Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness

Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness
Published in 2007 by Yale University Press in association with the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“‘Editing is the key. Elegance is a state of mind that carries you through absolutely every situation—problems, happiness, depression—it has nothing to do with money.  Elegance is the quiet, secret cloak that separates those who have it from those who do not.’”—typed note in Ralph Rucci’s office (Steele 24)

I first heard of Ralph Rucci in 2008, when the exhibit from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York came to the Phoenix Art Museum.  I had a solid foundation of construction knowledge from my years of sewing costumes at home, followed by two years in my university’s costume shop, but it’s fair to say that at the time I hadn’t had much exposure to couture fashion.  In fact, if you’d asked me then, and this is still somewhat true today, I wasn’t all that interested in the whirlwind of the fashion world, with styles changing year to year.  Yet the exhibit explained that Rucci was inspired by the rigorous Japanese tea ceremony—a reference that reminded me of theatre production meetings, not fashion editorials—and on a visceral level the details and line quality of the pieces on display resonated profoundly with me.  So I tucked the name Ralph Rucci in the back of my head as I turned back to the much more accessible world of costume history and design for the next several years at school.

That being said, ever since I decided to write book reviews as a kind of independent “professional development,” I have been looking forward with great anticipation to reading this book, and it definitely didn’t disappoint!  It’s easy to find images online of numerous designers, especially now with personal websites featured by the artists/designers themselves, yet I don’t think that it negates the importance of a publication like this one.  Each of these three essays provides an excellent understanding of Rucci as an artist and of his design practices,  divulging more delicious details than a casual visit to his website.

As mentioned, the book is divided into three essays, written by Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, and Clare Sauro, respectively.  The first essay, “absolute fanatacism,” by the estimable fashion historian Valerie Steele, examines Rucci’s life, and the many years he spent working in fashion even before the established industry took any notice of him. She looks at the various reasons for this relative obscurity, the root of which seems to be his unique philosophy of fashion.    Rucci first formed his line, Chado (named for the Japanese Tea Ceremony), in the 1990’s, and while his contemporary “Gucci[,] produced flashy clothes that screamed sex and money, Rucci was all about discretion” (16).   She notes how his collections tend to evade typical fashion journalistic descriptions.  Part of that comes from his process, and the way he approaches fashion.  Steele quotes Rucci: “‘I approach it as an academic.  I begin with my research.  That is the most important part of my work.’  By ‘academic,’ he means that ‘you conceive a thesis and draw your conclusions.’ In other words, ‘I try to translate the ideas into wearable clothes.  It’s not just sketching’” (4-5).

There are so many gems that Steele includes, collected from interviews, and from Rucci’s notebooks:

“‘I can only suggest clothes that dress a person’s mind, […] This may seem philosophical, but [….] clothes are just another language we use to help communicate the structures and contents of our minds’ “(22).  In stark contrast to mass-produced, ready-to-wear that most people are used to, Rucci seems to suggest that “the garment only really comes alive when it is worn by the right woman” (23)

“’ I am dressing women,’ Rucci writes in one of his (undated) notebooks. ‘Femininity is perceived subliminally through their gestures and visibly through their figures, their legs, necks, breasts, hips.  Overtly feminine touches on clothes do nothing but make a woman effeminate.  A modern woman of the twenty-first century does not need a petticoat. […] Modern feminine clothes are about sensuality and fluidity.  The cloth is closer to the body.’ Yet he can certainly be inspired by images of women from the past. ‘Think of a woman from the court of China or Japan,’ he says.  ‘The poise, the grace, and the female dignity. It’s just so seductive!’ (Steele 41).

Steele quotes Hamish Bowles (International Editor for Vogue), ‘So much of fashion today is about constantly changing trends, and his fashion is more evolutionary, less revolutionary’”  (44, my emphasis).  Not shock-and-awe, but the inner development of the self, of the individual.

The whole book is punctuated with a mix of full-page photographs, as well as smaller images that illustrate examples in the text.  In between the first and second essays there is also a 28-page series of photographs and sketches selected from the fall/winter collections of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006.

The second essay, “couturier and connoisseur,” is written by Patricia Mears.  She touches on his fashion influences of the past, such as Balenciaga, Halston, Charles James, and others.  She also addresses the numerous ways that the art world intersects with his designs; his influences range from Francis Bacon to Cy Twombly, among many others, and include many arts from East Asia.  Mears also delves into the more technical aspect of Rucci’s atelier.  She describes his design process, from inspirations boards, to patterning in his atelier, and even having specialized work done outside the atelier.  She names many of Rucci’s talented staff, and the organization within the atelier.  As she describes all the technical work that happens to bring a collection together, it’s clear that Rucci’s work is an undertaking of thorough collaboration.

Mears continues to describe in great detail many of the luxurious fabrics that Rucci uses, obtained from all over the world, although mostly from Italy.  Part of the luxury/cost is that some of these textiles, known for their fabulous textures, are created using very old methods, or on antiquated looms.   Not only does he serve his clients by choosing quality materials, but also by buying from these rapidly disappearing manufacturers, Rucci is preserving these pockets of the history of textile production.

One of my favorite Rucci construction details are his “suspensions,” where one or multiple pieces of a garment floats within the whole like an island, connected by regularly spaces ties or “worms.”  Some garments are made entirely of suspension, like the green suit from the fall/winter 2006 collection.  Another innovation comes in the form of his Infanta gowns: an homage to his fashion heroes.   The volume of these gowns makes support a challenge, which is usually met by hefty foundation-garments that only give the illusion of weightlessness.  Rucci comes even closer to this ideal, in an attempt to restrict movement as little as possible, by lining pieces of the garment with Filogil, a type of marquisette that is very light and woven to great stiffness.

In the last essay, “the artful accessory,” Clare Sauro revisits Rucci’s influences, but in their application toward the accessories that supplement his collections and runway shows.  As one would expect by this point, he does not overload a model with accoutrement, but chooses a few, very distinctive pieces that echo a recurring texture, and an underlying philosophy.  Sauro also notes the different artists or companies that work in collaboration with Rucci to bring him these accessories.  Within this section are three full-page photographs of different accessories, and eight smaller ones.   Each one has the description of the materials, the originating artist or company, the season/year, and a few have elaborative notes following.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen the exhibits of two masters of garment design and construction—exhibits that have left indelible but profound marks on my imagination: Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, and the aforementioned Ralph Rucci’s Art of Weightlessness in 2008.  I adore the books that cover these exhibits, as I adore many fashion/costume history texts, but the sharpest photograph in the world cannot do justice to three dimensional garments such as these. The experience of scrutinizing and letting my imagination run wild over the details and textures up close was incomparable.   I note this to remind myself and others to patronize local museums and other places where historical/artistic garments are displayed.   Their pieces won’t last as long as our records of them will, and you won’t regret the experience.


Getting Dressed (Turn of the Century)

Getting Dressed (Turn of the Century)

By Sheila Jackson and Tim Wood

It would be easy to make fun of this very dated book, but I’m going to do my best to leave off on the sarcasm and give it an even-handed overview. Published in 1992, and written in extremely simple language, this book is a very basic introduction and comparison of modern garments and those worn in Victorian and Edwardian eras. Organized by various short headings like “What do you wear”, “school uniform”, “clothes for fun”, etc. it expands upon these topics with a combination of hand-drawn illustrations, vintage photographs/ads, and photos from the early 1990’s, lasting no longer than two pages for each heading.  There is no bibliography mentioned, but many of their quoted sources are from elderly people who lived during the early 20th century, relating what they wore or a particular experience with clothing.  Unintentionally humorous are the various photograph of children from the early 90’s trying on vintage clothes with various expressions of discomfort or uncertainty.

Potentially useful are the period photographs of children, images of button-hooks for lacing shoes and spats/gaiters, and an Edwardian skirt-lifter for lady-cyclists…maybe…also a list of various costume museums in the UK.

A Fashionable History of Dresses & Skirts, and Coats & Trousers

Dresses and Skirts1A Fashionable History of Dresses & Skirts
A Fashionable History of Coats & Trousers

By Helen Reynolds

Published by Raintree in 2003

Unlike many fashion history texts, these books resist chronology, instead breaking up Coats and Trousersits short chapters into details of line qualities.  From there each chapter illustrates how those line qualities appeared at different points in fashion history (like magic!). For example, in the “Wrapping” chapter (2 pages long) of Dresses & Skirts, we see images comparing the Ancient Greeks, Romans, an Indian woman in a Sari, and a photograph of a Madam Grès creation from the 1930’s. Targeted at young people, the language is not overly simplistic, but the book overall is very short, and it doesn’t have much depth. While this is not a text for learning about why fashions changed throughout history, I can imagine that it would be instructive to learning about line quality, and noting similarities during history. Part of a 6-part series, both books also have a timeline, glossary, and index.

In Dresses & Skirts the topics are as follows:
From Skin to Spandex
The Tunic
The Tailored Dress
The Waist
The Working Wardrobe
Straight and Narrow
Popular Pleats
A Glimpse of Flesh
World Fashions
Children’s Dresses
Men in Skirts
Fashionable Technology

For Coats & Trousers:
From Capes to Combats
From Cloak to Cape
Doublets to Bomber Jackets
Breeches & Plus-Fours
Baggy Trousers
Women in Trousers
Dress Coats
Overcoats & Anoraks
Jeans & Denim
Fashionable Technology

Underwear: What We Wear Under There

Underwear: What We Wear Under ThereUnderwear: What We Wear Under There

By Ruth Freeman Swain

Illustrated by John O’Brien

Distinctly aimed at young people, this extensively illustrated book is primarily entertaining, but undeniably informative. Swain is an award-winning children’s book author, typically focusing on history.  Without going into a great amount of detail, she covers (rather, reveals) undergarments from ancient civilizations up to modern innovations. Distinctive figures, such as Amelia Bloomer, or John L. Sullivan, and social influences are charmingly referenced, leaving memorable impressions while keeping the brisk pace of the narrative.  Towards the beginning she mentions other cultures, at one point comparing 15th century European knights with 15th century Japanese warriors.  Swain also looks ahead to the future, asking “what happens to an old pair of underpants?” (28), and explains different recycling practices common in the United States.  In the back of the book there is a timeline that reiterates much of the same information from earlier, but also additions, like the design of the bikini, the creation of Lastex from rubber, the invention of Spandex, and more.

John O’Brien’s fanciful and humorous illustrations perfectly complement the text, visually capturing small details, as well as  over-arching themes, and together Swain and O’Brien rescue readers young and old from a dry read.

I would recommend this for any young fashionistas or budding history buffs, or for any adult who want a quick smile.

Vocabulary interspersed through the text:

Breechclout, breechcloth
Combinations/Union Suit
Long johns
S-bend corset



Carter, Alison. Underwear: The Fashion History. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1992.

Corey, Shana.  You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! New York: Scholastic Press, 2000.

Cunnington, C. Willet, and Phyllis Cunnington.  The History of Underclothes.  New York: Dover Publications, 1992.  First Published 1951 by Michael Joseph Ltd., London.

Eicher, Joanne B., Sandra Lee Evenson, and Hazel A. Lutz.  The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society. 2nd Ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2000.

Ewing, Elizabeth. Everyday Dress: 1650-1900.  New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1984.

Farrell-Beck, Jane, and Colleen Gau.  Uplift: The Bra in America.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Steele, Valerie.  The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

The Folkwear Book of Ethnic Clothing–Review

The Folkwear Book of Ethnic Clothing:

Easy Ways to Sew and Embellish Fabulous Garments from Around the World

By Mary S. Parker, published in 2002.

Folkwear has been making patterns for authentic historic and ethnic garments since the 1970’s.

In the overview, Parker identifies the nine most basic types of garments, and addresses the way in which the creation of textiles (size of loom) influences a culture’s development of garments.  She notes how similar types of garments are seen in geographically distant cultures, and provides a wealth of information on the cultural significance of a garment/details, construction techniques and precedents, and the role of the artists in the various cultures.

The amount of information conveyed in text is well balanced by all the richly detailed photographs of the garments referenced in the text, including period pictures of women and men working at various stages in creating textiles/garments.

In the next section Parker examines the various embellishments seen on ethnic clothing, and their cultural and spiritual significances.  She also gives specific instructions to readers on how to embellish pieces of their own construction to imitate those of authentic garments from a variety of cultures, including illustration of embroidery stitches, and patterns for surface decoration.

The last part of the book investigates details of the history and significance of particular garments in specific cultures, followed by instructions for readers on how to construct replicas of these pieces.  These include a Seminole Skirt, a Polish vest, the Moroccan burnoose, a Syrian dress, a Tibetan coat, and a Japanese kimono.

This text would be an excellent resource for research into any of the indigenous cultures mentioned, or for reproduction purposes.

Very Vintage Review

Very Vintage: The Guide to Vintage Patterns and Clothing

Written by Iain Bromley and Dorota Wojciechowska, and published in 2008, 175 pgs.

Despite the vague and encompassing subtitle: “The Guide to Vintage Patterns and Clothing”, Very Vintage has a much more narrow and specific purpose. It is organized as a segmented look at various influences on predominantly couture fashion in the 20th century, breaking up the century into eight sections, by decade after the 1940’s.  Rather than examining each decade with the comprehensive depth seen in costume history texts by Tortora and Eubank, or Valerie Steele, Bromley and Wojciechowska review historical events and people as one-shot entries, referencing trends that prove to continue decades in the future.

The book is dominated by large, detailed pictures, mostly in black and white, but later some in color.  The most unique element is the occasional pattern illustration, by Dorota Wojciechowska, rendered clearly and precisely.  In this text, she illustrates a basic kimono, a guinea dress, a 1940’s woman’s tweed suit, 1960’s Richard Shops dress, Biba catsuit and red stripe tomato suit, and a Teddy boy jacket.

Including a two-page list of sources for obtaining vintage garments, it is an interesting review of the couture industry and its most famous contributors.  While it has neither the breadth nor depth to be a consistent reference for 20th century fashion, I might turn to it as a starting point for some of the historical figures that it covers, especially the most famous designers, or for pattern details.