An exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s clothing showcases the artist’s unwavering sense of style.
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” an exhibition that opened at the Brooklyn Museum in March (it runs through July 23) examines O’Keeffe’s wardrobe, putting her handmade white linen blouses, her custom made black suits and wrap dresses, and well-worn blue jeans on view alongside nearly 40 of her paintings and some 90 photographs of her by other artists. For O’Keeffe, the subject of over 300 photographic portraits by her husband, the photographer, gallerist, and publisher Alfred Stieglitz, and subsequently many pictures by a host of other notable photographers (over 20 in this show), clothing and accessories were more than just personal adornments or the fruits of savvy and tasteful shopping (though she certainly was a savvy and tasteful shopper). They were the elements of a carefully—and powerfully—crafted identity. When posing for the camera, O’Keeffe became a symbol of Modernism, and portraits of her became a Modernist trope. As arguably the first celebrity artist of modern art, she maintained a coherent image in the public eye throughout her lifetime. O’Keeffe, who is the world auction record holder for any female artist (Jimson Weed (1932) sold for $44.4 million in 2014), applied the same sense of austerity, craftsmanship, and grace to her self-presentation as she did her famous paintings of flowers and the American Southwest.
After O’Keeffe died in 1986, her two houses—Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, both in New Mexico—were left to her estate, and her closets were still filled with her things. Wanda M. Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History at Stanford University and the curator of the present exhibition, first viewed the cache of O’Keeffe’s clothes at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico in 2005–06, when conservators were just beginning to catalogue them. Long before this visit, Corn, a scholar of early American modernism, had become interested in the manner of dress of several artists of O’Keeffe’s generation. “I had been thinking,” says Corn, “‘I wonder what I can do with dress in the field of modern art? What can I say about artists whose modernity isn’t just what they do in the studio but how they presented and dressed themselves?’” Corn was interested in Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, two members of Stieglitz’s circle, who dressed distinctively and were inspired by the sartorial eccentricities of Whistler and Oscar Wilde. However, when she heard about the collection of O’Keeffe’s clothing, she “lost interest in everyone else but O’Keeffe.”
O’Keeffe had a holistic approach to her work, her sense of style, and her way of living. In 1927, Frances O’Brien, a longtime friend of the artist’s, said, “Georgia O’Keeffe has never allowed her life to be one thing and her painting another.” As images and items of ephemera in the exhibition affirm, O’Keeffe’s taste pervaded her whole life and developed early. A class picture from the Chatham Episcopal School in Chatham, Va. (O’Keeffe’s family moved to Virginia from Wisconsin when she was 15 years old) shows O’Keeffe without the bows, puffed sleeves, and demonstrative adornments of her peers. Corn says, “She is someone who embraced the totalizing of the Arts and Crafts movement, which said everything has to change.”
The streamlined collection of stylish pieces viewers see in the exhibition is the stuff of minimalist fantasies, but spoiler alert: the artist wasn’t a California Closets adherent. “We had a lot of clothes to go through,” says Corn, “and you’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s what I believe is the best of the iceberg.” Fortunately, O’Keeffe, who lived to be 98, kept things. Many of the notably minimal, yet delicate white linen and silk blouses and black dresses from the 1930s and earlier were made by her own hand. Corn partnered with Susan Ward, a historian of fashion and textiles, and as the pair went through the stockpile, “we could detect her handiwork, which was exquisite and distinctive,” says the curator. “In her letters there’s a lot of chat about handiwork—she talks about making her favorite smock, about making undergarments, and about mending things. She’s designing these clothes and she has a style she’s using.” O’Keeffe was fond of pin tucks, which can be seen in many of her blouses and dresses. Corn says, “In the ’40s, the pin tucks get deeper.” One revelation of the show is a sewing basket and kit that belonged to the artist.
After moving to New York to live with Stieglitz in 1918, O’Keeffe still wore her handmade clothes, but began to buy designer pieces. A black and white cotton dress by Italian designer Emilio Pucci (circa 1954) takes pride of place in the exhibition (though O’Keeffe seems never to have been photographed in it), as do a collection of dainty suede flats—four from Saks Fifth Avenue, four by Salvatore Ferragamo. In the 1950s, O’Keeffe purchased several wrap dresses from the Texas department store Neiman Marcus. The cotton dresses were fitted at the waist, with a flared skirt that hit mid-calf. They were completely unadorned save for a shawl collar. O’Keeffe, who was in the habit of having multiples of the items she liked, had several more made by a seamstress. The dress, worn with a belt and sometimes a blouse underneath, became a signature look of the artist’s through the ’80s, and she was often seen in it in photographs taken of her at her homes in New Mexico. She had over 25 of these dresses when she died. When traveling for openings and more official business, O’Keeffe had her “town clothes”—tailored black skirt suits. She had many incarnations of these streamlined suits starting in the 1940s, but none of them were bought off the rack. She had five made during a trip to Hong Kong in 1959, a couture suit by Eisa (the label of Cristobal Balenciaga), and several made for her by Knize, a tailor favored by Marlene Dietrich, which viewers can see in the show.
O’Keeffe wore black and white (or cream) almost exclusively, favoring demure tie necks or androgynous v-necks. However, when she began spending the majority of her time working and living in New Mexico in the late ’20s, her wardrobe expanded. In a letter to the art critic Murdock Pemberton she wrote, “Blue jeans—the costume of this country—I rather think they are our only national costumes.” Jeans by Levi Strauss & Co. and blue chambray and denim shirts became her Southwestern costume, while blue and white cotton bandanas with geometric patterns and a soft black felt vaquero hat became her favored accessories. A cluster of O’Keeffe’s Southwestern landscape paintings, such as Hills-Lavender, Ghost Ranch New Mexico, II (1935), Part of the Cliff (1946), and Dark Tree Trunks (1946) hang near these items. Their slivers of sky—dungaree blue—set against the terracotta earth match O’Keefe’s wardrobe impeccably.
Perhaps the greatest revelation of the exhibition—even greater than being so close to pieces actually worn on the body of a larger-than-life American artist—is seeing O’Keeffe’s items both in person and in portraits. A photo by Cecil Beaton for Vogue, titled Artist Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz, seated side by side on a radiator, shows O’Keeffe in a particularly smart long-sleeved black wool dress of her own making. Stieglitz, who captured O’Keeffe’s face and hands more than any other artist, often pictured her in the pieces she had made, as well. O’Keeffe began corresponding with Stieglitz in 1916, and the two were married in 1924 (and remained so until his death in 1946, though they were largely separated after 1930). Stieglitz, who became O’Keeffe’s art dealer, staged some 20 solo exhibitions of her work at his gallery, 291, and helped organize her 1927 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum.
Though long considered domineering, Stieglitz had relatively little to do with influencing O’Keeffe’s taste in dress. “She had already decided on her minimalist style, but his pictures of her made a lot of what she was already,” says Corn. “She learned the degree to which her wardrobe was being conveyed by him, and that cemented her personal style.” One thing Stieglitz did add to O’Keeffe’s wardrobe was the cape. “He was known for his cape,” says Corn. “That was his artiness in dress.” On display is a black wool cape designed by Zoë de Salle (circa 1940), which seems to appear in several photographs of O’Keeffe by Stieglitz. In one, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz Kissing at Lake George (undated), both artists, draped in black and wearing hats, kiss. In another, a gelatin silver print from 1920–22 titled Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist, pictured in front of an expanse of sky, pulls the garment around herself. Also on display are a series of kimonos and Asian-influenced dresses O’Keeffe had in her collection. Georgia O’Keeffe, Texas, a 1918 photograph by Paul Strand, pictures her in a white closed kimono, while a Stieglitz photograph from the same year pictures the artist with hair down and kimono open. A rare nude by Stieglitz is also in the section. Georgia O’Keeffe (1918) pictures the artist standing in front of a window, with light shining through the thin kimono, which is draped over her shoulders.
One of the most memorable pieces in the show is a brass brooch made for O’Keeffe by Alexander Calder. According to Corn, the brooch, which had a spiral in the shape of an “O” which then terminated into a “K,” could often be seen at O’Keeffe’s neck or on her lapel. “The first time she wears it is far earlier than the Calder Foundation knew,” says Corn. “There’s a photograph from 1938 with her wearing it that was taken by Ansel Adams’ wife, Virginia Adams.” After 1938, the brooch (or the silver copy she had made of it in India), showed up in many portraits—by John Candelario (1942), Carl Van Vechten (1950), Dan Budnik (1975), Bruce Weber (1980), and Ansel Adams (1981). In a way, the pin ties together a phenomenon that took place during the last three decades of her life, in which photographers—some well known, some regional—would come and take portraits of O’Keeffe. Some got a more playful, liberated O’Keeffe—smiling in a wrap dress—while others got a more serious, almost totemic O’Keeffe, in a suit, looking into the distance. No matter which, they all got an artist at work.
By Sarah E. Fensom