Local pioneers parlayed talent, became legends

Style: Icons such as Eubie Blake, Claire McCardell and Harvey Ladew set trends that influenced a century.

January 30, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

When Cher is declared an "icon," and glamour clones like Jennifer Lopez are saluted for their "style," it's easy to argue that those words have lost their meaning.

But there are people worthy of such terms. And they will be the focus of the Maryland Historical Society's "Icons of 20th-Century Style" exhibit on Feb. 11.

In a day-long symposium, expert speakers will make presentations on local luminaries including fashion visionary Claire McCardell, famed epicure and horticulturist Harvey Ladew, music pioneer Eubie Blake and the Duchess of Windsor.

"They're icons because they really stood out in terms of trendsetting and style-making in America," says Dennis Fiori, director of the Maryland Historical Society.

Whether they show their talent through lavish gardens, rhythmic innovation or modern clothes, their impact is undeniable.

Choosing Claire McCardell was a natural for Kohle Yohannan, co-author of "Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism." "We have very few truly iconic American design heroes," he says. "McCardell represents the post-war female in her most empowered form."

McCardell, who grew up in Frederick, visualized the American woman leading a life outside the kitchen long before it happened. The avant-garde rebel pioneered knit separates, rarely wore a bra and helped make it OK for a woman to wear pants, says Yohannan, a professor of art and design history at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

"Her personality, her own life was merely the vehicle that brought her talent to the world," Yohannan says.

In the case of Eubie Blake, the personality and the talent went hand in hand, according to Stuart Hudgins, a researcher and collector of African-American films, who is doing a presentation on the ragtime master.

"You will walk away with the feeling there was a great musician who just had a sense of expression in the way he talked and the way he moved," says Hudgins, who lives in Baltimore.

He chose to spotlight the musician who grew up in East Baltimore before moving to New York City because "there probably hasn't been a more influential black performer who really just captivated audiences and developed a style we see in musicals today." Blake's groundbreaking musical comedy "Shuffle Along" opened the door for today's Broadway musicals.

The inclusion of Blake also says something about Baltimore's thriving artistic history.

"Baltimore was a center of music," Hudgins says. "You could come to Baltimore and get a feel for what influenced Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday."

Not only are the subjects icons themselves, they are figureheads for legendary times. Blake stands for the Harlem Renaissance, and Harvey Ladew, who will be presented by Eleanor Weller Reade, co-author of "The Golden Age of American Gardens," represents the Gilded Age.

"It's a way of life that doesn't even exist in a shadow form," says Reade of the days of social registers and more daily clothing changes than a runway model.

The Long Island-born Ladew, relocated to Frederick where the hunting was better, Reade says. The mind behind the sprawling Ladew gardens in Monkton is still an inspiration to decorators and horticulturists everywhere.

"The garden itself is an icon for most garden lovers," says Reade, who is an interior design in Monkton. "You can see (his influence) in my garden."

The speakers are including material even devoted fans may not know. Those who strictly equate Blake with music may be surprised to find he was also a film pioneer, involved in some of the earliest experiments with talking pictures.

"Snappy Tunes," and other experimental films, also featuring Blake's collaborator, Noble Sissle, were made nearly five years before "The Jazz Singer," widely considered the first talkie.

Those who know Ladew for his gardening talents may be surprised to know he was a gas at parties.

"What he's really famous for is his humor," says Reade. "In the equivalent of the jet set, he was famous for his wit."

Reade thinks this sense was developed because Ladew was surrounded by wealthier families while growing up in Long Island. Not just wealthy. Vanderbilt wealthy.

Yohannan says that McCardell's influence can still be seen in work by contemporary designers including Donna Karan and Geoffrey Beene. There's an "unbroken chain from McCardell to where American sportswear is today," he says.

Fiori says the Historical Society could have chosen other subjects but tries to focus on people whose work and lives are currently being studied, re-discovered and re-interpreted. For instance, a Eubie Blake Jazz Institute and Cultural Center is scheduled to open on Howard Street around June.

The idea for the icon exhibit first came to him six years ago. The MHS staff was taking stock of its holdings and realized what a vast, valuable textile collection it had.

It was then that the idea to spotlight clothing celebrities like Claire McCardell and the Duchess of Windsor took shape. Ultimately, they decided to expand the idea of "style" beyond textiles. Fiori says exhibits like this one, that illuminate lifestyle and add a personal dimension to a historical figure, are valuable.

"It's a person-to-person connection," he says.

To learn more about icons

What: Icons of 20th-Century Style: A Day-Long Symposium at the Maryland Historical Society

When: Friday, Feb. 11

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument St., Baltimore, MD 21201-4674

Tickets: $60. Includes box lunch, five presentations and a self-guided museum tour.

Call 410-685-3750 x.321

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