Photo Friday: Life of the Party

Parties are a regular part of student life at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a tradition from its earliest years. Who doesn’t like a good party?

In the Archives we have many images from parties past, most of which involved themes and costumes. Those depicting the Mae West Party are some of my favorites. Held on February 16, 1934, just one day before the famous original Crandemonium Ball (are those the same murals in the background?), the party was the brainchild of Academy Executive Secretary and Vice President, Richard Raseman.

Eero Saarinen at the Mae West Party, February 16, 1934. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The reason behind this theme is a bit of a mystery – the photographs are the only evidence of the gathering. Of course, Mae West had just starred in two smash hit films, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel (both costarred a young Cary Grant). And, while West was a controversial figure for her unapologetic brazenness, she was wildly beloved by Depression era musicians, artists, and writers like Cole Porter, Frida Kahlo, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, a simple celebration of an iconic figure, or simply a convenient excuse for revelry? Whatever the case, the costumes were fabulous!

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

[NOTE: Join the Center at its next party, A House Party at Cranbrook Celebrating Loja Saarinen. Virtual tickets are available here.]

Let’s Beguine Again: A Syllabus for Music and Dance

This year the Center is celebrating the life and work of Loja Saarinen for our House Party fundraiser. Lynette Mayman’s post on 1930s fashion offered an excellent guide to dressing à la mode for this historically themed evening event, while highlighting Loja’s freedom and creativity in celebrating her own authentic style. Being curious about the events to which such attire might be worn, I looked to the Kingswood School records to explore its history of music and dance events during that era.

Kingswood School Annual Dance Book, 1932. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

From the abundance of programs and ephemera, it was clear that music and dance were a valued part of the curriculum and school life, and its purpose was elucidated by the educational philosophy in the school catalogs for the 1930s:

“Music and Dance, two of the greatest social forces, and most closely related in essential nature, are organized in the curriculum under the direction of one department for concurrent purposes… The program of work is such as to encourage the fullest and freest development of individual personality which is the basis for true dramatic and musical expression.”

Kingswood School Catalogs, Kingswood School Records (1980-01)

Formal classes in music theory and social dancing (taught in physical education classes under the direction of Luella Hauser) were augmented by extracurricular activities. These included the Glee Club and various kinds of themed and annual dances, which offered students a variety of ways in which they could learn through participation, as well as recitals by visiting performers, which offered learning through observation and listening.

Program for the Mothers’ Day Tea, May 1937. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The Glee Club for girls was formed in 1932 for those interested in singing. They performed one concert per year, the first being held on March 11, 1932. The Club would also perform at other events throughout the year, such as the Mothers’ Day Tea and the ‘Carnival,’ which was an informal jamboree of themed gaiety and fun. The first Carnival, on December 10, 1932, was described as one of “grand vaudeville,” including a fashion show that embraced lovely old fashions and lively modern ones.

The 1937 Carnival was a Masque that traced the development of dance from the fourteenth century to the present time, including the Carole, Pavane, Sarabande, Minuet, Gavotte, Waltz, Schottische, Tango, and Fox Trot. The Glee Club sang songs typical of each period, while three jolly spirits, Dance, Play, and Song, presented the dancers.

Invitation to the Ypsilanti Madrigal Club performance, December 1931. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The first visiting performance was held on December 11, 1931, when the Madrigal Club, a choir of men and women from State Normal College, Ypsilanti, under the direction of Mr. Frederic Alexander, performed as a Christmas gift from Mr. Alexander to Mr. George Booth. The concert of unaccompanied songs and compositions on harpsichord was described as “unusual in character and delightful in content,” and became an annual event at the school.

Other annual visitors included Mildred Dilling, the internationally known harpist, and Cameron McLean, the Canadian baritone who was accompanied by various local pianists, including Detroiter Gizi Szanto. There were also one-time visits by performers such as pianists Stanley Fletcher and Samuel Sorin, singer Marion Anderson, baritone Earle Spicer, and opera singer Alexander Kipnis.

Program of Music printed by Cranbrook Press, April 1932.

Kingswood School Records. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Celebrated teachers of modern dance were invited to give dance recitals including Ted Shawn, Ronny Johansson, and Martha Graham. Visiting in March 1936, Graham gave a comprehensive recital of her work, leaving us with an autographed program—an archival treasure!

Program for Dance Recital autographed by Martha Graham, March 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

While Graham’s dance was reported in the Kingswood Newssheet as casting aside, “all old standards of beauty and grace,” through her use of angles and quick movements rather than the legato rhythm of conventional dancing, her philosophy of the dancer speaks poetically to the purpose of the 1930s Kingswood curriculum for music and dance—drawing out the essence of the individual through social artforms:

“You traverse, you come to the light, you work, you make it right… you embody within yourself as much curiosity, use that curiosity and avidity for life … and the body becomes a sacred garment – it’s your first and your last garment, and as such it should be treated with honor, and with joy, and with fear too, but always with blessing.”

Martha Graham, Martha Graham on Technique

As we celebrate the life and work of Loja Saarinen this year, we celebrate her as immigrant, entrepreneur, designer, and fashionista. Please join us for the Virtual Film Premiere as we support and acknowledge the work of the Center at our House Party, May 21, 2022.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Center for Collections and Research

Beginning the Beguine

Before everybody buys, borrows, or burrows in a closet for something to wear for Cranbrook Center’s annual House Party, let us consider the fashions of the times. We’re going back to the 1930s, to celebrate the heyday of Loja Saarinen, doyenne of the Cranbrook art scene as designer of interiors, weaver, fashionista, textile designer, businesswoman, landscaper, and modelmaker. Between husband Eliel, daughter Pipsan, and son Eero, the Saarinen family had inventiveness, imagination, skill, and audacity all sewn up. With the Saarinens’ extensive network of friends, colleagues, and students, the atmosphere at the Art Academy must have been rarified indeed.

Small wonder, then, that when it came time for parties, Loja Saarinen could craft her own iconic evening attire for the Art Academy’s Crandemonium Ball of February 1934, including that of her consort, as you can find in the photograph on the flyer for the event of May 21, 2022.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art “Crandemonium Ball,” February 1934. Photography by Richard G. Askew, Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Four our House Party, if you were thinking of the little black dress, Coco Chanel brought this simple concept to the public eye in 1926, with Vogue Magazine proclaiming it “Chanel’s Ford” in homage to the Model T which famously came in any color you wanted as long as it was black. Do note the chevrons (just visible in the Chanel dress) on the Saarinen dress also.

Coco Chanel–the Little Black Dress, as illustrated in American Vogue, October 1926. Source: Vogue.

Post WWI 1920s design was the big break away from the 19th century drapery which required all kinds of padding and corsetry. Chanel prided herself on getting women out of corsets, and they never went back into them. The fashions were shapeless, short, and sack-like at their extreme, with lots of embellishment for evening dresses to make up for their lack of pizazz. Think Fitzgerald and Gatsby.

At this time too, the tuxedo or dinner jacket was becoming acceptable for ordinary men who were not English royalty or American billionaires.

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