Rebecca Crawford grew up in Sydney, Australia. After graduating from the University of NSW with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2010, she decided to move to New York City in order to further her education through the budding academic realm of Fashion Studies. Becca applied to Parsons’ MA Fashion Studies program in 2011 and was awarded First Class Honors upon graduating in May 2013. Over the past three years, Becca has gained extensive experience in both the retail industry—having worked at Barneys and Scoop in NYC—as well as the world of documentary film/television production. Becca continues to be fascinated by how fashion, architecture and ‘space’ are so profoundly interconnected in terms of how we cultivate and understand our sense of ‘self.’ In November 2013, she was awarded a fully funded scholarship by the Australian government into order to continue exploring these concepts through a PhD of Design at the University of Technology in Sydney.
What current project(s) are you at work on or have you just completed?
The project I am about to embark on is tentatively titled ‘Peering Beyond The Curtain of Adornment – Fashioning the ‘Self’ Through an Aesthetic Life: Architecture, Dress and the Decorative.’ In October 2013, I decided to propose this in-depth study as part of a PhD of Design program at The University of Technology in Sydney.
Continuing researching my Master’s thesis beyond the two years I spent developing it at Parsons in the School of Art and Design History and Theory (ADHT) had been on my mind since I graduated in May last year. Immediately after I graduated in New York—whilst on a sort of inspired ‘high’ after the deeply satisfying immersion into my readings and the thesis writing process—I reached out to an Australian Professor named Peter McNeil. Prof. McNeil has been a key thinker and contributor to the academic landscape of Fashion Studies for many years, and by some strange turn of fate, had just completed an essay on the ‘rich women’ of New York’s inter-war elite in which he mentioned Babe Paley, the socialite my Masters thesis is centered around.
Committing the next four or so years of my life to the academic world was a huge decision, and one that I continued to put off until something simply clicked in my heart and mind. I soon realized that my fascination with philosophies of beauty, aesthetic cultivation, and the notion of living a ‘decorated life’ was not going anywhere, and that, for me, the most comprehensive and exciting way to explore these topics was through a PhD. By embarking on a Doctorate of Philosophy in Design, I not only hope to advance the underdeveloped scholarly exploration into sartorial female dandyism and female subjectivity, but to develop dynamic, visionary research. I would like my research to go beyond the creation of a singular written document. Rather, by incorporating the visual mediums of film and photography, I hope to develop a more relatable and creative approach to the universal themes encapsulated by my thesis topic.
Having left myself just one week to put together a research proposal, Professor McNeil’s encouragement and guidance allowed me to develop a strong research plan with which to be admitted into the PhD of Design program. In November, I was accepted by the University and was granted a full Commonwealth Scholarship by the Australian Government to continue my studies on a full-time basis for the next four or so years.
I officially begin my studies on the 10th of February 2014, so at the moment I am in the very early stages of continuing the development of my Doctorate topic.
What inspired these projects/this project?
My decision to complete a Doctorate of Philosophy was an outgrowth of the initial inspiration behind my MA Fashion Studies thesis topic. What sparked my original fascination with the highly influential, yet relatively unknown, American socialite Babe Paley was the seductive promise that a gorgeously ‘decorated life’ holds in satisfying “the immortal thirst for beauty”—as aptly put by Charles Baudelaire. The enduring power of Babe’s image, as published in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair throughout the 1950s and 60s, made me question what it actually means to live a ‘decorated life?’ Where decoration, in the world of picturesque American socialites, supposedly concealed the ‘pain behind the glamour’.
I am still trying to uncover why there is such a stark disconnect between the way beautiful American socialites have been, and remain, depicted framed within their homes flaunting flawless skin, artful hair and impeccable fashion, and the way their interior sense of ‘self’ has been written about over time.
When I started reading about Babe’s legacy and her marriage to Bill during the early stages of my research in 2012, I also began reading the novel The Portrait of A Lady, by the renowned American author Henry James. With Babe constantly on my mind, I suddenly began noticing some startling parallels between Babe’s mythology and James’s fiction. In particular, his examination of the ‘inward’ life and fascination with the notion of an ‘aesthetic morality.’ In The Portrait of a Lady, James poses the question “wasn’t all history full of the destruction of precious things? Wasn’t it much more probable that if one were fine one would suffer?” I noticed throughout his various works that James would repeatedly highlight the threat that a search for aesthetic perfection and beauty can hold. It is this eternally shifting question of whether beautiful things can ever escape their tragic fate of ending up unhappy, disillusioned and ‘destroyed’ that underlines my investigation into the corpus of Babe’s images, as well as my upcoming primary research into her daily existence.
Do you find connections between these projects and your current, future, or recent work for Parsons?
Yes, absolutely. My upcoming PhD and past masters thesis are both situated during the mid-twentieth century period in the United States when a new aspirational American social archetype emerged: the nouveau-riche power couple. The female counterparts of these super-glamorous, jet-setting couples re-imagined the contemporary use of mass media, architecture, fashion, and the decorative. These were the original queens of America’s high-society who used style to practice a very particular type of sartorial female dandyism in order to perfect the ‘art of living.’ Over time, however, they have in a sense become caricatures of themselves. They are depicted almost as ‘anti-heroines,’ either as angelically demure or vulgar and cunning due to their supposedly unrelenting ambition for wealth. They are perceived as attempting to fill a vacancy within themselves, rather than satisfying some otherworldly sense of beauty, art, and aesthetics for their own sake independent of any widely accepted moral or social reasoning. Based on my past work at Parsons, I look to amplify my existing investigation into why, despite the pervasive belief in the power of aesthetic culture to give one’s life meaning, there remains an unshakeable stigma of insignificance around the notion of the ‘psychology of the superficial’.
Babe Paley in particular practiced a very specific type of sartorial female dandyism. Women like Babe were not by any means ‘intellectuals,’ but were devoted to high culture and dressing to delight the soul. At this point in time, there remains a large gap in our knowledge due to a lack of investigation into the powerful relationship fundamental to the psychological, material, and spatial influence of a ‘decorated life,’ and the self-fashioning of these super-glamorous women. Beyond Babe Paley, some of these women include C.Z. Guest, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness and Pauline de Rothschild, who also remain largely unexamined in academia.
How have New York’s resources contributed to your current work?
New York’s resources have been crucial to the development of my work, particularly as I launch into researching my Doctorate. The dynamic nature of the city’s spatial and individualistic personality has allowed my research to possess a fullness and vitality that would not have existed without the subliminal influence of the city itself. Its geography, history, energy, archives and ambitious individuals provided me with direct and unfettered access to the beating heart of one of the world’s top fashion industries. I very much hope to carry this implicit understanding of the nature of the city into my future studies. Despite now being based back in Sydney, I am planning multiple research trips over the upcoming year to New York City in order to capitalize on existing contacts I have there, as well as the range of archives, libraries and collections available to me.
Is this your first project of this kind? What unique challenges and discoveries are presenting themselves?
Yes, this future PhD is definitely the most extensive and in-depth project I have undertaken so far in my career! Although I haven’t technically started my studies, I am expecting one of the main challenges involved in the nature of such an in-depth, long-term investigation to be finding a way to remain inspired and excited about my thesis topic. I have heard people speak about their Doctorate studies with much disdain and frustration, and I am determined not to let the ups and downs involved in any sort of innovative pursuit discourage me from pushing through creative blocks along the way. An excellent piece of advice I received in order to do this is twofold: one being to remain very grounded in the ‘real world’ outside of academia, and the other to continue reading authors who inspire me and who I aspire to write like.
If this project is part of a long-term interest, how have you seen your work shift through time?
My work has drastically shifted over time. It is this organic and continuous evolution that remains so inspiring to me about the upcoming years of study. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Jeffrey Lieber at Parsons, who taught me to always keep an exceptionally open mind when embarking on first-hand research and analysis. I learnt that one author, philosopher, poet or line from a novel could catapult my research into limitless directions that I had never considered before.
For example, toward the end of my Master’s thesis I became fascinated with how the final image of Babe’s existence, conjured by the darkly romantic descriptions of her lying on her deathbed, manifested itself as a seventeenth century Dutch Vanitas painting. Vanitas is a Latin biblical aphorism appropriated from the Old Testament. It means ‘all is vanity.’ Eternal emptiness. This art form explored the interconnectedness between vanity and death, an area of art theory I only discovered late in the process of my Master’s. Throughout my PhD, I hope to conduct a much deeper investigation into connections between this type of art and women like Babe.
Another main shift in my work is a renewed focus on the figure of a ‘female dandy.’ Based on the well-established history of the male dandy as well as different philosophies of beauty, I hope to uncover why the ‘worship’ of appearances is seen as vain and dangerous in relation to women and female subjectivity. Further, I will explore why there exists such a deeply ingrained assumption that a life defined by appearances, when pursued by strong female figures, is perceived as being motivated by a ‘lack’ of something.
If you are at the culmination of a project, do you have plans for your next endeavors? What should we look out for from you in the future?
The long-term goal that I am most excited for is the formal development of a documentary film based on Babe Paley’s life by utilizing the depth of material I will be gathering as part of my upcoming research. With much more time now available to me than the 12 months we had during the MA Fashion Studies program, I am able to approach my PhD from a distinctly multi-dimensional standpoint in terms of fields of study, methodologies, and exploring various creative visual outputs.
I am looking to approach my doctorate studies from a somewhat creatively eclectic methodological approach. By blending autoethnography through first-hand interviews and observations, visual analysis of primary sources, archival research (both film footage and print media), historical studies, and the analysis of philosophies of beauty, I hope to contribute new knowledge to the field of fashion studies that goes beyond purely biographical descriptions of the largely overlooked American fashion icons of ‘café society.’
By blurring the lines of objectivity and subjectivity, process and product, self and others, as well as art and science in my methodological process, I hope to parallel the similar way in which women like Babe Paley powerfully cultivated such an aesthetically seductive and harmonious image. There is not nearly enough original, first-hand research conducted on Babe Paley, or the broader context of these infamous ‘ladies who lunch,’ and I hope to spread the word on the powerful nature of their existence through the public release of this film within the next five years.
 James, The Portrait of a Lady, 608.