Documenting Fashion


50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Six: Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), PhD (expected September 2015)

July 3, 2015 by Brianna

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.

Liz

Liz (C) shown here at her BA graduation in 2011, with Elisabetta Pietrostefani (L) and Jonathan Vickers (R)

Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), Current PhD

Elizabeth Kutesko is a third year PHD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently writing her thesis, entitled ‘Fashioning Brazil: Globalisation and the Representation of Brazilian Dress in National Geographic since 1988’. Liz has previously co-taught the BA3 course ’Fashion and Photography: Viewing and Reviewing Global Images of Dress’, and will teach it again next year, along with the BA2 course, the first that she ever studied at the Courtauld, entitled ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’.

Where did you study and how did you become interested in the history of dress?

I studied my BA, MA and am currently in my third year of my PHD at the Courtauld. I was in my second year when History of Dress popped up on the syllabus. At first I was a bit sceptical…I’d studied fashion and textiles at college and dropped out to complete A-Levels at Sixth Form instead. I remember that my mum encouraged me to choose the special option, ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’. It remains one of my best decisions yet. Rebecca is such a brilliant teacher, so enthusiastic about the subject.

So, was it really the construction side of dress and textiles, or the sociological context of dress that you were interested in? 

Both are important in understanding dress as image, object, text and idea intertwined, but studying the more theoretical side of such a multifaceted subject, with all of its allied ambiguities, fascinates me.

Your research draws heavily upon the representation of dress, and really how dress presents citizens bodies in ‘non-western’ cultures including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. How did you find your niche? 

I travelled to Brazil in 2008 and arrived with little idea of what to expect, beyond an oversimplified awareness of urban violence pervasive in internationally acclaimed Brazilian films such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. By the time I departed, six months later, I was struck by the internal subtleties of its racial, religious, social, cultural, geographical and sartorial diversity. I was fascinated by how Brazilian identities had been asserted, negotiated and re-negotiated through their representation by the ‘West’. What kinds of problems and tensions did representation engender? Was the photographer always the one in control of Brazilian subjects, or did this dynamic shift as subjects’ self-fashioned and self-presented before the camera’s gaze?

I became interested in the Sapeurs, young men from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) who fashion their own identities using Western designer labels, when Rebecca showed us the photobook in class by Danielle Tamagni, The Gentleman of Bacongo. Even though her specialism was Western European and North American fashion, Rebecca constantly broadened our horizons with images of dress from all around the world.

What methodologies guide your research approach to non-western representations of dress?

Despite a growing number of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural examinations of ‘non-Western’ dress and fashion since the early 1990s, there still seems to be a scholarly tendency to privilege enquiries into ‘Western’ high fashion. Although I’m well aware of the pitfalls of employing these generalised and ambiguous terms! I decided that I wanted my research to try and bridge that perceived gap between the Western and non-Western. I particularly like the work of Margaret Maynard, she is an alumna of the Courtauld, and she has considered what dress and fashion choices can tell us about individual subjects and their interactions with global culture. She refuses to understand globalisation as a synonym for standardisation, Westernisation or Americanisation, but examines all the interesting nuances and complexities that are woven into dress.

Your research crucially posits Brazil on the periphery of the West. In terms of the contemporary Brazilian fashion industry, has it evolved independently of North America and European influence, or towards it? 

Brazil is an interesting example. In the 1930s, inspired by Hollywood, upper-class Brazilian women wore furs in the tropical climate. They had to pay extortionate fees to keep the garments refrigerated. It was madness! In the 1980s, this penchant for copying resulted in Brazilian designers being refused entry to Paris fashion week, as they plagiarised the designs too heavily. But in the 1990s imports of luxury goods were allowed into Brazil without heavy taxes. Brazilian designers who had previously copied American and European fashion couldn’t anymore, because for a cheaper price, Brazilian consumers could simply buy the originals. Brazilian designers had to step up their game! It resulted in this interesting intersection of foreign fashion ideas and more local modes of dressing. Sometimes Brazilian designers really play on the exotic stereotypes of Brazil, with tropical prints and exaggerated representations of beach culture.

Do you visit Brazil regularly, and does your approach to dressing and perception of the body differ when you are there?

I’ve been to Brazil on two occasions but hope to return soon. I went on a research trip last year. Cariocas (Brazilians who live in Rio de Janeiro), have an interesting beach aesthetic, with lots of bright prints and colourful items. They wear a lot less on the street, with short shorts and little tops. It’s the antithesis of the more formal dressing habits of Paulistas (Sao Paulo residents), with their frantic pace of life! I packed a wardrobe with summer clothes that I would wear in London, but when I arrived in Rio I felt very ‘stuffy’ by comparison to everyone else. So I quickly found this shop, Farm Rio (http://www.farmrio.com.br/), which had some amazing patterned pieces and interesting designs. I bought lots of things, but when I returned home these clothes then seemed very wrong for British summertime. It’s interesting how we are subconsciously influenced by the way that people around us dress.

Who is your favourite designer, past or present and why?

That’s tricky! I particularly like this label called ‘Shrimps’. It’s by a designer called Hannah Weiland, who studied at Central St. Martins. Everything is made from faux fur in loads of outlandish colours and I absolutely love it: fluffy clutches, heels, jackets, stoles. Although I’m not sure how sustainable a fashion label based on faux fur is during summer time…

By the time this interview is published the academic year will be finished, what advice would you give to any future MA students?

You have to try very hard not to get bored, and to remind yourself why you like the subject so much. When I allow stress to take over, I often end up feeling completely unmotivated and unenthused, which is the worst state to be in when you’re trying to be creative! It’s really important to have a few days off to do something that you really enjoy. Even if it’s simply flicking through a magazine or newspaper, it will re-ignite your enthusiasm for the subject. Someone once said to me that if you have writer’s block it’s because you haven’t read enough, or you haven’t thought about it enough, so just read anything that inspires you or go for a long walk! (Ed note: I can attest to this tip, thanks Liz!)

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‘L’Origami du Monde’: 032c Turns Ethnographic Gaze Onto National Geographic

June 30, 2015 by Liz

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As I approach the last six months of my thesis, I’m currently in the process of piecing together a coherent visual narrative from the hundreds of pages of images I’ve examined over the last two and a half years. And there are a fair few; my thesis examines over one hundred years of National Geographic magazine’s representation of Brazilian dress, with a focus on the period since 1988, when the magazine celebrated its centennial. These magazine images are all contextualised, of course, by numerous examples from contemporary visual media, as I’ve tried to analyse the networks of meaning produced across the global mediascape.

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Yet it was only fairly recently that a colleague passed on the Autumn/Winter 2013 25th edition of 032c, which featured an interesting pop-up art piece on National Geographic. I was curious to find out what sort of framework this Berlin-based contemporary culture magazine (which has been described by New York Times journalist Andreas Tsortzis as ‘below the radar of mainstream, but required reading for the movers and doyennes of the art and fashion world’) would adopt in commemorating the Washington-D.C. based, and now unequivocally mainstream, National Geographic. Entitled ‘L’Origami du Monde’, the artwork was created by French artist Cyprien Galliard to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the popular ‘scientific’ and educational journal. Gaillard is, after all, an avid collector of National Geographic. As he told Purple magazine: “It’s the kind of magazine your father had. It was this prism that you looked at the world through. There’s something very colonial about it.”

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National Geographic was first established as a tall, slim scientific brochure devoid of images with a dull brown-coloured cover in September 1888.  It’s now a global brand that encompasses cable television, books, maps, merchandising, additional magazines and a website, all easily recognisable by its popular motif: a bright yellow border. Gaillard’s artwork in 032c juxtaposed six brightly coloured photographs sourced from unknown locations in the trajectory of National Geographic’s documentation of ‘the world and all there is in it’. The instructions that accompanied it read:

‘Gaillard’s art edition for O32c can be assembled by making three simple folds from left to right into the inside hinge of the magazine. No glue is required. This anachronistic monument is held together by tension’.

So the interpretation of the artwork, I quickly realised, was entirely dependent upon the 032c viewer, who acquired an active as opposed to passive participatory role in its construction. This offered an interesting twist on the common complaints about National Geographic’s distanced ethnographic gaze, which has rendered subjects as dehumanised objects. Rather than analyse National Geographic at arm’s length, as many of its harsher critics have, Gaillard provided a critical and material re-engagement with the magazine at close quarters, and encouraged readers to do the same. This provided an alternative re-reading of National Geographic that cut through its purportedly disinterested anthropological gaze. Of course, for the naïve reader, there is no doubt an excitement in looking at colourful photographs culled from National Geographic. Indeed, some might deduce that the aesthetic qualities of Gaillard’s sculptural collage present a further aesthetisisation and exploitation of National Geographic subjects. I would argue, however, that the aesthetic is a critical device used here by Gaillard to subtly draw the reader in, in order to then boldly undermine their preconceptions of National Geographic, by treating the magazine itself as exotic specimen.

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Crucially, Gaillard’s sculptural collage was designed not just to be read, but to be felt too. The O32c viewer had to physically assemble the artwork with her hands, a process that encouraged readers to rethink dressed National Geographic subjects in multidimensional terms, experienced concurrently as image and object. As a result, L’Origami du Monde hinted at the way in which National Geographic has communicated with its readership not just in terms of linguistic signification or effect, but also through the sensations, memories, emotions and affect that have been folded into its representations of dressed Brazilian subjects.

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References:

032c Issue 25 Winter 2013/4, pp. 158-167

Andreas Tsortzis, ‘A new breed of fashion magazine comes into vogue’, New York Times, August 20, 2007

Sven Schuman, ‘Cyprien Gailard: Architectural Hangover’, Purple, Issue 18 Autumn/Winter 2012

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Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, Elegance: A complete guide for every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions (1964)

June 26, 2015 by Brianna

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Summary 

Elegance: A complete guide for every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions, written by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, directrice at Parisian fashion house Nina Ricci, in 1964.  Dariaux, used her status as an authority within the haute couture scene, to construct a series of laws of personal adornment. The book serves as a comprehensive A-Z style encyclopedia that covers a multitude of dress-related choices that the modern woman might be met with in her day-to-day life. Ranging from accessories, to zippers, to shopping in the Orient, the topics are linked by the author’s prescriptive guidance on the correct way to achieve both sartorial and behavioral elegance. Dariaux does not evaluate the relevance of dress in relation to fashion, but rather how best to construct a single outfit to negotiate the changing demands of the day.

Though informed by her relationships with high society women, Dariaux’s definition of elegance supersedes socio-economic boundaries. It is unlike beauty, or ‘chic’, in that it can only be learnt and is never a given. Whilst fashion is an undeniable component of elegance, Dariaux maintains that strategic combinations of separates and colours will allow the individual’s appearance to outlive passing trends. It is therefore available to any woman willing to abide by the author’s insightful rules, regardless of whether she shops at Macy’s or Balenciaga. Minimal excess and the ability to construct an elegant appearance regardless of means, equates the book with popular women’s magazines of the time, such as Ladies Home Journal and McCalls.

Response 

Genevieve Dariaux’s dictatorial voice is softened by her witticisms and humorous analogies that democratize women’s experience with dress. From wearing an item to death, because it was exceedingly expensive, to wanting to incorporate every new purchase into a single outfit, women both past and present are united by their sartorial fallibility. Dariaux’s rules of elegance are still applicable, as they arose in order to manage common behaviours that persist today.

Many references to popular designers and shopping destinations are anachronistic remnants of the 1960s, making the book a valuable record of consumerism.  However, the refreshing outlook on subjects such as age, weight and comfort, can be used as examples to show how the modernity that is inherent to elegance foreshadows developments in fashionable aesthetics. The book is therefore relevant to the spheres of consumerism and design.

 Dariaux proposes that elegance and fashion have become distinct frameworks due to the loss of creative ingenuity that stems from mass-market copies. With gems such as, “one cannot afford to buy cheap”, the reader can infer that there is a particular bias towards the high fashion industry, undoubtedly a result of the author’s occupation. In her eyes, elegance is a means to rectify the discord created by the vast availability of lower quality examples. Dariaux’s laws that dictate selectiveness and restraint also suggest that her agenda is to promote the rejection of cheap ready-to-wear. She asserts that even if the consumer cannot afford high fashion, investment in quality separates allows her to align herself with couture values.

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Paul Poiret, En Habillant l’époque (1930)

June 24, 2015 by Katerina

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Summary 

Paul Poiret’s memoirs ‘En Habillant l’époque,’ which literally translates as ‘Dressing the Age,’ were written in 1930, almost two decades after the height of his fame. At the end of his manuscript, Poiret wrote that though he continually felt ideas for new dresses germinating ‘under his skin,’ his glory days had passed. Poiret traced his fascination with dress to his childhood family. He dedicated his memoirs to his mother, who he considered supremely elegant, and described how his sisters gave him a forty-centimetre wooden mannequin, which he lovingly draped in silks, in both Parisian and Oriental styles.  

Poiret cast himself as an artist-designer, whose vision of femininity radically differed from that of the early 1900s fashion he encountered during his tenure at the couturiers Doucet and Worth. He claimed that he waged war on corsets, which had divided women’s bodies into two distinct peaks, comprising the neck and breasts on one side, and the hips and buttocks on the other. However, he recalled how his more holistic outfits, with their narrow hobble skirts, made women cry, gnash their teeth, and complain that they could not walk, or get in and out of a car easily. Overall, however, Poiret regarded his relationship with women as mutually beneficial. He likened the women he dressed to orbiting planets, who relied upon ‘his sun’ to shine; but simultaneously considered that his favourite mannequin Paulette, a ‘vaporous’ blonde, with the cylindrical shape of a cigarette, was a true collaborator, because she brought his designs to life.

Response 

Poiret considered that his primary innovation in fashion was relinquishing the etherealized palette of rose, lilac, powder-blue, maize-yellow and white that had dominated French women’s clothing from the eighteenth century, in favour of opaque, Fauvist tones, including royal blue, strong greens, reds and violets and acidic orange and lemon hues that made women’s silhouettes ‘sing.’ Poiret’s incorporation of these bold hues, alongside Orientalising components, such as the Minaret ensemble of 1911, which featured turbans and hip-skimming lampshade tunics, alongside harem pants, introduced an expressive, if still decorative, vision of womanhood. Rather than blending into the background in pastel tones, the women he dressed would stand out for their exoticism. A photo-plate from Poiret’s Arabian Nights-themed party, the 1002nd Night, of 1911, shows non-Western attitudes to the body, as guests of both sexes in turbans, belted kaftans and variations upon the Minaret outfit, crouch or sit cross-legged upon a Persian rug. Extravagant feathers, which emerge from the guests’ turbans, contribute a festive and frivolous air to proceedings.

Still, the photograph’s grainy, cinematic greyscale imbues the image with a nostalgic air. One gets the impression that the colour and vibrancy of the original party resonated with memories of a vanished world. Interestingly, Poiret wrote that after his experimentation in the early 1910s, colours in fashion became ‘anemic and neurasthenic’ once more. Poiret’s memoirs, with their slate-blue leather skin, blue-marbled inside cover, and black and white photographic inserts, did not only reflect the colouristic limitations of publishing in 1930, but express their distance from the Orientalism that made the author’s reputation.

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M.P. Verneuil, Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers (1925)

June 23, 2015 by Lucy

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Summary

Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers, by M.P.-Verneuil, was published in 1925 by Albert Levy, as part of the documentation and celebration of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the World’s Fair held in Paris, from April until October, 1925. Dedicated to the display of decorative arts, the international exhibition attracted over sixteen million visitors. Essentially, the book is a collection of seventy-five richly printed plates of decorative textiles, which Verneuil selected from the abundant examples displayed at the exhibition. Examples from Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, (then) Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are represented. Notably, France is missing: Verneuil described this as a deliberate decision, designed to eliminate bias, and to provide convenient access to an extensive international range, which could be appreciated and studied.

The book begins with a five-page introduction, in which Verneuil provides unrestrained commentary of the works included, and the countries from which they originated. This includes relevant snippets of history, such as the Austrian government initiative of 1899 to promote textile arts and teaching, which, he notes worked to great effect. He includes artistic criticism of the designs, and describes the English examples, for instance, to be ‘often perfect’, despite what he describes as the diminishment of the arts and crafts movement after the death of artists such as William Morris. After a brief but detailed contents table, the full page designs unfurl, taking the viewer on an international journey in which a thorough range of colours, techniques and styles can be studied in detail.

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Response

The International Exhibition was often shortened to Art Deco, which in time came to describe the style(s) displayed. This loose grouping included examples of modernism, cubism, futurism, and exoticism. A requirement for participation in this world’s fair was for the works included to be strictly modern, and not dependent on merely copying historic styles. Indeed, in Verneuil’s introduction, he emphasised that ‘simple lines seem necessary now,’ and the ‘more or less geometrical’ designs selected ‘agree perfectly with current architecture and furniture.’

It seems that Verneuil is according with the overall rationale behind the exhibition: to showcase the supremacy of luxury goods after the First World War. Textiles are positioned as an important expression of the zeitgeist, and those illustrated reflect contemporary, fashionable preferences. However, even within Verneuil’s chosen selection, a number of textiles rely heavily on tradition, such those that depict figurative designs of workers performing crafts. Highlighting modernity had the important, idealist function of signaling progress, distance and advancement away from the harrowing war years. Bright colours suggested a break from the muted tones of the earlier twentieth century, and even the more traditional designs shown could be produced by modern processes.

While the book does not specifically mention dress itself, the development of textiles has clear impact upon possibilities and taste in fashion, and many of the designs presented could be used in this application, both then and now. Despite the strictly ornamental nature of the designs, Verneuil successfully shows their creative and cultural importance. They, along with other related and interlinked aspects of the applied arts, such as fashion and architecture, are reflective and demonstrative of changing technology and aesthetics at this time.

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Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1913)

June 19, 2015 by Lisa

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Summary 

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was published in 1913 and presents a selection of the vast costume collection of the artist Mr. Talbot Hughes. Hughes was a British history, genre and landscape painter, and collected over 750 historical garments dating from c.1450 to 1870, which he used as studio props and references for his paintings. In 1913, Harrods Ltd bought his entire collection and displayed it for three weeks, to show the progression of historical dress, and to advertise their contemporary fashion range. After this, the collection was handed over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is still housed in the permanent collection.

This book begins with a preface by Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, then director of the V&A. He highlights the importance of the collection, ‘rich and splendid relics of ancient fashion’ and the history of dress as an essential adjunct to history and culture. As well as recognising the growth in appreciation for fashion history, he praises the inclusion of dressmaking as a subject in schools of arts and crafts and acknowledges the responsibility of the V&A to display and promote the skill and exemplary products of dressmaking to students and the public.

The book continues with some beautifully romantic descriptive notes by Philip Gibbs, reprinted from the November issue of The Connoisseur. These provide a personal and sensory account of his encounter with the collection - ‘I was able to examine their beauty, to handle their texture, and to study the historical evolution of dress in a delightful way.’ He too acknowledges the collection’s value to the public, and writes in such a way as to align costume to history, culture and art. He describes bygone eras, King’s fashions and satire, appealing to common knowledge and well-known imagery in his description of garments. Aligning the dresses to works by artists, such as Watteau and Hogarth, and writers, including Dickens and Austen, he provides an overview of fashion history through the lens of imagination and romance.

The rest of the book shows a selection of the fantastic collection in full-page photographs modelled by real people. The models, dressed in contemporaneous make-up, accessories and jewellery wear the historical garments and are placed in a contextual setting - outside, in a furnished room, or in a photographic studio. The photographs are beautifully shown in black and white, with a few full colour versions, showing the fine details of the garments.

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Response 

For me the book was intriguing on a number of levels. At first glance, it provides an interesting insight into changing perceptions of the History of Dress and dressmaking in 1913. The collection’s inclusion in the V&A stands as testament to the value in which dress was held.

 It is also interesting to see the prominence of corporate sponsorship and advertisement in publications, even as early as 1913. The book is careful to mention, at every opportunity, the role that Harrods Ltd played in the acquisition of the collection, and their support of the V&A. The importance of the collection and the sincerity of the V&A’s gratitude are particularly pertinent given that the collection was in danger of being sold to an American department store and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith and Philip Gibbs’ discussions of the collection provide an insight into museological practices and the history of dress in recent history. Their romantic language and description of the costumes is both informative and enjoyable, and really places costume within the cultural consciousness. It was also interesting to see how the costumes were originally displayed in the V&A, in glass cabinets along the Long Gallery. It is fascinating to see how the curators have picked up on the ghostly and uncanny quality that disembodied dress can convey: ‘If we would bring back to the imagination the spirits of the past, we must clothe them in the habit of their age, and neglect no detail, however slight, which will help to complete the picture.’

In light of this, the book’s most striking and unusual aspect lies in the photographs themselves. The collection is dressed on live models and placed in contemporary historical settings, producing images that are both bizarre and intriguing. This practice would be now be frowned upon – conservation issues mean that garments in dress collections are never to be worn by a live model again. However, the images are stunningly beautiful and strange at the same time. The clash of temporalities between eighteenth century costume and an early twentieth century model is captivating. There is a sense of theatricality and fantasy that is entirely unique to a History of Dress book.

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H.R Haweis, The Art of Beauty (1878)

June 17, 2015 by Lauren

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Summary

In The Art of Beauty (1878), English writer H.R Haweis synthesises a series of previously published articles centred on the importance of beauty, dress and physical appearance. The work can be characterised as an ardent apology for the significance of dress and, simultaneously, an advice manual targeted exclusively at women that both encourages and teaches them to take pride and care in their appearance.

At the outset, Haweis announces her central argument and writes, “[t]he culture of beauty is everywhere a legitimate art.” She attempts to remedy dress and beauty’s maligned reputation as frivolous by claiming its exalted status as a dignified art form. To defend her declaration, she classifies dress as akin to other established varieties of art, such as sculpture, painting and architecture, all of which, she believes, ought to be governed by principles of form, colour, shade and proportion. She takes an evaluative approach to beauty and adheres to the Ruskinian tradition that praises truth to materials and nature. She favours clothing and accessories that accentuate, rather than falsify, the natural self. For example, she expresses vehement disdain for overly high heels that strain the spine and for stays that distort the natural lines and proportions of the figure, preventing internal organs from functioning properly.

The work is divided into four books. ‘Beauty and Dress’ focuses on proper and ideal forms of clothing, ‘Beauty and Headdress’, outlines principles governing head accessories, ‘Beauty and Surroundings’ explains the role interior décor plays in enhancing one’s appearance and, finally, ‘A Garden of Girls’, catalogues a variety of women who may appear hopeless, but whom she assures the reader can achieve beauty so long as they heed her advice.

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Response

The Art of Beauty occupies an important position within the history of dress, as it constitutes one of the first literary attempts to apply aesthetic principles to modes of self-presentation. Haweis transcends the conventional women’s magazine mandate to promote the latest fashions in Victorian England and, instead, praises clothing for its artistic truth. Her serious tone and scrupulous attention to historical detail justify her authoritative statements and render her text cogent and sophisticated.

Although Haweis’ work was published in 1878, her concerted effort to reform the way people thought about beauty and ameliorate its status remains relevant to the contemporary discourse of fashion. A plethora of publications have contributed to a rich corpus of scholarship on dress, however, the area of research is oftentimes undeservedly perceived as trivial and unworthy of scholarly inquiry. Haweis’ text, while comprehensive and argumentative, is not officially scholarly insofar as she assumes an expressly evaluative approach to dress, claiming outright that it must be classified either as good or bad depending on its adherence to certain artistic principles. Her assertion that dress and beauty is tantamount to art rests on the assessment of formal qualities alone. Despite its limitations, The Art of Beauty can be seen as paving the way for future writers to explore the importance of dress and modes of appearance. Current scholars diverge from Haweis insofar as they favour analysing the socio-political and cultural dimensions of dress, rather than solely formal qualities, yet connect with her in their endeavor to assert the value of beauty and dress.

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Luke Limner, Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion (1847)

June 16, 2015 by Rosily

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Summary

This ‘social essay’, published in 1874, documents the author’s views about the dangers of following fashion. The author, Luke Limner, starts by condemning the luxury and excess of fashion, and criticizing the wealthy classes’ taste when choosing to wear the latest styles.

Limner’s main concern is fashion’s utter disregard of, and attempt to better, nature. He comments that modern dress is becoming increasingly independent of climate or season, stating that ‘the English lady suffers in her corset and tight bottines in the tropical heat of Calcutta.’

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The bulk of the essay charts his disapproval of modifications of the body. He comments that clothing, instead of fitting itself to the human form, demands that the body adapt itself to fit the garments. He feels that this ‘authority of fashion is a gross imposition on mankind,’ and specifically focuses on the corset. He believes that fashion is deforming natural bodies, with great health risks, that he outlines in detail. He is very knowledgeable about human anatomy, commenting on the impact of the corset on the lungs and liver, which serves to provide epistemological evidence and support to his claims, which may otherwise seem somewhat empty. He urges modern women to ‘aid Mother Nature to abolish that type of body bondage and cursed contrivance.’

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Response

Limner’s concerns about the dangers of the excess of fashion, as well as attempts to modify the natural forms of the body are common themes in fashion writing. Particularly during this period, but even as late as the twentieth century, there is a concern about the frivolity of fashion and the impact, both physical and moral, that it has on women.  As is the case with a lot of fashion writing, there is a somewhat sexist tone to Limner’s essay. He expresses a concern that women’s heads are filled with ‘flounces and furbelows, ribbons and gauze’ and that female vanity is ultimately leading to the downfall of society. However, there also seems to be a genuine concern about the risks to women’s health as a result of following fashion too strictly, and he appears to blame the fashion industry more than the women themselves. He sympathises that fashion’s ever-changing demands make it increasingly difficult for women to adhere to trends. That is the main contradiction of this essay: Limner accepts that the fashion industry makes unrealistic demands of women’s bodies, but then also seems to blame female vanity for accepting these demands.

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It is very telling of attitudes of the period that, despite the fact that women were generally accepted as the main consumers of fashion, it is men who are trusted to write about fashion in a critical way. There is much debate in dress history, about whether fashion is a liberating or enslaving force. When reading essays such as Limner’s, it is hard to imagine that it can be anything other than a subjugating, oppressive industry.  However, in the twentieth century, when women started to be respected as designers and later writers and curators, the tables turned and fashion became a means of female emancipation and expression of creativity.

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Fanny Bury Palliser, History of Lace (1869)

June 12, 2015 by Nicole

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Summary 

Fanny Bury Palliser’s History of Lace traces the development of needlework from its earliest references in the Old Testament to those in the late nineteenth century. The author documents the inception of lace as primarily an extension of needlework and embroidery, before noting how lace was differentiated according to country and region, as well as placed in a hierarchy, in order of preference by the Monarch in power at the time.

At the time of print, 1869, little information could be gathered from secondary sources, because earlier research scarcely existed. As a result, Palliser argued that ‘wardrobe accounts, household bills, and public Acts were the most truthful guides,’ to use in order to trace the history of lace. In light of this, the book is filled with public documents that Palliser had been granted access to in the Imperial and Records archives. Accompanying the text are black-and-white and coloured engravings, which highlight the existing variations of lace, and demonstrate how lace was incorporated within the composition of a person’s clothing. Therefore, dress is attended to within the content of the text through the featured engravings.

The front cover - a gold-coloured engraving of a woman in a heavily embroidered gown from 1676, indicates how the book relates lace to dress and femininity. Palliser clarified that, although needlework was not solely confined to females, ‘every woman, had to make one shirt in her lifetime.’ As demonstrated by the engraving, the woman created her own embroidery as well. This engraving reinforces how lace has been considered in the past, as well as the present, as a favourite embellishment and decorative trimming to add to clothing.

Response 

Palliser’s History of Lace can still be considered relevant to dress history now, because it is the first to provide the reader with such a rich and varied historiography of embroidery, and therefore demonstrates how far needlework had evolved over earlier centuries. For example, Palliser explained in the text how past laces had derived from the name and function of passament. As the workmanship was improved and the passament became enriched with various designs, the resulting development became what we now refer to as lace.

Examples of this evolution are depicted within the beautifully clear engravings used throughout the book. These designs not only afford the reader an encounter with visual samples, but ultimately serve to present a comparison between the different variations of needlework that exist, and how these can be identified and considered, based upon the distinctions between region or country of manufacture.

Although the book only follows the chronology of the design up until its year of publication in 1869, the in-depth account is still hugely relevant for research purposes today, because of the vast historical period it covers. Palliser’s research identifies the Industrial Revolution as the main turning point for lace manufacturing. This period saw profound change, most notably, the introduction of ‘machinery lace’ in Nottingham. This brought lace within the reach of a wider range of classes and, remains the main method of its production today. Therefore, The History of Lace is still an important text for dress historians, because it charts the production of lace up to the point when it switched from a handcraft to one powered by machinery.

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John Trussler, The Habitable World Described, Or the Present State of the People in all parts o the Globe, from North to South; together with The Genius, Manners, Customs, Trade, Religion, Forms of Government, & of the Inhabitants, and every thing respecting them, that can be either entertaining or informing to the Reader, collected from the earliest and latest Accounts of Historians and Travellers of all Nations; With some that have never been published in this kingdom; And nothing advanced but on the best Authorities (1788-97)

June 10, 2015 by Liz

Book Cover Book Inside

Summary

The Courtauld Library holds volume sixteen of Rev. John Trussler’s expansive scope of books entitled, The Habitable World Described… It focuses on Italy: namely, the Papal States, Sicily, Naples, and Malta. It is just one of twenty volumes, the first of which was published in 1788 and the last in 1797; each attempts, with the addition of engraved copper plates and maps, to describe the ‘entire known habitable world’. It was produced in the late eighteenth century, a period when British territorial expansion overseas was in full swing and travel accounts played an important role in disseminating information, mainly concerning areas claimed and conquered, to a larger European public beyond the scientific community. An interesting mix of science and sentiment, Trussler’s interest with pre-unification Italy was not uncommon. Italy in the late eighteenth century, with its art and architecture of classical antiquity, fascinated numerous British travellers, as had continental Europe as a whole.

Book Inside 2

Response

Trussler was concerned with the geography, politics, and social structures of the places he visited, not to mention the people, although dress played a minor role in his descriptive accounts of them. References to dress in Trussler’s account are far from abundant, which leads one to deduce that Stella Mary Newton, to whom this book belonged, was primarily concerned with encouraging her students to venture into the mind-set of the different periods studied in the Courtauld postgraduate dress history course, through first-hand, eyewitness accounts, such as that of an eighteenth-century traveller like Trussler.

In one mention of dress, Trussler described the outfits of the Sicilian nobility during the Festival of Saint Rosalia in Sicily, held on the 14th July: ‘The assemblies, at the viceroy’s palaces…gave me an opportunity of seeing the whole corps of mobility collected together. The men are rather a comely race; but the ladies are little favoured by nature. Two girls, under eight years of age, heiresses of great families, and already betrothed, made their appearance in the ballroom, decked out in the very excesses of the mode: their flowy dresses, their diminutive size, and affected gravity, in dancing a minuet; joined to the fatherly care, their future husbands anxiously took of them, reminded me of dolls ready to move around a table by clockwork.’

I was disappointed that Trussler failed to mention in detail the clothing worn by the men – since this omission suggests he associated dress with women and femininity. However, his description of the movement of the little girls’ dresses, which flowed as they danced, draws attention to its tactile qualities, which is of central concern to our contemporary understanding of dress as an object and idea, performed not only through the clothing itself, but also its representation.

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