NEW YORK — Through the centuries, the white shirt has been seen as an emblem of wealth, class, moral responsibility and uniformity, among other things. But with her new exhibition, artist Rebecca Moses is using the white shirt as the ultimate equalizer, portraying an assortment of women in them.
Building from her “Perfectly Imperfect” series at the Ralph Pucci Gallery Nine, Moses will unveil “White Shirts” on Monday night with the hope that the opening night will be the starting point for conversations about beauty, diversity and inclusivity. While the white dress shirt is often associated with Victorian era portraiture, Moses has modernized that ideal by creating myriad paintings of women in white shirts.
Having been painting like crazy for 18 months, Moses said the show, which runs through April 30, is her fourth with Pucci in recent years. The pair first collaborated in 2016 by creating mannequins based on her paintings. In her fashion designer days, Moses often incorporated her own art in the storytelling, such as using large canvases as backdrops. “For me, illustrating and painting was always my voice. It was how I always started the design process,” she said.
Moses said, “When I start painting, I try to capture what society might think is your imperfection to say that’s your strength. Naturally, my painting is very stylized in that I can’t avoid my lifetime in fashion. It’s not that I’m designing, I’m just creating a mood. My art is connected very much to style and fashion. What I try to do is to show a very brave soul. Beauty is blending today. It’s not a matter of just being black or white. We come in many shades. We have to embrace the individuality and the rareness of all races. Maybe we’re not a perfect body or a perfect height. What these women represent is they really celebrate themselves. They own themselves.”
Returning to New York in 2010 after the death of her husband and years of working in fashion in Italy, Moses was approached by the late Franca Sozzani about illustrating stories for Italian Vogue, which set her on her way. Moses said, “I really wanted to tell stories with my art. Creating clothes for women has made me understand women so much. My work has always been an exploration into creative platforms. If you’re not manufacturing your own collection or consulting with a brand, I really wanted to tell stories. But I really wanted to celebrate women.”
Knowing that white shirts conjure up images of aristocratic bluebloods, Moses is trying to debunk any assumptions of class and wealth. “What if they were more a blended tribe of colorful smart, quirky, raw, talented, groundbreaking, badass girls, who embrace their individuality?” Moses asked. “Instead of ballgowns and impressive jewels, my subjects basically put on a white shirt and some personal treasures — their tattoos and earrings all the way up their ear lobes. They own who they are. You may look at them and say, ‘Who is she?’ That’s the question that I want people to ask. ‘Who is she? And what assumptions do you make?’ It’s not for me to tell you who she is. It’s what you see.”
She continued, “What I am trying to do is to allow people to look at the beauty in each person and to look at the power of each person. You figure out the story. I don’t have to spell it out for you. Each of us has a back story. Some of us want to reveal it, some of us don’t want to. But when we look at art, we have to see how we react to the painting, the sculpture or what not. What does it say to you?”
Moses and her sister, Deborah, are at work on a graphic novel that will be geared to empowering young women. Recalling how her mother took her to a modeling agency at the age of 14 only to be told by “a very famous model” from the Forties that she needed to have her nose fixed, Moses said she was traumatized, thinking she had the nose of an elephant. Seeing a photo of “legendary model” Sara Kapp changed her perspective. “We all grow up with such insecurities rather than embracing what we have and making it the most unique thing we have,” Moses said.
Moses will host salon nights at Pucci’s West 18th Street gallery to discuss fashion and art, and another on diversity and inclusiveness in order to “really break the borders of beauty today,” she said. The events will have auctions to benefit charitable women’s causes. “It’s important to use exhibits, not just for showing art, but for discussing issues that are relevant to our world. We have to talk about issues that are maybe not comfortable. The more we talk to each other, the better the world will be. That is the way that exhibits are going,” she said.