Belle Northrup, “Art and Personality in Clothing Selection”: Part One

I recently got Art Education Today, published by the Teachers College at Columbia University in 1936. The reason for this purchase was, of course, the Belle Northrup article contained in this journal, “Art and Personality in Clothing Selection.”

This is the only relevant publication, besides the book I reviewed, that I have found that was written by Northrup herself. (I also found an article on teaching sewing and costume design in high schools, but I will not be reviewing or summarizing that for obvious reasons.) It says that it is a chapter of a longer book that she was working on, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any evidence that this book was ever published. It seems that this article is the only work we have by her that describes her approach to yin and yang.

In this article, Northrup introduces the ideas that are key to our current understanding of style identity and harmony. She begins with a fundamental question: “Who shall wear what?” She says that dress and personality bring together the costume (outfit) and the person wearing it. Emotional and physical traits are sensed as a whole. All aspects of personality and all aspects of appearance must be taken into account. We must consider what the clothes do to the individual wearing them.

Understanding the answers to these questions requires new terms to explain the complex meanings that we have only been able to “feel” previously. Northrup used “yin” and “yang” because she saw no terms in English that described this fundamental opposition, found in everything around us, as succinctly as “yin” and “yang” do. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang set up a scale of universal opposites. Yin came to mean quiescence, absorption, and gentleness, and yang strength, penetration, and vigor.

Northrup gives many examples from nature, the animal kingdom, art, architecture, and music to illustrate her point.

YIN is tenderness: darkness and the moon, the yielding nature of water, the softness of moss, and the exquisiteness of frost traces in winter.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

YANG is force: the sun and the light of heaven, the weightiness of granite, the rigidity of metal, and the potency of flame.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)

We can see this opposition in everything around us.

A silver birch tree, a graceful willow tree, lilies of the valley, and field daisies are yin plants.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)

A gnarled oak, a towering pine, calla lilies, and sunflowers are yang.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Yin animals include deer, race horse, fox terriers, pekingeses, and panthers.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Yang animals include elephants, oxen, great danes, shepherd dogs, and lions.

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

In my next post, I will cover yin and yang in architecture, music, and art.

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