Work in Progress Archive

Reflections on History of Dress Essay Writing

I’m currently supervising five of my second-year students through the research, writing and editing stages of their 4,000 word dissertations. They are writing on a variety of interesting topics, which include:

The complexity of dress reflecting complicated relationships in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954);

The representation of Japanese street-style in noughties American print media;

Dress as a traveller through time, space and place in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996);

A Freudian examination of British Punk fashion from 1975-85;

And, An analysis of Cecil Beaton’s dual identity in the American Vogue (March, 1951) fashion shoot, ‘The New Soft Look’.

It’s great to be helping my students tackle many of the problems I remember struggling with – structure, focus, linking the thread of the argument, avoiding colloquialisms, analysing quotations rather than simply dropping them into the text, pushing the analysis further still – and hopefully, emerging triumphant at the other end. I remember my own third-year assessed essay that I wrote in 2011, which addressed the representation of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s designs by the American and British fashion press in the early 1980s. I struggled with lots of aspects but thankfully had the help, not just of my supervisor Dr Rebecca Arnold, but also of the author and editor Virginia Rounding, the then Royal Literary Fellow, which is part of an amazing service the Courtauld provides for its students to help them improve their writing. For nostalgia’s sake, and because it’s fun to look back as well as ahead, I’ve included a pdf of my essay here, entitled ‘The American and British Reception and Representation of Japanese Fashion Designers in the Early 1980s’.

The American and British reception and representation of Japanese fashion designers in the early 1980s

The books of Liz's dissertation

The books of Liz’s dissertation!

Dissertation Discussion: Giovanna

What is your title?

Skin and Mirrors: The surface and self in the copyright albums of Madeline Vionnet.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

The subject of the first History of Dress Research Forum, Addressing Images event, was one the images from the photographic albums. After discussing the image, I went and did some research and realised that there was little writing about this rich collection of images, which were considered purely as a means of documentation for her designs and as copyright tools. My dissertation will consider how these photographs function both within and beyond the genre of ‘documentary’ and focus on how the visual tropes of skin and mirrors link to Lacanian ideas of the ‘self’.

Most inspiring research find so far?

I have just returned from a very exciting research trip to Paris! There I was able to see some actual Vionnet gowns at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs. Unfortunately I was not able to see the actual photographic albums held in their archive collection, due to them being in conservation. However I was able to see digitised versions of all the 75 albums, which in hindsight was good thing as there were thousands of photos to get through. Seeing the unpublished album photographs was inspiring as there were shots that really surprised me, including some half body photographs that looks strangely like prison mugshots, showing shirts that look as if they were designed by Ann Demeulemeester or Yohji Yamamoto.

Favourite place to work?

I love to switch up my routine and make sure that I work at many different cafes and libraries to best use all the (caffeine and) resources available to me. Of all the London libraries my favourite one to work at is the beautiful V&A National Art Library (preferably in a window seat overlooking the John Madjeski garden), but I normally find myself working more often at the British Library because it is more local to me and open later.

Photograph from the Madeline Vionnet Copyright Album (1935)

Photograph from the Madeline Vionnet Copyright Album (1935)

Two Vionnet gowns and a Schiaparelli cape at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris.

Two Vionnet gowns and a Schiaparelli cape at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Halston– Fashioning the American 1970s

Dissertation research for my topic, Diane Von Furstenberg, has taken me on a colorful journey of the American fashion industry in the 1970s. With many thanks to Rebecca for lending me several books on the period, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter the gregarious and charming Roy Halston Frowick (April 23, 1932 – March 26, 1990). Halston (pronounced Hal-stone), as he became widely known when he rose to international fame in the 70s, is recognized as the creator of luxury American fashion, whose groundbreaking designs have influenced the aesthetic of the modern “American Look.” First known for his innovation in millinery (his hats graced the covers of Vogue), Halston used his signature materials of jersey, cashmere, and suede to reinvent the jumpsuit, the shirtdress, and the classic caftan.

Four Vogue covers featuring Halston's hats. Image: Screenshot.

Four Vogue covers featuring Halston’s hats. Image: Screenshot.

Although he is constantly associated with the Studio 54 crowd and glamorous women of the era, his business ventures as a leading designer of made-to-measure and ready-to-wear clothing are what fascinate me, providing one of the first case studies of mass-market fashion.

Halston, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli at Studio 54. Image: screenshot

Halston, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli at Studio 54. Image: screenshot

Halston was born in the mid-west (De Moines, Iowa) to a humble family. After a somewhat difficult childhood, and a brief flirtation with higher education (he only completed one semester at Indiana University), he moved to Chicago in 1952 where he opened a small business in the preeminent Ambassador hotel as a milliner. Not long afterwards, in 1957 Halston moved to New York City where he worked his way up to become head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman. This opportunity provided an introduction him to society’s most well known and powerful, including none other than Jackie Kennedy, for whom Halston famously designed the pillbox hat.

Jackie Kennedy sporting the Halston designed pillbox hat at John F. Kennedy's inauguration January 20, 1961.

Jackie Kennedy sporting the Halston designed pillbox hat at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration January 20, 1961. Image: screenshot

After he left Bergdorf’s in 1968 to start his own business, he continued with millinery, reluctant to transition into ready-to-wear immediately. Interestingly, Halston designed two separate lines: Halston USA, a lower-priced mass-market line, then Halston Ltd a higher-priced collection to be made in his custom workroom and sold at the high end department stores of the day, Neiman-Marcus and Bonwit Teller. When Halston USA sold over $200,000 in 1968 dollars wholesale in its first six weeks alone, Halston said, “And when you consider that the millinery market is dying on the vine, [that] said something to me.”

In September of ‘68 Halston announced the formation of his on ready-to-wear business with dresses priced at about $150, coats and suits, $200; officially cementing his transition from milliner to dress-maker (not unlike Chanel). His plan was to keep the line exclusive by restricting his sales to one store in each major city, but to keep it current in by sending new merchandise every six to eight weeks, perhaps an overly ambitious plan. Halston used the mass-market model to sustain his custom order business throughout the 70s– his ultimate aspiration was to become America’s couturier and open his own “house”. However, sadly, the tensions of balancing his brand’s exclusivity and profits ultimately overwhelmed the business itself.

In the upper left corner: Marisa Berenson models hat and shift dress from Halston's first ready-to-wear collection. In the Upper right: Pat Cleveland models Halston. Forefront: 1970s Halston designs.

In the upper left corner: Marisa Berenson models hat and shift dress from Halston’s first ready-to-wear collection. In the Upper right: Pat Cleveland models Halston. Forefront: 1970s Halston designs.

In 1983, Halston signed a six-year licensing deal, worth a reported $1 billion, with J. C. Penney. The line, called Halston III, consisted of affordable clothing, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes ranging from $24 to $200. However, the move was extraordinarily controversial at the time, as no other high end designer had ever licensed their designs to a mid-priced chain retail store. Bergdorf Goodman wasted no time dropping his Halston Limited line from their store shortly after plans for Halston III were announced. While Halston felt that the deal would only expand his brand, it in fact had damaged his image with retailers who felt that his name had been “cheapened”. As modern retailers such as Michael Kors struggle with the exact same issue, it is fascinating to see how in fashion history repeats itself.

Architecture & Fashion: a look at two images from 1964 – 1965

 

Fig 1

Jardin des Modes (February 1964)

In the past as for today, the fashion press often served as a space for the meeting of architecture, bodies and dress, each element casting the other in a certain light for readers to absorb. The multitude of architectural projects that marked post-Second World War Paris, ranging from corporate skyscrapers to housing estates, provided ample spatial prospects for magazines. The Maison de la Radio, constructed between 1952 and 1963, with its striking modernist features, was an ideal setting for their presentation of both haute couture and prêt-à-porter, and the dramatic, functional values they espoused. The building housed France’s main television station, the government-controlled Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), whose new reports propagated the structure’s centrality and modernity. In 1963, for example, one described the new construction as ‘a victory against dispersion, disorder, discomfort and the dust of old buildings’. Its concrete, aluminium and glass structure consisted of a tall tower block and round wing enveloped by a circular building. It was so recognisable that an editorial in the February 1964 issue of Jardin des Modes, which depicted models in ready-made garments inside and beside the structure, didn’t identify it. In one image, a model in a wool blazer and pleated skirt designed by Christiane Bailly for the newly created brand Déjac stood on its outer circular edge with a view of the city in the background. Her statuesque, aerial stance paralleled the shape and position of the tower, and illustrated how the aesthetic of buildings affected poses, gazes onto bodies, and fashion’s role in reinforcing this behaviour for a wide public.

Stills from ‘La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF (5 September 1963)

Stills from ‘La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF (5 September 1963)

Moving imagery also captured the parallel between bodies and buildings, as television sets increasingly featured in French homes in the 1960s, adding a visual element to news broadcasts. In one 1963 RTF televised report, the camera panned the structure from several angles, emphasising its round, corporeal structure, as though eying a body. This panoramic scrutiny was necessary, given the building’s complexity, which made it appear differently from every angle, and difficult to photograph entirely and clearly. In another RTF report from December 1963, its architect Henry Bernard compared the circular structure to a human body or face in that ‘everything grew from the inside.’ The building thus paralleled the centralisation of the city, whose arrondissements radiated from its midpoint, and the nation, with its political and cultural centre in Paris, as well as the way current events were dispersed from the Maison de la Radio to French citizens through television.

Fig 3

Stills from ‘La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF (5 September 1963)

Left to right: still from ‘La Maison de la Radio’ (5 September 1963) and Elle (2 September 1965)

Left to right: still from ‘La Maison de la Radio’ (5 September 1963) and Elle (2 September 1965)

An editorial in a September 1965 issue of Elle made the connection between space, the moving image and the experience of fashion. Its text explained how pictured models in their couture garments were ‘filmed’ in the Maison de la Radio, ‘the most important monument of modern architecture in Paris’. Accompanying photographs by Terence Donovan dramatised and likened the garments and structure, through lighting, and a focus on angular shapes and the texture or shine of materials. Likewise, the text described clothing and dressmaking in architectural and pictorial terms: ‘Modern art coats. Couturiers sculpt fabric, contrast materials, play with colour masses, cut graphically… and they construct a coat or a suit that the eye perceives in one shot in a perfectly balanced image’. In one, a model in a sculptural coat and skirt ensemble by Roberto Capucci was cloaked in shadow, an illuminated figure against dark, imposing asymmetrical shapes. Shot from the same viewpoint as a still from the above-mentioned news report, the structure loomed over and enveloped her. Authoritative, panoptic space served to contain its subject, and this was heightened for viewers through narrative, cinematic imagery. As opposed to the earlier Jardin des Modes photograph in which the model’s dressed body was a site of modernity and centrality, here garment and architecture were highlighted, while bodies faded into the background. The image presaged how, increasingly into the 1960s, the dream of modernist progress and social idealism attached to these spaces would fade, as they began to stand for the state’s authority, as Henri Lefebvre described: ‘The arrogant verticality of skyscrapers, and especially of public and state buildings, introduces a phallic or more precisely a phallocentric element into the visual realm; the purpose of this display, of this need to impress, is to convey an impression of authority to each spectator’. The fashion press dispersed this message, while shaping ways of seeing, and how individuals envisioned themselves in space.

Sources:

Jardin des Modes, February 1964.

Elle, 2 September 1965, 11.

Henry Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 [1974]), 98.

“La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF, 5 September 1963, accessed from: https://www.ina.fr/video/CAF93073298.

‘Visite de la maison de la RTF’, RTF, 14 December 1963, accessed from: https://www.ina.fr/notice/voir/CAF96032435.

 

Prêt-à-porter, Subjectivity and Filmic Visualisation in the 1961 French Fashion Press

“She likes to stroll in the Paris of the past and ‘browse’ the antiques.” This text captured the mood of “Paris Promenade,” its accompanying fashion spread in the 21 April 1961 issue of Elle photographed by William Connors. In contrast to the model pictured in the upper right section of the page, who peered at the antique glasses within a shop, the image at the bottom left depicted a woman with an outward gaze stepping into the street. This model walked away from the relics of French design, symbolised by porcelain tableware in the shop window; she looked to the present and not the past, to the freedom offered by the street and not the encapsulation of the interior. But she did not leave Paris; rather, her bright pink shantung shirtdress, or “robe chemisier parisienne” marked her as unquestionably Parisian. From the late 1950s, the fashion press abounded in images of shirtdresses, unfitted dresses typically with button closure to resemble a tailored blouse. Here, the author described the garment as “classique,” but made sure to point out its novelty, made to look like a separate blouse and skirt with the addition of a gilt chain. Likewise, the dress, woman, automobile and the blurred presence of a hurried passer-by in the photograph became expressions of urban modernity when pictured against the architecture of medieval Paris. Modernity was a sensitive topic in 1950s and 1960s France, which was undergoing changes in terms of the modernisation of its clothing industry, cityscapes and the uncertain place of women. Fashion imagery thus negotiated between old and new in its visualisation of models, city and readymade fashion.

Romano image

The image distinguished itself both from traditional full-page photographs in fashion magazines and those that showcased women posed against the backdrop of the iconic and beautiful city. Here, Connors was more concerned with exploring the interactions between the average woman and city spaces. Elements of the city—street, car, stranger—were presented to the viewer as though cropped from a larger picture, hurried moments of a longer period, Connors’ attempt at capturing ‘real’ life with a camera lens. The article drew on visual techniques of contemporary cinema such as Nouvelle Vague, at its height in the early 1960s, in its depiction of fragmentary moments and everyday reality. Readymade dress was appropriate in this spread, which showed the fashion of glamorous women in their daily life. The models were on display but not self-consciously ‘posed’, and brought to mind the way contemporary film directors, such as Godard and Truffaut sought ‘naturalism’ over ‘arranged’ visual compositions. This was the basic premise of this cinema, signalled earlier in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay that predicted the age of the “camera-stylo.” That is, Astruc envisaged a cinematic form that resembled a language rather than a spectacle, forgoing “the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Many French directors applied these notions, which included the use of non-professional actors and the scenario-dispositif over pre-established scripts. Fashion images that were cropped, fleeting snapshots of everyday life, also inadvertently applied Astruc’s concepts.

Like the cinema’s abstract plotlines, photographs such as those by Connors hinted at a narrative. The imagery, as Charlotte Cotton described cinematic photography, triggered readers’ collective unconscious and imaginary, so that “meaning is reliant on investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” Through the input of the reader in Connors’ photograph for instance, a narrative dared to unfold, one that questioned the psychological state of its female subject. This differed from 1950s narratives that offered whole pictures and totality, and often clearly depicted models’ activities. Albeit ambiguous, the narrative began by negotiating her access to the city, her step into the street made easier by the front inverted pleat of her readymade skirt, sold at Paris’ fashionable boutique Réal, “to walk easily.” Image construction, garment, city and reader thus worked together to depict an active, modern subject.

 

References

Anon. “Paris Promenade,” Elle, 21 April 1961, 92. 

Alexandre Astruc, “La Caméra-stylo,” L’Ecran français, 30 March 1948, cited in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed., Peter Graham (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1968), 20-22.

Peter Brunette, “But Nothing Happened: The Everyday in French Postwar Cinema,” in The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture (New York: New York University, 1997), 78-93.

Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014 [2004]), 49.

Documenting MA Documenting Fashion

At this point in the term we switch gear – you might think we’d be winding down for the holidays, but no, we like to keep the momentum going. So having spent the first eight weeks of the course looking at themes in dress and fashion history, we now focus in on our core period, 1920-60, and apply everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about thus far to this era.

But before we move on, I thought it would be good to reflect on what we’ve been up to these past months…

 

7          Themes discussed: definitions of dress, modernity, history & memory, dress as autobiography, vision and touch, empire & colonialism, portraiture

 

4          Storerooms & Archives visited: Fortnum & Mason, National Portrait Gallery, Museum of London, Courtauld Prints & Drawings

4 Storerooms & (Archives) visited. Pictured above: At the Museum of London storeroom.

4 Archives & (Storerooms) visited. Pictured above: At the National Portrait Gallery Archive.

22        Seminar readings read

 

1          Presentation given – in front of a painting at Tate Britain, on the theme of empire

 

1          Film review written – on a clip chosen from the BFI’s archives

 

1          Formal essay written on one of the 7 themes discussed

 

8          Objects and images discussed that evoke personal connections to dress during the history

& memory class

 

10        Fashion magazines and rare books, spanning 16th – 20th century from the History of Dress collections studied during our very first class

10 Fashion magazines and rare books studied

1          Hand-painted Victorian family photo album examined during our discussion of sight & touch

1 hand painted Victorian Family Photograph Album examined

3          Tutorials each – to talk through ideas and approaches to assignments

 

1          Addressing Images event attended

 

14        Blog posts written

 

224      Images posted on Instagram (follow us here!)

 

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something … But I think this gives you an idea of what we’ve been up to…

 

Kara Walker

By Aric Reviere

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, MoMA, 1994.

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Paper, Overall 13 x 50′ (396.2 x 1524 cm). Gift of the Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josee Kravis. Photo from http://www.moma.org/collection/works/110565?locale=en.

I wanted to begin my series of contributions to this blog with a bit of reflection upon my undergraduate work and a brief exploration of some of the fundamental intellectual questions I hope to pose in the year to come. In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.

Walking into the first temporary exhibition hall at MoMA this past June, I was struck by this Walker work, which the curators installed on a gigantic stretch of wall. To say the work dominated the incredibly spacious gallery would be an understatement, but in typical 21st century fashion, a stream of visitors from all over the world merely glanced at the piece, posed for a snapchat to demonstrate their level of cultured privilege, and ultimately made their way into the adjacent chambers in search of MoMA’s treasure trove of modernist masterpieces. For me, however, the work presented an opportunity to view in person for the first time the palpable power of Walker’s aesthetic. The apparent paradox of a contemporary African American artist creating work almost exclusively in the antiquated Victorian tradition of silhouettes initially drew me to the work of Walker as a young Art History student at Davidson College. As a reductive art form, specifically in the sense of portraying a visual landscape through only the juxtaposition of black against white, the silhouette–at least in my humble opinion–possesses a highly racialized history. In other words, despite how the art form renders a figure as a black object in contrast to a stark white background, that figure almost exclusively in the history of the silhouette is presumed to be white. Further visual cues, such as dress and the physiognomy of a figure, convey the race, gender, and social status of the object of the artist’s gaze. Walker, however, transforms the genre into a visual platform of subversive alternative histories, clearly denoting through the physiognomy and dress (or lack there of) the diametric black versus white paradigm. This work specifically portrays a series of distinct vignettes in a larger collective story, but ultimately the delineation between the white, well dressed bodies of the figures in the far left section contrasts starkly with the rampant nudity and sexuality of the black bodies portrayed throughout the work with often hyper-exaggerated physical features including a gigantic penis and the stereotypical coon based imagery of over large feet.

Ultimately, Walker’s work represents a starting point for many of the issues I explored in my undergraduate thesis, a reaction to Paul Gilroy’s theory of the Black Atlantic. As I look forward to the work I will conduct this year, however, issues of racism, power, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of my academic work because in many ways these have each impacted my life in distinct fashion. Given my immense level of privilege as a white, American male from an upper middle class background, viewing the way the white, European Imperial/Colonial apparatus visually defines blackness in opposition to glorified constructs of purified and superior white identities speaks more profoundly to the perversion and exploitative nature of white patriarchal hegemony than it is representative of true black identities. For me, questions like how does European femininity in the 1920s re-appropriate primitivism and the sexuality of the black body to facilitate its own liberation from Victorian domesticity are central to understanding how European modernism, feminism, etc. emerged. The intersectionality of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and (perhaps most relevant for this course) the history of dress all speak to the way certain power structures legitimize and perpetuate certain identities. That is what fascinates me and Walker’s discursive work subverts such a vehicle of hegemonic identity propagation to truly question how we perceive our world and its history.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Fashion, Violence and Obsession in Leave Her to Heaven

Hello,

Here’s another PDF for you to download!

Film poster for Leave Her To Heaven

This is an essay Rebecca Arnold co-wrote with film historian Adrian Garvey about the amazing 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven , directed by John M. Stahl. The wonderful Marketa Uhlirova, founder and Director of Fashion In Film commissioned this piece for If Looks Could Kill – a festival and book on the theme of crime and violence in film and fashion in 2008.

Cornel Wilde as Richard and Gene Tierney as Ellen

The essay considers the psychological drama of this incredible 1940s film, and the stylish wardrobe worn by Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen, a dark and troubled character, who nonetheless epitomizes contemporary fashion and beauty ideals.  We should warn you that there are lots of spoilers in the essay – so watch the film first if you don’t want to know what happens!

Gene Tierney as Ellen

With many thanks to Marketa Uhlirova for granting permission for us to post this, and for her imaginative and inspiring work for Fashion In Film.  If you want to read the other essays she commissioned for this season, look at the book she edited, If Looks Could Kill, Koenig Books with Fashion In Film Festival, 2008.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 1

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 2

Elle c’est Vous: Some Comments on French Fashion and Art in the 1960s

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 08.28.31

In the first issue of Paris-based art journal Opus International, published in April 1967, editors declared they would not recognise boundaries between forms of creation, and instead encouraged exchanges of methods and materials between practitioners from varied fields. They took painting as an example, which they argued could no longer be conceived “without reference to cinema, to publicity, to novels, to photography, to language.” This fluid approach resonated with artistic production and theory of the period. One vociferous commentator was art critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003), who encouraged artistic engagement with quotidian life and consumer society when he founded Nouveau Réalisme in 1960. He proposed that this movement act as an extension of Dada, and more particularly, build on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. He theorised that the appropriation of everyday objects and visual culture could be the only valid means of artistic expression, in a society newly marked as it was by an urban, industrialised consumer landscape. “In the current context,” as Restany wrote in the group’s 1961 manifesto, “Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades […] take on new sense.” Through this appropriation or “artistic baptism of the everyday object,” the object or material would assume a second, symbolic meaning. Moreover, Restany argued that it would give voice to “an entire organic sector of modern activity, that of the city, the street, the factory, serial production.” As Jill Carrick has recently written, Nouveau Réaliste artists, such as Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Arman, engaged with everyday imagery and often “restag[ed] commodity spectacle” in their direct presentations of commercial objects or representations of shop windows. Fashion production and consumption, with its ties to the “modern activity” described above, was thus directly implicated in these artistic inquiries.

These developments paralleled perceptible changes in French fashion, in terms of a continuously expanding ready-to-wear industry, following large-scale industry efforts to improve production and increase dissemination from the post-war period. In turn, there were many more opportunities for designers and brands in the 1960s, such as Daniel Hechter (b. 1938) and Pierre d’Alby, respectively, who were diffused into the public sphere in magazine editorials and retail spaces. From the late 1950s and increasingly into the 1960s, fashion consultants, including Maïmé Arnodin (1916-2003), established agencies, bureaux de style, and acted as intermediaries between different industrial players, such as manufacturers, designers and retailers, to implement design trends. They also played the role of design reformer, and their comments connected fashion to wider social currents. In 1967, for example, Arnodin claimed that good design “is a manner of being, living, thinking that translates into clothing.”

Elements of the visual culture of fashion are perceptible in Martial Raysse’ (b. 1936) painted photograph “Snack” from 1964. Here, Raysse applied paper flowers, plastic birds and a neon sign to a photographic image of three fashion mannequins or models. The addition of these elements into a traditional, bucolic landscape called to mind Restany’s vision of a symbolic urban, industrial environment. This “nature,” relied on artifice and, according to Restany, “deploy[ed] sumptuous riches, his pearls of neon, luxury of his cities, the radiance of his sun, the domesticated blue of his sky and sea.” Saturated and fluorescent colour, according to Restany, was part of Raysse’s construction of “an organised reality, created by men for their use and in their image.” Monumental, artificial women who inhabited space suggested that vision and experience were intertwined. And perhaps female viewers of the painting, thus, recognised prevalent imagery as well as a new means of viewing themselves in a boundary-less tableau.

Sources:

Opus International, no. 1, April 1967, 5.

“Maïmé Arnodin: Le style et l’industrie française,” Dépêche Mode, October 1967, 20.

Jill Carrick, Nouveau Réalisme, 1960s France, and the Neo-avant-garde: Topographies of Chance and Return. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010, 68.

Pierre Restany, “A quarante degrés au-dessus de dada,” in Le nouveau réalisme. Paris: Transédition, 2007 [May 1961], 59-60, 172.

Image of painting also available here.

Sombreros and Sarapes, Good and Evil in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film ¡Que Viva Mexico!

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After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, depictions of indigenous people and their dress began to be used by artists as an important tool for glorifying Mexican nationalism and the new Socialist politics of the country. Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian filmmaker who became disheartened with the Soviet Union’s treatment of both avant-garde art and antique religious artefacts, looked to Mexico as an example of perfect socialism. He traveled there in 1930, after meeting Diego Rivera in 1927 and became enthralled with the Mexican heritage that Rivera spoke so passionately about.  Eisenstein’s intention was shoot a film entitled ¡Que Viva Mexico! However, the project was never fully realized as he was forced to return to the USSR after losing his funding in 1932. What remains are the hundreds of metres of film he shot, which, in 1979 were turned into a film of the same name by director Grigori Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov remained faithful to the format that Eisenstein had intended for the film, breaking the footage up into four separate episodes: Sandunga, Fiesta, Maguey and Soldadera, as well as a prologue and epilogue.

The film opens with shots of the Mexican landscape and ancient ruins, depicted almost as snapshots. Each of the four episodes then depicts a different time period and location, but always exalting Mexican nationalism, culture and particularly the lower classes.

Maguey is the episode in which sympathy for and appreciation of the lower classes is most apparent, and the disparity between the dress of the workers and landowners most obvious. Set on a maguey plantation during the pre-Revolutionary capitalist regime, headed by leader Porfirio Diaz, it tells the story of Sebastian, a worker, and his lover Maria. When Maria is held captive and abused by the apparently evil landowner, Sebastian and his friends seek revenge, but are caught and executed. The episode is laced with visual references to Christianity, the immorality of the capitalist landowners and a clear allegiance to the workers.

workers in the courtyard

Dress is crucial in marking out the different characters, particularly for an English viewer, as the film is in Spanish with Russian subtitles. As well as making the plot slightly more difficult to follow, this has the effect of forcing the viewer to read the visual clues left by Eisenstein during his filming. The workers are depicted in traditional Mexican clothing: simple trousers, and woven sarapes, blanket-like capes. During the beginning of the episode, the viewer is introduced to the workers. They are shown lined up against a wall in a sun-drenched courtyard. The camera draws the viewer’s attention to their garments and sandal-like shoes. These shots of the sun-drenched wall and the sarape-clad men were clearly conceived as an image of quintessential indigenous Mexico. However it is not an idealised, peaceful lifestyle. These men are subject to the exploitation and poor treatment that Eisenstein feels is part of a capitalist society. In stark contrast to the workers, there is one solitary figure looming in the background that is a representation of authority on the plantation. Unlike the men, he wears more European style tight-fitting trousers, a jacket and a large hat. He is seen only in profile, a silhouette against the bright field behind, which makes the large gun he rests on his bent knee even more apparent and menacing. His European style dress is one of the most obvious symbols of his evil character.

the wealthy landowner in European attire

The workers’ dress is also radically different from the landowners themselves, who are shown as fat, lazy men getting drunk while the workers toil on the plantations. This episode is constructed as a microcosm of capitalism, in which the rich get ever richer, and subsequently fatter, from the labour of the poor. These men, who are cast as evil in the eyes of the viewer, are distinguishable by their lavish, European style of dress. They are depicted in tailored jackets, striped trousers and one even wears a bowtie, tying them definitively to Western capitalist societies.

Women’s dress is also contrasted to display the differences in social class. Maria is shown wearing a simple skirt, blouse and a scarf covering her head. In direct comparison, Sara, the daughter of the landowner, arrives wearing extravagant clothing; an elaborate ruffled blouse and skirt, white lace gloves, a large hat with lace train and bustle. She is an exaggerated image of vanity and her ostentatious costume is used to exhibit her decadence and cruelty.

the landowner's daughter, Sara

Eisenstein’s message is clear: Mexico under Spanish rule and Diaz’s westernised, capitalist regime was a cruel society, driven by greed and abuse of the indigenous people. What is perhaps most significant about the depictions of the different classes in Eisenstein’s film is that they are mediated through a nationalist lens – the wealthier, landowning classes, who are portrayed as evil and manipulative, are all closely aligned through their dress to European traditions. The lower, working classes, in their indigenous attire, are idealised and shown as the victims of a corrupt capitalist system, and therefore are the heroes of the film.

Sources:

Inga Karetnikova and Leon Steinmetz, Mexico According to Eisenstein, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991)