Features & Columns

History San Jose Exhumes Valley's Deadly Fashion Obsessions

'Fashion to Die For: A Shopper's Dilemma' is now open
in the Pasetta House at History Park
History San Jose's new exhibit features fashion ranging from dead cheetah coats to mad-hatter accessories.

If only cheetahs could talk. When curators and volunteers began rifling through History San Jose's textile collection and discovered a vintage coat made from slaughtered cheetahs, one thing led to another. Soon enough, out came an entire exhibit devoted to the darker aspects of San Jose's retail and fashion industry. Fashion to Die For: A Shopper's Dilemma is now open in the Pasetta House at History Park.

The title of the exhibit conveys multiple layers of meaning. "To die for" is a common phrase when shoppers absolutely must have a particular item. If animals are gunned down in the wild to manufacture a coat, or if arsenic is used to make clothes, as it was a century ago, "To Die For" takes on a whole new meaning, as it does when downtowns die thanks to suburban shopping malls.

Thus, on the surface we see what looks like a historical survey of fashion in mid-century San Jose, but in reality, Fashion to Die For offers a more sinister matrix of contemplation, not the folksy stuff often seen at History Park. One almost feels transported into an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," circa 1955 or so. I mean that as a compliment.

Concerning the aforementioned atrocities, everything unfolded locally, so the exhibit focuses on San Jose. Right here in town, animals were raised and slaughtered just so fancy women could prance down First Street with ostrich hats. Mercury from the New Almaden mines was used by hat makers and for textile dyes. The economic depression of the 1870s gave rise to racist policies like San Jose's Anti-Chinese Laundry Association, reflecting growing discrimination that culminated with the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Fashion to Die For is not a huge show by any stretch, but it took a lot of work. History San Jose holds over a million items in its archive, and rifling through just the textile stuff took hours and hours on end. Organizing everything into a few rooms devoted to the dark side of San Jose history was surely a daunting task. Two whole rooms, for example, feature dead animals transformed into highbrow women's and men's fashion, which surely dominated downtown San Jose 60 years ago, back when retail still existed in that neighborhood. Under glass cases, we see an alligator purse from 1907, a snake and lizard skin envelope clutch from 1945, plus old-school hats made from dead beavers, pheasants, raccoons and pigeons. On each wall we see photos of the animals in the wild, in their natural environment, with accompanying text panels.

Other rooms include artifacts like top hats, satin shoes, faux-leather combs, and even one whole case of small items from various San Jose shopping stores in the first half of the 20th century. A circa-1930 Hale Brothers Store credit card sits in the same case as 3D glasses from Hart's, circa 1965. In that same case, we also see ashtrays, necklaces, and a postcard from when Eastridge Mall first opened. All the items were donated to History San Jose over the decades.

Perhaps the most striking displays are a wall-size blowup of the Valley Fair poles in the 1960s and another photo of what First Street in San Jose looked like in the 1940s. The photos are not newly discovered—anyone who's researched or dug through material over the years will recognize them—but to see them enlarged to wall-size is quite a treat. As readers might already know, downtown San Jose was the valley's economic engine for the first half of the 20th century. Every single block featured numerous retailers, theaters and a thriving service industry infrastructure. But as soon as the manufactured Eden of postwar American suburbia captured the imaginations of nuclear families, barbecues and lawn mowers from coast to coast, shopping malls began to bail from downtowns. In San Jose's case, the retail has never fully returned and probably won't, at least not in the same capacity. It will instead be something that redefines what we understand as "retail."

Nevertheless, let me give a shout to the volunteers and curators at History San Jose who rifled through thousands of textile artifacts. Fashion To Die For is the result of their hard work, and they live to tell these stories.

Sholeh Wolpe uses poetry to unite east and west. A few years ago, the Iranian-American poet and translator came to San Jose State University and gave a talk on Attar, the legendary Sufi mystic writer from whom Rumi acquired his entire shtick.

Attar's epic allegorical poem, The Conference of the Birds, had only been translated in a scholarly fashion, so Wolpe decided to translate a few passages into poetic English for her presentation at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Main Library. The experience moved her so much that she later wound up pursuing and getting a contract to translate the entire book, which just came out from W.W. Norton. Wolpe returned to San Jose State last week as part of her book launch enterprise. Once again, San Jose serves as the backdrop for a mystical convergence of East and West.

The Conference of the Birds is a grand allegory about the journey of the soul and the annihilation of the ego. The story recounts a perilous journey undertaken by the world's birds, the mystics, led by another bird, the Hoopoe, who can be understood as a sage or messenger guiding the other birds toward the truth. The journey unfolds in a series of cheeky yet profound lessons, given by the Hoopoe to the birds, followed by deceptively simple parables illustrating those lessons. The parables are funny and brash on the surface, but multiple layers of meaning emerge in almost every stanza. The path articulated is an interior voyage, with the birds learning to look for the essence within, rather than be "bamboozled by externals."

In the end, the birds realize that they are part of the Great Beloved, not separate from it. The reader need not be religious, but whatever one's path, Attar says, if you remain still, you will dry up in your own puddle.

Regarding the translation, Wolpe realized that previous English translations were not exactly simple to follow, so she pored over different versions before using the one she felt was most accurate. She also assiduously consulted scholarly analyses, all to ensure that she was providing a simple yet poetic translation rather than a verbose work of scholarship. The intense beauty and poetic nature of Attar's Persian is thus reimagined in contemporary English.

"The Persian language is a very flowery language," Wolpe says. "It's beautiful, it's very melodic and it's very flowery. Translating it carelessly would result in a very flowery cliched work in English. That it why it is very important for the translator to be recreating the work in a fresh language. ... And that's what I did, I used my poetic voice to make sure that the language itself is fresh."

As a result, the book is easy to read, yet mind-blowing in its profundity. Any imaginative reader will immediately apply the parables to his or her own predicaments or even to national events. For example, the stories of the "self-satisfied bird," driven by isolationist arrogance and devoid of wisdom, will clearly remind of egomaniacal politicians with inferiority complexes and their violent "me-first" advisers.

Another refreshing aspect of Wolpe's translation is that all gender references are removed from the story, so we get "the Beloved" or "the Ocean" as opposed to any specific god or goddess verbiage. The Persian language does not contain "he" or "she" pronouns, but since previous translators were men, they translated everything as male or "he." Not so with Wolpe's translation.

Wolpe explains: "I didn't want to turn around and make everything 'she,' to say, 'Oh, I'm a female translator.' What I did, I took it out completely. I respected the Persian language and I said, 'Well, God, the Beloved, the Almighty, there is no gender there.' So I just used different names for the Beloved."

Wolpe's pursuits don't stop with Attar. She also recently helped translate Walt Whitman's Song of Myself into Persian, soon to be released in Iran, now that the book finally passed the censor's approval. In this columnist's view, both of those geniuses—Attar and Whitman—provide insight into how we can improve the world by improving ourselves first.

"They're both mystic poets," Wolpe notes. "Whitman says, 'I contain multitude.' So you can see immediately, wow, that's what Attar has been saying, in a different way."