Curator Circe Henestrosa Speaks about Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

The runaway success Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, co-curated by Circe Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox at the V&A Museum, will end on 18th November, two weeks longer than its originally intended run. I spoke to Circe to find out more about the exhibition’s message about the link between dress and disability, the enduring image and spirit of the artist, and the value of fashion curation.

Frida on the bench, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June-18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. 

As curator of Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico in 2012, and co-curator of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A Museum, could you talk about how the latter exhibition developed from the former? What did you want to keep and what changed?

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up had its genesis in Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo. Both exhibitions are based on the discovery of her wardrobe back in 2004. My first exhibition looked specifically at Frida’s construction of identity through disability and ethnicity.

In London, I wanted to expand the materials and we had to adapt the text for a UK audience. For example, when you go to the exhibition in Mexico you go to the Blue House, you learn the context of Kahlo’s life, of the place where she was born, where she lived and where she died.

After you understand the context of her life, then you see the wardrobe exhibition. In London, we had to contextualise her historical and cultural environment mainly through her personal photographic archive and other photographers who captured Kahlo at her house. We also included her paintings. My original research included the paintings, but in Mexico we could only get one painting, so it was very nice to be able to pair the paintings and the wardrobe together for the exhibition in London.

In Mexico, I was fortunate enough to work with exhibition maker Judith Clark who designed the show in Mexico. In London, the exhibition design transports us to Frida Kahlo’s universe, through the work of Tom Scutt, lead designer, as well as Patrick Berning and Matt Thornley, the architects.

What were the biggest challenges and rewards in executing the exhibition at the V&A?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving was a roaring success, and the positive response inspired me to see if there was a possibility for a Kahlo exhibition in London. In 2014 I met with Exhibitions Director at the V&A, Linda Lloyd Jones, who gave the idea the thumbs up. I was very lucky to find someone like Linda, who has always been a visionary.

The next years Linda and I spent trying to obtain as many of Kahlo’s self-portraits as possible from Mexico, other museums and private collections around the world. This was the most challenging part. Anything to do with Kahlo’s paintings is complex and you need to start planning well in advance. It took us four years to plan the whole show at the V&A. Several of the paintings and items currently on display at the V&A, including all the objects discovered in the Blue House in 2004, have never been seen in the United Kingdom before.

The layout and narrative of the exhibition evolved in discussion between the two co-curators. The idea was to start with her early childhood, move to the Blue House, explain her accident and how she managed her life-long injuries and end with her wardrobe, showing how she transcended pain to become one of the most celebrated women in Mexico. To illustrate all this we included a number of self-portraits, numerous photographs, film and sound, and provided context about the political and artistic circles that Frida and Diego Rivera were at the centre of in post-Revolutionary Mexico.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

Which item of dress belonging to Frida that is on display in the exhibition do you find most compelling and why?

I think Kahlo’s powerful style is as integral to her myth as her paintings. It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today. Her resplendent Tehuana dresses, striking headpieces, hand-painted corsets and prosthetics masterfully masked her physical impairments but were also a form of self-expression and an extension of her art.

I love all the pieces, but her prosthetic leg is probably my favourite object in the entire archive. I think it is so contemporary. This is one of the most intricate objects in Kahlo’s collection. Frida Kahlo had her leg amputated in 1953. To support her leg, she had these amazing boots made of luxurious red leather decorated with bows and pieces of silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs and decorative little bells. She turned her prosthetic leg into an avant-garde object, an accessory that she adopted as an extension of her body. She did this 45 years before Alexander McQueen had Aimee Mullins walking the runway in those amazing wooden carved prosthetic legs in 1998.

The exhibition’s run has been extended and is sold out. The image of Frida is also ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture. What do you think it is about Frida that has struck a chord with the public?

I think Frida Kahlo was ahead of her time. She is the very model of the bohemian artist: unique, rebellious and contradictory, and a cult figure that has been appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers and popular culture. But I mainly think Kahlo’s image endures because she was able to break a lot of taboos about women’s experiences, about the challenges to overcome illness and physical injury, both exposing them and working through this trauma in creative ways. This resilience, her fighting attitude and determination to enjoy life despite the difficulties she encountered make her a powerful symbol as she continues to speak to many different groups. Her iconic image communicates strength and the possibility for change. This is the message I wanted to convey in this exhibition.

The conference Frida: Inside and Outside gathered academic experts on Frida Kahlo. What stood out most for you at this meeting of minds? And did you discover something about Frida and/or the link between fashion and disability?

I enjoyed the conference greatly. We had the participation of some of the most prominent Kahlo scholars in London. Academics such as Prof. Dawn Ades, Prof Oriana Baddeley, Prof. Gannit Ankori, Prof Martha Turok, and a great mix of younger scholars and contemporary designers and artists as well. The session of Re-Configuring the Body was my favourite during the second day was by far my favourite one. I was so happy to secure the participation of Celeste Dandeker, Founder of Dance Company Candoco and Sophie the Oliveira, an amazing prosthetics designer in the UK for this session. The session was moving, it was powerful and I think we managed to open the disability debate in a very strong manner. The audiences commented on how inspiring this session was.

Guatemalan cotton coat worn with Mazatec huipil and plain floorlength skirt. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

As Head of School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, how has your role as an educator informed your curatorial practice and vice versa?

I hope to be able to inspire our students and the team through my work and curatorial practice. We do a lot of curatorial projects across our fashion programmes, we teach it from a theoretical perspective and from a practice-based perspective. I think that if the students acquire the ability to observe, analyse and evaluate objects in their material culture through different lenses, whether they are historical, contextual or structural, they will be able to interpret these objects with coherent narratives that will communicate with different audiences. They need to understand that fashion is about dealing with people, culture, and society, as well as garments and objects. Fashion curation is a very powerful tool to contextualise and communicate fashion.

What advice do you have for students who want to follow in your footsteps to curate fashion exhibitions?

I think they should go for it! We need more young people working in this field.

Are there plans for the exhibition to travel? Any details you could share would be great!

We have many museums that have expressed interest in this exhibition around the world, and at the moment we are exploring the different possibilities.

Interview by Nadya Wang

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes Exhibition Review

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes juxtaposes Westwood’s outlandish designs with York Castle Museum’s diverse shoe collection, ranging from the 18th century to the present day. An intriguing aspect is that the Westwood shoes come from a private collector, amassed over 30 years, while Westwood selected shoes from the museum’s collection. The exhibition focuses on the craftsmanship involved in making a shoe, as well as allowing the viewer to revel in the style and beauty of footwear.

The exhibition display.

The layout of the main room is particularly eye-catching, with a catwalk display of Westwood’s designs interspersed with the museum’s collection. This means that the viewer can see the wide range of influences in Westwood’s work, as she combines historical knowledge of the shoe with a love of exaggeration. This is exemplified by the Super Elevated Gillie Heel, from the Anglomania collection, 1993, which appears to take a inspiration from ribbon-lace style shoes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Westwood renders her innovation with vibrant colours and the heel extended to lofty (and dangerous) heights. The model, Naomi Campbell, famously wore a version of these platform shoes as she took a tumble on the runway due to the 30.5 cm heels.

Super Elevated Gillie Heel.

Some favourites from the Castle Museum’s collection, which illustrate the range of style and dates on show, are a pair of ivory white satin shoes with a Louis heel from around 1730, and a pair of men’s Derby boots with a stacked leather heel, from the early 20th century. These shoes are both beautiful and elegant, illustrating the high level of craftsmanship, equally as striking as they are unique. They also demonstrate the evolution of footwear fashion for both genders throughout history.

A pair of ivory white satin shoes with an upturned toe and a Louis heel, circa 1730.

A bespoke pair of men’s derby boots with a stacked heel. Made by A.E Marlow for the Saxonia in Northampton. Early 20th century.

The influence of fashion on the development of footwear is further explored through the final room in the exhibition, with historical information about how shoes were made, and a display showing how shoes changed through different decades. By educating the viewer on the history of the shoe, the exhibition shows how Vivienne Westwood bases her designs on tradition and then subverts them through material or features to create something new. I also felt that this exhibition communicates how the function of the shoe was originally pure practicality, and how it has developed through time into an extension of our identity.

For me, shoes are the language of personality. Every shoe represents a different mood, translated through the height, material and colour. Different to clothes, which have to change as we fluctuate shape, shoes are a longer-term investment, and fit no matter what. This exhibition interprets the shoe as more than merely an accessory; instead the viewer is presented with the shoe as the main focus. As an avid lover of shoes, and faced with the continual struggles of storage and display, it is gratifying to see an exhibition where the shoe is given pride of place.

My shoes on display in my York room.

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes is at the York Castle Museum until 28 April 2019.

Ellen Bhamra

Images 1-4 courtesy of York Castle Museum.

From Subculture to High Fashion: How Drag Queens are Shaping the Fashion Industry

While androgyny in high fashion has been gaining momentum for a few years, a new dynamic between masculine and feminine is now emerging in the fashion world. Dramatic, satirically feminine looks presented by male models are cropping up more and more often. This phenomenon can be connected to the hit reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition featuring the best and brightest of American drag queens. Numerous former Drag Race contestants have gone on to become associated with brands like Prada, Moschino and Jean Paul Gautier and featured in magazines such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Here is a snapshot of a few former Drag Race contestants who are shaking up and shaping female fashion.

Miss Fame: Season 7 Contestant

Fame is represented by international modelling agency IMG Models, as well as the US-based agency Wilhelmina Models, and is actively involved in the New York fashion scene. She has been photographed for a number of fashion magazines including D4 Magazine and Blanc Magazine wearing the likes of Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Moschino, and Gucci. 

In September 2018, Miss Fame walked for Opening Ceremony at New York Fashion Week. In October 2018, Fame launched her own makeup line, which was promptly featured by Allure.

Naomi Smalls: Season 8 Runner-Up

Drag Race season 8 runner-up Naomi Smalls has acted as an Instagram Brand Ambassador for countless designers and brands, including Marc Jacobs and Giorgio Armani. Smalls also hosted an interview with rap artist Cardi B on behalf of Cosmopolitan Magazine in February of 2018.

In May 2018, Smalls was featured modelling Tommy Hilfiger for Prestige Magazine Hong Kong. Smalls is most often photographed representing smaller name designers, but this could indicate the beginning of a segue into mainstream modelling for the 25 year old performer and subculture style icon.

Violet Chatchki: Season 7 Winner

Chatchki in Paris for Paris Fashion Week July, 2018

Chatchki is foremost a high-profile burlesque performer, but she has significant high fashion connections as well.

Chatchki posing in a Miu Miu gown before a party hosted by Vogue Italia during Milan Fashion Week September, 2018

Chatchki regularly attends Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks and caused a stir in September with her avant-guard ensembles representing Prada, Moschino, Jean-Paul Gautier and Vivienne Westwood, amongst others. She has walked the runway twice for Moschino, first in a gender-bent take on a classic tuxedo in January 2018 and again in full femme glamour in June 2018. Furthermore, Chatchki has been featured in Vogue and Vogue Italia numerous times. Perhaps most notably, the model and performer was chosen as the new face of Betty Page Lingerie in November 2017.

Catchki betty page

Chachki in a promotional photograph for Bettie Page Lingerie November, 2017

As evidenced by this abbreviated account of the accomplishments of three former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, the fashion elite are increasingly acknowledging the exaggerated styles so prominent in drag culture.

Rose, c’est la vie: Pink at the Museum at FIT

Although my aunt coincidentally just spoke of ‘edible colour’ in terms of bento lunches and not the Fashion Institute of Technology, that would be taking The Museum at FIT’s current special exhibit, a survey of pink fashion spanning three centuries, to its (il)logical conclusion.

I used to rip handfuls of petals off my grandmother’s roses, because I didn’t know what else to do with the colour and, in batik class, drenched a handkerchief in what looked like pink blood well beyond the purpose of saturation. More recently, Elle Beauty’s lipstick smash videos and their muted clacks, scrapes and smears have satisfied… something, with form and purpose seemingly destroyed to become pure, shapeless colour. And so, Maison Schiaparelli’s fall 2015-16 silk chiffon gown, a pillar of ‘Shocking Pink’, inspires a familiar urge: visual obsession manifested as base, physical desire – ‘I want to eat it,’ I texted my aunt. ‘I want to rip it.’

Schiaparelli Paris Silk chiffon gown, fall 2015-16.

This Schiaparelli figures amongst approximately 80 ensembles recounting ‘Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color’, from dresses that look like Ladurée pastries to suits that look like rag doll fetish-wear. ‘Pink’ spotlights one of the most auratic of features, literally – the clothing glows under the effects of lighting and black background – and figuratively. With its history of elevation, commodification, codification and reclamation, the colour evokes seemingly endless ideas: youth, gender, queerness, class, modernity, imagination and fashionability.

The anteroom presents a brief overview of pink that one might expect: a chronological display of a stereotypically feminine colour beginning with an 1857 taffeta dress in watermelon and ending with the business suit of the 1980s and ’90s. If the main gallery doesn’t subvert this initial presentation, it certainly nuances and elasticises it, grouping ensembles thematically to tell a different story: a story of an elegant, ungendered colour that emerged from nameless indifference in the 18th century to paint the French royal court – despite pink dyes being used in China, Japan and India for much longer – before its 19th century feminisation; a colour to be reclaimed in excessive/transgressive displays of fantastic (sarcastic?) femininity.

Paquin Silk chiffon evening cape, 1897.

‘Pink’ cites colour historian Michel Pastoureau to clarify that, despite overwhelming associations, ‘there is no transnational truth to colour perception.’ It’s strange that reflections of light with no inherent truth or physical body can drive trends, enchant or repulse generations, and make me feel so viscerally. The clothing’s object-ness, reinforced by how invitingly tactile some of the ensembles are – the silk ruffles of Paquin’s 1897 chiffon evening cape, or the bubblegum pleather ones of Comme des Garçons’ 2016 ‘18th-Century Punk’ – combines with the intensity of the colour to suggest you can hold the pink, know and consume and be consumed by it.

Comme des Garçon Pleather, faux fur, rubber, and synthetic ensemble, fall 2016.

Pink is on point as colour and exhibition subject, all-inclusively staining book jackets, home décor, and men’s wellness campaigns as of late. Its prevalence, and the increasingly broken gender codes thereof, means today’s pink both continues to attract and loses its bite.

Though I still want to bite it.

Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color‘ is on view at The Museum of FIT until January 5, 2019.

All photos taken by the author.

The intricacies of Instagram

How can dress and fashion historical imagery be consumed thoughtfully through a platform designed to deliver “Insta” visual-gratification?

The name of the game is self-explanatory. Instagram is a digital landscape through which the inescapable consumption of countless images is organised into a curated virtual reality. A flurry of images is uploaded onto our personal, tailor-made feed daily, hourly—in fact, any time the app is refreshed on our device of choice. And this instantaneous cycle of viewing and sharing has become snuggly situated in our collective day-to-day narrative. 

It is fair to say that fashion imagery, more specifically fashion photography, has become a firm feature on many an Instagram feed. Snapshots of contemporary collections are shared by Influencers from Fashion Week’s runway-adjacent front rows; models post Instagram Stories when on set, on location; and makeup artists upload videos of themselves mixing palettes when designing sponsored campaign looks. The content is constant and it is diverse, meaning that a fashion-centric aesthetic is now marketable to a wider portion of the Instagram community. But what does this mean for the tradition of fashion imagery—its dissection, discussion and the themes that underpin its discourse—and how are we now to consume said images in a way that preserves meaning and evokes critical analysis? If the volume of fashion and dress historical imagery being uploaded onto Instagram’s constantly shifting consciousness continues at such a rate, will it ultimately damage how it is read? 

Take for example the trend for ‘fast-art’ on Instagram. You take a painting—either in its entirety or a key compositional detail—and post it with accompanying text. You devise a caption summarising the work’s basic details: its dimensions, medium, the date of execution and title, maybe even a brief yet spiffy artist’s bio, if you will. Then you post. Established accounts such as @paintings.daily or @historiadelart are good examples, and @painters.paintings neatly describe their account as ‘An Art History Tour in a Virtual Gallery.’ 

A snap taken of @painters.paintings Instagram account, featuring their profile bio. Photo by author.

This exhibition-like design of posting is not exclusive to art historical accounts: it is also trending in the representation of art-historical dress and fashion. @the_corsetedbeauty, a well-followed dress account, claims to document “historical finery from days gone by. From the 18th century through the 1950s.” From the fashions flaunted in English Victoriana society portraits to the costumes designed by Michael O’Connor for Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, the account covers all manner of fashion foray, sweetly packaged into an aesthetically pleasing feed adorned with concise captions and analytically prevalent hashtags. 

Figure 2: An example of the content posted by accounts such as @the_corsetedbeauty. Photo by author.

Its output, in accordance with that of accounts such as @redthreaded, @artgarments or @thiswasfashion, is undeniably a step in the right direction. However, in the majority of cases, we are given the essential information on the image without being asked to question it. What is this painting’s unique place in the art historical cannon? What does the dress being worn signify about its wearer? Can we discern the subject’s social status and which domestic interior is being depicted here? How are we to read the space in relation to the protagonist’s interaction with her friend, sister or even trusted domestic servant? There are many questions to raise in the reading of any image, but is Instagram the right space in which to begin this line of questioning?

Maria Aceituno of @historicalgarments thinks that, in the context of fashion history (which she believes has a different goal than that of modern fashion imagery, as it does not affect current designer purchases) ‘the use of social media for sharing fashion history images is affecting fashion consciousness. With more access to images, a wider audience is learning about the use, construction, and purpose of clothing in a more user-friendly manner. Searching with a hashtag yields a wealth of information. Captions that go along with these images can also help give new insights, correct misinformation, or even perpetuate myths **cough: corsets and missing ribs: cough**.’  

Maria’s account, @historicalgarments—‘Inspiration, humor, and sewing for lovers of fashion before the 1950s.’ Photo by author.

I am inclined to agree with Maria, to an extent. It is encouraging to see accounts such as her own act as a dress/fashion history catalogue, potentially exposing a greater, more diverse audience to the discipline. But am I asking too much in my desire to be challenged by the content to which I am exposed? I dream of a time when I will reread captions with motive, when my interest is pushed enough to strike up a debate in the comments, when I am moved to ask for more insight over DM. I look forward to when I can interrogate and probe, as opposed to continually swiping the state of passivity in which I find myself, adequately educated, yet to be enthralled. 

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exposes a not-so-obvious though imminently pertinent relationship between fashion and Catholicism. Sponsored by Condé Nast and Versace, it is the Costume Institute’s largest and most visited exhibit to date.

The exhibit was divided between the Met Fifth Avenue and the Met Cloisters. Though I was unable to make the pilgrimage uptown to the Cloisters, I followed the Met Fifth Avenue exhibition through the Byzantine galleries, the Medieval Europe galleries, the Medieval Sculptural Hall and into the Medieval Treasury. It then continued into a part of the Robert Lehman Wing and, of course, into the Anna Wintour Costume Center, where mantles, chasubles, and papal tiaras were on loan from the Vatican. 

Left: series of outfits, Met Fifth Avenue. Right: Giovanna Fontana “Il Pretino” dress, 1956-57, Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by author.

Approaching the staircase from the Great Hall, you could catch a glimpse of mannequins on either side perched above eye-level. As you followed the sparkle emanating from the dresses, you would then find yourself in the Byzantine galleries. Here, the mannequins were positioned in single-file, deliberately recalling the order of a liturgical procession—or of a fashion show—or both?— withVersace down one corridor, Dolce & Gabbana down the other. The dresses emulated the Byzantine church art surrounding them in the gallery. For instance, the sequins individually placed on the Dolce & Gabbana dresses intentionally evoked the traditional distinctive pattern of tiles or tesserae of Byzantine mosaics. 

Left: five dresses, Dolce & Gabbana, 2013–14, Met Fifth Avenue. Right: five dresses, Gianni Versace, 1997–98, Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by author.

The Medieval Sculpture Hall held the central and most theatrical section of the exhibit. The space, modeled after the floor plan of a Cathedral, complete with a nave and two side aisles, was particularly resonant. Mannequins again lined up in procession formation in the centre of each of these areas. As you entered this sanctuary, you would find yourself immediately attuned to the eerie echo of chanting that resonated throughout what could be imagined as an ancient stone chapel. The mannequins’ closed eyes gave them a meditative, almost trance-like look, which contributed to the austere yet seemingly enchanted ambiance of the space. The theme of ecclesiastical and celestial hierarchies was explored through the relationships between the Medieval paintings and sculptures and the designs by the likes of Valentino and Christian Lacroix. 

To a certain extent, by temporarily placing the outfits and accessories in the middle of galleries that house permanent collections of art, such as the mosaic depicting the personification of Ktisis (c. 500-550) in the Byzantine gallery, the exhibit emphasised the ephemerality of fashion. The fact that, at the end of Heavenly Bodies, the ensembles were removed from within these galleries gives credence to the argument that fashion in short-lived and therefore should not belong in an art museum among works of art that transcend time.

Left: John Galliano for House of Dior. Evening ensemble, 2000–2001 haute couture, Met Fifth Avenue. Right: Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, evening dress, 2017-18, Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by author.

Given the growing popularity of fashion exhibits, especially amongst a younger crowd that does not usually flood the halls of staid museums, Heavenly Bodies has not just contributed to making fashion relevant to contemporary times: it has also contributed to a broader, established and more sophisticated discourse—going so far as to bring Catholic imagery and fashion together in the same dialogue.

Mamma Mia! and the Enduring Appeal of 1970s Fashions

Split between 1979 and the mid-2000s, the dual-focus narrative of the recent Mamma Mia! sequel allows for some lovely period costumes. However, I was struck by how modern the 1970s costumes appear and, in turn, by the number of 1970s styles featured in the 21st century costumes.

Contemporary and period costumes together, highlighting their influence on each other. Poster by Universal Pictures, 2018.

In part, this is likely due to the fact that period costumes are never entirely historically accurate. Character development tends to take precedence over historical accuracy, and factors such as time and budget constraints and performance and aesthetic requirements mean that total accuracy is also difficult to achieve on a practical level. Furthermore, historical costumes have long reflected contemporary fashions, whether for commercial purposes or to ease comprehension for modern viewers. The 1970s costumes in Mamma Mia! are therefore infused with contemporary touches, such as Donna’s loose perm or her helix piercing. It is then fitting to reference the 1970s costumes in the modern ones because a desire to connect to the past is central to the film’s plot.

Of course, the mid-2000s setting is now period itself, but an exact year is not made explicit. Ergo, narratively essential but potentially anachronistic vintage styles can be incorporated into the modern costumes with particular ease. However, the filmmakers could probably have specified a year and still avoided anachronisms, as it is also possible that the 1970s costumes appear modern, and the modern costumes appear retro, because 1970s styles are so frequently in fashion.

Season after season, 1970s influences appear on the catwalks. Over the past year, there have been flared jumpsuits at Gucci, shearling coats at Louis Vuitton and patchwork pieces at Dior. Longchamp’s SS19 collection is nothing but 1970s styles. On the high street, too, 1970s fashions have remained popular for decades. The late 1990s saw a 1970s revival, for example, followed by a ‘boho’ trend in the early-mid 2000s. Most recently, disco-inspired festival fashions have gone mainstream.

1970s-inspired fashions advertised at Temple tube station, September 2018. Photograph by the author.

This longevity can be partially attributed to the cyclical nature of fashion. Another possibility is that 1970s fashions have endured because the popular cuts—flared, high-waisted, A-line—are comfortable and flattering. Or perhaps it is the great variety of styles which is appealing. The 1970s was the first decade in which expressing individuality through dress became widely popular, and this, coupled with a new demand for vintage clothes, led to an unprecedented bricolage of trends on the high street. This tendency towards individuality has also led many 1970s fashions to become inextricably associated with youth and countercultures, with freedom and fun, and it is surely this quality which remains especially attractive—however commercialised certain trends might have become.

At the end of Mamma Mia!, the cast performs Super Trouper dressed in comically exaggerated disco styles. The costumes play to a common perception of 1970s fashions as excessive and garish, but it is unsurprising that the most extreme styles are the best remembered. The rest of the film is a reminder that the decade’s everyday fashions are just as significant.

Soft? Tactile Dialogues : MoMu and the Maurice Verbaet Center, Antwerp

In the Maurice Verbaet Center in Antwerp there currently hangs Sven’t Jolle’s ‘Yves Saint-Lazare’ (2014): a large piece of brown cloth draped over a metal clothes hanger. It could be a shift dress, but it is tattered and dirty, and there are three large holes ripped in the fabric. It is actually an old rag from the artist’s studio, repurposed for display as an art object itself and originally created for exhibition in a Parisian gallery, located on the Rue du Grenier-Saint-Lazare, during fashion week. Textile art takes on the guise of fashion and fashion, sculpture and textiles come together in a piece that comments on art as a luxury good. 

Sven’t Jolle’s ‘Yves Saint-Lazare’ (2014). Photo by author.

Jolle’s work appears as part of Soft? Tactile Dialogues, the first exhibition by Antwerp’s ModeMuseum to shift its focus from fashion to textile art. The show is inspired by a collection of textile works by Belgian artists that had, until now, remained hidden in the museum’s archives. To celebrate the work of their creators, curator and Courtauld alumna Elisa de Wyngaert has sought to unearth these pieces and give them the attention that they certainly deserve.

Photo by author.

The first half of the show contains a selection of these archival pieces, produced by female artists from the ‘Textielgroep’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s. A number of large-scale works dominate, including Tapta’s twisted woven lengths and Liberta Ferket’s ‘Treurend vangnet’, its long knots of plaited rope falling heavily from the ceiling. Behind these hangs Veerle Dupoint’s ‘Alruin’, its earthy tones matched by the extraordinary musty odour that emanates from it. Historically associated with female artists, textile was embraced by these women to explore and advance the creative potential of the medium. These works are not delicate or pretty. Their appeal comes from their strength, their weighty materiality, rough textures, nubby woven surfaces, and frayed tufts. It is their tactility that seduces.

Veerle Dupoint’s ‘Alruin’ (1976). Photo by author.

The second half of the show takes place in the adjacent stairwell and is dedicated to works by contemporary female and male Belgian artists. This unusual space is used to its advantage by de Wyngaert in an exploration of the various ways in which textile art has developed. Works include Klaas Rommelaere’s tapestries, made in collaboration with a group of local ‘grandmothers’ and Wiesi Will’s colourful installation of fine knit hangings. These artists embrace vibrant colours and a range of different media, from fabric to plastic and glass.

Klaas Rommelaere’s ‘Future’ (2018). Photo by author.

In both halves of the exhibition, the works come into their own when they interact with one another. When you stand at the entrance of the first room and catch a glimpse of the coarse surface of Dupoint’s work through the gaps in Tapta’s sculptural forms, the tactile qualities of the different materials and techniques communicate across the space. Similarly, the staircase provides a unique location in which the works frame and refract off one another, inviting the viewer to engage with the exciting possibilities offered by textile art.

Photo by author.

If anyone needed persuading that a fashion museum should widen its scope to include textile art, this exhibition provides more than enough reason. It is notable that a number of the contemporary artists that are included have worked in or studied fashion.  Christoph Hefti studied at Central Saint Martins and was a print developer at Dries Van Noten, Klaas Rommelaere interned at Henrik Vibsov and Raf Simons, and Laure Van Brempt and Vera Roggli, of Weisi Will, worked as designers at Christian Wijnants. Both fashion and textile art activate and explore the expressive capacity of fabric and, as the work of these artists demonstrates, there is much to be gained from recognising the dynamic that exists between the two.

Photo by author.

Catch the exhibition from 28-09-18 to 24-02-19 at the Maurice Verbaet Center in Antwerp. There are also a number of associated events taking place around the city. Visit https://www.momu.be/en/exhibitions/soft-tactiele-dialogen for more information.

MA Documenting Fashion 2017-18 Farewell

Just like that our MA has flown by and the Documenting Fashion group of 2017-18 graduates with our Masters in the History of Art on Monday! Documenting Fashion blog co-runners Olivia and I wanted to say goodbye and thank you for following along! As we reflect on this wonderful year, we’re sharing some behind-the-scenes photos and our favorite memories. Below are some lists I’ve compiled from the group reminiscing about moments from our time in class, our trips, and of course, our best food moments.

Niall and Arielle admire Rebecca’s Kim Kardashian Selfie book

In class:

  • Viewing the Courtauld’s collection of fashion magazines such as the Gazette du Bon Ton
  •  Rebecca’s seminar on Vionnet and the big reveal of her favorite Vionnet dress
  •  Book time! – For each seminar Rebecca would collect books from her impressive collection which pertained to that weeks topic. It was endlessly exciting and I think we all have book wish-lists a mile long now
  • Dr. Adrian Garvey’s guest lecture on film and World War II
  • Our seminar on Gordon Parks
  • last but certainly not least, when we were fortunate to have been visited by our favorite dachshund, Koda

The group with Beatrice Behlen at The Museum of London

Nelleke at the Posturing exhibit

Field trips:

  • Our first visit to the Courtauld’s own prints and drawing collection
  • V&A Blythe house where we got to see some show-stoppers
  • Our multiple visits to the Museum of London – especially when we considered dress and biography
  • Visiting Autograph APB
  • The Mod New York exhibition in NYC where we collectively marveled at the beautiful exhibition design and danced to the groovy playlist

Spotted: Destinee, Olivia, Niall, and Grace on the steps of the Met in NYC – xoxo Documenting Fashion

Food:

  • Our weekly after seminar lunches in the Coutauld cafe
  • Tutorials at Federation Coffee in Brixton
  • When Evie brought us to Fish n Chips in Camberwell
  • Our lunch at by Chloe during dissertation work

 

For me, the best part of this year has been the friendship I’ve found in my Documenting Fashion classmates. As you can tell from our posts, we all approach dress differently but we are also extremely supportive and encouraging of each other’s thoughts and work. Our personalities meshed together so well since day one and we have had such fun together while also pushing each other to think differently, and ultimately, be better art historians. I am truly thankful to have gone through this experience with such a lovely group of people.

Thank you for reading. We are so looking forward to what the next MA Documenting Fashion group creates for you starting in September.

Abby Fogle

Wilde Child: an homage to a key figure in defining queer aesthetics

 

The trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 led to, as historians have argued, a conceptualisation and increased awareness of homosexuality. Within previous centuries the biblical notion of ‘sodomy’ fuelled the belief that all sexuality was fluid and that every man was capable of committing the heinous crime of same-sex relations. As a result of the Wilde trials however, the newly defined legal and medical idea of the ‘homosexual’ allowed for sexual orientation to become a marker of identity. It is no surprise, therefore, that this new label of social categorisation infiltrated ways of dressing and enabled the notion of homosexual style to emerge.

Within the exhibition catalogue, Queer Style, Valerie Steele locates the inception of homosexual dress within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in her discussion of Oscar Wilde. Wilde is often associated with two differing styles of masculine dress that are oft associated with the figure of the homosexual male: the ‘aesthete’ and the ‘dandy’. Steele defines the ‘aesthete’ as a flamboyantly dressed male whose outlandish sense of style became a marker of sexual deviance. For Wilde, his signature green carnation was adopted as a fashionable statement of such deviance amongst aesthetes.

While aesthetic modes of dress acted as a more visible form of locating the homosexual, dandyism revealed the sexual non-conformity of the individual through the hyper-conformity to male fashions. Steele observes how the dandy adhered to the male sartorial code to such an extent that he distinguished himself from his peers. When Wilde later transitioned to a dandyist approach to dress, he was thus able to signal his ‘deviance’ through conventional fashions. The dandy could protect himself within a heteronormative and homophobic society while also using his hyper-conformity as a means to present his homosexuality to those keen enough to observe it.

Wilde was a key figure in not only raising awareness of homosexual identity, but also in showing how this newly defined identity could be explored through dress. The impact of Wilde’s trial can be felt even now, as you see queer and homosexual aesthetics continually evolving and being redefined. Ultimately, the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde allowed for the figure of the homosexual to be made visible within a heteronormative society, and it is this visibility that enabled the very notion of queer style to emerge.