Commentary Archive

Balenciaga’s Legacy: Reinventions of the Modern Female Silhouette

The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.

The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.

Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.

Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.

Semi-fit dress, 1957-58

Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.

Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.

We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”

Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.

All images author’s own

By Lily Mu

An Attempt to Unravel Agnes Richter’s Jacket

Within The Fashion System Roland Barthes puts forth the notion that meaning from fashion can only be obtained by its relationship to image and text. The illegibility of the garment itself however, does not imply that said garment does not have meaning; only that it is obscured. This notion is interesting to consider in relation to an embroidered straitjacket produced by the psychosis of Agnes Richter within the confines of the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution in 1895. Various words and incoherent sentences are maniacally stitched upon every available space while visible perspiration stains map the contours of the jacket. This sense of corporeality gives a ghostly impression of the artist’s body and hand; a hand that punctured and stitched the very garment that restricted her. For Richter, the needle became the phallus that she, as a woman, was deprived of within the patriarchal structures of the 19th century sanatorium. The needle-qua-phallus operates as an object that gave Richter a mode of expression, whilst the jacket itself — designed to restrict the arms thus inhibiting the ability to sew — can be seen as an object of castration. The puncturing of the jacket thus becomes an act of aggression that enabled Richter to conquer the object of castration while simultaneously embedding herself within it.

Within her book Agnes’ Jacket, Gail A. Hornstein closely analyses the textual content of the straitjacket and ultimately concludes that it remains illegible to the viewer. Written in German in a style called Deutsch Schrift, the jacket’s musings have never been discerned from the erratic stitchings that line the topography of the garment. What can be deduced however, lies within the abstract nature of the piece; such as the unravelling and withering threads that represent the decomposition of the artist’s mind during the jacket’s production. What Hornstein ultimately concludes is that the ghostly corporeality of the garment comes to embody Agnes and allows the viewer to revel in the obscurity of trying to ascertain who she was.

This obscurity and illegibility, in relation to Barthes’ statements on fashion, provides interesting insight into the gendering of language as well as Richter’s rejection of it. Whilst Barthes claims that language is one of the vessels through which fashion can convey meaning, language itself —as explored by Lacan — is a patriarchal structure that signifies a child’s entry into the Symbolic Order. It is therefore no surprise that Richter, alongside many of her contemporary female patients, rejected language and relied upon other means of expression. Charcot’s hysterics, for example, relied upon contortions of the body while Richter utilized the needle and thread as a means of communication. The similarity that lies between the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ is one that becomes divided when considering the gendering of each. The written word was a privilege predominantly gifted to men while women were often delegated to crafts such as embroidery and weaving. In rejecting language Richter makes a return to the feminine art of embroidery that ultimately subverts and obscures meaning. Trying to unravel the threads of Richter’s jacket is a task that no one seems to be equipped for; and it is in this rejection of the symbolic that allows Richter to speak in a voice that no one understands but everyone wants to listen to.

 

Further reading:

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

 Gail A. Hornstein, Agnes’ Jacket

Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self

By Niall Billings

Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris

I was thrilled to learn that my local art museum, Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, was to stage an exhibition of French jewelry this summer. Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris was the Joslyn’s first jewelry exhibition and their first partnership with a Parisian museum. The exhibition featured 70 pieces of jewelry and luxury accessories and over 100 works on paper from the Petit Palais’ collection. The Petit Palais’ Parisian heritage was an important factor within the exhibition since Paris has been home to a continuous tradition of jewelry production since the Renaissance. Bijoux Parisiens highlighted over 300 years of French jewelry innovation and creativity and placed the precious stones and luxury items in a historical context to emphasize the way in which French jewelry reflects the aristocratic wearer’s position in society and the designer’s creativity. While some of the artifacts spotlighted artists who are lost to history, others pointed to the mastery of France’s famous jewelry maisons such as Boucheron, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Through its use of contemporary fashion plates and prints from popular French magazines, Bijoux Parisiens also highlighted the intimate relationship between jewelry and fashion. The sartorial aspect of the exhibition was clear from the beginning as the first section of wall-text was accompanied by an 1884 portrait of a young woman by artist Paul Baudry. The painting’s subject, Madame Louis Singer, wears an off-the-shoulder black gown with delicate ruffles down the skirt and a bustle. The sumptuousness of her dress is enhanced by her jewelry, a diamond and pearl brooch at her bosom, double-strand pearl bracelet, sapphire and diamond ring, and dainty diamond earrings. The combination of Madame Singer’s smart black dress and glittering jewelry announce her as a woman of refined taste and high status.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition began with engravings by Gilles L’Égaré dating to the 1660s. These drawings of various ring and chain designs were produced to train apprentices and mark the artist’s ownership of the designs. The earliest piece in the exhibition was a pendant of gold, enamel, rubies, and pearls. I was struck by the intricacy and scale of this pendant, which was about three inches tall and featured a woman embracing two children, symbolizing the Christian virtue of charity. Both the early drawings and jewelry pieces set the tone for an innovative and ornate exhibition.

There was little evidence of  eighteenth-century splendor in the exhibition, but a large portion of Bijoux Parisiens was dedicated to nineteenth-century France and the link between its tumultuous political climate and jewelry aesthetics. Napoleon’s reign ended the repression of luxury during the French Revolution and encouraged the privilege of excess. The renewed production of jewelry, like the visual arts and fashions of the period, featured neoclassical designs and a revival of ancient art. Cameo necklaces, bracelets, and brooches as well as drawings of cameos featured prominently in the exhibition. Cameos in particular were a staple of Napoleon’s court because they alluded to antiquity and displayed wealth while their semi-precious materials were affordable to the aristocrats who were still recovering from the Revolution. Contemporary fashion illustrations from Germany in the exhibition show typical neoclassic, columnar gowns with deep necklines that made for easy display of large cameo necklaces such as the one below.

A wall broke Bijoux Parisiens into two distinctive spaces and appropriately separated twentieth-century artifacts from the earlier jewelry and forced visitors to pass a physical threshold into the turn of the century section of the exhibition. The radically different Art Nouveau style that dominated the turn of the century materialized in Bijoux Parisiens in jewelry and graphite drawings. An amazing selection horn and enamel hair pins and brooches by René Lalique exemplified the natural plant motifs and insect-adorned designs of the new style.

Perhaps my favorite artifacts in Bijoux Parisiens was the selection of color lithographs by George Barbier, Edouard Halouze, George Lepape, and Charles Jacqueau. The prints revealed the synergy between the radical fashions and jewelry designs of the early twentieth century. Works by Lepape from the Gazette du Bonton from 1912-1915 featured Paul Poiret’s radically simple and exotic styles such as his ‘lamp-shade’ dress and turban looks accessorized with equally elegant bangles and long necklace strands. The First World War slowed French jewelry production and wiped away aristocratic dynasties, leading to a new social order and new design aesthetics. Color lithographs from the 1920s expressed the new, modernized forms embraced by French jewelry designers. An ad for Van Cleef & Arpels illustrated by Edouard Halouze presents a woman surveying her Van Cleef & Arpels collection. The simple strands of pearls and bracelets she wears compliments the striking simplicity of her low-cut, bright red dress and in-vogue cropped hairstyle.

 

I adored this exhibition (so much so that I visited three times) and although the exhibition is now closed so I cannot suggest visiting, its display of French jewelry innovation sheds an important light on the intimate relationship between fashion, jewelry design and French history.

All photos by the author

Abby Fogle

Lycra, Linen, and Liberation

Advertisement for De De Johnson sportswear, 1930s

As a retail worker for a popular sportswear company this past summer, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between American sportswear styles of the 1930s and those today. The often competing factors of fashion and function to fulfill both the needs of the active woman and the demands of performative social femininity are constantly engaged in an evolving dialogue, but both the 1930s and 2010s made strides by prioritizing the former at the price of appeasing the latter. Through the simultaneous exposure to contemporary and 1930s sportswear, I found an undeniable kinship between the activewear movement of the 1930s and the colloquialization of American sportswear on a mass scale in 2017.

American sportswear style has developed significantly since the 1930s — shifting from pleated linen skirts and tanks (not to mention the still taboo women’s trousers!) to lycra based yoga pants and sweat-wicking tops with built-in bras — yet the purpose and function of activewear wear remain constant. The construction of these garments valued functionality over femininity, glorifying the female body for its physical potential rather than its erotic or domestic value, thus rejecting expectations of female domesticity.

The 1930s proved pivotal for women’s sportswear fashion, and set a precedent for prioritizing a woman’s physical comfort and range of movement over restrictive garments based on constructs of femininity. Innovations of the decade introduced shortened hemlines and breathable fabrics. The broader impact of these styles were made apparent in the following decade as similar silhouettes and fabrics seeped into women’s everyday apparel beyond simply exercise clothes. In this respect, activewear can be regarded as a tool of liberation.

This 1930s movement parallels the 21st century popularization of yoga pants and lycra clothing in America. These stretchy fabrics and casual styles were initially only acceptable in the context of exercise and sport. Through sheer popularity among women (by giving them a feeling of physical liberation), these styles began to seep into everyday society and became socially admissible beyond their initial practical purpose. In America today, yoga pants and lycra tops are widely considered to be an acceptable form of every day dress.

Activewear is at the forefront of pressuring fashion to prioritize functionality and women’s comfort over oppressively restrictive apparel. In America, the 1930s opened a door to conventionalizing activewear in every day life— a precedent still utilized and appreciated by contemporary women in 2017.

By Arielle Murphy

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stagea whimsical look at the costumes and sets Marc Chagall created for four theatrical productions, is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 7th. This exhibition examines the three ballets and one opera that Chagall designed. Beginning in 1941 with the ballet Aleko and ending in 1967 with the opera The Magic Flute the exhibition showcases Chagall’s artistic process in designing for the stage.

Using 41 costumes, 100 sketches, reproductions of the original backgrounds, and footage from both the 1942 production of Aleko and a contemporary production of The Firebird that continues to use Chagall’s designs, this exhibition guides the viewer through and examines the evolution of Chagall’s career in the theatre. The exhibition is divided into four sections each focusing on one show. Moving chronologically, the show begins with Aleko, then moves to The Firebird, then Daphnis and Chloe, and finally ends with Chagall’s only opera, The Magic Flute. 

In each section the original costumes, many of which were hand painted by Chagall, are juxtaposed with the sketches he created in the design stages. Seeing the costumes in both the design conception and realization phases is an invaluable look into not only Chagall’s process, but he way he translated his painting and drawing style into clothing as well. Take for example the design for The Firebird of the Sorcerer Koschei. The drawing has all the hallmarks of Chagall’s typical style – lyrical movement, folkloric subject material, and a masterful use of color. The costume takes these elements and plays with them in different ways. The fluid lines are found in draping folds of cloth and intricate embroidery, the folksy subject is found in the inspiration from Yiddish lore he used to create the firey sorcerer, and the mastery of color is found in the rich, bold fabrics.

In the final cycle of costumes for The Magic Flute Chagall has clearly become more comfortable with dressmaking. In his early costumes for Aleko he stayed in his comfort zone by relying mostly on hand painting plain fabrics, and occasionally adding in embellishments such as netting or beading. By the time he was designing for The Magic Flute in the 1960’s Chagall is using fur trim, feathers, and appliqué. The anthropomorphized lion costume he created consisted of hand painted cotton, chiffon, silk appliqué, and feathers. Even his preparatory sketches were more intricate than those he created for his previous costumes. In the paper designs for The Magic Flute he used bits of shimmering gold paper and fabric. He worked for three years on the costumes and sets for The Magic Flute and the intricacy and care shown in both the preparatory sketches and the clothes themselves shows how confident and successful Chagall had become in costume design.

There has always existed a tension between art and fashion. Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage demonstrates just one of the many ways that clothing and fine art can come together.

Olivia Chuba

All photos by the author.

The Virtue of Spectacle and Fantasy in Fashion Exhibitions: Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

One of the consequences of studying fashion history is that I can no longer go to exhibitions and simply enjoy them in the straightforward way that I used to. The analytical, critical habit takes over and before I know it I’m unpicking everything I see before me. It is hard to remember that sometimes it can be good to just let oneself be carried away by the sheer joyful extravagance of it all.

The iconic Bar Suit, 1947

2017 marks 70 years since the founding of Dior, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is celebrating the anniversary with Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams. An expansive exhibition, it charts the history of the illustrious couture house. It’s a smorgasbord of luxury and dazzle, and a reminder of fashion’s power to create seductive spectacle.

No exhibition is perfect and this one has its flaws. The broad brush concept and comprehensive scope could have benefited from some streamlining, and a modified layout of the themed rooms might have constructed a stronger narrative. However, the exhibition’s virtue lies in the breathtaking drama in which Dior’s exquisite creations are displayed. It’s an exhibition that doesn’t seek so much to tell a story as to bombard the visitor with spectacular sight upon spectacular sight.

There’s a room dedicated to dresses inspired by the 18th century, the displays evoking the interiors of Versailles. Further on, paper blooms and trails of paper ivy carpet the ceiling, lit by soft pastel lights. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter that the room simply illustrates the frequency with which flowers feature in Dior’s designs. The pure pleasure in seeing the exquisite craftsmanship of the dresses in such splendid settings replaces the need for lengthy museum-speak explanations.

Some rooms have music playing in the background, or screens showing film clips and interactive touch panels that reveal images and quotes. Three iconic photographs of three iconic Dior dresses are printed on a glass wall. The lighting changes and the photographs disappear, revealing the original dresses behind. Far from overshadowing the clothes, the spectacular displays only enhance the experience of the exquisitely crafted garments.

After a while the visitor begins to feel dizzy with the drama, as the theatricality is amplified until the final room where the exhibition culminates in an explosion of hypnotic, unadulterated spectacle.  Gold glitter cascades from the ceiling and walls, which shimmer and morph into an Italianate fresco, before changing again into the façade of 30 Avenue Montaigne. Fantasy truly takes over in this room where sequinned dresses sparkle and glint under the shifting lights.

Emerging from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs onto the Rue du Rivoli one has that dazed feeling of having been woken slightly too early from the most fantastic reverie. If Christian Dior ‘Designed Dreams’, then this exhibition takes those dreams and works them into the display itself, creating a fashion fantasy-world.

Visit Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs until 7 January 2018.

http://www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr/en/exhibitions/current-events-1322/musee-des-arts-decoratifs/christian-dior-couturier-du-reve/

 

Leah Gouget-Levy

Andrew Grima: Art Jewellery Uncut

Display of Andrew Grima jewellery at Bonham’s in London

There is something immediate about jeweller Andrew Grima’s work. His designs frequently used raw, uncut semi-precious stones, scattered with tiny diamonds and fronds of gold that frame the irregular surface of an opal or tourmaline. I first saw his work at a Bonham’s fine jewellery sale earlier this year, and was fascinated by the impact of his designs, which dominated the cases in which they were displayed. Last week I had the pleasure of viewing a private collection of fifty five pieces of Grima jewellery, again at Bonham’s, and saw the scope of his design ideas from the 1960s-1990s.

Andrew Grima necklace, 1966

Trained as an engineer, Grima was intrigued by gemstones as intricate structures. In many examples he retains the original stone’s integrity to create organic forms supported and celebrated by innovative settings. His most famous designs comprise gold wires, expertly articulated to move with the body and studded with diamonds, and the sale included an incredible necklace demonstrating this technique.

Andrew Grima pendant, 1973

One of the most dramatic pieces was a 1973 pendant of spiky green dioptase that sparkled as light hit its contours. Grima framed this with tiny squares of gold, carefully graduated in size, and angled to fit this irregular form perfectly. A few square diamonds added to this already theatrical necklace, to create a piece of art that is typical of his quest to reinvigorate post-war British jewellery design.

Andrew Grima rings

Alongside this, were vibrantly coloured rings, pendants and brooches that glimmered like sea anemones, edged with clusters of diamonds, all carefully chosen according to their original shape to fit the requisite area of the body. Rings with huge tourmalines unapologetically proclaimed the allure of gems and minerals mined in Australia and Brazil – their relatively low cost allowing Grima to experiment with bold architectural settings.

His fascination with the stones themselves is graphically demonstrated in his collaboration with Omega watches, each of which use a gemstone, rather than glass, as the watch face, with time slowly ticking by underneath a shell pink or duck egg blue tourmaline – his witty reminder of the stones’ longevity, and a little memento mori for the wearer.

 

I was intrigued by Grima’s work – which needs to be viewed in relation to London’s art, craft and fashion evolution in the 60s and 70s. And perhaps my favourite discovery, aside from the glorious jewels themselves, was the incredible photographs of his Jermyn Street boutique. Designed by his brothers with sculptors Geoffrey Clarke and Brian Kneale, its frontage was decorated with slabs of slate – their dull, textured surfaces framing the gleaming jewels within.

 

Thank you so much to Emily Barber, Head of Fine Jewellery at Bonham’s, for introducing me to Andrew Grima’s work and so generously sharing her amazing knowledge of jewellery with me.

 

Watch this 1966 clip of Grima’s boutique and jewellery:

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/jewellery-boutique

 

Diary Dates: Documenting Fashion Events Autumn Term 2017

We have two fascinating events coming up this term – do join us if you can. We want to open up discussion of the many, varied themes within fashion and its history and these are a wonderful forum for meeting and talking about dress.

Both are held in:

Research Forum Seminar Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN

Both are FREE & OPEN TO ALL – we look forward to seeing you there

Christian Berard, Elsa Schiaparelli, Circus Collection, 1938, detail

12.30-1.30 Friday 20 October

The first event is part of our Addressing Fashion Discussion Group seminars and opens up discussion of dress’ significance within imagery – whether paintings, prints, photographs, advertisements, film stills or drawings. It brings together dress and art historians, as well as those interested in exploring issues and meanings within representation. A single image will be shown in each session, giving participants the opportunity to re-examine familiar, and confront new representations of fashion and dress. We will rethink images through the lens of dress history, and consider what is shown from the perspective of participants’ own research. The aim is to provide a forum to debate, share reactions to images, and to consider ideas about fashion, dress and representation in an informal environment. This builds upon the innovative work being undertaken in this field at the Institute with the wider community, and beyond.

Pietro della Vecchia (1603-78), A fortune-teller reading the palm of a soldier

12.30-1.30 Monday 10 November

Our second event is an exciting part of our Dress Talks series titled: Crossing Boundaries: Dress and Exclusion in Italy, 1550-1650, Elizabeth Currie will discuss dress and deviancy in early modern Italy, from the perspectives of the fashionable elite to others at the social margins.

The typical black attire of the Italian nobleman represented an ideal of restraint and sobriety. Other styles that strayed from this model were often denounced, particularly the kind of flamboyance usually associated with soldiers: leather, feathers, and slashed, figure-hugging garments.  How did this impulse to regulate clothing change in the context of groups of ‘outsiders’, increasingly prominent in visual imagery from this period, such as fortune tellers or beggars?

Drawing on contemporary debates on morality, etiquette, and health, the talk will investigate why specific types of dress were vilified and considered to pose a threat. It will highlight clothing’s power to bind together communities as well as to disrupt gender identities and social hierarchies.

Elizabeth Currie is a lecturer and author specialising in the history of early modern dress, fashion and textiles.  She currently teaches at the Royal College of Art/V&A and Central St Martins. Her articles have appeared in Fashion Theory, Renaissance Studies, and the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Recent publications include Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (2016) and (ed.) A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion, Vol. 3: Fashion in the Renaissance (1450-1650) (2017), as well as contributions to the Bloomsbury Visual Arts blog, Gucci Stories, and Apollo online.

Passing: Fashion In American Cities Call for Papers

Pepper LaBeija, Paris Is Burning (1990)

Hello,

Welcome back to the Documenting Fashion blog – hope you’ve all had a good summer.

We will be returning to our usual schedule with new posts on Tuesdays and Fridays – and don’t forget you can subscribe by entering your email address on the right of the page to be sure never to miss anything.

The new term starts in a couple of weeks, when I’ll be welcoming a new intake of students. In the meantime, let’s see what’s coming up … today some information about the Call for Papers for our amazing conference Passing: Fashion in American Cities in May.

And to develop this fascinating theme – some stills from Jennie Livingston’s incredible 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning exploring the world of New York’s 1980s drag ball subculture and the beautiful, intricate performances, in which contestants reimagined themselves through dress and vogueing.

Rebecca.

Paris Is Burning, dir. Jennie Livingston (1990)

Passing: Fashion in American Cities

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London

Saturday 5 May 2018
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Organised by

  • Rebecca Arnold: The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • David Peters Corbett: The Courtauld Institute of Art

The idea of ‘passing’ and the issues it raises in relation to contemporary and historical notions of self-fashioning and identities is of central importance in a period of political, social and cultural upheaval.  The notion of passing also speaks to current discrimination and civil rights issues, and this conference seeks to examine the ways dress has been used to ‘pass’, to negotiate, resist and refuse contemporary prejudice, discrimination and status and beauty ideals.  We aim to explore dress, the body and the idea of ‘becoming’ – in relation to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class, with the city as a key locus for attempts to outwit social and cultural mores through the artful deployment of dress.

We welcome proposals that discuss actual dress, as well as its visual representation, with focus on the Americas as a diverse geographical zone in which growing urban centres and mass immigration have hot-housed conformity and, in turn, its resistance.

The conference seeks to highlight and interrogate this important aspect of urban self-fashioning to understand its place within dress practices and visual culture, and to develop analysis of its place within American social life.

Submission process: Please submit abstracts of 150-200 words in English, along with a short biography of approximately 100 words to passingconference@gmail.com by 29 September 2017.

 

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