Magpie and copyist

By GREG COOK  |  November 24, 2009

The bazaar section includes a giant frog pendant necklace from 19th-century Tibet, a mid-20th-century slingshot from the Middle East worn as a necklace, a red 1969 purse made from an armadillo, and an early-20th-century green wool coat from Afghanistan decorated with a mantle of metal coins. What might be an early-20th-century silver, turquoise, and glass belly-dancing belt from central Asia transforms into a chunky necklace here.

Apfel's magpie repurposing is key. Another example is a collection of tacky pink and yellow plastic girl JingleGems charms — calculator, phone, shoes, comb, Santa, palm tree — turned into an astonishing Pop necklace. At moments like this, the show is about bravery. Apfel pulls off outfits that many would shrink from as outrageous. She dares us to take our own fashion risks. It's downright inspiring.

GEOMETRIC: McFadden’s Etruscan gown seems emblematic of the ’80s.
At MassArt, Mary McFadden also draws inspiration from other locales and other times. They're represented here by a Korean bridal kimono, Tibetan earrings, an Indonesian death mask, and a gold disc from Peru. But when she makes her own fashion designs, the 71-year-old New Yorker distills and transforms them into something new.

"Goddess," which was organized by Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, begins with gowns from her 1976 "Greece, the Classical Period" collection that mix the high-waisted, draped dresses of classical Greek sculpture with free-flowing '70s attitude. One example seems almost like an exact copy of ancient style; another — a version of a slinky white number that Jackie Onassis made famous when she wore it to a Metropolitan Museum of Art opening in '76 — turns the traditional pleating horizontal around the trunk and then lets it flow vertically from the waist down. That simple shift in the direction of the polyester packs a lot of drama.

The white pleated skirt reappears in McFadden's 1987 Etruscan gown, paired with a single wide black wrap around the top. Its simple bold, blocky geometry seems emblematic of the '80s. The skirt shows up again to evoke mummy wrappings in a gown from her 1995 "Cult of Osiris" collection, where it's paired with two gold macramé bands that form the bodice.

McFadden's other primary design is a long quilted-silk jacket that she produced on and off from 1978 to 2000. These vary mainly in how they're hand-painted — stylized Japanese clouds for 1988's "Tale of Genji" collection, interlace designs based on the Irish illuminated manuscript for the 1993 "Book of Kells" collection, Tibetan-style flames for the 2000 "Fire" collection. The coats offer a boxier and more covered-up, buttoned-down look. They simmer in contrast with Apfel's fireworks. Some feel square, but that could be seen as practical panache — you don't have to be a daredevil to put one on.

Well, except for a sheer silk organza gown McFadden made for the 2000 World's Fair in Hanover, Germany. She hand-painted opaque gold sun motifs atop washes of blue and yellow. Here the culture she's harking back to is '60s psychedelic. The dress hung from the pavilion's ceiling, but though it inspired her "Fire" collection, it was never put into production.

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