What Does a Clinical Psychologist Wear to Work?

Dressing for a work environment alters our experience of clothing significantly. We are used to uniforms for school, but the world of work has a different set of rules, with each type of work/ workplace having a different dress code. This came to mind for me when I was talking to my friend, Maddy, who is currently in the first year of her doctorate for clinical psychology. She mentioned that when visiting wards and patients she couldn’t dress too formally, as she would appear intimidating, but still needs to look professional as she’s in a working environment. The psychological consequences of Maddy’s outfits interested me, so I decided to ask her some questions about her dress code and how it contrasts with her day to day outfits.

Maddy’s workwear

In relation to the outlined dress code, Maddy told me that what she was given was to be smart, clean and appropriate, a variation really on the (in my opinion) infuriating smart/casual. For example, her supervisor wears jeans paired with a waistcoat, whereas Maddy will opt to wear a cardigan rather than a blazer. She writes that while visiting wards she has to dress smarter than she would on community visits, and she has to adhere to the guidelines on NHS dressing. This means that she doesn’t wear an assigned uniform like nurses and healthcare assistants, but must still look smart (while also not dressing super smart) to be on a relatable level to patients. Maddy also mentioned that the older students gave advice in terms of the dress code, and they responded that it was difficult to know, but a tip was to avoid wearing red, as this is seen as an angry and aggressive colour.

Maddy’s workwear

These multiple factors demonstrate how many contradictory elements there are to consider when getting dressed. In Maddy’s case, how her clothing is received by others is of prime importance, and she says that it is best to not stand out and conform, as you don’t want the attention on you when dealing with people. She describes what she wears to work as boring, and she doesn’t like dressing smart. At the same time, when I asked Maddy how her clothing made her feel, she replied that she felt more confident, proper and competent.

Maddy’s day to day wear

In reference to Maddy’s personal style, her work clothes differ greatly. As shown by the images of us together (admittedly before nights out) Maddy has a clearly individualised sense of dress which I feel compliments her personality. She considers her work clothes boring, and admittedly they are made up of soberer colours, but I feel that she still manages to inject her personal flair into her work outfits, illustrated by her (Maddy trademark) Doc Martens and the prints on her clothing. I feel that with her career, as with any, there is a careful balance to strike with clothing. She doesn’t have a uniform but has to obey guidelines, while also appearing smart but not excessively so. Maddy’s working environment means that she has to consider not only her preferences for dress, but also her employer’s, the hospital environment, and how her patients will react. This shows the layers of meaning behind a deceptively simple and conformative work outfit.

Maddy and I

In her image: the documentation of the Neue Frau in German Weimar-era lesbian magazines

I came across these magazines when researching the topic of my most recent written assessment. By now, I have carried an intense fascination with the sexual socio-political climate of the Weimar Republic for a couple of years. On the course ‘Reassembling Modernism: Artists’ Networks in Europe 1909-1960’ as an undergraduate, I was introduced to Weimar culture when we examined the Neue Frau in the Berlin of the 1920s. It was a text by Maria Makela entitled ‘New women, new men, new objectivity’, however, that truly peaked my interest in the subject. 

‘The Latest Acquisition of the Masculine Woman – the Tuxedo’, Das Magazin, August 1926, addition to image made by the author

This year, I revisited the Neue Frau and explored her myth and ideological potential whilst considering her as a phenomenon of cosmopolitanism—in relation to class, gender and violence in the city. Makela’s essay was my starting point, and these magazines gave me an example of how the Neue Frau’s multi-faceted identity was utilised to develop a progressive symbol of gender subversion. The Neue Frau/neue frauen is the German adaptation of the New Woman. The New Woman was a female figure, a new gender type, who emerged in modern society towards the end of the nineteenth century, becoming a popularised construct in the first half of the twentieth century. 

‘What do you say about Fräulein Mia?’, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, November 1927, additions to image made by the author

The Neue Frau was a fashionable woman who adopted traditionally heteronormative, ‘masculine’ traits within her dress identity to disassociate herself from the pre-WWI woman. Her image epitomised modern femininity, but it also effectively mirrored how interwar Germany perceived itself to be under cultural threat from the masculinisation of a ‘New’ generation of emancipated women. In the pages of queer publications, however, the Neue Frau’s image was represented without ridicule or cynicism. It was interesting to reconfigure my own perception of her image after months of aligning it with the caricatured parody that male, Neue Sachlichkeit artists had painted her to be.

Otto Dix, Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, oil and tempera on wood: 47¼ x 31½ in (120 × 80 cm), additions to image made by the author

In the case of the women depicted in Liebende Frauen (1927-1930), the tensions felt nationwide between opposing genders are made redundant. At the time of the1929/30 issue, Liebende Frauen was one of two lesbian magazines in Berlin; the other, the more widely-known Die Freundin (The Girlfriend: Journal for Ideal Friendship between Women) had been in circulation since 1924. Art historian Heike Schader notes that Liebende Frauen is most likely a reprint of the magazine Frauenliebe (Women Love); which in turn was renamed Garçonne in 1930.

Liebende Frauen: Wochenschrift des ‘Deutschen Freundschafts-Verbandes’ Vol. 4, no.13, (1929), Berlin, Spinnboden—Lesbenarchiv und Bibliothek, Berlin, additions to image made by the author

In the above image, a cover dated 1929, the female subject sports a bubikopf—a haircut strongly associated with the Neue Frau, which translates directly to ‘boy’s head’ and was reconfigured into numerous variations, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, similar to that of Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Pandora’s Box. The overlapping strings of pearl necklaces that decorate her neck, the draped cut of her neckline and way in which her face is coquettishly turned from the camera’s gaze tells the reader that this Neue Frau, like Brooks’ Lulu—will not apologise for claiming her own sexuality. This cover presents allure and a conscious play on the provocation of desires, celebrating the figure of the New Woman by virtue of her dress and demeanour.

These covers are truly wonderful examples of how the New Woman, specifically the homosexual New Woman, found alternative means of how her image could be disseminated in popular culture via ways less damaging to her personhood. Each cover is a portal into an important history for women, and they each contribute to the Neue Frau as a social construct: one that was repeatedly well-documented until the Weimar Republic’s fall.  

To see more of these wonderful covers, go to the Spinnboden Lesbenarchiv und Bibliothek, Berlin’s online archives: www.meta-katalog.eu 

Additionally, there are lots of many interesting texts covering the Neue Frau’s image, such as: 

  • Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture by Katherina von Ankum 
  • Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation by Ute Frevert
  • Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses in German Culture, 1918-1933 by Mila Ganeva 
  • The New Woman International by Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco
  • Visions of the “Neue Frau”: Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany by Marsha Meskimmon
  • The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany by Katie Sutton 

Sources
Maria Makela, “New Women, New Men, New Objectivity” in New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933
Heike Schader, ‘Liebende Frauen’
Katie Sutton, ‘The Masculinisation of Woman’ in The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany

L’Eau de Vie

I remembered the Maison Margiela perfume display at Charles de Gaulle as comprised of postcards, but they are actually faux Polaroid snapshots: even more emblematic. Two tiered marble shelves curve around the countertop with sunken perfume samples before upright ‘photographs’. A white Fuji Instax camera nestles between the minimalist bottles, reminding you, lest you miss the themes, of photography and construction, of the pull between vintage and contemporary.

The clichés are filtered, lit and cropped for uniform appeal while offering the promise of personalisation and aspiration: a nude back before the ocean or tucked in white sheets, sunsets and foliage-framed shots. White borders invite inscription, notes of time and place to complete the instant and make it your own.

If you examine the labels, everything falls in to place: ‘REPLICA. Reproduction of familiar scents and moments of varying locations and periods’. The names speak not of fragrance but of states of being, or destinations or occasions, that correspond with the picture: By the Fireplace, Sailing Day, At the Barber’s, Lipstick On. ‘Provenance and Period’ comes before fragrance description on the label, reaching for the abstract with a Proustian flair. Funfair Evening is from Santa Monica, 1994, Promenade from Oxfordshire, 1986. Here, you don’t just buy the perfume. You buy the experience it evokes and adopt the memory for yourself.

Though I would never buy perfume in an airport or train station. It would always make me think of leaving and loss… absence instead of presence.

***

Or consider: presence in absence. She took me in her arms to say goodbye. When I left, my coat smelled like her, and her perfume bloomed in the cold air on the way to Port Royal. It is hard not to wax poetic.

***

My psychology professor on Miss Dior: ‘Dior worried that they weren’t appealing to you. Because of course you don’t care if your perfume is French; you just want something that you like. So they hired Natalie Portman to be their face and then they changed their recipe’.

This is true. I don’t care if my perfume is French. I wrote fledgling essays about Coco Chanel and Marie Antoinette’s scented gloves, and the first perfume I remember is my grandmother’s bottle of Jean Patou Joy. But I care so much more about what a perfume does for me than about its aura or provenance. Perhaps it’s hard to believe, but being French isn’t everything.

But.

***

But while others in Rennes were learning the subjunctive, my language teacher had us read Süskind’s Le parfum. Years later in Paris, I filled a paper bag with mirabelles and thought of Jean-Baptiste. If you could make a perfume that smells the way a mirabelle – or better, a Reine Claude – tastes, that would be very good.

September 3, 2015

Back in Paris the next year, I bought two bottles of Atelier Cologne perfume: clementine for me, some kind of absinthe apéro for my mom. I don’t know if she liked it, but for me it was all part of the story I tell myself of my life, an assemblage of confected happenings and prefabricated, gold-plated memories.

Imagine getting a box of absinthe perfume directly from Paris. The vision itself is the idea-analogue of the gift box I sent, wrapped up in mental ribbons. Truly: it is the thought that counts.

For my part, I loved my clementine perfume. The bottle fit perfectly in my hand; I used it every day, with rose oil inside my wrists. I ran out a year later.

***

What about loyalty? What about having signature objects? Instead of replacing my clementine perfume, I tried Kabuki Blanche by Byredo. Top notes: aldehyde, pink pepper, white rose. Heart: neroli, peony, violet. Base: blonde wood, musk, sandalwood. Over a year later, I still don’t recognise it. It is a powder in a black stick that you brush on. I miss the feeling of the bottle in my hand, the crisp mist that lets me feel the perfume and not just its applicator, the bite of clementine in the air just like the spray of oil when you peel an orange.

***

Before coming to London, I spent a twilight month back in New York. I moved from apartment to apartment, admired different modes of living, tried on my best friend’s makeup so that I too could have shimmering eyelids and jasmine-scented pulse points. I didn’t even ask if I could: I went and bought my own, a little pot of persimmon-y pink balm. When my brother mentioned on 155th a craving for jasmine milk tea, I knew he could smell my perfume, magnified in the tropical city heat.

***

Anonymous but highly personalised, elegant but base and bodied. How intimate perfume is. It is a ready-made product until the consumer turns it bespoke. I am the final chemical element, and when you smell my perfume, you don’t just smell the eau de parfum – you smell me, the way it has reacted to my skin and my heat in particular. There is that exchange when women embrace, approach and slot in to place. Perfume is worn behind the ears, on the sides of the neck. Right where faces rest and lips brush: faire la bise. What else worn has so little to do with the boundaries of the body? We absorb one another, particles mingling.

You impose yourself on the world, you and your perfume. And while I love the idea of signature belongings as my own uniquely resonant significant forms, it is just as thrilling to consider being recognised. I want to make a sensory impression; I want to linger. I want the sharp spray of clementine to announce, evoke and recall me. This requires discipline and, indeed, loyalty. I should know better than to try Byredo Blanche… or Chloé Eau de Parfum, which I would very much like but resisted getting last week in Paris – at the Gare du Nord, of all places.

Perfume is so personal and unpredictable that I’d hardly think to select it for someone else. But what a power play. Give your perfume to someone you love: an aromatic love potion. Tread carefully, and give it to your enemy: remake her in your own scent.

If I ever give you perfume, wear it, and know that I have designs on your soul.

All photos taken by the author.

University Girl Wardrobe Essentials

What are the fashion staples any university girl must have in her wardrobe?

If you were one of the lucky young women attending university in the 1940s, numerous magazines had entire sections dedicated to helping you budget and obtain the perfect collegiate capsule wardrobe. I recently came across a number of these articles from both Women’s Wear Daily and American Vogue, dating from 1940 to 1946. The recurrent theme is how to achieve the most variation in a wardrobe with the fewest essential items. Naturally, there was wide variation in what was deemed essential, and proposed budgets varied from $100 for an austere annual collegiate wardrobe (Vogue, August 1941) to a lavish $1,400 (Women’s Wear Daily, December 1940). What then is the verdict on the wardrobe essentials for a 1940s female collegian?

Following the lead of the articles from the time, I’m going to break the wardrobe necessities down into categories. These will be: Dresses, Suits, Separates, Outerwear and Extras.

‘$100 Campus Wardrobe’, Vogue August 15, 1941

Dresses: A college girl would ‘need’ anywhere from three to ten dresses. In the most austere case of three dresses, she would need one formal dress, for events such as faculty dinners or serious dates. The other two dresses would be day dresses, either in cotton, rayon or silk, and preferably one in wool. For a girl with a larger budget, two nice dresser were necessary, one for formal events, and one ‘dressy black crepe, for fall date and town wear.’ She would also have at least two wool, two or three rayon or silk prints and four to six cotton dresses.

Suits: The most highly advertised item was a fashionable suit. The girl on a $100 budget might have one suit, while more fortunate girls would have three to six. In 1942, Vogue listed tweed as the number one must-have suit material, but in 1946, it had been ousted by gabardine, preferably in black, navy, brown or beige. In 1946, the tweed suit was still one of the top preferences, however, and was seen as ‘an intrinsic part of campus wardrobe.’

‘Campus Wardrobe’, Vogue, August 15, 1942

Separates: Separates were highly valued by college girls, as they added much variety to a constricted wardrobe. These items fell into their own categories: blouses, sweaters, skirts and trousers. At least three blouses, a mix of white collared masculine  shirts and feminine styes, were recommended. A simple wardrobe would have at least two sweaters: one long sleeve turtleneck in a subtle colour such as black or grey, or a bolder red, and another sweater in a college-specific colour. The most minimal wardrobe would feature two pleated skirts; a better funded one would have four, in plaid, pastels or checks. Finally, trousers. While never listed as essentials, tailored slacks, pedal-pushers and mens bluejeans were listed as ideal additions to a collegiate wardrobe. Some universities showed approval with loose regulations on length and styles. 

Coat: All the articles agree that every college lass needed at least one good wool coat. Brown, camel hair and beige box coats are recommended.

Extras: Finally, all the extra bits that pull a wardrobe together. Undergarments aren’t included in the descriptions, except where specific mention of the importance of stockings is made. The importance of a good hat and gloves is very explicit, however. Minimalist wardrobes suggest one hat and a turban, with one pair of versatile all-weather gloves. Berets in dark or bold colours are suggested, as are feminine felt riding hats. To finish off a college wardrobe is a sturdy pair of shoes. One or two pairs of oxfords or ‘moccasins’ are essential.

So, do you have all your college wardrobe essentials?

 

Both images accessed via Proquest.

Hybrid Style: Iris Van Herpen’s ‘Shift Souls’ Spring 2019 Haute Couture Collection

Having recently completed an essay on the zenith of haute couture in the late 1940s, I was particularly keen to see the couture collections that just showed in Paris to determine whether or not the designs are as avant-garde and innovative as they were once considered to be.

I was not disappointed.

From the moment I saw Iris Van Herpen’s opening piece, a blue-purple gown floating down the runway as though the model were a giant weightless bird gliding just above the floor, I knew that there would be more to this collection than what meets the eye. In true couture fashion, the show, with its multitude of colors and voluminous, graceful shapes invites us to enter a dream world for eight minutes. Sculpture, architecture and painting are all brought together in the materiality of these 18 made-to-measure pieces, which seem to be (surprise!) actually wearable.

The ‘Harmonia’ dress, look 1/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

The collection, called ‘Shift Souls’, was presented in Paris at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. A series of billowing gowns contrasted more statuesque pieces. As Van Herpen states on her website, she was inspired by celestial cartography and mythology. She also wanted to consider ideals of the female body and how these have shifted through time: ‘the fluidity within identity change in Japanese mythology gave me the inspiration to explore the deeper meaning of identity and how immaterial and mutable it can become within current coalescence of our digital bodies.’

The digital component of the inspiration comes from advances in technology that have been made with regards to human and animal hybrids, called ‘Cybrids’. Van Herpen sees this research on ‘Cybrids’ as particularly intriguing, considering how it links to a long history of mythological stories about humans morphing into animals. She explains that her intention was not to take an ideological standpoint on these scientific developments; rather, the collection is an acknowledgment of the fact that new links are being made between biology and technology, expressing ‘the fact that this reality is upon us.’

Left: Detail of face mask, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Iris Van Herpen official Instagram account
Right: Look 4/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Technology was not just evoked, but it was actually used in the creation process of this futuristic collection. For instance, 3D laser cutting technology was employed to create the wave-like shape of some of the dresses. A few of the models also donned 3D-printed facial ornamentation, made from 3D scans of their faces. The technology was used to create lattice-like facemasks delineated from changes in the density of their facial structures.

Look 18/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Van Herpen also collaborated with former NASA engineer Kim Keever, who is now an artist bridging painting and photography in his work on waterscapes. Together, they designed the translucent dresses that resemble aqueous gas or clouds to evoke the idea of shifting, transient identities.

Movement was also explored throughout the collection. The primary fabrics used, silk and organza, made the dresses appear to float through space. Loose pieces of material on some of the dresses, like the ‘Galactic Glitch’ dress, fluttered slightly, creating an optical illusion like a flicker as the model walked. Other dresses had petal-shaped cutouts that projected outwards, resembling undulating waves, which gave the impression of water ripples emerging from the model’s body. This play on movement gives the pieces a sense of liminality; shifting, they create a blur, and we cannot tell where the dress actually existing in space.

Left: ‘Galactic Glitch’ dress, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway
Right: Look 5/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Researching the historical development of haute couture since its conception at the end of the 19th century illuminates the fact that craftsmanship and savoir-faire are at the root of couture’s aura and prestige. I would argue that by forging an unlikely link between haute couture and technology, Van Herpen does not disavow the tradition of raw craftsmanship in couture, but rather, asks us to reconsider our preconceived notions of craftsmanship to create a new 21st century definition.

References: https://www.irisvanherpen.com/haute-couture

The Body Modified

Tattoo artists Deafy and Stella Grassman, early 1930s

I am a woman with tattooed arms and a face full of piercings. My ‘body modifications’ receive many compliments, but they also attract criticism. Most often, this criticism takes the form of unsolicited ‘advice’ from men, who tell me how attractive I would look if only I had fewer body modifications. Once, while I was at work, a man even asked me why I had ‘ruined a pretty face’ with piercings.

My experiences are anecdotal, but the opinions of the men I encounter are not dissimilar to those found in many academic works on body modification. In dress histories, tattoos, piercings and associated body modifications are frequently described as forms of ‘mutilation’ – that is, the infliction of a violent and disfiguring injury. This definition has filtered into common parlance, with legal and social consequences. For instance, a number of practitioners of more extreme body modifications – such as tongue splitting – have recently faced charges of grievous bodily harm, despite the consent of their clients. Tattoos and piercings might not be deemed harmful in quite the same way, but they are often viewed as indistinct from more extreme procedures, because Westerners have been taught to consider all modifications as (‘primitive’ and lower class) mutilations. Consequently, the perception that they ‘ruin’ one’s appearance is pervasive.

Medical studies which question whether there is a connection between body modification and mental illness have also had an insidious effect on public opinion, especially in regards to female body modification. Perhaps arising from the historical association of women with both adornment and hysteria, there now exists a stereotype of the modified woman as mentally unstable. If not certifiable, she is at least aberrant in some way (although the extent to which modified women with an appearance such as mine – white, skinny, and blonde – can actually be considered aberrant is debatable).

As such, I often feel frustrated when people ask, ‘But what do your tattoos mean?’ This question might seem innocuous, but it is effectively asking one to justify their modifications. In other words, ‘Why do that to your body?’ Taken to its extreme, this line of questioning then leads to the kind of intrusive, gendered comments that I have experienced. In turn, the notion that body modifications must be meaningful to be acceptable results in the bourgeois dismissal of any modification which does not have some significance to render it ‘refined’.

Such negative perceptions of body modifications have contributed to the argument that modified people should not be surprised if employers refuse to hire them based on appearance, especially since modifications are a choice. Yet, most forms of bodily adornment are a choice. In this way, getting a tattoo or a piercing is really not so different to dyeing one’s hair, putting on deodorant or using shape wear. In other words, as dressed bodies, every alteration or addition to our anatomies is a body modification in one way or another.

Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Lady Purple Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Looking at it Backwards: My Visit to the Brussels Fashion and Lace Museum

I visited Brussels over the holiday and had the pleasure of spending a few hours at the Fashion and Lace Museum. Their current exhibition, Back Side: Fashion from Behind, emphasizes the backs of the body and of the backs of garments, quite literally flipping the perspective on viewing fashion in a museum. It asks what is revealed or conveyed on the back of the body, which, according to their press kit, the human being has an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with because it is constantly decorated by fashion, yet remains unseen by the wearer. The show integrates 70 pieces, spanning a period of 400 years, from haute couture to ready-to-wear, and which help to explore the subject from many angles.

I most enjoyed the broad range of objects, but also the curatorial choices that were made to display the garments and communicate with the viewer. Many objects were shown with the back facing the viewer, often in a case with a mirror so the front could often be seen (reminiscent of Madeleine Vionnet’s photographs of models whose fronts were revealed by mirrors). Very few of them were visible in the round. It struck me that only being able to see the backside of a garment, with limited visual access to the front, produced a certain discomfort due to the restricted vision. Normally, we focus attention to the front sides of clothes, whether on our own bodies or others. It felt to me that I was being denied access to the part of a garment I am most used to seeing, and effectively made me consider the ‘ambiguous’ relationship we have to this side of the body.

Dress by Lanvin

The exhibition also highlighted the differing notions of the back as something hidden or forgotten, versus revealed or as an erotic focal point. One display case highlighted examples of the ‘forgotten’ back, including waistcoats embroidered on the front and plain fabric on the back, and one contemporary Lanvin dress with an embellished front of white, densely layered material, and an entirely black back, exposing the zipper and showing the ground on which the layers were attached. The back of this silhouette allowed the construction to reveal itself. Later, the erotically exposed back was demonstrated through the photographs of Jeanloup Sieff, which tread a line between fashion images and tantalizing photos of the female body.

Hilde in a Dress That is Too Small, Paris. Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff
Hervé Leger dress. Published in Depeche Mode 1995

Back Side asks the viewer to see the body in three dimensions, and reconsider how we relate to the unseen sides of our own bodies. It succeeds in mixing historical and contemporary dress, high and low fashion, glamorous and bizarre (a Rick Owens ‘outfit’ comes to mind, in which one outfit is attached to another like a backpack and would have been work by two models, one carried by the other). In addition to the joy of viewing beautiful objects, I most appreciated how the curation allowed such a simple change in perspective to become a rich and complex exploration of the back side through fashion.

Fashioning Femininity (and Making Masculinity) in the Post-War Era

When we think about the twenty years immediately following the Second World War in Britain, what images instantly spring to mind? Smiling women in glamorous dresses, feather duster in hand, happily making home for hardworking husbands and clean, grinning children. This construct of woman as a glamorous housewife in the 1950s is one of the most well-known images in the modern consciousness. Whatever our opinions of it, it is all-pervasive; on posters, cards and throughout the media. But how did clothing, and its depiction in advertising, feed into these constructs of femininity? And how was masculinity constructed alongside and in relation to this?

Advert for Wolsey, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 19th March 1960, p.20

Domesticity was expressed in advertising as being a woman’s ‘job’. A Wolsey advert constructs the role of ‘man’ as breadwinner and ‘woman’ as homemaker and domestic purchaser as being objective facts. The advert is aimed at presumably female ‘fiancées’, stating: ‘Sooner or later… you will find yourself buying his socks. This is the job that will probably be yours from “I will” onwards’. Through this single garment of the sock the assumed roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are expressed. ‘Woman’ here is constructed as residing within the domestic sphere, with mundane, everyday garments such as the sock being part of her everyday concerns. Furthermore, ‘man’ is presented here as being domestically incapable, unable to purchase even his own socks. His sharp suit, the uniform of the masculine breadwinner, further constructs him as residing in the public, rather than domestic, sphere.

Advert for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 3rd September 1960

While a woman’s concerns may have been mundane and domestic, her appearance certainly wasn’t. Countless advertisements show women in glamorous, flattering garments even while in the home. One advert for Kellogg’s depicts the idealised couple at the breakfast table. While the man is dressed in a suit for a day of work in the economic sphere, the woman is dressed in a house coat for her day of work in the domestic sphere. Her beautifully patterned house coat and perfectly styled hair and make-up suggest that being attractive is also an integral part of her role as housewife. Similarly, in an advert for Batchelors Peas, the mother is dressed very glamorously for a casual dinner-time. She is fully made up with red lipstick, ornate earrings and colourful clothing. Her garments are soft and flowing, following the idealised lines of the hourglass figure. She cuts a very bright figure against the father, who again wears the masculine staple of the suit.

Advert for Batchelors Peas, Woman, Week Ending 17th July 1955

By analysing adverts from this period, we observe a strictly traditional representation of ‘woman’; as beauty, housewife and mother. Meanwhile ‘man’ is constructed, equally traditionally, as breadwinner. These images show us a snapshot in history at a time in which advertisements were both constructing and reinforcing real-life ideals. We see domestic ‘woman’ and working ‘man’ idealised as safe, predictable constants in a world that was rapidly changing. These images depict the moment before the liberation movements of the 1960s changed the world, and particularly the female experience, beyond all recognition.

The Glamour of the Sala Bianca

The Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, was originally used as a guest hall by the Medici family, but its current appearance as a ballroom is due to stucco works added in 1774-6, by Grato and Giocondo Albertini, following a neoclassical style. The colour white communicates both the decadence and the simplicity of the room. The decadent element stems from the classical motifs, with arches, pilasters and the stucco scenes on the ceiling. The chandeliers and mirrors further this luxurious display, adding reflective surfaces, which shimmer and catch the light. The neutral palette sterilises the room, as the monochrome appearance is minimalist, contrasting with the detailed decoration.

The Sala Bianca today

On the 22nd July 1952, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a Florentine fashion buyer, organised the fourth ‘Italian High Fashion Show’ in the Sala Bianca. He invited European and American press, buyers and designers, in order to showcase the best of Italian fashion, with the intention of rivalling Parisian haute couture. In the aftermath of World War II, Giorgini wanted to promote the advantages of Italian fashion production; with artisanal expertise, creativity and low prices of production. Nine high fashion and sixteen boutique houses were represented. Giorgini chose designers that would present pieces that matched the American lifestyle – for example, informal knitwear and beachwear. This show featured such designers as Emilio Pucci and Simonetta.

The 1952 Sala Bianca fashion show

The language of fashion at this time had to rely on other cultural frameworks, such as art and architecture, as it sought to find its own identity in culture. The Sala Bianca fashion show showcased the best of Italian design, showing modern looks in a traditional setting. This allied the glamour of the past with the elegant designs of the present. This was a very clever strategy for advertising Italian fashion to an international audience, by mixing the modern and antique.

We are now accustomed to contemporary fashion houses showcasing their latest collections in impressive historical locations. A prominent example of this is the 2016 Fendi 90th anniversary fashion show which actually took place on an Italian landmark, the Trevi Fountain, in Rome. Again, there is the significance of an Italian brand showcasing a collection at one of the most iconic Italian landmarks. The use of the Trevi Fountain can also be linked to Italian cinema. This is through the 1960 Frederico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, where the actress Anita Ekberg splashes around in the fountain.

Fendi 90th anniversary show at the Trevi Fountain, 2016

Both shows drew on the cultural significance of the landmarks, adding another layer of meaning to the shows. In this way, I feel they communicate the spectacle of the fashion show, with the dramatic surroundings acting as a stage and the models parading on their catwalk, or stage. The Sala Bianca was used as a location for fashion shows for the next thirty years in Florence. This was hailed as the ‘birth of Italian fashion’, but I also feel that it was influential in terms of linking architecture and fashion.

Ellen Bhamra

References

Stanfill, Sonnet. The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945 (V&A Publishing, 2014)

Vergani, Guido. The Sala Bianca: The Birth of Italian Fashion (Electa, 1992)