Commentary Archive

Useful and Beautiful? William Morris and H&M

Coincidentally, two days after I asked whether the bourgeois elite ever matched their upholstery to the fabric of their dress, I took myself to the William Morris Gallery to work out what I thought about the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. Spoiler: while I am decidedly annoyed with myself for buying a pretty but unnecessary book about mazes (labyrinths have been on my mind – what else?), I remain ambivalent about the latest of the Swedish fashion chain’s myriad partnerships.

A West End window, emblazoned with the autumn partnership. Photo by author

On H&M’s campaign page, the shopper is encouraged to get lost ‘in a world of exquisite original patterns and modern tributes to the work of William Morris, one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated designers’, in celebration of ‘nature, style and timelessness’. Two models stride through a moor where they offer daisies, peer through windows, dunk enamel cups in basins, and snap pics with a vintage camera, self-referentially underscoring the ad’s amateur film footage look to induce the brand of lifestyle envy that only the 30-second fashion advertisement can. Then: an array of womenswear, ranging from £5.99 to £79.99, though neither the fabric hairband nor the wool-blend coat book-ending the spectrum represent actual collaboration pieces. Out of 90 products, 33 are William Morris & Co. x H&M. And so while there is nothing extraordinary about a two-pack of knee socks, the collection is meant to be a composition of heavy, heady historical references attenuated by standard H&M basics. Pair pleated skirts, maxi dresses and printed wide trousers with knit jumpers, Chelsea boots and faux fur coats: one can ‘curate’ outfits in a way that, in the age of online shopping, would normally never bear mentioning but which happens to resonate particularly with Morris’s artistic ethos: hand-picked Art for Art’s sake…and for everyone else’s.

A selection of pieces from the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. From https://
www2.hm.com/en_gb/ladies/shop-by-feature/1288a-morris-co-x-hm.html?sort=ascPrice&imagesize=
small&image=stillLife&offset=0&page-size=90

William Morris was one of the 19th century’s romantic, disappointing sons who abandoned a future in the church in favour of much more earthly realms. Getting a taste of artistic camaraderie after falling in with the Pre-Raphaelites, larking about on Rossetti’s hilarious ‘Jovial Campaign’ and embarking upon a group artistic housewarming project, he and six partners—whom he eventually bought out—founded the interior decorating business Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. Disillusioned with modernism and industrial modes of production and radically nostalgic for an age of highly artisanal craftsmanship, Morris pioneered a sort of anti-Industrial Revolution. As a progressive socialist and firm believer that beauty belonged to the masses, he also understood the limits to what could only ever ideally be a democratic model, apparently regretting that his ‘his high quality, handmade products were beyond the means of ordinary working people’ (William Morris Gallery). In a move similar to that of 19th century couture houses, his evolving company launched more affordable lines to attract a wider range of clientele – the interior design’s analogue of fashion’s ready-to-wear.

Mannequins dressed in collaboration pieces at H&M. Photo by author

While the ideal Morris client would have afforded an exquisite, hand-crafted, bespoke interior – despite the designer’s empathy for broader swathes of society – there is nothing inherently bespoke in today’s accessible, ubiquitous fashion lines. To be fair, what H&M has done is, superficially, no different from what countless museum gift shops – commercial spaces with much closer ties to art and history – do: if the scarf my mom wears at the Huntington Gallery is not printed with a Morris design, it certainly shares the look. Even his contemporaries ‘dressed themselves with his wall hangings’ (William Morris Gallery). Perhaps it is simply that, what with H&M as an established, popular clothing store, I am more inclined to critically analyse the partnership in terms of fashion and art history and get caught up in notions of integrity; and because Morris had such striking aesthetic principles, I am more invested in an ideological dialogue that I find lacking. Ultimately, the collaboration between Morris & Co. and a mostly-affordable fast fashion company that tends to satisfy and disappoint me at an equal pace oscillates between seeming antithetical and completely fitting. I have not purchased anything, nor do I plan to, and, as mentioned above, I remain ambivalent. But perhaps it would be more fitting to frame this ambivalence as a blossoming response to William Morris’s motto, ‘Si je puis: Pourquoi pas?’

‘Working Girls’ Photographed and Memorialised

While taken and kept in obscurity, snapshots revealing the lives of 19th century working girls have come to light in San Francisco. Believed to be the earliest known photographs taken within an American brothel, the collection of William Goldman photographs currently on display at the Sorokko Gallery are both rare and insightful.

The images date to the 1890s and depict prostitutes associated with a brothel in Reading, Pennsylvania. The snapshots are posed, with playful and individualised compositions. Some images are whole, while some have been cut or torn into cloud-like shapes, giving them a dreamy, surreal quality. All of the images offer a glimpse into the daily lives and minds of the traditionally mysterious brothel girls. 

25 of Goldman’s ethereal photographs are on display in the Sorokko Gallery. The exhibition, which runs from November 15th to December 9th, coincides with the publishing of a book on the same collection by Robert Flynn Johnson, entitled Working Girls: An American Brothel, Circa 1892. Johnson, art historian and curator emeritus for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, discovered the collection nearly 15 years ago and is the reason gallery owners and collectors Serge and Tatiana Sorokko came into possession of the photographs. The book features essays from author and professor of history Ruth Rosen, as well as curator and fashion historian Denitta Sewell. It also features a foreword by burlesque star Dita Von Teese. 

Von Teese brings attention to dressing for seduction, giving mention to the striped or patterned stockings all the women pictured wear. She asserts that individuality, allure and confidence intersect within this garment. She also discusses the empowerment which this series of photographs may have offered those depicted, giving them the opportunity to be represented more or less as they wished. The women in these photographs smile and appear relaxed, offering an unusual sense of fun and agency to their tabooed lifestyle. 

The subversion of Victorian morals and cultural norms which these images represent makes them especially significant for historians of fashion and photography alike.

All images are William Goldman photographs from the Sorokko Gallery, made available by CNN Style.

A Portrait of Jeremy Scott

How did Jeremy Scott capitalise on his ‘aura’ whilst simultaneously crowning himself the Founding Father of (21st century) Fast Fashion? 

The campaign artwork for Jeremy Scott’s 2018 Moschino X H&M collection, at H&M’s Regent Street flagship store, London, 2 November 2018. Photo taken by author

‘Some company recently was interested in buying my “aura”. They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, “We want your aura”. I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So then I thought that if somebody was willing to pay that much for it, I should try to figure out what that is.’ -Andy Warhol

I am unsure as to whether Andy Warhol personally believed he was successful in ‘figuring out’ the marketability of his ‘aura’, but he most certainly triumphed in utilising its inherent mystique to cement his place within the Western art historical canon. If you see a Warholian work of art, the shadow of his authorship looms over its image: his soup cans, his saturated Marilyns, his acidic hibiscus flowerpieces—each undeniably drenched in the saccharine scent of his ‘Pop’ personhood. In the figure of Jeremy Scott, I am reminded of Warhol’s mass-appealing ‘aura’. However, in Scott’s case, his aura’s RRP is far more affordable, and by next season (or by the time his next collaboration drop hits), it will have metamorphosed to possess an entirely new face and/or aesthetic. 

Campaign artwork for Jeremy Scott’s 2018 Moschino X H&M collection

In the campaign artwork for his latest Moschino collection, in collaboration with H&M, Scott places himself front-and-centre. A large, gilded portrait bust of Scott eerily hangs in the backdrop, his icon securing his role as Creator of the collection, the luxury Italian fashion house he directs, and a generation of kitsch-kids who will queue for hours on end to invest in their own slice of 21st century pop-culture history. I was somewhat stunned by the intoxicating jolt of hysteria I experienced viewing this bust of Scott through the glass of H&M’s Regent Street flagship store on my walk to work. There were so many burning questions: Is he aggrandising the role of Designer? Is he mocking himself? Is the use of a sculptural relief with such strong classical connotations important? Why, oh why is it gold… 

Campaign artwork for Jeremy Scott’s 2018 Moschino X H&M collection

I am not shocked by Scott’s use of license in this play on portraiture: he has always heavily publicised the indoctrination of his self-image within Moschino’s branding. In conversation with Alice Casely-Hayford of British Vogue regarding the Moschino x H&M drop, Scott stated, ‘I started with the thought of how to make it the most Jeremy Scott for Moschino collection ever.’ I am not even shocked by the garishly bombastic representation of the self that lingers in this spectral, chain-ridden bust. Jeremy Scott has consistently inspired a playful subversion of the fashion industry’s grandiosity, with his Moschino collections of the past five years undoubtedly poking fun at the veil of exclusivity that shrouds the luxury goods market. 

Behind-the-scenes image of Jeremy Scott and model Gigi Hadid on set for the Moschino X H&M collection campaign

Franco Moschino himself similarly antagonised the culturally accepted signifiers of consumption through his irreverent humour and socially-conscious campaigns—which, likewise, featured himself.

I am, however, shocked by the forward motion of Scott’s cult of personality. A strong, creative character that functions as a personified embodiment of the luxury brand under their direction is not necessarily a negative, it is far less common that a fashion house is governed by an introvert. However, the Moschino brand now, in 2018, cannot be examined without the inclusion of Scott; his authorship is a function of Moschino’s further discourse, and consumers invest consciously into his strategically marketed, highly covetable ‘aura’. 

A picture of Venessa Lee after collecting her goodies from H&M’s Regent Street flagship store on 8 November 2018, day of the Moschino X H&M collection drop

Queues outside H&M’s Regent Street flagship store on 8 November 2018, day of the Moschino X H&M collection. Photo taken by author

Hot tip: type “HMMoschino” into the gif feature on your Instagram Stories for a hilarious insight into Mr Scott’s 21st Century aura. You’re welcome 😉 

And I don’t know about the wider consensus but I’m looking forward to future @diet_prada content on Scott, coming soon to an iOS or android device near you.

The copy-cat scandal that @diet_prada reported on in September 2017, regarding Norwegian womenswear designer and London College of Fashion graduate Edda Gimnes and Scott’s Spring 2019 ready-to-wear collection for Moschino

References

A. Warhol, ‘THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again): 5. Fame (1975)’ in ON&BY ANDY WARHOL, ed. Gilda Williams, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 2016, p.53 

Alice Casely-Hayford, ‘A First Look at the full Moschino x H&M Collection’, British Vogue, 25/10/2018. Online edition. https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/hm-announces-collaboration, accessed 15/11/2018 

Fashion Illustration and Instagram

From the creative process to representation in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, illustration has always played a key role in fashion, its rough, sketch-like appearance giving it a whimsical elegance. Just like fashion photography, fashion illustrations are palpable sources of information about the collective cultural currents of a moment in time.

Today, as long as you have a smartphone, you can capture anyone walking down the street in what you consider to be a fabulous outfit, identifying yourself as a fashion photographer. Depending on the number of followers your fashion account has, you can even be thought of as an ‘influencer’. As someone who loves looking at photos of clothes, especially street-style, I turn to Instagram for my daily dose of visual inspiration. Over time, I have noticed that my feed has automatically curated itself. However, I cannot help but notice the lack of variety in the fashion images I encounter. My newsfeed is saturated with the same overly edited type of photo (I don’t always buy the #nofilter). It seems that every new fashion account is trying to outdo the next most popular one.

In our recent Portraiture and Identity-themed MA seminar, we began by discussing events that would be occurring in London over the next few months. All of the events seemed to have to do with fashion illustration. When I got home I turned to Instagram—of course— to look up a few of the illustrators that we had been discussing. I was so relieved to be exposed to an entirely different, though no less vibrant, dimension of fashion representation. Additionally, there was something exciting about knowing that while I could encounter photos of illustrations at my fingertips, I could also stroll down to the Fashion Illustration Gallery in Covent Garden and engage in a more dynamic viewing experience of fashion illustration.

Fashion Illustration Gallery (The Shop at Bluebird).

Although sketching the runway may seem archaic in a time of live stories and Snapchat, is there not something refreshingly authentic about the process of drawing—a process that offers an escape from filters and retouching? Fashion illustration offers a very different form of real-time representation, one that is organic in its process and tangible in its materiality. Each illustration is unique, rather than a template. There is a rarity in each piece that gives it the special aura of a collectible item.

Left: Richard Haines, Four Guys Walking, 2017, 42×29.7 cm, digital inkjet pigment print. Right: David Downton, 100 Years, 2008, 59.4×42 cm archival FIG pigment print.

 

David Downton, LOVE YSL, 2013, 59.4×42 cm, digital inkjet pigment print.

Fashion illustration definitely seems to be garnering interest in social media, with Instagram seemingly acting as a portfolio for the fashion illustrator. For instance, the page ‘The Unique Illustration‘ posts what its moderator(s) have called ‘fashion illustration flash mobs’. The page selects an image and then posts various illustrations of it realised by different artists. Like in the case of ‘Alice in Gucciland’, this relatively young display mode showcases a fascinating variety of illustrations, which, interestingly, might never have been seen were it not for the platform Instagram affords the artists.

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one stereotype that the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance contrasts her with that of Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Favouring ill-fitting suits and anoraks, Eve is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Yet Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless, but it can become unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is confident and assertive, independent and liberated; her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these dangerous characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, for example, and that the femme fatale wears shoulder pads and red lipstick. Her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different if, for instance, Eve were the fashionable one?

Political Underpinnings: Considering Zoe Buckman’s Every Curve in the age of #MeToo

I first learned of contemporary artist Zoe Buckman’s work two years ago when I read about her solo exhibition, Every Curve, at Papillon Gallery in Los Angeles. I was fascinated by her project, which incorporates hand-embroidered text onto women’s vintage lingerie. The words Buckman included are lyrics from hip hop songs that make reference to women, often with sexist overtones. She has explained that she grew up in East London listening to rappers like Biggie and Tupac, and that their lyrics had an impact on her consciousness. Her body of work reconciles her love of hip hop with her feminist beliefs.

Buckman selected garments from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s, which demonstrate changing ideals of the female body over the course of the 20th century. There is a sort of nostalgic pleasure in looking at the delicacy and feminine beauty of vintage lingerie. Juxtaposed with the toughness and machismo of hip hop, I saw Buckman’s work as an act of rebellion. I also appreciated the nod to the historically feminine craft of embroidery used to express song lyrics with masculinist, womanizing content. Generally, I found this project playful and lighthearted, a fun contrast between two disparate things I enjoyed personally.

Since 2016, there has been a rather alarming turn of events in the arena of American media. We have seen the election of a President who boasts of grabbing women ‘by the p****’, the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge accused of multiple sexual assaults, and the outpouring of women who have exposed prominent Hollywood figures of sexual misconduct igniting the #MeToo movement. All of this is rather appalling, but not new. This is the pattern of history, where dominance and privilege are rewarded with more power.

Over the past months, I have found myself often thinking about Buckman’s work. In the age of #MeToo, it has become painfully clear that women’s bodies remain a battleground, a site on which to reinforce patriarchal power through sexual violence. Reconsidering Every Curve again today, there is something eerie and disturbing about such intimate garments exposed in such a way. They recall a time when women had less choice, less freedom, and less of a voice. Strung from the ceiling together in a room, they take on a spectral quality, and among them we can hear the echoes of women struggling to be heard. These garments are intrinsically tied to female sexuality and femininity, and, when superimposed with the often domineering words of male musicians, become a symbol of the exercise of patriarchal power over the female body.

Previously, I appreciated the contextualizing of a male-dominant hip hop culture in terms of women’s dress, but now I understand them with a different kind of imperative, one that makes reference to violence and silenced narratives. Buckman’s work exposes the intimacies and intricacies of gendered power dynamics through dress, revealing and engaging with the nettles of difficult histories. Addressing violence currently and historically is an endeavor as difficult as it is necessary, and Buckman’s work makes legible a feminist struggle for liberation through the visual vocabulary of that which is most intimate and essential.

Fashion and Feminism: The Brand of the Suffragette

With the centenary of the Representation of the People Act being celebrated this year, images of the Suffragettes have been very much in the public consciousness. The banners, colour palette and clothing in these images are so recognisable to the modern eye that it can be easy to forget how consciously and painstakingly this identity was created; so much so, some historians have argued, that it amounts to a kind of early publicity campaign centred on the ‘brand’ of the Suffragette. The WSPU utilised colour, merchandise and clothing to publicise the ‘Votes for Women’ cause, counter-balance negative publicity and fit their cause into the rhetoric of the age.

The tricolour of the WSPU featured across all aspects of campaigning and became a powerful visual signifier of the suffrage movement, bringing cohesion to the campaign. White, green and purple – representing Purity, Hope and Dignity – highlighted the values of the Suffragette woman but also resonated with the wider social rhetoric of femininity as pure and virtuous. The extensive dissemination of merchandise was particularly innovative, creating a recognisable ‘brand’ and spreading understanding of the suffrage cause. Ties, badges, banners, sashes and waistbands were all available in the Suffragette colours, allowing members to take their political cause with them into their everyday lives, showing their solidarity and raising awareness.

Clothing was also central to the image of the women’s suffrage movement, and was employed by the WSPU to construct an image of the Suffragette which would encourage women to join the cause.  Edwardian cultural norms dictated that women should exist largely in the private sphere, as the ‘Angel in the House’.  Women who entered into the public sphere of political campaigning were widely ridiculed, with derogatory cartoons – depicting such women as masculine, ugly and unfit mothers – springing up across the media. In order to counteract this, the WSPU actively encouraged its members to follow the latest fashions. This allowed the WSPU to construct its own image in the public consciousness, an image which was, in the words of Shelia Stowell, ‘at once both feminine and militant’.

As the government continued to ignore the issue of women’s suffrage, and militant tactics became more widespread, maintaining this feminine image became even more essential. The press released images of Suffragette run-ins with the police, and the police took a number of under-cover surveillance photos of activists. These images directly opposed the gender stereotypes of the age, showing such women as bold, loud and even dangerous. In response the WSPU organised mass demonstrations, and clothing played a key role.  A ‘uniform’ of white dresses combined with WSPU sashes created an almost military presence to catch the government’s attention, while flowers, bright colours and fashionable hats reinforced the idea that a woman could be both pro-suffrage and feminine.

The WSPU realised that clothing and accessories could be utilised to support their political campaign, creating a powerful and easily recognisable ‘brand’ around the ‘Votes for Women’ movement that still resonates with us today.

References

Blackman, C., ‘How Suffragettes used fashion to further their cause’. The Guardian [online], 8 Oct 2015. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/oct/08/suffragette-style-movement-embraced-fashion-branding [Accessed 18 September 2018].

Boase, T., 2017. Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change. London: Aurum Press.

Kaplan, J. and Stowell, S., 1994. Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Exhibition: ‘Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote’, Killerton House, Devon

Exhibition: ‘Votes for Women?’, Killerton House, Devon

 

A Personal Collection of Vivienne Westwood Shoes Exhibition Review

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

The exhibition display.

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

Super Elevated Gillie Heel.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

My shoes on display in my York room.

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

Ellen Bhamra

Images 1-4 courtesy of York Castle Museum.

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

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

Miss Fame: Season 7 Contestant

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

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

Naomi Smalls: Season 8 Runner-Up

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

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

Violet Chatchki: Season 7 Winner

Chatchki in Paris for Paris Fashion Week July, 2018

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

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

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

Catchki betty page

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

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

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

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

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

Schiaparelli Paris Silk chiffon gown, fall 2015-16.

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

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

Paquin Silk chiffon evening cape, 1897.

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

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

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

Though I still want to bite it.

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

All photos taken by the author.