More Than Miss American Pie

Say bye bye to the absence of American women in history with the new exhibit, “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The collection, which features iconic women’s clothing from 1890 to 1940, addresses the evolution of women’s roles in American society through fashion.

Today, on May 5, the show — which will run

until August 15 — includes garments by designers who changed the landscape of femininity and women’s status outside the home where they were once relegated. The exhibit mixes the struggle for gender equality with women’s successes during that period, cooking up a fresh new recipe of Americana. According to the Met, figures like “Gibson Girls,”  the “Bohemian,” “Suffragist” and “Screen Siren” fashioned new perceptions of women, reflecting the “social, political and sexual emancipation” they achieved over 50 years.

The collection, which visitors can view with an

American Woman via MetMuseum.org

audio tour, is narrated by a modern American icon from the Big Apple: Sarah Jessica Parker. Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, told WWD, “Because of Sex and the City, she is so much associated with New York and with America, and with using fashion as a way to shape identity.”

This weekend I plan to see the exhibit in person, but today I took a sneak peak at the Met’s Collection Database online. I found the timeless elegance of Charles James‘ draped gowns from the 1930’s and 40’s to contrast sharply with the spritely summer dresses by Jeanne Lanvin, which seemed to step out of the opulence of The Great Gatsby. Yet, earlier pieces, like the antiquated black riding habit crafted by Frederick Loeser & Company, date back to 1897 and speak to the adventure women had when they were not tending the kitchen, but out in the world, looking crisp and athletic compared to the intricate and traditional ballgowns by the House of Worth.

Coincidentally, the structured riding habit also caught the eye of Anne Christensen of the New York Times, as she searched for American designers in the showcase. “The long black riding habits in this room were designed by Frederick Loeser & Co., which was founded in Brooklyn in 1887 and was in business up until 1952.” To view photos of the collection and to read her insight from a preview of “American Woman,” read “Now Showing.”

I look forward to experiencing this time of women’s stylish evolution, a complex slice of life, at a time when great American women are not simply defined by what they wear, but by what they can learn, create and do.

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Raison d’Être

Cover of "The Female Brain"
Cover of The Female Brain

Are you one of those people who thinks a lot?  The kind who will be standing in line for a coffee, thinking, what does it all mean?  Well, let me tell you, everything means something if you want it to — and — most of time if you are thinking about it, there’s a biological impulse behind it, just like that caffeine craving… at least that’s what this book I read would have you believe.

In my book club, BrookLit, we focus on fiction and non-fiction works by women writers.  Last month we read The Female Brain, by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, who analyzed a decade of medical, social and psychological research and then tried to make it interesting for the female brain to read.

Now, since I’m obsessed with all things related to women’s issues and how women function in a world run by men, I thought this book would fuel my feminist thoughts about the concept of gender and nurture over nature.  However, that was not the case after I read this book.

In fact, it was just the opposite. This book provides every excuse for nature over nurture. While it explains the differences between the ways men and women’s brains function, it actually made women seem more ruled by their biology than common sense, logic or maturity.

Suffice it to say, I was disappointed.  Not only did it make women these communication needy beings who need to be liked, it made men out to be these grunting ogres who think about sex and their next fight.  I thought this book would reveal some great insight into the mind and maybe even my own thoughts about what it means to be human.  What I found was something else entirely — mind-numbing brain cramps.

The book breaks down the development of the brain and its hormonal influences from the moment of sexual differentiation in utero to menopause.  However, my age group (you know that age in between puberty and before the child-bearing years) was completely absent, though it was noted in the chart at the beginning of the book as a phase of life in between the teen and prospective mother phases.

And, surprise, surprise, in almost every phase of life covered in the book, women are shown to be driven by their menstrual cycle. While this may contribute to a woman’s mood, attitude or thoughts, there is no way this could be the sole determining factor for our happiness, as she would have us believe.

In fact, since some women:  take birth control, which regulates the bodies fluctuation of hormones; eat differently; have different stress levels; experience varied sleep patterns; take medications; exercise in different amounts; and live in entirely different living situations,  it’s not a fair assessment of who many women are at all.

In addition to the oversimplification of the women’s psyche as a chatty, hormonal mess, it did not include women of different financial status, race or sexuality.  In the section about sexual exploration, there was nothing regarding homosexuality or bisexuality.  So, basically, this book was about heterosexual, white, upper to middle class women.

Wow, that’s not limiting at all to women — oops, I must be letting my hormones get the better of me now.  Maybe in the future I shouldn’t read books that prey on my gentle sensibilities and my under-aggressive brain.  I wonder what Dr. Brizendine would say about sarcasm? Is that my over-developed ability to communicate, or is this why we are here, to refute concepts about who we are time and again?

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A Samode Abode

Buffet & Ballet

February 25, 2008

Over the past week I interviewed with the Times of India, searched jobs online and applied to as many positions available in India or in the States via telecommute.  I also started the memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran.  The book is great and it makes me want to re-read the novels discussed in each chapter.  This weekend Daniel and I went to the Samode Palace and an Indian ballet.

At the cultural center, we sat in a theater with about two hundred other guests dressed in everything from jeans to saris.  Eight fans protruded from the side walls like airplane propellers.  People talked, took pictures and kids cried during the ballet production.  The show consisted of two choreographed pieces that began with a twenty minute oral introduction in Hindi by a disembodied voice from offstage.  Between each piece a man appeared onstage and gave flowers to various people who helped produce the show. 

When the first piece began, the curtains opened to a projection of Windows Media Player across the stage.  A cardboard picture of a chariot with horses stood before the projected image.  Two dancers portrayed a fable about a cowardly warrior who receives courage from Krishna.  The dancers slightly moved around and lip synced to the music.  Giri, Sadan and their daughter Purnima were just as confused as we were when the dance finally ended.  We all laughed about the length and redundancy of the piece, hoping the next one would be better.

While we waited to see how several dancers would perform a ballet rendition of “The Old Man and the Sea,” Daniel and I giggled quietly about the whole spectacle.  We even made up words to the Hindi lyrics of the first show.  It was fun to be out, even if the event wasn’t what we expected.  The second show was a unique interpretation of the novel by Hemingway including a round of poker, a soccer game (with slow motion) and a happy ending.  While the dance movements seemed more like modern dance than ballet, we enjoyed the seagull and fish hats the dancers wore.  The set also looked nice with more elegant visual effects. 

On Sunday, Daniel and I had a terrific day.  The weather was warm and our day was mellow.  We hired a car to drive us an hour outside of Jaipur to Samode.  Samode is a small village surrounding a gorgeous palace.  On the way, we gazed out from the car window watching people go about their day.  We saw barbers busy in their shops, shoppers bargaining at fruit stands and camels pull overly packed carts of grains. 

Nestled next to a cacti covered mountain, the Samode palace beams with fresh paint and care.  All of the colorful frescoes and glass designs have been restored.  And the grounds are immaculate.  Samode Palace functions as a heritage hotel, or luxury accommodation.  When we arrived, I was astounded by the beauty of this place.  Green gardens with flowers bursting with color welcomed us in court yards.  Quiet enveloped the courtyard to create a peaceful oasis.  Inside the palace walls I was reminded of Venice’s historical squares and cafes.  Elegant archways and cascading plants stretched overhead.  Guests sat together at bistro tables.  We walked through another courtyard to the restaurant.  A view of the desert hills spanned the sky as we walked down to the terrace where we would sit in the sun and have lunch.  The sound of a fountain added ambiance. 

A buffet lunch with delicious entrees and naan spread across a long table.  In a quiet and empty restaurant we chose from eight different dishes not including chutneys, salads and garnishes.  We also ate dessert the restaurant called banana pudding, but we affectionately called, “banana tar.”  (It was basically heated chocolate sauce over sliced bananas.)  Nonetheless, it was good.  Afterwards, we explored the grounds.

A Samode Abode

As we were leaving, we saw a snake charmer in the parking lot.  He played music as a cobra swayed slowly out of the basket.  On the trip back to Jaipur we took a different route and we saw farms and beautiful stretches of crops.  We ended our weekend by watching the Darjeeling Limited, the funny film about three brothers traveling through India by train.

I Heart Ganesh

Overcoming Obstacles
February 11, 2008
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Daniel and I had a busy and fun week.  Early last week we finished recovering from our illnesses and started to get back into our routines.  And in true Indian form, I’ll thank Ganesh, one of the Hindu deities, or Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles.  During the weekdays Daniel went back to work and I read a book, did some shopping, etc. 

Work is going well for Daniel, but the video card in his laptop broke so he had to call Dell’s customer service in India to have it repaired.  Luckily, he could use my laptop and he had his boss Vikas to point him in the right direction.  As with anything in India, it took him a while to contact the correct services.  There were a few days of frustration for him during that process.  He needed the mysterious “Form 18,” but no one would describe it or tell him where to find it.  Then one day a video card appeared, but without anyone to install it.  Fortunately his computer was fixed by Friday despite the confusion.  In the end we never found out what Form 18 was or if it ever existed, now it’s just a joke at the home-stay.
 
Last week I read a good book my aunt gave me called Foreign Babes in Beijing

The memoir is a well-written and hilarious account of a young woman’s experiences in Beijing after graduating from college.  The writer, DeWoskin, travels to Beijing and works for an American advertising firm.  She is also offered a role on a Chinese soap opera.  To her embarrassment and curiosity, the show hires her and it becomes fodder for her book about crossing cultures and finding herself. I really enjoyed reading it because I could sympathize with the challenges she faced as an American woman in a foreign setting.  From feeling uncomfortable and awkward, to just downright misunderstood and lost, DeWoskin’s book kept me laughing about it all.  (Thanks for a great book Janet!)
 
On Wednesday one of the home-stay guests, Candace (a new friend), took me shopping.  Candace and Randy, a couple from Florida, arrived in Jaipur the weekend of the wedding.  Candace is a jewelry designer having items made in Jaipur.  One day after she finished work, Candace and I went to a few shops with her driver.  It was nice to explore the city and buy some Indian clothes.  I bought a few tops, a kurta and some kurtis.  Kurtas and kurtis are more casual outfits you wear with jeans or funny pants called churidar.  We also went to some jewelry stores where I watched how she haggled with jewelers and examined the quality of pieces.  I thanked Candace multiple times for being so generous with her time and driver.
 
Shopping with Candace inspired me to explore the city more by myself.  On Thursday as they were packing to leave (I couldn’t stay and watch another friend go), I walked to a bookstore near a mall I had visited with Giri a couple miles away.  By the end of the day, I had learned that I cannot go out on my own.  Unfortunately, I now have a radius of how far I can walk by myself from the home-stay.  I’ll write more about that in another post.

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On Saturday, Daniel and I ventured into the Pink City (also called the Walled City) for my 24th birthday.  The Pink City, for which Jaipur is famous, is the historic part of the city planned and laid out in six quarters by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II.  The walls and buildings within the area are actually pink.  We took an auto rickshaw from the home-stay and zipped around outdoor markets, shops and many different forms of traffic.  On our way to a jewelry store recommended by one of the Singh’s favorite auto rickshaw drivers, we saw camels, elephants and horses pulling carts along the streets among bikes, rickshaws, cars, trucks and buses.  To top it all off, amidst all of this craziness — cows had more free reign than a person crossing the street.  

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When we finally arrived at our destination, after passing by the City Palace, Hawa Mahal (or the palace of winds), Jantar Mantar (an observatory), and going off the main thoroughfare — we didn’t know what to expect.  Yet, hidden down a dusty alley where kids were playing, we discovered jewelry heaven.  At the shop they showed us how jewelry is made.  They had hundreds of pieces of jewelry that ranged from silver bangles to a $15,000 blue topaz and diamond encrusted set.  We stayed for a few hours examining (and trying on) everything.  We had a great time!
 
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I didn’t realize how inexpensive everything was because it all looked so lavish.  Daniel kept saying, “This is all you want?” after I had picked out a beautiful amethyst ring for only $25.  I know you ladies must be disappointed, but I was overwhelmed and had miscalculated from rupees to dollars!  Don’t worry, by the time we left, he had picked out a loose gemstone and designed a necklace for me.  I had also picked out some gems and designed a necklace to be made too.  We are both looking forward to returning to our special jewelry place and having more custom jewelry made.  I have a few designs in my head already…
 
Saturday evening Daniel and I went to an Italian dinner at a restaurant called Little Italy.  Afterwards we had chocolate cake at the home-stay with the Singhs, other guests, Vikas and his wife Deepika.  Dinner and my birthday cake were fantastic.

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On Sunday we ventured to the Maharaja’s forts, Amer and Jaigarh.  We drove outside of the Pink City and past the lake palace into the hills.  Amer Fort, the winter palace, was full of tourists, but worth the hour long wait to ride an elephant to the fort.  About twenty elephants take tourists up the hill to the palace ignoring their windbreakers, cameras and overpriced souvenirs, and treating them as royalty.  Some even bought silly turbans in an attemp
t to look the part.  During our elephant ride, Daniel and I shared some giggles in between me clenching the seat and whispering, “Are you sure we aren’t going to fall off?”  
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The forts were exciting to explore together.  I will let the pictures I’ve loaded onto Webshots explain the experience for me.  We both liked Amer because of the elephant ride and luxurious elements, but we agreed that we would prefer to live in Jaigarh, the summer palace. 

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Jaigarh Fort is not as fancy, but it has spectacular views, gardens, and quiet, making it a true palace. There are no yelling peddlers, horns honking, or rickshaws ringing.  Jaipur is so loud that when you go to Jaigarh, the silence makes your ears feel hollow and your mind relaxed. 
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To sum it up, we had a perfect day.  It was cool in the morning and warm in the afternoon with a gentle breeze that made the air crisp and fresh.  We ended our sightseeing with a great view of Jaipur down the road from Jaigarh.  The view was amazing and the sound of the city rumbled below, welcoming us back from a day of adventure.

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