Fashion and Impressionism in the Courtauld Gallery

In 1863 Charles Baudelaire declared in the French newspaper Le Figaro: ‘Modernity is transitory, fleeting, contingent’. He instructed contemporary artists not to ‘scorn or forgo this transitory, fleeting element that undergoes such frequent metamorphoses. By removing it, you lapse into the void of an abstract, indefinable beauty.’ The Impressionists wanted to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life in and around Paris, the capital of modernity, prior to and following the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. Their lively brushstrokes sought to animate the ephemeral and transitory qualities of Parisian modernity, as described by Baudelaire, and its recently established commodity culture, which was shaped by the imperatives of fashion, consumerism and incessant innovation.

Paris had emerged as a rapidly transforming metropolis, due in part to its swift modernisation by city planner Baron Haussmann (1809-1891), who fashioned an extensive landscape of wide boulevards, grand parks, avenues, squares and gardens throughout the city. This period also witnessed the evolution of the department store, such as Au Louvre, LesGrandsMagasins and Le Bon Marche, in which women could buy ready-to-wear fashions off the shelf that needed little if no alteration, not to mention the proliferation of specialist fashion magazines such as La ModeIllustrée and Les ModesParisiennes.

Artists at the vanguard, such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) breathed new life into the rigid poses of fashion illustration. They succeeded in capturing, above all else, the emotional connection that viewers and wearers had with items of fashion. Fashion served as the quintessential symbol of transitory modernity, encapsulated by the Parisienne, the elegant modern woman who was accustomed to suchbourgeois luxuries.

We can examine the fashioned feminine body in closer detail through three “snapshots”, each of which give a sense of the importance of fashion to the Impressionists’ priority to express modernity: Ladywith a Parasol(1870-2) by Degas, Portrait of a Woman (1872) by Morisot and La Loge (1874) by Renoir. These paintings exemplify how Morisot, Degas and Renoir made skilful use of oil paint to capture the light and texture of the various folds and shapes of the fabrics that adorned the bodies of their subjects and which, rather than give a painstaking reproduction of fashionable trends in feminine dress, revealed a sense of the visual effect that fashion as a whole conveyed by way of the movements and gestures of Parisian women from 1870-1874.

DEGAS’LADYWITH A PARASOL(1870-82)

edgar degasd, lady with a parasol, 1870-72Degas’ Ladywith a Parasol is made up of quick, expressive strokes of black, grey and white oil paint on canvas and forms part a series in which the artist experimented with the results of light on the transient, fashionably attired female form. Degas once declared: ‘The source of ornament. Think of a treatise on ornament for women or by women, based on their manner of observing, of combining, of selecting their fashionable outfits and all things on a daily basis they compare, more than men, a thousand visible things with one another.’ Degas’ observations on women’s abilities to choose their own accessories and ornamentations from a plethora of possibilities reveal his active interest and participation in fashion. A label on the back of this painting reads ‘At the Race-course’ and explains the subject’s elegant appearance in a bustledress that is lovingly sculpted by the artist and draped over layers of petticoat, complete with a nipped in waist to emphasise the trim female form. A parasol shields the subject from the open air as she is captured from behind and in motion. The rough sketch-like forms give a sense of immediacy to this unfinished image, which is reminiscent of the couturier’s direct creative process as fabric was draped over a model’s body. The fluid application of paint highlights a dynamic contemporary femininity that the viewer is invited to experience by envisioning how the fabrics may have swished and undulated with an unexpected gust of wind, sway of the hips or flurry of activity. Other areas of the painting, such as the subject’s profile and the details of her exquisite headwear, are painted with great delicacy and reflect Degas’ unequivocal interest in the chapeau,which formed the crown and status symbol of any respectable woman in the 1870s and was inevitably matched to her visage and attire.

MORISOT’S PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN(1872)

Berthe morisot, madame edma pontillon, sister of the artist, 1873Like Degas, Morisot paid equal attention to the materiality of female dress, as can be seen in a portrait of her sister Madame Edma Pontillon, which she completed in 1872. The painterly texture of her brushwork, which encompasses broad and delicate strokes freely applied, evokes the flounces, frills and ornamentation of the luxurious fashions depicted. As the only woman represented in the first group exhibition of the Impressionists held in Paris in 1874, Morisot had an innate knowledge of the individual elements of feminine dress, from underwear to day dresses, evening wear and outdoor attire. She depicts her subject dressed in a beige and chestnut brown day dress with pleated edging, a high waistline, and long, close-fitting sleeves, which show the remaining influence of pagoda-style sleeves that were fashionable throughout the 1860s. The bodice of her dress is V-shaped, filled in with a chemisette comprised of muslin trimmed with lace, and adorned with a splash of purple and mauve flowers. The subject wears her hair piled high on top of her head in a pleated chignon that is threaded with a silver ribbon. She shows off matching purple and gold drop earrings and a pendant that is strung on a black velvet ribbon, both of which reflect the decorative accessories prevalent at the time. A thick sash comprised of velvet envelops her waist to form a bow that places the decorative bulk at the back of her dress, and emphasises her curvaceous feminine form. Unlike Degas’ energetic painting, which gave a tangible sense of the rush of modernity through the artist’s frantic sweeps onto the canvas, Morisot delivers a quiet nod of appreciation to female finery through her carefully orchestrated and meticulously executed portrait.

RENOIR’S LA LOGE(1874)

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_023Like Morisot and Degas, Renoir placed fashion at the heart of his paintings, as can be seen in an examination ofLa Loge which he painted in 1874. Renoir had an intimate knowledge of the technical and material nature of dress since his mother was a seamstress, his father a tailor and his elder sister a dressmaker, who in 1864 married the fashion illustrator Charles Leray. Here he depicted his favourite model and mistress, Nini Lopez, who is ostentatiously dressed in a fashionable tenuede premierein black and white, an ermine mantle, pink flowers placed in her carefully-coiffured hair and adorning her bodice, a strand of pearls, gold earrings and a gold bracelet, white gloves and conspicuous powdered make-up. This overt display of wealth may have been suitable for a married woman but Nini has an ambiguous relationship to her male companion, who is dressed in full evening wear consisting of a white waistcoat or gilet cut very wide and low, a stiffened white shirt, a starched white cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks. This unclear relationship is expressed through the complex interplay of gazes presented in the painting: he raises his binoculars to scrutinize the other women displayed in their theatre boxes, whereas she sits perfectly still, seated in full view of her admiring audience, a smile playing across her lips, one gloved hand holding her fan and white-laced handkerchief, the other a pair of binoculars.It is hard to tell the exact material of the subject’s dress, which remains blurred by the Impressionistic style, although it appears to be of white silk chiffon with appliqued ruched black silk net. Such hazy and insubstantial fabrics would have appeared at their best in the evening, particularly under the artificial lights of the theatre which would have caused the various layers to shimmer and gleam in contrast. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. By depicting Nini in the latest vogue, which would have been unaffordable for both the artist and his model, Renoir hoped for recognition and the consequent monetary gain that might reward him with the upper-class lifestyle that he imagined his luxuriously dressed mistress within.


If we look at any of these three paintings we get a sense of the importance of public display and spectacle in modern Parisian life, and the significance of fashion within that as a vibrant non-verbal system of communication, indicative of wider social, cultural and economic meanings. The Impressionists captured fashion as a whirlwind spiraling towards modernity, which simultaneously inhabited the past, captured the essence of the present and was imbued with potency for the future. Whilst clothing might be understood as a stable and utilitarian form of dress, for Degas, Morisot and Renoir, fashion, with its affinity for transformation and innovation, was constantly shifting in a cyclical process.

 

 

Doctoral Docs – History of Dress PhD, Lucy Moyse

Thesis title: Danger in the Path of Chic: Violence in Fashion between the World Wars, in London, Paris, and New York 
This documentary is based on my PhD on violence and trauma in interwar fashion. The short piece was produced as a part of Doctoral Docs, a pilot programme at The Courtauld organised by Dr Alixe Bovey, and shot beautifully by Mike Saunders of ProperGander Films. It was an incredible opportunity to learn how to create a film from scratch, and to present my doctoral research for a wider audience in an entirely new way. I hope you enjoy the result. The video can be viewed here.
With many thanks to Alixe, Mike, Rebecca Arnold, and Kerry Taylor Auctions.
You can read more about Lucy and her research here!

Documenting Fashion Reflections

A week on from graduation, our MA students reflect on their favourite moments from a whirlwind year of fashion, friendship and study, study study!

Carolina: By far my favorite part of the documenting fashion MA was the access and special visits to the Dress History library at the Courtauld and archives such as those at FIT in New York and Royal Historic Palaces in London.

Giovanna: Since there were so many enjoyable parts of the Documenting Fashion MA it is difficult to chose a favourite part of the course. What made the experience particularly special was the opportunity to study with a group of like-minded students, take inspiring study trips in London and New York, and write creatively about niche topics, which I am passionate, about in my assessed work.

Aude: If I had to single out one element of the course that I particularly enjoyed, it would be its theoretical approach to dress and the wide-ranging theory we cover in class from film theory to gender studies. The research for essays implies looking at a variety of different disciplines, which in some sense makes it more challenging but also immensely fascinating!

Leah: My favourite thing about studying dress history at The Courtauld? That’s a tough question! I’m not sure I can name just one thing, but it was really great to have the chance to work with Rebecca, who is the most supportive tutor one could ask for. I have also really enjoyed all the class visits and it has been great to meet professionals working in the dress history discipline. The week-long trip to New York was, of course, a highlight! Finally, this year certainly wouldn’t have been the same without the support and friendship of the rest of the MA Documenting Fashion group.

Eleanor: Not very creative of me but I second everything everyone else has said! And that was the main joy of the course for me, to find myself amongst likeminded, creative and clever students, tutors and Professors. Sharing research finds and discovering archives together has provided so many new ways of approaching Dress History, and really invigorated the subject as a whole for me.

Documenting Fashion Graduation

This Monday, July 4th, the Documenting Fashion students (and Liz, PhD, though not pictured!) graduated from the Courtauld. We were all very happy to have been able to have been there and wanted to share some photographs from our special day. The black academic robes with the brown hood are the academic dress for MAs of the University of London (the Courtauld is a self-governing college of the University of London). What did you wear to your graduation? Let us know in the comments on here or on Instagram.

From Left to Right: Giovanna, Carolina, Eleanor, Aric, Leah, and Aude

From Left to Right: Giovanna, Carolina, Eleanor, Aric, Leah, and Aude posing outside of the Courtauld Gallery. 

The MAs standing outside St. Clement Dane's church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, where the graduation ceremony was held.

The MAs standing outside St. Clement Dane’s church located on the Strand, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682, where the graduation ceremony was held. It is the central church of the Royal Air Force. 

 

The graduates taking a "selfie" timed photograph.

The graduates taking a “selfie” photograph.

 

A graduation ceremony leaflet and two guest tickets.

A graduation ceremony leaflet and two guest tickets.

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 2

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelidesboth of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauldgenerously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the first half was posted last Friday, it continues here: 

Katerina (L) & Alexis (R) presenting in class during their MA at The Courtauld

Alexis and Katerina presenting at a Courtauld conference together. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be thinking of doing a PhD? 

Alexis: I would say be as organised as you can and treat it as a nine-to-five job. I think if you professionalise it you will be more productive. 

Katerina: I would say that it’s really difficult to write and research things if you’re worried about money, so try and get that sorted. It’s a really practical thing but it helps so much with treating it like a job. I would also say make sure you have a topic that you are really passionate about. Be open minded. Make sure you have the supervision and support that you need, for example if you have a topic that bridges disciplines, try and get supervision from both

You’re both co-founders of the Fashion Research Network. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Katerina: We are both co-founders with Nathaniel Beard and Ellen Sampson, who are from the Royal College of Art. It started off because we felt that there were lots of institutions in London with students who were doing research in fashion and dress but they all seemed like these separate little fiefdoms, and we thought why don’t we try and get them together, put on an event, and get people talking to each other. It started with a pilot event in summer 2013 and it was a really big success. Since then we have done quite a few events: museum tours, artists and designer talks, symposia and reading groups. We have had some interesting people involved and it’s been pretty interdisciplinary. 

Alexis: Yes, the interdisciplinary aspect is a central part of our mission, because the other co-founders are not historians; they work on fashion but they come from different fields. One of the obstacles for us in our own research was coming to terms with the fact that fashion is not just history and its not just image, its an industry, it involves so many different types of people, languages and disciplines – things that, as art historians, we might not understand without having conversations with people from other fields. Through the FRN, we wanted to get as broad a definition of fashion as possible to work with! 

What are your plans for the future now that you have both finished your PhDs?

Katerina: I’m writing my first novel, teaching English and am in the first stages of planning a small exhibition about fashion and the senses with Alexis.
Alexis: I am hoping to put together a proposal for a manuscript and some exhibitions, and a course from my research. So that’s the current project, but I am also looking for funding to make that happen. I am currently Exhibition Reviews Editor for Textile History Journal, am also starting a project making greetings cards, and of course, we are in the very early stages of curating an exhibition together about fashion and the senses. So stay tuned for more!

Alexis' research, Elle magazine, 1968.

Alexis’ research, Elle magazine, 1968.

A peek at Alexis' current projects: Elle, a greetings card prototype and Textile History journal.

A peek at Alexis’ current projects: Elle, a greetings card prototype and Textile History journal.

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 1

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelides, both of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauld, generously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the second half will be posted next Tuesday.

What made you both decide to do a PhD in dress history at the Courtauld?

Alexis: I was living in New York, studying design history with a focus on fashion and textiles. When I finished the degree I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I was still writing and researching so it just seemed like the next logical step. My research, which is based on national fashion and post-war dress, really connected with Rebecca Arnold’s work, which I always admired. So it seemed like a good fit!

Katerina: I did an MA at The Courtauld, and it was interesting because during the time of my MA I always thought that I wanted to be a curator. I was always really interested in theatre and dress and performance, and so I did an internship at the V&A at the Theatre and Performance archive. It was a round the time of the big [Sergei] Diaghilev exhibition and I remember there was all this stuff about émigrés and Russian ballet. I was so interested in all the stories. At that time, I thought I wanted to do a book on Russian émigrés and the ballet in connection with dress and costume, but then I applied for the PhD and I got it and I got the funding, so I worked on that for three years. I ended up working with Rebecca because I met her on the MA and I really liked her and her approach.

What were the topics of your theses?

Alexis: I wrote about the French ready-to-wear industry and its development between 1945 and the late 1960s. I explored this in relation to what was happening in terms of various aspects of the post-war reconstruction of the country and women’s history, and the shift in constructions of fashion, modernity and the representation of women. I looked at how women connected to wider cultural issues through their experience of [ready-made] fashion.

Katerina: My title was ‘Russian Émigré Ballet and the Body: Paris and New York c.1920-50’. I looked at how Russians who emigrated after the Russian revolution in 1917 brought over their dance practice and how they influenced body, dress and exercise culture in the west. I also looked at how dress and exercise culture in the west, specifically in New York, influenced the Russian émigrés. So it was this two-way relationship that I examined.

I am always really interested in how research develops. People start off with having one thing in mind, and then they work on it and it sort of transforms into something completely different. Did you find that your research developed over the course of your study? And if so how?

Alexis: I think research is a personal thing, and connects to who you are. My research evolved a lot, for instance, I ended up studying an earlier period than when I started out. But on a more personal level I became much more interested in women’s personal, everyday experience of dress, focusing on women in their 30s. I turned 30 over the course of my research, and that apparently was a defining moment that I came to terms with through exploring women of a similar age, and their hurdles, in history.

Katerina: That’s so interesting because I do think that you grow up with your PhD in some ways. I started out being very young and idealistic, interested in the ethereal aspects of the ballet and the whole idea of Russian Émigré ballet as a ghostly nation that travels, and then as I got further into the research and started to look at things in archives, I became more interested in the dusty, dirty things. I became much more interested in the realities of travel and what people took with them, what they archived, what they lost, how they talked about things they lost. I think I started out being very interested in the illusions that were taking place and then I became much more interested in the women themselves, the gritty realities.

 Alexis: I wonder why we both became interested in the personal rather than looking at things from a scholar’s lens?

Katerina: I think it’s because with fashion images, for example, you always want to know what’s beneath them, and what’s the reality of the people who consume them and things like that. You always look for depth I think.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

Dressmaking – Rethinking Fashion in the 1930s

Spring Styles from Roma's Fashion, 1936

‘A Spring Medley’, from Roma’s Fashion, 1936

I’ve been sorting out my 1930s magazines and found three lovely mid-decade sewing journals that are a wonderful way to see how trends were disseminated – and re-fashioned – for a wider range of women.  Although high fashion magazines included columns on dressing on a budget, especially during the Depression, the amount of money needed to obtain such a wardrobe would still have been out of reach to most.  So titles such as Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal and Roma’s Fashions filled a gap in the market and enabled women to deploy their skills in dressmaking.

Women were keen to emulate the styles they saw in magazines, in newspapers and at the cinema – both in feature films and in newsreels that covered society events, and the latest fashions.  As one woman commented in the Mass Observation survey for 1939:

‘I always study fashion articles, advertisements, women’s magazines to keep my ideas up to date.  I never discuss with friends, but I take note of what well-to-do people wear, and notice photographs of the Queen or Duchess of Kent as naturally the fashion houses who dress those people should know what is coming in.  I take every chance of studying the displays in the best shops though I could not afford to patronize them.  Fashion in this locality [Burnley] lags behind the fashion in a large city like Manchester so I like to see the shops there.’

Magazines including those pictured here, therefore encouraged women to transform what they saw into reality, and to look to a variety of sources, as well as considering occasion and figure type when translating ideas into clothing.

Although ready-to-wear fashion was developing apace, there was still some prejudice against it – as middle class women were unsure how respectable such garments might be.  Women’s anxiety about the ways fashion was procured could be assuaged by reassuring magazine articles, and letters pages where readers could ask for advice anonymously.  Patterns could be made up at home, or taken to a local dressmaker.  Barbara Burman has written convincingly about the creativity involved in home dressmaking.  She argues that it allows women to adapt fashion or ignore it, even to pass off garments as shop bought and thus subvert the value system attached to how and where fashion was acquired.  She offers this description of the process as:

‘…a sort of autobiographical practice, home dressmaking is an intimate process. The garment made at home is not so swiftly had as the ready-made.  In its measuring, cutting, assembling and fitting, the form and realities of the maker’s own body must be met again and again.  Home dressmakers using a dressmaker’s dummy see their own body shape from all angles, as seen by another person or in a three-way mirror.’ 

So this gives the pages from my 1930s magazines a new perspective – not just a glimpse at earlier visions of femininity and domesticity, they in fact offer ways to rethink women’s agency in the period, and their approach to self-fashioning.

(L) Selection of 1930's Dressmaking Magazines, (R) 'How to Dress for Jubilee Year', Weldon's Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Selection of 1930’s Dressmaking Magazines, (R) ‘How to Dress for Jubilee Year’, Weldon’s Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Looking at Hollywood styles, Weldon's Ladies' Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma's Fashions, October 1934

(L) ‘Looking at Hollywood Styles’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934

(L) C(entre L)

(L) ‘Dressing the Fuller Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (Centre L) ‘Styles for Business’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (Centre R) ‘A Dress Stand That Moulds to Your Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (R) ‘How to Dress like a Parisienne’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal 1935

Sources:

Barbara Burman, ‘”What a Deal of Work there is in a Dress!”  Englishness and Home Dressmaking in the Age of the Sewing Machine,’ in Christopher Breward, Becky Conekin and Caroline Cox, eds., The Englishness of English Dress (Oxford: Berg, 2002)

Catherine Horwood, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class between the Wars (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2005)

How to Dress for Success by Edith Head

Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was one of the greatest Hollywood costume designers of all time. She won eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, starting with The Heiress (1949) and ending with The Sting (1973). She was nominated 35 times, and holds the record for the woman who has won the most Academy Awards ever. Head famously worked extensively with Alfred Hitchcock, dressing leading ladies such as Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) and Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954), in addition to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957).

Grace Kelly wearing an Edith Head dress in Rear Window.

Grace Kelly wearing an Edith Head dress in Rear Window.

In 1967 Head wrote an interesting little book called How to Dress for Success, an advice book for women influenced heavily by her design philosophy including illustrations by Head herself. I would contend the book is timeless and relatively relevant to the modern woman in a fun albeit not literal way. Although some advice is certainly a bit outdated such as Chapter Two, “How to Dress for a Man and Keep Him,” which includes passages that say things like, “Conservatism in your wardrobe will stand you in good stead with [The Shy Conservative Man]. Shy away from plunging necklines, black lace textured hosiery, above-the-knee skirts, figure-revealing silhouettes and wild hairdos.”

Edith Head surrounded by 700 of her sketches.

Edith Head surrounded by 700 of the costume sketches she designed throughout her career, 1967. Copyright: AP.

However, other  chapters such as “How to Dress for Success in Business” include more modern advice such as, “When every other girl in the office has decided to wear her hair up or teased or straight to the shoulders–that’s the time for you to achieve a new and distinctive look when the current make-up theme is ‘doe eyes’ or ‘two pairs of lashes resist–desist–and be yourself. Wear the make-up that does the most for you while everyone else in the office projects a single monotonous pattern.” Interestingly, the book inspired Vogue to apply her thoughtful, twentieth-century advice to the twenty-first-century wardrobe.

Head suggests: a smart suit and tote—in which you can stash a superglam accessory for evening. Vogue suggests: Stella McCartney’s boyfriend blazer and wool pants with Proenza Schouler’s PS11 tote for day, plus Chloé’s embellished ankle-strap sandals for night. Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a smart suit and tote—in which you can stash a superglam accessory for evening.
Vogue suggests: Stella McCartney’s boyfriend blazer and wool pants with Proenza Schouler’s PS11 tote for day, plus Chloé’s embellished ankle-strap sandals for night.
Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a short evening dress. Vogue suggests: Short drapey red dress from Lanvin with Marc Jacobs’s patent leather clutch. Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a short evening dress.
Vogue suggests: Short drapey red dress from Lanvin with Marc Jacobs’s patent leather clutch.
Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a day dress, day coat, and day bag. Vogue suggests: Marc by Marc Jacobs’s full-skirted dress with Dries Van Noten’s coat and a casual Fendi baguette. Copyright: Condé Nast

Head suggests: a day dress, day coat, and day bag.
Vogue suggests: Marc by Marc Jacobs’s full-skirted dress with Dries Van Noten’s coat and a casual Fendi baguette.
Copyright: Condé Nast

 

Annette Kellerman on ‘How to Swim’

With our MA Dissertations out of sight (if not quite yet out of mind), we can start to follow the tempting threads of research that have been appearing over the last few months. During my writing and research on the dress and physical performances of Australian women in Britain from 1900-1940, I was distracted time and time again by the writings of Annette Kellerman. Annette was a champion swimmer, diver and eventually Hollywood’s first onscreen ‘Mermaid’. She pioneered practical bathing suits for women as part of her advocacy for women’s health and exercise, and amongst several publications, released How to Swim, in 1919.

how to swim 1

Kellerman in ‘How to Swim’, demonstrating the elegant potential of swimming for women.

In How to Swim, Kellerman used her characteristically direct style of address to confront critics who would question the respectability of women becoming involved in sport:

‘Not only in matters of swimming but in all forms of activity woman’s natural development is seriously restricted and impaired by customs and costumes and all sorts of prudish and Puritanical ideas. The girl child long before she is conscious of her sex, is continually reminded that she is a girl and therefore must forego many childhood activities. As womanhood approaches these restrictions become even more severe and the young woman is corseted and gowned and thoroughly imbued with the idea that it is most unlady-like to be possessed of legs or know how to use them.’[1]

She believed swimming was the ideal form of exercise for women as it had the potential to strengthen all the muscles in the body and do away with the ‘need’ to wear corsets to maintain a feminine figure. Kellerman’s genius lay in her ability to understand the time she was living in, and the expectations and limitations women faced around the display of their bodies during physical activities. She devoted pages and pages of How to Swim to the details of dressing for swimming; differentiating between the skirted ‘bathing beach dress’ and the streamlined ‘swimming costume’, the dangers of heavy woollen swimsuits in water, and ways of maintaining (even protecting) femininity while engaging in swimming for exercise. Illustration plates in How to Swim feature Kellerman in ‘the Bathing Cape’, which allowed a woman wearing a suitably brief swimming costume to remain modest on her approach to the water, and maintain a respectable image alongside the personal freedom that exercise, and swimming in particular provided to women of the day.

how to swim 2Never one to leave a stone unturned, or an excuse unchallenged Kellerman also shares with the readers of How to Swim how she combats the particularly female problem associated with swimming—getting your hair wet. Talcum powder and a rubber bathing cap keep the hair dry and lessen the inconvenience to health and style wet hair may pose, while with a typical Kellerman flourish she suggests the inclusion of an artfully tied scarf around the head to maintain the elegance of the ensemble–because above all she maintained that an active woman was an attractive woman. For Kellerman exercise and did not erase femininity, but had the ability to enhance it.

how to swim 3

All images from Annette Kellerman, How to Swim, London: William Heinemann, 1919.

[1] A. Kellerman. How to Swim, London: William Heinemann, 1919. p. 45

Dissertation Discussion: Carolina

What is your title?

Between Feminism and Femininity: Tensions within the designs of Diane Von Furstenberg

What prompted you to choose this subject?

I’ve always been really interested in women’s professional wear and the role it played– and continues to play– in creating an identity outside the domestic sphere for women so I knew I wanted to write about that. Initially, inspired by our visit to the Museum at FIT in New York, I wanted to compare Claire McCardell  and Diane Von Furstenberg, because both designers used similar cutting and wrapping techniques to produce clothing that would facilitate the lives of modern women. However as the dissertation evolved, I found it was more interesting to focus on Von Furstenberg and reexamine her within her historical context, the Second Wave Feminist movement. Looking at her garments and their representation this way, it was really interesting to discover that even though she retrospectively claims to have produced feminist clothing, in many ways, they were in fact at odds with the rhetoric of the movement because they celebrated femininity, which the movement rejected.

Most inspiring research find so far?

There was so much! Overall, taking a closer look at the fashion industry in the 1970s was really inspiring. The 1970s were a real turning point for American sportswear and for women’s wear. It was fascinating to discover how the Battle of Versailles really helped to give American sportswear credibility. It was also interesting to learn that this was the moment when women gained more of a voice as consumers.

Favourite place to work?

I think I get my best work done at home as I have plenty of access to coffee and all my books. In terms of libraries though I do love Senate House, and if I need a change of scene I think the Foyle’s coffee shop is great.

Models showing off multicolored Stephen Burrow designs at the Battle of Versailles Photograph: Reginald Gray/WWD. Accessed via W Magazine, “Preview Robin Givhan’s New Book the Battle of Versailles,” March 4, 2015.

Models showing off multicolored Stephen Burrow designs at the Battle of Versailles Photograph: Reginald Gray/WWD. Accessed via W Magazine, “Preview Robin Givhan’s New Book the Battle of Versailles,” March 4, 2015.

Photograph of Diane Von Furstenberg sorting inventory of the same wrap dress she wears at her New Jersey warehouse. The image illustrates how she designed her dresses for someone exactly like herself, a working profession woman c. 1977 Photograph: unknown.

Photograph of Diane Von Furstenberg sorting inventory of the same wrap dress she wears at her New Jersey warehouse. The image illustrates how she designed her dresses for someone exactly like herself, a working profession woman c. 1977 Photograph: unknown.

The Midi- Mini crisis of 1970 represented the moment when women started rejecting Paris dictated trends. After the age of "liberating" mini skirts in the 1960s many women were upset by the unflattering midi length that hit below the knee. Life Magazine, “The Midi Muscles In” cover photograph of woman observing herself with the “midi” look whilst wearing a mini skirt. August 21, 1970. Photograph: John Dominis. Location: Bonwit Teller’s.

The Midi- Mini crisis of 1970 represented the moment when women started rejecting Paris dictated trends. After the age of “liberating” mini skirts in the 1960s many women were upset by the unflattering midi length that hit below the knee. Life Magazine, “The Midi Muscles In” cover photograph of woman observing herself with the “midi” look whilst wearing a mini skirt. August 21, 1970. Photograph: John Dominis. Location: Bonwit Teller’s.

Advertisement for Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress. A woman cycles herself and a man who reads the newspaper. May Company Catalog, 1974. Photograph: Peter Kredenser. Accessed via Journey of a Dress Exhibition catalog, 22.

Advertisement for Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress. A woman cycles herself and a man who reads the newspaper. May Company Catalog, 1974. Photograph: Peter Kredenser. Accessed via Journey of a Dress Exhibition catalog, 22.