June 7 ,2016
by Nikki LoPinto
Among a distinct variety of media on view at the Art for Every Home: Associated American Artists, 1934–2000 exhibition at Grey Art Gallery, a dress captures my utmost attention.
This is not only because of my passion for clothing, or the minor fact that my college major is Costume Design; but also, under close consideration, this dress is the culmination of the purpose of Associated American Artists: to disseminate work of American artists, and to enhance the public’s appreciation of fine art.
The garment in question was designed by Henry Rosenfeld and made from AAA artist Laura Jean Allen’s 1953 Sunspots textile. Rosenfeld, in his heyday, produced 2.5 million garments a year for some of the nation’s leading department stores. He accredited himself as the man who made “class market dress[es] at mass market prices”.
After World War II disrupted the European fashion market, the fashion industry looked to new American designers like Rosenfeld. These American designers embraced prêt-a-porter (ready to wear) culture and the advent of sportswear, which made high-end styles more readily available to the growing league of middle class housewives.
Allen, no less spectacular, became AAA’s most prolific textile artist; in 1952 she earned $1,473.27 in royalties ($13,000 today) for her first fabric design.
The melding of artist and designer within this dress spoke volumes to the current consumers of the time. After the austere, drab form and textiles of wartime 1940s, ladies of the ’50s were hungry for whimsical, cheeky, form fitting outfits. This dress, with its cap sleeves, deep V-neck, ruche skirt detail, and bright, quirky pattern was everything these women dreamed.
The success of this partnership also indicated a success for AAA. The beginning of the 1950s for AAA saw the onset of its financial downfall. Therefore Reeves Lewenthal, the organization’s director, looked for a new way to sell art. He partnered with M. Lowenstein and Sons, a large textile manufacturer, to create Signature Fabrics in 1953. The division was devoted to maintaining the sanctity of the artist within the textile through mass marketing ploys. Even the artist’s signature was printed on the selvedge of the fabric. An advertisement broadcasted that wearing dresses like the one mentioned was the “easiest way to collect fine art…and pretty compliments.”
AAA understood the art market was not limited to printmaking or war advertisements; they saw the opportunity for growth and took it. The act of wearing an artist’s design is an easy way to gain notability. A compliment on a dress turns to conversation, which can then lead to sales of similar dresses–and the process repeats itself.
What I personally find most interesting about this dress is that it does not date itself. This style and form, the vivacity of the pattern, I have seen, worn, and complimented in my own life. AAA, Henry Rosenfeld, and Laura Jean Allen touched timelessness upon this dress that has made it marketable forever.
Nikki LoPinto is a current intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She studies Costume Design at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh.