Commentary Archive

Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior

After Raf Simons abruptly left his position as creative director at Dior after just three years last October, Dior was left with the task of recruiting, once again, a designer that would be able to continue the legacy and shoulder the burden of designing for one of Paris’ grandest fashion houses.

Maria Grazia Chiuri was announced as Simons’ successor, the first female creative director at Dior and lately of Valentino, where she formed one half of a successful 26-year-long design partnership with Pierpaolo Piccioli that began in the accessories department of Fendi. Her debut was scheduled for the 30th of September, at the end of a season fraught with questions of see-now-buy now, the pace of the system, and street-style spats, that also saw new hands at work at Saint Laurent (Antony Vaccerello) and Lanvin (Bouchra Jarrar).

The opportunity afforded by a single fashion show is well known to the house of Dior. In February 1947, a single presentation saw the popular dress of that decade transformed. Heralded as the most influential fashion event of the century, the collection was worthily dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, and subsequently took on a mythic quality. The clothes’ exaggeratedly feminine silhouette, marked by tiny waists, generous hips and skirts full of volume were explicitly conceived in marked opposition to post-war, uniform-like austere dress. These new designs were created for ‘flower-like’ women. Dior’s awareness of the power of a single fashion show was re-established with the 2014 documentary film ‘Dior and I’, which captured the weeks running up to and including Raf Simon’s debut. Following in the footsteps of star designers and creative caretakers of this legacy (John Galliano and Yves Saint Laurent amongst them), under the scrutiny of the international press, crucial clients, and with a 1% drop in sales in the first quarter of 2016 having just been reported, Maria Grazia Chiuri faced one of the industry’s greatest challenges.

As guests took their seats in a simple, wooden-floored tent in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, a clue would emerge from the catwalk – laid out in the same format as the vast majority of Chiuri’s previous Valentino presentations. Striding out a soundtrack of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’, featuring author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism, a newly pixie-cropped Ruth Bell sported a fencing-inspired ensemble, complete with heart motif on her left breast. Dior’s signature bar jacket, here with the regal peplum slimmed down, was relegated to the 31st look.

Rather than referencing and reworking the house’s famous feminine silhouettes then, Chiuri had opted to explore the house’s feminine principles – a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘we should all be feminists’ was matched with a long, flowing tulle skirt. Instead of voluminous proportions and nipped in waists, dresses were straight, sheer, revealing the straight up and down proportions of an especially youthful crop of models. Sportswear elements finished off many pieces, underwear was visible, braided hair referenced skaters. Inspiration for the slew of evening gowns’ ethereal embroidery was sought from Christian Dior’s highly superstitious nature, but were altogether too reminiscent of Valentino for many commentators (the top to toe blood red of two looks, the only explicit colour in this offering, is a particular Valentino signature). A regular visitor to clairvoyants, Dior was said to read tarot cards before each of his shows; motifs from these, lucky clovers, hearts and the number 8 were scattered throughout Chiuri’s designs. Dior and Chiuri happen to both be Aquarius. Astrologers would forecast that the age of Aquarius would bring upheaval; Chiuri’s debut was certainly a departure from her predecessors, but will have the impact of the New Look? Or was there simply not enough that was new?

As Tim Blanks noted, Chiuri has not had the ‘time to osmose the extraordinary archives at Dior; it was inevitable that she would fall back on what she was familiar with from her time at Valentino.’ CEO Sidney Toledano stated that Chiuri’s experience creating buzz-generating accessories was an important factor in her appointment in an interview with the Business of Fashion. Aside from explicit ‘J’aDIOR’ branded underpinnings (which, at a more ‘accessible’ price point will surely fly off shelves as logos see a surge in popularity this season) the issue for the consumer and regular deep-pocketed clients though is whether the clothes are evocative enough of a heritage that can arguably be pinned on a specific silhouette, here in dispute, to be worth investing in. Only next year’s financial report will tell.


Why Art History Matters

We read with distress the AQA Exam Board’s decision to drop Art History as an A and AS Level – this means the qualification will no longer be offered in any UK schools.  For those of us, who, like me have spent their adult lives working within the field, this decision is deeply worrying and suggests a lack of appreciation for the subject’s significance and impact at school level.

Professor Debby Swallow, Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld, wrote an eloquent response to this news:

“The definition of Art History as a ‘soft subject’ and the demise of its existence as an A Level seriously misunderstands a subject which is enormously important to the economy, culture and well-being of this country.  History of Art is a rigorous interdisciplinary subject, which gives its students the critical skills to deal with a world that is increasingly saturated with images. It brings together visual analysis with history, languages, literature, chemistry, and art and design to name but a few inter-related areas of study and research. Those studying it at university level have a significant impact across the cultural sector, especially in public museums and galleries. Art History as a subject needs to be much better known and not denigrated. The Courtauld Institute of Art, the oldest higher education institution in this country dedicated to its study, is deeply committed to increasing understanding and enjoyment of the study of the history of art and to working with others to ensure that it is embedded across the school curriculum and is accessible to all our school students.”

We should be seeking to expand the subject, rather than, as the government’s policies with regards to school curricula have meant, reducing the focus on Arts subjects.  As our Head of Public Programmes Henrietta Hine comments, ‘In terms of widening participation young people can’t apply to study art history at university if they don’t know it exists as a subject; ceasing to offer the A level will surely only exacerbate the situation.’  Something leading Make Up Artist Kay Montano expresses in her comment:


Comments added to our Instagram posts citing Swallow’s statement and protesting this decision have shown the wealth of support for the subject in general – and the importance of maintaining, and indeed, working to increase its presence in British schools, opening it up to a broader range of young people.  As these responses from Theo Johns, a Fine Art Dealer and Agent, Farah Ebrahimi, Art Director at e15 and Philipp Mainzer Office for Art & Design, and Leslie Camhi, a journalist and author who has written for titles including Vogue and The New York Times show – art history opens our eyes to wider cultural significances and events:

theojohnsfineart farah-ebrahimi lesliecamhi

And, as Swallow points out, in an age of increasing reliance on images to communicate diverse meanings, cutting a subject that is predicated on developing an acute eye for representation’s significance and cultural resonances is wrong-headed.  This was something many of our Instagram followers commented on, including textile designer Peter D’Ascoli, and Art Historian and Costume maker Serena Foksaner:

peterdascoli serena_fokshaner

Art History as Gateway to Careers

Our alumni destinations demonstrate the breadth of experience and transferrable skills art history graduates have – in addition to those who find jobs in museums, galleries and academic, we have many who go on to work in law, banking, journalism, design, publishing and with the government, as well as many other fields. To illustrate this, here is the latest list of where our most recent former students were working six months after graduation – and remember, this is just from The Courtauld Institute:

  • Art Cuéllar-Nathan
  • Barbican Centre
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Christie’s
  • David Chipperfield Architects
  • English Heritage
  • Frieze
  • Halcyon Gallery
  • Midas PR
  • National Trust
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection
  • Pinewood Studios
  • Rijksmuseum
  • Royal Academy of Arts
  • Saatchi Gallery
  • Sotheby’s
  • Tate
  • The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • University of Cambridge
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Yale Center for British Art

Source: Based on the latest Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey: 6 months after graduation

Art History, Dress & Fashion

My own students in Dress History, a branch of art history that again encompasses the subject’s breadth and diversity have an equally impressive range of post-graduation employment, ranging from museums and galleries, including The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to the Mode Museum in Antwerp and Tate Modern.  Others have worked within the fashion industry, as buyers, as journalists, for example at The Stylist, at Conde Nast and for fashion show producers.  Their success is indicative of the skills art history imparts, and the passion it instills in people to think creatively about historical and contemporary culture.

This relationship between understanding of art and dress history, again supports Hine’s comment about school level teaching opens young people up to the wider range of subjects that it is possible to explore at university level.  Something several of our Instagram followers commented on, including fashion historian Cassidy Zachary – @the_art_of_dress –


Art History A Level also plays a significant role for many British fashion journalists and designers, providing early exposure to the ways art resonates within our culture, and how it has been and can be a key influence on designs – as seen in London womens- and menswear designer Phoebe English’s reaction:


Art History should be valued as a bridge between history, geography, literature and languages, and art and design subjects – it is a way to appreciate connections between arts and humanities and science subjects, and a conduit for creative expression in practical forms – as one commenter from New Zealand highlighted:


Sarah Mower, US Voguerunway Chief Critic and British Fashion Council Ambassador for Emerging Talent has been ardent in her support for this campaign.  She credits her hugely successful career in fashion journalism to studying art history and benefitting from the myriad skills it equips us with:

“I was taught art history by Griselda Pollock and TJ Clark at Leeds University – it changed my way of being able to parse imagery, adding to what I had learned through history of art at state school, and It’s impossible to imagine being where I am without that. Fluency in art history and the ability to embed layers of meaning in clothes is a given amongst British educated fashion designers- I really believe it is deeply of the essence of our national character in fashion which others look at and envy, but cannot replicate, because these things start right back in childhood – and at school. High flyers in fashion who emerge in Britain constantly apply art history to their collections – they know how to research, and often backstage interviews are like art and fashion seminars today. Erdem’s spring collection was based on the discovery of 17th century clothes on a sunken ship, and his research in Bath museum of fashion; Mary Katrantzou quoted the art and archaeology of Knossos, Sarah Burton’s McQueen collection went into enormous depth about Scottish culture and includes a dress which uses the inspiration of a Victorian etching of a shipwreck, Phoebe Philo’s Celine quoted Yves Klein, JW Anderson borrowed from Henry V111’s portraits and discussed doublets and slashed sleeves backstage. This is just to skim the surface of the most recent round of shows – My point being: this level of creative practice is part and parcel of Britain’s commercial advantage in fashion. Fashion in the UK is worth £28 billion to the economy – take away the cultural alchemy of the creative intelligence which our designers turn into design, and you just have garments.  Whilst it is pure idiocy of a government to excise a crucial commercial weapon – if they want to look at it that way – we must look at their excuses for doing so. Firstly they complain they cannot find examiners – surely there are hundreds who are reading this who can volunteer? How do we do that? Secondly, supporting teachers and teaching – how can we, the creative community, do that in practical ways? Thirdly – I want to know how these decisions about A levels were made, and are only now being presented as a fait accompli. Frankly, it is to easy to sit around writing letters to the Guardian. Practical action has to be taken.”

We urge you to sign Courtauld alumnae Nerissa Taysom’s petition to show your support for maintaining Art History as an A Level subject and to campaign for a reversal of this decision:


Comment using the link at the bottom of The Guardian’s letter page:

Click the link at the bottom of The Telegraph’s page to answer NO to the question ‘Do you support the decision to scrap A-level art history?’:


The Art Newspaper:

Association of Art Historians:


Raoul Dufy for Bianchini Ferier, Gazette du Bon Ton 1920, no. 8

Raoul Dufy textile print “Longchamp” for Bianchini Ferier, Gazette du Bon Ton 1920, no. 8, Courtauld collections

Raoul Dufy for Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, no. 1

Raoul Dufy for Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, no. 1, Courtauld collections

Degas, Lady with a Parasol, 1870-72

Degas, Lady with a Parasol, 1870-72, Courtauld collections

30 Second Fashion / Fashion in 30 Seconds



4-madeleine-vionnet-double-page-spread-from-30-second-fashionAbout 18 months ago I was contacted by Ivy Press and asked if I’d like to work on a book called 30 Second Fashion. It was to be part of a series of 30 Second … books – each covering a specific topic, which is divided into 50 essential themes, with each theme then discussed over a double page spread that can be read in 30 seconds.

This sounded like a challenge not to be missed – but how to you boil fashion down into 50 topics? That was the first task – once I’d agreed to take on the role of consultant editor. So I set about making a list, trying to think what someone would want to know, or need to know if they were interested in fashion, but just starting to find out about it …  Some things were obvious – something on different types of fashion – haute couture, ready-to-wear etc, but also a section on streetstyle. The various types of media involved in promoting fashion needed to be included and influential designers … and … and … the list got long, then was cut down, then refined to make it as clear and comprehensive as possible.  You can see what I ended up choosing in the image showing the contents page.

Next, was to decide who to ask to write each section. I took on some topics myself (I can never pass up the opportunity to write about Madeleine Vionnet, for example – I’ve included that spread here for you to see), but I wanted to approach people I knew could produce fluent, wonderful text – and importantly, who could be ultra concise, and very prompt, as the deadline was short.

I was lucky – all my first choices said ‘yes’ and they were all as brilliant as I knew they would be.  Several were former students from The Courtauld – all have varied and fascinating interests and experience that made for an interesting group of contributors:

Julia Rea loves Chanel, really understands the contemporary industry and is a freelance writer

Katerina Pantelides is great on details and how history and contemporary meet and is writing a novel

Rebecca Straub is currently at Yale University studying for a PhD and is always great on imagery

Emma McClendon is brilliant on key figures in the industry and is now Assistant Curator at Museum at FIT

All had previously studied with me at MA or PhD level, so I knew they would produce perfect, well-researched text.  And finally, two long-standing friends and peers:

Olga Vainshtein, who knows all there is to know about digital media and fashion – and who is one of Russia’s leading fashion historians

Alison Toplis, brilliant researcher and writer, and fount of knowledge on fashion history (- we met when we studied History of Dress together at The Courtauld).

So I knew I had a wonderful team, all of whom understood the project immediately. They were an absolute pleasure to work with and I want to thank all of them for being completely brilliant throughout the process.

I also want to thank everyone at Ivy Press. It has been great working with you, we were all given the support we needed, and the book looks wonderful!

It’s really fascinating to work on something like this – to have the opportunity to gather together great people and see how they condense such a vast topic into a small space.

The book is published today – hope you enjoy it!

Rebecca Arnold, 30 Second Fashion, Ivy Press, Fashion Book

Jonathan Saunders for Diane von Furstenberg

Jonathan Saunders Spring 2017

Jonathan Saunders Spring 2017

Looks from DVF Spring 2017

Looks from DVF Spring 2017

After several years of attempting to pass on the reigns of her eponymous company, Diane von Furstenberg has at last seceded creative decision-making power to Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders, who has led the DVF design team as Chief Creative Officer over the past three months since his appointment in May 2016.

Saunders debuted his first collection Spring 2017 at New York Fashion Week on September 10, 2016. The new collection marks a drastic departure from the traditional DVF aesthetic and signature styles – jersey, chiffon and silk printed wrap dresses, skirts and tops. New is most definitely not bad, and indeed there is much good that will shortly be discussed. However, the collection seems to contradict several core DVF principles that have been firmly established since Von Furstenberg re-launched the label in 1997. These key tenets include effortlessness and femininity, which seem to be almost completely absent from Saunders’ collection.

Saunders has indeed reinvigorated the brand with his use of beautifully bold and modern new prints developed in-house, which should be especially commended as previously appointed creative directors at DVF have been known to repackage prints from the archives. The collection showcased knits, furs and outwear­–newer looks within the DVF repertoire – in addition to the more traditional separates and dresses in high quality fabrics either cut on the bias, draped or tailored to a generally chic “oversize” fit. However, while the brand will surely benefit from the reset, the former ease, understatement and femininity of DVF garments seems to have been lost in the excessive use of asymmetry, oversizing and ruffles.

Overall, the limited 30 looks released to the public (the collection was only debuted in front of a small group of fashion press) were beautiful – the print combinations were artful and several looks seemed wearable – especially a blue and burnt orange handkerchief dress styled with a neutral belt and sandals. However, I particularly found many of the one-shoulder blouse looks combined with ruffles across the chest puzzling. The blouses and over-flared trousers in particular seemed to obscure the natural feminine form lost far underneath the garments. Further, almost all of the looks that were waist-centric used belts instead of the more convenient, traditional wrap ties to cinch the waist. While on the whole the collection was refreshing, as a DVF collection, the woman who DVF designed for, and always maintained at the center of the brand, seems to be missing.

The 30 looks from the collection can be viewed on here.

Terence Donovan at The Photographers gallery

Terence Donovan, Chloé by Karl Lagerfeld, 1978.

Terence Donovan, Chloé by Karl Lagerfeld, 1978.

‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ French Elle, September issues of 1965 and 1966.

‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ French Elle, September issues of 1965 and 1966.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

British photographer Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996) helped redefine fashion photography in the 1960s. Alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan took part in the elaboration of a ‘new vision.’ Youthful, street-bound, unabashedly sexual and decidedly experimental, the images produced by the ‘The Terrible Three’ (as Cecil Beaton would refer to them) reflected the aspirations of a new generation. The unassuming Donovan is perhaps the lesser-known figure of the flamboyant trio.

Curated by photographic historian Robin Muir, the retrospective comprised a large number of fashion prints, magazine copies and portraits, an array of personal objects (Donovan’s studio books for instance) and examples of his music videos (the notorious Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer). The exhibition’s first section covered the 1960s – his early years, from the opening of his studio in 1959 to 1969. The second section straddled four-decades of work from the 1970s to his last, monumental ‘Cool Britannia’ shoot for GQ published just after his abrupt death in 1996.

The series titled ‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel’ produced for French Elle’s September issues of 1965 and 1966 respectively, opened the first section. In ‘Les Manteaux arts modernes,’ a patterned Christian Dior two-piece suit echoes the cubic wall tiles in the background. In ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ a towering model in a futuristic white coat (possibly a Cardin) is given architectural dimensions. Both series play on the formal affinities between clothing and setting, yet they also evoke the disquieting atmosphere of film noir, in the interplay of light and shadow and the sense of angst elicited by emptied urban spaces.

The urban environment was key in fact to Donovan’s early years of experimentation with photography (in later work, he would favor the studio). In 1961, Donovan used London’s Road power station to shoot the latest menswear for British men’s magazine Man About Town. As Rebecca Arnold has noted, the Man About Town series bore references to both 1930s Hollywood gangster films and press photographs of London’s own, East End gangs. In Donovan’s images, the city it seems stood less as the symbol of an upbeat modernity than as an invocation of its dark, if glamorized, underworlds.

A 1974 series titled ‘Dressed Overall’ published in Nova magazine is an example of Donovan’s grittier, documentary-like approach. Shot in Deptford, South London, the series pairs functional, worker-like clothing with the biting atmosphere of a grey London in the midst of a recession. A sort of fictional reportage that verges on surveillance-like shots, it features the model named Ika as she leaves and returns to the neighbourhood’s housing estates. Acutely aware of her obsessive monitoring, she is magnetic in her defiance as she either purposefully ignores or stares back at the camera. The series stages, rather masterfully, a complex dialogue between camera and subject.

If Donovan’s photographs contrasted sharply with the lofty elegance and lavish decors of 1950s fashion photography, the photographer did not eschew colour (and there were plenty of examples on view), neither a sense of playfulness (nor for that matter, fashion photography’s highbrow affiliations). A 1972 series for Nova titled the ‘Heavenly suited’ is a dreamy example of Donovan’s use of colour. But just like his 1978 photograph of a Chloé design by Karl Lagerfeld, these images retain an almost solemn tone in the models’ frank stares and upright postures.

There is something highly appealing and at times almost disturbing (as we are made aware perhaps of our own, complicit gaze) about Donovan’s images and their ability to convey so forcefully a sense of the models’ presence.

If you have missed the exhibition, it is well worth taking a look at Terence Donovan’s images online.


Arnold, R., Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.


For the fashion-inclined, there is a lot to see this Autumn. Here’s a brief list…

Rush to see these two fantastic exhibitions in London at the Photographer’s Gallery, before they end on the 25th September!

Terence Donovan: Speed of Light


The opening wall of floor 5 is dedicated to Donovan’s work from the 1970s through to the 1990s.






This is the first major retrospective of British photographer Terence Donovan (1936-1996). Alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan helped redefine fashion photography in the 1960s (Cecil Beaton referred to them as the ‘The Terrible Three’). The exhibition covers four decades worth of work over two floors with an emphasis on the 1960s. (A review of this exhibition will be coming soon to Documenting Fashion!)

Made you Look  – Dandyism and Black Masculinity

Young Man in Plaid, NYC, 1991 by Jeffrey Hansen Scales on the cover of the PG’s programme.

Young Man in Plaid, NYC, 1991 by Jeffrey Hansen Scales on the cover of the PG’s programme.


The most fantastic images are on display, taken by an unknown photographer using glass negatives and dated 1904. Thought to be taken in Senegal, they show some very early photographic instances of self-fashioning.

Curator Ekow Eshun explores ‘dandyism as a radical personal politics’ through an array of images that document black men’s use of provocative styles as a way of resisting processes of objectification. The exhibition includes both archival documents and a range of works by contemporary photographers.

And finally… coming soon!

Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali

The late Malian photographer will have is first UK major solo show at Somerset House this fall.

The late Malian photographer will have is first UK major solo show at Somerset House this fall.

To note as well, an exhibition dedicated to Malick Sidibé’s work – on view in Made you look – will open during the Contemporary African Art Fair taking place at Somerset house from 6-9 October. The exhibition will stay on until 15 January 2017.

Fashion and Impressionism in the Courtauld Gallery

In 1863 Charles Baudelaire declared in the French newspaper Le Figaro: ‘Modernity is transitory, fleeting, contingent’. He instructed contemporary artists not to ‘scorn or forgo this transitory, fleeting element that undergoes such frequent metamorphoses. By removing it, you lapse into the void of an abstract, indefinable beauty.’ The Impressionists wanted to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life in and around Paris, the capital of modernity, prior to and following the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. Their lively brushstrokes sought to animate the ephemeral and transitory qualities of Parisian modernity, as described by Baudelaire, and its recently established commodity culture, which was shaped by the imperatives of fashion, consumerism and incessant innovation.

Paris had emerged as a rapidly transforming metropolis, due in part to its swift modernisation by city planner Baron Haussmann (1809-1891), who fashioned an extensive landscape of wide boulevards, grand parks, avenues, squares and gardens throughout the city. This period also witnessed the evolution of the department store, such as Au Louvre, LesGrandsMagasins and Le Bon Marche, in which women could buy ready-to-wear fashions off the shelf that needed little if no alteration, not to mention the proliferation of specialist fashion magazines such as La ModeIllustrée and Les ModesParisiennes.

Artists at the vanguard, such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) breathed new life into the rigid poses of fashion illustration. They succeeded in capturing, above all else, the emotional connection that viewers and wearers had with items of fashion. Fashion served as the quintessential symbol of transitory modernity, encapsulated by the Parisienne, the elegant modern woman who was accustomed to suchbourgeois luxuries.

We can examine the fashioned feminine body in closer detail through three “snapshots”, each of which give a sense of the importance of fashion to the Impressionists’ priority to express modernity: Ladywith a Parasol(1870-2) by Degas, Portrait of a Woman (1872) by Morisot and La Loge (1874) by Renoir. These paintings exemplify how Morisot, Degas and Renoir made skilful use of oil paint to capture the light and texture of the various folds and shapes of the fabrics that adorned the bodies of their subjects and which, rather than give a painstaking reproduction of fashionable trends in feminine dress, revealed a sense of the visual effect that fashion as a whole conveyed by way of the movements and gestures of Parisian women from 1870-1874.


edgar degasd, lady with a parasol, 1870-72Degas’ Ladywith a Parasol is made up of quick, expressive strokes of black, grey and white oil paint on canvas and forms part a series in which the artist experimented with the results of light on the transient, fashionably attired female form. Degas once declared: ‘The source of ornament. Think of a treatise on ornament for women or by women, based on their manner of observing, of combining, of selecting their fashionable outfits and all things on a daily basis they compare, more than men, a thousand visible things with one another.’ Degas’ observations on women’s abilities to choose their own accessories and ornamentations from a plethora of possibilities reveal his active interest and participation in fashion. A label on the back of this painting reads ‘At the Race-course’ and explains the subject’s elegant appearance in a bustledress that is lovingly sculpted by the artist and draped over layers of petticoat, complete with a nipped in waist to emphasise the trim female form. A parasol shields the subject from the open air as she is captured from behind and in motion. The rough sketch-like forms give a sense of immediacy to this unfinished image, which is reminiscent of the couturier’s direct creative process as fabric was draped over a model’s body. The fluid application of paint highlights a dynamic contemporary femininity that the viewer is invited to experience by envisioning how the fabrics may have swished and undulated with an unexpected gust of wind, sway of the hips or flurry of activity. Other areas of the painting, such as the subject’s profile and the details of her exquisite headwear, are painted with great delicacy and reflect Degas’ unequivocal interest in the chapeau,which formed the crown and status symbol of any respectable woman in the 1870s and was inevitably matched to her visage and attire.


Berthe morisot, madame edma pontillon, sister of the artist, 1873Like Degas, Morisot paid equal attention to the materiality of female dress, as can be seen in a portrait of her sister Madame Edma Pontillon, which she completed in 1872. The painterly texture of her brushwork, which encompasses broad and delicate strokes freely applied, evokes the flounces, frills and ornamentation of the luxurious fashions depicted. As the only woman represented in the first group exhibition of the Impressionists held in Paris in 1874, Morisot had an innate knowledge of the individual elements of feminine dress, from underwear to day dresses, evening wear and outdoor attire. She depicts her subject dressed in a beige and chestnut brown day dress with pleated edging, a high waistline, and long, close-fitting sleeves, which show the remaining influence of pagoda-style sleeves that were fashionable throughout the 1860s. The bodice of her dress is V-shaped, filled in with a chemisette comprised of muslin trimmed with lace, and adorned with a splash of purple and mauve flowers. The subject wears her hair piled high on top of her head in a pleated chignon that is threaded with a silver ribbon. She shows off matching purple and gold drop earrings and a pendant that is strung on a black velvet ribbon, both of which reflect the decorative accessories prevalent at the time. A thick sash comprised of velvet envelops her waist to form a bow that places the decorative bulk at the back of her dress, and emphasises her curvaceous feminine form. Unlike Degas’ energetic painting, which gave a tangible sense of the rush of modernity through the artist’s frantic sweeps onto the canvas, Morisot delivers a quiet nod of appreciation to female finery through her carefully orchestrated and meticulously executed portrait.


Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_023Like Morisot and Degas, Renoir placed fashion at the heart of his paintings, as can be seen in an examination ofLa Loge which he painted in 1874. Renoir had an intimate knowledge of the technical and material nature of dress since his mother was a seamstress, his father a tailor and his elder sister a dressmaker, who in 1864 married the fashion illustrator Charles Leray. Here he depicted his favourite model and mistress, Nini Lopez, who is ostentatiously dressed in a fashionable tenuede premierein black and white, an ermine mantle, pink flowers placed in her carefully-coiffured hair and adorning her bodice, a strand of pearls, gold earrings and a gold bracelet, white gloves and conspicuous powdered make-up. This overt display of wealth may have been suitable for a married woman but Nini has an ambiguous relationship to her male companion, who is dressed in full evening wear consisting of a white waistcoat or gilet cut very wide and low, a stiffened white shirt, a starched white cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks. This unclear relationship is expressed through the complex interplay of gazes presented in the painting: he raises his binoculars to scrutinize the other women displayed in their theatre boxes, whereas she sits perfectly still, seated in full view of her admiring audience, a smile playing across her lips, one gloved hand holding her fan and white-laced handkerchief, the other a pair of binoculars.It is hard to tell the exact material of the subject’s dress, which remains blurred by the Impressionistic style, although it appears to be of white silk chiffon with appliqued ruched black silk net. Such hazy and insubstantial fabrics would have appeared at their best in the evening, particularly under the artificial lights of the theatre which would have caused the various layers to shimmer and gleam in contrast. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. By depicting Nini in the latest vogue, which would have been unaffordable for both the artist and his model, Renoir hoped for recognition and the consequent monetary gain that might reward him with the upper-class lifestyle that he imagined his luxuriously dressed mistress within.

If we look at any of these three paintings we get a sense of the importance of public display and spectacle in modern Parisian life, and the significance of fashion within that as a vibrant non-verbal system of communication, indicative of wider social, cultural and economic meanings. The Impressionists captured fashion as a whirlwind spiraling towards modernity, which simultaneously inhabited the past, captured the essence of the present and was imbued with potency for the future. Whilst clothing might be understood as a stable and utilitarian form of dress, for Degas, Morisot and Renoir, fashion, with its affinity for transformation and innovation, was constantly shifting in a cyclical process.



Dressmaking – Rethinking Fashion in the 1930s

Spring Styles from Roma's Fashion, 1936

‘A Spring Medley’, from Roma’s Fashion, 1936

I’ve been sorting out my 1930s magazines and found three lovely mid-decade sewing journals that are a wonderful way to see how trends were disseminated – and re-fashioned – for a wider range of women.  Although high fashion magazines included columns on dressing on a budget, especially during the Depression, the amount of money needed to obtain such a wardrobe would still have been out of reach to most.  So titles such as Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal and Roma’s Fashions filled a gap in the market and enabled women to deploy their skills in dressmaking.

Women were keen to emulate the styles they saw in magazines, in newspapers and at the cinema – both in feature films and in newsreels that covered society events, and the latest fashions.  As one woman commented in the Mass Observation survey for 1939:

‘I always study fashion articles, advertisements, women’s magazines to keep my ideas up to date.  I never discuss with friends, but I take note of what well-to-do people wear, and notice photographs of the Queen or Duchess of Kent as naturally the fashion houses who dress those people should know what is coming in.  I take every chance of studying the displays in the best shops though I could not afford to patronize them.  Fashion in this locality [Burnley] lags behind the fashion in a large city like Manchester so I like to see the shops there.’

Magazines including those pictured here, therefore encouraged women to transform what they saw into reality, and to look to a variety of sources, as well as considering occasion and figure type when translating ideas into clothing.

Although ready-to-wear fashion was developing apace, there was still some prejudice against it – as middle class women were unsure how respectable such garments might be.  Women’s anxiety about the ways fashion was procured could be assuaged by reassuring magazine articles, and letters pages where readers could ask for advice anonymously.  Patterns could be made up at home, or taken to a local dressmaker.  Barbara Burman has written convincingly about the creativity involved in home dressmaking.  She argues that it allows women to adapt fashion or ignore it, even to pass off garments as shop bought and thus subvert the value system attached to how and where fashion was acquired.  She offers this description of the process as:

‘…a sort of autobiographical practice, home dressmaking is an intimate process. The garment made at home is not so swiftly had as the ready-made.  In its measuring, cutting, assembling and fitting, the form and realities of the maker’s own body must be met again and again.  Home dressmakers using a dressmaker’s dummy see their own body shape from all angles, as seen by another person or in a three-way mirror.’ 

So this gives the pages from my 1930s magazines a new perspective – not just a glimpse at earlier visions of femininity and domesticity, they in fact offer ways to rethink women’s agency in the period, and their approach to self-fashioning.

(L) Selection of 1930's Dressmaking Magazines, (R) 'How to Dress for Jubilee Year', Weldon's Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Selection of 1930’s Dressmaking Magazines, (R) ‘How to Dress for Jubilee Year’, Weldon’s Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Looking at Hollywood styles, Weldon's Ladies' Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma's Fashions, October 1934

(L) ‘Looking at Hollywood Styles’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934

(L) C(entre L)

(L) ‘Dressing the Fuller Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (Centre L) ‘Styles for Business’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (Centre R) ‘A Dress Stand That Moulds to Your Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (R) ‘How to Dress like a Parisienne’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal 1935


Barbara Burman, ‘”What a Deal of Work there is in a Dress!”  Englishness and Home Dressmaking in the Age of the Sewing Machine,’ in Christopher Breward, Becky Conekin and Caroline Cox, eds., The Englishness of English Dress (Oxford: Berg, 2002)

Catherine Horwood, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class between the Wars (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2005)

How to Dress for Success by Edith Head

Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was one of the greatest Hollywood costume designers of all time. She won eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, starting with The Heiress (1949) and ending with The Sting (1973). She was nominated 35 times, and holds the record for the woman who has won the most Academy Awards ever. Head famously worked extensively with Alfred Hitchcock, dressing leading ladies such as Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) and Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954), in addition to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957).

Grace Kelly wearing an Edith Head dress in Rear Window.

Grace Kelly wearing an Edith Head dress in Rear Window.

In 1967 Head wrote an interesting little book called How to Dress for Success, an advice book for women influenced heavily by her design philosophy including illustrations by Head herself. I would contend the book is timeless and relatively relevant to the modern woman in a fun albeit not literal way. Although some advice is certainly a bit outdated such as Chapter Two, “How to Dress for a Man and Keep Him,” which includes passages that say things like, “Conservatism in your wardrobe will stand you in good stead with [The Shy Conservative Man]. Shy away from plunging necklines, black lace textured hosiery, above-the-knee skirts, figure-revealing silhouettes and wild hairdos.”

Edith Head surrounded by 700 of her sketches.

Edith Head surrounded by 700 of the costume sketches she designed throughout her career, 1967. Copyright: AP.

However, other  chapters such as “How to Dress for Success in Business” include more modern advice such as, “When every other girl in the office has decided to wear her hair up or teased or straight to the shoulders–that’s the time for you to achieve a new and distinctive look when the current make-up theme is ‘doe eyes’ or ‘two pairs of lashes resist–desist–and be yourself. Wear the make-up that does the most for you while everyone else in the office projects a single monotonous pattern.” Interestingly, the book inspired Vogue to apply her thoughtful, twentieth-century advice to the twenty-first-century wardrobe.

Head suggests: a smart suit and tote—in which you can stash a superglam accessory for evening. Vogue suggests: Stella McCartney’s boyfriend blazer and wool pants with Proenza Schouler’s PS11 tote for day, plus Chloé’s embellished ankle-strap sandals for night. Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a smart suit and tote—in which you can stash a superglam accessory for evening.
Vogue suggests: Stella McCartney’s boyfriend blazer and wool pants with Proenza Schouler’s PS11 tote for day, plus Chloé’s embellished ankle-strap sandals for night.
Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a short evening dress. Vogue suggests: Short drapey red dress from Lanvin with Marc Jacobs’s patent leather clutch. Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a short evening dress.
Vogue suggests: Short drapey red dress from Lanvin with Marc Jacobs’s patent leather clutch.
Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a day dress, day coat, and day bag. Vogue suggests: Marc by Marc Jacobs’s full-skirted dress with Dries Van Noten’s coat and a casual Fendi baguette. Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a day dress, day coat, and day bag.
Vogue suggests: Marc by Marc Jacobs’s full-skirted dress with Dries Van Noten’s coat and a casual Fendi baguette.
Copyright: Condé Nast


Fashion is Spinach

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 21.12.04I have been thinking a lot about Elizabeth Hawes recently – about her ability to combine politics and fashion and her varied career that encompassed multiple books, as well as her couture and readymade fashion designs. Working in Paris in the 1920s as a sketcher – copying couture design, but also sending information on trends back to America from resorts such as Biarritz, gave her unique insight when she returned to New York the following decade and began designing. Vassar-educated, she brought a sharp eye to all she saw, and developed a keen wit to cope with some of her travails – especially when working within the constraints of department store readymade ranges. What is so compelling about her is the tensions her interests brought to her work – combining socialist ideals with a dress business was not always easy and her writing reflects her exasperation, as well as her inspiration, derived from the fashion industry.

Working, as she did, within a number of fields, she was able to reflect on these experiences in ways that are fascinating to examine now. At the moment, I’m looking at her 1938 book Fashion Is Spinach. If you haven’t read it –then do! It is lively and entertaining, but also a sharp, opinionated critique of the ways women are sold fashion, rather than encouraged to develop longevity through personal style. Throughout, her fascination with fashion and its potential to shape identities remains constant. I’ll write more once I’ve started to develop my research on her, as I want to think further about fashion and politics as themes within her work. For now though, here are a few choice quotations to whet your appetite:

‘I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day. For thousands of years people got along with something called style and maybe, in another thousand, we’ll go back to it.’

‘Some people seem to like it [fashion]. There are a good many people who don’t, but just accept it as inevitable, throwing away perfectly good old clothes and buying new ones every year.’

‘The only useful purpose that changes in fashion can possibly have is to give a little additional gaiety to life.’

‘Chic is a combination of style and fashion. To be really chic, a woman must have a positive style, a positive way of living and acting and looking which is her own.’

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 21.11.52

Sources & Images: Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion Is Spinach, New York, 1938