How often do we buy clothing because we have seen it worn by someone or it’s a cultural norm to dress a certain way or because we have been conditioned to think a certain way? I like style muses who come along and shakes us up a little. Give us the courage to be different if we want to be …. Style muses don’t exist so that we may clandestinely copy their style or shop-their-outfits to miraculously find our own style. Such actions are safe short cuts that take away from what could have been a true introspective process. They exist to inspire. You may argue that there are no true originals. That is mostly true but there are exceptions. May I introduce Georgia O’Keeffe :
” Georgia O’Keeffe has never allowed her life to be one thing and her painting another. She has never left her life in disorder while she sat down to paint a picture that should be clean, simple, and integrated. To her art is life; life is painting. ”
– Frances O’Brien.
I won’t go into a commentary on the merits of her work. (Not qualified.) But I can talk about what her work means to me. A strong connection to outdoors. I lived in a desert for 8 years. I would hear ‘what’s there to see’ a lot when it came to spending time in the vast emptiness. But I loved it. Biking in the night’s warm breeze through the emptiness while listening to instrumental music is an underrated activity. I loved my solo hikes up the camelback mountain ( climbed it 52 times ). The muted landscape makes the details stand out. While we didn’t need seasonal clothing, the seasons were very different. You would meet different kinds of insects and plants in bloom, every season. In the night, the small animals came out to play and the land comes to life. You start to recognize scorpions and lizards as fellow habitants. I loved Arizona and its desert landscape. We once had a death scare in the Grand Canyon. While we were screaming for life, I had an ‘if I were to die today, this is the right place for it’ sort of epiphany. There is no place like the Canyon. There is a reverence to mother earth in the teaching of the native American tribe who live there. A few of my students lived on the reservation and still lived by the old gods. My vintage turquoise bracelets mean something to me and I wear them as a talisman when I go hiking. When the cacti bloom, it’s unlike the ‘regular’ flowers. The thorns next to the petals have a beauty that I have no words for. Edward Abbey succeeds in describing this sort of beauty in his book: Desert Solitaire. O’Keeffe’s work from her time in New Mexico reminds me of a landscape I used to call home. I have never met a single artist who is conventional and isn’t a rebel of sorts with the current culture. They have their distinct idiosyncrasies. Some excerpts about her style that I have collected to summarize why I am enamored by her personal style:
Artists’ dress provides another point of entry into thinking about the usefulness of material ‘things’ in understanding modern art. Some artists believed clothes to be an important part of their legacy, even to the point of thinking of some pieces as works of art or as telling stories that nothing else could.
O’Keeffe’s closets housed many coats, dresses, blouses, kimonos, jeans, shirts, scarves, hats, shoes and bed clothes, some of which we recognize from photographs. She had carefully preserved them in an age of throwaway, bring them with her when she moved from New York to New Mexico, suggests that they were important to her.
When O’Keeffe dressed for formal portraits, she wore only a fraction of the clothes in her closets, but she wore them with distinctive style and often accessorize more dramatically than she did for the everyday snapshot fare.
O’Keeffe was an excellent seamstress. She made her own night clothes, her underwear, her blouses and a favored smock. Seams were always so perfect that her clothes could be worn inside out. Once she had a frock she liked, she would mend it repeatedly rather than discard it. Her housekeepers and assistants remember that she always had a basket of clothes ready for mending. She kept them forever and patched the holes.
After she became successful as an artist, she used dressmakers and tailors more often. She would get the modern look she wanted by choosing the fabric and having her clothes made to her own specifications. She dedicated considerable time to self-fashioning. She would give precise instructions as to what material she wanted, and how it was to be cut. She favored, for example, designs cut on the bias. Sometimes, she customized garments someone else had made to “improve” them. She would add, for instance, a white collar under a black dress so that it appeared as if she were layering and wearing a white blouse underneath. She would often add snaps to tighten sleeves to fit her small wrist or to make a blouse lay right on her body. She cut her own patterns from newspapers or butcher paper, basing them on a successful garment. When she found something she liked, wore a lot and had purchased it from a shop, she would ask her seamstresses to copy it in a new color and fabric. In the most extreme case, she commissioned more than two dozen wrap dresses of the same design but in different colors and fabrics. She did the same with shoes. When she found a design that she liked, she bought multiple pairs.
… her keen knowledge of textiles and how hard she hunted to get the best silk or to find quality cotton when polyester was all the rage…. she began to travel outside the county, she would return home with textiles she had bought. She was knowledgeable, fast and knew exactly what she wanted.
She absorbed the ideals of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that was pervasive in the United States during her formative years. Its driving principle was that every aspect of contemporary living needed to be reformed: architecture, furniture, decorative objects, and clothes. The world had to be cleansed of victorian abundance and replaced by plainness – undecorated surfaces, elementary lines, honest expression of materials and functional simplicity.
She was a serious student of Japanese art and aesthetics. Arthur Wesley Down, an art professor at Columbia University was her most influential teacher. He draws his inspiration from the aesthetic system of non-western cultures, especially Japan, where a reverence for the beauty in nature and an admiration for simplicity, quiet and emptiness are commonly held values. He opened up a new work for the young O’Keeffe who dedicated herself to learning everything she could about these faraway cultures. She adopted these practices in her art, her dress, her homes, her gardens, her reverence for nature and even her choice of pets. Historians and biographers have long recognized Down’s teachings as crucial for O’Keeffe’ finding her voice as a modern artist.
Locals repeated stories of her unladylike activities for years thereafter, often poking fun at themselves and their small-town provincial as at her mannerisms. In later times, they realized that O’Keeffe’s modernities were forerunners to ideas that in time prevailed : taking off her stockings and shoes on a hot day, going barefoot in public, bringing a young man into the bedsitter she rented in the home of a fellow teacher, walking alone on a Sunday into the plains whens he should have been at church, instructing female students how to dress as new women. They also chattered about her general lack of traditional femininity: she wore flat shoes, undecorated loose black dresses. “oh, she wore black. black, black, black! and her clothing was all like men’s clothing. Straight lines. She didn’t believe in lace, or jabots or ruffles or things like that. Everything on straight lines.”
Nearly all of these enveloping garments had another common feature: a v-shaped neckline usually finished with an underlayer or collar in white. She first adopted the contrasting white collar in the early 1900s.
Her choice of hats contributed to the organic wholeness that drove her fashion in these early years. Her hats did not sit atop her head like a piece of sculpture as they did on many of her peers but instead smoothly enclosed its contours blending the head and body into a continuous silhouette. Their simplicity and malleability critique mainstream Edwardian hats that had to be affixed to the head with pins and combs, their features and ribbons animating the top of the female body and extending it into space.
In 1916, she became familiar with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a campaigning feminist, and social theorist. Perkins argued that: Men did not waste time or money excessively ornamenting themselves and individualizing their outfits. They wore practical and comfortable wear that allowed them to move easily in the modern marketplace. Women, on the other hand, conceived of dress solely as decoration whose purpose was to be attractive. A woman dressed to be noticed and stand out in the crowd. Men wanted attractive women, and women obliged by making themselves into ‘sex objects’ rather than dressing as men did in standardized uniforms for work and comfort. O’Keeffe’s internal compass always pointed to understatement, simplification, and comfort. But Gilman’s essays gave her a rationale and a feminist theory for the choices she was making. ( Gilman’s book is a discourse on minimalist dressing for woman+ hardcore feminism. A women of the yester-century fighting for change using reason and critical thought. A fantastic read ! )
O’Keeffe appears to have been born modern. Simplicity was always her natural idiom: reticence and directness her normal means of expression.
– Barbara Rose.
O’Keeffe and Chanel had a remarkably similar evolution of personal style an ocean away from each other. Chanel concentration on the casual dress rather than evening dress, where Haute couture designers customarily made their mark. Chanel designed for slim bodies like O’Keeffe’s: the designer’s ideal body, as one historian has put it, was ‘boyish and small breasted, with natural uncorseted waist and hips.’ Chanel clothes hung straight and loosely, skimming rather than exaggerating curves. Furthermore, she focused on black as a universal color, saying on many occasions that it was the most flexible and elegant of colors and could be worn everywhere, no matter the occasion.
“The people I know don’t wear clothes – that is – not what you would call clothes. They wear ideas. ”
– Susan Glaspelli.
She and Stieglitz made no secret of the fact that they practiced free love and birth control. They lived together for 6 years our of wedlock and enjoyed sex without bearing children. She kept her own name and sternly informed anyone who called her Mrs. Stieglitz that she was Georgia O’Keeffe. She was comfortable with her physical body, posting often and provocatively for Stieglitz in the nude. ( A fantastic book of love letters between them that I am reading. It’s better than the biographies I read on her and shows a certain depth of a companionship.)
She possessed an innate discipline about self-presentation that led her to take what was in fashion and strip it of customary ornamentation, choosing a version that had a pronounced austerity and plainness. Her peers noticed and often commented upon her sartorial choices, finding her curiously plain and unconventional.
From childhood till death, O’Keeffe had strong convictions about how she wanted to look. She was born, it seems, to favor a plain and unornamented style no matter what the dress codes of the day.
“Yes, my dear, but if I had one more color to choose from my closet, I never would have had time to paint.”
“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”
– Georgia O’Keeffe.
This post is for women who find poetry in the color black, get told their clothing is boring, that their home looks sterile or that their style philosophy is pretentious … I am lucky to live in a place and age where we women can do what we want for the most part. I really don’t take it for granted. And Georgia is my biggest style muse. Not in the way that I want to go buy what she wore and wear them just like she did. She is a true original! She gives me a certain courage to choose, desire and just be.
( The content I reproduced in this post is NOT my interpretation of her or selective extracts that conveniently align with my style philosophy, but excerpts by historians/researchers who have published books on her.