Commentary Archive

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!

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Vogue Paris

We are just one week away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Double page spread photographed by Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris, April 1976. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This double page spread is part of a nine page fashion story by the photographer Guy Bourdin, displaying the new ‘sporty and young’ swimwear and summer fashions for 1976. The first fashion story in Vogue Paris’ ‘spring special’, it follows advertisements for Missoni, Versace, Etro, Yves Saint Laurent, Celine, Charles Jourdan, Bally and Jacques Heim. It precedes another, shot by David Bailey, and editorials on how to confront the beauty-depressing effects of winter, 10 new methods to re-discover joie de vivre as well as an extensive story on Greece, in celebration of the country’s new membership of the European Common market.

Five girls in bikinis lay outside to catch the sun’s rays in an unusual setting – usual that is, for the pages of luxury magazine Vogue. Far from an idealised, exotic location, five girls stretch out across a cracked and dusty pavement as a bus passes by, in barely-there bikinis, ‘so small that they may be held in the palm of the hand’. Sunglasses discarded, each holds a light-reflecting silver board up to their face in order to achieve a faster, stronger tan. In a further spread, models climb a fence in search of a sunnier spot past a shaded avenue palm trees, and in another, recline on a narrow strip of grass between a tarmac highway and Sears warehouse, their languor contrasting with the fully clothed figure rushing past. Breaking up the location’s horizontal lines – the bus’ branding, wall and pavement’s edge – the models are made individual by the bold colours of their bikinis and different hairstyles. They are conceivably a group of normal girls, taking advantage of the first signs of summer in the city where they live.

Cover of Vogue Paris, April 1976. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Vogue Paris’ editor-in-chief, Francine Crescent, gave her photographers a great deal of creative freedom. With Bourdin, this enabled him to exploit the features of the magazine as a material object. He was the first photographer to bear in mind the potential of the double-page spread when taking his images; all but one of the images that make up this story extend past the gutter and bleed to the very edges of the magazine. Bourdin is mindful of the way a magazine falls open, laid on a table, or across a reader’s thighs. His models are carefully spaced in order not to distort their figures at the centre of the spread where the pages naturally curve inwards to their binding. A wall or fence is often at the centre of the image, setting up a contrast between the two halves of the image. The effect is fully immersive; the picture being larger, more of the scene may be seen in greater detail, more figures included, more of a narrative told. The glossy-light reflecting paper the images are printed on adds to Bourdin’s emphasis on sunlight and shade. Viewed in April, together with features on post-winter revival, Bourdin directly addresses the reader’s desire to shed heavy coats and insulating layers with bare flesh and warm colours. As the reader holds Vogue in their hands, they are within their grasp.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Femina 1951

We are less than two weeks away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Cover of Femina, October 1951. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Femina was a French fashion magazine active from the early twentieth century.  It is a great documentary source for the history of French couture as shown by these images.  During the war, Parisian couture was necessarily scaled back in its production due to a lack of material resources as well as customers.   Fashion, however, was often a way for the women of Paris to resist the occupation of their city by asserting nationalistic pride through the cultural tradition of high fashion.  After the war, Christian Dior asserted a return to luxuriant and grand femininity with his “New Look” collection of 1947 featuring narrow sloped shoulders, hand-span waists, and voluminous longer skirts.  Although some people were shocked and even dismayed at what seemed an excessive use of fabric, the silhouette was largely embraced by women happy to have a change that expressed beauty and luxury.

Illustration of a Christian Dior gown. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

By 1951, as these illustrations attest to, the New Look silhouette was an integral part of fashion.  Dior’s gown features a blue back panel with bow that is reminiscent of the earlier nineteenth century bustle emphasizing the back of the skirt.  This silhouette was very consciously a return to the history of dress from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which Dior felt celebrated femininity in a way that resonated in the post-war period.

Illustration of a Nina Ricci gown. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Nina Ricci was one of many female couturiers before the war who opened her house in 1932. Though she isn’t as well remembered today as Dior, she was a great success in the thirties and after the war, designing until 1954 when her son took over the business.  The gown illustrated here exemplifies Ricci’s aesthetic of a highly refined femininity infused with romantic details.  The caption refers to the Second Empire period in mid-nineteenth century France which the gown seems to revivify in its sweeping trained skirt and oversized bow emphasizing the hips.  By contrast, the waist appears even smaller.  The matching long evening gloves also continue a fashion tradition in eveningwear.  The model’s coiffure, however, is a modern post-war style which reminds us that fashion is always a blend of past and present.

What I love so much about these illustrations is the way they capture a sense of drama from the dress itself.  Photographs often rely upon the model and settings to create a fuller scenario but illustrations really focus on the silhouette and textures of the garment.  The shading on the Dior gown conveys the stiffness of the material and the sheen of a silk.  That I can “feel” the surface and shape of the dress is what draws me in.  In a sense, the drawing convinces me that the gown is real, that fashion is real, because it connects to what I already know in part – the textures, colors, and shape, but offers the possibility of even more – the actual dress.

The mark of the artist’s hand speaks to the agency of my own hands and the knowledge they quite literally hold.  The architectural quality of the gown can be felt with just a few lines in the right place.  By contrast, the more fluid, softer drape of Nina Ricci’s gown seems to telegraph the movements of the woman’s body.   I can imagine the train swaying in echo of her hips as she glides across the ballroom.  The illustrations heighten the sensuality of the gowns.  The differences in aesthetic qualities reflect the type of woman imagined as the wearer and express the designer’s vision of her desires.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Femina 1947-1948

We are just two weeks away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


 

Femina, December 1947-January 1948. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This illustrated fantasy world of fashion was published in the 1947 to 1948 Christmas issue of Femina magazine. Femina was founded in February 1901 by Pierre Lafitte in Paris and focussed on “the real woman, the French woman raised in the best tradition of elegance, bon ton and grace.” Published on a bimonthly basis, Femina was aimed at an affluent readership of modern, urban, French women, who were not only encouraged to shop and dress like the social elite, but to be interested in culture, literature and politics. Femina reached its peak readership with around 40,000 readers in 1934 to 1935, and, uniquely, was edited and staffed by women only. In addition to influencing its normal readership, Femina impacted Parisian fashion through dressmakers who often took Femina issues to their customers to show examples of the latest designs.

Femina’s higher price point is evident from the editorials, advertisements and design of this issue. Most of the editorials feature couture evening gowns rather than daywear, such as gowns to wear to the opera, and many of the illustrations and photographs are in colour. The large pages are luxuriously laid out with often considerable white space around the subject. Perfume, watch, jewellery and liquor advertisements express the celebratory nature of the issue. For instance, illustrated fireworks spell out the characteristics of a Lanvin Parfums wearer and a ‘dark Brilliance de Lenthéric’ perfume bottle replaces a regular Christmas tree ornament.

This double-page spread, called ‘VISIONS’, shows illustrator Baumgarter’s dream of fashion silhouettes traversing against an imagined background. His dream includes the latest designs by Lucien Lelong, Paquin, Maggy Rouff, Madeleine de Rauch, Nina Ricci, Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Piguet, Pierre Balmain, and Dior. The slight blurriness helps to show that the illustration is a fantasy, which is less apparent when the illustration is digitised or photographed. The smoothness of the magazine’s paper is decisive in the experience of looking at the illustration: not only does it convey a kind of refinement that mirrors the luxury of the gowns, but the moderate glossiness helps to bring the illustration to life. Rather than looking at a photograph on a screen, moving the somewhat shiny illustration helps to create a tactile link to the gowns depicted and encourages the reader to imagine the volume and fabric of the designs.

Further adding to the experience is the thickness of the paper, which seems almost reluctant to open fully. Indeed, the quality of the paper has resulted in near perfect preservation, with the exception of the cover, for almost seventy years. In 1947, it would not have required a lady to be familiar with Femina to recognise the quality and lavishness of the magazine. Moreover, it perfectly answered the needs of a society whose faith in the strength of its fashion industry had to be restored and which craved the comfort and joy of luxury after half a decade of restrictions and loss.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Harper’s Bazaar

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This magazine is an October edition of Harper’s Bazaar published nationwide in the year 1940, during the London Blitz. Despite the hardships of wartime, the magazine targeted the female upper classes, which were the only ones with enough purchasing power to afford it. With the costly price of 2 shillings 6 pence, it was a considerable expense that could feed an average family for one day. In contrast to DIY publications, Harper’s Bazaar relies on the desire to emulate the rich and powerful to disseminate latest fashions. With the upcoming winter, the issue centers around the season’s new fashions coming from the capital, presenting a wide array of greatcoats both furless and completely fur-lined, made mostly out of warm wools or commonly available types of fur like squirrel, mole, and rabbit. The effects of rationing clearly influence the choice of images which are plain in their style with scarcely any accessories and minimal display of jewelry, painting a picture of a simple, although fashionable, woman. The practicality of the inside contrasts sharply with the flamboyant cover which is aimed at defying the grim realities of wartime and giving people back the feeling of normality.

Looking closer at the front cover, we can examine it as a historical source from the era, a social history document that tells the historian part of the story of Britain in the 1940s, and more particularly its dress history. A closer inspection may reveal that the colours chosen in such a specific moment in history are not random. The predominant purple tones, which are one of the first elements that catch the viewer’s attention, are historically associated with opulence, richness, royalty and empire. The crispness and silky texture of the sleeve contrast with the other colours of the dress that look as if they are polluted with randomly distributed red dots. The grainy and wooly texture of the material creates an off-focus effect that contrasts with the smooth and well-shaded arm and the sharp colours of the jewellery that richly decorates it. Our gaze is naturally led towards the hand that holds the cigarette, a luxury item that was rationed and reserved mostly for the servicemen at the front. Smoking, at the time, was an activity reserved for the feminine elite, symbolic of the defiance and rebellion against the male culture and male-centred workplace. The model positions herself in a relaxed and mindful manner looking down upon the viewer in an almost spiteful way, suggesting her higher status. This projects an image of power and confidence, a new Britannia clothed in all the riches of the Empire, watchful and confident of her power to withstand the dangers that befell her.