Commentary Archive

Dressmaking – Rethinking Fashion in the 1930s

Spring Styles from Roma's Fashion, 1936

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(L) C(entre L)

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

Sources:

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

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

How to Dress for Success by Edith Head

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

Grace Kelly wearing an Edith Head dress in Rear Window.

Grace Kelly wearing an Edith Head dress in Rear Window.

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

Edith Head surrounded by 700 of her sketches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fashion is Spinach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 21.11.52

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

White Dresses, Summer Heat & Fashion Illustration

Georges Lepape, "Les Cerises", 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Lepape, “Les Cerises”, 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Summer is at least attempting to begin here in London – we have intermittent, weak sunshine – so let’s be encouraged by the potential for warmth and look to the new season’s wardrobe.  Scanning editions of the wonderful Gazette du Bon Ton in the History of Dress collection at The Courtauld, I have noticed the continued fascination for white dresses, sometimes trimmed with primary colours, often left blank for maximum impact.  Of course, this makes perfect sense, white reflects the light, giving a cooling effect, but also has an emotional resonance – it looks nonchalant, we can imagine the feel of delicate fabrics against our skin and perceive white clothes to be fresh and airy.  Even though this impression may be difficult to maintain if you do not inhabit the luxurious realm of Gazette’s fashion plates.

A.E. Marty, "Les Jeux de plein air", 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

A.E. Marty, “Les Jeux de plein air”, 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Barbier, "Un peu...", 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Barbier, “Un peu…”, 1913, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Charles Martin, "Et oui voici mon coeur", 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Charles Martin, “Et oui voici mon coeur”, 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Editor Lucien Vogel employed an elite cadre of artists to populate his publication’s pages.  These illustrators understood how to convey dress in detail, while simultaneously conjuring the mood and environment in which it might be worn. The pochoir technique that the journal used for its plates added luxurious depth to the images – as stencils were used to apply form and washes of colour that were applied by hand, allowing gradation in tone and brush strokes (you can see a more current version of the technique here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkXu21_fSGU ).

Pierre Brissaud, "Rentrons", 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Pierre Brissaud, “Rentrons”, 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Lepape, "La Belle Journee", 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Georges Lepape, “La Belle Journee”, 1920, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

7 A.E. Marty

A.E. Marty, “Au Loup”, 1921, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

In its summer editions, Gazette featured illustrations that showed the ways weather, movement, activity and emotion could all be encapsulated in a rectangle of well-designed print on heavy, textured paper.  Here are a few examples for you to enjoy – and perhaps consider as summer fashion inspiration. From Georges Lepape’s 1913 cherry picker, dressed in Paul Poiret, to the minimal lines of tennis dress shown in bleached out heat in Chastel’s 1924/25 image.  This selection shows fashion illustration’s importance as a medium, and conveys the enduring appeal of the white summer dress …

Benito, "A Las Baleares", 1921, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Benito, “A Las Baleares”, 1921, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Chastel, "Sur La Terrasse", 1924, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Chastel, “Sur La Terrasse”, 1924, All images History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art

Undressed at The V&A

by Aric Reviere

IMG_2138

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.

IMG_2139

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.

Programme

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.

Sources:

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

De RIBES 1

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.

 

Sources:

http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2015/jacqueline-de-ribes

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/haute-ticket-jacqueline-de-ribes-at-the-met

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: https://vimeo.com/153427642).

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