Fashion Now Archive

Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage Review

For our American readers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage (April 30, 2016 – January 22, 2017) is a must see exhibition. In my opinion, it is perhaps one of the best fashion exhibitions since the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels in spring 2015 and even surpasses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s China Through the Looking Glass in terms of depth and nuance in its discussion of the “West meets East” fashion narrative. Further, it pairs its canny observations with well-curated, stunning textiles.

Dress, designed by Inge van Lierop for Vlisco. Bloom collection, season 2, 2014. Cotton; wax block print. The Bloom collection included the classic Fall Tree design from 1933. The designer has cleverly cut and reconfigured the thirty-six inch repeat into a seath dress, using the borders to define its shape.

Dress, designed by Inge van Lierop for Vlisco. Bloom collection, season 2, 2014. Cotton; wax block print. The Bloom collection included the classic Fall Tree design from 1933. The designer has cleverly cut and reconfigured the thirty-six inch repeat into a seath dress, using the borders to define its shape.

 

The original Fallen Tree print. Cotton, 1933.

The original Fallen Tree print. Cotton, 1933.

 

The exhibition focuses on the colorful wax printed textiles (batiks) associated with Central and West Africa. Although consumers in Africa and the diaspora have historically embraced the fabrics as African, the textiles have long been designed and manufactured in Europe– mainly the Netherlands and United Kingdom. The most luxurious of these textiles are the wax prints designed and manufactured using an eight-step process in the Netherlands by Vlisco, founded in 1846. The company began by exporting imitation batiks to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) however, three decades later, Vlisco found a new, lucrative market in West Africa.

Around 1906, Vlisco acquired a duplex roller printing machine following the example of its main competitor, Haarlem Katonen Maatschappij (Haarlem Cotton Company). This machine replaced the original La Javanaise from 1852. It too replicated the crackling effects characteristic of Indonesian batiks. Additional colors were added by hand block printing, giving each textile its own character. Vlisco no longer hand blocks additional colors; these are now replicated by machine. However, each length of wax printed cloth continues to be unique. The steps involved in producing a wax printed cloth are shown in the textiles on this photograph beginning with the top row: left to right, then bottom row: left to right.

Around 1906, Vlisco acquired a duplex roller printing machine following the example of its main competitor, Haarlem Katonen Maatschappij (Haarlem Cotton Company). This machine replaced the original La Javanaise from 1852. It too replicated the crackling effects characteristic of Indonesian batiks. Additional colors were added by hand block printing, giving each textile its own character. Vlisco no longer hand blocks additional colors; these are now replicated by machine. However, each length of wax printed cloth continues to be unique. The steps involved in producing a wax printed cloth are shown in the textiles on this photograph beginning with the top row: left to right, then bottom row: left to right. 1. Cloth printed with Resin 2. Cloth with Resin is dipped into a color bath 3. The Resin is mechanically removed 4. A second layer of color, in this example pink is added 5. The resin is chemically removed, which results in white irregular bubbles 6. Additional colors, in this example blue are fitted into the design 7. Another color is added to the areas previously unstamped, in this case, yellow is added to the mirror. 8. The cloth is finished Text Copyright: Philadelphia Museum of Art

The printed cloth leaves the Vlisco factory identified solely by a stock number. However, the female traders who sell the cloth in open-air markets, known as Mamas, and their customers name the patterns after local proverbs, current events, politics, religion, and material culture. One design can have many interpretations depending on the community where it is sold. The most crucial point is that it is only through this collaborative naming process that the prints acquire social meaning, status, and value and ultimately become culturally assimilated into society.

Textile. Designed by Cor van den Boogaard. Sparkling Grace collection, May 2010. Cotton; wax block print. This design featuring the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star logo pays homage to the women market traders. The brand is seen as a symbol of their success.

Textile. Designed by Cor van den Boogaard. Sparkling Grace collection, May 2010. Cotton; wax block print. This design featuring the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star logo pays homage to the women market traders. The brand is seen as a symbol of their success.

Textile. Designed by Haarlemsche Katoen Maatschappij - Haarlem Cotton Company. 1930; printed 1987. Cotton; wax block print. The names of many patterns identy with a womans family and marital relationships. In Côte d Ivoire, the classic Jumping Horse, also known as Je Cours Plus Vite Que Ma Rivale I - I Run Faster than my Rival - expresses the rivalry between co-wives. In Nigeria, Igbo women favor this design for Aso-Ebi - family cloth - to express unity at their annual womens meeting, held every August.

Textile. Designed by Haarlemsche Katoen Maatschappij – Haarlem Cotton Company. 1930; printed 1987. Cotton; wax block print. The names of many patterns identy with a womans family and marital relationships. In Côte d Ivoire, the classic Jumping Horse, also known as Je Cours Plus Vite Que Ma Rivale I – I Run Faster than my Rival – expresses the rivalry between co-wives. In Nigeria, Igbo women favor this design for Aso-Ebi – family cloth – to express unity at their annual womens meeting, held every August.

Dress. Designed by Inge van Lierop for Vlisco. Tell collection, season 3, 2015. Cotton; wax block print. The 1950s classic shirtwaist dress is made in an updated version of the 1930 Jumping Horse pattern shown in the previous image. The textle has been recolored in vibrant blue, pink and gold.

Dress. Designed by Inge van Lierop for Vlisco. Tell collection, season 3, 2015. Cotton; wax block print. The 1950s classic shirtwaist dress is made in an updated version of the 1930 Jumping Horse pattern shown in the previous image. The textle has been recolored in vibrant blue, pink and gold.

The exhibit thus asks the question– are the textiles European or African? Or can they be both? Whilst the design and production process of the unique fabrics takes place in the Netherlands, they are not named and endowed with meaning until they are sold at market in Africa. Further, the Mamas provide customer feedback to the Dutch whole-sellers, such as which prints are selling well in what colors and which designs are popular or not. The sellers then take this into account when manufacturing fabric and designs, and the Mamas, also known as Mama Benz, receive high status, wealth and respect in their communities. Recently, perhaps in acknowledgement of the prominent role local communities play in the evolution of the textiles to garments, Vlisco has attempted to move the design process to Africa, employing African-based designers.

Gala Dress. Designed by Lanre da Silva Ajayi for Vlisco. Splendeur collection, season 4, 2014. Cotton; wax block print. Lanre da Silva Ajayi is one of Nigerias foremost fashion designers.

Gala Dress. Designed by Lanre da Silva Ajayi for Vlisco. Splendeur collection, season 4, 2014. Cotton; wax block print. Lanre da Silva Ajayi is one of Nigerias foremost fashion designers.

Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage is a wonderful exhibition and worthy of a visit if you are in the Philadelphia area.

For the fashion-inclined, there is a lot to see this Autumn. Here’s a brief list…

Rush to see these two fantastic exhibitions in London at the Photographer’s Gallery, before they end on the 25th September!

Terence Donovan: Speed of Light

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The opening wall of floor 5 is dedicated to Donovan’s work from the 1970s through to the 1990s.

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This is the first major retrospective of British photographer Terence Donovan (1936-1996). Alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan helped redefine fashion photography in the 1960s (Cecil Beaton referred to them as the ‘The Terrible Three’). The exhibition covers four decades worth of work over two floors with an emphasis on the 1960s. (A review of this exhibition will be coming soon to Documenting Fashion!)

Made you Look  – Dandyism and Black Masculinity

Young Man in Plaid, NYC, 1991 by Jeffrey Hansen Scales on the cover of the PG’s programme.

Young Man in Plaid, NYC, 1991 by Jeffrey Hansen Scales on the cover of the PG’s programme.

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The most fantastic images are on display, taken by an unknown photographer using glass negatives and dated 1904. Thought to be taken in Senegal, they show some very early photographic instances of self-fashioning.

Curator Ekow Eshun explores ‘dandyism as a radical personal politics’ through an array of images that document black men’s use of provocative styles as a way of resisting processes of objectification. The exhibition includes both archival documents and a range of works by contemporary photographers.

And finally… coming soon!

Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali

The late Malian photographer will have is first UK major solo show at Somerset House this fall.

The late Malian photographer will have is first UK major solo show at Somerset House this fall.

To note as well, an exhibition dedicated to Malick Sidibé’s work – on view in Made you look – will open during the Contemporary African Art Fair taking place at Somerset house from 6-9 October. The exhibition will stay on until 15 January 2017.

The Birth of Cool: A Research Forum Event

BOC-hi-res-jacket-for-Courtauld-e1464705512832-1024x672Please join us on Monday, 20 June for a Courtauld Institute Research Forum, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora. The event is organised by our own Dr Rebecca Arnold with guest speaker Carol Tulloch, the Professor of Dress, Diaspora and Transnationalism at the University of the Arts, London, based at the Chelsea College of Art. Carol Tulloch’s practice of research in dress studies has invariably been inspired by an image. This was the case for her recent publication The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora. In this informal illustrated talk Carol will discuss the role images have played in the writing of her book and why certain images had to be included.

Carol Tulloch is also the Chelsea College of Arts/V&A Fellow in Black Visual and Material Culture at the V&A Museum. As writer and curator, Carol’s recent work includes: the book and exhibition Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism (co-editor and co-curator 2015), the articles A Riot of Our OwnA Reflection on Agency (2014), Buffalo: Style with Intent’ (2011), ‘Style-Fashion-Dress: From Black to Post-black’ (2010); and the exhibitions ‘The Flat Cloth Cap’ in Cabinet Stories (2015),  International Fashion Showcase: Botswana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone,British Council (2012), Handmade Tales: Women and Domestic Crafts, Women’s Library London (2010-11), Black British Style (co-curator 2004).

http://professorcaroltulloch.com

Event Details:

Monday 20 June 2016

12:30 pm – 1:30 pm

Research Forum Seminar Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art

Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN

http://courtauld.ac.uk/event/the-birth-of-cool-style-narratives-of-the-african-diaspora


The Research Forum “Dress Talks” is a series of lunchtime events bringing together a roster of invited speakers to talk about their current research, and encourage discussion about dress history now. Each term academics, curators and dress and fashion industry professionals will share their insight and analysis of an aspect of dress and fashion history to provide a platform for new ideas and approaches to the subject.

Taking place over the lunch hour, these sessions are free and open to all.

 

The Met Gala – A Forgotten History

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.

The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.

Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile.  For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the Looking Glass," which translates into Chinese as "Moon in the Water," suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator's created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer - a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. "When 'Moon in the Water,' is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy." Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” which translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator’s created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer – a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. “When ‘Moon in the Water,’ is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy.” Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

A porcelain- inspired couture gown included in "China Through the Looking Glass". Image: Carolina Reyes

A blue-and-white porcelain- inspired couture gown included in “China Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibition pointed out that the story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchannge between the East and the West. It was originally developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. However, because of its popularity potters in the Netherlands, Germany and England began to produce their own imitations with a particular willow pattern, causing Chinese craftsmen to begin producing their own hand-painted versions of the willow pattern. Image: Carolina Reyes

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache.

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Image: Carolina Reyes

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the "Party of the Year" now known as the Met Gala.

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the “Party of the Year” now known as the Met Gala.

Undressed at The V&A

by Aric Reviere

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

Last weekend, on my semi-regular sojourn to the V&A, I decided to attend the Fashion Department’s new exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” To my surprise the exhibition garnered quite a bit of attention the morning of my visit, with the exhibition space itself full of visitors and lines of spectators inching slowly past the glass displays of historic underwear and garments.

My initial expectation of the exhibition imagined the display to be a spattering of various undergarments from different eras, but with a noticeable emphasis on the corset and hoop skirt. To be fair, these elements were featured prominently in the display, and even though most of the visitors flocked to these body contorting contraptions, the rest of the exhibition presented a delightful overview of innovations in underwear from an impressive range of eras. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the evolution of lingerie design toward the end of the exhibition, which traced developments in the industry from the 1920s to the 1930s. Compared to the hyperbolic manipulation of the body evident in the miniscule waists of the corsets on display, the body sculpting garments from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s seem tamed. Upon closer examination, however, the garments’ structures constrict the form and manipulate it into an ideal shape. From an academic perspective, the garments provide a perfect point from which to examine the power structures connected to standards of beauty. They enable the viewer to question what motivated a wearer (and still does) to physically transform their body via the adornment of garments that often use metal structures to manipulate the form? What gaze ultimately develops that definition of beauty and through networks disseminates and propagates an entire system of dress to elevate certain ideals? How do such beauty ideals limit the wearer’s agency within various social contexts, but also enhance his/her agency within others?

The second half of the exhibition attempted to blur the demarcation between under garments, lingerie, etc., and outerwear through the presentation a numerous outfits from the V&A’s permanent collection. Personally, I found this section disconnected from the first half of the exhibition with certain ensembles on display not particularly resonating with the exhibition’s theme. With that said, I must admit that the Ulyana Sergeenko couture pieces were to die for and on my list of most coveted items.

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

 

Ulaan Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Ulyana Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern: Dress & No Dress

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

Amalia Ulman, from Excellences and Perfections, 2014; Yves Klein, ‘Leap into the Void’ (Saut dans le Vide), Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, 1960.

Clad in his classic bourgeois suit, Yves Klein leaps into the void. Captured in a Christ-like posture, his silhouette hovers over a street, the deadly landing point of the Parisian bitume in view. It is perhaps the void that Amalia Ulman evokes too – a hollowed sense of identity left to exist solely through Instragram snapshots. Klein opens the Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera, Amalia Ulman acts as an allusive conclusion.

As an additional shot reveals, a group of Klein’s friends holding the tarpaulin into which the French artist was meant to safely fall was erased through photomontage. The photograph was then printed on the front page of a spoof newspaper, disseminating the aura of Klein’s eerie figure to the masses. Ulman’s lingerie selfie is a shot from her instagram feed, blown up to museum proportions. It is taken from a three-part tale, in which the artist assumes the identity of a provincial girl with dreams of making it in LA, and acts out her downfall into drugs, surgery, and suggestive selfies. Finally, redemption – in the form of juices, yoga, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Klein’s image condenses many of the themes the exhibition sets to unpick: the camera as record of an art performance, the photographic image as the site for which the performance is conceived, and finally the photographic document as proof – conscious or unconscious – of a performed identity, whether part of the work itself as an intentional act of self promotion for instance (Koons’ magazine advertisements) or as an attempt to create a seemingly authentic (artistic) persona (Klein’s suit). This last aspect is not overtly addressed by the exhibition but lingers over it, as artists dress or undress for the camera.

Artistic authenticity comes in the form of nudity, or so it seems considering the vast number of images of naked performance on display. The subversive quality of nakedness seemingly ensures the authenticity of the performing artist, literally stripped bare of ‘superficial’ signifiers. Costume, as a sort of manifest addition to the body, appears to stand as another strategy used to subvert identities, highlighting their contingency, yet one that also retains or marks the distinction between the performed role and the ‘true’ identity of the performer.

It is precisely the boundaries of costumes and theater that allow Sarah Bernhardt to flaunt a more liberated body, both through dress (clad in male attire) and her comical poses. Nadar’s studio is made into an extension of the theater stage, in which actresses such as Bernhardt embodied a wide array of identities, yet upheld her image as ‘the eternal feminine’ in the eyes of critics. From Nadar, the exhibition takes us to an endless archive of images from big names (Andy Warhol, Hannah Wilke, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman etc.) to a younger bunch, among them Romain Mader (featured on the show’s poster) and Amalia Ulman.

Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883

Jeff Koons advertisement in Art in America, 1988-9; Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,’ 1883

In Ulman’s shot, the distinction between artistic self and performance blend. In an interview, Ulman reveals that a gallery had concerns over her credibility before the artist revealed the spoof, namely that the shots of herself were part of a performance. ‘I was acting, it wasn’t me.’ The need to emphasize those boundaries exposes the necessity for an ‘authentic’ self to exist outside of what we are caught easily judging as inappropriate or superficial (as Simon Baker notes, the comments on her Instagram feed are as much part of the performance as the images). Perhaps more than confronting us with our daily selfie routines, Ulman’s performance draws attention to our own highbrow assumptions of what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ display of the self.

Performing for the Camera is on display at Tate Modern until June 12, 2016

 

Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts, The New Woman in Fin-de-siècle France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/performing-camera

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/is-this-the-first-instagram-masterpiece/

Posing the Body Conference: Stillness, Movement & Representation

Please join us May 6 & 7, 2016 for Posing the Body, a conference on Stillness, Movement & Representation organised by The Courtauld Institute of Art and The University of Westminster.

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Gazette du bon ton, 1921, History of Dress Collection, Courtauld Institute of Art

Posing has been central to art, dance, and sculpture for thousands of years. In recent years, the growing interest in fashion media and modelling has also focused attention on questions of pose and posing. Incorporating notions of movement and stillness, posing can be understood in terms of historical modes of representation, as well as contemporary media and rapidly evolving relationships between bodies, subjects, and technologies of representation. Posing incorporates symbolic and semiotic meaning alongside embodied action and feeling. Recent coverage of the work of choreographer Stephen Galloway in 032c magazine, and new publications such as Steven Sebring’s Study of Pose: 1000 Poses by Coco Rocha testify to the growing interest in the cultural significance of posing and the pose – yet both remain under-researched areas with little discussion of their significance.

This symposium will assert the importance of pose as both a creative practice and an emerging area of critical inquiry. It will bring together multi-disciplinary academics and practitioners to discuss and develop new ways of understanding pose and posing in a historical and contemporary context. We encourage proposals for papers that address pose from global and diverse perspectives.  This event represents a potentially fruitful and exciting moment to bring these strands together to the benefit of researchers within practice and theory-based media, historians of dress, photography, art and film and allied disciplines.

The keynote lecture will be delivered by David Campany, internationally recognised writer and curator, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster.

Please click through to the conference programme to find details of speakers and papers being presented, and follow this link to book your place! We hope to see you there.

Contemporary Reliquaries and Utopian Fashions

Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Held just before London Fashion Week in February, the International Fashion Showcase (IFS) is a series of installations organised by the British Council and British Fashion Council that feature the work of emerging designers from different nations. This year’s setting was Somerset House, where each country’s exhibit responded to one theme, Fashion Utopias, in the context of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility at Somerset House Trust, the Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College. Through thematic exhibitions and connections to cultural institutions, the IFS showed how fashion could signify more than Fashion Week runway shows or commercial practices. It illuminated makers creative processes, broadened to connect to various interpretations of ‘utopia.’ This unexpected merger of commerce and curation worked to heighten viewers’ questioning the definition, and artistic and cultural significance of dress. Further, through the participation of Courtauld Dress History research students in a study day, the IFS sought to explore the historical and theoretic resonance of contemporary design.

Traces of history were what drew me to Isabel Helf’s wooden bag display (from her collection “Portable Compulsion”) in the Austria installation, as I walked through the exhibition before my talk at the study day. The bags recall medieval reliquaries, in that they house precious hidden contents and are precious containers themselves. Like the many reliquaries that were imitative of architectural spaces, such as a 13th-century reliquary shrine of St. Martial, the bags were conceived to relate to architectural space and furniture. Some affix neatly onto tabletops or, through their 90-degree-angle bases, rest atop flat, stepped surfaces. Helf designed these coordinated interactions to function in the cramped spaces of contemporary city life. In contrast to narrow spaces, I found that through their very miniaturization, they communicate the possibility of human potential. Likewise, Cynthia Hahn has noted that portable reliquaries promise to, in the words of Susan Stewart, “open […] to reveal a secret life […] a set of actions and hence a narrativity […] outside the given field of perception.” As I experienced at the IFS, the bags too elevate wearers beyond the mundanity of daily life through an intimate handling process.

Once opened, the possibility of narrative or creation is offered through the bags’ contents, built-in writing implements and other everyday objects, which are designed to fit perfectly in removable slots, all made from the same wood. Helf worked with a carpenter to learn the traditional joinery techniques such as dovetail and finger joints that hold the bags together. She explained to me that when two things fit together, whether in terms of the bags’ placement against architecture or their own construction, individuals experience satisfaction. For Helf, this feeling also results from the bags’ ability to “order” belongings in small spaces. Echoing the ideas of Frank Davis, they could be seen to work as sartorial solutions that counter the confusion and ambivalence of modernity. Thus, while harking back to distant moments, they reveal contemporary problems and offer a psychological and spatial utopia in their miniaturization and capacity for precision, multifunction and order.

Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

(Above) Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

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Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

(All above) Isabel Helf, Bags from “Portable Compulsion” collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Sources:

Davis, F. (1992) Fashion, Culture, and Identity, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago.

Hahn, C. (2012) Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University.

Stewart, S. (1984) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University.

 

Modes Pratiques

Mode pratique: a magazine published in France at around the turn of the twentieth century.

Modes pratiques: a new history of dress journal first published in November 2015.

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Modes pratiques. Revue d’histoire du vêtement et de la mode  is the product of collaboration between the Duperré School of design, fashion and creation, and the Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion at Lille 3 University. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to the subject of the history of dress, the journal was conceived, according to the editors Manuel Charpy and Patrice Verdière, with the aim of filling a gap in the often overlooked discipline of the history of dress in France.

‘Norms and Transgressions’ is the theme of the first issue, certainly a very current topic, although perhaps not ground-breaking in itself. However, the journal and its contributors deal with its subject in thought provoking, and often unexpected, ways. Articles (all written in French) include discussions about the relationship between teenagers and fashion, transvestitism and vogueing; but also about the significance of the colour white in female monastic dress and the norms of the nineteenth century worker’s shirt. More standard-format academic articles are joined by interviews, for example concerning the uniforms of people working in the airline business, extracts from nineteenth century magazines and a detailed glossary of terms, rather humorously titled un glossaire partial mais chic, related to the journal’s key themes.

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Perhaps partly because of the art school influence, the creativity of Modes pratiques extends to its visual format. In fact, the editors had initially envisaged printing the journal on degradable paper that would have disappeared, along with its contents, within six months. It is probably a good thing that this wasn’t put into practice, though, as it is certainly something one would want to hang on to. Flicking through, nearly every double page spread bears at least one image. All in black and white, these include photographs, copies of archival documents and specially commissioned illustrations inspired by the text.

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I am looking forward dedicating some serious reading time to the journal and with a second issue already promised, it will be interesting to follow its development.

 

For further information:

http://www.lalibrairie.com/tous-les-livres/modes-pratiques–revue-d-histoire-du-vetement-et-de-la-mode-normes-et-transgressions-9791095518006.html.

Comme des Garçons Homme Plus

Comme des Garçons Homme Plus’ recent show explored masculinities – through fabric, cut and adornment. The collection played with recurrent elements in Kawakubo’s work – ways to reconfigure familiar garments – trench coat, tailored suit, motorbike jacket – and by so doing make us look again at what we thought we knew, what has become invisible because of its continual presence. Textiles are equally mutable for Comme des Garçons – shirt fabrics and lining materials crept onto the exterior of the body, forming jackets that, while traditionally tailored, broke boundaries between inside and out. Waistcoats fused to the outside of jackets, and, most notably, garments were articulated like armour – asserting the two sides of the collection’s heart – soft and hard, war and peace – masculinity queered and remade.

1 Comme des Garcone Homme Plus, A:W 2016, photograph Yannis Vlamos

Comme des Garcone Homme Plus, A:W 2016, photograph Yannis Vlamos

At first this was done quietly – a tiny sprig of bright flowers on the first jacket – a hint of colourful nature on inky black. Quickly this spread and grew – elaborate headdresses blossomed and caressed the models’ heads, framing their faces, seemingly entangled with their hair. Some outfits were all black – armoured with eyelets and buckles that split bodies into parts like machines. These divisions were echoed in more traditional suiting fabrics that incorporated flowered fabrics – a nod to 18th century elite dress and masculine ideals, which revelled in lush embroideries and colours and praised sentiment and emotion.

 

Comme des Garçons brought together multiple images of men with flowers – Oscar Wilde’s green carnation, Vietnam soldiers with blooms tucked into their helmets, hippies’ floral crowns, Morrisey’s gladioli. Art historical references also abound – perhaps most notably Caravaggio’s Bacchus of 1595, with his decadent vine leaf headdress. In each case foliage and flowers disrupt stable masculine ideals and suggest complexity – slippage between masculine and feminine, sexual ambiguity.

2 Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595 : Comme des Garcones Homme Plus, A:W 2016, photograph Yannis Vlamos

Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595 / Comme des Garcones Homme Plus, A/

The show’s finale saw models carrying huge bouquets of vibrant flowers, dressed in their black warrior suits – but these were melancholy heroes – trapped in a small space, continually trying to avoid crashing into each other. Clothes, accessories, styling and performance were all carefully calibrated to unsettle. The designs were beautiful, as were Julien D’ys’s hair and headdress combinations, but they were made to question not to appease.

3 Oscar Wilde : Morrissey

Oscar Wilde : Morrissey