dress is spare and minimalist and reflective of her personal style, which was heavily influenced by a Japanese sensibility of simple elegance. An early teacher and mentor, Arthur Wesley Dow, is credited with introducing her to this approach to design and it had a lasting impact on her work and dress. Among the garments displayed is a collection of kimonos, ranging from lightweight silk to heavy padded cotton. All are black and free from surface pattern or ornate decoration except for one bold black and white printed piece; many are men's kimonos. O'Keeffe sewed many of her own pieces of clothing and I was stunned to find out from the docent it was done without the aid of a sewing machine! Some of the pintucks and minute detail on these pieces must have taken her ages to execute. Most of the blouses with this intense handwork are in shades of cream and ivory so it's easy to see and appreciate the skilled craftsmanship. Another favorite fabrication of hers was black wool crepe, which her signature long cape is fashioned from.
She was a pioneer of androgynous dressing and when in New Mexico took to wearing men's jeans and work clothes - there are several examples of the practical denim and cotton pieces on display. In later years, she favored men's suits tailored to fit her, and always made of black wool, whenever she went to New York or received visitors from New York at her home in Abiquiu. She called these her "town clothes". To see some of these pieces of her clothing is to get a glimpse into the design sensibility of this phenomenal artist. You can see some of the influences of her own work in the pieces she is creating to wear, some of the same lines echo throughout her wardrobe as do her paintings.
She was a primary inspiration for Maria Grazia Chiuri's first cruise collection for Dior, proving that she continues to be a fashion influencer today. Through the years many other designers have been influenced by her iconic style.
In fact, our own 'Painted Desert' trend was inspired by O'Keefe herself and the same Southwest landscapes she was so in love with.
Among the wonderful images and personal effects, there is also some rare video footage of her giving a brief interview. She is much advanced in years and is reflecting on her life's work and admits, "I could have been a much better painter and no one may have even noticed"; she states that she is aware that she was producing work at a time that the public was ready to receive such work. It is a remarkable stroke of humility for an artist who had attained such stature at that point in her life - a remark worthy of a living legend.
You still have time to see this wonderful and inspiring PEM exhibit as it closes on April 1st - you will not be disappointed.
And don't forget: to see a listing of this and other notable exhibits, please refer to our schedule of shows which we are constantly updating. You will never miss a great fashion exhibit again!
Sources: PEM | Vogue | W magazine | wikipedia | Artnet
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