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Posts from the Art & Architecture Collection

Yankee Doodle Dandies

Dandies were viewed with a little more skepticism across the Atlantic. The upheaval in Europe created by Napoleon’s rise and fall brought a steady stream of tailors and would-be dandies to America’s east coast cities. Yet in keeping with a country with more than its fair share of rough edges, the niceties of modish dress were something to regard with suspicion. Nor did it help that the largest showing of dandies regularly turned up in the U.S. Congress. The ambivalent attitude of men in the New World toward Old World 

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“Don’t Let Them Break Your Camera”

The NYPL Photography Collection has one of the largest collections of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs outside of the Library of Congress. I’m not sure what it is about these images—though given the economic times I’d say they are due for a resurgence—but they continue be some of the most 

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Who's A Dandy?

 Men’s clothing would never be what it is today without George “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840). This ingenious man, the father of the modern dandy, was initially a court favorite who fell from grace. He was a walking advertisement for the modish man. Although he took only one dip into literature, his reformation of masculine style was transformative.  One of the things I find most interesting, however, is how few portraits exist of him. The one or two of those that have come down to us are actually suspect 

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Picturesque Poverty

“A working class hero is something to be…” -John Lennon Working Class Hero (1970) A change came in the dawning nineteenth century of great significance. The trickle down of fashion grew to encompass the lives of those of the lower orders (as they were called then). A sociological interest in the dress and habits of those people in “reduced circumstances” developed, and left its mark on costume books of the period. While, previously, these books—produced for a well-heeled, erudite audience—concentrated their focus 

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War and Peace: Elegance in Dress

“Show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history.”

— Anatole France (1844 – 1924)

 The start of the nineteenth century has many echoes. Sometimes I can shut my eyes and see them, all the elegant men and women twirling round ballrooms to the lilt of the newly popular waltz. I belong to a generation of young women who grew up on the Regency stories of Georgette Heyer. One encounters in her literature (written mainly in the 1950s) nostalgia for a time “when men 

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The Empire Style

The New York Public Library held an exhibition in 2004 that illuminated the Library’s rich holdings of the Napoleonic Era; entitled “Decoration In the Age of Napoleon: Empire Elegance Versus Regency Refinement,” it showed the cultural rivalry between the two nations, including the area of fashion. An online bibliography to the Empire and Regency styles is available on the Library’s website. In fact, the French had held the fashion edge since the time of Louis XIV. The English might have a great 

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Islands of New York City: Hoffman and Swinburne Islands

 The watery barriers of islands often prevent the infiltration of outside influences, as seen in the history of Broad Channel. For Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, however, these barriers were intended to keep potentially harmful change from spreading outward. Ellis Island is rightly considered the gateway to New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While this is the case, some immigrants took a detour through Hoffman Island or Swinburne Island. The two man-made islands, designated as quarantines for arriving immigrants, were created in the 1870’s in an area 

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The Divine Josephine

When giving lectures for the “Decoration in the Age of Napoleon” exhibition, I often referred to Josephine Bonaparte as the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy of her age. The comparison is apt, for Josephine epitomized the elegance of her times. She was a graceful dresser, diplomat, and a superb decorator, whose contributions to the Empire Style have been only lately fully acknowledged. An enchanting fictional account of her life was written by Sandra Gulland, 

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Napoleon's Waterloo

The agent of Napoleon’s final downfall was known as “The Beau” to his Regency peers (behind his back of course). Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, was the latest in a series of military men who enjoyed the allure of masculine fashion. He fought the French for a long time in the Peninsular War, in Portugal and France. After Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his Hundred Days, Wellington and a scattered group of Allied forces met Napoleon’s diminished army on the battlefield of Waterloo. Oddly enough, I see 

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The Imperial Eagle

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, one man’s name was on everyone’s lips. Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in France with a coup, transforming himself into a living juggernaut. At first, he paid lip service to the Revolution, but there were many who were rightly suspicious of his motives. His time was the Romantic Era, when the cult of the individual first developed. This was the precursor to our contemporary world’s cult of the celebrity. 

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Double Take

It seems that my idea of Richard Bruce Cheney as a two dimensional nefarious character was hardly original, but this manifestation of others’ lack of imagination is mind boggling. Exhibit A, the cover for Charlie Savage’s Takeover:

Exhibit B, the cover for Barton Gellman’s Angler:

Hat-tip to the Bernstein selection committee 

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A Strategic Pause

All good writers of novels or lively nonfiction know that it’s crucial to pause their story at a certain point. Perhaps this can apply to the blogger, too. What have we learned so far in examining the path of Western fashion from antiquity to the nineteenth century? We know that clothing was modified for important class distinctions, that masculine bodies were celebrated while feminine bodies had to be concealed beneath numerous draperies, and men were given greater leeway with fashion. We’ve seen that rulers and their nobles protected the use of fine fashions as their 

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Design by the Book--The Big Reveal.

It's been grand working with our Design by the Book artists Lorena Barrezueta, Rebecca Kutys, Mike Perry, John Pomp, and Julia Rothman. They never failed to surprise me in their interests and their unexpected uses of what they found at the Library. In this, the last episode, they share their Library-inspired 

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Closer to Modernity: The Nineteenth Century

 “Fashion is an odd jumble of contradictions, of sympathies and antipathies.” ----William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830)

The nineteenth century is when everything changes. Fashions accelerate along with the social, political, intellectual, and technological advances of each decade. Issues related to taste and aesthetics become more apparent. This is the century when men’s clothes change to take on the appearance we know today. The tailored man’s suit became 

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A Revolutionary Moment

From this point on, we see more clearly how social history figures into fashion trends. The eighteenth century, which included the influential years of the Enlightenment, brought clothing changes of various natures. It was the French Revolution, however, that turned men in trousers against men in breeches and exposed the yawning gap between classes. The Revolution’s leaders even promoted a specific form of dress, that of the sans-culotte, for the newly liberated citizen. 

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Fiction as Art as Fiction

Now that the art economy has collapsed and followed the mortgage derivative finance home boom bust buy now pay later consumption as a way of life whatever whatnot economy into the dumpster of ideas, I’d like to recommend a very sound investment for the young artist class: Get a Library Card and check out Lunar Follies by 

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Ruling Through Fashion

“Fashion is more powerful than any tyrant.” ----Latin saying It took a man like Louis XIV, King of France (1638-1715), to subvert fashion for his own gain. The importance of fashion in royal courts had long been established, but Louis took it to another level. We’d call him a control freak or a micromanager today, but his watchful soul reveled in keeping his nobles—and potential rivals and enemies—close to him. What better way than to hem them in with the tyrannies of 

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Cavaliers Versus Roundheads

 In the seventeenth century, something interesting started to happen with clothing and dress. Men (and women) began to wear clothes that expressed what they believed in or stood for. A prime example of this can be found in Europe with the division between those who dressed in a sober manner and the more gaudy fashions of the upper classes. Whether from religious or social scruples, a rather puritanical mode of dress gained a powerful foothold with the professional and middle classes. In England, the civil strife of the times 

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A Renaissance for Dress?

 We can see, therefore, that fashion originated as a mode for the elite, long before the age of haute couture. This connotation is stamped deeply within our consciousnesses. Would it also explain why we crave fashion so much? Do we see it, as our ancestors did, as a means of social uplift? Fashion now grew ever stronger as society matured. By the time of the Renaissance in Europe, fashion as a means of social control had become a weapon in the arsenal of the ruling classes. By 1500, the notion of a “well-fashioned” 

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What Was the Houppelande?

I’m always delighted and relieved when people actually make comments. Thanks, Colin and John, for pointing out that the “Dark Ages” are less so than they first seemed, and that the Church had an active interest in keeping bodies draped. John also noted that tailoring and court fashions truly changed the tenor of dress. I’ve wondered in return if this was an early example of human nature and its craving for interesting dress trumping the religious morality of the times... With fashion firmly established during the Middle Ages, what can be said about the creation of 

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