Perfumes — I smell them first and shape impressions by them. Hers immediately struck me as we shook hands. Then her green eyes, and the contrast with her tanned skin. I had to ask her to repeat her name. Louise Bernard, a subtle British accent. I was a rose is a rose is a rose. She, Curator of Prose and Drama, wears woody “Hinoki” for Monocle, by Commes des Garçons. She likes to think about writers “holistically, and one way to do this is through dress,” she said. “We all wear clothes, so we all develop a sense of style,” she added.
The Beinecke is changing. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library can no longer be considered a mere mausoleum for Vellum manuscripts and fragile books. Because ever since “The Postwar Avant-Garde & the Culture of Protest, 1945 to 1968 & Beyond” broke the marble last semester, the people working inside Gordon Bunshaft’s cube, like Bernard, have made a point of showcasing the most contemporary items in their collections.
“We think of the Rare Book Library as being a particular space attached to ancient books,” Bernard said. “But we want to reveal all the material objects and artifacts that are actually imbedded in many of the collections we have.”
This spring, two new exhibitions confirm the intentions of the Beinecke to reinvent itself — “Elements of Style: Fashion and Form at the Beinecke,” curated by Bernard, and “The Book Remembers Everything: The Work of Erica Van Horn,” by Curator of Poetry Nancy Kuhl.
Bernard conceived “Fashion and Form” by looking at Maira Kalman’s illustrations for William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s “Elements of Style,” and thinking about the connection between style as a concept in literature — the way authors express themselves in writing — and style as it relates to a sartorial consciousness — the way we dress.
“Fashion and Form” is a vibrant study of how text is presented stylistically (i.e. the shape of letters and the alphabet) with a particular emphasis on the notion of modern style. “I had to think of very stylish writers and how the two notions of style come together,” Bernard said.
There is no pre-established order to the exhibit, but Bernard recommends beginning at the south side of the lower floor of the Beinecke, where a flower-patterned, bright-red waistcoat is laid out in one of the Beinecke’s characteristically long display cases.
The waistcoat belonged to Gertrude Stein. The garment introduces the viewer to the writer’s singular look and her ubiquitous trademark: the rose.
Bernard extends the motif of the rose through Stein’s first published book (“Three Lives,” 1909), a notebook in which the rose triad appeared for the first time, a wax seal and a porcelain plate — all donated to Beinecke by Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. The narrative of the exhibit also plays with the trope of Stein’s cubist novel “Tender Buttons” (1914).
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is also referenced in the exhibit. Stein’s personal copy, a first edition of the novel signed by Fitzgerald himself, sits below the glass of the display case next to a donation made by the descendants of Sara Wiborg and Gerald Murphy 1913.
“I think my grandfather would be proud of what we did,” Laura Donnelly, the Murphys’ granddaughter and heiress said during the reception following Kalman’s speech. “[At the Beinecke] the documents will be safe and available to students and the community until the sun blows up in five million years,” she remarked.
Photographs of Pablo Picasso at the beach on the French Riviera, handwritten letters from Fitzgerald, and Wiborg’s wedding shoes are part of the donated items now on display in “Fashion and Form.”
“I wanted to include the lives of figures like the Murphys,” Bernard said, “who weren’t necessarily literary, but were connected intimately to literary and artistic circles.”
But in “Fashion and Form,” text and the alphabet are not the only means through which literature relates to fashion. Bernard examines the ways that paper too can relate to sartorial style through the concept of paper as fabric.
“Paper dresses were all the rage in the 1960s,” Bernard said before clarifying that she would never wear one, “but because they were literally ephemeral items, they are somewhat rare [today].”
The two paper dresses on display on the north side of the library — inspired by Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup pattern and Allen Ginsberg poem “Uptown N.Y.” — are some of the pieces obtained especially for “Fashion and Form.”
The north display case is really the European Avant-Garde slash Harlem Renaissance case. It opens with an evocation of movement and speed that immediately catches the viewer’s eye, Sonia Delaunay’s watercolor illustration for Blaise Cendrars’s poem, “La Prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne de France.”
Following are Delaunay’s fashion designs, which reference the form and style of expat actress Josephine Baker in an attempt to inspire flow and movement, a recurring motif in the artist’s work. Bernard brilliantly pairs these pieces with several poems dedicated to Delaunay’s art, praising the innovative in her work in fashion.
The figure of Josephine Baker dominates the rest of the case and smoothly introduces the Harlem Renaissance.
“People were really obsessed with the way that Baker looked,” Bernard said, “and how she managed to craft a signature look for herself that was so distinctive.”
Bernard’s arrangement delineates the evolution of Baker from anonymous exotic dancer to universal icon through photographs of the entertainer in Vogue, poetry and even book covers.
The James Van Der Zee photograph, “A couple wearing raccoon coats with a Cadillac,” virtually renders its caption useless. A statement “New Negro” movement from when Harlem was in vogue in the 1920s and ’30s, the picture fully transmits the dignity and redemption of the Harlem Renaissance.
Upstairs, the exhibitions gets messier. Individual thematic representations of a particular writer, artist, publication, or concept emphasize The Material Object rather than written text — in Bernard’s words, “an array of unexpected objects that speak to each other in some kind of way.”
One of the last “shop window” cases references Scott Schumann’s blog “The Sartorialist,” special issues of Vissionaire magazine and Muriel Draper’s favorite hats — always in an arrangement that begs for personal interpretation.
The success of Bernard’s composition rests in the intertwining of the lives of artists and writers — achieved by displaying the most personal, even obscure details of their existence.
“Elements of Style: Fashion and Form at the Beinecke” will be ripping at the seams of sartorial and literary conventions until March 27. A review of “The Book Remembers Everything: The Work of Erica Van Horn” will run in scene in two weeks.