One of the reasons I like beautiful things is that it changes my perspective. Looking at art always enhances my mood. When I find a painting I really like, I feel a sense of awe. I feel humbled by another person’s creativity and ability to make me respond to their way of seeing the world.
Fashion also makes me feel the same way. When I find a beautiful crafted garment or accessory, it’s almost like falling in love. Not that I’m in love with the physical object, but the experience of beauty. I sort of dismissed myself as a hedonist. How else could I explain it? Even as I write this, I’ll admit it sounds sort of ridiculous.
The Studio Boat by Claude Monet, 1876. Image courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Sometimes, I have trouble sleeping. If I can’t distract myself in some way, I’ll surely stay awake all night. (That vicious cycle of trying to sleep, only to become aware of how completely awake you are drives me insane.) When I can’t sleep, I try to look at images that will be soothing.
As you might have guessed, I woke up in the middle of the night. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed. I turned. I tried desperately to become unconscious again. It became really clear that I wouldn’t fall asleep again when I started thinking. Then, the worst part – I started to worry. Luckily, somewhere between idle thoughts of things beyond my control, I thought about Claude Monet’s Studio Boat.
Back in December, I paid my first visit to the Barnes Foundation. The Studio Boat was my favorite painting. I stood in front of it for a long time. I admired the rich blue and green hues that undulated through the canvas. The sharp dashes of fuchsia and purple mimicked wild grasses and flowering trees. The whole composition reminded me of landscapes near my home. The careful attention to detail, the dreamy atmosphere, the color palette - the painting made me feel that burst of love. Why it came to my mind, I cannot say. But I looked it up online, instantly felt better.
The Studio Boat on the Seine by Claude Monet, 1875.
My worry was replaced with curiosity. Why does looking at beautiful things make me feel this way? Am I completely alone in this experience? I’m sort of embarrassed to confess the way I feel so publicly, but maybe I’m not alone. (Maybe?)
It turns out I may not be. The University College of London recently conducted a study that proved looking at artwork triggers pleasure responses in the brain. Here are their findings:
During the study, participants underwent brain scans while eyeballing paintings by artists such as Monet, Rembrandt, and Leonardo da Vinci. When they saw something they liked, blood flow in certain parts of the brain increased by about 10 percent – the equivalent of gazing at a loved one, according to the researchers. (Source)
The equivalent of gazing at a loved one? That’s pretty impressive. It certainly explains my fascination with art and fashion. It’s also nice to know other people have a similar reaction to beauty.GHTime Code(s): nc
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Pushing Daisies is a storybook fantasy about Ned, who as a child discovers he can touch dead things and bring them back to life.
Touch a dead thing again, and it is dead forever.
Keep a dead thing alive for more than a minute, and something else, or someone else has to die. Ned’s strange superpower caused him acute discomfort. This discomfort is intensified when as an adult, Ned revives his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte Charles, also known as Chuck. If Ned ever touches her again, she will go back to being dead – forever.
Clearly the premise of Pushing Daisies is a whimsical fantasy but it is not only the plot that is fanciful. The characters are more eccentric than the plot, each taking their expression of individuality to the extreme.
The ephemeral nature of life is a constant theme in Pushing Daisies. The cyclical nature of life: birth, death, and rebirth are central to the plot and character development. What is remarkable is that this is parallel to the cyclical nature of fashion. In fact, the costumes developed by designer Robert Blackman evoke fashion, in particular retrospective fashion, as a visual medium support the premise of fantasy in the show and as a means to define each character.
Premiering in October of 2007, Pushing Daisies revolves around the adventures of Ned, owner of the Pie Hole restaurant and his business partner, Emerson Cod. Emerson is a private investigator who learns of Ned’s amazing ability to revive the dead. He proposes the two revive murder victims, question them about their untimely death in 60 seconds, and put them back to their eternal rest. Emerson then has the information to solve the crime, and collect the reward money, which the two will split. Their scheme goes along perfectly until reviving Chuck. Ned cannot bear to touch her again. The two rekindle their childhood romance. Ned brings Chuck home to live with him, but they can never touch again.
Since Chuck has been reported dead and the means of her resurrection cannot be revealed, she must wear a disguise when leaving Ned’s apartment. Her signature outside disguise is a chic trench coat with a scarf draped around head and sunglasses. She usually pairs this look with a full-skirted dress, reminding one of the stylish Marilyn Monroe. Each of the characters involved in the show exudes a particularly retro look. Costume and set design become additional characters in this primetime series. While Ned may have the power to revive the dead, it is the female characters who have the power to revive fashion.
At this point it is useful to define retro fashion and its significance in visual media. “Retro” styles borrow elements from earlier fashions but with a present day twist. According to theorist Elizabeth E. Gufey,
[R]etro is a powerful method of communication, it invokes a mix of complex emotions including nostalgia, that draws on a collective communal history. Retro allows us to come to terms with the modern past.
Retro fashions invoke a past that you may not have personally experienced, but is recognizable from visual media, especially photography, film, and television.
Already having experienced death, Chuck is determined to live her second life to the fullest, and this choice is reflected in her personal style. By adopting retro, Chuck is allowed to view the present, and the future, with the eyes of the past. Retro communicates an uncertainty about the future and a particular disillusionment with present day conditions. Although the past is gone forever, the elements Chuck retains from the past console her and empower her in her second life. She also has the prerogative to live life with such enthusiasm and an extraordinary intensity that adventure is always around the corner.
Chuck experiments with a variety of styles that ranges from the mid 1950s to late 1960s. The earliest style she channels is reminiscent of Dior. She appears in disguise with a magenta double-face wool crepe coat with a matching flower-printed silk scarf, green sunglasses, and demure white gloves.
Another costume is a satin maroon pencil skirt, matching headband, short-sleeved white dress shirt paired with a golden oversized belt, and heels. Here, Chuck resembles a vintage 1950s Barbie: curvaceous, yet thin, and cinched at the waist.
She next appears in a 1950s inspired pink full-skirted day dress with matching cardigan. Her hair is gathered in a low, side ponytail with a bow. Nat Kaplan created a similar silk satin dress in 1952, seen on the right.
As romantic as she is, Chuck does have a wild side. Here, she is seen in a contrasted circle printed day dress with brown tights and red flats. She wears this outfit while working at the Pie Hole, as it allows her to be both comfortable and stylish. This costume draws on Op Art for its interesting use of color and geometric patterns. The Op Art movement occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, using geometric patters and colors to create the sense of movement in two dimensional art. Here we see a work by Luis Molinari-Flores, an Ecuadorian artist that screen-printed “Circles” in 1963. Flores was famous for his geometric abstractions and psychological use of color.
While Chuck definitely prefers dresses to pants, she does wear a yellow pant outfit in the Dummy episode. Still, her costume retains feminine details, with a flounced embellished collar. One may recall the effortless chic of the designs of Balenciaga. Here we see a photo from the 15 March 1968 Vogue. The ruffles around the collar and bright yellow are similar in both designs. The Balenciaga outfit consists of both and skirt and pants and is more voluminous. Blackman’s design is simplified, using more controlled flouncing and no overskirt.
Chuck’s two aunts, Lily and Vivian Charles, formerly a world-renowned synchronized swimming duo named the Darling Mermaid Darlings used to perform in elaborate costumes, complete with mermaid tails. The two sisters are somewhat reclusive. During several shows of Pushing Daisies, the sisters consider competing again. In the Smell of Success episode, they don their Mermaid costumes and perform a routine.
The costumes are playfully chinoiserie, complete with the pyramid-shaped straw hat. Their overcoats are made from a traditional Chinese embroidered silk.
In costume, Lily and Vivian are similar to many of the eccentric, fanciful characters in the Cremaster Cycle of Matthew Barney. A series of five films, The Cremaster Cycle is an aesthetically confined world that explores the process of creation. Cremaster 1 has a group of chorus girls that perform a synchronized routine, wearing costumes similar to Lily and Vivian’s. Sharing similar themes, both Pushing Daisies and The Cremaster Cycle utilize fantasy and costume as method to explore the meaning of life and death.
Lily’s distinguishing trademark is an eye patch over her right eye. Lily actually has a collection of eye patches, each of which coordinates with a specific outfit. Here we can see examples of three distinct eye patches. It is particularly interesting to note the circular jeweled motif on two of these eye patches. This arrangement simulates an eye. It also is symbolic of Lily’s need to hide her emotions. The patch is also reminiscent of sailors and pirates, figures also associated with water.
Another fictional character that is wore an eye patch is General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. While Blackman did not produce costumes for this specific movie, he did costume several episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Clearly, Blackman drew inspiration from the Star Trek series when costuming for Pushing Daisies, and Lily’s eye patch is the first piece of evidence.
Vivian prefers to dress in an exotic fashion. Each of her costumes is a variation of chinoiserie, as previously mentioned regarding the mermaid costumes. Vivian’s favorite dress is the qi pao. This style of dress gained popularity in China during the twentieth century.
Early into its introduction, the qi pao was considered extremely functional and provided women with a large range of movement. Simple, it is a one-piece gown that closes with toggle buttons on the right shoulder. Initially it was only worn by the wealthy, but became so fashionable by the 1920s and 1930s that the qi pao became identified as a national dress and a symbol of modernity. The qi pao’s popularity in China peaked in the 1950s, but the Western world still has a level of fascination with this dress.
The World of Suzie Wong, which debuted in 1960, is exemplary of the Western world’s fascination with the eastern fashion and exoticism. Vivian’s retro qi pao fashions evoke transformation, escapism, and the luxury of the exotic.
Another important character is Olive Snook. She is a waitress at The Pie Hole, and also Ned’s neighbor. She desperately loves Ned, but her feelings are unrequited. Nonetheless, she is cheerful and this is reflected in her 1960s retro fashions. Olive’s style is centered around two major fashion movements of this decade, particularly the “space-aged retro” that was iconic of the late part of the decade.
The context of Olive’s costume is primarily work related. Often, she is in her Pie Hole uniform. The uniform is very similar to the “space age” designs by Pierre Cardin during the late 1960s. The use of hardware accessories and durable, industrial materials were characteristics of Cardin’s clothing. He created designs for both men and women, each looking like an androgynous uniform ready for the space age. Cardin himself spoke about his designs as futuristic:
The clothes that I prefer are those I invent for a life that doesn’t exist yet- the world of tomorrow.
Olive’s uniform is simultaneously retro and futuristic, which poses the question every fashion historian considers: how do we get back to the future? The 1960s was the most modern period in fashion history, and designs have never been able to surpass its cutting edge futurism. The machine age dominated the view of the future, offering incredible technology fused with fantasy. Therefore, a return to the 1960s is not nostalgic, but is a desire for tomorrow and beyond.
Pushing Daisies costume designer Robert Blackman is familiar with this concept. In the early 1990s, he started designing costumes for Star Trek. Accustomed to designs and imagery of the future, Blackman has an affinity with Cardin and the Space Age Sixties style.
However, Blackman’s range is not limited to the Sixties futurism and this is evident when Olive is at with friends or at home. With friends, she wears a variety of ensembles that are Pucci inspired. Here we see her in a pink psychedelic printed halter dress. It bears a striking resemblance to many of the Pucci prints that are iconic of the Italian fashion house.
At home, Olive is more romantic and vulnerable, her house decorated in French toile from floor to ceiling. She wears floral pajamas when resting, thinking of how much she loves Ned.
Every episode introduces a guest character. Costumes are very carefully designed to enhance their brief role. One example is Jeanine in the “Dummy” episode. Jeanine is a bulimic promotions model for the automobile company that produces a car named the Dandy Lion SX. This car runs on dandy lion’s for fuel.
Jeanine’s dress has a high neck, long sleeves, is cinched at the waist. The hemline falls below the knee, drawing attention to her Courreges style white boots. The back of the dress dips into a v-shape. As she is promoting a car from the future, her style reflexes the Space Age and Mod movements 1960s as well.
While the Youth Quake of the 1960s rejected couture, today’s culture idolizes it. Haute couture has been a like phoenix, created, destroyed, and ultimately rising from its ashes. Recent fashion critics question the survival of couture. Stacy London, the TV stylist and co-star of What Not to Wear commented in April’s edition of W Magazine:
Television has democratized fashion,’ . . . ‘To not give couture its due is a shame. But at the same time, how relevant is it in pop culture — particularly to the audiences who are watching these shows?
 I disagree with London.
Shows like Pushing Daisies expose viewers to what high fashion is all about. Blackman’s costumes are custom made for each character, and communicate a distinct personality. The originality of his costumes and unique color palette attract viewers. Moreover, Pushing Daisies is a vehicle that is preserving the values of haute couture and fashion. Blackman’s individual, personalized style is custom designed for each character from the ground up. The only parallel to his costume design is haute couture.
In the same W article, Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York defines, and defends, the continuing relevance of couture:
The value of the couture comes from the fact that it preserves the notion of craft in fashion. . . It’s not the fact that it’s a bunch of rich ladies hurling money at the Paris collections. And it’s not the fact that the misuse of the word is blurring the distinction between a dress from Strawberry that’s $19.99 and one that’s $40,000. I don’t care about any of that. Crafts are holy. I feel exactly the same way about couture as I do about old hippies in Big Sur making tooled leather belts or American Indians making beautiful .blankets. Exactly the same reverence should be attached to couture. Not because it’s posh. Not because it’s expensive. But because it’s done by hand and it’s a dying art.”
Through strategic theatricality and retro inspired fashion, Pushing Daisies brings back the notion of original fashion created through love. Blackman utilizes fashion as the creative act of pure self-expression that develops each character – uniting them, their love for one another, their passions, their hobbies into a love that is greater than desire. The complex and whimsical plot seems irrational at times, but it is love expressed through costume that unites these fanciful individuals.
These elements suggest that there is a higher realm of living, that death is not the finale. Whether we look to the past or the future, our world is changing at a rapid pace. How do we adapt? What rules do we follow? How will it all end? With the changes of modern times and hyper-stimulation, fashion – and love – create their own unique set of rules that are not means to an end, but a progression and evolution aiming towards the sublime. These rules defy death.
Cardin, Pierre. Past, Present, Future. 1990
 W. April, 2008, 120.
 Retro. 9
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