Vävda Modedrömmar

Last Friday was a beautiful day to walk around Stockholm, and I went on a hunt for some sewing tools I left behind in America.  Turns out no one else seems to need a ruler with inches on it?  Erik suggested I attach a measuring tape to a ruler--why not?

But the next item on my list was visiting the exhibition that opened at Hallwylska museet that day, called "Vävda Modedrömmar: från Ripsa till New York", or "Woven Dreams of Fashion: from Ripsa to New York".  This was a charming, compact exhibition of dresses designed by weaver Ebba von Eckerman in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Her most famous pieces were short jackets, apparently just a small blanket pinned and folded in such a way that they became a chic outer layer:

(photo from here, this is part of a series at that website where they modeled the clothing on modern women, fun to see them on real--and not tiny--bodies!)

Three of these were featured in the first of only three rooms, along with two skirts.  All the garments were set against black fabric mannequins or paired with simple black top, highlighting the clothing.  It was a great opening to the collection, introducing Swedish design ingenuity (blanket becomes garment) and its connection to fashion (iconic garment, adored by Dior), the red thread throughout the exhibition.  I was a little put off by the sounds of weaving playing in the background, as it sounded much more like a woodshop, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why they would use that...it took me a while to hear it correctly, and I wonder how many people knew what it was?

The designer, Ebba von Eckermann, was the daughter of one of the founders of the Swedish design house Märthaskolan, which clothed Queen Margaretha and can be seen at Hallwylska's sister institution Livrustkammaren (or here). Despite that pedigree, she apparently was more interested in land cultivation than fashion, and it was her husband--a descendant of the von Hallwyl family that owned the house that became the museum--who urged her to do this work.  They wove in Ripsa, in Södermanland, Sweden, and the exhibition was focused on her ability to export the idyll of that small Swedish town to the United States and the fashion world in the 1970s.

(The designer in the "Ripsa Skirt", which was very popular. Photo: Ebba von Eckerman, from here and here.)

The three rooms are permanent museum spaces maintained by Hallwylska Museum, a ladies' drawing room, a "main drawing room" or ballroom, and men's smoking room decorated as they were in the 1890s, which was obviously very exciting for me.  I'm not sure if the excess of that decade distracted other people, but I felt like the dramatic background helped support these garments as fashionable objects, worn when even if the cut was simple, the proper thing was a dress with a pizazz.

The second room was a blast of color and sparkle, which is not what I usually associate with Swedish weaving from the countryside.  I immediately thought of the Swedish word for colorful, fargstark, which is literally "color-strong", and I was pleased to see the words "fargstarka kvinnor" in the exhibition text: colorful women!  These dresses were meant for women who worked hard and looked good, epitomized by the original owner of most of the garments on display, Ann Forsberg.  She was the wife of an American ambassador, and became a fashion ambassador of sorts, responsible for the popularity of von Eckermann's designs in America. With the sounds of low conversations, laughs and 1960s cocktail party music in our ears, it was easy to call up idealizations of the glamor of mid-century life and imagine the candlelight glinting off the metals woven into the gowns, or the fargstark businesswoman hanging up her matching coat in the office.
The dresses were arranged in a loose chronology, and these twenty-six dresses--and one man's coat--were all monochrome or woven in a bright plaid.  No color arrangment was done, and it was rather refreshing to see so many similar silhouettes, which really highlighted the weaving and was just simple.  One of the strongest points of this exhibition was its simplicity; the clothes were allowed to speak for themselves, and any exhibition text was in support of the designer, not in search of an overwrought deeper meaning.  These are beautiful clothes that gave Sweden a new face in fashion, now largely forgotten, which deserve to be remembered.

 (photo from here)

The arrangement continued into the final room, where the 1970s were represented by super-sparkly dresses and skirts in complex, colorful woven patterns, possibly inspired by traditional Swedish weaving translated into contemporary colors and materials--there's that red thread.  We puzzled over these metallic kaleidoscopes while listening to the birdcalls of Ripsa and oars sending a boat across a Swedish lake.  Visually, a projection screen was suspended over the garments with archival photos and spreads from magazines like Sports Illustrated, interspersed with great quotes from LIFE magazine about the new Swedish star:

"Sweden has long been known for its beautiful women, but its reputation for clothes has been popularly based on wearing none at all." LIFE magazine, October 6, 1958

"A smashing new source of savvy styles brings Scandinavia's traditions up to date. The leggy blondes of Sweden are more than ever something to see this fall." LIFE magazine, September 27, 1968

These show our propensity for stereotype and von Eckermann's ability to show that the beauty of this country lies in the continuing appreciation and practice of handcraft and tradition.  I was disappointed to read the tiny, middle-of-the-paper blurb on this exhibition in Svenska Dagbladet the next day, which had space only to compare the clothes to Mad Men--you might have heard of it?  The whole point of this exhibition is to demonstrate the Swedishness and strength of this singular designer, but I guess that even Bergman and Bibi Andersson can't compete....too black and white?

Afterward I talked a bit with this guy, who is a docent in the museum.  In the coatroom, they had set up a video of the von Eckermanns in Ripsa, and I would have loved to link to it for you.  But no one had any idea which American made it, and I didn't really have time to wait around in case there were credits at the end.  Too bad!  Here is von Eckermann talking about her work, for those who understand Swedish:

I wish that you could all see this exhibition, it really inspired me to think about the expansiveness of limitation and how much more you see when, for example, the silhouettes are similar.  It's just three little rooms, but that was what I appreciated, and I have faith that Stockholm will see past Peggy Olson and appreciate Ebba von Eckermann for her own strong, colorful clothing.