The Life and Collection of Charles W. Stewart

 Charles Stewart, Rosie, Wearing Day-Dress, c. 1873, 1970. Watercolour on paper. Private collection. © Estate of the artist.

Charles Stewart, Rosie, Wearing Day-Dress, c. 1873, 1970. Watercolour on paper. Private collection. © Estate of the artist.

Woman's bodice in purple silk, part of a dress ensemble (A.1977.737.1-3), with high round neckline trimmed with lace, fitted to waist with a flared skirt, fastening centre front with seven buttons, wrist length sleeves, trimmed with purple satin silk: European, possibly British, c. 1870 - 1873 Museum reference A.1977.737.1 Image © National Museums Scotland

Woman’s bodice in purple silk, part of a dress ensemble (A.1977.737.1-3), with high round neckline trimmed with lace, fitted to waist with a flared skirt, fastening centre front with seven buttons, wrist length sleeves, trimmed with purple satin silk: European, possibly British, c. 1870 – 1873
Museum reference
Image © National Museums Scotland

Dress, c. 1876-1878 Museum reference K.2014.23.1&2 Image © National Museums Scotland

Dress, c. 1876-1878
Museum reference
Image © National Museums Scotland

A pair of shoes by Edwin Bitton, 1835-1840 Museum reference A.1977.491 Image © National Museums Scotland

A pair of shoes by Edwin Bitton, 1835-1840
Museum reference
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference Pending Registration Image © National Museums Scotland

Museum reference
Pending Registration
Image © National Museums Scotland

While Charles William Stewart (1915-2001) mainly enjoyed the spotlight as an illustrator in the Royal Academy of Art’s 2014 exhibition “Charles Stewart: Black and White Gothic”, he also contributed to one of the most significant dress collections in the United Kingdom. Having personally worked with Stewart’s collection at National Museums Scotland, I found his collection to contain extraordinary pieces, whilst providing a valuable insight in the process of collecting fashion and the remarkable life of its collector.

Born in the Philippines, Stewart was sent to live with his uncle at the family home of Shambellie House, near Dumfries, Scotland, as a three-year-old boy. The land had been in possession of his family since 1625, while the Victorian mansion was built in 1855 after the design of principal Scottish architect David Bryce. In 1932, he started his study at Byam Shaw School of Painting and Drawing, during which time he was inspired to take up ballet by Colonel de Basil’s “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo”. In 1936 and 1937, he was hired “by a freak of fortune” as a dancer at Covent Garden and was asked to design the male costumes and Lydia Sokolova’s solo costume for Thomas Beecham’s “Aida”. He continued work as a costume designer or assistant designer until the war, when his refusal to take lives led him to become a conscientious objector and join the Air Raid Precautions instead. With the 1946 commission to illustrate Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas”, he made the permanent career switch to illustration.

Like many historical fashion enthusiasts, Stewart’s passion for historical fashion began at a young age, when he came across a china doll in a mock 18th century dress in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. He later said: “[it] seemed to me supremely beautiful and I coveted [it] with the sharp acquisitive desire which collectors know so well”. To aid him with his historical illustrations, he collected numerous items from Portobello Road and Bermondsey Market (historical fashion had little value at the time so was cheap to acquire), although he favoured a shop in Soho. Shared by 23 cats, the trunks of garb were in an attic “where the rays of a winter sunset could scarcely penetrate the grime of ages on the window panes”. Here he found, illustrative to the diversity of his collection, two 18th century men’s dressing gowns as well as theatrical costumes worn by actors of Sir Henry Irving’s theatre company.

He used small labels to keep track of where he had found each item, his year of origin estimation and any additional information about the wearer. Many of his labels are still attached today as can be seen in the photo of accessories below. While mid-20th century methods of textile conservation were at times dubious, he was adamant about the care of his collection and had his housekeeper launder and pack his entire collection in plastic bags (see the trimmings in the plastic bag).

By 1977, the anxiety about his collection being dispersed upon his death led him to donate his entire historical fashion collection, consisting of 2,000 pieces, to the Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museums Scotland). His family home, Shambellie House, was donated to the Scottish Government with the intent of displaying some pieces of his fashion collection. The Shambellie House Museum of Costume first opened in 1982, but sadly closed as a public museum in 2013. The pieces on display were then returned to NMS where the vast majority of his collection had been stored since donation.

His fashion collection is as diverse as his life’s experiences and includes dresses, skirts, bodices, capes, shoes, hats, hair pieces, belts, hosiery and men’s suits from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, both branded and unbranded. The collection covers dress for different occasions and parts of the day, including daywear, eveningwear (many skirts come with day- and eveningwear bodices), dressing gowns, wedding dresses and performance costumes. The non-textile part of his donation includes fashion plates from the late 18th century, full publications from the 19th century such as bound copies of “The Lady’s Magazine”, and his stunning watercolour designs for period stage costumes created in c. 1972-73. While Stewart bought most of the pieces, he also received many donations and an endearing part of the collection consists of his mother’s 1950s dresses.

The beautiful purple bodice (A.1977.737.1), a Worth dress and Lanvin cape from Stewart’s collection can be seen in the new “Fashion and Style Gallery” at National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, whilst other pieces of his collection can be viewed by appointment.

Timothy Long on becoming a fashion curator, peacock feathers, and social media…

Tim working at the store at the Museum of London. Copyright: Museum of London.

Tim working at the store at the Museum of London. Copyright: Museum of London.

“This #fashion business is hard work! Words can't describe how much fun I'm having bringing this collection to you!❤”. Copyright: Tim Long on Twitter

“This #fashion business is hard work! Words can’t describe how much fun I’m having bringing this collection to you!❤”. Copyright: Tim Long on Twitter

You hold a BA in fashion/apparel design. Did you know right after graduation that you wanted to become a fashion curator?

I knew before going into that program that I was interested if not in being a fashion curator, then in old clothes. I was 18-19 and I always had an interest in old clothes, but prior to my studies in fashion design I attended a music performance undergraduate program for two years. In my second year I realised it wasn’t for me; I was with other students who were very passionate for music, I wasn’t on their same level and I became quite jealous that they were so fuelled by something that I didn’t feel.

Also, in my family we have quite a few photographs of my ancestors dating back to about the 1870s and in those images there are women and men (but mainly women) dressed in styles that were very different to what my sister and other women in my family were wearing. It always stood out as something of interest, but a boy on a farm in the mid West is not really pushed into studying old clothes.

This is why I went with what I knew which was music, threatened to drop out, searched about to try and figure out what on earth I was to do, said all this to my course director and she mentioned that I should take a class on anthropology at the university. So, on the first day of “introductions to anthropology” the teacher used the civil war as an example of how a moment can affect material culture, and she discussed architecture, paintings and then she came upon clothing. That was the first time I’d ever hear anyone mention anything related to the study of historic dress and so I went up to her, mentioned to her why I was there, and she said I should look into the study of historic dress and textiles. So I did, and I chose fashion design as there are often fashion history courses.

I am also from a family of dressmakers and tailors, therefore dressmaking and clothing making is something I’ve been around and so it seems natural to me. So I went into undergraduate studies for fashion design but knowing that my goal was not to become a fashion designer, but rather, to eventually use that as a stepping-stone for graduate school in fashion history.

So, how did you end up at the Museum of London?

In order to graduate from my BA in fashion design I had to do an internship, I did that at the Chicago History Museum. My internship was ending at the time I was graduating and at the time I was looking into coming to England for graduate school. But the intern position that I had turned into an offer for a full-time permanent position as a collection manager of the Chicago History Museum’s fashion collection.

I was expecting to be there for a few years and then go to graduate school but that turned into 15 years, and I went from collection manager to assistant curator and then curator. After 15 years and a very exciting career there I began to want to see what else was out in the world, but I knew that if I was to apply for a position, my lack of graduate degree would be key, even though I had great experience of very large, traveling, multi-million dollar exhibitions; publications; and more. So I took a year of absence from my job at Chicago History Museum and came to London College of Fashion.

I was expecting to go back but I fell in love and got married, and so we decided to stay here. My partner is Italian and at the time we didn’t have the option of moving to the US or Italy as gay marriage was not allowed there, and so this was the only country that we could stay together. So I left my job, sold my house, left my family, arrived here and this job became available shortly thereafter. I’ve now been here for almost four years.

Why did you want to devote your career to fashion and textile history?

The reason why is because it is what fulfills my interests. I’ve found my passion. I know that it’s a luxury because I know that many people experience the same feeling I felt when I was at undergraduate school. So that’s why I decided to focus my energy, originally, because I really liked it.

For a long time I didn’t feel that I had a unique voice because I was young and inexperienced, I did not have a graduate degree, I never took label writing, museum nor curatorial studies, and so I felt really out of place very early on. I also had the pleasure of working alongside various seasoned curators very early on in my career who had tremendous influence on me but they just seemed so unobtainable in some way – I think that that was because I was 20-24. But then i found my specific interest, which is to look at the way in which garments are constructed, and I started thinking: “wait, I do, I’ve been around long enough now, I do have a voice, I do have something to say”. And so, that original passion continued to be fuelled by thinking that I might have something to offer. I had enough confidence in myself to have my own perspective.

You are currently working at The Museum of London for the past 4 years. What does your work there entail and your current project ‘Fashion & Science’ is about?

My job as a curator here is split into a variety of general tasks. One is assisting with academic research. Beatrice Behlen and I host about 450 people each year in the store, who are looking at the collection in a variety of ways, from individual undergraduate, MA and PhD students interested in whatever topic we might have, to student groups, so a significant amount of my time is aiding and hosting research.

Also, acquisition, looking at ways of adding pieces to the collections or finding where the holes might be. Recently I’ve acquired quite a bit of things specifically related to menswear – because menswear is a great interest of me.

Another task is considering what type of exhibitions we might be able to produce, from small displays, like next to us here [pointing to his left] is the small show space display, which is a quick rotation of a few cases that we can change every month or month and a half. 1 to 17 objects is the maximum I can put here.

We also have other quick rotation spaces. I am also working on the rotation of the Pleasure Garden display which is a costume display that was installed many years ago and needs a refresher. It is costume from 1735 to 1869 and now I’m beginning to come up with the object list for the 16 mannequins, dressed in styles from those dates.

The curatorial exhibition work involves knowing the collection well so a percentage of my time is just being in the collection. To answer researcher’s requests I go into the store and often I’ll spend extra time looking around just to try and get my eyes onto everything that exists so I know it well.

Additionally we are now about to move the collection, so a lot of my work is beginning to focus on what the new museum might be, so proposing ideas for curatorial work, exhibitions, for public programs, how we can use the collections in new and exciting ways… but then also beginning to prepare to move the collections (so a lot of collection management duties, etc.)

You are responsible for publishing onto the museum’s collections online, but you have gone a step further and are very active in social media too, showcasing some treasures from the museum’s collections. I’m very interested in that engagement with different audiences. Where the idea came from?

Social media was something that I was against for a while, because I did not find any value in it professionally. Although I had a Twitter account I didn’t use it for many years, and I’ve only been on Instagram for less than a year.

But that was wrong actually, I didn’t take the time, and also the reason why there was a negative reaction from me was that we were forbidden at first here to post anything related to the museum and that is because of licencing and copyright, intellectual property etc. And also, I think, there is a general negative reaction to social media that most museums have, fearful that they are going to be sending out stuff that they can make money on, fearful of it being taken the wrong way.

But then I started to prepare for launching my personal website. I was going through my CV and, in my previous job I had about two exhibitions that I curated per year, ranging from 35 objects up to 120 objects – medium size to large – multimillion-dollar exhibitions. When I was then updating my activity at the Museum of London my activity all but ceased, dried up, because we don’t have galleries here, we have one that is rotatable, and so all of a sudden was all this dearth of work as a curator. So I started to worry that if people were to look at my CV they would think, “what has he been doing for this last years? Why has he gone from 30 some odd major exhibitions to none?”.

It was about that time that the communications department here were starting to urge us to consider social media. We were maturing as an institution at the same time that I was starting to think that it could actually be a platform to talk about my work. I can have a voice here instead of waiting to produce an exhibition of substance, which might take years, I can talk about the collection through social media.

And also to finally answer this quest, I’ve had been trying to replicate those Aha! moments I have often in the store when I open a box and gasp because there is something amazing inside. Or when I bring people with me into the store, students or researchers, they also have those gasping moments, so it’s been a career long obsession to try and replicate that. If you put something on an exhibit it’s quite slick, so you really you don’t have the aha! moment of opening a box or a drawer.

How did it happen, was it planned?

All of that clicked one day and I decided to post a photo of what I was doing and it got a decent response, but although I thought it was interesting, I was sort of scolded by the museum because I didn’t put copyright in the image. But I protested, I think it shows something quite negative because most of the museums don’t put copyright in their images. Thankfully the response that I’ve got was positive.

Then I started posting videos which have got a great response, and it’s been remarkable. It kind of came about not in a very active way originally, but now I see it as a very high value, the museum sees it as a high value. Almost in every moment seems to be something tweetable or intagramable because I work with very cool things.

And where do you want to go with it?

Now we are starting to mature the idea, I’m getting better devices. Right now I’m doing it just with my phone, so sometimes you can see the shake in my hand or it’s not smooth, so I’m getting some devices to hold the phone and to make the transition smoother. We’ve tried to do it a bit more slick but I think that sort of goes against the idea. I’ve also tried with different software to put digital labels instead of the paper ones, but almost immediately people say: “bring back the paper labels!”.

It’s amazing, because never in my job outside of those aha! moments in the store, do we get that immediate experience, although with the ability to communicate the kind of questions that one might naturally ask if they are at an exhibition. I don’t have to wait for an exhibition now, I can find how I write labels or how I talk about labels based on the feedback I get from social media.

Twitter used to be my main focus but now the activity has gotten much greater on Instagram once they increased their video length… some of them having currently more than 45,000 views. Instagram seems to be a much greater reach and presents a much greater discussion – it also seems to be a 24h response.

Moreover we are about to do our first live presentation through Facebook at the end of October, trying to push the envelope a bit with what I do on social media and think a bit outside of the box now that the response has been so great.

The Fashion and Science project and the re-dress of the Pleasure Garden are two projects that we were hoping to use the research as things to promote on social media, so instead of an exhibition only being promoted once it’s open, now we are using the re-dress, the conservation, the mounting of the mannequins, the selection process… as something that we post on social media instead of “now it’s open, come look”, so that’s something new we are experimenting with now.

Social media is something that before would’ve been part of my job, but now it’s a task in my PMD. It’s something I really want to do and the museum wants to have embedded it in what I do as a curator.

What is your favorite piece from the collection and/or over the years?

The favourite piece I’ve ever worked with would be the Charles James “Puffer Coat”. I did my dissertation on James, I’ve curated an exhibition on Charles James and then recently I’ve published a book with the V&A about James “Charles James fashion designer in detail”. So one of my all time favourites is the Charles James Puffer Coat, late 1930s white acetate satin coat. And I’ve got a project brewing just on that piece. I had the pleasure of working with it, I figured out how it’s made, I’m not sure if others have yet, so I’d like to publish something on that.

Here at the museum my favourite item shifts – as you can imagine – but currently it is this beautiful late-18th Century men’s ensemble that is being considered for the re-dress of the Pleasure Garden. It is silk satin with an embroidered peacock feather in silk thread.

If I remember well, you posted this piece in social media?

Yes I did. And when I posted it I did not click that there was a peacock feather. Until Paul Bench (colleague, friend and follower on social media) asked if that was a peacock feather. What is exciting about that is that my understanding of the term peacock as a way to describe a flamboyantly dressed men is something that I thought was mostly in the 1960s.

Finding this jacket and the embroidered feather made me question how long men have been referred to as peacocks and I found out that it is actually quite old. I found a reference that the 14th Century is the earliest time a man was referred to as a peacock, who was flamboyantly dressed. So that means that in the 18th Century the term had been around for many hundreds of years, and so this man, wearing this exquisite piece with a peacock feather was certainly not coincidental. The kind of humour that is involved in that, the concept of perhaps a dandy represented here earlier than we think (typically of dandies is the 19th Century). We don’t know anything about the original wearer but now we have a little bit more. He would potentially have ordered it that way, he would’ve taken great pride in wearing it.

Because all of that is why right now this piece is my favourite, but that might change soon when I find another amazing piece.

You can check Timothy’s social media work on:

Twitter @fasion_curator

Instagram as @timothylongfashioncurator


Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior

After Raf Simons abruptly left his position as creative director at Dior after just three years last October, Dior was left with the task of recruiting, once again, a designer that would be able to continue the legacy and shoulder the burden of designing for one of Paris’ grandest fashion houses.

Maria Grazia Chiuri was announced as Simons’ successor, the first female creative director at Dior and lately of Valentino, where she formed one half of a successful 26-year-long design partnership with Pierpaolo Piccioli that began in the accessories department of Fendi. Her debut was scheduled for the 30th of September, at the end of a season fraught with questions of see-now-buy now, the pace of the system, and street-style spats, that also saw new hands at work at Saint Laurent (Antony Vaccerello) and Lanvin (Bouchra Jarrar).

The opportunity afforded by a single fashion show is well known to the house of Dior. In February 1947, a single presentation saw the popular dress of that decade transformed. Heralded as the most influential fashion event of the century, the collection was worthily dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, and subsequently took on a mythic quality. The clothes’ exaggeratedly feminine silhouette, marked by tiny waists, generous hips and skirts full of volume were explicitly conceived in marked opposition to post-war, uniform-like austere dress. These new designs were created for ‘flower-like’ women. Dior’s awareness of the power of a single fashion show was re-established with the 2014 documentary film ‘Dior and I’, which captured the weeks running up to and including Raf Simon’s debut. Following in the footsteps of star designers and creative caretakers of this legacy (John Galliano and Yves Saint Laurent amongst them), under the scrutiny of the international press, crucial clients, and with a 1% drop in sales in the first quarter of 2016 having just been reported, Maria Grazia Chiuri faced one of the industry’s greatest challenges.

As guests took their seats in a simple, wooden-floored tent in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, a clue would emerge from the catwalk – laid out in the same format as the vast majority of Chiuri’s previous Valentino presentations. Striding out a soundtrack of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’, featuring author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism, a newly pixie-cropped Ruth Bell sported a fencing-inspired ensemble, complete with heart motif on her left breast. Dior’s signature bar jacket, here with the regal peplum slimmed down, was relegated to the 31st look.

Rather than referencing and reworking the house’s famous feminine silhouettes then, Chiuri had opted to explore the house’s feminine principles – a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘we should all be feminists’ was matched with a long, flowing tulle skirt. Instead of voluminous proportions and nipped in waists, dresses were straight, sheer, revealing the straight up and down proportions of an especially youthful crop of models. Sportswear elements finished off many pieces, underwear was visible, braided hair referenced skaters. Inspiration for the slew of evening gowns’ ethereal embroidery was sought from Christian Dior’s highly superstitious nature, but were altogether too reminiscent of Valentino for many commentators (the top to toe blood red of two looks, the only explicit colour in this offering, is a particular Valentino signature). A regular visitor to clairvoyants, Dior was said to read tarot cards before each of his shows; motifs from these, lucky clovers, hearts and the number 8 were scattered throughout Chiuri’s designs. Dior and Chiuri happen to both be Aquarius. Astrologers would forecast that the age of Aquarius would bring upheaval; Chiuri’s debut was certainly a departure from her predecessors, but will have the impact of the New Look? Or was there simply not enough that was new?

As Tim Blanks noted, Chiuri has not had the ‘time to osmose the extraordinary archives at Dior; it was inevitable that she would fall back on what she was familiar with from her time at Valentino.’ CEO Sidney Toledano stated that Chiuri’s experience creating buzz-generating accessories was an important factor in her appointment in an interview with the Business of Fashion. Aside from explicit ‘J’aDIOR’ branded underpinnings (which, at a more ‘accessible’ price point will surely fly off shelves as logos see a surge in popularity this season) the issue for the consumer and regular deep-pocketed clients though is whether the clothes are evocative enough of a heritage that can arguably be pinned on a specific silhouette, here in dispute, to be worth investing in. Only next year’s financial report will tell.


Why Art History Matters

We read with distress the AQA Exam Board’s decision to drop Art History as an A and AS Level – this means the qualification will no longer be offered in any UK schools.  For those of us, who, like me have spent their adult lives working within the field, this decision is deeply worrying and suggests a lack of appreciation for the subject’s significance and impact at school level.

Professor Debby Swallow, Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld, wrote an eloquent response to this news:

“The definition of Art History as a ‘soft subject’ and the demise of its existence as an A Level seriously misunderstands a subject which is enormously important to the economy, culture and well-being of this country.  History of Art is a rigorous interdisciplinary subject, which gives its students the critical skills to deal with a world that is increasingly saturated with images. It brings together visual analysis with history, languages, literature, chemistry, and art and design to name but a few inter-related areas of study and research. Those studying it at university level have a significant impact across the cultural sector, especially in public museums and galleries. Art History as a subject needs to be much better known and not denigrated. The Courtauld Institute of Art, the oldest higher education institution in this country dedicated to its study, is deeply committed to increasing understanding and enjoyment of the study of the history of art and to working with others to ensure that it is embedded across the school curriculum and is accessible to all our school students.”

We should be seeking to expand the subject, rather than, as the government’s policies with regards to school curricula have meant, reducing the focus on Arts subjects.  As our Head of Public Programmes Henrietta Hine comments, ‘In terms of widening participation young people can’t apply to study art history at university if they don’t know it exists as a subject; ceasing to offer the A level will surely only exacerbate the situation.’  Something leading Make Up Artist Kay Montano expresses in her comment:


Comments added to our Instagram posts citing Swallow’s statement and protesting this decision have shown the wealth of support for the subject in general – and the importance of maintaining, and indeed, working to increase its presence in British schools, opening it up to a broader range of young people.  As these responses from Theo Johns, a Fine Art Dealer and Agent, Farah Ebrahimi, Art Director at e15 and Philipp Mainzer Office for Art & Design, and Leslie Camhi, a journalist and author who has written for titles including Vogue and The New York Times show – art history opens our eyes to wider cultural significances and events:

theojohnsfineart farah-ebrahimi lesliecamhi

And, as Swallow points out, in an age of increasing reliance on images to communicate diverse meanings, cutting a subject that is predicated on developing an acute eye for representation’s significance and cultural resonances is wrong-headed.  This was something many of our Instagram followers commented on, including textile designer Peter D’Ascoli, and Art Historian and Costume maker Serena Foksaner:

peterdascoli serena_fokshaner

Art History as Gateway to Careers

Our alumni destinations demonstrate the breadth of experience and transferrable skills art history graduates have – in addition to those who find jobs in museums, galleries and academic, we have many who go on to work in law, banking, journalism, design, publishing and with the government, as well as many other fields. To illustrate this, here is the latest list of where our most recent former students were working six months after graduation – and remember, this is just from The Courtauld Institute:

  • Art Cuéllar-Nathan
  • Barbican Centre
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Christie’s
  • David Chipperfield Architects
  • English Heritage
  • Frieze
  • Halcyon Gallery
  • Midas PR
  • National Trust
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection
  • Pinewood Studios
  • Rijksmuseum
  • Royal Academy of Arts
  • Saatchi Gallery
  • Sotheby’s
  • Tate
  • The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • University of Cambridge
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Yale Center for British Art

Source: Based on the latest Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey: 6 months after graduation

Art History, Dress & Fashion

My own students in Dress History, a branch of art history that again encompasses the subject’s breadth and diversity have an equally impressive range of post-graduation employment, ranging from museums and galleries, including The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to the Mode Museum in Antwerp and Tate Modern.  Others have worked within the fashion industry, as buyers, as journalists, for example at The Stylist, at Conde Nast and for fashion show producers.  Their success is indicative of the skills art history imparts, and the passion it instills in people to think creatively about historical and contemporary culture.

This relationship between understanding of art and dress history, again supports Hine’s comment about school level teaching opens young people up to the wider range of subjects that it is possible to explore at university level.  Something several of our Instagram followers commented on, including fashion historian Cassidy Zachary – @the_art_of_dress –


Art History A Level also plays a significant role for many British fashion journalists and designers, providing early exposure to the ways art resonates within our culture, and how it has been and can be a key influence on designs – as seen in London womens- and menswear designer Phoebe English’s reaction:


Art History should be valued as a bridge between history, geography, literature and languages, and art and design subjects – it is a way to appreciate connections between arts and humanities and science subjects, and a conduit for creative expression in practical forms – as one commenter from New Zealand highlighted:


Sarah Mower, US Voguerunway Chief Critic and British Fashion Council Ambassador for Emerging Talent has been ardent in her support for this campaign.  She credits her hugely successful career in fashion journalism to studying art history and benefitting from the myriad skills it equips us with:

“I was taught art history by Griselda Pollock and TJ Clark at Leeds University – it changed my way of being able to parse imagery, adding to what I had learned through history of art at state school, and It’s impossible to imagine being where I am without that. Fluency in art history and the ability to embed layers of meaning in clothes is a given amongst British educated fashion designers- I really believe it is deeply of the essence of our national character in fashion which others look at and envy, but cannot replicate, because these things start right back in childhood – and at school. High flyers in fashion who emerge in Britain constantly apply art history to their collections – they know how to research, and often backstage interviews are like art and fashion seminars today. Erdem’s spring collection was based on the discovery of 17th century clothes on a sunken ship, and his research in Bath museum of fashion; Mary Katrantzou quoted the art and archaeology of Knossos, Sarah Burton’s McQueen collection went into enormous depth about Scottish culture and includes a dress which uses the inspiration of a Victorian etching of a shipwreck, Phoebe Philo’s Celine quoted Yves Klein, JW Anderson borrowed from Henry V111’s portraits and discussed doublets and slashed sleeves backstage. This is just to skim the surface of the most recent round of shows – My point being: this level of creative practice is part and parcel of Britain’s commercial advantage in fashion. Fashion in the UK is worth £28 billion to the economy – take away the cultural alchemy of the creative intelligence which our designers turn into design, and you just have garments.  Whilst it is pure idiocy of a government to excise a crucial commercial weapon – if they want to look at it that way – we must look at their excuses for doing so. Firstly they complain they cannot find examiners – surely there are hundreds who are reading this who can volunteer? How do we do that? Secondly, supporting teachers and teaching – how can we, the creative community, do that in practical ways? Thirdly – I want to know how these decisions about A levels were made, and are only now being presented as a fait accompli. Frankly, it is to easy to sit around writing letters to the Guardian. Practical action has to be taken.”

We urge you to sign Courtauld alumnae Nerissa Taysom’s petition to show your support for maintaining Art History as an A Level subject and to campaign for a reversal of this decision:


Comment using the link at the bottom of The Guardian’s letter page:

Click the link at the bottom of The Telegraph’s page to answer NO to the question ‘Do you support the decision to scrap A-level art history?’:


The Art Newspaper:

Association of Art Historians:


Raoul Dufy for Bianchini Ferier, Gazette du Bon Ton 1920, no. 8

Raoul Dufy textile print “Longchamp” for Bianchini Ferier, Gazette du Bon Ton 1920, no. 8, Courtauld collections

Raoul Dufy for Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, no. 1

Raoul Dufy for Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, no. 1, Courtauld collections

Degas, Lady with a Parasol, 1870-72

Degas, Lady with a Parasol, 1870-72, Courtauld collections

30 Second Fashion / Fashion in 30 Seconds



4-madeleine-vionnet-double-page-spread-from-30-second-fashionAbout 18 months ago I was contacted by Ivy Press and asked if I’d like to work on a book called 30 Second Fashion. It was to be part of a series of 30 Second … books – each covering a specific topic, which is divided into 50 essential themes, with each theme then discussed over a double page spread that can be read in 30 seconds.

This sounded like a challenge not to be missed – but how to you boil fashion down into 50 topics? That was the first task – once I’d agreed to take on the role of consultant editor. So I set about making a list, trying to think what someone would want to know, or need to know if they were interested in fashion, but just starting to find out about it …  Some things were obvious – something on different types of fashion – haute couture, ready-to-wear etc, but also a section on streetstyle. The various types of media involved in promoting fashion needed to be included and influential designers … and … and … the list got long, then was cut down, then refined to make it as clear and comprehensive as possible.  You can see what I ended up choosing in the image showing the contents page.

Next, was to decide who to ask to write each section. I took on some topics myself (I can never pass up the opportunity to write about Madeleine Vionnet, for example – I’ve included that spread here for you to see), but I wanted to approach people I knew could produce fluent, wonderful text – and importantly, who could be ultra concise, and very prompt, as the deadline was short.

I was lucky – all my first choices said ‘yes’ and they were all as brilliant as I knew they would be.  Several were former students from The Courtauld – all have varied and fascinating interests and experience that made for an interesting group of contributors:

Julia Rea loves Chanel, really understands the contemporary industry and is a freelance writer

Katerina Pantelides is great on details and how history and contemporary meet and is writing a novel

Rebecca Straub is currently at Yale University studying for a PhD and is always great on imagery

Emma McClendon is brilliant on key figures in the industry and is now Assistant Curator at Museum at FIT

All had previously studied with me at MA or PhD level, so I knew they would produce perfect, well-researched text.  And finally, two long-standing friends and peers:

Olga Vainshtein, who knows all there is to know about digital media and fashion – and who is one of Russia’s leading fashion historians

Alison Toplis, brilliant researcher and writer, and fount of knowledge on fashion history (- we met when we studied History of Dress together at The Courtauld).

So I knew I had a wonderful team, all of whom understood the project immediately. They were an absolute pleasure to work with and I want to thank all of them for being completely brilliant throughout the process.

I also want to thank everyone at Ivy Press. It has been great working with you, we were all given the support we needed, and the book looks wonderful!

It’s really fascinating to work on something like this – to have the opportunity to gather together great people and see how they condense such a vast topic into a small space.

The book is published today – hope you enjoy it!

Rebecca Arnold, 30 Second Fashion, Ivy Press, Fashion Book

Welcome to our New MA History of Dress students!

La Donna, July 1934

Front cover of La Donna, July 1934


Front cover of Harper’s Bazaar, July 1936

Front cover of Jardin des modes, March 1952

Front cover of Jardin des modes, March 1952. Just a few examples of some of the imagery we will be looking at from our History of Dress magazine collections.

The new term has started and it is time to welcome our new group of History of Dress MA students to the Courtauld! Our course is entitled ‘Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1960’ and over the next 9 months we will be exploring fashion within an interdisciplinary framework – as image, object, text and idea.

Our course comprises two elements – a grounding in key theories, methodologies and approaches to studying dress history and fashion studies, followed by a unique opportunity to analyse American and European fashion and identity during the interwar, war and early Cold War periods. The first section of the course, which I teach in the Autumn term, addresses issues including dress as autobiography, sensory and emotional responses to fashion, and the development of the fashion industry and media.

The second section, taught by Rebecca in the Spring term, applies these ideas to focus on the role of different types of imagery as sources for fashion, dress and the body. We will re-evaluate the visual history of this key period, by starting from images of the ‘everyday,’ that show dress as it was actually worn, so that we can consider the impact of developments in film and photography on fashion. This will be examined in relation to fashion’s representation in magazines, from Life and Picture Post to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.  The work of photographers, including Martin Munkacsi Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Horst P Horst will be examined, as well as designs by Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and others.

We use case studies to consider relationships between looking, seeing and being – as evidenced through the links between and developments in readymade clothes, couture and representations of fashion in photography and film. We discuss what different media forms tell us about people’s perceptions of themselves and others, and how clothing can construct and alter appearance.  Throughout the year we will analyse how these images connect to body image, identity, ways of seeing, and modernity.

It’s going to be an exciting year of looking and thinking about dress and fashion, with a focus on America and Europe as sites of rapid developments in fashion, documentary photography, picture-based magazines and film during a period of flux – 1920-1960. Extensive online resources and The Courtauld’s History of Dress collections will be combined with visits to museums and archives in London, such as the Museum of London, V&A, the British Film Institute, Hampton Court, and in New York, such as FIT, MOMA, the Met and more, to study key example first hand.

We can’t wait to get started!

Marie Antoinette’s Street Comeback

Marie Antoinette by John Galliano for Christian Dior (2000). Caroline Weber discusses Galliano’s creation in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). As Weber notes, ‘one of the gown's two embroidered hip panels depict the notorious French queen frolicking at her country palace in shepherdess costume; the other shows her walking to the guillotine in rags. These details rightly suggest that her fate was inextricably intertwined with her clothing choices.'

Marie Antoinette by John Galliano for Christian Dior (2000). Caroline Weber discusses Galliano’s creation in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). As Weber notes, ‘one of the gown’s two embroidered hip panels depict the notorious French queen frolicking at her country palace in shepherdess costume; the other shows her walking to the guillotine in rags. These details rightly suggest that her fate was inextricably intertwined with her clothing choices.’

The second instalment of Rihanna’s collaboration with German sportswear brand Puma was unveiled during Paris Fashion Week. The inspiration behind the collection: Marie Antoinette. The result: street-style-cum-gym-class versions of Madame Déficite (and a couple of Messieurs). In Milan, Fendi had a few flowery, Marie Antoinette moments as well. A reminder perhaps that the French queen is celebrating her 10th anniversary as a contemporary fashion icon  – since Sofia Coppola put her on screen in her 2006 biopic and Vogue on the cover of its September issue. While never entirely absent – Madonna masqueraded as Marie Antoinette for a 1990 MTV performance of ‘Vogue’ and later in the promotional material of her 2004 ‘Reinvention’ Tour, while John Galliano featured his version of the queen in his Fall 2000 collection for Christian Dior – her aura arguably reached new heights. As The New York Times’ Alix Browne put it at the time: ‘M.A., it seems, is officially a brand.’ This is yet another comeback.

Rihanna broke into the Ivory Tower of Parisian fashion with a sportswear pastiche of Marie Antoinette’s sartorial legacy. A legacy crafted in part through subsequent, sugarcoated resurgences since little is left of her actual wardrobe, which was almost entirely destroyed during the French Revolution

Rihanna broke into the Ivory Tower of Parisian fashion with a sportswear pastiche of Marie Antoinette’s sartorial legacy. A legacy crafted in part through subsequent, sugarcoated resurgences since little is left of her actual wardrobe, which was almost entirely destroyed during the French Revolution

These Marie Antoinette vibes come on the heel of the Autumn/Winter 2016 shows’ 18th century-inspired collections. Rei Kawakubo devised an 18th-century version of the punks for Comme des Garçons. John Galliano at Maison Martin Margiela revived his ties to the Incroyables – the dandified, aristocratic youth of France’s Directoire years (1795-1799) and the theme of his seminal graduation collection of 1984. Shayne Olivier of New York label Hood By Hair also seemed to riff on their legacy. Assessing these 18th-century/punk revivals, T Magazine’s Alexander Fury argued that the Incroyables were in many ways the rebellious precedents of the rebellious 1970s movement. If not message, they shared means – dress as a form of protest. Fury noted:

‘The Incroyables emerged in the shadow of the revolution and the deaths of the Terror; punk sparked during the crippling recession of the early 1970s, alongside the oil crisis, the fall of Nixon and three-day week in Great Britain. Perhaps these echoes of the Incroyables are emerging now in reaction to similarly unsettled times…’

If 18th-century revivals can be read as a desire for dissent, what role does Marie Antoinette play in it?

In her modern guises, Marie Antoinette epitomises an assertive individuality that befits contemporary cravings for uniqueness and fashion’s promise to help achieve it. In the wake of Coppola’s film for example, she was heralded as a rebellious teen ‘who rocked Versailles’ for the purpose of selling ‘dramatic new silhouettes.’ If her body had been the site of ‘crucial political and cultural contests,’ it was now the site to express, in too diluted ways perhaps, teenage alienation – and a highly profitable highbrow rebelliousness.

Kristen Dunst on the cover of Vogue’s September issue of 2006, shot by Annie Leibovitz. You can view the full editorial here.

Kristen Dunst on the cover of Vogue’s September issue of 2006, shot by Annie Leibovitz. You can view the full editorial here.

But perhaps the stylistic extravagance she embodies has indeed re-emerged as a tool to manifest, if unwittingly, a form of (mild) dissent. Against the enduring lure of a lofty minimalism, Marie Antoinette offers excess as a counter-model. And excess, it seems, is a trend (think Gucci). A Marie Antoinette inflected wardrobe is an excuse to pair – as in Rihanna’s collection – pink lace, brocade, ribbons, ruffles, heels, pearls and so on, all at once. This time, however, to stroll the streets rather than VIP parties (at least in theory).

Thanks to Pop star royalty, Marie Antoinette has resurfaced as a potential street style star.

Rihanna paired the decadent extravagance of Marie Antoinette’s style with the slouchy comfortness of sportswear basics. The collection can be viewed here.

Rihanna paired the decadent extravagance of Marie Antoinette’s style with the slouchy comfortness of sportswear basics. The collection can be viewed here.

Further readings

On Marie Antoinette:

Dena Goodman and Thomas E. Kaiser, eds., Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen (New York: Routledge Member of the Taylor and Francis Group, 2003).

Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (New York, NY: Holt, Henry & Company, 2006).

On the lasting appeal of minimalism:

For a discussion of minimalism in high fashion:

Rebecca Arnold, ‘Luxury and Restraint: Minimalism in 1990s Fashion,’ in The Fashion Business; Theory, Practice, Image, ed. Nicola White and Ian Griffiths (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000), 167—81.


Jonathan Saunders for Diane von Furstenberg

Jonathan Saunders Spring 2017

Jonathan Saunders Spring 2017

Looks from DVF Spring 2017

Looks from DVF Spring 2017

After several years of attempting to pass on the reigns of her eponymous company, Diane von Furstenberg has at last seceded creative decision-making power to Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders, who has led the DVF design team as Chief Creative Officer over the past three months since his appointment in May 2016.

Saunders debuted his first collection Spring 2017 at New York Fashion Week on September 10, 2016. The new collection marks a drastic departure from the traditional DVF aesthetic and signature styles – jersey, chiffon and silk printed wrap dresses, skirts and tops. New is most definitely not bad, and indeed there is much good that will shortly be discussed. However, the collection seems to contradict several core DVF principles that have been firmly established since Von Furstenberg re-launched the label in 1997. These key tenets include effortlessness and femininity, which seem to be almost completely absent from Saunders’ collection.

Saunders has indeed reinvigorated the brand with his use of beautifully bold and modern new prints developed in-house, which should be especially commended as previously appointed creative directors at DVF have been known to repackage prints from the archives. The collection showcased knits, furs and outwear­–newer looks within the DVF repertoire – in addition to the more traditional separates and dresses in high quality fabrics either cut on the bias, draped or tailored to a generally chic “oversize” fit. However, while the brand will surely benefit from the reset, the former ease, understatement and femininity of DVF garments seems to have been lost in the excessive use of asymmetry, oversizing and ruffles.

Overall, the limited 30 looks released to the public (the collection was only debuted in front of a small group of fashion press) were beautiful – the print combinations were artful and several looks seemed wearable – especially a blue and burnt orange handkerchief dress styled with a neutral belt and sandals. However, I particularly found many of the one-shoulder blouse looks combined with ruffles across the chest puzzling. The blouses and over-flared trousers in particular seemed to obscure the natural feminine form lost far underneath the garments. Further, almost all of the looks that were waist-centric used belts instead of the more convenient, traditional wrap ties to cinch the waist. While on the whole the collection was refreshing, as a DVF collection, the woman who DVF designed for, and always maintained at the center of the brand, seems to be missing.

The 30 looks from the collection can be viewed on here.

Terence Donovan at The Photographers gallery

Terence Donovan, Chloé by Karl Lagerfeld, 1978.

Terence Donovan, Chloé by Karl Lagerfeld, 1978.

‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ French Elle, September issues of 1965 and 1966.

‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ French Elle, September issues of 1965 and 1966.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

Terence Donovan, ‘Dressed Overall,’ Nova, 1974.

British photographer Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996) helped redefine fashion photography in the 1960s. Alongside David Bailey and Brian Duffy, Donovan took part in the elaboration of a ‘new vision.’ Youthful, street-bound, unabashedly sexual and decidedly experimental, the images produced by the ‘The Terrible Three’ (as Cecil Beaton would refer to them) reflected the aspirations of a new generation. The unassuming Donovan is perhaps the lesser-known figure of the flamboyant trio.

Curated by photographic historian Robin Muir, the retrospective comprised a large number of fashion prints, magazine copies and portraits, an array of personal objects (Donovan’s studio books for instance) and examples of his music videos (the notorious Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer). The exhibition’s first section covered the 1960s – his early years, from the opening of his studio in 1959 to 1969. The second section straddled four-decades of work from the 1970s to his last, monumental ‘Cool Britannia’ shoot for GQ published just after his abrupt death in 1996.

The series titled ‘Manteaux arts modernes’ and ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel’ produced for French Elle’s September issues of 1965 and 1966 respectively, opened the first section. In ‘Les Manteaux arts modernes,’ a patterned Christian Dior two-piece suit echoes the cubic wall tiles in the background. In ‘Du nouveau sous le tunnel,’ a towering model in a futuristic white coat (possibly a Cardin) is given architectural dimensions. Both series play on the formal affinities between clothing and setting, yet they also evoke the disquieting atmosphere of film noir, in the interplay of light and shadow and the sense of angst elicited by emptied urban spaces.

The urban environment was key in fact to Donovan’s early years of experimentation with photography (in later work, he would favor the studio). In 1961, Donovan used London’s Road power station to shoot the latest menswear for British men’s magazine Man About Town. As Rebecca Arnold has noted, the Man About Town series bore references to both 1930s Hollywood gangster films and press photographs of London’s own, East End gangs. In Donovan’s images, the city it seems stood less as the symbol of an upbeat modernity than as an invocation of its dark, if glamorized, underworlds.

A 1974 series titled ‘Dressed Overall’ published in Nova magazine is an example of Donovan’s grittier, documentary-like approach. Shot in Deptford, South London, the series pairs functional, worker-like clothing with the biting atmosphere of a grey London in the midst of a recession. A sort of fictional reportage that verges on surveillance-like shots, it features the model named Ika as she leaves and returns to the neighbourhood’s housing estates. Acutely aware of her obsessive monitoring, she is magnetic in her defiance as she either purposefully ignores or stares back at the camera. The series stages, rather masterfully, a complex dialogue between camera and subject.

If Donovan’s photographs contrasted sharply with the lofty elegance and lavish decors of 1950s fashion photography, the photographer did not eschew colour (and there were plenty of examples on view), neither a sense of playfulness (nor for that matter, fashion photography’s highbrow affiliations). A 1972 series for Nova titled the ‘Heavenly suited’ is a dreamy example of Donovan’s use of colour. But just like his 1978 photograph of a Chloé design by Karl Lagerfeld, these images retain an almost solemn tone in the models’ frank stares and upright postures.

There is something highly appealing and at times almost disturbing (as we are made aware perhaps of our own, complicit gaze) about Donovan’s images and their ability to convey so forcefully a sense of the models’ presence.

If you have missed the exhibition, it is well worth taking a look at Terence Donovan’s images online.


Arnold, R., Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.


Fashion: A Very Short Introduction


The new academic year is just beginning here in the UK, so to welcome all the new students focused on Dress History and Fashion Studies, we are giving you a PDF to download that will hopefully get started on your new course!


Spectres exhibition, designed and curated by Judith Clark at Momu, Antwerp, 2005.

This is the Introduction to my book Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009), which discusses some of the definitions of the word fashion and its multiple meanings.  When I was writing this, I thought hard about how to introduce what is such a seemingly easy term that quickly becomes complex when you think of all the ways it is used within global culture.  I used Judith Clark’s amazing 2005 exhibition Spectres, held at MoMu in Antwerp as my starting point.  Encapsulated within the show were many of the ideas I wanted to convey to open up the book and its readers to ways to study and think about fashion.  I hope you will find this an interesting opening – I loved writing this book, it was a challenge to decide how to approach a big subject in a small format, but actually, this gave a brilliant clarity and focus to what needed to be covered in each chapter, to build towards a (very short) introduction to fashion …

Happy New Term!