At a recent exhibit of Alexander Calder’s work in Los Angeles, I was stopped in my tracks by this photograph depicting a group of America’s foremost modern artists. On the left is Calder himself, on the right modern dancer Martha Graham, in the back right the Russian born artist Marc Chagall, and in the back left the poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972). You might not recognize her name, but she was one of American’s most famous poets at mid century, known for her intricate and challenging works. Although I knew something about her poetry, I knew nothing about her life. Her decidedly unmodern outfit drew me in. While Martha Graham wears a sleek dark suit, Moore has on a loose fitting long dress with a white collar, white cuffs, and a big flowered hat. She might have stepped out of another century.
I have never seen a picture of Moore where she looked even remotely “stylish” in the sense of following current styles; however, she was very interested in the image she portrayed to others. She adopted her hair style, a crown of braids around her head, when she was a student at Bryn Mawr and wore it for the rest of her life. She also developed a love of three-corner hats and capes, which she revived when she became well known in the 1950s. According to the illuminating biography, Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell, Moore enjoyed being recognized on the street. Her favorite outfit, cape and tricorne hat, facilitated this process, making her look something like “a luminescent Paul Revere.” (341)
Moore chose her clothing carefully. By the end of her life, she was prosperous enough to have clothes made for her by the likes of Hattie Carnegie. The fact that she portrayed the image of an old fashioned girl was conscious choice. Perhaps she aimed to create that tension between how she looked and what she said.