Commentary Archive

Maison Doucet

During the Belle Epoque period, at 21 Rue de la Paix in Paris, stood Maison Doucet, one of the most fashionable couture houses of the day. Under the tutelage of Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret got his start there, as did Madeleine Vionnet, before they went on to their own success as couturiers. The clients at Doucet, as with most top couture houses, ranged from social elites and nobles to courtesans and celebrity actresses such as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt (Figs. 1 and 2). Notably, Doucet was also patronized by younger American socialites such as Carrie Schermerhorn Astor, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and Edith Wharton.

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Fig. 1: Actress Rejane wearing a Doucet at-home gown, cover of Les Modes, August 1902.

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Fig. 2: P. Nadar. Actress Rosa Bruck in Doucet, Les Modes, November, 1901.

To dispel the expenses of a trip to Paris, Doucet dresses were sold in New York at Arnold, Constable & Co. and Lord & Taylor’s and models were available at the exclusive dressmaking establishments of Madame Barnes and Madame Donovan. More than one woman who did return from Paris with a Doucet in her trunk reportedly tried to evade customs because of the excessive duties.

Turn-of-the-century fashions were characterized by exuberant surface decoration, where the materials, techniques, and styling of different decorative elements showed off one’s prosperity, indeed Doucet indulged heavily in such excess of beautification. One of the characteristic traits of the Doucet aesthetic is the use of fluid, unstructured fabrics such as lace, tulle, silk, fur, and satin (Figs. 3 and 4). From the turn of the century, with the body-skimming Directoire style and the taste for tea gowns, Maison Doucet’s expertise with fabrics put the couture house at the height of fashion. Doucet dresses were just a bit softer in their drape, delicate in their surfaces and the vision of beauty fit in with the more sensitive side of the time. That Doucet’s clients were daughters of great society matrons, wives of executives in the fashion retail industry, and popular actresses, confirms that the ultra-femininity of the Maison’s designs were fashion-forward and distinct from the stiffer prestige image of the House of Worth. Is it any wonder then that both Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust conjured up characters that answered to the siren call of Doucet frocks?

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Fig. 3: Doucet. Reception or ball gown. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Fig. 4: Doucet. Afternoon or tea gown. 1900-1903. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

High society dressing was very much a public consideration, a performance of wealth, class belonging and taste in the age of crass overnight millionaires and dollar princesses. In the highly codified world of social elites, elaborate surface decoration gave expression to the complexity and power of social wealth, presenting ornate femininity as an index of masculine financial prowess in the new business order.

The Maison Doucet sensibilities dovetail with the eighteenth-century revival fashion trend to which he contributed and executed at the highest level, informed by his own art collecting and connoisseurship. The sinuous lines of a peach embroidered ball gown in the art nouveau style have their clear precedent and inspiration in the eighteenth-century meandering lines of Rococo design, found particularly in textiles (Fig. 5).

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Fig. 5: Doucet. Ball gown, 1898-1900. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Nouveau tiger lily design reminiscent of the Rococo period. Worn by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson.

Of all the dress styles in a lady’s wardrobe, it was the tea gown, or at-home gown, that most embodied and fulfilled the sensual femininity of the Doucet aesthetic. Due to its light and clingy materials that skimmed a woman’s uncorseted body, it had a naturally suggestive quality to it. The abundance of airy lace over fluid, unstructured silk of a 1907 tea gown conveys the romantic and delicate aesthetic of the early century under the lofty eye of Doucet (Fig. 6). The tea gown’s softness underscores the traditional relationship between femininity and the private sphere while also promoting modern modes of dressing for comfort. The secret to the successful Doucet aesthetic seems to lie in the unabashed sensuality of the clothes no matter what the occasion.

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Fig. 6: Doucet. Tea gown, 1907. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Further Reading

Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Diehl. The History of Modern Fashion. London:Laurence King Publishing, 2015.

Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet and Pingat. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1989.

Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion. Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998.

Review of Inside Vogue: A Diary of my 100th Year by Alexandra Shulman

Alexandra Shulman, Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year (London: Fig Tree Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year by Alexandra Shulman (London: Fig Tree Penguin, 2016). Photograph courtesy of publisher.

The centenary year of British Vogue saw numerous celebratory events, from a bumper June issue covered by the Duchess of Cambridge to a retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a BBC2 documentary punnily titled Absolutely Fashion and a Vogue Festival featuring Grace Coddington, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, Kim Kardashian and Charlotte Tilbury as speakers. Inside Vogue – the final treat of this momentous year for the magazine established in 1916 – is a personal account of the hard work that went into these events, the pressure, frustrations, and challenges faced in doing justice to Vogue’s legacy.

A rich picture is painted by Inside Vogue’s author, editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman. What could have easily have hit shelves as a puffed-up piece of marketing is in fact peppered by nuanced criticisms. Absolutely Fashion’s narrator is rightly a cause for concern, as is rogue photographer David Bailey, though real indignation is reserved for the hypocritical jabs at Vogue’s portrayal of women made by The Daily Mail’s Liz Jones and Sarah Vine. Beauty confessions (‘I can only stick so far to “Il faut souffrir pour être belle”. The less souffrir going on the better, I feel.’) and reminiscences about growing up as the daughter of features writer Drusilla Beyfus and theatre critic Milton Shulman are interrupted – as even the most fabulous working lives are – by domestic chaos, spontaneously combusting bins and failing boilers.

Cover of Vogue Centenary Issue, June 2016

Cover of Vogue Centenary Issue, June 2016

Interior of Vogue Centenary Issue, June 2016

Interior of Vogue Centenary Issue, June 2016

Preview of Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year

Page preview of Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year

Structured as a diary, Inside Vogue also provides a valuable first-hand account of what is takes to produce a contemporary record such as Vogue magazine. How best to showcase Vogue’s contribution to readers’ awareness of contemporary conversations, culture and styles, and determine which faces from the worlds of fashion, art and music most deserve places in Tim Walker’s ‘hall of fame’ shoot? How to do this in the face of a digital revolution, with new challenges for print publishing; how to fight for a gold foil-embossed logo on instinct alone? Shulman’s accounts of her meetings with the Duchess of Cambridge will likely prove an essential source for our understanding of (and indeed future studies on) the representation and role of the royal family in these times. That the palace is easier to deal with than Naomi Campbell and David Beckham is just one takeaway.

Although Shulman makes clear the account is somewhat polished, not unlike Instagram – ‘everything we put out about ourselves is edited’ – there is plenty here to delight, intrigue, and learn about what life is like at the helm of Vogue, that powerful force in documenting fashion.

Alexandra Shulman, Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year (London: Fig Tree Penguin, 2016). Photograph courtesy of publisher.

From Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. Photograph courtesy of publisher.

From Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. Photograph courtesy of publisher.

From Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. Photograph courtesy of publisher.

Somerset House Welcomes a New Addition

In Somerset House’s long history, many artists have walked through its courtyard and created their works in the endless nooks and crannies of its maze-like interiors. The long legacy of vision, beginning in 1779 when the Royal Academy of Arts became the first resident in the newly refurbished Somerset House, through its many Royal Academy Exhibitions, the move of The Courtauld Institute of Art into the North Wing of the building, becoming the home of British Fashion Council and London Fashion Week, to hosting blockbuster fashion and art exhibitions as well as multiple annual festivals such as Pick Me Up and Photo London, now continues with a new venture.

From October 2016, the New Wing of the former sixteenth century palace has been transformed into a home of Somerset House Studios, a new experimental workspace for a wide spectrum of creatives. Musicians, filmmakers, performance artists, designers, writers, architects, visual and internet artists are among the first residents in the repurposed, 36,000 sq ft space, soon to be joined by 25 new arrivals. Eventually, the space will house 300 creators, inventors and originators, making Somerset House a vibrant hub for London’s visionaries.

Somerset House Studios comes at a time when London’s uncompromisingly high rent has driven out artists such as Gareth Pugh, a world-renowned British designer, from their previous spaces. Pugh laments, “there is so much about creativity and how London is this place people go to and look to, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to actually make ends meet and make things work. Responding to this very serious problem, the Studios are offering up to two and a half years of residency at a capped rental price equivalent to 2014 rates for workspaces, allowing creativity to flourish, while offering much needed security to vulnerable artists and at the same time preventing the flocking of precious British talent elsewhere. The community Somerset House Studios will create is also crucial, as musician, artist and writer Brian Eno highlights: “People sometimes think that everything artists need is in their own minds. But it isn’t: as well as talent and enthusiasm, they need good places to work, and they need people to talk to and share ideas with…it represents a lot of possibilities for creative cross-pollination.”

This artistic exchange will not be exclusive to the residents, however. Instead, performance spaces, event and exhibition rooms will showcase the talent to over 3.2 million guests which come to Somerset House each year. The first round of exhibitions, called Somerset House Studios 01 has already been a great success. Newcomer but already one of the most exciting London designers, Charles Jeffrey, hosted one of his famous LOVERBOY raves in his space during the opening night. Inés Cámara Leret conceived an out-of-the-world cube which catches the spectators’ breaths and imprints them, creating a tangible object out of our DNA, while design practice Superflux set up a fictional court case, leading the visitor from their lab through sheets of plastic hanging off walls to the crime scene itself, posing questions about the world of gene-fixing and genetic profiling. What makes this work really compelling is its interaction with the audience, a new area which art is just beginning to tap into, but is already very much at the forefront at the Studios. Exciting things are happening at Somerset House and we cannot wait to see the incredible, inspiring and invigorating work which will once again announce London and one of its iconic buildings as the leader in artistic innovation.

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                                     Gareth Pugh | Sycorax | Somerset House Studios | Image by Dan Wilton

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                                     Charles Jeffrey | Somerset House Studios | Image by Dan Wilton

Applications for Somerset House Studios are open until 7 January 2016.

 

References:

Somerset House Studios Press Release (https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/press/somerset-house-studios accessed on Monday, 14 November 2016)

R. Dex, ‘Gareth Pugh gets a studio at Somerset House after being priced out of Dalston’ in Evening Standard (Wednesday, 19 October 2016) (http://www.standard.co.uk/fashion/news/gareth-pugh-gets-a-studio-at-somerset-house-after-being-priced-out-of-dalston-a3373406.html accessed on Monday, 14 November 2016)

Childhood Unveiled at the Museo Nacional del Prado: Spanish children’s fashion from the reign of Isabel II

Childhood Unveiled display. In the middle, the canvas of Antonio Maria Esquivel. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Childhood Unveiled display. In the middle, the canvas of Antonio Maria Esquivel. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Whilst in Madrid I had the opportunity to visit the recently opened special display La Infancia Descubierta (Childhood Unveiled) at Museo Nacional del Prado. With this exquisite display, el Prado recalls the importance of the children portrait genre in the nineteenth century by focusing on two key locations during Romanticism: Madrid and Seville.

The recent purchase by the Prado Museum of an almost unknown canvas by Antonio Maria Esquivel and Suárez de Urbina (1806-1857) that portrays a pair of brothers might be one of the reasons for the organisation of this exhibition. This would be the first time the piece is presented to the public. Javier Baron, Chief Curator of 19th-century painting at the museum, has used the painting as a centrepiece to articulate a small sample of eight works dated 1842 to 1855. Collected from Madrid and Seville and dated to the reign of Isabel II, each child portrait is now part of the museum’s collection. From the eight pieces exhibited, only one, the portrait of Federico Florez and Márquez by Federico de Madrazo and Kuntz (1815-1894) – a great representative of the court’s painters – is part of the permanent display; the other seven canvases are usually kept in storage, so this exhibition is the perfect opportunity to see them in person.

Luis Ferrant y Llausás, Isabel Aragón Rey, 1854. Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 65.8 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Luis Ferrant y Llausás, Isabel Aragón Rey, 1854. Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 65.8 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

These portraits, commissioned by middle-class, aristocrat and bourgeois clients, reveal different interpretations of childhood, a theme that became particularly popular among Romantic painters as a reflection of their clients’ new interests.

Baron explains that child portraiture emerged in Spanish painting at the end of the 18th-century and further developed in the 19th. It did so in relation to the ideals that emerged with the Enlightenment, particularly childhood purity espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This idea stated that children had their own interests and autonomy, rather than childhood being simply a stage that led to adulthood. The virtues associated with childhood – spontaneity, grace, innocence, purity versus the negative aspects of civilization – were highly valued. We can see them reflected in details such as the outdoor settings of the paintings.

Through this display, we have a glimpse at children’s fashions in Spain during the reign of Isabel II. During this period, Spanish children’s fashion followed the canons of the French style. Mothers copied models  from figurines seen in Paris, and girls wore miniature versions of their mothers’ attire: long dresses on top of several layers of petticoats, to give the desired shape to their skirts. It was very common that mothers ordered small crinolines for their daughters so they would lighten the weight of so many petticoats.

French fashion illustration, 1849. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

French fashion illustration, 1849. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve, Portrait of a girl in a landscape, 1847. Oil on canvas, 116 x 95 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve, Portrait of a girl in a landscape, 1847. Oil on canvas, 116 x 95 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Younger girls wore shorter skirts, revealing their white cotton undergarments that were trimmed with delicate lace or English embroidery. At the age of six girls would begin to wear small corsets similar to adult models.

Joaquín Espalter y Rull, Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós Oil on canvas, 159 x 126 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Joaquín Espalter y Rull, Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós. Oil on canvas, 159 x 126 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Kid leather ankle boots were the most common everyday footwear. For more formal occasions, boots usually had decorative satin embroidery to match the dress. In wintertime, outerwear included gloves and coats made of woven fabric for everyday fashion. Cotton velvet and fur were used to make ensembles for special occasions, accompanied by lined hoods for girls and hats and caps for boys. As we can appreciate from the selection of paintings, boys and girls wore the same fashions regardless of gender until approximately the age of five. As for the fabrics used, the most popular were velvet, taffeta, organdy and tarlatan.

Federico Madrazo y Kuntz, Portrait of Federico Florez, 1842. Oil on canvas, 178.5 x 110 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Federico Madrazo y Kuntz, Portrait of Federico Florez, 1842. Oil on canvas, 178.5 x 110 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Fashion for boys was more comfortable and functional than girl’s fashions. From the age of 6 – 7, boys would start to wear long trousers, and their outfits were very often jacket and trouser sets made of woven fabric in one colour; the addition of hats, badges and military inspired golden buttons created a more formal look.

Source
Video commentary of exhibition by Javier Barón, Chief Curator of 19th-century Painting (Spanish with English subtitles)

Unmasking Rococo Masquerade Costume

From the 1720s until the end of the eighteenth century, large masquerades epitomized vice and excess in European cities. In spite of this, people from almost all walks of life frequented masquerades, including nobles, clergy, townsfolk, and prostitutes. There were only two requirements for admission: first, a purchased party ticket, and second, a costume. With the blurring of class boundaries, excess food and alcohol consumption, and libertinage came the necessity to hide one’s identity. Thus, revelers donned fantastical costumes and masks to disguise themselves as they met in assembly rooms and pleasure gardens. At the height of masquerade madness, artists depicted how these partygoers adapted fashionable dress to create costumes that complemented the topsy-turvy atmosphere.

Henry Moreland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769. Oil on canvas. Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries (LEEAG.1948.0009.0001). Available here: http://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/pages/object.aspx?oid=43215.

Henry Moreland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769. Oil on canvas. Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries (LEEAG.1948.0009.0001). Available at this link.

Concealment was the chief aim of masquerade costume. An issue of London’s Universal Spectator in 1729 declared that “Everyone…wears a Habit which speaks him the Reverse of what he is.” As such, costume contrasted with the everyday personality of its wearer. For example, in Henry Morland’s The Fair Nun Unmasked, though the woman’s cross and veil indicate that she is dressed as a nun, the low cut of her dress hardly conveys the piety required for the role. Further, the beauty patches on her mask indicate flirtation, both drawing attention to details on the face (or, in this case, the mask) and communicating secret meanings through patch position. A nun costume blatantly sexualized the wearer in eighteenth-century Protestant England: to be called a ‘nun’ meant one was a whore.

Detail of Charles Nicolas Cochin II (design) and Charles Nicolas Cochin I (engraving), Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, c. 1860 reprint of 1764 plate. Etching with engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930). Available here: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359942.

Detail of Charles Nicolas Cochin II (design) and Charles Nicolas Cochin I (engraving), Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, c. 1860 reprint of 1764 plate. Etching with engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930). Available at this link.

Costumes designs varied widely, as seen in Cochin’s print of the Yew Tree Ball of 1745. The most popular styles included fancy dress (toned-down costume dresses), pastoral (particularly shepherdesses), Oriental (Turkish or Chinese dress), seventeenth century (dress inspired by Rubens’ 1638 portrait of Hélène Fourment), and harlequin. People were hardly confined to these styles, however. Just as the masquerade encouraged bodily excess, so too were revelers encouraged to play with extremes when designing their costumes. Cochin etched one extreme into posterity by depicting the namesake of the Yew Tree Ball: at this masquerade, celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin, King Louis XV and his male courtiers dressed as topiary yew trees. In a world ordinarily controlled by pomp and carefully honed manners, this and other costumes embodied the magical escapism of the Rococo masquerade.

Further Reading

Ribeiro, Aileen. The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730-1790, and its relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.

Review of the Met’s Spring 2016 exhibition: Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology

I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as I approached the exhibition, gentle music gradually filled the air. I was awestruck by an otherworldly sight of gold, glittering and dancing in the light. This wonderful sight was the 20-ft train of a Chanel haute couture wedding gown from the Autumn/ Winter 2014- 2015 collection.

The entrance had a cathedral-like quality, with a zoomed in image of the dress projected onto the dome ceiling. Pages of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers Crafts, 1751-72, were placed in glass cases around the dress – almost like manuscripts on display. Meanwhile, ethereal music played in the background (Brian Eno’s “The Ascent”). This church-like atmosphere created a quiet space to reflect on the exhibition and gave importance to the dress and items on display, informing visitors that the contents and ideas raised by the exhibition were sacred, to be studied and respected.

The exhibition highlighted the distinct relationship between fashion and technology, challenging the traditional idea of handmade clothing as more valuable than machine-made. The Chanel wedding gown at the entrance was a striking first example of how hand and machine techniques can work together. This dress was first sketched by hand, then manipulated on a computer to have a look of pixelation, then heat-pressed with rhinestones, hand-painted in gold and hand-embroidered.

The book on display at the entrance, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie, described métiers, or trades, of dressmaking. These métiers were used to curate the exhibition into sections, including embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework and leatherwork. In addition to these métiers, a room featured toiles and paper patterns, as well as tailoring and dressmaking. The layout of the exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, was clear and accessible, spreading over two floors.

Throughout the exhibition garments were juxtaposed beside each other; to highlight similarities between them and the continued relationship between hand and machine-made fashion throughout time. For example, the “Wet Lace Frill Dress”, a 2014 machine-made and machine-embroidered dress by Irish-born designer Simone Rocha, was placed deliberately beside a hand- sewn and machine-embroidered “Cocktail Dress” with hand-applied flounces and bows, from the House of Balenciaga Autumn/ Winter 1963-4 collection.

One of my favourite garments in the exhibition was the “May” Dress from the ‘Artificial Flowers’ section. It was a beautifully feminine Christian Dior dress, from the 1953 Spring/ Summer collection. The dress was formed by a combination of hand and machine techniques; it was machine-sewn, had hand- finished white silk organza and net, and was hand-embroidered with artificial flowers, clover and grass.

The exhibition was very informative, enriched by wall displays in each section presenting information on the métiers. Each garment was also accompanied by a label, description of its process of manufacture and sometimes a quote from the designer. Some garments were displayed against the background of a blown up image detailing its construction, which allowed the spectators to inspect the garment more closely.

I really enjoyed visiting the exhibition, sadly it has just ended so I can’t recommend visiting it any more, but I hope this provides some insight as to what it was about.

Review: The First Monday in May

Since The September Issue came to our screens back in 2009 and the enigmatic world of American Vogue opened up before our eyes, the market for fashion documentaries has exploded. Bill Cunningham: New York; Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel; In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye; Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s; and Dior and I have been watched and re-watched endlessly by fashion industry insiders and fashion students alike. These, alongside movies such as the ever-quotable The Devil Wears Prada, have helped bring fashion to the forefront of culture, exposed what goes on behind the scenes and crucially , somewhat de-alienated and democratised the world of fashion to those outside of it. Fashion films and documentaries make the unreachable world of fashion magazines and designers human, approachable, and relatable – something fashion often struggles to be for the large majority of people.

Considering the huge success and acclaim of The September Issue and other documentaries, there is little wonder a new fashion documentary is back on the silver screen. The First Monday in May, directed by Andrew Rossi, known for his insider and expose films such as Page One: Inside the New York Times or Ivory Tower, is yet another quest into the world of American Vogue. This time, however, the world-class institution is joined by another – The Metropolitan Museum of Art – in a movie which uncovers the preparations, ordeals and, inevitably, fun, that goes into putting together The Met’s annual fashion exhibition and its famous opening night  – The Met Ball.

On the first Monday in May 2015, The Met was witness to red carpet event extraordinaire. A charity event like no other. Set up to sponsor the Consume Institute of the museum, The Met Ball is a party everyone wants to attend, but only a few make the cut. A party that sees the most glamorous fashions and amazing performances. A party everyone talks about, knows about and pores over the next morning on the Vogue website. A party which, in 2015, raised $12.5 million. Now, who said parties were frivolous?

Celebrating the launch of the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition, models, actors and actresses, musicians, politicians, designers and fashion folk stepped out on the famous Met stairs in the best couture money can buy, all beautiful-faced and smiling at the cameras, as everyone screamed their names. Looks easy, doesn’t it? Well, this is exactly the myth Rossi’s new film works to abolish. The ball is only a reward for the incredibly hard and demanding work, sleepless nights, juggling diplomatic concerns with making a strong statement (such as displaying an image of Mao Zedong among Buddha statues), thousands of meetings, travelling all over the world and very tight schedules that precede and allow the unveiling of the magical world created inside The Met. Following the fantastic Andrew Bolton, the head curator of The Met’s Costume Institute, and his right-hand and a Met trustee, Anna Wintour, The First Monday in May tells a tale of the exhibition, from conception, through its many issues, successes and worries, to its final stages. It is a moving portrait of a man who has dedicated his life to the museum and to fashion – to showing that clothing is, indeed, a form of artwork and not a medium that can be dismissed as something irrelevant or superficial. It is, too, a portrait of a woman who is often seen as fierce and cold, but who, in the movie, shows her passions and worries, where we see her as a mother and as someone completely in awe of art and fashion, someone who even appears humble at times.

The First Monday in May has nail-biting drama at times. It is deep, intellectual, and moving. It has stunning imagery, rare cameos by John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and the late Bill Cunningham. It marries two distinct cultures beautifully and tactfully. It allows everyone a look into the most exclusive event on the social calendar and lets those unable to visit the exhibition discover its treasures at home. Ultimately, it is loads of fun, “a Super Bowl of social fashion events” according to André Leon Tally, who is also filmed tutting at Mr and Mrs Clooney for not stopping to talk to him. Diane von Furstenberg also seems to be having a blast, strutting her stuff to Rihanna’s live performance of Bitch Better Have My Money. If it’s good enough for fashion royalty, it sure is good enough for us. Just in case you needed more reasons to drop everything and run to the nearest cinema, with 800,000 visitors, China: Through the Looking Glass topped the blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition. Now, surely, a movie about that is worth seeing!

 

Anna Maria Garthwaite, Spitalfields Silk, and English Rococo

The Spitalfields area of London was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion as it was the center of the silk-weaving industry in England.  Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion for the increasing pace of change in trends during the century was found primarily in new textile patterns rather than garment styles or silhouettes which held sway for lengthier periods of time.[1]  The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and color palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s.  The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.

Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry.  In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving was due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.[2]  As a forty year old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts.[3]  She worked in watercolor and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum

Garthwaite’s talent in floral patterns lent itself to the emergent Rococo style in the design arts.  Concurrently, the development the points rentres technique allowed for rendering more three-dimensional, detailed shading on the drawloom in imitation of painting.[4]  The result was that larger, bolder designs showing off greater detail came to characterize flowered silks of the 1730s.  As English designers such as Garthwaite took up the aesthetics of painting in woven silk design, naturalism came to be the “English” style, defining their version of the Rococo in contrast to the greater French inclination towards stylization, busier patterns, and colored grounds often incorporating ribbons, lace, shells, fur, and rocaille (stylized rock formations) alongside floral motifs.

Garthwaite’s composition above ingeniously creates opportunities to show off three-dimensional shading with leaves that curve outwards, petals and small posies that overlap each other, and peaches that seem to revel in their own roundness.  Because Garthwaite’s style  doesn’t seem to bear influence from the leading naturalists of the day, scholar Natalie Rothstein believes that Garthwaite would have visited botanical gardens directly to familiarize herself with the details of a wide variety of plants, especially those not native to the area.[5]  Garthwaite’s style then appears to be down to her own artistic vision and natural talent, and if her designs show the current trends in English silks, it is because she drove those trends.

The most distinctive feature of the Rococo was the S-curve line known as the Line of Beauty, promoted by William Hogarth in his treatise, Analysis of Beauty (1753) as well as the influential manual Laboratory or School of the Arts (1756).  This meandering line can be found as early as 1743 in Garthwaite’s designs.[6]   Though a connected line is not always present, the curving motifs draw the eye on a sinuous path, seemingly turning and greeting each other in mimicry of partnered dances such as the minuet.

Most garments made from Spitalfields silks were altered, usually in the late 1780s or in the 1830s when dress styles changed and such flowered silks could fit the fashions.  Surviving silks designed by Garthwaite can be viewed at the V&A in the British Galleries, Room 52B.  In addition, a panel thought to be a Garthwaite design hangs in the Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields in the Hogarth room (to the left of the window).  Her home at the corner of Princelet and Wilkes Streets still stands today and is marked by a plaque.

It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did.  It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.

[1] Natalie Rothstein, The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Woven Textile Design in Britain to 1750.  (New York: Canopy Books, 1994), 7.

[2] Natalie Rothstein, The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Woven Textile Design in Britain to 1750.  (New York: Canopy Books, 1994), 17

[3] A. K. Sabin, Spitalfields Silks. (London: Bethnal Green Museum, 1931), 8-9.

[4] Catalog entry, silk skirt panel by Anna Maria Garthwaite, 1749, Victoria and Albert Museum.

[5] Natalie Rothstein, The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Woven Textile Design in Britain to 1750.  (New York: Canopy Books, 1994), 15.

[6] Rothstein, The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Woven Textile Design in Britain to 1750.  (New York: Canopy Books, 1994), 8.

Further Reading

Brown, Clare, ed.  Silk Designs of the Eighteenth Century from the Victoria & Albert

Museum.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Buss, Chiara.  The Meandering Pattern in Brocaded Silks 1745-1775. Milan:

Ermenegildo Zegna Holditalia Spa, 1990.

Flanagan.  Spitalfields Silks of the18th and 19th Centuries.  Leigh-on-Sea, UK: F. Lewis, 1954.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art. An Elegant Art: Fashion and Fantasy in the

Eighteenth Century.  Los Angeles: LA County Museum of Art, 1983.

Miller, Lesley Ellis. Selling Silks: a Merchant’s Sample Book 1764.  London: V&A

Publishing, 2014.

Ribeiro, Aileen.  Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe, 1715-1789.  London: Batsford,

1984.

Rothstein, Nathalie. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Woven Textile Design in Britain to 1750.  New York: Canopy Books, 1994.

_____________________.  The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Woven

Textile Design in Britain 1750 to 1850.  New York: Canopy Books, 1994.

______________________.  Spitalfields Silks. London: H. M. Stationery, 1975.

Sabin, A. K.  Spitalfields Silks. London: Bethnal Green Museum, 1931.

Thunder, Moira.  Spitalfields Silks. London: V&A Publishing, 2011.

The Life and Collection of Charles W. Stewart

 Charles Stewart, Rosie, Wearing Day-Dress, c. 1873, 1970. Watercolour on paper. Private collection. © Estate of the artist.

Charles Stewart, Rosie, Wearing Day-Dress, c. 1873, 1970. Watercolour on paper. Private collection. © Estate of the artist.

Woman's bodice in purple silk, part of a dress ensemble (A.1977.737.1-3), with high round neckline trimmed with lace, fitted to waist with a flared skirt, fastening centre front with seven buttons, wrist length sleeves, trimmed with purple satin silk: European, possibly British, c. 1870 - 1873 Museum reference A.1977.737.1 Image © National Museums Scotland

Woman’s bodice in purple silk, part of a dress ensemble (A.1977.737.1-3), with high round neckline trimmed with lace, fitted to waist with a flared skirt, fastening centre front with seven buttons, wrist length sleeves, trimmed with purple satin silk: European, possibly British, c. 1870 – 1873
Museum reference
A.1977.737.1
Image © National Museums Scotland

Dress, c. 1876-1878 Museum reference K.2014.23.1&2 Image © National Museums Scotland

Dress, c. 1876-1878
Museum reference
K.2014.23.1&2
Image © National Museums Scotland

A pair of shoes by Edwin Bitton, 1835-1840 Museum reference A.1977.491 Image © National Museums Scotland

A pair of shoes by Edwin Bitton, 1835-1840
Museum reference
A.1977.491
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

While Charles William Stewart (1915-2001) mainly enjoyed the spotlight as an illustrator in the Royal Academy of Art’s 2014 exhibition “Charles Stewart: Black and White Gothic”, he also contributed to one of the most significant dress collections in the United Kingdom. Having personally worked with Stewart’s collection at National Museums Scotland, I found his collection to contain extraordinary pieces, whilst providing a valuable insight in the process of collecting fashion and the remarkable life of its collector.

Born in the Philippines, Stewart was sent to live with his uncle at the family home of Shambellie House, near Dumfries, Scotland, as a three-year-old boy. The land had been in possession of his family since 1625, while the Victorian mansion was built in 1855 after the design of principal Scottish architect David Bryce. In 1932, he started his study at Byam Shaw School of Painting and Drawing, during which time he was inspired to take up ballet by Colonel de Basil’s “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo”. In 1936 and 1937, he was hired “by a freak of fortune” as a dancer at Covent Garden and was asked to design the male costumes and Lydia Sokolova’s solo costume for Thomas Beecham’s “Aida”. He continued work as a costume designer or assistant designer until the war, when his refusal to take lives led him to become a conscientious objector and join the Air Raid Precautions instead. With the 1946 commission to illustrate Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas”, he made the permanent career switch to illustration.

Like many historical fashion enthusiasts, Stewart’s passion for historical fashion began at a young age, when he came across a china doll in a mock 18th century dress in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. He later said: “[it] seemed to me supremely beautiful and I coveted [it] with the sharp acquisitive desire which collectors know so well”. To aid him with his historical illustrations, he collected numerous items from Portobello Road and Bermondsey Market (historical fashion had little value at the time so was cheap to acquire), although he favoured a shop in Soho. Shared by 23 cats, the trunks of garb were in an attic “where the rays of a winter sunset could scarcely penetrate the grime of ages on the window panes”. Here he found, illustrative to the diversity of his collection, two 18th century men’s dressing gowns as well as theatrical costumes worn by actors of Sir Henry Irving’s theatre company.

He used small labels to keep track of where he had found each item, his year of origin estimation and any additional information about the wearer. Many of his labels are still attached today as can be seen in the photo of accessories below. While mid-20th century methods of textile conservation were at times dubious, he was adamant about the care of his collection and had his housekeeper launder and pack his entire collection in plastic bags (see the trimmings in the plastic bag).

By 1977, the anxiety about his collection being dispersed upon his death led him to donate his entire historical fashion collection, consisting of 2,000 pieces, to the Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museums Scotland). His family home, Shambellie House, was donated to the Scottish Government with the intent of displaying some pieces of his fashion collection. The Shambellie House Museum of Costume first opened in 1982, but sadly closed as a public museum in 2013. The pieces on display were then returned to NMS where the vast majority of his collection had been stored since donation.

His fashion collection is as diverse as his life’s experiences and includes dresses, skirts, bodices, capes, shoes, hats, hair pieces, belts, hosiery and men’s suits from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, both branded and unbranded. The collection covers dress for different occasions and parts of the day, including daywear, eveningwear (many skirts come with day- and eveningwear bodices), dressing gowns, wedding dresses and performance costumes. The non-textile part of his donation includes fashion plates from the late 18th century, full publications from the 19th century such as bound copies of “The Lady’s Magazine”, and his stunning watercolour designs for period stage costumes created in c. 1972-73. While Stewart bought most of the pieces, he also received many donations and an endearing part of the collection consists of his mother’s 1950s dresses.

The beautiful purple bodice (A.1977.737.1), a Worth dress and Lanvin cape from Stewart’s collection can be seen in the new “Fashion and Style Gallery” at National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, whilst other pieces of his collection can be viewed by appointment.

Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior

After Raf Simons abruptly left his position as creative director at Dior after just three years last October, Dior was left with the task of recruiting, once again, a designer that would be able to continue the legacy and shoulder the burden of designing for one of Paris’ grandest fashion houses.

Maria Grazia Chiuri was announced as Simons’ successor, the first female creative director at Dior and lately of Valentino, where she formed one half of a successful 26-year-long design partnership with Pierpaolo Piccioli that began in the accessories department of Fendi. Her debut was scheduled for the 30th of September, at the end of a season fraught with questions of see-now-buy now, the pace of the system, and street-style spats, that also saw new hands at work at Saint Laurent (Antony Vaccerello) and Lanvin (Bouchra Jarrar).

The opportunity afforded by a single fashion show is well known to the house of Dior. In February 1947, a single presentation saw the popular dress of that decade transformed. Heralded as the most influential fashion event of the century, the collection was worthily dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, and subsequently took on a mythic quality. The clothes’ exaggeratedly feminine silhouette, marked by tiny waists, generous hips and skirts full of volume were explicitly conceived in marked opposition to post-war, uniform-like austere dress. These new designs were created for ‘flower-like’ women. Dior’s awareness of the power of a single fashion show was re-established with the 2014 documentary film ‘Dior and I’, which captured the weeks running up to and including Raf Simon’s debut. Following in the footsteps of star designers and creative caretakers of this legacy (John Galliano and Yves Saint Laurent amongst them), under the scrutiny of the international press, crucial clients, and with a 1% drop in sales in the first quarter of 2016 having just been reported, Maria Grazia Chiuri faced one of the industry’s greatest challenges.

As guests took their seats in a simple, wooden-floored tent in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, a clue would emerge from the catwalk – laid out in the same format as the vast majority of Chiuri’s previous Valentino presentations. Striding out a soundtrack of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’, featuring author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism, a newly pixie-cropped Ruth Bell sported a fencing-inspired ensemble, complete with heart motif on her left breast. Dior’s signature bar jacket, here with the regal peplum slimmed down, was relegated to the 31st look.

Rather than referencing and reworking the house’s famous feminine silhouettes then, Chiuri had opted to explore the house’s feminine principles – a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘we should all be feminists’ was matched with a long, flowing tulle skirt. Instead of voluminous proportions and nipped in waists, dresses were straight, sheer, revealing the straight up and down proportions of an especially youthful crop of models. Sportswear elements finished off many pieces, underwear was visible, braided hair referenced skaters. Inspiration for the slew of evening gowns’ ethereal embroidery was sought from Christian Dior’s highly superstitious nature, but were altogether too reminiscent of Valentino for many commentators (the top to toe blood red of two looks, the only explicit colour in this offering, is a particular Valentino signature). A regular visitor to clairvoyants, Dior was said to read tarot cards before each of his shows; motifs from these, lucky clovers, hearts and the number 8 were scattered throughout Chiuri’s designs. Dior and Chiuri happen to both be Aquarius. Astrologers would forecast that the age of Aquarius would bring upheaval; Chiuri’s debut was certainly a departure from her predecessors, but will have the impact of the New Look? Or was there simply not enough that was new?

As Tim Blanks noted, Chiuri has not had the ‘time to osmose the extraordinary archives at Dior; it was inevitable that she would fall back on what she was familiar with from her time at Valentino.’ CEO Sidney Toledano stated that Chiuri’s experience creating buzz-generating accessories was an important factor in her appointment in an interview with the Business of Fashion. Aside from explicit ‘J’aDIOR’ branded underpinnings (which, at a more ‘accessible’ price point will surely fly off shelves as logos see a surge in popularity this season) the issue for the consumer and regular deep-pocketed clients though is whether the clothes are evocative enough of a heritage that can arguably be pinned on a specific silhouette, here in dispute, to be worth investing in. Only next year’s financial report will tell.

References:

http://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2017-ready-to-wear/christian-dior#collection

https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/sidney-toledano-maria-grazia-chiuri-talk-about-new-dior

https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/fashion-show-review/just-in-christian-dior-springsummer-2017