Interviews Archive

Zamrock Fashion: 1970 – 2020

A few weeks ago, I decided to watch a video that was recommended to me online, which detailed the history of the Zamrock music scene. Zamrock is a term used to describe the psychedelic rock scene of 1970s Zambia. This video described how Zambia’s independence from the UK in 1964 saw a rise in Zambian creativity; the first President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, decreed that 95% of music played on radio stations had to be of Zambian origin. Zamrock can be described as a mix of traditional African music with psychedelic funk and rock elements, with influence from musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones. I was instantly captivated by this scene, and surprised that I had never heard of it before.  

I was determined to discover more, as I could only find a few images online of Zamrock bands and their fashions. I noted one band called WITCH (We Intend To Cause Havoc) and was struck by their outfits. They wore a mix of traditional clothing with Westernstyle elements, and the most incredible floppy hats with brims so low that they disguised the faces of the band members. Luckily, I found that WITCH had an Instagram account, and saw that a film had been made about the band in 2019, directed by Gio Arlotta. The film documents the history of WITCH, the life of its sole survivor, EmanyeoJagari’ Chanda, and the subsequent re-formation of the band. I sent a message to see if I could find out more about their fashion and received a reply from Gio saying he could help. After watching the film, and kindly receiving a wealth of images and information from email correspondence with Gio, I got the answers I was searching for. 

Emmanuel Kapembwa 

In my first email from Gio he stated that the fashion aspect of Zamrock is one of the things that drove him to make the film. In the film, we are introduced to Emmanuel Kampembwa, the Zamrock tailor who made the clothes that WITCH wore back in the 1970s, and still creates outfits for them to perform in today. A particularly fascinating design by Emmanuel is the big floppy hat, which is fitted at the head, then secured with an adjustable buckled strap, with the deep brim falling in sturdy pleats from the forehead. Jagari, a self-proclaimed hat enthusiast, commented in the film that the hat was useful for when you didn’t want to look at certain people in the crowd, and allowed the musicians to follow their feeling inwards. Gio stated ‘that the hats slowly became a staple of their look both to protect from the sun since they often would play during the day, but also to create an interior space of reflection while onstage’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). Pictured below is Jagari wearing a hat and suit designed and made by Emmanuel, which reminisces to the hippie style of the 70s with the bold, geometric patterns and warm colour palette. 

(Jagari in Emmanuel Kapembwa designed suit and hat, film still from WITCH: We Intend To Cause Havoc, 2019, by Gio Arlotta, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

The hat is one of the defining accessories of WITCH from their performances in the 70s. This film still of Jagari illustrates how the buckle allows for adjustments around the head, although Emmanuel tailors each hat to fit the head of the wearer perfectly. The brim can be worn down to cover the face, as demonstrated in this image, to give the wearer more privacy. Alternatively, the volume and thickness of the hat fabric also allows for it to be folded back over itself, to reveal the face of the wearer. 

Gio also shared with me some photographs of Emmanuel modelling his own creations in the 70s. These photographs are truly special. They reveal elements of what was fashionable to wear in Zambia with the signature style elements of the Zamrock scene being noted through the wearing of bell bottoms and highheeled boots. 

(Emmanuel Kapembwa, 1972, photograph provided by Kapembwa, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

(Emmanuel Kapembwa, c.1970s, photograph provided by Kapembwa, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

(Emmanuel Kapembwa, c.1970s, photograph provided by Kapembwa, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

These everyday looks designed by Emmanuel appear to be popular across the Zamrock scene, and young Zambian people at the time, regardless of gender. As seen in this photograph of Violet Kafula, dubbed the ‘Godmother of Zamrock. She is pictured wearing typical 70s squared sunglasses, with her subtle paisley print shirt tucked neatly into her trousers.  

(Billy, Violet, Shaddick, c.1970s, emailed to author by Arlotta 25th August, 2020)

Gio informed me that Emmanuel is still a full-time tailor. He sometimes creates his more flamboyant looks like the suit worn by Jagari in the first image, as well as day to day outfits. Either way, they are always completed with his signature flair. 

Platform Boots 

One of the key style elements of Zamrock that stood out to me through examining these images were the platform boots. An article from the late 70s from The Times of Zambia appears in the film, titled ‘Those Boots Weren’t Made For Walking!’. The article describes the new fashionable fad of high heeled boots, which were being hand made by young people in Zambia from planks and animal skins. One of the photographs sent to me shows Jagari in 1975 wearing an incredible pair of platforms. The muted yet bright colours of yellow, orange, blue, and teal are composed together in a contrasting striped pattern. His jeans are cut just above the knee to ensure maximum exposure of these statement boots. 

(Emanyeo ‘Jagari’ Chanda, February 1975, photograph provided by Chanda, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

These boots do not appear to be handmade in the way the newspaper described, although Gio informed me that the boots were ‘bought and made in Nairobi, Kenya – still handmade, but in a more professional way.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). The Zamrock band, ‘Ngozi Family’ can also be seen wearing platforms, barely visibly under their bell-bottoms. Each member wears a stylish coat, identifiable to their 1970s era by the exaggerated, tapered collars. Tommy and Chrissy wear matching baker boy style hats, a style more familiar to the Western eye than the Kapembwa designed hats for WITCH, but still in theme with the popularity of wearing hats for performing.  

(‘Ngozi Family’ band, c.1970s, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

Standing Out 

The wearing of hats gets even more fascinating when looking at a performance photograph of the band ‘Salty Dog’. The one member wears a Scottish Tam O’Shanter bonnet, complete with a fringed leather waistcoat. Certainly not what you expect to be seen worn by a rock band in 70s Zambia. I discussed the effect of globalisation with Gio, as the crossing of cultures and fashion across borders kept standing out to me through these images and the film. This is illustrated in the film when Jagari went to visit his friend Groovy Joe. In his house a Tom Jones record is pinned to the wall, which excited me as a proud Welsh native, alongside other records by Black Sabbath and Cliff Richard. While globalisation may have played a part in influencing Zamrock fashions, the key ingredient was to stand out. Regarding Zamrock bands, Gio explained that ‘whatever could make anyone stick out from the others was their preferred choice, so they would just get their hands on anything they could find and just make it work.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020) 

(‘Salty Dog’ band, c.1970s, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

The process of learning more about the fashion on Zamrock at first appeared limited due to the lack of resources I could find. However, Gio’s research of this scene in Zambia, and subsequent film, has shed light on this extraordinary moment in time. The fashion of Zamrock can be summarised to three elements: hats, bell-bottoms, and high-heeled bootsultimately, the final looks are demonstrations of individuality and boldness. 

(Jagari performing, 1974, emailed to author by Arlotta 24th August, 2020)

Gio described that ‘in a way their approach was very much an “anything goes” one, and often the more outrageous it was, the more they liked it (Jagari going onstage with torn pyjamas was something that many remember) and still to this day, before shows Jagari goes and looks for the most outrageous clothes he can find to wear onstage, be it at thrift shops or high street fast fashion shops.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). Jagari, and the re-formed members of WITCH, continue to perform in those special hats designed by Emmanuel, revitalising the 70s Zamrock scene and its fashion for a whole new audience of today. 

Special thanks to Gio Arlotta for answering my many questions, and for sharing these amazing images. 

View the trailer for ‘W.I.T.C.H: We Intend To Cause Havoc’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTJsp0oe3sA&t=11s 

Sources: 

‘W.I.T.C.H: We Intend To Cause Havoc’, film directed by Gio Arlotta, 2019 

Email correspondence with Gio Arlotta, 24th-25th August 2020 

https://www.instagram.com/weintendtocausehavoc/?hl=en 

facebook.com/weintendtocausehavocfilm 

The Times of Zambia , ‘Those Boots Weren’t Made For Walking!’, c.1975/76, ‘W.I.T.C.H: We Intend To Cause Havoc’ film still (34:26) 

 

Alumni Spotlight: Frances Crossley

Having completed her undergraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Frances Crossley returned to study on the ‘Documenting Fashion’ MA course with Dr Rebecca Arnold in 2018. Frances currently works at Richard Green Gallery and is also the AHRC Networking Project Administrator for the Fashion Interpretations project. In this interview we discuss how the global crises of today’s climate has affected the way we interpret and approach fashion, as well as how Frances’ MA dissertation about the reproduction of fashion and its cyclical nature is especially relevant today. 

MB: Hi Frances! Could you please expand upon how you came to work at Richard Green gallery, and what led you into becoming the project administrator for Fashion Interpretations (AHRC networking project)? I am interested in your experience working with traditional paintings and modern British art, as well as working with fashion. Do you find any interesting correlations between the two?   

FC: Of course, so I began working at the gallery back in 2015. I had applied to do my undergraduate degree at the Courtauld and I knew that I would like to gain a little experience in the industry before committing to a degree, so I started at the gallery in a work experience capacity. I was older than most going into my undergraduate course and after working for a few years after finishing sixth form, I knew it was important to gain qualifications in a field I was interested in working in, long term.  

I thought I would be at the gallery for just a couple of weeks, but I slowly began to take on more responsibilities and then before entering into my first term at the Courtauld (so I had been at the gallery roughly nine months), I was asked to join the research department and cover a colleague’s maternity leave – so throughout both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I was incorporating what I was learning every day at university into my research practice at the gallery, the two spaces continually informing one another. It was hugely instructional for me and though incredibly challenging at times, it genuinely taught me how to manage my time effectively.  

In the years I spent as a researcher at the gallery, yes, fashion would occasionally creep into my work. In 2017, the gallery held an exhibition entitled “A Flair for Fashion” which celebrated the art of dress in British portraiture from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This project was informative for me, highlighting how dress could be incorporated within the commercial art industry, but in a way that is educational and fun. It’s hard when you’re studying, to envision how our fashion-history obsessions can be tangibly woven into settings such as these; but this project proved it was possible.  

Each portrait from the exhibition was impeccably researched – I was obsessed with the catalogue, it was really beautiful, and something I was so proud to have worked on and contributed to – each painting had its own accompanying essay and Aileen Ribiero, formerly Head of the History of Dress at The Courtauld, wrote an introductory essay for the catalogue and smaller essays on each portrait’s dress. As I had only been part of the research department for a year, I contributed to the essays and research where I could, but I predominantly helped with sourcing comparative images from museums, galleries, institutes from around the world to enrich catalogue essays – I really learnt a lot! This is one of my favourites that I helped source, (interesting as I later wrote on Poiret in my MA dissertation!):  

Paul Poiret, LE JARDIN DE L’INFANTE: Robe du soir, de Paul Poiret, September 1920, Gazette du Bon Ton, No. 7, Plate 52, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I also helped to conduct several Instagram takeovers for the gallery, including one by Peter Copping [https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/people/peter-copping] which was a lot of fun. I think I find the most enjoyment in working collaboratively with people.  

Collage by FC, words and image selection made by Peter Copping

I have to admit, fashion theory, actually art theory in general; very rarely came into my practice at the galleries; however, it has of course been present throughout my role with Fashion Interpretations, so that has given me my much-needed dose of post-MA reading material! And my path to the role was really simple: Rebecca sent out a DM to our MA group (*The Glitter Gang*) last September, letting us know about the vacancy. I applied – with haste, finishing my application on my birthday! – interviewed with Rebecca and Judith (and Oliver, the Courtauld Insitute’s Research Manager) and was lucky enough to be offered the position. It has been ridiculously dreamy, ever since! 

MB: Could you discuss your role within the Fashion Interpretations project? 

FC: My role has a pretty snazzy title, if I do say so myself – I am the project’s AHRC Networking Project Administrator (yup.). This effectively means that I am responsible for the project’s upkeep, making sure all the behind-the-scenes, administrative stuff gets done. I have been involved with a number of different parts of the project, organising our Networking Project meetings, helping to draft and, actually, redraft our budget – COVID has meant a project extension, project members unable to travel, our symposium being translated into a virtual event, etc. – which is completely new for me, preparing for our symposium (details coming very soon!), setting up and curating both our blog and Instagram account, coordinating Instagram takeovers by our members, and soon, helping with the production of Archivist Addendum – the publication by Dal Chodha and Jane Howard that will house all our project members’ work and essays, I will be helping with proof-reading our members’ submissions.  

Events such as our Networking meeting in May have really stood out to me as an opportunity to be grateful for, grateful to be a part of; getting to listen to this fabulous group of people discuss their work. How they have interpreted the project’s theme, their individual translations on the ways in which modern and contemporary fashion is reinterpreted through various mediums. If you want to read more about what we discussed, I wrote a comprehensive account of our meeting for the project’s blog: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/05/12/a-change-in-meeting/  

MB: Fashion Interpretations considers the way fashion is transformed through different mediums. Has this become even more prominent in discussion, now that the global pandemic has forced us all online in order to share and connect? 

FC: Medium truly informs everything, it is the lens through which we filter every facet of the everyday. Therefore fashion, as an expression of the self, through dress, modification, as a material interpretation, is unimaginably affected by the COVID-19 crisis.  

Fashion can be articulated through various media and though I am constantly viewing and cataloguing fashion imagery, as a personal practice and as part of my role for the project, the medium that I feel most readily in contact with is both the fashion I dress myself in and the fashion that defines the relationships closest to me. How each of my friends represents a unique interpretation of fashion, my sneakerhead brother’s endearing DMs about footwear drops he’s stalking online, the comforting smell of my mum’s bluey-green scarf that she wraps herself in when cold, the decorative hair accessories my best friends daughter removes throughout the day, punctuating the hours we’ve spent together – as we navigate through this crisis, it’s strange how I can identify the loss of these intimacies, small fragments of their personhood. That has been very meaningful to me, watching them resurface as lockdown has eased.  

In order to continue sharing and connecting, we have to make a more definite move into a virtual space. Within fashion, taking an intrinsically material form of expression, a subject designed to be shared and interpreted as a collective, and channelling it through a medium – the digital – which could potentially isolate those taking part, it is a tricky transition. I think what is most important during the current climate is the establishment of communities and I feel very fortunate to be part of one through the Fashion Interpretations project. Our digital communications have been important to me, in these past months. 

MB: Your MA dissertation examined what the act of ‘copying’ means in the fashion industry, specifically focusing on Parisian haute couture being copied by American ready-to-wear in the interwar periods. This ‘copying and recycling of trends is interesting to consider now, as fashion often looks to the past following moments of crisis (e.g Dior’s New Look). Do you think there will be a need for nostalgia in dress following the current global pandemic? Or will the increasing awareness in supporting local, small businesses, and buying vintage break the cycle? 

FC: Yes, so in my dissertation I discussed how reproduction, or “copying”, is a valid mode of fashion production and a trend perpetually readdressed throughout fashion history. I had originally wanted to place my exploration in the present, or recent-present, due to a conversation I entered into with Edward Crutchley over Instagram, before starting my dissertation. It was a weird but very 2019 entrance into a dissertation subject and the conversation actually formed the basis of my introduction too – though the process felt quite informal, it simultaneously felt as though it had developed with me and my experiences, which made it special.   

After the MA trip to New York, I formed a small obsession with American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin and was regularly stalking the feed of the Instagram account @cashincopy [https://www.instagram.com/cashincopy], on which Dr Stephanie Lake (its owner) often posts comparative collages / images, placing designs of Cashin’s in conversation with similar contemporary fashions, “copies” – she has taken the matter of policing the reproduction of Cashin’s designs into her own hands. It encouraged a similar personal practice, wherein I began a sartorial version of snap with myself, banking images in my memory and “Saved” folder on Instagram, making connections to try and track this continuously looping pattern within modern fashion that kept resurfacing. Long story short – I found this image of Cashin wearing a tall, wide-brimmed hat online. As opposed to Dr Lake’s side-by-side layouts, I created and posted a two-image slide post. The cover image was from Edward Crutchley’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show during London Fashion Week Men’s in January 2019. The image features a collection of models backstage, two looking directly into the camera’s lens and a third – the point of interest in this comparison piece – whose attention is being held away from the camera’s gaze. Atop this third model’s head is a tall, wide-brimmed hat (designed by Crutchley, in collaboration with Stephen Jones), its structure is implied through a meshed, translucent nylon that allows the bones of the hat’s unique construction to be perpetually on show. It is fixed to the model’s head with a ribbon that fastens across the centre of her neck. Behind this image was an archival photograph of Cashin, modelling a cylindrical hat of similar design. 

The first half of the post I uploaded on my IG feed, featuring Edward Crutchley / Stephen Jones designs, and the second half

 

Dr Stephanie Lake later informed me that Cashin purchased the hat worn in this photograph during her travels for the Ford Foundation throughout Asia during the 1950s. I meant this post to act purely as a personal exercise, to visually demonstrate the cyclical movement of late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries fashion design and how fragments of the past are resurrected in contemporary modes, giving historicised motifs new meaning. But it inspired a response – as result, I assume, of a post-Diet Prada virtual fashion landscape – and Crutchley messaged me to correct my comparison, his AW19 hats were actually based on the traditional male, Korean bridal gat (a form of Joseon-era headwear): “My hat was based on a traditional Korean gat … the originals are horse hair but [Crutchley and Stephen Jones] used a nylon crin.” Another cycle, and we are shown how each articulation of this accessory is interconnected. 

Gat-gate, messages received from Edward Crutchley, detailing his reference

 

So maybe not so long story short, sorry (!), but these moments of reinterpretation, I find, are constant and so fascinating. And we crave them, look how many nostalgic, vintage-aesthetic Instagram accounts / influencers exist. I genuinely follow about 20-or-so fashion throwback accounts that feature the word “nostalgia” in their IG bio (now you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it). It is accounts such as these that push our eternal yearning to revisit the past in order to find new forms of inspiration – a gat for example, revisited for decades, taking on new meanings. I would love to think that the current climate will push us to support local businesses, to find creative, kinder new ways in which to reinvent our wardrobes and shopping practices but it’s so hard to not become disheartened by fast-fashion’s hold over so many of us. I feel – maybe it’s my age / who I follow on social media / the media or entertainment that I am constantly surrounded by – that our collective complacency has been recognised but it’s not being rectified ferociously enough. 

 

MB: This recalls a post you wrote for the Documenting Fashion blog in 2018, ‘A Portrait of Jeremy Scott’, in which you discuss his self-awareness in presenting as a “King of kitsch”. An artist I worked with, Ben Frost, had his artwork (which addresses pop-culture and consumerism) used in Moschino’s 2018 fall/winter collection. The models wore Jackie Kennedy style pillbox hats, referencing the 1960’s, while also painted head to toe in varying colours, to appear ‘alien-like’. Is this “kitschy” nostalgia, but also desire for the future/other-worldly, a theme that you think will keep developing now in fashion? 

 

FC: I think so, for certain brands, I think it’s connected to that desire to return to past styles. A craving for nostalgia, which, for me, is inherently linked to kitsch and this playful interpretation of “fashion” as something fun or borderline silly. To most, Jeremy Scott included, this could be translated through a childhood understanding of “dress up”, becoming a character and embodying their form through dress, makeup, exaggerated affectations. I remember this season that you’ve mentioned, Moschino AW18, the conspiracy theorist-esque backstory, the Jackie O uniforms absurdly blended with outer space undertones – I think Scott quoted his inspiration was sourced from this anecdotal urban-myth wherein JFK told Marilyn Monroe that aliens were real, Monroe freaked and threatened she was going to leak the story to the press and then she was killed as a consequence, total conspiracy vibes, messy, messy, messy. This is such a childlike reaction, you learn about a wildly fanciful story (be it fairytale or a political-sexual-extraterrestrial scandal), you pick at its most fascinating elements, then you haphazardly splice them together to create this wonderful hybrid. We’ve all been there…  

Even last week, when Scott rebuilt the runway in miniature for the Moschino SS21 presentation, as a gloriously fantastical puppet show, all I could think of was the magic that puppets, small ornate wooden bodies held up by string and painted with little, delicate faces, held for me as a child (think Jim Henson or John Wright of the Little Angel Theatre). Though in that blog post you mention, I gave Scott a bit of a hard time, I was stunned by the thoughtfulness he displayed throughout the SS21 presentation, the show already feels like a piece of fashion history that remarkably documents our current circumstances, and the need for boldness.  

A post from Fashion Interpretations’ Instagram feed, discussing the Moschino SS21 runway presentation

“Kitsch” could easily define the throughline that weaves Scott’s collections together or his overwhelmingly potent aesthetic. However, “kitsch” to me, is not too far away from the ironic, ironic fashion, which is interpreted far more subjectively. I also wrote a post on “fashion gimmickry” for the Fashion Interpretations blog, which takes a little more of an in depth look at this idea: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/02/03/fashion-gimmickry-interpretation-imitation/  

MB: You are interested in how repetition manifests within fashion, have you noticed any repetition of trends happening right now? Or have you had any personal desire to dress differently as the lockdown is slowly lifting? 

FC: Again, to me, to my eye, repetition manifests constantly, it is embedded into the fashion industry’s foundations. Fashion is a powerful cultural phenomenon that shouldn’t be reduced to a singular, “present-day” understanding. In her essay ‘So Last Season: The Production of the Fashion Present in the Politics of Time’, Aurélie Van Der Peer notes how we (academics / industry professionals / the fashion world-adjacent) tend to regard fashion as rooted in the present, that we discount how contemporary fashions are deceivingly characterised by the absence of fashion history. References such as the aforementioned: @cashincopy, promote the necessity of originality in fashion design but referencing of past fashion histories is essential to the way our current fashion system functions. 

“Trends”, whether knowingly or not, possess elements of past fashions, maybe scrambled or purist. I have formed a minor obsession with sweater vests for example recently, knitted and in a variety of different colours, prints, perfect for a mid-season shift in temperature. This is a garment I associate with the nineties, but it also hangs in my memory as a distinctly seventies garment, and it’s present again in imagery from the decade previous, it pops up throughout the century, being repeatedly revived. See here a pic of sweater vest I would love to own, money no object. 

 

From my favourite @persephonevint, find them on Etsy

I wouldn’t say how I am dressing is drastically different post-lockdown, I would say however that I am having to regain some confidence. In my early twenties, I had unshakable faith in my ability to covet and coordinate unique pieces, I always felt very strong in harnessing them into very *me* outfits but that strength had been slowly whittled away in the past couple of years and I think lockdown has exacerbated that feeling. Now, as I am venturing out into social settings a little more often, there’s time to prepare and put more care into the process, hopefully that will give me the space to rebuild the confidence that was lost. 

MB: I was interested in your blog post from 2019 about the ‘Neue Frau’ in German Weimar-era lesbian magazines. I examined the sexual and social liberations of Weimar-era cinema in my dissertation; how gender fluidity and drag was accessed in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, 1959, by using the disguise of the more risqué 1920s, and the film’s original roots in Weimar-era cinema. Your idea that gender subversion was accessed through the multi-faceted identity of the Neue Frau demonstrates how self-image reflects the climate of a country (i.e. Germany’s fear of masculine women). How relevant do you think these themes of disguise, and re-fashioning the body in times of crisis are, in fashion right now?    

FC: In lockdown we remained indoors for our own safety, for the safety of our family members and loved ones, those who were vulnerable and in need of protection – it served as a period of isolation, in order to preserve life. It felt like a hibernation, after which we would re-enter the outside world, though cautiously, in order to regain a sense of normality.  

Whenever I considered the figure of the ‘Neue Frau’ (this was also the subject of my second assessed essay during the MA) I imagined her building this impenetrable layer of sartorial armour around herself and in the case of the women documented in the pages of publications such as Liebende Frauen, her queer identity – the heteronormative ‘masculinity’ that underlined her new age interpretation of femininity acting as a protective shield, to ward away those who ridiculed or refused to understand her. I came across these queer, Weimar-age magazines by chance, I was researching for my assessed essay and reading different event pages for the 2016 LACMA exhibition “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933”. In an article post by LACMA surrounding this exhibition entitled “Homosexuality Is a German Invention”, curator Nana Bahlmann noted several of these magazines, I then went on to contact SpinnbodenLesbenarchiv und Bibliothek in Berlin and trawled through lots and lots of issues! It was such a fun process of exploration.  

I think refashioning is conceived through conflict or trauma. In this tumultuous, interwar period an overwhelming number of men were removed from the urban workforce, throughout Europe and in Germany, through conscription. As in all combatant countries, women were therefore expected to fill vacant positions in order to maintain industrial productivity. Women occupied the spaces their male counterparts left behind. And in a post-war Germany, they visibly gained greater movement through previously inaccessible social and political spaces. However, this progression was compounded by economic and political insecurities that Conservative forces viewed as symptomatic of the newly formed Weimar Republic. A nationwide anxiety could work to actively stifle our self-fashioning freedoms, as this example demonstrates, but we have alternative spaces through which to channel such expressions. Though the virtual realm can be ugly and outright dangerous in many circumstances, it provides a much-needed environment to experiment with all manner of fashioning.  

Here is the link to the article we’ve mentioned: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2019/02/26/in-her-image-the-documentation-of-the-neue-frau-in-german-weimar-era-lesbian-magazines/  

MB: At the start of May, the Fashion Interpretations group met as a full group for the first time via a zoom meeting. Will Fashion Interpretations continue to change and adapt to our current climate (regarding the black lives matter movement and covid-19 especially), in correlation with the way the fashion world is changing and adapting also? 

FC: The horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have irrevocably altered the fabric of our global consciousness. The viral video of George Floyd’s death became a catalyst for a civil uprising, spurring the largest-scale protests in American history. These are unavoidable tragedies that force us all to reexamine our own social and political practices, our own educations on black histories, stories, experiences. I cannot speak for the Fashion Interpretations project as a whole, it is a group of academics and creatives who work independently, but the Black Lives Matter movement has and will forever continue to influence my own research and writing.  

And yes, the COVID crisis has affected how Fashion Interpretations functions logistically and certain events in our project’s calendar have had to be seriously adapted. As previously mentioned, later this year, we will be holding our symposium virtually, it will be a week-long event and our members will be discussing their contributions to the project and showing us they work – we can’t wait to share the details with everyone! A definite change in my working world that has been totally undone by the global pandemic is the constant influx of emails. 

MB: Finally, do you have any words of wisdom you can share for the Documenting Fashion students who have just graduated. There is certainly an air of uncertainty when you graduate, which seems especially amplified now! 

FC: To remember that if the future you had envisioned seems fragile or even unfathomable right now, that many others feel the terrifying weight of this crisis too. Also, none of us have encountered anything of this magnitude before, so to feel clueless in the face of its effects is not weak; we have to support one another through it, however we can. If you can’t find work relevant to your degree or the field in which you are interested, continue reading and educating yourself. Fill out as many applications in a week as you can stomach, write where you can, check in regularly with your *thing* – so for me, the patterns, if I can find a new link (it’s been fashion month, which has brought with it levity and some much-needed joy!) between the old and new, I am reminded of why I love fashion history and why I worked so hard for my degree – make lists (dream jobs, companies / institutions you would be proud to work for, different professional spaces you would be keen to occupy) – basically, keep busy. Don’t necessarily mount pressure on yourself but keep yourself agile. So, when your opportunity arrives, you are beyond prepared for it. Nobody ever suffered from being over prepared.  

Also, be kind. We all need a little kindness.  

Interview by Mollie Beese 

Alumni Spotlight: Brianna Carr

Brianna Carr is a Multi-Brand Commercial Executive at Estée Lauder and self- confessed beauty fanatic.  Graduating from Documenting Fashion in 2015, Brianna frequently explored her love of the cosmetics industry, its history and influence in her research. Her MA dissertation, titled ‘Motif as motive : representations of Helena Rubinstein’s brand of beauty in America, 1915-1930’ explored the role that Madame C.J Walker, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden played in shaping the beauty industry and the role of women in the Twentieth Century. 

OS: When I was preparing for this interview and looking over your previous blog posts, the first thing that struck me was the clear interest in all things cosmetics, beauty and makeup, What was your earliest makeup memory and how did you find this niche?

BC: ‘I’ve been wearing makeup since I was about two years old- as soon as I could reach for my Mum’s lipsticks that was it. Makeup has been a part of my life every single day for as long as I can remember. I grew up with two brothers, so I lived in a very boisterous household, so beauty became my escape. At any opportunity I would sit people down for beauty treatments! I had my own pedicure box and when I was very small my dream career was to be a beautician. It’s my passion!

What is it about makeup that you love so much?

BC: Beauty is so universal; it doesn’t matter if you have a shower or do a 17 step Korean skincare routine, every process is connected to beauty. Beauty is completely inclusive, and transformative. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you perceive yourself or what your budget is, you can create whatever look you want, and this can change day to day.

OS: You wrote about three incredible cosmetics moguls, Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C J Walker in your MA Dissertation- what made you choose this topic?

BC: I tried my handwriting about fashion, but I was far more successful when writing about beauty! Rebecca [Arnold] encouraged me to write about my passion and after we went to the Helena Rubenstein exhibition as part of our study trip to New York, I was instantly sold, there was no contest. Beauty is so rich and incredibly unexplored in comparison to fashion and I found it was such a joy to read about it all day long.  

OS: I know from personal experience [I chose to write about the relationship between jewellery and fashion photography] that choosing a niche dissertation topic can often limit you in terms of resources. What was your experience?

BC: As there was such a limited range of resources it was easier in some respects; it was definitely less overwhelming as there weren’t as many sources to choose from but in other ways, it was harder to talk about beauty with any academic authority. The challenge was finding the niche into the topic that wasn’t alien to the conversation. Beauty was at first a largely elitist outlet for the upper echelons of society; beauty was available to only a small group of women that could go into department stores. Talking about cosmetics in response to the social and economic situation was really interesting but it was also difficult as most of my information came from premium beauty brands operating at the time. This was definitely a bias that I had to be aware of but I suppose that’s why I love it so much, from Revlon to Elizabeth Arden, everyone has a relationship to beauty.

OS: Going off the fact that you wrote about three incredible women, if you could have dinner with one of them who would it be and why?

BC: I think that Madame C J Walker would be absolutely phenomenal to have dinner with. What she did for beauty and for Black women in America was absolutely insane. I haven’t seen the Netflix biopic yet but she’s such an icon and an inspiration. This is so tough! Estée Lauder is still owned by the Lauder family and they run the company operationally day to day so I have been lucky enough to have had dinner with some of the Lauders…

Madame C.J Walker, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Madam-C-J-Walker

OS: Both your MA studies and your role in marketing at Estee Lauder means that you have looked at a wealth of cosmetics campaigns over the last few years, is there a particular campaign that you wish you’d thought of?

BC: In terms of contemporary brands, Glossier does it best at the moment. They have completely revolutionized the beauty industry and completely respond to their consumer in a way that is entirely modern and has no ego. They let themselves be guided by their consumers in a way that big brands just don’t. Even though they say they do, it’s largely because they are following their competitors. For old-school brands, I’m going to have to say Revlon. They did it SO well. The ‘Cherries in the Snow Campaign’ was used to sell one off their most iconic nail polishes and I just love that. There are so many to choose from. Charlotte Tilbury is also interesting as she takes her cues from the Arden era of cosmetics. Charlotte is arguably Estée Lauder reincarnated! Her Goddess franchise would be as just as relevant in the Forties as it is today. Her language is so distinctive.

Revlon’s ‘Cherries in the Snow Campaign’ 1953

OS: When you were in my position writing your MA dissertation, how much thought had you given to the future after the Courtauld?

BC: I was always very certain that I would work in beauty. I worked on a Clinique counter for about four years whilst I was at University. After that I was determined to get to the Head Office and begged for an internship. I interviewed five times with no success but then they called me about an opportunity in Men’s Grooming which was very new to the company at the time.  Nobody really pays attention to it as it’s such a small category. Just as an example, ‘Clinique for Men’ is worth as much as one product from Clinique. So, it’s a really small opportunity with SO much opportunity. In recent years, it’s tempting to think that male grooming is so often talked about and has so many competitors but still, no one really puts money behind it. I originally came on board with just my manager and then we grew to a team of eight. Unfortunately, though, the decline in retail meant that this project ultimately got axed. Following this I then started looking after multi-brand projects and tying brands together. Beginning with Men’s brands, I moved across to do the same for women’s brands. If you go to Boots in Covent Garden for example, they display lots of smaller brands on gondolas. Now I’m in the strategy team which is more involved with working on long term projects.

OS: Coming from such a client-based, interactive position, from Clinique Counters to Head Office, you have quite a unique understanding of how consumers interact with the products themselves. Do you think these big brands struggle to maintain a sense of personability?

BC: Smaller brands are entrepreneurial and have the ability to be very responsive to consumers. They can change their in-store models very rapidly. When you’re an established brand and owned by Lauder for example, it’s just harder to do it as quickly. That said, there have been so many changes in the beauty industry recently and many brands have modernised their approach. Something like multi-brand partnerships are so crucial as that is how people shop these days. You could go through my makeup bag and find 40 different brands! People have begun to browse in the way they would online, and brands have to respond to that. Nowadays Maybelline make just as good a mascara as more premium brands so if you can’t necessarily differentiate on the product, it is more important than ever to differentiate on experience. That’s why big beauty brands are still relevant today- they provide a premium experience that beauty fanatics are still in love with.

 The difficulty is how these ‘old-school brands’ maintain relevance in the contemporary world. Now any marketing decision involves both a global and UK based marketing team, and these must compete with the values of retailers… there are so many nuances… between beauty houses… the identity of retailers… That’s why working with Men’s was so refreshing as those external pressures weren’t as big. We could do what we wanted.

Beauty brands are unusual in that more often than not, the consumer already has a relationship to you. They may be familiar with your products through their mother, grandmother for example.  Today, marketing teams have to establish a perception of the brand that suits the modern age. In that sense, we can be often be out of touch as our ability to adapt is much slower…

OS: Working in Men’s brands, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the way men relate to beauty? There’s often an assumption that men want quick, easy ‘superhero style’ products. What are your thoughts on this stereotype?

BC: I think this stereotype has been broken down almost completely in the last few years. With men, you need to find an avenue that makes beauty approachable. You need to take beauty TO men and be where they are. This may not always be Topman. If your consumer is a cyclist who spends £3000 on a Raffa bike, he’s also going to want to invest in skincare as it will help with his performance. It’s about making sure that beauty is entirely digestible for the various types of consumer. If someone wants to spend £300 on their grooming routine they can.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you can put Men’s products in a beauty hall and expect it to fly off the shelves. That’s actually something that we’ve been working on recently. We did a popup in Canary Wharf where 80% of the workforce are male. There is such scope and so much more research needs to be done but ultimately, we aim to suggest that beauty can be an experience that men can enjoy and that doesn’t have to involve being watched or judged in a beauty hall. The reason that I got into beauty was because it could be a special, magical experience for the individual; sadly, in the large beauty halls today, a lot of this has been lost. Makeup is now a commodity and it’s easy to forget that buying lipstick, whilst it may not seem like a lot, is a hard-earned treat for the person buying it. It’s a shame. 

OS: More and more, fashion editors are discussing that ‘post-lockdown’ we’re going to ‘flock to the shops’ and enjoy retail in a rejuvenated way. Do you agree with this?

BC: I’ve actually been working on a project related to this. Personally, I think that people will want to celebrate occasions they might have missed or are postponing to next year. I think that people still want to invest their money and are not going to be as impulsive as they may have been. There will be more research and consideration into buying decisions. I also think that people are going to turn to their highstreets and want premium beauty to be available closer to home. Working on distribution strategy will be key for brands moving forward. I think more and more brands will attempt to display ‘hero’ products on gondolas in more accessible places. The consumer trends that will emerge will be really interesting. I’m also anticipating a rise in gifting as well.

OS: In other periods of crisis, the Second World War for example, beauty became such a huge means of boosting morale and keeping a semblance of normality in the face of uncertainty. Has putting makeup on been important to you in the light of Covid-19?

BC: I think makeup has an accessible ‘feel good factor’; you can throw on a lip and feel entirely different about yourself. I love the ritual of putting makeup on and feeling ready to face the day. Makeup is a way of showing others that you look after yourself; it’s a way of expressing yourself and showing yourself in your ‘best light’. Beauty is unusual in that it involves the viewer as much as it does the self. So yes. Absolutely!

OS: You mentioned Glossier earlier, as many of us are aware, their ethos is very much about minimal, ‘chill beauty’ centered around a handful of products. Is this ‘low-maintenance’ beauty how cosmetics defines itself today?

BC: I appreciate it completely, especially if it makes people feel good, but there is nothing wrong with accepting that ‘minimal beauty’ is not for you. I love putting on a full face of makeup, I’m such a maximalist. It’s entirely down to preference.

OS: If you weren’t in beauty, is there another industry that you would be part of?

BC: I would definitely be in fitness. I’ve danced my entire life so I would love to do barre training and become an instructor. I’d also love to open my own studio. I’ve always been into fitness, especially low-impact exercise like barre and reformer Pilates. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter your fitness level, everyone can do it. Beauty will always be my passion but now it plays into so many more industries. Today, ‘feeling good about yourself’ is not just the job of the beauty industry, more and more, the wellness and fitness industry have taken that mantle. Like beauty, you still go to the gym for ‘an experience’ of wellness and escape…

OS: I agree, there is such a correlation between looking after yourself on the inside and changing how you look on the outside. Do you think that people will become more aware of their health and how they treat their bodies post-lockdown?

BC: Beauty and fashion is at the heart of culture so it often changes in accordance with the issues of the day, everything from animal cruelty to inclusivity and diversity. The brands that you buy are often aligned to your values and now there is a lot of pressure to be a conscious consumer. People often shop because they are aware of other people’s perceptions of them and there is an aspect of virtue signaling to consider- though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

OS: Is that what makes male consumers so interesting? The fact they are so function driven?

BC: Men do have an emotional experience with beauty, but they haven’t grown up with the same aesthetic expectations that women have. Now there is the added pressure of not only looking good but doing good and shopping ethically.

OS: In recent years there has been a real surge in fashion magazines publishing digital content surrounded around beauty. So many celebrities are filmed revealing their ‘5-minute makeup’, If you could look through anybody’s makeup bag who would it be?

BC: Hmm… I would love to look through RuPaul’s makeup bag, I’d love to see the 6-step contour routine!

Rupaul https://www.thecut.com/2018/04/rupaul-releasing-beauty-line-with-mally.html

OS: Many of the 20th century icons that we know, and love have become inseparable from their distinctive makeup looks, what are some of your favourite ‘makeup moments’.

BC: I love Sophia Loren, as with Audrey Hepburn, she has BECOME that look of eyeliner and nude lips. If they wore anything else, it would break the magic. As restrictive as this might be, God they look good! 

OS: Why do you think people have become so obsessed with recreating that ‘look’ themselves?

BC: I think it’s because these individuals appear to be encapsulated by their makeup looks, the one thing that makes them distinctive. Sophia [Loren] Brigitte [Bardot] and Audrey [Hepburn] all use their eyes. You just need some eyeliner and you can become them!

Sophia Loren (Date Unknown) https://www.lipstickalley.com/threads/opinions-on-sophia-lorens-signature-eye-makeup-look.3253544/

Brigitte Bardot, (Date Unknown) https://www.savoirflair.com/beauty/250035/brigitte-bardot-cat-eye-flick-makeup-tutorial

Film Still, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) https://www.everythingaudrey.com/audrey-hepburn-eyebrows/

OS: Now that masks are compulsory, eyes are even more important! Maybe the next campaigns need to focus on the eyes…

OS: There are so many iconic fashion moments in films… Do you have any iconic makeup moments that stand out to you?

BC: Yes!… Not so much a makeup moment but a look, Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon. She completely changed the eyebrow industry. Anything Julianne Moore does… she always looks absolutely spectacular with her makeup. Her look in ‘A Single Man’…. WOW.  I also love Penelope Cruz for her lived in look… it’s something we can all achieve.

Julianne Moore in A Single Man (2009) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/people/beauty-moments-film/Julianne-Moore-makeup-A-Single-Man/

Penelope Cruz at the Cannes Film Festival 2018 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/news/cannes-film-festival-2018-best-beauty-looks/penelope-cruz/

Brooke Shields, Blue Lagoon, 1980, https://www.glasshousejournal.co.uk/post/girls-on-film-brooke-shields-in-the-blue-lagoon

 

Alumni Spotlight: Leah Gouget-Levy 

Leah Gouget-Levy is a current PhD candidate who is in her third year at the Courtauld Institute of Art and works at the London College of Fashion archives as Archives and Curatorial Assistant. She completed her MA at the Courtauld through Rebecca Arnold’s Documenting Fashion special option and earned a BA in the History of Art from University College London. In this interview that was conducted in late July Leah talks about her journey to the Courtauld, her PhD dissertation, and her long-standing fascination with the connection between time and fashion.

IW: How did you get into fashion and dress history?

LGL: I was always interested in fashion and it was one of my passions when I was growing up. While I was doing my undergraduate, I also became really interested in photography and film. I knew that Rebecca’s Documenting Fashion MA existed when I was doing my BA and once I graduated, and took a bit of time out, my thoughts returned to it. It seemed like a great combination of all my interests, so I applied and that’s where it all started.

IW: How did you know you wanted to get a PhD?

LGL: I saw the PhD as an opportunity to further expand my knowledge of fashion history. Because the MA program is so condensed, I wanted to keep exploring and working on some particular interests that I had begun to develop. The PhD was a way to pursue these in more depth.

IW: I saw that you wrote about fashion from the World’s Fair in your MA. How did you get the idea to write about that? And what was the research process behind that?

LGL: With the MA I remember that I had various topics that I was considering. But then I came across this wonderful short film,La Mode Rêvée, by Marcel L’Herbier. It was made for the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and it chimed perfectly with my interest in the subject of time. This was a topic that I had been thinking about since my BA when I wrote my dissertation about the temporal relationship between Andrei Tarkovsky’s polaroid photographs and his film The Mirror (1975). La Mode Rêvée played on similar themes, but in relation to fashion, so it was an interesting opportunity to explore those themes in a slightly different direction. My PhD directly builds on this work by considering the temporal experience of fashion in relation to photography. So, there is a clear thread running through all those things. It didn’t seem so clear at the time I was doing it, [but] it was more the case of those are my interests and somehow, I kept coming back to them.

IW: Wow, that’s really interesting! Especially since this year’s Met Gala theme was about time and fashion. You’re clearly in tune with something that’s happening in fashion right now.

LGL: (Laughs) Yeah, it is funny. It’s definitely something that is being thought about at the moment. There’s obviously the Met’s exhibition, but there’s also an anthology about fashion and time coming out soon in English, co-edited by Caroline Evans. So, there’s something in the air! It’s one of those funny things where nothing is deliberate but suddenly things converge.

IW: Yeah! Because in a weird way (and I wanted to get your opinion on this) with everything that’s happening a lot of shows are being shown online as opposed to going to this city and that city. And I was wondering if you thought that maybe this is another kind of mini World’s Fair? [Because] it’s everybody converging on this one place that everybody can access and see what’s happening from every designer around the world.

LGL: That’s a really interesting observation! I hadn’t actually thought about it from that perspective. You’re right that there’s something super interesting happening in terms of the condensing of space, similar to the way in which the World’s Fair worked. There does seem to be a shift from the very distinct geography of fashion weeks as we have known them in Paris, London, New York, Milan… I’ve actually been thinking about the recent developments in fashion from a slightly different perspective – in terms of the time of the fashion system and the way in which designers are moving away from the traditional calendar, trying to find alternative time scales to work to. I’m currently thinking about how I might address this in my PhD.

IW: What are you writing [your PhD] about?

LGL: My PhD is about early 20th-century fashion photography and the work of the Séeberger Frères, fashion reportage photographers working in France. Basically, they were early street style photographers taking photographs of (mainly) women at glamourous sea-side resorts and the horse races between 1909 and 1939. I am focusing in particular on what their work reveals about the relationship between fashion and time, and how is this represented in, and experienced through photography.

IW: Rebecca told us that you got a job at the London College of Fashion archives. If you were able to start it how has it been? Also, since you have told me so much about your work and how it deals with time, has working in the archives influenced your dissertation in any way?

LGL: Yes, I was really thrilled to have been offered the job as Archives and Curatorial Assistant at LCF and despite everything, I was able to start in June. It has definitely influenced my PhD and I am actually working on a chapter at the moment that considers the way in which the organization of the Séeberger Frères archive at the Bibliothèque National de France affects the experience of their photographs. So, while I’m working with the LCF archive these issues are also at the forefront of my mind as I am thinking a lot about how an archive is constructed and how that influences the way in which we experience and study fashion history.

IW: Do you have any advice for incoming or prospective students in the MA or doctoral program?

LGL: I would say that, if you have the chance, read the books on Rebecca’s reading list before the year starts! It is an intense course and there’s a lot that you have to do. So, take that time before you start [your course] and just read around and get a feel for things. I would also recommend getting involved as much as you can with university life – including embracing things that are not directly related to your work or special option. The Courtauld is such a great place and there are constantly things going on, for example with the Research Forum and events that Rebecca organizes.

IW: Have you thought about what path you want to go down when you finish your PhD? And is there another area that you are interested in studying?

LGL: To be honest, I feel really lucky to have the job at LCF, as working with an archive was always something that I wanted to do after I finished my PhD! So, I’m looking forward to continuing my work there. Alongside that, I would also be keen to continue teaching, as it’s something that I have really enjoyed doing over the past few years while I’ve been at The Courtauld.

In terms of research, it’s true that when you work on a PhD you are focused on a very specific subject. So, it will be really exciting to start a new project! For example, I would be very keen to think more about the temporality of fashion beyond the Western, and specifically French, fashion system.

 

[Answers have been edited for clarity]

Alumni Spotlight: Emma McClendon

Emma McClendon was the Associate Curator of Costume at The Museum at F.I.T. in New York where she has curated numerous critically acclaimed exhibitions including Power Mode: The Force of Fashion (2019), The Body: Fashion and Physique (2017) and Denim: Fashion’s Frontier (2015). She graduated from the Documenting Fashion M.A. program at the Courtauld in 2011. She sat down with Helena Klevorn to talk about fashion’s position in the museum, burgeoning questions about fashion curation, and her next career steps.

 

HK: HI!

EM: Hi! How are you? How is everything going?

HK: It’s good, though kinda tough, as you can imagine since the school has closed and we all went home and are writing our dissertations at home.

EM: Oh, you’re doing that all remotely. When did you guys comes back?

HK: I think most people left around mid-March.

EM: Oh, that’s not too long after I saw you guys, right?

HK: Yeah, it was really soon after our visit that the school closed. Everything happened so fast! So, the first think I want to talk about, since you told us you went straight to F.I.T. from the M.A., was how from the beginning of the M.A. program to the end, your idea of what you wanted to do afterwards changed or if it didn’t change, in that you got to do exactly what you wanted straight out of the program.

EM: I think it’s kind of weird because I think that I went into the M.A. program absolutely hoping that in the long run I would be able to work in a museum and work in a curatorial role at a museum that dealt specifically with fashion, because what led to the program was that I had interned in the Furniture, Textiles, and Fashion department at the V&A while I was an undergrad. I had actually worked with a furniture person, not a fashion curator, but while I was there I met some of the fashion curators and they had all gone to the Courtauld and so that was what led me to look into the program and so that was the dream. But while I was in the program, I definitely went in with eyes wide open that the likelihood of getting a curatorial job in a museum was pretty low. It’s a niche field, there just aren’t a lot of institutions, unfortunately—now there’s more and it’s growing—but even just ten years ago there weren’t as many institutions as there are now dealing with dress and fashion.

So throughout the program I kind of explored other ways that I might work in tangential fields. I did an internship while I was doing my M.A. at Diane von Furstenberg’s office in London during market week because I was like, “Well, maybe I can parlay this into the fashion industry itself.” I also did an internship, and these were shorter Work Experiences, at I.B. Tauris, the publishing house, just to get a lay of the land because, again, this [my current position] was the goal. It sounds really linear and like it was perfectly planned when I say it now, but at the time it felt like anything but a sure thing. That was the goal but in that way that I almost wouldn’t say it out loud because it sounded so far-fetched at the time.

So I started [at F.I.T.] as an intern, and even while I was interning it still seemed like a long shot, because of, I think, one of the most useful pieces of information I heard during the program from the working professionals that we met—like Beatrice [Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts], who I’m sure you met at the Museum of London. We went on a trip to their archive and saw a few pieces and I remember her being really frank with us in a way that I always try to be with students when they come through, and she said that museum work can be all about timing, which is what’s really frustrating because these are jobs that people tend to stay in for a really long time and there’s not that many of them and so it can really be about just happening into it. Yes you do the work, and you try, and you get the degree and all that, but it’s also being in the right place at the right time. And in that way I do feel like I was very fortunate that when I was coming to the end of my internship a part-time job opened up in the curatorial department, and so I applied and I was fortunate enough to get it, but then I was in that for almost two years before I got the full-time job. So there’s timing, and also this field just takes a lot of patience, is what I would say.

But, again, another thing I always say and what I really do believe from my experience is that even though it seems really scary, and the pessimistic way to look at it is that there’s no right way to do it, there’s no path, there’s no funnel and step-by-step process that you’re supposed to follow and that’s mapped out for you, that can be so frightening. But the more optimistic way to look at it, which I really do think is true, is that there’s no wrong way to do it. Because of the way that this is such a niche and burgeoning field, people are coming into it and coming into museums and coming into  academic positions from all different angles. People are working in corporate archives, they’re working in journalism, they’re working in the industry itself, they’re not necessarily just interning at a museum and working in a museum. There is a much broader spectrum of how you can build your career and build your experience.

HK: Definitely. And on that note, I wanted to talk about how, especially as you’ve been in this position for a number of years now and seen it change, I’m seeing people coming up as “independent fashion curators.”

EM: Right, yeah.

HK: There was a woman who I saw speak a few years ago who, then, was a curator at Somerset House, and then moved to New York City and now is an “independent curator” unaffiliated with any particular institution. What does that kind of position mean in this space and the, sort of, ability to be curating  fashion outside of a museum and what do you see in that in terms of the direction it’s moving in?

EM: I think that’s one of the things that’s really exciting. I, personally, would like to see more institutionalized, full-time, permanent positions for curators in our field given that museums and institutions generally–like colleges and their art galleries or corporations or independent galleries–are sort of hungry for this topic and want to engage with fashion, but then they don’t employ the permanent person, and that’s where these freelancers come in. And so this is where I think it really is about there not being a clear cut path. You can freelance, I know so many people who are in this field and [freelance] is the path that they’ve been on, whether it’s that they don’t like the 9-5 or whether it’s that they’ve really kind of struggled and hustled and this is their way of doing curatorial projects. Again, there’s a spectrum of how people come into this. But I think it’s really exciting.

I, personally, have not yet done a freelance project. Because of the trajectory  I’ve been on, I’ve always been with an institution which is really fortunate, but it also, I think, can be kind of limiting. When you’re a freelance curator–and there are so many opportunities for that because people are so hungry for this project and that’s just what a lot of people have to do–I think you have to wear so many different hats when you’re doing that job, because not only do you have to be the person who thinks of the ideas, thinks of the objects you want to include, thinks of how you want to organize the space, you also have to be the person who organizes the space, who organizes how you’re going to build it out, how you’re going to get it to look the way you want it to look. You might have to dress all the objects, because you might not have the money to employ handlers or installers. You also have to manage your entire budget and a lot of times that’s down to managing how much you’re actually going to be able to pay yourself. And I think that in museums, also, there’s a whole spectrum of museums, less well-known museums or historical houses, where you have to do a similar thing to the freelancers and wear so many different hats while you’re doing those kinds of projects.

In a way I feel kind of conflicted about it because I think it’s really exciting that there are all of these freelance opportunities and that there is this outlet to be able to express yourself creatively. At the same time, I worry that so many institutions are taking advantage of this freelance workforce that’s out there so that they can put on these one-off shows that maybe travel from somewhere else and then hire a local person or even not even a local person, a remote person, to sort of oversee or “advise” the curatorial staff at the museum. But then, [the institutions] don’t actually have any experience in mounting a fashion exhibition and it’s so different that I think it can be a double-edged sword. But I do think it is something really exciting and I would encourage anyone who’s entering the field to consider [the freelance] avenue. You know, if you have a project if you have an idea and you want to workshop and approach a gallery, an institution, a place, if you have a means or a context to get mannequins, get objects, you know, there’s a lot of opportunity there.

HK: Going off of what you were talking about, with the institutions and how they’re treating these exhibitions, your institution is obviously very focused on fashion and displaying fashion, but in other institutions where that’s something they’re starting to explore or that’s a department within a larger, fine-art focused institution, what do you think is the attitude towards fashion exhibitions? I’ve heard that it can be, “Oh, well, that’s a money-maker that gets people in the door but it’s not necessarily something we value.” Versus, for example, the V&A where they have, for lack of a better word, a higher regard for clothes than other ones. So I’m curious about how you’ve seen that transform or not transform.

EM: Well, museums and their approach to fashion is very much based on the goal of the institutions, right? So I think the attitude towards fashion can very based on whether they collect fashion or not. I think a place like the V&A started as a decorative arts museum, and they’ve been collecting textiles and clothing and material objects for their entire existence, so they’re going to have more of a regard and have more flexibility to let fashion be fashion and not have to fit it into a box. Whereas, similarly and different, a place like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also has been collecting fashion, for a very long time, and it has one of the older collections of clothing in the states. But that’s a fine art museum so I think that, likely, when you’re part of a fine art museum, you have to position the exhibitions within the goals of the institution, which might be more about the theories, and critiques, and ideas behind fine art as opposed to material culture or even social history. Versus the Smithsonian, their approach is going to be completely different, and it’s going to be about where clothing fits into the broader scope and mission of the institution because it’s sort of a social history museum.

But I think what’s been interesting to see are the places that, only in the last decade, have started to show clothing. What I find most interesting to see about those institutions is whether they’re going to develop their own content or whether they’re going to bring in a travelling exhibition because I think that can kind of change the institutional attitude towards it. if you’re just bringing in a monograph designer exhibition, like about Dior, about YSL, about something like that, in my opinion those shows are really about being a blockbuster. They’re about getting bodies into the museum and, yes, celebrating fashion, and yes celebrating these objects, and yes welcoming it into the museum. It’s great to see so many more museums doing these shows, and that’s the majority of the one’s that we’re seeing expand in the field, are these travelling blockbusters, you know Gaultier, McQueen, Dior, YSL.

What is much fewer and far between are when we see a show like the one at MoMA that doesn’t have a clothing collection, that has some odd objects that you could define as dress, but they developed from the ground up an entire show that was original to MoMA. And there were a lot of mixed reactions to that, because, you know what was interesting about that show was just how many reactions it sparked from people, from people from art who were like, “what is this doing here?” to people in fashion who were like, “I don’t know about their approach,’ but I’m still kind of processing how I feel about it. One thing with that show is that I think it’s fascinating that a museum that doesn’t collect [fashion] still developed its own content and brought this show and that it was able to spark such conversations about the topic. I wish more museums would do that, but unfortunately we’re really seeing that—and I mean this is true for fine art exhibitions as well—the big artists, the big designer exhibition is the kind of general governing principle for museums that don’t do fashion dipping their toe in the water or fashion. They’re not necessarily going to do a thematic deep dive trying to grapple with it academically, but we’re only really in the first, kind of, ten years of this awakening of interest, and I mean big blockbuster interest.

I keep using this word blockbuster and you brought this up in your question, it is about money, and I think it would be wrong to exclude money from any discussion of museum content and museum planning. Yes we, ideally, want the museum to be a place about ideas and academia and where money is this thing that you disregard, but the reality of running museums is that it’s always thinking about how many people are coming through the door, what the budget is, what you can put on, what loans you can get, what objects you can acquire, and so I think that this global interest in fashion exhibitions came out of the insane numbers of the McQueen show.

There is a reason that I say this past decade because when Savage Beauty opened in 2011 at the Met, they hadn’t had things like that at the Met since, like, the Mona Lisa was on display, and it’s only been getting bigger and bigger since then, but that was one that came out of left field. That was the first one where it was like, the idea that fashion exhibitions happen that people are interested, because no one really even paid attention to the Met Gala that year. That was just one where he was so much in the public imagination because of his recent death, because Kate Middleton had worn a design by Sarah Burton from McQueen to the Royal Wedding, his name was out there, everybody was kind of talking about him and thinking about him, and it just hit at that perfect moment. The lines! I mean, I went to that and, that was when I first got back to the city, and the line went down the Met stairs and a couple blocks up Fifth avenue, it was crazy. And you got in and it was so densely packed, and I remember that year the last few days of it they kept the museum open until midnight or something and there were lines stretching inside also to get to it. And so when you’re in the museum field you really are always thinking about how to get community engagement, visitor engagement, get bodies in the museum, that’s how you run your institution. It’s going to raise your eyebrows and make you ask why and, of course, since then, we’ve seen more and more institutions…

HK: …Taking that on.

EM: Right.

HK: It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of money in the exhibitions and the presentation of these pieces, because, especially with my background in formal art history, I feel as though something that was always coming up in the conversation was showing pieces that theoretically you could buy. Not off the mannequin in the museum but, for example, I could go to a show about Dior and if they show something from the last season I could go buy that. Or at the Rei Kawakubo show, a couple of years ago, they had the Commes des Garcons PLAY T-shirts in the store. The intersection of that is something that I don’t have an issue with, and that’s mostly because I think if you consider a garment as a piece of important work then you’ll consider your purchases more seriously, but I’m not sure if that really happens or if it affects people in that way.

EM: I think that there is a kind of cynical way to look at it and then there’s a much more generous way to look at it. So I have two minds about it. One is that at the end of the day, I do not think that fashion is art, personally. Fashion is an industry, fashion is material culture, fashion is not fine art. Fashion is a consumer product, that’s made, as you’re saying, in a completely different way. And when you’re showing contemporary clothing, it is a product, and, yes, I think that, again because museums—and this is the cynical thing—because museums are not for profit but they need money to run, and people also want these big flashy blockbuster shows, I think places like what you described with the Kawakubo show, they also had it with Camp, it’s like, yes we can poo-poo fashion as being really opportunistic, but museums do that all the time. I mean, every exhibition you walk out of you immediately walk into the gift shop, where the catalogue is and the postcards are, and the tote bags are and the posters are, so this isn’t just a fashion thing, this is museums in general.

What I find personally, as a scholar, more interesting are shows that really make you confront, and these are few and far between, but shows that are more intentional about the integration of the consumer-side of fashion in the gallery space itself and making you confront that. There have been two shows that spring to mind, one was this tiny show that the Whitney had that was with Eckhaus Latta….oh gosh was it called…

HK: I can’t remember what it was called [either], but they sold the stuff in the gallery.

EM: Yes. So it was basically, you walked in and I went and I actually bought a piece that was there and it has a tag on it … hold on it’s right in the closet I’ll grab it. EM steps away from computer…My husband’s saying it was called “Possessed.”

EM returns with her token of gallery visit, a white denim jacket, that’s “got the cropped, kick-pleated whatever thing.”

EM: OK, so, because I’m nerd I kept the tags on it, but I got this there, and I’ve worn it, but I kept the tags on it because it has this thing that says “Special Museum Exhibition Product” and it also says that on the label … So anyways, I kept that because I thought it was so interesting, it was like one of the only times where I’ve seen, like you walked in, you didn’t have to pay to get into it, you know it’s like the Whitney you have to pay exorbitant prices to get in, this was in  their…

HK: That downstairs gallery on the first floor

EM: Right, the small artists gallery that you don’t have to pay to get into. And so it also kind of blended the space, and it was in the Meatpacking, so it’s blending the space between the museum, and the boutique, and there was, a photo spread when you first walked in on these lightboxes that were on the ground, it was very cool. And then you walked in and it was a staffed boutique, but [the fashion’s] the art, but it’s also an installation, but what I thought was most interesting was that they weren’t restocking it. So it was like, you go in the beginning, and it’s full, and they were very playful about it, they were like, “We don’t know if we’re going to sell anything, we might be full the whole time, we might end up being empty.” And they worked with local artists to create the space. And then it had a fitting room and it had all these mirrors up…Did you go?

HK: I read a lot about it, but didn’t get a chance to see it. But it’s certainly something that [even though I didn’t see it] stuck in my mind as a sort of “what was that?” moment.

EM: Right, right. And you walk in and then there’s another room and you realize that the mirrors in the shop are actually two-way mirrors into this other room that’s all dark and has seats you cans it on, and then it has this screen of monitors that are all showing live security feed to other stores around the world that sell Eckhaus Latta.

HK: Oh whoa.

EM: So that was one of the shows. A the other one, I think I don’t know that much about it because I didn’t go because I’m not in Chicagp, but last year there was the Virgil Abloh show.

HK: Yeah, that one I actually did get a chance to see.

EM: That one I know, just from a friend who lives in Chicago, that they also had this sort of merging of gallery and shop space. And again, this sort of presentation of clothing that’s on hangers and on a rack and how you would see it in a store, and being a gallery and not on mannequins, so this is all a very extended way to say that I think people who call out fashion exhibitions for doing that kind of cross-branding and object-selling are forgetting that that’s just what museums do all the time with their posters and umbrellas and, like, MoMA’s design store.

It’s like, I’m sorry this is just the business model, this isn’t fashion, it’s just that fashion maybe lends itself much faster because you can buy the thing that you’re seeing, or a version of it. But, what are you talking about when you can go buy the salt and pepper shaker by the fancy Italian designer that you’re seeing across the street at the MoMA design store, I mean MoMA’s been doing this for decades.

But again, I think that more compelling academically, are the things like the Eckhaus Latta, which, again, got such mixed reviews, but I was like, this is making you confront the fact that fashion isn’t art. It’s a completely different social mechanism, it’s an industry, you can’t talk about it in the same way and to put it up on a pedestal can get really problematic because then we’re not dealing with the labor and the people who wear things and we can put it up on a skinny white mannequin and call it art and be like, “Oh it’s O.K., because it’s idealized” and it’s like, well but it’s actually a real world product.

HK: Right. And to going on this, too, I think there was an interesting moment at the Abloh exhibition where they had his pieces on racks in the gallery, and I was standing with my mom, and they weren’t facing forward because they weren’t on mannequins, they were on racks.

EM: Right! Yes!

HK: And we were looking at it, like, are we supposed to touch them to see them? Like I’m at a shop?

EM: And you want to, and it’s this confrontation of how you interact with objects, and you put them in here and suddenly you can’t touch them. Yes, yes, that’s what I heard too. But it’s weird because you can’t see it and then you’re, like, wait what am I supposed to do?

HK: Yeah. And I think it’s really interesting, and it’s such a question because I wonder, you know, what does that mean in terms of, like, you see museums doing that and the other side is you see stores, like we visited the McQueen flagship store as a class.

EM: Oh, yeah yeah.

HK: We saw the exhibition of their couture on the second floor, and it opens this question of whether the gallery exhibitions are the same thing, or are they different.

EM: Yeah exactly, and that’s really interesting, because that was in London, right?

HK: Yeah, it was.

EM: Yeah, I was wondering about that too, because it’s at the boutique, but then are they selling them?

HK: Yeah, and you have to walk through the whole boutique to get up there, because it’s on the second or third floor, so you go through, you see people shopping, you see all the merchandise, and then you get to the top where they have the exhibition space.

EM: Yeah, exactly, it’s really interesting.

HK: So there are only a few minutes before Zoom is going to kick me off, and I wanted to ask about your next steps, since I know you’re leaving F.I.T. to go into a Ph.D. program, and I wanted to ask about that.

EM: Yeah, so I actually started the program part-time last year, and since I left the Courtauld program I always kind of wanted to get the Ph.D., and so I’m finally doing it. I basically just reached a point where, I’ve been at the museum for nine years, and I really felt like I got to a place in my practice where I was feeling really conflicted about a lot of issues with fashion and museums. I think about how its displayed, about how people react with it, about the mannequins, about the type of clothing that we’re showing, about the bodies that we’re showing, about the designers that we’re celebrating about the clothing that we’re collecting, and I feel a bit, kind of, conflicted about some of that stuff. I don’t necessarily have an answer to it, it’s not that I say, “Poo poo on all that stuff and it’s terrible” one way or the other, but I found myself just really wanting to take a break from active curatorial practice, and segueing into a more academic side.

I’m doing research at the Bard Graduate Center for my Ph.D., which I’m really excited about. It’s on the history of standardized sizing in the late nineteenth century in the U.S., and I’m also going to be teaching some courses at the Parsons M.A. program on curatorial practice, and object based research. I’m really excited to transition into a side where I can think about a lot of the issues that I was so involved with and didn’t have time to really reflect on. You’re constantly producing and you’re constantly in it when you’re working, and I’m excited to step back and take it in a bit because I do think that we’re on the cusp of a lot of change in museums in general between the pandemic, but also all of the much overdue conversations that are being had about equality and about representation and so it’s going to be really interesting to see how museums grapple with these things going forward. And particularly in fashion museums that deal so much with bodies and people and identity. So I’m excited to go into a different thing. I’ll miss curating as well, but it was really breakneck at the museum. In nine years I did seven exhibitions, and three books and a  journal … it was amazing but it was a lot.

Quick Q’s:

  1. What was your M.A. Dissertation topic?

I wrote my MA dissertation on the effect of the 1962 Telstar satellite (which made it possible to broadcast live TV from around the world) on the trans-Atlantic fashion industry, looking specifically at how it impacted coverage of Paris couture shows in the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.

  1. What’s your favorite exhibition you’ve put on so far?

This is hard – I’ve really loved every show I’ve put on and each one has taught me new things and raised new questions that have built on each other. But if I had to pick one, I think it would be The Body: Fashion and Physique because it dealt with body positivity, discrimination, and acceptance, which is a topic that’s very important to me, and the exhibition actually gave rise to my Ph.D. research on the early history of standardized sizing.

  1. What’s an exhibition you didn’t get the chance to put on, but hope to see materialize in the future?

One issue I’d love to explore one day is the link between workwear and high fashion, and also the link between modern fashion, archaeology, and colonialism.

 

[Answers have been edited for clarity]

Alumni Spotlight: Elisa De Wyngaert

“You are always switching from disappointment to love and despair to admiration”

Elisa De Wyngaert graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014 and now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp. In between, she worked for Raf Simons and A.F. Vandevorst, reviewed fashion exhibitions on the Belgian radio, and in the evenings gave guided tours of exhibitions at MoMu. I spoke to her about her career trajectory, her curatorial process, and her valuable advice on pursuing a career in the history of fashion.

 

JH: How was your time at the Courtauld, and how did it lead to where you are now?

EW: Before the program, I did my MA in Belgium in art history. At that time I wrote a dissertation on fashion and was looking for some guidance or for someone to teach me how to do academic research on fashion not just from a classical art historical viewpoint. I wanted to do another MA and it took me quite a long time to find the Courtauld and decide. It played a very big part in the way I think about the subject, which really shaped my approach to fashion studies and the way I create now. You reflect in a very different way on fashion—it’s academic, it’s sociological, it’s cultural history, but it gave me more than that. I think it is also very much about the emotional and personal layers of dress and sensorial experiences; it is a completely different way of thinking about art and fashion and it gives you time to develop your thought process and challenges you which was good. The Belgian University system is very different: the professors will teach you, you study books and books of information and then you will take an exam where you repeat everything they told you, but Rebecca is very different. She doesn’t just teach, but she enables you to teach yourself and that is something extraordinary. I remember the first few classes I was like ‘I want her to tell me everything she knows!’ but that isn’t the point. The course was very instrumental.

Right after I graduated I was mourning a bit, I was like ‘this is what I love but how will I ever do something that even comes close to this experience in the next years!’

JH: I’m feeling that right now! It is a scary thought really.

EW: It is a scary thought and I empathize with you and your fellow classmates. I felt very alone when I came home in that there was nothing like it and no one to reminisce with. I didn’t find people with similar experiences when I returned and no one knew where I could work. I applied to different fashion companies and they all understandably said ‘but what do you want to do here?!’

JH: How did you then transition to curatorial work? I think that is kind of the dream for a lot of us.

EW: The previous question is important to this, if you graduate and you hope to immediately find your dream job for you, your personal dream, then it is so easy to be incredibly disappointed. What I did—and it wasn’t easy to do—was that I went to work in a multi-brand shop, a few days a week, and half of the time I was doing an internship at Raf Simons. After a while I really needed full time paid work and started at A.F. Vandevorst where I worked on logistics, wrote newsletters, worked in the flagship store, packed boxes. It was very hands on, but in the evenings I gave guided tours at the fashion museum in Antwerp, and I also worked for the Belgian radio as someone who reviewed fashion exhibitions.

It is very important to make the transition, there are not so many jobs, and it is important to stay busy. It was also important for me financially to go and take a job rather than wait and write letters at home, and to have colleagues that I formed close friendships with. It can be an incredibly inspiring time even if it isn’t a job you will do forever. You will learn from everyone you meet on a personal and professional level.

I have to say working in a fashion house wasn’t the job for me but I learned so much from A.F. Vandevorst. I have so much respect for designers and their work ethic, for what they create, and I think by working for a fashion company, as a curator now I have much more empathy. If I ask for loans at different fashion houses, I realize that they have a different schedule, that they are so busy, their timing is different and their deadlines are different and it’s good to have insight into an industry when you work on the more academic side.

Work on different aspects of things you want to curate, learn and have fun in the meantime. I never thought I would find a job as a curator but all of a sudden I saw I could apply and I was almost sad, thinking “there is a position and I won’t get it,” so it also takes a bit of luck and serendipity and right timing. Don’t give up!

JH: I am interested in your curatorial process. During class we spoke to someone at the V&A about their curatorial process but I’m curious to hear more about how you choose exhibition subjects and how you get something approved and to the point of starting work on a show.

EW: We have to find a balance between designer exhibitions and thematic shows. The thematic shows especially lead to new ideas for future exhibitions. I like these because you can display a large variety of artists and designers and it allows you to work in an interdisciplinary way. Fashion is intrinsically linked to emotion, to society, to the world in transition, to people’s psychology and I feel there is a lot more to tell and the ideas seem endless, but it’s important to discuss these topics with external voices with different iterations, different viewpoints. I have learned that curation is more about listening than about speaking, it is more about including different voices, realities, perspectives, and you have to get used to the fact that you can find something interesting or relevant but other people might not feel that way.

JH: I’m just curious, when you were at the Courtauld did you have the virtual exhibition as an assignment? What did you do yours on?

EW: Yes – I did mine on the friendship and artistic symbiosis between Ann Demeulemeester and Patti Smith. I made an exhibition about sound and clothing coming together and it was very immersive (although it never actually happened haha). It was quite conceptual and I am still happy about it, I’m still hoping it could happen one day!

JH: That for me was a lot harder than the essay writing for some reason!

EW: Ah! That for me was the least stressful part, I discovered that I always thought I loved writing so much but I actually get such a thrill from making visual connections and finding new and personal stories so I am perhaps at my core more of an exhibition maker than an academic or a writer. I also love working on the publications for our exhibitions, getting all the texts from the different writers, focusing on some essays myself and finding the right images. It is kind of thrilling seeing things materialize, and that is something I learned from being on the fashion house side. I did really like the virtual exhibition but as a non-native English speaker I found writing that first essay rather scary.

JH: Are you working on anything now (that you can speak about)? Obviously we are in such a unique time, I don’t know if you are working on a project now and how the virus has impacted your work and how you think it might continue to impact the fashion industry and your cultural institution.

EW: We are now closed for renovations until 2021. I am working on the new collection display—this will be a new space where we focus on MoMu’s own collection. This is great because in our thematic or designer exhibitions there is not always a lot of space for our own collection, and we do have so many amazing pieces. We are also working on a book about the collection, and I am working on our opening exhibition and its accompanying publication. All very exciting!

JH: A lot of stuff!

EW: Also I’m on Rebecca’s Fashion Interpretations Network which is so inspiring.

When it comes to the crisis, we are mostly working from home, we are lucky in that we were closed for renovations anyway so we haven’t felt like we missed tickets or visitors as other institutions have, but I really do feel sad for other museums, galleries, universities, and art schools. Mostly for the students and artists who saw exhibitions cancelled, students who traveled from all over the world to get a degree somewhere, spent so much money on it, and now see everything stop. I really believe that our generation and the younger generations, gen z, are great activists and they give me hope for a better world and a better fashion industry, more woke cultural institutions, but there is so much work to do. I try to think ‘ok what I’m doing is not saving the world but how can we help, how can we make it relevant or in some way meaningful to some people’ because fashion is a very difficult industry, it is so damaging in so many ways but also so relevant, emotional, omnipresent, innovative and inspirational. You are always switching from disappointment to love and despair to admiration.

JH: Definitely, even just as a student I agree, I find myself thinking—especially being back in the US at the moment and things are really bad—I feel the same kind of ‘oh how can I be focusing on this niche subject when this is going on in the world?’ but I think art and fashion and the humanities will always be important and relevant.

EW: Like you say it is so important and I keep my fingers crossed that the government keeps investing money so that artists, performers, musicians…can be supported.

JH: I guess just a frivolous question to end on but do you have a favorite piece in the archive for any reason?

EW: Oh, many. I really like all the pieces we have in the archives that we collected from the wearer. As a museum we actively acquire pieces from designers so we will shop straight from the runway—those pieces are incredible but never worn, but I do really like it when we collect it straight from the wearers. If you collect it from someone and you also collect that person’s biography, their lived experience. For example there is one dress from Kristina De Coninck, a former model of Martin Margiela. It’s a flower dress that Margiela made especially for her, and it’s composed of many recycled vintage flower dresses that he collected from flea markets—it’s like a patchwork. The colors are beautiful, it’s quite see-through. We have a picture of her when she was in her early twenties wearing the dress in her garden, and I was able to interview her. Perhaps in 50 years some curator will think ‘oh, there is a story with this dress,’ and that excites me.

I really like all the garments that we have that display a typical Belgian surrealism. We have quite a few items created from discarded fabrics and recycled materials. For example, a beautiful bustier top by Ann Demeulemeester that she made with very simple hotel soaps which is incredible. We have an A.F. Vandevorst skirt made with corset closures, it is intriguing, and we have pieces by Walter van Beirendonck made of old blankets. When you see them up close you see the fun the designer had, the passion, the originality. These objects make me happy and give me a lot of belief in why fashion is relevant and not a frivolous thing, and why it is something that will always have a future as long as we believe in the next generation and don’t drown in nostalgia.

JH: I think I can kind of speak for the current cohort but it is such a scary time for us to be graduating and looking for work so it is really nice to hear from you and about your experiences.

EW: I often work with people doing part time internships who have other jobs on the side, I do remember it is not easy, but even if you intern for 2 or 3 days you can make it work. I think having those discussions when you apply and being very open about your options just for the sake of own mental health is important. Internships are really crucial because only then do you really learn which job would suit you personally. For example, fashion curating entails a lot of emails, conversations, loan agreements, production logistics, excel sheets, trying to find pieces. I find it all exciting, but I can imagine that some people expect it to be all research or library work and that is only a part of what I do.

There aren’t that many jobs as a fashion curator in a traditional museum but there are so many experimental galleries, new small niche publications, online platforms to get experience from, so be open to different forms of curating fashion. What Rebecca is also doing on her Instagram is curating fashion.

Students now have incredibly curated Instagram feeds, how we engage visually with the world changes so much. I find it incredible how much things have changed even just since I graduated.

 

[This interview has been condensed for clarity]

In Which My Grandmother Tells Me About Japan

As the year winds down, I thought I would let my grandmother do the writing in one of my final blog posts, as I continue to decompress after a charged summer term (read: dissertation season).


Ann was teaching at a Department of Defence school in Okinawa—her first teaching job overseas—in the 1960s when she met my grandfather. My mother was born in 1970, and they lived in Japan for another couple of years before moving to Hawaii and, eventually, Bakersfield, California.

My favourite picture* of my grandparents together: Ann and Bill at a teahouse.

I never knew my grandfather, so I grew up with photographs—both of him and by him. I also grew up with inherited memories and borrowed relics from my family’s time in Japan: a cloud-soft white kimono I wore for one of my first Halloween nights; a doll in a glass case with a cup of water; my mom’s tiny tabi socks that I remember once fitting me; the creaking snick of kimono closet doors opening and closing…

These dress-centric recollections are selected from a series of emails my grandmother sent me in early 2016, when I requested: ‘Tell me about Japan.’ The photos come from the albums upon albums stored in bookshelves and a great wooden chest at my grandma’s house in Bakersfield.


I believe my first official date with Bill was to a tea house; don’t remember details but we talked for hours. Funny what the brain chooses to remember. I remember wearing a red lightweight wool outfit. It was a pleated skirt with an attached camisole and over it a loose, long sleeved matching top that buttoned down the back. Wish I had it now!

We were there for a year. While there, I had some clothes made. I had grown up with homemade clothes, so store-bought ones were a treat. And there I was, wanting handmade clothes again. I recall a coral dress (wool again) with a fitted matching jacket and a brownish one with silvery-looking embroidery. Low waisted and slightly gathered. I would still like that one. I loved sending Mother stuff. I had a brown coat with a fur collar made for her, among other things.
I have one of the fur hats she sent her mother, as well as a wool coat that I wear in the winter. 

Two times our little convertible Datsun Fair Lady was stolen. Police found it both times. First time, somewhere outside Yokohama, abandoned in a rice paddy; and the second time, on a side street in Yokohama. Guess they ran out of gas after joy riding. It WAS cute!

We frequented Motomachi (name of a short street) often. There was a sushi bar that was a favourite and at the other end was a German restaurant that served the tastiest borscht; and when it went out of business, we were disappointed. Also on that street was a clothing store. I remember buying two long wraparound quilted skirts that were warm and I liked them.

I loved shopping in Japan. Not just for the items but the manner of wrapping so beautifully in a furoshiki (fabric wrapping). In the large department stores, there would be a greeter (I recall only women) at the foot of the escalator to welcome you as you were about to ascend. Mind you, this was in the sixties. I don’t know how things are now. 

My friend Sally and I modelled together. Crazy time. She was bisexual and wanted to find a lesbian bar.  Keep in mind that I spoke hardly any Japanese at that time and she spoke even less. So I am not sure we even had the right word for lesbian. Anyway, winter time after we had had a modelling assignment was dark.  Set off in a taxi to find this bar. Probably we were in Shinjuku (large area of Tokyo) in the Golden Gai District (known for its architecture, little bars crammed together upstairs and down—favourite hangout for artists). We felt very adventurous and very nervous. We would go into one and ask where we might find a lesbian bar, and we’d get a response that they either didn’t know or didn’t understand us—or they’d direct us to another place. Finally we went into one and inquired and we were pointed to upstairs. Now upstairs might have been a fine place to go; but not knowing what was really upstairs, we left, and caught the train to Yokohama. (I never drove to Tokyo. Always took the train.)  

‘And it was there that Michie had put beside each plate a rose petal with a pearl on it.’

Speaking of Sally—we both worked for the Patricia Charm Modelling Agency, the only foreign modelling agency in Tokyo at that time. She took a percentage of whatever we were paid, don’t remember what.   Sally felt she took too much and suggested we freelance. When we told Patricia our plans, she said she would blacklist us. Well, it wasn’t that I was gorgeous; but the Japanese photographers liked me because I was friendly and attempted to learn their language. So I received several job offers right away.  Then they would start canceling on me. Indeed Patricia did what she said. Really okay because not too long after that I became pregnant and became all wrapped up in that.


I will be at home in Los Angeles for a few weeks later this summer, and amongst the few things I have planned—a bal des victimes dinner party, driving lessons, days at the beach—a trip to Bakersfield definitely figures, when these photos will be unearthed and put into motion once more.

*All photographs belong to the author and her family.

What Does a Clinical Psychologist Wear to Work?

Dressing for a work environment alters our experience of clothing significantly. We are used to uniforms for school, but the world of work has a different set of rules, with each type of work/ workplace having a different dress code. This came to mind for me when I was talking to my friend, Maddy, who is currently in the first year of her doctorate for clinical psychology. She mentioned that when visiting wards and patients she couldn’t dress too formally, as she would appear intimidating, but still needs to look professional as she’s in a working environment. The psychological consequences of Maddy’s outfits interested me, so I decided to ask her some questions about her dress code and how it contrasts with her day to day outfits.

Maddy’s workwear

In relation to the outlined dress code, Maddy told me that what she was given was to be smart, clean and appropriate, a variation really on the (in my opinion) infuriating smart/casual. For example, her supervisor wears jeans paired with a waistcoat, whereas Maddy will opt to wear a cardigan rather than a blazer. She writes that while visiting wards she has to dress smarter than she would on community visits, and she has to adhere to the guidelines on NHS dressing. This means that she doesn’t wear an assigned uniform like nurses and healthcare assistants, but must still look smart (while also not dressing super smart) to be on a relatable level to patients. Maddy also mentioned that the older students gave advice in terms of the dress code, and they responded that it was difficult to know, but a tip was to avoid wearing red, as this is seen as an angry and aggressive colour.

Maddy’s workwear

These multiple factors demonstrate how many contradictory elements there are to consider when getting dressed. In Maddy’s case, how her clothing is received by others is of prime importance, and she says that it is best to not stand out and conform, as you don’t want the attention on you when dealing with people. She describes what she wears to work as boring, and she doesn’t like dressing smart. At the same time, when I asked Maddy how her clothing made her feel, she replied that she felt more confident, proper and competent.

Maddy’s day to day wear

In reference to Maddy’s personal style, her work clothes differ greatly. As shown by the images of us together (admittedly before nights out) Maddy has a clearly individualised sense of dress which I feel compliments her personality. She considers her work clothes boring, and admittedly they are made up of soberer colours, but I feel that she still manages to inject her personal flair into her work outfits, illustrated by her (Maddy trademark) Doc Martens and the prints on her clothing. I feel that with her career, as with any, there is a careful balance to strike with clothing. She doesn’t have a uniform but has to obey guidelines, while also appearing smart but not excessively so. Maddy’s working environment means that she has to consider not only her preferences for dress, but also her employer’s, the hospital environment, and how her patients will react. This shows the layers of meaning behind a deceptively simple and conformative work outfit.

Maddy and I

Curator Circe Henestrosa Speaks about Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

The runaway success Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, co-curated by Circe Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox at the V&A Museum, will end on 18th November, two weeks longer than its originally intended run. I spoke to Circe to find out more about the exhibition’s message about the link between dress and disability, the enduring image and spirit of the artist, and the value of fashion curation.

Frida on the bench, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June-18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. 

As curator of Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico in 2012, and co-curator of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A Museum, could you talk about how the latter exhibition developed from the former? What did you want to keep and what changed?

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up had its genesis in Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo. Both exhibitions are based on the discovery of her wardrobe back in 2004. My first exhibition looked specifically at Frida’s construction of identity through disability and ethnicity.

In London, I wanted to expand the materials and we had to adapt the text for a UK audience. For example, when you go to the exhibition in Mexico you go to the Blue House, you learn the context of Kahlo’s life, of the place where she was born, where she lived and where she died.

After you understand the context of her life, then you see the wardrobe exhibition. In London, we had to contextualise her historical and cultural environment mainly through her personal photographic archive and other photographers who captured Kahlo at her house. We also included her paintings. My original research included the paintings, but in Mexico we could only get one painting, so it was very nice to be able to pair the paintings and the wardrobe together for the exhibition in London.

In Mexico, I was fortunate enough to work with exhibition maker Judith Clark who designed the show in Mexico. In London, the exhibition design transports us to Frida Kahlo’s universe, through the work of Tom Scutt, lead designer, as well as Patrick Berning and Matt Thornley, the architects.

What were the biggest challenges and rewards in executing the exhibition at the V&A?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving was a roaring success, and the positive response inspired me to see if there was a possibility for a Kahlo exhibition in London. In 2014 I met with Exhibitions Director at the V&A, Linda Lloyd Jones, who gave the idea the thumbs up. I was very lucky to find someone like Linda, who has always been a visionary.

The next years Linda and I spent trying to obtain as many of Kahlo’s self-portraits as possible from Mexico, other museums and private collections around the world. This was the most challenging part. Anything to do with Kahlo’s paintings is complex and you need to start planning well in advance. It took us four years to plan the whole show at the V&A. Several of the paintings and items currently on display at the V&A, including all the objects discovered in the Blue House in 2004, have never been seen in the United Kingdom before.

The layout and narrative of the exhibition evolved in discussion between the two co-curators. The idea was to start with her early childhood, move to the Blue House, explain her accident and how she managed her life-long injuries and end with her wardrobe, showing how she transcended pain to become one of the most celebrated women in Mexico. To illustrate all this we included a number of self-portraits, numerous photographs, film and sound, and provided context about the political and artistic circles that Frida and Diego Rivera were at the centre of in post-Revolutionary Mexico.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

Which item of dress belonging to Frida that is on display in the exhibition do you find most compelling and why?

I think Kahlo’s powerful style is as integral to her myth as her paintings. It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today. Her resplendent Tehuana dresses, striking headpieces, hand-painted corsets and prosthetics masterfully masked her physical impairments but were also a form of self-expression and an extension of her art.

I love all the pieces, but her prosthetic leg is probably my favourite object in the entire archive. I think it is so contemporary. This is one of the most intricate objects in Kahlo’s collection. Frida Kahlo had her leg amputated in 1953. To support her leg, she had these amazing boots made of luxurious red leather decorated with bows and pieces of silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs and decorative little bells. She turned her prosthetic leg into an avant-garde object, an accessory that she adopted as an extension of her body. She did this 45 years before Alexander McQueen had Aimee Mullins walking the runway in those amazing wooden carved prosthetic legs in 1998.

The exhibition’s run has been extended and is sold out. The image of Frida is also ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture. What do you think it is about Frida that has struck a chord with the public?

I think Frida Kahlo was ahead of her time. She is the very model of the bohemian artist: unique, rebellious and contradictory, and a cult figure that has been appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers and popular culture. But I mainly think Kahlo’s image endures because she was able to break a lot of taboos about women’s experiences, about the challenges to overcome illness and physical injury, both exposing them and working through this trauma in creative ways. This resilience, her fighting attitude and determination to enjoy life despite the difficulties she encountered make her a powerful symbol as she continues to speak to many different groups. Her iconic image communicates strength and the possibility for change. This is the message I wanted to convey in this exhibition.

The conference Frida: Inside and Outside gathered academic experts on Frida Kahlo. What stood out most for you at this meeting of minds? And did you discover something about Frida and/or the link between fashion and disability?

I enjoyed the conference greatly. We had the participation of some of the most prominent Kahlo scholars in London. Academics such as Prof. Dawn Ades, Prof Oriana Baddeley, Prof. Gannit Ankori, Prof Martha Turok, and a great mix of younger scholars and contemporary designers and artists as well. The session of Re-Configuring the Body was my favourite during the second day was by far my favourite one. I was so happy to secure the participation of Celeste Dandeker, Founder of Dance Company Candoco and Sophie the Oliveira, an amazing prosthetics designer in the UK for this session. The session was moving, it was powerful and I think we managed to open the disability debate in a very strong manner. The audiences commented on how inspiring this session was.

Guatemalan cotton coat worn with Mazatec huipil and plain floorlength skirt. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

As Head of School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, how has your role as an educator informed your curatorial practice and vice versa?

I hope to be able to inspire our students and the team through my work and curatorial practice. We do a lot of curatorial projects across our fashion programmes, we teach it from a theoretical perspective and from a practice-based perspective. I think that if the students acquire the ability to observe, analyse and evaluate objects in their material culture through different lenses, whether they are historical, contextual or structural, they will be able to interpret these objects with coherent narratives that will communicate with different audiences. They need to understand that fashion is about dealing with people, culture, and society, as well as garments and objects. Fashion curation is a very powerful tool to contextualise and communicate fashion.

What advice do you have for students who want to follow in your footsteps to curate fashion exhibitions?

I think they should go for it! We need more young people working in this field.

Are there plans for the exhibition to travel? Any details you could share would be great!

We have many museums that have expressed interest in this exhibition around the world, and at the moment we are exploring the different possibilities.

Interview by Nadya Wang

MA 16/17 Year-in-Review, Part 2

It’s difficult to capture a such a busy year as ours in a few lines or even a few paragraphs. Instead, I asked each of the MAs to sum up our time in Documenting Fashion with a song. Some noted the quick pace of the course, others selected songs from their studies, and a few chose personal favorites for the year. Take a look (with accompanying videos!) below:

Barbora: A few songs popped into my head. “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai is one. Quite self-explanatory, I think. Parts of the year, especially when writing my dissertation, felt like that. Also “Faith” by George Michael felt appropriate, I definitely needed a reminder to believe in myself quite a few times. But most of the time, the year was more like “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. “Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball!”

 

Jamie: I’m tempted to say “I’m So Tired” by the Beatles (for very obvious reasons) or pick something Astaire/Rogers, per my second essay (“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” from Follow the Fleet), but I have to give the song that I started each week with its due: “Manic Monday” by The Bangles. The weekends never seemed long enough to finish the laundry list of tasks from the week before–it was work, work, work the whole nine months!

 

Yona: The song that best represents my year is a live City Medley sung by Tony Bennett and Andy Williams from March 1, 1965. The clip, which includes songs such as “Gypsy in My Soul,” “My Kind of Town,” and “San Francisco,” served as one of the inspirations for my exhibition proposal and I have been obsessed with the casual style of the performance.

 

Harriet: Max Richter’s music has been the soundtrack to long library days – especially his music for Woolf Works, the ballet inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf, and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

 

Dana: Although I don’t have a favourite for this year, as I usually I listen to playlists of jazz, 50s-60s R&B, Latin, soul or popcorn, my song pick is “Johnny Lee” by Faye Adams. Or anything by Aretha Franklin. Although the lyrics don’t really relate to my year, the rhythm and music feel like my year’s pace (if that makes any sense). I’d encourage you to have a look as it’s a fantastic song.

 

Sophie: “We Don’t Eat” by James Vincent McMorrow. It came up on a random Spotify playlist at the beginning of the year and then it became one of my go-to songs on my morning commute to Somerset House. So it’s very much my Courtauld song.