Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Little Girl with a Broom

And how could I have forgotten this? A little Dutch homemaker in the making.

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Medieval Housecleaning

A French lady of the 15th century sweeps a room. From the Livre des proprietes des choses, which sounds like a housekeeping manual.

Two ladies in 14th century France make a bed. Their turbaned heads and the uniform-like quality of their clothes suggest that these women are maids. From the Pelerinage de la vie humaine.

These two illustrations are rare glimpses of housecleaning in the Middle Ages. They come from The Medieval Woman: Illuminated Book of Days, by Sally Fox.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fashion and Quilting: Two Roads

In my obsession with quilting, I have been thinking about the differences between quilting and fashion. There is no doubt that both activities require a high degree of craftsmanship. Although quilting and clothes making were once part of the same activity in the home--making objects from fabric of utility for the family and trying to make them beautiful--they seem to have taken radically different roads in the 20th century.

Dictating fashion style from the office.

If we are to believe the Fashion Diva in The Devil Wears Prada, fashion--even the clothes that ordinary people wear--is dictated from the top down. In one scene, her new underling is caught snickering at the process of choosing a belt for a dress. Asked to explain herself, the girl says: "Y'know, it's just that both these belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about this stuff." To which the diva gives this fascinating and informative reply:
"This 'stuff'? Oh, I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean.

You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff."

Quilting seems to go the other way.

Mrs. Bill Staggs, migrant worker in Pietown, New Mexico, displays her handmade quilt in 1940.

Quilting's artistic achievement often comes from what seems to be the most humble of origins and filters upward. The extremes in this are the creative impulses seem in Amish and Gee's Bend quilts, both of which come from some of the most isolated communities in the country. These creative impulses generated new trends in quilt making among women in the broader community.

A Gee's Bend quilt. It is believed that by virtue of its extreme isolation on an Alabama peninsula, the African-American community of Gee's Bend was able to keep African cultural motifs alive--both in music and in quilt making. These quilts were created for utilitarian purposes from old clothes and discarded materials. Of course, this is part of a great tradition of African American quilt making, which includes the use of the quilts as maps in the underground railway.

An Amish quilt. The great antique Amish quilts were vibrant in design and color. Their vibrancy in part was owed to hand-dying of the material with plant dyes. The colors are the color of Amish clothes.

However, quilt historian Gerald Roy noted briefly on the Love of Quilting TV show that as a collector, he seeks the quilts that show artistic deviations from patterns. He said that in the 19th century, there were quilting and block traditions but not patterns and kits, so that each quilt was genuinely the artistic expression of the quilter or group of quilters.

An appliqued and stuffed quilt from 1820--before any standardization in quilt making. The stuffed quilt has its origin in the British Isles.

Quilting as an activity suffered a hiatus during World War I, went through a revival in the 1930s when women's fashion also became feminine again, and then suffered another hiatus during World War II, Roy reported. After the war, quilting became to revive again, but women no longer had time to hand-quilt as they used to and didn't have time to experiment. There was a far greater reliance on kits and patterns produced by professionals. This has resulted in a standardization of quilting, according to Roy. However, in the blogs that I read I see a lot of experimentation in quilting and fun with it.

A quilt with a religious theme from Ritacor. See the pictures of her marvelous quilts from Portugal, where she lives. Her blog is in Portuguese but with fascinating and informative pictures.

Be that as it may, the fashion industry went through this standardization process with first the manufactured pattern and then the industry's industrialization and production for mass consumption. Perhaps Project Runway will revive the home designer-seamstress. I find it a pretty daunting proposition myself but then I am a very fledgling seamstress.

Another difference between quilting and fashion is that quilting is a tradition, and I think many women who quilt seek to maintain and build on that tradition.

The great Baltimore Album quilt tradition. This is the perfect social quilt, with each person contributing a block of the album. Plus they are always breathtakingly gorgeous.

Jane Stickle's quilt of 225 different quilt blocks from 1863. There is an international project of women re-creating the blocks of this quilt. The quilt is a whole course in block making on to itself.

Quilt making is an activity that is based upon the traditions of the past, even if the quilt involves modern-day trends and innovations. And the quilt is often produced for the future--a hand-sewn quilt can become an heirloom. The past, the present in the quilt making, and the future.

Fashion's time space is the present--the season. Although there is a haute couture tradition of workmanship and craft, design in today's fashion world seems to favor the new and iconoclastic.

And whereas fashion, in keeping with the times, seems to hurl girls and women out of the home to exert power in the world, quilting is an artistic expression that is a quest for comfort and beauty in the home.

There is a revival today in sewing, and I hope it lasts--a penchant for the homemade. It is hard to imagine women going back to sewing all their own clothes, but perhaps skills will reach such levels that more women are able to add those artistic and practical deviations that will breathe new life into the seamstress craft. Already it is clear that the re-emergence of aprons on the market and the new "retro" fabric dresses of the 2008 spring season reflect the yearning of women, found everywhere on women's blogs, for fashion that is centered on a practicality and beauty linked with a domesticity many thought was a thing of the past. Then there is the Project Runway winner Jay McCarroll, who consciously brought patchwork motifs (see above) into his designs, reflecting the sewing craft of his mother in rural Pennsylvania.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dutch Domesticity in the Golden Age

A scene of Dutch domesticity painted by Pieter de Hooch in the mid-17th century. Note the bed in the wall, which was a typical . The interiors went from room to room usually without hallways. We see through the first room into what is probably the kitchen, with a pail by the door. The top part of the door opens out into a private garden. The mother is comforting her little daughter who has interrupted her work. A little dog waits patiently to go out. The rooms are clean and tidy and sparsely furnished, but there are paintings on the walls. Light comes in from the window. All of this is typical of the Dutch interiors painted in this period.

Thinking about the Dutch interiors of the 17th century was prompted by trying to find a housecleaning scene as a subject of art--for the most part unsuccessfully. It was the Dutch artists of the 17th century who were not afraid to paint a woman with a broom. Such art was a celebration of the domesticity pioneered by the families of the Dutch Golden Age. I consulted the fascinating study by Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea, to find out the story behind the beautiful paintings and spic-and-span interiors of Dutch homes.

A relatively wealthy Dutch home. The floors would be highly polished. Note the windows on the right. The Dutch placed windows wherever they could, because they liked the light but also because the homes had to be built as lightly as possible because the land was under sea level.

According to Rybczynski, "It was the opinion of more than one contemporary visitor that the Dutch prized three things above all else: first their children, second their homes, and third their gardens." The Netherlands was highly urbanized, in comparison with Europe and England, and was the first country to build up a substantial middle class. Dutch families became the first to begin to withdraw their nuclear families from the public thoroughfare of the medieval home. At the same time, the place of work began to be separated from the home, with the man dominating the workplace and the woman the home. Also at this point, children stayed at home for a far longer period than they did in the Middle Ages. This new distribution of people and place was key, according to Rybczynski, in creating a new sense of home that was dominated more by the woman than the man and that centered around the rearing of children within the privatized setting of the nuclear family.

A Dutch family portrait, a picture of domestic felicity reminiscent of the family portraits painted a century later in the new American republic.

Perhaps the front room of the house remained pubic, but the family withdrew to privacy upstairs (up was the only you could build). The homes for the most part were small, and Rybczynski notes, that this was fine, because only four or five people lived in them--the Dutch nuclear family, whereas in Paris, as many as 25 people lived in a house and shared a communal kitchen. And where most European urban residences opened out onto a public courtyard, the Dutch home opened out into the street in the front and at the back onto a private garden, as shown in the townscape below.

The Dutch also kept their homes extremely clean, and to the shock of foreign visitors, it was often necessary for visitors to take off their shoes upon entering the private quarters of a Dutch home. Nevertheless, it was known, the Dutch were not fastidious about their own personal cleanliness. Rybczynski believes that the cleanliness of the Dutch home was a way of drawing a boundary between the outside world and the inner sanctum of the home.

A woman in her back courtyard with her maid. The private garden was carefully maintained as now family, private space. In many Dutch paintings in which a woman appears with her maid, their clothes are not dissimilar, due to the onus the Dutch placed on simplicity and frugality.

Being small, the Dutch home could be cleaned by one person--the woman of the house. "Dutch society discouraged the hiring of servants and imposed special taxes on those who employed domestic help," Rybczynski reports. Dutch married women, regardless of their station or wealth, did most of their own household chores.

On the cleanliness of the Dutch homes, he writes the following:
"As every homemaker knows, the less furniture there is, the easier it is to keep a room clean, and this too may have had something to do with the relative sparseness of the Dutch interior, for these houses were spotlessly, immaculately, unbelievably clean. The well-scrubbed Dutch stoop is famous and has come to serve as an example of public exhibitionism and bourgeois pretentiousness.... but it was no pretense; the interiors of the Dutch houses were equally scrubbed and scoured. Sand was scattered on the floor, recalling the medieval practice of covering floors in rushes. Pots were shined, woodwork varnished, brickwork tarred."

The kitchen was the central room in the Dutch home. It was not tended to by servants and therefore stuck off in the basement or in a different building. Nor was it the communal kitchen of the Parisian apartment buildings. The Dutch kitchen was the showcase for polished copper pots and pans, beautiful dishware, and treasured linens.

But the most important thing about the Dutch home of the Golden Age was the loving attention bestowed upon the children of the family, as these charming and fascinating paintings show.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cleanliness: A Matter of Beauty

Madame Eugenia Errazuriz in 1882, by John Singer Sargent.

Eugenia Errazuriz (1860-1954) was a style leader of Paris from 1880 into the 20th century, who paved the way for the modernist minimalist aesthetic that would be taken up in fashion by Coco Chanel.

Notably, for Mme. Errazuriz, cleanliness in the home was not for reasons of health, order, or godliness, but for reasons of style and beauty. Unfortunately there is only one short biography of her in Spanish and she wrote only letters herself. She was a Chilean by birth, the daughter of a silver magnate, and married a wealthy landscape painter, Jose Thomas Errazuriz, with whom she had three children. The family settled in Paris in 1880 and lived there until 1900 when she moved to London, returning to Paris and Biarritz after the death of her husband six years later. She was a patroness and close friend of Picasso and Stravinsky and played key roles in helping the careers of the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and pianist Artur Rubinstein. John Singer Sargent and other painters of the day painted her portrait.

"Queen of Clean" is the headline of a short article on her in the New York Times in October 1992. According to John Richardson's book, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, she disdained the fin-de-siecle froufrou (dust cathers, to be sure) and maintained a low-key style, whose principle was "Elegance is elimination." According to the Times, at her Biarritz villa she elevated simplicity and cleanliness to an art. "I love my house as it looks very clean and very poor," she wrote. She whitewashed all the walls, hung unlined linen for curtains, and cultivated what might be called a simplified, refined country style. The floors at Biarritz were red-tile, and her friend Cecil Beaton noted that they were "carpetless but spotlessly clean." "Everything in Aunt Eugenia's house smelled so good," wrote her niece. The towels smelled of lavender, and according to the Times, she was "ruthless on the subject of disorder--even down to the bureau drawers. She ordered: 'Throw out and keep throwing out.'" She unabashedly glorified cleanliness as a necessity for beauty: "If the kitchen is not as well kept as the salon... you cannot have a beautiful house." To her, says the Times, "elbow grease was a decorating ingredient as important as good taste."

In 1910, wrote Richardson, "she already stood out for the unconventional sparseness of her rooms, for her disdain of poufs and potted palms and too much passementerie.... She appreciated things that were very fine and simple, above all, things made of linen, cotton, deal, or stone, whose quality improved with laundering or fading, scrubbing or polishing. She attended to the smallest detail in her house." Her tea table offered simple fare (no "vulgar" cakes), according to Beaton, who noted that her toast "was a work of art." Her Paris home was featured in the Harper's Bazaar of October 1938, but I could find no pictures of it.

Mme. Errazuriz in 1890, by Jacques Emile Blanche

In her long life, she had an "indispensable" influence on the Dutch furniture maker and decorator Jean-Michel Frank (Anne Frank's uncle). And Beaton wrote of her: "Her effect on the taste of the last fifty years has been so enormous that the whole aesthetic of modern interior decoration, and many of the concepts of simplicity...generally acknowledged today, can be laid at her remarkable doorstep."

I generally don't like modernist interior decoration or architecture myself, but I do like a clean country style (preferably English or Swedish). Just last weekend, after cleaning my living room, I realized that the whole presentation of the room seemed different--all the colors were clear were more vibrant, and the room looked "put together" and serene. I thought to myself, "Gee, what a difference it makes to dust a bit and pick up the little bits from the floor." So I was happily surprised to come across this "Queen of Clean" in my meanderings early this week.

Mme. Errazuriz was educated by nuns in Chile, was a Catholic all of her life, and became a tertiary Franciscan nun in her later years.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Before the Dutch: The Medieval Home

The urban medieval home, a busy thoroughfare of business and family, from the Da Costa Book of Hours, The Netherlands, 1535.

To find out about the Dutch culture that produced paintings of housecleaning, I consulted a wonderful book I had read before, Home: A Short History of an Idea, by Witold Rybczynski. The title is itself a challenge: we never think of home as an idea or as having a history; we just think of it as home.

To get an idea of the Dutch achievement in domesticity, I cite Rybczynski on the urban medieval home: "The typical bourgeois townhouse of the 14th century combined living and work." The building was usually narrow and of two stories. The main floor of the house was the shop or work area, which opened out into the street. "The living quarters were not, as we would expect, a series of rooms; instead they consisted of a large chamber--the hall--which was open up to the rafters. People cooked, ate, entertained, and slept in this space.... What is unexpected about medieval houses, however, is not the lack of furniture...but the crush and hubbub of life within them.... This was partly because, in the absence of restaurants, bars, and hotels, they served as public meeting places for entertaining and transacting business, but also because the household itself was large. In addition to the immediate family, it included employees, servants, apprentices, friends, and proteges--households of up to 25 person were not uncommon. Since all these people lived in one or at most two rooms, privacy was unknown.... Not only were there usually many beds in a room,... there were usually many people in one bed."

Along with the non-private house came the non-private garden, which was usually part of the gardens of landowners and lords.

The non-private garden worked by servants or serfs, the Golf Book of Hours, Flemish, 1535.

However, despite the traffic through the home of townspeople, cleanliness was paid attention to. Rybczynski cites a 14th-century manual, Menagere de Paris, which told the housewife: "The entrance to your home, that is the parlor and the entrances whereby people come in to speak within the house, must be swept early in the morning and kept clean, and the stools, benches and cushions dusted and shaken."

Saint Barbara in her pristine quarters, in a painting by Robert Campin, 1438.

Two changes within the house led to the kind of domesticity and idea of the private home that we see in Dutch genre painting of the 17th century. First, the place of work and the house in which people lived became two separate places and the house was left for family life. Second, children, who were sent out of the medieval family at the age of seven--either to apprenticeship, the monastery, or to court as pages, etc.--began to stay home as they increasingly went to school rather than to a different place for training or work. The medieval customary separation of children from their parents at a young age is shown, for example, in the children's book, The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite di Angeli, about a boy in medieval England who was sent to live in the household of another knight to learn the ways of knighthood.

However, all that said, there is quite a sense of intimacy in this charming portrait of the Holy Family in the Catherine of Cleves Book of Hours from the Dutch town of Cleves. Note that both the Virgin and Joseph are likely both producing for the market in the home setting. (Walkers haven't changed much, have they?)

Catherine of Cleves, Book of Hours, 1440

Monday, February 4, 2008

February is Quilting Month at "Sew, Mama, Sew"

Carrie Severt on the porch with her wash and Star Quilt.

If you are interested in quilting or in the history of quilting, I encourage you to go check out the Sew, Mama, Sew Blog . Everyday this month, Sew, Mama, Sew is featuring a post about quilting--on techniques, projects that you can make and post and exchange, articles on different kinds of quilts written by experts. It is a fascinating venture. But I am prompted to make this post because of today's article on the tradition of quilting with wonderful documentary photographs and links to more information on American quilting. In looking for some pictures of the American quilting tradition, I came across the Library of Congress collection called Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996. Here are some samples of the quilts collected and their quilters from the Blue Ridge areas of Virginia and North Carolina.

Lively block quilt by Donna Choate, below, with her husband.

A lovely yo-yo quilt and its quilter below, Elizabeth Smith.

Beautiful Cathedral quilt by Ila Patton, below.