O’Keeffe and Originality

I have to be honest. The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum bothered me at first. The show was dedicated to O’Keeffe’s style and her tendency to go against clothing norms expected of women in the 1920s and ’30s. Although O’Keeffe never explicitly stated her feelings towards feminism, she serves as an artistic and feminist American icon for many.

In each photo, her face was lined with years of tested confidence and constant disapproval from men and women alike. But Georgia O’Keeffe had a knowing smile in over half, almost as if she knew that their petty comments meant nothing. She was ahead of her time, knowing that men were not better artists and that women’s talents deserved to be heard. That bothered me. It made it look easy; as if it wasn’t a hard battle and one day you could just simply decide to be unaffected by criticism and self-consciousness.

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It wasn’t just her thinking about art and equality that proved to be advanced. Her style and the way she dressed served as an example of androgyny, a little known concept at that time. She perfected the style of “borrowed from the boys” long before 21st century bloggers and influencers adopted it. The way she wore clothes reminded me of a lesson that I’m still learning, and women that I look up to have mastered: dress for yourself. It’s a challenging feat, especially with the inability to avoid social media and the oftentimes irrepressible feeling of insecurity.

It nearly felt voyeuristic, in the friendliest sense of the word, as the viewers wandered around the mazes of coats, paintings and videos. Despite my envy for her seemingly natural carefree attitude, I felt oddly connected to her. It was like we were friends going through her clothes and sifting through work in her studio. Depending on where she lived, her style would develop subtle hints of her location. In New York City, she’d wear clean-cut lines and tailored suits. When she moved to New Mexico, hats, leather belts and gauzy scarves integrated themselves into her wardrobe.

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Her black coats, white blouses and denim shirts reflected the items hanging in my own closet. And the lack of color, save for a few dresses, made me feel comfortable with my own choice to keep any saturated hues from touching my hangers.

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But it wasn’t until after the exhibit with some research, I found the truth behind the curation. The beliefs and strength shown by O’Keeffe were a work in progress, something that was seldom displayed by the museum. She suffered through a mental breakdown in 1932, was cheated on by her husband Alfred Stieglitz and experienced grief after his death in 1946. She eventually started losing her eyesight to macular degeneration in 1972, making her main passion nearly impossible to do (although she was able to work past this thanks to the help of several assistants.)

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This idea of putting on a front or presented a heavily edited life is nearly identical to what we all do on social media. Even those who claim they are being wholly themselves still have to make choices on which photos they decide to post. The exhibit touched a bit on O’Keeffe’s personal life, but for the most part highlighted her successes and how she dressed. We all seem to be focusing on how we want others to perceive us, rather than focusing on who we are.

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We all struggle, even those who we admire. We also have a hard time remembering this. We wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we wanted if we didn’t first fight. Wear those insane pants, open your own business, work for that dream job. Your opinion of yourself is the only one that matters anyways. O’Keeffe was living proof that your struggles are part of your successes and realizations in life, and she was able to do that all in style.

“If you work hard, you can achieve almost anything.” –Georgia O’Keeffe

Words and Photos by Melissa Epifano, @melissaepifano

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