Commentary Archive

Evening Essential: Grace’s family’s 1930s Minaudière

 

This past week, the Courtauld had its annual winter ball, a chance for students to dress up in their fanciest evening wear and celebrate the end of term. During the 1930s, minaudières became a staple of women’s evening wardrobes. Defined as jewellery, these were miniature oblong cases which acted as purses or bags for cosmetics and other items considered essential for a smart evening out. In 1934, Van Cleef and Arpels patented the design and created luxury metal versions, finished with beautiful stones or lacquer. Even though they were beautiful and highly decorative, these cases were also functional – aimed at optimising space whilst carrying necessary items. Studying these items as dress historians proves most interesting because they reveal what were considered the essentials for an evening out in the 1930s.

This minaudière, which has been passed down the line of women in my family, appears to be from the years following the 1930s. An inscription on one of the clasps shows it is made by L.S. Mayer for ‘Park Lane Deluxe.’ The exterior is in an art deco style faux shagreen, a beautiful pebble green colour with a speckled pattern, and a gold metal frame. It has a chain which would have been worn round the wearer’s wrist whilst dancing at the balls, also making it fulfil the role of a decorative bracelet. In the first section inside there features a very generously sized mirror which runs the entire length of the minaudière, and opposite that there are two compartments which include rouge and powder, complete with the puffs to apply them. There is a fold up tortoiseshell hair comb, and a section at the bottom for a bullet of lipstick or perhaps cigarettes. Each aspect of the design has been carefully thought through to make do with the small space and to maximise its functionality.

On the reverse of the minaudière, there is another mirror and a notepad and pen with a holder. There is also a hidden compartment below this which flaps up to reveal a long and narrow case, which could have contained alcohol or was a cigarette lighter. What makes this minaudière stand out from the rest is that it differs greatly from any usual accessory, because it features a notepad and pen. As my grandmother says, this could have been for women to write down the names of their partners to dance with at the ball. Either way, it asserts the active role women had at the time in terms of fashioning their own identity. The minaudière is also interesting when compared to modern day clutch bags used on nights out such as the Courtauld’s Winter Ball. Usually there is at the very most a tiny zip pocket in clutch bags, and the rest is an empty space. On the one hand, the 1930s minaudières were genius in that they planned out each and every thing that might be needed, and catered for it within the case. On the other hand, nowadays we have much more freedom in choosing which items we consider as essentials in our individual clutch bags, and therefore how our evenings will be defined.

By Grace Lee

All photos author’s own

Looking at Dress in Contemporary Dance Performance in London

 

Last week I saw two contemporary dance performances: the world premiere of Wayne McGregor’s ‘Autobiography’ at Sadlers Wells and The Michael Clark Company’s ‘to a simple rock n roll…song’ at Barbican. Both McGregor and Clark collaborated with iconic fashion designers for their wardrobes: McGregor with Aitor Throup and Clark with Stevie Stewart.

Throup created adaptable costumes for McGregor’s ‘Autobiography’, a dance of 23 dance sections in response to the choreographer’s individual genome sequence. Each night the dancer’s performed a random sequence of these sections, and the lightweight mesh clothes designed by Throup equally contained this unpredictable and interchangeable energy. A monochrome wardrobe of – what is also historically what McGregor’s own aesthetic consists of – shirts and shorts with fastening ties worn in a multitude of ways by the dancers, such as shirts tied around the waist, or with ties being left to hang loose.

 

The Michael Clark Company worked with Stevie Stewart, one-half of the influential 80s fashion label BodyMap for the costumes for his triple bill ‘to a simple rock n roll…song’. Clark and Stewart have worked together on the costumes for his dances since 1984, and for this triple bill of music-focused pieces, Stewart responded in collaboration with Clark to create costumes that reflected the energies of each choreographed embodiment of the different musical influences. For the first dance, which was to a stark piano piece by Erik Satie, the dancers’ costumes reminded me of piano keys where full-bodied longsleeve unitards of white torsos and black legs were worn. The following dance was to Patti Smith’s ‘Land’ and the dancers wore patent black flared leggings and white tops, with the lead dancer wearing a net-patterned top. For the David Bowie section of the performance, the costumes consisted of shimmering silver high-necked unitards and later on peach and orange glittering ones. One dancer wore all black (wide leg linen trousers and a longsleeve top), and a black pleated cape to cover her face for some of the dance to Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’, and she then twisted the cape around her and over her arms while she danced.

In Clark and McGregor’s collaborations with designers to create the costumes for their dances, we experience different approaches to how dancers interact with what they wear when they perform in line with the different focuses of the choreography: ‘To a simple rock n roll…song’ on music, ‘Autobiography’ on variation and McGregor’s own self.

By Evie Ward

Lace Me Up Daddy: A Brief Glimpse Into Male Corsetry

 

The hyper-feminised silhouette produced as a result of corsetry is not one often associated with the notion of a male wearer. The corset acted as a means to drastically cinch the waist, lift and enlarge the bust as well as operating as a means to contour the hip and natural curve of the female body. In exaggerating the typically idealised ‘hour-glass’ silhouette it becomes almost unfathomable to think of the male body in relation to these traditionally feminised proportions.

As Valerie Steele argues in her book Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power however, corsetry and the male body have a long and interesting history. Steele first discusses a common theme amongst male corset-wearers: the underlying sense of masochistic pleasure derived from the restrictions of tight-lacing. She details how, historically, many men would borrow their wife of sister’s corset and thus ask to be laced into it. The desire to be submissive toward a dominant woman is certainly an interesting concept in relation to male corsetry however, it is much too limiting a view to take when considering the complexities of corset-wearing in the modern era.

Mr Pearl, a renowned tight-lacer, is quoted within Steele’s book in stating that he does not wear corsets in an attempt to be like a woman. For Pearl, corsetry is representative of control and the discipline one needs to wear such a garment. The corset dictates the way in which one behaves; movements are restricted and posture is refined. As the corset provides support for Mr Pearl’s spine it metamorphoses into and becomes his spine, thus providing the structure and discipline that he desires in everyday life. The corset becomes a second-skin for Pearl, acting as a marker for his identity.

These notions of structure, discipline and identity factor into Steele’s discussion of the use of corsets within military uniforms. She describes Austrian officers who tight-laced as a component of their military dress. In this sense it is clear to see how Mr Pearl’s association of tight-lacing and discipline manifests itself. The military is often seen as being affiliated with extreme restraint and regulation. It therefore seems appropriate that military men might find pleasure in wearing a garment that imposed rules and restraints upon the body to maintain orderliness and posture. Within this discussion of corsetry as a means of imposed discipline however, lies an interesting observation as to how the corset can actually promote a masculine silhouette. Although corsets have predominantly been used to maintain the ideally feminine ‘hour-glass’ shape, the corset can also bee seen as exaggerating inherent masculinity. When contoured to a male body, the corset cinches the waist, elongates the torso and broadens the shoulders; features often seen as being ideally masculine. While the corset may give the illusion of curves on a female body, it can actually produce harsh and angular lines within the male silhouette; a harshness that, I argue, exaggerates masculinity and the idealised male form. Whether male corset-wearers are expressing a masochistic desire for female domination or enacting a need for order and discipline, I believe there is no doubt that corsets act as a means to exaggerate the idealised masculine physique rather than transposing that of the feminine onto the male body.

By Niall Billings

 

Further Reading:

Valerie Steele, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, 1996

Miwa Yanagi: Elevator Girl

 

Miwa Yanagi’s 1990s photography series, Elevator Girl, presents a fascinating look at how fashion and photography can come together for a cultural critique. Yanagi studied textile design at the Kyoto City University of Arts, and incorporated this knowledge with a newfound interest in photography and performance art into one project. Beginning in the early 20th century, Japanese department stores hired beautiful, young women to operate the elevators in their buildings. She was made to dress up in the same outfit every day, and sit in a box repeating the same motions over and over again. The elevator girl was clearly a sexual object that represented the traditional patriarchal oppression of women in society, yet she was also a modern woman of the world that had a paying job and dressed in a contemporary, sophisticated manner. Yanagi’s photographs explore the traditional pressure and oppression that women still face in modern society. Take Elevator Girl House 1F, which shows rows of uniformed elevator girls displayed in a glass case.

They are dressed in identical red uniforms consisting of a skirt and double-breasted jacket, complete with a matching red hat and white pumps. They are each posed in a stiff, mannequin-like fashion within the glass display cases. The photograph invites the viewer onto the moving walkway to observe the models as if they are commodities to be bought and sold. Uniforms are powerful tools, in that they invite an immediate response of recognition. When you see someone in an army uniform, you automatically assume they must be a soldier of some kind. The red uniforms in Yanagi’s photograph give the viewer that sense of recognition to the elevator girls, but puts them in a different context. There is a simultaneous familiarity and alienation – the girls are recognizable in their uniforms and remain in a display context; however, they are now overtly the commodities in an endless row. There is also a sense of alienation in their similarity. The reflections of the lights above on the glass cases obscures their facial features. This coupled with their identical outfits makes them almost indistinguishable from one another.

Miwa Yanagi’s work in the Elevator Girl series investigates Japanese popular culture and consumer culture by appropriating their themes and satirizing them. Her series takes the patriarchal image of the elevator girl and uses it to shed light on the pressure and inequality Japanese women face. The photographs themselves resemble glossy fashion advertisements, thus criticizing both the way in which women are thought of as commodities and the consumer culture that gripped Japan as well. The ritualized performance of the elevator girl, the repetitive motions she makes everyday, the identical outfit she wore to other women, and the pressure put on her to appear alluring and youthful, is representative of the standardized roles women of any profession or status are expected to play. Her photographs increase the viewer’s feeling that there is something problematic about the elevator girls through a heightened sense of unreality that she achieves by placing the girls in eerily familiar, yet surreal settings. While her photographs in the Elevator Girl series are glossy, beautiful, and eye catching, they leave the viewer feeling unsettled, which is precisely their job.

By Olivia Chuba

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys

 

Paris is often romanticized as a dream-like vision; the bustling banks overflow with cafés as sophisticated Parisian dwellers enchant our imagination. Chaïm Soutine addresses this imagined ideal of the Parisian streets with his vivid portraiture in Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys, which depicts the quotidian worker in Paris thus highlighting the mundane and unglamorous. Soutine personally related to these workers he depicted; after emerging as an acclaimed artist in 1922 after years of humble work, Soutine felt out of place in this new bourgeois realm. Through acute attention to his subjects’ uniforms, Soutine reveals a complex narrative of both the discomfort of the service men and women he depicts in their high-class workplace, and his own apprehension about his newfound fame. Both uncomfortable in their given uniforms, Soutine and his subjects feel like outsiders in a bourgeois society.

The pair of galleries on the top floor of the Courtauld Gallery guide the viewer on a rich visual journey through twenty-one of Soutine’s portraits organized primarily by his sitter’s occupation. Soutine’s thick application of velvety reds and dark blues dominate the majority of the portraits’ backgrounds and bring a richness and warmth to the space that feel secure and familiar. This visual ease juxtaposes with the discomfort of the subjects in the portraits.

Soutine’s sitters, primarily valets, bellboys, pastry cooks, waiters, or chambermaids, appear deeply uncomfortable. Their bodily proportions are distorted in an unsettling manner, their facial expressions are scornful, and their brows are furrowed—all projecting to the viewer the discomfort in their uniform both physically and emotionally. The subjects look tense in their dress, and their uniforms appear stiff and ill-fitting. This is particularly poignant in The Chambermaid and Valet.

The Chambermaid (La Femme de chambre) c. 1930

The Chambermaid’s hands are clasped tightly in front of her apron, her elbows stiffly pinned to her side. Her rigid stance draws attention to her pink dress and white apron, which, as a chambermaid, needed to be pristine at all times to tend to hotel duties. The woman’s face is tired, and her tense body language suggests a discomfort in her role.

Valet (Le Valet de chambre), also known as Hotel Boy c. 1927

The Valet’s white apron, blue coat, and red vest envelop his figure. The red fabric surrounding his torso bunches to his right side, and his blue coat sleeves billow around his elbows and upper arms. Soutine’s wide brush strokes convey the folds in the valet’s white apron and mirror the wide fit of his uniform as a whole. The Valet’s ill-fitting uniform and disdainful expression suggest a similar discomfort and unhappiness in his role.

While coexisting in the realm of the Parisian bourgeois, Soutine and his sitters were uncomfortable in their uniforms. This tension suggests Soutine felt awkward and tense stepping into a position of great wealth and privilege, and related to the unpresuming service workers, who also felt a sense of discomfort. Through focusing on the dress of Parisian service workers, Soutine was able to channel some of his anxieties about his new uniform just as his subjects’ were confronted with their own.

The Courtauld Gallery’s Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys on view until 21 January 2018.

By Arielle Murphy

Dress History: The story of Corrie in her parachute silk blouse, ca. 1943

A black-and-white photograph captures a young woman posed against a plain backdrop, smiling confidently. She wears a blouse made of a seemingly light-coloured fabric. The blouse’s gathered sleeves end just above her elbows, and its yoke appears to be punctuated by small dots in five horizontal rows. The handwritten caption under this photograph, found glued into an album, not only identifies this young woman, but also ‘identifies’ the blouse by revealing its materials and how it was made. Moreover, it reveals that this woman is both the wearer and the maker of the garment. Originally in Dutch, the caption states: ‘Corrie in self-made blouse with smocking in parachute fabric from English aviator’.

‘Corrie’, short for ‘Cornelia’, is my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1925 as the eldest daughter and the third of six children. Her family lived in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. As a young girl, Corrie learned how to sew. Decades later, I remember Corrie, known to me as my grandmother, as having an eye for the intricate details of clothing – the quality of the material, the cut, the construction and the finish. Her appreciation of and interest in textiles and clothing, and how to make them, must have been hereditary. It runs like a thread through my family, from my grandmother to my aunts and mother, to my younger sister and me.

Before she married my grandfather Nel in 1950, my grandmother completed commissioned pieces in addition to making clothes for herself and her family. However, because of the years of textile rationing during the Second World War, none of her original pieces have remained. The earliest surviving self-made garment is her wedding dress, which after her death in 2011 was passed on to my mother. The blouse she wears in the aforementioned black and white photograph has disappeared. I did not even know about its existence until a few months ago, when I discovered this photograph in a photo album compiled by my grandmother’s younger sister, Nellie.

I brought it to our ‘Documenting Fashion’ seminar on ‘History and Memory,’ for which we had to bring a personal dress-related object. I had read before about garments made of so-called ‘parachute silk’ during and right after the Second World War. For instance, Dominique Veillon, in her book Fashion under the Occupation (2002), writes about the case of Vichy-France (1940–1944). During shortages of clothing and its raw materials, “any piece of cloth or the like was a godsend.” Veillon points to the emergence of a “fairly widespread fashion” for clothing made out of parachute silk among women close to the Resistance, even though this was risky because it revealed one’s links with the Resistance and the Allied Forces.[1] And Julie Summers in her book Fashion on the Ration (2016) about wartime fashion in Britain, writes: “Almost every woman who was alive at the time remembers either acquiring some [parachute] silk or having seen a garment made from it, and it was indeed considered to be a wartime luxury.” [2] However, Summers notes that “[a]lthough so many people claim to have had parachute silk, few can remember how to acquire it.”[3]

After finding the photograph of my grandmother, the stories about parachute silk garments suddenly became more personal. My grandmother, still a young girl during Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945), at some point had acquired parachute silk and made it into a blouse for herself and, as a second photograph of Nellie confirms, for her sisters (Figure 2). A handwritten comment on a piece of paper accompanying Nellie’s photograph states “1943?”, but this date remains unconfirmed.

Photograph of Nellie in a parachute silk blouse made. Foto Middendorp, Hilversum. Ca. 1943

I am currently trying to unravel this history further. The only remaining source is Cileke, my grandmother’s youngest sister. The story goes that the fabric for these blouses was salvaged from the parachute of an English aviator shot down not too far away from where my grandmother’s family lived. Having an uncle active in the Dutch Resistance might possibly explain how my grandmother managed to acquire such material. I would love to learn more about this material’s status in the specific context of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Was it forbidden to own this material? Was it dangerous to wear a garment made of it during the occupation?

The photograph of my grandmother in her parachute silk blouse has evoked many questions; some are broader, relating to wartime history, and others are personal, relating to my family’s personal history. Unravelling dress-related (and family) history can be hard when time has passed and the wearer is not alive anymore, and indeed, even the garment is gone. Nevertheless, this photograph makes me feel connected to my family. And although black-and-white, it adds more colour and depth to a topic that I have been interested in for a while, namely dress during the Second World War.

By Nelleke Honcoop

[1] Dominique Veillon, Fashion under the Occupation (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 137–38.

[2] Julie Summers, Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War (London: Profile Books, 2016), 137.

[3] Summers, 138.

Fashion is a technology of communication: The intimacy of accessory in Lygia Clark’s dialogue goggles

 

Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s ‘Óculos’ (Goggles) and Dialogo: Óculos (Dialogue: Goggles) from 1968 draw attention to the performance of wearing, looking and seeing; and the fashion accessory as an object of communication.

Both artworks are performative and are a sensory experience for the participant as well as being an immersive sculpture and fashion accessory. The artwork is the participant wearing the object: a pair of glasses that alters the vision of the participant(s) with magnifying lenses.

In ‘Goggles’ (1968), the artwork exists when the participant wears the goggles. Even here, in this photograph, we are not experiencing the artwork, instead we are seeing a photographic documentation of how the artwork functions when brought to life. We can appreciate this photograph of the glasses on the participant, but we cannot understand what it feels like to experience the glasses; for instance, how they would alter the participant’s vision and the way the participant would feel and interact with others in the space not wearing goggles. ‘Goggles’ is the experience of the participant wearing the goggles in the context they are situated in – it is the interactions they have as a result of ‘being’, ‘seeing’ and therefore communicating as the artwork.

In Clark’s ‘Dialogue Goggles’ (1968), two participants are joined by the goggles they wear. The artwork is the communication between the two participants which is facilitated by the accessory.

There is something both menacing and tender about ‘Goggles’ and ‘Dialogue Goggles’. The goggles, as the object, remind me of WW1 gasmasks or military goggles – the metal arms are jarring and mechanical, and the rubber eye pads are like heavy black shells. The large shape of the goggles obscure the human face like a mask, so that some parts are completely hidden beneath the rubber frames and the eyes are only visible to the other participant. And then, the human aspect of the participants wearing the goggles together puts the objects to function as the artwork and a physical closeness is instigated between the two participants joined by their eyes. The artwork then facilitates an opportunity for intimacy through the participant and the accessory, which is suggested in both of these photos of participants in optic dialogue.

By Evie Ward

 

Plenty of Pockets: Pockets as a 1940s Wartime Phenomenon

In her article for COS about pockets, Rebecca Arnold discusses the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ held in 1945 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. According to Arnold, the exhibition’s curator Bernard Rudofsky signalled a degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothing and “bemoaned the excess of pockets in the tailoring of the time (24 by his calculation), many of which never carried anything”.[1] While spending the last few months doing research on the Dutch woman’s magazine Libelle, in particular its issues covering WWII, I was struck by the abundance of – often extravagantly large – pockets on both haute couture designs, discussed in the magazine’s regular fashion column ‘Libelle-Cocktail’, as well as on patterns for the home dressmaker. Praising their practicality, Libelle presented pockets as one of many “wartime phenomena” in fashion that may signal fashion’s response to immediate wartime conditions.

Unlike other Dutch women’s magazines, Libelle, a popular and still-existing ‘domestic weekly’ first issued in 1934, was continuously published for almost the entire duration of Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands (10 May 1940–5 May 1945). The magazine thus provides us with an interesting insight into Dutch domestic life under the pressing wartime conditions of food and textile scarcity. The Dutch textile rationing system, which was implemented on 12 August 1940 and was only abolished in November 1949, proved to be an ongoing, daily challenge for Dutch women responsible for keeping themselves, along with their families, adequately and, if possible, fashionably, dressed. Responding to the immediate needs of Dutch housewives, Libelle increasingly provided practical yet fashionable ideas on how to mend and make do with one’s wardrobe and make the most of one’s textile rationing card. Numerous sewing and knitting patterns were given, as well as instructions on how to make new garments, often from outworn or unused garments or from unusual materials. Practicality, frugality and diligence did not preclude modishness.

In its 19 April 1940 issue, Libelle mentions fashion’s “latest thing” from America, namely the ‘cash-and-carry-belt’. Resembling the ‘fanny pack’ (also: ‘bum bag’) popular during the late twentieth century, this belt with two large, attached pockets could be used to carry money and other small belongings. Libelle states that Parisian women wear this belt on their daily shopping trips, using one pocket for carrying money and the other for carrying the purchased goods. Providing a pattern and full description on how to make their own version of this wartime-related, American fashion novelty item, Libelle advises women to choose fabric “in accordance with the frock on which the belt will be worn”.

Libelle’s interpretation of “The latest thing: The cash-and-carry-belt”. Libelle, no. 16 (19 April 1940), p. 101.

Pockets were a practical asset to any garment at a time when handbags were increasingly difficult to acquire due to scarcity of materials and rationing coupons. The cash-and-carry-belt, and similarly any type of large pockets integrated in or separately attached to a clothing item, could prove handy at times when citizens, frequently plagued by air raids, had to be prepared to quickly pack and easily carry their valuable belongings with them to bombing shelters.

Illustrations in Libelle of the latest designs by French couturier Jacques Heim. These clearly military-inspired, khaki-coloured, woollen ensembles feature a “[…] brown leather belt with separate pockets, which can be worn at will on skirt or coat.” Libelle, no. 13 (29 March 1940), p. 3.

As the complaint by Rudofsky suggests, the fashion for large pockets did not disappear with the cessation of war. In an article about her trip to London during spring 1946, Libelle correspondent Corry Erkens noticed that pockets, “a wartime souvenir”, were still en vogue, and were sported on coats, dresses, skirts and blouses.[2]

 

A leather belt with an attached bag, which could be worn with all kinds of suits and dresses that did not have enough space to carry one’s necessities. Libelle, no. 18 (3 May 1940), p. 3.

 

By Nelleke Honcoop

 

[1] Rebecca Arnold, ‘On Pockets’, COS website. Accessible via: https://www.cosstores.com/gb/Studio/Projects/On_Pockets (accessed: 16 September 2017). See also: Rebecca Arnold, ‘Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram’, Documenting Fashion blog. Accessible via: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2017/07/25/clothes-modern-read-diagram/ (accessed: 16 September 2017).

[2] Corry Erkens, ‘De Engelsche Vrouw en Wij’ [‘The Englishwoman and We’], Libelle, no. 6 (17 May 1946), pp. 20-23.

Balenciaga’s Legacy: Reinventions of the Modern Female Silhouette

The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.

The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.

Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.

Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.

Semi-fit dress, 1957-58

Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.

Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.

We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”

Baby Doll dress by Molly Goddard

Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.

All images author’s own

By Lily Mu

An Attempt to Unravel Agnes Richter’s Jacket

Within The Fashion System Roland Barthes puts forth the notion that meaning from fashion can only be obtained by its relationship to image and text. The illegibility of the garment itself however, does not imply that said garment does not have meaning; only that it is obscured. This notion is interesting to consider in relation to an embroidered straitjacket produced by the psychosis of Agnes Richter within the confines of the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution in 1895. Various words and incoherent sentences are maniacally stitched upon every available space while visible perspiration stains map the contours of the jacket. This sense of corporeality gives a ghostly impression of the artist’s body and hand; a hand that punctured and stitched the very garment that restricted her. For Richter, the needle became the phallus that she, as a woman, was deprived of within the patriarchal structures of the 19th century sanatorium. The needle-qua-phallus operates as an object that gave Richter a mode of expression, whilst the jacket itself — designed to restrict the arms thus inhibiting the ability to sew — can be seen as an object of castration. The puncturing of the jacket thus becomes an act of aggression that enabled Richter to conquer the object of castration while simultaneously embedding herself within it.

Within her book Agnes’ Jacket, Gail A. Hornstein closely analyses the textual content of the straitjacket and ultimately concludes that it remains illegible to the viewer. Written in German in a style called Deutsch Schrift, the jacket’s musings have never been discerned from the erratic stitchings that line the topography of the garment. What can be deduced however, lies within the abstract nature of the piece; such as the unravelling and withering threads that represent the decomposition of the artist’s mind during the jacket’s production. What Hornstein ultimately concludes is that the ghostly corporeality of the garment comes to embody Agnes and allows the viewer to revel in the obscurity of trying to ascertain who she was.

This obscurity and illegibility, in relation to Barthes’ statements on fashion, provides interesting insight into the gendering of language as well as Richter’s rejection of it. Whilst Barthes claims that language is one of the vessels through which fashion can convey meaning, language itself —as explored by Lacan — is a patriarchal structure that signifies a child’s entry into the Symbolic Order. It is therefore no surprise that Richter, alongside many of her contemporary female patients, rejected language and relied upon other means of expression. Charcot’s hysterics, for example, relied upon contortions of the body while Richter utilized the needle and thread as a means of communication. The similarity that lies between the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ is one that becomes divided when considering the gendering of each. The written word was a privilege predominantly gifted to men while women were often delegated to crafts such as embroidery and weaving. In rejecting language Richter makes a return to the feminine art of embroidery that ultimately subverts and obscures meaning. Trying to unravel the threads of Richter’s jacket is a task that no one seems to be equipped for; and it is in this rejection of the symbolic that allows Richter to speak in a voice that no one understands but everyone wants to listen to.

 

Further reading:

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

 Gail A. Hornstein, Agnes’ Jacket

Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self

 

By Niall Billings