Thursday, October 27, 2011

NYPL Exhibit A Century of Art: 1926 “What London Wears,” Attributed to Mabel Thérèse Bonney

Thérèse Bonney during WWII, via Library of Congress

On Saturday, I participated in a the first of two panel discussions in support of the wonderful new exhibit at the NYPL, A Century of Art. Part of the larger centenary of the Schwarzman building on 42nd and 5th, this exhibit displays one print or photograph from the collection for each year, from 1911 to 2011. As a scholar affiliated with the Wertheim Study, I was invited to speak on one image and I chose an amazing fashion photograph from 1926. I don’t have permission to show you the picture, but I thought you might be interested in my description of it and of what it signifies. The second panel, in which five additional scholars speak for ten minutes each on five other prints or photographs will be on Friday, December 9, 2011, 2 - 3:30 p.m. It’s a lovely, friendly format, so do you’re your calendars and go!

When Jay Barksdale sent around the list of images to be included in this exhibit, I knew immediately that, if I were to speak, it would be on this image, although I didn’t see it until last week. After all, it’s an image made by a woman, about fashion, from 1926, and my current project is a textual edition of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, a novel about an upper class London woman who goes shopping and throws a party. But when I saw the image, I gasped with shocked delight. Not having known her work before, how could I have guessed that Thérèse Bonney had created an image that captures at once a very specific moment in women’s fashion and, at the same time, would be at home in a window at Sak’s today?

My expertise is not photography or fashion, but literature and history, and, in the brief time I have today, I want to talk about the caption, the photo, and a little bit about the photographer itself. I should say here that, as the prints department is not even 100% sure of the artist, I do not know the source or author of the caption, nor where, if anywhere, this image originally appeared. The full caption is an amazing bit of 1920s fashion writing:
What London wears—The continental way of being economical—Rubbers for legs—fold into a dainty little package and easily left in escort’s coat pocket. Ingenious way of keeping silk stockings clean.
For copywriters in the 1920s, as today, London prides itself on being glamorous, signaled here by the word “continental,” and practical. What London wears is, in fact, not from London at all, but an import from Europe. However, cautious Londoners need not fear—these rubber stocking covers are economical as well. As high fashion as the photograph is, the caption itself brings us squarely into the world of advertising. The rest of the caption flirts with sexuality. “Rubber” as slang for a condom goes back to 1913 but it has been chiefly North American slang. Still, the idea of sex, of the ways in which we clothe our bodies to conceal and reveal possibilities of intimacy, hovers throughout this silly little bit of prose. The caption contains within it the narrative of a date: these removable little stocking covers slip off and into a pocket, but not your pocket, your date’s. The image of a young woman, balancing on one leg, her hand, perhaps, on her escort’s shoulder for balance, as she unclasps the three hooks on each rubber, folds them into their “dainty little package,” and hands them to him for safekeeping would have been impossible before the war. And then, the next line, “ingenious way of keeping silk stockings clean,” implies that the same daring woman who would wear these rubbers is also one who worries about her laundry. This is a modern woman, sexy, confident, and living on her own. She is like T. S. Eliot’s typist, home at teatime, her drying combinations strewn about her flat. She is not like the protagonist of Dorothy Richardson’s 1915 novel Pilgrimage, a young boarding school teacher who worries, in a panic, about how to do her hair, for it’s still wet from having been forced to shampoo it just before dinner.
The idea of galoshes as dangerously contintental, as a French letter for the feet, shows up in a wonderful scene from James Joyce’s 1914 story, “The Dead”:
"O, but you'll never guess what he makes me wear now! … Galoshes!" said Mrs. Conroy. "That's the latest. Whenever it's wet underfoot I must put on my galoshes. Tonight even, he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn't. The next thing he'll buy me will be a diving suit."Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly, while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia's face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew's face. After a pause she asked:"And what are goloshes, Gabriel?""Goloshes, Julia!" exclaimed her sister "Goodness me, don't you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your... over your boots, Gretta, isn't it?""Yes," said Mrs. Conroy. "Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the Continent."
Gretta Conroy’s last remark—that everyone wears them on the Continent—is the beginning of an end for her husband Gabriel who, over the course of the evening, will be exposed for preferring Europe to Ireland, for being in danger of being left behind, both by his wife’s memories of a boy from the West and by his female colleague’s commitment to the Irish language and the Irish Free state. The rubbers of 1914 are not the same as the ones shown here.

Galoshes do not figure in Mrs. Dalloway, but another kind of tube for the extremities does: gloves. The original first line of Mrs. Dalloway was not “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” but “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself.” And the 1923 short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” which began Woolf’s serious return to Clarissa Dalloway as a possible protagonist (She had been a minor character in an earlier work) contains an extended meditation on the decline of gloves since the war. In that story, Clarissa’s preoccupation with gloves is part of the sharper satire on her—she’s a much less sympathetic figure in the story than in the novel—so, she thinks “It would be intolerable if dowdy women came to her party!” and then wonders “Would one have liked Keats if he had worn red socks?” Woolf uses Keats, a great poet revered across England, as a crucial barometer: the notion that one’s opinion of a poet might alter if his socks were not quite so is as shallow to Woolf’s ears as to ours. So when, in the next paragraph, Clarissa forges a connection with the shop girl over the old gloves, “With pearl buttons… perfectly simple—how French!,” we are reminded of how a certain kind of woman still judges others’ value by the correctness of her accessories. 

For Joyce, galoshes are a way that a middle-aged husband protects his wife from a chill. For Woolf, gloves are a sign of a middle-aged wife’s continuing care for propriety. The rubbers that London wears in this 1926 photograph are something else entirely. And to turn from the ways in which Joyce and Woolf ironize the bourgeois preoccupations of the prior generation to Bonney’s photograph is to suddenly feel a breath of fresh air, to feel the breathing room that modernity opened up for women.

If the caption flirts cloyingly, the photograph itself is less shy. It is also art. We see a pair of long, slim legs, crossed just above the ankle, in medium-heeled Mary Janes, with a button strap. The strap and the opening of the shiny black shoes are piped with a thin strip of leather in a paler shade. The spat-like galoshes hook under the heel and fasten three times in the front, leaving large gaps up the shin between buttons. The rubbers hardly look like a practical solution to walking in rainy streets. Surely the splash of a mud puddle is as likely to hit the front of a leg as the back. In Woolf’s short story, Mrs. Dalloway remembers how “old Uncle William used to say” that “A lady is known by her gloves and her stockings” (26). That old saw, still current today, about the telling signs of a woman’s accessories, applies here in ways that might shock Clarissa, for the story that these rubbers tell is not about class or breeding but about modern glamour.

One of the most important facts about these rubbers is how they remind us that this London woman is no longer wearing dresses down to her ankles. Her skirts would have come down just below her knees and her legs are now on display. But the display itself participates in a distinctively twenties aesthetic. The overall effect is glamorous rather than practical. Both sexy and abstract, the rubbers create three additional pale ovals up the white leg, echoing the oval created by the strap itself. If you go to the gallery upstairs, you’ll see that next to this photograph, the Delaunay print, representing 1924, and the Man Ray photograph representing 1925 both feature studies of circles and curved forms. The designer of these rubbers, the model, and Thérèse Bonney have collaborated to create in three dimensions, on a woman’s leg, a design that echoes the clean lines and pure shapes of avant garde art of the period.

In her recent book Glamour in Six Dimensions Judith Brown argues that the world of glamour and of high modernism are not so far apart. We should not, she insists, see a divide between consumerism and art, but notice instead a shared aesthetic delight in abstract forms and clean lines. The Bonney photograph absolutely participates in the phenomenon that Brown describes and it’s an exciting reminder of how fast the world was changing in 1926: just the year before, Woolf published a novel in which Clarissa laments that her daughter doesn’t care about gloves, but now, that lament is tinged with a kind of pride. At the party, one of Clarissa’s elderly guests notes to herself how the young girls’ gowns are short, tight, and straight, a look she finds unflattering. And the very next year time, in Paris, designers are making rubbers to market to the modern Londoner so she can protect her stockings and show off her legs.

The photographer is presumed to be Mabel Thérèse Bonney (limited access link, sorry) and, as I have learned in the past few days, she is very much worth more of our attention. Bonney was born in Syracuse in 1894. Educated at the University of California, and Harvard, she earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne. During the 1920s, she and her sister published a series of books about French cooking and fashion for American and English readers and this photograph looks to be part of that phase of her career as a photographer: gorgeous editorial fashion work.

She returned to New York in 1935 to become director of the new Maison Française, a gallery in Rockefeller Center dedicated to fostering better cultural understanding between France and the United States. That work sent her back to Europe and, while in Finland in November 1939 to photograph preparations for the 1940 Olympic Games, she instead became the only photojournalist at the scene of the Russian invasion of Finland. Her war photography was exhibited at the Library of Congress and published in books as War Comes to the People (1940) and Europe’s Children (1943). Her concept for a film about children displaced by war became the Academy Award- winning movie, The Search (1948). She died in France in 1978. 

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