This is the final instalment of my series for Women’s History Month! I’ve really enjoyed doing these so I thought this last post of the month should be extra special; instead of just one woman, I wanted to feature three women who have historically made a huge contribution to the arts.
I was never good at maths or sciences as a kid; I was the odd one out amongst my cousins, who all went on to study medicine or chemistry and physics. My mum still reminds me that she would always find me hiding under the table at big family dinners designing elaborate dresses for hyper stylised 8-and-a-half head tall women.
Art was my thing. I filled sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings and I would read anything I could get my wee hands on about my favourite artists. I could talk on and on about whose work I love, and when I started writing this post I had an epic list of amazing female artists, designers and writers who’ve inspired me throughout me life. The sculptor Camille Claudel, the Surrealist Leonora Carrington, Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Impressionist Berthe Morisot, Mary Quant…I struggled to choose just three!
Artemisia Gentileschi – Fine Art
I studied Art History at uni and was fascinated by the work of the Baroque painters. The story of 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was both impressive and tragic; on one hand she was one of the very first women to achieve real recognition in the male-dominated post-Renaissance art world, but on the other hand whilst she was completing her studies, she was brutally raped by her tutor when she was 20 years old and tortured during the trial.
What was so amazing about her story was that she didn’t let this stop her. Artemisia went on to become the first woman to paint major historical, religious and mythological themes which was unheard of at the time. Women were portrait painters, they were confined to the “gentler” aspects of fine art, but this was a woman who gave few fucks. And not only was she the first woman to paint progressive and ambitious pieces like her male contemporaries, but her subjects were strong women.
I’ve always said (bear with me here) that you can tell a lot about an artist from how they tackle certain subjects. Who is the focus of the painting? Her “Judith slaying Holofernes” is spectacular, all the dramatic realism and exaggerated chiaroscuro (contrast between light and dark) of Caravaggio, and more importantly, she’s caught Judith in the act of holding him down, overpowering him, and chopping his head off. She isn’t a bystander. She hasn’t just found herself with a dismembered head in her hands, and she definitely isn’t a passive subject. Her female servant is shown helping to hold down Holofernes none too delicately, at the exact moment Judith kills him. In Artemisia’s Judith, the heroine is taking her own fate into her hands and that is what makes her work so powerful.
Madeleine Vionnet – Fashion
Corsets. The body modifying, permanently disfiguring shape wear women were forced to wear in Europe until the beginning of the 20th century. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good corset on a night out but could you imagine wearing one every day? Could you imagine not being able to move in ways we take for granted, to bend down easily to pick something up off the floor or take deep breaths without being constricted by heavy boning. The severe, regimented figures the corset cut are a far cry from the invention of one fashion pioneer who introduced the bias cut to the unsuspecting public in the 20th century.
Called “an architect amongst dressmakers” and the “Queen of the Bias cut”, Vionnet was hugely successful in the 1920s following WWI, and influenced the fashion of the 20s that we know today. The grecian dresses, fluid fabrics, and an emphasis on movement above all else. Arguably she promoted the idea of the woman wearing the dress, rather than the dress wearing the woman.
“When a woman smiles, then her dress should smile too”
Not only did she design dresses that celebrated and emphasised the female shape, she also revolutionised the industry. She instated a model for modern labour practices in fashion that included paid holidays, maternity leave, day care, and resident health care for her staff. She also fought for copyright laws to be put in place, and in her 27 years in the fashion world she helped shape how we think of fashion today.
Bella Kogan – Industrial
Considered to be the “Godmother of American Industrial Design”, Belle Kogan was the first woman of her profession in the United States.
In 1932 she began to design housewares, producing pieces for various Glass and Plastics companies (including Bakelite). Kogan was one of the first industrial designers to experiment with the relatively new medium of plastics and saw the huge potential for manufacturers to work with this new material. She designed jewellery and radios, clocks and tableware using it, bridging the gap between traditional industrial designers and the consumer.
The First World War had devastating human consequences, but it also placed women in the world of design. Manufacturers were still unwelcoming to a woman in the industry though, convinced they couldn’t possibly know enough about the mechanical aspects of industrial design to put across ideas. Kogan understood that women consumers were a key factor in whether a product would sell.
Women were such a huge part of the buying of domestic items. Their tastes determined what would make a successful product. Belle Kogan realised the importance of designing attractive, innovative yet practical items for the women of the time, and how the tastes of the consumer should determine design and not be “too extreme” to fit in with the decor of the average home.