"Out of the Closet: American Hangers," the current exhibition of 170 old clothes hangers at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery on Hudson Street in New York, raises another lowly object to the category of art.
Not since 1920 when the dada artist Man Ray created a sculpture of 147 coat hangers have clothes hangers been looked upon as art.
The hangers on view, dating from the late 19th century through about 1940, are from the collection formed by Harris Diamant, a TTC one-time New York public school English teacher who for the last 25 years has supported himself as an antiques dealer specializing in folk art. He closed his shop two years ago and now deals privately in architectural renderings and makes steel sculpture.
"A decade ago I bought one coat hanger, put it on the wall and enjoyed it. Then I came across another and another and three seemed to be a collection," said Mr. Diamant. "When I got a bunch of them together they transformed in a wonderful way into two of my two favorite things -- faces and the tops of torsos."
Hangers that fit Mr. Diamant's standards are hard to come by.
"I used to put a hanger under my arm and walk over the fields at Brimfield [the Massachusetts flea market] hoping someone would ask what I had and then tell me they had something like it, but that never happened," he said. "I am always out picking; I love the process, but over the last decade I rarely bought more than a dozen or so hangers in a year."
Mr. Diamant's collection ranges from Shaker simplicity to Calderesque whimsy. There are hangers made of wood, wire, sheet metal and combinations of cloth and wood and metal and wood. Only three are handmade; most are manufactured. Several have patent dates in the first two decades of this century. Some fold up for traveling; others have long sticks for hanging on a high rod. A few are pants hangers and some are designed for both pants and jackets. Many contain advertising or slogans that promote trade unions. One says, "Clothing for the People." There are endless variations, but their greatest virtue is their graphics.
Instead of a hook, the Shaker hanger in the show has a metal loop designed to fit over a peg; the wooden hanger part is shaped liked a boomerang. One really elegant one made of rosewood and purple velvet folds up like a tambour desk. Another has a scissor extension similar to old pipe tongs. One made of wood with wire below suggests a decollete chemise, or a pair of profiles, depending on how you see it. A metal and tape collapsible one resembles a pup tent. Several with loops of wire, like a Slinky toy, or made of molded metal, offer even more support.
Mr. Diamant never bothered to look up the history of hangers. "I guess someone picked up a stick and looped a string through it," he said. There is a consensus among curators of costume at major museums that clothes hangers were probably not made (( until after 1850. "I have a German print dated 1770 showing all sorts of clothes hung on pegs," says Ed Meader at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The position of the armhole in lady's clothing of the 1830s and 1840s was so low, a dress or a bodice couldn't be put on a hanger."
The clothes press and armoire were designed to lay clothes flat or hang them on pegs, according to Rodris Roth, cultural historian at the Smithsonian Institution. Shaker expert June Spigg claims the Shakers did not invent the clothes hanger, but they made a lot of them. She thinks one with multiple arms, dated 1864, was designed to hold a brother's shirt, vest and coat on a single peg. However a triple hanger from New Lebanon, in the collection of the Shaker Museum at Old Chatham, N.Y., is inscribed "Mary Elvya Hills her clothes rack, Feb 6, 1862."
Jerry Grant at Old Chatham Shaker Village notes that in 1877 a Shaker named Daniel Crossman wrote in his diary that he made "clothes sticks" for the new dwelling house at New Lebanon.
"I never did any research; it was never my intention to sell them," Mr. Diamant claims. "I had some on the wall and others in cartons when Ricco and Maresca discovered their virtue. Their experimental eye saw them as something to be exploited, and there has been an amazing response to them. People say they have never seen them before. Everyone says, 'Gee Whiz.' " (Especially after they learn that the collection is for sale in its entirety for $60,000, or in four parts for $15,000 each.)
"We hope someone in the fashion industry will want them all," said Roger Ricco, a partner with Frank Maresca in the gallery specializing in the work of American self-taught artists.
"What I love about them is that they are a handmaiden of fashion that has been taken for granted," said Mr. Maresca. "Here is something completely overlooked, an American invention, utilitarian, functional and worth looking at. It is such a simple thing to take a garment and put it on a hanger you would think it could be accomplished with one kind of form but there are hundreds of ways. The show is about subtlety and nuances. We hope it will wake people up and help them see."
Ricco/Maresca gallery is located at 105 Hudson St. in New York; hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.)