En Mode Sport

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

En Mode Sport, an exhibition currently at the Musée National du Sport, in Nice takes an expansive look at sportswear’s development since the late 19th century. When I visited, I was excited to see the range and diversity of material on display – from rare examples of early cycling ensembles, to recent couture collections inspired by sport.

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

I first became aware of the planned exhibition when I was asked to contribute a short essay on mid-century New York sportswear to its catalogue, and it was wonderful to be able to view En Mode Sport having got a sense of the depth of research that went into its making.

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

What struck me was the dynamic display techniques deployed to give a sense of movement and endeavour to the items on view. White walls, shiny glass and glossed surfaces added to this effect and enabled glimpses of things to come, as you wove your way through the chronological displays. It was fascinating to see so many early examples – and to see how dressmakers struggled to provide appropriate garments for the range of new activities emerging at the turn of the century. The cycling outfit I mentioned was one such case – the top half of the body would be clad in a beautiful, striped Spencer jacket – its mutton-leg sleeves and fitted bodice a marker of contemporary femininity. But for the bottom half of the body? Well, innovation and improvisation was needed to envision and create a garment that would free women’s legs to cycle successfully. The knitted culottes shown were an interesting admixture of bloomers and trousers – part underwear as outwear, part menswear as womenswear.

Elsewhere, knitted swimsuits showed another not-quite-there form of dress – the body-conscious shape that emerged by the 1920s was perfect for a dip in the sea, but the wool yarn used to create the costumes became heavy and drooped from the figure once wet.

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Another interesting context that emerged was that of class – not only were more women playing sports professionally and for fun, but working class men were also expanding their activities – with a range of football strips and boots readied for matches. Alongside actual dress, film, posters, sketches and promotional material were also included. As you moved past the displays, it became clear how iconic sportswear is – as a marker of personal and team achievement, as souvenirs for spectators, and as a link between professional and amateur. Stars such as Suzanne Lenglen and René Lacoste forged new styles that entered mainstream fashion, and which still affect how we dress today.

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

The latter sections of the exhibition showed how technology has caught up with lifestyle, providing running shoes and kit that not only streamline the wearer, but also enhance the body’s performance, while streetwear and high fashion appropriate and redeploy such innovations for everyday and occasion wear.

Cactuses and Paper Dresses: Frida Kahlo at the New York Botanical Gardens

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida's collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida’s collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

a replica of Frida's desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

a replica of Frida’s desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

Humberto Spindola's sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas

Humberto Spindola’s sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas

The New York Botanical Garden has been transformed into a Mexican, Frida Kahlo-esque paradise.  The Enid A Haupt conservatory, a huge Victorian greenhouse, is now full of cactuses, Frida’s great botanical love. The Casa Azul, the house in which Frida was born, and where she spent most of her adult life with her husband Diego Rivera, has been replicated within the conservatory. The strong blue colour that is so characteristic of the Casa Azul, and from which it derives its name, serves as a backdrop for the hundreds of prickly plants.

The garden is accompanied by a small collection of Kahlo’s paintings that exemplify her interest in and passion for plants and botanical drawings. The lifelike realism with which she rendered floral imagery in her paintings suggests that she was a keen and knowledgeable horticulturalist.

I studied Kahlo’s representation of dress in her paintings, and her own dress, extensively for my MA dissertation, so I was happy to make the trek out to New York’s Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The most interesting aspect of the exhibition was, in my opinion, Humberto Spindola’s lifesize recreation of the two figures in Kahlo’s famous painting The Two Fridas. The painting is a double self portrait; the two identical women sit side by side, holding hands. As in many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, dress is an important tool employed to depict a sense of strong Mexican national pride. The clothing worn by the figure on the right in The Two Fridas is very similar to other depictions of dress in her works, including My Dress Hangs There. The Mexican outfit, indigenous to the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, comprised of woven huipil and floorlength skirt, was also worn by Kahlo herself in her day to day life. Frida adopted this style of dress during her early adult life, and continued to wear it until her death. To her, this style of clothing was deeply implicated in her socialist political views and a symbol of her strong feelings of national pride. Since her death, the Tehuantepec style of clothing has taken on connotations as a symbol of the artist herself, and is used by many, including Spindola, as a homage to Kahlo.

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo,

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo

Spindola’s work, which stood alone in a rotunda, is a powerful example of how Kahlo’s dress has been transformed into a symbol of her identity. Although recognizable as the scene from The Two Fridas, his sculpture depicts only the figures’ clothing. Their bodies are simple reed canes, woven to create the three-dimensional figures. From a distance, the frames almost disappear into the background, creating the illusion of the dresses floating in space. The clothes, despite their realistic appearance, are made from amate paper using a traditional Aztec technique, posing an interesting question about the role of dress in art and art in dress. Many of the clothes Kahlo depicted in her paintings were real garments that she owned and wore on a regular basis. After her death, Rivera demanded that Kahlo’s bathroom and dressing room remain locked for a minimum period of fifty years, and, in 2004, when the rooms were finally opened by the conservators and curators at the Casa Azul, many of the clothes discovered inside were in perfect condition thanks to the dark, cool environment. Many were very similar, or indeed identical, to those Kahlo rendered in paint. For her, the garments she painted were very personal, real life objects. Often, as in My Dress Hangs There, clothing stands in for a human figure, acting as a form of self-portrait. However, for the millions of people who have looked at Kahlo’s paintings since her death, the dresses she depicted are nothing more than two-dimensional images. Spindola has played on this paradox between clothing that, to Frida, was very real and everyday, but to an audience was nothing more than a potent painted symbol. In creating these dresses in a lifesize, three-dimensional format, Spindola places them back in the ‘real’ world. But, not quite. Especially when approaching them from a flight of stairs, as the curators of the exhibition enforce, they seem almost like real women, a likelike incarnation of Frida herself. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are made of paper on a reed frame, and are therefore entirely unwearable. These dresses that have lived purely in the cultural memory of the post-Frida generations have been taken off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world by Spindola, yet remain just as fragile and unwearable.

The Two Fridas

The Two Fridas



Denise Rosenzweig and Magdelena Rosenzweig (eds), Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, Fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007)


Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Fashion, Violence and Obsession in Leave Her to Heaven


Here’s another PDF for you to download!

Film poster for Leave Her To Heaven

This is an essay Rebecca Arnold co-wrote with film historian Adrian Garvey about the amazing 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven , directed by John M. Stahl. The wonderful Marketa Uhlirova, founder and Director of Fashion In Film commissioned this piece for If Looks Could Kill - a festival and book on the theme of crime and violence in film and fashion in 2008.

Cornel Wilde as Richard and Gene Tierney as Ellen

The essay considers the psychological drama of this incredible 1940s film, and the stylish wardrobe worn by Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen, a dark and troubled character, who nonetheless epitomizes contemporary fashion and beauty ideals.  We should warn you that there are lots of spoilers in the essay – so watch the film first if you don’t want to know what happens!

Gene Tierney as Ellen

With many thanks to Marketa Uhlirova for granting permission for us to post this, and for her imaginative and inspiring work for Fashion In Film.  If you want to read the other essays she commissioned for this season, look at the book she edited, If Looks Could Kill, Koenig Books with Fashion In Film Festival, 2008.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 1

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 2

Sombreros and Sarapes, Good and Evil in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film ¡Que Viva Mexico!

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.28.14

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, depictions of indigenous people and their dress began to be used by artists as an important tool for glorifying Mexican nationalism and the new Socialist politics of the country. Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian filmmaker who became disheartened with the Soviet Union’s treatment of both avant-garde art and antique religious artefacts, looked to Mexico as an example of perfect socialism. He traveled there in 1930, after meeting Diego Rivera in 1927 and became enthralled with the Mexican heritage that Rivera spoke so passionately about.  Eisenstein’s intention was shoot a film entitled ¡Que Viva Mexico! However, the project was never fully realized as he was forced to return to the USSR after losing his funding in 1932. What remains are the hundreds of metres of film he shot, which, in 1979 were turned into a film of the same name by director Grigori Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov remained faithful to the format that Eisenstein had intended for the film, breaking the footage up into four separate episodes: Sandunga, Fiesta, Maguey and Soldadera, as well as a prologue and epilogue.

The film opens with shots of the Mexican landscape and ancient ruins, depicted almost as snapshots. Each of the four episodes then depicts a different time period and location, but always exalting Mexican nationalism, culture and particularly the lower classes.

Maguey is the episode in which sympathy for and appreciation of the lower classes is most apparent, and the disparity between the dress of the workers and landowners most obvious. Set on a maguey plantation during the pre-Revolutionary capitalist regime, headed by leader Porfirio Diaz, it tells the story of Sebastian, a worker, and his lover Maria. When Maria is held captive and abused by the apparently evil landowner, Sebastian and his friends seek revenge, but are caught and executed. The episode is laced with visual references to Christianity, the immorality of the capitalist landowners and a clear allegiance to the workers.

workers in the courtyard

Dress is crucial in marking out the different characters, particularly for an English viewer, as the film is in Spanish with Russian subtitles. As well as making the plot slightly more difficult to follow, this has the effect of forcing the viewer to read the visual clues left by Eisenstein during his filming. The workers are depicted in traditional Mexican clothing: simple trousers, and woven sarapes, blanket-like capes. During the beginning of the episode, the viewer is introduced to the workers. They are shown lined up against a wall in a sun-drenched courtyard. The camera draws the viewer’s attention to their garments and sandal-like shoes. These shots of the sun-drenched wall and the sarape-clad men were clearly conceived as an image of quintessential indigenous Mexico. However it is not an idealised, peaceful lifestyle. These men are subject to the exploitation and poor treatment that Eisenstein feels is part of a capitalist society. In stark contrast to the workers, there is one solitary figure looming in the background that is a representation of authority on the plantation. Unlike the men, he wears more European style tight-fitting trousers, a jacket and a large hat. He is seen only in profile, a silhouette against the bright field behind, which makes the large gun he rests on his bent knee even more apparent and menacing. His European style dress is one of the most obvious symbols of his evil character.

the wealthy landowner in European attire

The workers’ dress is also radically different from the landowners themselves, who are shown as fat, lazy men getting drunk while the workers toil on the plantations. This episode is constructed as a microcosm of capitalism, in which the rich get ever richer, and subsequently fatter, from the labour of the poor. These men, who are cast as evil in the eyes of the viewer, are distinguishable by their lavish, European style of dress. They are depicted in tailored jackets, striped trousers and one even wears a bowtie, tying them definitively to Western capitalist societies.

Women’s dress is also contrasted to display the differences in social class. Maria is shown wearing a simple skirt, blouse and a scarf covering her head. In direct comparison, Sara, the daughter of the landowner, arrives wearing extravagant clothing; an elaborate ruffled blouse and skirt, white lace gloves, a large hat with lace train and bustle. She is an exaggerated image of vanity and her ostentatious costume is used to exhibit her decadence and cruelty.

the landowner's daughter, Sara

Eisenstein’s message is clear: Mexico under Spanish rule and Diaz’s westernised, capitalist regime was a cruel society, driven by greed and abuse of the indigenous people. What is perhaps most significant about the depictions of the different classes in Eisenstein’s film is that they are mediated through a nationalist lens – the wealthier, landowning classes, who are portrayed as evil and manipulative, are all closely aligned through their dress to European traditions. The lower, working classes, in their indigenous attire, are idealised and shown as the victims of a corrupt capitalist system, and therefore are the heroes of the film.


Inga Karetnikova and Leon Steinmetz, Mexico According to Eisenstein, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991)

Elizabeth Arden: The World’s Most Successful Trilogy

EA 01

Throughout the 1930s cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden repeatedly echoed the ingredients that represented the three main phases of beauty, which, in her opinion, every modern woman should possess and follow in order to achieve the ‘Arden Look.’

The ‘Arden look’ was a term coined by Arden herself where she referred to the women throughout the world who possessed the credentials which were reflective of the brand. Arden’s global accessibility as a company, which was – and still is – stocked in every large city across the world, meant that more and more women endorsed and adopted the Arden Look. Yet, what were the credentials that defined the ‘Arden Look?’

Whilst hunting through American Vogue’s online archive for copies of the magazine, which marketed the cosmetic brand, I came across the above advertisement, which outlined what Arden perceived as the three main phases of beauty. These phases, considered by Arden ‘world’s most successful trilogy,’ were the combination  of a lovely face, a slender figure, and a clever wardrobe.

Where society’s concept of beauty had changed during the twentieth century, from that of a woman’s moral qualities to her external appearance, Elizabeth Arden recognised that there was a growing market place for skin care and decorative cosmetics. Therefore, where a woman’s appearance through her hair, eyes, skin, lips, hands and weight became ‘critical points’ for judgement, Arden was able to offer beauty solutions through her products, and then her services.

As Arden’s influence grew within the cosmetic world, so did her brand. Beginning with skin care and decorative cosmetics, Arden opened up her own health spa, Maine Chance, in 1934. Lindy Woodhead described Maine Chance as ‘America’s first luxury health and beauty farm,’ where some of America’s wealthiest ladies would visit for health and beauty treatments, as well as outdoor sports and workouts. Clients would spend $500 a week and Arden would keep the resort open from May to September each year.  An example of the machines used is demonstrated in the accompanying photograph, which featured the ‘metal hip roller.’ It was believed that such a machine would reduce the dimensions of a woman’s hips and buttocks!

EA 02

However it was during the 1940s that Arden’s brand truly became a ‘one-stop destination’ for the three phases of beauty, with the launch of her Fashion Floor in 1944.  During her lifetime, Arden collaborated with four couture designers: Charles James, Antonio Castillo, Count Sarmi and Oscar de la Renta to provide her customers with the ‘clever wardrobe,’ that would keep her customers looking ‘irresistibly soigné.’

In this respect Arden’s ‘most successful trilogy’ not only formed the basis of the modern woman, but also demonstrated the vision that Elizabeth Arden had for her business. Moreover, as Arden defined the three phases of beauty, her empire soon expanded and encompassed these three industries, which ultimately aligned the Arden brand with the function of an American department store through her ability to offer her ladies a ‘one-stop shopping’ experience when they entered her salons.



U.S Vogue online archive

Gourley, C. Rosie and Mrs. America: Perceptions of Women in the 1930s and 1940s (Minneapolis, 2008).

Woodhead, L. War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (United Kingdom, 2003).

The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

Today we have a special post for our blog readers – a PDF of Rebecca Arnold’s essay ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity’ for you to download.  

The New Rococo - In the last twenty years, a visual style has evolved within cinema, in particular within Sophia Coppola’s films, and fashion imagery, including Corinne Day’s photographs and Stella McCartney’s designs, which express a light, feminine ideal reminiscent of eighteenth century rococo style. Coppola and her peers in fashion design and photography explored the potential of fashion, and gender, as masquerade.  In so doing, they created a visual aesthetic that might be called ‘New Rococo.’  This combined contradictory impulses, which looked to both nature and artifice, and formed a pastiche of eighteenth century and contemporary reference points. This essay explores the reasons why rococo style re-emerged during this period, and how it enabled these image-makers to validate contemporary feminine and fashionable ideals, but also to foreground these as constructed surfaces.

We will also be posting images connected to the essay on our Instagram feed @documentingfashion_courtauld today – so take a look!

Rococo Echoes Book Cover

Rebecca Arnold – ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola And Fashions In Contemporary Femininity’

(click above to download PDF)

The essay was published as part of a compilation, edited by Katie Scott and Melissa Hyde, Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2014

The book explores the influence of rococo style in a wide range of media since the 18th century, and is an exciting view of the subject. Read more here.

With thanks to Katie & Melissa, and all the book’s contributors.  This PDF is made available by permission of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford (www.voltaire.ox.ac.uk)






Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions.  In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality  – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.

His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year.  In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis.  I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images.  These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.



He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.

He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’


His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.


Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).



Keeping Up with the Courtauldians: Fashioning the Seas

Emma on board S/Y Nefertiti

Emma on board S/Y Nefertiti

S/Y Nefertiti

S/Y Nefertiti

It’s hard to believe that just two months ago the Documenting Fashion MA group were frantically printing, stapling, proof reading, doubting, loving and hating our respective dissertations. For this MA student in particular, the swift transition from university life to the world of yachting came as a bit of a shock. Immediately after handing in my dissertation in June, I left London for Palma de Mallorca, where the beautiful S/Y Nefertiti awaited my return.  Despite having worked as a stewardess on this ninety-foot sailing yacht for four years prior to my time at the Courtauld, swapping Chanel for chandleries, handbags for halyards and the V&A for VHFs was no easy task. When in the yachting industry, one is miles away from the fast-paced, ever-changing cultural landscape of a city like London. With limited Internet, no access to current exhibitions, and no street style (or indeed, streets), documenting fashion at sea was sure to be a challenge. There is only so much one could say about deck shoes and epaulets!

Audrey - style inspiration whatever the landscape!

Audrey – style inspiration whatever the landscape!

Had this been the 1920s and ‘30s, the emerging resort wear would have inspired multiple commentaries on the latest nautical fashions. I might have written about the palatial superyachts of the well-dressed millionaires in Saint-Tropez and Monte Carlo, along with the contents of their wives’ Louis Vuitton steamer trunks. Or perhaps the arrival of Schiaparelli’s culottes, Vionnet’s silk beach pyjamas and Chanel’s Cruise collection; all innovative designs that signified the social change through which a new independent woman could emerge, tanned and tantalisingly free.  I found myself considering the link between the fashion world and the yachting world of the twenties, and how it translates to today. Whilst my initial musings settled on its evident demise, it slowly became apparent that this was not necessarily the case.


It dawned on me that the owner of Nautor’s Swan, the company that built S/Y Nefertiti, is Leonardo Ferragamo, the director of the esteemed fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo. Similarly, S/Y Creole, the largest wooden sailing yacht in the world, belongs to the Gucci family.  Sailing past her in Ibiza a couple of weeks ago, all the guests and crew on Nefertiti swooned over the army of model-like deckhands in yellow and brown striped Breton tops. In truth, yachting and fashion share a long and interesting history full of luxury, beauty and intrigue, and the two worlds continue to run parallel. Fashion designers continue to buy superyachts; beautiful women continue to grace the decks of beautiful yachts, wearing silk chiffon; Louis Vuitton luggage continues to evolve, and the yachting lifestyle continues to offer its fortunate participants the one luxury that remains priceless: freedom.  Being at sea is the perfect antidote to the often-suffocating city life. Resort wear designers, then and now, represent this freedom through clothes that are easy to pack, easy to clean and easy to wear.  Despite having moved on to greener – or indeed bluer – pastures, I hope to continue documenting fashion, and particularly the relationship between fashion and freedom. Writing this, I finally understand that ‘Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only’ as Gabrielle Chanel very well knew. ‘Fashion is in the sky, in the street…’ and, it would seem, fashion also exists at sea. 

Beauty Industry: A Call for Attention

It has been over a month since clicking ‘print’ on my desktop and witnessing the birth of the most important document in my academic career. Immortalising three months worth of research, the 10,000 word document is, without sounding too dramatic, a cathartic ode to a lifetime of fascination for the business of beauty. Though my dissertation is now a near distant memory, the floors of my flat are still (very) active reminders of a by-gone era of unapologetic feminine capitalism, expression and innovation. Besides the fact that the covers and spines of the books double as beautiful decorative pieces, my refusal to put them away is perhaps explained by a reluctance to participate in the critical ‘forgetting’ of the emancipatory origins of the beauty industry.

My research on Helena Rubinstein has put under a microscope a disparity between the achievement of female figureheads, and the industry that they have built.  The books that litter my floor are filled with tributes to the foresight and exceptional industrial prowess of Rubinstein, amongst others, that signal a socio-political turning point in America’s Post-War expansionist society. The biographical emphasis on a climactic escape from patriarchal oppression that seems to underpin any discussion of Rubinstein, or Elizabeth Arden, or Madame C.J Walker, can be read as a compensation for the ‘un-feminist’ methods in which these women built their success.

It is no secret that the early beauty industry was predicated upon manipulative copy and unregulated claims; one only has to select a random page from Vogue to witness the way in which the consumer was denigrated to validate the need for beauty culturalists. This paradox is the crux of contemporary consideration that readily focuses on the purposeful alienation of identity. Naomi Wolf and her influential book, The Beauty Myth, draws upon ‘third-wave’ feminism that posits the beauty industry as an entity that constructs ideal femininity in order to punish women. Indeed, whilst fashion allows women to experience the truest expression of self, the beauty industry displaces it, or removes the autonomous ‘self’ all together. Though Wolf’s argument has been instrumental in the feminist criticism of beauty as a self-governing and exploitative entity, it seems anachronistic that present day historiography is informed by an argument that was guided by the disregard for ‘beauty’ that permeated art and fashion alike in the 90s.

Herein lies the major problem with contemporary writing on beauty – it overlooks the positive impact of beauty culture that is to be found if the dogmatic approach were to be abandoned. Unlike fashion and wider culture in the early twentieth century, the beauty industry was a microcosmic sphere that broke down class boundaries, the restriction of women and racial segregation in its aspirational conception. It extended to women a means to unite their appearance with their newfound economic and performative power, experienced after gaining the right to vote in 1921, and allowed them to rival patriarchal power through an entirely female sphere. It is a shame therefore, that at a time when more citizens owned a compact and lipstick than an automobile, the beauty industry is so often written about in an apologetic tone.

Despite the fact that Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden are largely forgotten relics of the industry that they once created, the modern beauty industry has arguably developed in response to their earlier domination. Contemporary beauty culture has become an extension of the wider criticism of its own origins by promoting self-expression and health, rather than indoctrinating ‘ideals’. However, it still employs the PR strategies and product development that are direct ancestors of those created by Rubinstein and Arden – evident in the success of Charlotte Tilbury and her mystical ‘magic cream’.

Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C.J Walker might not have the recognition they once did, but their legacy lives on in the present day industry that they gave birth to.


Peg Zeglin Brand, ed., Beauty Matters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Bantham Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1991)

Lisa Milroy

Lisa Milroy, Shoes, Oil on Canvas, Tate, 1985

Lisa Milroy, Shoes, Oil on Canvas, Tate, 1985

I first came across the artist Lisa Milroy in an art class at school – we were told to look at how she arranged everyday objects into groups and grids and created contemporary still life paintings of plates, hardware, tyres, and books. However, for me, it was her repetitive depiction of clothing and shoes that inspired the watered down derivatives that graced the pages of my GCSE sketchbook.

One of her earlier works from 1985 ‘Shoes’ that is now in the Tate collection, shows what appear to be the same pair of black, pointed-toe heels, in different arrangements and angles. The removal of the shoes from their context and their repetition abstracts and transforms them into a pattern and a series of shapes. However, there is a sense of intimacy and identity, conveyed in the paintings that perhaps stems from her choice to use shoes, which have such a personal connection to their wearer. Her painterly technique and unusual compositions in the representation of dress create a sense of personality and evoke the characters of the wearers despite the absence of the body or surrounding context. Her work greatly influenced my short-lived artistic aspirations, and they were the marriage of my interest in art and fashion.

Lisa Milroy, Dresses, Oil on Canvas, 1985

Lisa Milroy, Dresses, Oil on Canvas, 1985

Her early work was extremely important to me, so I was both delighted and surprised to come across her work again, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Amongst the paintings and the prints was a long, floral dress hanging on the wall from a white coat hanger. The larger-than-life garment trailed onto the floor, its hem section suspended on a wooden stand. Upon closer inspection, you could see that the dress was in fact a painting – the floral pattern of the fabric was painted onto the material, creating a three-dimensional painting that disturbs the limitations of the square canvas and blank wall. Milroy’s work is no longer the painterly depiction of clothing, but is the physical item of dress. Titled ‘Dress-Paintings’, these works are paintings created directly on dresses, some of which are still wearable items of clothing.

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail,  2015

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail, 2015

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail,  2015

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail, 2015

Milroy’s latest works question the definitions of what is art and what is clothing. Her ‘Dress-Paintings’ appear to be items of clothing in their form and three-dimensionality, but they are hung on the wall as objects of art. Her ‘Wearable Paintings’, further question how art is supposed to be displayed, with the body becoming the wall on which the painting is hung. They are different from fashion and objects of dress, yet they play on ideas of ‘fashion as art’, of the body as a site of individuality and self-expression through dress, and dress as a commodity. The art object is bought, owned and physically worn by its wearer – drawing comparisons to the exclusivity and projection of status in the consumption of high-end designer brands. Amongst the same repetitive prints and paintings at the Summer Exhibition, Milroy did something entirely unique; she created wearable art that at once highlights the absurdity of the art and fashion industries. However, she also created extremely beautiful and conceptual objects that are simultaneously art and items of dress.