From the Collections Archive

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Für die Dame

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


This is a January 1927 issue of Für die Dame – Schweizerische Illustrierte Monatszeitschrift für Mode und Gesellschaft (For the Lady – Swiss Illustrated Monthly Magazine for Fashion and Society), a Swiss fashion magazine, published by Druck und Verlag Buchdruckerei Wittmer & CIE in Basel. The cover informs that this is the “3. Jahrgang” (3rd Year) suggesting that the magazine was launched in 1925. Its content consists of a mixture of fashion, society portraits, a novel and short pieces of varied nature. These range from a discussion of hotel staff in Russia to an obituary on William Macdonald II, to humorous short stories. Photography is used especially for the society and fashion sections. The latest Parisian fashion by ‘Romain’ and ‘J.Paquin’ are captured on models standing either in front of a curtain or in a living room tending to flowers. Dresses show a dropped waistline and straight silhouette. The content of Für die Dame is, as for most magazines still today, interspersed by advertisements. These range from soap ads to ‘hygiene’ related articles, to furniture/ interior design shops. The magazine thus, not least through its title, has a very clear female audience, one that the magazine’s content suggests is educated, modern and interested in a variety of different areas of fashion, literature, health and society.

Für die Dame, January 1927. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

The magazine’s remarkable front cover shows a beautiful illustration of a young blonde lady with fashionably bobbed hair on a ski slope. She is wrapped in a yellow scarf, striped jumper and trousers that cut off just below the knee to reveal brown socks and what are possibly the beginning of boots with a blue and red chequered pattern. She stands assertively, holding her yellow skis, while behind her the white piste with two trees forms a winter backdrop. A fellow skier is indicated to her left and a tiny ski-jumper in the background completes the picture of a day on the slopes. The illustration corresponds to an article on the likes of health, posture and diet on the inside of the magazine, which is complemented by photographs of women with skis. Only marked “RI CO” in the bottom right hand side corner, the illustrator’s full identity could not be determined. Offset through grey and white frames on a light blue background, the art-deco styled illustration is striking through its geometric design and modern appeal. The cover is matte and paper-like, suggesting to us viewers that what we are holding is in fact nearly an art print that one could hang on the wall. The paper used for the pages too is a little thicker, rather soft and slightly shiny suggesting quality and preventing the magazine from having a simple throw-away quality such as that of a newspaper. It implies that the magazine would not be entirely out of place in one of the lavish rooms showcased in its interior design spread. Therefore, the lifestyle encapsulated by the front cover, is supported and expressed through the material quality of the magazine itself.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Gazette du Bon Ton

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


From 1912-1915 and 1919-1925, fashion and art met on the pages of Gazette du Bon Ton. This French publication entertained upper-class consumers with elaborately illustrated articles and sumptuous fashion plates. Though the First World War loomed on the horizon, the stories in this issue from March 1914 showed no signs of global tension. From an article detailing exotic pearl-net masquerade masks to a list of elites vacationing at the French Riviera, the authors of Gazette du Bon Ton created a world ruled by novelty and luxury.

Stimpl, ‘Riviera… Riviera…” in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Each issue included a set of ten plates with couture fashions by houses like Doucet, Lanvin, and Worth. Two plates from this issue feature designs by masters of 1910s couture: Paquin and Paul Poiret. In ‘La fontaine de coquillages’, George Barbier set an evening gown by Paquin against a luscious blue courtyard and classical fountain. Pearl embellishments on the turquoise velvet and grey tulle dress mimic shells, which Barbier echoes in white on hanging shell clusters. A shell in the figure’s hand catches water from the fountain, merging the background and foreground. In comparison, Simone A. Puget’s illustration for ‘Salomé’, an evening gown by Paul Poiret, is striking in its simplicity. By placing the figure on a plain black base, the artist focuses attention on the dress. The design speaks to the sensuality of the legendary Salomé, as fishnet stockings emerge from beneath the diagonal skirt hem and the figure’s nipples, colored the same red as her lips and nails, peek through the swirled, off-the-shoulder bodice.

George Barbier, ‘La fontaine de coquillages’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Simone A. Puget, ‘Salome’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Every turn of the page in Gazette du Bon Ton offers a new feast for the eyes. At just 25cm x 7cm it is very easy to hold, though the heavy paper prevents the issue from feeling flimsy. With at least one color illustration in the pochoir technique on every page, the magazine presents itself as something to be slowly cherished. The difference in style of the vivid ‘La fontaine de coquillages’ and stark ‘Salomé’ plates exemplify how artistic variety creates the tantalizing feeling of ‘What’s next?,’ urging the reader to turn the page. This sumptuous array of visual delights did not come cheap: the price of a yearly subscription was 100 francs, or more than 400 pounds today!

Artists sometimes used striking metallic paint to enliven their illustrations. Here is one illustration of dancer Armen Ohanian viewed straight on and at an angle. Valentine Gross, ‘Armène Ohanian’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Gazette du Bon Ton invites haptic interaction as well. The metallic paint used on some illustrations, for example, requires the reader to tilt the page to get the full effect. Should the reader give into temptation and run a finger over the fashion plates, they may feel more than just the horizontal ridges of the thick paper. In ‘Salomé’, the outline of the figure and the dots on the skirt are debossed. Contact with the flat surface of the page brings the gown to life, but also acts as a tangible barrier to the beautiful world displayed in the plates. That space of breathtaking couture fashion, endless luxury, and carefree joy exists only between the covers of Gazette du Bon Ton.

Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating the Courtauld’s History of Dress journals archive

Fashion magazines provide a space for escapism and fantasy, but this imaginative realm of image and text is centred on the very real interactions that viewers have with these material objects. How does it feel to read a fashion magazine? Do you read it dutifully, from cover to cover? Or do you flip through more sporadically, waiting for something exciting to halt you in your tracks? Of equal importance is where we read fashion magazines. Is it in the silence of the library, inhaling the smell of the archive? Or at home, from the comfort of the sofa? Perhaps it’s on the tube, amongst the rush of commuters and the jolt of a train braking? These multisensory encounters all play a part in our interpretation of what we see – and read – within the fashion magazine.

These are some of the questions we are going to be thinking about on Saturday 6th May, at our conference ‘Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating the Courtauld’s History of Dress journals archive’. In celebration of the Courtauld’s recently catalogued History of Dress journals archive, our one-day symposium will examine how the fashion magazine has constructed and circulated social, cultural and political ideas concerning dress, body and identity.  In opening up the collection, we will examine fashion magazines more broadly as documents of the time in which they were produced, reflecting changing tastes and attitudes as well as social and technological developments. We will explore how the fashion magazine has been consumed by readers, whether glanced through or thoroughly read from cover to cover, and consider the sensory connections to be made between looking, seeing, being, feeling and wearing.

Speakers include Paul Jobling, Alice Beard, Rebecca Arnold, Lucy Moyse, Marta Francheschini and Maria Angela Jansen, will consider these overlapping themes from the interdisciplinary perspectives of design history, fashion studies, visual culture, sociology, and those working professionally within the field. The day will include a viewing session of some earlier examples from our collection as well as an opportunity to see a fashion magazine display curated in collaboration with History of Dress MA students. This symposium will provide the opportunity to question changes in the way that dress has been documented, worn and consumed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as to study the fashion magazine as image, object, text, idea and experience intertwined.

Booking is now open at the link below, so hurry!

http://courtauld.ac.uk/event/reading-fashion-magazines

Welcome Spring! A Look at Lanvin’s Floral Frocks

Pierre Brissaud, “Dansons la capucine” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

With April fast approaching, so too come the beautiful blooms of spring! In celebration of warmer weather and brighter days, here are some fun floral designs from the early-twentieth century couturier Jeanne Lanvin.

Jeanne Lanvin for the House of Lanvin, “Roseraie” dress, Spring/Summer 1923. Silk. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Anonymous gift, 1964). Available at this link.

Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) started a millinery business in the 1890s and later expanded into couture as the clothes she designed for her daughter became popular among friends and fashionistas. By the 1920s the House of Lanvin was well established and wide-reaching, producing fragrances and clothes for men, women, and children. A guiding principle in her creation of female couture, as Lanvin put it in 1929, was that “modern clothes need some sort of romantic quality.” As such, her designs reveled in femininity through the use of ruffles, lace, ribbon, and, most notably, flowers. Many wonderful examples of Lanvin’s floral dresses survive in collections around the world, including a striking red and cream dress embellished with roses from 1923. This gown demonstrates how Lanvin’s preference for embroidery and appliqué (instead of patterned fabric) resulted in sumptuous, highly detailed creations. Ombré ribbons are arranged in a geometric pattern and punctuated with folded-ribbon roses, as well as a rose collar, sleeves, and belt. The marriage of a sleek pattern and soft roses evinces Lanvin’s eye for romanticizing trends to fit her house’s characteristic charm.

Jeanne Lanvin for the House of Lanvin, Dress, 1927. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Gift of Varney Thompson Elliott and Rosemary Thompson Franciscus in memory of their mother, Margaret Whitney Thompson, 1985). Available at this link.

Pierre Brissaud, “Il n’a pas pleuré” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Lanvin excelled at the robe de style, a gown that favored full skirts instead of the straighter silhouette popular at the time. While her robe de style were occasionally embroidered with flowers, it was more common for a large flower pin with copious ribbons to be pinned to the dress. Nearly identical pins can be seen in a dress from 1927 and a fashion plate from seven years earlier in the Gazette du Bon Ton. Pinned at the bust instead of the waist, this pin speaks to the continuity of style in the House of Lanvin, as well as a prevailing trend for florals.

Pierre Brissaud, “On t’attend” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Nearly every issue of the Gazette du Bon Ton features illustrated gowns by Lanvin, many of them with floral embellishments. Gazette du Bon Ton, which ran from 1912 to 1915 and 1920 to 1925, was an elite fashion magazine with intricate pochoir illustrations. The sweet scenes displaying Lanvin’s couture for women and children embody in turns a maternal ideal and feminine elegance. In both instances, florals lend a graceful naturalness to the looks on show.

Pierre Brissaud, “Venez danser” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Further Reading

Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Deihl. The History of Modern Fashion from 1850. London:
Laurence King Publishing, 2015.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Fashion Designers. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Pel, Martin. 1920s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs. London: Unicorn in association with
Fashion and Textile Museum, London, 2016.

 

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings

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Georgiana Houghton, The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861.

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Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1862.

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Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 1864.

I’ve recently been giving a couple of talks on Sunday afternoons in the gallery; it’s a great way of meeting some interesting people, and having a lively discussion about the works on display. My recent topic of conversation has been the Georgiana Houghton exhibition, a collection of 21 watercolour drawings that the British artist produced (ostensibly) through contact with the spirit world in 1860s to 1870s Victorian London. Houghton claimed to be in touch with various spirits including high Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Corregio, as well as deceased members of her immediate family, such as her brother Warrand, sister Rosalia and uncle William.

Her ‘spirit drawings’ are remarkable products of Victorian culture, and were produced about the same time that Claude Monet was painting the river Thames in an Impressionistic fog. If the fruits of his labour were seen as radical to a contemporary gaze, then how must a Victorian public have responded to Houghton’s endeavours, with their exotic colours and forms? Not very well at all is the answer. When she mounted an exhibition of her work in a gallery on Old Bond Street in 1871, critics responded with confusion, outrage, dismay, and bewilderment.

Nevertheless, Spiritualism had become very fashionable at the time in Victorian London, centred on the belief that contact with an ‘afterlife’ was possible through mediumship practices including séances. This fascination with the spirit world is unsurprising given the Victorians’ preoccupation with death. Not only did they introduce bells to coffins – lest any poor soul should be buried alive – but Victoria, following Albert’s death in 1861, elevated private mourning to a public level when she began to dress solely in black. With social and cultural upheaval in Victorian London, many women were beginning to enjoy greater private and public freedoms at home and work, and the dark environment of the séance room was a potentially liberating space for them to reside. Scientific expeditions were also gaining momentum during the period, alongside the doctrines of ethnography and anthropology, all of which reflected a desire to see and understand the surrounding world and, in doing so, find out more about the origins of man. It is perhaps only inevitable then that a question was also beginning to emerge of what might exist beyond life, and whether there was a contactable spirit realm.

Houghton’s work is fascinating for its pioneering use of largely abstract forms, which place her drawings closer in aesthetic terms to those of Kandinsky, or the Dadaists’ automated drawings produced in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps a contributing factor in her lack of recognition – until now – is not simply that she was a woman, but that she was producing these works 60 or 70 years too soon, before the existence of intellectual frameworks such as Freudian psychoanalysis that might have been used to understand and contextualise her drawings. I wonder if Houghton might even have been a synaesthete – there is something incredibly emotive and multisensory about her use of colour, shape, line and form.

But it is important to remember that these drawings are far from abstract. For the artist, they were highly symbolic, and she produced detailed explanations on the backs of each of them, painstakingly pointing out the different representational forms to the viewer.

Whilst Houghton is perhaps not an obvious choice for a dress historian, there is something about the thread-like lines and vibrant colours of her drawings that draw me in on a very visual – and unequivocally tactile – level. Professor David Lomas recently observed what he described as the ‘hair-like’ forms present in many of these images, suggesting a connection to be made with Victorian hair jewellery, and pointing out the interconnected processes of looking, and wanting to touch, but potentially also being touched by, Houghton’s spirit drawings.

A Look Back on ‘Fashioning Winter’ at Somerset House

It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!

Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’
by Alexis Romano

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.

And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.

Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.

Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!

4 November, 2014

Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House
by Fruszi Befeki

An empty vitrine...

An empty vitrine…

Objects and condition reports

Objects and condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text...

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…

I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.

We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.

At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.

Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.

With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!

We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.

7 November 2014

A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’
by Fruszi Befeki

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

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Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.

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Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.

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These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.

Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.

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Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.

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Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.

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If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.

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While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.

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The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.

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Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.

18 November, 2014