Dress in Film: Little Women on the Big Screen

As Academy Award season approaches, there comes a time to reflect over the films that strike us and I believe that many will agree with me in saying that Little Women’s spectacularly intricate and artistic costumes are worth discussing.

The most notable thing about Jacqueline Durran’s costumes for Little Women is that they reflect the personalities of the characters. As each character evolves, so does their dress, illustrating not only the passing of time but clear moments of narrative development. This, along with a wealth of artistic references, means that the movie is likely to bring joy to any art historian watching it. From Impressionism to the Pre-Raphaelites, the movie becomes an Easter egg hunt for artistic references.

Firstly, each March sister is given a colour palette that repeatedly resonates with their character throughout: Meg’s was green and lavender, Beth’s was brown and pink, Amy’s was light blue, and Jo’s was red and indigo. Whilst Durran tried to remain period-accurate, the costumes became a tool to convey mood, season and temperature. Never straying from the dress conventions of the period, Durran still used dress to show each character’s personality and each actor had the freedom to choose and combine outfits.

screenshot for argument

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

Set in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War, the girls’ initial outfits clearly reflect that time. Although women were expected to wear bloomers, chemises and corsets, Durran tweaked this framework to reveal the individual personality of each sister. For example, Meg’s conventional attitude towards life and marriage is reflected in outfits that feature corsets and bloomers, whilst Jo’s rebellious and feminist side is clear in her masculine, corset-free wardrobe of vests, blazers and collared shirts. This masculinity is reinstated in the interchanging clothes between her and Laurie. From the buttercup-coloured paisley vest or Jo’s straw hat at the beach, these swaps further instate Jo’s need to transcend social rules placed on her gender. The androgenicity of their outfits also emphasises them as equals and partners.

androgene article

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

One of the most memorable scenes in Little Women (2019) would be their trip to the seaside which clearly hints at Winslow Homer’s seascapes. Their use of checks, stripes and paisleys as well as straw hats makes reference to traditional Victorian style and American Impressionism. Each girls’ persona is again emphasised in their combinations of attire. Winslow Homer also often depicted strong-working women in his work which perhaps further resonates with the March girls’ persona.

supportive forar ticle

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

Further into the movie, the girls put on a play for Christmas. The set-up is a clear reference to Julia Margaret Cameron’s theatrical photography of her daughters: the paper-cut stars, branches, leaves, fairytale-esque costumes all serve to set up a world where the women are equal to men. The flower crowns also become symbols of innocence. The allusion to strong feminine figures in art history clearly parallels the girls’ ambition to be recognised in the art world.

Instapic

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

The beauty of the March sisters is also clearly represented in their likeness to Pre-Raphaelites women. Visible in the loose but elegant clothing worn by characters like Jo and Meg, the characters are suggested to have timeless and elegant beauty. Like Rosetti’s muses, the girls engage in artistic activities such as writing, playing instruments or reciting poetry.

instapic little women

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

Finally, the influence of American Impressionism clearly dominates the ‘before’ portion of the film whilst French Impressionism dominates the later parts of the film. Particularly evident with Amy’s dress after she moves to Paris. Although she was always weary of her looks, older Amy becomes the most decorated out of all the sisters and frequently adorns herself with embroidered dresses, large skirts, embellished coats and hats. This ‘maximisation’ of dress shows the personal growth her character. Paralleling her loss of innocence, it further reflects her determination to become the main provider for her family.

Screenshot from Instagram for little

Screenshot from Instagram: littlewomenmovie

These are only a small number of artistic influences that can be found in Little Women (2019). The three balls also clearly mark the evolution of style from the mid-19th century to late 19th century. As the ideal female figure moves from an Empirical-styled dress to modern French fashion, the movie encompasses a wide range of costumes and dress. Jacqueline Durran’s dress research in 19th century photography and paintings, as well as books and fashion magazines of the time, brings out, for me, the joy of cinematography. Her modern twist on periodically accurate clothes illustrates that filmography is often embedded in dress. All that can be said is this: Go get that Oscar Jacqueline!

Teeth, Orthodontics and Fashion

‘You’re never fully dressed without a smile’, sang little orphan Annie back in 1976. Today, however, this seemingly glib aphorism rings truer than ever, as more and more people consider the perfect smile an essential aspect of their look.

My own experience with my smile has been mixed. I’m a small person with (according to my dentist) unusually large and slightly crooked teeth, and since my early teens I’ve been rather self-conscious of them. So in October 2018, I finally bit the bullet and had braces fitted. Being 23 at the time, I was conscious that I was significantly older than the typical orthodontist patient, but decided to accept 18 months or so of (even more) frequent ID’ing in exchange for long-term gain. With a heightened awareness of my own teeth, I caught myself paying extra attention to the smiles of others and the more I looked around, the more I noticed that braces on adults are far more common than I’d initially thought.

In 2012, the New York Times reported on the growing popularity of cosmetic orthodontic treatments amongst those aged 18 and over, noting that between 1994 and 2010 the number of American adults receiving such treatments rose from 680,00 per year to around 1.1 million. By contrast, the number of children visiting orthodontists increased by only 15%. Public interest in gaining the perfect smile has only increased since then, and at the end of last year Vogue published an article entitled ‘What Do Your Teeth Say About You?’. Here, Suzanne Scott commented on new trends and technology in cosmetic dentistry, informing readers about the most popular methods of teeth straightening and warned us about which whitening fads to avoid (note to self – throw away that charcoal toothpaste).

The growth in popularity of adult braces is undeniably bound up with the ideals of our social media culture – an obsession with perfection that, while unrealistic, we are actively encouraged to pursue. We’re all aware of the fakery involved in augmented reality filters that whiten our teeth, reshape our nose and define our jawlines, and we feel like frauds when we use this technology. The next step then, naturally, is to change those things for real. In such an image-obsessed age, appearance is everything and the rise in adult braces is symptomatic of an increasingly widespread anxiety about living up to our carefully crafted, ideal Instagram selves. We strive to make ourselves in this image.

The preoccupation of braces and orthodontics with reality can also be read in the appearance of these items, which tend to be valued either for their invisibility or their distinct visibility. For many adults, discretion is key when fixing their smiles: in order to give the finished result a veneer of reality, it’s important to make the process and devices by which it is achieved as inconspicuous as possible. Clear aligners such as Invisalign, hidden braces or white braces (like my own) have become common solutions to this problem. For others though, braces are a chance to make a statement, particularly through the use of bright colours and sparkling metal. In 2015, Kitty Hayes featured on the cover of CR Fashion Book, sporting a huge grin and bright blue ceramic braces. Indeed, the shape and colour of the braces was paralleled and exaggerated by the metal collar the model also wore around her neck. Although Hayes was only 17 at the time, the magazine’s target audience is significantly older than this, and the appearance of braces on the cover of such a well-known fashion magazine (which had, the previous month, featured Beyoncé) positions them as a quirky, eye-catching and stylish accessory.

Other accessories such as teeth grills and tooth gems have also emphasised the fashion potential of teeth and the latter have been worn by the likes of Kendal Jenner, Hailey Bieber and, most notably, by Adwoa Aboah, who showed off a Chanel tooth gem at the 2017 BRIT awards. Perhaps it’s time I jazzed up my own braces with something other than spinach, before they’re removed in April…

Street Art in Fashion

After graduating from the Courtauld in 2017, I began working in a “street art” gallery located down the heavily graffitied Brick Lane. The gallery is a hub for alternative sub-cultures that often engage with pop-culture so it seems natural that fashion designers would also clock on to the world of street art. My first exhibition was for Australian artist Ben Frost, just after this show, his commercial, satirical pop-art style was picked up by designer Jeremy Scott for Moschino’s autumn/winter 2018 capsule collection. His designs were printed onto handbags, dresses, hats and coats, the modern advert designs a notable contrast with 1960’s styling of the models. Ben Frost’s work subverts mainstream iconography from the worlds of advertising, entertainment and politics. Combining these elements with the ‘Jackie Kennedy’ styling of Moschino’s looks calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s idea of tigersprung. The show illustrated how the digital world can leap into the past, referencing the 1960’s right down to the pillbox hats.

insta of models

Screenshot from @benfrostisdead instagram, models Stella Maxwell and Bella Hadid in Moschino A/W, 2018 collection, Milan

Frost’s kitschy style seemed well suited to the ‘camp’ aesthetic of Jeremy Scott’s Moschino. Similarly, more traditional designers have collaborated with street artists to meet the continued demand for relaxed, sports-luxe fashions. The following year, I worked an exhibition with New York street artist Dan Witz. As we were setting up his large scale, photo-realistic paintings of mosh pits, I came to learn that he had also worked alongside a fashion brand the year before. Dior had incorporated his mosh pit paintings into their prints for Kris Van Assche’s Dior Homme, autumn/winter 2017 collection. Whilst initially wary about working with such an iconic house, Witz later agreed eventually agreed to collaborate once he understood the artistic vision behind the collection. His paintings explore the climatic tension of mosh pits and how they create ‘beautiful moments of chaos’. The prints then exploded over the runway, in suits, denim, capes and outfits worn by artists such as Liam Gallagher and ASAP Rocky. As popular culture and street-style becomes increasingly important to high fashion brands, street artists provide perhaps the most effortless intersection between ‘street’ and high style.

Moschino

Screenshot from @danwitzstreetart instagram, Asap Rocky in Dior Homme A/W, 2017 collection

While fashion brands have taken a significant interest in street artists within the past few years, – see Kaws’ involvement with Vogue and Comme Des Garçons or Shepard Fairey’s own clothing brand, Obey- this cross over between designer and artist is not new. Keith Harring’s art and activist designs has been a cosntant influence to designers and brands hoping to reach the masses. On display at Tate Modern’s ‘Keith Harring’ exhibition was a Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren knitted jumper and skirt ensemble originally designed by Haring for their ‘Witches’ winter 1983 collection. Fittingly, the outfit was lent from the personal collection of Dior’s Kim Jones. This further connects fashion to the influence of street art. From the past to the present, both worlds intersect, forming an interesting and refreshing relationship that is bound to continue.

Dress Moschino

Authors own image, Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood, with a textile design by Keith Haring, ‘Witches’ collection, Winter 1983, photographed at Tate Modern Liverpool, August 2019

 

 

References:

Evans, Caroline, Fashion at the Edge (Cambridge, Mass: Yale University Press, 2003), p.34

https://www.stolenspace.com/ben-frost-x-moschino

Instagram – @benfrostisdead @danwitzstreetart

Chanel No.5 and Christmas

‘Christmas and Chanel Perfumes go Together’ reads the tag line of a Chanel No.5 advert in Harper’s Bazaar, 1937 New York, December issue. The world-renowned scent is perhaps the most recognizable perfume name of the 20th century, since its debut to select clients on May 5th, 1921. The release of the perfume of the fifth day of the fifth month was no coincidence, but rather an homage to Chanel’s favorite number- five. Her affiliation for the number five stemmed during her time spent at the care of nuns in Aubazine, where the pathways leading to the Cathedral were laid out in patterns of five extending into the abbey gardens. When sampling glass vials of scents numbered one to twenty for her first perfume, she of course chose the vial presented to her with the label ‘five’ on it, and thus the iconic name was born.

Chanel No.5 became a cult like fragrance, presented in a classic glass bottle, it disregarded any frivolity and fussiness of perfume bottles preceding it. The clean lines and invisible quality to the bottle design further highlights the simple, square label on the front reading ‘No.5, Chanel, Paris, Parfum’, as well as allowing focus to remain on the golden, honey coloured liquid inside. The popularity of the perfume continued decades later. In 1952 actress Marilyn Monroe claimed she wore nothing else to bed except ‘5 drops of Chanel No.5’, this statement further cemented the perfumes iconic scent status.

With such desire surrounding the perfume it is natural to see its correlation with Christmas, as a gift which is more than a perfume, but a lifestyle. Adverts in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue from the 1920’s up until 2019 have continued to advertise Chanel No.5 as the perfect Christmas gift, emphasisng it’s timelessness, as well as revealing its modernity as the scent stands the test of time. The advert first mentioned from 1937 shows a model looking up towards the light with a flower crown on her head, evoking an aura of a Grecian Goddess, in her hands she casually holds a cigarette, placing her back into the modern world. The advert states, ‘It is only natural, then, that at Christmas, feminine thoughts turn to the perfumes of Chanel’. This idea is repeated in Harper’s Bazaar, 1985 New York, December issue, in an article titled ‘The Scents of Christmas’, illustrated with different gift boxes of Chanel No.5 containing bath oils, soaps and of course, the fragrance itself.

Harper’s Bazaar, 1937 London, December issue also featured a Chanel No.5 advert detailing the various other products you can buy to further layer your “Christmas” scent, including a cologne for men, the tag line reads ‘The Gift of Good Taste’, expressing how men and women can gift each other something synonymous with fashion. This idea is reflected in an advert from 1976 in which the various perfume products are detailed with the words, ‘You don’t have to ask for it. He knows what you want. Chanel No.5’, concluding how the fragrance has become intrinsic with gifting, lifestyle and status. Now, in 2019, the Chanel No.5 advert is the embodiment of Christmas, as snow falls around the bottle in a Chanel Christmas snow globe, complete with limited edition Christmas packaging. It is safe to say that for nearly a century now, Chanel No.5 and Christmas really has gone hand in hand.

The Return of the Mullet

Business in the front and party in the back. Yes, the mullet has returned. While critics have hoped the style will remain part of a regrettable past, the mullet is experiencing a comeback in fluorescent colors and dramatic lengths. What was once considered a dark spot in the history of popular culture, the hairstyle now graces the pages of Vogue and catwalks of major designers. Whether we like it or not, the mullet is here to stay for those brave enough to wear it.

The mullet seems to have emerged within the music world of the 1970s. As a precursor to giant 1980’s volumized hair, the 70’s rendition of the mullet perhaps expressed a forward-looking sensibility, a way to achieve volume on top of the head without masses of hairspray. David Bowie adopted the hairstyle in the early 1970s to capture his futuristic, androgynous character, Ziggy Stardust. The redheaded spaceman was a bizarre and shocking subversion of gender for its time. This sense of androgyny can be seen in a photograph of Paul and Linda McCartney donning matching mullets in 1973, proving that the hairstyle could easily cross gender lines. The 1970s iteration of the mullet perhaps reflected an idealistic, progressive style that could be worn by people of all genders which provided volume and long waves at the same time. It was a step towards the endless volume and curl of the 1980s, but still reflected the shaggy locks of the counterculture of the 1960s. In the 1980’s however, the hairstyle was cemented as a symbol of bad fashion. From country singer Billy Ray Cyrus’s adoption of the hairdo to the Joe Dirt films from the early 2000’s, the hairstyle has long been synonymous with white trash, the antithesis of fashion.

Photograph of Paul and Linda McCartney in black and white leaning into each other and looking at the camera.

Paul and Linda McCartney, 1973. (Image: Liverpool Echo/Stephen Shakeshaft)

Despite the sordid past of the mullet, this hairstyle has recently been seen on high fashion catwalks, magazine pages, and it-girls across the world. Marc Jacobs has particularly been interested in bringing the mullet back. In his autumn 2013 fashion show, he outfitted all of his models in in textured, uniform mullets. Anna Sui did something similar in her autumn 2019 show, in which all of her models wore spiky, technicolor mullet wigs. Gucci has also been rigorous in rounding up personalities and musicians who have mullets for their advertising campaigns, like Dani Miller and Amy Taylor who both wear mullets as frontwomen of punk bands, Surfbort and Amyl and the Sniffers, respectively.

Three models in a line on a runway with mullets.

Marc Jacobs, Autumn/Winter 2013 (Image: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Instagram Screenshot of Anna Sui models wearing pink outfits with pink mullets.

Anna Sui, Autumn/Winter 2013. (Instagram: @annasui)

Instagram Screenshot of two models shooting a Gucci campaign sticking their tongues out.

Dani Miller and Amy Taylor for Gucci Pre-Fall 2019. (Instagram: @gucci)

Early in the semester, our class considered the definitions of fashion, and discussed the work of Joanne Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach Higgens who wrote that dress can be considered “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings” (15). In this sense, clothing, tattoos, piercings, and even mullets are considered fashion, and those who adopt the these elements communicate something to the world in doing so. But what exactly does the mullet communicate?

As silky, shiny beach waves and blunt bobs have become fashionable in recent years, the mullet is a rebellion against orthodox styles. The mullet does not make much sense as a practical hairdo, as the flowing layers in the back of the head need to grow long while the shortness atop of the hairdo needs constant trimming. The backs of mullets often become infamously thin “rat tails” while the front stands up strait. It doesn’t make a lot of sense as a hairstyle, but this certainly appeals to people who want to push against the beauty standards and trends of the fashion world. Suitable for any gender, the mullet is a subversion of gendered beauty standards that separates men and women by their hair. It is both male and female. When we see a mullet we conjure up memories of David Bowie and Billy Ray Cyrus, but above all, I think the mullet is a rebellion against fashion and a celebration of “bad taste.”

 

References:

Arden Fanning Andrews, “Mullets and Shags, Oh My! The Anti-Blowout Movement Taking Over NYFW’s Runways” in Vogue, February 13, 2019. https://www.vogue.com/article/mullets-shags-hair-fall-2019-new-york-fashion-week

Joanne Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, “Definition and classification of Dress: Implications for Analysis of Gender Roles” in Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning, (London: Berg, 1992). 8-28.

Sequins

With Christmas fast approaching, it is the time when sequins make a reappearance. Sequins are often considered a hit or miss, depending on personal taste. And yet, during this time of year stores continually produce sequined garments for the holiday season. Sequins of varying colours and sizes are eye-catching and are perfect to wear for celebrations. However, they are not only viewed as seasonal within the fashion industry but are now considered as year-round embellishments.

Often thought to be popularized by the 1970s or Michael Jackson, sequins in actuality have a long and complex history. It was Leonardo di Vinci who made a sketch for a machine to produce sequins between 1480-1482, which used pulleys and levers. However, this never came to fruition.

Old sketch of machinery on yellowed paper

Instagram: @renaissance.art

The word sequin or sikka in Arabic translates as ‘coin’ or ‘minting die’, which references money and wealth. Early examples come from the Greeks, who would drill holes into coins and tie them onto clothing for the elite. Similarly, gold sequined disks sewn onto garments were found in King Tutankhauamun’s tomb in 1922, which were deemed as a way to promise financial stability in the afterlife. In the late 16th century the term transformed into the French word ‘sequin’ that has been used ever since. Sewing gold, coins or sequins onto clothing became a symbol of wealth or status, and in some parts of the world was used to ward off evil spirits. As centuries passed, sequins came to serve new functions. During the 1920s, flapper dresses were often embellished with sequins to reflect the glamour of the age. In antiquity, wearing coins was expensive, heavy and impractical. However, by the 1930s Herbert Lieberman solved this issue through developing acetate sequins when working in film production for Eastman Kodak. This allowed for plastic and lightweight sequins to be seamlessly attached to garments, as seen in the modern day.

The impact of sequins on fashion is exhibited in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Many of their items demonstrate the long history of sequins within the industry, for example a 1932 Chanel evening dress made of saxe-blue silk that is covered with matching sequins. Furthermore, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s elaborate evening outfit reveals the designer’s interest in surface textures and patterns. In this example, the sequin discs are of varying shades of pink, which are designed to shimmer through the movements of the wearer.

As stated recently by Fashionista: “SEQUINS ARE COVERING THE SPRING 2020 RUNWAYS: Fashion’s obsession with sparkle is still going strong.” Sequins seem to be dominating modern spring fashions rather than floral prints, as shown in Marc Jacobs and Bottega Veneta’s recent shows that included a variety of shimmering evening gowns. Ultimately, designers are suggesting that sequins are not seasonal but a year-round trend.

Model in long orange coat and orange hat and gold sequin dress

Instagram: @britts_picks

Modern in silver sequin dress on runway with other models behind

Instagram: @bottegaveneta

References

Fashionista, “SEQUINS ARE COVERING THE SPRING 2020 RUNWAYS: Fashion’s obsession with sparkle is still going strong”, https://fashionista.com/2019/09/mfw-spring-2020-trend-sequins

Fashion Gone Rogue, “How to Dazzle in Sequins this Season”, https://www.fashiongonerogue.com/sequins-about-fashion-style/

Smithsonian Magazine, “A History of Sequins from King Tut to the King of Pop”, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-history-of-sequins-from-king-tut-to-the-king-of-pop-8035/

Threads Magazine, “A Short History of Sequins”, https://www.threadsmagazine.com/2019/04/24/short-history-sequins

Victoria and Albert Museum Website, “Evening dress”, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O85664/evening-dress-chanel/

Victoria and Albert Museum Website, “Evening outfit”, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O110006/evening-outfit-balenciaga-cristobal/

Second Time Around

Colorful knit sweater hanging on wooden bookshelf filled with books.

Helena Klevorn “The Cardigan in Question” (2019), digital photo.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in October, I get off the number 19 bus and am greeted by a block-long line snaking out of the Chelsea Old Town Hall. Populated in equal measure by eccentric older ladies with pastel purple hair and fashion students sporting their most recent creations, I scan the flamboyant outfits as I stroll past them, to the front of the line, and in the door.

“I have a pass,” I say, retrieving a crumpled piece of card stock from inside my (for now) empty tote bag. The ticket-checker looks at the pass. “Oh you must have been here last month!” she exclaims. “Welcome back.” I smile and confirm that yes, in fact, I had been here last month and I was back for a second helping. For “here” was not just any weekend fête at the center of Chelsea’s shopping district; “Here” was the Frock Me! vintage fashion fair, a beloved gathering for the fashion-ccentrics of London to find the (not so) latest and greatest additions to their own vintage collections.

The typically spacious main room of Chelsea Old Town Hall today feels stuffy and crowded with vintage venders from across the country, selling clothes from across the globe. Each vendor has their own stall, with only a few tables and clothing racks. Despite the pared down set-up, every vendor has brought their best and (literally) brightest, cramming their stalls with garments of every color, fabric, and ornamentation imaginable. From heavy, jangling necklaces brought in from the Middle East to the preppy, chestnut wools of New England to scratchy and constricting undergarments of Edwardian England to the slippery silk of Japanese kimonos, the very fabric of fashion history seems to have been crumpled up and stuffed beneath the grand dome of the Town Hall, like some kind of magician’s trick.

The clinking of one hanger against the next collapses my very sense of time, space, and even decent taste. Between a starched tuxedo shirt and a woolly Irish sweater, my fingers land on a smooth, silky fabric. I pull it out to find a flimsy cardigan, loosely woven, in a lime green, aqua blue, and tangerine orange zigzag pattern. I fumble around looking for the tag in anticipation of my suspicions, to find that yes, indeed, it is an authentic Missoni from its Studio 54 heyday. Perhaps to many an ugly vestige of disco sensibilities, I know I’ve found a gem. I rush to try it on in the makeshift dressing room (read: a stall in the women’s restroom).

As I slip my arms through the thin sleeves and button up the front, I feel the Missoni story wash over me. Suddenly, it’s not raining outside, I’m not in London, and it’s not even October. Instead, I’m wearing nothing but the cardigan and a teeny bikini bottom on a beach in the south of France in 1975. On a much-needed vacation after a hazy summer in glittery cocktail dresses and bouncing from gallery shows to club nights and sleeping until noon, the ease of the sporty cardigan is both a welcome respite and a nod to the “haute-bohéme” sensibilities of the fashionable upper crust. Despite the dim lighting and grey walls of the bathroom stall everything in room seems just a bit brighter.

As I exit the stall to see myself in the mirror, a woman trying on a billowing skirt looks at me and gushes, “Oh, you look just like one of those teeny girls in the 70’s! They’re the only ones who could pull that off.” I thank her, and return to the stall, dizzy with styling ideas for the cardigan: paired with old 501 jeans and a glittery sandal; draped open over a tissue-thin tank top; tied up in the center with a long, silk skirt; tucked into white linen shorts with tall gladiator sandals…it’s a feeling with which I’m not unfamiliar on these sorts of fashion journeys: When discovering something old makes everything in my closet somehow feel new again.

Feeling affirmed in my choice and excited about my warm-weather outfit prospects, I return to the vendor to see what kind of damage my wallet will have to take. To my utter surprise and delight, she says, “That one’s 22 pounds. Do you need a bag?” Feeling as though I’ve just gotten away with something illegal, I hand her a £20 note and two coins and shove the cardigan into my now only mostly-empty tote.

After a few more perusals and purchases, I leave the fair just a few minutes before it’s set to close. Exhilarated by my finds, I ride the high of the successful fashion-hunter all the way down the road to a café. As I sit down and take off my coat, I run my hand over my head. Shocked, I realize the piece of scrap silk I had worn as a headband that day has fallen off. Looking around me, I figure out that it must have come off while trying on some clothes at the fair. I resign myself to the karmic balance of it all: just as a lovely garment enters my life, so something else must go. Nothing left to say but, “Frock Me!”

Saul Leiter: Abstracting the Ordinary

There is a man standing outside a deli in New York. His long khaki raincoat is drenched by the mushy snow, and a yellow truck rushes behind him. He seems to be occupied counting pennies, hoping perhaps to be able to afford his morning coffee. Pedestrians pass him by. He is just an ordinary working man. Rendered beautiful by Saul Leiter.

Man through frosted window with writing on it

Snow, 1960, by Saul Leiter. source: Foundation/Gallery Fifty On

Saul Leiter had an eye for making the ordinary extraordinary. His coloured street photographs, normally captured with a cheap 35mm, are devoid of superficiality as he captures common New Yorkers’ routine in the city.

As a young Jewish boy from Pittsburgh expected to become a rabbi, he fled his family in order to pursue a career as a painter in New York. Once in the city, he was introduced to the New York School of Photographers, which included the likes of Richard Avedon and Diane Arbu and encouraged him to take up photography.

He then spent most of his life in New York’s East Village, where he would go on to become a true pioneer of colour photography. In a world that was defined by black and white, his refreshing outlook on perspectives and colours created unique images.

Men walking in city in snow

Postmen, 1952, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Image through dark boards with red on top

Through Boards, 1957, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

His training as a painter was clearly visible in his wonderful compositions of daily life as the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e and Expressionism clearly altered his shapes and colours. The dramatic cropping of the frame, the blurred focal points, the odd layering of multiple depths, … His photographs were pre-emptively moulded by his painterly vision.

Saul Leiter shaped an alternate reality which establishes a sense of intimacy between the subject and the onlooker by capturing pictures through mirrors, glasses and windows, in rain, snow or shine. As one of the first public consumers of Kodachrome film in the 50s and 60s, he would opt for out-of-date film in order to keep the cost of his hobby reasonable. This would embed his films with a muted and soft effect, which would only enhance the mysticality of everyday life.

Back of man in snow with hat and coat under shelter

Newspaper Kiosk, 1955, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

The common scene is made ambiguous through his photographs, which not only heightens the senses of the viewer but transforms it into something wonderful and mysterious. Somehow, his photographic skills transposes the anonymity of the city onto the people of New York.

Saul Leiter’s coloured street works were however not displayed or recognised until well into the 90s. He was mostly known for dominating the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Vogue in the 60s as a fashion photographer, and for introducing colour into the mundane black and white world of Haute Couture.

His career as a fashion photographer was nevertheless short-lived as it never truly brought him satisfaction – influenced by what he called a ‘Zen lifestyle’ he never sought out fame and even claimed that “in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success”.

Blurred woman holding hand with ring behind floral pattern

Soames Bantry, Nova, 1960, by Saul Leiter. source: Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Woman in gown stands before large painting of man

Photograph by Saul Leiter source: Saul Leiter Foundation

It was ultimately his own wish for anonymity behind the camera that allowed him to create fugitive and cryptic renditions of the common New Yorker’s daily life. By using a new fashionable and commercial medium such as colour photography to render modernity and anonymity in his city, he renews Baudelaire’s own vision of modernity.

It is therefore only fair to suppose that, through his abstraction of the ordinaire and visions of the fleeting moment, Saul Leiter can allegedly be considered as New York’s own “contemporary flâneur”, equipped with a lens.

Knitting in the Digital Age

Once we turned the clocks back and it started to get dark around 4:00 pm, I immediately broke out my knitting supplies and resumed my favorite winter activity of making scarves, hats, sweaters, and mittens. Not only does it feel cozy to knit once it is dark and cold outside, it is a tactile hobby that is very rewarding after staring at a phone or laptop screen all day. I’m not the only millennial that feels this way and has learned to knit. Many of my friends and peers are knitters or crocheters and it is a common trend among 20-somethings. In response to this demand, there are numerous online “knit kit” companies that make it easy to learn to knit, learn new stitches, and start new projects. There are also numerous local yarn shops to buy supplies and find a community of knitters. Online, there are knitting communities like Ravelry that are a great resource for patterns and YouTube has a trove of video knitting tutorials.

Pair of hand knitted mittens

Pair of mittens I knitted this year.

In a fashion industry that actively hides the systems and conditions of production from the consumers, hand knitting brings the production right into the consumer’s own home. By knitting the item, knitters know that workers haven’t been exploited and there are no harmful environmental side effects when making the garment. (This is only true if the yarn used was produced in an ethical way.) The allure of doing the work yourself is possibly in response to a romanticizing of a pre-industrial revolution society. This nostalgia manifests as a trend for personalized, bespoke items that reject the unethical and ecologically harmful production methods of large fashion corporations. Knitting is a more accessible way to accomplish this production at home compared to sewing. Sewing requires more tools and knowledge, whereas knitting can be a casual activity that is done in front of the TV or talking with friends.

Knitting needles, ball of yarn, and knitting pattern

Hat in progress with pattern instructions.

Knitting is also related to the “hipster” trend of enjoying analogue objects like records, typewriters, and polaroid cameras. To millennials and other young people, these items could be reminiscent of a time when lives were not based in the digital world but in a physical, tactile one. They are also a brief respite from the digital world where we view glowing screens and have our touch mediated through a mobile device, laptop, or TV. Physically touching knitting needles or a polaroid camera is how a new scarf or polaroid picture is created. There is no mediation of touch through a screen and the product it creates, unlike digital images or applications, is available to touch and manipulate in real life. In this age of instant gratification, knitting is also a lesson of patience. Sweaters and scarves can take hours and hours to make (especially if you mess up a few stitches!). This, along with the physical product, makes finishing a knitting project more rewarding than anything accomplished on a laptop or phone.

Purple mittens and blue hat

Personally, I enjoy knitting because it lets me design my own scarves, gloves, and sweaters and I can make great personal gifts for my friends and family. I like having control of the design process by choosing the type of wool, the color of yarn, and the pattern to create exactly what I’m envisioning. This winter I am attempting to knit socks – a technical challenge I have not mastered yet.

Sources:

Knitting Is Cool: 20-Somethings Taking Up Knitting, Crochet. Huffington Post article

Handcrafted Fashion: Why We Crave It in the Digital Age, WSJ

Beyond the Buckle: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection

 

Blue striped wall with gold framed pictures of women and a bright pink decorated show beneath

Image C/O Maia Heegaard

The relationship between art and fashion is fraught with complexities, but the two disciplines have always drawn heavily from one another, in ways both synergistic and hostile. At the Wallace Collection’s recent exhibition An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection, we are presented with a glistening example of the collaborative nature of art and fashion at its best—a clear representation of how art can inform the fashion design process. Juxtaposing some of the designer’s most beautiful shoe creations with prominent works of art by Boucher, Rubens, Titian, and Gainsborough, all within in the architecturally exquisite setting of Hertford House, there is an obvious decadence to the exhibit that is impossible to not enjoy on an aesthetic level.

The Wallace Collection is rich and vast on its own—difficult to digest with a single visit. Upon walking in, I was pleasantly struck by the degree to which Blahnik’s shoes blended seamlessly with the collection—nothing felt forced, out of place. It was as though the shoes were a permanent part of the collection, echoing not only the paintings on the walls, but the gilding of a cabinet, the richness of a velvet window curtain. Each room was organized thematically to display a different historical moment or story, from the dimly lit baroque, full of velvet and brocade, to “Avant-Garde Fashion.” For fans of fashion, the exhibit offers clear insight into Blahnik’s creative process—the designer credits the museum’s collection as a source of design inspiration, and from early sketches to the final product it is clear how he has brought the fantastical aspects of the art into the realm of the living.

Light pink shoes with flowers in glass case beneath blue striped wall and painting of woman in pink dress

Image C/O Olivia Smales

Nestled between the paintings and gilded clocks and vases, I found myself engaging with the shoes as art objects rather than wearable items—objects of beauty, much like the paintings on the walls. Conceptions of art versus craft are challenged, and a dialogue between the two prompts the viewer to question what makes an object “art” to begin with. What are the difference between the traditional ‘high brow’ mediums of painting and sculpture, and where does fashion fall?

Placed within delicate domed glass cases, the shoes feel all the more at home in their rich and fantastical setting, precious objects to be protected from the corruptions of the external world. Despite this layer of glass between object and viewer, the shoes imbue the space with a certain unexpected intimacy. At a time in which fashion exhibitions are often sensationalized and overcrowded, it is refreshing to be able to get close to the shoes, to examine the subtle relationships between the objects and their surroundings, the details of their meticulous design.

Beyond crafting a dialogue, the shoes and paintings bring new meanings to one another, notably a pair of infamous Manolo’s—pink shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. The shoes are placed beneath Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) in which a woman kicks off a pair of candy-floss pink heels that are remarkably similar. The viewer is immediately transported to the realm of the painting, able to connect via this real world object, and simultaneously better able to understand how Blahnik may have conceptualized these shoes to begin with. The same shoes exhibited within the sterile confines of a luxury store might appear as simple objects for purchase by the privileged, drawing attention to the importance of context when it comes to all works of art (called to mind are Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and those same boxes on a supermarket shelf…).

Mint green shoes in glass case with feathers and jewels on dark green table

Images C/O Olivia Smales

While perhaps a stereotypically feminine object, the shoes crystallized the presence of women, both within the collection and throughout history. I found myself noticing prominent female figures in the works of art around me, and considering the place of women across history, from the Marquesses who once inhabited Hertford House to the largely female crowd viewing the shoes around me.

We all share in the experience of putting on shoes. Whether or not they are as decadent as those designed by Blahnik, there is a familiarity to the object, and a desire to know who stood in these shoes before, and to be like them. The exhibition offers something to art and fashion fans alike, teaching art fans about a revolutionary designer, and bringing in a crowd who may otherwise have missed out on the Wallace collection’s treasures.

 

Sources:

https://www.tatler.com/article/manolo-blahnik-an-enquiring-mind-wallace-collection

http://www.arteviste.com/arteviste/a-review-of-manolo-blahnik-an-enquiring-mind-at-the-wallace-collection-london-lhhj5