Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, October 27, 2022

They Were Designing Women

There are still two huge trunks filled with fabric.  This fabric is richly spun and colored in an array of breathtaking motifs.  Some have been used to fashion gifts for newborns or lifelong friends.  Others await to be paired with collected patterns for clothing, interior home decor, or quilts.  A few, a very few, are there simply because of their beauty.

Two recent publications feature extraordinary women; women who were drawn to fabric and what can be made from fabric.  Both harnessed their passion, their talent, for design to rise to the top of their respective artistic realms.  Written by Jeanne Walker Harvey with illustrations by Diana Toledano, Dressing Up The Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head (Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, September 20, 2022) is the story of a young girl, a behind-the-scenes person, who grew to transform settings and characters through her personal perspectives.

Edith was a shy, lonely girl who didn't feel she belonged where she lived.  She wanted to be in a place full of people and sounds and dazzling sights.

Edith's family lived in a small town near a mine due to her stepfather's employment.  As far as her eyes could see was stone and sand.  To keep her loneliness at bay, Edith held tea parties for her animal friends and dressed them in doll clothes, necklaces and huge ribbons.

Sometimes when her family traveled four miles to the nearby town of Searchlight, Nevada, Edith would go door to door asking for pieces of fabric to place in her treasured bag.  Back at home she would use these pieces to sew accessories for her pet horned toads.  Unafraid Edith roamed the desert alone, but when she made costumes for sisters in a play, she stayed behind the curtain.

Edith longed to leave the desert.  Finally, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles so she could attend a high school.  Here, she tried to figure out the path she would take, but it was at the local movie theater she felt a dream start to grow.

After college and several years of teaching, Edith got a job as a sketch artist in a costume department.  Her boss recognized her lack of skills, but instead of firing her, he taught her.  At first Edith's designs were far from good, but she practiced and practiced and practiced.  She was finally making costumes . . . for movie animals.

From there, Edith was asked to fit humans with costumes.  She was not an instant success, but years of work lead to her eventual prominence.  One special night, the first of eight such nights, Edith heard her name announced in a large venue filled with movie people.  The lonely little girl was now a star!

In her writing of this biography, Jeanne Walker Harvey allows readers, regardless of their age, to find portions of themselves in the life of this woman.  Readers can identify with her loneliness, shyness, trying to discover her life's work, and pursuit, however hard, of a creative style.  Jeanne Walker Harvey includes specific details such as the names of the burros Edith, as a little girl, embellished with ribbons, a personal quote by Edith and the disastrous particulars of candy costumes for characters attending a glamorous dance.  In the beginning of this narrative, an adjective is used to describe Edith's big wish.  It is used again as the last word in the last sentence.  This is a wonderful writing technique.  Here is a passage.

Instead, she dressed up animals.
They were not easy clients.

Camels spit on her.  Elephants yanked off their decorations.
Edith missed her desert toads and burros, who let her
adorn them without a fuss.

But Edith was confident.

When viewing the open and matching dust jacket and book case, the bright white background highlights the exquisitely rendered elements in Diana Toledano's signature illustrative interpretation.  To the right of the spine, on the front, we see Edith Head at the height of her career amid fabric and fashions designed by her.  To the left of the spine, on the back, Edith, as a little girl, is seated.  Here she is surrounded by pieces of fabric and sewing accessories like buttons, pins, needles and thread.  She is carefully stitching a hat for one of her horned toads.  On the front, the main title text is raised to the touch.  Here and on the back, the colorful elements are varnished.

On the opening and closing endpapers and on the first and last pages, on a white canvas, Diana Toledano has placed beautifully patterned, in two hues of muted blue, an array of clothing and accessories.  Each item is part of a pleasing whole.  On the title page, again in full color, we see Edith Head's hands as she works at her desk covered with drawings of possible designs. 

This artwork was created

by hand using many techniques:  gouache, collage, colored pencils, crayons, pastels, and more.  

It was digitally edited.  Most of the images are double-page pictures.  For those that are not, several smaller illustrations are grouped to show the passage of time or a series of similar events.

Intricately detailed visuals portray and enhance the text marvelously.  We feel the vastness of the barren landscape, home to Edith as a child.  We rejoice in her imaginative play and sewing endeavors.  We feel as though we are seated with her in the movie theater when she is a teen.  We struggle when she struggles and cheer when she is triumphant.  The patterns used in each of these images all allude to her lifetime accomplishments. 

One of my many favorite illustrations is a two-page nighttime scene.  Along the bottom of the pages are rolling sandy and rocky hills.  There are hints of desert flora on these hills.  On the left side, near a bush or perhaps a cactus, Edith sits, legs outstretched and leaning on her arms behind her.  Her head is tilted up.  The deep blue sky is filled with red, pink, blue, purple and white stars along with a crescent moon.  Etched in the stars, in white, are city buildings.  Edith wished to leave the desert and live in a big city. 

Readers will certainly be inspired when reading Dressing Up The Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head written by Jeanne Walker Harvey with illustrations by Diana Toledano.  From gathering scraps of fabric by going door to door in a tiny desert town to making costumes for famous actors and actresses in Hollywood, this woman rose to the top through perseverance.  There is a list of books and websites as resources at the end of this title.  You will want to place a copy of this fascinating biography in your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Jeanne Walker Harvey and Diana Toledano and their other work, please access their websites by following the link attached to their names.  Jeanne Walker Harvey has accounts on Pinterest and Twitter.  Diana Toledano has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.  At the publisher's website, you can download some activity sheets and view interior images as well as the dust jacket. The cover reveal with author and illustrator conversations is at John Schu's Watch. Connect. Read.  The book trailer premiered at KidLitTV.  This title with interviews is highlighted at author Erin Dealey's site, Geeks Out, Mutually Inclusive, and Alfred Hitchcock Master.

Sometimes, we become our best selves because we are enveloped by it for as long as we can remember.  It is a part of every moment of our lives.  It is fostered by those we love and who love us.  Only the Best: The Exceptional Life and Fashion of Ann Lowe (Chronicle Books, October 18, 2022) written by Kate Messner and Margaret E. Powell with illustrations by Erin K. Robinson chronicles the growth of Ann Lowe into a remarkable talent.  Her hard work, in the face of unjust odds, sets her apart and cements her place in history.

In a stately Alabama
mansion, women in bright dresses
twirl before a mirror.

Their gowns glow like moonlight---
glimmering fabrics and 
the soft sheen of pearls. 

In another part of town, a ball has begun.  It is here those gowns worn by those women swirl around the dance floor.  Away from the festivities, a young girl wanders in a garden marveling at the perfection of its flowers.  She dreams of forming this perfection from fabric.  

Inside, in a shop, Ann's grandmother and mother sew gowns from rolls of fabric.  She gathers the scraps, making blossoms from cloth.  Her mother teaches her to make dresses and gowns from brown paper patterns.  She learns how to finish each creation with flare and precision.

As New Year's Eve approaches one year, Ann's mother becomes ill and passes away.  Ann hides her sorrow and finishes all those gowns for all those ladies.  A year passes and Ann is on her way to Florida to sew for a wealthy family.  Soon, Tampa is talking about the one-of-a-kind dresses made by Ann.  Ann dreams of seeing her dresses in fashion magazines.  Knowing she needs to learn more, she heads to New York City.

Studying at the S. T. Taylor School in Manhattan is hard for a Black student.  Working alone in a separate room, Ann flourishes and completes the course with honors.  Returning to Florida, she works even more, saving for her own shop.  Still frustrated, Ann returns to New York City, asking for work in the most prestigious shop.  Ann simply won't take no for an answer.  She completes a dress, returns to the shop, and that same day her dress is sold.

Ann's work at the shop is impeccable and highly prized.  She is asked to make the wedding gown for Jacqueline Bouvier and the dresses for her party.  A week before the wedding, disaster strikes.  Ann is not deterred.  She is determined to deliver the gown and dresses herself.  Yet again, she finds herself relegated to second-class status.  This is simply not Ann.  This is simply not the best.  Did she prevail?

Through the writing of Kate Messner and Margaret E. Powell, the magic felt by those who wore Ann Lowe's designs and that magic she lovingly sewed into them is brought fully to life.  Lyrical text filled with highly descriptive places and times fashions an intimate portrait for readers.  Repetition of words and phrases draws us into the story with its cadence.  The knowledge these authors have garnered from their study and research is evident in the facts folded into the narrative.  Here is a passage.

Ann folds up her feelings and
tucks away her tears.  She works
day and night, the way her mother
taught her.  Only the best will do.
Measure, snip, pin up the hems.
Thread the needle.
Pull the stitch tight.
Embroider the last lovely bloom. 

In a word, the images by Erin K. Robinson are enchanting.  The pattern of a blue-hued background with shades of pink and purple flowers amid greenery extends from the front, across the spine, and to the far left edge.  The looping ribbon ties the two portions together.  Elegantly seated in a chair, Ann Lowe is beneath the three words which guided her work.  The three word main title text and three circular designs are varnished. 

The book case takes the pattern from the back of the dust jacket and uses it for the back of the case.  This pattern continues in a mirror image on the front of the case.  The ribbon shown on the jacket remains along the bottom on both sides of the case.  There is the addition of the larger circular element shown on the jacket to the curve made by the ribbon on both the front and back of the book case.  (If this is fabric designed by Ann Lowe, any person wearing it would feel heavenly.)

A pale cream infused with hints of pink covers the opening and closing endpapers.  There is a textured hint of flowers on a vine close to the bottom of the pages.  We see scissors, needle and thread and a dressmaker's form within this artwork along with leaves and those circular elements.  The verso and title pages are joined by two pink ribbons.  A floral arrangement frames the four corners of the text on the title page.


digitally in Procreate

each page turn reveals another double-page visual (or a few single-page pictures) certain to envelope readers.  We feel as though we are intertwined into the fabric of Ann Lowe's life.  We are there as she walks in the garden as a child.  We are there when she makes flowers from fabric scraps.  We are there, looking down on her and her mother, as she learns to make and use patterns.  We are there as she watches Jacqueline Kennedy's gown billow about her on her wedding day.  We are there when she sews wherever and whenever she can.  Erin K. Robinson uses texture, pattern, light and shadow to great effect.

One of my many favorite illustrations is a double-page picture.  It is when Ann's mother is teaching her to cut patterns.  The color palette is a soothing selection of peach shades, pale blue, pale green, and a warm gray.  The fabric on the table before the mother and daughter is enlarged to fill the left side.  There they are placed as if we are looking down on them.  Their hands are on the table with the fabric and brown paper patterns.  A pair of scissors awaits use.  This is a tender moment of a mother's hand on her child's hand, guiding them.  An enlarged ribbon loops through the top and bottom of the visual.

Learning of this woman's life through reading Only the Best: The Exceptional Life and Fashion of Ann Lowe written by Kate Messner and Margaret E. Powell with illustrations by Erin K. Robinson will leave you in awe of her resolve.  At the close of the book is a two-page Author's Note.  This is followed by Quotations in Order of Events (two and one half pages) upon which portions of this book are based.  This is followed by a one and one-half page bibliography.  Your picture book biography collections, professional and personal, will be strengthened by containing a copy of this title.

To learn more about Kate Messner and Erin K. Robinson and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their current websites.  Sadly, Margaret E. Powell passed away in 2019.  Here is a link to a guest post she did on Kate's site in 2017.  Her Twitter account is still active.  Kate Messner has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Erin K. Robinson has an account on Instagram.  

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