Review Archive

Miniskirts and Mods: A Review of the Mary Quant Retrospective

Museum exhibition, two mannequins wearing raincoats

Rainwear display, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019. (all photos taken by Ali)

Mary Quant brought fun to fashion during the postwar era, a time when clothing rationing had just ended and Christian Dior was strangling women’s waistlines. Quant’s shop Bazaar was the headquarters of the Swinging Sixties, where one could buy miniskirts, neon tights, and psychedelic blouses. She wanted women to have fun again; her miniskirts liberated legs and allowed for dancing and her waterproof mascara held up in a walk through the rain. The V&A’s retrospective of Quant’s work takes viewers chronologically through her career, starting with her unassuming, yet innovative designs of the late 1950s and ending with a showcase of her global brand which produced cosmetics, lingerie, accessories. Although somewhat lacking in imagination, the exhibition proves that Quant’s designs allowed all kinds of women, not just wealthy ones, to incorporate imaginative designs into their wardrobes.

When you enter the exhibition, it’s not a blatantly colorful exhibition about the 1960s mod culture, but it is rather a slow burn that lingers on Quant’s somewhat conservative early designs. Meandering through a display of glass cases, we see that Quant slowly deconstructed fashion rules that existed in the 1950s. Quant did this carefully, as innocent wool pinafores and thick coat jackets with bright patterns dominate the first half of the exhibition. She started to create revolutionary designs by incorporating masculine traits into her fashions. Her use of ties and more shockingly trousers, are a signal of her journey into a completely new style.

Museum vitrine with three mannequins dressed in Mary Quant dresses and coats

Early Mary Quant Designs, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019.

The second floor more clearly conveys the fun and light-heartedness one might expect of Quant’s mod designs. Set in a brightly-lit, white arena, Quant’s brightly colored designs pop and are strikingly contemporary. Glittering tartans, pinstriped raincoats, and crocheted frocks prove not only Quant’s talent in working with many fabrics and techniques, but also her seemingly endless creativity. I found myself making a mental-shopping list of what items I would happily wear on a daily basis (a pink sailor dress and monochrome PVC clutch, please). I could hear people of all ages around me doing something similar, proving Quant’s ability to make her clothes universally attractive by combining comfortability and bold patterns.

Five mannequins in museum wearing mini skirt dresses

Iterations of the miniskirt, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019.

There is a clear attempt throughout the show to breathe life into these clothes, many of which are paralyzed by rigid mannequins. The majority of outfits had an accompanying text panel that explained who owned the garment, why they chose it, and how they wore it. There were also numerous photographs behind the outfits, showing how models or regular women moved and posed in Quant’s clothes. These curatorial efforts suggest that these clothes were not designed to be shown on stiff mannequins, but were designed for walking, skipping, and dancing. Some mannequins strike outlandish poses, but there is an overall dullness that hangs over the exhibition, particularly on the dimly-lit first floor of the two-story exhibition. Quant’s shop Bazaar on King’s Road was known for creating psychedelic, dreamlike tableaus, but this kind of eccentric experimentation and creativity seems absent from the exhibition design. Perhaps I was too optimistic in hoping to see a recreation of one these infamous store front designs behind one of the many glass cases.

The focus on the exhibition is not an experiential recreation of the quirkiness of the 1960s, but a focus on how actual women wore Quant’s designs. At the center of the upstairs display is a giant rounded screen that scrolls through pictures from the 1960s and 1970s of women wearing Quant’s designs. Quotes from these women describe how they wore their Quant pieces and how much they treasure them. In fact, a large portion of clothes in the exhibition were collected from regular women all over the world. The home photos show mothers, working women, brides, and young girls wearing Quant’s clothes and giving them life. This curatorial decision embraces the sacred relationship between designer and customer with the clothing as a bridge between them. Ultimately, this show is really about how Quant democratized the postwar London fashion scene, allowing middle-class women to take part in the exciting and eccentric innovations of mod culture.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

In the V&A’s latest exhibition Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, it is the museum itself that takes centre stage. Known for his fantastical sets, fairytale-esque scenes, and dramatic yet delicate costumes, Walker has been preparing for this exhibition for three years and his journey has taken him through more than one hundred of the V&A’s public galleries, to Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood, onto the roof of the South Kensington site and even underground into the labyrinthine Victorian tunnels beneath the museum itself.

The finished result – the completed exhibition – reads like a trip to Oz, Narnia, or Wonderland, with the V&A’s objects providing a plethora of potential keys (sometimes literally – one of my favourite displayed artefacts was Chamberlain’s Key) to the elusive shrinking door. Walker himself flits between the roles of Alice and the white rabbit – himself lost amongst the beauty and complexity of the V&A’s archives, but also leading us deeper and deeper into his strange, otherworldly visions.

Gold, decorative key in museum vitrine.

The Chamberlain’s Key, photo author’s own

Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors step inside a small white room with hand-blown glass letters hanging from above. Spelling out ‘Wonderful Things’, these letters are illuminated by a rainbow projection and after passing underneath them we are eased into Walker’s wonderland, as the first room appears, at first glance, to be a typical gallery room – clean, white and minimalist with framed portraits of notable figures hanging on the walls. But a closer look – both at the room itself and at the photographs – reveals a subversion of this traditional model.

Wall of multiple white framed photographs by Tim Walker, portraits of celebrities.

Tim Walker’s wall of portraits at his Wonderful Things exhibition, photo author’s own

Huge drips of white paint leak from the ceiling, almost camouflaged against the crisp, clean walls and in addition to the large photographs framed in clusters, the odd one or two is tucked away behind a display case, almost sitting on the floor. The photographs themselves demand a similar attention to detail: a brief glance at Walker’s portrait of Claire Foy – with her puffed-sleeve Alexander McQueen dress, her long white gloves and her tiara – and we immediately recognise her as the Queen in The Crown, but upon closer inspection we notice her uncharacteristically sceptical facial expression and the single cigarette hanging limply from between her perfectly made-up lips. Other memorable portraits ranged from a witch-like Margaret Atwood wielding a huge feather quill and wearing a heavy black cape, to Joanna Lumley, her light yellow feminine Chanel suit contrasting with her exaggerated Patsy Stone-style beehive and the crude image of twenty cigarettes crammed into her mouth.

Portrait of Joanna Lumley with a mouth full of cigarettes and holding a lighter

Tim Walker’s portrait of Joanna Lumley, photo author’s own

The level of detail in this room draws visitors in and we become absorbed in Walker’s world. But the white rabbit beckons us on, and we proceed to nine more stunningly decorated rooms, each one an ode to a different V&A artefact and all designed by Shona Heath. One much darker room takes inspiration from a sixteenth-century stained glass panel depicting Tobias and Sara, and is laid out like a dilapidated church, complete with gothic arches and damp-looking walls. The glowing colours of the stained glass – a perfect contrast to the dull grey tones of the set – are echoed in Walker’s images, including his fluorescent photographs of Grace Jones and his picture of Zuzanna Bartoszek, in which a stained glass pattern is projected over her body, clothing her in light and making her glow like a part of the window.

Tim Walker exhibition room with large church like wall with three stained glass pieces.

The dilapidated church set, photo author’s own

Another of my favourite rooms draws upon the largest photograph in the V&A’s archive – an image of the Bayeaux Tapestry. Flouting the traditional ‘look but don’t touch’ rule of the museum, this room seems interested in the tactile, focusing on the handiwork involved in the creation of the real tapestry. A central, semi-circular wall displays Walker’s photographs: a chain of them has been pasted together in a long, tapestry-like strip and each one is set inside a small padded cell, with loose material such as string, rope and cushion stuffing surrounding the subjects, who are dressed largely in red, blue, brown and green clothing that references the colouration of the tapestry’s stitches. The wall itself is also covered in a light, beige fabric and looked as though it has been quilted. Indeed, a gentle prod confirmed its satisfying, squishy texture.

two large, framed Tim Walker photos on curved, upholstered wall.

The quilted wall in the final room of the exhibition, photo author’s own

In Wonderful Things Tim Walker and his team pay homage to the museum as a site of history, creative potential and inspiration, while also subverting its conventions. By looking through the lens of Tim Walker’s camera, we glimpse the possibility of a new sort of platform for showcasing fashion and fashion photography within a museum.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things at the Victoria and Albert Museum is curated by Susanna Brown and designed by Shona Heath. Tickets are available until 8 March 2020.

The Henkin Brothers Archive: Rediscovered Treasure

In February, I submitted an assessed essay discussing the image of the Neue Frau as documented through various media formats in Weimar Germany (see previous blog post ‘In Her Image’). So when Rebecca introduced me to the Henkin Brothers Archive a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see primary photographic material rendering 1930s Berlin with a warming, frank humility. 

Before discussing their photographs, I think it’s best to get to know the brothers and their posthumously formed foundation first. The photographs of brothers Evgeny (b.1900) and Yakov Henkin (b.1903) were freshly unearthed in 2012. For over 70 years, untouched boxed filled with rolls of film had sat in Yakov Henkin’s former home in Leningrad. The rediscovery of these photographic heirlooms set in motion the creation of a wonderful archival foundation, with Yakov’s descendants taking full advantage of new technologies and digitising the thousands of negatives they had uncovered. 

Fig 1. Evgeny Henkin, Self-portrait with a Leica camera, c.1936-1937, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

Despite growing up together in Rostov-on-Dov (situated in the European South of the Russian Empire), the brothers’ paths diverged in the wake of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, with Evgeny travelling to Berlin and Yakov moving to Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). This disruptive parting between the two siblings is documented in their separate photographic collections: Evgeny capturing the cityscape of interwar Berlin (1926-1936) and Yakov the distinctive streets of 1930s Leningrad; until his voluntary enlistment in 1941 (his subsequent death on the Leningrad Front shortly thereafter). 

Fig 2. Yakov Henkin, Self-Portrait in a mirror, c. mid-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

In accordance with this blog’s dress historical premise, I thought it would be on-theme to select two images—from Berlin and Leningrad respectively—to demonstrate the brothers’ natural photographic talents whilst simultaneously illustrating the contemporary fashions of their individual city-spaces (neither brother worked professionally as photographers: each chose to hone their natural talent as amateurs while undertaking alternative careers). The first (Fig.3) is the stuff of fashion-historian dreams. Evgeny provides us with the street-side setting of what I assume to be a hair-salon’s storefront. This is a remarkably kitschy-cool image: quaffed and glossed mannequin heads line the length of the windowpane, while two living models occupy the foreground, emulating the pose of their backdrop inspirations. The Bubikopf, modelled here in various incarnations, was a masculine-inspired haircut symbolic of the New Woman’s revolutionary personhood. Bubikopf translates directly to ‘boy’s head’, and this affluent grooming modification was reconfigured several times, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, which featured defined, exaggerated waves (see central mannequin for main reference). I am desperate for this wool coat on the left also, truly desperate. 

Fig 3. Evgeny Henkin, Two women, c.1930s, Berlin (Germany). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

The second image (Fig.4), taken by Yakov, is a more traditionally composed portrait that shows two women standing on one of Leningrad’s many riverfronts (c. late-1930s). In this image, we are treated to a fantastic display of jazzy pullovers that set the overall, fabulous fashion tone: matching ‘v’ neck-lines, each woman sporting a fun and unique woven motif (a dot pattern vs. a form of waved, rib knit) that is offset by equally distinguished collars (neat, petite bow vs. oversized Peter Pan collar). I could discuss at length the killer shoe-game on display here, but I am fully obsessed with the mirror-image diagonal poses each woman is striking (the soft, harmonious ‘v’ their bodies unintentionally create, repeating the motif of their corresponding necklines) and the headwear-cherries they have placed atop their ensemble-cakes: a structural cloche and the timeless beret (that always screams chic). Good show, ladies! 

Fig 4. Yakov Henkin, Two women, by the river, c. late-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

These two corresponding images, from individual European cities, depicting two pairs of fashion-conscious female friends and the style aesthetic of two unique landscapes, perfectly demonstrate the important, historical and cultural reference the Henkin Brothers’ work represents. 

In recent years, the collection has been displayed at the @hermitage_museum (St. Petersburg) in the archive’s inaugural public exhibition, entitled: The Henkin Brothers: A Discovery. People of 1920s-30s Berlin and Leningrad (2017). And just this May (16-19 May), a selection of Henkin Brothers photography was shown at the 2019 @streetphotomilano festival. It’s safe to say that the Henkin Brothers are making a stellar, 21st century comeback! 

I would like to thank Denis Maslov, Yakov Henkin’s great-grandson for his assistance and helpful emails concerning the writing of this post. Denis works to preserve the archive and develop its social media presence with his mother Olga—the only living descendants of the Henkin Brothers. 

To learn more about the Henkin Brothers Archive Association, go to www.henkinbrothers.com  

And visit their Instagram ASAP—it’s full of photographic treasures: www.instagram.com/henkin.brothers 

The John Cole Fashion Photography Archive

As Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute once said in a Vogue documentary, ‘Your memory of fashion is fashion photography.’

I love fashion photography. I have collected magazines ever since I was little, when my mother and I would spend hours looking at the pretty glossy pictures. It was my interest in fashion photography that led me to the Documenting Fashion course at The Courtauld. An entire course on fashion imagery? I knew immediately that this course was for me. Reflecting upon my year at The Courtauld as it is coming to a close, I believe that one of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the depth of fashion photography, as a fashion photograph can be much more than a visually pleasing image. I have learned that fashion photography has the potential to shape our attitudes towards our identity, our society and our culture. But fashion photographs are not only expressions of our visual culture: they are first and foremost expressions of our desires. We can come to see the world through the knowing eye of the fashion photographer, who instinctively captures seminal moments and has the ability to immortalise certain fashion designs.

I was convinced until this year that Google Images and my stack of old magazines were my best bet when it came to looking at old fashion photographs. I have since discovered the existence of a plethora of rich fashion photography archives, many of which have greatly helped me with my research throughout the year. The most recent archive that I have discovered is that of fashion photographer John Cole (1923-1995).

John Cole at work at Studio Five.*

John Cole began his career as a fashion photographer in the 1940s and opened his first studio in Mayfair in 1956. The studio, called ‘Studio Five’, attracted photographers who would rise to great prominence in the fashion industry—one such photographer, David Bailey, would eventually work for British Vogue. 

John started taking fashion photographs in the early 1940s when working for Gee & Watson and Hugh White Studios. He took many photographs for the original Tatler & Bystander magazine which was owned by the Illustrated London News; he also took photographs for Britannia & Eve magazine.

John was a very prolific photographer whose photographs were used for many adverts in a wide range of publications. At Studio Five, he took photographs for Hairdressers Journal, Flair Magazine, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, The SUN, the Daily Express, Evening News, Evening Standard and The Guardian. Throughout the 1970s, Country Life ran a fashion section for which John was the main photographer. 

John’s many years of experience, both in the darkroom and on set watching other photographers at work, would eventually allow him to master his own techniques—such as lighting. As stated in an article from 1962, John was ‘someone at the top but always willing to learn.’ If he wasn’t using tungsten lighting, he was working with the natural daylight that poured in through the two roof windows at Studio Five.

This photograph was taken for Chemstrand tights, April 1966.* 

John asserted his creative agency in the original way he captured the cut and shape of the clothes in his images, demonstrating an utmost confidence in his own instincts. He seemed interested in capturing clothing from unexpected viewpoints. In shooting from quirky angles, his photographs change the way a particular garment is seen. They provide a fresh perspective on relatively standard items of dress that would make any woman want to purchase them. 

John Cole had a knack for showing the clothes off from unexpected angles.*

The pictures that have been collected and made available in his archive accessible via a website and an Instagram account give us a glimpse of the times in which he worked, particularly the 1960s—an era full of glamour and youthful fun. Included in this collection of stunning photographs are images of model-turned-editor Grace Coddington, along with some behind the scenes photographs that provide us with a flavour of the energetic ambiance of Studio Five. 

There was always music being played at the studio. Well, it was the 60s!*

John had a distinct ability to capture the energy of his subject. While there is a light and whimsical overtone to his photographs, the model in the picture always seems to be deeply engaged and present. We can see that each model is prepared to give everything she has, with the knowledge that John would capture her at the perfect moment. Each one of John’s models emanates a liveliness that reflects her desire to fully invest in playing her role for the camera. As John himself asserted, ‘There has to be complete affinity between photographer and model to take a really good picture.’

This image of Twiggy was taken for fashion brand Slimma in 1966. The clothes were designed by David Bond, whose trouser suit was the Bath Fashion Museum Dress of the Year in 1967, chosen by Felicity Green at the Daily Mirror.*

The John Cole website provides everything from bibliographic information, to video clips of him on set with 1960s icon Twiggy, to personal accounts written by individuals who worked alongside Cole at Studio Five. 

An archive such as this puts into question the ephemeral nature of fashion photography. It challenges common notions of fashion photography as images that we mindlessly flip through in a waiting room or on our morning commute: images that are quickly discarded, never to be looked at again once the next month’s issue is published. A fashion photography archive emphasises the commonly overlooked notion that fashion photography has the potential to capture the collective consciousness of a particular time, frozen in one glossy beautiful image. For those of us who cannot afford to wear the glamorous clothes featured in most fashion photographs, we can take solace in the thought that fashion photography nevertheless allows us to partake in this dream world. 

* All images taken from the John Cole Archive and subject to copyright.

 

References:

http://www.johncolestudiofive.co.uk/home/4570078226

‘Photography in Advertising: A self-contained service in an unusual backwater,’ John Heron, February, 1955

‘“The Only Way to Succeed…” Robert Sowter interviews top photographer John Cole,’ Robert Sowter, Time & Tide, November, 1962

Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Madame de Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Just for the Sake of Fashion? A Review of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’

Over the holidays, I was fortunate to visit the Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient exhibit, currently on display at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris until 27 January 2019. The exhibit showcases fifty haute couture designs—clothes, accessories, and sketches—that were inspired by Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture. The fashions are flanked by pieces of traditional Asian art that Saint Laurent would have studied. Another focus of the exhibit is the highly controversial launch and ad campaign of Yves Saint Laurent’s first perfume Opium.

Images of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

Much was on my mind as I walked through the small but very well designed museum. Pot lights illuminating the dark rooms provided a sense of liminality, as if one is half-way between a public and private space. I found it particularly interesting to walk through the exhibit with alongside my brother, who could not help but notice that the displays of Orientalist fashion echoed the theoretical discourse put forward by Edward Said in Orientalism, his foundational text on postcolonial theory. As a student of international relations, my brother went into the exhibit with a mind primed for the cultural impetus of Saint Laurent’s designs. As we made our way through the museum, he could not help but comment that Saint Laurent had problematically fashioned his collection out of a homogenised Western imagination and depiction of the Orient. 

In order to construct his vision for the show, Saint Laurent referenced Western literary works and histories that convey a dominant image of what the Orient represents. Saint Laurent drew on his own imagination to create designs that reflected the frames, tropes and categorisations of the Orient as described by these Western authors—without having ever travelled to these countries (save for Japan) himself. Although Said’s book was only published a year after Saint Laurent’s 1977 ‘Les Chinoises’ collection was unveiled to the world, the display today nonetheless challenges us to reconcile the production of Orientalist knowledge and fashion with our own understanding of how Western history depicts and represents the Orient. Linked to this is the idea of cultural appropriation that evokes the same themes of colonialism and oppression still largely dominating political and societal discourse to this day.

Image taken of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

At the same time, is important to consider the exhibit in light of the manner in which Saint Laurent originally expected the designs to be viewed. For instance, the exhibit deliberately includes the word ‘dreams’ in the title, a fitting word choice that allows one to appreciate the collection as a dream representing a fantasy of the exotic beauty Saint Laurent imagined the Orient could offer viewers through fashion. Irrespective of the political implications, the sheer beauty, artistry and craftsmanship of the collection are undeniable and should not go unnoticed. Saint Laurent’s clothes remain true masterpieces and their elegance, finesse and uniqueness should be appreciated in the specific cultural context and historical processes in which they were designed.

Perhaps the designs can only be fully appreciated if we view them as an exhibition of a collection that reflects a particular cultural, historical and political understanding present in 1977. However, if these same designs were sent down the Fall/Winter 2019 Saint Laurent catwalk, would we be able to continue to acknowledge their beauty and artistry, or would we feel compelled to criticise them for their cultural appropriation?

A Review: Grace Wales Bonner’s ‘A Time for New Dreams’

Figure 1: Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1), 2012, branded red oak, zebra skin, black soap, wax, rug, courtesy of the artist and @hauserwirth, photo by the author

It is a rare occasion in London – dashing to an exhibition viewing on a Friday morning, knowing full well the minute it finishes you will have to jog (Edina Monsoon, c.1992 style) across Hyde Park and back to your desk before the lunchtime window ends – when a meditative silence mutes the mounting traffic, perpetual hum of voices and underground announcements, and clattering cacophony of horns surging to a swell just metres away.

It is unnerving, and the precious nature of such transportation is achieved through Grace Wales Bonner’s thoughtful reimagining of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s familiar space. Here, an open portal is carved out through which the visitor can travel to #atimefornewdreams. 

Wales Bonner is most predominantly recognised as an innovative British Menswear Designer. A Central St. Martins graduate, her inaugural Autumn/Winter ’15 collection at Fashion East, ‘Ebonics’, received resounding praise and was featured in the V&A’s Fashion in Motion programme. In 2016, she received the LVMH Young Designer Prize and was recently awarded the British Land London Design Medal (2018) – I’m not being fan-girly-gushy when I say that Wales Bonner is a remarkable woman. 

Laraaji, Transformation, 2019, personal objects, ephemera, sound, courtesy of the musician, photo by the author

A Time for New Dreams is a bringing together of multiple interdisciplinary creative practices: music, fashion, art and design. The exhibition effectively functions as an assemblage of works that explore Wales Bonner’s given themes of mysticism and ritual, accompanied by a fascinating constellation of events and happenings. These range from meditation workshops led by musician Laraaji to a live reading by South London composer, playwright and artist Klein. The vast array of objects, artworks, photographs, memorabilia, books and ephemeral flowerpieces collectively provide a rich blend of multisensory stimuli. As you move through the exhibition, you feel the weight of important and varied histories being carefully layered and interwoven in the creation of a shared narrative. 

Left: Grace Wales Bonner at the exhibition’s press view
Right: Kapwani Kiwanga, several works from the series Flowers for Africa, 2014/5, signed protocol by artist including iconographic documents, photos by the author

I have this sense of freedom, some acknowledgement of my ancestors and a history that’s come before. It’s an open space for me to be able to feel quite free in the way that I reference histories or I enter different territories and worlds. I’m always interested in the idea of fluidity and the mixing of references … I always think about is rhythmicality.
—Grace Wales Bonner in conversation with Ishmael Reed

There is gloriously complex and nuanced storytelling present in the curation of A Time for New Dreams—the accompanying publication alone is the stuff of dreams! The contribution of each work to The exhibition’s wider composition prompts contemplation of Wales Bonner’s exploration of the use of shrines and improvisations throughout black histories—the exhibition’s driving force. Two of the artist’s shrines are featured: ‘the exhibition focuses on the shrine as a symbolic pathway for imagining different worlds and possibilities’ (Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams exhibition catalogue, 5). 

Grace Wales Bonner, Shrine I & II 2019, Altar objects, courtesy of the artist, collection of photos by the author

Wales Bonner’s Shrine I  is a direct portal to her intellectual and ancestral lineage. The material included traces certain ideas of brotherhood that have impacted her identity and creative process: the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves’ exhibition catalogue for Theaster Gates’ 2014 The Black Monastic exhibition, a looped video installation that includes footage of Ishmael Reed playing Tadd Dameron’s ‘If You Could See Me Now (2008), a copy of Nigerian poet Ben Okri’s introductory An African Elegy (1992), a treasure trove of Wales Bonner-specific paraphernalia. It is as though Wales Bonner’s Shrine I were a miniature of the wider exhibition, a prototypical maquette that alludes to the exhibition’s portal-like structure: a gallery that has been transformed into a vessel to carry London’s weary to a space-time of alternate worlds and different possibilities.  

Eric N. Mack, Capital Heights (via stretch), 2019, assorted cloth, Spandex, cotton, silk, polyester, rope and straight pins, courtesy of the artist and @simonleegallery, (right) Wales Bonner discussing aesthetic practices during the exhibition’s press view (18 Jan 2019), both photos by the author

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams
19 Jan – 16 Feb 2019, Serpentine Sackler Gallery 
To learn more about it this (sadly) month-long exhibition, go to @serpentineuk / @walesbonner or https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/grace-wales-bonner-time-new-dreams

Sources

Ishmael Reed, ‘Diving into the occult with Grace Wales Bonner and Ishmael Reed’, Interview Magazine, 18/01/2019. Online edition. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/grace-wales-bonner-ishmael-reed-conversation.

Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams, exhib cat., Serpentine Galleries, London.