Many years ago I heard Nigel Nicolson , the well-known publisher, writer, and friend of many members of the Bloomsbury group, give a talk about his books and some of the famous people he had known. When it came to Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, Nicolson said, (this is not an exact quote) “They always dressed the same way, in long graceful dresses, and every twenty years or so fashion came around to put them in style”. I was struck by how much confidence they must have had to ignore the whims of fashion and dress to suit themselves. This summer, however, I’ve seen two art exhibits that have convinced me their feat would be quite possible.
When I was in London at the beginning of July, I went to the Tate Modern to see and exhibit of the art of Sonia Delaunay.
Although I had admired many of her paintings, I had never seen a large exhibition of her work and had no idea that she designed fabrics, dresses, and even magazine covers as well as being a painter. As I looked at some of the clothes she designed, I thought how attractive they would look at a party or public event these days—even perhaps on the red carpet at the Oscars. A woman wearing a dress like the one at the right, would stand out, but would look very fashionable.
Now that I am back in San Francisco, I went to an exhibit of “High Fashion” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor to see the work of some twentieth century designers from the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit was crowded when I was there, and it is easy to see why. The dresses on display—most of them designed for lavish parties and social events—are amazing. We saw dresses by Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mainbocher and many others. It was striking how many of the fashions are almost timeless. They still look as beautiful and wearable today as they did during the last century. (The shoes worn by the mannequins, however, do not look wearable at all.)
I’ve never been particularly interested in fashion and have spent most of my life wearing the informal clothes that are the usual choice of academics and librarians, but after seeing these two exhibits, I can understand better why there are so many fashionistas in the world. High fashion offers some delightful examples of how clothing can also be high art and add pleasure to the world. I still have some reservations about the excesses, however. Elsa Schiaparelli’s insect necklace (above) probably goes a step too far for most of us to accept as wearable.
Everywhere throughout America today people are celebrating the Fourth of July-the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We may not spend much time thinking about the reason for the holiday, but there are many reminders on TV, social media and newspapers. And when we think about it, what usually comes to mind is a picture of
enlightened gentlemen in elegant clothes sitting decorously at a table and writing a document that would stand for centuries as the cornerstone of a stable democracy. The pictures don’t show the quarrels and struggle that went on when people decided to pursue independence and later to write a constitution that would make the new country possible. And the pictures show only half of the story—there are no pictures and seldom any mention of the women who inspired those men and sometimes goaded them into action.
Pictures can’t show the whole story. You have to read the words behind the pictures to get a closer look at our revolutionary leaders. Last year I read a biography of Mercy Otis Warren, who, like her good friend Abigail Adams, influenced many of the men who fought in the Revolution and went on to start a country. Mercy and John Warren’s home became a meeting place for leaders who organized the Boston Tea Party and fought for the rights of the colonies to organize their own governments. Even though women were not encouraged to participate in public life, Mercy Warren began writing pamphlets and satirical verses and dramas that supported the Revolutionary cause.
At leisure then may G[eor]ge his reign review,
And bid to empire and to crown adieu.
For lordly mandates and despotic kings
Are obsolete like other quondam things. (1775)
The years following the Revolution brought little peace to Mercy Warren and her husband as they disagreed with many of the decisions of the Federalists who controlled the government. James Warren, who had been a leading figure in the war for independence, was shut out of government service and his sons struggled to find posts.
When a new constitution was drafted and presented to the states, Mercy Warren opposed its ratification. She wrote a pamphlet “Observations on the New Constitution…” in which she urged the states to reject the draft. One of her major objections was the lack of a bill of rights “There is no provision by a bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power” she wrote. She was also concerned about the six-year terms given to senators. “A Senate chosen for six years will, in most instances, be an appointment for life…” (Well, she was right about that, wasn’t she? Many Senate terms have lasted for a generation or more.) She worried that there were no defined limits to judiciary powers and that the executive and legislative branches were dangerously blended together. The Constitution certainly did not seem a sacred document to her.
As we all know, the Constitution was ratified and has become the basis of American law. Some of Mercy Warren’s concerns were addressed very early. The passage of the Bill of Rights can be attributed in part to her demands. Other aspects of government continue to be addressed such as the power struggle between the Legislative and Executive branches. But the Constitution survives and so does the country.
Reading about the early struggles for democracy in America can give us some hope that our leaders in Washington will eventually find a way to work together and solve some of the problems confronting our world today. The past may look peaceful as we gaze back at the solemn pictures of Founding Fathers, but revolution is never easy, and it never solves all of a society’s problems. America was designed by a quarreling group of imperfect men and women. And every Fourth of July has been celebrated amidst continuing arguments and struggles to make the country more democratic for all its citizens. Don’t let those elegant suits and quill pens fool you—life in a democracy is never peaceful and free of strife.
If you want to read more about Mercy Otis Warren, there is information about her in Cokie Roberts’s book Founding Mothers. For a complete biography, I highly recommend Muse of the Revolution: the Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren by Nancy Rubin Stuart.