50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Two: Harriet Hall, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA (2011)
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.
Alumni Interview Part Two: Harriet Hall, Courtauld Institute of Art MA (2011).
Harriet Hall is a freelance journalist specialising in Art, Fashion and Entertainment. She has published work online and in print, as is currently working on a book about the history of Sportswear. Harriet also works for the BBC, producing segments for live radio and television, and has interviewed celebrities, designers, artists and industry experts.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you are up to now?
I am a journalist. I work three days a week at the BBC News Channel as a producer, and three days freelance, writing Fashion and Art pieces. I am currently writing a fashion book for Bloomsbury on the history of Sportswear. I give myself Sundays off!
Did the MA course help you to progress to where you are today?
Absolutely. The course provided me with knowledge of how to analyse and write about dress, and a historical grounding that I apply to everything I write. It made me realise I was allowed to take fashion seriously. It also introduced me to many people across the world of fashion and dress, most of whom I am still in touch with. It’s important to have a network of close friends and colleagues you can turn to for advice and vice versa.
You graduated from the Courtauld in 2011. Could you describe the structure of the course back then?
It was the first year that Rebecca Arnold taught the course (although I’d stupidly spent the pre-application time reading Aileen Ribeiro’s work, which was a century earlier!) so it was great, because we were all new; we were all starting a journey together. The course focused on the inter-war period in Paris, London and New York. It was all very liberating and chic. I wrote mostly about feminism- Virginia Woolf and then for my thesis, the Japanese Lolita – I missed the memo about keeping a tight focus!
Would you say that the History of Dress Department, with such small numbers (alongside fashion’s undeserved association with ‘triviality’), was seen as inferior in any way?
I never found at the Courtauld that anyone looked down on anyone’s subject – academic importance was afforded to everything, because the word Art is so all encompassing. They wouldn’t include it at the university if it wasn’t considered important. We were, as a class, a little separate from the other students, but that just made us all a lovely tight-knit group.
Are there any memorable highs and lows of the course that you’d like to share with us?
The high point was definitely going to New York on a study trip. We went behind the scenes at some of the most prestigious museums and met all the curators, and did lots of shopping! Low point – returning from New York to revise for our exam a week later. Jet lag and libraries aren’t a great combination.
Did you come from a fashion background or was it something new to you?
I studied History of Art for my BA, so it wasn’t entirely removed. I had always considered studying straight fashion design or art, but I wanted to know about everything that had come before, how it was received and how it was built upon. I was always obsessive about fashion, reading about it at every moment, collecting Vogue and spending all my money on clothes, so I felt perfectly at home studying it – it never felt like something new to me.
Did the Courtauld succeed in paving the path to a career in fashion? How important do you think a fashion-specific degree is to a job in the industry?
For curator roles, the History of Dress MA is virtually a requirement, but for my career it has been more of an invaluable addition. In journalism, many people expect you to have done a more vocational degree but for me, I think the historical and analytical knowledge is far more important, you learn the rest on the job.
Could you talk a little bit about your career path since leaving the Courtauld? Any mistakes, any triumphs?
I started by interning at the Victoria & Albert museum, where I worked in the fashion department as a cataloguer and, separately, alongside a curator on a display of Japanese Lolita dresses. It was great timing with my thesis, and I was able to speak alongside him at the museum and at Hyper Japan events. Afterwards, I interned at Marie Claire, and later secured a job as Features Assistant at InStyle the January after I graduated. I worked at InStyle for a year. After I left InStyle, I began working at the BBC, whilst writing freelance Art and Fashion reviews for various publications. Soon the BBC promoted me to become a Broadcast Assistant on the news, and someone asked me to write a fashion book at the same time!
There have been some difficult moments, working in the media isn’t an easy path, and you’ve got to be prepared to stay at home a little longer. I’ve had to hold myself up with part time work – at a hairdresser and a beauty salon, and write a lot for people for free, but it’s important to prioritise building up a portfolio, first and foremost.
Did extra curricular activities and networking with peers and alumni have an impact on your academic life?
I didn’t really have time for much else other than researching for the course, but I would say that developing friendships and bonds with the other students was invaluable. We helped each other through everything – from advice on topics, to essay stress-outs and even sharing our photocopier money! It’s important to realise you’re all a team, not individual competitors. I made friends for life.
Could you talk a little bit about the sportswear book you are working on?
It charts the history of sportswear from the 1900s to present day, focusing on specific designers as milestones. I am writing it alongside sportswear designer, Christian Blanken, who is going to illustrate it. It’s a brilliant time, because sportswear is more popular now than ever, and it’s such a versatile, liberating style of dress. It’s going to be a coffee table book- big and glossy with lots of great pictures. It should be ready for publication at the end of 2016- so that’s what everyone’s getting for Christmas next year.
Do you keep up to date with the Courtauld’s events, exhibitions and publications?
I keep my eye out to see how the new classes are going and have attended a few lectures – you feel somewhat connected to the people on a similar journey to you. And of course I keep in touch with my peers and Rebecca. I think the History of Dress blog is great.
If you could own one exquisite piece by any designer (dead or alive) what would it be?
I love the black feather dress from Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2009-10 ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection – it looks impossible to wear but it’s magnificent – although I don’t know if the birds were killed or not, so maybe the red cape and white gown from the Autumn/Winter 2008-9 ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ collection – it’s so regal. Of course, I don’t think I’d get away with them down the local…
What is your dream project/achievement/job?
To author a book (nearly there), to produce and present my own fashion programme and to be editor of Vogue one day. (aim high, I say.)
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Comparison is the thief of joy. I try to hold onto that because in every walk of life there will be someone younger, more intelligent and more successful than you, and you just gotta get over it. Also, don’t let the bastards grind you down.Categories: Interviews | Comments Off
The internet went into hysterics after pictures surfaced of actress India Menuez sporting a cream-cheese bagel as a purse at the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Chanel No.5-inspired film, The One That I Want. It was not the carb couture itself that elicited intrigue, but the Chanel medallion dangling from the strange bag. Several magazines and blogs heralded the item as the newest of Karl Lagerfeld’s genius creations including Racked, who published an article with the headline, ‘How Can we Buy This Chanel Bagel Clutch Right Now?’ Bloggers and Chanel enthusiasts would be disappointed to learn that this bagel bag they have come to admire and covet is not in fact a bag, but a sculpture by Canadian artist Chloe Wise.
Entitled, Bagel No.5, a satirical reference to the iconic perfume Chanel No.5, the cream-cheese bagel exists as part of Wise’s sculptural series that integrate various forms of bread with different designer hardware. Included in the series is a challah with two large straps on either side, stamped with a triangular Prada label called, Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl. Wise’s intriguing sculptures tackle the themes of banality and frivolity often ascribed to designer items. The concept of a food item as an accessory turns from outright absurd to utterly magnificent with the mere addition of a notable logo. Wise’s duping the Internet demonstrates the way the credulous masses will flock towards anything because it is branded – a literal stamp signifying high fashion’s metaphorical stamp of approval.
Wise’s work further comments on the commodification of identity. Her choice of synthetic bread as an artistic material underscores her commentary on high-end fashion products operating as status symbols. Upon contemplating the medium, one thinks of the concept ‘breadwinner’, the money-earner, as well as ‘dough’, a slang term for cash. In a similar way that her bread bags highlight the commodification of women’s status and identity, her ‘Irregular Tampon’ series speaks to the commodification of female individuality. A satirical spin off of tampon adverts that tout a variety of tampons catering to different types of girls, Wise creates non-functional tampons out of various materials. Wise presents the quinoa tampon for healthy girls, along with a slew of other inane varieties.
While commodification is a ubiquitous phenomenon, Wise’s oeuvre is distinctly focused on conventionally female products, such as purses and tampons. This is hardly surprising given the fact that fashion, consumerism and frivolity have been gendered female. While both females and males have been guilty of falling into consumerist traps, as well as participating within the field of fashion, the vain woman shopaholic stereotype persists, while men remain virtually free from such derogatory depictions.
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When studying the History of Dress, there seems to be a tendency to focus on the clothes featured by designers in fashion shows and magazines and worn by the most famous and wealthiest members of society. There is, of course, good reason for this; however, to do so exclusively is to ignore the largest platform for showcasing new trends- the street.
Bill Cunningham, who, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, I only recently learned about, has devoted much of his life to documenting the fashions worn by the everyday person. Bill is a devoted fashionista: he attends the major fashion shows, photographing his favourite styles as modeled on the catwalk. He then takes to the streets of New York, capturing these styles in the everyday world. His images, published in the fashion section of the New York Times, are candid shots, taken when people are unaware, and thus showing clothes and the body at their most natural and least glamorous. His latest series, entitled ‘Fashion’s Deep Freeze,’ captures people battling the snowy conditions on a typical New York January day. Bill explains, in article ‘Bill on Bill,’published in the Times in 2002, that, when he began photographing the people of New York in the 1970s, magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were doing a similar thing, however they only focused on famous or well-known people at society events. Bill is different. He claims not to care at all who the person inside the clothing is, he is only interested in the best dressed people on the street, famous or not. He says ‘I never bothered with celebrities unless they were wearing something interesting.’
Interestingly, despite the fact that he had no fashion or photography training, Bill is extremely highly regarded by even the most prominent in the industry. Anna Wintour has notoriously said that ‘we all get dressed for Bill. However, even being Anna Wintour does not guarantee her a shot: she describes how the worst feeling is having him cast a glance over her outfit and not taking a photograph.
This mini personal discovery came at quite a pertinent time in relation to what we are studying on the MA, for this week we focused on representations of everyday clothing, captured by early photography and film in the 1920s and ‘30s. The sources we looked at were often taken by amateur photographers, simply capturing their friends and family, with no real regard for the clothing. Only now, these images are useful as illustrations of everyday clothing worn by real people. The articles of clothing that exist in archives and museums tend to be less everyday wear and more garments that were bought or made for a specific event, such as wedding dresses and ball gowns, which were generally much more expensive and less often worn. Subsequently, dress historians must rely on what film and photography remains to gauge the everyday dress of a period.
In this respect, Bill’s images are an invaluable resource, both for the fashion conscious now, and those in the future wishing to look back on fashions of the early 21st century. He refuses to accept any payment for his images, claiming that this allows him the freedom to photograph whatever he wants without being restricted by the demands of the newspaper. He travels through New York by bicycle with his camera, ready to take a snap at a moment’s notice. The vast majority of his images remain unpublished, and are stored in his tiny apartment in rows of filing cabinets. He takes these images for himself, to satisfy his love of clothing and his appreciation of aesthetics.
Bill Cunningham, ‘Bill on Bill,’ New York Times, October 27, 2002
Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, Zeitgeist Films, 2010 https://zeitgeistfilms.com/billcunninghamnewyork/Categories: Commentary | Comments Off
Max Factor’s newest campaign, ‘#GlamJan’, is a celebration of 80 gloriously lacquered years in the business. Of course, no campaign is complete without an inspirational brand ambassador that reflects the contemporary consumer – Gisele for Chanel, Cara Delevingne for YSL, Kendall Jenner for Estée Lauder… But Marilyn Monroe for Max Factor?
The choice to use Monroe’s image perfectly reflects the ‘timeless’ and ‘iconic’ heritage of a brand that was the first to make cosmetics that were initially designed for the silver screen commercially available. Max Factor’s Global Creative Design Director, Pat McGrath, underlined Monroe’s enduring relevance, crediting the star with making the ‘sultry red lip, creamy skin and dramatically lined eye’ the most famous beauty look of the 1940’s. It would seem therefore, that Max Factor, rather than choosing a current catwalk star, has chosen to resurrect an archetype of past glamour, in recognition of consumers’ continued love of nostalgia.
The campaign uses headshots of Marilyn – procured through CMG, the directors of her estate – with the slogan “From Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe, Max Factor, the man who created icons.” The company’s website draws attention to the oft-cited link between Monroe and Max Factor, who it claims, convinced her to dye her hair, thus kick-starting the transition from Norma Jean to Marilyn. However, this claim, plus the campaign’s focus on the 1940s, is somewhat misleading. Indeed, Sarah Churchwell, a leading biographer of Monroe, has stated that not only is Max Factor’s influence over Monroe undocumented, but in the 1940s she was a relatively unknown, mousey-haired actress until – at her agent Emmeline Snively’s suggestion – she went blonde in order that she could be ‘photographed in any light’. Her star persona, including that iconic make-up look, would seem to be a product of the 1950s.
Some have therefore cried foul of the company’s posthumous use of Monroe’s image – which is only guaranteed to garner much publicity for Max Factor. This seems mildly hypocritical, however, considering Dior never received such criticism for their inclusion of three of Hollywood’s biggest icons in its ‘J’adore’ campaigns, not just Monroe, but also Greta Garbo and Marlena Dietrich. However, unlike Max Factor they didn’t claim ownership of these actresses’ signature looks.
Well, let’s hope Monroe’s long-time makeup artist, “Whitey” Snyder would be pleased that his work is still seen as relevant and aspirational for the twenty-first century woman.
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Dutch fashion photographer Viviane Sassen (b. 1972) presents a decade of her editorial fashion campaigns, blown up large in vibrant full-colour and striking monochrome images, in a continuously moving stream of projections looped in 45 minute durations onto the walls and floor of Level 5 of The Photographers Gallery. This sculptural installation disturbs the viewer’s expectations, and toys with notions of reality and fantasy through the use of cleverly-angled mirrors, lighting, unusual viewpoints and repetitive music, all of which unnerve our habituated sense of being in the world. This is fitting for the title, Analemma, an astronomical term that denotes a figure eight-shaped curve used to map the shifting position of the celestial sun in the sky at the same every day from the terrestrial Earth.
The 350 playful, inventive and enigmatic images bring fashion photography back down to earth by employing a series of barely-concealed tricks (at odds with the extensive post-production prevalent in much 21st century fashion advertising) – a limb out of place, a short depth of field, a filter over the lens, a splash of unexpected body paint – to render the human form unusual, but unequivocally human. This is an interesting point to remember in light of many of Sassen’s fashion photographs, such as her 2008 series Flamboya, which captured models and subjects from Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. As a white Dutch-born photographer, who spent much of her childhood in Kenya, it might be easy to read into these images a power imbalance that bears the spectre of colonial legacies. Yet a closer look at Sassen’s images easily evades such a simplistic narrative. There are too many visual nuances (in the forms and shapes that conceal, reveal and demand interaction from the viewer) and collaborative elements with the subjects (in the unexpected layering of bodies, gestures, expressions and textures) to qualify any restrictive categorisations of her work. Analemma is a must see show that highlights the liberating ways in which fashion photography constructs fantasies, plays with our expectations and re-thinks physical expression across the globe.Fashion Now | Comments Off
Before I was aware of Sylvia Plath as the writer and poet, whose troubled life created some of the most startlingly brutal and emotional poetry of the twentieth century, I knew her as the children’s author of one of my favourite bedtime stories, ‘The It Doesn’t Matter Suit’, written in 1959 but only published in 1996.
It tells the story of a young boy named Max Nix and his family of seven brothers in the little Mountain town of Winkelburg. In this fictional Germanic town everybody has a suit to fit their occupation or passion. From skiwear to business wear, the whole town is decked out in a suit apart from Max: ‘More than anything else in the world Max Nix wanted a suit of his own…He wanted a suit for All-Year-Round. He wanted a suit for doing Everything.’ One day a mysterious package arrives at the family home containing a ‘wonderful, woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow’ suit. Each male member of family tries on the suit, with Mama Nix snipping, stitching and sewing the suit to tailor it for each son, but each one realises the impracticalities and inappropriateness of a mustard yellow suit for their job or occupation. According to Papa Nix and his sons the suit is far too bright for skiing, hunting or fishing, and far too formal for the paper round and milking the cows. So eventually it passes down to the youngest, Max. He is delighted to finally have his own suit and proceeds to wear it for all occasions performing all the activities his brothers thought could not be done in a suit, because to Max ‘it doesn’t matter’. He can wear it rain or shine, outdoors and indoors, and it is even helpful in the activities of skiing, hunting and fishing. Indeed, the suit makes him the most admired person in Winkelburg, with even the cats mewing in appreciation.
For Max Nix – his name itself a pun on the German ‘macht nicht’, translated as ‘it doesn’t matter’ – the suit is precisely what he always wanted. Despite the humour derived from the unusual desire of a little boy, the story is interesting in broaching the idea of anxiety in dress, an emotion that even affects a young boy in a small town. This anxiety is the realisation that his absence of a uniform or unique style of his own deprives him of an identity in a town where every inhabitant is recognisable through their suit and mode of dress. The story also presents the notion of propriety of dress in relation to occupation and identity. It shows how society and fashion dictates what is or is not suitable for different activities and occupations, and the inherent fear of criticism. A mustard yellow suit is perceived as unsuitable by all of the older members of the family, which inhibits their confidence to wear it. Max’s self-assurance and confidence in the suit enables him to carry out all of the activities that his brothers considered unacceptable in a mustard yellow suit, and is successful in them all. The pride that Max has in his appearance whilst wearing the brand new suit in turn attracts admiration from the rest of the town: ‘There goes Maximilian in his wonderful suit.’ Plath’s subject matter for a children’s story is a curious choice and has a complex moral for young children, but ultimately it teaches us that ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ how you dress as long as you please yourself. Admiration comes from confidence and happiness, perhaps a lesson that we should all remember from time to time.
Sylvia Plath, The It Doesn’t Matter Suit, (Faber and Faber: London) 1996.Categories: Commentary | Comments Off
As I was buried in old issues of British Vogue at the British Library this week, I came across an illustrated column called ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes’ in a September issue from 1925. The column covered the topic of sports under the title ‘Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’. The series of mock-advisory illustrations by Charles Martin (a fashion designer, graphic artist, costume designer and illustrator) are a spot-on satire of the drastic reinvention of the female silhouette in the 1920s. The emancipated climate of post-war London led to an increase in sport and leisure activities, which in turn ushered in a new look that prioritized freedom of movement for liberated women. The modern aesthetic – streamlined, flat and tubular – demanded a leaner body. This posed a problem for some, and a proliferation of adverts in Vogue for quick-fix slimming products and regimes bears witness to this. Although this column precedes the first use of the term ‘keep-fit’ by about four years, Martin’s illustrations resemble commentators’ mild mockery of groups such as the Women’s League of Health and Beauty and the Legion of Health and Happiness in the thirties.
The sketches show women engaged in extreme sporting activities usually associated with men such as wrestling and boxing, accompanied by farcical counsel:
One of the best ways to do anything is to do it involuntarily. For instance, Yvonne, who is here seen volplaning through the ether, had no idea of going in for high jumping until her bicycle tactlessly wound itself about a telegraph pole.
These captions humorously allude to the incompatibility of women and sport, whilst others highlight their newfound right to inclusion:
Women are no longer content with ring-side seats at boxing entertainments, but must themselves be equipped to enter the arena and take on all corners.
It is rather amusing – and suspicious – that Vogue published these sketches mocking the popularity of sport alongside advertisements for ridiculous weight-loss products – my personal favourites being ‘thinning bath salts’ which promise to dissolve excess fatty deposits, and a magical ‘reducing paste’ to ‘slenderize thick ankles’. (The same advert also warns against ‘violent exercise’).
Were the new attitudes in health and hygiene a threat to the beauty industry, and by association the fashion magazines? The battle between sport, dieting and quick-fix beauty products is one that would continue to play out across the pages of women’s publications throughout the interwar years.
Martin,Charles, ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes: Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’ Vogue. Late September, 1925
Matthews, Jill Julius, ‘They had Such a lot of Fun: The Women’s League of Health and Beauty Between the Wars,’ History Workshop Journal, 30 (1), 1990, p.23Categories: Commentary, Work in Progress | Comments Off
East Village Eye – a magazine published between 1979 and 1987 – shows the medium’s power to encapsulate a moment and to convey the excitement of collaboration, in terms of its contributors and of the collages of text and images of art, music, fashion and life in general in ‘80s New York. Drawing on the cut-up aesthetic of fanzines and the pop culture graphics of comic books, it brings to mind Guy Lawley’s discussion of their role in crystallizing subcultural ideals: ‘In some important ways, the origins of punk itself are closely linked to the comics medium. By the winter of 1975-76, the new music coming out of New York’s CBGBs club (The Ramones, Television, Blondie, Patti Smith etc) was generating an intense local buzz, but little wider acclaim. People were calling it things like “street rock” until Punk magazine appeared in December of 1975 to give the scene a catchy name and (the appearance of) a unified identity. Indeed, it is claimed that The Eye was the first to use the term ‘hip hop’ – in an interview with rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa – and these two subcultures dominate its pages, influencing art and pop culture in equal measures.
The Eye depicts the chaos of downtown and the possibilities that opened up for young artists – of all genres, who were able to rent cheap spaces in a part of the city abandoned by big commerce. The area quickly became the generator of new art, and home to a string of vintage and fashion boutiques that dressed its participants. It speaks to the significance of space and place in hot housing trends of various kinds, and of the vibrancy of street culture at the time – punk and hip hop intersect on its pages, and the influence and significance of Situationist art co-mingle with graffiti and New Wave.
With its recognizably ‘80s aesthetics, The Eye is a remnant of the recent past, but simultaneously projects a confusing – but fascinating – sense of actually being about the recent future, through its representation of art and fashion culture of the time: it’s gone, but it’s still here, over, but still suggesting something new. This is reflected in editor Leonard Abrams’ statement at the front of the magazine, which says:
East Village Eye is a new newspaper for new culture. Enjoying a mutually parasitic relationship with the East Village and surrounding areas, The Eye … promotes the new mutations of Positivist Futurism, put forth in the watchwords: “It’s all true.”
Inevitably, fashion is a significant component of this mix – a way to embody and perform the new ideals and become a living rendition of the artistic and subcultural manifestos expressed on the magazine’s pages. And it is now possible to examine these influences in detail, as several copies of East Village Eye are now available to download http://www.east-village-eye.com/issues-year.html, including the June 15 1979 edition with its retro-futurist style fashion supplement.
This edition’s cover and the ensuing pages cut and paste together fashion spreads and adverts that show the promiscuous combinations of periods and styles that somehow coalesced into a recognizably New Wave dress code. Its focus on Pop Art glamour – as seen through ‘40s Hollywood make-up, ‘30s rehearsal shorts and floral tea dresses, is balanced with classic ‘50s casual wear for men and sharp suits that recall ‘30s gangster films. Even the photographic style deployed is a combination of old and new – some are styled to look like Richard Avedon shots of poised elegance, others rehearse the ‘straight-up’ that i-D magazine would come to define a couple of years later.
The focus on second-hand stores and – in most cases – the anonymity of the clothes origins suggest individuality and creative freedom from the ‘official’ fashion world. However, the text recognizes that these same styles and periods were also influencing ready-to-wear. This is a reminder that, as Angela McRobbie has written: ‘Most of the youth subcultures of the post-war period have relied on second-hand clothes found in jumble sales and ragmarkets as the raw material for the creation of style.’ And yet: ‘not all junk is used a second time around. Patterns of taste and discrimination shape the desires of second-hand shoppers as much as they do those who prefer the high street or the fashion showroom.’
Film, literature, music, comics, the street – both of the current and earlier times become cyphers for styling the downtown art/fashion/music performer that The Eye spoke to and for. Download and be part of the recent future.
With thanks to Leonard Abrams for his generosity in giving access to issues of East Village Eye, and allowing us to reproduce these images.
Guy Lawley, ‘”I like Hate and I hate everything else”: The Influence of Punk on Comics,’ in Roger Sabin, ed., Punk Rock: So What? (London: Routledge, 1999)
Angela McRobbie, ‘Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket,’ in Angela McRobbie, ed., Zootsuits and Second-Hand Dresses (London: Routledge, 1989)Categories: Work in Progress | Comments Off
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.
Alumni Interview Part One: Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA (1971), PhD (1975), Head of History of Dress Department (1975-2009).
Aileen Ribeiro has lectured internationally and written widely on the history of dress, including Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (Yale: 2011), and Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England (Yale: 2005). In addition, she has been a costume consultant to major portrait exhibitions in the UK and US, most recently Whistler, Women and Fashion at the Frick Collection, New York (2003).
Why the history of dress?
My first degree was in history, which I enjoyed on the whole, although in retrospect there was a sense of dissatisfaction in the predominance of political history rather than cultural history. It was very much with the feeling of being rescued from the desert when, a few years later, I finally engaged with ideas of putting a face on history, with what people looked like and what they wore, particularly as I became increasingly interested in the history of art.
When and where did you become aware it was something you could study at The Courtauld?
Fairly soon after I’d graduated, my husband and I (sorry, that makes me sound a bit like the Queen…) spent some time teaching in Zambia, which was when I realised I wanted to teach, a profession which I’ve enjoyed immensely. While in Africa, where I taught history and English, I wrote to the Courtauld Institute with the idea of studying art history, but the prospectus gave details of a postgraduate course in the history of dress, which had recently been set up, and which sounded intriguing, so I applied and was accepted.
What were your first impressions of The Courtauld? And of Stella Mary Newton?
The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 to offer the first degree in England in art history. Samuel Courtauld donated his collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works to the institute named after him, which was established in his town house, Home House, in Portman Square. By the time, in 1969, I arrived at the Courtauld, the art collections were housed in a separate gallery in Bloomsbury, but the Institute was still in Portman Square, a wonderful Adam house, although the library was sometimes difficult to use, particularly the collections in basements and cellars. As for the History of Dress Department, it was housed in the mews across the garden at the back of Home House, where Stella Mary also had her office. I remember being impressed by her elegance, stylish dress and jewellery, which wasn’t surprising as she had had a small couture house in London in the 1930s, and retained a great interest in fashion.
What was your favourite aspect of studying History of Dress with Stella Mary Newton?
The course – the first I think in the world – was established in 1965; Stella Mary Newton had been a costume designer in the theatre, with a particular interest in historical dress, and during the Second World War she had worked in the National Gallery in London, dating and identifying paintings through costume. Stella was my mentor – an inspirational teacher and self-taught scholar; she was the first to focus on the importance of clothing in art, that artists depict the dress of their time, either consciously or unconsciously.
What were your goals when you took on the role as course leader?
Through her [Stella Mary Newton’s] work I realised how important the links between art and clothing were and are. Which is why much of my career has been devoted to this aspect of the history of dress, both as a teacher (I became head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld in 1975), and as a writer. I never had any doubts when I first began to study the history of dress, that this subject had immense possibilities; it began in some respects as a kind of handmaiden to art/theatre/design history, but now it’s a discipline in its own right, with so many facets which it would take numberless lifetimes to explore.
Inevitably, given that the history of dress is situated in the most famous place for the study of art history, what we can ‘read’ in a work of art and how clothing can illuminate these works of art in themselves, and can reveal a wide range of aspects of society and of individuals, is an important aspect of our study, but one of the aims of our subject is to look at the history of dress within the context of social and cultural history, to analyse and interpret clothing from extant objects, documentary and literary sources, as well as from the visual. And I want to impress how important it is for students of the history of dress to be open to a wide range of possibilities, to study the subject from the earliest periods, and not just to concentrate on the 20th century and contemporary fashion.
What was your favourite aspect of teaching History of Dress at The Courtauld?
One of my pleasures in teaching the history of dress was to see how students were enthused by particular eras, topics, themes from classical antiquity onwards. So much research needs to be done in the areas of classical, medieval, Renaissance and the early modern periods; I think Stella Newton thought I was too ‘modern’ in choosing the 18th century for my PhD!
How did your teaching change over your time here?
It’s an interesting question, to contemplate how one’s teaching evolves over time, and not always easy to determine; sometimes it changes in response to students’ interests, and perhaps it’s more evident in writing. My concern has always been to teach and write in a way that’s accessible, and to avoid the opaque and often pretentious jargon of much academic discourse, particularly when it moves away from the object, but – because dress like art, is often full of signs, of ambiguities, and sometimes contradictory impulses – it needs de-coding if it is to have meaning. This is never-ending, and makes the history of dress/clothing, fashion, constantly surprising and illuminating.
24/1/2015Categories: Interviews | Comments Off
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