The title of this week’s post is from none other than the fashion icon Coco Chanel. One of the newest special exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts takes Coco’s words to heart, displaying a series of fashion drawings that depict not only clothing, but the lives and times this clothing comes from. The exhibition is titled Figure/Fabric/Fantasy: Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection of Fashion Drawing.

If you have visited the MFA since its recent renovations were completed, the name “Sharf” should be familiar to you: The visitor’s desk is located in the “Sharf Visitor Center.” Frederic (or Fred) Sharf, a local Bostonian who grew up in Chestnut Hill, is one of the MFA’s greatest supporters and advocates. He is not only a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, but is also a donor, an avid art collector, an author of art books and catalogues, and even a curator. (Sharf curated the 2009 exhibit Showa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s.) It is rare for a major museum trustee to curate—he is quite possibly the only MFA trustee to ever do so.

Sharf and his wife, Jean, have gifted a stunning body of work to the MFA over the years, with the number of pieces reaching more than 2,700 in 2009, the value numbering in the millions of dollars. Said Jean of her husband to Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers: “He makes a collection … and then gives it away. He’s very project oriented. He’s come home at night after being out and starts typing away.’’

Their latest gifts to the MFA come in the form of works on paper: a diverse and engaging collection of fashion art drawings dating between the 1940s and the 1980s, a period of the twentieth century marked by the rise of ready-to-wear clothing and glamorous fashion magazines. The exhibit was curated by Alexandra B. Huff, Curatorial Planning and Project Manager with the Museum’s Department of Textile and Fashion Arts. Located on the second floor of the Museum in the Loring Gallery (gallery number 276, tucked into the Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa wing), Figure/Fabric/Fantasy features fifty works of art by twenty-six artists (as well as a lovely selection of fashion books and magazines for visitors’ perusal)—just a drop in the ocean of the nearly 10,000 twentieth-century fashion art pieces owned by the MFA.

The collection includes works such as Jack Potter’s 1950’s watercolor and Conté crayon piece for L. S. Ayers department store (possibly published in Vogue), formerly owned by the Sharfs and gifted to the MFA in early 2009:

Jack Potter’s 1950’s fashion sketch. Image from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Collections Search: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/woman-in-strapless-gown-with-red-shawl-511929

Says Sharf in his notes “From the Collector” displayed in the exhibition:

“This exhibition marks the first time that a major American art museum has devoted an entire gallery to displaying fashion drawing … Fashion art does more than simply illustrate a garment. It describes the social life of its moment, and opens a window into the lifestyle of the era in which it was created.”

Indeed, the works of art shared in this collection represent much more than the garments they are meant to advertise and highlight. These drawings display artistic interpretations of figures, lifestyles, cultures, and fashions, contrasts to the realism that photos—becoming increasingly popular in fashion advertising at the time—depicted. Just as fashions shifted, so too did the ways in which these artists drew them, varying from Potter’s pale, delicate mistress draped in a wafting watercolor gown to Larry Salk’s color-saturated, finely detailed Bathing beauties with smiling gentleman from 1965:

Larry Salk, 1965. Image from MFA.org: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/figurefabricfantasy

As Morton Kaish, a trained painter who also worked in fashion illustration in the 1950s and 1960s (most notably with Lord & Taylor) describes it in his video interview featured in the exhibition: “There are fashions in figures just as there are fashions in clothes.” Kaish describes how some illustrators favored lengthy “twelve-head” figures—inhumanly long and lean, showing clothes to their greatest advantage—while at Lord & Taylor, they wanted the women to look normal, natural. He also describes differences in techniques: While many artists worked on oversized pages which were then reduced to the necessary size for advertisements, Lord & Taylor ads were drawn exactly to size. Due to his background in classic figure drawing, Kaish most often worked on ads for lingerie, nightgarments, and other intimates, such as his 1969 Look what the print-master brought us! Lord & Taylor ad for Emilio Pucci intimates:

Morton Kaish, 1969. Author’s photo of MFA exhibition.

What unites this diverse collection is not only its artistry, but its intended audience: Unlike the vast majority of pieces featured in the MFA and other major museums, the art on display in Figure/Fabric/Fantasy was created for the express purpose of commercial distribution. Ultimately, these works needed to sell the product—and in that effort, also sold a look, a lifestyle, a story, a fantasy. As Kaish puts it: “As a fashion illustrator, my focus was always on the object, on describing the object, as the goal, and along the way, the effort included investing a degree of glamour, style, and desirability in that image.”

Fred Sharf concludes his collector notes with the “hope that the exhibition will inspire further gifts to the collection” and the expectation “that the artworks will find multiple uses within this encyclopedic museum.” Here’s hoping! The works will be on display in the MFA until June 3, 2012.

SOURCES

Figure/Fabric/Fantasy: Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection of Fashion Drawing. In-gallery curatorial and exhibition notes, interview with Morton Kaish, and on MFA.org.

Geoff Edgers, “The art of the deal,” The Boston Globe on boston.com, 9 Aug. 2009.

Potter, Jack. Woman in strapless gown with red shawl. Museum of Fine Arts Collections Search.

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