Smelling La Serenissima: The Essence of Venice


“It was a windy night and before my retina registered anything, I was smitten by a feeling of utter happiness: my nostrils were hit by what to me has always been its synonym, the smell of freezing seaweed.” -Watermark, Joseph Brodsky.

 Over the Summer I was fortunate enough to visit Venice with recent History of Dress alumna, Lisa Osborne. The trip involved a plethora of visits to art exhibitions, including the mammoth Biennale. One contemporary art installation that truly struck a chord with me was Andrea Morucchio’s show at Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo, titled ‘The Rape of Venice’. Palazzo Mocenigo is a unique museum within the city that houses antique Venetian textiles and dress. It also tells the story of how a strong and thriving perfume industry was established within the region, recounted through an immersive multi-sensory display, in which visitors are encouraged to smell raw materials, essences, oils, soaps and perfumes. Morucchio’s installation complimented the display of the permanent collection by also incorporating olfaction.

Comprising of four cohesive, immersive and multi-sensory elements, including scent and soundscapes, the installation explored how Venice’s rare cultural heritage and environment is being destroyed as the city’s declining population means that it has transformed from a home for many, into what Morucchio calls: ‘a tourist theme park.’ Inside the one room show monochrome projections replay against the walls. Strong statements in bold typography, reading: ‘Population decline set to turn Venice into Italy’s Disney Land’, and ‘Venice is sinking under a tidalwave of corruption’, are headlines from the international press. Created from fragments of a deconstructed mosaic taken from St Mark’s Basilica, the kaleidoscopic stone floor is intended to emulate a ‘frozen sea’; pertinent as underwater sound recordings of traffic in the Venetian Lagoon and the evocative scent of ‘frozen seaweed’ were pumped through the gallery space.

 Inspired by the fragile lagoon environment, Morucchio collaborated with Venetian perfume company Mavive for months to create this salty unisex scent. Three hundred bottles possessing the limited-edition ‘Essence of Venice’ were produced and sold to visitors. The bold packaging of the small bottle, carrying this one-off scent, mimics the bold typography used for the graphic statements in the installation. Furthermore it also bares similarities to Jenny Holzer’s graphic series of perfume adverts, created in collaboration with Helmut Lang in 2000. Since the perfume could only be obtained from Palazzo Mocenigo, the scent recalls the memory of the installation, thus reminding the wearer of the deeper emotional journey through the city from which the smell was born. This is not the first time that the city sense-scape has inspired artists, for example the scent of London has also been explored by a recent collaboration between The Serpentine Gallery and Comme des Garçons (2014). The London-inspired scent, conceptually described as a mixture of grass, oxygen and a little bit of pollution, can still be purchased today and was produced and marketed to raise funds for the gallery program. This contrasts with Morucchio’s sensory adventure, which focused on the ephemeral nature of scent and the city.


5 Minutes with… Michaela Zöschg

Michaela Zöschg is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at The Courtauld, and Research Assistant for the upcoming V&A exhibition Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. Her thesis is titled ‘Rich Queens, Poor Clares: Art, Space and Audience of Royal Clarissan foundations in Late Medieval Europe’. She was born in Bolzano, Italy, and moved to London in 2011 from Vienna. She now spends her time between South London, Vienna and the Tyrolean Alps (and southern Italy and Spain for research). I recently spent five minutes with Michaela to discuss her experience of dress.

Can you recall an early fashion memory?

Dark red patent leather Mary Janes I got when I was about four. I still remember the excitement of trying them on in the shop, and how I insisted on having them in my bedroom, so that I could look at their shiny prettiness before falling asleep.


Church 01

Through your research, you are connected to people (women) who lived hundreds of years ago, so, in a way, you are dealing with many mysteries and interpreting silent voices. Do you feel like you must reconstruct their identities through the material evidence they left behind?

Absolutely. More often than not, material evidence – in the form of the stones of a palace or a church, in the form of an illumination or a scribble in a book, or in the form of a sculpture or a painting – is the only evidence I have, and the only means through which I can try and re-construct some of the stories of people who have lived in the past.

Can you share any comments on your everyday approach/method to getting dressed, and its connections to your own identity construction?
I think I put my everyday wardrobe together rather instinctively, without thinking about it in a methodological way. The most important thing is that I feel comfortable in my clothes and that I don’t have to think about them once I am wearing them; looking at it from this perspective, I think they are very much part of my identity, as they form some sort of second skin.

You are a passionate, talented knitter. How did you learn? What are you currently working on?

Thank you! Many members of my family are very good at making things – my mum is an amazing knitter, and my aunt was a professional seamstress, so I grew up in an environment full of fabric, yarn, wool, needles and buttons, and picked up knitting. These days, I unfortunately do not have that much time to knit, usually I end up making small gifts for baby arrivals among my friends. But I have a stash of a beautiful grey merino-alpaca blend that will hopefully soon be turned into a cosy winter layer for myself.


Can you discuss a memorable clothing purchase from your past?

That would be a simple white cotton shirt I must have bought around the years 2000/01, which was quite expensive for my budget then. I remember going back to the store about three times before finally buying it. It was a good investment – I still wear it, and it still looks as crisp as it did when I bought it.

You are one of my favourite dressers. Your overall style seems extremely considered (but natural to you) and edited. Does the word ‘uniform’ resonate with your dressing?

Thank you! Yes, you probably could describe my clothes as ‘uniform’ – I always draw upon the same materials, shapes and colours. That I like clean shapes, high-quality materials and solid colours probably adds to this ‘uniformity’ – although I think I probably prefer the term ‘timelessness’.



Fragments of denim, linen and wool garments

Where do you get your clothing from?

I like to go hunting in all kinds of places – from your average high street store to second-hand places and nice little independent shops. It is all about the process of finding a piece that can become a good and trusted wardrobe-friend.

You are my partner in black (and other dark colours)! Do you have any comments on wearing this colour?

It has a calming effect on me, I think.

Has your way of dressing changed over the years?

Very much so! I had quite a long and intense phase of wearing very colourful and ornamented clothes – bright reds, purples – with a lot of jewellery when I was younger. A favourite piece from that phase is this massive Indian mirror belt.


Has living in London affected your dress? Does your relationship to others affect your dressing?

I think London is also visually such a buzzing place that it probably has made my clothing even more reduced and simple. I think I get a lot of inspiration from my friends, from the many creative ways how they are dressing and expressing themselves.

Can you recall any examples of difficulties in the daily process of dressing? And have you ever regretted wearing a certain outfit?

The only difficulties arise if I did not have time to do my laundry. I once possessed a pair of dungarees. Not a good idea.

Welcome New MAs!

We are so pleased to welcome the new MA group to The Courtauld! Look out for posts by Aric, Giovanna, Carolina, Emerald, Leah, Eleanor, Saskia and Aude in the coming weeks, as they start to settle into life at the Institute and share their thoughts on Dress History with you.

Here are some photos of their first week of studies – including looking at examples from our amazing collection of rare books and fashion journals on during the first class.  It’s always great to see Iribe’s Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Vecellio’s 1598 book on dress of the world, and Fish Annuals, showing 1920s Flapper style…

looking at rare fashion journals in our first class

looking at rare fashion journals in our first class

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The Fabric of India

Entrance to the exhibition

Entrance to the exhibition

I think the thing I loved most about the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition – and there is a lot to love – is the way that you learn so much through the objects themselves.  The show is subtly curated, there are distinct sections – dyestuffs, and types of embellishments and weaves, for example – which educate your eye in the early sections, but also a confident placement of fabrics across the displays, that slowly build deeper, longer histories. This means that by the later rooms, you are able to identify and understand the ways textiles fit into rituals, connect to life stage and to regional traditions, and the ways techniques somehow stay the same and yet can seem radically different in varied contexts.

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

Fabric as a global commodity is one of the threads (no pun intended) that runs throughout the exhibition, and which is then made explicit in a room that shows centuries of interconnections.  This shows how specific fibre, embellishment or print might be, and yet how it will also be adapted and translated across cultures. Thus, we see a beautiful Indian chintz ensemble of delicately coloured petticoat, jacket and fichu from mid-18th century England, next to an under-kimono that uses fabrics traded to the Japanese via the Dutch East India Company, and a banjan (similar to a dressing gown) from the Netherlands, made of fabric from the Coromandel Coast. The object labels state where each textile originated, and map the rich craft skills and resources of different areas, which then travel internationally setting fashions, sparking imitations, and at times triggering trade restrictions to protect home industries.

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

You get a strong sense of India’s centrality to the textiles trade, and just as important, as a source of innovation and creativity.  The sheer diversity of designs on show is dazzling, and benefits from low-key display techniques that allow the objects themselves to shine – in many instances, literally.  The room dedicated to the notion of splendour is remarkable, and includes the exhibition’s centrepiece – the printed chintz tent that belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in the second half of the 18th century.  Although it stands in a room filled with beautiful wall hangings and garments woven with gold and silver thread, it more than dominates the scene. And the fact you can walk inside gives you a sense of life in a moveable palace.

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Not all the exhibits are so dramatic, though they still have impact – I loved the late 19th century indigo-dyed dress on display in the first gallery, so severe and yet so rich with its full skirt. And the end section that shows contemporary Indian fashions, including a row of saris that glow in the gallery’s dim light is amazing.  What comes across is an almost overwhelming richness – of design and craft skills and creativity, of geographical scope and diversity, and of textiles’ impact on history and vice versa.  With this in mind, the role of Imperialism and colonialism, and its concomitant brutality haunts many gallery’s – brought to the fore in the discussion of Ghandi and the political significance of Khadi cotton. This controversial aspect of India’s history could perhaps have been explored further, but the exhibition as a whole is a breathtaking exploration of the Fabric of India.

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Louis Vuitton Series Three

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Louis Vuitton’s enigmatically titled exhibition, ‘Series 3,’ has taken over 180 Strand, just a few doors down from the Courtauld. It documents Nicholas Ghesquiere’s inspirations for his fourth ready-to-wear show as the Artistic Director for women’s collections at Louis Vuitton.

Before going to the exhibition, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There is very little information available on Louis Vuitton’s website, and I was only aware that it was even happening having walked past the venue. (I have since, however, been absolutely inundated with advertising for it, which is unsurprising). Upon arrival, I was met by an army of people, dressed identically in black suits with white shirts. Their crisp, stark appearance was, I soon realized, to be echoed throughout the exhibition space. The entrance, as well as all the hallways connecting the rooms were a bright, somewhat severe, white. The rooms housing the displays, however, were an immersive, loud, bright, highly sensory experience. The first room, entered via a white tunnel, displayed a trunk hanging from the ceiling. The round walls played a repeating montage of video clips, some of models talking about their experience of working for Louis Vuitton, others of the same models, marching down the catwalk, interspersed with alternating flashes of the famous LV print and white noise, which spun at an increasing speed around the walls. The whole thing was enough to make the visitor just dizzy and nauseous enough that they had to stagger into the next space. Bright lights, loud music and rapid moving images were employed again and again by the curators, in an attempt to make the experience as immersive, and subsequently memorable, as possible.

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The aim of the whole exhibition, was, it quickly became apparent, to emphasize the genius of Ghesquiere, and elevate him to the status of a revered and respected artist. The exhibition guide described the show as a ‘stream of consciousness, dreams and self-reflexive journeys… The designer’s careful thoughts pair with a  delicate artisanal touch.’ This idea of the designer as a genius, and the exhibition as an insight into his inspiration and psyche is reiterated again and again, creating a ‘sensorial journey, venturing deep into the designer’s soul and an artisan’s heart.’ The curators were evidently far less concerned with conveying any information about Louis Vuitton or the new collection.

 The handmade quality of the objects in the collection was also a prominent theme of the exhibition. In one room, the viewer was encouraged to sit at a wooded table, and watch a real time video of the maker’s hands, carefully crafting a clutch bag. The description of this room tells the viewer that ‘each craftsman’s movement is that of an artist.’ Like Ghesquiere, the creators are heralded as artistic heroes, however, unlike the designer, whose name is the most prominent aspect of the exhibition, they remain completely anonymous. In this room, it is only their hands on show. In a later room, the visitor met the maker, head on. Two women were sat at desks, carefully crafting clutch bags. They were surrounded by an intricate system of lights and cameras, projecting videos of their hands onto screens behind them. The act of making a bag was turned into a performance, and the women a spectacle.

a video showing the hands of an anonymous maker

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The visitors were first shown the collection about half way through the exhibition, in a large, bright room with mirrors lining every wall. Lifesize videos of models marched to the pumping beat on large free standing screens. The effect was clever, making the visitor feel as if they were actually at the show, however, again the clothes of secondary importance to the room itself. The information for this room was quick to reinforce Ghesquiere’s position at the top of the pyramid, stating ‘… 45 models, one designer- Ghesquiere.’

Floor to ceiling mirrors were employed in nearly every room, creating the effect of never ending, infinite space. However, they also caused the visitor to look at themselves too, alongside Ghesquiere’s collection. From a curatorial point of view, this forces the viewer to, perhaps subconsciously, compare themselves to the glamourous collection, or imagine themselves wearing it, giving the exhibition an aspiration quality. This was extremely apparent in the final room, in which the entire collection hung in open Perspex boxes. Visitors were not only allowed, but encouraged to touch things, pick them up and open them. The guide for this room read ‘clothes speak to the women to wishes to own them,’ and I overheard a tour guide dub the room ‘every woman’s dream come true- the walk in wardrobe.’ It was clear that, upon entering the room, the visitors were meant to covet the luxurious, fur coats and elaborate jewel encrusted skirts.

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The mirrors also served another function: they made the rooms the perfect setting for the ultimate selfie. They had clearly been conceived of as the most instagrammable rooms ever (it suddenly became apparent why the wifi password had been displayed so prominently in the entrance!), which was a hugely clever PR technique from Louis Vuitton. Every visitor in the exhibition with me was lapping up the opportunity to take the artsiest selfie they could, which, presumably, they would soon share on social media, creating the desired buzz around Ghesquiere’s new collection during Fashion Week season. I couldn’t help thinking throughout that this was one of the most elaborate and immersive marketing strategies I had ever seen.

in selfie heaven

in selfie heaven

This was definitely not most informative fashion exhibition- I left feeling scarcely more knowledgeable about Louis Vuitton than when I arrived. In fact, I would scarcely call it an exhibition,  but rather the most lavish example of experiential marketing I have ever seen. It was an eye-opening foray into the techniques design houses use to promote their collections. In terms of marketing, the exhibition was enormously clever, because it created an experience that no visitor could resist photographing and sharing. It seemed to be an exhibition for exhibition’s sake. The actual collection was of secondary importance to the exhibition itself, and very little information was provided. However, where it succeeded was creating an unforgettable experience, and, even if the visitors can’t remember what one garment in the collection looks like, they will definitely remember that it was by Louis Vuitton.

En Mode Sport

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

En Mode Sport, an exhibition currently at the Musée National du Sport, in Nice takes an expansive look at sportswear’s development since the late 19th century. When I visited, I was excited to see the range and diversity of material on display – from rare examples of early cycling ensembles, to recent couture collections inspired by sport.

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

I first became aware of the planned exhibition when I was asked to contribute a short essay on mid-century New York sportswear to its catalogue, and it was wonderful to be able to view En Mode Sport having got a sense of the depth of research that went into its making.

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

What struck me was the dynamic display techniques deployed to give a sense of movement and endeavour to the items on view. White walls, shiny glass and glossed surfaces added to this effect and enabled glimpses of things to come, as you wove your way through the chronological displays. It was fascinating to see so many early examples – and to see how dressmakers struggled to provide appropriate garments for the range of new activities emerging at the turn of the century. The cycling outfit I mentioned was one such case – the top half of the body would be clad in a beautiful, striped Spencer jacket – its mutton-leg sleeves and fitted bodice a marker of contemporary femininity. But for the bottom half of the body? Well, innovation and improvisation was needed to envision and create a garment that would free women’s legs to cycle successfully. The knitted culottes shown were an interesting admixture of bloomers and trousers – part underwear as outwear, part menswear as womenswear.

Elsewhere, knitted swimsuits showed another not-quite-there form of dress – the body-conscious shape that emerged by the 1920s was perfect for a dip in the sea, but the wool yarn used to create the costumes became heavy and drooped from the figure once wet.

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Another interesting context that emerged was that of class – not only were more women playing sports professionally and for fun, but working class men were also expanding their activities – with a range of football strips and boots readied for matches. Alongside actual dress, film, posters, sketches and promotional material were also included. As you moved past the displays, it became clear how iconic sportswear is – as a marker of personal and team achievement, as souvenirs for spectators, and as a link between professional and amateur. Stars such as Suzanne Lenglen and René Lacoste forged new styles that entered mainstream fashion, and which still affect how we dress today.

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

The latter sections of the exhibition showed how technology has caught up with lifestyle, providing running shoes and kit that not only streamline the wearer, but also enhance the body’s performance, while streetwear and high fashion appropriate and redeploy such innovations for everyday and occasion wear.

Cactuses and Paper Dresses: Frida Kahlo at the New York Botanical Gardens

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida's collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida’s collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

a replica of Frida's desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

a replica of Frida’s desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

Humberto Spindola's sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas

Humberto Spindola’s sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas

The New York Botanical Garden has been transformed into a Mexican, Frida Kahlo-esque paradise.  The Enid A Haupt conservatory, a huge Victorian greenhouse, is now full of cactuses, Frida’s great botanical love. The Casa Azul, the house in which Frida was born, and where she spent most of her adult life with her husband Diego Rivera, has been replicated within the conservatory. The strong blue colour that is so characteristic of the Casa Azul, and from which it derives its name, serves as a backdrop for the hundreds of prickly plants.

The garden is accompanied by a small collection of Kahlo’s paintings that exemplify her interest in and passion for plants and botanical drawings. The lifelike realism with which she rendered floral imagery in her paintings suggests that she was a keen and knowledgeable horticulturalist.

I studied Kahlo’s representation of dress in her paintings, and her own dress, extensively for my MA dissertation, so I was happy to make the trek out to New York’s Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The most interesting aspect of the exhibition was, in my opinion, Humberto Spindola’s lifesize recreation of the two figures in Kahlo’s famous painting The Two Fridas. The painting is a double self portrait; the two identical women sit side by side, holding hands. As in many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, dress is an important tool employed to depict a sense of strong Mexican national pride. The clothing worn by the figure on the right in The Two Fridas is very similar to other depictions of dress in her works, including My Dress Hangs There. The Mexican outfit, indigenous to the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, comprised of woven huipil and floorlength skirt, was also worn by Kahlo herself in her day to day life. Frida adopted this style of dress during her early adult life, and continued to wear it until her death. To her, this style of clothing was deeply implicated in her socialist political views and a symbol of her strong feelings of national pride. Since her death, the Tehuantepec style of clothing has taken on connotations as a symbol of the artist herself, and is used by many, including Spindola, as a homage to Kahlo.

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo,

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo

Spindola’s work, which stood alone in a rotunda, is a powerful example of how Kahlo’s dress has been transformed into a symbol of her identity. Although recognizable as the scene from The Two Fridas, his sculpture depicts only the figures’ clothing. Their bodies are simple reed canes, woven to create the three-dimensional figures. From a distance, the frames almost disappear into the background, creating the illusion of the dresses floating in space. The clothes, despite their realistic appearance, are made from amate paper using a traditional Aztec technique, posing an interesting question about the role of dress in art and art in dress. Many of the clothes Kahlo depicted in her paintings were real garments that she owned and wore on a regular basis. After her death, Rivera demanded that Kahlo’s bathroom and dressing room remain locked for a minimum period of fifty years, and, in 2004, when the rooms were finally opened by the conservators and curators at the Casa Azul, many of the clothes discovered inside were in perfect condition thanks to the dark, cool environment. Many were very similar, or indeed identical, to those Kahlo rendered in paint. For her, the garments she painted were very personal, real life objects. Often, as in My Dress Hangs There, clothing stands in for a human figure, acting as a form of self-portrait. However, for the millions of people who have looked at Kahlo’s paintings since her death, the dresses she depicted are nothing more than two-dimensional images. Spindola has played on this paradox between clothing that, to Frida, was very real and everyday, but to an audience was nothing more than a potent painted symbol. In creating these dresses in a lifesize, three-dimensional format, Spindola places them back in the ‘real’ world. But, not quite. Especially when approaching them from a flight of stairs, as the curators of the exhibition enforce, they seem almost like real women, a likelike incarnation of Frida herself. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are made of paper on a reed frame, and are therefore entirely unwearable. These dresses that have lived purely in the cultural memory of the post-Frida generations have been taken off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world by Spindola, yet remain just as fragile and unwearable.

The Two Fridas

The Two Fridas


Denise Rosenzweig and Magdelena Rosenzweig (eds), Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, Fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007)

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Fashion, Violence and Obsession in Leave Her to Heaven


Here’s another PDF for you to download!

Film poster for Leave Her To Heaven

This is an essay Rebecca Arnold co-wrote with film historian Adrian Garvey about the amazing 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven , directed by John M. Stahl. The wonderful Marketa Uhlirova, founder and Director of Fashion In Film commissioned this piece for If Looks Could Kill – a festival and book on the theme of crime and violence in film and fashion in 2008.

Cornel Wilde as Richard and Gene Tierney as Ellen

The essay considers the psychological drama of this incredible 1940s film, and the stylish wardrobe worn by Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen, a dark and troubled character, who nonetheless epitomizes contemporary fashion and beauty ideals.  We should warn you that there are lots of spoilers in the essay – so watch the film first if you don’t want to know what happens!

Gene Tierney as Ellen

With many thanks to Marketa Uhlirova for granting permission for us to post this, and for her imaginative and inspiring work for Fashion In Film.  If you want to read the other essays she commissioned for this season, look at the book she edited, If Looks Could Kill, Koenig Books with Fashion In Film Festival, 2008.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 1

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 2

Elle c’est Vous: Some Comments on French Fashion and Art in the 1960s

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In the first issue of Paris-based art journal Opus International, published in April 1967, editors declared they would not recognise boundaries between forms of creation, and instead encouraged exchanges of methods and materials between practitioners from varied fields. They took painting as an example, which they argued could no longer be conceived “without reference to cinema, to publicity, to novels, to photography, to language.” This fluid approach resonated with artistic production and theory of the period. One vociferous commentator was art critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003), who encouraged artistic engagement with quotidian life and consumer society when he founded Nouveau Réalisme in 1960. He proposed that this movement act as an extension of Dada, and more particularly, build on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. He theorised that the appropriation of everyday objects and visual culture could be the only valid means of artistic expression, in a society newly marked as it was by an urban, industrialised consumer landscape. “In the current context,” as Restany wrote in the group’s 1961 manifesto, “Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades […] take on new sense.” Through this appropriation or “artistic baptism of the everyday object,” the object or material would assume a second, symbolic meaning. Moreover, Restany argued that it would give voice to “an entire organic sector of modern activity, that of the city, the street, the factory, serial production.” As Jill Carrick has recently written, Nouveau Réaliste artists, such as Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Arman, engaged with everyday imagery and often “restag[ed] commodity spectacle” in their direct presentations of commercial objects or representations of shop windows. Fashion production and consumption, with its ties to the “modern activity” described above, was thus directly implicated in these artistic inquiries.

These developments paralleled perceptible changes in French fashion, in terms of a continuously expanding ready-to-wear industry, following large-scale industry efforts to improve production and increase dissemination from the post-war period. In turn, there were many more opportunities for designers and brands in the 1960s, such as Daniel Hechter (b. 1938) and Pierre d’Alby, respectively, who were diffused into the public sphere in magazine editorials and retail spaces. From the late 1950s and increasingly into the 1960s, fashion consultants, including Maïmé Arnodin (1916-2003), established agencies, bureaux de style, and acted as intermediaries between different industrial players, such as manufacturers, designers and retailers, to implement design trends. They also played the role of design reformer, and their comments connected fashion to wider social currents. In 1967, for example, Arnodin claimed that good design “is a manner of being, living, thinking that translates into clothing.”

Elements of the visual culture of fashion are perceptible in Martial Raysse’ (b. 1936) painted photograph “Snack” from 1964. Here, Raysse applied paper flowers, plastic birds and a neon sign to a photographic image of three fashion mannequins or models. The addition of these elements into a traditional, bucolic landscape called to mind Restany’s vision of a symbolic urban, industrial environment. This “nature,” relied on artifice and, according to Restany, “deploy[ed] sumptuous riches, his pearls of neon, luxury of his cities, the radiance of his sun, the domesticated blue of his sky and sea.” Saturated and fluorescent colour, according to Restany, was part of Raysse’s construction of “an organised reality, created by men for their use and in their image.” Monumental, artificial women who inhabited space suggested that vision and experience were intertwined. And perhaps female viewers of the painting, thus, recognised prevalent imagery as well as a new means of viewing themselves in a boundary-less tableau.


Opus International, no. 1, April 1967, 5.

“Maïmé Arnodin: Le style et l’industrie française,” Dépêche Mode, October 1967, 20.

Jill Carrick, Nouveau Réalisme, 1960s France, and the Neo-avant-garde: Topographies of Chance and Return. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010, 68.

Pierre Restany, “A quarante degrés au-dessus de dada,” in Le nouveau réalisme. Paris: Transédition, 2007 [May 1961], 59-60, 172.

Image of painting also available here.

Sombreros and Sarapes, Good and Evil in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film ¡Que Viva Mexico!

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After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, depictions of indigenous people and their dress began to be used by artists as an important tool for glorifying Mexican nationalism and the new Socialist politics of the country. Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian filmmaker who became disheartened with the Soviet Union’s treatment of both avant-garde art and antique religious artefacts, looked to Mexico as an example of perfect socialism. He traveled there in 1930, after meeting Diego Rivera in 1927 and became enthralled with the Mexican heritage that Rivera spoke so passionately about.  Eisenstein’s intention was shoot a film entitled ¡Que Viva Mexico! However, the project was never fully realized as he was forced to return to the USSR after losing his funding in 1932. What remains are the hundreds of metres of film he shot, which, in 1979 were turned into a film of the same name by director Grigori Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov remained faithful to the format that Eisenstein had intended for the film, breaking the footage up into four separate episodes: Sandunga, Fiesta, Maguey and Soldadera, as well as a prologue and epilogue.

The film opens with shots of the Mexican landscape and ancient ruins, depicted almost as snapshots. Each of the four episodes then depicts a different time period and location, but always exalting Mexican nationalism, culture and particularly the lower classes.

Maguey is the episode in which sympathy for and appreciation of the lower classes is most apparent, and the disparity between the dress of the workers and landowners most obvious. Set on a maguey plantation during the pre-Revolutionary capitalist regime, headed by leader Porfirio Diaz, it tells the story of Sebastian, a worker, and his lover Maria. When Maria is held captive and abused by the apparently evil landowner, Sebastian and his friends seek revenge, but are caught and executed. The episode is laced with visual references to Christianity, the immorality of the capitalist landowners and a clear allegiance to the workers.

workers in the courtyard

Dress is crucial in marking out the different characters, particularly for an English viewer, as the film is in Spanish with Russian subtitles. As well as making the plot slightly more difficult to follow, this has the effect of forcing the viewer to read the visual clues left by Eisenstein during his filming. The workers are depicted in traditional Mexican clothing: simple trousers, and woven sarapes, blanket-like capes. During the beginning of the episode, the viewer is introduced to the workers. They are shown lined up against a wall in a sun-drenched courtyard. The camera draws the viewer’s attention to their garments and sandal-like shoes. These shots of the sun-drenched wall and the sarape-clad men were clearly conceived as an image of quintessential indigenous Mexico. However it is not an idealised, peaceful lifestyle. These men are subject to the exploitation and poor treatment that Eisenstein feels is part of a capitalist society. In stark contrast to the workers, there is one solitary figure looming in the background that is a representation of authority on the plantation. Unlike the men, he wears more European style tight-fitting trousers, a jacket and a large hat. He is seen only in profile, a silhouette against the bright field behind, which makes the large gun he rests on his bent knee even more apparent and menacing. His European style dress is one of the most obvious symbols of his evil character.

the wealthy landowner in European attire

The workers’ dress is also radically different from the landowners themselves, who are shown as fat, lazy men getting drunk while the workers toil on the plantations. This episode is constructed as a microcosm of capitalism, in which the rich get ever richer, and subsequently fatter, from the labour of the poor. These men, who are cast as evil in the eyes of the viewer, are distinguishable by their lavish, European style of dress. They are depicted in tailored jackets, striped trousers and one even wears a bowtie, tying them definitively to Western capitalist societies.

Women’s dress is also contrasted to display the differences in social class. Maria is shown wearing a simple skirt, blouse and a scarf covering her head. In direct comparison, Sara, the daughter of the landowner, arrives wearing extravagant clothing; an elaborate ruffled blouse and skirt, white lace gloves, a large hat with lace train and bustle. She is an exaggerated image of vanity and her ostentatious costume is used to exhibit her decadence and cruelty.

the landowner's daughter, Sara

Eisenstein’s message is clear: Mexico under Spanish rule and Diaz’s westernised, capitalist regime was a cruel society, driven by greed and abuse of the indigenous people. What is perhaps most significant about the depictions of the different classes in Eisenstein’s film is that they are mediated through a nationalist lens – the wealthier, landowning classes, who are portrayed as evil and manipulative, are all closely aligned through their dress to European traditions. The lower, working classes, in their indigenous attire, are idealised and shown as the victims of a corrupt capitalist system, and therefore are the heroes of the film.


Inga Karetnikova and Leon Steinmetz, Mexico According to Eisenstein, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991)