Prints Charming

Leigh Wishner ’97 celebrates America’s exuberant 20th-century textiles

By June D. Bell

A woman wearing a colorful fabric mask
“I’ve got many masks, but this one is special — made from a ‘drag box’ plaid fabric designed by D.D. and Leslie Tillett.” Wishner collection.

Surveying the giddy mix of novelty prints, polka-dotted blouses, eclectic jewelry, and thrift-store circle skirts in Leigh Wishner’s Washington Heights apartment, a friend told her 25 years ago, “You have the happiest closet I’ve ever seen.”

Wishner still does. Her collection of effervescent prints has ballooned since her years at Barnard, partly because she’s powerless to resist vintage textiles. “I love a good dot,” she confesses. “I love a good stripe.”

So do hundreds of her fans. The Instagram account she launched in May 2020, @patternplayUSA, quickly garnered more than 1,500 followers who swoon over her near-daily photos of vibrant fabrics and outfits coupled with chatty commentary on their origins, designers, and heyday.

Pattern Play USA, Wishner says, is her “visual love letter to 20th-century American textile design” and, she hopes, the heart of a colorful academic coffee-table book she plans to write on the subject. The Los Angeles resident had been stockpiling ideas for a volume, but her job coordinating events and exhibits at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum left her little free time for research. When the pandemic forced the museum to temporarily shutter last spring, Wishner devoted her three-month furlough to the Instagram account and book idea. 

She’s celebrated everything from a playful 1952 hand-screened linen print of California quails by little-known Los Angeles artists Tony Sharrar and Erick Erickson to the chic wardrobes of icons Esther Williams, Myrna Loy, and Lucille Ball, “the woman who single-handedly ignited my love of ’50s fashion as a child.”

An image of textiles
“Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand devised a playful ecosystem of avian and feline motifs composed of bits of letters and numbers.” Paul Rand ‘Animalphabet’ for L. Anton Maix; Cora Ginsburg LLC collection.
An image of colorful textiles in Hawaiian print
“Chop suey — ‘assorted pieces’ — is a style of Hawaiian print design that was most common in the 1940s and ’50s. These fabrics offer samplings of island scenes and motifs, frequently paired with English and ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi words.” Leigh Wishner Collection.
A woman wearing a textile dress with a close ip of the colorful red and blue print
“‘There’ll Always Be an England’ is an uplifting song of perseverance in the face of fascism. The inspiring lyrics were the basis for this ‘British American Ambulance Corps’ fabric, made in America to support Brits in the post-blitz era.” FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising collection.
Textiles from the 1939 World Fair
The dynamic duo — the obelisk-esque Trylon and the plump Perisphere — of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York lives on in textiles!” Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. Design drawing of Trylon and Perisphere pillbox hat. New York Public Library Digital Collections; textiles, FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising collection.

Wishner sometimes showcases cherished favorites from her extensive personal collection, including a 1940s scarf adorned with slang phrases like “By crackie!” and “Holy mackerel!” She makes an occasional Instagram appearance as well, sporting bright fuchsia lipstick, leopard-print glasses, statement earrings, vivid vintage scarves paired with richly patterned blouses — and blazing red tresses evoking her fashion idol.

A Los Angeles native, Wishner always knew she wanted to live in New York City. She studied antiquities at Barnard but scrapped plans to become an art conservator when she realized a painful truth: “Science is the basis of conservation, and I did not enjoy chemistry.” Her passion for material culture and design led her to the Bard Graduate Center, where she earned a master’s degree in decorative arts and wrote her thesis on the history of leopard fur and prints in fashion. (She fittingly kicked off Pattern Play USA with a photograph of a model clad in a leopard print by textile designer Brooke Cadwallader, which she characterized as a “take on nature’s chic-est pattern.”) Wishner spent a decade at Cora Ginsburg LLC, an antique textiles and costume gallery in New York City, before returning to California and taking a job curating costume and textiles exhibitions for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). She joined the Fashion Institute’s museum in 2017.

Although she’s handled fragile garments that date to the Renaissance, Wishner’s passion remains post-World War II fabrics produced during an era of economic prosperity, innovation, and optimism. “American textile design really came into its own during that period,” she says. 

Woman wearing synthetic fur clothing
“Though plush fabrics called ‘peluches’ have been used in fashions for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1920s that synthetic furs entered the marketplace.” Wishner Collection.

Until the late 1930s, stylish Americans and the industry that clothed them took design cues from Europe, copying the silhouettes and color palettes originating in Paris’s haute couture ateliers. That relationship frayed during World War II, then dissolved shortly after, and a unique brand of American creativity flourished. While French designers stubbornly clung to their silks and English designers held fast to their woolens, U.S. designers embraced newly developed synthetic fabrics, printing technologies, and whimsical novelty patterns.

The era’s fabric design has a less enchanting underside, however. Whether the result of ignorance, insensitivity, or racism, midcentury designers’ art sometimes perpetuated racist depictions of ethnic groups and appropriated other cultures’ sacred or significant motifs. Wishner’s Instagram posts address appropriation, celebrate the genius of Black designers such as Loïs Mailou Jones, and honor Navajo (Diné) and northern New Mexico’s Hispanic weavers — artisans who have often been overlooked and uncredited.

Men working looms in northern New Mexico
“October is #hispanicheritagemonth — which makes these Chimayó tapestry-woven textiles from the looms of northern New Mexican Hispanic weavers (like the Ortega family, pictured in a vintage postcard) the perfect subject.” Wishner collection.

Wishner isn’t yet finished compiling virtual fabric swatches that celebrate America’s love of pattern, color, and design while illuminating the country’s history of ingenuity and creativity. Squeezing the garish, breathtaking, and gaudy between the covers of a book won’t be easy, but she’s determined to try. “It will be as fun to write as it is educational,” she promises. “I want people to love it without needing to read a word.”

Latest IssueWinter 2021

In this issue, learn about three alums who have devoted their careers to racial justice.