Am I the only one who didn’t know the dazzling Venetian fashion and textile wizard, the Prince of Pleats, the Virtuoso of Velvet, wasn’t even Italian, let alone Venetian? He was born Mariano Fortuny* y Madrazo in 1871, of a long line of artists, curators and collectors in the capital and last stronghold of Spain’s Moorish culture–Granada.
He grew up in Paris surrounded by the works and collections of his ancestors and didn’t even settle in Venice until 1889, and then only because he was allergic to horses, not often encountered in a city dependent on water transport.
Fortuny’s mother, Cecilia de Madrazo, came from a family of artists and two directors of the Prado, who, along with the family fortune, were instrumental in putting the museum on the cultural map.
His father, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, was, according to New York’s Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, “one of the most important artists in the history of Spanish art after Francisco Goya.”
A frequent traveler in Islamic lands, Fortuny y Marsal was fascinated by caftans, turbans, harem pants; he collected the fine fabrics and carpets, rare potteries and metal armor his son grew up surrounded by, in an artistic salon that his mother hosted.
[ ] Ingres, painted by his friend Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, who was Fortuny’s maternal grandfather and the second in the family to become Prado director. [ ] Arab Before Tapestry by Fortuny’s father, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal. [ ] Fortuny y Madrazo, himself, in silk turban and Berber burnous.
Like much of the cultural elite of his time, Fortuny was besotted with Richard Wagner’s “music dramas” as well as with Wagner’s ideal of the unification of all art forms into a single event. Tapped to work on costumes and scenery for the 1900 La Scala production of “Tristan und Isolde,” he recognized that theatrical lighting failed Wagner’s unified-arts goals. He conducted experiments to find a way for light to flow and change with the texture of the music, that quickly transforms to enhance shifts of mood and atmosphere. He found that light reflected off various surfaces changes such properties as color and intensity, and patented a system to achieve this in 1901. He engineered his next invention, the Fortuny Cyclorama Dome, to allow illusions of a more extensive sky and distant horizon than perspective and stage size could create on their own. “Theatrical scenery will be able to transform itself in tune with music, within the latter’s domain,” he reported. “That is to say in time whereas hitherto it has only been able to develop in space.”
Because a combination of the dome and reflected light meant one stage set could provide several different visual and emotional effects, the costs of scenery could be reduced, along with storage space and the danger of fire.
He applied the dome concept to a collapsible, portable lamp to re-create indoor lighting onstage; originally intended for theatrical use, the hi-tech appearance of the Fortuny Moda floor lamp has made it a lasting icon of residential lighting. He invented the dimmer switch.
All that experience with theatrical costumes and stage curtains, as well as experiments with the effects of light on fabric, fed into the art for which Fortuny is still best known: the figure-skimming, sleek, slinky, sophisticated, glowing, daring, No-Corsets-Need-Apply pleated silk gown, which actually has a patent behind it for the pleating tools as well as for the style. What appears to be ruffling at the neckline and sleeve is not ornament at all but the visible result of lacing front to back with silk cords, which also run through the neckline.
Between the cords and the pleats, the gowns can adapt to a range of sizes. Murano glass beads strung on the cords around the armholes and down the sides–as well as around the shaped hem of the Peplos overblouse–keep the light silk pleats from gaping or ballooning or wandering off with the first stray breeze. The result is both simpler and richer than anything that had gone before. Every element is necessary. Nothing is extraneous. This may well be the first modern garment.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a simpler, more comfortable silhouette began to be discussed, and even showed up here and there in haute couture, but the preferred female profile was still the “S-Bend,” low breasts balanced by a modified bustle, all achieved with specialized corseting and strategic padding. A day dress would be long-sleeved, high-necked, and be worn with a large-brimmed feathered hat pinned to a mass of upswept hair. For evening, it could be sleeveless or short-sleeved, and would have a decidedly low neckline. An over-the top hat may have been appropriate for evening, depending on the event.
Fortuny was an early advocate of liberating garments, but his contemporary, Paul Poiret, usually gets the credit. Poiret’s styles, however, were fussy and often required corsets to the knee; he also popularized–and may have invented—the hobble skirt. So much for easy movement.
Fortuny, on the other hand, used his patented tools create sharply pleated fine silk that stood on its own as structure and decoration, style and substance. Called the Delphos, the garment was based on the chiton worn by the Charioteer of Delphi, a famous 5th-century-B.C. Greek bronze that had been discovered in 1896.
A chiton was a cloth cylinder made by piecing together a number of woven rectangles, joining them at the shoulders, and holding them in place with a girdle that formed a loosely pleated effect. Fabric was not easily come by in ancient times, so the material had to remain in reusable rectangles.
Fortuny did the Greeks one better by setting almost permanent knife-edge pleats in his rectangles of fine, light silk–the silk for flow, the pleats for structure.
No pattern-making was needed, no cutting, tailoring, dressmaker details, darts, gores, gussets or any of the other slicing-and-dicing techniques typically used to give form to fabric. Even care is easy: simply twist the gown into coils and pop it into a little 9-in-dia box, ready for storage or travel.
The pleats are virtually permanent, but if a gown should sag a bit at the seat or knees, it would be returned to Venice for a touch-up–no one but Fortuny himself ever knew the secret of the silk pleats, and all efforts to replicate them seem to have failed. Heat and moisture were involved, but how much of each? When did the patented mechanisms come into play? What about chemicals? An assistant recalled having to painstakingly remove a kind of egg glue from the fabric.
Fortuny didn’t consider himself a couturier, didn’t hold fashion shows, didn’t feel obliged to follow trends or chase originality. Over the 40-odd years the Delphos and Peplos were produced, he might nod to the times with higher or lower hems, jewel tones or naturals, a spaghetti strap here, a little shoulder pad there, perhaps some scissor work to create a permanent scoop or V-neck. From the corseted Edwardian Era to the bound-breast Flapper period to Dior’s girdled New Look to the buff-bodied present, the Fortuny gown never went out of style. After he died in 1949, no more gowns were made, yet women lucky enough to find them at auction (up to $20,000) continue to collect them, cherish them, and wear them.
Knife-sharp silk pleats also make a discreet appearance as insets in the sleeves and sides of his sumptuous printed, painted and stenciled silk-velvet gowns. Once again, silken cords and Murano glass beads coursing down the sides can be used to loosen or tighten the gown to size, while the pleats expand or contract as needed. Fortuny’s velvets are so soft that they follow the body comfortably no matter the number of adjustments.
Top left: loosely adjusted gown.
‘Right: tightly adjusted to hug the figure.
Left: Inset pleats keep sleeve supple.
These velvets reflect their Venetian origins not only in the hues created when the canals mirror changes in the sky, but also in the long history of magnificent textiles produced in the region. From medieval times, Venice was a crossroads of East and West–think Marco Polo–as well as, for several hundred years, the only place self-respecting kings, emperors, cardinals and merchant princes from all over Europe could obtain opulent, innovative velvets with which to intimidate one another.
Venice extended privileges and tax exemptions to innovators, and acknowledged the dyers guild’s critical economic by routinely overlooking such pollution violations as the use of urine as a color fixative. In the 14th century, taking velvet skills from Venice to another city could result in the confiscation of property and a death sentence.
Tintoretto, the Venetian artist known for glowing color and the amazing light and shadow in his treatment of textiles, was the son of a dyer.In fact, Venetian artists from Bellini to Titian, Carpaccio, Georgione, Veronese and Tiepolo were often noted more for the fabric in their paintings than they were for faces, buildings and landscapes.
To this heritage, Fortuny added influences from China, Japan, India, Persia, Turkey, and Northern Africa, Coptic legends and Kufic calligraphies, paleochristian sculptural motifs and Irish manuscript illuminations.
Marcel Proust described Fortuny as “faithfully antique but powerfully original,” and mentioned him at least sixteen times in “Remembrance of Things Past,” where he was the only real character
not a fictional composite of several others. Fortuny’s fans have included Isadora Duncan, Gloria Vanderbilt (Anderson Cooper’s mother), Sarah Bernhardt, Peggy Guggenheim, Nijinsky, Lillian Gish, and Orson Welles. And thereby hangs a mystery.
Some accounts have Fortuny designing the costumes for Welles’ 1952 movie, “Othello.” Others say Welles had the costumes made of Fortuny fabric; doublets have been mentioned, and “three coats.” One tale has Welles bursting in on Fortuny shortly before the designer died in 1949 and modeling some kind of fur-lined item.
Welles himself recalled learning, while preparing to shoot in a small Moroccan city, that his Italian costume–maker was bankrupt. He immediately shifted one scene to a Turkish bath to justify filming male actors naked from the waist up, and hired local tailors to make costumes based on pictures of Renaissance paintings.
In the end, Welles claimed to have had an army clad in armor made of sardine tins, but what of the main characters? Did any of them get to wear Fortuny? Some grainy old black-and-white stills from this black-and-white movie show Welles in a costume that looks as though it conceivably could include this fur-trimmed multi-color coat, left.
Did any Fortuny make it into the film?
*Thanks to Fred Plotkin, master of all things opera, food and Italy, for dissuading me from pronouncing it “FORchinny” and encouraging the use of “ForchOOny”instead.
© Judith Davidsen and jdavidsen.wordpress.com, 2010-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Judith Davidsen and jdavidsen.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
In 1842, Charles Dickens described his encounter with Shakers in this manner: “we walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock, which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly, and under protest. Ranged against the wall were six or eight stiff high-backed chairs, and they partook so strongly of the general grimness, that one would much rather have sat on the floor than incurred the smallest obligation to any of them.”
Clearly, the man took a wrong turn and ended up at one of the other Utopian communities that thrived in the U.S. at the time. Those simple, celibate Shakers, whose spare, bare wood furniture exerted a huge influence on modern design, were given to wild displays of color. They dyed the cloth they wove salmon, pink, red, Prussian blue, yellow, orange and purple. Almost all original Shaker furniture, built-ins, household objects and even floors were painted colors with names like chrome yellow, red ochre, yellow ochre, red lead, chrome green, Venetian red and Prussian blue. The goal was a neat appearance and efficient cleaning.
To shock visitors into exploring the Shaker use of color, the floor at a 2008 Shaker show at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York City was painted chrome yellow with red-ochre trim. Over the years, non-Shakers had stripped the paint off most of the furniture, but a yellow washstand is visible at rear, right. Image: Bard Graduate Center.
“People are used to Shaker forms, but not Shaker colors,” says Jean M. Burks, Senior Curator and Director of the Curatorial Department at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT., who has curated some shockingly colorful shows called Shaker Design: Out of this World. “They tend to think of classic Shaker design as stripped-down brown wood.”
Decades after Dickens’ grim report, non-Shaker, or “worldly,” owners influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement of the turn of the last century (and another forerunner of modern design) began the practice of stripping Shaker furniture. Today’s Shaker antiques and most museum pieces have been stripped, and even the best copies are unlikely ever to have been colored. Meanwhile, the surviving painted pieces tend to be worn and chipped, which would have horrified their original owners, who are said to have continually refreshed and repainted them.
The Shakers may not have invented the “swallowtailed” oval box, but they made them, used them for all sorts of storage and sold them. They would have kept repainting them to keep them neat and clean. Image: Bard Graduate Center
The Shakers—more correctly the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—began as dissident English Quakers who left for America in 1774 under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, who famously once proclaimed, “There is no dirt in Heaven.” They believed cleanliness, neatness and order led to serenity, but they did not believe in drudgery: they hung their famous chairs from wall pegs in order to more easily clean the floors, and hung them upside down in order to keep dust off the seats.
Chairs hung upside down not only to facilitate cleaning but to keep dust off the seats.
Efficiency, neatness and cleanliness only partly account for the pared down nature of Shaker furniture. In 1823, Mother Ann’s followers wrote down the precept, “Anything may, with strict propriety, be called perfect, which perfectly answers the purpose for which it was designed”—73 years before Louis Sullivan’s famous “Form ever follows function” and 136 years before Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said “less is more,” to a newspaper interviewer. Unlike these giants, however, the Shakers also valued simplicity as a spiritual aid, believing the “superfluously wrought . . . would have a tendency to feed the pride and vanity of man.” Surrounded as they were during the 19th century with some truly horrendous worldly ornamentation, it probably would not have occurred to the Shakers that something like minimalism could be a source of vanity.
The Shaker notion that simplicity is a gift from God, that work is a religious exercise has never been encouraged by The World. The oldest and most successful of the early American utopian communities, they have not been alone in requiring celibacy, pacificism and communal property, but for most of their existence they have been unusual among Utopian groups in valuing gender and racial equality. They have lived, worked and worshipped in communities apart from their non-Shaker neighbors in order to prevent individual persecution as well as to avoid the influence of a sinful world. They settled in 18 self-contained communities from Maine to Kentucky, but while they were out of this world, they were also very much in it.
If it was cheaper to buy something from the outside world than to make it themselves, they bought it—pigment for those wild paints, the porcelain knobs that are often considered a Shaker signature, metals, glass, ceramics, bricks, sugar, vinegar, specialized machinery to prepare large quantities of food, and packaging materials (including firkins, or small kegs).
The contents were Shaker, but it was more efficient to purchase glass jars and bottles from the outside world. Image: Bard Graduate Center
Since they were already mass producing things like chairs, brooms, pails, storage boxes, cheese, dried sweet corn for themselves, they began selling to the outside to earn income for the community. The Shakers sold pulpwood and agricultural products, and are thought to be the first to market small, consumer-sized packets of garden seeds. They sold catsup, milk, cream, butter, lemon syrup for both lemonade and medicinal use, canned vegetables, baked beans, pickles, mincemeat, honey, tins of culinary herbs, and all manner of candy: hand-dipped chocolates, taffy, maple-sugar cakes, ribbon candy, fudge.
If a Shaker community had a resident printer, the labels were likely to be made on site. Other communities had the printing done by outsiders
“Intellectually we don’t think of the Shakers as commercial people, but they were very entrepreneurial,” according to Jean Burks. They took orders for opera cloaks called “Dorothy Cloaks,” named after the Eldress at Canterbury Village in New Hampshire who designed them. The hooded cloaks were made of richly colored imported French wool, silk-lined and tied under the chin with a wide silk ribbon. The cloaks sold from $10 to $30 at a time when a skilled worker made $1 or $2 a day; in 1893, Grover Cleveland’s wife wore one to his inauguration.
The Dorothy Cloak, named after the Shaker sister who designed it, was made of French wool in rich colors and lined in silk.
The Shakers provided merchants with point-of-sale materials like posters for store windows, and sold applesauce, cider and dried apples to wholesale accounts. The headings on their price lists and invoices read “United Society,” not Shaker, originally a derogatory name based on the ecstatic nature of their worship, a name with which it took them a long time to come to terms. But as “Shaker” became an indicator of quality, ingenuity and value, they traded on it for all it was worth.
Large advertising poster for vegetable seeds sold by the MountLebanon, NY, Shakers.
They trademarked the logo that they attached to every chair they made, and because of their reputation for quality and purity, did a thriving business in remedies and medicinal herbs: toothache pellets, 221 herbs available in 300 forms, an asthma formula. They also understood the value of what we call “curb appeal,” positioning their most impressive, lightest colored buildings close to public roads or on high elevations where they could operate as advertisements for the Shaker way of life.
As the Shakers developed a reputation for excellence, they became adept at branding. They produced their wildly popular chairs n assembly-line fashion.
They also made and sold to the outside world items that were not simple enough for their own use: a preparation to darken gray hair, fancy pincushions including “screwballs” that clamp onto sewing tables, fans made of white turkey feathers, dolls dressed in little Dorothy Cloaks. Poplar keepsake boxes were such big sellers that before school each morning, every girl was required to weave at least one yard of cloth made of cotton thread and poplar shavings—the wood not being useful for furniture or fuel.
Left & center: Fancy velvet-covered standing pincushions made by Shakers for sale to the outside world. The “screwball” at right attaches to a table.
Doll wearing “Dorothy Cloak” was sold to the outside world.
They peddled souvenirs to resort hotels and vacation spots from Maine to Florida, and even developed mail order businesses. Twice a week, Sisters from the Sabbathday Lake community in Maine sold their goods in the lobby of the Poland Springs Resort Hotel (yes,that Poland Springs).
The Shakers were often adept photographers. In 1910, Brother Delmer C. Wilson took this shot of the Poland Spring Hotel, where Shaker Sisters set up shop in the lobby.
According to Jean Burks, the Shakers tended to have electricity and plumbing before their worldly neighbors did. In 1909, they became the first people in New Glouster, Maine, to buy a car; it cost $2,100. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that some Ohio Shakers “proposed to buy an aeroplane from the Wright brothers and operate it for their own pleasure.” No corroborating evidence has been found, but Michael Graham, curator at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum in New Glouster, ME, says the Shakers have always been “on the cutting edge of technology.” The surviving Quakers, who conduct a business in the herbal teas, potpourri, cooking spices and balsam pillows that they still make at Sabbathday Lake (http://www.shaker.lib.me.us/catalog.html), could not keep going without their computers and microwaves.
In order to simplify their lives and streamline their work, the Shakers embraced new technologies and when those didn’t satisfy their needs, invented their own: the flat broom, the metal nib pen, a machine for making tongue-and-groove boards and permanent press, stain-resistant fabric using heat, pressure and zinc chloride to cut down on laundry chores. The circular saw was invented by a Sister Tabitha Babbitt of the Harvard, MA, Shakers, who was inspired by her spinning wheel. After watching two men struggle to cut timber with a pit saw, she attached a notched tin disk to her spinning wheel, pushed a piece of wood into it and changed the lumber industry worldwide.
Although they preferred to share their inventions with the world, the Shakers have been credited with over 100 patents, 37 of which have been verified, including 1852’s patent #8771 for a button-joint tilter, a small, commonsensible addition to the back legs of chairs to allow sitters to tilt back without slipping, damaging floors or stressing chair components.
The Shaker-patented tilters on the back legs of this chair made it possible to lean back without damaging the chair or the floor. Image: Bard Graduate Center
They also invented and patented a commercial washing machine and, in 1876, a commercial oven featuring revolving metal shelves pierced to allow even heating, isinglass (transparent, temperature-resistant mica) windows, and a temperature gauge—a great rarity at the time. The oven could bake 60 pies or 70 loaves of bread at one time, and was purchased by bakeries in the outside world.
One thing they did not sell—or even display—were the “gift” drawings and paintings we’ve come to think of as prints to hang on a wall. These are really reports of dreams, visions and messages of love and encouragement. Some came from Mother Ann and other deceased elders, some from Indians, Blacks, Persians, Jews and Chinese sources, and some from such notables as George Washington, Christopher Columbus, William Penn, Napoleon, Mahomet, Pope Leo X, St. Patrick, and Alexander Pope. Some “gifts” are indescipherable, while others contain recognizable flowers, moons, stars, hearts, angels, houses, mills and even wheels and pulleys, indicating that the Shakers seemed to think there might be machinery in heaven.
Gift drawings were messages of love and encouragement, and never meant as wall decor.