Commentary Archive

Undressed at The V&A

by Aric Reviere


Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

Last weekend, on my semi-regular sojourn to the V&A, I decided to attend the Fashion Department’s new exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” To my surprise the exhibition garnered quite a bit of attention the morning of my visit, with the exhibition space itself full of visitors and lines of spectators inching slowly past the glass displays of historic underwear and garments.

My initial expectation of the exhibition imagined the display to be a spattering of various undergarments from different eras, but with a noticeable emphasis on the corset and hoop skirt. To be fair, these elements were featured prominently in the display, and even though most of the visitors flocked to these body contorting contraptions, the rest of the exhibition presented a delightful overview of innovations in underwear from an impressive range of eras. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the evolution of lingerie design toward the end of the exhibition, which traced developments in the industry from the 1920s to the 1930s. Compared to the hyperbolic manipulation of the body evident in the miniscule waists of the corsets on display, the body sculpting garments from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s seem tamed. Upon closer examination, however, the garments’ structures constrict the form and manipulate it into an ideal shape. From an academic perspective, the garments provide a perfect point from which to examine the power structures connected to standards of beauty. They enable the viewer to question what motivated a wearer (and still does) to physically transform their body via the adornment of garments that often use metal structures to manipulate the form? What gaze ultimately develops that definition of beauty and through networks disseminates and propagates an entire system of dress to elevate certain ideals? How do such beauty ideals limit the wearer’s agency within various social contexts, but also enhance his/her agency within others?

The second half of the exhibition attempted to blur the demarcation between under garments, lingerie, etc., and outerwear through the presentation a numerous outfits from the V&A’s permanent collection. Personally, I found this section disconnected from the first half of the exhibition with certain ensembles on display not particularly resonating with the exhibition’s theme. With that said, I must admit that the Ulyana Sergeenko couture pieces were to die for and on my list of most coveted items.


Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own


Ulaan Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Ulyana Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Posing the Body: Stillness, Movement, and Representation (May 6 – 7)

We wanted to share the programme and information regarding a fascinating symposium partly organised by Rebecca. Do Book NowAdmission: £26 general admission £16 students, concessions (over 60) and Courtauld staff/students.

Posing has been central to art, dance, and sculpture for thousands of years. In recent years, the growing interest in fashion media and modelling has also focused attention on questions of pose and posing. Incorporating notions of movement and stillness, posing can be understood in terms of historical modes of representation, as well as contemporary media and rapidly evolving relationships between bodies, subjects, and technologies of representation. Posing incorporates symbolic and semiotic meaning alongside embodied action and feeling. Recent coverage of the work of choreographer Stephen Galloway in 032c magazine, and new publications such as Steven Sebring’s Study of Pose: 1000 Poses by Coco Rocha testify to the growing interest in the cultural significance of posing and the pose – yet both remain under-researched areas with little discussion of their significance.

This symposium will assert the importance of pose as both a creative practice and an emerging area of critical inquiry. It will bring together multi-disciplinary academics and practitioners to discuss and develop new ways of understanding pose and posing in a historical and contemporary context. We encourage proposals for papers that address pose from global and diverse perspectives.  This event represents a potentially fruitful and exciting moment to bring these strands together to the benefit of researchers within practice and theory-based media, historians of dress, photography, art and film and allied disciplines. The keynote lecture will be delivered by David Campany, internationally recognised writer and curator, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster.


Friday 6 May. University of Westminster, Regent Street Cinema, London W1B 2UW

17.15 – 17.50            Registration

18.00 – 19.00          Keynote address: Dr David Campany (University of Westminster) – Title TBC

19.00 – 19.15           Comfort Break

19.15 – 19.40           Performance choreographed by Christopher Spraggs

19.40 – 21.00          Reception

Saturday 7 May. The Courtauld Institute of Art, London WC2R 0RN

09.30 – 10.00            Registration

10.00 – 10.15            Welcome and Introduction Dr Rebecca Arnold (Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, CIA)

10.15 – 11.15            Session 1: Posing Directing Moving (Chair: TBC)

  • Dr Penelope Rook (independent Scholar): From Couture to Clochard:  Posing the body in Vu
  • Dr Peter K. Andersson (Lund University): Everyday Posing and Performativity in the Late Nineteenth-Century Street
  • Marketa Uhlirova (Senior Research Fellow, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London): Choreographing the body: early fashion film, 1909-1920

11.15 – 11.30            Discussion

11.30 – 12.00            TEA/COFFEE BREAK (provided, Seminar Room 1)

12.00 – 13.00            Session 2: Art Fashion Sculpture (Chair: Dr Katie Faulkner, Visiting Lecturer, The Courtauld Institute of Art)

  • Dr Madeleine Newman (University of Leeds): Sculptural Fashion Shows? Pose, Parody and Performance 1968-1978
  • Nancy Troy (Victoria & Roger Sant Professor in Art, Stanford University): The Art of the Pose: Performing Saint Laurent Performing Mondrian
  • Dr Luisa Fink (Independent Scholar): Sculpture and Pose The Actor in the Work of Franz Erhard Walther

13.00 – 13.15            Discussion

13.15 – 14.15             LUNCH (provided for the speakers only)

14.15 – 15.15            Session 4: Movement and Dance (Chair: Katerina Pantelides, PhD Candidate, The Courtauld Institute of Art)

  • Tiffany Boyle (PhD Candidate, Birkbeck University of London): Pausing the Performance: Artistic Gymnastics and the Statuesque
  • Dr MJ Thompson (Concordia University, Montreal): Posing and Concert Dance: Steve Paxtons Proxy
  • Elizabeth Welch (PhD Candidate, University of Texas at Austin): Deliberate Poses: George Platt LynesDance Photography and the Dancer as Sculpture

15.15 – 15.30             Discussion
15.30 – 16.00            TEA/COFFEE BREAK (provided, Seminar Room 1)

16.00 – 17.00            Session 4: Bodies Gender Politics (Chair: by Dr Eugenie Shinkle, Reader in Photography, Westminster University)

  • Lauren Downing Peters (PhD Candidate, Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University): Fashion Plus: Pose and the Plus-size Body in Vogue, 1986-1988
  • Dr Sara Knelman (Assistant Professor, Ryerson University): Posing and Re-posing: Photography and the Politics of Posture
  • Felice McDowell (Associate Lecturer & PhD Candidate, London College of Fashion): Writing about Posing: myths and narratives of post-war fashion modelling

17.00 – 17.15                       Discussion

17.15 – 18.00            Panel Discussion (Chair: TBC)

  • Jan de Villeneuve (fashion model), Julian Marshall (fashion photographer)
  • Caroline Hamilton (dance and costume historian)

18.00                         Drinks Reception

Gazette du bon ton, 1921, History of Dress Collections, The Courtauld Institute of Art

Gazette du bon ton, 1921, History of Dress Collections, The Courtauld Institute of Art

Contemporary Reliquaries and Utopian Fashions

Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Held just before London Fashion Week in February, the International Fashion Showcase (IFS) is a series of installations organised by the British Council and British Fashion Council that feature the work of emerging designers from different nations. This year’s setting was Somerset House, where each country’s exhibit responded to one theme, Fashion Utopias, in the context of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility at Somerset House Trust, the Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College. Through thematic exhibitions and connections to cultural institutions, the IFS showed how fashion could signify more than Fashion Week runway shows or commercial practices. It illuminated makers creative processes, broadened to connect to various interpretations of ‘utopia.’ This unexpected merger of commerce and curation worked to heighten viewers’ questioning the definition, and artistic and cultural significance of dress. Further, through the participation of Courtauld Dress History research students in a study day, the IFS sought to explore the historical and theoretic resonance of contemporary design.

Traces of history were what drew me to Isabel Helf’s wooden bag display (from her collection “Portable Compulsion”) in the Austria installation, as I walked through the exhibition before my talk at the study day. The bags recall medieval reliquaries, in that they house precious hidden contents and are precious containers themselves. Like the many reliquaries that were imitative of architectural spaces, such as a 13th-century reliquary shrine of St. Martial, the bags were conceived to relate to architectural space and furniture. Some affix neatly onto tabletops or, through their 90-degree-angle bases, rest atop flat, stepped surfaces. Helf designed these coordinated interactions to function in the cramped spaces of contemporary city life. In contrast to narrow spaces, I found that through their very miniaturization, they communicate the possibility of human potential. Likewise, Cynthia Hahn has noted that portable reliquaries promise to, in the words of Susan Stewart, “open […] to reveal a secret life […] a set of actions and hence a narrativity […] outside the given field of perception.” As I experienced at the IFS, the bags too elevate wearers beyond the mundanity of daily life through an intimate handling process.

Once opened, the possibility of narrative or creation is offered through the bags’ contents, built-in writing implements and other everyday objects, which are designed to fit perfectly in removable slots, all made from the same wood. Helf worked with a carpenter to learn the traditional joinery techniques such as dovetail and finger joints that hold the bags together. She explained to me that when two things fit together, whether in terms of the bags’ placement against architecture or their own construction, individuals experience satisfaction. For Helf, this feeling also results from the bags’ ability to “order” belongings in small spaces. Echoing the ideas of Frank Davis, they could be seen to work as sartorial solutions that counter the confusion and ambivalence of modernity. Thus, while harking back to distant moments, they reveal contemporary problems and offer a psychological and spatial utopia in their miniaturization and capacity for precision, multifunction and order.

Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

(Above) Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

fig 4

Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

(All above) Isabel Helf, Bags from “Portable Compulsion” collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.


Davis, F. (1992) Fashion, Culture, and Identity, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago.

Hahn, C. (2012) Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University.

Stewart, S. (1984) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University.


Elegant Style: The Jacqueline de Ribes Exhibition

Descending down one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s grand staircases, we entered as a group into the dimly lit entry of the Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style exhibition. With the walls painted in a dark, sensuous tone and a repetitive refrain of classical music masking the buzz of the exhibition’s visitors, I possessed the distinct impression of entering a boudoir, intimate in its almost seductive, elegant exploration of one woman’s sense of style. Ushered by the architecture of the exhibition space through a rough chronology of the Countess’s life via a series of mannequins adorned in ready to wear and couture garments from de Ribes’s personal archive, visitors engaged visually with this woman’s sense of identity and its evolution from 1962 to the present.

To me, the curation of the exhibition was nothing short of impeccable since it sought, and achieved, to elicit an elusive sense of style. While certain criticisms of the wall text littered our discussion of the exhibition later that evening, I felt personally that the exhibition was a success as a visual experience for the average viewer. I will detail below the curatorial elements I believe make the exhibition a success by creating a cohesive narrative of style.

Firstly, the arrangement of the mannequins and the series of ensembles they adorned achieved a sense of individuality for each look, but also managed to subsume that individuality into a larger narrative of de Ribes’s style. Even the poses of the individual mannequins, which varied greatly in slight details such as the pose of the wrists, angle of the neck, or even orientation of the torso, reiterated the aura of uniqueness of each look, while the persistent use of black, featureless mannequins both shifted the viewer’s focus to the garments and created a sense of cohesion between the often disparate aesthetics. In sections of the exhibition with large collections of mannequins on one platform all adorned in ‘Evening Wear,’ for example, the curation clearly conveyed to the viewer the sense that each of the ensembles were moments in the lifetime of the subject. Such an approach differs from the all too common archetypal objects included in fashion and dress history exhibitions, which curators use in an attempt to allude to an entire trend, or genre, of garment making and the specific cultural and historical context from which said garment emerged. Given the darkness of the exhibition space, the curators’ decision to place the mannequins on removed platforms painted in highly luminescent silver and lit strategically from the ceiling created an ethereal, shimmering, three-dimensional background space through which the mannequins moved. Other arrangements placed the garments within specific contexts of digitized ephemera presented on a background wall composed entirely of screens. As a whole the curation created an aesthetic experience as opposed to a highly educational and informative one, which I believe is the subject of a lot of its criticism. But for the average museum visitor, I wonder if such an approach to curation is not the more successful tactic.

Ultimately, my favorite collection of objects in the exhibition composed the series entitled “Black and White for Night.” The arrangement of gorgeous black and white evening wear spanning several decades resonated not only with my academic and critical sensibilities, but also with my personal style. To me that sense of resonance underlines the exhibition’s success because the exhibition captures the often elusive concept of style and translates it into a lived visual experience for the museum visitor.

A gorgeous evening look

A gorgeous evening look

A bias cut gown

A bias cut gown

A close shot of mannequins

A close shot of mannequins

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the MET


Jacqueline de Ribes by Richard Avedon; de Ribes as ‘The Last Queen of Paris’ in Vanity Fair; and the designer adjusting her logo.

Showcasing 60 or so ensembles from Countess Jacqueline de Ribes’ wardrobe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style visually traces the life of de Ribes, a Parisian-born aristocrat whose sense of style and unconventional approach to dress had captivated the (high) society of her day. Now 87 and living in Paris, most of the gowns on display stem from the Countess’s personal archive and span the early 1960s to the present. These are arranged in a series of tableaux from daywear, eveningwear (the bulk of clothing on display), her own designs, to the exotic costumes she devised for dramatic entrances at masked balls. A devoted client and friend of the couturiers of her time, de Ribes was renowned for asking for specific modifications on the couture gowns she ordered, making her own adjustments, combining ‘high and low’ (although ‘low’ seems an ill-suited term for the ready-to-wear de Ribes purchased), and finally launching her own design business in the early 1980s.

Despite the constraints of an aristocratic milieu in which women’s accomplishments were limited to figuring in ‘Best dressed lists’ – something de Ribes mastered early on, entering Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed list in 1956 – the Countess found in fashion a way of channeling her independence and creativity, which would culminate in the launch of her own brand ‘Jacquelines de Ribes’ in 1982.  Yves Saint Laurent had encouraged her to re-consider: ‘He told me I would suffer too much.’ Her husband reluctantly consented, yet resisted risking his own money in the venture. If de Ribes had stood as ‘a muse to haute couture designers,’ she exceeded that role on many levels. It is a point that the exhibition seeks to make, emphasizing her unique sense of style, her role as designer, and her different endeavors in theater, television, interior decorating, and charity events.

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Yet for all its attempts to convey a more complex portrait of de Ribes, the exhibition falls back at times onto the long-worn tropes that precisely reduce women to the passive role of muse. Introducing her through the lens and pen of Richard Avedon and Truman Capote as one of the ‘swans’ of ‘impeccable elegance,’ the opening panel fails to clearly frame the issues at stake. There is a certain blurriness between her historical characterization and the discourse through which she is ‘advertised’ to the exhibition viewers: the panel notes her ‘precocious sophistication,’ ‘aura of exoticism,’ and ‘innate and self-taught talents,’ seemingly conflating at times her sense of style with an idealized (elite) femininity, and therefore playing to the allure that such discourses arguably retain today. Dramatic lighting effects and a classical music score only further obscure (quite literally) the exhibition’s critical engagement with the material on view. Put forward as a sort of conclusion, quotes from de Ribes that thrive on the classic fashion-elegance-style triumvirate stand as a final blow to a well-intended goal.

It is regrettable that exhibition does not attempt to unpick the loaded implications of de Ribes’ characterizations at the time, but rather ambiguously draws on them. This is despite the exhibition’s focus on de Ribes as a designer, and as a ‘wearer’  – someone who retains agency in asserting a personal identity through fashion, momentarily alleviating the weight of social prescriptions. As Elizabeth Grosz has noted ‘the past contains the resources to much more than the present.’ By addressing that past less obliquely, the Jacqueline de Ribes exhibition could have done more than thrust us back into a time capsule of glamour.



Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Histories of a Feminist Future
,’ Signs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Feminisms at a Millennium (Summer, 2000), p. 1019.

Tags: exhibition; glamour; couture; style; Jacqueline de Ribes; MET

MA Study trip day three: an afternoon at the Museum of the City of New York with Phyllis Magidson

To tell the truth, none of us had ever heard of the Museum of the City of New York before it appeared on our study trip schedule. Our curiosity was piqued, however, when over the first few days of our visit the name repeatedly popped up as we talked to other curators and archivists. They would cite the dress collection there, telling us how wonderful it was.

We knew it was going to be good as soon as we walked into the impressive rotunda of the Museum lobby. First stop was down to the basement to see the archives, recently rehoused in a specially built state-of-the-art space. Phyllis Magidson, curator of dress and textiles, introduced us to the collection there. A row of stacks was unrolled to reveal a corridor of all manner of colourful hanging garments. Along the other side of the room was flat-lay shelving for the more delicate pieces. Phyllis showed us designs by American readymade designers Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell as well as from European designers. She explained though that the majority of the items, especially from the earlier years, tend to be couture or designer – reflecting the tastes of the Museum’s patrons and wealthy donors when it opened in 1923. This was just a glimpse of the more than 25,000 items of dress in the museum collection. The common factor that links them all together, and the reason for their preservation in the Museum, is their connection to New York and the (for the most part) New Yorkers who originally owned and wore them.

The second part of the trip took us back upstairs to one of the Museum’s main exhibition rooms and the location of Dressing Room: Archiving Fashion. Open to the public, for two months a selection of items from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are being photographed as part of an online digitization project and added to the museum’s online database. After having spent the previous few days looking at more traditional methods of displaying dress (thematic exhibitions consisting of a line-up of mannequins), this set-up was immediately engaging and inspiring. By taking a process that might normally be carried out behind closed doors, and turning it into an exhibition for the public, Dressing Room wasn’t so much about the clothes being photographed, as about the practice of the history of dress itself. At one end of the space was a large white backdrop, in front of which were several photographic lights and a camera, poised to capture the mannequin once dressed. A rack of garments held the line-up of clothes, which were delicately taken down, one by one, for their turn in the spotlight. On one of the walls a video was running of garments being photographed at some earlier point – a speeded-up version of what was happening in reality for impatient viewers. It was an inspiring indication of how thinking outside the box in displaying and curating dress might open up new ways of engaging the public with the discipline of the history of dress.

If you would like to take a look at the digitisation project, this short time-lapse video records Phyllis and her assistant in the process of dressing a mannequin (Link to Vimeo:

Thank-you so much to Phyllis for having us!

A magnificent headpiece by Bill Cunningham for Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball, 1966

A magnificent headpiece by Bill Cunningham for Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball, 1966

A pair of dressed mannequins

A pair of dressed mannequins

A rack of garments waiting to be photographed

A rack of garments waiting to be photographed

New York Fashion Networks Stitched Together Through Sketch

Documenting Fashion goes to NYC Part 3

Eric de Juan

Eric de Juan fashion sketch embellished with glitter (1967-69). Caption reads: “Oriental silk in multi-hues fashions this gown…its waist and neckline, embroidered in beading that echoes the tones of the dress.” Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

Elizabeth Hawes’ early career as a copyist was defined by sketching. Between 1925-1928 she would attend Paris fashion shows, acting in disguise as a genuine client, but in fact discreetly memorizing and then sketching the ensembles shown. It was through the power of her pen that she used the sketching medium to convey moods and communicate ideas from high fashion in Paris, and then disseminate these to networks of mass-production fashion counterfeiters. Hawes’ story gives a sense of how international fashion networks operated through this humble artistic medium, and was one that I reflected on when visiting archives on our recent study trip to New York.

Sketch from the Burleigh Subscription Company. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

Sketch from the Burleigh Subscription Company. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

During our time in the city we visited three manuscript and library archives:  The Fashion Institute of TechnologyParsons New School of Design and Condé Nast. Visiting these collections bought about the opportunity to see the different types and styles of fashion sketches circulating within New York during the early twentieth century. Seeing the volume of drawings gave me a sense of how this medium held a certain power in parallel to photography, within interconnected fashion design, copying and publicity networks.


Students viewing sketches in the Manuscript Collection at FIT. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora.

On our visit to the Parsons New School archive we viewed sketches by designers Claire McCardell and Mildred Orrick. The bulk of McCardell’s works from the early 1930’s to the late 50’s were produced for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks, it was her working sketches from this period that particularly fascinated me. The minimal front-facing designs were made up by few lines, on geometric limbless figures, positioned to the left of the page; bar a few quick notes scribbled in the corners, masses of blank space was left on the many sheets. McCardell’s simple colorless designs were completely contrasted with the more commercial sketches we viewed at FIT.

‘Yellow Pants’, Claire McCardell fashion sketch for Townley Frocks, (1951). Image Credit: Parsons New School of Design Archive.

‘Yellow Pants’, Claire McCardell fashion sketch for Townley Frocks, (1951). Image Credit: Parsons New School of Design Archive.

Assisted by April Calahan, whose academic interest is in this area of dress history, we saw examples of other designers’ sketches, including Edward Molyneux’s colorful, detailed fashion plates with risqué titles for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925), plus sketches from the Bergdorf Goodman custom salon collection, showing gowns and millinery from Dior and Balenciaga (1930-1969). Both sets of sketches, intended for client and documentary purposes, were emblematic of contemporary fashion moods that populated the fashion press, evident on our visit to Condé Nast’s archive, in which we viewed sketches artists were commissioned to produce for Vogue magazine. Proving the importance of this modest, yet romantic artistic medium for contemporary fashion networks and the creation of elevated lifestyle brands.


Edward Molyneux’s sketch for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925). Caption reads: “♯1 ‘Where the Shannon River Flows’ Black Taffeta with grey and green stripe afternoon gown.” Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora.

Though the medium imbued designers, department stores and the magazines with prestige, sketching was also a quick and discreet way to copy and disseminate designs. This was evident in the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches at FIT, the subscription service, founded in 1948, which disseminated sketched copies of fashions shown at couture shows. Reminiscent of contemporary Pop Art, the drawings were coloured with brightly concentrated acidic gouache washes. The quantities of reproduced sketches were a reflection of popular networks of copying and mass production in New York. I was fascinated with how this contemporary artistic theme crossed into the business of fashion sketching. Seeing how these networks of fashion sketching operated in New York was a fascinating experience that I hope will influence my study of dress history at the Courtauld.



Black Rose ballgown from the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora


Black hooded dress from the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora


A visit FIT for a Princess: Documenting Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)

On Tuesday, February 16, 2016 we kicked off our visit to New York City with two appointments at the Fashion Institute of Technology. April Calahan, Special Collections Associate of the Special Collections and FIT Archives guided our first tour by providing a wealth of historical context, which nicely complimented our current studies of mid-twentieth century European couture (see: Giovanna’s post for info on this!).

Then, after a wonderful lunch at the Eatly market (see: nutella crepes), we began our afternoon visit with the lovely Emma McClendon, Assistant Curator of Costume at FIT and Documenting Fashion alum (MA 2011). Emma kindly showed us various pieces of dress from the institute’s study collection. Having pre-selected pieces within our 1920-1960 timeframe, Emma hung garments at distance for an initial observation then laid them on a table for our closer inspection. In addition to providing detailed catalog entries for each piece, Emma expanded upon the history of each garment. Explaining how it had come to be acquired by the collection, why it was important and pointing out elements of its construction that were of relevance.

Highlights of the collection included muslins of couture pieces constructed by FIT students as part of a class project to preserve more delicate items; plus, original extant items – a gorgeous velvet opera coat; a tweed Chanel skirt suit; Dior and Balenciaga dresses; and finally a Mariano Fortuny gown. Since we’ve already spoken about the Chanel suit in a previous post, I’ll focus on my fascination with the Fortuny (c. 1930s), Dior and Balenciaga (c. 1950s) gowns; two drastically different silhouettes, which each represent a key moment in dress history.

Right: Muslin of original Chanel dress in red silk crepe. Bateau neckline, front bib shaped yoke, mock closure at left with self-covered fabric buttons. T-shaped back shoulder yoke, and decorative topstitching in triple-row design on bodice at dropped waist and knee-length plated skirt. France, c. 1927 (Source: FIT Catalog entry) Left: Evening cloak in black silk velvet with heathered grey chinchilla large shawl collar; straight cut with godet inserted at sides; attached waist length cape with gold procade trim at hem and sleeve edge. American, c. 1923 (Source: FIT Catalog entry)

Right: Muslin of original Chanel dress in red silk crepe. Bateau neckline, front bib shaped yoke, mock closure at left with self-covered fabric buttons. T-shaped back shoulder yoke, and decorative topstitching in triple-row design on bodice at dropped waist and knee-length plated skirt. France, c. 1927 Left: Evening cloak in black silk velvet with heathered grey chinchilla large shawl collar; straight cut with godet inserted at sides; attached waist length cape with gold procade trim at hem and sleeve edge. American, c. 1923 (Source: FIT Catalog entry) Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

In 1907 Mariano Fortuny introduced the Delphos gown, offering women for the first time in the twentieth century, an alternative to structured dressing. The pleated silk-satin Delphos gown could be rolled or twisted to fit into a small box. Once removed, it would stretch out into a full-length classicized dress, with its pleats intact. Fortuny devised and patented a secret method to create permanent pleats, which Emma claims has never been successfully replicated to this day. The more revolutionary advancement, however, was how the dress was designed without using conventional seams in order to mold to the female figure; liberating women from the corset. Designers such as Madeline Vionnet, who pioneered the bias cut in the 1930s would continue to champion this emancipating, form-fitting silhouette for the modern woman.

Fortuny Dress

Fortuny Dress Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

Detail of Fortuny Dress

Detail of Fortuny Dress Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

In stark juxtaposition, the Dior and Balenciaga gowns were rigid, constraining and heavy with crinolines and corset-like boning within the bodice, from the waist all the way up to the brassiere. The dresses not only highlight couture’s obsession with leaving nothing to chance by superficially molding the body to perfection, but also illustrate fashion’s complicated relationship to social norms – in this case Dior’s “New Look” represents a certain kind of response to the post war era crisis of masculinity by evoking an ultra “feminine” time period from the past.


Dior dress c. 1950s Image Credit: Giovanna Culora


Balenciaga dress c. 1950s Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

The visit concluded with a tour of Emma’s most recently curated exhibition, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier at the Museum at FIT. This was an amazing opportunity to see first hand how a young curator researches and installs an exhibition. Emma explained her decision-making processes for including certain pieces, how they were acquired and how she included digital components. It will certainly be informing how I approach the next MA assignment, which you’ll surely hear about in the coming weeks – the Virtual Exhibition!

Denim: Fashions Frontier exhibition. Leaflet.

Denim: Fashions Frontier exhibition. Leaflet.

Dress Secrets: Documenting Fashion goes to NYC part 1

People keep asking, and I keep failing to share a single favourite thing from our recent trip to New York. Certainly, the group went into collective paroxysms of bliss when a 1923 opera coat of black velvet, gold brocade and grey chinchilla trim was whirled in front of us at Museum at FIT. There were more than a few exclamations of, “But this place has my entire undergrad art history coursework in it’s collection!” from those who had never been to MOMA. And when the Museum of the City of New York turned out to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of costume and couture from the city’s historic hoi polloi, I will admit to a certain amount of gaping.

Giovanna inadvertently channeling Meret Oppenheim's 1936 'Object' at MOMA (L) & The MA's trying to find the best angle for photographing the light installation at the Museum of the City of New York (R)

Giovanna inadvertently channeling Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 ‘Object’ at MOMA (L) &
The MA’s trying to find the best angle for photographing the light installation at the Museum of the City of New York (R)

Perhaps that’s it. Proximity, presence, reality—the physical experience of objects we’d only previously seen in print. There is inevitably a certain amount of staring at reproduced images in Art History, and Dress History is no exception. The world doesn’t hold an endless supply of Fortuny Delphos gowns to pass around, no more than it has endless Matisse. Neither can Fortuny be replicated more easily than Matisse, his pleating technique, lost to history has never been accurately replicatedSo when a peach silk Delphos is uncoiled from its box, and the lightness and fragility of the silk has to be carefully balanced in an archivist’s hand against the incredible comparative weight of the Venetian glass beads at its sides you can’t help but feel like you’re being let in on a secret. In pictures, both on the body and on mannequins, the Delphos gown lends an air of the impenetrable, neoclassical statuesque. Up close in the Museum at FIT archives, it looks so delicate you begin to imagine what it would be like to wear  how it would cling and skim over your body, the hang of the beads and stretch and pull of the intricately pleated fabric.

The Mariano Fortuny 'Delphi's' Dress at FIT

The Mariano Fortuny ‘Delphos’ Dress at FIT

Again at FIT, a Charles James gown on display conjured up romantic visions of an idealised 1950’s silhouette, all curves and flounce and extremes of femininity. Exterior layers of tulle belie a lightness, the impression of which is quickly dispelled when confronted with a muslin archive copy that audibly groans on its hanger from the sheer weight of fabric involved in these creations. James’ wish to be regarded as a sculptor make more sense than ever from this vantage, as the dress is able to stand under its own support, and the addition of a body inside it seems inconsequential to its existence.

The enormous Charles James muslin copy showing in thick folds of padded fabric

The enormous Charles James muslin copy showing in thick folds of padded fabric

I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs of examples—how seeing the serious corsetry under a loose, a-line 1962 Balenciaga, or hearing the sheer volume of noise created by a fully beaded 1920’s flapper dress made me feel like I had been handed closely guarded knowledge about dress history. Seeing these garments, even on hangers, or being gently removed from archival boxes gave a sense of weight and movement and even sound that images will always struggle to convey, and which going forward encourages me to seek the real thing out wherever, and whenever possible.

The heavily boned Balenciaga (L) and the beautifully noisy flapper dress (R)

The heavily boned Balenciaga (L) and the beautifully noisy flapper dress (R)

Why “Formation” is Necessary for a White Audience – A Dress Historian’s Perspective

In a typical Queen Bey move reminiscent of the unannounced video drops of the album “Beyonce” and the “7/11” EP, Beyonce released a new video entitled “Formation” on February 6th. Naturally, as a huge Beyonce fan all of my social media platforms began disseminating first responses to the new song and I felt compelled to stop everything I was doing and watch the video for myself.

Since its release and Beyonce’s surprise performance of the new song at Super Bowl 50 in a costume alluding to Michael Jackson and surrounded by dancers clothed in costumes reminiscent of the Black Panthers, “Formation” has been the subject of numerous articles deconstructing and analyzing its various scenes, lyrics, and messages. Of these, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff’s Dazed article entitled Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ is a Defiant Reclamation of Blackness seemed particularly potent in its explanation of the past, current, hopefully future identities Beyonce’s video attempts to reclaim for African Americans.

What seemed important for me to highlight in the context of this blog, my academic research, and of course within the parameters of this MA course on the history of dress, is how Beyonce performs identity for a specific audience. Naturally her allusion to her “Givenchy dress” appropriates certain forms of elite white culture, evoking both the history of the eponymous label and its resurgence as a major arbiter of taste under Tisci’s direction. So much has already been written on how she performs identity – from hairstyles to ensembles to the backdrops – but I think that her intended audience is of particular importance.

Givenchy Dress in Beyoncé's formation video. Source: Video screenshot.

Givenchy Dress in Beyoncé’s formation video. Source: Video screenshot.

In many ways, I view that intended audience to be twofold. Most importantly, the video’s glorification of a variety of black bodies as beautiful, its rejection of “whiten-ing” beauty standards, and overall positive body image demonstrates to a black audience that the black body in all of its manifestations is just as worthy of characterization as beautiful as its white counterpart and therefore is inherently valuable. In other words, BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Blue Ivy, Beyoncé's daughter, with natural hair.

Blue Ivy, Beyoncé’s daughter, with natural hair.

Secondly, the video clearly seems to be a defiant reclamation of black identity geared at disrupting white constructions of blackness and instead offering to a white audience a series of identities created and portrayed by “real” black women. I think this is absolutely necessary in the contemporary moment for white audiences to be confronted through the very mainstream media that propagates, perpetuates, and promotes white standards of beauty and identity, with the fact that racism not only still exists but is actually prevalent and institutionalized. The limited diversity we usually see on these platforms is often tokenized, distorted, and manipulated to produce sensationalized stories.

Beyoncé in the Camino wearing a fur coat typically associated with African American rappers. Source: Video Screenshot.

Beyoncé in the Camino wearing a fur coat typically associated with African American rappers. Source: Video Screenshot.

Beyonce’s push towards the reclamation of blackness, visual appropriation of elements of black history (in particular southern identity through allusions via scenery and dress to the history of southern slavery), and even her re-employment of “Negro,” all disrupt the normative narrative of blackness in ways necessary for a white audience. Blackness is successful, popular, and enviable. Blackness should not be defined by white preconceived notions.

In the 21st century, my hope is that movements like Black Lives Matter, the Smith’s boycotting of the Oscars, and even Beyonce’s “Formation” help to create a world where a young black girl “just might be a black Bill Gates in the making!” Instead of inhibiting the progress of our country by systematically oppressing a part of our citizenry through police violence, a lack of access to quality education, and narratives of history, identity, and progress derived from the monolithic ideology of the white establishment, it is time for the privileged to support our African American sisters and brothers and assist them in the creation of a equitable society.