A Taste For Style: The Innovative Career of Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach

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Image via CBB413 (Flickr)

Fashion designer Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach was a woman who made her own opportunities. Today she’s living a quiet life, but during her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Vogue and The New York Times often reported on Birrenbach’s successful womenswear line. Birrenbach was also one of the first Persian fashion designers to find success in Western fashion.

Beginnings

Birrenbach was born into a wealthy family in Iran. At 15, she left the country for Indiana to join her brothers. After graduating high school, the designer attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (1). She then worked for a fashion house but quickly discovered her passion for creating her own line. “I soon realized that I had to follow my dream and told my boss that I would like to start my own business, but did not have the necessary capital to do so,” Birrenbach told Voice of America. “He had a splendid idea and responded: I will fire you so that you can start your business with the unemployment money.”

Fashion had always been a prominent feature in Birrenbach’s life. In the Voice of America interview, the designer recalled her early intention to dress the world. “Already at age eight, I asked my mother if I could attend a special school to learn how to design and make clothes. I intended to be the next Christian Dior.”

 Rise

When beginning her career in the 1960s, the designer gained access to one of the largest department stores in the New York City, Bergdorf Goodman. “When they saw my designs, they placed a substantial order. In reality, Bergdorf Goodman was my first investor. From then on, all went very well…,” Birrenbach recalled. The designer’s relationship with Bergdorf Goodman was so strong that her designs were featured in the store’s windows.

As her name grew in the industry, Birrenbach developed a reputation for her “East Meets West” aesthetic. Her first design inspiration was based on her father’s 150 year old abba, but she then transitioned to a 1970s bohemian aesthetic, and later, a broad-shouldered 1980s silhouette.

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“The American Eagle with Silk Lame Skirt by Cleopatra” Image via CBB413

During the 1970s the designer married Thomas Birrenbach, a German steel executive. Thomas Birrenbach’s occupation led to opportunities to travel the world. While abroad, she developed a number of projects that ranged from being an advisor to the National China Textile Corporation (2) to introducing Western merchandising to the Russian Ministry of Light Industries and Textiles (3). Birrenbach promoted this initiative of Western manufacturing in India, China, and Scotland. Scottish knitting manufacturer Peter Scott lauded Birrenbach for her efforts and stated that she “advanced their industry a decade in technology” (4).

Return

After years of traveling the world, Birrenbach returned to the United States to relaunch her fashion design career. Her designs were sold on New York’s Seventh Avenue and consisted of eveningwear, ready to wear, accessories, and even menswear. She continued her “East Meets West” aesthetic with collections inspired by crescent moons and starbursts (Fall 1983), Marcos Grigorian’s “Earth Work” (Fall 1984), and 16th-century miniature illustrations of Persian writer Ferdowsi’s poetry (Fall 1985). The designer embraced embroidery, quilting, pleating techniques, and digital computer designs, which was considered a new innovation (6).

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Image via CBB413 (Flickr)

Alongside her fashion design career, Birrenbach entered the food industry. She was one of the first to create coffee associated with a high-end name and sell it in major speciality stores.

Legacy

Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach had a natural ability to create her own projects, find her own opportunities, and build an empire that may not have been available otherwise. For more on Birrenbach’s life and career, check out this Voice of America interview and these series of photographs on Flickr.

Sources

(1) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984

(2) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984

(3) Cleopatra for Moscow and New York” by Oleg Ivanov, First Editor in Chief, Sovietskaja Kultura Newspaper, Moscow, USSR (translation), August 22, 1988.

(4) “Fashion designer girdles the globe” by Gwen Salley-Schoen, The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle, June 2, 1987.

(5) “Looking at the earth, stars and beyond” by Marty Primeau, The Dallas Morning News, August 26, 1984.

(6) “COMPUTER FOR A DESIGNER.” Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), 1985., F4, Biography in Context, EBSCOhost (accessed October 4, 2016).

 

The Fashion Statements of Coretta Scott King

Throughout her life and advocacy, Coretta Scott King was known for her calm demeanor and well-dressed attire. In high-stressed situations, she always kept her grace, all while in days suits that were popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s. She emphasized her ladylike style with curled hair, a well-manicured face, and a striking hat. Coretta’s style was not only a sign of her good taste, but it also signified that an African American woman could be well-dressed despite the social, political, and economic hardships placed on Black Americans.

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King was born in a rural town in Alabama and studied under a scholarship at the New England Conservatory in Boston. There she studied singing and met the man who would change her life, Martin Luther King, Jr. Their dates consisted of conversations about race and politics, and although she wanted to have a career in singing, she gave it up to marry him.

About their early life, Coretta is quoted, “After we married, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Before long, we found ourselves in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott. As the boycott continued, I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance.” This catapulted Coretta into a role that was a combination of First Lady and civil rights advocate. While in this role, she understood the importance of appearance in correlation to one’s character and social position, especially in the formal days of the mid-twentieth century.

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For her 1953 marriage to MLK Jr., Coretta wore a cap-sleeved, A-Line gown made from lace and tulle with a matching veil and set of fingerless gloves. When in the iconic March on Selma, Coretta stood out against the crowd in a coral-colored suit set, which was a visual statement. She appeared as a proper and professional woman of her time, which was a direct comment to the prejudice against Black Americans.“I feel like she definitely related to Jackie O. When you see her in that orange suit in that final march, she felt like she was the First Lady of the march. No one else is really dressed like that.” said costume designer Ruth Carter about recreating Coretta’s style for the film, Selma. “ She really wanted people to know that she cared, and that she was there in the foreground in support of the movement.”

The icon always accessorized her ladylike looks with eye-catching hats, like a white beret at a candlelight vigil for her husband or a black feathered piece she wore in 1964. She always wore some type of adornment around her neck, whether it was a string of pearls or a brooch. Her clothing was never too tight and always pulled away from the body, like when she wore a satin frock with Ed Sullivan.

Her fashion choices were feminine, yet strong. She wore all of her accessories and colorful outfits with an unapologetically graceful ease. Instead of being a figure that was defined by her style, Coretta Scott King used fashion as a form of self-expression and educational tool.

Zuzu Angel, The Rebel Of Brazilian Fashion

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Image via © Acervo Instituto Zuzu Angel

Brazilian fashion designer Zuzu Angel used fashion to rebel against a corrupt government in response to the mysterious disappearance, and later death, of her son Stuart Angel. Frustrated by the lack of information that was given to her by the Brazilian government, Angel decided to voice the injustice by redesigning her 1972 fashion collection with morbid images.

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Image via © Acervo Instituto Zuzu Angel

Angel presented her clothing with “embroidered cages over the birds, depicted cannon balls shooting angels and sewed on scrawny looking children with black doves.” Her transition to the morbid was a direct comment on the Brazilian government. “Four months ago, when I began to think about [the show], I was inspired by my country’s colourful flowers and the beautiful birds,” Angel explained. “But, then, suddenly this nightmare entered my life and the flowers lost their colour and the birds went crazy and I produced a collection with a political theme.” Angel appropriately titled the collection, International Dateline.

After the show, Angel was praised by the Brazilian public for her rebellious statement. This was a time where speaking against the government was dangerous and deadly. She continued to speak against the government until her untimely death in 1976. Angel was killed in a car accident that was believed by many to be a government hit.

Fashion Career

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Image via © Acervo Instituto Zuzu Angel

Before her rebellious fashion collection and own mysterious death, Angel led a successful career in Brazilian fashion. She designed gowns for Brazilian politicians’ wives and American Hollywood stars, including Joan Crawford and Kim Novak. In 1974, Bergdorf Goodman of New York picked up her line.

According to a website dedicated to the fashion designer, Angel developed one of the first introductions of pret-a-porter in the country. She also lent her talent to wedding gowns but added her personal touch. Angle incorporated hand embroidery from Ceara, a region where she grew up, Brazilian jewels, and silk rendões dyed by hand.

Rebel Woman

There have been a number of museum exhibitions and collections formed in Angel’s memory. The Itaú Cultural in São Paulo exhibited, “Occupation Zuzu: Mother of Brazilian Fashion,” curated by art director Valdy Lopes Jn and Angel’s daughter Hildegard Angel, who founded the Instituto Zuzu Angel. The space displayed the designer’s signature colorful dresses and prints while telling her story through both a fashion and political lens.

For more on Angel’s story, exhibits, and images of her work, visit Zuzu Angel.com.br.

Tennis, Fashion, and the 1970s

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The relationship between fashion and tennis seems like a relatively new phenomenon. However, this duo has been working together for decades. One significant moment occurred in the 1970s when a wave of feminism infused with the game. What resulted was a fashion moment that gave female players the opportunity to showcase their personal style.

The Rules of The Game

Although a centuries-old game, women gained the right to play competitively in 1884. Their experience in competitive tennis was still complicated even after winning the right to play. While they competed in physically demanding matches, women earned less and were required to cover their bodies in long sleeves and skirts. And if that wasn’t enough, they were expected to maintain a slim and feminine shape.

By the 1970s, things were changing for women in tennis. In 1973 tennis player Billie Jean King created the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), an organization that provides touring opportunities and advocating for females in the sport. Some of the early accomplishments of the organization include the creation of a tour for female players and demanding better pay that is comparable to what their male peers receive. The beginnings of the WTA occurred with second-wave feminism in the United States, which embraced women’s sexuality and equality. Also influencing society was disco music. Fashion was taken over with short hemlines and tight clothing, which was often worn by dancers when grooving to fast-paced music in crowded nightclubs.

Female tennis dress reflected America’s disco culture by revealing more skin than ever. It began during the Mod-era 1960s when tennis skirts rose above the knee. Lengths intensified in the 70s, with skirts meeting at mid-thigh, which revealed full bottoms during play. In 1976, player Chris Evert embraced this trend by wearing frilly pink bottoms underneath her skirt while playing a match. Every move she made, a sliver of ruffles peaked out. This was quite a change from the long pleated skirts of their early 20th century sisters.

Chris Evert was a tennis darling in the 1970s. She began her career in her teens and quickly became an ‘It Girl’ in the tennis world. Her clothing choices reflected this role with thigh-grazing dresses in graphic patterns and a youthful ponytail parted in the middle. As she won and became a powerful force on the court, she wore custom-made dresses by fashion designer Ted Tinling. Tinling was an English fashion designer who dressed some of the most popular female players in tennis. To wear a custom designed Tinling meant that a player was the best of the best.

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Another Tinling wearer was Billie Jean King. King famously wore a Tinling piece for her ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match with Bobby Riggs. King was known for her aggressive play, which required practicality in her sportswear. However, she accented her short white dresses with fashion touches like pointed collars, pleated skirts, and graphic patterns.

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Although older than many of her tennis competitors, amateur player Renée Richards had the “tennis look.” Tall with high cheekbones and gorgeous chestnut brown hair, Richards had beauty and excellent athletic skills. As a Yale graduate, a prominent ophthalmologist, winner of a singles title, and coach to Czech tennis player Martina Navratilova, one would think Richards had it all.

However, Richards became one of the most controversial figures in 1970s tennis because she was trans. Nearly forgotten today, Richards was one of the first transgendered persons to become a public figure in sports. She was outed after she won a chance to compete in the U.S. Open in 1976 and once the secret was revealed, Richards was seen as a threat. Many claimed that her strength would be too overpowering against female competitors. Instead of hiding, Richards embraced and accentuated her appearance. She always sported gold hoop earrings, mini dresses, and after noticing players wearing crosses, Richards added a mezuzah necklace to her wardrobe to display her Jewish faith.

Despite these three women having different experiences on the court, they all wore apparel that showcased a sense of style. They are a prime example of how a sports player can use stylistic cues to display their personal taste or objection to unfair sexist rules. This tradition of fashionable apparel in tennis continues today, especially with the outfits of Venus and Serena Williams. Instead of it being a distraction, which some officials claim, this form of clothing gives a sense of personality and insight. Some would say it is the perfect match.

A Look At Shirley Chisholm’s Unapologetic Style

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As America celebrated Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential nominee for a major party, some people were quick to remind the public of the legendary Shirley Chisholm.

Chisholm got her start in politics in 1968 as the first Black Congresswoman and later was the first female of African descent to run for the United States presidency. She was not selected for the 1972 Democratic bid, but her brave run broke barriers. “She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us,” said the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Robert E. Williams of the politician.

Aside from making monumental firsts, Chisholm was an advocate for better education and employment opportunities for minorities, and she opposed the 1969 U.S. military draft. She was also an ardent feminist who helped influence America’s second-wave feminism movement.

William Howard, Chisholm’s former campaign treasurer, described her personality as,“ Anyone that came in contact with her, they had a feeling of a careness, and they felt that she was very much a part of each individual as she represented her district.” As she advocated for progress, Chisholm also had to deal with hate and criticism for being a Black female politician, which she battled with a clear mind and passion.

What’s also memorable about Chisholm was her political fashions. Just like her beliefs and policies, her form of dressing was unflappable.

Chisholm’s Fashion

Throughout her career, Chisholm sported a sculpted bouffant, cat-eye glasses, and ladylike suits. The politician often embraced bright colors and prints, which ranged from a classic white 1960s boxy skirt suit to a silken ensemble accessorized with a bundle of pearls. “She always wore suits, little suits…I say little suits because she was a small woman…I don’t think she wore pants,” Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke recalled about Shirley’s wardrobe. “ I remember she always ordered her clothes. We didn’t have Internet at the time, but she always ordered them over various manufacturers.”

Throughout her time in American politics, Chisholm did not hide her femininity.  Instead, she understood and kept her own personal style despite the political and social repercussions of being a Black woman in American politics.

Three years after her death in 2008, artist Kadir Nelson painted a portrait of Chisholm. She is depicted standing in a three-quarter stance with her arms crossed and her index finger raised. This piece is noted for its display of the Congresswoman’s firm manner, but it also illustrates her colorful taste in clothing. In a similar manner to Chisholm’s style, painted is a structured 1960s suit set in a blue and white geometric pattern. Also displayed is her signature bouffant and cat-eye glasses, which added to Chisholm’s no-nonsense look.

To learn more about Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, visit her page at the History, Art, and Archives of the US House of Representatives website.