Connecting the Threads: Audrey Niffenegger and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Tragic Figures

Audrey Niffenegger, Black Roses (In Memory of Isabella Blow), 2007; Linocut, Gampi tissue, and thread on Japanese paper, 67 x 25 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Audrey Niffenegger; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Audrey Niffenegger, Black Roses (In Memory of Isabella Blow), 2007; Linocut, Gampi tissue, and thread on Japanese paper, 67 x 25 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Audrey Niffenegger; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Eccentric British aristocrat and fashion icon Isabella Blow committed suicide in 2007 at age forty-eight. She was famous for her unfiltered wit and visionary fashion sensibilities. Artist Audrey Niffenegger (b. 1963) was a stranger to Blow, but so moved by her life and death that she created a series of works for her. Black Roses (for Isabella Blow) (2007), the largest piece in the series, is part of NMWA’s collection. It features a skeleton adorned in a cascading skirt of black roses and a black rose hat—a nod to Blow’s close friend and acclaimed hat designer Philip Treacy. Of these works, Niffenegger said, “After she died I had dreams about her. I wanted to give her something…. So I made some pictures for her. It isn’t much, but it is in a language she would have understood.”

In 2017, the Mulleavys wrote and directed their first feature film, Woodshock, which starred Kirsten Dunst. The story traces the emotional unraveling of Dunst’s character, Theresa, as she grieves the loss of her mother and considers suicide. Her personal state, intensified by the use of psychotropic substances, is mirrored in her wardrobe, which becomes both increasingly distressed and elaborate.

Wearing Emotion

The themes of mortality and the passage of time are of interest to both Niffenegger and the Mulleavys. Blow was said to have suffered after being unable to find stable footing in an industry that could not “compute her value.” In Woodshock, Theresa is shown in the grips of an existential crisis, questioning her own place in the world after her mother’s death.

In both cases, the artists used delicate materials to convey grief and depression. Niffenegger used Gampi tissue paper, silky and translucent, to form the flowing skirt in her piece—perhaps also referring to the fact that even in her anguish, Blow was always dressed elegantly. The Mulleavys worked with silk crepe, lace, and chiffon to create Theresa’s black-and-white dresses. They colored the white dresses with mauve and beige so that they appear bruised over time, communicating Theresa’s sadness and isolation.

Layers of Meaning

The works of Niffenegger and the Mulleavys also portray deeper facets of their subject’s emotions. Blow openly talked about her desire to commit suicide and approached the subject with candor and humor. Niffenegger captured elements of Blow’s personality in the skeleton, which appears in an almost conversational pose—mid-sentence with hands mid-gesture. In Woodshock’s ending, Theresa reaches destructive depths and the dresses take on new aspect: there is a violence and power in their bruised coloring and the black that cloaks Theresa’s body like a shield.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Connecting the Threads: Petah Coyne and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Eclectic Experimentation

Contemporary American sculptor and photographer Petah Coyne (b.1953) is critically acclaimed for her use of unconventional materials in her poetic pieces. Coyne renders human hair, scrap metal, wax, taxidermy, mud, chicken-wire, velvet, and more into haunting works with incredible emotional range. “I gather materials everywhere I go,” she has said. “Materials are a language.”

In their early collections, Rodarte drew acclaim for their use of unconventional materials that fused the dressmaking and art-making processes. Layering metallic ribbons, eyelash yarn, wire, chainmail tube, leather, Swarovski crystals, silk tulle, and more, their works upended conventional fashion practices by letting their material choice determine each silhouette.

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Emily Haight

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Emily Haight

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Masters of Craft

Her complex and layered sculptures require Coyne to do it all: she sews, she waxes and wires flowers, she paints, she manipulates wire, and she learned a Victorian method for making jewelry out of human hair. Coyne even worked with a chemist to “patent an archival wax formula that she uses in melted form, like a pigment. It has become her signature.” This is seen in Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994), part of NMWA’s collection (not currently on view).

Rodarte’s early works also reveal a rapid command of their craft. Entirely self-taught, the Mulleavys mastered one technique after another, skillfully combining them in subsequent collections. Their approach to design is dictated by the textural qualities of their fabrics and driven by process and materiality.

Embodying Contradictions

At the heart of Coyne’s work is dissonance—an exploration of the fine lines between lushness and decay, beauty and grotesqueness. In Untitled #781, the pink-and-white sculpture alludes to a tutu, a birthday cake, or a party dress—symbols of girlhood and innocence—but it also appears to be curdling before the viewer’s eye. The piece seems to float, but is actually quite heavy, constructed over a wire-and-steel core. Throughout her work, Coyne thumbs these fine lines while also exploring the larger theme of life and loss at the core of her creations.

The Mulleavys are also interested in juxtaposing ideas in their collections. Through a complex layering of techniques that simultaneously build and destroy the materials, they transform their works into hybrid creations—both perfect and ruined. “We are attracted to imperfection and to beauty and chaos,” Kate Mulleavy has said. This dissonance has surfaced in many Rodarte designs, including their work for the costumes in the film Black Swan. “We were inspired by the idea of transformation, specifically the dichotomy between perfection and decay.”

—Alicia Gregory is assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.