The Costume Designer as Student
The Costume Designer as Student
Ladislas Czettel at the Munich Academy of Art, 1910
I haunt the galleries to see the clothes:
a pharaoh naked from neck to navel
wears only a kilt in his striding pose,
his queen a sheath that heat cannot dishevel—
so thin and snug her mound of Venus shows.
For sheer simplicity they have no rival.
I guess Fourth Dynasty as I exalt
to see white linen carved in black basalt.
Half the Greek statues are completely nude!
I might as well be in my drawing class
behind an easel with my eyes glued
to our model’s perfect hour-glass
of creamy flesh. Believe me, I’m no prude,
but all I longed to do was draw a dress
over her shape to add some interest—
some decoration, inspiration, zest!
And so I did: a peplos—pure illusion!—
a gown and blouse from just a tube of cloth
folded over, pinned at top—instant fashion!—
with a cord around the waist to gather both.
I braced for censure at my emendation.
“Czettel, you’ll never be accused of sloth,”
the teacher said (no change in his demeanor).
“I see Aphrodite has become Athena.”
Exactly! What you wear tells who you are
and where and when. A dragon robe in golden
yellow silk befits an emperor,
especially embroidered to embolden
him alone, and horsehoof cuffs declare
it Qing. To this the court remains beholden.
A robe may hide your body, yet it will
reveal your concept of the beautiful.
That’s what’s so intriguing about the Tang
funerary figurines aglow
in their three-color glaze. Isn’t a long
green streak on an amber skirt (or cream) a flaw?
The potters clearly loved what looks so wrong!
I catch their spirit and dream about a show
with court ladies, singers, dancers, and their ilk—
I have a yen to paint those drips on silk!
The medieval room with its millefleur blooms
holds me in thrall to a tapestry:
real mint, carnations, lilies, orchids, mums;
the gentlewomen in high-waisted V-
neck gowns; the men in doublets, hose, and plumes.
Here wealth is cloth, and cloth is pageantry:
brocade, moiré, red velvet, damask, wool—
one warp and weft to re-create them all.
And what about Rembrandt? He loves to paint
burghers and beggars in clothes that glisten:
exotic costumes or the richly quaint.
But his self-portraits in work clothes, by the dozen—
is it humility or pride he meant?
As he grows older and his brushstrokes loosen,
is that a sturdy robe or a splendid gown?
I think the black beret may be a crown.
The little geometric princess looks
sweetly grand: her bodice an inverted cone,
her skirt a vast rectangular box
on which her arms rest their entire span.
Velázquez paints a bow to match her cheeks
and gives the well-dressed dwarfs around the throne
their dignity, no matter each one’s lot,
some perfectly proportioned, others not.
What could be farther from the artifice
of farthingales and corsets than this pure
Empire style echoing ancient Greece?
The low-cut bosom burgeons with allure;
the cinch beneath makes it a precipice:
Gérard depicts the sheer drop to the floor—
(one color, one fabric for home and ball)
white muslin plunges like a waterfall.
I step outside into the dusk among
men and women in their long black coats,
so like the endless black when I was young
and Mother mourned my father—black gloves, black hats.
In all this bustle, not a single thing
turns my head and makes me wonder what’s
that she’s wearing. Oh, it will be sweet
to see my sketches walking down the street.