Work in Progress Archive

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Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, MoMA, 1994.

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Paper, Overall 13 x 50′ (396.2 x 1524 cm).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

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 In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.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


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

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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.


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.


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

Elizabeth Arden: The World’s Most Successful Trilogy

EA 01

Throughout the 1930s cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden repeatedly echoed the ingredients that represented the three main phases of beauty, which, in her opinion, every modern woman should possess and follow in order to achieve the ‘Arden Look.’

The ‘Arden look’ was a term coined by Arden herself where she referred to the women throughout the world who possessed the credentials which were reflective of the brand. Arden’s global accessibility as a company, which was – and still is – stocked in every large city across the world, meant that more and more women endorsed and adopted the Arden Look. Yet, what were the credentials that defined the ‘Arden Look?’

Whilst hunting through American Vogue’s online archive for copies of the magazine, which marketed the cosmetic brand, I came across the above advertisement, which outlined what Arden perceived as the three main phases of beauty. These phases, considered by Arden ‘world’s most successful trilogy,’ were the combination  of a lovely face, a slender figure, and a clever wardrobe.

Where society’s concept of beauty had changed during the twentieth century, from that of a woman’s moral qualities to her external appearance, Elizabeth Arden recognised that there was a growing market place for skin care and decorative cosmetics. Therefore, where a woman’s appearance through her hair, eyes, skin, lips, hands and weight became ‘critical points’ for judgement, Arden was able to offer beauty solutions through her products, and then her services.

As Arden’s influence grew within the cosmetic world, so did her brand. Beginning with skin care and decorative cosmetics, Arden opened up her own health spa, Maine Chance, in 1934. Lindy Woodhead described Maine Chance as ‘America’s first luxury health and beauty farm,’ where some of America’s wealthiest ladies would visit for health and beauty treatments, as well as outdoor sports and workouts. Clients would spend $500 a week and Arden would keep the resort open from May to September each year.  An example of the machines used is demonstrated in the accompanying photograph, which featured the ‘metal hip roller.’ It was believed that such a machine would reduce the dimensions of a woman’s hips and buttocks!

EA 02

However it was during the 1940s that Arden’s brand truly became a ‘one-stop destination’ for the three phases of beauty, with the launch of her Fashion Floor in 1944.  During her lifetime, Arden collaborated with four couture designers: Charles James, Antonio Castillo, Count Sarmi and Oscar de la Renta to provide her customers with the ‘clever wardrobe,’ that would keep her customers looking ‘irresistibly soigné.’

In this respect Arden’s ‘most successful trilogy’ not only formed the basis of the modern woman, but also demonstrated the vision that Elizabeth Arden had for her business. Moreover, as Arden defined the three phases of beauty, her empire soon expanded and encompassed these three industries, which ultimately aligned the Arden brand with the function of an American department store through her ability to offer her ladies a ‘one-stop shopping’ experience when they entered her salons.



U.S Vogue online archive

Gourley, C. Rosie and Mrs. America: Perceptions of Women in the 1930s and 1940s (Minneapolis, 2008).

Woodhead, L. War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (United Kingdom, 2003).

Fashion In Ruins: Luxury and Dereliction in Photographs of 1940s London

Today, Rebecca is giving a paper at the Museum of London’s The Look of Austerity conference.  This is a short extract of her discussion of 1940s fashion photography that used bombsites as backdrops: 

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941, both for Vogue

During the Blitz people’s ability to survive became paramount, and their tenacity was linked to the city.  Cecil Beaton wrote about London for Vogue, where he discussed the city’s fabric as though another family member to be cherished, a community comprising people and buildings held together by collective memories and experience,  ‘In spite of the degradation of bomb havoc, the cold fury and the tedium caused by the raids on private houses, hospitals, Wren churches and children’s playgrounds alike; in spite of the general horrors of war, those who, loving London are not able to be here at such an epic time, are to be pitied.  The menace of danger gives a perspective to life, and in the face of what is happening in world history today, Londoners have reason to be proud of one another.  Despite the methodical ruination, the great Capital City remains.’ His photograph of a model in Digby Morton suit turned to see better the horrid remains of Temple encapsulates this mood.

While the destruction of such a meaningful, historic site dealt a further blow to London, the model’s stance suggests movement and action, and her suit is a defiant marker of traditional Britishness, designed to endure. It is as though the model herself is unable to stay facing the camera from the shock of realising that the ruins behind her are not some fashion studio or film set, but London’s current reality. Vogue’s belief in fashion’s symbolic value, as a manifestation of tenacious spirit in the face of adversity is underscored in the title, ‘Fashion is Indestructible’.  The model is a stand in for all the women looking at the image in the magazine, and, by extension, regarding similar scenes as they walk in their own neighbourhood.  The ruined buildings’ drama draws the eye to its textural excess and dissonance, but focus remains on the staunch tweed suit, and the model, turned from the camera to convey our collective shock at the bomb’s impact.

Like many others, Beaton was only able to comprehend and describe such scenes through art historical references.  At one point he used the phrase ‘Breughelesque’ to convey the twisted horror of the streets. Vogue, however, maintained its focus on fashion’s power throughout, and asserted its strength, even as buildings were falling.

Written as the Board of Trade allotted 66 coupons for clothing in summer 1941, an editorial states that, yes, fashions may have to pause under austerity, in as much as changing trends and the extravagance attached to such constant shifts are not possible: ‘But fashion, or elegance, is indestructible, and will survive even margarine coupons, for it is that intangible quality of taste, that sense of discrimination and invention which has lived on through all the clangour and chaos of the world’s history … It is also the most positive photographic record of the tempo and aspirations of each epoch; a record or indictment, according to the times.’  Fashion as an idea therefore supersedes the crisis, and endures as a temporal and personal record and expression of wartime life.  The magazine also recognises its emotional significance, and the contrary impulses that government dictates concerning rationing and austerity measures might trigger.  The article further asserts that such sumptuary legislation has created ‘a violent psychological stimulus’ by making fashion forbidden fruit, and therefore, will, perversely, encourage further innovation as women search for ways to maintain fashion and beauty.

Vogue, as an institution embodied this stubborn attitude. As seen in Lee Miller’s photographs of Vogue’s building which was itself later bombed, the seemingly handwritten script again refuses to accept the consequences implied by such devastation. Once again, fashion continues amongst the rubble.


Cecil Beaton, ‘Time of War: Reflections on the Coming Months of Victory Vigil,’ Vogue, October 1940

Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton Diaries: 1939-44 The Years Between (Liverpool: C.Tinling & Co, 1965)

‘We Re-Affirm Our Faith in Fashion,’ Vogue, July 1941

The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

Today we have a special post for our blog readers – a PDF of Rebecca Arnold’s essay ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity’ for you to download.  

The New Rococo – In the last twenty years, a visual style has evolved within cinema, in particular within Sophia Coppola’s films, and fashion imagery, including Corinne Day’s photographs and Stella McCartney’s designs, which express a light, feminine ideal reminiscent of eighteenth century rococo style. Coppola and her peers in fashion design and photography explored the potential of fashion, and gender, as masquerade.  In so doing, they created a visual aesthetic that might be called ‘New Rococo.’  This combined contradictory impulses, which looked to both nature and artifice, and formed a pastiche of eighteenth century and contemporary reference points. This essay explores the reasons why rococo style re-emerged during this period, and how it enabled these image-makers to validate contemporary feminine and fashionable ideals, but also to foreground these as constructed surfaces.

We will also be posting images connected to the essay on our Instagram feed @documentingfashion_courtauld today – so take a look!

Rococo Echoes Book Cover

Rebecca Arnold – ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola And Fashions In Contemporary Femininity’

(click above to download PDF)

The essay was published as part of a compilation, edited by Katie Scott and Melissa Hyde, Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2014

The book explores the influence of rococo style in a wide range of media since the 18th century, and is an exciting view of the subject. Read more here.

With thanks to Katie & Melissa, and all the book’s contributors.  This PDF is made available by permission of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford (


Shaping Prêt-à-Porter in the Fourth Republic (1946-58): The Paris/New York Dialogue

The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented last month at Fashion: the 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, held at London’s Institute of Historical Research. It was included in a panel on “Collaborations, Conversations and Peer Relationships in Fashion,” which featured individual papers by the four co-founders of the Fashion Research Network that drew on their doctoral research. Each pair of papers fell under one sub-theme, and was followed by a conversation between the authors, in both cases, a researcher in historical dress and a researcher  in contemporary fashion practice, around the evolution of collaboration in that topic. My paper, which explored the dialogue between the Paris and New York fashion industries during the Fourth Republic, preceded one that discussed contemporary global fashion capitals. The ensuing conversation, an interdisciplinary collaboration itself, demonstrated the methodology behind the session.

The autumn 1953 issue of the trade publication Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin reported on an important fashion industry event: the presentation of the winter collections of Les Trois Hirondelles to American buyers at New York’s lavish Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was a shared label of the French ready-made clothing brands in the Association of Maisons de Couture en Gros, which, from its establishment in the 1940s, was the focus of trade and government efforts to shape the national industry. The occasion attested to the growing dialogue between the French and American ready-made clothing industries since the end of the Second World War and, as the journal sought to indicate, marked an achievement for the French. Indeed, the country had been striving to modernise and compete on the international market, following the examples of their American and other foreign counterparts, since before the war. After the Liberation these goals were heightened in view of France’s weakened couture and ready-made clothing trades, as well as its newfound competition from the American sportswear industry. It was not surprising that the Cahiers, voice of the main trade organisation for ready-made clothing, recounted the events in New York. That a high fashion magazine should document this industrial happening was, however, exceptional: the brands’ New York visit was the focus of an editorial in the September 1953 issue of French Vogue.

The editorial, which featured photographs by Henry Clarke, made a new crucial connection that accompanied the commercial success of the French brands: that of French ready-to-wear to New York’s modernity. Clarke photographed American models, dressed in Trois Hirdondelles clothing, against New York’s iconic spaces such as Times Square and, according to the text, “in view of the Statue of Liberty, in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers” or “in the shade of newly-built buildings: the ‘Lever building,’ the ‘United Nations’ currently being finished.” Marshall Berman has written that much of New York’s construction in the twentieth century served as performative symbols of modernity, “to demonstrate to the whole world what modern men can build and how modern life can be imagined and lived.” Over time, these structures transformed New York into a “forest of symbols.” The New York City of the 1950s was one of perpetual, large-scale construction, the result of Robert Moses’ ambitious plan for the city’s reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in Berman’s “forest,” “axes and bulldozers are always at work, and great works constantly crashing down […] where new meanings are forever springing up with, and falling down from, the constructed trees.” Text and imagery gave magazine readers the impression of constant and modern construction, bolstering Europeans’ widespread characterisation of New York as a powerful political and economic force. Vogue’s imagery was the ideal means to temper fears of Americanisation, and, through fashion, include France in a modern, progressive narrative. Readers could insert themselves into the symbolism of modern life, as Berman described, as it was filtered through to the magazine.

In one photograph a model wore a beige corduroy dress and jacket by Lempereur at the very forefront of the composition. At once towering over the reader, and in the shadow of a modern skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, the image made a statement of epic proportion. The statuesque model mirrored the structure in the background and, with map in hand, surveyed her domain. The image visualised Berman’s notion of cyclical modernity; the newness of the building was reinforced by older structures in other photographs, the surrounding debris evoked destruction, and the empty space foretold the next, more modern construction. Likewise, Les Trois Hirondelles stood for a type of ready-made dress that would disappear at the end of the decade in view of the emergence of new labels, economic systems and political regimes.

Further, the United Nations building, built between 1948 and 1952, could be seen to symbolise international harmony and renewed ties between France and the United States. Founded in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations, in order to provide a platform for international dialogue. And, perhaps to France’s chagrin, the building represented, not only the new inclusion of the United States in international politics, but its physical leadership. Still, Les Trois Hirondelles provided a means for manufacturers to participate in a sort of cross-cultural exchange. Through this trip to New York, they could confirm the continued dominance of French fashion, which, in turn, bolstered the government’s own projects of reconstruction and modernisation.


“Les ‘Hirondelles’ visitent New York,” Vogue, September 1953, 128.

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin, 1988 [1982], 288-9.

Brazilian Tropicalia Fashions Embedded in Life Magazine, November 1971

liz july pic

I recently came across an interesting photograph that was published in Life magazine on 12 November 1971, accompanying an article written and photographed by John Dominis and entitled ‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon.’ The article concerned the building of the Trans-Amazonian highway, a 4,000km road conceived of to unify Northern Brazil, which opened in September 1972 and ran through the Brazilian states of Paraiba, Ceara, Piaui, Maranhao, Tocantins, Para and Amazonas. In the top-left hand corner of the article, an image captured five Brazilian women straightforwardly in the frame, against a dull background of clouded sky, a wooden fence disappearing into the distance, and the green-and-white facade of a building. The caption that accompanied it read: ‘towns along the road are booming with such by-products of civilization as electricity and bar girls. On Saturday, hundreds of workers come into Altamira, above. Girls entertain the men for about $3 each.’ A closer examination of the photograph made me realise how simplified this description was in anchoring the meaning of the photograph, since it understood the women solely in terms of their availability as objects of a male gaze, and refused to acknowledge the layers of meaning embedded within their appearance as created by their fashionable ensembles.

Looking more closely, I saw that each subject met the photographer’s gaze directly, and enacted a variety of poses, from straightforwardly presenting the body to the gaze that scrutinizes them, to more stylised and performative fashion stances that revealed an uncovered thigh and high-heeled sandal. Their clothing is a combination of white nylon knee-high socks worn with white shoes, white and pink ankle-length dresses with thigh-high slits, and hot pants and overcoats in eye-popping psychedelic printed fabrics, all of which stand out against the general degradation of their arid surroundings. The clashing colours and swirling patterns that adorn three of the women’s outfits demonstrate the influence of contemporary Western-style hippie fashions, with their penchant for exposing the body, vibrant colours and mismatched prints and styles. Yet this was not a simplistic demonstration of a one-directional homogenisation of clothing that had travelled to Brazil from Western Europe and North America. This is because their dress also demonstrated the influence of the left-wing Brazilian artistic movement named Tropicalia, which was articulated as a response in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the repressive dictatorship that occurred in Brazil from 1964-1985. The Tropicalists re-defined Brazilian fashion, art and music by appropriating elements of Western-style hippie fashion, such as psychedelic fabrics, mini-skirts, hot pants and micro dresses, which exposed legs and thighs, and using it to demonstrate their sartorial freedom under rigid political control. Under Tropicalia, the meanings of hippie fashion, although still remaining non-conformist and rebellious, took on new meanings relevant to their Brazilian context. The women in this photograph were not part of the Tropicalist movement, but their clothing shows how elements of these popular political fashions filtered through into everyday dress worn in Brazil.

Taking all these sartorial references into account in our understanding of the image enables us to read it against the grain, and understand the women no longer as merely passive objects of a presumed male gaze, but active fashion consumers who contributed to the construction of their own identities through dress. That Life omitted to draw attention to the women’s dress can be understood as part of a broader omission within the Associated Press, which failed to outline the human rights atrocities taking place under a right-wing regime that was politically aligned to the Cold War interests of the United States.



John Dominis,‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon’, Life, pp. 26-31.

‘”Chic” Was To Art The Same As Sex Appeal Is To Love’: Four Things I Learnt While Reading Cecil Beaton’s Memoirs of the 40s

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One of the many delights – and distractions – of research is the things you read along the way to your real goal.  While my focus is on Beaton’s wartime photography, for a forthcoming paper at the Museum of London, delving into his diaries and memoirs reveals far wider dress gems.  Since these probably won’t make the final edit, I thought I’d share some of my favourite insights with you here – skimmed from the pages of his 1940s memoirs, and, in these examples, from his time spent in post-occupation Paris between 1944 and 1945.

No. 1 – Parisian style during the war was about resistance – to German torment, restrictions and morality, and to imposed ideas of respectability and beauty:  

The British Embassy’s Guests, Sunday, October 29th – Paris, 1944 

‘The women were a curiously dressed bunch in a fashion that struck the unaccustomed eye a strangely ugly – wide, baseball player’s shoulders, Dureresque headgear, suspiciously like domestic plumbing, made of felt and velvet, and heavy sandal-clogs which gave the wearers an added six inches in height but an ungainly, plodding walk.  Unlike their austerity-abiding counterparts in England these women moved in an aura of perfume.’

No. 2 – Necessity breeds innovation, hybridity and style: 

Stocking the Cellar 

‘Diana [Lady Diana Cooper] wearing trousers, yachting cap, and biscuit-colored fox coat…’

 Churchill’s arrival, November 10th 

‘Diana, in pants and bandanna…’

 No.3 – Never be too quick to judge who is best-dressed:  

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas 

‘During the years of cold and shortages, Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbour at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, who had a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women’s clothes.  In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice to wear during the hard winters.  Now he has opened a shop in Paris.  At first showing to the press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, Basket.  Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot’s self-portrait.  Alice, in a long Chinese Garment of bright colors with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the “Widow Twankey,” a comic transvestite from the vaudeville stage.  Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered: “Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it’s just as well for him that they don’t!’

No. 4 – Fashion and Art = Sex and Love 

Bébé Bérard and the Jackals, British Embassy, Paris 

‘Bébé inspired, proceeded to illustrate with his pencil the fashions of the new dressmaker Dior.  These, he says, have the same sense of sex appeal as Chanel created after the First World War.  A theory was put forward that fashion was anti-art, that “chic” was to art the same as sex appeal is to love.’

Perhaps later I’ll share what I learnt about New York … But for now, I must get on with what I supposed to be researching …

Source:  Cecil Beaton, Memoirs of the 40s, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972