Commentary Archive

Reflection on Judith Clark’s Dress Talk – Researching and Exhibiting “The Vulgar”

On Monday, February 8th, the MA Course had the pleasure of attending a talk given by the curator,  dress historian and Professor of Fashion & Museology, London College of Fashion, Judith Clark, about the exhibition she is planning entitled “Vulgar.” To be curated with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and shown at the Barbican later in 2016, the exhibition traces, visually, various occurrences of vulgarity present in haute couture level fashion from a myriad of time periods. From Clark’s perspective, the exhibition lends itself to a deeper exploration of the very definition (or even definitions) of the word “vulgar” and the nuances, in meaning, associated with those societal constructs. From Clark’s explanation of the evolution of the exhibition concept and the subsequent open discussion, several themes related to the construct of the “vulgar” emerged, namely, the term’s violent connotational undercurrents and its implication of the inferiority of the common. But most of all, I was struck by Clark’s curatorial process as a mix between the academic traditionalism of the discipline and a refreshingly contemporary emphasis on the design of the exhibition as a work of art itself.

Installation photograph of Clark’s exhibition, A Concise Dictionary of Dress, illustrating Clark’s unique approach to exhibiting dress and keen curatorial eye.

From my perspective, “vulgar” derives its plethora of meanings based upon its symbiotic relationship with a certain society or culture’s hegemonic ideal. In other words, the term “vulgar” (from my perspective) highlights discursive, subversive, or simply non-normative behavior, identity performance, and obviously dress that encroaches upon and in so doing highlights the fragility of a hegemonic ideal. For example, the New Negro aesthetic championed by Alain Locke in his 1925 manifesto of the same title sought to elevate the status of African Americans by promoting African American literature, arts, etc. As an extenuation of that cultural agenda, elite African American dress popular during the late Harlem Renaissance appropriated the white middle class aesthetic and, in what was considered a vulgar display of new found wealth, often exaggerated its elements in an almost “Dandy” fashion. James Van Der Zee’s almost ethnographic photographs of the period demonstrates these types of fashions and identities performed by citizens of Harlem as they actively claimed agency in a shifting racial power structure. But a contemporary audience can imagine how vulgar those images must have appeared to white audiences of the period used to popular images equating blackness with the tradition of American minstrelsy. Therefore, my main take away from the talk and the subsequent notion is summarized by the word agency. In what ways can the vulgar, and actively performing the vulgar, award a wearer agency within a given socio-political context?

New definitions of the Vulgar, Adam Phillips. "The vulgar reminds us of the tyranny of the real thing."

New definitions of the Vulgar, Adam Phillips. “The vulgar reminds us of the tyranny of the real thing.”

About Dress Talks: As a part of the Courtauld’s Sackler Research Forum, this series of lunchtime events brings together a roster of invited speakers to talk about their current research, and encourage discussion about dress history now. Each term academics, curators and dress and fashion industry professionals will share their insight and analysis of an aspect of dress and fashion history to provide a platform for new ideas and approaches to the subject. Look out for future events here.

Thinking Pink Outside the Classroom

In addition to studying Rebecca Arnold’s MA at the Courtauld, I also work as a gallery assistant at Christie’s. In this part time role I work across various sales, engaging with clients, specialists and a wide range of art and historical objects. By lucky and unexpected chance, I occasionally come across wonderful treasures relating to dress history. It was on my shift attending the ‘Old Master & British Drawings & Watercolours’ December sale viewing, that I discovered an illustration by George Barbier. Made in 1925, the costume study, likely intended for a theatrical production, depicts a poised lady drinking a cup of tea, wearing a dramatic gown in a buffoon-style 19th century silhouette. Dress historians may well be familiar with Barbier’s Art Deco style illustrations, made famous by his collaboration with Paul Poiret. The graphic artist was also involved in creating and documenting sumptuous costume and set designs for the theatre. Though I had previously encountered printed examples of Barbier’s work, this was the first time I had seen an original drawing. What struck me about this sketch was the paradoxical play between and historical accuracy and dramatic artificiality.

A lady in a floral dress holding a cup of tea signed and dated 'GEORGE/ BARBIER/ 1925' (recto) and extensively inscribed and titled [...] “La tasse de thé/ Séraphine en rose et noir [...]' and with stamp '147 E' (verso), George Barbier (Nantes 1882-1932 Paris), traces of pencil, pen and black ink, grey wash, watercolour, height 26.3; width 20.4 cm.  Copyright: Christie’s.

A lady in a floral dress holding a cup of tea signed and dated ‘GEORGE/ BARBIER/ 1925′ (recto) and extensively inscribed and titled […] “La tasse de thé/ Séraphine en rose et noir […]’ and with stamp ‘147 E’ (verso), George Barbier (Nantes 1882-1932 Paris), traces of pencil, pen and black ink, grey wash, watercolour, height 26.3; width 20.4 cm.
Copyright: Christie’s.

Portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope, Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Watercolour, bodycolour on paper, height: 35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm.  Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope, Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Watercolour, bodycolour on paper, height: 35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm.
Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
















The gown’s silhouette, tightly corseted at the waist, with a ballooning skirt, reminded me of an earlier sketch our class encountered in the Courtauld’s prints and drawings room. A half body watercolour portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), shares many similarities with the upper section of Barbier’s illustration. From the straight cut across the bust, to the unnatural slope of the shoulders, the use of sugary floral adornments, tight shiny ringlets and passive gaze. Barbier’s graphic illustration disrupts this representation of soft femininity through the dramatic explosion of floral motifs cascading down the thick black band at the hem of the skirt. Barbara Matorelli, who has written about Barbier’s work, believed his conception of staging design consisted of uniting simple scenes with sumptuous costumes that were intended to stand out against the neutrality of a dark background. These costumes were perceived to be ‘theoretically accurate’ through their silhouettes, however their surfaces functioned like a canvas, through which Barbier could theatrically renew past styles, cleverly evading anachronism. This is particularly evident with the sketch sold at Christie’s, which fuses historical dress construction with a contemporary graphic illustrative design style.

Reference: Matorelli, Barbara. George Barbier: The Birth of Art Deco. Italy: Marsilio, 2009.

Documenting MA Students

We’re almost at the halfway point of our MA (shocking how quickly the time goes!) and wanted to share a little bit about ourselves now that we’re here. It’s been a pleasure for us all to contribute to this blog, one of the firsts of its kind!

Below are some photographs of us, and we’re each holding a photo of one of our favourite ladies from history (although it should be said that we all had a hard time narrowing it down). Don’t forget to read the captions closely – each one describes some of our History of Dress related interests.


Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery

Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery


Leah's interests

Leah’s interests – Time and temporality, Paris, early twentieth century, photography and film


Carolina’s interests – Costume in film, Latin American dress, History of Couture, Consumerism, Gender & Body

Carolina’s interests – Costume in film, Latin American dress, History of Couture, Consumerism, Gender & Body


Eleanor's interests – Dress History in the Museum, Gender, Uniform, Dress and Emancipation

Eleanor’s interests – Dress History in the Museum, Gender, Uniform, Dress and Emancipation


Aric's interests – Androgyny, the Black Body, and all things chic

Aric’s interests – Androgyny, the Black Body, and all things chic


Aude’s interests - history of photography; feminism; fashion and modernism; and when it comes to fashion fantasies, Martin Margiela!

Aude’s interests – history of photography; feminism; fashion and modernism; and when it comes to fashion fantasies, Martin Margiela!

Documenting Fashion MA Course – Our leading ladies

From left to right: Elsa Schiaparelli, Germaine Krull, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Katherine Hepburn and Josephine Baker

From left to right, then top to bottom: Elsa Schiaparelli, Germaine Krull, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Katherine Hepburn and Josephine Baker

Prêt-à-porter, Subjectivity and Filmic Visualisation in the 1961 French Fashion Press

“She likes to stroll in the Paris of the past and ‘browse’ the antiques.” This text captured the mood of “Paris Promenade,” its accompanying fashion spread in the 21 April 1961 issue of Elle photographed by William Connors. In contrast to the model pictured in the upper right section of the page, who peered at the antique glasses within a shop, the image at the bottom left depicted a woman with an outward gaze stepping into the street. This model walked away from the relics of French design, symbolised by porcelain tableware in the shop window; she looked to the present and not the past, to the freedom offered by the street and not the encapsulation of the interior. But she did not leave Paris; rather, her bright pink shantung shirtdress, or “robe chemisier parisienne” marked her as unquestionably Parisian. From the late 1950s, the fashion press abounded in images of shirtdresses, unfitted dresses typically with button closure to resemble a tailored blouse. Here, the author described the garment as “classique,” but made sure to point out its novelty, made to look like a separate blouse and skirt with the addition of a gilt chain. Likewise, the dress, woman, automobile and the blurred presence of a hurried passer-by in the photograph became expressions of urban modernity when pictured against the architecture of medieval Paris. Modernity was a sensitive topic in 1950s and 1960s France, which was undergoing changes in terms of the modernisation of its clothing industry, cityscapes and the uncertain place of women. Fashion imagery thus negotiated between old and new in its visualisation of models, city and readymade fashion.

Romano image

The image distinguished itself both from traditional full-page photographs in fashion magazines and those that showcased women posed against the backdrop of the iconic and beautiful city. Here, Connors was more concerned with exploring the interactions between the average woman and city spaces. Elements of the city—street, car, stranger—were presented to the viewer as though cropped from a larger picture, hurried moments of a longer period, Connors’ attempt at capturing ‘real’ life with a camera lens. The article drew on visual techniques of contemporary cinema such as Nouvelle Vague, at its height in the early 1960s, in its depiction of fragmentary moments and everyday reality. Readymade dress was appropriate in this spread, which showed the fashion of glamorous women in their daily life. The models were on display but not self-consciously ‘posed’, and brought to mind the way contemporary film directors, such as Godard and Truffaut sought ‘naturalism’ over ‘arranged’ visual compositions. This was the basic premise of this cinema, signalled earlier in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay that predicted the age of the “camera-stylo.” That is, Astruc envisaged a cinematic form that resembled a language rather than a spectacle, forgoing “the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Many French directors applied these notions, which included the use of non-professional actors and the scenario-dispositif over pre-established scripts. Fashion images that were cropped, fleeting snapshots of everyday life, also inadvertently applied Astruc’s concepts.

Like the cinema’s abstract plotlines, photographs such as those by Connors hinted at a narrative. The imagery, as Charlotte Cotton described cinematic photography, triggered readers’ collective unconscious and imaginary, so that “meaning is reliant on investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” Through the input of the reader in Connors’ photograph for instance, a narrative dared to unfold, one that questioned the psychological state of its female subject. This differed from 1950s narratives that offered whole pictures and totality, and often clearly depicted models’ activities. Albeit ambiguous, the narrative began by negotiating her access to the city, her step into the street made easier by the front inverted pleat of her readymade skirt, sold at Paris’ fashionable boutique Réal, “to walk easily.” Image construction, garment, city and reader thus worked together to depict an active, modern subject.



Anon. “Paris Promenade,” Elle, 21 April 1961, 92. 

Alexandre Astruc, “La Caméra-stylo,” L’Ecran français, 30 March 1948, cited in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed., Peter Graham (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1968), 20-22.

Peter Brunette, “But Nothing Happened: The Everyday in French Postwar Cinema,” in The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture (New York: New York University, 1997), 78-93.

Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014 [2004]), 49.

Re-presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art

This Spring term I’m teaching a BA2 course entitled ‘Re-presenting the Past: uses of history in dress, fashion and art’. This was the first dress history module that I ever studied at the Courtauld as a second year undergraduate 6 years ago. Created and initially taught by Dr Rebecca Arnold, it was the first course that captured my enthusiasm for the subject, and prompted me to take my study of dress – as image, object, text and idea – to PhD level and beyond. Over the next ten weeks my eight students and I will be thinking about how history is studied, researched, thought and written about. We’ll be interrogating what history means, how it relates to diverse discourses such as narrative, power, identity and memory, and how our contemporary context impacts on the ways that history is used, presented and re-presented by historians, artists, photographers and designers.

Using theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Raphael Samuel, Jacques le Goff, Jean Baudrillard and many more, we will be considering how history can be re-visited and re-presented through images of dress and fashion. It’s a course that is wonderfully fitting to the cyclical nature of dress and fashion, which continually weaves together past and present with potential for the future. Using images of dress and fashion heuristically, to open out a broader discussion that draws on theory and context, we’ll be considering how objects might contain within themselves an alternative historiography, which could challenge preconceived ideas of what history constitutes.

For their Christmas projects, I sent my students to the V&A British galleries to consider how history is explored through image, object and text within the displays, and to think about how dress and fashion link to national history.

My own explorations threw up some interesting starting points. I began my search for uses of history in the V&A British galleries, 1760-1900, and happened upon a display case exploring the influence of Japan in Victorian Britain. The text panel diligently explained the enormous impact of Japanese art and design in the UK, which was first aroused following the opening up of Japan to British and American powers in 1850. From this point on, Japanese objects began to circulate globally and by the 1870s there was a craze for all things Japanese. The distinctive patterns and motifs of Japanese artistic forms provided a new and exciting source of exoticism to tantalise the curiosity of the British public and its desire for Eastern Otherness.

An example is an orange and green tasseled Japanese gift cover made of Satin silk, with two lobsters embroiders in satin silk thread on the front. The V&A caption vaguely informed us that it was produced in Japan between 1850 and 1880, and then concentrated on explaining that in the late Victorian period it was very fashionable to decorate your home with Japanese objects. The caption read: ‘Textiles such as this, which would have been used in Japan to cover a gift, were particularly popular. The striking lobster design would have seemed very exotic to the British public’.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Hung up flat on the wall of the display case, and thus divorced from its original function as a beautiful and functional object, the gift cover was presented in such a way so as to highlight its aesthetic qualities, which drew a connection to how it would have been originally been displayed, hung up on the wall, in Victorian Britain. In doing so, the V&A presented a very one-dimensional history of these Japanese objects, centered on the perspective of Britain. Although this may have been unsurprising, given that they were displayed in the British galleries, I began to wonder how the objects themselves might tell another history, narrated from the perspective of Japan.

Close up of Japanese silk cover.

Close up of Japanese silk cover at the V&A.

Presented in a very different way, and inserted into a Japanese context, the gift cover could have told another, equally important, history of Japanese art and design production, and how these objects circulated contemporaneously in Japanese daily life. Called a ‘fukusa’ in Japanese, this gift cover would have been draped over a gift, which itself would be presented on a tray. The ‘fukusa’ would be an object of interest in its own right to be suitably admired by the beneficiary, and any guests present. The choice of the gift cover constituted an important part of the process of gift giving and the extent of the decoration reflected the wealth of the person giving the gift, as well as their tastes. The gift cover was then returned to the giver.

This object is just one example of how preconceived histories might be challenged, nuanced, or even re-written in part through a focus on close visual and object analysis. In this particular example, the gift cover contained within itself another narrative of the past – a history narrated from an indigenous Japanese perspective -which the curious viewer might be prompted to further unpick the threads of.


Dress, History & Emotion

Something we discuss a lot on the MA Documenting Fashion is the ways dress is implicated in our ideas of history – on the grand scale, but also in our personal histories too. Early on in the course, we all bring in items from our own and/or family collection to help us unpick the myriad ways we use images and objects to talk about ourselves and situate ourselves within our families and wider communities. These discussions are always some of my favourites, they draw us together as a group, as we share stories and memories, and they allow us to recognize the subjective element within our work as dress historians – how we relate to and use dress ourselves.

I thought it might be interesting for our blog readers to see the things I treasure as part of my family history through dress, and the ways these items connect to wider histories.

My Grandfather & The Compact

My Grandfather & The Compact

My grandfather was in the Royal Navy, and travelled to China in the early 1930s. His wife was left behind at home, but their closeness and love is remembered still in the presents he brought back for her on his return.  These include the powder compact shown here. The outside has a little scene painted on it, and the surface has a slight texture – it warms in your hand as you hold it, and contrasts to the cold metal base of the case. Once opened, traces of the white face powder remain and I think of my granny using it – catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, just as she would have done.

Inside the Compact

Inside the Compact

The compact makes material their relationship, my grandfather’s travels, and the emotions imbued in the souvenirs he brought to share his experiences with his family. It provides an intimate link to the past – my personal history, but also to the role of the military in the 1930s, to international relations and the goods produced for home and tourist markets. It shows us an example of makeup history, and ideals of beauty and design in the 1930s.

My Granny (left) with her Sister.

My Granny (left) with her Sister.

There are so many links to be made through the objects and photographs we save – in a sense we curate our life histories through these and share them with those close to us, weaving intimate and public histories together and showing the importance of dress in embodying emotion and memory simultaneously.

Fashion in Winter (Films!)

As the mercury finally drops in London, we thought it might be nice to focus on how we could get our fashion fix in a more indoor way. Below we’ve rounded up our favourite winter fashion films that should help get us through the cold weeks ahead.**

**Please note not all the films below feature winter fashions. Some of us are clearly in denial.


Rebecca // ‘The Pink Panther’, 1963

This has everything – Capucine in a reversible coat and turban, and a series of dreamy nightwear. Claudia Cardinale in skiwear, beaded cocktail dress and pink and gold sari. Both are dressed by Yves Saint Laurent – and every outfit is lovely.  As if that wasn’t enough, there is more amazing winter knitwear than I have ever seen, a jewellery heist, plus, David Niven, Robert Wagner and Peter Sellers. Really it is just fantastic, I have loved it since I saw it on TV as a child and it is a major influence.

Liz // ‘The Pink Panther’, 1963

My favourite film for winter fashions is that memorable scene from Blake Edward’s The Pink Panther (1963), when Fran Jeffries – with dark hair piled high on top of her head, and scarlet red fingernails – sings and dances to the Italian song “Meglio Statsera” inside a crowded chalet in Cortina d’Ampezzo, watched by the likes of Claudia Cardinale, David Niven, Robert Wagner and Capucine. The epitome of apres-ski chic, she models a red, black and silver-beaded turtleneck jumper, worn with close-fitting black trousers that frame her fabulous figure as she elegantly moves across the room, captivating her audience.

The Pink Panther

The Pink Panther

Alexis // ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’, 1944

This musical is composed of four sections, one for each season, with clothing corresponding to each. Although set in 1903, hair and dress styles evoke its 1940s creation; and instead of blending into one harmonious picture, costumes stand out and play active roles in the story. The film is well underway by winter, and for the climactic dance scene sisters Esther and Rose wear red and green dresses, complementing one another and forming a perfect Christmas palette.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis

Aude // ‘Barry Lyndon’, 1975

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) for the sheer scope of it (hairdos included) and Marisa Berenson’s pensive moments.

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon

Carolina // ‘Love Actually’, 2003

I recently re-watched Love Actually not only because it is a tradition to watch it with a mug of hot chocolate and a close friend every year, but also quite simply because in my humble opinion it is the best holiday film of all time. Costume plays an interesting role in the movie, marking important plot points and conveying key character traits. Most importantly however, it showcases the best or worst – depending how you feel – of late 90s / early 00s fashion. Favourite costumes include Juliet’s (Keira Knightley) wedding dress, a wonderful number complete with small feathers around the neck and nearly-see-through lace (I’m nostalgic regarding for the 90s but think we’re all glad wedding dresses have evolved since). In addition to Billy Mack’s (Bill Nighy) general rock star–gone–broke–and–pathetic costumes such as his horrendously loud Hawaiian shirts and distressed white denim suit. While last but not least, Natalie’s (Martine McCutcheon) nephew’s extremely obtrusive papier mache Octopus costume which manages to almost thwart the Prime Minister’s (Hugh Grant) attempts to win her over, never fails to make me laugh. The awkwardness it inspires whilst showcasing the best of mum’s home costume making is priceless.

Love Actually

Love Actually

Giovanna // ‘La Grande Belleza’, 2013

Though this film does not strictly showcase winter fashions, the costumes, which have been nominated for countless awards are nonetheless beautiful. The reason I love this film is because of the attention to detail paid to the sartorial elegance of the main character Jep Gambardella. Played by Toni Servillo, Jep is a former author who has spent the past years throwing fabulous parties for Rome’s social elite. He is styled according to costume designer Daniela Ciancio as, “an old-fashioned man alive today” surrounded by “a world that has lost a certain elegance”. Such a description is fitting as Jep is dressed in a range of immaculately cut Neapolitan suits, which feature colourful jackets and pocket squares. If Italian menswear is not for you, fear not as there are many a fabulous cape and turban in this beautifully shot award-winning film.

La Grand Belezza

La Grand Belezza

Eleanor // Bridget Jones’ Diary, 2001

The film counts its major transitions in Christmases so we are treated to some spectacular themed jumpers, cocktail dresses and flannel pyjamas, but Bridget’s finale run-through-the-snow is clearly the key fashion moment for the film. The sensory camaraderie in the scene between Bridget and the viewer is a glory, and revolves around the ridiculousness of her outfit. A triumph of incongruity and early oughties underwear, Bridget is caught out when she needs to go out, and retrieve the love of my her life Colin Firth. Knickers with a racy tiger print in a sensible ‘brief’ cut and a periwinkle cotton camisole won’t cut it in the snow and Bridget gives in to the indignity of forcing already snowy feet, bare, into pre-laced trainers and throwing on a grey cardigan that doesn’t quite cover her unmentionables. With Diana Ross belting in the background we share in Bridget’s embarrassment, and rapidly freezing thighs until the sentiment of the final moments when we’re finally wrapped up in Colin Firth’s smartly cut, black wool overcoat that we had last seen marching away, popped collar and swinging tails begging us to follow.

Bridget Jones Diary

Leah // ‘High Society’, 1956

So I’ll admit that this is not exactly a ‘winter fashions’ film – but somewhere in the world right now it is summer, right? In the name of equal representation and fairness, then, High Society gets my vote simply for the poolside costume that Grace Kelly sports: a long, draped, white dress with a cape at the back that she removes to reveal a high waisted playsuit with a plunging neckline underneath.

High Society

Lucy // ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, 1947

Chic suits, elegantly draped with fur stoles and topped with neat hats; and intricately rolled  hairstyles and ruffled dresses that were made for festive celebrations. It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra in 1947, is a winter holiday favourite, and also epitomises many of the fashion moments that the 1940s are remembered for.

It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

Majas y Mantillas: Goya’s Duchess of Alba

In what has been hailed ‘the show of the decade,’ the National Gallery recently exhibited a remarkable 70 portraits painted by the Spanish artist, Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828). Though already considered by scholars to be a genius – the last of the Old Masters and the first of the modern painters – this exhibit has been credited with having the power to change your sense of the artist forever.

I found this statement to be precisely on point as I wandered around the National Gallery’s rather cramped Sainsbury Wing. Having previously found some of Goya’s most well known paintings, ‘Cinco de Mayo’ and ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, eerily haunting albeit brilliant and politically stirring, I have always seemed to miss exactly what it is that has fascinated art historians about Goya for centuries. However, I certainly found it here. The exhibition Goya: The Portraits showcases not only Goya’s expert ability to capture his sitters’ psychology and personality, but also his technical brilliance – impressionistic brush strokes and expert manipulation of color and lighting utilized to portray texture, particularly in clothing.

The Marquis of San Adrián, p. 1804, Goya. Look at those velvet trousers!

The Marquis of San Adrián, p. 1804, Goya. Check out those velvet trousers!

The Duchess of Alba, Goya p. 1797















Painted by Goya in 1797, ‘The Duchess of Alba’ provides an extraordinary example of the artist’s ability to capture costume. Dressed as a maja in a black dress appliquéd with dark flowers, yellow bodice accented with gold cuffs and jewels, and veil known as a mantilla, which is still used in present day Spain, the Duchess of Alba fiercely looks out on the spectator while pointing to an inscription on the ground, Solo Goya (Only Goya). The mantilla drapes heavily around the Duchess’ shoulders, and Goya’s expert use of texture– conveying lightness without compromising detail– allows it to frame her equally black, curly hair.

Detail: Mantilla, The Duchess of Alba, Goya p. 1797

Center: The late 18th Duchess of Alba wearing a mantilla. Below from left to right: Another Goya portrait of the Duchess of Alba, Jacklyn Kennedy and others wearing mantillas, the Duchess of Alba

Center: The late 18th Duchess of Alba wearing a mantilla. Below from left to right: Another Goya portrait of the Duchess of Alba, Jacqueline Kennedy and others wearing mantillas, the Duchess of Alba

The costume in ‘The Duchess of Alba’ underscores the sitter’s strong will, intelligence and independent nature. By electing to be painted in traditional maja costume – the exaggerated dress of the Spanish lower classes – the Duchess actively chose to defy French enlightenment ideals and fashion, and emphasize her Spanish pride. It provides a captivating contrast to the typical eighteenth century portrait (below), in which costume, in addition to conveying status, tends to act as an adornment which shapes a traditionally beautiful, dainty woman devoid of thought and emotion into an idealized form.

Portrait of a Lady with a Book Next to a River Source p. 1785, Antoine Vestier. An example of a late eighteenth century portrait of a demure woman. Her slumped posture and falling face contrast sharply with how the Duchess of Alba holds herself powerfully and defiantly. The bright vs. muted colors of their respective clothing also provide an interesting contrast.

Portrait of a Lady with a Book Next to a River Source p. 1785, Antoine Vestier. An example of a late eighteenth century portrait of a demure woman. Her slumped posture and falling face contrast sharply with how the Duchess of Alba holds herself powerfully and defiantly. The bright vs. muted colors of their respective clothing also provide an interesting contrast.

The red scarf woven with gold thread is carefully tied around her corseted waist to showcase the jewels sewn into the tip of the bodice, which convey her power and position. The point of the bodice directs the viewer’s gaze to her jewel-laden hand pointing towards the engraving on the earth. However, a close inspection reveals two engraved rings which raise pertinent questions regarding the relationship between the artist and sitter– a diamond ring inscribed with Alba and a gold band with Goya.

Detail of the diamond ring engraved with Alba and gold band inscribed with Goya

Detail: Diamond ring engraved with Alba and gold band inscribed with Goya

The Duchess of Alba was the highest-ranking woman in Spain after the queen, and her contemporary decedents undeniably remain powerful figures belonging to the Spanish nobility (distantly connected to the Spencer / Churchill clan). So is Goya, a high-ranking artist though commoner nonetheless, insinuating that the two transgressed social boundaries? Or was this some kind of eighteenth century endorsement such as, the Duchess of Alba approved of Goya enough to blatantly allow him to connect her image with his name and brand as an artist?

It goes almost without saying that the history of ‘The Duchess of Alba’ and the costume depicted in this portrait are utterly fascinating. Further, there remains a vast amount of speculation regarding the engravings and relationship between Goya and the Duchess. Indeed, many art historians believe her silhouette was the inspiration for the scandalous paintings ‘Maja’ and ‘Maja Desnuda’, but I will let you find out why the paintings were so controversial that Goya was questioned by the inquisition for painting them… If you have a chance, certainly don’t miss the last few days of this very worthwhile exhibition.

Goya: The Portraits is on at the National Gallery from 7 October 2015 until 10 January 2016. The Courtauld Book Library holds a copy of the exhibition catalog.


Noyes, Dorothy: “La Maja Vestida: Dress as Resistance to Enlightenment in Late 18th-century Madrid,” Journal of American Folklore, vol 111, no 440, 1998, 197-217.

Courtauld MA Application Tips

As the New Years countdown ends, the other big countdown of the year begins…MA Application deadline at The Courtauld!

Your application is due January 8th (as if you needed reminding) so as you’re doing the final polish we thought we’d help you out with some tips from the current batch of Documenting Fashion MA students. Twelve months ago we too were hovering anxiously over our keyboards trying to make the few hundred words of our personal statement capture every thought and feeling we have ever had about Art History and Fashion. Hopefully the following will help you realize you don’t quite have to do that, and we’ve even squeezed some thoughts from former Documenting Fashion MAs, now PhD students (they’re really good at applications).

Best of luck to you all!

Somerset House (picture yourself here, strolling and having deep art historical thoughts...)

Somerset House (picture yourself here, strolling and having deep art historical thoughts…)

If you’re considering applying to the MA at The Courtauld, think about what particularly excites you about the course, how it relates to your experiences so far, and read everything that interests you around it.

– Lucy, PhD


Be prepared for a whirlwind nine months of looking and thinking about dress and fashion – it will be hectic, but it will enable you to hone your analytical and research skills, and to find out what it is that particularly fascinates you.

– Liz, PhD


My advice to any one considering applying to the MA Documenting Fashion is to read and research as much as possible so you can to really understand what the course entails. There are many ways to do this; the Courtauld website, the Documenting Fashion Blog and Instagram accounts and by simply getting in touch with us. We are more than happy to chat to prospective applicants about our experience.

– Giovanna, MA


When writing your personal statement for the application try to think about how your previous work, for example from your undergraduate studies, may be applicable to the course themes – even if you have never directly studied fashion or film and photography before. Be concise and to the point.

– Leah, MA


I applied to the Courtauld MA after a year of working at a communications consultancy with an undergraduate degree in International Relations. While I tried my hardest to work on projects related to the arts whilst at my job, it certainly was not directly related to the MA History of Art course and the Documenting Fashion special option. Therefore, highlighting the skills gained whilst at the consultancy (e.g. writing to various audiences) were important for my application. Additionally I underscored why, given my work experience, I was interested in the special option by discussing relevant papers taken (e.g. film studies courses), personal projects and/or internships etc.

– Carolina, MA


It is ok to admit your obsession for all things fashion related; pin-down what exactly attracts you to fashion (whether dress history itself, cultural history at large, or issues of identity, feminism, and so on).

– Aude, MA


The personal statement is not the time to play down your interest in fashion and what it is about its history that really makes you tick. Be articulate, be concise but remember why you are putting all this effort in—you really want to study dress and fashion at The Courtauld! This year the MAs all have very different academic backgrounds and it really enriches discussion to have such varying points of view. Don’t assume you’re ‘not right’ for the course.

– Eleanor, MA

(Non) Fashion exhibitions

Lists such as Dazed’s “Fashion exhibitions you don’t want to miss in 2016” are a familiar feature of the end-of-year frenzy. Yet as fashion exhibitions gain popularity (they are the blockbusters bringing big money into museums­­), offers have widened. Brands in fact now stage their own exhibitions: this year London saw Louis Vuitton and Chanel battling for social media presence through hashtag-inducing displays. Yet for those interested in the history of fashion, there is also a lot to gain from “non-fashion” exhibitions.

2015 fashion exhibitions: Series 3 by Louis Vuitton, Mademoiselle Privé by Chanel (Saatchi Gallery), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (V&A), and the Jeanne Lanvin exhibition (Musée Galliera).

2015 fashion exhibitions: Series 3 by Louis Vuitton, Mademoiselle Privé by Chanel (Saatchi Gallery), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (V&A), and the Jeanne Lanvin exhibition (Musée Galliera).

The Vivian Maier exhibition at the Forma fondazione in Milan is one of them. The exhibition showcases over 120 photographs by Chicago photographer and former nanny, Vivian Maier (1926-2009), whose work and story were unearthed by John Maloof in 2007. Maier has since been heralded as “one of the best US street photographers of the 20th century”. Her work however had never been intended for publication: her photographs are personal snapshots of city life in the late 1950s, mostly of Chicago and New York. For the fashion historian, they constitute valuable documents of the ways in which dress was worn and experienced in the 1950s and beyond. Maier had a sharp eye for the dissonances of modern life apparent on the surface of things: the clothing of her subjects often bears the marks of these incongruities.

Two photographs by Maier on display at the Forma Fondazione in Milan.

Two photographs by Maier on display at the Forma Fondazione in Milan.

Her photographs also powerfully articulate the issues that surround the role and representation of women in the postwar years. A photograph taken in the 1950s in a Chicago streetcar for instance highlights the tension between the pervasiveness of women as surface (we discern the fashionable silhouettes of three models on one of the newspapers), and the visibility or agency that is simultaneously denied to them (the image hints at the male-dominated workplace). Her numerous self-portraits however form an interesting counterpoint (also on view at Forma). In these images Maier asserts her presence and reclaims an existence for herself through her own self-fashioning.

The streetcar photograph (Chicago, 1950s) and a self-portrait (New York, 1953).

The streetcar photograph (Chicago, 1950s) and a self-portrait (New York, 1953).


This is all to say that there is more than the conventional fashion exhibition for the fashion “geek”, especially as seen through the lens of documentary photography. So to add to the list-mania of the coming weeks, here are some suggestions that go beyond the realm of the fashion exhibition: Germaine Krull exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (ends January 31st), Qui a Peur des femmes photographes? 1839-1919 (ends January 24th) at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Rosângela Rennó’s exhibition at the photographer’s gallery in London (opens January 22nd), Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum (ends April 24th), and the Jacques Henri Lartigue exhibition at Foam (opens January 22th).

A selection of exhibitions for 2016.