Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wearable Art and Collecting It In the Sincere Hope That Keats Had it Right

Detail from a scarf called "Persepolis" from the French firm Hermes.

"When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'"
John Keats May 1819
Ode on a Grecian Urn

I've heard such bad news this week. A friend of mine lost his brother. Another friend lost her son. The government seems to be spending America into poverty. Our military bickers among itself while facing enemies abroad and budget cutters at home. I don't know what to do about any of this: so I retreat into triviality.

I began to research a collection of mine that seems to have been born on its own, grown without my knowledge, and come to full bloom in my scarf drawer.

Opening the drawer and taking out these works of art has been a joy. Joy is something one must treasure. And a scarf made by the French firm Hermes is a treasure indeed.

I bought my first scarf because it was pink and I thought it might go with a jacket I had. I was in television then and always looked for ways to make the same clothes look different, so that I wouldn't have to have 365 new outfits to wear every year. Hermes scarves had a great reputation for quality.

This is my very first Hermes scarf, called "Tsubas." A tsubas is the handle guard of a Japanese sword.

Here is another: called "Paris Modiste" which is covered with a variety of French hats and has a hat box in its center.

This is another scarf in my collection, called "A Propos de Bottes" and is covered with riding boots. The first Mr. Hermes was a saddle maker so many of the themes on the scarves have to do with horses.

If a person buys only one or two of something each year, and the thing itself is not harmful to one's health, can one be called an addict?

Another of my early Hermes scarves. It is covered with dolls in a variety of styles, and has an English, not a French, name. The scarf is called "Hello Dolly."

That is Robin on the press plane, going to Kuwait to cover the end of the first Gulf War. I'm speaking to the Kuwaiti Ambassador Prince Saud al Sabah, and I'm wearing "Hello Dolly" with my obligatory war correspondents' jacket.

Very few of each scarf pattern are produced each year; though similar ones can be found in a variety of colors. When I first started buying them, each one cost about $200. That is not a small amount of money; but it was much less expensive than buying an entirely new outfit of clothing. So, I felt the expense was professionally justified. The scarf colors are vivid and they look great on television.

HRH Princess Grace of Monaco in an Hermes scarf, bending down to speak to one of her children. I don't suppose Princess Grace was constrained by a clothing allowance.

There was something else that drew me to Hermes scarves. The silk used to make them was softer and yet stronger than anything I had ever seen. The designs of the scarves were unusual and the colors rich. I've since learned that each scarf is silk-screened by hand, and one screening is required for each color in the scarf. Each scarf is then hemmed by hand.

I began to think an Hermes scarf was an astounding piece of art to sell for $200.

Actors Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. She is wearing a Hermes scarf called "Les Becanes," which means it is covered with bicycles. Photo courtesy of The Hermes Scarf by Nadine Coleno.

After more than two decades, I opened my scarf drawer one day and a large collection of Hermes scarves appeared to have reproduced themselves in there. They looked like a cheerful and beautiful extended family. It made me smile.

I tried to research the designs and the designers of this wearable art, but found little information. Hermes, on its web site, will sometimes explain the theme or design of a scarf, and sometimes will not. Some designers sign the scarves. Some do not. Hermes seemed to keep no public record of its annual styles or a list of its designers.

Grace Kelly and her sister at a racetrack in New Jersey, both wearing Hermes scarves.

Then, I read that a book was coming out about Hermes scarves and I put in an early order for a copy.

The Hermes Scarf: History & Mystique, a book by Nadine Coleno.

Like the House of Hermes, the book was gorgeous, full of beautiful designs and exquisite colors. But it included much "mystique" and very little "history." I did learn that the company's designers put the scarves on the floor of their workshop in order to review their designs, which seemed like a very French thing to do with such valuable stuff.

From The Hermes Scarf by Nadine Coleno.

The scarves have risen in price in the last few years and I have much less excuse to buy them now than I once did. But thanks to the Internet, there is a man in Switzerland who is collecting a database of the Hermes designs by name, by designer, by colorway, and by years of issue. He has over a thousand entries so far, and he has a small list of vintage scarves for sale.

This picture from the Hermes book, shows four of the colorways of the scarf I own called "A Propos des Bottes," which I've learned was first issued in 1967 and then reissued, when I bought it, in the 1990s.

I'm delighted that someone is finally trying to build an accurate historical record of these objects d'art while they are still being made in their historic way.

With the French protesting cutbacks in their retirement age, and hand work of almost all kinds fading away in the industrialized nations, I'm afraid the scarves will one day soon be shipped out to Asia to be printed and hemmed.

Nothing against globalization. But if and or when this happens, my scarf drawer will hold a small wake, and announce that it has closed its borders forever.

This scarf is being worn by an Hermes model. The scarf's name is "Jungle Love." Very French, a name like that, for a scarf which shows two leopards nuzzling.

"Jungle Love" up close.

Hermes Scarves Data Base at Luxury-Scarves

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