Richard Nelson Bolles’ What Color is Your Parachute was self-published in 1970, and since 1972 has gone through 40 commercially-published editions, translated into 22 languages, and sold over 10 million copies. After reading it many years ago, I felt like it expanded my perception of what was possible in a career.
At the same time that Bolles’ book first became widely available, Vera Neumann (1907 - 1993) was flying high. Her parachute cloth (more about that in a second) had been unfurled and printed in ecstatic colors, becoming a form of modern wearable art. Glitterati and career women both wore Veras—whether wrapped around ponytails, necklines, or waists, they gave a fresh, expressive look to an outfit.
The more you look, the more you see
“Color is the language I speak best” —Vera
Vera Neumann used to be simply Vera…the one and only Vera. Now we call her by both names to differentiate her from the newer Veras (Wang and Bradley) on the scene. She was born Vera Salaff on July 24, 1907. A truly prolific designer, she got a good start from her father, who took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Sunday, and gave her 50 cents per art-filled sketchbook as a child.
Vera met and married Austrian George Neumann in 1943, and together with their friend Frederick Werner Hamm they began silkscreening textiles in their studio apartment in Manhattan, calling their business Printex. They started out with just placemats because they were curing these in their own small oven. The business, and the space required, expanded rapidly after Hamm secured their first order from B. Altman. It was during the peak of World War II when linen became difficult to obtain that Vera first came across some parachute silk being sold at an army surplus store. By the late 1940s she had expanded from home textiles to scarves made of parachute silk.
Vera was the very first to sign her name to a scarf, as an artist signs a painting. In the 1950s her work was popular with Marilyn Monroe, Bess Truman and Grace Kelly. John Lennon was the first customer for a Vera painting when her oils were shown in 1970. Department stores started presenting her scarves like artwork in the early 70s. By 1977, Vera’s sales were over $100 million.
The designs of Vera Neumann took many forms over the years, ranging from the small, often botanically-inspired designs, to boldly patterned, modernist abstracts. She obviously loved juxtapositions of bright colors, and gave a lot of thought to how her layout of pattern could make an interesting scarf. There is a consistent love of detailed natural elements and energetically free brush strokes. Nothing looks like the paint has even dried yet, so fresh are her designs.
How many scarves To make a parachute?
I recently acquired a large drawstring bag filled with scarves. How large? Large enough for Santa to sling over his shoulder and make children feel giddy, only in this case I’m the one who is giddy. The bag came from one woman, and most of the contents are scarves made by Vera Neumann between 1960 and 1982.
I don't know the woman who collected these scarves, but I know a few things about her based on her collection. She loved Vera of course, and she wore just about every color, some more often than others. I have had to put aside over 30 of the scarves because their wear has been a little too much (these are now in the hands of a colleague for her reuse). Very special designs I believe the collector kept rather carefully, protected from overuse. Most of the very best were not overused.
I have been given a few Vera scarves as gifts through the years, and admired the ones I've found secondhand, but never have I seen 100+ of Vera's scarves at once before.
Right now you will find 40 or so Veras in my Etsy shop, and there are more to come. But caveat emptor: This batch is going fast.
The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were “realistic.” They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and then gave them horses to ride.
― Richard N. Bolles, What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016 edition
Vera may have needed to use parachute silk at one time in her life, but she had no trouble with flying high.
How fortunate we all are to be able to wear such an artistic flight of fancy as a Vera scarf, having to think about tying ideas instead of fit—and to make the world brighter and more interesting at the same time.
Do you have any Vera scarves yourself? What color is your Vera?