Part One: A Decisive Moment
When choosing topics to write about for this blog, my ideas come from various sources. Sometimes there’s an idea that’s interested me for a long time and I think about it for months before I write about it. Sometimes I find an idea and write the post quickly. I choose the topics, they don’t choose me. That was not the case for this post, however. One unexpected image, found at a time I was not expecting it, catapulted me into months of research and discovery that now culminate here. To begin, some background is in order.
My own artwork requires me to research art history quite frequently, so that’s where this post begins. I was at my campus library, researching a topic completely unrelated to what I’m discussing here. Specifically, I was researching the infamous Terracotta Warriors that were once believed to be stellar examples of ancient Etruscan art. It turned out they were forgeries, though, and the case gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art (who bought them believing them to be authentic) a curatorial black eye. I was hunting through old books looking for color photos of the sculptures, focusing on books about the Metropolitan Museum’s collection. I was having no luck when I saw Thomas Hoving’s Making the Mummies Dance on the library shelf.
Hoving was the Met’s outspoken director for many years, and he also wrote an excellent book on art forgery called False Impressions, so I knew he was well versed in the Etruscan warrior case. Even though Mummies is more about his time running the Met in the 60s and 70s (the sculptures had been exposed as forgeries years earlier) I figured it was worth a shot. I quickly flipped through the photos included in the middle of the text and saw a picture that literally stopped me in my tracks. All thoughts of forged antiquities evaporated as I glimpsed a shockingly familiar face in a grainy photo. My immediate reaction was “I know that woman”. The photo in question (reproduced below) was taken by Leonard Freed:
|I was not able to find a clear reproduction, but even at this resolution the dress in pretty distinct.|
The reproduction was of low quality but there was no mistaking that I had seen her (and her zigzag dress) before. Not in a vague, half-remembered sort of way, either. I could remember exactly where and when I had first seen her. Namely, here:
This photo is by Garry Winogrand and clearly shows the same woman wearing the same dress (the same man is next to her in both photos too, by the way). It was taken during the Centennial Ball held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (it’s one of several photos from that event that Winogrand made). The photo has gone by different titles (from the descriptive Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to simply Untitled), but almost every source I found, both in print and on-line, date the picture to 1969 (something I take issue with, but more on that later in the post).
Keep reading after the jump
I first saw the Winogrand photo in the exhibition entitled The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1999. In many ways, this show was a watershed moment for me personally, and my art was greatly influenced by it. I guess it’s the gift that keeps on giving, since here I am again flipping through my copy of the exhibition catalog, still finding inspiration in its images.
I was immediately drawn to this photo in 1999, and not for the obvious reasons (get your minds out of the gutter, people, I’m a professional). The woman’s beautiful, for sure, and her dress is provocative to say the least, but there is so much more there. There’s humor, for example, since it’s pretty obvious where the man’s eyes are looking, but the photo is more than just a cheap one-liner. There’s fun and joyousness, a sense of celebration and activity. Everything in the picture is moving. The woman’s vibrant and distinctive dress echoes the backdrop, creating a near-perfect combination of subject and setting. (When I first saw it I thought she was standing in front of a Gustav Klimt painting- it’s really a curtain decorated with a Klimt-like pattern) Every time I look at it, I seem to notice something new; like the woman’s perfectly silhouetted right hand, or the couple’s similar pose, as if they’re captured in the middle of a dance.
Everything about the picture typifies Winogrand’s pursuit of the Decisive Moment. Coined by groundbreaking photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (a great influence on Winogrand), the Decisive Moment was defined as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” If any quote perfectly describes the Winogrand photo, it’s this one. It captures the glamour and celebration of the Centennial Ball, but does so in an elegantly visual way. It’s also a pretty impressive technical achievement as well, since the photo was captured in near darkness. The hall in the Met where this was taken was dimly lit, and the illumination in the picture is coming almost entirely from Winogrand’s flash. Capturing a photo this perfect in these conditions can be compared to shooting an arrow blindfolded and hitting a perfect bullseye. Any person today who uploads photos to social media sites and fancies themselves a photographer stands in Winogrand's enormous shadow. Through this single photo, Winogrand exhibits an almost effortless virtuosity that puts a whole army of Instagram using selfie-takers to shame.
After realizing the connection between the Freed and Winogrand photos, I thought this deserved further exploration. Could I find out more about the photo? Where did that zigzag dress come from? Who was the woman? Would I even be able to find that out? I figured researching the Met’s Centennial Ball was a good starting point, so I began by looking for more info on-line. I was only searching for a few minutes when I found this:
Really? Now this is just getting weird. This photo is by a still different person, documentary photographer Larry Fink. It clearly shows the same woman in the same dress in the same place (the Klimt curtain is clearly visible here, too). Who was this person? How does one woman get photographed by three world-class photographers all in one night? I needed to know more. My explorations into the Met Centennial Ball would bring up still more questions.
Part Two: Party like it’s 1969 (or 1970)
As I continued to research the Met Centennial Ball, I figured the most accurate source would be Hoving’s book. He was director of the museum at the time, after all, and a quick perusal of the text produced the desired information. Hoving specifically mentions the centennial celebrations and lists the date of the ball as April 13. Now I was getting somewhere, but I immediately noticed a discrepancy. Hoving states that the Centennial Ball was held in 1970, but almost every one of Winogrand’s photos of the event I could find list the date as 1969. In both magazines and books (including the brand new Winogrand book that just came out last year) the 1969 date for the Met Ball photos is used. Who was right? When was the event actually held? I supposed it was possible (though not probable) that Hoving was wrong, but all art historians and writers seemed to disagree with his date. I needed another contemporary source that mentioned the event, and I found it in an old issue of The New Yorker:
“On Monday, April 13, The Museum’s hundredth birthday, an immense (free) frolic will take place, spreading into most of the crannies of the old ark. Concert bands will sound off, choristers will chorus, music boxes (from the music department) will tinkle. There will be a twenty-five-foot cake in the entrance hall, but the man to keep your eye on is a member of the Egyptian department who will translate visitors’ names into hieroglyphics.”
-The New Yorker, April 11, 1970, p. 18
The magazine confirmed Hoving’s date. The Met’s Centennial Ball was held on Monday, April 13, 1970. That left me with two possibilities. The first was that art historians have been printing an incorrect date for decades. The second was that the photos were mislabeled and weren't taken at the Met at all (perhaps coming from a different event that did take place in 1969). In order to find out I went back to Hoving. He explains the structure of the Ball, describing the four main celebration spaces in some detail. The one that concerned me most was his description of this one:
“The fourth ballroom in the Fountain Restaurant opened at midnight and remained active until five in the morning. Billy Baldwin had fashioned a dark and sexy disco. The décor was decadent Viennese inspired by the designs of Gustav Klimt.” (my emphasis)
-Thomas Hoving, Making the Mummies Dance, 1993, p. 214
Hoving seemed to clear things up. The curtain behind the woman in Winogrand’s photo is clearly based on Klimt’s paintings. The location is listed as the Fountain Restaurant. That space in the museum is quite changed today (it’s now the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries) but the restaurant that was there for decades is well documented. It was originally designed by Dorothy Draper in the 1950s and perhaps the most noticeable features in the space were the large birdcage-like chandeliers that hung there. Below is a period photo of the restaurant placed next to another Winogrand photo taken that night. The chandeliers in 1970 have been covered with some sort of fabric to make them look solid, but their shape is unmistakable:
|There she is again, by the way|
The New Yorker and Hoving confirm the date. Winogrand’s photos, paired with Hoving’s description, confirm the place. The pictures were definitely taken at the Met during the Centennial Ball. An exact date and time can then be applied to the photos. Since Hoving mentions that the fourth ballroom didn’t open until midnight, I can say without doubt that the pictures were taken on the morning of Tuesday, April 14, 1970. I was able to confirm this information with just a little bit of research (maybe an hour or so all told) so why does everyone else get it wrong? Even the Metropolitan Museum- who hosted the event depicted- lists the 1969 date on their website:
I should mention here that Fink isn’t immune from this mislabeling either. His photo is also misdated in several sources I found (with some listing the date as early as 1967). How did this happen? Although I can’t say for sure without doing more research, I can hypothesize on how the date of 1969 continually gets attached the photos. Winogrand’s Met Ball photos weren’t exhibited right after they were taken. As far as I was able to find out, he didn’t exhibit or publish any of them until later in the 1970s. His book Women are Beautiful (1975) features several of the Met photos (including the one being explored here) but presents the pictures without titles or dates. It’s entirely possible that when Winogrand did eventually have to produce a date for a publication or exhibit, he just got it wrong. Once a date of 1969 was attributed to the photos, it got picked up and repeated by writers and historians. Before you know it, Winogrand scholars and respected institutions like the Met are using the wrong date.
By this point, one may be asking why all this matters. It’s just a matter of a couple of months, after all. April 1970 was almost 1969 (there’s only about a four month difference), so what’s the big deal? It matters because being inaccurate is unnecessary in this situation. Approximate dates are commonly used by art historians, but are usually reserved for specific situations. Ancient artworks, for example, often carry approximate dates because they’re old and may pre-date record keeping systems. An artist may not keep great records themselves or choose not to write the date of a piece down, so art historians may have to guess. This situation calls for more accuracy. These are photos of a well-documented event and the date is recorded in prominent sources. There’s no excuse for getting it wrong.
I’m just an obscure niche blogger, and don’t mean to be pushy or anything, but it’s 1970, not 1969.
Part Three: Fumbling in the Dark (My Crash Course in Fashion History)
I’ll start this next section by admitting that I know next to nothing about the history of fashion design. I realize now that someone well versed in fashion history could probably look at the dress in the photo and identify it in about a millisecond. I could not, so I had to search for the designer using less exacting methods.
I hoped that the dress was traceable (it was, and then some, but to remind you again I have no knowledge of fashion history- didn’t you read the last paragraph?). I started by searching for vintage dresses on Google. I searched through lists of well-known designers and wasn’t having much luck. The problem with searching for stuff like this on Google is that you have to hit just the right combination of words in order to bring up the desired result. Searching for vintage dresses brings up many retailers that don’t necessarily sell old things (the dresses may only look vintage). Searching for dresses from the 60s or 70s brings up too many hits. I had to narrow things down a little. I latched on to the fact that the dress had similarities with the Klimt-like decoration in the photos. I searched for “Klimt dress 1970” and got nothing. I searched through variations of this and finally hit on something. I think it was “Art Nouveau dress 1960s” or something like that (I’ve done so many Google searches at this point that they all seem to blend together). Regardless of what the search was, the end result was success. I found this photo:
|Norman Parkinson took this photo for British Vogue in 1969|
This was the first photo I found of the dress outside of the Met Ball photos. What was fortunate was that it had a date (1969) and designer attached. I now had a name (two names, actually): Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell. The names meant nothing to me at first, but once I did a little searching I realized that I knew them too (and had been familiar with their faces for a long time). They appear in David Hockney’s famous double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, painted in 1970-71:
I had known of this painting for years, but never knew much about the sitters. Clark began designing clothes in the mid-1960s, and in 1966 he paired with textile designer Birtwell, who provided the vivid patterns that made Ossie Clark dresses so unique. Their collaboration led to some of the most distinctive fashion of the 60s and 70s. Their fashion collaborations were perhaps more successful than their personal one. Their marriage (which their close friend Hockney celebrated with the painting) lasted only a few years.
After researching their collaborative work I really have to give all of the credit here to Birtwell. Ossie Clark was a talented designer and craftsman (his sewing and tailoring skills are legendary) but Birtwell’s distinctive zigzag pattern helped me track the dress down, especially considering that I was searching through dozens (if not hundreds) of tiny thumbnails on my computer screen. The pattern is just as distinctive in a small photo as it is in a large one. (As a side note, the dress actually contains two patterns: The bold zigzag pattern used for the skirt is distinctly different from, but harmonious to, the pattern on the bodice.) After identifying the dress, I could see that it carries many of the hallmarks of Birtwell’s patterns. The triangles with a small circle on the end can be found in some of her other patterns of the era, and the flower with the spiral in the center, called the candy flower, is a motif she uses to this day (she still works as a textile designer, Clark passed away in 1996).
Another reason for trying to find out more about the dress was to see if I could find out what color it was. The 60s and early 70s were well known for bright (some might even say garish) colors, and I was curious as to whether this dress exhibited those tendencies. I was picturing bold combinations of teal, fuchsia, and chartreuse. Only a color photo could give me this information. A little more searching started to fill in some of those blanks. The blog Sighs and Whispers featured a post about this very dress (and the Winogrand photo, but I didn’t find this post until I had already identified the dress). Blog author Laura Helms saved a photo of the same dress from an e-bay auction held a couple of years ago and this allowed me to see it in color for the first time. It wasn’t garish at all. In fact, the coloration is a pleasant combination of black, white, gray, and rose. The delicate use of color perhaps helps to explain why vintage Clark/Birtwell designs are still sought after and worn, whereas other fashions from the era might seem too over-the-top or outdated.
I now had seen a relatively recent photo of the dress, and I thought to myself “What if it’s the dress, the exact same one seen in the Winogrand photo?” A quick look at the photo showed that this was not the case. The dress sold on e-bay has a mostly symmetrical bodice. Right above the sash, rows of triangles extend on both sides. The Larry Fink photo shows the right side of the mystery woman’s dress clearly and it’s pretty obvious that the dress worn to the Met Ball was slightly different.
This was good, because it indicated that the dress wasn’t unique. If there were at least two versions of it, there were probably more. More dresses out there meant more chances to find information on it. I decided to try YouTube to see if there was any vintage film documentation of Clark/Birtwell dresses. I found this video dating from 1969 and at about the one minute mark I-
Whoa, easy there YouTube, I hardly know you! Let’s get a little distance here.
There. The dress is featured in this video but here it’s pale blue. Same dress, same pattern, different color. So which one was featured in the Winogrand photo? I would have to keep looking, but before I go on can I say how perfectly this video illustrates the culture clash that took place between old and young at the end of the 60s? The old man to the right is literally stopped in his tracks when the model passes him! You can almost see his jaw hit the ground.
|Insert your own comical sound effect here. I prefer a slide whistle. A sustained "boing" is also appropriate|
But, I digress. I needed more color photos of the dress in order to make further comparisons to the Met pictures. After looking though page after page of thumbnails (again) I found this image:
There’s our dress again. This time the photo’s in color, and it’s the rose version (I think the color has been altered in this photo, making it look like a brighter red). The other model is wearing a dress by fellow British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. It appears to be the type of photo taken for a fashion magazine, perhaps to illustrate a story on English fashion designers or something. I found it on this blog written by fashion historian Liz Eggleston. I started comparing the dress in this photo to the Winogrand and Fink photos, trying to see if the pattern arrangement matched in all of them. The right side of the dress (the model’s right) is mostly obscured in the color photo, but I could tell that the two sides of the bodice didn’t look symmetrical. I was comparing the photos for a while when I noticed something completely unexpected and also glaringly obvious (sharp-eyed readers might have noticed it already). It had nothing to do with the dress, but an accessory the model was wearing. Look at her choker:
It’s the same person.
Part Four: The girl in the zigzag dress gets a name
O.K. That kind of blindsided me. I was hoping to find more information and photos of the dress (which I had), and I was hoping I could find information on the woman wearing it, but I never thought I’d find a photo of the same woman wearing the same dress taken outside of the context of the Metropolitan Museum. This is clearly a formal fashion photo, probably taken for a publication. The blog where I found it lists the photographer as Bill Cunningham. Another well-known photographer was now attached to the woman and the dress. Throughout this process, the trail had gone cold for long stretches, but now it was getting very hot. I felt I was close to some answers. Fashion photographs appear in magazines or ad campaigns. Models appear in other photos. The answers I was looking for were within my reach.
I’ll rewind a little bit to state that even in the beginning of this search I was working under the assumption that the woman could be a model, or at least someone connected to the fashion industry. There were a couple of reasons for this. First of all, Ossie Clark was a pretty swanky choice in 1970 (posh, the Brits might say). He was, at the time, more well known in his native England and his fashions were sold in America through only a few boutiques. You couldn’t just walk into any department store and buy one. His dresses were also expensive, even by 1970 standards. That led me to the conclusion that the wearer would have to be someone in the know. Someone connected to the fashion world or a model who would have had access to the highest of high fashions. In a way, I had to work under this assumption. I started out this research hoping I could identify the woman, and this would be more attainable if other pictures of her existed. If the woman was just a regular New Yorker who happened to be in the right time at the right place, I might never be able to find out more.
But, all that wondering was now done. She was a fashion model. I had proof.
That was all well and good, but I wanted a name. I tried to find other photos from that fashion shoot and couldn’t. I looked for models who specifically modeled for Ossie Clark and came up short. Like searching for the dress, searching for something as general as “Fashion models of the 1970s” on Google can bring up a wide variety of disparate results. Change the wording of your search slightly, and you’ll get different results. I tried countless combinations of words and sifted through countless photos. I needed to get just the right combination of magic words typed into the search bar. I was starting to give up, wondering if I would even be able to recognize her in a different setting. It seemed kind of hopeless until one morning when I must have typed in a combination of words I hadn’t tried yet. As I scrolled through the tiny thumbnails I saw a photo that signaled to me that my search was over.
Even at the thumbnail size, I knew it was her. I clicked the picture, hoping the models name was attached to the photo. It was.
Margrit Ramme. That’s who it is. She’s the girl in the zigzag dress.
Finding more photos confirmed it. Everything matched. Her face in profile, especially, matches the Freed and Winogrand photos. The dates match as well. Ramme was active as a fashion model in the 60s and 70s, as evidenced by these photos:
Oh, and I found this:
It’s another photo from the same photo shoot that helped me identify her. The caption on the photo identifies her but misspells her name (calling her Margaret Ramay), but it’s clearly the person I was searching for. So who is Margrit Ramme? She's a fashion model active in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I actually couldn’t find large amounts of biographical data about her on-line, but as far as I can figure she was about 25 at the time of the Met Centennial Ball. She doesn’t model anymore, but does post to a blog where she occasionally reminisces about her modeling past. During her career, she was shot by some of the best photographers to ever pick up a camera, including greats like Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon. Add to that list Leonard Freed, Larry Fink, and Garry Winogrand.
I had found the girl in the zigzag dress, and that gave me some closure. But, identifying Margrit Ramme in the photos brought up more questions that I have yet to answer. I am now convinced that even though these photos aren’t that old, dating them precisely seems elusive for some reason. The black and white photo of Ramme seen above (the one that spelled her name wrong) was found on an art gallery’s website, and they date it to 1965. Impossible, since Clark and Birtwell didn’t start collaborating until 1966, and all other references I could find (the Parkinson Vogue photos, the YouTube video) date the dress to 1969 (July of that year, to be precise). This photo is also attributed to a different photographer, raising even more questions. The color photo I found from the same photo shoot was apparently taken by Bill Cunningham, but this photo was credited to Ed Pfizenmaier. Did both fashion photographers shoot the same models in the same setting? I didn’t think fashion shoots worked that way (and these are clearly from a fashion shoot), but my lack of knowledge in the field of fashion history is well documented.
I’m left with questions that still perhaps need answers. My main inquiries have ended, since I know more about the dress and more about the girl. A little piece of art history becomes a little clearer. A Cultural Ghost is brought to light and given a name. I still have questions about the photos that need investigation, though. The two photographers (Bill Cunningham and Ed Pfizenmaier) attached to the same photo shoot still nags at me, and I’m curious as to where those fashion photos appeared. I also have a theory that those photos were taken on the same day as the Met Ball, hence the same dress and accessories in all photos. If that’s the case, it means that Ramme was photographed by at least 5 famous photographers all in one day. That’s got to be some kind of record. I’ll save these posts for another day. The obscure niche blogger’s work is never done.
Next time, a new topic. It may be something you never heard of (or noticed) before.