Wednesday, May 12, 2010

American Woman at the Met

This past week I took my Parsons Independent Study students to the Met's new American Woman show to celebrate the end of our semester. I was expecting to see mannequins donning concealing, tight-pinching, bustled and over-the-top clothing, but I wasn't expecting to be taken on such an unexpected emotional ride.

The show takes on five decades, between 1890 and 1940, and gives each one a room to showcase its specific influence on political and social history. We begin with an 1890s parlor, straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. Because the garments are all original, their proportions are historically accurate. The women on view distorted their bodies to accommodate societies' expectations of them; waistlines were shockingly tiny, say 22 inches? That's a guess, but if you remember the scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlet has her corset tightened as much as possible you'll get the idea: Corsets did reshape our bodies, and it was torture.

After the Proper Parlor, we move into the decade of the sassy Gibson Girl! American women were suddenly able to defy at least some conventions and become athletic, wearing floor to neck woolens for activities like horseback riding and tennis. Bathing suits looked like sailor dresses. Honestly, when you look at the last hundred years, the Williams' sisters create a remarkable arc of progression in terms of not only their physical and personal power, but their fashion sensibilities.

Pass through the 1910s doorway and you're greeted by floor to ceiling black and white film footage of throngs of Suffragettes alternately marching and working in factories. Their navy blue uniforms and yellow sashes stand stoic in front of their long-gone sisters, whose spirits seem to have dispersed from the footage to worm their way back into the garments. I swear I saw a sleeve move. This room, more than any other, made me feel heartbroken and forever grateful for the passion and sacrifice of our mothers' mothers' mothers who marched, and were imprisoned, and even force fed in custody so we could vote.

Moving from there to the Flappers, what I noticed with relief was how the silhouette of the dresses had changed in just a few decades: women had begun to liberate their bodies. Intricately beaded garments on display still clothed willowy figures, but clearly torture was no longer hanging in the balance between fashion and everyday life. Waistlines disappeared altogether in the Poiret masterpieces on show, whose beads capture the light of the Tiffany lamps on view alongside them.

There's more, of course. Glamorous movie stars' gowns from the 1930s are the Grand Finale, and we still see remnants of this decade on Oscar's Red Carpet every year. These are long, cut on the bias, unreal, outrageous (think Mae West and those pesky feathers on her boas).

American Woman is on show at the Met through August 15th on the second floor-- don't miss it!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Wrapping Up a Difficult Semester

Something is in the water this semester: in addition to the steady stream of printer and hard drive issues, there have also been Personal Problems Galore. These PPGs have included no less than 5 family deaths, a few moves, some unexpected babysitting gigs, and of course, Work.

My dear friend Nancy, a professor of Art History at various colleges around the city, has been long after me to toughen up with my students. She flunks hers in rapid fire. While I believe it's my job to hold students accountable for their work, there's inevitably a softer side that comes out; call it my pity chorus. "Sure, you can leave it in my mailbox."

This semester, I can for the first time in almost a decade of teaching, understand how burnout happens. To avoid it, I plan on avoiding my end of semester ritual of chasing students for late work, incomplete forms, and emailing their advisors. That said, I'm open and flexible to the small handful of genuine hard workers who have a lot on their plates. These are the few who communicate closely with me about catching up, and follow through; if you're reading this, you know who you are.

I'll never forget my own dear Professor Staley, from SUNY Albany, who gave me that much needed extension after a long weekend of waitressing doubles at El Loco. What I remember most about this interaction is that it was rare and terrifying for me to ask him. It didn't resemble the rehearsed mumbles I get daily, the ones that run into one another from class to class, that blend and sound the same in both their laziness and tragedy. When I was paying for my own education, it meant something to me; I held myself accountable for my work and didn't expect professors to do it for me. It was college, after all! Not every chapter of Ulysses got read, but I did my best, read my work over for grammar and spelling before I turned it in, and gave true meaning to the phrase All Nighter. Looking back, the few teachers who taught me the most, and who I still cherish to this day, are the ones who made me work. So step it up.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Ganas Coffee Shop on Staten Island

Today was a hot day in New York. At about 82 degrees and higher I wilt, and the animal in me was set on seeking out harbor breezes and shade. Subsequently, I found my way onto the Staten Island Ferry with Jamie, to go on An Adventure Walk, which to him means to wander aimlessly for a time until we stumble on a destination of his choice. We've wound up on Avenue D in a community garden, in Chinatown at a bubble tea joint, and at the cemetery around the corner from us where the raven Jackson lives. Today's Adventure was steered by me; I'd visited this place once before.

Several years ago I wrote a piece for Time International, A Thrift Store in Every Borough. Finding these was no problem in Manhattan or Brooklyn; was a bit trickier in Queens; and was downright difficult in the Bronx. My favorite, Everything Goes Around on Staten Island, is run by a commune community on Staten Island who call themselves Ganas. They were founded in 1979.

When I first located and visited the Staten Island store, located on the main drag about a five minute walk from the Ferry, I had no idea that there was a commune behind its operation. As I made my way through the racks and floors of clothing, I questioned the employee. "How long have you been here?"; "Who owns it?", etc. The guy, who looked a lot like Moby, told me how it's run by this community of people who live and work together. I was sort of creeped out by him (he had that vague gray vegan pallor). I picked out a couple of random items and asked him where I could find a decent cup of coffee. Despite its near-waterfront status and closeness to the Ferry, there's not much in the way of restaurants or cafes on this road. But lo and behold, just another two minutes by foot around the bend, was a Bookstore Cafe run by his community.

It was lovely back then, and held up well today. When Jamie and I piled out of the Ferry today we inadvertently found ourselves greeted by hundreds and hundreds of cyclists completing the annual 5 Boro Bike Tour. I asked him whether he wanted to turn around and ride back to Manhattan, which is usually what the tourists do, or take an Adventure Walk. He opted for the latter, and after making our way around the hectic finish line we found ourselves in the Ganas bookstore. In the cafe room is a stage where readings and performances are held. Its walls are covered with "Doors From Haiti", paintings done on doors whose sale "will directly benefit the earthquake victims". The bookstore portion of the cafe is formidable; there's a vintage book section, an impressively stocked children's corner, a room that holds a ton of vinyl, and naturally loads of spiritual and self-help books.

The first time I was there I was aggressively invited to attend a drumming circle later that week (I said maybe, and um, got too busy). This time, with kid in tow, I was happy for the children's corner, iced coffee, and the gingersnap cookie and fresh Fuji apple juice that kept Jamie satisfied for an hour or two. The people watching was as interesting to me this time as the last.

A German woman, accompanied by a dwarf, sauntered in with her seven- month- old baby, took him out of her Batik sling, and laid him face down on the floor while she sat down and rolled herself a cigarette. Jamie offered up loud stage whispers about the man who was "growing tiny". A cute-ish bald guy in his early 30's with a tattoo on his skull that spelled out the word Arette or something was chatty after he poured our drinks. All in all, it was a nice pitstop-- better than the crappy littered median park across the way that yielded no pleasure beyond a dandelion or two. I can't say that I want to throw it all over for a stab at this lifestyle, but it fascinates me and disturbs me. I'll be back.