Fashion Now Archive

Looking at it Backwards: My Visit to the Brussels Fashion and Lace Museum

I visited Brussels over the holiday and had the pleasure of spending a few hours at the Fashion and Lace Museum. Their current exhibition, Back Side: Fashion from Behind, emphasizes the backs of the body and of the backs of garments, quite literally flipping the perspective on viewing fashion in a museum. It asks what is revealed or conveyed on the back of the body, which, according to their press kit, the human being has an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with because it is constantly decorated by fashion, yet remains unseen by the wearer. The show integrates 70 pieces, spanning a period of 400 years, from haute couture to ready-to-wear, and which help to explore the subject from many angles.

I most enjoyed the broad range of objects, but also the curatorial choices that were made to display the garments and communicate with the viewer. Many objects were shown with the back facing the viewer, often in a case with a mirror so the front could often be seen (reminiscent of Madeleine Vionnet’s photographs of models whose fronts were revealed by mirrors). Very few of them were visible in the round. It struck me that only being able to see the backside of a garment, with limited visual access to the front, produced a certain discomfort due to the restricted vision. Normally, we focus attention to the front sides of clothes, whether on our own bodies or others. It felt to me that I was being denied access to the part of a garment I am most used to seeing, and effectively made me consider the ‘ambiguous’ relationship we have to this side of the body.

Dress by Lanvin

The exhibition also highlighted the differing notions of the back as something hidden or forgotten, versus revealed or as an erotic focal point. One display case highlighted examples of the ‘forgotten’ back, including waistcoats embroidered on the front and plain fabric on the back, and one contemporary Lanvin dress with an embellished front of white, densely layered material, and an entirely black back, exposing the zipper and showing the ground on which the layers were attached. The back of this silhouette allowed the construction to reveal itself. Later, the erotically exposed back was demonstrated through the photographs of Jeanloup Sieff, which tread a line between fashion images and tantalizing photos of the female body.

Hilde in a Dress That is Too Small, Paris. Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff
Hervé Leger dress. Published in Depeche Mode 1995

Back Side asks the viewer to see the body in three dimensions, and reconsider how we relate to the unseen sides of our own bodies. It succeeds in mixing historical and contemporary dress, high and low fashion, glamorous and bizarre (a Rick Owens ‘outfit’ comes to mind, in which one outfit is attached to another like a backpack and would have been work by two models, one carried by the other). In addition to the joy of viewing beautiful objects, I most appreciated how the curation allowed such a simple change in perspective to become a rich and complex exploration of the back side through fashion.

Women and Fashion on the Red Carpet

It is awards season in the film industry, which means a proliferation of red carpet fashion reports over the coming weeks. Female actors’ ensembles tend to receive the most attention, with certain garments attracting as much (or more) coverage as their wearer’s nominations. Consequently, red carpet fashion reportage has sometimes been criticised for its apparent focus on style over substance, and in recent years activists have attempted to shift the emphasis from what female actors are wearing to what they are achieving. For example, the #AskHerMore campaign was established in 2014 to encourage red carpet reporters to question female actors about more than their fashion choices.

Ginger Rogers, pictured next to James Stewart, wearing an Irene dress at the 13th Academy Awards, 27 February 1941. Unknown photographer.

It can certainly feel frustrating when female actors are asked solely about their appearance, especially when their male peers receive a wider variety of questions. Red carpet fashion coverage is further problematised because it is connected to the objectification of women as dressed bodies. Close-up, panning footage of a red carpet dress focuses as much on the wearer’s body as it does on the construction of the garment, and fashion-related questions and headlines can quickly become inappropriate or offensive with regards to female actors’ bodies. Feminist criticism of such reporting practices is thus highly relevant in Hollywood’s current climate.

However, not all criticism levelled at red carpet fashion coverage is concerned with the treatment of female actors; sometimes it is based on a notion that fashion is not newsworthy. If coverage of awards ceremonies and nominations is news, coverage of red carpet fashion is still viewed as unimportant by some. Yet, while ‘worst dressed’ listicles or questions about underwear can make the topic of red carpet fashion appear ridiculous, serious coverage of actors’ fashion choices is as relevant as ever. Linked as closely as it is with identity politics, for instance, fashion has an enduring relationship with red carpet protests connected to wider movements. From Ginger Rogers’ donning an economically-cut, American-made dress in an act of wartime solidarity at the 1941 Academy Awards, to the all-black ensembles worn on red carpets in support of the Time’s Up campaign, actors have always known the significance of fashion in the film industry and beyond.

Actors and activists wearing black in support of the Time’s Up campaign at the 75th Golden Globe Awards, 7 January 2018. Photograph by Joe Scarnici.

Moreover, the dismissal of red carpet fashion reports as irrelevant has the same undertones of sexism as inappropriate questions about female actors’ appearances. The historical association of women with fashion is long and unrelenting, with the fashion industry (including fashion journalism) still largely focused on women’s wear and catering to female consumers. Red carpet fashion reports can thus all too easily be undervalued as ‘women’s interest’ pieces, especially when they are published alongside coverage of nominations and awards in the male-dominated film industry.

In light of recent criticism of red carpet fashion coverage, some have suggested that it is no longer appropriate to discuss fashion on the red carpet. This sentiment is understandable, but it is also somewhat facile. Outdated approaches to reporting can only change if red carpet fashion continues to be a topic of conversation.

The Currency of Cool

Last year, I wrote my BA dissertation about the portraits by American painter Kehinde Wiley. He is known for featuring African American subjects wearing contemporary street clothing in positions taken from the Western canon of portraiture. Typically, the subjects portrayed are not identifiable, but take on the poses of rulers of history, removed from their context and painted against lush, decorative backgrounds. After finishing his MFA at Yale University in 2001, Wiley began displaying his work in the early 2000s, bringing grandiose images of black and brown bodies dressed in street wear into white gallery and museum spaces. My project in regards to his oeuvre questioned the utility of this kind of portraiture, simultaneously hyper-real and mythologizing, in terms of the politics of representation of blackness in the visual sphere.

In these paintings, fashion associated with the visual culture of hip-hop becomes the uniform for Wiley’s subjects. They pose in baggy jeans, chains, puffer jackets, sports jerseys, and popular clothing brands, which are remarkable for two reasons: it is rather shocking to see these casually dressed, ‘cool’ black figures assuming the position of a Van Dyck portrait, but also because it was nearly unprecedented to see this kind of fashion hanging on the walls of a museum space. While European portraits of rulers certainly utilize a visual language of opulence and excess in dress, seeing contemporary ‘bling’ in such an image is rather unusual. Wiley has produced dozens of paintings like these, and critics have suggested that these images have become formulaic. Arguments that these works have a homogenizing, flattening effect over the representation of black life in America have substantial foundations in the repetition of similar iconographies. It is true that Wiley’s paintings are not a representative cross section. They saturate the art market with images of African Americans of a singular social milieu, and rely on stereotypes perpetuated in news media and popular culture of a young black man as a thug or a pompous rapper. On one hand, these paintings introduce a new figure and fashion into the canon of formal portraiture, but risk commodifying the image of ‘coolness’ further than it already has been.

Concurrently with the early years of Wiley’s career, an exhibit opened at the V&A called Black British Style (October 2004-January 2005) which displayed clothing, photographs, and other objects to explore the many notions of fashion in the legacy of the African diaspora, particularly on the African continent, in Jamaica, Britain, and the United States. It spanned many styles, geographies, and times, and blended artifact and image, and narrative and memory, to contribute to the building of an archive of African diasporic history in the legacy of slavery and erasure. Addressed within the exhibit was the fashion of hip-hop culture in contrast to African-inspired fashion in the West. Black Style, the book published in conjunction with the exhibit, notes that hip-hop subverts ‘establishment notions of racial difference through cutting-edge styles that throw back in the face of mainstream America its own stereotypes of inner-city black youth.’ At the same time, hip-hop dress has been continuously co-opted by mainstream white culture, and, like in Wiley’s paintings, can signal popular commodified fashion. However, the display of this style of dress within such an institution was rather groundbreaking. As curator Carol Tulloch noted, ‘It really was a landmark event for a major national institution like the V&A. One magazine wrote: “The fact that the V&A has batty riders on display is worth the £6 entry on its own.”’

Wiley’s portraits and the V&A’s exhibition entered the mainstream art world around the same time, bringing representations of hip-hop fashion into elitist white museum and gallery spaces. They worked in opposite visual languages – one of fantasy, myth, and the art historical canon, the other creating a documentarian notion of ‘truth’ – but attempted to work within the same system to call out stereotypes about the black body. Wiley’s paintings utilize the visual language of visibility; Black British Style the currency of archival information and objects. Although bringing representations of black style into these spaces requires a careful negotiation of celebration versus commodification and appropriation, the dressed black body became visible and present where it had not been before, and has opened a door to more diverse representations of dress and the bodies that occupy it.

References:

Lewis, Tim. “Carol Tulloch: ‘Dressing Well Is Almost Part of the DNA in the Black Community’.” The Guardian. March 06, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/carol-tulloch-black-style-the-birth-of-cool-interview.

Tulloch, Carol. Black Style. London: V & A Publications, 2005.

Documenting My Wardrobe: Why My Friend and I Share Daily Outfit Pictures

For the past month and a half my friend, Niamh, and I have been sending each other outfit pictures. We lived together last year in York and now, with her there and me in London, we decided this would liven up our communication. Considering that a large proportion of our conversation is clothing related anyway, this made a lot of sense.

Having a visual record of our outfits gives me much more of a sense of keeping in contact, as the visual translates so much more than a message on a screen. On a daily basis we would have shown each other our outfits and also gauged opinions on new purchases in person, so this felt like a natural addition to our conversation.

We chose our six (tried to keep it to three and failed) favourite outfits from the other’s wardrobe and talked about our choices. As shown by the pictures, Niamh is never not wearing a black item of clothing. When I asked her why, she revealed that “It’s because it’s easy to wear, it’s flattering, I feel like it can be something basic but it being black elevates it in a way, and now I’m so comfortable wearing black it’s hard to wear other things.” She added that she used to steer clear of wearing black, out of fear that it would make her look too pale and stand out. Now she embraces this look, and I love that she took something that made her uncomfortable and turned it into a wardrobe staple.

I don’t normally document my wardrobe, but it has now become part of my morning routine. It falls in the five seconds I have to spare after brushing my teeth and before realising that I’m going to miss my bus. I liked the idea of taking a quick snap each day and sending it, as it felt like a real representation of us – for example, the streaky state of my bathroom mirror, and Niamh’s bedroom in the background. It was also interesting to see the poses we repeated, with Niamh going for phone covering part of the face and a bent leg, whereas I opted for a variation of the peace sign or hand on the hip with a pained grimace. To excuse myself, these pictures were originally meant for Niamh’s eyes only.

We discovered our mutual reasons behind our picture choices were a love of a statement coat and the outfits we would wear of the other person’s. My clothing choices have always been based on a love of bright colours and print, but more recently I have shifted to wearing less prints and more block colours. I feel that the outfit pictures show how different our styles are, but also a mix of comfort and (aiming for) sophistication.

The images we chose were our everyday clothes, rather than images we might share on a public platform, such as Instagram. I like that we are giving importance to our day-to-day wear and how we look, which is closer to our personal interactions, rather than presenting a mediated version of ourselves.

Ellen Bhamra

Useful and Beautiful? William Morris and H&M

Coincidentally, two days after I asked whether the bourgeois elite ever matched their upholstery to the fabric of their dress, I took myself to the William Morris Gallery to work out what I thought about the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. Spoiler: while I am decidedly annoyed with myself for buying a pretty but unnecessary book about mazes (labyrinths have been on my mind – what else?), I remain ambivalent about the latest of the Swedish fashion chain’s myriad partnerships.

A West End window, emblazoned with the autumn partnership. Photo by author

On H&M’s campaign page, the shopper is encouraged to get lost ‘in a world of exquisite original patterns and modern tributes to the work of William Morris, one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated designers’, in celebration of ‘nature, style and timelessness’. Two models stride through a moor where they offer daisies, peer through windows, dunk enamel cups in basins, and snap pics with a vintage camera, self-referentially underscoring the ad’s amateur film footage look to induce the brand of lifestyle envy that only the 30-second fashion advertisement can. Then: an array of womenswear, ranging from £5.99 to £79.99, though neither the fabric hairband nor the wool-blend coat book-ending the spectrum represent actual collaboration pieces. Out of 90 products, 33 are William Morris & Co. x H&M. And so while there is nothing extraordinary about a two-pack of knee socks, the collection is meant to be a composition of heavy, heady historical references attenuated by standard H&M basics. Pair pleated skirts, maxi dresses and printed wide trousers with knit jumpers, Chelsea boots and faux fur coats: one can ‘curate’ outfits in a way that, in the age of online shopping, would normally never bear mentioning but which happens to resonate particularly with Morris’s artistic ethos: hand-picked Art for Art’s sake…and for everyone else’s.

A selection of pieces from the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. From https://
www2.hm.com/en_gb/ladies/shop-by-feature/1288a-morris-co-x-hm.html?sort=ascPrice&imagesize=
small&image=stillLife&offset=0&page-size=90

William Morris was one of the 19th century’s romantic, disappointing sons who abandoned a future in the church in favour of much more earthly realms. Getting a taste of artistic camaraderie after falling in with the Pre-Raphaelites, larking about on Rossetti’s hilarious ‘Jovial Campaign’ and embarking upon a group artistic housewarming project, he and six partners—whom he eventually bought out—founded the interior decorating business Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. Disillusioned with modernism and industrial modes of production and radically nostalgic for an age of highly artisanal craftsmanship, Morris pioneered a sort of anti-Industrial Revolution. As a progressive socialist and firm believer that beauty belonged to the masses, he also understood the limits to what could only ever ideally be a democratic model, apparently regretting that his ‘his high quality, handmade products were beyond the means of ordinary working people’ (William Morris Gallery). In a move similar to that of 19th century couture houses, his evolving company launched more affordable lines to attract a wider range of clientele – the interior design’s analogue of fashion’s ready-to-wear.

Mannequins dressed in collaboration pieces at H&M. Photo by author

While the ideal Morris client would have afforded an exquisite, hand-crafted, bespoke interior – despite the designer’s empathy for broader swathes of society – there is nothing inherently bespoke in today’s accessible, ubiquitous fashion lines. To be fair, what H&M has done is, superficially, no different from what countless museum gift shops – commercial spaces with much closer ties to art and history – do: if the scarf my mom wears at the Huntington Gallery is not printed with a Morris design, it certainly shares the look. Even his contemporaries ‘dressed themselves with his wall hangings’ (William Morris Gallery). Perhaps it is simply that, what with H&M as an established, popular clothing store, I am more inclined to critically analyse the partnership in terms of fashion and art history and get caught up in notions of integrity; and because Morris had such striking aesthetic principles, I am more invested in an ideological dialogue that I find lacking. Ultimately, the collaboration between Morris & Co. and a mostly-affordable fast fashion company that tends to satisfy and disappoint me at an equal pace oscillates between seeming antithetical and completely fitting. I have not purchased anything, nor do I plan to, and, as mentioned above, I remain ambivalent. But perhaps it would be more fitting to frame this ambivalence as a blossoming response to William Morris’s motto, ‘Si je puis: Pourquoi pas?’

A Portrait of Jeremy Scott

How did Jeremy Scott capitalise on his ‘aura’ whilst simultaneously crowning himself the Founding Father of (21st century) Fast Fashion? 

The campaign artwork for Jeremy Scott’s 2018 Moschino X H&M collection, at H&M’s Regent Street flagship store, London, 2 November 2018. Photo taken by author

‘Some company recently was interested in buying my “aura”. They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, “We want your aura”. I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So then I thought that if somebody was willing to pay that much for it, I should try to figure out what that is.’ -Andy Warhol

I am unsure as to whether Andy Warhol personally believed he was successful in ‘figuring out’ the marketability of his ‘aura’, but he most certainly triumphed in utilising its inherent mystique to cement his place within the Western art historical canon. If you see a Warholian work of art, the shadow of his authorship looms over its image: his soup cans, his saturated Marilyns, his acidic hibiscus flowerpieces—each undeniably drenched in the saccharine scent of his ‘Pop’ personhood. In the figure of Jeremy Scott, I am reminded of Warhol’s mass-appealing ‘aura’. However, in Scott’s case, his aura’s RRP is far more affordable, and by next season (or by the time his next collaboration drop hits), it will have metamorphosed to possess an entirely new face and/or aesthetic. 

Campaign artwork for Jeremy Scott’s 2018 Moschino X H&M collection

In the campaign artwork for his latest Moschino collection, in collaboration with H&M, Scott places himself front-and-centre. A large, gilded portrait bust of Scott eerily hangs in the backdrop, his icon securing his role as Creator of the collection, the luxury Italian fashion house he directs, and a generation of kitsch-kids who will queue for hours on end to invest in their own slice of 21st century pop-culture history. I was somewhat stunned by the intoxicating jolt of hysteria I experienced viewing this bust of Scott through the glass of H&M’s Regent Street flagship store on my walk to work. There were so many burning questions: Is he aggrandising the role of Designer? Is he mocking himself? Is the use of a sculptural relief with such strong classical connotations important? Why, oh why is it gold… 

Campaign artwork for Jeremy Scott’s 2018 Moschino X H&M collection

I am not shocked by Scott’s use of license in this play on portraiture: he has always heavily publicised the indoctrination of his self-image within Moschino’s branding. In conversation with Alice Casely-Hayford of British Vogue regarding the Moschino x H&M drop, Scott stated, ‘I started with the thought of how to make it the most Jeremy Scott for Moschino collection ever.’ I am not even shocked by the garishly bombastic representation of the self that lingers in this spectral, chain-ridden bust. Jeremy Scott has consistently inspired a playful subversion of the fashion industry’s grandiosity, with his Moschino collections of the past five years undoubtedly poking fun at the veil of exclusivity that shrouds the luxury goods market. 

Behind-the-scenes image of Jeremy Scott and model Gigi Hadid on set for the Moschino X H&M collection campaign

Franco Moschino himself similarly antagonised the culturally accepted signifiers of consumption through his irreverent humour and socially-conscious campaigns—which, likewise, featured himself.

I am, however, shocked by the forward motion of Scott’s cult of personality. A strong, creative character that functions as a personified embodiment of the luxury brand under their direction is not necessarily a negative, it is far less common that a fashion house is governed by an introvert. However, the Moschino brand now, in 2018, cannot be examined without the inclusion of Scott; his authorship is a function of Moschino’s further discourse, and consumers invest consciously into his strategically marketed, highly covetable ‘aura’. 

A picture of Venessa Lee after collecting her goodies from H&M’s Regent Street flagship store on 8 November 2018, day of the Moschino X H&M collection drop

Queues outside H&M’s Regent Street flagship store on 8 November 2018, day of the Moschino X H&M collection. Photo taken by author

Hot tip: type “HMMoschino” into the gif feature on your Instagram Stories for a hilarious insight into Mr Scott’s 21st Century aura. You’re welcome 😉 

And I don’t know about the wider consensus but I’m looking forward to future @diet_prada content on Scott, coming soon to an iOS or android device near you.

The copy-cat scandal that @diet_prada reported on in September 2017, regarding Norwegian womenswear designer and London College of Fashion graduate Edda Gimnes and Scott’s Spring 2019 ready-to-wear collection for Moschino

References

A. Warhol, ‘THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again): 5. Fame (1975)’ in ON&BY ANDY WARHOL, ed. Gilda Williams, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 2016, p.53 

Alice Casely-Hayford, ‘A First Look at the full Moschino x H&M Collection’, British Vogue, 25/10/2018. Online edition. https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/hm-announces-collaboration, accessed 15/11/2018 

Fashion Illustration and Instagram

From the creative process to representation in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, illustration has always played a key role in fashion, its rough, sketch-like appearance giving it a whimsical elegance. Just like fashion photography, fashion illustrations are palpable sources of information about the collective cultural currents of a moment in time.

Today, as long as you have a smartphone, you can capture anyone walking down the street in what you consider to be a fabulous outfit, identifying yourself as a fashion photographer. Depending on the number of followers your fashion account has, you can even be thought of as an ‘influencer’. As someone who loves looking at photos of clothes, especially street-style, I turn to Instagram for my daily dose of visual inspiration. Over time, I have noticed that my feed has automatically curated itself. However, I cannot help but notice the lack of variety in the fashion images I encounter. My newsfeed is saturated with the same overly edited type of photo (I don’t always buy the #nofilter). It seems that every new fashion account is trying to outdo the next most popular one.

In our recent Portraiture and Identity-themed MA seminar, we began by discussing events that would be occurring in London over the next few months. All of the events seemed to have to do with fashion illustration. When I got home I turned to Instagram—of course— to look up a few of the illustrators that we had been discussing. I was so relieved to be exposed to an entirely different, though no less vibrant, dimension of fashion representation. Additionally, there was something exciting about knowing that while I could encounter photos of illustrations at my fingertips, I could also stroll down to the Fashion Illustration Gallery in Covent Garden and engage in a more dynamic viewing experience of fashion illustration.

Fashion Illustration Gallery (The Shop at Bluebird).

Although sketching the runway may seem archaic in a time of live stories and Snapchat, is there not something refreshingly authentic about the process of drawing—a process that offers an escape from filters and retouching? Fashion illustration offers a very different form of real-time representation, one that is organic in its process and tangible in its materiality. Each illustration is unique, rather than a template. There is a rarity in each piece that gives it the special aura of a collectible item.

Left: Richard Haines, Four Guys Walking, 2017, 42×29.7 cm, digital inkjet pigment print. Right: David Downton, 100 Years, 2008, 59.4×42 cm archival FIG pigment print.

 

David Downton, LOVE YSL, 2013, 59.4×42 cm, digital inkjet pigment print.

Fashion illustration definitely seems to be garnering interest in social media, with Instagram seemingly acting as a portfolio for the fashion illustrator. For instance, the page ‘The Unique Illustration‘ posts what its moderator(s) have called ‘fashion illustration flash mobs’. The page selects an image and then posts various illustrations of it realised by different artists. Like in the case of ‘Alice in Gucciland’, this relatively young display mode showcases a fascinating variety of illustrations, which, interestingly, might never have been seen were it not for the platform Instagram affords the artists.

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one stereotype that the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance contrasts her with that of Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Favouring ill-fitting suits and anoraks, Eve is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Yet Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless, but it can become unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is confident and assertive, independent and liberated; her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these dangerous characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, for example, and that the femme fatale wears shoulder pads and red lipstick. Her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different if, for instance, Eve were the fashionable one?

The intricacies of Instagram

How can dress and fashion historical imagery be consumed thoughtfully through a platform designed to deliver “Insta” visual-gratification?

The name of the game is self-explanatory. Instagram is a digital landscape through which the inescapable consumption of countless images is organised into a curated virtual reality. A flurry of images is uploaded onto our personal, tailor-made feed daily, hourly—in fact, any time the app is refreshed on our device of choice. And this instantaneous cycle of viewing and sharing has become snuggly situated in our collective day-to-day narrative. 

It is fair to say that fashion imagery, more specifically fashion photography, has become a firm feature on many an Instagram feed. Snapshots of contemporary collections are shared by Influencers from Fashion Week’s runway-adjacent front rows; models post Instagram Stories when on set, on location; and makeup artists upload videos of themselves mixing palettes when designing sponsored campaign looks. The content is constant and it is diverse, meaning that a fashion-centric aesthetic is now marketable to a wider portion of the Instagram community. But what does this mean for the tradition of fashion imagery—its dissection, discussion and the themes that underpin its discourse—and how are we now to consume said images in a way that preserves meaning and evokes critical analysis? If the volume of fashion and dress historical imagery being uploaded onto Instagram’s constantly shifting consciousness continues at such a rate, will it ultimately damage how it is read? 

Take for example the trend for ‘fast-art’ on Instagram. You take a painting—either in its entirety or a key compositional detail—and post it with accompanying text. You devise a caption summarising the work’s basic details: its dimensions, medium, the date of execution and title, maybe even a brief yet spiffy artist’s bio, if you will. Then you post. Established accounts such as @paintings.daily or @historiadelart are good examples, and @painters.paintings neatly describe their account as ‘An Art History Tour in a Virtual Gallery.’ 

A snap taken of @painters.paintings Instagram account, featuring their profile bio. Photo by author.

This exhibition-like design of posting is not exclusive to art historical accounts: it is also trending in the representation of art-historical dress and fashion. @the_corsetedbeauty, a well-followed dress account, claims to document “historical finery from days gone by. From the 18th century through the 1950s.” From the fashions flaunted in English Victoriana society portraits to the costumes designed by Michael O’Connor for Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, the account covers all manner of fashion foray, sweetly packaged into an aesthetically pleasing feed adorned with concise captions and analytically prevalent hashtags. 

Figure 2: An example of the content posted by accounts such as @the_corsetedbeauty. Photo by author.

Its output, in accordance with that of accounts such as @redthreaded, @artgarments or @thiswasfashion, is undeniably a step in the right direction. However, in the majority of cases, we are given the essential information on the image without being asked to question it. What is this painting’s unique place in the art historical cannon? What does the dress being worn signify about its wearer? Can we discern the subject’s social status and which domestic interior is being depicted here? How are we to read the space in relation to the protagonist’s interaction with her friend, sister or even trusted domestic servant? There are many questions to raise in the reading of any image, but is Instagram the right space in which to begin this line of questioning?

Maria Aceituno of @historicalgarments thinks that, in the context of fashion history (which she believes has a different goal than that of modern fashion imagery, as it does not affect current designer purchases) ‘the use of social media for sharing fashion history images is affecting fashion consciousness. With more access to images, a wider audience is learning about the use, construction, and purpose of clothing in a more user-friendly manner. Searching with a hashtag yields a wealth of information. Captions that go along with these images can also help give new insights, correct misinformation, or even perpetuate myths **cough: corsets and missing ribs: cough**.’  

Maria’s account, @historicalgarments—‘Inspiration, humor, and sewing for lovers of fashion before the 1950s.’ Photo by author.

I am inclined to agree with Maria, to an extent. It is encouraging to see accounts such as her own act as a dress/fashion history catalogue, potentially exposing a greater, more diverse audience to the discipline. But am I asking too much in my desire to be challenged by the content to which I am exposed? I dream of a time when I will reread captions with motive, when my interest is pushed enough to strike up a debate in the comments, when I am moved to ask for more insight over DM. I look forward to when I can interrogate and probe, as opposed to continually swiping the state of passivity in which I find myself, adequately educated, yet to be enthralled. 

Fashioning Wakanda: the fashioned black body in Black Panther

 

The fashioned black body is one that has been excluded from the western mainstream fashion and beauty world for centuries. It is often removed to the category of subculture, even though the styles and fashions that are considered “lesser” are often appropriated by white bodies. Black Panther (2018) challenges this notion of afro-centric fashion as a “subculture” by making it mainstream through unapologetic representation.

Like most people around the world, I saw Marvel’s Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler, which was the most culturally relevant superhero movie that I have ever seen. It was essentially a short introduction to African diasporic studies, that touched on the socio-political relationship between black Africans and those black bodies that have been historically displaced by colonization and slavery, and the desire to find autonomy in a world where whiteness is a marker of value. Black Panther has made the conversation regarding the need for the representation of black bodies in Hollywood “blockbuster” productions public. Black Panther is a completely self-contained movie that did not need quirky cameos from other Marvel superheroes to legitimize its place as a franchise. That is in part because of the powerful storyline, incredible visuals and character development of both male and female characters.

Black Panther cast photograph (2018)

From the very start of the film, the viewer is transported into the world of Wakanda through bright colors, shots of lush landscape and incredible displays of advanced technology. However, I found myself most mesmerized by the stunning costumes designed by the Oscar nominated, Ruth E. Carter. Carter has been designing costumes for films over the past 30 years, for movies like School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Amistad. Carter drew inspiration from various cultures and dress styles within Africa, in addition to Afropunk styles to create the image of Wakanda as a site of afrofuturism. Through dress, Carter was able to change, or rather provide a new way of looking at the black body that was void of colonial impact. In an article on the importance of fashion in Black Panther by Tanisha C. Ford from The Atlantic, Ford writes, “Carter is quick to point out that her work has always centered a black conception of the future, one rooted in political determinism and creative self-expression”

Black Panther fans in Melbourne, Australia.

The costumes of Black Panther were designed first with practical functionality in mind so that the fighting body could move without restraint. Costumes within the movie also function has a symbol of self-expression, honor, and belonging. However, this idea of belonging is layered. Firstly, within the film each character’s clothes reveal which tribe they belong too, in addition to their role and rank in Wakandan society. Belonging extends outside of the film screen in the way moviegoers have been fashioning themselves in African prints and Wakanda inspired outfits on their way to see the movie. The discussion of ‘what to wear’ for watching Black Panther has become a growing and trending topic on Black Twitter, solidifying it as a pop cultural and socio-political discursive event. The discussion around what one should wear to the movie reveals the fulfilment of the craving to be seen and to have one’s ancestry honored. It is also a testament to the idea of black fashion escaping the realm of the mythic and imaginary to one that is real and has permanence and value in its own right.

By Destinee Forbes