More Than Chintz: The Opposing Styles of Sister Parish

It’s not unusual to see an artist dressed in a uniform. Repeating attire in similar silhouettes, colors, and textiles give the wearer a detached persona in relation to their appearance. Johnny Cash became the “Man in Black” because he wore the color so much, and Steve Jobs put his genius on display by foregoing conservative suits for a comfortable turtleneck and jeans combo.

This act of hiding oneself to reveal their craft is also seen in the wardrobe of Sister Parish, an American interior designer. Sister’s work was built around a bright aesthetic and her outgoing personality. But when examining her own sense of style, there are extremes. Her professional attire was consistently colored in somber hues and designed in structured silhouettes. This countered the way Sister transformed her rooms, which were festooned with rich fabrics and quirky embellishments for customers with social status’ as bright as the patterns she used.

From Mrs. Henry Parish II to Sister Parish

Sister was born as Dorothy Kinnicutt to a wealthy American family. She earned the moniker Sister as a familial nickname that followed her into adulthood. Her family’s fine living surrounded her with fine art and antiques that furnished their New York City, Paris, and Maine homes. Her childhood occurred during the early twentieth century, which was a time where the occupation of an interior designer was not realized. It was seen as a set of duties that were based on societal rules. Sister came into her own appreciation of the craft through a genuine interest and designing her first marital home with her husband Albert. In 1933, Sister began her business in a small one-room office in Far Hills, New Jersey. The fact that she was a married woman owning and working her own business was considered scandalous and resulted in her husband being disinherited by his relatives

Sister established herself through designing for her friends, which led to one project after another. By 1962, the business required a design and business partner. She was joined by a then-young interior designer named William Hadley who specialized in combining classic and contemporary styles. Together the duo designed rooms for some of the top names in American society, which included the Astors, Paleys, and even the Kennedys.

Sister is credited for creating and popularizing the American Country look, an interior design aesthetic that was described by a 1999 profile in Architectural Digest as, “…a certain kind of cozy old-money look, part opulent, part hand-me-down.” This upscale “lived-in” feel was created through antiques and assorted furniture that was complemented with wicker accents, graphic rugs, and handmade textiles. She included artistic details like scenic panoramas that elevated the rooms to suit the needs and societal lives of her clients.

Dressing as Sister Parish
There is not much text on Sister’s wardrobe, but she was well-documented during the height of her career. By analyzing her wardrobe through photographs and comparing them with her work, a greater understanding of her own aesthetic is revealed.

To be a mature woman leading a successful company from the 1950s to the 1980s was a great task, even for a wealthy White female like Sister. Her first identity in American society was of a wife, however, her passion for interior design created a new path that let her use her own name and voice. She reveled in this new identity with an outgoing personality and a matching design aesthetic. This passion did not translate into her own professional wardrobe, which was based on darkly-colored outfits with small touches of white neck collars, pussy bows, or jewelry. Constructed, conservative silhouettes channeled her aristocratic upbringing through variations of pencil skirts with jackets or knee-length dresses in crew or V-necklines. Sister’s mainstays were a blonde coif, a flash of red lipstick, and pearls in either a necklace, earring, or brooch form. This personal appearance was that of a diligent professional whose clothing choices were direct and chic, which left the interior design as the focus.

To learn more about Sister Parish, visit SisterParishDesign.com or read one of the many books about her life and work.

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The Love, Politics, and Fashions of Edith Windsor

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Edith Windsor was a fashionable woman who understood color, proportion, and the power of a flipped bob. When describing her style, she sounds like a Hollywood actress or a Manhattan socialite, but she was more than just another pretty face. Edith used her fashionable appearance to fight against discrimination towards LGBTQIA Americans and normalize the face of same-sex marriage. She was the epitome of the fashionable American woman who was also a proud lesbian that broke stereotypes.

A Fashionable Lady, A Fashionable Couple

Edith came from a working-class background, attended Temple University, and began a career in computer programing. She found success in the field despite her being in a heavily male industry and worked her way up to the role of Senior Programmer. Early in her adult life, she followed tradition by marrying a man, but the relationship didn’t last due to her accepting her sexuality. She later found a partner in Thea Spyer, a Dutch immigrant who worked as a psychologist.

Edith’s famous relationship began with Thea after an encounter at a party. Their connection was so great that they danced together so intensely that Edith tore a hole in her stockings. As they pursued their relationship, they continued their careers and had the opportunity to travel the world, which they documented their trips through photography. Through this, people viewing the photographs have been able to see the love and joy between the couple. What’s also apparent to the viewer is the couple’s sense of dress. In a famous photograph of the couple sitting in The Cloisters both of the women appear fashionable, but differ in styles. Thea’s look is masculine by way of gray slate colored slacks and jacket with a pair of loafers. Edith’s style is feminine and young. In the photograph, she wears a white turtleneck, a green wool coat, and a pair of highwater jeans that are paired with white chunky socks and tennis shoes. Her hair is full and curled at the ends that frame a bright red lip.

Their opposing yet defined styles continued throughout their relationship until Thea’s death in 2009. Thea favored clean lines and classically male silhouettes, in which she wore suits or button-ups shirts. Edith opted for color and feminine touches, like wrap dresses, strings of pearls, and oversized sunglasses.

First Comes Love and Then Comes Marriage

The expectations of women’s clothing during the mid-19th century were to appear feminine. This related to the social standing of American females at the time, who were expected to be cisgender and straight with a mission in life to marry a man and produce children. Having a career was discouraged and virtually impossible for those who also wanted a family. For lesbians, marriage was not recognized in United States law and was considered suspicious behavior. Because of this, Edith and Thea were forced to hide their engagement in 1967 and resulted in Edith wearing a diamond circular “engagement” brooch that wouldn’t cause attention from her co-workers. The couple eventually married in Canada in 2007.

After years of activism, Edith became an American icon when she won a Supreme Court case that demanded same-sex marriages in the United States to be federally recognized in relation to benefits and rights in 2013. This was inspired by a hefty tax bill that Edith was required to pay shortly after Thea’s death that was caused due to their marriage not being recognized by the United States government.

As a result, Edith made numerous appearances in both gay and mainstream media. She no longer had to hide her identity, rather she was expected to embrace it. She often appeared in a t-shirt with the words “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian” emblazoned across the chest with her signature blonde bob, pearls, and polished nails in a pale iridescent shade.

An American (Style) Icon

Edith lived a fascinating eighty-eight years that was filled with challenging the discriminatory stereotype of lesbians by being her truest self, whether it was through her clothing or her relationships. She was a brave, daring, and smart who happened to be fabulous. For more on Edith’s mission and her life, visit EdithWindsor.com.

 

Screening Style: Luva from Blacula (1972)

 

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Screenshot from Blacula (1972)

 

When thinking about 1970s movie costumes that are also fashionable, there are always a few that come to mind. Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute, Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars, and Diane Keaton as Annie Hall. They have all been “go-tos” for Halloween costumes, fashion lines, and even streetwear. However, there is something missing. There is little to no mention of people of color. Despite this, there are a plethora of films that have non-White characters that are incredibly fashionable. An American favorite is Blacula (1972), which has become one of the most well-known examples of Blaxploitation film, an early 1970s genre of action movies that featured Black characters. These films coincided with a rise of awareness of the Black experience in the United States and used its presence in the popular culture as an urge for more representation within the film industry. One particularly stylish character from this iconic film is Luva.

Blacula revamped the classic tale of Dracula with an African prince, Prince Mamuwalde, who was turned into a vampire and awoke in 1970s Los Angeles. Luva (played by Vonetta McGee) is the wife of Prince Mamuwalde who served as a princess. She ends up dying early in the film, but not before she debuts a fabulous royal costume.

The Look of Luva

 

 

There isn’t much information on the thought or make the costumes of this film. What is known are the costume designers Ermon Sessions and Sandra Stewart. Sessions has worked as a costume designer for films like Scream Blacula Scream (1973) and The Learning Tree (1969), while Stewart has worked on Paper Moon (1973) and Coffy (1973).

In a scene in the film, Luva is adorned in a combination of African-inspired material culture. Her neck is covered in red and white necklaces, earrings, and bracelets that mimic the cultural costume of the Maasai. Her eyes are lined à la Cleopatra that mimicked Elizabeth Taylor more than the original queen. She is clothed in a long black dress with a thick braided belt cinching the waist and a combination of gold trim and strips of kente cloth lining the gown. Luva’s look is topped off with a septum nose ring and an Afro, which was a hairstyle that became popular with the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

The costuming of Luva is a visual melody of African-inspired material culture from across the continent. It wouldn’t be out of place in an editorial, on the runway, or even replicated through streetwear. Directly referencing from a culture like the Maasai without proper acknowledgment is problematic. However, there are ways of incorporating such inspiration in an ethical manner.

As the fashion industry is embracing more diverse faces and trains of thought, the concept of who and what is stylish via pop culture may expand. This is a chance to look back at this time and view these characters through a modern lense. Although Diane Keaton as Annie Hall will always be iconic, there are other characters like Luva who can set some fabulous trends too.

 

Spiked and Plated: The Trendy Material Culture of the Lobi

 

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The African Lobi Pot Collection at Restoration Hardware

 

It’s not unusual for designers to borrow from non-Western cultures for a seasonal trend. Past design trends have ranged from mud cloths to mandalas, and all have been used as inspiration for both international and independent brands. A burgeoning trend that has been developing into the market are replicas of Lobi pottery, specifically altar vessels covered with three-dimensional spikes. Another aspect of Lobi dress that has gone “mainstream” are lip plates, which are placed on the upper, lower, or both lips.

Although the two items are different in aesthetic and use, they both provide an example of how Western colonization and thought have shaped the popularity of distinctly West African objects.

Pottery

 

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Altar Vessel (20th Century) via The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Lobi are a cultural group that lives in Burkina Faso and parts of Ivory Coast. They are traditionally associated with rural life and live in an informal clan system. During French colonization in Burkina Faso (1896-1960), the Lobi were able to maintain their independence longer than nearby groups, which was due to their open resistance against foreign influence.

The inspiration behind Lobi pottery can range from normal life to the spiritual. This emphasis on spirituality is particularly focused with spiked altar vessels, which is a style that is present in pottery across Western Africa.

Appearing like a browned Jackfruit, Lobi altar festivals can be spiked all over and are shaped with a ladle and at times, a carved lid. The Art Institute of Chicago notes in a description of an early to mid-20th-century vessel that the lid, “protects the contents from natural and supernatural contamination.” This suggests that the item was meant for pouring and may have been used for non-utilitarian purposes. The spikes represent a variety of hopes in life, including protection from witchcraft and misfortune.

Clothing

This concept of protection is also present in the traditional adornment of the Lobi, which was viewed as offensive by French colonial powers and resulted into few photographic representations. Christopher D. Roy states in the Burkina Faso chapter of the text, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion that the group used to wear arm and neck coverings that were made from leather and brass in order to protect from spirits in the wild. Aside from arm and neckwear, traditional Lobi dress revealed a lot of the wearer’s skin. Roy notes that men wore thin cords around the waist, which allowed the testicles to hang, and at times, front coverings. Men also wore their hair long in clay locks that framed their face. Women looked similar but wore coverings around the front and back of their lower body. Although not exclusively Lobi, body modification is also a part of the culture through coin-sized lip plates and body scarring in intricate shapes. Lip plates have gained popularity in “alternative” cultures in the West since the late 20th century and are becoming more socially accepted. Lobi dress has now changed and ranges from Western-inspired outfits or wraps that are commonly seen in Western Africa.

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Lobi Woman, Burkina Faso via Dietmar Temps (Flickr)

 

There has been so much effort to diminish and change cultural groups like the Lobi. As Lobi altar vessels become an accent in homes and mouth plates fill lips, an appreciation and acknowledgment of where these items originate are necessary. For more on the material culture of this group, check out the Art Institute of Chicago’s Lobi collection.

The Fashionable Side of Guam

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Chamorro Performers| Image via Marilyn Sourgoseoriginally posted to Flickr as IMG_7883

Although the news focusing on Guam has lessened, there is a wealth of information concerning the culture and life on the island. It is a place filled with a diverse population and serves as a major tourist destination within the Western Pacific Ocean. The island often stays out of American news and popular culture, which may be due to its immense distance from mainland US. However, the 30-mile island is home to a historic and growing fashion culture that incorporates traditional costume with a modern international and local shopping market.

Guam is currently an American island territory, but it has a history as both an indigenous and colonized country. Among its citizens, the indigenous cultural group of the Chamorros calls Guam home. These people’s ancestors date early in Guam’s history and provide a strong example of how the influence of colonization affected the dress of a local culture.

Early Dress
Documentation of early dress in Guam often comes from personal accounts from foreign explorers. This can illustrate the actual traditions of a people, but can also provide a personal and cultural bias of the descriptor.

The early Chamorros utilized the natural surroundings to fashion coverage for their bodies. According to Judith S. Flores in “Dress of the Chamorro” (2010), women wore leaf and bark around the waist and at times, used turtle shells styled into an apron-like item. Women could also wear a tifi as a top and men were bare chested, but both genders used floral and coconut scents that suggest a sensual importance. In numerous European accounts of early Chamorros, men and women were documented as having long hair. Men tied their hair into buns, while others stated that men shaved their head with an exception of one lock.

This form of dress is still remembered today with the works of Guam residents Joe and Ray Viloria. Together they have created clothing and accessories that are inspired by the items worn by Guam’s early indigenous population by combining ready-to-wear with an anthropological approach. Through this effort, the designers have the ability to teach audiences and acknowledge social taboos.

Dress Under the Spanish Empire
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This mode of clothing changed once the Spanish Empire colonized the island in the mid-1600s. The Spaniards were a Catholic-based nation who embraced ideas that hid the human body, especially the female form. According to Flores (2010), this resulted in a rise of the mestiza (mestisa) costume, which originally developed in the Philippines. Men wore an outfit of loose, bleached cotton (manta) trousers that ranged in length depending on the formality of the situation and a loose button-down. Women covered their bodies with a round neckline slip with bell-shaped sleeves that was paired with an ankle-length skirt. The style evolved during the Victorian era from what Flores calls  “the soft bell-shape that draped over the arm to the starched “butterfly” look.” During formal occasions, women covered their heads in white handkerchiefs or shawls. However, the Chamorro appearance of this time was less restrictive than typical Western attire due to the need for comfort on an island.

Guam transitioned into American hands after the Spanish-American war in 1848. The island was under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy and held under what Dough Herman at Smithsonian.com relates to as martial law. In 1941, the island was bombed hours after Pearl Harbor and was held under Japanese rule for three years. This occupation resulted into over 13,000 locals imprisoned in camps and 1,123 dying under Japanese rule.

Fashion Today
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After the war, Guam fell back under American rule and became an island territory. What may be due to the American influence and/or its reputation as a tourist destination, Guam has formed into an economy that provides a variety of shopping opportunities and a culture that embraces American dress. For the tourist looking for the newest designs by international fashion designers, the island offers the Tumon Sands Plaza that houses Balenciaga, Chloe, and Givenchy, alongside malls and outlets with more moderately-priced options.

Events like Guam Fashion Weekend and the Guam Fashion Delegation showcase local fashion designers and talent. There is also a scene of local fashion designers who integrate Chamorro culture with Western trends and styles. For example, Tao Pacific Designs creates ready-to-wear clothing in block prints that identify and honor Chamorro culture and The Native Worldwide intermixes local fashion with art.

The history and status of fashion in Guam evolves from one influence into another, but there is still a sense of pride and acknowledgment in the island’s Chamorro culture. This is a rare feat for an indigenous group who has experienced a significant amount of colonization that demands change and dismissal of one’s original norms. Although Guam is a part of the United States, and maybe one day be an official state, it is also an island with a rich history that is communicated through its fashion scene.

For more on the island of Guam, visit Guam.gov or the website of the Guam Museum.