‘I Remember’: An Artist’s Chronicle of What We Wore

In the 1970s, Joe Brainard wrote a book-length poem that paid heed to fashion

Singer in pillbox hat, 1958
Singer in pillbox hat, 1958 Lesley University Archives via Flickr

A fashion spread, Hollywood movie or advertisement usually doesn’t reflect with accuracy what everyday people actually wore at a given time. Historically speaking, to really get a sense of the fashions of the times, old newsreels, photojournalism and catalogs offer more true-to-life examples of what was in style.

The cover of Joe Brainard’s I Remember
The cover of Joe Brainard’s I Remember Amazon

One literary source is the book-length poem I Remember, by writer and artist Joe Brainard. When it was originally published—in three parts between 1970 and 1973 by Angel Hair Books—the small print runs sold out quickly. Most recently it’s been published by Granary Books. The 1,000 entries in this work all begin with “I remember . . .” and each describes a single memory from Brainard—growing up in Oklahoma in the 1940s, arriving in New York in the ’60s, making art, making friends, making a living.

As the poet and his lifelong friend Ron Padgett explains:

…the repetition in I Remember proved to be a springboard that allowed Joe to leap backward and forward in time and to follow one chain of associations for a while, then jump to another, the way one’s memory does. Coupled with Joe’s impulse toward openness, the I Remember form provided a way for him to lay his soul bare in a confession that is personable, moving, perceptive, and often funny.

The book is a time capsule, a beautiful and candid catalog of one person’s memories, however fleeting. Incorporated into those recollections is documentation of how people dressed—some styles are still worn today, while others were passing trends that are relegated to fashion history. They all share Brainard’s funny, insightful and accessible style. Michael Lally of The Village Voice agreed: “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ’40s and ’50s have universal appeal. He catalogues his past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked.” What follows are a selection of favorites:

Sack dress, 1949
Sack dress, 1949 Image from carlylehold via Flickr

I remember sack dresses.

I remember pill box hats.

I remember thinking how embarrassing it must be for men in Scotland to have to wear skirts.

I remember old women’s flesh-colored hose you can’t see through.

I remember when girls wore lots of can can slips. It got so bad (so noisy) that the principal had to put a limit on how many could be worn. I believe the limit was three.

Woman with beehive working an IBM accounting machine, 1960s
Woman with beehive working an IBM accounting machine, 1960s Wikimedia Commons

I remember when “beehives” got really out of hand.

I remember when those short-sleeved knitted shirts with long tails (to wear “out”) with little embroidered alligators on the pockets were popular.

I remember plain camel hair coats that rich girls in high school wore.

Ad for Flagg Bros. shoes, 1970s
Ad for Flagg Bros. shoes, 1970s Flagg Bros

I remember having a crush on a boy in my Spanish class who had a pair of olive green suede shoes with brass buckles just like a pair I had. (“Flagg Brothers.”) I never said one word to him the entire year.

I remember sweaters thrown over shoulders and sunglasses propped on heads.

If, after reading I Remember, you crave more information about the work and life of Joe Brainard, who passed away in 1994, watch filmmaker Matt Wolf’s short documentary  I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard. Described on the website as “an elliptical dialog about friendship, nostalgia, and the strange wonders of memory,” the film combines archival images, audio recordings of Brainard, and an interview with poet Ron Padgett. Download the film here or check it out at the following upcoming screenings:

April 18 – 28, 2013
Festival IndieLisboa, Portugal
Screening TBA

April 25, 26, 27, 2013
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Screening Times TBA

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