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Textiles and Fabric in the Thaw Collection

Over 100 pieces of American Indian art – including ritual objects, pottery, basketry and textiles – give our newest exhibition Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection a diverse and informative angle. The IMA’s access to these works is amazing in and of itself, but upon looking deeper into the variety of art featured in the Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery, it’s clear these pieces are more than just fun to look at.

The American Indian tradition is most immediately recognizable by its elaborate clothing and textiles; bright colors, rich textures, intricate patterns, soft feathers, complex beadwork, glimmering shells, painterly embroidery, and countless other materials define their clothing tradition. American Indian clothing has actually become a bit of a trend as of late – “Navajo” patterns and prints dominate stores like Urban Outfitters, which has recently come under fire for falsely identifying their clothes as such. Clothing, jewelry, and accessories in imitation-Indian styles were deemed “distasteful” and “racially demeaning,” and while that was most likely not the intention, it makes you wonder why the Urban Outfitters buyers were so careless about what they were selling.  They didn’t know an authentic print from a fake, but how could they? Along with this new “trend” comes an equally prevalent lack of education about American Indian traditions, which is why collections like the Thaws’ are so necessary.

The fashion news enthusiast in me was drawn first to the clothing and textiles in the exhibition; I was fascinated to see the original patterns and techniques American Indians created. I was uninformed about… well, everything beyond what I learned in elementary school.  None of my high school courses embraced the subject, nor did I ever realize I was missing out on vital information.

I decided textiles would be my starting point.

The difference between authentic American Indian textiles and the imitations we see in boutiques is context.  Girls today wear “Navajo” patterns because they’re cute and colorful; American Indians wore them to tell a story. Each piece has meaning – often about spirituality, family, and even animals.  Take the seal gut parka for example: Eskimo hunters wore these to protect themselves from wind and rain, but they let the parkas themselves emphasize their respect for the animal. Women carefully cleaned and blew air into the guts, then made the tubes opaque by freeze-drying them. Then they stitched V-shaped patterns to represent harpoon heads, wolves’ teeth, and mountains.

Hunters also wore hunting coats which covered the entire body and were often constructed of caribou skin. While at first it doesn’t seem particularly striking, the coat is rich with spiritual symbolism: the elaborate painted decorations were meant to honor the spirits of the caribou as well as bring success in the hunt. The triangular gusset in the back symbolizes the magical mountain from which the caribou left to surrender to the hunters.  The other patterns on the coat represent dreams, which wives interpreted and stitched into a design.

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Living in a “Material World”

With every coming season, we’re bombarded with the latest “trends” and innovations the fashion world has cooked up for us. We’re always led to believe we’re seeing the newest, freshest batch of chicness – but is any of it really new?

Not exactly. The old saying “history repeats itself” can be applied to fashion without fail.  Save for those unexplainable and unsettling fads (i.e. jelly shoes and acid wash denim), nearly everything in fashion can be traced to a previous trend or inspiration.  The long-sleeved mini dresses on the Azarro and Jil Sander runways? Direct 60s references. Prada looked back to the 50s with knee-length skirts and feminine hues. On countless runways, polka dots – one of the most classic prints – were given a fresh, modern spin.

While none of this is “new,” we’re definitely seeing it in a new way.

Luckily, fashionphiles like me have an advantage when it comes to tracing trends: the IMA’s very own Material World exhibition.  From crystal-encrusted Dior gowns to ornate Cambodian pieces, Material World is chock full of the clothes that started it all. Seeing the exquisite craftsmanship, rich colors, and tiny details up close means spotting fashion influences is both easy and fascinating. In particular, a feathered Chanel cape, a Tibetan regalia, Chinese imperial robe, and a two-piece Chanel suit stood out to me, and to demonstrate their timeless appeal, I compared them to Fall/Winter 2011 runways:



The 1920s was an age of excess and luxury, exuberance and joy.  This feathered, camel-colored Chanel cape exhibits all of these sentiments, with the addition of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s exquisite tailoring and craftsmanship, of course. Wearing feather-adorned clothing was both an exotic new design idea and a shameless display of wealth for upper class Americans of the Roaring Twenties.  Naturally Chanel, the premiere couturier, was among the first to turn out magnificently feathered pieces.  The dense application of feathers gives the cape a soft, plush feel, yet true to form, Chanel kept the colors natural and the shape sleek and simple. Nothing too gaudy or over-the-top for the original minimalist.

Today, we’re seeing modern interpretations of the feathered trend – and not just feathered pieces, but opulent fur pieces as well.  But modern styling and shapes make all the difference in the world; take the Valentino feathered jacket, for example: ultra-naturalized feathers on a 60s-inspired swing coat, complete with cropped sleeves and a rounded collar. The juxtaposition makes an impact far greater than the original shapeless Chanel cape. Similarly, fur has held its ground as a fabric of luxury, and the past few seasons have shown a fur resurgence.  Designers are playing with different treatments of fur; think full sleeves, thick textures, even psychedelic dyes like turquoise, red and pink.



The Tibetan tradition of the oracle’s regalia is to emphasize his connection to the spiritual world, just as the Chinese imperial robe expresses an emperor’s oneness with God. And while fashion today isn’t exactly spiritual, it’s arguable that our ability to see runway shows online connects us to the fashion gods (aka designers). Religion aside, the inspiration of Tibet and China is unmistakable on some of today’s biggest runways, including Dries Van Noten, Mary Katrantzou, and Etro, which featured looks with boldly mixed patterns, draped fabrics, ornate decoration, and metallic threads.

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Out of This World

A few weeks ago, the opening night for Brian McCutcheon’s exhibit Out of This World was, in fact, a little out of this world. And it wasn’t the last-minute change of venue (due to pesky rain showers) or the presence of corn hole inside the Deer Zink Pavilion that made it unusual – it all started with McCutcheon’s artist talk, which was about as interesting and complex as his stunning new exhibit. To gauge everyone’s reactions to the work and his talk, I talked to guests and made a video for the blog – be sure to watch out for one very special appearance!

During the talk, McCutcheon’s son, Angus, who is featured in (and served as the inspiration for) much of the exhibit, was seated at a drawing table in the middle of the stage. While his father discussed his successful career, Angus sketched on giant sheets of paper, sipped water like a true performer, and engaged charismatically with the audience. When images of Angus came onto the screen, he pointed emphatically and radiated pride. It was sort of like live art – and considering Brian and Angus were in matching orange space suits, we’re thinking this was intentional. In fact, the marriage of life and art was a major – if not the main – theme of Out of this World.

Angus’s fascination with space travel is what originally inspired the exhibit, and McCutcheon took the extra step by turning Angus into a main subject. He photographed, filmed, and even sculpted images of Angus, giving the contemporary exhibit an unmistakably warm and inviting feel. By including Angus in his work, McCutcheon was able to fuse fatherhood and artistry to see everything in a different perspective. With such a change in context, he was able to trust his instincts and create strong, emotional art worth seeing. In fact, the case could easily be made that without Angus, Out of this World may never have been conceptualized.

Equally pertinent to the exhibit’s completion was the fact that McCutcheon created each and every detail in each and every piece. Nearly everyone at the party spoke about his seemingly endless skills; from a room full of fiberglass balloons to a massive floating satellite, McCutcheon studiously mastered the various techniques necessary to could create such a diverse exhibit. Even the lawn chairs (placed in the middle of the balloons and inside the red capsule) were crafted by McCutcheon and his team with thin sheets of metal painted and stretched to look like dense woven fabric.

In fact, that gleaming red capsule was one of McCutcheon’s most talked-about pieces. Not only does it perfectly embody his conceptual mission – a harmonious mixture of masculinity, space travel, and playfulness – but even this industrial work became human when Angus took part. What at first looks like an impenetrable piece of metal becomes completely unexpected and remarkable when you walk around and see the small hatch door propped open. Inside sits the lawn chair, where a spacesuit-clad Angus sat and was filmed while the capsule was rocked and shaken to simulate a real spaceship. The final video is projected onto a gleaming glass screen, giving a sense of movement and exhilaration to the entire space. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the exhibit without that background noise and flickering image of Angus in his spaceship. The infusion of life with art is unbelievably present, making it the perfect final touch to Out of this World.


About Emily Farra

Job Title: Publishing & Media Intern
Interests: writing, blogging, fashion, traveling, art, & bargain-hunting.
Favorite Music: The Beatles, St. Vincent, Best Coast + a zillion others.
Favorite Food: Greek/Mediterranean.
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Something you should know about me: I'm right-brained in every way possible.

Emily has written 3 articles for us.