Wardrobes in the Museum – Two Exhibitions Examined

Isabella Blow: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty for Somerset House

Isabella Blow: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty for Somerset House

Final Touches Made To Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, A New Somerset House Exhibition

Isabella Blow: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty for Somerset House

Roman d'une garde robe - Coll. été 20-02 copy 2

Roman d’une garde-robe: Raphaël Chipault and Benjamin Soligny

Roman d’une garde-robe: Raphaël Chipault and Benjamin Soligny

Roman d’une garde-robe: Raphaël Chipault and Benjamin Soligny

The wardrobe is a physical space that houses clothing and insinuates expressions of self. It was also the subject of two exhibitions that came to a close this month: Roman d’une garde-robe. Le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30, Musée Galliera, held at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, and Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! At Somerset House, London examined the ‘wardrobes’ of Alice Alleaume and Isabella Blow, two women who lived during very different periods. Both occupied advantaged positions in society and the fashion world, thus allowing exhibition viewers a privileged glimpse into histories of the early and late years of the 20th century in Paris and London. With the wardrobe as a foundation, as opposed to one designer’s work for example, we can approach fashion as a complex web of topics, sections, and professionals, including Alleaume – head saleswoman at the Maison Chéruit and other couture houses, and Blow – editor, muse, and broker.

The metaphor of the singular wardrobe also presents the personal and subjective dimensions of fashion and allowed viewers, in these instances, to re-examine a well-known media persona, as well as rediscover a forgotten figure. Both exhibitions began with explorations of the family histories of their subjects, which served to establish and extend the narratives chronologically, to Belle Epoque Paris for instance, and psychologically, providing insight into the subjects’ mindsets. In the case of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall, viewers were confronted with fragments of personal and national history that informed how Blow deciphered the world, and subsequently, how viewers analysed the exhibition’s contents.

The notion of the multilayered wardrobe reflects the complexity of any person’s narrative, as well as curators’ scrupulous research. The diverse resources on display at Roman d’une garde-robe, curated by Sophie Grossiord, including letters, paintings, notebooks, photographs, fashion plates, and surviving clothing, reflected the organising institutions’ focus on fashion and Paris history. Most importantly, Grossiord made use of the Paris Archives’ collection of drawings, fabric samples and dépôts de modèles – photographs of numbered garments that protected against copying. During her lecture at the Archives on 6th February, Grossiord explained how they served as valuable tools, along with cahiers de ventes, to piece together historic collections. The curatorial possibilities of these documents, however, are vast.

The wardrobe functioned as spatial metaphor for the installations. O’Neill staged sets that reflected the fanciful, sometimes archival workings of Blow’s psyche and wardrobe. Grossiord was much more conservative in terms of display and did not exploit the wardrobe’s spatial potential. The exhibition, however, situated fashion in the cultural and historic context of Paris due to its location in the Musée Carnavalet, which, according to the brochure, “invites visitors to discover Paris, the world fashion capital, in the company of Alice Alleaume.” Although the exhibition upheld the usual ideas on Paris’ fashion hegemony, its attempt at narrative was respectable. Equally, it would be interesting to use the wardrobe to explore the narratives of more ordinary subjects, which might further drive viewers to turn inward and question their own.

Alexis Romano

Contemporary Reliquaries and Utopian Fashions

Problems Regarding Evolution & French Fashion Exhibitions

Architecture & Fashion: a look at two images from 1964 – 1965

Prêt-à-porter, Subjectivity and Filmic Visualisation in the 1961 French Fashion Press

5 Minutes with… Michaela Zoschg

Elle C’est Vous: Some Comments on French Fashion and Art in the 1960s

Shaping Prêt-a-Porter in the Fourth Republic (1946-58): The Paris/New York Dialogue

50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Internviews Part 7: Camille Benda, MA (1999)

Faces, Phases and Dress: Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

Denis Diderot, ‘Tailleur d’habits et Tailleur de Corps, Contenant Cingt-quatre Clanches,’ extract of Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (c.1771)

Ready-to-Wear, Rupture and Continuity in the Space of Elle Magazine post 1968

Ready-Made Fashion and France’s Urban Fabric In Elle Magazine in 1963

Red Capes and Glitter Jelly Heels: An Interview with Curators Colleen Hill and Ariele Elia

Observations from Several Sides of the Lens: On Women, Fabric and Space in Maria Kapajeva’s Photographs 

Paris, Capitale Prestigieuse de la Mode

Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning Winter Mode 

Self-expression, Space and Style: A Conversation with Camilla Branda at Bergdorf’s

Fashion Week Reactions Part 1

Collar Meets Bar: Historicism and Circuitous Timelines at Dior 

The Summer Body

Textile Fragments at the Courtauld Institute of Art 

‘Bravo la Confection Francaise!’ Researching French Ready-to-Wear 1947-1957

Flugel, Fashion and Cardboard Cutouts: An Evening at the Fashion Space Gallery

Re-Thinking the Experience and the Representation of Dress 

Wardrobes in the Museum- Two Exhibitions Examined

A French Dress and the OPjectscape of 1965-6

5 Minutes With… Ruby Redstone

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Ruby discusses tartan, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress and 1930s personal style.

 

What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is about how the concept of personal style developed in 1930s America. The decade was a spectacular time for American womenswear, as the fashion industry developed rapidly and many (but certainly not all) women began to enjoy much more freedom of dress. I’ve found some great books about personal style from the period, all by women writers, and I’m studying those in tandem with wardrobes and looks from exceptionally stylish and highly visible American women like Mae West, Wallis Simpson, and Barbara Hutton.

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?

I had a great time working on my Virtual Exhibition, which was a show about the use of tartan in Scottish fashion design. I love Scottish design, and I had been wanting to do something to pay homage to that love for a long time. Also, I’m quite a visual person, so I really enjoyed being able to draw maps of my galleries and select paint colours and all that – admittedly, I got a bit carried away and even made designs for what my display mannequins would look like. They are tartan, of course.

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes has become a bible to me. I now recommend it to anyone who is even remotely interested in dress history! Hollander’s chapter on fabric has fundamentally changed and deepened my relationship with clothing. I also have to echo everyone else and say Daniel Miller’s Stuff. It’s no surprise that all of us in Documenting Fashion are drawn to it. It’s such a well-researched study of why clothing is inherently important to humanity – something which I think we all already believed innately, but it’s comforting to see it supported by someone else’s research.

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?

Oh my, yes. I already joke that I treat my closet as if I’m building the world’s smallest fashion museum, and now that’s intensified tenfold. I fall in love with every single garment we look at, and I’m never content to just say ‘Oh, that looks great on her’ – I always want one for myself. My eBay searches are a bit out of control these days.

Favourite dress history image?

I could never pick just one! Lately, however, I can’t seem to stop thinking about Gordon Parks’ 1956 editorial photo ‘Evening Wraps at Dawn’. It’s such a textured, tactile image. You can almost feel the nighttime fog beginning to clear and smell the wet pavement and car grease that surround this couple. I love the contrast of her glamorous evening look with the gritty early morning light, and I love that she clearly hasn’t been a well-behaved woman in the 1950s sense – she’s been out on the town with a gentleman until dawn! Also, as a New Yorker, I love that I can gauge almost exactly where Parks would have shot this image. It’s amazing how little the city has changed.

Gordon Parks, Evening Wraps at Dawn, 1956, The Gordon Parks Foundation.

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a vintage set from the seventies; it’s a pair of wide-leg pants and a ruffled top in red, yellow, and green Madras plaid. I’m not wearing shoes right now, but when I go outside I’ll probably wear a pair of purple fur and red velvet Prada sandals with big gold buckles. I love them, but they’re highly impractical. There are only a few weeks of the year that it’s the right temperature to wear them, so I have to squeeze in as many outfits with them as I can before it gets too warm! 

Where do you get your clothes from?

I’m a big vintage collector, and most of my wardrobe is vintage from eBay, Etsy, and lots of wonderful vintage shops that I’ve hunted down across the years. I supplement that with some secondhand designer pieces from Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal – I try to buy almost everything vintage or secondhand. I also love to support local designers in New York and London, the two places where I split my time right now!

Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear?

My answer to this will change every single day, if not every hour of the day, but right now I’d have to say Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress that she made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. I mean, can you imagine anything better for summer?!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Dinner Dress, 1937, printed silk organza and synthetic horsehair, Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1969-232-52. Image courtesy of PMA.

How would you describe your style?

Usually I say Victorian-meets-1960s in a candy store colour palette. Recently, as I get deeper into dissertation research, there have been a lot more thirties references mixed in with that too – I think at this point it’s really just a little bit of everything from every era. I’m a magpie.

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

My earliest memory is actually a fashion memory! I remember my parents taking me aside to tell me that I was going to have a little sister when I was just a toddler, and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was fixated on pulling out a bright blue turtleneck from my wardrobe. I guess I’ve always been a bit too obsessed with clothing.

 

Tea Gowns: At-Home Style in Victorian England

Months of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus has kept much of the world inside, limiting our social and professional interactions to computer screens and causing even the most sartorially-conscious to shed our typical trappings. Jeans, we bemoan, are far too stiff for Zooming from our living rooms, even though they once seemed fine for eight-hour office days bookended by crowded commutes. Fabulous faux-furs that once eased our winter blues? Useless now–it’s not like we’re headed anywhere that requires a coat! Many have struggled to strike a balance between the clothing that keeps us snug in our homes and wardrobes that offers us power and a sense of self in the crowded public world, a dilemma encapsulated quite neatly and comically in the pajama-trousered, dressy-bloused ensemble that became an unofficial uniform for so many working from home this year.

This predicament, however, is not wholly new. Over a century and a half ago, upper-middle class Victorian women struggled with the same set of concerns, seeking out a style of dress that struck a balance between the comfort desired for time spent mostly indoors and the formality necessary for a life that required constant socialising. Thus the tea gown was born, a garment specifically designed to bridge the gap between private and public dressing. The tea gown was worn, as the name suggests, for evening tea. It had to be comfortable enough to allow for relaxation but dressy enough that its wearer would not risk embarrassment should a caller drop by. Tea gowns were relatively simple in shape and loose at the waist, allowing them to be worn without a corset–a small act of rebellion in Victorian society. Tea gowns were, however, decorated heavily to maintain decorum and indicate status. Freed from some of the physical and societal constraints of the time period, tea gowns became a canvas upon which progressive members of the upper class could engage in stylistic experimentation.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. ‘A Useful House-Dress ; An Elaborate Tea-Gown’. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 26, 2020. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ebab-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

The parlour where tea was served acted as a liminal space between interior and exterior, contained within the private home but open for entertaining guests, not dissimilar to our own homes now put on view for our colleagues’ computer screens. Fashionable tea gown wearers sought to coordinate their gowns with the decor of their parlours. (Though, as Freyja Hartzell notes in ‘The Velvet Touch’, it was common practice for many Victorian women to match their ensembles to their interiors). For followers of the Aesthetic and subsequent Art Nouveau movements, this meant that tea gowns could be printed with abstract swirling motifs and rendered in rich colour palettes. Charles Frederick Worth’s tea gowns are particularly beautiful examples of this effect with their thickly piled blue velvet and shocking purples and greens that would have looked right at home against a similarly sumptuous wallpaper. Liberty, the nineteenth century mecca for all things Aesthetic, produced a wide variety of tea gowns. Oscar Wilde dubbed the store to be ‘the chosen resort of the artistic shopper’, a nod to the fact that both the homewares and the fashions for sale at Liberty would have set the store’s shoppers apart from their strict Victorian counterparts.

 

The tea gown also served as a means of escapism, transporting its wearers on flights of fancy far from their parlours. When Japan opened its ports to Western trade in the mid-nineteenth century, British and French designers were quick to take inspiration from the nation’s vast array of beautiful garments and textiles. Tea gowns could be inlaid with swaths of Japanese textiles or, in some cases, produced in Japan for Western customers. A tea gown from the Kyoto Costume Institute illustrates this cross-cultural exchange in its spectacular sleeves alone, a mix of heavily-puffed Victorian shoulders and Kimono-style wide cuffs. Tea gowns offered the potential not only for international travel from the comfort of the settee, they provided the possibility of time travel as well. Designs for tea gowns often borrowed from eighteenth century French designs, featuring Watteau backs that swept away from the body (providing a dash of both historicism and comfort) and mimicking the silhouette of the robe à la française.

 

An 1879 critic wrote sharply of the tea gown in the Evening Post: ‘It is of elaborate design and infinite cost…. It is absolutely useless and utterly ridiculous, but this is not the worst that may be said about it’. Does this not, however, make the tea gown the perfect item to lift the spirits of a woman typically tightly corseted and kept indoors? It is an act of self-indulgence, but it is also a small rebellion against the dreary constraints of the every day. (The Metropolitan Museum notes that one of the tea gowns in its collection was worn by prominent member of American high society Amelia Beard Hollenback just after she gave birth to her daughter, an indication that there may be a very practical purpose to the tea gown unknowable to its male critic). Perhaps the tea gown is also just what the locked-down, early-sunsetting end of 2020 calls for as well, offering us a lift off of our collective couches into the depths of history and encouraging us to engage in costumed camouflage with the interiors of the homes to which we are confined. This seems an opportunity too tempting to pass up in favour of sweatpants.

Designer unknown (American), Tea Gown, 1875, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 2009.300.397.

by Ruby Redstone

Sources

‘Free and Easy Manners in London Society. (London World.)’. Evening Post Vol. XVII, Iss. 387 (5 April 1879): 5. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP18790405.2.35.

Hartzell, Freyja. ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, and the Fabric of the Interior.’ Fashion Theory Vol. 13, Iss. 1 (2009): 51-81. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/175174109X381328.

Lee, Summer. ‘1898-1901 Green Silk Embroidered Tea Gown’. Fashion Institute of Technology Fashion History Timeline. Last updated 13 January 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1898-tea-gown/.’

Liberty. ‘Our Heritage’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.libertylondon.com/uk/information/our-heritage.html.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘House of Worth, Tea Gown, 1900-1901’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/157330.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Tea Gown, 1900’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/158923.

 

Alumni Spotlight: Frances Crossley

Having completed her undergraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Frances Crossley returned to study on the ‘Documenting Fashion’ MA course with Dr Rebecca Arnold in 2018. Frances currently works at Richard Green Gallery and is also the AHRC Networking Project Administrator for the Fashion Interpretations project. In this interview we discuss how the global crises of today’s climate has affected the way we interpret and approach fashion, as well as how Frances’ MA dissertation about the reproduction of fashion and its cyclical nature is especially relevant today. 

MB: Hi Frances! Could you please expand upon how you came to work at Richard Green gallery, and what led you into becoming the project administrator for Fashion Interpretations (AHRC networking project)? I am interested in your experience working with traditional paintings and modern British art, as well as working with fashion. Do you find any interesting correlations between the two?   

FC: Of course, so I began working at the gallery back in 2015. I had applied to do my undergraduate degree at the Courtauld and I knew that I would like to gain a little experience in the industry before committing to a degree, so I started at the gallery in a work experience capacity. I was older than most going into my undergraduate course and after working for a few years after finishing sixth form, I knew it was important to gain qualifications in a field I was interested in working in, long term.  

I thought I would be at the gallery for just a couple of weeks, but I slowly began to take on more responsibilities and then before entering into my first term at the Courtauld (so I had been at the gallery roughly nine months), I was asked to join the research department and cover a colleague’s maternity leave – so throughout both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I was incorporating what I was learning every day at university into my research practice at the gallery, the two spaces continually informing one another. It was hugely instructional for me and though incredibly challenging at times, it genuinely taught me how to manage my time effectively.  

In the years I spent as a researcher at the gallery, yes, fashion would occasionally creep into my work. In 2017, the gallery held an exhibition entitled “A Flair for Fashion” which celebrated the art of dress in British portraiture from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This project was informative for me, highlighting how dress could be incorporated within the commercial art industry, but in a way that is educational and fun. It’s hard when you’re studying, to envision how our fashion-history obsessions can be tangibly woven into settings such as these; but this project proved it was possible.  

Each portrait from the exhibition was impeccably researched – I was obsessed with the catalogue, it was really beautiful, and something I was so proud to have worked on and contributed to – each painting had its own accompanying essay and Aileen Ribiero, formerly Head of the History of Dress at The Courtauld, wrote an introductory essay for the catalogue and smaller essays on each portrait’s dress. As I had only been part of the research department for a year, I contributed to the essays and research where I could, but I predominantly helped with sourcing comparative images from museums, galleries, institutes from around the world to enrich catalogue essays – I really learnt a lot! This is one of my favourites that I helped source, (interesting as I later wrote on Poiret in my MA dissertation!):  

Paul Poiret, LE JARDIN DE L’INFANTE: Robe du soir, de Paul Poiret, September 1920, Gazette du Bon Ton, No. 7, Plate 52, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I also helped to conduct several Instagram takeovers for the gallery, including one by Peter Copping [https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/people/peter-copping] which was a lot of fun. I think I find the most enjoyment in working collaboratively with people.  

Collage by FC, words and image selection made by Peter Copping

I have to admit, fashion theory, actually art theory in general; very rarely came into my practice at the galleries; however, it has of course been present throughout my role with Fashion Interpretations, so that has given me my much-needed dose of post-MA reading material! And my path to the role was really simple: Rebecca sent out a DM to our MA group (*The Glitter Gang*) last September, letting us know about the vacancy. I applied – with haste, finishing my application on my birthday! – interviewed with Rebecca and Judith (and Oliver, the Courtauld Insitute’s Research Manager) and was lucky enough to be offered the position. It has been ridiculously dreamy, ever since! 

MB: Could you discuss your role within the Fashion Interpretations project? 

FC: My role has a pretty snazzy title, if I do say so myself – I am the project’s AHRC Networking Project Administrator (yup.). This effectively means that I am responsible for the project’s upkeep, making sure all the behind-the-scenes, administrative stuff gets done. I have been involved with a number of different parts of the project, organising our Networking Project meetings, helping to draft and, actually, redraft our budget – COVID has meant a project extension, project members unable to travel, our symposium being translated into a virtual event, etc. – which is completely new for me, preparing for our symposium (details coming very soon!), setting up and curating both our blog and Instagram account, coordinating Instagram takeovers by our members, and soon, helping with the production of Archivist Addendum – the publication by Dal Chodha and Jane Howard that will house all our project members’ work and essays, I will be helping with proof-reading our members’ submissions.  

Events such as our Networking meeting in May have really stood out to me as an opportunity to be grateful for, grateful to be a part of; getting to listen to this fabulous group of people discuss their work. How they have interpreted the project’s theme, their individual translations on the ways in which modern and contemporary fashion is reinterpreted through various mediums. If you want to read more about what we discussed, I wrote a comprehensive account of our meeting for the project’s blog: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/05/12/a-change-in-meeting/  

MB: Fashion Interpretations considers the way fashion is transformed through different mediums. Has this become even more prominent in discussion, now that the global pandemic has forced us all online in order to share and connect? 

FC: Medium truly informs everything, it is the lens through which we filter every facet of the everyday. Therefore fashion, as an expression of the self, through dress, modification, as a material interpretation, is unimaginably affected by the COVID-19 crisis.  

Fashion can be articulated through various media and though I am constantly viewing and cataloguing fashion imagery, as a personal practice and as part of my role for the project, the medium that I feel most readily in contact with is both the fashion I dress myself in and the fashion that defines the relationships closest to me. How each of my friends represents a unique interpretation of fashion, my sneakerhead brother’s endearing DMs about footwear drops he’s stalking online, the comforting smell of my mum’s bluey-green scarf that she wraps herself in when cold, the decorative hair accessories my best friends daughter removes throughout the day, punctuating the hours we’ve spent together – as we navigate through this crisis, it’s strange how I can identify the loss of these intimacies, small fragments of their personhood. That has been very meaningful to me, watching them resurface as lockdown has eased.  

In order to continue sharing and connecting, we have to make a more definite move into a virtual space. Within fashion, taking an intrinsically material form of expression, a subject designed to be shared and interpreted as a collective, and channelling it through a medium – the digital – which could potentially isolate those taking part, it is a tricky transition. I think what is most important during the current climate is the establishment of communities and I feel very fortunate to be part of one through the Fashion Interpretations project. Our digital communications have been important to me, in these past months. 

MB: Your MA dissertation examined what the act of ‘copying’ means in the fashion industry, specifically focusing on Parisian haute couture being copied by American ready-to-wear in the interwar periods. This ‘copying and recycling of trends is interesting to consider now, as fashion often looks to the past following moments of crisis (e.g Dior’s New Look). Do you think there will be a need for nostalgia in dress following the current global pandemic? Or will the increasing awareness in supporting local, small businesses, and buying vintage break the cycle? 

FC: Yes, so in my dissertation I discussed how reproduction, or “copying”, is a valid mode of fashion production and a trend perpetually readdressed throughout fashion history. I had originally wanted to place my exploration in the present, or recent-present, due to a conversation I entered into with Edward Crutchley over Instagram, before starting my dissertation. It was a weird but very 2019 entrance into a dissertation subject and the conversation actually formed the basis of my introduction too – though the process felt quite informal, it simultaneously felt as though it had developed with me and my experiences, which made it special.   

After the MA trip to New York, I formed a small obsession with American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin and was regularly stalking the feed of the Instagram account @cashincopy [https://www.instagram.com/cashincopy], on which Dr Stephanie Lake (its owner) often posts comparative collages / images, placing designs of Cashin’s in conversation with similar contemporary fashions, “copies” – she has taken the matter of policing the reproduction of Cashin’s designs into her own hands. It encouraged a similar personal practice, wherein I began a sartorial version of snap with myself, banking images in my memory and “Saved” folder on Instagram, making connections to try and track this continuously looping pattern within modern fashion that kept resurfacing. Long story short – I found this image of Cashin wearing a tall, wide-brimmed hat online. As opposed to Dr Lake’s side-by-side layouts, I created and posted a two-image slide post. The cover image was from Edward Crutchley’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show during London Fashion Week Men’s in January 2019. The image features a collection of models backstage, two looking directly into the camera’s lens and a third – the point of interest in this comparison piece – whose attention is being held away from the camera’s gaze. Atop this third model’s head is a tall, wide-brimmed hat (designed by Crutchley, in collaboration with Stephen Jones), its structure is implied through a meshed, translucent nylon that allows the bones of the hat’s unique construction to be perpetually on show. It is fixed to the model’s head with a ribbon that fastens across the centre of her neck. Behind this image was an archival photograph of Cashin, modelling a cylindrical hat of similar design. 

The first half of the post I uploaded on my IG feed, featuring Edward Crutchley / Stephen Jones designs, and the second half

 

Dr Stephanie Lake later informed me that Cashin purchased the hat worn in this photograph during her travels for the Ford Foundation throughout Asia during the 1950s. I meant this post to act purely as a personal exercise, to visually demonstrate the cyclical movement of late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries fashion design and how fragments of the past are resurrected in contemporary modes, giving historicised motifs new meaning. But it inspired a response – as result, I assume, of a post-Diet Prada virtual fashion landscape – and Crutchley messaged me to correct my comparison, his AW19 hats were actually based on the traditional male, Korean bridal gat (a form of Joseon-era headwear): “My hat was based on a traditional Korean gat … the originals are horse hair but [Crutchley and Stephen Jones] used a nylon crin.” Another cycle, and we are shown how each articulation of this accessory is interconnected. 

Gat-gate, messages received from Edward Crutchley, detailing his reference

 

So maybe not so long story short, sorry (!), but these moments of reinterpretation, I find, are constant and so fascinating. And we crave them, look how many nostalgic, vintage-aesthetic Instagram accounts / influencers exist. I genuinely follow about 20-or-so fashion throwback accounts that feature the word “nostalgia” in their IG bio (now you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it). It is accounts such as these that push our eternal yearning to revisit the past in order to find new forms of inspiration – a gat for example, revisited for decades, taking on new meanings. I would love to think that the current climate will push us to support local businesses, to find creative, kinder new ways in which to reinvent our wardrobes and shopping practices but it’s so hard to not become disheartened by fast-fashion’s hold over so many of us. I feel – maybe it’s my age / who I follow on social media / the media or entertainment that I am constantly surrounded by – that our collective complacency has been recognised but it’s not being rectified ferociously enough. 

 

MB: This recalls a post you wrote for the Documenting Fashion blog in 2018, ‘A Portrait of Jeremy Scott’, in which you discuss his self-awareness in presenting as a “King of kitsch”. An artist I worked with, Ben Frost, had his artwork (which addresses pop-culture and consumerism) used in Moschino’s 2018 fall/winter collection. The models wore Jackie Kennedy style pillbox hats, referencing the 1960’s, while also painted head to toe in varying colours, to appear ‘alien-like’. Is this “kitschy” nostalgia, but also desire for the future/other-worldly, a theme that you think will keep developing now in fashion? 

 

FC: I think so, for certain brands, I think it’s connected to that desire to return to past styles. A craving for nostalgia, which, for me, is inherently linked to kitsch and this playful interpretation of “fashion” as something fun or borderline silly. To most, Jeremy Scott included, this could be translated through a childhood understanding of “dress up”, becoming a character and embodying their form through dress, makeup, exaggerated affectations. I remember this season that you’ve mentioned, Moschino AW18, the conspiracy theorist-esque backstory, the Jackie O uniforms absurdly blended with outer space undertones – I think Scott quoted his inspiration was sourced from this anecdotal urban-myth wherein JFK told Marilyn Monroe that aliens were real, Monroe freaked and threatened she was going to leak the story to the press and then she was killed as a consequence, total conspiracy vibes, messy, messy, messy. This is such a childlike reaction, you learn about a wildly fanciful story (be it fairytale or a political-sexual-extraterrestrial scandal), you pick at its most fascinating elements, then you haphazardly splice them together to create this wonderful hybrid. We’ve all been there…  

Even last week, when Scott rebuilt the runway in miniature for the Moschino SS21 presentation, as a gloriously fantastical puppet show, all I could think of was the magic that puppets, small ornate wooden bodies held up by string and painted with little, delicate faces, held for me as a child (think Jim Henson or John Wright of the Little Angel Theatre). Though in that blog post you mention, I gave Scott a bit of a hard time, I was stunned by the thoughtfulness he displayed throughout the SS21 presentation, the show already feels like a piece of fashion history that remarkably documents our current circumstances, and the need for boldness.  

A post from Fashion Interpretations’ Instagram feed, discussing the Moschino SS21 runway presentation

“Kitsch” could easily define the throughline that weaves Scott’s collections together or his overwhelmingly potent aesthetic. However, “kitsch” to me, is not too far away from the ironic, ironic fashion, which is interpreted far more subjectively. I also wrote a post on “fashion gimmickry” for the Fashion Interpretations blog, which takes a little more of an in depth look at this idea: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/02/03/fashion-gimmickry-interpretation-imitation/  

MB: You are interested in how repetition manifests within fashion, have you noticed any repetition of trends happening right now? Or have you had any personal desire to dress differently as the lockdown is slowly lifting? 

FC: Again, to me, to my eye, repetition manifests constantly, it is embedded into the fashion industry’s foundations. Fashion is a powerful cultural phenomenon that shouldn’t be reduced to a singular, “present-day” understanding. In her essay ‘So Last Season: The Production of the Fashion Present in the Politics of Time’, Aurélie Van Der Peer notes how we (academics / industry professionals / the fashion world-adjacent) tend to regard fashion as rooted in the present, that we discount how contemporary fashions are deceivingly characterised by the absence of fashion history. References such as the aforementioned: @cashincopy, promote the necessity of originality in fashion design but referencing of past fashion histories is essential to the way our current fashion system functions. 

“Trends”, whether knowingly or not, possess elements of past fashions, maybe scrambled or purist. I have formed a minor obsession with sweater vests for example recently, knitted and in a variety of different colours, prints, perfect for a mid-season shift in temperature. This is a garment I associate with the nineties, but it also hangs in my memory as a distinctly seventies garment, and it’s present again in imagery from the decade previous, it pops up throughout the century, being repeatedly revived. See here a pic of sweater vest I would love to own, money no object. 

 

From my favourite @persephonevint, find them on Etsy

I wouldn’t say how I am dressing is drastically different post-lockdown, I would say however that I am having to regain some confidence. In my early twenties, I had unshakable faith in my ability to covet and coordinate unique pieces, I always felt very strong in harnessing them into very *me* outfits but that strength had been slowly whittled away in the past couple of years and I think lockdown has exacerbated that feeling. Now, as I am venturing out into social settings a little more often, there’s time to prepare and put more care into the process, hopefully that will give me the space to rebuild the confidence that was lost. 

MB: I was interested in your blog post from 2019 about the ‘Neue Frau’ in German Weimar-era lesbian magazines. I examined the sexual and social liberations of Weimar-era cinema in my dissertation; how gender fluidity and drag was accessed in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, 1959, by using the disguise of the more risqué 1920s, and the film’s original roots in Weimar-era cinema. Your idea that gender subversion was accessed through the multi-faceted identity of the Neue Frau demonstrates how self-image reflects the climate of a country (i.e. Germany’s fear of masculine women). How relevant do you think these themes of disguise, and re-fashioning the body in times of crisis are, in fashion right now?    

FC: In lockdown we remained indoors for our own safety, for the safety of our family members and loved ones, those who were vulnerable and in need of protection – it served as a period of isolation, in order to preserve life. It felt like a hibernation, after which we would re-enter the outside world, though cautiously, in order to regain a sense of normality.  

Whenever I considered the figure of the ‘Neue Frau’ (this was also the subject of my second assessed essay during the MA) I imagined her building this impenetrable layer of sartorial armour around herself and in the case of the women documented in the pages of publications such as Liebende Frauen, her queer identity – the heteronormative ‘masculinity’ that underlined her new age interpretation of femininity acting as a protective shield, to ward away those who ridiculed or refused to understand her. I came across these queer, Weimar-age magazines by chance, I was researching for my assessed essay and reading different event pages for the 2016 LACMA exhibition “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933”. In an article post by LACMA surrounding this exhibition entitled “Homosexuality Is a German Invention”, curator Nana Bahlmann noted several of these magazines, I then went on to contact SpinnbodenLesbenarchiv und Bibliothek in Berlin and trawled through lots and lots of issues! It was such a fun process of exploration.  

I think refashioning is conceived through conflict or trauma. In this tumultuous, interwar period an overwhelming number of men were removed from the urban workforce, throughout Europe and in Germany, through conscription. As in all combatant countries, women were therefore expected to fill vacant positions in order to maintain industrial productivity. Women occupied the spaces their male counterparts left behind. And in a post-war Germany, they visibly gained greater movement through previously inaccessible social and political spaces. However, this progression was compounded by economic and political insecurities that Conservative forces viewed as symptomatic of the newly formed Weimar Republic. A nationwide anxiety could work to actively stifle our self-fashioning freedoms, as this example demonstrates, but we have alternative spaces through which to channel such expressions. Though the virtual realm can be ugly and outright dangerous in many circumstances, it provides a much-needed environment to experiment with all manner of fashioning.  

Here is the link to the article we’ve mentioned: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2019/02/26/in-her-image-the-documentation-of-the-neue-frau-in-german-weimar-era-lesbian-magazines/  

MB: At the start of May, the Fashion Interpretations group met as a full group for the first time via a zoom meeting. Will Fashion Interpretations continue to change and adapt to our current climate (regarding the black lives matter movement and covid-19 especially), in correlation with the way the fashion world is changing and adapting also? 

FC: The horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have irrevocably altered the fabric of our global consciousness. The viral video of George Floyd’s death became a catalyst for a civil uprising, spurring the largest-scale protests in American history. These are unavoidable tragedies that force us all to reexamine our own social and political practices, our own educations on black histories, stories, experiences. I cannot speak for the Fashion Interpretations project as a whole, it is a group of academics and creatives who work independently, but the Black Lives Matter movement has and will forever continue to influence my own research and writing.  

And yes, the COVID crisis has affected how Fashion Interpretations functions logistically and certain events in our project’s calendar have had to be seriously adapted. As previously mentioned, later this year, we will be holding our symposium virtually, it will be a week-long event and our members will be discussing their contributions to the project and showing us they work – we can’t wait to share the details with everyone! A definite change in my working world that has been totally undone by the global pandemic is the constant influx of emails. 

MB: Finally, do you have any words of wisdom you can share for the Documenting Fashion students who have just graduated. There is certainly an air of uncertainty when you graduate, which seems especially amplified now! 

FC: To remember that if the future you had envisioned seems fragile or even unfathomable right now, that many others feel the terrifying weight of this crisis too. Also, none of us have encountered anything of this magnitude before, so to feel clueless in the face of its effects is not weak; we have to support one another through it, however we can. If you can’t find work relevant to your degree or the field in which you are interested, continue reading and educating yourself. Fill out as many applications in a week as you can stomach, write where you can, check in regularly with your *thing* – so for me, the patterns, if I can find a new link (it’s been fashion month, which has brought with it levity and some much-needed joy!) between the old and new, I am reminded of why I love fashion history and why I worked so hard for my degree – make lists (dream jobs, companies / institutions you would be proud to work for, different professional spaces you would be keen to occupy) – basically, keep busy. Don’t necessarily mount pressure on yourself but keep yourself agile. So, when your opportunity arrives, you are beyond prepared for it. Nobody ever suffered from being over prepared.  

Also, be kind. We all need a little kindness.  

Interview by Mollie Beese 

Miniskirts and Mods: A Review of the Mary Quant Retrospective

Museum exhibition, two mannequins wearing raincoats

Rainwear display, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019. (all photos taken by Ali)

Mary Quant brought fun to fashion during the postwar era, a time when clothing rationing had just ended and Christian Dior was strangling women’s waistlines. Quant’s shop Bazaar was the headquarters of the Swinging Sixties, where one could buy miniskirts, neon tights, and psychedelic blouses. She wanted women to have fun again; her miniskirts liberated legs and allowed for dancing and her waterproof mascara held up in a walk through the rain. The V&A’s retrospective of Quant’s work takes viewers chronologically through her career, starting with her unassuming, yet innovative designs of the late 1950s and ending with a showcase of her global brand which produced cosmetics, lingerie, accessories. Although somewhat lacking in imagination, the exhibition proves that Quant’s designs allowed all kinds of women, not just wealthy ones, to incorporate imaginative designs into their wardrobes.

When you enter the exhibition, it’s not a blatantly colorful exhibition about the 1960s mod culture, but it is rather a slow burn that lingers on Quant’s somewhat conservative early designs. Meandering through a display of glass cases, we see that Quant slowly deconstructed fashion rules that existed in the 1950s. Quant did this carefully, as innocent wool pinafores and thick coat jackets with bright patterns dominate the first half of the exhibition. She started to create revolutionary designs by incorporating masculine traits into her fashions. Her use of ties and more shockingly trousers, are a signal of her journey into a completely new style.

Museum vitrine with three mannequins dressed in Mary Quant dresses and coats

Early Mary Quant Designs, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019.

The second floor more clearly conveys the fun and light-heartedness one might expect of Quant’s mod designs. Set in a brightly-lit, white arena, Quant’s brightly colored designs pop and are strikingly contemporary. Glittering tartans, pinstriped raincoats, and crocheted frocks prove not only Quant’s talent in working with many fabrics and techniques, but also her seemingly endless creativity. I found myself making a mental-shopping list of what items I would happily wear on a daily basis (a pink sailor dress and monochrome PVC clutch, please). I could hear people of all ages around me doing something similar, proving Quant’s ability to make her clothes universally attractive by combining comfortability and bold patterns.

Five mannequins in museum wearing mini skirt dresses

Iterations of the miniskirt, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019.

There is a clear attempt throughout the show to breathe life into these clothes, many of which are paralyzed by rigid mannequins. The majority of outfits had an accompanying text panel that explained who owned the garment, why they chose it, and how they wore it. There were also numerous photographs behind the outfits, showing how models or regular women moved and posed in Quant’s clothes. These curatorial efforts suggest that these clothes were not designed to be shown on stiff mannequins, but were designed for walking, skipping, and dancing. Some mannequins strike outlandish poses, but there is an overall dullness that hangs over the exhibition, particularly on the dimly-lit first floor of the two-story exhibition. Quant’s shop Bazaar on King’s Road was known for creating psychedelic, dreamlike tableaus, but this kind of eccentric experimentation and creativity seems absent from the exhibition design. Perhaps I was too optimistic in hoping to see a recreation of one these infamous store front designs behind one of the many glass cases.

The focus on the exhibition is not an experiential recreation of the quirkiness of the 1960s, but a focus on how actual women wore Quant’s designs. At the center of the upstairs display is a giant rounded screen that scrolls through pictures from the 1960s and 1970s of women wearing Quant’s designs. Quotes from these women describe how they wore their Quant pieces and how much they treasure them. In fact, a large portion of clothes in the exhibition were collected from regular women all over the world. The home photos show mothers, working women, brides, and young girls wearing Quant’s clothes and giving them life. This curatorial decision embraces the sacred relationship between designer and customer with the clothing as a bridge between them. Ultimately, this show is really about how Quant democratized the postwar London fashion scene, allowing middle-class women to take part in the exciting and eccentric innovations of mod culture.

Saying ‘au revoir’ to Class of 2019

As another academic year draws to a close, I want to reflect on the wonderful time I have had teaching my Class of 2019 MA Documenting Fashion students…

The autumn term started with a breakfast to greet my new students—and it was clear what an interesting and sparky group they would be.  During the initial thematic classes, we discussed what the terms ‘dress’, ‘fashion,’ ‘costume’, etc. meant and looked at a range of books in our Special Collections—from a 1598 edition of Vecellio’s Habiti antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo to Paul Iribe’s beautifully illustrated Les robes de Paul Poiret of 1908, to consider the ways fashion has been documented and represented through history.  

Jeordy and Lacey

We talked about our sensory experiences of fashion, fashion’s relationship to memory—personal and historical—and visited archives to develop our ideas. This included a trip to see Beatrice Behlen, Head of Fashion and Decorative Art at the Museum of London, where she showed us several people’s wardrobes; there, the group was entranced by the ways individual style can be recognised and analysed in any era.

Marielle and Daisy

And this was just the opening section of the course and of the students’ entry into the world of Dress History.  It has been so rewarding to see all of you develop from this point—increasing your already considerable skills and finding exciting lines of enquiry as you developed your dissertation topics.  

So, thank you Daisy, Ellen, Fran, Imogene, Jeordy, Lacey, Lily and Marielle—you have all been a complete joy to teach, and I am really looking forward to seeing what you do next. Enjoy the summer—get some well-deserved rest and relish your success at The Courtauld.

 

A Look Back on ‘Fashioning Winter’ at Somerset House

It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!

Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’
by Alexis Romano

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.

And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.

Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.

Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!

4 November, 2014

Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House
by Fruszi Befeki

An empty vitrine...

An empty vitrine…

Objects and condition reports

Objects and condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text...

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…

I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.

We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.

At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.

Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.

With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!

We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.

7 November 2014

A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’
by Fruszi Befeki

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

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Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.

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Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.

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These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.

Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.

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Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.

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Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.

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If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.

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While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.

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The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.

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Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.

18 November, 2014

Shoes: Pain and Pleasure Review

Heels by HM Rayne

Heels by HM Rayne

Adidas sneakers collection

Adidas sneakers collection

As the title  – Shoes: Pleasure & Pain – indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit.  This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes.  This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality.  It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.

Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes.  If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach.  The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years – as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.

As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.

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

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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.

References

www.museumofvancouver.ca/exhibitions/exhibit/rationing-ravishing