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, Edith 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.

A Fashionable Lady, A Fashionable Couple

Edith came from a working-class background, attended Temple University, and worked a career in computer programing. She found success in the field despite it being in a heavily male industry and worked her way to the role of Senior Programmer. Early in her adult life, Edith 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 with Thea began after an encounter at a party. Their connection was so intense that when dancing, Edith tore a hole in her stockings. Together they continued their careers and had the opportunity to travel the world, which the couple documented through photography. Through this, people viewing the photographs have been able to see the love and joy between the couple. What’s also apparent is the couple’s sense of dress. In a famous picture of them sitting in The Cloisters both of the women appear fashionable, but differ in styles. Thea’s look is masculine by way of a pair of slate-colored slacks and jacket that is worn with loafers. Edith’s style is feminine and young. In the photograph, she wears a white turtleneck, a green wool coat, and a pair of high water jeans that are accented with white chunky socks and tennis shoes. Her hair is full and curled at the ends, which frames a bright red lip.

Throughout their relationship, Thea favored clean lines and classically male silhouettes. She often wore suits or button-ups shirts with slacks. Edith opted for colorful and ladylike looks, like wrap dresses, strings of pearls, and oversized sunglasses. Their opposing yet defined styles continued throughout their relationship until Thea’s death in 2009.

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. Instead of a ring, Edith wore 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 in 2013 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. This was inspired by a hefty tax bill that Edith was required to pay shortly after Thea’s death, which was caused due to their marriage not being federally recognized.

As a result of her bravery, Edith made numerous appearances in both gay and mainstream media. She no longer had to hide her identity, instead, she was expected to embrace it. She often appeared in public in a t-shirt that read “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.” And of course, she accented this shirt with her signature blonde bob and a string of pearls.

An American (Style) Icon

Edith lived a fascinating eighty-eight years. It was filled with challenging stereotypes by being her most authentic self, whether it was through her clothing or her relationships. She was a brave, daring, and smart woman who happened to be fabulous. For more on Edith’s mission and her life, visit EdithWindsor.com.

 

The Fashionable Side of Guam

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

Within the United States, Guam is often known as a strategic U.S. naval base. However, the 30-mile island is much more. It is home to a historical and growing fashion culture that incorporates traditional costume with a modern 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 Chamorros call Guam home. These people’s ancestors date early in Guam’s history and provide a strong example of how the influence of colonization affects the dress of a culture.

Early Dress
Documentation of early Chamorro dress in Guam often comes from personal accounts of 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 their 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 clothing piece. Women would also wear a tifi as a top and men were bare-chested, but both genders used floral and coconut scents on their bodies. In numerous European accounts of early Chamorros, men and women were documented as having long hair. In some reports, men tied their hair into buns, while others stated that men shaved their head with the exception of one lock.

This form of dress is still remembered today with the works of Guam residents Joe and Ray Viloria. Together they create clothing and accessories that are inspired by the island’s early indigenous population. Through this effort, the designers can teach audiences and acknowledge social taboos, like showing excessive skin, through their clothing.

Dress Under the Spanish Empire

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 of dress 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 a loose button-down and bleached cotton (manta) trousers that ranged in length depending on the formality of the situation. Women covered their bodies with a slip that had a round neckline and bell-shaped sleeves and an ankle-length skirt. The style evolved during the Victorian era from what Flores calls  “the starched ‘butterfly’ look.” During formal occasions, women covered their heads in white handkerchiefs or shawls.

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 calls martial law. In 1941, the island was bombed hours after Pearl Harbor and was held under Japanese rule for three years. This occupation resulted in over 13,000 locals being imprisoned in camps and 1,123 dying under Japanese control.

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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. For the tourist or local looking for the newest designs by international fashion designers, the island offers the Tumon Sands Plaza, which houses Balenciaga, Chloe, and Givenchy.  For more moderately-priced options, there are many malls and outlets within consumers reach.

For those wanting to dress in local wares, events like Guam Fashion Weekend and the Guam Fashion Delegation showcase Guam fashion 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.

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 norms. Although Guam is a part of the United States, and may 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 Guam Museum.

From Queen Alexandra to Jillian Mercado: The Changing Views of Physical Disabilities In Fashion

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Before there was Lady Diana, Duchess Kate, and even Elizabeth II, Alexandra of Denmark was considered the top fashion icon of the Commonwealth of England. The Queen of England from 1901 to 1910, Alexandra is remembered in fashion history for her dust-colored, high neck and tightly corseted gowns bejeweled in sparkling baubles. She was a visual break from her mother-in-law Victoria, who favored darkly colored clothing in the English tradition of mourning. However, with all of her beauty and power, Queen Alexandra used her appearance as a way to hide a secret: her physical disabilities.

Beginnings

Born into a Danish royal family, Queen Alexandra became an English princess after her marriage to Edward VII in 1863. She then became Queen in 1901 after the death of her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s entry into the English throne brought in the Edwardian era, an opulent time in English cultural, technological, and social history.

Queen Alexandra was seen as an influencer within English fashion for her tightly corseted, S-bend gowns that came to be known as ‘Queen Alexandra dresses’ (“Fashion: The queenly figure,” 1939). Much of Queen Alexandra’s evening wear was designed by the House of Redfern, a British fashion house that found success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her 2013 academic article, Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863–1910” Dr. Kate Strasdin states that Queen Alexandra was aware of the public attention toward her clothing and as a result, she used fashion to emote an image of femininity and well being. The Queen fit the mold of an English societal woman: she was wealthy, titled, and was dressed by an haute courtier.

According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra was rumored to have had a tuberculous infection, which was due to a small scar on her neck. This rumor occurred shortly before her marriage to then-Prince Edward, and if proven right, it would have stopped the courtship due to worries of inherited diseases. This fear developed into a habit of her wearing high neck gowns, ribbons, and dog collars to hide her scar (Strasdin, 2013). Although this was an attempt to hide an imperfection, these neck coverings became an evening wear trend in British fashion.

In 1867, the Queen contracted rheumatic fever. This sickness caused impaired hearing and gave her a knee injury that resulted in a walking limp. According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra used her ornamental evening gowns to steer attention away from her bad hearing. She also altered her evening gowns to reduce a visible curve in her spine. An example is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a curved center back at the bodice that hid her body’s arching shape. Although Queen Alexandra found methods to hide her disabilities, she continued to walk with a limp. This is said to have caused a trend among fashionable women, who copied the Queen’s stroll.

Jillian Mercado

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Although Queen Alexandra went to great lengths to hide her body, there is now a growing presence in the fashion industry that advocates for visibility of disabled persons. One example is seen through the work of American fashion model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy. Mercado is signed to IMG and has become a figure in fashion in both her modeling and Instagram photographs. Mercado has appeared in major advertisements for brands like Diesel and in singer Beyoncé’s “Formation” merchandise tour.

The stigma against physical disabilities in the fashion has been dubbed by critic Vanessa Friedman as the industry’s ‘newest frontier.’ As more figures like fashion model Jillian Mercado grow in popularity and adapted clothing lines become more available, the preference for ableist bodies may shift. To learn more about fighting the stigma of ableism in fashion, visit MIT’s Open Style Lab.

Resources

Fashion: The queenly figure. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93, 72-72, 73.

Strasdin, K. (2013). Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863-1910. Costume-The Journal Of The Costume Society47(2), 180-197.

The Fashionable Women of Pan Yuliang

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Self-Portrait (1936), Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) was a Chinese Modernist artist known for her female nudes. Although Yuliang’s work is often praised for its lack of clothing, some of her artwork and self-portraits feature feminine fashions from the early to mid-20th century. These images not only display clothing but also reveal two cultures that identified the artist: one of birth and the other of refuge.

Early Life

Yuliang’s life began as an orphan who was sold into sex slavery at the age of 14. She was then ‘bought’ by a general who made her his second wife. The man encouraged her to paint, which lead her to attend the prestigious Shanghai Art School.

Yuliang found success after returning to China, but the nudity in her artwork caused some scandal. She left China in 1937 after the Japanese invasion and sought refuge in Paris. There, she continued to work as an artist until her death in 1977. She left a legacy as a renowned artist whose work continues to garner exhibitions and international auctions.

The Yuliang Beauty

Yuliang’s art was noted by art historian Phyllis Teo as a “flux of transformations where conflicting dichotomies of East and West, tradition and modernity, male chauvinism and emerging feminism co-existed.” Her clothed figures were feminine and were created in an idealized image: well-manicured young women in brightly colored qipao blouses and dresses with heavily applied makeup.

Beauty ideals before Yuliang’s departure from China went from Western-inspired Hollywood actors to the farm workers popularized by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As Mao gained power, the farmer became both the political and cultural ideal. Bare face, tan skin, and the utilitarian Zhongshan suit became the new way of adornment for Chinese women, which was meant to deconstruct notions of class, gender, and Western influence.

Yuliang’s Women

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Girl Playing Violin, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com
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Jeune Femme au Kimono, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

“In Girl Playing Violin” (no date), the seated young woman looks upward with a closed smile while holding a violin. The woman has a chin-length hairstyle and lightly applied makeup. She is wearing a Western, billowy white blouse and black ensemble that appears as either a black jumper or sleeveless dress.

“Jeune Femme au Kimono” (no date) also portrays the image of a seated young woman, but she is adorned in Eastern fashions. The woman is wearing a black, embroidered qipao jacket over a sea green, silver-flecked dress. Her hair is curled and pinned, and her face is heavily rouged with over-plucked eyebrows and painted red nails.

Yuliang’s Self-Portraits

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Self-Portrait Dressed in Black (1940), Pan Yuliang via Sothebys.com 

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Window Self-Portrait, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

Similar to the figures she created in her artwork, Yuliang also presented an international wardrobe of both Eastern and Western pieces in her self-portraits. Her “Self-Portrait Dressed in Black” (1940) features the artist in a black qipao gown with dragon detail along the shoulders and collar. She styled her hair in a half pinned, bisected style with makeup that evokes a formal or special occasion.

Yuliang’s “Window Self-Portrait” (no date) contrasts the previous piece with a short-sleeved red day dress and a contrasting pointed collar. She accessorized the look with a red pearl necklace and hair styled in victory rolls. The outfit appears in a 1940s Western style, which corresponds with her refuge to France in the late 1930s.

Since there is a lack of information concerning both her self-portraits and her other work, there is no way to make an assumption that she chose to forgo Eastern dress after her asylum to France or vice versa. What can be seen is that Yuliang and her women appear as stylish figures who have power and confidence, no matter the origin of their dress.

An Ao Dai and A Jumpsuit: The Fashions of Dang Tuyet Mai

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The third and final subject of Vietnamese First Ladies Fashion, Đặng Tuyết Mai, was not the wife of a President, but that of a Prime Minister, and later, Vice President. A stylish figure photographed during the Vietnam War, Mai’s clothing choices mirrored the style of another political wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Both chose clean lines in stylish late-1960s and early-1970s silhouettes that complimented their youthful, but confident, beauty.

Early Life

Đặng Tuyết Mai’s was born in 1942 to an academic family in Bac Ninh, and later, Hanoi. In the 1950s, she became one of the first air hostesses of Air Vietnam Airlines. An Air Vietnam stewardess wore an Ao Dai, matching cap, and high heels which honored Vietnam’s heritage while referencing Western fashion.

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Image via hoanghaithuy.wordpress.com

In 1964, she married Vietnam Air Force Chief of Staff Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. Despite his military occupation, Kỳ was known for his penchant for flash. In 1965, the couple was photographed wearing matching military jumpsuits, which was a visual sign of solidarity with military troops. Đặng Tuyết Mai wore her jumpsuit with a chin-length bob, oversized-square eyeglasses, and a leather handbag.

Fashion Sense

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As the Prime Minister’s wife, Đặng Tuyết Mai was photographed wearing both Western and Vietnamese fashions. When in Western attire, she chose elegant eveningwear ensembles, like cap-sleeved ball gowns accented with a hand fan or a sleeveless dress with panels over black trousers. For daywear, she was photographed wearing sophisticated French ensembles that embraced texture and color.

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Image via Life by way of Elle Vietnam

She also wore Aio Dais, which connected her sense of style to national pride. Her ensembles included a beige, pastel floral silk gown and a pink and white piece with a strand of pearls. Her hair was styled in a sweeping bob or bouffant, and her eyes were lined in thick, pointed eyeliner with rose petal lipstick.

As she aged, Mai’s style became expensive with daring flair. She showed more skin in tight-fitting dresses and displayed brightly colored jewels, all while keeping a well-coiffed face and hair. Before her death in 2016, she was photographed looking ageless in a black bikini and gold accessories.

For more on Vietnamese fashion, visit these articles of Madame Nhu and Nam Phuong.