Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram

One of the many marvellous things about research is that you don’t just find out what you wanted to know, you discover what you didn’t know you needed to know. So when I embarked on reading for an article I was writing on pockets for Cos I rediscovered the wonders of Bernard Rudofsky’s 1947 book on the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ As well as discussion of the efficacy of clothes historically and globally, the author reflects on what he deems to be good and bad examples of current attire – Claire McCardell scores well for clever design combined with utility, expressing clean, modern ideals, while others fare less well …

Amongst the many treasures to be found in the book, my favourite is the series of plates representing what Rudofsky claimed was the degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothes.  These are not fashion illustrations, but rather diagrams that are a brilliant and very modernist, rational view of menswear at the time. In each, the futile excess of 1940s tailoring is expressed in colourful, reduced plans of the relationship between a specific aspect of dress and the wearer’s body.

In one we see an outline of a man, his attitude clearly indicated by his upturned nose. Although we are given nothing more than his silhouette, the surface of his body is covered with bright dots each indicating one of the 70 or so buttons he carries ‘needlessly’ on his body each day.  Rendered in rainbow hues to denote which garment these belong to – from ‘drawers’ to overcoat and gloves – the image, along with Rudofsky’s clearly exasperated tone, give the impression that men positively rattled with superfluous buttons, when, as is pointed out, a few well placed zips could replace all this unnecessary detail.

A similar diagram shows that two dozen pockets are also at play in the same space.  These are again shown as bright, geometrical forms clustered across the figure. And let’s not forget ‘The Seven Veils of the Stomach’ – the layers of clothes piled onto a man’s body each morning and shown in a diagram that resembles the cross section of a tree.

In the exhibition the first two diagrams were shown on glass, with an illustration of a fully clothed man behind them, to enable visitors to see how each related to the clothed body. While these are amusing, they highlight the ways dress can evolve way beyond our needs and potentially lead to discomfort for wearers. This includes tailoring, which is so often seen as the more sensible of gendered clothing types.  While they may ignore aesthetic imperatives, what these clear, beautifully designed diagrams do is make us stop and think – about the layers of our clothing, and yes, whether what we carry on our bodies really is modern.

You can download a PDF of the book and read more about MoMA’s 1945 exhibition here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3159

MoMA is revisiting this theme for a forthcoming exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? Find information here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638

National Identity and Dress: Thinking about Brazil

I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which dress and fashion connect to ideas about national identity. It all began when I started to question what ‘Brazilian dress’ might be. Is there any such thing as a national form of dress within Brazil? Simplistic outsider reactions might suggest the bikini or Havaiana flip-flops, possibly even carnival costume, but this probably tells us a lot more about foreign perceptions of Brazil – which tend to treat Rio de Janeiro as a synecdoche for the entire country – than of the lived experience of dress for most Brazilians. Nevertheless, in a country as enormous as Brazil, there is perhaps a greater need to construct a coherent national identity and embodied sense of belonging through the body surface.

Maybe ‘Brazilian dress’ could refer to indigenous forms of clothing? Such as the handmade jewellery and body tattoos, in combination with Western-style shorts and T-shirts, that are worn by the Kayapo, who live alongside the Xingu river in the eastern Amazon. Or perhaps it is the white lace ensembles worn by Afro-Brazilian women in Salvador? Baianas, as they are called, adhere to the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, and wear a hybrid fusion of sartorial elements that originate from Europe (the full-length gathered skirt with crinoline and petticoat) and West Africa (the headwrap, called an ôja, and beaded necklaces)? But these two examples seem to suggest that different clothing cultures within Brazil are geographically tied to region and ethnic identity, when even the vicarious armchair traveller knows that it is far more messy and complicated than that.

A baiana dress, displayed on a white model, at the Mercardo do Madureira in Rio de Janeiro. (Author’s own)

My difficulty in coming to a conclusive answer ultimately reflected the incredible flexibility of dress styles within Brazil. In all its variety, Brazilian dress tells multiple stories about its wearers – personal, local, national and transnational – as well as revealing the global flows of ideas, objects and people that characterize the interconnected world we live in. Cross-cultural exchange and influence is far from exclusive to Brazil. But it does come into much sharper focus within this heterogeneous world culture region, which sits so ambiguously (and not just in geographical terms) between the Western and the non-Western. The development of Brazilian dress and fashion reveals a long and chequered history of cross-cultural contact, slavery and immigration. It is a complex and fluid process by which Brazil, since it was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, has absorbed but also re-interpreted diverse influences that stem from its indigenous populations, as well as from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. From North to South, huge variables in culture and climate necessarily impact directly upon the clothing choices made by Brazilians.

Any attempt to define ‘Brazilian dress’ is a tangible reminder that national identity, like clothing itself, is not an intangible essence, but a material construct – an ongoing process of articulation and negotiation that depends upon where we are, and who we are with. As such, using geographical borders to analyse dress in national frameworks will always burst out of the standardized shapes delineated on the world map.

Documenting Regency Fashion with La Belle Assemblée

Today, 18 July 2017, marks the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, author of classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Much of her work, and their subsequent adaptations, are set in the Regency era (broadly categorized as 1795-1820) and their fashions reflect that time. Jane herself was quite fond of fashionable dressing: letters from time spent living with her brother Henry in London mention visits to Grafton House for trimmings and hosiery, and to Bedford House for dress fabrics.

Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), 1807. Hand-coloured etching. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: www.lacma.org. Accession number: M.86.266.84.

In order to keep abreast of the latest fashions, women of the Regency era consumed ladies’ magazines, among them the high quality La Belle Assemblée or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine addressed particularly to the Ladies. John Bell first published Le Belle Assemblée in 1806 as a monthly source of prose, poetry, biographies, and fashion advice for leisured women. There is even reason to suspect that Jane Austen would have read La Belle Assemblée as one of her favourite nieces, Fanny Austen Knight, had an 1814 issue of that periodical among her possessions.

‘Bourbon Hat and Mantle’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), May 1814. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1025-1959.

La Belle Assemblée’s price established it as a thoroughly affluent periodical. Its rival, the Lady’s Museum, cost 1s. in 1806, while La Belle Assemblée cost 2s. 6d. for black-and-white etchings and 3s. 6d. for hand-coloured illustrations. Though only two fashion plates were included with each issue, they were prepared by highly skilled illustrators, engravers, and painters. The 25cm x 16cm dimensions of this periodical further added to its luxury. Whether coloured or not, the sizable fashion plates are works of art in their own right, as their inclusion in museum collections around the world confirms.

‘Walking Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée, September 1822. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.2818-1888.

John Bell’s wife Mrs. Bell was credited with the designs of many outfits seen in the plates of La Belle Assemblée. As a dressmaker in London known for extremely up-to-date fashion knowledge (she had foreign fashions imported for study twice each week), Mrs. Bell possessed a reputation for unbeatable fashion acumen. She was not just a dressmaker and designer however. Mrs. Bell, ever the visionary, invented the ‘Chapeau Bras,’ a foldable hood small enough to store in a bag, and a corset to reduce the appearance of pregnancy.

‘Dinner Party Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), February 1827. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Plates from La Belle Assemblée reflect both minute and radical changes in fashion during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. From 1800-1820, differences in fabric, colour, and accessories set old and new fashions apart. The 1820s saw a gradual widening of sleeves and skirts as the decade progressed, morphing the columnar silhouette of the beginning of the century into the exaggerated hourglass shape of the early 1830s. In 1832, La Belle Assemblée merged with the Lady’s Magazine; the new Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée continued to publish the latest advances in fashion throughout the 1830s.

Read, W., ’Full Dress, Ball Dress, Morning Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), October 1830. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Further Reading

Jane Ashelford, ‘Perfect Cut and Fit’ in The Art of Dress: Clothes Through History 1500-1914 (London: National Trust, 1996), pp. 167-210

Margaret Beetham, ‘The ‘Fair Sex’ and the Magazine: The Early Ladies’ Journals’ in A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Women’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17-34

Au Revoir MA Documenting Fashion Graduates of 2017!

The MA graduates at a post-graduation celebration on Somerset House’s River Terrace. Courtesy Harriet Nelham-Clark.

Even after all these years, it is still a little surprise when graduation suddenly appears again on my calendar.  My MA course at The Courtauld seems to rush by – nine months of seminars, visits, discussions and so much more. The most exciting aspect for me is always meeting the students as a group for the first time in October, and getting to know them and watching their responses to the images and ideas we discuss.

This year, I had the great pleasure of seeing Jamie, Dana, Barbora, Harriet, Yona and Sophie progress from early essays thinking about key methodologies and theorists, through film reviews, blog posts, formal essays and a virtual exhibition, to their final piece of work – a 10,000 word dissertation on a subject of their choice.  You can look back at the posts they wrote a couple of months ago to learn about the amazing topics they chose, suffice to say, I was reading drafts on everything from 19th century Decadents to 1930s bathing suits – and enjoying guiding the students as their ideas developed and their writing became ever more fluent and sophisticated. They all worked incredibly hard, were great fun to teach and graduated with excellent grades.

So, please join me in congratulating these brilliant, talented graduates, and wishing them luck for their future, no doubt wonderful careers!

MAs in academic dress, along with History of Dress Ph. D. graduate Lucy Moyse. Courtesy Harriet Nelham-Clark.

A toast to a wonderful year! Courtesy Barbora Kozusnikova.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

MA 16/17 Year-in-Review, Part 1

Just as quickly as our time at the Courtauld began, so too did it end. During these nine months of intensive schoolwork, we’ve grown as scholars and people, forming close friendships over shared stress and joy. Here are some reflections about our time in MA Documenting Fashion:

What surprised you the most about the course?

Barbora: I knew I would absolutely love my year at The Courtauld. The lessons were stimulating, fun, thought provoking and always the highlights of my week, as sad as that may sound. What surprised me the most, however, was how close-knit our Documenting Fashion group became. With limited contact hours and only a year together, I was skeptical when people said we would all become great friends. But somehow, that really did happen. The support network we created was invaluable at times of assignment crises, of which there were a few, and the girls, as well as our fabulous professors, Rebecca and Liz, made the year the best it could have possibly been.

Harriet, Sophie, Jamie, and Barbora celebrating with champagne after the graduation ceremony

Dana: First, I’d have to say the location of the Courtauld, and the insight and knowledge that Rebecca shared with us. Second, I have to mention some of the trips to archives; for example, the trip to the Museum of London helped us better understand the histories behind London’s inhabitants.

Which assignment did you enjoy the most?

Yona: The exhibition proposal, which we were required to write as part of the course, was by far my favourite assignment. The task involved not just writing the proposal itself, but also the development of sample panels and exhibit labels. As I enjoyed developing a full exhibition, I even included an illustration of the exhibition design and submitted a playlist that visitors could listen to while walking through the galleries. The playlist consisted of 1940s songs that were declaration of love of American cities and I still find myself singing the songs.

Jamie: Though I may just be a glutton for punishment, the dissertation was my favorite assignment. It certainly took a lot of time and effort (not to mention self-motivation), but my absolute adoration of the topic made it all worth while. The development of my argument, slowly building something from months of research, was immensely satisfying. And the quirky stories I found as I researched late-19th century newspapers helped lighten the mood even in the most stressful of times. In short, I enjoyed every milestone, month, and minute of the dissertation process.

Favorite trip?

Harriet: New York, New York! Just before Christmas – surely the best time to visit, with all the spectacular store windows and Christmas trees for sale on every corner – the MA Documenting Fashion class crossed the pond to visit the FIT, Parsons and Brooklyn Museum’s archives. We also met the brilliant Pat Kirkham at the Bard Graduate Centre and visited the Masterworks exhibition at the MET (and took the opportunity to indulge in dumplings in Chinatown, skate in Central Park and catch some jazz too).

MA Documenting Fashion students in the archives at the Brooklyn Museum, December 2016

Sophie: Oh there were too many! The trip to the Museum of London to see fashion curator Timothy Long especially stands out. Not only did he show us some fabulous objects, including Anna Pavlova’s dying swan costume, but his enthusiasm and blatantly obvious love for his job was so striking and incredible to see. He gave us some great and honest insights into his career that are very valuable as we all try to find our own feet in the art and museum world.

Check back next week for a very special summary of the year by each MA student!

How do you say ‘Parisian Elegance’ in Spanish? Antonio Cánovas del Castillo

Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. Jacques Rouchon/Roger Viollet. Cordon Press.

After seeing the Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, and due to the hype around the Spanish designer that Paris saw shine, I decided to share with you another great Spanish creator that succeeded in the international fashion mecca. “El prestigio queda, la fama es efímera”, meaning “the prestige is permanent, fame is ephemeral,” is one of the phrases attributed to Cristóbal Balenciaga; and, in this case, applicable Spanish couturier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo who established himself among the big names of couture in The City of Light. We saw one of his in our visit to the Met Museum Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, where I remember thinking that his story and creations need to be shared more often, so here it is a snippet.

Maybe you know all about Castillo, or on the contrary his name doesn’t sound familiar; or maybe, if you’re studying the restoration of Spanish Bourbon Monarchy in the 19th Century, you might think I’m talking about its first Prime Minister. You’re not far too off. Seeing his name next to the name “Lanvin,” might give you a hint of who I’m talking about.

Born in Madrid in 1908, grandnephew of the Spanish Prime Minister of the same name, Castillo left for Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, escaping from the republican forces.

In 1951 Paris Match reported with an unusual realism, the crude situation that Castillo went through when he migrated, “with 32 trunks, suitcases and various packages, 26 years old and 18 francs in his pocket”, forced to live a life of what the reporter described as a “Russian migrant existence.” However, his luck changed quickly, and in a few months Castillo was initiated in the fashion world designing jewellery and accessories for Coco Chanel, thanks to the intervention of Misia Sert (famous pianist in Paris). Years later, despite of his differences (or because of them), Chanel affirmed about Castillo: “He has a kind of a latent genious. With him one must approach him as a ferret to make him get out of his burrow. Then it’s marvelous…”

Veruschka, with a design by Castillo for Elizabeth Arden. Franco Rubartelli. Condé Nast Archive

Between 1937 and 1945 he worked for Paquin and Piguet, and even collaborated with Cocteau in his film “The Beauty and the Beast.” This was also the year when Elizabeth Arden convinced him to go to New York, where he became the house designer, and he started working for Broadway productions and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo 1951, Photograph by Gordon Parks

In 1950 Castillo received a call from the Countess of Polignac, Jean Marie-Blanche (daughter of Jeanne Lanvin) who, following the death of Jeanne Lanvin in 1946, was looking for a head designer to revitalise the salon. His presentation was spectacular, with a collection of white sateen dresses. The success and recognition of his work was such that his name became a part of the brand, including its presence on the gowns’ labels.

Paris, February 1951. Preparing The New Spring-summer of 1951 Lanvin Couture Collection. First collection by Antonio Del Castillo. Willy Rizzo. Getty Images

Lanvin-Castillo, Paris, 1951. Photo by Gordon Parks

He knew how to leave an imprint of his personality on his creations, without ever losing the “Lanvin” style of tailored dresses, full skirts and ankle lengths, and those feminine and defined shapes despite all the volume.

This evening dress marked Lanvin-Castillo, by Antonio Canovas del Castillo and made in 1956 (© Met Museum), both recalls the tiered trimmings and bustled silhouettes of 1880s fashions and embodies the romantic, youthful spirit for which the house was known. The style was captured in a striking photograph by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar in 1956, (© Harper’s Bazaar) in which model Suzy Parker leans over a pinball machine, forming a sweeping arc of dramatically lit tulle against a dark background.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo photographed by Richard Avedon for Harpers in 1956

Lanvin-Castillo Tag

At Lanvin, Castillo experienced the golden age of his career as a couturier. For 13 years, he mastered collection after collection, gained the respect and love of the most demanding Parisian and international public, situating the name of the house and his own among the big names of haute couture at its peak time. In 1963 Castillo decided to establish his own couture house, only open for four years, with the unconditional support of two of his most faithful clients, Barbara Hutton and Gloria Guiness. During this time, he worked for private clients, theatre and film, which brought him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Goldilocks (musical) in 1959 and an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the British film Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971 (shared with Yvonne Blake).

Dress by Lanvin-Castillo, 1957. Henry Clarke. Condé Nast Archive

As a final note, in 1961 Castillo hired  a very young Dominican designer living in Madrid named Óscar de la Renta, but that is another story.

Thoughts on Birkenstocks

Birkenstock website homepage.

The other day, while mindlessly scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I stopped for a few seconds as an ad for a Vogue article entitled: ‘BirkenShock! After 242 Years, Birkenstock Premieres at Paris Fashion Week’ caught my eye. Nevermind the fact that this means that all of the lovely internet cookies are doing their slightly scary work of keeping track of the fact, that yes, I have been googling Vogue a lot. What really struck me was the article’s meaning, however. Birkenstock? At Paris Fashion Week? Really? I chuckled slightly, and then sat back in awe, marvelling at what appears to be a genius piece of marketing strategy. Growing up as a child in Germany, I can safely say that, in my own experience, Birkenstocks were popular, but not cool, let alone fashionable. Practical? Yes. But not cool at all. They were worn widely but seemed especially popular in slightly musty smelling organic shops. Not at all like the health food, hipster-ised places today, but the ones you only ventured into when you had a genuine food allergy (dairy and wheat in my case) and had no other choice. You would be served by middle-aged, muscular, skinny women called Maike or Ortrud, that probably lived on a diet of sunflower seeds and herbal tea alone; fabulous non-conformists with sun tanned skin, crop tops and long skirts. The other place the cork soled shoe could be spotted almost with certainty every time was a doctor’s office. Pared with clinical white trousers, shirts and overcoats they formed part of the uniform of horror that greeted you for your set of vaccinations – a known traumatic experience of any childhood. Birkenstocks back then were and still are deemed as a health shoe; they were comfortable and practical, impeccably German and not the most aesthetically pleasing.

The short article in Vogue, too stresses their health aspect, but quotes Birkenstock’s CEO as justifying the brand’s venture into fashion by saying: ‘We have been in the fashion industry for so many years already! Go around and ask every top photographer and stylist, they are all wearing Birkenstock…’. And really, while flicking through the slideshow of the fashion show on Vogue’s website you do feel that the shoe slots right in. The fact that the article appears in Vogue alone lends them increasing fashion credibility. Birkenstock’s own website also highlights them as a shoe for creatives, interviewing a few Londoners working in the creative field (fashion curator Shonagh Marshall amongst them) to showcase just how fashionable they are.

The Vogue article

Birkenstock’s are, for me, one of those very straightforward examples of the constant volatility within the cycle of fashion and also the tension between what is popular but not necessarily fashionable at any given moment and period of time. Clearly for me, the article in Vogue perhaps suggest I get over my childhood trauma, and give into the fashionable comfy-ness of the ultimate German shoe. Different to many other fashion fads, at least this one promises to keep my feet healthy…

Sources:

http://www.vogue.com/article/paris-fashion-week-birkenstock

http://mag.birkenstock.com/the-birkenstock-appreciation-club/

One Aspect of an Exhibition: Viewers and Wearers at MoMu’s Margiela: The Hermès Years

Teaser – Margiela, the Hermès years from MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp on Vimeo.

How can you tell people what it is like to wear certain clothes without letting them try anything on? For curators this is a constant question – how to create an exhibition that expresses every facet of what clothes are.  Frequently, the answer lies elsewhere, the focus is placed on a designer’s creativity, or perhaps on the drama of catwalk shows and fashion photography. But at the heart of fashion are the wearers – and so, how do you enable exhibition visitors to understand clothes they will probably never put on?

This question is especially pertinent when the designer has placed emphasis on the wearer’s experience, rather than the viewer’s.  At Mode Museum Antwerp’s current exhibition Margiela: The Hermès Years, one way that the feel, fit and flow of the garments on the body is conveyed is through a series of short films by Guido Verelst played alongside the outfits themselves. These show models that walked in the original Hermès’ shows – moving in the clothes to demonstrate how they are worn.  Rather than striding as in a catwalk, these are subtler performances that enact the garments’ key qualities, and make visible the exhibition’s themes.  In one, Shirley Jean-Charles dressed in the A/W 1998-99 collection allows the supple black layers of her ensemble to slip slowly from her shoulders – the gossamer thin rainproof voile over buttery soft leather glide down her back, and as viewers our sense memories connect visual and material.  While we are not, of course, allowed to touch anything, this slow motion movement evokes a multi-sensory response.

Film’s own haptic surface and constant movement mirrors what is represented – the screen makes the images material, as they flicker before our eyes.  The model’s fluid gestures amplify this, and link to the way we move and feel in our clothes.  Not all of us may be able to wear the incredible, high quality fabrics that Margiela used during his time at Hermès from 1997-2003, but the curators draw our attention to the details, and surfaces to allow us to appreciate his work in deeper ways.

With thanks to Elisa de Wyngaert

Discovering ‘The World of Anna Sui’

Entrance to the Fashion and Textile Museum.

May 2017 will stand out in designer Anna Sui’s memory as a month full of successes and landmarks. As well as receiving an honorary degree from Parsons School of Design, the designer and her influential career became the subject of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum’s latest exhibition. Entitled ‘The World of Anna Sui,’ the show takes visitors on a journey through the Chinese-American designer’s inspirations, obsessions and most iconic moments, which formed her style and established her as one of the key figures of 90s American look, alongside names such as Marc Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi.

A view of the entrance to the exhibition space.

The title of the exhibition could not be more accurate – as soon as one steps into the first gallery, Sui’s vision becomes unmistakable and overwhelming. Her voice beams out of the speakers as she describes how she came to be interested in fashion, proclaims her love for Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, and explains how her own style developed in her teenage years, despite strange looks from her peers. As the visitors listen to Sui’s narrative, archive videos of The Beatles, celebrity culture, markets at Portobello and Carnaby, and scenes of boho youths frolicking in the park bring into forefront the environments and mentalities within which Sui grew up, capturing her imagination, and eventually manifesting themselves in her designs. With the understanding of her background, Anna Sui’s exhilarating universe is ready to be explored.

A photograph of Anna Sui’s first boutique at 113 Greene Street in Soho, New York, which opened in 1992.

The main gallery space almost teleports the visitor into one of Sui’s boutiques, a photograph of which is featured in the corridor between the different rooms. Entering through a grand, black lacquered door, groups of mannequins clad in Sui’s extraordinary garments, arranged according to their clique (nomads, punks, mods, surfers, rockstars and schoolgirls all make an appearance), lure the spectator deeper into the space, in an almost hypnotic state. The colours, patterns, textiles and surfaces are otherworldly, creating a kaleidoscope of all the characters one can become in Sui’s fashions. With vitrines in which shoes, make-up, sunglasses, hats and other Sui paraphernalia are showcased, the gallery space is almost a treasure chest in which anyone and everyone can find something to lust over. Completing and complementing the exhibits are purple walls, red platforms and Sui’s signature pattern with which the space is decorated. The curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibitions designer Beth Ojari transformed the relatively small space of the Fashion and Textile Museum, with great success, into an enchanting and intriguing environment.

A view of the ‘Fairytale’ section.

Installation of the ‘Punk’ garments.

The ‘Rockstar and Hippie’ group with Sui’s signature patterned wallpaper.

‘The World of Anna Sui’ is unlike any other recent fashion exhibitions. While the space is limited and a lot is packed in, it is never to the detriment of the clothes on show. There is something reminiscent of Diana Vreeland’s multi-sensory exhibitions at The Met’s Costume Institute in the London show. Unsurprisingly, the designer loved Vreeland’s stories for Vogue and The Met. Consequently, Sui’s perfume is pumped into the rooms of the Fashion and Textile Museum, corresponding to the message the garments are relaying. As such, ‘Sui Dreams,’ a perfume described as “inspired by independent women who follow their hearts and exceed their own expectations” provides the scent for the first gallery, that of Sui’s influences and childhood dreams. The main space, where the iconic Anna Sui garments are on show, fills one’s nose with ‘Fairy Dance,’ offering “an escape into a mystical garden where fantasy lives. A happy, whimsical place filled with sunlight and the enchantment of the fairy world.” Not much can be more appropriate for Sui’s story-filled collections. Elsewhere, Nirvana cries out from the speakers, while visitors can study Sui’s design process through the installed mood boards, or find out about the figures she collaborates with on her shows, such as make-up artist Pat McGrath, milliner James Caviello and photographer Steven Meisel. The exhibition is all encompassing, rich, informative, joyful and optimistic. An absolute must-see this summer! And don’t forget to visit the gift shop – you can take a bit of Anna Sui away with you in the form of her fabulous make-up, a scarf, or Tim Blanks’ new coffee-table book on the designer published in conjunction with the exhibition, also titled The World of Anna Sui. And one last tip – leave yourself a lot of time to peruse the exhibition, you will not want to leave!

A cabinet filled with an array of sunglasses and other accessorues from Sui’s shows through the years.

An example of Sui’s research board for a collection – here, Hawaii is on her mind.

‘The World of Anna Sui’ runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum until October 1, 2017.