Who Wore it Best: Archives of American Art Edition

By Bettina Smith
January 13, 2014

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian at the Archives of American Art and tumblr doyenne, breaks down some archival fashions.

Picture this: you’re in line at the grocery store behind five people and they’re all buying in bulk. What do you do? If you’re me, you grab the nearest celebrity gossip magazine and find out what the royal baby is up to, what everyone wore to the latest awards show, who’s a couple, who’s splitsville, and so on. If you are lucky, it will also have a “Who Wore It Best” feature in which celebrities who have worn the same outfit are pitted against each other. Since I am fond of subjecting our archival materials to these magazine tropes (see our Artists: They’re Just Like Us occasional series on tumblr), I thought it was high time to ask: Who Wore It Best?

Cyclist Couture: Lyonel Feininger vs. Elihu Vedder

Feininger with bicycle
Lyonel Feininger standing with a bicycle, ca. 1890 / unidentified photographer. Alfred Vance Churchill papers regarding Lyonel Feininger, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Vedder with a bicycle
Elihu Vedder with a bicycle, ca. 1910 / unidentified photographer. Elihu Vedder papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This is a close one. Feininger and Vedder, both painters, keep it practical for an athletic endeavor such as bicycling. Feininger’s breeches to the knee are guaranteed not to get caught in the chain, while Vedder works a slim-legged pant. They both sport a jaunty hat, tie, and facial hair. However, I have to give this to Vedder for the embellishment of his gold pocket watch and his resplendent walrus-like mustache.


Easy, Breezy, Beautiful: Helen Frankenthaler vs. Virginia Dwan

Photograph of Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler, 1983 Sept. 20 / Cora Kelley Ward, photographer. André Emmerich Gallery records and André Emmerich papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of Dwan
Virginia Dwan, 1969 / unidentified photographer. Dwan Gallery (Los Angeles, Calif. and New York, N.Y.) records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Although these photos of Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler and gallery owner Virginia Dwan are separated by almost fifteen years, there is something very similar about their light loose tops each cinched with a belt. I declare Frankenthaler the winner, based on her stylish beaded belt and the fact that I think it was much harder to keep it classy (style-wise) in the early 1980s than in the late ‘60s.


Animal Accessories: Aline Saarinen vs. Abbott Handerson Thayer

Saarinen with snake
Aline Saarinen with a boa constrictor, ca. 1964 / unidentified photographer. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.;
Thayer with owl
Abbott Handerson Thayer as a boy, ca. 1861 / Buckingham's Inc., photographer. Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer family papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Animal prints: they’re all the rage. But what about the real thing? Both art critic Aline Saarinen and painter Abbott Handerson Thayer are accessorizing their outfits here with some real live fauna. Saarinen accents her ladylike shift and bouffant hairdo with, not a feather, but an actual boa. Thayer foreshadows Zoolander’s “blue steel” by matching the intense gaze of the owl on his shoulder. This one is just too close to call.


Headdress to Impress: Anita Vedder vs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Photograph of Vedder
Anita Vedder, 1891 or 2 / Fratelli D’Alessandri (Firm), photographer. Elihu Vedder papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of Whitney
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, ca. 1890 / unidentified photographer. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Bringing it full circle we have a matchup between Anita Herriman Vedder, daughter of Who Wore it Best champion Elihu Vedder, and the always-fabulous sculptor and philanthropist Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney. The combination of Vedder’s elaborate corsage, voluminous dress, and coral-like headdress is a bit much for me. Whitney is the clear winner here, flawlessly pulling off her sleek sequin-embellished gown, extra-long pearls and simple yet striking starburst headdress.

But those are just my opinions—who do YOU think wore it best? I await your response, Mr. Tim Gunn.



Well, folks, we asked who wore it best and you answered. On Facebook, tumblr and in the blog comments the people have spoken. We have closed the ballots and tallied the votes, and here are the results:

In Feininger v. Vedder (cyclist couture) your winner was…Lyonel Feininger with 75% of the vote. Pro-Feininger voters cited his knickerbockers, eyewear, and fluttery blouse as deciding factors in their decision.

Next up, Frankenthaler v. Dwan (easy, breezy, beautiful) in which Helen Frankenthaler captured the crown by a narrow margin (only 60% of the vote). One voter praised both contestants for being “casual in coolness.”

In the animal accessories category, Saarinen v. Thayer, you didn’t have the same trouble I had in deciding, delivering the win handily to Abbott Handerson Thayer with 75% of the vote. One voter liked that Thayer “looks like this is the most normal thing in the world.”

And finally, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her headdress defeated Anita Vedder with a decisive 91% of the vote. While some commenters were just glad that women no longer need to dress in corsets and girdles, to most the choice was clear. As one tumblr voter put it: “the Vanderbilt girl fo’ sho!”

Bettina Smith is the librarian for digital projects at the Archives of American Art.


Lyonel, because his blouse will flap nicely in the breeze.
Helen, because I'm partial to AEG artists.
Abbott, because cuddling with boa constrictors should not be encouraged.
And Gertrude, because her starburst is reminiscent of another, and especially because I've never seen a necklace define a torso so nicely.