Cora Hilts is co-founder of rêve en vert, a clothing company which sells and designs sustainable and ethical clothing from its Shoreditch studio. They promote and stock designers who are committed to using local products and fair trade manufacturing practices. She also happens to be one of my oldest friends, so I was more than happy to meet for a catch up!
Where did your interest in fashion come from?
I would say my interest in fashion was really born and cultivated during my five years living in Paris-it was the first time in my life I saw women that were dressed so elegantly and yet so simply. It was also where I learned that a small closet full of beautiful, curated things would always be preferable to an overflowing one full of less considered fashion.
What was the inspiration behind rêve en vert?
Having grown up on the seaside in Maine, I was always very connected to nature. But as I was getting my Master’s degree in Environmental Politics and Sustainability at King’s College London I was in a class where the professor mentioned that second only to energy, fashion was the most polluting industry in the world. It was at that moment I knew that I deeply wanted to see that change.
What do you mean by ‘sustainable,’ especially in relation to fashion?
We have identified four pillars of sustainability at rêve en vert: local, independent, sustainable and ethical. We thought these four words covered the remit of what we wanted to see in our designers whilst keeping it easy enough for them to produce without so much sacrifice. Mainly we want to see designers producing clothing in ethical and fair circumstances, manufacturing with an awareness of environmental impact and humanitarian concerns. With rêve en vert, oftentimes it’s also just the mantra of “less is more.”
What are the difficulties in selling and producing entirely sustainable clothing?
It’s much more expensive than the clothing you would find on the high street, and with people’s love of a bargain and expectation now that fashion should be incredibly cheap it’s hard to change their minds into buying more investment pieces. Consumers need to understand that to pay people a living wage, to use quality materials, and to reduce waste supply chains the way they shop will need to alter and they will need to spend more on less. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty straightforward message and one that I wholeheartedly believe in, but I also know this will take time and more and more awareness of the problems.
What are your plans for the future of rêve en vert?
We are planning on expanding our own designing more and more-with a resort wear line launching this year and expanding beauty and home wear. After that comes men’s wear, and after that a concept store in Paris with an organic cafe attached!Fashion Now, Interviews | Comments Off
On the 3rd December last year, Dr. Olga Vainshtein, a Senior Researcher, and Ksenia Gusarova, a Ph.D. student and fellow lecturer from the Russian State University for the Humanities, joined our History of Dress MA class via Skype for our very first international conference. Taking advantage of modern technology, we were able to overcome geographic location and difference in time to take part in an in-depth discussion with fellow fashion historians.
Having set up the first Fashion Studies Centre in Russia, Dr. Vainshtein and Ksenia brought many thought-provoking points of discussion; presenting themes of photography, image and media to our class. With discussion of the role of image in fashion, what truly constitutes and image, and how this can then applied to the history of dress, amongst other academic topics, the discussion proved to be a challenge to us students new to voicing our opinions so directly.
Despite our initial nervousness, it was a fascinating experience and exciting opportunity to exchange ideas and thoughts with our fellow fashion historians, and is hopefully the first of many exchanges with the International History of Dress community.
Having set the bar high with our International Fashion Conference, we continued our precedent for eminent guests by being joined by celebrated curator of dress and exhibition-maker Judith Clark. Judith is also a Professor in Fashion and museology at the London College of Fashion, and Director of the Fashion Curation MA, so we were lucky enough to turn to an expert for advice for our upcoming Virtual Exhibitions. She also kindly listened to our areas of interest, promoting discussion, advice and possible avenues for further research, something we were all very grateful for.
Once she had listened to our ideas, we were then able to listen to Judith discuss her awe-inspiring career, past exhibitions and future projects. As aspiring fashion historians with limited experience in curating, it was fascinating to hear Judith’s methodology to fashion curating, her unique approach to representing dress in an exhibition format, and her past exhibitions that are celebrated for their distinct style and aesthetic. Having organised major exhibitions at the V&A, MoMU in Antwerp, and the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, we could only listen in awe as she told us about her past and present projects. To say we were inspired by her visit was an understatement, and we definitely all took her advice on board for our research projects.Categories: Commentary, Work in Progress | Comments Off
By Brianna Carr
Focusing on the aesthetic innovation of Edward Steichen during his tenure at Condé Nast, a conference hosted by the V&A, substantiated Steichen’s progressive image of fashion photography and portraiture that was at all times corresponding to a particularly American brand of identity. The collaborative conference was organised and held in light of recent exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 and Inventing Elegance – Fashion and Photography 1910-1945 at the V&A. Speaker and co-curator of the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition William A. Ewing provided the best summation of Steichen’s vision as distinguished from the trajectory of other contemporary photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Martin Munkasci, Gerge Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst. By establishing the ‘metaphoric bridge between old and new’, Steichen facilitated the pivotal shift that allowed photography to escape the confines of documentation and broach the new frontier of the crossing between art and commerce.
The photographer’s role in becoming both the ‘maker and producer of art’ is particularly evident in the Vogue photographs throughout the ‘High Fashion’ exhibition, at once uniting the medium that casts a modern spotlight on refined simplicity and clarity, with the literal spotlight on the designs themselves, such as those by Poiret, Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The imbued value system that negotiates the space between fashion image as art, and fashion image as function, attests to what Alistaire O’Neill terms a ‘buttonhole complex’, in order that the consumer is clearly able to see each and every detail of the garment that is not corrupted or enhanced by photographic embelishment. In this light, the prominence placed on the reassurance of craftsmanship is symptomatic of the social insecurity intangible with new deal America, whilst at the same time responds to a conscious call for quality and truth, which the photographs stand to demonstrate exist in America. As a result, the total fashion image constructs an outlet that transforms ideals into reality, therefore strengthening, if not re-constructing a modern identity.
As has been explored, a dominant theme throughout both the High Fashion exhibition and Inventing Elegance conference, is the way in which Steichen’s photography functions under the duality of an explicitely ‘American’ and ‘Fashion’ framework. The exhibition presents photographs from Vogue alongside those from Vanity fair, clearly distingushing the image of both publications via their respective preoccupations, thus fashion imagery and portraiture. It could be argued therefore, that the role of the consumer that the fashion image relies upon is perhaps not as instrumental to the role of portraiture, as the commercial value is not intrinsic to it’s existence as art.
The portraits of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and Mexican-American actress Armida Vendrell however call into question the commercial value of identity. In a room full of sportswear signalling the ‘American woman’, both subjects are presented in attire emblematic of their heritage, that even though born and raised in America, assume the identity of ‘other’. It is for this reason questionable whether the presentation of exoticism is itself a function of commerce that much like their roles as actresses invariably sells a foreign identity to an American audience, thus replicating the role of fashion imagery, or whether the photographer is relying on such social understanding of foreigners, in order that those who do not immediately fit the confines of an American look are deemed viable subjects of beauty befitting a public portrait.Categories: Commentary | Comments Off
Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).
Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.Categories: Work in Progress | Comments Off
By Lauren Dobrin
When researching American fashion advertising in the interwar period, I came across a J.C. Penney advertisement located in a 1939 edition of McCall’s Style News. The ad employs a comic book format, synthesising text and image to relay a narrative promoting the department store’s affordable, yet stylish fabrics. Readers are introduced to Ginger, a young woman who is initially portrayed as a pathetic character, a conventional trope of the tremendously popular comic book genre. After failing at her job interview, a defeated Ginger sorrowfully cries to her friend: ‘Oh Peg… What’s the matter with me?’ Peg proceeds to denounce Ginger’s dowdy dress and introduces her to the materials at J.C. Penney’s which Ginger uses to fabricate a stylish outfit for a second interview that she managed to get. Ginger is later pictured wearing her new patterned dress paired with a hat and bag, having successfully secured a job. The narrative ends with a neat resolution in which a newly confident and employed Ginger expresses her joyful realisation of the potential for fashion to elicit happiness and bolster confidence.
This advertisement sheds light on women’s shifting roles during the period and underscores the importance for women from all ranks of society to make sound fashionable choices. On the one hand, the advertisement affords women with power in that it situates women as viable and active participants in the working world, a realm previously associated exclusively with masculinity. The context of the Great Depression, along with the increasing visibility of women’s rights movements are two of several factors that resulted in more women needing to work. On the other hand, the advertisement problematically associates women’s success and happiness with outward appearance as opposed to ability and intellect. According to the advert’s narrative, Ginger failed to succeed in landing a job because of the dowdy nature of her clothing rather than a poor interview performance. Once she remedied her unfashionable appearance, she secured a job. Moreover, Ginger derives her newfound confidence not from the accomplishment of employment, but rather from her fashionable clothes, she expresses: ‘I never realized before how much confidence a smart outfit gives a girl!’ Additionally, she revels in the idea that she can be the ‘best dressed girl in the office’, as opposed to performing the best.
While fashion advertisements and comics are often deemed trivial, they play a hand at engendering, cementing and disseminating societal norms. Adverts such as the J.C Penney comic associate female success and happiness with appearance and, as a corollary, nourish the essentialist conception that women are merely ornamental. Although this advertisement dates back to the late 30s, the immense pressure for women to resemble beauty and fashionable ideals has persisted to the present day.Categories: Work in Progress | Comments Off
Observations from Several Sides of the Lens: on Women, Fabric and Space in Maria Kapajeva’s Photographs
Women and space are frequent points of inquiry for London-based artist Maria Kapajeva. In her series entitled Interiors from 2012, she manipulates amateur photographs of Russian women in sexualised poses, and replaces their skin and bodily features with the bold pattern of surrounding wallpaper. Viewers’ sense of haptic visuality is roused by the tactility of the pictured textiles of home furnishings and clothing, including crushed velvets and synthetic satins. Pattern and texture intertwine so that space engulfs and integrates women subjects, while bodily absence paradoxically serves to remove their subjectivities from the image.
When I met Maria on 23rd May 2014 to discuss her work, she admitted that she chose the photographs for their post-Soviet interiors—easily recognisable through the wallpaper and bed covers’ prominent patterns—that she knew in her native Estonia. Yet the dated styles of the photographs’ interior decoration belie their more recent time of photography. This stylistic retrogression mirrors that in women’s lives. Wallpaper in lieu of skin serves to show the extent to which women in certain Eastern Bloc countries must still conform to a “domestic ideal.” Even as they attempt to stand out and become visible through poses in states of undress, they fail to escape the domination of their environment. In these absurd, integral images, objectified women are equated with domestic settings.
Maria explores women’s roles and the notion of integrality in different ways in her ongoing series A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, in which she photographs women in their work environments. She explains that “[m]ost of these women have moved to a new country, as I have, not to get married, but to realize their own potential in whatever they do: write, draw, paint, photograph or invent. Working in collaboration with them, I try to find the ways to photograph each of them as a unique and strong personality in her own working environment.” The subject of one photograph, Helena, is thus defined as an artist by her studio space yet she stands out as an individual against its blurred details. Maria draws on such details—stacks of papers, folds of clothing, bric-a-brac—to shape the composition of these images. These minutiae also inform and complicate the construction of the sitter’s identity, but do not dominate as in Interiors.
Maria prefers that the sitters dress as they would normally in their ‘natural’ environments, and clothing varies as widely as their diverse personalities. As opposed to the original viewers or photographers of the Interiors series, she withdraws herself from the equation. The image is untouched and raw, in the sense that she does not use supplemental lighting, filtering or cropping techniques. And the subject is meant to dress for no one but herself. Eugenia, for example, who wears a garment of her own design, stands in the open space of a London rooftop. As the wind blows her voluminous collar it comes into contact with her face. Her body is the site of narrative and identity, informed by the interaction between dress and exterior.
During our conversation I sensed that Maria, who believes that too much importance is placed on specific dress codes, did not want to broach the subject of clothing. She likes that, as a photography lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts (Farnham), she can dress as she wishes. But this freedom poses its own problems.
My experience as Maria’s most recent sitter for the Portrait of the Artist series in October replicated my own research into the use of dress and its representation in the construction of identity, and the relationship between dress, ideas of appropriateness and how this relates to specific space.
Like Maria’s raw photos, clothes on the body leave bare a host of personal paradoxes, details and foibles. My relationship with the black linen shirt I wore during my portrait, paired with black trousers, is complex. As is my connection to the space in which I was photographed—my bedroom—where personal and professional lines are blurred. The shirt’s long, well-worn life is evidenced by its loose weave in some places. Yet its history is concealed by its simplicity. Knowing that I loved to write about its designer, a dear friend found it for me at a Paris flea market. It is thus a piece of evidence and resource, and a link to people and places, yet its early life is a mystery. These elements, contained within the coarse fabric, are my secret, and constant reminders at each touch against my skin. As captured in Maria’s image of me, my clothing and surroundings combine to inform my ideas of self. Her photograph exposes these connections and foregrounds the emotional links we have to our dress, and the ways we use them to negotiate our presence.
Kapajeva, M. ‘About A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’, http://www.mariakapajeva.com/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman/
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The model agent Matthew Dessner wrote that modelling had ‘something of the spirit of the dance’ because models could express ‘their personalities in its graceful accentuated steps, its swirling turns and pivots, its musical timing.’ Dessner here attempted to imbue the relatively new and commercial profession of clothes modelling with the artistry of a more historic discipline, the dance. Indeed, an accompanying photograph to Dessner’s 1943 manual, titled So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living shows a procession of girls walking ‘rhythmically and femininely’ in satin slips as they balance books on top of their pin-curled heads and are surveyed by the eagle-eyed gaze of Barbizon School of Modelling’s Director, Rosilyn Williams. In the vignette above, trainee models in mid-thigh-length skirts were further required to demonstrate a dancer’s sense of rhythm and spatial awareness, when they practiced walking and turning to foxtrot music. With the exception of sportswear, where skating and tennis skirts were cut above the knee, American mid 1940s skirts worn for more formal occasions were uniformly below knee-level. The shorter skirts worn by modelling students evoked the brief garments worn in both ballet and contemporary dance studios, and enabled model instructors to view and correct their pupils’ natural bodies.
The trainee model was also expected to condition her figure through diet, exercise and in some cases, a little bust padding, until it approximated the preferred standard size 12 (34 inch bust and hips; 24 inch waist). Ideally, she should measure between 5’4 and 5’7 inches tall, however, smaller girls were selected to model Junior (teenage) clothes, while the more statuesque specialised in coats and eveningwear. This sense of varied body types within a specification of uniformity was also common in classical ballet, where dancers were generally expected to have petite, toned figures, but were cast in line with their physicality. For example, smaller dancers often played ingénues, while taller dancers who towered over their male partners created femme fatale roles.
After she improved her figure, posture and walk, a trainee model had to develop a repertoire of professionalised gestures, which included subtly showcasing the ‘smart lines of a frock’, or causing ‘all eyes to focus on you when you make an entrance into a room.’ Olga Malcova, another model agent, professed that over time, a model’s quotidian movements would ‘naturally’ merge with the ‘gestures and mannerisms which are part of the profession…’and called ‘business’ by the industry insiders. Interestingly, while Malcova advised that the ‘business’ should be acquired ‘naturally’, rather than being copied from another model, Dessner stipulated that aspiring models should copy the poses they saw in magazines before a full-length mirror and ‘originate others they never thought about’. Striving for a balance between imitation and improvisation was common to dancers and models alike, as a young woman’s success in either discipline depended upon her ability to execute the required gestures seamlessly and differentiate herself from her peers.
However, unlike contemporary dancers, who wrote about their experiences in memoirs and left personal archives, models’ voices have been obscured over time. This discrepancy between the model and dancer’s trace suggests that although modelling techniques had much in common with dance, the former profession was associated with contemporary commerce above the posterity of art.
Matthew Dessner, So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living (Chicago: Morgan-Dillon & Co, 1943), 12.
Olga Malcova, Wanted: Girl With Glamor, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), 25.
Whilst flipping through a copy of National Geographic from August 1926 as part of my PhD research, which examines globalization and the representation of Brazilian dress in the magazine, I came across an intriguing image. It was of a man and woman of the Maku population, indigenous to the northwestern Amazon. On first glance, I interpreted it within the repressive protocols of an ethnographic study: a visual uniformity rendered by the full-body portrayal of the subjects, who were depicted one per frame, facing the camera in a bright, narrow space. The title of the photograph anchored such a reductive reading of the individuals depicted: ‘A MAKU SQUAW AND HER HUSBAND: PARIMA RIVER’.
Yet the caption, by contrast, set in motion a dialogue that oscillated precariously between passive objectification and subjective agency. The caption read: ‘the woman has decorated her shoulders with an old piece of cloth for the purpose of having her photograph taken’ [my italics]. The caption humanized the subject through the use of dress which rendered her as active and encouraged the viewer to interpret the photograph in terms of a self-aware and consciously styled portrait. Inherent is the suggestion that the previously marked and classified subject has deliberately and self-consciously fashioned herself for the photographer; this act suggests not simply an awareness of being on display, but a knowing and consensual performance that undermines a deterministic reading of the image.
Tamar Garb has delineated this slippage between the tradition of portraiture and racialised ethnography in her examination of the 19th-century colonial application of photography in South Africa, which she uses as a locus around which to discuss several examples of 21st century South African art photography:
‘Where the ethnographic deals in types, groups and collective characteristics, portraiture purports to portray the unique and distinctive features of named subjects whose social identities provide a backdrop for individual agency and assertion’.
Garb outlines the stipulations of ethnographic photography and portraiture and draws attention to the noticeable parallel between the characteristics that indicate the authoritarian measures of the former – full frontal exposure, visual uniformity, the minimization of light and shadow – with the individualizing tendencies of the latter. In National Geographic, this photograph can be viewed as a collaboration that reflected the choices of the individual, who was clearly a willing participant in the image-making process, choosing her own props, pose, expression and style of presentation. This willing and collaborative aspect, highlighted through the subject’s self-fashioning, displaces the institutionally imposed objectivity characteristic of ethnographic images of others, and complicates a straightforward reading of the image.
T. Garb, Figures and fictions: contemporary South African photography, (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 12Categories: Work in Progress | Comments Off
by Emma Parnis England
On the 12th December 2014, the V & A, in collaboration with the Photographers’ Gallery London, hosted a conference entitled ‘Inventing Elegance: Fashion Photography 1910-1945’. The presented papers placed the careers of Edward Steichen, Horst P. Horst, Louise Dahl-Wolf, Cecil Beaton and Toni Frissell, to name a few, within a period of dynamic social and technological transformation. The conference was a celebration of creative collaboration – not only between individuals (photographers, art directors, editors, models, designers and artists) but also between art forms. Susanna Brown discussed the link between Horst’s bas-relief series and Classical sculpture. Oriole Cullen described the interplay between fashion illustration and fashion photography. William A. Ewing drew some remarkable similarities between painting, particularly European portraiture, and the poses adopted by Steichen’s models. Ewing also posed the idea that these photographers were in someway ennobling ‘trivial’ fashion by referencing ‘high brow’ art forms. We see a similar strategy in the early 1920s with British Vogue, under the editorship of Dorothy Todd. Todd’s intentions were to convert Vogue into a study of the contemporary world: a guide to the modernist way of dressing, living, reading, and seeing. Virginia Woolf, along with many of her Bloomsbury compatriots, contributed to the magazine and was criticised for doing so. The anxiety between art and commerce was as ubiquitous then as it is today. Artists such as Steichen saw no problem with art for commercial purposes, as Ewing pointed out, as long as the images were ‘useful’. The commissions were certainly useful to Woolf, both economically and in circulating her name. Yet some challenged the ethics of the Bloomsbury Group’s decision to accept these commissions. Writing to Vita Sackville-West in response to criticism by Logan Pearsall Smith, who asserted that Woolf should maintain prestige by only writing for ‘serious’ newspapers. Woolf asked “whats [sic] the objection to whoring after Todd [Editor of Vogue]? Better whore [. . .] than honestly and timidly and coolly and respectably copulate with the Times Lit. Sup.” However the assignments were short lived. Conde Nast, who was unhappy with the dwindling sales and the magazine’s overtly literary path, fired Todd in 1926.
Fast-forward ninety years, and Bloomsbury yet again adorns our fashion pages. Yet this time, it is within the November 2014 issue of Harper’s Bazaar in a spread entitled ‘Among the Bohemians’, shot at Charleston, The Bloomsbury Group’s country home. Justine Picardie, editor of Bazaar, wrapped up the conference with an insightful look into the pages of Bazaar today, through the eye of the magazine’s past. Picardie spoke extensively about Bazaar’s legacy to combine fashion with wider culture, in particular art and literature. Art and fashion have always had a complex relationship. As Picardie puts it, the two inhabit the same environment and hence often overlap – in their greatest moments colliding to make something brilliant, innovative, and beautiful. The collaboration between the V&A and Bazaar on their series of V&A covers, particularly those photographed by Cathleen Naundorf, are a testament to this. Bazaar has succeeded in the upkeep of ever-strengthening links between contemporary writers and artists. Picardie’s talent lies in achieving a unique point of view, balancing the witty with the serious, the light with the dark and the high fashion with the thought-provoking journalism. All the while, Bazaar maintains a unique point of view and above all, integrity.
‘Among the Bohemians’ is a poignant piece in that it acts as a bridge between the past and the present. There is an interesting conversation between Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s eclectically designed interior seen in the background, and the colourful dresses in the foreground by diverse designers ranging from Fendi, to Paul Smith, and Louis Vuitton. The photographs celebrate the irreverent clashing colours created by merging objects from the Omega Workshops, murals, textiles, textures, couture, shocking red hair, ceramics and furniture.
Woolf used fashion to explore binaries such as surface and depth, intellect and frivolity, commerce and art. At Bazaar, fashion, art and literature combine to create something beautiful. And if artists are “sweeping Guineas off the Vogue counter” by facilitating these interchanges, then let the whoring continue.
‘Inventing Elegance: Fashion Photography 1910-1945’, 12th December 2014, V&A
A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Persephone, 2012)
Cohen, Lisa, All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)Uncategorized | Comments Off
Last week our MA History of Dress class was lucky enough to be allowed into the clothing store at the Museum of London, where over 27,000 objects of dress are conserved, catalogued and housed. This was my first experience in a museum store of any sort, so naturally I was very excited. Many of these objects enter the collection as part of a large lot bought at auction, often making it difficult to ascertain who owned it and how and when they wore it. We met one of the dress curators, Beatrice Behlen, who showed us how the key to unlocking the mystery behind the owner can often reside in the most unlikely of places: buttons, soles of shoes and pockets on jackets. Because clothing is something so personal, the 24,000 dresses, suits and shoes collected by the Museum of London, which range in date from the Tudor period to the present day, are more powerful a self portrait, than could be depicted using paint or photography, but only if the owner can be identified!
We were shown a variety of different garments, including a pair of shoes made and worn during clothing rationing in the Second World War, which had been reinforced with metal studs by the owner, to prevent wear and prolong their life.
One of the most intriguing objects we were shown, and arguably my favourite, was a very small blue leotard, covered with gold spangles, and finished with metallic lace. This rather unusual garment was donated to the museum in 1928, as part of a group of clothing which dated from 1860 to 1875. The task of the curator was to determine why this garment was made and who wore it.
Beatrice explained to us how, by comparing the shape of the leotard, she was able to note similarities between it and costumes worn by famous acrobats in photographs taken at the time, with the distinctive deep-V neckline. This allowed her to give an approximate date to the garment. However, external sources like photos can only take one so far. The rest of the deducting had to come from closely examining the object itself.
The metal buttons on the leotard where not all the same- they were made by two different designers, as was indicated by the tailors’ names on the surfaces. Some of the buttons came from a tailor called ‘Adolphus,’ on Leadenhall Street, while the others are labeled ‘J.W. Calver, Walthamstow.’ This simple fact alone suggests that the garment was not made professionally, although, of course, buttons may have been changed at a later date after loss or damage. However, tracing the careers of these two tailors allowed Beatrice to confirm, with slightly more certainty, a date of creation. Aldophus went out of business in 1880, so these buttons must have been in existence before that date, while J.W. Calver only started his company in 1861. He continued working into the 1890s. This, along with comparisons made with the acrobats’ photographs, points to a date in the 1860s.
The silver lace, made of thread plated with a thin coat of silver metal, was comparable to other, much earlier examples of dress in the museum’s collection. This, along with the mismatched buttons, suggested that the leotard was made at home, reusing materials from old clothes. Its very small size indicates that a child wore it, and therefore, it is likely that it was made for (very elaborate!) fancy dress. This appears to be confirmed by the rather unprofessional style of stitching on the garment, particularly on the red rosette, which gives it an altogether homemade appearance.
It is fascinating to imagine the child who wore this costume, perhaps having been inspired by seeing an acrobat, or wanting to copy a popular celebrity of the day. This is truly an example of clothing’s ability to share the biography of its wearer. Maybe one day, someone will look through my old dressing up box, trying to piece together the story behind my childhood costumes, which, much like this leotard, were made for me by an equally doting, and equally talented, mother.
Beatrice Behlen, ‘Acrobatic Mystery… belatedly continued,’ Museum of London blog, 7 February, 2012 http://blog.museumoflondon.org.uk/acrobatic-mystery-continued/
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