Sunday, November 1, 2009

Elsa Dorfman and the Marimekko Project

I have never liked Marimekko dresses, or the  fabric. I didn't like the shapeless shape of them, the bold colors, the take-over patterns, nothing. 

I'd come along after the beat generation (whose somber clothing I admired and have more-or-less adopted though my turtle necks are not all black) and for years had made my clothes from fabrics printed in Africa, relatively subtle blue designs on white, or blue on maroon, long skirts with three tiers of different blue and white fabrics or wrap-around dresses that were so short that my daughter recently asked me if one of them (that she found in the attic) was a jacket. I was dirt poor and bought fabric at a little store on Second Avenue and 4th Street, perhaps, as much as I could afford. I hated sewing, always bought the wrong pattern, tried not to finish anything, but that was how I got my clothes. Once an old lady asked if I was dressed for Halloween when I was getting on the bus.

By the time I moved up here, 1974, to teach for a couple of years at MIT (to my shock and fear and intense curiosity and gratitude) my best outfit consisted of blue-jeans that I'd embroidered with flowers (sort of) on the thighs and a blue-jean shirt. A suit, if you will.

I must have met Elsa Dorfman around that time when I moved from the Lower East Side, kicking and screaming, to Brookline. And I'm positive that she was wearing Marimekko. She's the only person I can imagine who would look good in it. The dresses fit her perfectly. She has a big personality, a lot of character, is a strong force and she can carry them! I identified Elsa with those dresses and I appreciated them because of Elsa, only because of Elsa.

Yesterday, there was a three hour event at the old Design Research Building on Brattle Street that featured a recreation of what was once sold there. a plethora of Marimekko dresses and fabrics, a history in photos and text, a display of some of Elsa's 20x24 polaroid photographs, an interesting slide presentation and a sixteen minutes of what will be a forty-five minute film by the woman (whose name I will add here after I talk with Elsa) about the history of DR, Merimeko, those times in Cambridge somewhere in the mid-sixties 
and using Elsa's photographs. 

Elsa uses the 20x24 Polaroid camera. And she's done some interesting projects, one of which was photographing women with breast cancer for a film made by the husband of one of them. Elsa then published a book of the photographs with text. Recently, as in for the last few years, she been photographing woman (and men) in their Marimekko clothing from those days-of-yore when it was highly fashionable. Elsa loves the clothing and has loved this project.

I liked the film a lot and will be interested in seeing the finished form. It's a well put together series of interviews, historical material, nicely edited. I'm not entirely sure that Marimekko enhanced the women's movement in the way one of the interviewees  suggested -- allowing freedom from the confinement of girdles and stockings since I think that was well on it's way in other forms of clothing, but it was interesting to be reminded of  who I was and how I dressed in high school. 

Someone I sat near during the film said she'd wanted to own a dress, her boss wore them, but she could never afford one so she bought pillows or dishtowels. Elsa said she owned 24! They cost about $125 and she can't imagine how she bought them, given her salary at the time. "I could have bought a house," she said.

Even walking down the street with Elsa is an event because she knows so many people, so imagine that this was like. Elsa with her friend from junior high school who was wearing a quiet tasteful and almost subdued Marimekko dress, and with a woman she hadn't seen in forty years until recently, and with the filmmaker who she photographed in her beloved dress and who allowed me to take her picture in it as I left.  


  1. i didnt know about this project!
    my first lover bought me a marimekko dress,
    and i was married in marimekko (1st marriage; diff lover; diff dress)...
    my friend ann-mari made benjamin a baby quilt incorporating pieces of both those dresses.

  2. Marimekko is back in style. There's a shop in South Beach now. I like the way you organize a whole period--and friendship--around this style. I once bought an "educational toy" for my neice at the old Design Research: a mother, and baby in the womb. It was so abstract, carved from lovely smooth wood. My niece thought the foetus was a peanut.