Thursday, February 15, 2018

Quilts: Cutting Up, Showing Off and Respecting the Tradition?

Back a decade or so, when we lived in town, I had a quirky neighbor. She was the only older lady I'd ever met who proudly displayed her nude portrait in the hallway -- and painted every single wall in her house a different color. Her perennials garden helped supply mine, and she was equally generous with advice and comments about everything from women's rights to...
     Quilts. 

Mary would search for old (usually 19th century) tops, quilt sections and finished quilts -- then cut them up and resew them into stylin' jackets, tops and skirts. The resulting garments were quirky, colorful and, I'm sure, fun to wear. She charged a lot of money for them -- and she got it.

Which drove me absolutely crazy. 

I was an editor then for Quilter's Newsletter Magazine -- a publication that not only celebrated quiltmaking, but tried its darndest to preserve old textiles for future audiences. How could these quilts be studied and admired in the future, if they were parading around on someone's backside, instead?

Mary and I had many conversations about this. (We were, after all, friends, and willing to listen to each other, even if we disagreed.) She believed that her garments were actually increasing respect for the old quilts...not lessening it. She argued that she was making good use of damaged or unfinished pieces that would have been thrown away, anyways. And to her credit, she occasionally allowed me to purchase some quilt tops, to preserve them. (An 1890s Ocean Wave top I bought from Mary hung in our foyer...and had to be included in the house sale, at the insistence of the buyer back then. I still miss it.)

Now comes along Emily Bode -- also doing her part to commemorate quilt history by cutting up antique textiles. Or so she says. Her work, like my friend Mary's, features basic garments enlivened by the colors, fabrics and patterns chosen by the original quiltmaker. Did Emily use only damaged or unfinished textiles to do this? Based on the amount of yardage needed, I doubt it. (Mary's sure didn't.) Did she do any research about the original quiltmaker...or even the pattern and its history...or whether that piece had any special cultural or historical significance?

Emily, you may believe you're some kind of iconic trendsetter. But people have been doing this to antique and vintage textiles for centuries. You're just the latest.



This smacks far too much of the same "what's in it for me" approach shown by Gloria Vanderbilt, whose varnished quilt bedroom was all the rage in the 1970s, Emily's in this mode for her benefit -- and no one else. Using handmade 'artisanal' fabrics and fabrics is trendy right now. She is smart enough -- and aware enough -- to take advantage of that interest.

What about the textiles who have disappeared forever, because of this?

Don't give me a big story about honoring tradition, Emily, and expect me to believe it. I don't.

Calvin Klein has been featuring antique quilts in their backdrops -- then arguing that it's honoring these pieces. (After the company sells them, of course.) Klein's latest collection, via Raf Simons, was a strange mix of hazmat suits and firefighters' jackets, with some printed fabrics jammed on top. Are trendy people REALLY going to wear these? (My own question: will Klein himself wear them? He's rarely shown in anything but basic suits, jeans and cowboy boots.)

My fellow appraisers, whom I respect deeply, are of all sorts of opinions about these developments in the Land of Quilts as Decor (and Costume). Some are outraged. Others are philosophic about it. (After all, it has been going on for a long, long time.) Still others suggest that this may actually be a good thing: that younger collectors may fall in love with textiles, and start to use them as they were originally meant to be. Heck, they may even start to make quilts themselves!
    My friendship with Mary, so long ago, makes me skeptical of motives -- but willing to listen.
    As long as proper respect is shown. (And frankly, I don't think it is right now.)


To make life even more interesting in the quilt world, Michelle Obama's newly-unveiled portrait (which really doesn't look much like her, but oh well) features our former First Lady in a long gown from Michelle Johnson's 'Milly' collection. Supposedly the designs on it were inspired by the African-American quilts from Gee's Bend.


There's been so much controversy about these quiltmakers over the years -- first and foremost, that they gained very little from their notoriety, since their colorful, fascinating quilts had already been sold to (and marketed by) an older dealer -- and a white man. He is the one who has benefitted financially, not them...though he has been occasionally shamed into giving them slightly more money for appearing during exhibits and such. I am amazed that Wikipedia's entry on the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend leaves this out -- but not surprised. Like the Underground Railroad quilt idea, it's one of the dirty secrets of the museum world.

What does surprise me is that so many proponents of Black American culture -- Mrs. Obama included -- continue to take advantage of these women by promoting the Gee's Bend idea without honoring the actual quilts and their makers.
        Sad. Don't they do their homework?

A Gee's Bend quilting bee 2005  (Wikipedia)



Flu alert:  Although Mr. Fever and his buddy The Cough continue to share our lives, we do both seem to be getting slowly better. I can almost breathe freely now. Almost. But I have this overwhelming desire to nod off at times...like during breakfast. Or at the critical part of a movie. 
     A few minutes snooze, then I'm back in business. But it does feel a little awkward, to suddenly wake up and find the Brick staring at me. 

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