How Georgia O’Keeffe Styled Her Iconic Self-Image
If Georgia O’Keeffe’s career as an artist hadn’t panned out, she almost certainly could have been a successful fashion designer or seamstress. That’s just one small takeaway from “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” which opens March 3rd at the Brooklyn Museum.
Featuring more than 60 items from her elegantly streamlined wardrobe, including dozens of garments she made herself, the exhibition takes as its subject O’Keeffe’s public persona, which she carefully crafted through her dress, interiors, lifestyle, and belongings.
It’s the first time ever that her wardrobe has gone on view outside the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. But just as important as the clothes are accompanying photographs that picture her wearing them. Many of the images were taken by her husband, the legendary art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was instrumental in helping her cultivate her self-image.
“He really taught her that she should have a personal image to go along with her art,” says the show’s curator, Wanda Corn, Professor Emerita of Art History at Stanford University. O’Keeffe’s clothing remained consistently austere until the end of her long life, when she died in 1986 at the age of 98.
While many of us might associate O’Keeffe’s nature imagery with forms that evoke the female body—voluptuous flower petals and rippling mountainsides suggestive of vulvas and swollen labia—her clothing did more to obscure her female form than reveal it. Bucking trends in women’s wear, O’Keeffe kept to a more masculine vocabulary of style.
Born in 1887, she was an early opponent of the corset, like many progressive women in the early 1900s, and began assembling from a young age a collection of tunics, shirt dresses, two-piece suits, and other loose-fitting yet beautifully tailored garments—largely in black and white, and always made with the finest textiles she could find.
This stylishly practical, modern wardrobe positioned her as an independent thinker, but it also helped formulate her broader aesthetic. “She created a signature body to go along with her signature art,” says Corn, who is among the first historians to research the trove of belongings the artist left behind. “She covered her body and head with abstract shapes, like she did her canvases.”
Her abstracted language of fashion is abundantly clear in the extensive body of photographs of her dressed for the camera. Between 1917 and 1937, Stieglitz, who was also founder of the avant-garde New York gallery 291, photographed O’Keeffe more than 300 times.
Wearing black and set against white, she often appears as an abstract form herself. She rarely appears in front of the easel, with a brush or any other tools of her trade, and the omission is clearly calculated, as intentional as O’Keeffe’s confident poses, straightforward, unsmiling expressions, and spare outfits.
Down to the smallest detail—her subtly tilted chin, say, or the Alexander Calder spiral brooch the artist made for her—these pictures reveal an effort to present the artist more as one would a Hollywood or theater star, as Corn points out.
While Stieglitz clearly put his art-dealer savvy and artistic know-how to use in the service of helping to build his wife’s career, “he had very little to do with the way she dressed, aside from giving her a cape,” says Corn.
When it came to the perception of her work, however, he was deeply influential. Many blame him for the sexualized, feminine associations that so many people relate to her art. “He was very influential on critics in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Corn, “and he really was the instigator of this whole notion that she is ‘painting out of her womb,’ as he liked to say.”
O’Keeffe strove to collapse that myth, particularly when she turned from painting the lush flora of Lake George, where Stieglitz’s family had a compound, to capturing the abstract potential of animal bones and rugged desert vistas in New Mexico, where she eventually moved after Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
But even as her paintings evolved and her imagery shifted, O’Keeffe’s public persona remained astoundingly consistent, as Corn details in the catalogue that accompanies the show. Long before she met Stieglitz, when she was teaching art in West Texas, or studying at the Art Students League in New York, a sense of elegant, unlabored efficiency permeated every aspect of her style and approach to life.
This can be seen in everything from the simple way she wore her hair and her sparse modernist interiors (with Bertoia and Saarinen chairs and a Calder mobile), to the way she ran her New Mexico households, where she oversaw extensive organic gardens and ongoing architectural renovations.
“She came out of the Arts and Crafts setting,” says Corn, referring to the early 20th-century movement that strove for a holistic, natural aesthetic in the face of dehumanizing Victorian fustiness and industrialization. “She was taught that everything you are doing—placing a stamp on an envelope, putting on your tie—everything should be done with a sense of style and beauty.”
She was also heavily influenced by early American modernist Arthur Wesley Dow, with whom she studied at Columbia University, and who emphasized that same holism. “Good design determined beauty in fine art, he argued, but was also a universal yardstick widely applied in making furniture, decorating a room, arranging a mantelpiece, or determining what to wear,” writes Corn in the catalogue.
And like Dow, O’Keeffe was drawn to the minimalist, meditative tendencies of Asian culture, and she went to great efforts to acquire beautiful kimonos from Japan, several of which are on view here.
Throughout her life, she continued to be a source of fascination for numerous photographers, from Ansel Adams and Bruce Weber to Philippe Halsman and Laura Gilpin. Her sense of style was clearly of interest, but the impact of her years as Stieglitz’s subject can’t be underestimated.
“He taught her how to be a model,” says Corn. “She’d fall into that quiet mode without much going on in her face. And that is the experience she brought to everybody who photographed her. She was easy to photograph because she knew just what to do.”
And even into her 90s, she stuck to exquisitely tailored, gender-neutral black-and-white clothing without much adornment. As for the connection between her paintings and the way she lived and dressed, it’s really about stylistic judgments, says Corn.
There is alignment in “the palette and the nature of form, the organic quality that describes almost anything she did,” says Corn. “And she wasn’t a silhouette. She didn’t look like an Ellsworth Kelly stepping out there, or an Al Held. She looked billowing, rounded, and soft.”