There’s a widely held understanding – though it’s still debated – that the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson dressed only in white. Locals from her town liked to promote the belief and in a letter from one, Mabel Loomis Todd, she said of Dickinson, “she dresses wholly in white, and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful.”
An exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art describes a similar phenomenon from this century, with a different lady from a different town. The work of artist, author and illustrator Maira Kalman and her curator son Alex Kalman, the exhibit is a recreation of the tiny meticulous closet of their mother/grandmother Sara Berman who spent a life dressing only in shades of white, cream and ecru. Sara came from Belaruss then Palestine and ended up in New York where she lived out her post-divorce life from 1982 to 2004 in a West Village apartment – the scene of her tidy closet.
Neatly composed lines of shoes and perfectly folded stacks of t-shirts, dresses, jumpers and trousers all line the shelves of the small colour-coded space. Dotted in between are some non-closet items that were significant to Sara, such as a potato grater from Israel, a recipe box and a notebook of patterns she used to make knitted jumpers for her daughter’s dog. The belongings seek to represent their absent owner who had apparently frequented discounted-designer department store Loehmann’s. Amelia Peck, curator of American decorative arts at the Met recently told The New York Times of the collection that it’s “a new way of looking at rooms and possessions and women’s history.”
As to Sara Berman’s history, Maira has described her mother as chic but not vain, a dynamite ironer and someone who took pride in cleaning her closet. Aspects of her character that reflect her humble upbringing in Palestine, where the women of her family “worked like beasts from morning to night. It was that sense of dedicating yourself to a life of taking care of the people you love, by baking and sewing and cleaning,” Maira has said.
The artist hit upon the idea of exhibiting her mother’s belongings when she and her sister were clearing out Sara’s apartment after she died – Maira notes that her sister thought her crazy when she made the suggestion. None-the-less they saved all of their mother’s belongings and the closet was originally exhibited by Maira’s son Alex in 2015, at his museum Mmuseumm – you can find a fascinating film about the project here.
Sara Berman’s Closet is on display until 5 September 2017.