Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern

When clothing becomes a core part of one's identity.

May 1, 2017 - 3 minute read -
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Last month, I went to see Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American artist best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers and New York skyscrapers. The exhibition showcased her items of clothing, key paintings, as well as photographs of her by Alfred Stieglitz (her husband, influential photographer who was instrumental in making photography an accepted art form), Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and others.

O’Keeffe has a powerful personal style—austere, monochromatic (black and white mostly), unisex, but with elegance and great attention to details. Like this:

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946). Georgia O’Keeffe, circa 1920-22. Gelatin silver print. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. (Detail)

New Yorker From left to right: (L) Emsley suit, 1983. Lord & Taylor shirt, circa nineteen-sixties. (C) Dress, circa 1926. Attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. (R) Dress with matching belt, circa nineteen-thirties. Attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Credit: Jonathan Dorado (New Yorker).

So it seems that we have come to accept that clothing is a core part of one’s identity. The MET has another exhibition on clothing (all white), Sara Berman’s Closet. In tech, Steve Jobs iconized the black turtleneck and jeans uniform, followed by Mark Zuckerberg’s grey T-shirt and hoodies.

Why do some people choose to dress in a singular style?

Search for “What Your Clothes Say About You”, and you get thousands of articles, some of which are really bad click baits, like this one from gala darling. (I warned you…)

Some think Zuckerberg was humblebragging, but others believe dressing in a singular style is out of practicality. According to a New Yorker article:

O’Keeffe once said that her penchant for black was not a preference but a practicality: if she started picking out colors for dresses, she would have no time for painting.

Zuckerberg seems to have a similar reasoning for wearing the same grey t-shirt everyday—trying to minimize the decisions one has to make on “silly” things in order to focus on the decisions that matter more.

Those who know me in real life know that I wear only black clothes, so my view is clearly biased. It’s not really a unique style. So many architects, designers and artists do the same (and certainty some times it feels everyone in New York). My rationale is primarily to minimize decision-making, easier laundry, and lighter travel. But in all honesty I believe it also reflects a core part of my identity.

One Hundred Years of Modernity

I may be stretching myself a bit thin here. After all, there is always the critique that focusing too much on what one wears is frivolous. But there was one experience about clothes that moved me to tears and and gave me a little bit more courage and strength, which makes me think maybe there is something substantial after all.

It was 2012 and my first time to visit the United States. I went to see the Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations at the MET. In one of the videos, Hard Chic, Schiaparelli talked about the uproar she caused for wearing trousers in London in 1931.

It was hard to swallow that in 1931, it took courage for a woman to be seen wearing pants. And it made me later appreciate the significance of what Yves Saint Laurent did by brining the tuxedo suit for women, Le Smoking, into the popular culture.

Le Smoking by Yves Saint Laurent. Photo by Helmut Newton (1975)

It feels this fight has been going on for too long.

In O’Keeffe’s exhibition,there was her high school year book, in which she wrote, in 1905, about herself:

A girl who would be different in habit, style, and dress.

O’Keeffe has been recognized as the “Mother of American modernism”.