Randy Bryan Bigham with his book, Lucile-Her Life by Design
I am extremely excited to share a profile on a very special individual I met on Facebook, Randy Bryan Bigham. I became totally intrigued by his scholarship and dedication to Lucile Duff Gordon, a designer I have long admired and whose story is a unique and fascinating part of fashion history. I asked Randy for some advice on Lucile’s venture in Chicago (you will read more about that in this week’s Friday Fashion Flashback) and we became “off Facebook friends” via correspondance (he follows nenasnotes much to my delight) and I asked him if he would be one of my “profiles” and he said yes! His answers to my questions along with his biography and photos are very personal and I am thrilled to be able to introduce you to such a humble scholar. I know you will feel you have found a new friend just like I have!
Randy Bryan Bigham is an independent fashion history scholar whose research has been featured in a number of books, including Lucile Ltd (2009) by Valerie D. Mendes and Amy de la Haye; Hollywood Before Glamour (2013) by Michelle Tolini Finamore; and London Society Fashion (2015) by Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister and Lou Taylor.
The author of Lucile – Her Life by Design (2012), the first full-scale biography of Edwardian couturiere and Titanic survivor Lady Duff Gordon, Randy has contributed to TV documentaries for the BBC, the Sundance Channel and the National Geographic Channel. His journalism has appeared in Women’s Wear Daily, the Sunday Times Magazine and The Lady. He’s also the author of Finding Dorothy, a biography of silent screen star Dorothy Gibson (2012), and of Life’s Décor, a biography of Helen Churchill Candee that was included in the 2008 reissue of Candee’s 1924 travelogue Angkor the Magnificent.
Randy was a consultant for the 2016 exhibition Lucile – Fashion. Titanic. Scandal at the Guelph Civic Museum in Canada, and coming up in 2018 his own private collection of Lucile garments and memorabilia will be spotlighted in an exhibition at the Titanic Museums in the USA.
Randy (on the right) with Edwardian era and Titanic historian Hugh Brewster who worked together on the 2016 Canadian exhibition Lucile: Fashion. Titanic. Scandal.
Since 2015, with friend and research colleague Inger Sheil, he’s been an admin for the Facebook group, Fashion Designers, 1800-1950.
With Inger Sheil, a friend and colleague of 15 years, Randy is an admin for the Facebook group, Fashion Designers 1800-1950. This 1919 cover of Les Modes features an evening gown by Paris couturier Jenny (Jeanne Sacerdote), whom Randy has researched.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB
Do you mean my first job as a writer? Or do you mean my very first job? If you mean the latter, it was mowing lawns at about age 13! It was for an old lady, a Mrs. McClain, whom I used to ply with questions about her memory of the fashions of her youth. She was born in 1902, and could recall the dresses of the Edwardian era, which I was already fascinated by. Mrs. McClain said she remembered lawn parties where the women’s gowns trailed the grass, and I just loved that visual. Talking to her was fun. The long hours of hard work, mowing her huge front yard — not so much!
As to my first proper writing job, it was for the small daily paper in my hometown. I had worked freelance, writing for big papers, doing art and book reviews, but no editor would hire me on staff until the tiny newspaper in Ennis, Texas took me on. That started my evolution as a writer, learning to pare down sentences, to edit, to get the best quotes, to tell the story so simply that readers are — hopefully — moved. The human interest feature story always mattered to me. I was a horrible news reporter. I must have driven my first editor mad! Hard news and politics weren’t for me. I still hate all that, and I’m sure I’d die of boredom if I had to write about it!
BRIEFLY DESCRIBE YOUR CURRENT OCCUPATION
I write freelance – locally and nationally, and I work as a consultant on various projects, some having nothing to do with fashion history. One thing that’s come along fairly recently is my working as a consultant for Paper Studio Press, which publishes beautiful paper doll books. I’ve worked on three titles so far, all of them on fashions of the 1910s, my favorite era. And I just did an interesting section on the history of the fashion show for a Bloomsbury textbook that will be out in 2018. Really, I just have fun. I don’t make a lot of money, but you don’t need a lot to be happy. Some of the research and writing I do is for free. Helping other writers out with material for magazine articles, assisting curators with info on garments for exhibitions, etc., are some of the things I do. Not so interesting to some but it amuses me.
WHEN DID YOU DISCOVER YOUR TALENT
I’m not sure that it’s talent. I think it is more luck than anything, and a lot of determination. If you love something you just have to do it. There isn’t much of a choice. It’s in you or it’s not. You’re led to do what you do through passion and tenacity. But going back to talent: I knew I could write reasonably well, and I had that gift in elementary school. Teachers noticed it and asked me to read my stories to the class. I can’t recall now what the stories were about, and how I had the nerve to get up in front of the class, I don’t know. I’m in my 40s now, and should be past being shy, but I’m petrified of speaking in public, and can only do it impromptu. I cannot prepare for it. I would be too nervous.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU HAD “MADE IT” EXPLAIN
I don’t think I have made it yet! I’m just a fashion history nut who’s been lucky to find ways to express my love for the subject. I have contributed to important projects – books on the Titanic, which started my interest in some of the famous women aboard, books on fashion history, exhibitions. But all those projects just sort of happened. The accomplishment I’m most proud of is writing Lucile’s biography. That’s been such a driving force for me, and the research has opened doors. I’m very grateful to the people who saw my work as important and helped me along the way. There were a few naysayers but you can’t listen to people like that.
HOW DID YOUR ORIGINAL PASSION BRING YOU TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW
My original passion was Lucile. When I first found out about her I was intrigued but didn’t think I would find very much. I was really surprised she was so celebrated and influential and, to tell you the truth, a little shocked she was not better remembered. Back in the late ‘80s, when I first went to school at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York, almost no one was interested in her. People would ask “Who?” And it used to irritate me. I felt I had to justify myself all the time. Now it seems everybody is an expert on Lucile! (Nena’s note…no one does it as well as Randy, without question!)
Randy was first drawn to the work of Lucile, seen here with a model in her New York studio in 1916, when he was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s.
The library at FIT has the scrapbooks and photo albums kept by the staff of the New York branch of Lucile Ltd, so I became fascinated and immediately thought I should do a book. That was just a dream then. I had to earn a living, so I couldn’t devote a lot of time to it, and that’s why it stretched on until 2009 when I finished the final draft. Publishers were interested along the way, including a university press that wanted to cut it down and to not use very many color images. As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled with offers like that, so I finally published it myself five years ago. I was excited and am still happy to see how it’s been taken up and cited in various major studies on the history of dress. There’s so much drivel about how one can’t hope to have a success with a self-published title, and while that might be true in most cases, if you’ve got a special subject, the right people will be drawn to it. And I probably have made as much money from it as have authors who’ve gone the traditional route.
- Lucile, among her achievements, is responsible for launching the first modern fashion parades, using a stage, music, lights and all the accoutrement of show.
WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN YOUR ALTERNATE CHOICE AS A CAREER….WAS THERE ONE
I don’t think I could have done anything else well. I went to FIT to be a designer and I was hopeless. You should have seen me trying to draft a pattern. I don’t have a natural perseverance with anything but writing and editing. Nothing else seems worth it. If I had the talent, I would have loved being a designer. I have the creativity, I think, just not the technical skill.
YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, MOVIE, LIST THE FOLLOWING,IN ORDER OF PREFERENCE…THEATER (LEGIT, MUSICALS), BALLET, OPERA, SYMPHONY, TYPE OF MUSIC YOU LIKE TO LISTEN TO, LOCAL RESTAURANT
I read mostly fashion history and biographies. I don’t care for fiction, although I quite enjoyed E.M. Forster a few years back, but that’s mainly because I’ve seen the films that have been made of them. One of the dress history writers I enjoy most is Caroline Evans, whose book The Mechanical Smile I was honored to contribute research to. She was one of the first scholars to embrace my work and to make me feel what I had done mattered. I also love to read Christopher Breward. His books are all excellent. He is excellent. So is Alistair O’Neill.
Randy with fashion historian Marlis Schweitzer, author of When Broadway was the Runway and other titles featuring her own research on Lucile.
As to theatre, I don’t have modern favorites as far as plays. I so love researching early 20th century musical theater. While learning about the Ziegfeld Follies, when I was working on Lucile (she designed for the Follies in the 1910s and early ‘20s), I got hooked. And I’m crazy for silent film history, particularly the costumes of the early female stars. I’ve written an article on Theda Bara’s influence on fashion in the ‘teens for a scholarly journal, and I hope it sees the light of day. And you know the first paper doll book I helped with for Paper Studio Press was on Theda.
Regarding modern film, I like some foreign titles, particularly French and Italian. I’m crazy for Anna Magnani! And, believe it or not, I like a few horror flicks. I know that doesn’t fit much into the rest of my personality but I can’t help it. I’m a fan of The Blair Witch Project and of the first Friday the 13th, if you can imagine that. I’ve even become friends with Adrienne King, the star of that first film, and the only really good one in the series, if you ask me. I interviewed her a couple years ago. She’s a dear, sweet person, so real and supportive.
Although Randy loves romantic period films, he’s a fan of the horror classic Friday the 13th, and has become friends with its star, Adrienne King, with whom he’s seen here in Dallas in 2016.
As for TV shows, I watch CNN, “The Golden Girls” reruns and I haven’t missed a season of “Survivor.” And, you’ll probably laugh at this, but I like the “Finding Bigfoot” series on Animal Planet. I’m not really a believer but I like the mystery of it.
Randy loves history but isn’t above enjoying pop culture reality shows like CBS’s “Survivor” and The Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot.” This card, signed by the cast, was sent him by a friend, Linda Plochocki, for Christmas last year.
I don’t have a favorite restaurant but I do love Italian food. I’m not hard to please in that area, and my expanding waistline is proof of it.
I love taking country drives and snapping photos of nature. I’m not a gifted photographer but I like being out and about on a beautiful day and recording what I see.
A pastime for Randy is taking photos along the country roads in and near his hometown of Ennis, the Official Bluebonnet City of Texas.
I used to enjoy hiking but my injury has so far prevented my resuming that. Someday, I hope to get back to it. I lost my right leg from the knee down back in 2013 due to an infection that came on suddenly. It was a huge adjustment. To say it changed my life is an understatement. It just about did me in, but I think if you keep focused on what matters, you can come through anything. It has taken the four years since I lost my leg to have a firm philosophy about it. The bottom line for me now, when it comes to being disabled, is it doesn’t matter. And I don’t feel disabled. I am still me. I haven’t changed in the essentials. But I don’t walk as fast, and I can’t run anymore. I used to love to run. That’s the only thing I get emotional about. I hate that I will probably never run again. But in general I’m still happy with life; whatever good it has in store for me, I welcome it. The bad stuff nobody wants, of course, and you just learn to work around it.Randy lost his right leg at the knee in 2013, after surviving a serious infection. The setback only strengthened him, he says, and made him more determined to enjoy life.
This shot of Randy was taken in a field of bluebonnets near Ennis during the town’s Bluebonnet Trails Festival.
HOME….MODERN, TRADITIONAL, ANTIQUES (WHAT ERA) ECLECTIC DESCRIBE
I love anything Elsie de Wolfe would have approved of. I adore Louis Seize antiques, mirrors, chintz, old wicker, green and white stripes. I’m a huge Elsie fan. I think with certain tweaks that take into account changes in modern life, her ideas are still in good taste.
Elsie de Wolfe’s early 1900s interiors featured design elements Randy appreciates.
WHO WOULD YOU HAVE AT YOUR FANTASY DINNER AND WHAT WOULD YOU SERVE
I would invite Zandra Rhodes, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington (I love old jazz), Cecil Beaton, the cast from Finding Bigfoot and Bigfoot! And I would add you to the list because we could compare notes afterwards! I’m not a gourmet so I have no idea what I’d serve but I’d hire someone to do it all up perfectly.
FAVORITE VACATION SPOT VISITED AND/OR ON YOUR GO TO LIST
I fell in love with Versailles when I first visited the Palace and Petit Trianon in 1997. I’ve gone back twice, and would love to go again. It really is a spiritual experience for me, having researched Marie Antoinette and Rose Bertin.
One of Randy’s favorite places in the world is Versailles, where this picture of him at age 28 was taken in 1997.
That reminds me: I do have a favorite book! Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. It’s stellar. Get it. You’ll love it.
One of Randy’s favorite books on fashion history is Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s Fashion Victims
FAVORITE WORK OF ART
I really appreciate Corot’s landscapes, especially Souvenir de Mortefontaine. I know it’s one of his most famous, so it may be expected that I would like it, but I never tire of it. It warms the soul. And that’s what great art is supposed to do. I have a copy framed on the wall by my bed. It’s been there for over 20 years.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED
Just as someone who loved history and who got a kick out of sharing it with others. I hope I’ve had a hand in shedding light on the work of great designers in history like Lucile who are in fact artists deserving of admiration and respect for the beauty they gave the world in their time. That’s what we try to celebrate in the Facebook group, Fashion Designers, 1800-1950.
A FAVORITE RECIPE
I’m not a cook. I do make a mean pimento cheese but that’s probably too simple to brag about. I eat salads when I can, and that certainly saves on calories, but I’m not going to lie — on busy days it’s a McDonald’s cheeseburger! And believe me, if I could eat pasta every day and not gain weight, I’d do it. A family friend who’s an incredible cook, and is surrounded by other gourmets, shared a recipe recently and he gave me permission to include it here. Kevin Graves is his name and he collaborated with his friend Robin Dailey to come up with this delicious recipe. Kevin calls the dish Palm Beach Chicken because that’s where they were when they conceived it. It is garlic infused sautéed chicken breasts served on a bed of cooked asparagus with a creamy sauce and topped with green onion and chopped fresh tomato.
Palm Peach Chicken, a recipe by Kevin Graves and Robin Dailey, is delicious and beautiful.
Palm Beach Chicken with Asparagus and Tomatoes
2 lbs. Aldi Boneless Chicken Strips
3 Tbsp. Minced Garlic
1 stick Butter
4 Tbsp. Avocado Oil
6 Green Onions Chopped (divided)
1 medium vine-ripened Tomato, chopped, drained
6 oz. Whipped Cream Cheese room temp
1 Cup Heavy Whipping Cream
1 Tsp. natural tenderizer with no MSG
1 Tsp. Smoked Paprika
2 Tsp. Garlic Powder
1 Tsp. Onion powder
1 Tsp. Dried Cilantro
1 Tsp. Dried Parsley
¾ Cup fresh Shredded Parmesan (divided)
½ Cup Grated Parmesan and Romano
Dash of Lemon Pepper
1 Tbsp. Powdered Chicken Bouillon
Tsp. Corn Starch
Melt butter in pan on ned-low, add avocado oil, 5 chopped green onions, sprinkle tenderizer into mixture, add chicken. After it’s been sautéing and has been turned a few times add garlic, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper, paprika and dried seasonings. Add a few more shakes of tenderizer, keep turning, then let simmer on low.
Rinse, snap, rub 2 lbs of asparagus with avocado oil and a few dashes of garlic powder and salt and steam in the microwave for 3.5 minutes.
Tomato: Chop, drain, add 1 chopped green onion and a dash of salt, pepper and garlic powder, sit to the side in small colander
Take a long oval tray and spread vertical to the length of the oval tray (imagine the tray is horizontal so lay asparagus spears in opposite direction and place chicken pieces in the middle.
Keep the chicken drippings simmering on low, add the heavy whipping cream and cream cheese, 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and cornstarch and whisk. Pour a few ladles over the chicken and put the rest in a pourable cup. Keep it warm or it will break and separate. After adding the sauce sprinkle the tomato mixture and top with remaining shredded Parmesan and serve.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF RANDY BRYAN BIGHAM
Some links Randy has shared with us….
Lucile – Her Life by Design by Randy Bryan Bigham, currently only available via lulu.com, can be ordered here:
“Ontario Today” CBC Radio interview with Randy Bryan Bigham by Rita Celli
“Beautiful and damned” by Randy Bryan Bigham in The Lady
“A beautiful, devilishly gorgeous career” by Randy Bigham for Urbanette
“The Pioneering Fashions of Lady Duff Gordon.” An interview with Randy Bryan Bigham by James Blake Wiener for Fair Observer
“Lucy Duff Gordon.” Entry by Randy Bryan Bigham and Leslie Midkiff DeBauche in Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project.
PastFashion, Randy Bryan Bigham’s fashion history blog.
“Pop Culture Tonight ” Radio interview with Randy Bryan Bigham by Patrick Phillips