Form, Function, Claire McCardell, Wes Anderson and Notions of Success. I’m Just a Sentimental Fool.

“I am much more interested in the Fashion value of jewelry, and Tiffany would label my collection junk. But to me it is very special junk that I have been collecting, piece by piece, from Woolworth’s, from Austria, from attics, from antique shops- and from the time I was given my first spending money.” -Claire McCardell

Maybe it’s just the circles that I mill around in, but I feel like there has been a rather recent re-evaluation of the works of American ready-to-wear fashion designer Claire McCardell. I think this is wonderful for a number of reasons that have no beginning or end but definitely include the themes of “American”, “retail/ready-to-wear”, “function”, “mid-century” and “woman”.

I’ll spare you any non-optional diatribe, but Sarai at Colette Patterns has a great post that exalts her but does not gloss over the short-comings of her design intentions (read: “Thin, white women only, please.”) Plus, it bears to mention that her arguably most famous dress, the Popover hasn’t aged very well in a society of educated, career-minded, single mothers.

Yes. A house dress with an oven mitt attached might have been form-forward in 1942 but when I see it…darn… I can’t help but cringe and think of freshman-year college art class critiques and the student in Ghost World who submitted the “tampon in a teacup” as her piece on “womens’ issues”.

But back to that block quote at the top. The one about jewelry not being precious but indicative of a greater character. A collection that is earned rather than purchased. This really, really grabbed me because for the past year, I’ve had a really difficult time articulating what I was doing when I was creating jewelry. Sometimes it’s impossible to say something without sounding hokey so you just shut up and wait it out. Lucrative profit margins aside, my jewelry-making grew out of my own jewelry-wearing: a lot of collecting from here and there. Metal washers off the ground, trinkets from the boardwalk, badges from my own days of scouting, honor society atta-boys, and a desire to take stuff I liked and keep it as close to my person as possible. Oh. And all those 1″ pin back buttons that are an inexhaustible resource when you are into punk rock/etc. God. I have a million.

Now, I’m not saying that your Tiffany Key pendant isn’t a perfectly viable, valuable piece of jewelry. Maybe it came from a doting gran or your dad or even a shitty boyfriend. And even though someone went to the store where they pulled it out of a stock of hundreds and purchased it for big bucks, it’s still important because they gave it to you and they love(d) you. Then, maybe, because you love it so much, you will pass it to some else who will pass it to someone else and it will roll along, gathering meaning and purpose and tarnish. Great.

But then there are other things that don’t have such an illustrious lineage: the golden donkey charm from my grandmother, the tie-tacks that my grandfather received from years of donating blood, each one symbolizing a certain number of pints passed from his body. God help you if you mess with the metal nail file that was kept in the pencil cup of that same grandfather’s basement desk! It is a valuable item in the lore of Liz Novak (and also what I use to file down rough edges on jewelry settings). Those are the things that have always appealed to me the most. For the most part, their function was that of pure symbolism. They said, “I went to Reno and got this charm” or “I proved that I can bake a loaf of bread, make a campfire, and watch a small child”, “I went to music camp or bible camp or girls scout camp” or “Dude. I totally saw Pat Boone”. So when I came across these little touchstones of experience, I would pick them up. What’s more joyful than a shoe box of 4H merit pins that smells like sweaty bronze, am I right?

I wasn’t sure how to respond when one of my coworkers made a passing comment on the “Wes Anderson-ness” of my creations.

It wasn’t an unfair evaluation. It was a little bit flattering. It was totally helpful. She specifically mentioned the above merit pins of Max Fisher’s in Rushmore but it wasn’t too far of a jump to consider the use of objects and accessories in Anderson’s successive films and how they helped to define a character. My mind became a clog of wooden fingers wearing Team Zissou rings and clutching the handles of impeccable Louis V suitcases- each little LV was brown and perfect. HOLY SHIT. I’m not making jewelry, I’m just making props. Excuse me. My theatrical back ground is showing.

In a way, I can’t help but think that I am making the ultimate in hipster/poseur attire; a visual confession of a communion that never took place. Items that outwardly convey a characteristic that was never developed internally. Ah, yes. And irony, irony, irony! But maybe they aren’t meaningless items poised to look like a past. Maybe I am being entirely (ugh.) earnest. Maybe I am secretly showing my cards on this one. But maybe I need an atta-boy, a cluck on the arm, or someone to tell me that I’m doing alright. I need  a visual representation of a system. I need a merit badge. After 20 years of structured schooling to tell me if I was doing well or doomed to a future hardship and little reward, the lawless, open world was a very scary place. I would ask myself to define success over and over again. I would have to tell myself that everything was alright even though there wasn’t someone there to define for me what “alright” was. So, yeah, making a merit badge that says “Nutrition” on it is a little cathartic particularly now that I know I can feed myself and those around me; that merely existing pleasurably is success. “Dog Care” follows that same route, but with more legs.

I will compose/In fancy rhyme/Or just plain prose/A song of praise/ To you/ Prairie Rose

One thought on “Form, Function, Claire McCardell, Wes Anderson and Notions of Success. I’m Just a Sentimental Fool.

  1. […] design, but rejecting the neo-consumerist side of American craft/food with its buy-to-DIY mentality. Her post on the function of jewelry is really bright, and a good example of this notion.  Check her out. […]

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