“In the Twenty-Ninth Century Mode”: Crandemonium Returns

The theme of the first Crandemonium Ball was the Court of Crandemonium. It prompted this newspaper article declaring that the party was in the "twenty ninth century mode." 1934, Cranbrook Archives.

The theme of the first Crandemonium Ball was the Court of Crandemonium. It prompted this newspaper article declaring that the party was in the “twenty ninth century mode.” 1934, Cranbrook Archives.

Since we already upset tradition by posting a “Photo Thursday,” we thought we’d skip today’s Photo Friday and instead focus on a subject near and dear to our hearts—Crandemonium!  A costume ball thrown at various intervals during the Saarinens’ tenure at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Crandemonium was a no-holds-barred party.  From the painted backdrops to the fantastical mythology, Crandemonium had it all.  Academy of Art students were essential to the party, competing to design the interiors and often appearing in the most outlandish costumes of all. This year the Museum Committee has resurrected the beloved Crandemonium party for their yearly fundraiser, happening this Saturday at the Cranbrook Art Museum.  Just in time, enjoy the Crandemonium ephemera from the past!

An intriguing invitation to 1936's Atlantis-themed Crandemonium, this card featured the first part of the story of Atlantis. The invitee would presumably learn the remaining chapters upon attending the party. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

An intriguing invitation to 1936’s Atlantis-themed Crandemonium, this card featured the first part of the story of Atlantis. The invitee would presumably learn the remaining chapters upon attending the party. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

The 1936 Atlantis Crandemonium theme led to some amazing promotional material. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

The 1936 Atlantis Crandemonium theme led to some amazing promotional material. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

 

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.]

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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Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural

On the eve of World War II, while Americans continued to suffer from the economic fallout of the Great Depression, the United States Treasury Department’s “Section of Fine Arts” commissioned Zoltan Sepeshy, the Head of the Painting Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, to paint a mural for a new post office in downtown Caro. At the same time, one of his star students, David Fredenthal, was commissioned to paint a mural for the new post office in Lincoln Park. (Having trouble placing Caro, if not also Lincoln Park, on a map of Michigan? For your first geography lesson, place your right hand, palm side up, next to you. Caro is located in the middle of your thumb, while Lincoln Park is closer to your wrist.)

Separate and distinct from the more extensive and influential WPA or Works Progress Administration’s “Federal Arts Project,” which essentially was a work-relief program for artists, the purpose of the Treasury Department’s “Section” program, as it came to be known, was “to secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test.” Sepeshy and Fredenthal, with their recently minted Cranbrook credentials, fit the bill. Fredenthal even had some mural experience, having recently painted an octopus mural for the Academy’s now infamous Crandemonium Ball in 1936.

Octopus mural by David Fredenthal for Crandemonium Ball, March 1936. Cranbrook Archives.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Southers, Lincoln Park’s postal superintendent, was more than a little perplexed and worried about the mural David Fredenthal was to paint for his post office. The week of September 25, 1939, Southers received a letter from Washington notifying him that Fredenthal, who the government described as a “sensational young artist” from Cranbrook Academy of Art, had been named to paint the mural—a fresco no less. Southers, who more than likely had not paid a visit to the seven-year-old Academy in Bloomfield Hills, not only had no idea what a fresco painting was but was intimidated by the government’s suggestion that he was to confer with the artist about the subject matter. His big idea? He thought a mural showing all of Lincoln Park’s postal superintendents (no doubt with him in a position of prominence) would do just fine.

Fortunately for Southers, geography intervened. Pulling out his own map of Michigan, Sepeshy did some calculations (which I just repeated using Google Maps). Realizing that Caro was some seventy-two miles from his studio in Bloomfield Hills while Lincoln Park was just twenty-six, the Hungarian painter decided to pull rank. He had the commissions switched and assigned the Caro project to his student while he decided to paint the mural in Lincoln Park, a few miles south of Dearborn.

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Loja Saarinen: Lady of Fashion

If this were an article for Harper’s Bazaar it would be an imagined interview between a reporter and Loja Saarinen, but since my status is beneath lowly, I won’t presume. Loja Saarinen is a fascinating person in many respects: she was professionally a sculptor, photographer, textile designer, maker of architectural models, landscape designer, teacher, weaver, entrepreneur, designer in general, without mentioning the unquantifiable but no less important aspects of her life. Married to architect Eliel Saarinen and mother of two extraordinarily gifted children, she must have been party to some incredible family discussions on style, architecture, design of practically everything, including fashion.

Daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson briefly led a fashion course at Cranbrook Academy Art, and she and her mother made many of their own clothes.  Even though the ready-made clothing industry was growing, women in the 1930s and beyond who had sewing skills but not necessarily the money for special garments would make their own. Commercial patterns abounded: Vogue, Butterick, Simplicity, McCall, among others not all of which survive today.

Here is a Vogue pattern from the times:

Vogue Dress for Lynettes blog

Courtesy of Etsy.com

Remember this look.

Considering Loja Saarinen’s formal training in sculpture in Paris and her own textile designs, not to mention her model-building skills and creativity, one must assume she was ideally set up for making her own special clothes. They would be unique. What could be better?  And then there was the wonder of downtown Detroit’s J. L. Hudson’s vast floor of fabrics.

Hudsons detroit fabric shop

Fabric Department at J. L. Hudson Company Department Store, 1920s. H.W. Brooks, Commercial Photographer. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Of course, the essence of fashion is being appropriately dressed. Working from the informal to the more formal attire, one may examine a few photographs of Loja Saarinen as samples of her impeccable taste and ingenuity.

Here is Loja on a relaxed afternoon standing with husband Eliel Saarinen in the 1930s:

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook copy neg CEC493 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a take on a peasant dress with its loose sleeves and wide flat fell seams and flared, lightly gathered skirt. What says hand-made to me is the embroidered belt.  While it is possible Loja bought the dress and altered it to fit sleeve length and hem, I think this would have been easy enough to whip up. It is casual, comfortable and different enough to mark her as a person with an eye for good design who is not going to be dressed like anyone else.

Here is a dress in tasteful black which looks a lot like the above Vogue pattern:

Loja Saarinen in Saarinen House Dining Room c 1940 copy neg CEC490 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her dining room, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The sleeves are a bit longer. Note the Chemex coffeemaker as accessory.

Next is a design so Loja-esque, given the proliferation of triangles all over the campus in every medium you can think of, including in her own contributions, this fabric and the garment have to be Loja Saarinen designs.

I am not sure what the pale fabric is, obviously soft and drapey, but the design could be embroidered or appliqued ribbon. (Family boost: she’s sitting in one of the Eero-designed auditorium chairs.)

Loja Saarinen c 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen, c. 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This is one of the best examples of Loja’s sense of style, though probably not her own work. She is warm, stylish and utterly without fuss. Attention PETA, this is before the days of reasonable-looking faux fur. The coat is a thick wool with light-colored top-stitching down the sleeves and front bodice panels.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at the rear of Saarinen House copy neg CEC491 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Dress-up clothes, we have them: a lovely photograph of a younger L. S. Swirls of fabric and triangle earrings.

Portrait of Loja Saarinen by Max Habrecht 1932 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Portrait of Loja Saarinen, 1932. Max Habrecht, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a dress with swaths of color in the bodice such as you might see in her rug design. This could be silk satin, or what was called “art silk.” It looks bias-cut, which would make for a good fit, but which is unforgiving for the seamstress. You can’t see her hair very well, but it appears fashionably cropped.

In the following Crandemonium photograph Loja’s attire looks like a variation on a theme.  I suspect this is a top she made for the occasion, worn over a separate skirt.  Eliel Saarinen’s jacket has matching color stripes. The Saarinen column hats make the outfit for both party-goers. Loja’s dress has a train as befits the queen of Crandemonium. The orb of office for King Eliel is a grapefruit.

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at Crandemonium Ball Feb 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at the Crandemonium Ball, Feb. 1934. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

At last a color photograph. This may be the same top with a matching skirt, and quite a few years later, but now we see the Saarinen choice of color (Family boost: another Eero chair.)

Loja Saarinen in Vaughn Road home c 1962 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her Vaughn Road home, c. 1962. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Loja Saarinen was not a self-promoter. Her work speaks for itself. Her hand is in so many aspects of design all over the Cranbrook campus. This is just a glimpse at a few (fashion) design choices Mrs. Saarinen made about herself. She told Virginia Christ-Janer in a 1964 interview, “With our family [art is] a disease.” More than that, the Saarinens were all so capable, why would they not keep designing? Just like Karl Lagerfeld, to design is to breathe.

For a last word on anything to do with fashion, from all-time humorist Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

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