A Day in the Life of a Courtauld Student – 18th November 2015

With a vast number of libraries to visit across London, and a variety of fascinating lectures to attend, no day as a student at the Courtauld is quite the same. On a Wednesday morning, I would usually attend the Foundations lecture series, however today I made my way to Brixton for a tutorial on our first marked essay. Rebecca and I had a productive discussion at the Ritzy café on my topic – how Alfred Hitchcock uses Dior’s New Look in his 1955 film Rear Window – then once everyone’s sessions wrapped up, the course gathered to discuss our quickly approaching field trip to New York (time does indeed fly on a nine month MA course!).


However, we weren’t quite ready to head back to school and were keen to explore Brixton a bit more so Giovanna, Leah, Aric, Aude, Eleanor and I popped over to Brixton Village Market to energize ourselves with a quick coffee before heading back to Courtauld to resume work on our essays. We stopped at Federation, an Aussie-owned café, and treated ourselves to their famous Anzac biscuits and gluten-free brownies, which we enjoyed over quality flat whites and lattes.

Walking through Brixton Village Market. Christmas decorations are up already!


Enjoying some very needed coffee and treats.

Intense dress history discussion.

Flat White at Federation.

Afterwards, we took the tube back to the Courtauld and buried ourselves in the stacks! We settled in our cozy basement library for an afternoon of (hopefully) productive study. In search of 1950s contemporary commentary and images regarding femininity in America for my essay, I spent most of the afternoon immersed in the Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily archives at the Courtauld’s Book Library.

Everyone on the tube.

Secluded study spot in the Courtauld Library.

Some research materials.

In need of a bit of fresh air after an afternoon of study, I ventured up to the Somerset House courtyard, where the Fortnum and Mason’s SKATE rink, Christmas Arcade and Lodge have now been officially opened – indeed to much fan fair yesterday. Dodging enthusiastic skaters and passerby’s taking selfies, I walked over to the New Wing of Somerset House for the Law Society’s “Art Law” course in which I have enrolled. The certificate is essentially a crash course in copyright, intellectual property law and related themes, which will hopefully allow me to speak with a bit of confidence on the subject one day.

Somerset House and Christmas tree!

F&M Christmas tree decorations.

Tom’s Skate Lounge.

Skaters on the rink.

Tomorrow promises to be equally diverse and exciting with visits to the British Film Institute’s archive and the British Library planned. Perhaps I’ll wrap up the day with the yoga society’s weekly evening session. Namaste!

Gravity Fatigue: Hussein Chalayan’s Foray into Dance


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Gravity Fatigue, directed by Hussein Chalayan was at Sadler’s Wells from the 28th-31st October 2015

Enter: three dancers, each wearing a white, pleated, knee-length skirt and a boxy jacket with a high collar pulled up to the nose. In step, they make their way around the stage in a manner that can only be described as hula-like – their hips moving in short jerking motions, sending the skirts swishing from side to side, their legs moving as if independent from their bodies.

Soon, they are joined by another trio wearing long black coats. Slowly, but picking up speed, the dancers begin to spin, three at a time, on the spot; the hulas become whirling dervishes. The jackets are unzipped and left to fall. As they do it transpires that they are attached to the skirts and an underbody, with the inside of the jacket covered in multi-coloured sequins. The jackets whirl around the dancers as they spin, creating a mesmerising, hypnotic effect.

This is Gravity Fatigue at its finest – the title of a new performance created by fashion designer Hussein Chalayan for Sadler’s Wells, London. The designer was commissioned by the contemporary dance company and worked alongside choreographer, Damien Jalet, to produce the 1h 15minute performance that showed over four days from the 28th-31st October 2015. Although this was the first time that Chalayan – known for his inter-disciplinary practice – had directed a dance piece, it was not the first time he had shown his work on Sadler’s stage, having used the venue for his famous 2000 A/W show, Afterwards: a commentary on the horror of displacement in wartime that saw models transforming furniture into clothes.

A page from the official programme showing sketches by Chalayan for each of the short tableaux.

A page from the official programme showing sketches by Chalayan for each of the short tableaux.

Officially the ‘hula-dervishes’ were Body Split, dance number 7 out of 18 tableaux that made up the performance, each undeniably stamped with Chalayan’s – aesthetic and thematic – mark. As one might expect, fabric was a central element of the show, in terms of both costumes and set design. The possibilities or restraints provided by fabric formed the starting point for the dancers’ movements, as Chalayan played on themes such as gender, religion, technology, migration, and the self in modern reality.

Photographs in the official programme of dancers in rehearsal

Photographs in the official programme of dancers in rehearsal

Despite these weighty topics the dances never strayed far from a playful humour. Fabric was made to perform alongside the bodies of the dancers, pushing the boundaries of what might normally be expected from material, in classic Chalayan innovation. One tableau, for example, saw the dancer’s dress itself appear to dance. As she stood rooted to the spot it moved and mutated autonomously, and disconcertingly, around her hips.

The fact that Chalayan was entrusted with the role of director, despite his previous lack of dance experience, is a testament to his abilities to cross disciplines in a meaningful and thought provoking way. Significantly, he refers to the experience of creating the show as ‘one of the most important projects in my development as a designer/artist.’  Certainly, Gravity Fatigue brought together two media in a way that created an exciting and enthralling perspective on fashion, material and its relationship with the body.


If You Can’t be Pretty, be Interesting!

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Don’t be afraid to be different. 
Don’t be afraid to grow up. 
Stop mentally walking the Atlantic 
City boardwalk in a beauty parade. 
Make capital of your defects. 
Cultivate a color sense. 
Learn restraint in dress. 
Understand the value of simplicity. 
And dress to be interesting! 

With these words, Hollywood designer Gilbert Adrian – known simply as Adrian to his public – speaks to the readers of Motion Picture Magazine, guiding them to rethink their attitudes towards dress and beauty, and to embrace their possibilities, rather than feeling quelled by contemporary ideals.

Published in the 3 May 1926 edition, Adrian’s words are imbued with the designer’s understanding of the ways actors’ images could be sculpted by artful costuming.  The magazine describes him as a ‘youthful genius’, at the time he was head of wardrobe at the De Mille Studio, and he went on to work at MGM, where he designed costumes for stars including, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, during the 1930s and 1940s.

For readers of a fan magazine, he represented a tangible link to their favourite actors and a means to learn the kind of skills in cosmetics and dress that were evolving as cinema boomed in the 1920s.  Like fashion magazines of the period, film journals appealed to women’s desire to emulate their idols – whether society women, fashion models, or stars.  While publications such as Vogue targeted a slightly older, more elite woman, fan magazines attracted young women eager to make the most of readymade fashions that now brought style to a wider group than ever before.

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The article seeks to manage expectations – while it is clearly designed to guide women’s approach to their appearance, Adrian addresses his audience with both authority and empathy, aware they cannot look exactly like their favourite screen star, but counseling them to be confident and strategic in their choices.  For example, he complains that too many women seem to believe only in two age groups-16 or 60- with many therefore dressing too young or too old, and warns: ‘…beware of making yourself ridiculous by clinging to flapperdom too long!’  Instead, women should embrace a sophisticated style, and remember that ‘All pretty women can’t be interesting, but an interesting woman can outshine all pretty ones.’

And how to cultivate being interesting? Adrian assures his readers that this is attainable: ‘ It can be developed, since it is a quality of mind, and it will last and increase while beauty and youth fade and decay.’  Such girlish terms as ‘cute’ should be abandoned, women should ignore men’s interest in frivolous examples of femininity such as the Ziegfeld Follies, and ‘Instead of trying unsuccessfully to hide what you consider your defects make capital of them!’ Don’t, therefore, copy a trend simply to follow the herd, or mistakenly try to ape film costumes designed for an exotic narrative.  He advocates ‘individual dressing’ focused on a small number of well-made and carefully chosen garments that highlight one’s personality.  Advice that is still being given in magazines now…



Kara Walker

By Aric Reviere

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, MoMA, 1994.

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Paper, Overall 13 x 50′ (396.2 x 1524 cm). Gift of the Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josee Kravis. Photo from http://www.moma.org/collection/works/110565?locale=en.

I wanted to begin my series of contributions to this blog with a bit of reflection upon my undergraduate work and a brief exploration of some of the fundamental intellectual questions I hope to pose in the year to come. In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.

Walking into the first temporary exhibition hall at MoMA this past June, I was struck by this Walker work, which the curators installed on a gigantic stretch of wall. To say the work dominated the incredibly spacious gallery would be an understatement, but in typical 21st century fashion, a stream of visitors from all over the world merely glanced at the piece, posed for a snapchat to demonstrate their level of cultured privilege, and ultimately made their way into the adjacent chambers in search of MoMA’s treasure trove of modernist masterpieces. For me, however, the work presented an opportunity to view in person for the first time the palpable power of Walker’s aesthetic. The apparent paradox of a contemporary African American artist creating work almost exclusively in the antiquated Victorian tradition of silhouettes initially drew me to the work of Walker as a young Art History student at Davidson College. As a reductive art form, specifically in the sense of portraying a visual landscape through only the juxtaposition of black against white, the silhouette–at least in my humble opinion–possesses a highly racialized history. In other words, despite how the art form renders a figure as a black object in contrast to a stark white background, that figure almost exclusively in the history of the silhouette is presumed to be white. Further visual cues, such as dress and the physiognomy of a figure, convey the race, gender, and social status of the object of the artist’s gaze. Walker, however, transforms the genre into a visual platform of subversive alternative histories, clearly denoting through the physiognomy and dress (or lack there of) the diametric black versus white paradigm. This work specifically portrays a series of distinct vignettes in a larger collective story, but ultimately the delineation between the white, well dressed bodies of the figures in the far left section contrasts starkly with the rampant nudity and sexuality of the black bodies portrayed throughout the work with often hyper-exaggerated physical features including a gigantic penis and the stereotypical coon based imagery of over large feet.

Ultimately, Walker’s work represents a starting point for many of the issues I explored in my undergraduate thesis, a reaction to Paul Gilroy’s theory of the Black Atlantic. As I look forward to the work I will conduct this year, however, issues of racism, power, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of my academic work because in many ways these have each impacted my life in distinct fashion. Given my immense level of privilege as a white, American male from an upper middle class background, viewing the way the white, European Imperial/Colonial apparatus visually defines blackness in opposition to glorified constructs of purified and superior white identities speaks more profoundly to the perversion and exploitative nature of white patriarchal hegemony than it is representative of true black identities. For me, questions like how does European femininity in the 1920s re-appropriate primitivism and the sexuality of the black body to facilitate its own liberation from Victorian domesticity are central to understanding how European modernism, feminism, etc. emerged. The intersectionality of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and (perhaps most relevant for this course) the history of dress all speak to the way certain power structures legitimize and perpetuate certain identities. That is what fascinates me and Walker’s discursive work subverts such a vehicle of hegemonic identity propagation to truly question how we perceive our world and its history.

Avedon: Ancestor of Photoshop

by Eleanor Simcoe

“All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.”

– Richard Avedon

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay (and a few tweaks from the author!)

In our very first MA class the inevitable conversation about fashion, its imagery and manipulation of the real body turned to Photoshop. Scourge of contemporary fashion media that it is, a quick trawl through the history of fashion photography will tell you that it is not a new phenomenon. While the technology may not be the same, fashion photographers have been manipulating their images since the earliest years of the genre.

Richard Avedon was an American photographer with a prolific career in fashion. He held positions as lead photographer at Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, shot campaigns for Dior, Versace, Revlon and Calvin Klein among many others and is responsible for some of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century. He worked relentlessly and consistently from the mid 1940’s until his death in 2004.

Avedon was keenly aware that fashion photography had presumptions toward the ideal. Clothes and models starred, and the image should inspire, appeal and oftentimes—sell. The medium of photography allowed for both a ‘realistic’ and highly adjustable way of making images.

“The minute you pick up the camera you begin to lie—or to tell your own truth. You make subjective judgements every step of the way—in how you light the subject, in choosing the moment of exposure, in cropping the print. It’s just a matter of how far you choose to go.” Avedon

Avedon worked with ‘retoucher’ Bob Bishop for over forty years, manually adjusting photo-negatives. Lengthening necks and legs, making eyes larger and even swapping heads and torsos from different images to create an idealized picture, half a century before Photoshop.

As we rage against photo-manipulation in today’s print media, a moment of reflection on its rootedness in the world of fashion photography may yield new perspectives. Would understanding the subjective role of the photographer make us less desperate to believe the final image is the ‘truth’? Or perhaps it is the influence of celebrity in fashion media, with tightly controlled images and a desire to appear perfectly ‘real’. How many today would surrender their image to the photographer as Audrey Hepburn did in 1967? If we continue to view fashion photography through Avedon’s lens of aspiration and fantasy do we really want to restrict his tools? Perhaps understanding the artifice would simply ruin the magic.



Avedon, Richard. In the American West, 1979-1984 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), foreword. Print.

Avedon, Richard, Carol Squiers, and Vince Aletti. Avedon Fashion. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2009. Print.

Fineman, Mia. “Pictures in Print.” Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 157. Print.


Image Caption:

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay

A Comparison of the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe And the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure & Pain

By Carolina Reyes

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Shortly after my arrival to London in mid-September, I was surprised to see advertisements for the V&A’s latest fashion display Shoes: Pleasure & Pain (June 13, 2015 – January 31, 2016). After all, it had only been a year since I had seen a similarly titled exhibition, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe (September 10, 2014 – March 1, 2015) at the Brooklyn Museum, and it seemed unusual for two world-renowned institutions to put on exhibitions with such striking parallels within a short span of time.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.


Indeed, the advertisements featuring high-fashion model Nadja Auermann in crutches struggling up a set of stairs in a pair of sky-high and needle thin stilettos which surely test the acceptable limits of sensible footwear (even if for fashion’s sake) prepares the viewer for an exhibition more closely resembling Killer Heels – one that explores solely the high heel as a status symbol, fetish object and source of power throughout human history – than the one actually encountered.

The viewer quickly realizes that Shoes does indeed live up to its name, and whilst high heels and their association with fetishism and sexuality are certainly explored throughout the lower-level of Shoes, the wider range of artefacts, including pieces of footwear designed for men such as David Beckham’s “Brooklyn” football boots, provides the viewer with a more nuanced and holistic appreciation of the history and cultural significance of shoes.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

Furthermore, the exhibition’s examination of the shoe as a commodity and collectible item throughout the upper-level was an important theme, which I felt had gone unexamined in Killer Heels. And, by more closely scrutinizing the impact of globalization on the industry of shoe production, I found it fascinating to learn in this section that in 1986 China produced just eight per cent of the world’s footwear, whilst today it is estimated that six out of ten pairs of shoes in the world are made there.

However, although Shoes’ stark displays of footwear fanatics’ collections in this segment did showcase society’s irrational obsession, Shoes and Killer Heels alike, could have taken more critical stances on our perhaps excessive preoccupation with designer footwear. Instead, both exhibitions seemed to pander to our fixation to possess couture shoes and their connection to celebrity culture. For example, Shoes justified the inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choos because Carrie Bradshaw (a shoe fanatic in her own right) of Sex and the City exclaimed that she had “lost my Choo,” and greatly elevated the eponymous designer’s profile.

There were many similarities between Killer Heels and Shoes. Most notably, their utilization of documentary-style films to chronicle the creation of shoes from design to development, in addition to use of movie clips to draw connections between shoe styles and epochs.

Both Killer Heels and Shoes were beautifully curated and certainly each worth a visit (or a look at their videos online, see source links) as they provided the viewer with various, fascinating perspectives on iconic footwear from all over the world.




Flower Making Museum

Brenda Wilson in the flower shop

Brenda Wilson in the flower shop

As my students will probably tell you, I love a good micro-history. Nothing pleases me more than finding out a lot of things about one tiny, specific subject. So imagine how thrilled I was to discover the Flower Making Museum in Hastings. Not only is this tiny museum packed full of history, it is an ongoing concern – making flowers for theatres and designers, and anyone else that needs artificial floral embellishments.

Early 20th century examples

Early 20th century examples

Brenda Wilson, the owner since 1981, is full of stories about flower making, and takes obvious and well-placed pride in the incredible range of items on offer. As you descend the staircase to the museum space, you realize that every surface, every nook and cranny is filled – with fruit, seeds, stamen, that form the basis of the flowers, and with petals of every conceivable variety, and the metal and wooden shapes that are used to punch out the delicate forms.

Petals and completed flowers

Petals and completed flowers

Wedding tiara samples

Wedding tiara samples

What is amazing is that Shirley Leaf and Petal Company has been in business for 150 years, having moved to Hastings in 1910. It gives a snapshot history of what would have been one of hundreds of mini-trades that have serviced the fashion, costume and related industries, past and present, and which are all too often forgotten.  It is the history of many craftspeople that worked from home, and in small factories all over the country making a small but significant contribution to a huge variety of creations.

Shelves full of metal stamps in the shape of petals

Shelves full of metal stamps in the shape of petals

Flowers for Mama Mia - read the label!

Flowers for Mama Mia – read the label!

The myriad tools used to make the flowers are packed into cases around the small interconnecting rooms in the basement museum.  And this includes a big metal machine that one of Wilson’s employees demonstrated to us – he carefully placed a metal stamp in the shape of petals onto a piece of fabric, lined it up under the machine’s arm and then, bang, stamped out shapes, one at a time to be wrapped and sewn together to make the flowers.

A machine that punches out the petal and leaf shapes

A machine that punches out the petal and leaf shapes

The machine in use

The machine in use

I was fascinated to hear about the range of places that have commissioned the company. Not just milliners, and theatre and carnival costumiers, as you would expect, but also chocolate and Christmas cracker manufacturers that used floral sprays and sprigs of holly as decoration.

So if you are on the South Coast, do make a visit, it really is fascinating. And never forget the power of ‘small’ histories.

50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Nine: Natalia Ramirez, MA (2012)

 Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.


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Natalia is a fellow 2012 alumna of The Courtauld History of Dress MA. Originally from Los Angeles, California, Natalia has lived in London for over five years. Since graduating from The Courtauld, she has worked in online marketing for luxury beauty brands such as Estée Lauder, and is now a Digital Marketing Manager at Music Sales, in addition to running a successful fashion blog, Natalia Ambrosia (link below).

You took your undergraduate degree at The University of California, Santa Barbara. What was it like? 

Going to University in Santa Barbara was like being on holiday, it was very surreal. The University is directly on the coast and I could wake up go for a run, and even take my reading to the beach.

What were the best parts of the History of Dress MA for you when we took it in 2011-2012? 

I really enjoyed visiting the archives of the Museum of London and analysing pieces of clothing. Going to New York on the group trip was also very cool. Dr. Arnold set up everything from private visits to the FIT to the most incredible vintage store in Brooklyn: everything we’d been reading about came to life.

Did you notice differences between your study experiences in the USA and the UK? 

The British University system trains you to be a lot more independent. In the US, you have at least 2-4 hours of lectures/discussion per day and have weekly assignments, whereas in the UK, apart from assigned readings, you have 3-4 assignments for the whole semester. It was definitely an adjustment at first, but it really gave me an opportunity to explore and evolve themes that I had been working on.

Can you tell us your favourite place hang out in London? 

For coffee there’s no place like the ‘villagey’ feel of Hampstead. To get inspired, I like to people watch on Oxford Street (not far from The Courtauld): it’s like the pulse of London; you get a feel for what people are actually wearing.

 You run an amazing blog, Natalia Ambrosia, and it’s given you some great opportunities, like attending London Fashion Week. What’s the experience like for you?

In many ways, my blog was the catalyst for deciding to pursue an MA in Dress History at The Courtauld. I had moved to Paris to teach English and was interning for a small menswear designer because I thought I wanted to design clothes. I started the blog as an outlet for everything I saw and wanted and became obsessed with fashion blogs. I quickly realised that I wasn’t suited to design but was very much interested in the relationship society has with fashion, and therefore the Courtauld programme was perfect.

You’ve had an exciting career in beauty and marketing since leaving The Courtauld. What are you up to at the moment, and how did the course help you? 

During the course I had the opportunity to explore the evolution of the fashion industry since the introduction of the ‘fashion blogger.’ For my research, I spent countless hours at the V&A going through the Vogue archives, reading articles and looking through advertisements. I knew when I started the course that I didn’t want to continue on to a PHD, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted or could do with my experience and interests. During the course, I realised that I really enjoyed dissecting the psychology of the customer and Digital Marketing seemed like a natural choice, as it marries my need to be creative and analytical with the fashion industry. Since the course, I’ve worked in the beauty/fashion industry, and I currently work for a music company, where I’m working on a rebranding project. The Courtauld History of Dress MA really helped me to develop my analytical skills and led me to my career, and now, to use marketing speak, it’s my USP (unique selling point).

Do you have any tips for History of Dress students? 

Go to as many exhibitions and museums as you can while in you’re in London. Make the course yours: explore all of the details that capture your interest; you never know where it might lead! Go out there and interview everyone; make use of your stance as a student, and reach out to industry leaders – network!

 What are you excited about in fashion this season? 

Chloé. Everything Chloé.



Chaos Magic: In Search of Identity in the (Post-) Internet Age

the cover of K-Hole's report #5

the cover of K-Hole’s report #5

Chaos Magic

Chaos Magic

A small white logo in the middle of a jarring green page. A series of letters form a crooked ring around a shaky K. This is the cover of Report #5: A Report on Doubt, the latest offering from K-HOLE, artist-collective-cum-trend-forecasting-group. The PDF report is 36 pages of brightly coloured WordArt-like text, set on clashing backgrounds alongside internet-sourced photographs and stock imagery. The text, in a tone somewhere between conversational, mockingly humorous and gravely academic, is uncompromising, challenging, even deliberately obtuse.

Through analysis of consumerism and branding, intended as conceptual propositions, K-HOLE’s reports express anxious efforts to situate and understand identity in the uncertain (post-) internet age. Significantly, ‘k-hole’ refers to the dislocated state that may be experienced after taking the drug ketamine.

Although not everyone will have heard of K-HOLE, many will have come across ‘Normcore’, the term the group employed in their 2013 report to describe the idea of embracing unoriginality in order to achieve freedom. After being confused by the press with another of the group’s terms, ‘Acting Basic’, an over-night trend for fleece and Birkenstocks was born. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the Normcore mix-up, the group seems to be attempting to distance itself from fashion – a subject it already had a complicated relationship with.



A Report on Doubt proposes ‘Chaos Magic’ as the successor to Normcore.  Chaos Magic is not a new concept – according to Wikipedia, it emerged in the 1970s. Although the original meaning relates to a practical application of magic – involving magicians and rites – K-HOLE borrows not only the name but, crucially, the idea of belief as magic, suggesting a new approach to experiencing reality. The report proposes Chaos Magic as the idea that, ‘Belief becomes a technology that creates change’. Chaos Magic is about embracing the uncertainty of why things happen: you don’t have to know how; you just have to believe that they will. As K-HOLE member, Emily Segal, explains in a recent interview for Vogue.com. ‘What’s important is how people are experiencing the world, experiencing their spirituality, experiencing anxiety, so there is a motion back toward the emotional landscape of consumers.’

Once again, the fashion press has seized upon this new concept in a literal way, seemingly ignoring K-HOLE’s conceptual intentions. There have been no fewer than three separate fashion related Guardian/Observer articles on the topic in two weeks. One is entitled ‘10 ways to get the Chaos Magic look’ and presents the reader with a shopping list consisting of glittery shoe-boots, sequin-festooned boyfriend jeans and an evil-eye bracelet.


However, beyond suggestions that people don galaxy-print jackets and crystal-ball inspired brogues, there perhaps lies a more nuanced way for fashion to engage with Chaos Magic. Fashion, after all, is no stranger to exploring issues of contemporary identity. As Joanne Entwhistle comments in her book, The Fashioned Body, ‘Fashion, dress and consumption provide ways of dealing with the problems of the modern world, characterised by increasing fragmentation and sense of chaos. Fashion opens up possibilities for framing the self, however temporarily’ (p.139). Fashion has a historical precedent of acting as a tool with which to come to terms with the changing technological world: consider post-war modernity and fashion’s role in refiguring the subject. Fashion is an important device which people use to grapple with experiential issues of contemporary identity through materiality.

In this overlapping concern with identity, there is potential for a truly interesting dialogue between K-HOLE and fashion. However, in order to allow this to emerge, a different approach is required. Rather than settling for a literal aesthetic of the magical through a set of style commandments (star-spangled footwear…), perhaps we should be mobilising the concept of Chaos Magic to think about new ways of approaching and experiencing dress. The real magic of K-HOLE’s concept comes from the myriad of possibilities which open themselves up to you, if only first you can let go and believe.


Find all of K-HOLE’s reports on their website – http://khole.net

Joanne Entwhistle, The Fashioned Body (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000)

In Conversation with… Eugenie Shinkle

I met with Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in London, to ask her about her current research on fashion photography, focusing on what she has coined, ‘the feminine awkward.’   

Esmeralda, New York, Hart+Lëshkina. The plastic chair is made into an extension of the body.

Esmeralda, New York, Hart+Lëshkina. The plastic chair is made into an extension of the body.

How would you define your concept of the ‘the feminine awkward’? 

It’s a way of thinking through changing representations of the female body and femininity as these are linked to shifts and developments in the creation and sharing of images.

Does it relate to specific fashion imagery? 

Yes, certainly. It relates to contemporary fashion imagery, work of roughly the last ten years where you’ll see a shift from images that specifically try to deal with grace and beauty, to images that try to deal with discomfort, awkward angles, a fragmentation of the body, what you might call gracelessness. It is different from the sort of alternative photography that was going on in the 1990s: Corinne Day’s images for example, images of real people in sometimes quite down-market surroundings. That was about a certain type of lifestyle. The newer work that I am thinking about is very much focused on individual bodies. So I am thinking of SynchrodogsHart+LeshkinaRen Hang to a certain extent. And certainly someone like Viviane Sassen.

How do these images affect the relationship between the viewer’s body and the model’s body? 

This is where it’s really interesting to start looking at models from the point of view of neuroscience, in which the basic idea is that what we experience visually is not just about vision, but that vision has various tactile stimuli incorporated into it. It’s about something called ‘sensory crossover’ and the fact that none of our sensory inputs are experienced in isolation. The one area that interests me a lot is ‘mirror neuron theory,’ which is the idea that when you look at an image of pain, the same neurons in your brain are firing as if you were actually experiencing pain. It’s the foundation of human empathetic response.

Sensory crossover is a fact of all image perception, but it’s particularly pronounced in fashion imagery, which incorporates sensations of touch, movement, and pose. Images that are ‘awkward’ are those that grab you, that give rise to a certain visceral response quite quickly. It’s a different way of catching and holding a viewer’s attention than, say, ‘shocking’ imagery.

Can they be seen as reaction to the idealized beauty of traditional fashion photography?  

I don’t like to see them simply as a reaction to conventional fashion photography because a lot of it has to do with technology as well. It has to do with the speed at which images of the body are disseminated, the rapidity with which they are received, the relationship that we have with images of our own bodies and other bodies. Part of this idea of awkwardness is not just a rejection of beauty it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between bodies, observers and images. That relationship is changing quite profoundly. I certainly see it as something that belongs to more than the limited contexts of fashion.

Synchrogos is a photography duo formed by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Novan

Synchrodogs is a photography duo formed by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven

How do they affect notions of femininity? In Viviane Sassen’s work for example, there is something very liberating in the fact that the bodies do not bear the conventional attributes of femininity; the body is made into a prop and becomes part of a broader formal experimentation. 

There is a kind of subversion of feminine identity through purposeful awkwardness, through the making of the body into featureless blobs. I agree with the idea that you can look at them as liberating because all the signifiers of femininity that fashion photography has traditionally exaggerated and made the essence of the feminine are made into something else in quite a humorous way. You can also see how this could be problematic, however. Erasing it, making it invisible is not necessarily a constructive way of challenging notions of femininity.