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In the last room of the “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” exhibit currently at the Brooklyn Museum, mounted on a small white frame, there’s a brass pin made by Alexander Calder, the artist better known for his abstract mobiles. Calder manipulated a single strip of metal into a sculptural doodle: a spiral that jags outward, zigzags, and ends in an elegant little curl. “OK,” it says.
I’d seen the pin many times before while hunting the internet for evidence of O’Keeffe’s distinctive personal style. Calder made the brooch for O’Keeffe around 1938, and by the 1970s it was core to her look. In black-and-white photos by Ansel Adams and Bruce Weber, O’Keeffe wears the pin vertically on a black kimono and at the throat of a white blouse, making her initials mysterious. O’Keeffe’s self-styling, rather than her lush paintings of the natural world, is the central theme of the Brooklyn Museum’s show. Visitors walking past the garments and photos on display will quickly grasp her look: bandanas tied around her head, white shirts worn under black jackets with long black skirts, black wrap dresses, and, in a burst of blue, Levi 501s.
Like many people, I grew up with a reductive but clear understanding of O’Keeffe’s work. (Vaginal flowers.) I only started Googling photos of her after reading an Into the Gloss interview with the jewelry designer Sophie Buhai that put into perfect words an aspirational aesthetic I’d had kicking around in my brain, unnamed, for a while.
“I sell from my own website and also wholesale to specialty boutiques, like The Line, but also the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Cooper Hewitt because I’m into museum women,” Buhai says. “I’m into old art lady style. I hope Georgia would have worn my jewelry if she were still alive. Maybe if I was cool enough to cross paths with her.”
Old art lady style. Yeah.
After that, I went around to friends, Are You My Mother?-style, asking if the term meant something to them, too. Some of them recognized it immediately. Others nodded vaguely, unconvinced that we had the same thing in mind.
To me, it meant artists, art teachers, curators, and people who simply attend a lot of gallery openings or lectures at museums who wear colorful glasses or severe black clothing or who just spice up a practical, unremarkable outfit with a painterly scarf and a pair of funky earrings. Wanda Corn, the O’Keeffe exhibit’s curator, says that O’Keeffe’s style was neither theatrical nor weird, but as with her paintings, she constantly worked to distill clothing into its most elementary abstract form.
The common thread is that art ladies’ gestures toward color, texture, and shape signal a personal design sensibility that exists outside of fashion’s whims and encouragements toward status symbols. It’s not fashion, but it lives nearby.
The trouble with “old art lady style” is that it’s broad, and so amorphous that if you think too heavily about it you start to wonder whether you made the whole thing up, especially if you’re picturing hypothetical people and not real-life examples, as I was. But then you divert your attention for a moment, let your brain refresh, and: No, no, it’s definitely a thing. COS, an offshoot of the Swedish mega-company H&M, created a capsule collection based on the work and style of the reclusive painter Agnes Martin, after all.
“I think iconically we have this idea of an art lady who’s a bit eccentric, but there’s a minimal, structured thing to her look. Maybe she wears Japanese clothing, like Issey Miyake, mixed with really interesting sculptural jewelry,” says Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style, a photo blog dedicated to uniquely dressed older people.
Cohen knows art ladies personally. He started Advanced Style while working at the New Museum, where he’d clock stylish individuals when they came in to see an exhibit or buy a book. As they were leaving, he’d run out and take their picture on the sidewalk. Most of the women he photographs today are creative in some capacity.
He’s susceptible to the desire to dress like them, too. Since his early 20s, when he purchased his first pair of glasses with heavy Coke-bottle green plastic frames, Cohen has been trying to project the look of an older man who frequents art galleries.
The illustrator Joana Avillez also finds inspiration in the eccentrically dressed people she encounters around New York. The child of artists, she grew up surrounded by a lot of colorfully dressed people, like women who dyed their hair blue after it went white, and many of the figures she draws today are her parents’ friends, or her friends’ parents.
“I went to the Venice Biennale last summer and I was losing my mind because there were so many incredible people to draw,” Avillez says.
While gamely hashing out the idea of art lady style over the phone, she cites “little signifiers” of the art lady look, like a black ensemble worn with bright socks, a crazy watch, or neon pink eyeglasses. Avillez sees women like Kiki Smith, a German artist with witchy, long gray hair and blue tattoos covering her arms, and the ceramicist Betty Woodman, who turns up in photos online wearing a pair of glasses with multicolored frames, as two different sorts of art ladies. But they don’t represent subtypes so much as data points.
“I think the nice thing is that we can put them into a camp, but they’re each completely individual. None of them is mimicking each other,” she says.
That’s both the sticky thing about trying to define “old art lady style” and the appeal of it to a young person like myself. Art ladies are immune to the trends that ensnare the rest of us; old art ladies, having refined their style through decades of experimentation, are doubly exempt. When you’re in your 20s and searching for a signature outfit, replicating the look of a woman in her 70s seems like a fast track to achieving sartorial self-actualization.
It’s not, obviously. Nor does appropriating an arty look instantly make a person more cultured or intellectual, which is another ugly hope of mine, another shortcut. As Avillez points out, posting an Instagram photo of Chris Kraus’s 1997 book I Love Dick, which has recently enjoyed a burst of popularity among young feminists, does not mean you’ve read it.
I’m not surprised that where art and fashion collide, I find my access point in the clothing. There’s a reason that “Savage Beauty,” the breathtaking retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s beautiful, nightmarish designs, became the Victoria & Albert’s most-trafficked exhibit in 2015, and that the Costume Institute’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” and “Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology” are the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fifth- and seventh-most popular shows ever. We’re less afraid to approach fashion than we are art, because we all wear clothing and because E!’s red carpet coverage has taught us that fashion criticism is our god-given right. That might sound cynical, but it can be a good thing.
Andrew Bonacina, the curator of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in England, made such an argument to Business of Fashion while speaking about a new exhibit mixing fashion and art that he created with the fashion designer Jonathan Anderson.
“Fashion is more democratic as a craft or an art form, because you have to engage with it in some way. With art, there’s an intellectual bubble. We see it when local people come into the gallery. They’ll look at a Hepworth or a Moore and they’ll say, ‘I like it but I don’t get it,’” Bonacina says. “But with clothes, they would be able to say why it’s interesting or why it challenges them.”
As the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit proves, analyzing O’Keeffe’s style is a valid way of understanding her style as an artist, or at least provides some worthwhile context. But there’s a difference between looking at the resonance between fashion and art, or looking at fashion as art, and focusing entirely on how fashion can imply art, without actually having to deal with it directly.
When I asked Corn whether O’Keeffe has historically been known as a style icon, she was resistant to the idea.
“I’ve come to think that having a ‘personal style’ is the way to talk about her. Don’t talk about her as a fashion icon. Don’t talk about her as a fashionista. She ain’t a fashionista, as I understand that term anyway,” Corn says. “She’s not an accidental dresser, but once she finds something that works, she repeats it over and over again for photographers so she doesn’t have to think too hard about it.”
O’Keeffe frequently posed for her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and she dressed with an eye for shapes that stood out on film. She favored V-necks, for instance, which lengthened the line of her neck. “She never looks for the decorate or ornamental, but for the silhouette,” Corn says.
Yet Corn admits that in the last decade, she started to notice fashion designers referencing O’Keeffe’s style in their collections. Though her own scholarly research method entails rooting through libraries, letters, and art photographs, Corn suspects that younger fans are discovering the artist’s image through less rigorous searches online.
Pinterest is a treasure trove of O’Keeffe photos, Corn says, but to her frustration, those pictures often come without source information — without context, exactly the way that I’ve attached myself to the idea of old art lady style.
But isn’t this how tastes form? There’s no such thing as sterile technique in personal style; few people, if any, find a look they love and copy it exactly. Our references melt together, creating a concept that changes flavor as it takes on attributes of what we see on the street and on Instagram, often without us knowing and rarely in total fairness to those we’re stealing from.