Soho, a busy and fascinating neighborhood in lower Manhattan, is a seemingly natural combination of old and new. This applies to every aspect of Soho’s culture; its history, architecture, culture, and style have all evolved alongside very new ideas whilst adapting those of the past, rather than turning them into something entirely different. These changes can be difficult to see and understand by simply visiting the area, but upon diving deeper and taking a closer look through observation and research, you begin to get a better sense of what makes Soho, Soho. This incorporation of old and new is where we began our thought process on how we would be constructing a garment that represents Soho, and is the basis of our design.
The history of Soho is one that is rich and unexpected. When we began researching the area, we had no idea how interesting the information we were about to come across would be. The neighborhood’s history is one that is full of change, with each era less expected than the last. This long history begins in the 1600s; as shocking as this may sound to those of us who experience modern-day Soho, the area used to be covered in hills, plains, and valleys and was occupied by American Indians. However, it was not long before the Dutch began to settle in the area, as this occurred as early as the 1660s. The area remained as such for a fairly large amount of time, it wasn’t until around 1775 that people began to further settle in the area. This new wave of people evolved and grew in size rapidly, and by the 1800s Soho had become an area for the wealthy, with new storefronts and businesses arriving frequently. Soho got quite a makeover following the Civil War, as developers began to build commercial and industrial buildings. Their material of choice –– cast iron. This was due to its affordable price and stability. From this point up until the 1950s, Soho became a hub for business. Now we enter Soho’s shift to an artistic and eclectic neighborhood. As artists began to move into lofts in the neighborhood, many of them illegally, Soho quickly became a well-known hub for the avant-garde scene of New York City. In the 1960s and 70s, developers began to preserve the cast-iron buildings discussed previously as they recognized them as important, historic buildings. They started using the interior of these buildings to build upscale boutiques and restaurants, while preserving and showcasing the historic architecture on the exterior.
Soho is a particularly interesting area to study architecture from a historical aspect because many of the buildings have simply been added onto rather than torn down and redone. That means a plethora of these buildings constructed in the mid 1800’s still stand today. In the old life of Soho, large warehouses dominated the blocks, Broadway contained businesses like Tiffany and Company, Metropolitan Hotel, and a number of theatres. It was then that Soho made a drastic change.
Soho began to turn for the worse as the area filled up with brothels which made Broadway the city’s Red Light District. Small manufacturing businesses took over this area, driving out the middle class because of the new change in character. Soho plateaued there for a few years then avalanched into deserted warehouses, earning the name “Hell’s Hundred Acres”. With new American architectural design, New York gave the buildings new faces with cast iron, a cheap material they could test on the buildings. After essentially refacing all the buildings in Soho, the appeal didn’t take long to set in. Architects and designers enhanced the decor and overall look of the neighborhood by casting all of the pieces in Classic French and Italian patterning. Storefronts were designed with large windows as well to allow floods of light into the vast warehouses. This raised the status quo for Soho, bringing it up to a luxury, enlightened part of New York that everyone wanted to see. Bearing the skeletons of its old ancestors, never forgetting where it came from.
The Soho we know today is similar to the one back in the earlier years of that boom of industrialization, however, with the addition of the internet, Soho has been able to heighten its status even further. This is what makes it so desirable today, a true tourist hotspot and a luxury shopping haven, Soho went from one of the least desirable areas in which to live in NYC to one of the most.
Soho has an extensively dynamic community. It is very well known as a high-end shopping district. However, there is a surprisingly business-like community in Soho, as we observed numerous people walking coffee in left hand, cell phone in right, and backpack over their shoulder as they walked head down, legs in full stride, to their destination. While these people were clearly business oriented, they were far from wearing pleated work pants with a formal blazer, but rather followed more of a business casual style, giving us a sense for what kind of jobs they may hold. Many of Soho’s residents are likely working fairly modern, casual jobs, rather than working alongside the Wall Street brokers. We were also able to see the variety of different ethnicities along the busiest streets of Soho, giving us an very clear sense that there isn’t just one culture that makes up Soho, but rather a beautiful culmination of many. Soho may look and feels very leisurely, but with the thorough observation you can see that the community is actually rather rushed.
From our observation and research, we have discovered that Soho includes both the traditional and modern elements; the entire area is a combination of antique residential and new commercial buildings. The repetition of windows, staircases, angular structures, and neutral colors, such as beige and dark green, on old cast-iron buildings, creates a distinctive pattern within the neighborhood. The vibrant, varied colors, logos, and structures of the modern commercial shops and brands form irregular patterns. Furthermore, due to the influx of artists between 1970s and early 1980s (Currid-Halkett), there are some galleries with fascinating artworks and eye-catching pop-art on the walls of the streets, which contribute to the unique patterns of the area.
As we began our garment, we decided to use the pattern of antique cast-iron buildings in our design in order to reflect the historic element of Soho through our garment. Utilizing the repetition and characteristics of the structures of the old buildings, we created several patterns for a high collar with angular and delicate lines. To effectively portray the details of the patterns, we determined to use different types and thickness of wires. We also planned to fill some overlapping parts of the wires with beige and ivory fabrics to emphasize the elements of the buildings by using the neutral colors. For the dress, we created irregular patterns with different kinds of colors, lines, and shapes to reflect the vibrancy of modern commercial buildings and the art in Soho. To successfully depict such modern element, we planned to arrange different colors of fabrics and ribbons on the dress. In addition, we decided to cover the dress with a clear plastic poncho with the patterns of the map of Soho and buildings. We thought the patterns on the transparent poncho would enhance the enthralling patterns of the whole garment when it is overlapped with the wires and the dress. Our garment reflects on the architectural aspects of the old and new Soho. The fragility and strength of the wire structure surrounding the head are important in capturing the old and new warehouse skeletons and structures in Soho. The dress resembles the stores with vibrant clothing and patterns within, contrasting the traditional, bleak, muted colors of Soho. The clear garment with window panels to remind you of just that. This is a garment that stands out in terms of appearance but still manages to blend in with the neighborhood’s culture, another ode to Soho.
Upon completion of the garment, we approached the topic of how we would be documenting our garment within Soho. Three elements; the garment’s multi-faceted nature, the most important Soho architectural elements, and interaction with the public, drove our planning process. This led us to decide on five different locations within Soho, a traditional cast iron building, the cobblestone roads of Mercer Street, the sidewalk on Broadway, the interior of a store, and the exterior of a store. The actual process of photographing the garment went very smoothly. With Lily photographing the garment and David photographing the reactions of those around us, we were able to get high-quality photos of it as well as to have positive interactions with people within Soho.
Soho is much, much more than the commercial shopping district many know it to be. There are many layers to Soho; both metaphorically in terms of the culture and community, and literally in terms of the architecture. Through research and extensive planning and consideration, our group has created a garment that we believe showcases these layers. As you move beyond the exterior building-esque layer of our garment, to the inner store-esque layer, we hope that you can feel yourself moving through the layers of Soho.
Currid-halkett, Elizabeth. “Where Do Bohemians Come From?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/where-do-bohemians-come-from.html
Seeman, Helene Zucker, and Alanna Siegfried. “SoHo A Guide by Helene Zucker Seeman and Alanna Siegfried.” Art NYC, Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York, NY Copyright 1978, www.artnyc.com/SoHoHistory.html
Latzko, Laura. “The History of SOHO NYC.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, traveltips.usatoday.com/history-soho-nyc-21782.html
Bowen, Christopher. “SOHO: HISTORY, ART, CULTURE – AND PLENTY OF SHOPPING.” New York Post, New York Post, 13 Mar. 2001, nypost.com/2001/03/13/soho-history-art-culture-and-plenty-of-shopping/
Process photos and final piece.
Photography by Lily Engelmaier.