It has been over a month since clicking ‘print’ on my desktop and witnessing the birth of the most important document in my academic career. Immortalising three months worth of research, the 10,000 word document is, without sounding too dramatic, a cathartic ode to a lifetime of fascination for the business of beauty. Though my dissertation is now a near distant memory, the floors of my flat are still (very) active reminders of a by-gone era of unapologetic feminine capitalism, expression and innovation. Besides the fact that the covers and spines of the books double as beautiful decorative pieces, my refusal to put them away is perhaps explained by a reluctance to participate in the critical ‘forgetting’ of the emancipatory origins of the beauty industry.
My research on Helena Rubinstein has put under a microscope a disparity between the achievement of female figureheads, and the industry that they have built. The books that litter my floor are filled with tributes to the foresight and exceptional industrial prowess of Rubinstein, amongst others, that signal a socio-political turning point in America’s Post-War expansionist society. The biographical emphasis on a climactic escape from patriarchal oppression that seems to underpin any discussion of Rubinstein, or Elizabeth Arden, or Madame C.J Walker, can be read as a compensation for the ‘un-feminist’ methods in which these women built their success.
It is no secret that the early beauty industry was predicated upon manipulative copy and unregulated claims; one only has to select a random page from Vogue to witness the way in which the consumer was denigrated to validate the need for beauty culturalists. This paradox is the crux of contemporary consideration that readily focuses on the purposeful alienation of identity. Naomi Wolf and her influential book, The Beauty Myth, draws upon ‘third-wave’ feminism that posits the beauty industry as an entity that constructs ideal femininity in order to punish women. Indeed, whilst fashion allows women to experience the truest expression of self, the beauty industry displaces it, or removes the autonomous ‘self’ all together. Though Wolf’s argument has been instrumental in the feminist criticism of beauty as a self-governing and exploitative entity, it seems anachronistic that present day historiography is informed by an argument that was guided by the disregard for ‘beauty’ that permeated art and fashion alike in the 90s.
Herein lies the major problem with contemporary writing on beauty – it overlooks the positive impact of beauty culture that is to be found if the dogmatic approach were to be abandoned. Unlike fashion and wider culture in the early twentieth century, the beauty industry was a microcosmic sphere that broke down class boundaries, the restriction of women and racial segregation in its aspirational conception. It extended to women a means to unite their appearance with their newfound economic and performative power, experienced after gaining the right to vote in 1921, and allowed them to rival patriarchal power through an entirely female sphere. It is a shame therefore, that at a time when more citizens owned a compact and lipstick than an automobile, the beauty industry is so often written about in an apologetic tone.
Despite the fact that Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden are largely forgotten relics of the industry that they once created, the modern beauty industry has arguably developed in response to their earlier domination. Contemporary beauty culture has become an extension of the wider criticism of its own origins by promoting self-expression and health, rather than indoctrinating ‘ideals’. However, it still employs the PR strategies and product development that are direct ancestors of those created by Rubinstein and Arden – evident in the success of Charlotte Tilbury and her mystical ‘magic cream’.
Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C.J Walker might not have the recognition they once did, but their legacy lives on in the present day industry that they gave birth to.
Peg Zeglin Brand, ed., Beauty Matters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Bantham Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1991)
I first came across the artist Lisa Milroy in an art class at school – we were told to look at how she arranged everyday objects into groups and grids and created contemporary still life paintings of plates, hardware, tyres, and books. However, for me, it was her repetitive depiction of clothing and shoes that inspired the watered down derivatives that graced the pages of my GCSE sketchbook.
One of her earlier works from 1985 ‘Shoes’ that is now in the Tate collection, shows what appear to be the same pair of black, pointed-toe heels, in different arrangements and angles. The removal of the shoes from their context and their repetition abstracts and transforms them into a pattern and a series of shapes. However, there is a sense of intimacy and identity, conveyed in the paintings that perhaps stems from her choice to use shoes, which have such a personal connection to their wearer. Her painterly technique and unusual compositions in the representation of dress create a sense of personality and evoke the characters of the wearers despite the absence of the body or surrounding context. Her work greatly influenced my short-lived artistic aspirations, and they were the marriage of my interest in art and fashion.
Her early work was extremely important to me, so I was both delighted and surprised to come across her work again, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Amongst the paintings and the prints was a long, floral dress hanging on the wall from a white coat hanger. The larger-than-life garment trailed onto the floor, its hem section suspended on a wooden stand. Upon closer inspection, you could see that the dress was in fact a painting – the floral pattern of the fabric was painted onto the material, creating a three-dimensional painting that disturbs the limitations of the square canvas and blank wall. Milroy’s work is no longer the painterly depiction of clothing, but is the physical item of dress. Titled ‘Dress-Paintings’, these works are paintings created directly on dresses, some of which are still wearable items of clothing.
Milroy’s latest works question the definitions of what is art and what is clothing. Her ‘Dress-Paintings’ appear to be items of clothing in their form and three-dimensionality, but they are hung on the wall as objects of art. Her ‘Wearable Paintings’, further question how art is supposed to be displayed, with the body becoming the wall on which the painting is hung. They are different from fashion and objects of dress, yet they play on ideas of ‘fashion as art’, of the body as a site of individuality and self-expression through dress, and dress as a commodity. The art object is bought, owned and physically worn by its wearer – drawing comparisons to the exclusivity and projection of status in the consumption of high-end designer brands. Amongst the same repetitive prints and paintings at the Summer Exhibition, Milroy did something entirely unique; she created wearable art that at once highlights the absurdity of the art and fashion industries. However, she also created extremely beautiful and conceptual objects that are simultaneously art and items of dress.
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/lisa-milroy-2220Categories: Commentary | Tags: Art and Fashion, Dress Paintings, everyday dress, Fashion, Fashion as Art, Lisa Milroy, shoes, Still Life, Wearable Art, Wearable Paintings | Comments Off
Documenting Fashion writers share their favourite fashionable feeds:
Alexis - @dapper_kid
Courtauld alum Syed can make anything fashionable, from an embroidery detail to a light bulb. And it connects to a thought provoking (and equally dapper) blog (www.dapperkid.co.uk)
Rebecca - @duroolowu
Designer Duro Olowu’s posts are always beautiful and inspiring. A really great, well-curated selection of images
Rosie - @marthaward
Martha Ward is a freelance fashion stylist and editor. Her dreamy instagram, full of beautiful pictures of clothes, art, flowers and travel, will make you want to run away to a remote country cottage filled with roses and surrounded by fields, but taking your best designer gowns with you!
Brianna - @simplicitycity
A combination of 20th century fashion photography and active curation of subject matter, style and form, each image that simplicitycity posts resonates with the present day. Minimal descriptions serve to grant the images with renewed relevance and a sense of timelessness at once- they belong just as much to the present as they do the past, yet it is only the date of the images that suggest otherwise.
Rebecca - @charlottedicarcaci
Tantalising and beautiful – details of paintings that focus of aspects of dress.
Rosie - @paperfashion
Katie Rodgers is a New York based artist who hand paints beautifully simple, fairy-like fashion illustrations. Follow for pictures of floaty dresses, easels in sunflower fields and ballet dancers.
Rebecca - @thefashionablereader
Wide ranging selection of books and journals from the poster’s enviable collection. Perfect for summer reading inspiration!
Somewhat embarrassingly, I only managed to make it to the Tate’s Sonia Delaunay exhibition in its last week, but I was so glad that I did. I went not knowing much about Delaunay prior to stepping through the door, and because it was held in the Tate Modern, I was expecting it to focus mainly on paintings. However, it was her textiles, fashion designs and illustrations that underpinned the whole exhibition. It was immediately apparent that textiles and dress were hugely important to her during her career.
The earliest example of her work in textiles appears in the second room – a cradle cover made in 1911 for her newborn son. Interestingly, the Tate labels it as her ‘first abstract work,’ highlighting the fact that they conflate her work in textile and paint. This is, to an extent, completely understandable as there are numerous similarities between the aesthetic she employs in both. The way blocks of colour are juxtaposed is identical in both mediums. However, to consider the cradle cover, and her later fashion and textile designs, purely as decorative art is to ignore the practical, and indeed emotional, role that these objects played.
Movement is by far the most persistent theme underlying all the work in the exhibition. Delaunay was fascinated by dance, particularly tango, and many of her works reflect the rapid movement and blurring of shapes that one expects to see in a packed dance hall. In this way, her work bears some resemblance to that of the Italian futurists, who in their obsession with the speed of modern life, painted the rapid movement of cars and people through the city as swirling blocks of colour. In her scenes of dance, ‘light and movement are confounded, [and] the planes blurred’ (Delaunay, c 1913). However, there is also a sense that these colours represent the sound of music in the dances. Bodies, dress and music are all reduced to contrasting colours on the canvas.
As in her paintings, movement is a central theme of her fashion designs. In 1918 she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a shop selling accessories, furniture and fabrics that bore her signature swirling lines and blocks of colour. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, as well as designing costumes for ballets and cover illustrations for Vogue. In these, as in her paintings, the body is abstracted, leaving the viewer with the representation of dress in motion. The straight, 1920s silhouette lent itself well to her geometric, graphic designs and bright colours. However, it was not just her clothing that bore this aesthetic, she also designed furniture, and the interior of her Parisian home became something of a manifesto of her style, and a hub for artists and writers.
Movement was also at the heart of her textile designs, so much so that, when she displayed her textiles at the 1924 Salon d’Autumne, they were presented on a ‘Vitrine Simultane.’ This vitrine, created by her husband Robert Delaunay, presented eight swaths of fabric continuously moving upwards on large rollers. Movement was quite literally injected into these otherwise static objects.
It would be easy to look at Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs as a by-product of her painting; the same circular shapes and bold colours that feature in her canvases also appear in the textiles. However, I would argue that her paintings are just as influenced by work in dress – her paintings of dance, convey the movement of dresses swirling in different directions, abstracting the body and giving the canvases their characteristic dynamism.Categories: Commentary | Tags: 1920s, 1920s fashion, Abstract Art, colour, Cradle Cover, dance, Movement, Sonia Delaunay, Tate Modern, textile design, Vogue | Comments Off
The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented last month at Fashion: the 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, held at London’s Institute of Historical Research. It was included in a panel on ”Collaborations, Conversations and Peer Relationships in Fashion,” which featured individual papers by the four co-founders of the Fashion Research Network that drew on their doctoral research. Each pair of papers fell under one sub-theme, and was followed by a conversation between the authors, in both cases, a researcher in historical dress and a researcher in contemporary fashion practice, around the evolution of collaboration in that topic. My paper, which explored the dialogue between the Paris and New York fashion industries during the Fourth Republic, preceded one that discussed contemporary global fashion capitals. The ensuing conversation, an interdisciplinary collaboration itself, demonstrated the methodology behind the session.
The autumn 1953 issue of the trade publication Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin reported on an important fashion industry event: the presentation of the winter collections of Les Trois Hirondelles to American buyers at New York’s lavish Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was a shared label of the French ready-made clothing brands in the Association of Maisons de Couture en Gros, which, from its establishment in the 1940s, was the focus of trade and government efforts to shape the national industry. The occasion attested to the growing dialogue between the French and American ready-made clothing industries since the end of the Second World War and, as the journal sought to indicate, marked an achievement for the French. Indeed, the country had been striving to modernise and compete on the international market, following the examples of their American and other foreign counterparts, since before the war. After the Liberation these goals were heightened in view of France’s weakened couture and ready-made clothing trades, as well as its newfound competition from the American sportswear industry. It was not surprising that the Cahiers, voice of the main trade organisation for ready-made clothing, recounted the events in New York. That a high fashion magazine should document this industrial happening was, however, exceptional: the brands’ New York visit was the focus of an editorial in the September 1953 issue of French Vogue.
The editorial, which featured photographs by Henry Clarke, made a new crucial connection that accompanied the commercial success of the French brands: that of French ready-to-wear to New York’s modernity. Clarke photographed American models, dressed in Trois Hirdondelles clothing, against New York’s iconic spaces such as Times Square and, according to the text, “in view of the Statue of Liberty, in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers” or “in the shade of newly-built buildings: the ‘Lever building,’ the ‘United Nations’ currently being finished.” Marshall Berman has written that much of New York’s construction in the twentieth century served as performative symbols of modernity, “to demonstrate to the whole world what modern men can build and how modern life can be imagined and lived.” Over time, these structures transformed New York into a “forest of symbols.” The New York City of the 1950s was one of perpetual, large-scale construction, the result of Robert Moses’ ambitious plan for the city’s reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in Berman’s “forest,” “axes and bulldozers are always at work, and great works constantly crashing down […] where new meanings are forever springing up with, and falling down from, the constructed trees.” Text and imagery gave magazine readers the impression of constant and modern construction, bolstering Europeans’ widespread characterisation of New York as a powerful political and economic force. Vogue’s imagery was the ideal means to temper fears of Americanisation, and, through fashion, include France in a modern, progressive narrative. Readers could insert themselves into the symbolism of modern life, as Berman described, as it was filtered through to the magazine.
In one photograph a model wore a beige corduroy dress and jacket by Lempereur at the very forefront of the composition. At once towering over the reader, and in the shadow of a modern skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, the image made a statement of epic proportion. The statuesque model mirrored the structure in the background and, with map in hand, surveyed her domain. The image visualised Berman’s notion of cyclical modernity; the newness of the building was reinforced by older structures in other photographs, the surrounding debris evoked destruction, and the empty space foretold the next, more modern construction. Likewise, Les Trois Hirondelles stood for a type of ready-made dress that would disappear at the end of the decade in view of the emergence of new labels, economic systems and political regimes.
Further, the United Nations building, built between 1948 and 1952, could be seen to symbolise international harmony and renewed ties between France and the United States. Founded in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations, in order to provide a platform for international dialogue. And, perhaps to France’s chagrin, the building represented, not only the new inclusion of the United States in international politics, but its physical leadership. Still, Les Trois Hirondelles provided a means for manufacturers to participate in a sort of cross-cultural exchange. Through this trip to New York, they could confirm the continued dominance of French fashion, which, in turn, bolstered the government’s own projects of reconstruction and modernisation.
“Les ‘Hirondelles’ visitent New York,” Vogue, September 1953, 128.
Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin, 1988 , 288-9.
‘Will.i.am is building a whole new world, one recycled micron at a time.’ That is the claim made by the website of Ekocycle, the brand he founded in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Company to promote, design and sell clothing made from recycled materials. The company sells trendy, eco-conscious clothing created in conjunction with many different designers both online and in Harrods.
The whole thing is done in a very over-the-top, very will.i.am-ish way. However, it’s hard to forget that what they’re doing is actually a really good thing. Amidst the silliness – ‘until now recycling hasn’t been the stuff of legend- not the best selfie material’ – there is a hard-hitting and important message. The website states: ‘we see sustainability as “the” revolutionary social material of our time. Efforts to combat climate change and green initiatives are often sidelined by propaganda and political shuffling- but our goal is to help sow the seeds of change…’
Many of the garments are made from 100% recycled plastic or PET bottles and are produced using the most energy-efficient methods available. The aim is to encourage people to recycle by demonstrating how already used things can be turned into some new, completely different and exciting. The idea is to evolve from a clothing range into a whole movement, which encourages people to recycle and encourage others to follow suit.
Exploring the Ekocycle website, and snooping through their range in Harrods (perhaps the only retailer where a backpack can sell for £1,415), I am prompted to consider the role fashion has to play in the future of sustainable living. Fashion is, by its very nature, one of the least sustainable commodities. In today’s culture, where novelty and individuality are desired above all else, clothing is bought, worn and discarded on a near seasonal cycle. We are taught to value the new to such an extent that our clothing habits can become somewhat wasteful. We rush to buy cheap clothing that we can wear once and throwaway, to ensure that our look is constantly being updated. However, this is causing huge problems for our planet. An estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing (worth 140m) is thrown away each year. Consumers today need to learn to change their shopping habits from bulk-buying cheap, disposable clothing to reusing, adapting and upcycling old garments. Ekocycle is attempting to pave the way for a new consumer who shops ethically. The problem with this plan is the cost. It is inconceivable for most shoppers today to spend the kind of money Ekocycle is demanding for its clothing. Until sustainable fashion is more budget friendly, it seems the inevitable truth is that people will continue to buy the cheapest clothing they can, and indulge their desire to constantly refresh their wardrobe.
However, this view of clothing as something disposable is very modern. During the Second World War, and in the years that followed it, clothing was rationed, and so it was seen as a precious commodity. Nothing was thrown away if it could be restored, and old things were constantly being adapted into new garments. Campaigns such as ‘Make Do and Mend’ encouraged the kind of resourcefulness that is lacking in today’s consciousness. People were expected to wear a garment until it no longer fit, or had lost all structural integrity, but then, instead of throwing it away, it was changed into something new by reusing the material.
Perhaps what Will.i.am and Ekocycle are doing isn’t so modern, despite the futuristic designs of their clothes. It seems, in fact, that they are merely resurrecting an old ideal of reusing and readapting to prolong the life of a material. Our Grannies- the kind of women who would repair continuously to avoid throwing something away- would recognise something of themselves in this brand. The old curtains and tablecloths that fill anecdotal evidence about wartime clothing have been replaced by plastic bottles, however the concept of turning something old into something new remains exactly the same.Categories: Commentary, Fashion Now | Tags: Eco Fashion, Ekocycle, Fast Fashion, Make Do and Mend, Recycled Materials, Recycling, sustainable fashion, Will I Am | Comments Off
As the title - Shoes: Pleasure & Pain - indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit. This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes. This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?
The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality. It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.
Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.
This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes. If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach. The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years - as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.
As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.
I recently came across an interesting photograph that was published in Life magazine on 12 November 1971, accompanying an article written and photographed by John Dominis and entitled ‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon.’ The article concerned the building of the Trans-Amazonian highway, a 4,000km road conceived of to unify Northern Brazil, which opened in September 1972 and ran through the Brazilian states of Paraiba, Ceara, Piaui, Maranhao, Tocantins, Para and Amazonas. In the top-left hand corner of the article, an image captured five Brazilian women straightforwardly in the frame, against a dull background of clouded sky, a wooden fence disappearing into the distance, and the green-and-white facade of a building. The caption that accompanied it read: ‘towns along the road are booming with such by-products of civilization as electricity and bar girls. On Saturday, hundreds of workers come into Altamira, above. Girls entertain the men for about $3 each.’ A closer examination of the photograph made me realise how simplified this description was in anchoring the meaning of the photograph, since it understood the women solely in terms of their availability as objects of a male gaze, and refused to acknowledge the layers of meaning embedded within their appearance as created by their fashionable ensembles.
Looking more closely, I saw that each subject met the photographer’s gaze directly, and enacted a variety of poses, from straightforwardly presenting the body to the gaze that scrutinizes them, to more stylised and performative fashion stances that revealed an uncovered thigh and high-heeled sandal. Their clothing is a combination of white nylon knee-high socks worn with white shoes, white and pink ankle-length dresses with thigh-high slits, and hot pants and overcoats in eye-popping psychedelic printed fabrics, all of which stand out against the general degradation of their arid surroundings. The clashing colours and swirling patterns that adorn three of the women’s outfits demonstrate the influence of contemporary Western-style hippie fashions, with their penchant for exposing the body, vibrant colours and mismatched prints and styles. Yet this was not a simplistic demonstration of a one-directional homogenisation of clothing that had travelled to Brazil from Western Europe and North America. This is because their dress also demonstrated the influence of the left-wing Brazilian artistic movement named Tropicalia, which was articulated as a response in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the repressive dictatorship that occurred in Brazil from 1964-1985. The Tropicalists re-defined Brazilian fashion, art and music by appropriating elements of Western-style hippie fashion, such as psychedelic fabrics, mini-skirts, hot pants and micro dresses, which exposed legs and thighs, and using it to demonstrate their sartorial freedom under rigid political control. Under Tropicalia, the meanings of hippie fashion, although still remaining non-conformist and rebellious, took on new meanings relevant to their Brazilian context. The women in this photograph were not part of the Tropicalist movement, but their clothing shows how elements of these popular political fashions filtered through into everyday dress worn in Brazil.
Taking all these sartorial references into account in our understanding of the image enables us to read it against the grain, and understand the women no longer as merely passive objects of a presumed male gaze, but active fashion consumers who contributed to the construction of their own identities through dress. That Life omitted to draw attention to the women’s dress can be understood as part of a broader omission within the Associated Press, which failed to outline the human rights atrocities taking place under a right-wing regime that was politically aligned to the Cold War interests of the United States.
John Dominis,‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon’, Life, pp. 26-31.Categories: Work in Progress | Tags: 1971, Amazon, Brazilian fashion, Brazilian Tropicalia, History of Dress, Life Magazine | Comments Off
50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Seven: Camille Benda, MA (1999)
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.
Camille Benda, MA (1999)
Camille Benda has recently designed costumes for the following films: Lilting, Still, The Quiet Ones, and The Blood Stripe, which is currently in post-production. As well as film, Camille has designed numerous theater productions, including regional theater at Yale Repertory Theater and Off-Broadway at Rattlestick Theatre. She also speaks about costume history at venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Costume Society and The Courtauld Institute of Art.
What led you to pursue graduate studies in the field of dress and fashion, and what attracted you to The Courtauld in particular?
The moment I heard about the Courtauld, I knew I had to go. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and was designing costumes for small theatre productions at the time. I was captivated by the chance to live in London, with its world-class museums, and the opportunity to combine history of dress studies with my fledgling costume design career.
Clothing was an early obsession for me, and it blossomed into a fascination with costumes, historical dress and fashion. I’ve always been interested in people and what makes humanity tick; so dress became a framework for understanding people – as we learnt at the Courtauld, clothing and fashion communicate economic and social status, moral values, human behavior and much more.
You graduated in 1999. What was the topic and structure of your MA course? What was the subject of your dissertation?
Aileen Ribeiro was in her last few years of teaching at the Courtauld, and I feel so lucky to have been taught by her before she retired. It was the one-year course in the History of Dress, so we covered dress history through the ages in the first half. Our specialization was 18th century English and Scottish dress, with a trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh. My dissertation was on Moravian and Slovakian folk embroidery and the meanings woven within. Folk dress is a particular favourite of mine: it creates a tangible connection between the past and present, and is a perfect example of form and function working in harmony.
How did your time at The Courtauld impact your career choice?
Research has always been my favourite part of the design process – that’s where the characters described in a script come alive in images. I am always surprised when I am searching for the look of a character, and a drawing, painting or photo pops into my head as the perfect solution. It’s usually an image I’ve seen in the very first days of doing research – my brain must set it aside somewhere on a shelf, to be brought out for the right moment. Always go back to your research when you are stuck!
After The Courtauld you went on to complete an MFA in Theatre Design at Yale University. Could you describe this transition and/or how the two courses of study worked together?
I was accepted to the Courtauld and Yale at the same time! So I asked Yale to defer my enrolment for a year so I could do the Courtauld course. I felt the Courtauld would provide me a unique viewpoint from which to look at costume design. The two courses meshed so well together. The Courtauld really provided me with the foundation of my approach to costume design, and at Yale I learnt the craft.
Could you discuss your career since completing your studies?
I have focused on costume design for film since graduating, first in London as an assistant costume designer on films shot in England, like The Golden Compass, then designing costumes for art house films like Pelican Blood and Weekender. In between projects, I enjoyed giving the occasional history of dress talk, at the V&A, the Costume Society and my favourite one, a talk at the annual CHODA symposium about the representation of Elizabeth I in film throughout the 20th century, and the effect contemporary fashion design had on how the designs were approached. Now I’m based in Los Angeles, and enjoying learning the ropes in the ultimate movie town.
You’ve moved around for your education and career, notably between the USA and UK. How has your residence in various locations affected your approach to dress (personally and/or professionally)?
I live in Los Angeles now, and moved there from London, where I lived for 12 years, so climate is the biggest factor in my approach to dress now. I admired London women and their masterful layering techniques: it is a true fashion achievement to stay warm and rainproof while remaining stylish! The exact opposite is Los Angeles style – too hot for layers, but still a big effort to add style to any simple and light look. Perhaps just a linen dress, but with amazing shoes or jewelry. And of course the ubiquitous LA sunglasses, which are an ethnography essay in themselves.
You’ve worked on fascinating film and theatre projects, are there any that stand out for you?
The Master and Margarita, which I designed at Yale for director Will Frears- talk about a perfect creative opportunity! The play was adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s book about 1920’s Russia (with flashbacks to ancient Rome) and the absurdity of oppression. I enjoyed designing costumes for constructivist Russian artists, six-foot tall cats, Roman emperors, a naked witch and a masked ball hosted by the devil. (See photo)
Does your creative approach differ for historic films, such as Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, as opposed to ones set in the present time?
Not at all! Once I discovered costume design, I was blissfully able to convey my curiosity for people-watching into a curiosity for characters in a script, and then a passion for helping actors, directors and writers express those characters with their costumes. So I always start with that. Costume design is not just putting people in clothes. It’s finding the driving force behind the characters and the script, and then bringing that to the screen, whether that means shopping for modern clothes, building period costumes from scratch (see photo) or digging through a costume rental house for the perfect glove. I always try to shop where the character would shop.
I just watched one of your most recent film projects, Lilting, and was mesmerised by its beauty and visual cohesiveness, from the interiors to the lighting and costumes. It shows how the creation of a film depends on a huge network. Could you discuss a particular collaboration that you felt worked well?
Lilting was a very special project to work on, since everyone did it for the love of the craft, not the money. The budget for the film was tiny, but it proves that money is not the driving force, it should always be a focus on creating the world and telling the story. I often work with the director Karl Golden – he is a master at connecting all the creative departments and staying true to his visual style. I try to work very closely with the production designer, the cinematographer and the hair and makeup department to ensure that I am helping to support a cohesive vision for the film.
Advice for hopeful costume designers, as well as any shifts in the field of costume design that you’ve witnessed?
Collaborate and contribute. Talent is necessary, but the next level is to be able to collaborate and support your team, other departments and the director. You can help your director and producers by showing them how much costume design can contribute to a project, be it film, television, theatre, music video, dance. It’s magical when you can infect other people with your own enthusiasm for design. But I’m not biased or anything….
The industry is changing. I learned from amazing costume designers like Ruth Meyers and Jane Greenwood who have been working for 50 years in the industry. Everyone knew how to draw by hand, and many designers still do, however now eye-catching computer drawing is becoming very popular. There are many more stylists joining the industry, starting out dressing celebrities and doing music videos and then moving into film and television. It will be interesting to see where costume design goes next!
Anyone who knows anything about fashion has heard of Yves Saint Laurent. But what people may be less familiar with is his informal career as an artist.
Hidden away in the Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech, which Saint Laurent bought in 1980 with Pierre Bergé, and where his ashes were buried after his death in 2008, is the ‘Love Gallery.’ I arrived at the Jardin Marjorelle seeking some refuge from the African sun, and instantly understood why Saint Laurent and Bergé were drawn there: it is a beautiful oasis full of blossoming foliage in a city that is predominantly dust and sand. The rather ambiguously named ‘Love Gallery,’ a tiny blue square on the garden map, caught my eye and I wondered what it could possibly hold. The tiny, one roomed building, tucked away on the edge of the garden, houses the entire collection of Saint Laurent’s ‘Love Cards.’ He created one every year from 1970 to 2000 to send to his family, friends and clients in order to welcome the New Year. The cards are boldly coloured and graphic, and the message could not be clearer; it is declared through the use of one, four letter word: ‘LOVE.’
The cards, often humorous and whimsical, allowed the recipient then and the viewer now a glimpse into the consciousness of the legendary fashion designer. They often include the things he held most dear, his bulldog Moujik, or the fountains of the Jardin Marjorelles. However, they also serve to reinforce his artistic abilities. They are clearly well thought out, aesthetic pieces of work, and highlight how talented he was in the visual arts, as well as in fashion design.
They also show an appreciation of the history of art, and the influence of many famous, twentieth century artists is clearly visible. The 1991 card is an homage to Andy Warhol: it displays four images of Saint Laurent’s beloved Moujik, coloured in different hues on a bright yellow background. The caption definitively states Warhol’s influence, reading ‘this is Moujik, my dog, painted by Andy Warhol. Me, I am Yves Saint Laurent.’ However the curling French script juxtaposed with the imagery is reminiscent of Renee Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. While the influence of these two artists is clear, Saint Laurent ensures that the viewer knows exactly who made it, and it is his talent as an artist that is important here. He is drawing on his knowledge of the history of art to create a piece that is unique to him and specific to the time and culture in which he was working.
Henri Matisse’s influence is also evident in the cards, many of which employ the same collage technique with bright colours and bold, simple shapes that he turned to later in his career. The 1986 card is arguably the most basic in composition, yet also one of the most effective. It consists of a yellow background and cut out shapes in four different shades of blue which are used to create a scene of the Jardin Marjorelles itself. Despite the limited colour palette and simplicity of the shapes, Saint Laurent has captured the feel of the garden perfectly, and it would be instantly recognizable to anyone who had visited. The dark blue against the bright yellow background creates the effect of the oppressive sun and the cool shade offered by the trees.
The cards created during the 1970s have a definite look that clearly identifies them as part of the same epoch. Graphically, they are more complex than the later compositions, more closely aligned with The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine imagery than the work of any particular artist. The 1977 example is particularly complex. It shows a woman wrapped in a long flowing piece of fabric that is decorated with rows of triangles and curving lines. She could be interpreted as a Muslim woman covered by her hijab, and thus a symbol of Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth and childhood. However, he has given her a modern twist, updating the traditional religious garb for the 1970s by dressing her in a colourful, geometric pattern. It has a hypnotic quality, as if the viewer is seeing something that does not quite exist. The 1973 card is an erotic picture of a naked woman, coiled in what appear to be tentacles or snakes. Unlike the later cards, which tend to employ very simple compositions- some are simply large blocks of different colours- the cards of the 1970s are more figurative.
These cards show a different side of Yves Saint Laurent. They highlight his enthusiasm to experiment in different media and test his design skills on a two-dimensional surface, as well as on the human body. However, they also depict him as playful, light hearted and, above all, deeply loving.Categories: Commentary | Tags: Andy Warhol, Art and Fashion, Galerie Love, Henri Matisse, history of art, Jardin Marjorelles, Love Cards, Marrakech, Morocco, Yves Saint Laurent | Comments Off