My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 2, Blithewood Garden, Red Hook, NY.

After climbing out of the metaphorical blackened crevasse of an ugly break-up in June, I decided that it was high time that I surfaced for some sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, living as a troglodyte for one month had its benefits. I finished reading my collection of Regency-era romance novels, and binge-watched Korean dramas for four weeks straight, increasing my boob-tube stamina and romantic acuity. However, by the time July rolled around, I knew what I had to do. I would take myself on 100 hot dates.

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For date number 2, I rounded-up a selection of the finest cheeses (from my comprehensive personal refrigerator collection), and stopped at a local farm-stand for some fruit. My life brimming with cheese, and heart overflowing with cholesterol, I strolled over to the Blithewood Mansion and Garden, on the Bard campus, Red Hook, NY.

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Now, if you’re as much of a romantic as I am, you’ll know that cheese does not inspire sentiments of love and enchantment unless it’s consumed in the proper setting. To achieve this illusion of fromage amour, I traveled with a cheese laden bag to the breathtaking Italian sunken gardens of Blithewood Mansion. The garden was constructed circa 1903 as an extension of the Georgian-style Blithewood mansion, constructed circa 1900 for Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie and his wife Francis. Both the garden and the mansion were designed by Francis L.V. Hoppin, of the Hoppin and Koen Architectural firm, adhering to the conventions of Romanticism which influenced the Gilded Age home.

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At the time that I visited the garden, the rain had just subsided, and the sun began to glisten over the sopping wet flowers and walled structures of the garden. Sitting on a marble (or limestone) bench in the garden, I looked towards a sliver of the Hudson River, visible through a parting in the trees. With a mouth full of St. Agur cheese, I turned to look over my shoulder, and was rewarded with a vision of a double rainbow arcing over Blithwood mansion.

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Perhaps it was the effect of massive amounts of brie and agur entering my body all at once, but at the sight of this, my heart skipped a beat. Love flooded my veins. These are the moments that are best shared alone, on a date with yourself, smelling of fermented dairy and oxytocin. Between the natural beauty of the garden, and my full stomach, I was content that hot date number 2 with myself had been a complete success. I was falling in love!

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My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 1, Vanderbilt Mansion Italian Garden

In June of 2017, I had a summer of fun heating-up on the horizon. My boyfriend would return from Florida, I was on summer break from grad school, and I had a killer new collection of crop-tops to show-off my hot rib-cage with! Yowza! However, the ripe promise of June came with a rotten surprise. My boyfriend returned home, only to inform me that he had found a new life in the sink-holes of Florida (Pun intended. He sure found some holes that he liked). After being mercilessly cast aside for a southern gal, and left broken and alone in my Hudson Valley home, I spent the first month of my summer break from school carrying around a box of Kleenex, weeping like a professional mourner from Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies (2003).  In June, I dressed like Queen Victoria. I mourned in black. My rib-cage hidden from the world.

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Then, in July, I got a hold of myself. I realized that it was unfair to my gracious friends to impose my driveling pool of gelatinous emotions upon them for another month. After recounting the fateful day that my ex-boyfriend unceremoniously kicked me to the singles curb about ninety-seven times, I took mercy upon my lovely friends, and decided to create a new narrative. I had to become that better me that I always read about in self-help blogs. I decided, on July first, I would date myself. I would fall deeply, madly, inextricably in love.

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So, I threw-off my somber black attire, and armed my new and improved romantic body with a sky-blue, off-the-shoulder maxi dress. With bounce in my stride, I took my rapturous blue hide over to the Italian Gardens of the Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, NY. Strolling along the symmetrical pathways between the precise flower beds, I felt a semblance of control returning to me. The extravagance of Frederick William Vanderbilt and his Gilded Age home (designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, and inhabited by the Vanderbilt family from 1895-1938) and gardens reminded me that I could indulge in a bit of decadence. In an act of pure hedonistic pleasure, I updated my beloved miniature calendar book, while resting in the shade of the pergola. God, do I know romance!

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As I sensually penned dates into my itinerary for July, I was enamored by the sultry, shady ferns that surrounded me. There must be some significance in an entire garden devoted to the plant. After a bit of cursory research, I discovered a phenomenon known as Pteridomania (Aka. fern fever)! Throughout the Victorian period, there was a craze for collecting, hunting and cultivating ferns in both England and America. Much of this craze was fostered by botanists George Loddiges and Edward Newman. Owner of one of the largest hot-houses in London, Loddiges claimed that collecting ferns “showed intelligence, and improved both virility and mental health,” an assertion which his botanist buddy, Edward Newman, backed-up in his mid-century masterpiece, A History of British Ferns (1840). Frederick William Vanderbilt made sure that he was associated with the noble plant, thus ensuring his image of intelligence and manly virility with his handsome fern garden. Ugh. Where are all of these fern-cultivating men in the twenty-first century!?!?

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So, dear reader. As I concluded the first date with myself in the Vanderbilt Garden, I decided that I was one hell of a gal, and that only a fern loving gent could take me away from me! Swoon! Also, you’ll be relieved to hear that it was time to bare my ribcage to the word, once again.

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A Leopard Must Change its Spots….

I embark upon this new year, wearing plaid pants, a banana brooch, and a big-old leopard-print swing coat. Embedded in the threads of my loud and incongruous get-up are messages of hope, destiny and….what the hell am I doing with myself in 2018?!?! Like the clothes that I wear, this question is rhetorical.

As a Costume Studies grad student at NYU, I know that the clothing that I wear contains conative and subliminal declarations about who I am. I’ve written research papers about all of this. It must be so! But, this notion only makes me uneasy. Is my 1990s punk-revival/granny outfit a sign that I’m looking to the past for comfort, or that my future is likely to be a circus? Perhaps it’s just a flamboyant palette cleanser for a tart 2017. The past year contained moments of glory and growth, but also a few minor disasters. For example, in the midst of grad school, my long-term boyfriend cheated on me, moved to Florida, and left me with a dilemma about finding someone to help me pay the rent, while simultaneously filling the void in my gutted soul (OK. That was a bit dramatic, but I am dressed like a wild-cat!). With deft anger and scrappy resilience, I managed to resolve this problem, but, by-golly, am I left with a bad taste in my mouth! Holding onto my knickers, and finding comfort in loud textile patterns, I go forth.

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In 2018, I have decided to look for a new job, publish my work, rekindle old friendships, and ignite new ones. Most excitingly, I am determined to go on 100 hot dates with myself. No historic site, museum, garden, mountain-top, restaurant or dive-bar will be immune from my romantic inclinations, and desirous heart. Oh, to find myself in a beautiful sunrise, or delicious flan! So, stay-tuned. Prepare to come-along with me through the annals of history, the paths of curiosity, all while wearing clothing of major connotation. In short, I will be my own goddamned muse!

Happy 2018, darlings! Mwah!

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My Muses: Thalia and the Mona Lisa

As the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia is among my favorite of the fair affecters. She sparks a willingness to smile, and knows that a perfectly timed practical joke is worth a more than a picture and its thousand words. At least, that’s what my muse of comedy, Mona Lisa, could tell you!

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On August 21st, of 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Perugia. Most people recognized this as a tragic blow to the art-world, but has anyone ever entertained the possibility of Mona Lisa just needing a little holiday?? I mean, just consider the famed “Mona Lisa smile.” I know that look all too well. That expression means give me a damn break! I’ve been entertaining crowds in the Louvre since 1804, and before that I had to hang about in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in the Tuileries, for da Vinci’s sake! I need to get away!

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Here’s what I believe happened. The winsome Mona presented to Perugia her most beguiling smile, and eventually (through her considerable charms) coerced him to take her away to see the sights. She decided to summer on the Riviera, and after getting quite a sun burn, insisted that she retreat to the Alps for some tranquil reflection. Her much needed respite ended in 1914, but reliable sources claim that she’s planning on another vacation, soon! Oh, Mona Lisa, you little minx!

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The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”

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Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.

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Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.

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However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.

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While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”

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The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.

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Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

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However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.

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Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.

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Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.

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There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”

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There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

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By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.

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These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.

 

References

 

Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.

 

Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

 

Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.

 

Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.

 

Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.

 

Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.

 

Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.

 

Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.

 

Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.

 

“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

 

“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hurs/hd_hurs.htm)

 

Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.

 

 

 

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My Muses: Erato and Anais Nin

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Erato. The muse of love poetry. If I were to assign a mortal woman to Erato’s position, I can’t think of any gal more suited to inspire romance than Anais Nin—writer of erotica, memoirist of passion. Born in France to Cuban parents in 1903, Anais began her life amid the peaceful haze of the Belle Epoch (between the tumult of the Franco Prussian War and the First World War), but the modernization of post WWI west would sweep her away into a world of desire and liberation for women.

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Anais was not one for conformity. She left school at age sixteen and later became an artist’s model, thumbing her nose at “lady-like” behavior. It was at this time that she also left the Catholic Church in the dust, drawn instead, perhaps, to the temple of love! However, Nin did not cultivate her sense for amore until she happened upon a tantalizing collection of French erotica, belonging to an American man (living in France). While she and her family rented this American man’s apartment for the summer, Nin could pore over steamy sentences of his naughty book collection. The fates had thrown Anais and “smutty” novels together. She would never be the same.

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Beyond reading fiction, Nin cultivated a sense of her own sexuality through her various high-profile romances. She was the lover of Henry Miller, and wrote of her desire for his wife, June, in her diary. Clearly, the scope of passion and love were ever growing in Nin, as was her sense of self-possession. Anais Nin had also been keeping a diary since she was eleven years old, and would continue to keep it for over sixty years. Her penchant for writing came in handy when she was strapped for cash during the 1940’s. It was at this time that Nin, Henry Miller and her band of merry writer friends began writing erotica, for an anonymous collector, at a dollar a page. Decades later, Nin published these lust-filled narratives in two books: Delta of Venus and Little Birds.

 

Here are a few selected excerpts from her erotic novels:

 

“He was in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt.” – Delta of Venus

 

“He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.” – Delta of Venus

 

“With her eyes alone she could give this response, the absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness…something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with pleasure never before known.” – The Little Birds

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Significantly, Anais Nin became the first woman to publish true, fleshy, lusty erotica in the west. As a pioneer of boundless female love in fiction, I honor her as my muse of love poetry. She is the perfect flesh and blood well-spring for inspiration in the bedroom and beyond. Causing readers to stir with lust and leave them dripping with wet anticipation, Anais Nin would make Erato proud.

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My Muses: Euterpe and Sappho

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Euterpe is the Greek muse of lyric poetry, and while she’s really great and all, she is made of mythic material. Sappho, on the other hand, was a real flesh and blood (well, now, soil and worms) gal who wrote honest to goodness lyric poems. Sappho was born around 630 BC, on the Isle of Lesbos. She was a Greek lyricist, and one of only a handful of female poets known to the ancient world. Supposedly, Solon (Athenian lawmaker and poet) was so moved by her work that he desired to be taught a song by Sappho “so that I may learn it and then die.” Now, Solon is either prone to emotional outbursts, or Sappho was one sweet lyricist.

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Unfortunately, we may never know which of Sappho’s lyrical poems had whipped Solon into a frenzy of drama, because much of her work has been lost through neglect.  Medieval Byzantium dropped her works from their standard curriculum in the process of modernization, and copies of her poems ceased to be reproduced by scribes. As if her work hadn’t suffered enough, in an act of textual terror, copies of her poetry had been destroyed in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Gasp!  

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Here’s a lovely adaptation of a poem by Sappho, as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

One Girl
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Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough, 
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, — 
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now. 
    II 
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found, 
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound, 
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

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In modern times, Sappho is known less for her written work, and more for her image as a symbol of female homosexuality. Her romantic poetry, involving female subjects, has made her the darling of lesbian circles. The English words “sapphic” and “lesbian” both refer to Sappho, thus, preserving her in writing, after all. Her ability to morph herself centuries after her death into words which exist in the English language is almost as astounding as her poetry. Truly, Sappho is one inspiring babe, and she has been operating as a muse for many a year.

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