Documenting Fashion


Style and Substance: Thinking about Fashion

August 15, 2014 by Katerina

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Caroline Hamilton, Nathaniel Dafydd Beard and Camelia Dewan speaking at Fashioning the Archive

What follows are my musings on what happened in the last week of June. On June 25th I co-organised a symposium called Fashioning the Archive at the Royal College of Art. My friend, Camelia Dewan, a social anthropology and history PhD student at Birkbeck and SOAS presented her research on the demise of the textile trade in colonial Bengal. While the symposium’s other speakers, who were mainly dress and film scholars, were busy mining archives for material traces, Camelia lamented the archive’s concentration on the material (muslin) as it failed to yield basic information about the textile workers. In the symposium’s closing comments, Professor Claire Pajaczkowska surmised that as the muslin workers and the potentially sordid details of their employment faded into oblivion, the bourgeois European women who dressed in muslin looked as reified and ethereal as Whistler paintings.

Later at dinner, Camelia, who had not previously attended a dress-focused conference admitted that while the fashion was an important trade, its overall prioritisation of appearances above the workers’ and planet’s wellbeing made her uncomfortable. In the aftermath of the South Wales Evening Post’s story about the discovery of a label with ‘Forced to Work Exhausting Hours’ in a Primark dress, I felt that she certainly had a point: there was an ugly disconnect between a new style’s fresh optimism and the often amoral processes that brought it into being.

The next day, quite unexpectedly, I was made even more aware of the disjuncture between fashion’s style and substance. While I was waiting to have my haircut, I settled down with the July issue of British Vogue and turned to Jo Ellison’s profile of the French Vogue editor Emmanuelle Alt. Alt was credited with being the author of the insouciant yet sharp Parisian style that fashion followers aspired to. Ellison praised Alt’s down-to-earth style. In contrast to her predecessor Carine Roitfeld, who promoted a ‘hyper-sexualised, somewhat cold eroticism’, Alt exhibited her ‘far earthier sensuality’ in a personal uniform of ‘skinny legs, usually clad in denim, trophy jacket, spindle heels’ and fashion features that showcased the archetypal ‘sexy French woman’ in a quotidian rather than fantasy mode.

Despite the article’s professions of Alt’s rationality, her breezy nonchalant replies to Ellison’s questions evoked what Camelia had identified as fashion’s prioritisation of appearances over ethics. To give her credit, Alt did acknowledge her responsibility to exclude models who were overly young or thin from Vogue’s pages because of the impact on readers. However, her attitudes to cigarette imagery and feminism were somewhere between amoral and nonsensical. Although Alt does not smoke ‘she is robust in the cigarette’s defence’ because ‘it has always been very aesthetic. I don’t think that because you have a cigarette it’s going to influence someone to smoke or not’. This may be true of a self-assured forty-something woman, but can the same sophistication really be expected from an impressionable teenager? Her response to the question on whether she considers herself a feminist was even more baffling: “‘No, not at all”, she laughs, aghast at the thought. “Life would be miserable without men. Who would you buy all those shoes for? “ ‘Here, Alt’s retrogressive politics are less concerning than her understanding of the word feminist. In France, as in Britain, the so-called ‘F-word’ has gathered negative connotations, however, only the most unenlightened or prejudiced associate it with a Spartan existence devoid of male company and shoes. Ellison’s conclusion that Alt had ‘spoken like a true Parisienne’, was deeply unsatisfying. Should someone who appears au courant but is seemingly unaware of fashion’s impact on the world around her be positioned as a contemporary icon?

Of course, you might argue that Alt’s insousciance (or not caring) forms part of her appeal. Like earlier fashion icons, including fifteenth-century Italian courtiers or indeed, Whistler’s women in white muslin she projects a kind of sprezzatura or effortless grace that comes from not trying too hard. Perhaps, we should champion fashion leaders for what they’re good at, setting trends, and overlook their politics. However, given that the tastemaker’s influence is not only invested in looks but in lifestyles, and reaches wide audiences, their opinions matter. Nonchalance may be a fashion perennial, but when aspects of its ethos and dissemination are so problematic, it begins to lose its appeal.

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The summer body

August 12, 2014 by Alexis

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The contents of the display box outside shoe shop Donna Più encapsulate summer. As befits its tropical location in Alghero, a Sardinian town overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the shop’s display box house hats and sunglasses to protect from the sun, and gold-coloured scarves, bags and jewellery to show off bronzed skin. The sandals and bikinis in the bottom row are brightly coloured, in step with a rainbow assortment of lipstick and nail varnish. The coordinated chaos of the contents resemble the look of the many other boxes that adorn the walls of the town’s historic centre, containing jewellery made from the island’s abundant coral reefs. While these natural products are wrought into charms and pendants for consumers who wish to personify a season or place, the creators make clothing and accessories that prescribe how people should present themselves in the summertime.

Seen together, the objects in the box also evoke the female form. Joanne Entwistle wrote that “So significant are clothes to our readings of the body that they can come to stand for sexual difference in the absence of a body.” And, although Donna Più predominantly sells shoes, it seeks to signify ‘more’ than just that. Its fragmented name meaning, ‘women more’, calls to mind all things feminine. But whose definition of femininity is it? As women stroll through the streets and glimpse their reflections in the box’s glass, they project their image onto the display. Fragments entwine with inner thoughts, and become bodies, ideal feminine tourists, or more.

Source:

Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 141.

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The Ethics of a Fashion Label

August 8, 2014 by Lucy

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All opinions are the author’s own. 

On 24th June 2014, Rebecca Jones posted a photograph on Twitter, addressed to the low cost clothing retailer, Primark. Her navy blue top, sprinkled with a neat grid of white polka dots, and worn with jeans, although simple and stylish, would not be out of place on a typical high street. What isn’t so typical, however – not even within the thousands of identical garments sold nationally by the retailer – is the label nestling amongst its folds. In addition to standard issue washing and care instructions in red and white printed text, is a handmade addition. Its idiosyncratic stitches and scrawled black capitals state plainly: ‘“Degrading” sweatshop conditions.’

Primark’s ethical disposition has never been entirely untarnished, and a major section of its website is dedicated to bolstering this, with photographs, videos, and attempts to address the moral question, explicitly quoted: ‘How can Primark offer the lowest prices?’. This initiative is especially important in light of last year’s tragedy at Rana Plaza, the garment factory that collapsed, killing over 1,130 workers.

Whilst the brand offers amongst the lowest in-store garment prices, it was by no means the only retailer to have used the factory, and therefore not alone in its association with unfavourable working conditions. These too, are representative of a much more widespread problem, and the heavily publicized disaster served to bring to public consciousness an issue that can be otherwise all too easy to repress. When faced with an accessible abundance of goods, in retail outlets thousands of miles away from the factories in which they are made, this sensation of consumer dissociation is exacerbated.

Other consumers also discovered handmade reminders of these ethical issues hidden in their garments. A similar example appeared in a floral dress bought by Rebecca Gallagher in the same Swansea store, whereas the third known example emerged in the form of a note, written in Chinese and concealed in the pocket of a pair of trousers, bought by Karen Wisinska in Belfast. The affected garments were all purchased a year or more ago. Although investigations have concluded that the incidents were likely staged, and added after arriving in store, this does not defeat their role in sharply raising awareness of the very real issue of fast fashion, and its implications.

Ready-to-wear clothing’s rise to dominance sped up after the First World War, when the industry began to evolve into its modern state. In the last thirty years, there has been a huge growth in availability, range and, indeed, excess of clothing, much of which – Primark’s wares included – is so cheap that it can be discarded at the end of the fashion season. Is this a demonstration of ready-to-wear reaching a tipping point? Is fast, throwaway fashion sustainable, environmentally and ethically alike? Can it truly exist without adversely affecting humanity – both in terms of unscrupulous treatment of producers, and corroding consumers’ sense of value?

Recently, a tide of organized and public protest against these issues has gained momentum, and increasingly, brands new and old explicitly promote consciousness. Italian label Progetto Quid, for example, transforms surplus stock into ‘limited eco chic collections’, employing ‘exclusively disadvantaged women’, and combats any residual notions that responsible clothing must be staid, with its trend-led design. Nevertheless, will this be enough to entice the average shopper away from the low cost and easy availability that they are accustomed to? Only time will tell whether ethics matter enough over convenience, and whether accountability and accessibility can converge. Perhaps the Primark ‘labels’ can become a catalyst for change that has long been required.

References:

http://www.primark.com/en/our-ethics

http://progettoquid.it

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Fashion and Surfing

August 5, 2014 by Fruzsi

“Who said surfing wasn’t chic?” inquired surfertoday.com in a brief feature about Chanel’s pricy surfboards featured in its 2010 Spring/Summer ad campaign. While Karl Lagerfeld’s take on Chanel’s signature tweed suits imbued the streamlined, monochrome boards with an air of modern elegance, surf culture’s associations with youthful vitality reinvigorated the fashion classic. The campaign illustrated how conceptions of cool have evolved over the course of the twentieth century and how the appropriation of subcultural styles give high fashion designs an edge. Surveying these images with legends of Chanel’s adventurous and determined personality in mind, I imagine that Mademoiselle herself would have been tempted to try the sport had she been presented with the opportunity.

Surfing has become a global phenomenon as a professional competitive sport and as a favoured leisure activity. Its popular mythology, promoted by music and films, is associated with the rejection of mainstream culture and the pursuit of personal freedom through a communion with nature. These romantic preconceptions make it a desirable brand in itself, which both consumers and manufacturers seem keen to buy into. Indeed, its longterm relevance to dress history was underlined when a surprising fragment of interwar surfing history circulated on blogs and websites in the form of a photograph of a woman standing in front of a surfboard on a nondescript beach. Agatha Christie was identified as the unlikely subject of the image. Christie first tried the sport in South Africa, but it wasn’t until a trip to Hawaii in 1922 that she mastered the cumbersome art of surfing standing upright on the board. In her 1972 autobiography, Christie described how she needed to adjust her wardrobe to the demands of the sport, as her “handsome silk bathing-dress” could not withstand the force of the waves. Instead, Christie opted for “a wonderful, skimpy, emerald-green wool bathing-dress,” purchased from the hotel shop and accessorised with laced, soft leather boots to protect her feet from the sharp coral of the Honolulu beach. This suggests that even before surfing became the fashionable sport it is today, its practical demands did not mean the end of individuality in dress. Her words give us a glimpse into attitudes towards surf-related attire before preconceptions were created by vivid marketing campaigns and promoted through music and film, as its popularity has grown since the 1950s.

By 2010 – the year of the Chanel campaign – the surfing industry, which encompasses a range of specialised companies from wetsuit manufacturers to wax and leash makers, generated more than seven billion dollars annually. Established companies, such as Quicksilver, which was founded in 1969, viewed attempts to tap into the developing market by big sportswear brands, such as Nike, with suspicion. Many of surf companies began as small local businesses during a period when the sport lacked mainstream popularity and their history is a key component of their brand identity. The way that labels, such as O’Neill, founded in 1952, and credited with the invention of the wetsuit, evolved over the years is closely linked to how the sport. This kind of authenticity mattered within the industry, and is reinforced by the short lifespan of the Nike 6.0 surf project in contrast to the ongoing popularity of Hurley, an established brand bought by the sportswear giant in 2002.

Both surfing and fashion are pursuits that allow self-expression, suggesting successful future collaborations, if collaborators are carefully chosen. Although the surfing industry has experienced setbacks in the last few years, the announcement that Kelly Slater, one of surf’s superstars, left his sponsor Quicksilver in order to partner with the Kering Group in March of this year suggests that the sport is still considered to have potential from a commercial standpoint. Slater and Kering’s joint venture will take the shape of an eco-friendly clothing company and Slater will serve as the Group’s ambassador for its issue concerning sustainability. It seems that through this collaboration, new standards can be set for both fashion and surfing, that combine authenticity and trend-awareness.

Sources:

Books:

Christie, A. (1977) An Autobiography. Glasgow: Fontana Collins.

Heinemann, J. (2004) Vintage Surfing Graphics. London and New York: Taschen.

Laderman, S. (2011) Empire in Waves: A political history of surfing. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Schmidt, C. (2012) The Swimsuit. London and New York: Berg.

Wade, A. (2012) Amazing Surfing Stories. Chichester: Wiley Nautical.

Websites:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8340453.stm

http://www.businessinsider.com/billabong-demise-surfwear-2013-11

http://www.businessoffashion.com/2014/04/kering-to-back-surf-star-kelly-slater-in-new-lifestyle-brand.html

http://business.transworld.net/8642/features/how-hollister-co-stole-surf-eight-years-after-abercrombie-fitch-invaded-the-surf-market-what-can-be-done-to-defend-against-them/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/chicceo/2013/08/02/a-blue-ocean-industry-beyond-the-ocean/

http://www.marketingmag.com.au/news/surf-brands-take-a-dive-as-gen-y-aussies-opt-for-disposable-fashion-45596/#.U9drBIB5PSF

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/01/fashion/thursdaystyles/01surf.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

http://www.prweb.com/releases/surfing_surfboards/surfing_apparel/prweb8581431.htm

http://www.retronaut.com/2011/08/agatha-christie-and-her-surf-board-1922/

http://sima.com/about/

http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/surf-label-rides-a-hot-new-wave-20130810-2rous.html

http://surfcareers.com/blog/surfing-a-growing-industry/

http://www.surfingmagazine.com/news/kelly-slater-leaves-quiksilver/

http://www.surfertoday.com/surfing/3406-chanel-fashion-house-releases-luxury-surfboards

http://www.theinertia.com/business-media/surf-business-surf-industry-is-growing-up-target-nike/1/

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Rita Andrade on Brazilian Fashion Theory

August 1, 2014 by Liz

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Volume 2, Número 1, Março de 2003, Fashion Theory: A Revista da Moda, Corpo e Cultura. Edição Brasileira.

Rita Andrade was editor of the Brazilian edition of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. The journal was in circulation from 2002 to 2004 and 11 issues were published, always to coincide with the publication of the English-language edition of Fashion Theory. Alongside Regina Root, Rita is the guest co-editor of Brazilian Fashion, a special English-language edition of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, which will be published in April 2016. On 10th June 2014, Rita explained to me via skype how Fashion Theory, A Revista da Moda, Corpo e Cultura (as translated into Brazilian Portuguese) originated, and how it achieved the goal that it set itself:

“It began in 1999. I had just finished my MA in Historic Textiles and Dress at Winchester School of Art. I was aware that only a few journals that specialised in dress and fashion were distributed throughout Brazil, and that these were all in European languages. I phoned Berg to see if anything could be done to change this. My first idea was to just have a few Fashion Theory articles translated into Brazilian Portuguese. We later decided that it would be better to have the whole journal translated into Brazilian Portuguese. This would be more useful to Brazilian researchers, who could gain a broader idea of what was going on in the rest of the world in terms of fashion and dress.
I returned to Brazil at the end of 1999 and attempted to find a Brazilian publisher who would be interested in paying for the translation of the journal. It is important to remember that the market for this type of publication does not bring financial remuneration. The Associaçiao Brasileira da Industria Textil e de Confecçao (www.abit.org.br) were interested in getting closer to universities in Brazil at this time and paid for half of the costs of the first two issues.

I also had the help of a friend, Kathia Castilho, who was then a teacher at Universidade Anhembi Morumbi. She helped to negotiate the publication and came up with the idea of adding an article from a Brazilian author in each issue. These articles demonstrated great variety and a more mature approach to fashion and dress. They showed that many of us were teaching fashion at MA level throughout Brazil in many different areas of social sciences, which included the concerns of semiotics and psychoanalysis, and the aesthetic, social, cultural, psychological, economical, and political aspects of dress and fashion. Brazil still had no national association for fashion researchers at this time. Brazil is a huge country and Brazilian researchers were not aware of what was going on nationally or internationally. They were all working individually. They wanted to meet each other and to share ideas, but they didn’t know how to do this. The Brazilian edition of Fashion Theory offered a solution to this problem. It provided Brazilian researchers with up-to-date international fashion publications and interests. It also highlighted that there were many researchers in Brazil who came from the social sciences and were not directly concerned with fashion but working with fashion theory. Fashion programmes in Brazil began to add Fashion Theory to reading lists, bringing about fresh research results.

The translation of Fashion Theory was a difficult process because many of the translators were not specialized in fashion. After two years of circulation we began to realise that out target, which was to bring Brazilian researchers together and to realise our main interests, had been achieved. It was easier for us to read the original version of Fashion Theory in English than to translate it into Brazilian Portuguese.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian edition of Fashion Theory also demonstrated that our interests were still international as opposed to Brazilian fashion and dress. This is a shame. It is pragmatic for Brazilian researchers to take the time to consider Brazilian fashion and dress in detail too – we speak the language, we are closer to the archive, we have a better grasp of the culture and cultural issues and can thus offer something of benefit to international fashion research.”

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Capsule Wardrobe

July 29, 2014 by Rebecca

summer fashion

I love packing for my summer holidays. I realise that may seem an odd, even slightly masochistic statement. But no, for me, packing is a pleasure – it taps into my innate enjoyment of organization and neatness – and more than that, it allows me to combine my research into fashion history with my lived experience of dress. My fascination with American sportswear from the 1930s-50s, and special interest in designers Vera Maxwell and Claire McCardell can be given full reign, as I pursue the perfect travel wardrobe.

While fashion magazines are now full of stories on ‘capsule wardrobes’ and articles on how to dress for every possible travel destination, in the 1930s, this was a newly emerging trend. Maxwell and McCardell helped to define this idea of a small, well-curated selection of separates that could be mixed-and-matched for the duration of the holiday. Developments in diverse areas, including, ready-to-wear manufacturing, advances in dying various fabrics the same colour and the growth of travel as a leisure activity – think cruise ships and new airlines – meant the coordinated capsule wardrobe was the rational and modern way to approach dressing.

By the late 1930s, McCardell was making five or seven piece collections of clothes that addressed women’s lifestyle needs – whether travelling for business or pleasure. Lightweight chambray in an easy dress, shorts, jacket and sun top, for example could be taken for a short beach holiday. Or a navy-based wardrobe of jacket, skirt, trousers, culottes and knitted top might be good for a business trip.

What mattered was the sense of ease and appropriateness – these designers were professional women themselves, they understood the demands of modern life and saw their task as problem-solving – making their customers’ choices more straightforward, allowing them to carry minimum luggage, while being assured of their fashionable status.

But their designs are not just logical, cold answers to a fashion question. Their love of fabric and detail, focus on clear silhouettes and variety-through-combination make them fascinating pieces of modern design. And fashion photography of the time, by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for example, emphasized the sense of happiness and ease their work promoted.

So when you pack your suitcase this summer, think of these pioneers of travel fashions, and enjoy the pleasures of simple, modern classics.

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Interview: Aline Peeters on Style and Femininity

July 25, 2014 by Elisa

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Whilst back in Belgium I thought to myself, why not ask my dear friend – and fellow Art History student from the University of Leuven – about her views on style, femininity and the key to feeling confident.

Can you tell me what you are wearing today?

I am wearing some classic pieces, such as my favourite suede platform espadrilles, oversized comfy trench coat and silk transparent blouse. I think that together with my neoprene rucksack and sporty bomber jacket, the outfit evades pure minimalism and becomes more edgy. I didn’t realise this before but I think H&M should hire me as their walking-ad-campaign as I am dressed from head-to-toe in the Swedish label.

How would you describe your style?

I mostly wear muted shades like black, beige and grey and I try to express my creativity and personality by opting for unconventional materials. My budget is limited, so I often find myself browsing through sample-sales for special fabrics – by Pelican Avenue or Stephan Schneider – that I then use as scarves or bandanas. My style is all about mixing silk with mohair, leather with velvet, and neoprene with cashmere. It remains quite subtle I think.

What are the criteria to feel confident about the way you look?

I would say “my smile”, which is preferably with lipstick. I hate to admit it but I hardly ever leave the house without any make-up. In my teenage years, I used it to cover-up bad skin, but now it has become a way to express myself. I always match my make-up with my outfit and mood, and I am hooked on eye shadow. On a more practical level… I love watches and have dozens of them. I have to set the time at least ten minutes early as I am always quite late.

Has your dissertation on contemporary Japanese designers influenced your style in any way?

You wouldn’t ever catch me wearing sexy bodycon dresses, short skirts or low necklines. After focusing on the Japanese designers and their take on the image of women, I refuse to follow the traditional Western vision of female sexuality. This is not always easy. It might seem silly, but now I tend to let my trench hang nonchalantly instead of belting it to emphasise my waist. I prefer to express my femininity with lipstick!

Which items are on your summer wishlist?

I definitely want a sun visor to wear during my holiday in the South of France. I don’t enjoy tanning too much so I’ll try to fashionably hide away from the sun. I also really want a Dalmatian puppy to accompany my outfits!

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Textile Fragments at the Courtauld Institute of Art

July 22, 2014 by Alexis

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Dr Rebecca Arnold, Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, showing students a 19th century bodice from the Harris Collection.

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MA students Jessica Draper and Jennifer Potter, examining an 18th century stomacher from the Harris Collection.

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Three woven fragments, each composed of similar red and gold threads in a design of kufic or pseudo-kufic characters, seemingly formed a complete textile at one time. Today, labelled and sewn side-by-side onto linen matting, with no documentation in reference to their creation, they serve as uncertain evidence. They also speak to the historian’s urge to retain, to classify, to learn, as well as to shifts in dress and art history.

The fragments form part of a larger collection of diverse textile and dress articles, held at The Courtauld. As students, we eagerly await opportunities to study historical textiles, such as these, up close, and it is wonderful to have a collection to work with on site. Recently, as well as looking at the textile fragments, such as those pictured, I viewed a late nineteenth-century bodice  – one of the few complete pieces of clothing we have in the collection. Deconstructed and decontextualised from its life as a worn garment, it now evokes bodily and other types of loss. The poignancy of such interactions is heightened as, through contact with the object, we connect to distant periods and places. Our viewing experience thus works on a separate level to our theoretical and contextual readings of dress, that form much of our research. While our tutor, Rebecca and I discussed the bodice, other students marvelled at the detailed, sculptural qualities of a stomacher from the seventeenth to the early eighteenth century. These objects at once evoke the visual culture of the period in which they were made, yet remain shrouded in mystery.

Intriguingly little is known about the collection’s provenance. An anonymous brochure, entitled, A Collection of Textiles: European 14th – 18th Centuries, explains that it was created by Lionel Harris, a dealer of Spanish art and antiques and founder of London’s Spanish Art Gallery, largely on his travels to Spain between 1876 and 1938, and provides a few clues to its content:

This collection of four hundred and sixty-six rare examples of woven and embroidered materials forms what is probably the most comprehensive collection of antique European textiles in private possession. It comprises several hundred fragmentary specimens of tapestries, carpets, needlework, embroideries, velvets, brocades, brocatelles, damasks, woolwork, and other woven fabrics. In addition there are more than four hundred silk and metal fringes, gimps, galoons, and metal laces, and forty tassels.

The brochure, which purportedly corresponds to an exhibition of the collection at Eton College in 1944, one year after Harris’ death, evinces period prioritisation in favour of quantity, connoisseurship and typology.

Information concerning the Harris’ collecting is as ambiguous as the objects themselves. In her 1987 collection assessment report, textile conservation student Caroline Pilkington surmised that Lionel’s son Tomas, who inherited the collection, “added to it as well as dispos[ed] of certain items.” At some point before his death in 1964, he gave it to The Courtauld on long-term loan. In 1968, according to Pilkington, The Courtauld Gallery exhibited fifty-four textiles from the collection with the help of Joan Allgrove, then Keeper of Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Harris’ siblings, who were also dealers, collectors and historians of Spanish art, then officially donated the collection to the school in 1972.

In parallel with this, in 1965, Stella Mary Newton, a well-known fashion and theatre costume designer, established the The Courtauld’s History of Dress postgraduate course. Between 1973 and 1975 Newton and her students sewed the Harris collection fragments, originally mounted on cardboard with tape and other adhesives, onto linen supports. This followed a shift in focus towards scholarship and protection, and away from antiquarian collecting.

In 1986, Newton’s successor, Aileen Ribeiro asked Pilkington, assisted by a textile conservation student, to organise the collection and store it in acid-free paper. In her report, Pilkington described how she categorised the articles first by textile type, followed by pattern and rough dates. The report expressed a hesitancy to attribute facts, perhaps in recognition of the need for accurate scholarship to legitimise the field. She made note of omissions and possible errors, and regretted that “there was no time left for any research on the actual textiles or weaving techniques. It is to be hoped that this may be tackled in the future.”

What we have then is a tantalising collation of information and facts, from which to begin further exploration. We must begin however, with the object, as my recent visit made clear. In view of the fiftieth anniversary of the dress history course in 2015, it is fitting that Rebecca Arnold would now like raise funding to develop the Harris textiles into a valuable study collection that can be easily accessed by students. In its new form, the primacy of analysis and meaning over quantity would reflect a new phase in dress scholarship.

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5 Minutes With… Syed Ahsan Abbas

July 18, 2014 by Katerina

Syed fountains
Syed rings
Syed liberty
liberty detail

What are you wearing today?
Yohji Yamamoto coat and trousers, a black Comme des Garçons t-shirt, a white Ann Demeulemeester shirt, and black Converse. Most of my wardrobe is Yohji Yamamoto, when I first tried it on, it just felt right. Like Wim Wenders says in his documentary, it’s as if he knew me. His clothes always feel comfortably worn-in, because when he designs he says that he wishes he could use fabric that was already ten years old. This means that his clothes age well, and you can buy good second-hand Yohji on the internet that still looks contemporary because he doesn’t change his line drastically from season to season.

Tell me about your jewellery?
My bracelet and skull ring are Werkstatt Munchen. The oxidised band was made for me by a friend, and I bought the agate ring in Damascus. I wear the same jewellery every day. I just got my ears pierced, so I’m on the look-out for interesting earrings.

Have you always dressed like this?
No, in the academic year of 2009/10 I used to dress crazily with lots of colour and print. I had a three-piece suit, bow-tie and pocket square. The Courtauld is a good place to dress like that because no one bats an eye-lid. Then I got ill and was away from the Courtauld for a few years. By the time I returned, I had sold everything in my wardrobe and started from scratch, because the way I was dressing and the way I wanted to dress were so different. People used to see the clothes, not me. So I stopped dressing in front of a mirror and started to wear a personal uniform. If I’m wearing all black then people think I’m wearing the same thing, but only I know about the differences in cut, proportion and line.

Can you tell me why you don’t dress before a mirror?
The way I dress is less about looking a certain way; it’s about feeling a certain way. I wanted to learn why I dress in a certain way, and it had to be a personal journey. How can you begin to understand why other people dress the way they do if you don’t understand your own choices? In one History of Dress class, Rebecca (Arnold) advised everyone to try on a corset to see how it felt. I was the only man in the class. She looked at me and said: ‘Yes, including you Syed’. I’m not a cross-dresser, but I’ve tried on a corset and a full-length gown. Womenswear is a completely different way of interacting with the world. How can you understand it if you don’t try it?

How do you store and document your clothes?
I can fit my wardrobe into a suitcase. It’s very small because I’m learning from the ground up. I never keep anything that I don’t wear, but I do keep photographs of everything I’ve bought, sold or given away. The one item I have for sentimental reasons is a tiny red sweater with ‘cheeky monkey’ on the front with a label that says ‘three to six months’. My family had very little money then, and there are no photos of me from that age, so that sweater is an important memory, it keeps me grounded.

Any other wardrobe secrets?
(Pulls out a bright Liberty-print handkerchief) I end up giving these away. When I see someone crying, which is common around exam and dissertation time, I hand them one and then through sniffles they promise to give it back to me, but I let them keep it.

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Congratulations Dress History Grads!

July 16, 2014 by Rebecca

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Graduates Julia, Elisa and Jess on 7th July 2014.

Congratulations to the graduates of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film and Image in Europe & America, 1920-45 at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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