georgia o

for about six months now, i have loosely committed myself to reading biographies about artists, particularly women artists. this commitment is not one that started intentionally, it has merely become a serendipitous trend over the past several months, and i’m going with it. more something that i’ve stumbled upon, that i am really loving.

it started with frida kahlo, whose bio i devoured in december and january (or thereabouts). now, due to some chance finds at local san francisco thrift stores, i have moved on to georgia o’ keeffe.

georgia o' keeffe biographies

i absolutely adore reading about artists, particularly these women artists, and how their strong personalities and amazing life experiences affect their work. after reading the kalho book and nearly completing portrait of an artist, about o’ keeffe, it occurred to me that these artists, and others like them (female or male), have at least one shared secret to their success:

they have a clear and nearly unwavering commitment to their own personal aesthetic vision, and to the way they want to live their lives. they have strong opinions about politics, art, and personal expression.

but what really excites me (from a fashion perspective) about these two women (and perhaps more women (or men!) artists i’ve yet to read about!) is this: in the case of both o’ keeffe, and kahlo, there is a direct and strong connection between the art that they make, and how they express themselves through their personal being and personal style.

i wrote about kahlo and the artful way she dressed herself here. but i want to now turn to o’keeffe, whose simultaneously lush and passionate though controlled and ascetic style is evident even in her everyday attire.

Georgia O'Keeffe 1918

here is a passage from portrait of an artist: a biography of georgia o’ keeffe by laurie lisle concerning o’ keeffe’s unique fashion sense/ personal style, love of color, and amazing resourceful side that i particularly love and want to share with the world at large:

For years Georgia had stitched most of her simple clothes out of the finest fabric, often sewing when she wanted to think. She made luxurious white silk blouses, white cotton nightgowns with white embroidery, and petticoats edged with white lace. In cold weather she donned a black wool coat with a collar that buttoned up to her chin and black gloves of the best leather. At one time, she sported a pair of black bloomers under a tentlike black tunic. Throughout the years, when asked the reason for her monotone clothing -odd for a painter- she gave several, all with some truth to them. Once she said that if she began to choose colors to wear, she would not have time to pick any to paint. Another time she explained that she was so sensitive to color that if she wore a red dress, she would be obliged to live up to its flamboyance. She claimed she liked being cloaked in anonymity. “There’s something about black,” she remarked. “You feel hidden away in it.” Deadly-serious black also served to transmit the message that she was not to be treated frivolously or flirtatiously. Also, she must have realized that if her clothes were one color, they would match and she would achieve a look of maximum elegance with a minimum of time and money.

Hands and Thimble - Georgia O'Keeffe 1920

O’ Keeffe was a woman painter in an early-twentieth century modern art world that was undeniably dominated by men. In order to be taken seriously in this context, it seems to me that she embraced her propensity to be sort of masculine and strong through what she wore: what was primarily a wardrobe of black and white, luxurious but spare clothing. Over time, her hair was also worn in a very spare, even severe style, pulled back straight from her forehead. She wore little to no makeup, and plucked nary a hair. She unapologetically faced the world as she was, standing tall. Some even compared her to a nun. This front she created was significant and in marked contrast to what most other women in the late 19th and early 20th century donned: ladies of the day throughout many of a decade often wore vividly bright and flamboyant colors and patterns, depending on the fashion at the time. O’ Keeffe wanted to set herself apart, wanted to appear almost mannish, wanted to lessen the importance of her clothing and let her powerful, colorful work take center stage.


however, it seems clear that in not wanting to indulge the fashion of the day, she embraced a particular, idiosyncratic personal style that she actually worked very hard to maintain, for most of the rest of her life. She cared greatly about how she would be perceived in the world at large and fashioned a look that reflected her persona and how she chose to make her art, but at the same time, never really conceded to the fashion trends of any of the decades she lived through (and they were many…she lived to her 90s!). she always stood steadfastly, even defiantly apart from the crowd, and did not mind that one bit.


next up on my reading list of women artists? this tome about coco chanel.

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  1. j vorwaller

    absolutely. i had to comment because georgia is one of the most inspiring artists that i read about, i constantly go back to sip into her independence to strengthen my own. she was so strong minded!

    this is why i think fashion is so important (even though some think it shallow) because personal style is the way that you present yourself to the world and tell them what you are all about. georgia knew this. she wasn’t like other women – you have to think of what was going on in the 1920s with fashion – she completely ignored it and wore really loose fitting, easy and elegant clothes that had nothing to do with what every other female was doing.

    (and the reluctance for some artists to say that they care about fashion is just their way of having their own personal style. 🙂

  2. j vorwaller

    eh, i meant “…constantly go back to DIP into her independence….” though sip might work too, for me, it’s more of an immersion into her world and strength 😀

  3. fabulousfrock

    I love when you do these sorts of posts. I am so fascinated by artists of any kind who live their lives in a unique manner, down to dress, unconventional behavior, the art itself of course…

  4. K.

    Many moons ago I had to read Emily Carr’s autobiography… more like her journal… It was amazing. It was for a course on women and the arts. If you aren’t already familiar with her; she was a Canadian artist who owned a monkey and would camp out in the forests of British Columbia for months at a time to paint. She was viewed by many as an eccentric, but to me she is inspiration.

  5. freddie

    I just wanted to chime in and say that I really enjoyed your thoughtful post. I may have to start my own female artist reading regimen.

    K. I read a novel about Emily Carr, it was fascinating. I was really excited to find out that she was not a fictional character. Alas, I cannot remember the name of the novel…

  6. Mandy

    I have adored Georgia O’Keefe since high school and am often inspired by descriptions ad photos of her. She is one of the models that lives in my head when I need to be reminded of the value of cultivating a style that inspires me. I really enjoyed this post. 🙂

  7. Christelle

    I’m blog-tagging you. I hope you don’t mind, but I picked my favorite blogs… so that’s you! For more info on what this means, and to play along visit my blog and read the most recent post.

  8. rebecca

    i’ve read all the O’keeffe biographies except for the laurie lisle that you mention. thanks for that portion from its text, i’ll have to get a copy and read more about GOK’s other creative skills. enjoyed your post, also!

  9. mint

    I just came back from Mexico City where we visited Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azur — they recently uncovered some of her clothing — gorgeous colors and combinations!

  10. ambika

    Ooo, adding that Chanel book to my wishlist. The periods where she first broke out are generally my favorite as far as nonfiction is concerned. I read ‘Holy Skirts’ about the deeply eccentric Elsa von Freytag partly because she was so active during the pre & post WWI period.

    Mina Loy was the first person who came to mind when I read this post–I keep meaning to dig up more info on her as she strikes me as similar to O’Keefe in that deep desire to maintain individuality.

  11. candid cool

    I really like the quote “There’s something about black…You feel hidden away in it.”
    I like the emotional connection to her clothing especially with color. And the mental imagery of a “black wool coat with a collar that buttoned up to her chin and black gloves of the best leather”, is just so…wow….

    A wonderful, insightful post.

  12. SwanDiamondRose

    nice. i haven’t read much about georgia o’keefe. but now i want to. my mother’s bookshelves were, and are still, full of women artists’ [and independent women of all walks of life] bios and works. i avoided o’keefe and i don’t know why. i think i saw too much of her work. those photos of her are lovely. colette is also very fascinating. and chanel is always such raw and gutsy inspiration for a women who is associated with so much finery. madame gres was a favourite of my mother’s too. i like her.

  13. tricia

    glad you liked this post everyone…i liked writing it! as you can tell i was mighty inspired by georgia, and frida. and i hope the trend continues. i love this being inspired by past figures thing. so much more interesting than being inspired by do-nothing celebs du jour! 😛

    swan diamond rose: funny you mention colette! at the same time i found the small paperback about georgia o’ keeffe, i found a little bio on colette! i don’t know much about her, but it was $1 so i figured at that price, i could find out and then read the bio. care to tell me more about her?

  14. SwanDiamondRose

    that’s funny about the colette book 🙂 these are the bits i remember… she was a writer and though i don’t remember her books well i remember liking them. her first books were published in her husband’s name. ugh. she wrote of women’s love, sexuality and independence. she wore a suit well. she also danced nude onstage. or barely clothed. and this is in the early 1900s. she had relationships with men and women, openly. and i think near the end of her life she ran a makeup store. it’s strange i can’t find any info on that. and the present day store Colette is named after her. that is my not so eloquent summary 🙂

  15. jennine

    wow, what a great post, so well researched and thought provoking! i love that she dressed so her work can take center stage. it reminds me of hilary clinton when running for senator wore only black suits, so people would forget about what she was wearing and listen to what she had to say. And the moment she steps out.. you know the cleavage controversy… oh dear.
    : )

    biographies have been difficult for me in the past, but i think i shall start reading them…