Commentary Archive

Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram

One of the many marvellous things about research is that you don’t just find out what you wanted to know, you discover what you didn’t know you needed to know. So when I embarked on reading for an article I was writing on pockets for Cos I rediscovered the wonders of Bernard Rudofsky’s 1947 book on the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ As well as discussion of the efficacy of clothes historically and globally, the author reflects on what he deems to be good and bad examples of current attire – Claire McCardell scores well for clever design combined with utility, expressing clean, modern ideals, while others fare less well …

Amongst the many treasures to be found in the book, my favourite is the series of plates representing what Rudofsky claimed was the degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothes.  These are not fashion illustrations, but rather diagrams that are a brilliant and very modernist, rational view of menswear at the time. In each, the futile excess of 1940s tailoring is expressed in colourful, reduced plans of the relationship between a specific aspect of dress and the wearer’s body.

In one we see an outline of a man, his attitude clearly indicated by his upturned nose. Although we are given nothing more than his silhouette, the surface of his body is covered with bright dots each indicating one of the 70 or so buttons he carries ‘needlessly’ on his body each day.  Rendered in rainbow hues to denote which garment these belong to – from ‘drawers’ to overcoat and gloves – the image, along with Rudofsky’s clearly exasperated tone, give the impression that men positively rattled with superfluous buttons, when, as is pointed out, a few well placed zips could replace all this unnecessary detail.

A similar diagram shows that two dozen pockets are also at play in the same space.  These are again shown as bright, geometrical forms clustered across the figure. And let’s not forget ‘The Seven Veils of the Stomach’ – the layers of clothes piled onto a man’s body each morning and shown in a diagram that resembles the cross section of a tree.

In the exhibition the first two diagrams were shown on glass, with an illustration of a fully clothed man behind them, to enable visitors to see how each related to the clothed body. While these are amusing, they highlight the ways dress can evolve way beyond our needs and potentially lead to discomfort for wearers. This includes tailoring, which is so often seen as the more sensible of gendered clothing types.  While they may ignore aesthetic imperatives, what these clear, beautifully designed diagrams do is make us stop and think – about the layers of our clothing, and yes, whether what we carry on our bodies really is modern.

You can download a PDF of the book and read more about MoMA’s 1945 exhibition here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3159

MoMA is revisiting this theme for a forthcoming exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? Find information here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638

National Identity and Dress: Thinking about Brazil

I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which dress and fashion connect to ideas about national identity. It all began when I started to question what ‘Brazilian dress’ might be. Is there any such thing as a national form of dress within Brazil? Simplistic outsider reactions might suggest the bikini or Havaiana flip-flops, possibly even carnival costume, but this probably tells us a lot more about foreign perceptions of Brazil – which tend to treat Rio de Janeiro as a synecdoche for the entire country – than of the lived experience of dress for most Brazilians. Nevertheless, in a country as enormous as Brazil, there is perhaps a greater need to construct a coherent national identity and embodied sense of belonging through the body surface.

Maybe ‘Brazilian dress’ could refer to indigenous forms of clothing? Such as the handmade jewellery and body tattoos, in combination with Western-style shorts and T-shirts, that are worn by the Kayapo, who live alongside the Xingu river in the eastern Amazon. Or perhaps it is the white lace ensembles worn by Afro-Brazilian women in Salvador? Baianas, as they are called, adhere to the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, and wear a hybrid fusion of sartorial elements that originate from Europe (the full-length gathered skirt with crinoline and petticoat) and West Africa (the headwrap, called an ôja, and beaded necklaces)? But these two examples seem to suggest that different clothing cultures within Brazil are geographically tied to region and ethnic identity, when even the vicarious armchair traveller knows that it is far more messy and complicated than that.

A baiana dress, displayed on a white model, at the Mercardo do Madureira in Rio de Janeiro. (Author’s own)

My difficulty in coming to a conclusive answer ultimately reflected the incredible flexibility of dress styles within Brazil. In all its variety, Brazilian dress tells multiple stories about its wearers – personal, local, national and transnational – as well as revealing the global flows of ideas, objects and people that characterize the interconnected world we live in. Cross-cultural exchange and influence is far from exclusive to Brazil. But it does come into much sharper focus within this heterogeneous world culture region, which sits so ambiguously (and not just in geographical terms) between the Western and the non-Western. The development of Brazilian dress and fashion reveals a long and chequered history of cross-cultural contact, slavery and immigration. It is a complex and fluid process by which Brazil, since it was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, has absorbed but also re-interpreted diverse influences that stem from its indigenous populations, as well as from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. From North to South, huge variables in culture and climate necessarily impact directly upon the clothing choices made by Brazilians.

Any attempt to define ‘Brazilian dress’ is a tangible reminder that national identity, like clothing itself, is not an intangible essence, but a material construct – an ongoing process of articulation and negotiation that depends upon where we are, and who we are with. As such, using geographical borders to analyse dress in national frameworks will always burst out of the standardized shapes delineated on the world map.

Documenting Regency Fashion with La Belle Assemblée

Today, 18 July 2017, marks the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, author of classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Much of her work, and their subsequent adaptations, are set in the Regency era (broadly categorized as 1795-1820) and their fashions reflect that time. Jane herself was quite fond of fashionable dressing: letters from time spent living with her brother Henry in London mention visits to Grafton House for trimmings and hosiery, and to Bedford House for dress fabrics.

Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), 1807. Hand-coloured etching. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: www.lacma.org. Accession number: M.86.266.84.

In order to keep abreast of the latest fashions, women of the Regency era consumed ladies’ magazines, among them the high quality La Belle Assemblée or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine addressed particularly to the Ladies. John Bell first published Le Belle Assemblée in 1806 as a monthly source of prose, poetry, biographies, and fashion advice for leisured women. There is even reason to suspect that Jane Austen would have read La Belle Assemblée as one of her favourite nieces, Fanny Austen Knight, had an 1814 issue of that periodical among her possessions.

‘Bourbon Hat and Mantle’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), May 1814. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1025-1959.

La Belle Assemblée’s price established it as a thoroughly affluent periodical. Its rival, the Lady’s Museum, cost 1s. in 1806, while La Belle Assemblée cost 2s. 6d. for black-and-white etchings and 3s. 6d. for hand-coloured illustrations. Though only two fashion plates were included with each issue, they were prepared by highly skilled illustrators, engravers, and painters. The 25cm x 16cm dimensions of this periodical further added to its luxury. Whether coloured or not, the sizable fashion plates are works of art in their own right, as their inclusion in museum collections around the world confirms.

‘Walking Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée, September 1822. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.2818-1888.

John Bell’s wife Mrs. Bell was credited with the designs of many outfits seen in the plates of La Belle Assemblée. As a dressmaker in London known for extremely up-to-date fashion knowledge (she had foreign fashions imported for study twice each week), Mrs. Bell possessed a reputation for unbeatable fashion acumen. She was not just a dressmaker and designer however. Mrs. Bell, ever the visionary, invented the ‘Chapeau Bras,’ a foldable hood small enough to store in a bag, and a corset to reduce the appearance of pregnancy.

‘Dinner Party Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), February 1827. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Plates from La Belle Assemblée reflect both minute and radical changes in fashion during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. From 1800-1820, differences in fabric, colour, and accessories set old and new fashions apart. The 1820s saw a gradual widening of sleeves and skirts as the decade progressed, morphing the columnar silhouette of the beginning of the century into the exaggerated hourglass shape of the early 1830s. In 1832, La Belle Assemblée merged with the Lady’s Magazine; the new Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée continued to publish the latest advances in fashion throughout the 1830s.

Read, W., ’Full Dress, Ball Dress, Morning Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), October 1830. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Further Reading

Jane Ashelford, ‘Perfect Cut and Fit’ in The Art of Dress: Clothes Through History 1500-1914 (London: National Trust, 1996), pp. 167-210

Margaret Beetham, ‘The ‘Fair Sex’ and the Magazine: The Early Ladies’ Journals’ in A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Women’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17-34

How do you say ‘Parisian Elegance’ in Spanish? Antonio Cánovas del Castillo

Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. Jacques Rouchon/Roger Viollet. Cordon Press.

After seeing the Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, and due to the hype around the Spanish designer that Paris saw shine, I decided to share with you another great Spanish creator that succeeded in the international fashion mecca. “El prestigio queda, la fama es efímera”, meaning “the prestige is permanent, fame is ephemeral,” is one of the phrases attributed to Cristóbal Balenciaga; and, in this case, applicable Spanish couturier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo who established himself among the big names of couture in The City of Light. We saw one of his in our visit to the Met Museum Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, where I remember thinking that his story and creations need to be shared more often, so here it is a snippet.

Maybe you know all about Castillo, or on the contrary his name doesn’t sound familiar; or maybe, if you’re studying the restoration of Spanish Bourbon Monarchy in the 19th Century, you might think I’m talking about its first Prime Minister. You’re not far too off. Seeing his name next to the name “Lanvin,” might give you a hint of who I’m talking about.

Born in Madrid in 1908, grandnephew of the Spanish Prime Minister of the same name, Castillo left for Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, escaping from the republican forces.

In 1951 Paris Match reported with an unusual realism, the crude situation that Castillo went through when he migrated, “with 32 trunks, suitcases and various packages, 26 years old and 18 francs in his pocket”, forced to live a life of what the reporter described as a “Russian migrant existence.” However, his luck changed quickly, and in a few months Castillo was initiated in the fashion world designing jewellery and accessories for Coco Chanel, thanks to the intervention of Misia Sert (famous pianist in Paris). Years later, despite of his differences (or because of them), Chanel affirmed about Castillo: “He has a kind of a latent genious. With him one must approach him as a ferret to make him get out of his burrow. Then it’s marvelous…”

Veruschka, with a design by Castillo for Elizabeth Arden. Franco Rubartelli. Condé Nast Archive

Between 1937 and 1945 he worked for Paquin and Piguet, and even collaborated with Cocteau in his film “The Beauty and the Beast.” This was also the year when Elizabeth Arden convinced him to go to New York, where he became the house designer, and he started working for Broadway productions and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo 1951, Photograph by Gordon Parks

In 1950 Castillo received a call from the Countess of Polignac, Jean Marie-Blanche (daughter of Jeanne Lanvin) who, following the death of Jeanne Lanvin in 1946, was looking for a head designer to revitalise the salon. His presentation was spectacular, with a collection of white sateen dresses. The success and recognition of his work was such that his name became a part of the brand, including its presence on the gowns’ labels.

Paris, February 1951. Preparing The New Spring-summer of 1951 Lanvin Couture Collection. First collection by Antonio Del Castillo. Willy Rizzo. Getty Images

Lanvin-Castillo, Paris, 1951. Photo by Gordon Parks

He knew how to leave an imprint of his personality on his creations, without ever losing the “Lanvin” style of tailored dresses, full skirts and ankle lengths, and those feminine and defined shapes despite all the volume.

This evening dress marked Lanvin-Castillo, by Antonio Canovas del Castillo and made in 1956 (© Met Museum), both recalls the tiered trimmings and bustled silhouettes of 1880s fashions and embodies the romantic, youthful spirit for which the house was known. The style was captured in a striking photograph by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar in 1956, (© Harper’s Bazaar) in which model Suzy Parker leans over a pinball machine, forming a sweeping arc of dramatically lit tulle against a dark background.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo photographed by Richard Avedon for Harpers in 1956

Lanvin-Castillo Tag

At Lanvin, Castillo experienced the golden age of his career as a couturier. For 13 years, he mastered collection after collection, gained the respect and love of the most demanding Parisian and international public, situating the name of the house and his own among the big names of haute couture at its peak time. In 1963 Castillo decided to establish his own couture house, only open for four years, with the unconditional support of two of his most faithful clients, Barbara Hutton and Gloria Guiness. During this time, he worked for private clients, theatre and film, which brought him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Goldilocks (musical) in 1959 and an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the British film Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971 (shared with Yvonne Blake).

Dress by Lanvin-Castillo, 1957. Henry Clarke. Condé Nast Archive

As a final note, in 1961 Castillo hired  a very young Dominican designer living in Madrid named Óscar de la Renta, but that is another story.

One Aspect of an Exhibition: Viewers and Wearers at MoMu’s Margiela: The Hermès Years

Teaser – Margiela, the Hermès years from MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp on Vimeo.

How can you tell people what it is like to wear certain clothes without letting them try anything on? For curators this is a constant question – how to create an exhibition that expresses every facet of what clothes are.  Frequently, the answer lies elsewhere, the focus is placed on a designer’s creativity, or perhaps on the drama of catwalk shows and fashion photography. But at the heart of fashion are the wearers – and so, how do you enable exhibition visitors to understand clothes they will probably never put on?

This question is especially pertinent when the designer has placed emphasis on the wearer’s experience, rather than the viewer’s.  At Mode Museum Antwerp’s current exhibition Margiela: The Hermès Years, one way that the feel, fit and flow of the garments on the body is conveyed is through a series of short films by Guido Verelst played alongside the outfits themselves. These show models that walked in the original Hermès’ shows – moving in the clothes to demonstrate how they are worn.  Rather than striding as in a catwalk, these are subtler performances that enact the garments’ key qualities, and make visible the exhibition’s themes.  In one, Shirley Jean-Charles dressed in the A/W 1998-99 collection allows the supple black layers of her ensemble to slip slowly from her shoulders – the gossamer thin rainproof voile over buttery soft leather glide down her back, and as viewers our sense memories connect visual and material.  While we are not, of course, allowed to touch anything, this slow motion movement evokes a multi-sensory response.

Film’s own haptic surface and constant movement mirrors what is represented – the screen makes the images material, as they flicker before our eyes.  The model’s fluid gestures amplify this, and link to the way we move and feel in our clothes.  Not all of us may be able to wear the incredible, high quality fabrics that Margiela used during his time at Hermès from 1997-2003, but the curators draw our attention to the details, and surfaces to allow us to appreciate his work in deeper ways.

With thanks to Elisa de Wyngaert

‘A Charming Consideration’: Edwardian Lingerie Dresses

The woman preparing food for this boat picnic wears a sheer lingerie dress, c. 1910. Courtesy SSPL/Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images.

When the heat of June rolls in and spring layers give way to bright, flowing dresses, I cannot help but be reminded of the quintessential summer garment, and perhaps my favorite historical fashion trend, the Edwardian lingerie dress. Its name derived from the undergarment-like materials with which the dress was made: sheer cotton or linen inset with lace, all bleached vivid white, with a white or pastel silk slip underneath. Primarily worn from the early 1900s until 1914, these delicate gowns embodied docile and leisured Edwardian femininity.

Women’s Dress, 1908. Cotton organdy with machine-made Valenciennes lace and trim. Made in the United States. Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession number: 1966-163-2).

Despite its salacious name, the lingerie dress was a staple of a respectable woman’s wardrobe. The 1905 Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette, for example, suggested that women have a ‘white lingerie dress’ for luncheon or afternoon tea. It could also be worn as a wedding dress or a casual evening gown during the summer. Since it was appropriate attire for multiple occasions, the lingerie dress is commonly identified as a tea gown, an afternoon dress, a summer dress, or (when made with plain weave cotton or linen) a lawn dress. The lingerie dress eschewed the loose, comfortable fit of the late-nineteenth century tea gown, its predecessor, in favor of the fashionable silhouette. An American lingerie dress from the 1908, pictured above, demonstrates the silhouette of the first decade of the twentieth century, the thrust-forward bust and curved back indicative of the s-bend, or swan bill, corset. Later lingerie dresses exhibit the straight line introduced in Poiret’s Directoire revival gowns.

Actress Carol McComas in a lace gown, 1905. Courtesy London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images.

Lingerie dresses were available at many price points, with some simple styles ready-made and more ornate designs offered by top couturiers. Doucet and Redfern, for instance, produced lavishly embellished gowns of hand-made lace and extensive embroidery. Such dresses were suitable for trips to the races and other society functions. White lingerie dresses, at least at first, represented the unhurried, tidy lifestyle of upper class women. Their delicate embellishments necessitated careful cleaning, an especially arduous task for white gowns which had to be washed at extremely high temperatures and repeatedly bleached. As its popularity increased, less elaborate gowns with machine-made lace were produced. These dresses, theoretically, could be machine washed; thus, women of the lower-middle class could wear lingerie dresses similar to those worn by society women without the laborious washing process of more delicate gowns. This proliferation of the lingerie dress across socio-economic boundaries indicates a society-wide aspiration to toward a pure, tranquil femininity of upper class leisure.

Suffragettes in ‘Votes for Women’ sashes and all white ensembles, c. 1910. Courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The symbolism of the white lingerie dress was later co-opted by British suffragettes as they campaigned for women’s rights. Throughout the nineteenth century the women’s suffrage movement allied closely with dress reform, both aimed at increasing female liberation. Trouser-like garments such as the bifurcated skirt doomed those attempts to notoriety, since the adoption of masculine clothing was viewed as a challenge to patriarchal power. The suffragette uniform of white shirtwaists and tailor-made skirts capitalized on the reputation of the white lingerie dress. As Kimberly Wahl describes, white not only acknowledged accepted fashion, but also, ‘offered itself as a purified and visible marker of difference, conforming to gender binaries of the period, and was thus reassuringly feminine.’ Women’s liberation groups, then, manipulated the white lingerie dress, a symbol of traditional Edwardian femininity, to advance their cause. Though primarily a representation of traditional gender roles, the lingerie dress established sartorial conventions for the suffragettes and helped democratize dress across social boundaries.

Sources

Clare Rose, Art Nouveau Fashion (London: V&A Publishing, 2014)

Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl, ‘The 1900s,’ in The History of Modern Fashion (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015), pp. 77-98

Kimberly Wahl, ‘Purity and Parity: The White Dress of the Suffrage Movement in Early Twentieth Century Britain,’ in Jonathan Faiers, Mary Westerman Bulgarella, ed., Colors in Fashion (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 21-33

Marion Harland and Virginia van de Water, Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1905)

Jewellery, Adornment and the Pursuit of Brilliance

Early 18th century diamond and gold necklace, Portuguese

Emerald and diamond girl dole brooch, c1830 and later

To Georg Simmel, adornment is a contradiction – on the one hand, it displays the wearer’s value, aesthetic taste, membership of a particular group, on the other, it is visible to the viewer, giving pleasure to her, as well as to the owner.  In his 1908 essay ‘On Adornment’, Simmel elaborates on this theme, outlining a spectrum, with tattoos at one end, since they are closest to the skin, and dress in between, moulded  by the wearer’s figure and marked by age, and finally, jewellery placed on the body, but separate from it.  Jewellery thus has special status, its uniqueness resides in its economic value, authenticity and style, but it always seems new, and supplementary to the wearer’s individuality.  While choice of fine jewels surely reflects personal taste, it is interesting to consider the ways gems interact with the wearer and add to her social value.

A case of sparking diamond and emerald jewels

I was reminded of Simmel’s essay when I visited Bonhams’ view day for an auction of fine jewellery last month.  Guided through the delicious rows of glittering rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches … by Emily Barber, Director of the Jewellery Department, I was continually struck by Simmel’s comments about the pleasure given to both wearer and viewer by these gems – a fleeting relationship created by the bright light reflected by a diamond brooch as you glance across a room, or the deep red glow of a spinel cut to display its clarity as the wearer moves her hands.  In so many interactions, jewellery catches the eye and draws our focus.

A spinel and diamond ring, c1915

Simmel describes how ‘the radiations of adornment, the sensuous attention it provokes, supply the personality with such an enlargement or intensification of its sphere: the personality, is more when it is adorned.’  As such, wearing fine jewellery is ‘a synthesis of the individual’s having and being,’ it implies wealth, but also personal qualities – of taste, discernment, perhaps even beauty and style matching the gems.  At the heart of this is jewellery’s ‘brilliance’:

‘By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer appears at the centre of a circle of radiation in which every close-by person, every seeing eye, is caught.  As the flash of the precious stone seems to be directed at the other – it carries the social meaning of jewels, the being-for-the-other, which returns to the subject as the enlargement of … [her] own sphere of significance.’

Gold, diamond and fire opal ‘cinnamon stick’ brooch/pendent by Andrew Grima, 1970

So, as you look at these photographs of the jewels I saw at a Bonhams, consider Simmel’s words and the ways that, once purchased, they might infer what the wearer has, but also who she is.  As Simmel notes, ‘Adornment, thus, appears as the means by which … social power or dignity is transformed into visible, personal elegance,’ – a magical process brought about by the jeweller’s skill at cutting and setting each gem.

With thanks to Emily Barber, all images by permission of Bonhams.

Sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond brooch, Van Cleef & Arpels, c1970

Sources:

Fine Jewellery, 27 April 2017 (London: Bonhams, 2017)

Georg Simmel, ‘On Adornment,’ (1908), in Daniel Purdy, Ed., The Rise of Fashion: A Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp.79-84

Madame Carven and the Beauty of the Petite Woman

Madame Carven at her 100th birthday party at Galliera Museum, Paris. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

The couture designer Madame Carven is unfamiliar to even many enthusiasts of fashion history.  Born Carmen de Tommaso, her design name Marie-Louise Carven, or Madame Carven, was known to French women since 1945 when she opened her salon in Paris offering fashions designed to show off the beauty of petite women.

At the time, Paris fashions were dominated by men such as Christian Dior, Lucien Lelong, Jacques Fath, and Pierre Balmain, who were eager to prove that couture was back after the war and still relevant.  Madame Carven brought a different outlook to fashion which valued real women over muses and idealized figures. Like many other female designers before her and alongside her, she made clothes as a woman for other women.  Madame Carven took as her starting point petite women like herself and her friends, understanding that size and proportion are integral to clothes that flatter. Both Edith Piaf and Leslie Caron wore her clothes.  In 1950 with the launch of her pret-a-porter line she brought her aesthetic to a wider customer base.

Carven with a model in her signature dress ma griffe
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Her designs exude charm resulting from a care for elegance with a note of playfulness.  She had a good eye for proportion and balance in a silhouette.  Her approach is encapsulated in the very first dress that she sent out, a mint green and white striped full-skirted frock. Called ma griffe, or “my signature,” (also the name of her 1946 scent) the dress expressed a fresh, optimistic femininity, exemplifying the Carven aesthetic.  The design elements, however, are cleverly employed to address the petite body.  Her use of vertical stripes and open V-neckline elongate the body while the nipped-in waist gives womanly definition to a small frame.  Almost every Carven collection since has featured a similar green and white dress as a “signature” statement.

In a 1950 Women’s Wear Daily article, Madame Carven explained her focus on petites, stating, “I decided to make haute couture outfits in my size because I was too short to wear the creations of the top couturiers, who only ever showed their designs on towering girls.”  Carven herself was 5’1”.  That she patented the first push-up bra in France suggests that she understood how much petite women benefit from a defined silhouette.

Carven, “Esperanto” suit, Spring/Summer 1951, Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

Detail of Esperanto suit

Carven printed silk afternoon dress, Spring/Summer 1962. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Carven’s designs were less fussy and stiff than some other couturiers.  She eschewed the complicated formality of much haute couture. Instead, she brought an easy-care, happy sensibility to couture that fit the modern woman’s desires for clothes that were practical and pretty.  The influence of ready-to-wear, washable fabrics such as synthetics, and sportswear are evident in Madame Carven’s style. Cottons were featured regularly in her collections.  Fabrics such as broderie anglaise and pink gingham were also favored materials at the couture house.  A 1946 editorial in American Vogue shows her sports-inspired designs of ski-style pants and lace-up ballet slippers.

Vogue, 1946. Photo from Vogue archives.

Madame Carven was also inspired by her travels around the world to places such as Mexico and Thailand, often incorporating themes and fabrics from the places she visited.  She even showed her collections in other countries to build an international clientele.

Antilles dress, 1961. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

To further her brand, she engaged in many marketing and business endeavors, licensing her name in approximately 60 different ventures from a juniors line to fragrances., In 1950 she created a collection inspired by the film Gone With The Wind to coincide with its belated release in France.  She also designed uniforms for various airlines, Eurostar staff and traffic wardens in Paris.  Carven designed costumes for eleven films, including the classic suspense thriller, Les Diaboliques.

Though Madame Carven retired in 1993, her brand continued with different designers at the helm.  In 2009 Guillaume Henry was appointed designer at Carven bringing the brand back to the forefront of fashion.  The same year Marie-Louise Carven was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal for her contribution to French culture.  Until the current season, the designers for Carven have been Alexis Martial and Adrien Caillaudaud, though they have announced their departure.

Unfortunately, the new iterations of the Carven label no longer cater to petite women.  Many women are petite and most are not tall.  Outside the fashion world, being petite has long been considered desirable in a woman.  Yet “petite” lines of clothing today are the domain of mainstream workwear-friendly American retailers such as Ann Taylor and J. Crew.  Such petite lines, however, only shorten the length of pants and shirts of their “regular” designs. Petite women today are implicitly told via market positioning that they are out of bounds in the high fashion arena.  Madame Carven designed to specifically flatter petite women while still offering high fashion styles.  Let’s hope that with a new designer the label will return to its heritage.  Where is the next Madame Carven?

Further Reading

Picken, Mary Brooks and Dora Loues Miller, Dressmakers of France, New York: Harper, 1956.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who’s Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1988.

Carven Spring/Summer 2017 collection

Vanessa Bell, Patti Smith and Creative Living at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Vanessa Bell at Durbins, 1911, Unknown. Presented by Angelica Garnett, 1981 and 1988-92. Part of the Vanessa Bell Collection. ©Tate Archive, London 2016.

There is a beautiful coupling of portraits in one of the central rooms of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Vanessa Bell exhibition, which places together two images of Molly MacCarthy, one a painting from 1912, the other a papier collé of 1914-15, linked by a small, everyday gesture that frequently goes unremarked. Each holds her hands in a distinct gesture, fingers pyramided together as they sew. Enhanced by Bell’s abstracted style, MacCarthy sits absorbed in solitary handwork, fabric hanging from the point of the triangle her fingers form as she mends or makes, eyes cast down to inspect each detail. In each she is encased in an armchair, a domestic interior, which, at first glance reinforces her feminine work and links them to traditional ideals of women kept within the confines of the home.

Collage of two Vanessa Bell portraits of Molly MacCarthy

Vanessa Bell, Self–Portrait, c. 1915, Oil on canvas laid on panel, 63.8 x 45.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 5050 – B1982.16.2 © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Yet seen together, as creations by a woman, empathetic to her toil, and placed within the context of this exhibition, the images become a statement about life and creativity. As you move from room to room the argument that art and craft, home and work are inextricably linked becomes sharper and clearer. From the opening display of portraits of family and friends, through cases of Omega workshop textiles, Hogarth Press book jackets, and on to still lifes, landscapes and interiors, it is clear that reductive notions of femininity and the role of creativity are challenged repeatedly and successfully.

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, Image: 53.3 × 40.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. 3353 – B1992.14.2 © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, c. 1912, oil on board, 40 x 34 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 5933. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Bell was a woman born in Victorian times, with all that era implies, but who was turned towards the future, exploring and taking part in the creation of modernity, modernism and modern womanhood.

Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s, 161 x 174 cm, Private Collection, © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Bell’s work, with its intimacy, warm, off-toned hues and experimentation with multiple mediums provides an insight into women’s evolving role in the early 20th century, and the need to recognize all forms of ‘feminine’ creativity as art.

Photograph of Vanessa Bell photo album

In the accompanying Legacy exhibition, Patti Smith’s poignant photographs of Bloomsbury icons, including Woolf’s walking cane and the pond at Charleston, set amongst Bell’s photograph albums, further this thesis. Art is shown as part of living, life as an act of continuous artistic challenge and invention, and femininity as a mutable expression of self within modernism and its continued influence.

Patti Smith photograph from the Legacy exhibition

Patti Smith photograph from the Legacy exhibition

Vanessa Bell and Legacy: Photographs by Patti Smith and Vanessa Bell are at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 4 June 2017

Sources:

Sarah Milroy & Ian A. C. Dejardin, eds., Vanessa Bell (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2017)

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive: Elle UK

Our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive is this Saturday! Book your ticket here for a day of amazing speakers and beautiful objects, including those from the exhibition we have previewed the last few weeks, ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines.’ We look forward to seeing you there!


‘French Fashions’ photographed by Chris Dawes. Elle UK, March 1986. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

The 1980s were turbulent years in Britain. From extreme hardships and upheaval to pop culture and newfound affluence, the decade had a lasting influence on modern-day life. In this explosive climate, some relief came with the birth of iconic magazines such as i-D, The Face, Arena and, in November 1985, the British version of Elle Magazine, the originally French style bible. Aimed at young career women, Elle combined carefree fashion with serious articles, or ‘style with content,’ as Dylan Jones, the Editor-in-Chief of GQ put it. Today, Elle holds the title of the largest fashion magazine, boasting 43 international editions published in 60 countries worldwide.

With Sally Brampton as its first Editor-in-Chief, Elle became the to-go magazine for the well off, modern 18-30 year old, who was uninterested in the world of luxuries, haute couture and pampering offered by Vogue. Instead, the magazine published frank and provocative features about love, sex, dating and health alongside interviews with the likes of Harrison Ford, Mickey Rourke, Jasper Conran or Paula Yates. The glossy fashion pages, graced by Naomi Campbell, Claudia Shiffer, Linda Evangelista, Carla Bruni and Yasmin Le Bon, were daring, powerful and unrestrained, full of spirit and joy. The articles were relatable and fascinating while the fashion photographs by Mario Testino, Eamonn J. McCabe or Neil Kirk shot in exotic locations provided a much-needed element of fantasy and aspiration. With such ingredients, Elle was set to become the cult publication of a generation.

This spread here, entitled ‘French Fashion’ and photographed by Chris Dawes for the March 1986 issue of Elle, showcases why the magazine was so groundbreaking in its first few years. Tapping into a younger, yet still style-conscious audience, guides on how to achieve a look which appears to be taken straight from the catwalk were a common fixture in the magazine. Chanel, a favourite of the modern working woman, plays a main role on this double page. The classic skirt suit of Coco, trimmed in black with gold details, complete white gloves and a black quilted bag with a chain strap, could be yours for a mere fraction of the original price. In style, however, it packs the same punch. French-chic without the price tag!

The sleek, glossy page hints at the opulence one experiences when wearing such an outfit. Framed as a Kodak contact sheet, the idea of a luxurious lifestyle is further alluded to by positioning the wearer of this ‘Chanel’ look as someone worth photographing. Yet, the girl is not simply a society lady going between luncheons and afternoon teas. She is in movement, her bag flying behind her. Perhaps she is on her way to a business meeting, or rushing to work in the morning. She appeals to the career woman of the 80s and inspires younger readers to embrace a working life – you can still look incredibly à la mode in office attire. Magazines should create a fantasy, but they should also be rooted in reality – Elle masters it!