Drawing out the soul of fashion with Kenneth Paul Block and MFA

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/26/drawing-out-the-soul-of-fashion-with-kenneth-paul-block-and-mfa/

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is hosting a small but elegant exhibit of Kenneth Paul Block’s fashion illustrations. The collection of hand-drawn works from the man whose career helped define fashion at Women’s Wear Daily and W Magazine is as much a chronicle of what fashion was, as it is a reflection of societal aspirations in American’s post World War II era. In a time when photography captured the art of fashion, Kenneth Paul Block opted instead to use pencils and paint to interpret its soul. Block was the house artist for Fairchild Publications, owner of WWD&W, from the 1950s through the 1990s. In addition to that position, he held long-term commissions as an illustrator for Bonwit Teller, Bergdorf Goodman and Lord and Taylor.

Block’s charcoals, opaques, pastels and color-saturated work fused fashion’s statement of the moment with fashion icons of the era. Using sweeping strokes of movement, capturing gesture, posture, and sophistication, his illustrations personified the template of success. Kenneth Paul Block was the arbiter of taste because he captured the nuanced lifestyle of the world’s most credible trendsetters at their best. Block’s masterful use of pencils and brushes articulated style’s convergence with life; he understood its tribal language while others merely observed it.

The exhibit at the MFA includes a smattering of the museum’s permanent collection of Block’s multi-designer treasure trove, but the thoughtfully assembled pieces distill the essence of fashion’s evolutionary dissertation on culture. Subtleties of the collection weave together a societal penchant for cultivating at least the appearance of upscale elegance, poise and refinement. Portraits of casually coiffed Jacqueline Kennedy in simple evening-wear designed by her favorite Madame Gres in 1960, the Duchess of Windsor leaning against a console in a minimalist Balenciaga linen dress in 1962, and an understated composition of Babe Paley in which she sits seductively, fur draped, with a smoldering cigarette, typify the sober haute couture tone of Block’s luxurious early works.

This exhibit also includes a fashionable reference to the powerful psychological shift of the mid 1960s, when the focus of couture began to trend away from the wants of mature women towards the revolutionary essence of Pretty Young Things. Unlike the portraits of well known so-called “society-swans,” three conspicuously less demur, kinetic young women are featured in white opaque, showcasing the counterculture designs of Andre Courreges. Stylistically, these unknowns could be seen as representatives of the new collaborative spirit of creative young women on the burgeoning political/social landscape of the future.

Later examples of Kenneth Paul Block’s reflective expressiveness include color-saturated illustrations that feel as sociologically charged as they do sartorially suggestive. Clustering the work of designers underscored more a sense of desirability of style than insistence on a particular acquisition. Watercolors, metallic paints, and black markers read like a convergence of aspirational greatness and intellectual vanity in a time when culture was evolving away from the staid, welcoming an aggressive exploration of femininity, announcing the arrival of a provocateur.

For nearly forty years KPB’s creative flow of passion embraced the seasons and occasionally exotic styles of multiple designers. In many ways, the collection of illustrations at the MFA underscores the timeless relevance of styling from within. The Block collection visually alludes to the benefits of elevating one’s own sense of elan, a chic mindset, a self-assured personae. Its scope transcends a sense of immediacy so often implied in our “this week” fashion culture. Rather than insisting on the purchase of one dress, one handbag, or a particular pair of shoes, the essence of Block’s work is to exhibit the manifestations of inner confidence in a contextual expose of panache. The inferences encourage an exploration of fashion, encouraging a nexus of life with style.

Visitors of the exhibit that runs until August 14 will see that as society evolved, Block’s fashion renderings became less dogmatic, moving away from a linear portrayal of idealized femininity and conformity towards a less ostentatious, more individual style of life. KPB’s prolific work evolved into a chic synthesis of purposeful dressing while in the pursuit of happiness. Ironically, ultimately the clothes never made the woman; women make the clothes.

Block lived from 1924 to 2009, but the MFA’s exhibit of his eloquent silhouettes still speak in juxtaposition to the mercurial voices of New York’s Fashion Week. In an exhausting international whirl, designers of today use runways for light shows, music shows and discos of fashion. Fashion Week can be seen as more than a harbinger of trends but a timeless cautionary tale. It’s wise to develop a personal statement, derivative of one’s own style rather than follow the frantic flash of lights, pounding music, and frenetic pace of Fashion Weekers.

It’s up to the fashionistas of today to indulge their passion for fashion from the inside, styling their lives in the context of their souls. Rather than follow the sartorial ramblings of contrivance from season to season, a leisurely reflective gallery tour of the Kenneth Paul Block exhibit at the MFA may be the ultimate fashion-forward way to spend an afternoon.