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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

We are what we wear. An exhibit of 19th century clothing in New York's Metropolitan Museum is more than just a collection of pretty dresses. In this adjunct show accompanying the paintings of Ingres, a changing society and women's roles are refracted through the way women dressed. 

Everything in Jane Goodall's life, she believes, has come together for a purpose. A Reason for Hope is a gentle memoir of her experiences in and out of Africa, and with quiet and measured tones, she writes about the spiritual faith that sustains her and her deep concerns about the environment and the treatment of the creatures who share this small planet with us. 

We Band of Angels is the true and inspiring account of the brave nurses of Bataan, the only group of American women captured and held prisoner by enemies during World War II;  a 50-year difference in ages separates the two women of Am I Old Yet?  A friendship bonds them across the generation divide.


Costume and Character in the Age of Ingres
(The Costume Institute; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)

     The response to the exhibition of 19th century clothing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is almost predictable. First come the exclamations, the admiring ohs and ahs over the sheer beauty and exquisite detail of the show. The perfectly preserved gowns and dresses, along with jewels, gloves, hats and fans, fulfill the girlhood love of dressing up. Next comes the wonder about how a woman of that era felt when she was mercilessly cinched by a corset, her breasts pushed up and flattened out and her entire body  entombed in piles of crinolines and petticoats and imprisoned in acres of fabric. How did she move around? How could she breathe? The pure delight and curiosity excite the imagination, but there is a deeper and more thoughtful purpose behind Costume and Character in the Age of Ingres.
     For the first time in its history, the museum is presenting an exhibit of clothing as an adjunct to a major painting exhibition. Portraits by Ingres, which was reviewed in SWW's Culture Watch of June 27, is now on view at the museum, and it affords the Costume Institute a delicious opportunity to gather from its vast collection an array of clothing to illuminate the social world of the six decades in which Ingres painted and offer glimpses into the lives of women during that time. The exhibit traces the development of the female silhouette from the narrow, straight skirts and high waists of the Empire shape in the early years of the century to the Victorian era with its fondness for clothes of elaborate size and grandiose ornamentation. The Empire style was simple and almost frivolous with its short puff sleeves, scoop necks, child-like ties under the breast, and dresses for daytime that just skimmed the ankles. Over time, sleeves and skirts got bigger, weightier, as if gravity and the severity of existence were pulling everything down. As the century progressed, the changing technology of textile manufacture and use of aniline dyes brought more varied and vivid patterns and colors. Bold and even garish patterns and colors supplanted the simple designs of the 1810s and '20s.  Outsized and shockingly brilliant plaids were a legacy of Queen Victoria as she grew enamored with all things Scottish through her summer stays in Balmoral. 
     The first gallery is a wonderful display of all-white garments tantalizingly titled Undress. Ever since Madonna made underwear into a fashion statement, we are no longer surprised to see women in bustiers or wearing tops that bear more than a passing resemblance to bras or prancing about the streets in dresses that could double as slips or nighties. Such looks would have sent a 19th century woman reeling to her fainting couch.Undergarments were just that:  intensely private clothing  meant to be invisible as they re-shaped a woman's body for public view.  With trimmings of demure lace, the muslin chemises at the Costume Institute are pure as a girl's first communion dress. Over the chaste chemise came layers of apparel that both hinted at female sexuality and disguised it. Corsets  laced and tied pulled in the waist as they pushed the chest and bosom into the proscribed form and forced the upper body into an almost inhuman rigidity. From neck to waist, a woman would have seemed as hard and unyielding as a marble statute. The warmth and softness of the  body beneath was alluded to with gently rounded necklines, soft pleats across the bodice or rows of ribbons and lace. Squeezed almost in two, the female seemed forever divided. Below the tightly confined waist, crinolines and petticoats supported mounds of fabric, and the wide, floor-length skirts grew more exaggerated and more richly trimmed as the century progressed. Massive ballooning skirts certainly concealed any suggestion of the female anatomy underneath, yet the intriguing shape more than suggests sexual abundance and fertility . 
      A section titled Informal and Formal Daywear presents the diversity of clothing  for various social occasions and demonstrates how her clothing defined a woman's role. The bourgeois were growing in number and in accumulation of riches through the 19th century, and women of the upper classes obeyed an etiquette of dress with frequent changes that defined and regulated her day.  A simple and less structured costume for morning and worn at home was improper for the afternoon, when she went about in public--well-covered from wrist to neck--to call on friends and acquaintances. Exhibiting the shoulders, arms and chest was appropriate only for the evening. One gown from 1855 has a modest bodice for day that can be removed and replaced with one that provides a more daring exposure at night. Fresh and charming, it is made of organza with a subtle rose pattern in pale green and black; seven flounces make a buoyant bell-shaped skirt.  It doesn't take much to imagine it on Scarlett O'Hara. 
     Writing about the Salon of 1859,  Baudelaire noted that  "Nothing in a portrait is a matter of indifference. Gesture, grimace, clothing, decor even--all must combine to realize a character.''  Ingres knew this, lavishing attention on details and capturing the exact shadings and placement of even the smallest bow or bead. He was painting during a century in flux, one that was rapidly moving from revolution to modernity.  In his art, and through the clothing of the time we can see an evolution of style that mirrored the changes in the greater world.  The elaborate gowns and dresses, with their multitude of  accessories, remain as seductive today as they were in Ingres' time. Seeing them enriches our understanding of his era and about the women who wore them. 


An Examined Life 

Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey
by Jane Goodall with Phillip Berman
(Warner Books; 282 pages) 

     Before Jane Goodall was just a year old,  she was enchanted by a chimpanzee. It was a large stuffed one, made in honor of Jubilee, the first chimpanzee born at the London Zoo. Her father bought it for his daughter, to the horror of friends of her mother who believe the child would be frightened and have nightmares. Instead, Goodall made her Jubilee her prized possession, and writes in this memoir, "To this day, old Jubilee is still with me, almost hairless from all the loving, spending most of his time in my bedroom in the house where I grew up in England.'' 
     Looking back over 65 years, Goodall believes that all the experiences in her life and the people whom she has encountered have combined to move her on a single trajectory. From a happy childhood surrounded by loving adults who encouraged a love for animals to a chance invitation to visit Africa,  where the young woman had a brief meeting with Dr. Louis Leakey that changed her life, Goodall seems to have been blessed by fortune. None of this happened by chance, Goodall is careful to point out. She is convinced all of it was part of a plan in which everything has fit together to make the whole. While growing up in an  idyllic setting in Kent, Goodall played in the family garden and read Dr. Doolittle and the Tarzan books. She was not insulated from reality, but learned early on about war and evil. Her father was fighting in the Pacific. Nazi planes droned overhead, dropping bombs, and blackouts were a daily event. With peace came the full realization about the Holocaust, and the sensitive, 11-year-old Jane saw photographs from death camps  that made her ask questions that she still puzzles over: "How could people behave that way? How could anyone endure and survive such torture?'' 
      The tender-hearted child still exists within the woman of rigorous science, and there's no conflict for Goodall between rationality and reason. Even from an early age, she had felt herself,  she writes, "part of a great unifying power of some kind'' and has held on to that faith under painful circumstances. Living first with her mother and later alone in the hills of what is now Tanzania, Goodall studied the chimpanzees of Gombe. She was there for a specific scientific purpose and not so she could  develop a philosophy of life, yet the animals and nature deepened her beliefs and brought her more in touch with a spiritual power. The silence and solitude gave her freedom to develop an intuitive side that had always been present. As she was accepted by the chimpanzees, she grew to understand and respect them and appreciate not only their place in the vast solar system but our own. 
      In the 1960s and early '70s, she earned a degree from Cambridge and began to teach at Stanford. She married the nature photographer Hugo van Lawick, and together they built a research station and had a son, whom they called Grub.  The marriage ended, and the research center was almost closed after four graduate students were kidnapped and held hostage by guerrillas in 1975. Rumors circulated about Goodall's abrogation of responsibility and the payment of ransom, but with the help of  Derek Bryceson, the director of Tanzania's national parks and the man to whom she was happily married until his death in 1979, Goodall kept the center open. In 1986 publication of  The Chimpanzees of Gombe made her famous. Nowadays, much of her time is spent on working for Roots & Shoots, a hands-on environmental program for young people from kindergarten to university age. 
    Goodall's observations of aggression and brutality among the chimpanzees changed her thinking about warfare and about love and compassion. War had always seemed a purely human activity, but if chimpanzees were just as capable of hostility, would that mean we humans are inheritors of violence from a primitive past? Again, she found the answer among the chimpanzees. observing that it was possible for them to control their aggressive tendencies. That same ability, she concludes, "is embedded in our primate heritage.'' 
    Having been concerned with physical and behavioral evolution, Goodall turns in the last chapters of her book to a discussion of moral evolution. Her persuasive arguments for protecting an endangered planet and for treating animals more humanely are similar to those of other concerned scientists and authors. Her experience and eloquence give them new meaning and urgency.  The plea for the environment and threatened species is expressed simply and movingly, and she writes with a depth of emotion about animals, especially chimpanzees, whose drab lives are drawn out through endless days in the cramped cages of medical research labs. If these animals are so like us--differing in DNA structure by a little over one  percent--that they can be our surrogates for life-sustaining research, isn't it possible, she asks, to consider  that they possess the same capacity for suffering as we do? "To me,'' she writes, "cruelty is the worst of human sins. Once we accept that a living creature has feelings and suffers pain, then if we knowingly and deliberately inflict suffering on that creature we are equally guilty. Whether it be human or animal, we brutalize ourselves.''  That more and more people are coming to the same conclusion, many of them because of the work and the persistent, gentle voice of Jane Goodall, is a reason for hope. 

And Consider This

We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman
(Random House; 327 pages) 

Every now and then, that old Claudette Colbert movie So Proudly We Hail pops up on late-night television.  The  four-handkerchief weepy is about a group of brave Army and Navy nurses during World War II, and it is false, pure Hollywood sentimentalizing. The real story is far more gripping, and it is well and truthfully told in We Band of Angels by Dr. Elizabeth Norman, a professor of nursing at New York University who specializes in nursing history. She honors her profession with this absorbing and accurate account of  courageous women who survived in the disease-ridden jungle of Bataan tending to wounded and dying men and then spent three years in a Japanese internment camp. "We will not call them heroes or angels,''  Norman  writes, "but what they were, what they are--women, made remarkable by history and ennobled by suffering and love.''  Norman follows them from the start of the war in 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor,  through their harrowing experiences, their return to civilian life and finally to 1998, when sixteen of the original 99 Army and Navy nurses were still alive. Military historians have largely ignored the efforts of nurses.  Norman finally sets a gallant record straight. Hollywood should make a film of it.

Am I Old Yet? by Leah Komaiko 
(St. Martin's; 197 pages)

     At  44, Leah Komaiko was a success. She had written 19 picture books and novels for children. She'd been invited to speak on TV and in schools. She was working on a project for Disney.  But she was getting old. That was the worry. "Get over yourself,'' she was told. "Volunteer. Go visit someone who really is old and alone.''  Through Elder Corps, Komaiko got linked to Adele, a blind 93-year-old in a Los Angeles nursing home The result is this funny and affecting picture of a friendship across generations. Holidays and birthdays are celebrated, and while Komaiko doesn't quite lose her fear of aging, she realizes one truth when Adele explains that "Old is just in time,'' and then pointing to her heart, says, "I don't feel old in here.''


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