Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)

When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.


The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)

Go Put Your Pants On

A week or two ago I noticed a rather disturbing trend among men here in the Nation’s Capital, something which I had read about in several publications, but until then I had not noticed on our sidewalks: the trend of wearing a shirt and tie to work…with shorts.

Now let me begin this post with a caveat. As an attorney, I admit that I work in a sartorially buttoned-up profession. I wear a suit most days, and always on days when I have scheduled meetings. On those days when I don’t have to meet anyone in person, I might wear a blazer or sports jacket, but always with a tie, dress shirt, dress shoes, and trousers. It would never occur to me to wear shorts to the office.

I also know that many professions allow for shorts, due to the nature of the work itself. A driver delivering packages, or a waiter serving tables at an outdoor restaurant, no doubt is grateful not to have wear long pants as part of his uniform.  Particularly in this swamp-like city, the ability to wear shorts to work can be a great blessing for those engaged in manual labor in the services and trades.

For those who work in offices however, I find the trend of shorts and ties ridiculous and incomprehensible. It lends an infantile air to someone who ought to know better than to imagine that other adults are going to take them seriously. Because to be frank, if you came into my office wearing shorts and a tie, I would from the get-go think there was something deeply wrong with you, even if I might not say it aloud.

In some ways, this trend is of a piece with the increasingly lackadaisical attitude toward men wearing shorts in cities in general. I am not quite sure when adult males collectively decided that what they wore to the beach was acceptable at the supermarket, as if they were only 11 years old and out shopping with their mommies.  And the overall laxity of standards in this regard is perhaps most irritating when it comes to church.

My Fellow Fisheaters: there is NO excuse for a grown man to wear shorts to Mass. None. If you are old enough to vote, buy cigarettes, and pay taxes, you are too old to wear shorts to Mass. Even then, I would suggest the cut-off date probably lies closer to the age you begin shaving.

I do not care how hot it is. I do not care what you are doing before or after Mass. I do not care that the church has no air conditioning, or that you are on vacation. In fact, the latter is something baffling that I witness at my downtown DC parish all the time, surrounded as it is by hotels. If you’re visiting someone else’s home for the first time for an indoor, sit-down supper – and in this case, the Supper of all suppers – why would you show up dressed for a volleyball tournament? Look at pictures of your grandfather attending Mass fifty years ago, and I guarantee you that there will be not a single one of him inside a church wearing shorts.

How did we get to the point where no one even thinks this is worth criticizing? It occurred largely because people are now deathly afraid to criticize, which of course is part of the reason we have grown a large crop of infantile males who would want to dress like this in the first place, over the last few decades. It is also because we have forgotten the difference between style and fashion.

Style exists in tandem with, but ultimately independently of, fashion. Cuts, colors, and fabrics can change from season to season, as they go in and out of fashion. Yet style changes more slowly, developing as one ages. I could never pull off a leather jacket when I was a fresh-faced kid; now that I’m more weathered, I could never pull off a shirt and tie with shorts – nor would I attempt to. In what I choose to wear, I send a message; if I choose well, the viewer appreciates the clothes, but appreciates me, more.

What’s the message a grown man in shorts and a tie is trying to send as he clomps along in dress shoes without socks – I’ll save that pet peeve for another time – to those who see him on the street? That he may technically be an adult, but he would rather be in Kindergarten? That it’s better in the Bahamas? That he’s a member of a Boyz II Men cover band?

There is certainly a place for shorts in a man’s wardrobe, no one is questioning that. Not everything that is older is better: I would never suggest you play tennis in the summer in white flannels, for example.  Rather, the real point of inquiry is where and when the place for wearing shorts may legitimately be found. The answer will vary based on the activities you perform, and the environment in which you perform them.

However as a general rule, gentlemen, I am going to keep this simple for you. Please do not wear shorts with a tie. Ever. And more to the point, when you’re planning to see your bank manager, your attorney, or most importantly God, please go put your pants on.