Artist Date 42: Dressed, Safely Shrouded

I think I need a headdress.

2013-10-03 14.50.37Feathered, painted and beaded.  Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42.  According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.

I could use that – spiritual protection and potency.  Especially in courtship.  I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.

Perhaps a wig would suffice.  Cover up my naked head.  My naked heart.

My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them.  Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”

I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob.   I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland.  I told him I wished my hair grew like that.  How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.

We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.

I had forgotten about it until now.

afro lesleyAnd really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now.  Or even be here at all.  My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours.  Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.

And yet, I am here.  Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart.  To leave here a little better than I arrived.  To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.”  It is a relief.

My plan was to visit the African Art.  But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section.  Thinking about wigs.  About my cousin.  About my other cousin – Diane.

I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17.  The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.

I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip.  They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord.  Burnout style.  And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.

Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.

It seems like forever ago.  As does my trip to see Diane.  Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.

So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings.  I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past.  Something entirely my own.  Sort of.

Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance.  Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.

And yet, Africa is mine.  It always was.  A dream since I was a child.  He just helped get me there.

The collection is small.

2013-10-03 15.09.25A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet.  A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.

I think of my own breasts.  Small.  No longer pendulous.  Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery.  A different beauty ideal.

I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.

“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”

I think about the Native American headdress.  Of my own dress.  My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce.  Sexier.  It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.

Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history.  I snap photographs so I can remember them.

1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa.  By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.

1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.

1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.

1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.

I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.

I think about my own map.  My timeline.  My dress.  My independence.  Messy.  Uncertain.  Liberating.  But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.

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Artist Date 28: Me, Kate Moss and the Joannes

kate mossAbout this time last year, my friend Joanne told me she had two style icons – me and Kate Moss.  I was surprised and tickled.  But mostly tickled.

I remember  what I was wearing that day.  A tight pink and white striped “French sailor” t-shirt from Old Navy, with buttons along the boat neck.  Too loose, Army-green cigarette pants from Target, purchased prior to my ex asking me for a divorce – before the weight slipped off of me, seemingly overnight.  A thin, woven belt, and my yellow peep-toe wedges with ankle straps.

I felt like a page torn from Glamour –“Great Looks for less than $50,” or something like that.  Minus the shoes.  The shoes would put me “over budget.”

The shoes always put me over budget.

“What calls for the most care in a woman’s costume is unquestionably the foot gear and the gloves.”

The words are stenciled on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with numerous other pithy statements about dress.  I am here for a member lecture and pre-viewing of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” – Artist Date 28.

Sometimes I feel light, superficial, because I am delighted by statements like Joanne’s.  I feel that it should not matter.

And yet, I am at a show that has toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris before landing in Chicago, a show that is focused on fashion.  Earlier this year I saw another, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” at the Chicago History Museum.

I consider that, perhaps, how I choose to cover my body might not be a simple matter of practicalities and aesthetics.  That fashion – how we dress ourselves, individually and as a culture – is in fact, a statement of sorts.  A reflection of time, mood, politics.  Think hemlines rising as the economy upticks.

Or, as Gloria Groom, the show’s curator says in her lecture, “clothing is not fashion.”

The exhibit is bursting with paintings and sketches.  Advertising, bits of clothing and accessories.   Bustles, corsets, shoes.  Costumes for walking the boulevards of Paris.  For going to the sea.

“As fashion was an integral part of Paris’ character, some places – the boulevard, parks, racetracks and theatres – were constructed with the idea of it’s well-dressed pubic in mind.”

Groom ends her lecture with a joke, a “warning.”  That those experiencing a bad hair day, clothing day, face day, might do well to avoid the exhibit.  That mirrors and reflective surfaces abound.

I am standing in front of a collection of hats.  Fifty or more.  jeweled.  Feathered.  Contained in a single square of plexiglass spanning floor to ceiling.  I see myself admiring the millinery.  Recognizing one that reminds me of the hat I wore at my wedding.  I mention this to the woman standing next to me.  She asks me about it.

It is made of tightly woven straw, pinned up into corners, decorated with ribbon flowers and glass fruit.  I had to have it.

I do not mention I am divorced.  It does not feel germane.   We are talking about hats.  This is progress.

Manet-Lady-with-Fans_480My marital status creeps in later, standing in front of an Edouard Manet painting of Nina de Callais, called “Lady with Fans.”  She is lying on her side, looking straight into the camera.  If there were a camera.  Her eyes are big, dark, open.

She is dressed in black, but she is not mourning.  She is wearing jewelry.  If she were in mourning she would not be, Groom explains.  Groom adds that de Callais is divorced.  That perhaps she is “re-baiting the trap.”

The placard next to the painting notes that de Callais was known for hosting salons of writers and artists.

A woman next to me says, to no one in particular, “She is ugly.”  I do not agree.  “Don’t you think she looks and sounds like fun?” I say.

“Perhaps.  But she is ugly.  At least she is painted that way.”

I say nothing.  Like my friend Julie says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”

I wonder if I am re-baiting the trap.  Maybe.  Not long after I moved back to town, my friend Tori commented that I dressed differently – sexier, more body-conscious.  I wasn’t conscious of it.  But now I am.

There are corsets.  Boudoir paintings showing seductively naked shoulders and upper backs, napes of necks teasingly exposed.

“A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction.  But for us, fiction is better than reality.” 

I think of a party I attended in San Francisco in the mid- 1990s.  There is a poster of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, circa 1976, hung in the bathroom.  By today’s standards, and even those of almost 20 years ago, the women – once considered the pinnacle  of beauty in America – would be seen as flabby, soft.  Their breasts, saggy.  Their thighs, heavy.

Like the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that was recently popular on Facebook.  She’s in a yellow bikini. Boy short bottoms. Tie halter top (I covet this suit.).  She is reclining.  Folds of skin naturally line up across her belly in horizontal rows.

I have folds across my belly.

I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of Photoshop.  Of airbrushing.  That no celebrity would willingly allow this photograph to surface.  But that it might show up in The Star or The Inquirer, with a headline like “Monroe Hits Maximum Density.”

It is a little after 4.  I have given myself an hour to tour the exhibit.  It is not long enough.  I have somewhere to be.

I want to stay and stare at the woman in the Frederic Bazille family reunion painting.  The one in the polka-dot dress staring out at me.  Her face is sweet.  It is shaped like mine.

I want to take off my shoes and run my feet through the fake grass covering the floor in the Plein Air (open air) room.

Bazille-Renoir_360I want to lean into Bazille’s portrait of Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Hiked up on a chair, his arms wrapped around his bent knees.   He is bearded.  My type.

I want to scroll through Henri Somm’s sketchbook, digitally brought to life.

I want to see the related exhibits: “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy” and “Fashion Plates: 19th-Century Fashion Illustrations.”

I return home and there is a message from my friend Joanne.  A different Joanne.  She was at the lecture too.  She saw me.  I saw her.  But we didn’t see each other seeing one another.  She says, “You looked lovely in that dress.”

I wonder what this dress – its halter-style, plunging neckline and flirty skirt, covered in large red and navy flowers – says.  Is it a sign of optimism, worn the day before the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act?  Or is it nothing more than a response to a sticky, summer day in Chicago?