Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for August, 2010

FIDM Gallery Showcases TV Costumes

A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the current gallery exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in downtown L.A. Every year the gallery showcases costumes featured on the small screen, including examples from all the Emmy nominees in costume design (for TV series this year it’s Glee, The Good Wife, Mad Men, 30 Rock and The Tudors).

It was especially fun to see costumes from Glee and Mad Men, not only because I’m a fan of both shows, but because it’s rare that you see current fashion trends suspended in the rarified time and space of a gallery exhibition. Even though Mad Men isn’t set in present time, it’s having a tremendous impact on fashion sensibilities. I’m only up to page 628 (ahem) of the September issue of Vogue, but I’ve already spotted several explicit (and countless implicit) references to the show, including the rather shameless spread called “Sweater Girl” (you can guess who comes to mind).

But the influence doesn’t end there. Hairstyles and interior design are also feeling very Don & Betty Draper these days. My office building was just given a facelift and now the color palette, furniture, fixtures and even the fonts used throughout the building simply scream “Sterling Cooper.”

Oddly enough it’s often disappointing to see a costume in person after you’ve admired it on a screen. The former head of the Costume Designer’s Guild, Deborah Landis, once explained to me that costumes for the screen are ontologically different from ready to wear: costume designers consciously use patterns, designs and shapes that will play well on a two-dimensional screen. When you see them in person, they often seem cartoonish and heavy-handed. They also look a lot smaller than you assume they will: actors who loom large on the screen are often teeny in real life.

One of the things that the acting director of the gallery, Barbara Bundy, called to my attention in this year’s selection of costumes was the shocking austerity of the designs from shows with American religious themes. The Big Love showcase was it’s own kind of show-stopper, with several frightening outifts from the dreaded polygamist compound often featured on the show. Costumes from Amish Grace, a Lifetime movie about the 2006 shootings of five girls in an Amish community, seemed like they had been deposited here from another time and space altogether. And isn’t that the story of fashion? It’s always in dialogue with design history, in one way or another.

The exhibition closes September 4. And admission is free!

It’s Heeeeeere . . .

Ah, the beloved September issue of Vogue. Ever since I was 11, I waited with bated breath for this giant door-stop of a magazine to get thumped on my stoop by a grumpy mailman with no respect for fashion’s bible. Last night, I squealed with delight when I found  it in my box. The thrill abides.

It’s been year since The September Issue came out, a documentary film about the working relationship between Vogue’s imperious editor Anna Wintour and its ingenious creative director Grace Coddington. Here’s the blog I wrote about the 2009 issue and “the elaborate symbiotic relationship between the entertainment biz and the fashion biz.” Enjoy!

A Little Smiling Summer Night Music

I just saw the fantastic production of A Little Night Music on Broadway (with stellar perfromances by Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch) and it just so happened that I’d recently watched Smiles of a Summer Night, the Bergman film upon which it was based. It got me thinking about adaptation and how stories move across generic boundaries and media and literary forms. I was struck by a profound similarity in spirit between the film and the musical play, which I had assumed would be radically different from its 1950s predecessor. The recent New York Times review emphasized the differences between the film and play, but I disagreed: both works found a way to explore the idiocy of romance and the surprising ways in which such silliness shapes lives. Both Bergman and Sondheim are geniuses at revealing how canny and idotic humans really are.

I was curious to find out what Bergman himself thought about the play, which hit the stage in 1973. I didn’t find anything right away, but I did come across this quote, which helps to explain Sondheim’s attraction to the film and the powerful consonance that I felt between the two works:

I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.

I would beg to differ about the intellectual component of movie watching, but I love the idea that Sondheim made the underlying music of Smiles of a Summer Night audible.

Henry Jenkins, a colleague of mine at USC, is at the forefront of transmedia studies and I couldn’t help but think of his work as I was trying to piece together the relationship between Night Music and Smiles. Jenkins argues that the most successful transmedia properties take advantage of the unique affordances of each new media platform. What’s surprising about the transformation of Bergman’s movie into Sondheim’s musical is not the fundamental differences but the weirdly synesthetic similarities.

P.S. As I mentioned above, I thought Elaine Stritch was marvelous: you could never tell whether she was forgetting her lines or just pretending like she was ready to drift off into an octogenarian haze. I guess I wasn’t sitting close enough to tell that the long pauses in her delivery (according to The Village Voice) were because she was, indeed forgetting her lines, and some production assistant was yelling them out to her from backstage. Don’t you love how brutal reality can enhance a work of art?

A Grand Mistake: Fashion Designs Will Probably Get Copyright Protection

*Sigh.* I think just about every savvy person in the fashion industry realizes that making fashion designs eligible for copyright protection is a big mistake — not just for the fashion business but for the art of fashion design as well. But Chuck Schumer has just introduced a Senate Bill that may very well accomplish that very goal.

In my recent TED.com talk, I explained why the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry was actually a driver of innovation: designers have a freewheeling ability to sample from any of their peers’ designs, without talking to lawyers about the legal ramifications. This freewheeling and unfettered creative process has allowed fashion designers to create wildly innovative designs season after season. The fact that designers are allowed to copy from one another allows trends to develop, and trends are essential to the bottom line of this $300 billion a year business (and that’s just in the U.S).

I outline some of the main arguments against this legislation in a piece today on Design Observer. Check it out and let me know what you think . . .

Move Over Project Runway

I’ve been a devoted fan of Project Runway ever since season three, when I finally gave into my friends who INSISTED I would love it. OK, they were right. Unlike Top Chef, another critically acclaimed reality show that friends recommended and I quickly stopped watching, you could actually judge the final products yourself. I hated having to depend on other people’s tastebuds.

I’ve dabbled in a few other reality shows — The Fashion Show, of course, and Top Design — but I’ve found my thrill with Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. I wanted to wait until the season finale before I wrote about it, but it’s had me hooked since episode one. Please tell me where else in the reality TV universe one can find a show that

a) frequently discusses the theory and praxis of conceptual art

b) allows visual artists to discuss their process

c) debates the value of representation

Um, let’s just say nowhere.

Although I often violently disagreed with the show’s regular judges, I learned a lot from their debates and I was thrilled to hear what some of the A-list guest judges had to say. Jon Kessler, Andres Serrano, Richard Phillips, Will Cotton, Ryan McGinness, and a very emotional David LaChapelle offered excellent insights into the work that I watched come into being. Every single show was filled with serious commentary about the creation and impact of art and, of course, insight into the personalities of artists (yes, several of them were crazy). I think this is where the reality show format actually provided extra depth to the proceedings. I really enjoyed Art:21,  the PBS series about art in the twenty-first century, but the reality show format helps reveal how artists work in the moment, and that seems to never be the case in news magazine and documentary style productions, which always cast their gaze backwards.

I was often irritated at how much Project Runway preyed on the clash of personalities and catty comments. That stuff is fun, but the reason I tune in is to see how a bunch of creative minds grapple with design problems. I’m fascinated by the diversity of strategies employed and the often surprising final results. And their resilience during absurdly difficult challenges is pretty inspiring, too.

In my mind, Work of Art is another excellent example of serious intellectual inquiry masquerading as trite, formulaic entertainment. May it awaken the artistic inclinations of couch potatoes everywhere!

Mickey Mouse at the Whitney Museum

Just south of the entrance to the Whitney Museum in Manhattan my friend and I noticed a bizarre film featuring Mickey Mouse playing in a storefront window. It turned out to be Mouse Heaven by the gay avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger. I immediately assumed he must have exercised his right to “fair use” in order to make a sexually suggestive film starring the most jealously copyright-protected character in the world. (Is it just me, or does it look like Mickey is masturbating when he’s supposedly conducting that orchestra?) Fortunately, the film is available in high quality on YouTube and the short description there suggests how Anger probably avoided having to respond to any nasty letters from Disney. The film is composed of an “all toy” cast: Anger didn’t have to use any copyright protected images of Mickey to make this decidedly weird film; he simply filmed actual toys in motion . . . presumably with the permission of their owner.

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