A precarious balance: Reflections on ‘The 50s: Fashion in France, 1947- 1957’ at the Palais Galliera, Paris
1950s couture is characterised by its dramatic silhouettes which ranged from the rounded hourglass, to the stark, boxy H shape. While the exhibition provided a comprehensive showcase of garments of extraordinary proportions alongside vignettes of fifties style icons, the women who wore the clothes remained a mystery. As I studied the well-displayed outfits, I tried to imagine how the wearer would move and feel in them.
The first exhibit, Christian Dior’s 1947 bar suit with its silk tussore jacket and wide pleated wool crepe skirt, stiffened with taffeta, was striking for its embalmed, papier mache texture. The wide brimmed straw hat and spindly Perugina escarpins that accompanied the suit indicated that a degree of lightness was intended to animate this heavy, structured garment. Dior claimed that with his 1947 collection, he had ‘brought back the neglected art of pleasing’, in other words, a prettiness that made women attractive to men, as opposed to the eccentricity and utilitarianism that had characterised war-time fashion. However, a woman’s ability to please in this challenging ensemble would depend on her ability to pose and walk in a manner that was as balanced and delicate as a trained mannequin. The contemporary American model agent, Helen Fraser explained how from the late 1940s onwards, models were increasingly required to ‘double as dancers…’.She explained that ‘high fashion… employs as its basic pose a semi-ballet stance. The weight is on the hind foot, hips turned away, and the shoulders to the camera, the face half-profile, half straight…’
Film footage of mannequins in the exhibition showed how they would begin their procession from a variation of ballet’s fourth position, and advance in tiny mincing steps, their pivots almost as exact and mechanical as a ballerina’s. The filmed couture displays begin with coats and outerwear, and end with the decade’s jewel: eveningwear. There are at least two rooms devoted to small-waisted, full-skirted dresses in the exhibition, which one young visitor called ‘princess dresses’. She had a point: with their naive star and flower embellishment and spouts of tulle, some of these dresses do appear to have been designed for grown-up children, who have only recently graduated from reading fairytales to attending balls in outfits that materialise these fictions.
However, in other garments, a more adult combination of daring and anxiety prevails with regard to revealing the body. In their desire to appease contemporary ideals of feminine sex appeal and modesty simultaneously, these cocktail dresses strive for a precarious balance between titillation and demureness; in an almost formulaic manner, an inch of flesh revealed in one area, is compensated for in another. For example, sweetheart necklines either dive deep and narrow, or remain high and wide; a plunging décolletage is counterbalanced by a high back and vice versa. Still, by the late 1950s, the ingenuity displayed in the dresses’ methods of exposure, implies that wearers increasingly revealed their sexuality on their own terms. One 1957 fuchsia moiré dress by Hubert de Givenchy, which was cut to show the knees and lower limbs from the front and permitted longer strides, indicated that the age of docile pleasing had passed its high noon.
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Whilst hunting for photographs to accompany the BA3 course that I am teaching this term at The Courtauld with Dr Rebecca Arnold, entitled ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress’, I stumbled across an intriguing yet mildly unsettling fashion spread by German photographer Juergen Teller. Commissioned by the German magazine, 032c, for the Winter 2013/14 edition, it captured the veteran 1990s supermodel Kristen McMenamy, now 47 years old and with long silvery-blonde hair, in an 18-piece one-off tribute to Elsa Schiaparelli designed by Christian Lacroix. The series, which draws upon the bizarre, the grotesque and the abject, was shot on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and makes use of unsettling trompe l’oeil through eccentric props that include fluffy pompoms, the entrails of a slimy sea creature and the pulpy insides of a watermelon. At times McMenamy is a passive and inert, her long hair flopping forward over her limp naked form that is splattered with dirt and mud, but elsewhere she is active and aware, peeping over a rusting metal fence in bright red and pink pompoms like a demonic Minnie Mouse figure.
Teller first shot an androgynous looking McMenamy in a controversial documentary-style shoot for Suddeutsche Zeitung in 1996. A memorable snapshot from this candid series is tempered with a sleazy provocative charge and features McMenamy standing in a confrontational pose, naked except for a haphazard collection of necklaces and bracelets draped around her neck and wrists. She faces Teller’s 35mm camera directly with an open, nonchalant gaze, her hands placed on her hips, her bare chest thrust forward, and her uncovered crotch fully exposed to the harsh flash. Her pale, bruised and mottled skin is illuminated as she stands against an open doorway, a limp cigarette protruding from the right-hand side of her mouth. Her eyes are heavy-lidded and her appearance is dishevelled, with her hair closely cropped. She bears the label ‘VERSACE’ scrawled in dark red lipstick, encased in a crudely drawn heart, across the centre of her chest. This image, shot in collaboration with Teller, is given a raw, confrontational edge through the pared down gritty ‘realist’ aesthetic that stands out in stark contrast to the faked glamour of high production fashion shoots popular throughout the 1980s. McMenamy has since explained that this shoot was her reaction to having a high profile Versace campaign cancelled at the last minute with no explanation. It was she who scrawled the label across her chest, in an attempt to dispense with the measured and preconceived strategies of glossy high fashion photography, and instead embrace the ugly flip side of the unsightly, unappealing and outright provocative.Categories: Commentary, Work in Progress | Comments Off
Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.
Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.
These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.
Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.
Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.
Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.
If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.
While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.
The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.
Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.Categories: Commentary, From the Collections, Uncategorized | Comments Off
Tone on tone, an image of two fashion models placed against the faded backdrop of Paris reveals multiple layers of reality, space and modernity. I discovered it as I studied materials in the archives of the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette (GL) for my doctoral research. Included in a Spring/Summer 1956 GL catalogue, the spread followed the example of many fashion magazines that used the city of Paris in their symbolic construction of fashion. In her study of Paris fashion, Valerie Steele argues that the city had historically been the symbolic centre in the ‘geography of fashion,’ based on its ‘knowledgeable fashion performers and spectators’ and ability to stage fashion. Magazines visualised Paris’ fashion hegemony and situated their readers in the capital, in terms of current events and happenings, the actual retail locations of the pictured clothing, and, through imagery, as a fantasised or imagined place for their use. Readers of the GL catalogue, through the purchase of a relatively inexpensive ready-made dress, such as those pictured here, could themselves access the privileged spaces of the capital. Yet the soft rendering of Paris, in the style of aquarelle paintings sold to tourists, transformed the city into a mirage. Removed by a colour tone, the dresses – in their all-over printed, floral-patterned fabric made of synthetic “Poplin nylon” – expressed a similar falseness. Plus, the artificial quality of the models – pert yet frozen in space – was reinforced by clothing that hindered movement, and contained the body through buttons, belts, and underskirts.
The models are posed as friends, shoppers and tourists, and, sandwiched between the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Cœur, connected different ends of Paris. The shop was in fact located between these two Parisian sites, and was itself a veritable stop in tourism itineraries as fashion was ingrained in Paris’ cultural heritage. Another guide published several years earlier by the department store Printemps titled Notre beau Paris…et ses Environs listed Paris’ sites and monuments amid advertisements of the city’s shops and artisans. Like the GL catalogue, the cover, which de-contextualised these places and pictured them atop clouds, mythologized the city and the act of shopping, and made Paris readable. This visualisation of the city was especially comforting in view of the changes taking place in the city. From the 1950s Paris was characterised by the growth of mass motorised transport, large-scale urbanisation, the demolition of old working-class quarters, and a large push to the city’s periphery and new suburbs. And filtered through traditional views of Paris, fashion, with its ever-changing nature and increasing industrialisation in the 1950s, allowed women to safely experience modernity.
These ‘contained’ images depicted Paris as a boutique whose objects for sale – women, clothing and city – were neatly encapsulated in a picture. Other catalogue images of models posed next to shop mannequins bridged the gap between outdoor city and indoor shopping space. The stylised gestures of the living models aligned them to their plastic counterparts and both became commoditised and imbued with Paris’ magic, as Agnès Rocamora has described the trope of La Parisienne in fashion magazines. The lines between shopping, looking and being seen were thus blurred in the catalogue’s amalgamation of street and vitrine.
Thanks to Florence Brachet Champsaur for allowing me to visit the archive and show the images here.
Rocamora, A. (2009) Fashioning the City: Paris, Fashion and the Media. London; I B Tauris, p. 99.
Steele, V. (1988) Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford, pp. 7, 137, 135.Categories: Uncategorized, Work in Progress | Comments Off
With the plethora of World War One commemorations this year – and for the next three years – it can become all too easy to become inured to the emotional and individual experiences of this period. While the official events linked to the War have been imposing, they have sometimes lacked a sense of the way history can represent interconnected life stories. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’s current exhibition War Stories: Voices from the First World War (12 July 2014-1 March 2015) reconnects us to this more personal idea of the past, which reflects Raphael Samuel’s important focus on ‘history from below.’ It tells the histories of thirteen people – all connected to the local area in some way – who lived through the war, and whose experiences are recreated through, for example, personal photographs, letters, and, significantly, the material culture of their world.
Dress and textiles play an important role throughout the exhibition – presenting a tangible, sensorial link between the people discussed, and their lived experience. The collection of people is diverse and includes Belgian refugees, an Indian soldier, a nurse, and a conscientious objector. But, through the coincidence of their dates of birth, each lived through the chaos of World War One. And each left behind images and objects that speak of this period, and its impact on their actions, relationships, jobs and emotions. In this sense, they curated their own life story, as we all do, through our choices of what and how we collect and keep our memories. This auto-ethnography has then been edited and re-presented within the current exhibition – connecting narratives of the time with our contemporary approach to looking at and thinking about the past.
The walls of the gallery are painted deepest red, and each section explores one person’s story. From the start, the role of dress and textiles within people’s lives is clear. It is shown as a part of ritual and life stage – a christening robe, and a wedding dress are poignant mementoes. The dress was worn by Marjorie Brinkhurst in 1919, it is accompanied by silk shoes and a veil, a tiny, folded wedding invitation and the stiffly formal photography of bride and groom, best man and bridesmaid. These are tokens of happiness and relief, as her solider husband made it back from the war, and hers is a story of patience and commitment – a caption quotes her daughter, who remembers ‘She met him when she was 16. And they corresponded and became engaged through letters and so she went out and bought herself a ring.’ This shows how conventions were both broken and reinforced by the war – with its prolonged separations and continual uncertainty.
Another display on Vernon Evershed and his younger brother, Doug conveys the way that dress – with its closeness and intimacy to its wearer – can form a precious memento, a treasured connection to someone lost to the war. The glass cabinet devoted to these soldiers contains a soft brown army undercoat, below it, photographs of them as children, and one of Doug in army uniform. Both died in battle – a telegram from Buckingham Palace and a letter from the commanding officer telling the all too familiar tale of sons lost on the Front. Again, the curators use a quote from a relative to show the war’s legacy – ‘For years and years the undercoat was on my grandmother’s sideboard and we had no idea it had any connection with my father’s uncle.’
The exhibition is rich with such detail, weaving together memories and histories – tying together those who fought, with those who stayed at home, through letters, photographs, scrapbooks and oral histories. A nurse’s uniform and images of a local military hospital remind us of women’s involvement in the war, medals and badges recall battles and regiments, and inventories of uniform items supplied remind us of the huge administration that underpinned the military.
The final display describes – visually and in text – the Unknown Warrior – whose body was buried at Westminster Abbey to represent the enormity of loss. Here, textiles played a key role in conveying the ceremony’s solemnity, and its official, state purpose. The coffin is shown draped in the Union Jack, its graphic form a reminder of nationhood that was reflected in the two huge, flowing flags hung from the cenotaph in Whitehall.
Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, vol. I (London: Verso, 1996)
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I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.
We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.
At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.
Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.
With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!
We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.Categories: Commentary, From the Collections, Work in Progress | Comments Off
As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.
And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.
Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.
Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!Categories: Commentary, From the Collections, Work in Progress | Comments Off
For the casting of the SS15 show, and the 125th anniversary of the House of Lanvin, Alber Elbaz looked back through the model archive. The designer explained: “I did not want it to feel like a coming-back-type-of-thing, but almost like a parade of women of different ages; it’s not just about cool and trendy but about timelessness”. During this celebratory season, the Lanvin women on the catwalk were strong and powerful models from the Eighties and Nineties, embodied by iconic names such as Amber Valletta, Kirsten Owen, Violetta Sanchez and Natasa Vojnovic. Tim Blanks, Editor-at-Large Style.com, noted that ‘apparently the best maquillage’ was indeed experience. Midway through the show, the forty-three-year-old Canadian model Kirsten Owen made an almost ghostlike appearance, wearing a long white flowing Empire-line dress. In the Nineties, she was a crucial component of Helmut Lang’s shows, in which Lang had always sought to evoke a sense of diversity and reality. He had experimented by bringing men and women of different age groups and ethnicities together, and by asking not only professional models but also his close friends to model his creations. Owen’s natural yet unconventional beauty challenged the dominant images in contemporary commercial fashion and magazines, and today at Lanvin her appearance, again, was able to add to the intensely personal mood of the show. Contrary to what comments in the press might suggest, Elbaz’s cast of women of various ages was neither new nor experimental. Nonetheless, Elbaz’s preference to work with “retired” models showed he was well aware that these faces, with their maturity and individual character, were no blank canvases upon which he needed to impose a new vision. In fact, quite the opposite was true: the Lanvin story was no longer only about the garments but, by simply being there, these cult models reminded the audience of the brand’s long and established history, and contributed to the cultural capital of the House.Categories: Fashion Now, Uncategorized | Comments Off
I met Edie when we were both about 11 years old on our first day of school. While most girls looked as though they had been dressed by their mothers, Edie wore a black t-shirt with the playboy bunny logo in pink glitter on the front. I think even then, I knew she was a bit different. I recently rediscovered a series of photographs I took of Edie for a GCSE Art project in 2006. I had just learned about the British photographer David Bailey and decided to take pictures of her dressed like Jean Shrimpton in mini dresses jumping around on a sofa. Little did we know that she would soon be sitting for the actual David Bailey!
We both took Rebecca Arnold’s course Dress and Identity in Twentieth Century Britain in our second year at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and I wanted to reflect with Edie here on how she recollects her time there and how the course may have impacted her current approach to writing and dressing.
Among other things, we took Rebecca’s course together in second year and, as you know, I enjoyed it so much I decided to take her MA (Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1945)! Do you think studying the history of dress has affected the way you think or write about fashion?
I think that academia, and the way that we study things in university, can be such a constructed system that it is impossible to continue to think about things in that same way once you leave university. I suppose that the academic way of looking and thinking gets tempered by ‘real life’. So those two modes exist at the same time in my head. Which is nice – it has given me the ability to look at things very objectively, as the products of a designer’s creative process, and as a continuation of the fashion ‘line’. But then equally, I really appreciate clothes simply as sensual objects, to be touched and worn and experienced on a purely intuitive, completely decontextualised level. Simply as clothes that make you feel good. I guess the course gave me a framework through which to think about fashion.
Your articles, like ‘Hidden Depths’ for Harper’s Bazaar (10 September 2013), and your recent work as senior contributing editor for Love Magazine, are a pleasure to read, where do you find your inspiration?
I never can! Which is probably why I don’t write more. I am really bad at thinking about what to write – nothing ever seems interesting enough. I think I am too cynical about what people might find interesting.
Do you miss The Courtauld?
Yes, I miss learning about things, and exercising my brain as if it was a muscle. I feel like my brain has become old and flabby. I miss hearing someone speak about the subject that they have devoted their entire career to.
When we were studying, we took trips to places like the Museum of London to reflect on subcultures. What do you think about the term ‘subcultural’?
I just don’t know if there are any subcultures any more. I’m not sure that anything gets enough time to properly incubate these days. Or maybe subcultures are just made in retrospect, and in 15 years time everyone will be going ‘ohhhhh, the cult of the hipster, what a great time that must have been’, and we’ll be looking on in horror and slight nausea.
You’re looking brilliant in the McQueen campaign at the moment and it made me think of the chapters we read about Britishness in fashion, do you think designers still trade on ideas of being British?
Oh yeah for sure! My entire career is built on plugging being British. In an increasingly globalised world, when designers are really thinking about how they are going to flog their product in Malaysia, something that is recognisable and locatable, and comes with the weight of history to validate its worth is incredibly saleable. I mean, designers are literally trading on it. So are models. The fact that the Victoria’s Secret Show is being held in London this year says a HUGE amount about the saleability of Britishness – VS is not a brand that would take a chance financially.
I remember your presentation in our Dress and Identity course about David Bowie’s album cover, I think it was Ziggy Stardust, and you recently saw a Kate Bush concert – why do you think fashion is so important to musicians?
Because if the music sucks at least they look good! Clothes are an extension of their self-expression, of the ideas and world that they are trying to push. Just look at how important the ‘makeover’ part of the X Factor process is. Especially when music is an increasingly visual medium, via YouTube and the greater importance of live shows (whereas previously perhaps one might have bought a record).
Do you enjoy dressing up?
I do. Some of the time. I spend my life dressing up at work so at home I really can’t be bothered. I might take to wearing silk pyjamas and dressing gowns everywhere. I do like fancy dress though. I like coming up with costumes more and more.Categories: Interviews, Uncategorized | Comments Off
Haunting, evocative and profoundly intimate, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s series of photographs of the private apartment of Coco Chanel, exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, is a visual biography of emotion conveyed through the poignant rendering of objects, and the moments and memories of a life preserved in talismanic form. Although it is closed to the public, the Paris apartment, located above the Chanel boutique at 31 Rue Cambon, has long been the fabric of legend. Forming the ornate backdrop to iconic photographic portraits by Man Ray and Horst, it also regularly played host to gatherings of Chanel’s illustrious social circle and provided her with rare moments of solitude away from her atelier. Today, the apartment, which has stood untouched since Chanel’s death in 1971, is only frequented by a privileged few, such as Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld, who frequently draws inspiration from its famous Coromandel screens and décor saturated with symbolism. A mysterious, closely guarded shrine to its former inhabitant, the exotic opulence of the apartment’s interior stands as a living, breathing contradiction to the streamlined simplicity of the couturiere’s clothing designs. Yet look for the signs and they are there: the symbols and the spirit which form the beating heart of both Chanel the brand and Chanel the woman.
Familiar and recurring Chanel design emblems appear in the form of gilded lions (Chanel’s astrological sign), a chandelier of tumbling glass ‘5’ and interlocking double ‘C’ motifs and beige suede cushions which bear the same quilted effect of the iconic ‘2.55’ handbag. More personal and emotionally metaphoric objects, such as Buddhas, tarot cards, a smoky crystal ball and sheaves of wheat, sit alongside, hinting at a deep inner life characterized by intense spirituality, superstition and profound loss. A particularly poignant close-up image of a miniature jewelled cage containing two tiny pearl lovebirds serves not only as a tangible reminder of Chanel’s great love of precious materials but as, in the words of Harper’s Bazaar editor Justine Picardie, a ‘treasured amulet of a coupledom that was to elude Chanel’.
This photographic series was inspired by a conversation between Taylor-Johnson and Picardie, who wrote part of her acclaimed Chanel biography in the apartment and who, like the artist, has come to develop a very personal connection with the designer. For both photographer and writer, what appears to be the most striking and profound element of being immersed in the Chanel interior is its undeniably ethereal overtones, and its overwhelming and almost uncomfortable sensation of coming too close. Chanel herself described the interior of a home as ‘the natural projection of the soul’ and, indeed, it is within this intimate setting that her spirit still lingers, her loves, passions and even heartbreaks crystallized within the now abandoned collections of rare books, art and objects. What strikes Picardie most about Taylor-Johnson’s remarkable images ‘is that they capture absence, at the same time as presence’. Looking at these photographs, one suspects that Chanel’s own image may be glimpsed at any moment in the smoked glass mirror, whose octagonal form echoes the familiar shape of a Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle stopper, yet, simultaneously, the famous cream silk chair in which she reclined for many a portrait, its cushion worn from constant sitting, stands eerily empty.
For many, the glossy chiaroscuro of these large-scale photographs will be the closest they will come to experiencing this secret inner sanctum. Taylor-Johnson’s powerful and intriguing rendering of Chanel’s most cherished items, however, undoubtedly succeeds in drawing its viewers deeper into the authentic and indissoluble aura of Chanel, forming a portrait of a woman and the narrative of a life told through objects that is, at once, both elusive and inescapable.
Second Floor: The Private Apartment of Coco Chanel by Sam Taylor-Johnson was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, London in September 2014.
The book Sam Taylor-Johnson: Second Floor will be published by Steidl on 24th November 2014.
Morand, P. (1976), The Allure of Chanel, trans. E. Cameron, London: Pushkin.
Picardie, J. (2014), ‘Kindred Spirits’ in Harper’s Bazaar, London: September 2014.
Picardie, J. (2011), Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life, London: HarperCollins.Categories: Commentary | Comments Off