As the mother of modern painting, Georgia O'Keeffe's minimalist aesthetic influenced every part of her life. She built her house of vision on a strong sense of self, which fostered her artwork and her revolutionary persona, forever marking the world with her impression.
The iconic artist wasn't like her female contemporaries; the largest space in her home was her studio, not the living room. She didn't wear high heels or much jewelry. She made her own kimono-like robes and dressed mostly in black.
As we speak, the Brooklyn Museum has an entire exhibit dedicated to O'Keeffe's life and style. Featuring pieces from her wardrobe, photographs of her from different eras throughout her life and some of her work, the exhibit, Living Modern, shares a title with the book on the same subject written by exhibit curator and professor emerita of art history at Stanford Univeristy, Wanda M Corn.
Living Modern wouldn't be complete without the collection of clothing Corn borrowed from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, as well as the help of curator Carolyn Kastner, who worked organizing items and piecing outfits together. Both curators see the consistent stylized thread in O'Keeffe's world as an inseparable part of her legacy.
"Amazing continuity. That's Wanda's phrase, and I love that, because this amazing continuity is throughout her life and across all parts of her life," Kastner says. "This is how she lives, this is how she sees, this is how she thinks."
The collection includes pieces from every O'Keeffe era. Some are instantly recognizable from photos of her taken by the likes of Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol and the love of her life, Alfred Stieglitz: dark, layered menswear-inspired ensembles and a black-and-white wrap dress.
"You think there's one black suit and you see her looking the same over time, but there are actually parts of four black suits when we got her closet sorted out. So, when one wore thin—and they did—she would have another one made," Kastner tells SFR, "and the labels inside are dated to a specific time when she had that look remade."
One could line up the years of O'Keeffe's black suits, dated with passing time, and realize that when she found something she liked, she stuck to it. "That wrap dress with the belt—we have 23 of those," Kastner says. "You think you're seeing her in one dress, but you're seeing her in one style of a dress. You get the sense that this is a longevity of one look, and there are lots of editorial decisions around the frame of that."
The clothes in O'Keeffe's closet show signs of wear and repair, hinting that she treasured certain pieces, and that she wasn't delicate with them. They weren't things she only wore in photographs. "She's always being fluid and in motion, and her clothes show that. They have pockets and they have patches on them because something happened and she wanted to continue wearing them," Kastner says. Some items in her closet were so finely made, they sustained wear to perfection; like her cape by New York designer Zoe, who also made Stieglitz's famous cape. Kastner jokes that it's fabricated so finely, it could survive a nuclear event. "It's so beautiful it breaks my heart, seriously," she says.
But the collection includes examples from less affluent times in O'Keeffe's life, including some she may have designed and made herself. And some of the pieces in the collection have artistic statements hidden in their folds, like a kimono wrap that features a hidden band of hand shibori dyed silk, made by a delicate process of dip-dying. "That's a very interesting piece and it goes to a very early date," Kastner says. "It's common that she would be dressed in black, but there would be a detail that maybe only she would know, like this rainbow of color on the inside."
Founder of modernism and minimalist fashion aside, O'Keeffe was an artist, and she wore things she could paint and move in; things that were comfortable, livable, and in line with her aesthetic. Her tendency toward menswear and robes, wrap dresses and kimonos mirror the current trends so closely, we should honor her foresight and influence.
Kastner asserts that the key ingredient to O'Keeffe's style was simplicity. "Whether it has stripes or plaids or flowers—which are in her wardrobe—they all create a beautiful silhouette. That, I think, is what gives us the sense of style, it's really a simplified sense of dressing."
If you want to hear more about the Claire McCardell dresses, Ferragamo shoes and Hector Aguilar turquoise belts that remain behind as relics of the iconic painter, attend Kastner's upcoming lecture on the very subject as part of the Breakfast With O'Keeffe series.
Carolyn Kastner: Modern Style and O'Keeffe's Closet
9 am Wednesday May 3. $15.
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Education Annex,
123 Grant Ave.,