TUXEDOS & FUR COATS: Sartorial Status Symbols in “Family Ties” and “Color Me Blood Red”

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The art world is fancy. It’s a place where tens of thousands of dollars can change hands in a single transaction. It is only fitting, then, that the hands making these exchanges should first pass through luxurious sleeves of fox fur.

Such sleeves are on display in a 1982 episode of the television show Family Ties, in which Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) organizes an art auction fundraiser. Sponsoring the event is “one of the biggest art dealers in the Midwest,” Victoria Hurstenburg (Christine Belford). In fact, “the Hurstenburg name is virtually synonymous with fine art and culture.”

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Victoria arrives at the Keaton house wearing a full-length fur coat, a stark contrast to the casual flannels worn by Elyse and Steven. She is there to deliver some paintings for the auction (which she carries unwrapped, under her arm, like a stack of library books), but she abandons them on the kitchen counter when she notices a sculpture by Mallory’s boyfriend Nick. The piece, which prompts obvious distaste from everyone else, impresses Victoria so much that she purchases it from the auction, herself.

When she asks to see the rest of Nick’s sculptures, the show apparently has no budget to build another set for his studio, so he brings everything over to the Keaton household. Victoria arrives wearing another fur coat and a black, sequined evening dress. Using words like “primitive,” “crude” and “bordering on offensive” to describe his work, she actually intends this as praise, because art people are weird. So excited by Nick’s talent (and handsomeness), she offers to “open a few doors” for him, with the promise of causing “a real stir” in the art world.

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True to her word, Victoria curates Nick into an exhibition in town. At the opening, one of the gallery attendants wears, not only a tuxedo, but also a top hat (the height of fancy). Mallory shows up to spy on him and becomes involved in an awkward conversation with one of the guests. A total outsider, she clearly doesn’t know anything about the show she is attending, and ultimately rationalizes her presence by explaining that one of the artists used to be her camp counselor, and then she accidentally knocks over one of the sculptures.

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Earlier instances of the wardrobe cues from art world power players can found in the 1965 splatter film Color Me Blood Red.  In the opening shot, an art dealer named Farnsworth (Scott H. Hall) burns a painting from his gallery while wearing a tuxedo (he wears a tuxedo almost all the time). We eventually learn that he is destroying the evidence left behind by a homicidal painter named Adam Sorg (Gordan Oas-Heim). Though Sorg enjoyed a loyal following in the Sarasota, Florida art scene, one thing stood in his way of earning the respect of the town’s discerning art critic: his unsophisticated use of the color red. So he began murdering people and using their blood as paint.

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The melodrama of the situation corresponds to the film’s cartoonish portrayal of the gallery system, and Farnsworth’s gallery actually resembles to a community theater. There is even a stage at the back of the space and, for a classy touch, a red carpet cuts through the center of the room. Folding chairs are positioned in front of the paintings so patrons can relax as they admire them (and since most of the attendees appear to be over the age of 65, the chairs are put to good use). It’s understandable, though, as anyone would tire from viewing the over-hung show while standing up (there are so many paintings, that some of them sit on the floor, leaning against the wall). As for the art, Sorg’s style is all over the place, ranging from floating monster heads to Mondrian rip-offs, giving the impression that the film’s producers scavenged the canvases from an art school dumpster.

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At Sorg’s big opening, Farnsworth can be found up on the stage (in tuxedo), joined by two large houseplants and the town’s local art critic, Gregorovich (William Harris). The critic sits with  a foot-long cigarette holder and delivers live, onsite critiques of the artwork. He also wears a beret, a typical accessory of intellectual or artsy figures in cinema and television. Sorg, who is always angry and has a reputation as a bad-boy art star, shows up late, with paint on his clothes and wearing sneakers. He also carries a cigarette holder (though it is not as long as Gregorovich’s), and whispers nasty things to his admirers.

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Even though these people live in Florida, the emblematic fur coat is once again paraded about by several of the gallery-goers. This gives us a visual cue to their wealth, but we can also tell that they are interested in the latest trends in contemporary art because they say things like, “It’s quite a thing to own a Sorg painting—he’s most fashionable!” One fur-clad collector, in particular, wants so badly to have one that she seems willing to pay any price. At first scoffing at Farnsworth’s $15,000 quote for a painting of a woman getting stabbed in the face, her good taste quickly wins over and… Sold!

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Real life artist David Hammons appropriated the fur coat as a means of social commentary in 2007. Hammons, himself, contacted an elite gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, L&M Arts, proposing to put on an exhibition. It was an unusual gesture, given his resistance to the commercial gallery system, but he kept the actual concept a secret until the installation. The show, on which Hammons collaborated with his wife Chie, was comprised of six lavishly expensive, full-length fur coats on antique dress forms. The backs of the coats had been burned with a blowtorch or streaked with brightly colored paint. The implication was surely not a celebration of these symbols of decadence. Instead, Hammons shone a harsh light on the glaring divide between wealthy patrons who flaunt tactless displays of affluence, and the strife of the powerless (both in and out of the art world). And despite the gross exaggerations of art world dynamics by the entertainment industry, those clichés come from somewhere, after all.

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