Documenting Fashion

‘Unfit for Ladies’: A sensorial reading of Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes

December 16, 2014 by Admin

Madeline after Prayer (from John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, st

Madeline after Prayer (from John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, stanza XIX, lines 4-5) After Daniel Maclise, Etching and engraving of chine collè, 1871, 61.5 x 44.1 cm, Metrpolitan Museum of Art, New York.

by Emma ParnisEngland

Whilst recently browsing through Entwistle’s The Fashioned Body I came across a passage describing the shortcomings of the costume museum with regards to the understanding of a garment:

“What it cannot tell us is how the garment was worn, how the garment moved when on a body, what it sounded like when it moved and how it felt to the wearer. Without a body, dress lacks fullness and movement; it is incomplete.”[1]

This got me thinking about the body upon which she places so much responsibility. Must the body be alive? Is it a present day body? How about a static body in a photo or picture?  How about a mannequin, or a fictional body? That evening, by some uncanny coincidence, a friend passed a beautiful edition of Keats’ Selected Works over to me and I opened it up at random. I began to read and realised that I had landed on one of the most sensually arousing descriptions of a dress in nineteenth century literature. The Eve of St Agnes tells the story of a young virgin who hurries herself off to bed on this special feast night having heard that she may have “visions of delight”.[2] Meanwhile, Porphyro – a smitten young admirer- has snuck into her room to watch her undress. There is a risqué interplay of religious eroticism at work- he swoons at her piety whilst watching her rush through her evening prayers- unbeknownst to him she’s just after these sweet dreams. In this poem, clothes are endowed with life. Even before the poetic striptease begins, Keats uses an anthropomorphic image by describing the female guests at the party as “many a sweeping train /Pass by”. The personified dresses do not require a body to exude a sense of movement. At the pinnacle of the poem, Keats’ tableau vivant is quasi-religious again. Madeline’s chamber is set against a large ornate arched casement. Imagery of sensual excess surrounds this structure as Keats describes the engravings and glass as oozing with “fruits and flowers” […] stains and splendid dyes”. The moon, almost as if a theatrical spotlight, bursts onto this rich tableau – throwing “warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast” and reminding us that the object of desire here is of an erotic nature. Keats’ slow motion striptease is the apex of the poem:

“Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.”

The pace of the poem is skilfully measured out linguistically- we can relate to the time consuming task of removing all the pearls from one’s hair. The jewellery pieces come off one by one and the bodice is loosened by degrees. For someone eagerly awaiting nightly visions Madeline does not seem to be in a hurry at all, and this tempo adds to the anticipation. This sensory unveiling of the body is by no means restricted to the visual senses. Madeline’s “warmed jewels” and “fragrant bodice” alongside her luxurious dress that “creeps rustling” are powerful conduits of touch, smell and sound. Keats’ gift lies in being able to communicate in words “the experience of a sound, a color, a gesture, of the feelings of arousal”[3], conjuring up, I would argue, the movement and fullness that the museum garment of Entwistle is lacking. It is this haptic immediacy that a museum lacks, and not a body. So, as debauched as Porphyro’s lingering eye may seem, we do not condemn it: the sensory description of erotic cloth is enough to give life to the dress and we, as readers, are as captivated.  In Keats’ poem, “cloth is a message carrier for both for desiring and being desired.”[4] No wonder it was deemed “unfit for ladies”.[5]

[1] Entwistle, Joanne, The Fashioned Body, (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) p.10


[3] Laura U. Marks, Touch, p.1


[5] Bennet, Andrew, Keats, Narrative and Audience (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1994) p.5

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‘Addressing Images,’ Brown Bag Discussion Group

December 15, 2014 by Rosily

collage image by Alexis Romano

collage image by Alexis Romano


Friday 6 February, 2015

12:30-14:00, Research Forum South Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 0RN

This series of brown bag events opens up discussion of dress’ significance within imagery – whether paintings, prints, photographs, advertisements, film stills or drawings. It brings together dress and art historians, as well as those interested in exploring issues and meanings within representation. A single image will be shown in each session, giving participants the opportunity to re-examine familiar, and confront new representations of fashion and dress. We will rethink images through the lens of dress history, and consider what is shown from the perspective of participants’ own research. The aim is to provide a forum to debate, share reactions to images, and to consider ideas about fashion, dress and representation in an informal environment. This is part of our celebration of fifty years of History of Dress at The Courtauld, and reflects our desire to share and build upon the innovative work being undertaken in this field at the Institute with the wider community, and beyond.

Open to all, free admission.

Taking place over the lunch hour, these sessions are open to all – though it is necessary to register to attend – and a packed lunch will be provided.

Next session will be held on Friday 27 February

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Alexander Wang x H&M Collection

December 10, 2014 by Admin

By Lauren Dobrin

Wang H&M

Another year, another collaboration – Alexander Wang x H&M

After an endless slew of sneak peaks, ad campaign previews and instagram teasers, the highly anticipated Alexander Wang x H&M collection, announced at Coachella in April, finally hit the stores on November 6th. The inordinately long queues of eager shoppers wrapping around several blocks across many cities, many of whom slept on the pavement to ensure access to the collection, and H&M’s website crash due to excessive traffic, are testament to the collaboration’s popularity and tremendous success. It took only a few days for the majority of the collection to sell out. However those disappointed in missing out, need not fret as several of the collection’s coveted items are available on eBay, although with fairly sizeable mark ups. For instance, one puffa jacket that retailed at £249.99 is currently listed on the site for a staggering £599.99.

A distinct athletic theme runs throughout the collection, with the clothing and accessories adhering to Wang’s signature monochromatic colour palette limited to blacks and greys. The fashion show promoting the line aptly had a running track as a runway, the center of which housed a gymnasium structure replete with bars, weights and a trampoline. While sportswear has increasingly infiltrated everyday street-wear, items in this collection contain functional detailing rendering them appropriately suited for the gym. The performance potential of the clothing is evident with the use of water-resistant fabrics, reflective strips, side ventilation zips and quick-drying t-shirts. The accessories of real-life boxing gloves, goggles and a magnetized Alexander Wang trophy cup underscore the sporty theme. Above and beyond the practicality of the collection is the tough and edgy vibe of the clothing that is achieved through the use of unconventional materials, fabrics and textures. The sweatshirts, t-shirts, leggings, coats, crop tops and bralettes contain mesh, scuba and latex detailing.

The fashion frenzy Alexander Wang x H&M elicited was easy to predict given the precedent of collaborations between high-end designers and low-end retailors. Such collaborations have become an annual staple of H&M, as the company has put forth collections by Isabel Marant, Karl Lagerfeld, Lanvin, Stella McCartney and Jimmy Choo. Other retailors have jumped on the ‘high-end for low-end’ bandwagon, which has become a fashion formula that seems to ensure commercial success. For example, Target has released collections by Missoni and Phillip Lim, both of which incited levels hysteria tantamount to that of Wang’s collection.

The cachet of brand names is predominantly what attracts flocks of consumers and drives the success of such collaborations. One quickly detects a pattern when flipping through the Alexander Wang x H&M lookbook – the inclusion of ‘WANG’ is featured on virtually every article of clothing and accessory. The prominence of the designer’s name plastered throughout the collection’s items literalizes the phenomenon of brand desirability that permeates contemporary fashion culture. There is a strange pleasure that exists in wearing something discernably designer, as high-end retail is associated with exclusivity, notoriety and affluence. Introducing designer collections to more conventional stores and drastically lowering astronomical price points renders designer items accessible to the masses for a limited period of time. People feel compelled to take advantage of the rare opportunity to acquire apparel and accessories associated with a famous designer or brand name, despite the cheaper quality in comparison to actual designer products. The widespread phenomenon of brand obsession speaks to the way elements of dress are viewed as status symbols, where designer items are exalted to a position of eminence within the fashion hierarchy.



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Women Make Fashion/Fashion Make Women conference on 16 May 2015

December 9, 2014 by Rosily

Please join us to celebrate fifty years of History of Dress at the Courtauld!

Fashion Show, Barrett Street School, 1958. (Courtesy of the London College of Fashion Archives © (1958) The London College of Fashion.)

Fashion Show, Barrett Street School, 1958. (Courtesy of the London College of Fashion Archives © (1958) The London College of Fashion.)

As part of our celebration, this one-day conference, ‘Woman Make Fashion/Fashion Make Women’, explores the relationship and significance of women in designing, wearing, promoting, curating and writing about dress and fashion. Speakers will consider this both from the perspective of those working professionally in the field, and those who consume, wear and document fashion. The conference will provide the opportunity to question how changes in dress, and its representation and exploration through the media, academia, and exhibiting, have impacted upon relationships between women and fashion, since 1965.

Women, including Stella Mary Newton, who set up the first Courtauld course in the History of Dress, have been central to developing the discipline and exploring dress’ multifaceted meanings. They have also been important in the design and dissemination of fashion as a product and as an idea. This conference celebrates and critiques the role women have taken in making fashion, and, by extension, the role fashion plays in making women – by defining and constructing notions of gender, sexuality, beauty and ethnicity. We will take a global, interdisciplinary perspective to seek an overview of women’s significance to fashion and dress and vice versa. 

As part of our preparations for the conference, we are interested in hearing stories of studying dress history at The Courtauld from alumnae. If you would like to contribute a story, please send it to


Saturday, 16 May 2015

10.00 – 18.00 (with registration from 09.30), Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN

Keynote Speakers: Cheryl Buckley (University of Brighton) and Judith Clark (London College of Fashion)

Speakers: Dr Rebecca Arnold (Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, The Courtauld), Elizabeth Kutesko (PhD candidate, The Courtauld), Dr Eugenie Shinkle (University of Westminster), Alexis Romano (PhD candidate, The Courtauld), Kathryn Brownbridge (Manchester Metropolitan University), Rosemary Harden (Fashion Museum, Bath)

Ticket/entry details: £16, £11 concessions BOOK ONLINE

Organisers: Dr Rebecca Arnold (Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, The Courtauld), Elizabeth Kutesko (PhD candidate, The Courtauld), and Lucy Moyse (PhD candidate, The Courtauld)

For more information and updates on the conference please see the website:

We look forward to seeing you there!

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Smells Like Niche Spirit: Rodin Olio Lusso, Le Labo and Frederic Malle to Join Estée Lauder Companies.

December 9, 2014 by Admin

by Brianna Carr


In the space of a calendar month, it is possible that Estée Lauder Companies have completed three of the most important acquisitions that the premium beauty and fragrance industry has seen since its partnership with Tom Ford in 2005. A departure from established brands, the coming year will see Rodin Olio Lusso, Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle join the conglomerates burgeoning brand portfolio, bringing with them the much needed cliental of the millennial age.

Founded by Linda Rodin in response to her disillusionment with complicated skincare regimens and the anti-ageing market, Rodin Olio Lusso has garnered a cult following within the fashion industry, establishing itself as the epitome of modern ‘back to basic’ luxury. The success of such a niche brand resonates with the fragrance heavy weights, Le Labo and Frédéric Malle, as they rely as much on their exclusivity as they do their uncompromising quality. Curated by Malle, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle is founded upon the ideology of returning to the lost art of perfumery that has fallen victim to the superfluous range of fragrances marketed today. Each signature scent is developed by an individual nose, who begins from the premise of an‘olfactory sketch’, in which the sense of smell evokes memories that envelope the body of the wearer. This is not dissimilar to the manifesto of Le Labo’s elusive creators, who not only believe in the power of the ‘hand’ in each bottles inception, but that ‘fine perfumery must create a shock- the shock of the new combined with the intimately familiar’. For many a faithful Lauder customer, this will certainly be the case.

Whilst each brand retains an individual identity that Malle himself has assured will be ‘respected’ (which has indeed been proven by the case of Jo Malone); it is questionable to what extent the integrity of their ethos to reject marketing over the product will be upheld when according to reports at WWD, President and Chief Executive Officer Fabrizio Freda has said that their purchase is itself an attempt to ‘maintain steady annual growth’. No doubt such growth will be the by product of globalising the products outside of exclusively American, French and British markets, but with the exception of Rodin Olio Lusso, surely this can only be to the detriment of their existing customers and brand image. Indeed, it is the very heart of the fragrances’ creation and appeal that they are representative of a woman who desires the exotic and exceptional other.  This is a customer whose ‘essence’ cannot be expressed via a bottle of Youth Dew, but rather one that wishes to be the Carnal Flower amongst wallflowers.

There is however a reason why after 68 years Estée Lauder still reigns supreme over the likes of LVMH – it is because it evolves with its customer. In recognising the allure of the ‘niche’ that is founded upon quality rather than quantity, perhaps we will see Lauder reinvigorate the beauty industry for the better. If not, at least we will all smell fantastic.


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Fashion Career Opportunities: An Interview with Tilly Macalister-Smith, Fashion Features Director at matches

December 5, 2014 by Julia

Tilly Macalister-Smith is a London-based fashion writer and editor, and Fashion Features Director for She spent five years working for British Vogue, and has contributed to The Business of Fashion, RUSSH, and ShowStudio. She has also worked with several luxury brands and is part of an advisory panel for the British Fashion Council. She spoke to us about the changing nature of today’s fashion industry and shared her valuable advice on different routes into the fashion workplace.


Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with us Tilly.

 Of course! The fashion industry is changing so much at the moment. There are a lot of opportunities opening up that weren’t there before because of digital, and print media is having to adapt to that. There is a real shift occurring in the landscape of the industry as a whole, so it’s a really interesting time to be involved in it.

Can you tell me a little bit about your role at Matches- what can a typical day involve for you?

As Fashion Features Director, I oversee the digital womenswear fashion features content for our online publication The Style Report, and seasonal print editions. My days can vary between attending ideas meetings, writing designer profiles, representing the business at press events, travelling to Paris or New York or working with our video director- video is really expanding as a medium at the moment. I also work very closely with our product copy team to keep a handle on the tone of voice used across the site, making sure everything looks and sounds the way we want it to, and in a way that’s in keeping with our overall voice. Our readers are very interested in what goes on behind the scenes, so we work hard to keep our tone informative yet still intimate and accessible. We really have to maximize our material to make sure everything works in a very timely way, as well as keeping an eye on new emerging designers. It all requires a lot of organization!

You studied Fashion Communication and Promotion at Central St. Martins- how important is a fashion-specific qualification to working in the industry?

At Central St. Martins, the connections I made were invaluable, although you don’t realize it at the time- I was going to school every day with the designers, writers and stylists of the future, which was amazing. I think fashion-specific degrees can give you a more realistic approach to the industry as it’s not spoon-fed- you’re really thinking for yourself and that’s quite a learning curve. It was also great to have that chance to really explore all the different options available to you in this business.

What was your experience of internships like when you were first starting out? Internships, in the fashion industry in particular, have received a lot of negative press in recent years – do you think it’s important to see more promotion of the positive aspects of these placements?

Personally, I think it’s a shame that such stringent regulations are coming into force regarding unpaid internships because I think it will take away a lot of invaluable opportunities. I did unpaid internships for about two years and it’s hard work, but none of us were doing it for the money- we really loved it. I spent 3 months with the designer Jonathan Saunders at his London studio, which was amazing and I kept going back. Everything happened under one roof- the cutting, sewing, screen printing, planning the shows- so I was really observing the designer first hand. I was also able to accompany him to Paris and to New York when he first showed there. These young, emerging designers just cannot afford to pay their volunteers, yet it’s one of the best environments in which to learn about all the different sides of this industry. There aren’t many places left where you can be so immersed in it all.

I interned at Men’s Vogue in the US as I was interested in menswear at the time, and that was incredibly exciting. They had writers from The New Yorker and The New York Times who were writing about art, architecture, travel, everything really, and I loved that. Afterwards, I moved to British Vogue to intern and never left! When money isn’t involved, I think it sorts the wheat from the chaff really. You work out whether it is the right thing for you. 

How can someone distinguish themselves in such a fiercely competitive industry as fashion? There are so many options now in terms of fashion courses, internships and, of course, social media.

I would say don’t overthink it. People get far too caught up in trying to ‘distinguish’ themselves but there will always be a place for you if you work hard and you’re passionate about what you’re doing. There are so many personal style blogs out there, alongside things like Instagram and Twitter, but I think you should only do that if you truly love it. I think there might be a backlash against all that- some of the people I respect the most in this industry don’t buy into all that and, of course, it’s nice to keep something reserved. There’s no substitute for knowledge, enthusiasm and experience really, so my advice would be to educate yourself the best you can and be passionate. And, as with everything in life, timing is very important- if I’d interned at Vogue a month later, I may never have got that job. You have to be in the right place at the right time.

What is your advice to aspiring fashion journalists in terms of getting your work out there and published?

There has been a huge surge in online publications in recent years that are always desperate for good ideas. As a fashion journalist, it’s not just about being able to put words on a page- you have to become an ideas machine! And remember that people will never not thank you for sending over those ideas. Make your application specific, do as much research as you can and educate yourself about the industry as a whole. Take my time at Jonathan Saunders, for example. I never wanted to design myself but that placement was invaluable from a journalistic perspective as I came to understand the whole process. Now, when I’m writing about a garment, I’m not just looking at what’s in front of me- I actually know what went into it.

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Happy Holidays!

December 2, 2014 by Rebecca

Happy Holidays to All Our Readers!

Gazette du Bon Ton, Jan 1914, no. 1

Gazette du Bon Ton, Jan 1914, No. 1

As a special ‘thank you’ to all our readers, we wanted to give you a copy of the booklet (PDF) to go with the Winter Mode display we curated for the Fashioning Winter exhibition currently on show at Somerset House.

Those of you who follow the blog will be aware of the various stages of curation and installation that we went through, and this included putting together the booklet, inspired by the wonderful fashion journals in our collection.

For the booklet, we used images from these to illustrate it and were lucky enough to have Amy Preston, who worked on the exhibition as a whole, design the font and layout.

The booklet was made possible by Oak Foundation’s generosity – and we really hope you will enjoy reading it.

The exhibition is full of treasures, and encourages you to explore Somerset House and think about the different kinds of seasonal fashions of the past hundred years or so, and the ways these have been designed and represented. It runs until 11 January 2015, so do come along if you’re in London.

May it inspire your own winter fashions!

Thank you for supporting our blog.

Happy Holidays!

From all The Courtauld’s Dress Historians.

Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921, no. 10

Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921, No. 10

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December 2, 2014 by Rebecca

Fashion on the Ice and Snow (1940), Prelinger Archive 


As this promotional film for Sacony, ‘America’s Number One Name in Sportswear’ attests, winter fashions have long been a preoccupation. And as those of us who are lucky enough to work at Somerset House know, the ice rink makes a dynamic addition to our everyday landscape, its shining surface and the perpetual movement of its visitors, a stark contrast to the regimented architecture and grey skies above.  While most of us probably reach for jeans when we go skating, the 1940s fashions shown in the film suggest a more self-conscious approach to dressing, in terms of both style and practicality. I thought it would be interesting to watch the film as part of our series of ‘Winter Mode’ posts, which reflect on the research and ideas generated from our display for Fashioning Winter.

The film glides – literally and figuratively – from black and white scenes of skiers shooting down snow-clad mountains, to a full-colour show of skating and related fashions. The breathless commentary reflects the speed of the winter sports, and gives a sense of urgency to the images. Movement and landscape are used to entice consumers to associate Sacony – a brand that developed in the 1920s – with garments that work with the body, enhancing skill, while remaining stylish.

The narrator conflates wearer, activity and dress, stating that the clothes are ‘just as strong as the American girl.’ And the outfits shown celebrate adaptability and attention to detail – they are designed and manufactured to fit closely, protecting wearers from the cold and wet, ensuring they stay in place, even during a fall in the snow.

The first section mimics documentary film, its stark black and white footage mirroring sports coverage of the time and adding to the sense of professionalism. Whereas the later section focuses on fashion expertise, with models presenting Sacony’s range outside, against a backdrop of chalets and other après ski scenes. This colour section leans on spectacle – first a skating display of women in identical, ultra feminine outfits that speak of the ballet dancer, rather than the workwear inspirations that dominate the styles shown next.  These comprise neat bomber jackets and trousers, tucked into sturdy boots. Tops are reversible, pockets edged with colours, as primaries and darker shades are combined to provide a sense of dynamic layers. Practicality is paramount – we are told that ‘no snow sneaks inside’ the special inner cuffs used to keep the wearer completely warm and dry. There is a continual sense of optimism – the film is edited to give viewers the sense of move seamlessly from rink or ski slope to ‘Winter Wonderland’ resort. We are encouraged to imagine the feel of the clothes, as models slide gauntlet gloves off and on, squeeze them into pockets and the rich colours allow us to think of the experience of wearing soft wool sweaters under fitted jackets.

The mix of masculine/unisex separates is again quite different from the skating ensembles shown. These retain the limited but striking colour range, while bringing focus to the women’s legs, with full, knee-length skirts that have bright linings. These would spool out from the body while skating, adding vivid reds to the monochrome of the ice rink.

The film’s final shot reinforces Sacony’s message. A line up of models wear the full spectrum of its range – from the skiwear shown, to swimsuits and ‘spectator’ sportswear, the casual, but smart separates for everyday wear that would become a defining feature of American fashion. We are also reminded of ready-to-wear’s promise: Sacony boasts that its garments are both good quality and reasonably priced, and, the final sleight of hand of mass-manufactured fashion, ‘Very Exclusively Yours.’




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From Rationing to Ravishing: The Transformation of Women’s Clothing in the 1940s and 1950s

November 24, 2014 by Lucy



Photographs by Alberto Ferreira and Lucy Moyse, with permission of the Museum of Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver’s current From Rationing to Fashioning exhibition thoroughly and exhilaratingly takes its viewers through a turbulent interval of history. The glitter and roar of the 1920s had come to a sudden and catastrophic cease, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression. Beforehand, women ‘s newfound freedom and fun was reflected in looser fits and higher hemlines. However, after the crash, the sartorial mood turned towards sentimentality, and the traditional feminine figure began to re-emerge. Women’s dress of the 1930s delicately navigated changing ideals, later taking on designers’ nods to masculinity and the need for practicality during the Second World War. Peacetime instated the womanly silhouette once more: elaborate amounts of fabric countered wartime shortages, and sloping shoulders, full busts, cinched waists and full, long skirts glorified the female form and took it to new heights.

Guest curators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke display the complexities of these changes with thought and flair. On show until March 2015, the exhibition highlights the intrinsic connections between fashion, those that wear it, and the society that surrounds them. The underlying driving force behind the curatorial rationale is clear: fashion reflects, responds to, and helps to drive change. The exhibition expresses the way clothes had to be adapted according to changing conditions, availabilities, and moods, but also how they affected and constructed views of the women who wore them, from the diligent wartime worker to the immaculate housewife.

The exhibition is neatly divided into two main spaces. The first pulls visitors into a comprehensive overview of 1940s fashion. It slickly demonstrates transitions, whilst maintaining the range of styles available within them. Rainbows of both day- and evening-wear reveal fashion’s determination to thrive even during wartime, whilst also making clear the practical and aesthetic limitations imposed. The dual role of the idealised woman’s wartime appearance is revealed: soothing society involved a juggling act between putting her best face, and dress, forward, and cleverly working around restrictions such as rationing, all the while emanating a sense of pragmatism and tactful restraint. A 1943 blouse by London designer Anita Bodley, for example, demonstrates simultaneous practicality and frivolity. Its comfortable fit and short sleeves allowed movement, and a high, Peter Pan-collared neckline maintained modesty, while its silk fabric and assorted bright colours were enlivening.  Most poignant of all are the spirited written messages that make up its pattern. Inspired by propaganda posters upon a brick wall, it includes phrases such as ‘-Go! –to! –it!’: one example of several wartime pieces that were especially designed to boost morale and brighten wardrobes.

The second main space leads the viewer to the eventual exultance of the post-war years, but not before an enchanting and specialized interlude: a select display of specifically Canadian clothing. For example, a pair of Boeing Vancouver overalls, displayed with its cuffs turned back to reveal red underneath, and the mannequin’s hand jauntily placed on its hip, exemplify both women’s active agency, and the modernist style and nationalist pride through which it was executed. Indeed, throughout the show, there is an equal emphasis on both internationality and the Museum’s own heritage in Vancouver, with objects originating from almost all of the powers involved in the conflict. In this spirit, an inter-disciplinary approach was taken: German ration books, Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature scrawled on a fashion student’s notepad, a bottle of Chanel perfume and ‘Victory Red’ Elizabeth Arden cosmetics imbue the exhibition with an enriching sensory dimension, which underlies and unifies fashion’s all encompassing interconnectedness.

Just a step away, the final room is a visual delight. Pigmented pinks and reds mingle with elegant whites and dramatic blacks, converging into intricate party concoctions. With the war effort over, and a return to notional normalcy allowed indulgence and amusement and girlishness was prized. This revival, explosion and celebration of full-skirted femininity reached its peak during the 1950s, and culminates the exhibition on an appropriately triumphant note.


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A precarious balance: Reflections on ‘The 50s: Fashion in France, 1947- 1957’ at the Palais Galliera, Paris

November 24, 2014 by Katerina

Dior Woolmark

Christian Dior, 1947. (Courtesy of the London College of Fashion archives and The Woolmark Company).

1950s couture is characterised by its dramatic silhouettes which ranged from the rounded hourglass, to the stark, boxy H shape.  While the exhibition provided a comprehensive showcase of garments of extraordinary proportions alongside vignettes of fifties style icons, the women who wore the clothes remained a mystery. As I studied the well-displayed outfits, I tried to imagine how the wearer would move and feel in them.

The first exhibit, Christian Dior’s 1947 bar suit with its silk tussore jacket and wide pleated wool crepe skirt, stiffened with taffeta, was striking for its embalmed, papier mache texture. The wide brimmed straw hat and spindly Perugina escarpins that accompanied the suit indicated that a degree of lightness was intended to animate this heavy, structured garment.  Dior claimed that with his 1947 collection, he had ‘brought back the neglected art of pleasing’, in other words, a prettiness that made women attractive to men, as opposed to the eccentricity and utilitarianism that had characterised war-time fashion. However, a woman’s ability to please in this challenging ensemble would depend on her ability to pose and walk in a manner that was as balanced and delicate as a trained mannequin.  The contemporary American model agent, Helen Fraser explained how from the late 1940s onwards, models were increasingly required to ‘double as dancers…’.She explained that ‘high fashion… employs as its basic pose a semi-ballet stance. The weight is on the hind foot, hips turned away, and the shoulders to the camera, the face half-profile, half straight…’

Film footage of mannequins in the exhibition showed how they would begin their procession from a variation of ballet’s fourth position, and advance in tiny mincing steps, their pivots almost as exact and mechanical as a ballerina’s. The filmed couture displays begin with coats and outerwear, and end with the decade’s jewel: eveningwear. There are at least two rooms devoted to small-waisted, full-skirted dresses in the exhibition, which one young visitor called ‘princess dresses’.  She had a point:  with their naive star and flower embellishment and spouts of tulle, some of these dresses do appear to have been designed for grown-up children, who have only recently graduated from reading fairytales to attending balls in outfits that materialise these fictions.

However, in other garments, a more adult combination of daring and anxiety prevails with regard to revealing the body. In their desire to appease contemporary ideals of feminine sex appeal and modesty simultaneously, these cocktail dresses strive for a precarious balance between titillation and demureness; in an almost formulaic manner, an inch of flesh revealed in one area, is compensated for in another.  For example, sweetheart necklines either dive deep and narrow, or remain high and wide; a plunging décolletage is counterbalanced by a high back and vice versa.  Still, by the late 1950s, the ingenuity displayed in the dresses’ methods of exposure, implies that wearers increasingly revealed their sexuality on their own terms. One 1957 fuchsia moiré dress by Hubert de Givenchy, which was cut to show the knees and lower limbs from the front and permitted longer strides, indicated that the age of docile pleasing had passed its high noon.



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