Anyone who knows anything about fashion has heard of Yves Saint Laurent. But what people may be less familiar with is his informal career as an artist.
Hidden away in the Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech, which Saint Laurent bought in 1980 with Pierre Bergé, and where his ashes were buried after his death in 2008, is the ‘Love Gallery.’ I arrived at the Jardin Marjorelle seeking some refuge from the African sun, and instantly understood why Saint Laurent and Bergé were drawn there: it is a beautiful oasis full of blossoming foliage in a city that is predominantly dust and sand. The rather ambiguously named ‘Love Gallery,’ a tiny blue square on the garden map, caught my eye and I wondered what it could possibly hold. The tiny, one roomed building, tucked away on the edge of the garden, houses the entire collection of Saint Laurent’s ‘Love Cards.’ He created one every year from 1970 to 2000 to send to his family, friends and clients in order to welcome the New Year. The cards are boldly coloured and graphic, and the message could not be clearer; it is declared through the use of one, four letter word: ‘LOVE.’
The cards, often humorous and whimsical, allowed the recipient then and the viewer now a glimpse into the consciousness of the legendary fashion designer. They often include the things he held most dear, his bulldog Moujik, or the fountains of the Jardin Marjorelles. However, they also serve to reinforce his artistic abilities. They are clearly well thought out, aesthetic pieces of work, and highlight how talented he was in the visual arts, as well as in fashion design.
They also show an appreciation of the history of art, and the influence of many famous, twentieth century artists is clearly visible. The 1991 card is an homage to Andy Warhol: it displays four images of Saint Laurent’s beloved Moujik, coloured in different hues on a bright yellow background. The caption definitively states Warhol’s influence, reading ‘this is Moujik, my dog, painted by Andy Warhol. Me, I am Yves Saint Laurent.’ However the curling French script juxtaposed with the imagery is reminiscent of Renee Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. While the influence of these two artists is clear, Saint Laurent ensures that the viewer knows exactly who made it, and it is his talent as an artist that is important here. He is drawing on his knowledge of the history of art to create a piece that is unique to him and specific to the time and culture in which he was working.
Henri Matisse’s influence is also evident in the cards, many of which employ the same collage technique with bright colours and bold, simple shapes that he turned to later in his career. The 1986 card is arguably the most basic in composition, yet also one of the most effective. It consists of a yellow background and cut out shapes in four different shades of blue which are used to create a scene of the Jardin Marjorelles itself. Despite the limited colour palette and simplicity of the shapes, Saint Laurent has captured the feel of the garden perfectly, and it would be instantly recognizable to anyone who had visited. The dark blue against the bright yellow background creates the effect of the oppressive sun and the cool shade offered by the trees.
The cards created during the 1970s have a definite look that clearly identifies them as part of the same epoch. Graphically, they are more complex than the later compositions, more closely aligned with The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine imagery than the work of any particular artist. The 1977 example is particularly complex. It shows a woman wrapped in a long flowing piece of fabric that is decorated with rows of triangles and curving lines. She could be interpreted as a Muslim woman covered by her hijab, and thus a symbol of Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth and childhood. However, he has given her a modern twist, updating the traditional religious garb for the 1970s by dressing her in a colourful, geometric pattern. It has a hypnotic quality, as if the viewer is seeing something that does not quite exist. The 1973 card is an erotic picture of a naked woman, coiled in what appear to be tentacles or snakes. Unlike the later cards, which tend to employ very simple compositions- some are simply large blocks of different colours- the cards of the 1970s are more figurative.
These cards show a different side of Yves Saint Laurent. They highlight his enthusiasm to experiment in different media and test his design skills on a two-dimensional surface, as well as on the human body. However, they also depict him as playful, light hearted and, above all, deeply loving.Categories: Commentary | Tags: Andy Warhol, Art and Fashion, Galerie Love, Henri Matisse, history of art, Jardin Marjorelles, Love Cards, Marrakech, Morocco, Yves Saint Laurent | Comments Off
‘”Chic” Was To Art The Same As Sex Appeal Is To Love’: Four Things I Learnt While Reading Cecil Beaton’s Memoirs of the 40s
One of the many delights – and distractions – of research is the things you read along the way to your real goal. While my focus is on Beaton’s wartime photography, for a forthcoming paper at the Museum of London, delving into his diaries and memoirs reveals far wider dress gems. Since these probably won’t make the final edit, I thought I’d share some of my favourite insights with you here - skimmed from the pages of his 1940s memoirs, and, in these examples, from his time spent in post-occupation Paris between 1944 and 1945.
No. 1 – Parisian style during the war was about resistance – to German torment, restrictions and morality, and to imposed ideas of respectability and beauty:
The British Embassy’s Guests, Sunday, October 29th – Paris, 1944
‘The women were a curiously dressed bunch in a fashion that struck the unaccustomed eye a strangely ugly – wide, baseball player’s shoulders, Dureresque headgear, suspiciously like domestic plumbing, made of felt and velvet, and heavy sandal-clogs which gave the wearers an added six inches in height but an ungainly, plodding walk. Unlike their austerity-abiding counterparts in England these women moved in an aura of perfume.’
No. 2 – Necessity breeds innovation, hybridity and style:
Stocking the Cellar
‘Diana [Lady Diana Cooper] wearing trousers, yachting cap, and biscuit-colored fox coat…’
Churchill’s arrival, November 10th
‘Diana, in pants and bandanna…’
No.3 – Never be too quick to judge who is best-dressed:
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas
‘During the years of cold and shortages, Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbour at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, who had a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women’s clothes. In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice to wear during the hard winters. Now he has opened a shop in Paris. At first showing to the press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, Basket. Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot’s self-portrait. Alice, in a long Chinese Garment of bright colors with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the “Widow Twankey,” a comic transvestite from the vaudeville stage. Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered: ”Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it’s just as well for him that they don’t!’
No. 4 – Fashion and Art = Sex and Love
Bébé Bérard and the Jackals, British Embassy, Paris
‘Bébé inspired, proceeded to illustrate with his pencil the fashions of the new dressmaker Dior. These, he says, have the same sense of sex appeal as Chanel created after the First World War. A theory was put forward that fashion was anti-art, that “chic” was to art the same as sex appeal is to love.’
Perhaps later I’ll share what I learnt about New York … But for now, I must get on with what I supposed to be researching …
Source: Cecil Beaton, Memoirs of the 40s, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972
Three female subjects stand side-on in a forest clearing, next to the remains of a smoldering fire. They do not look at the photographer but appear to be posing for another photograph, which is being taken by someone to the left of the photograph frame. They have short dark bobbed hair, wear necklaces of dyed nuts and red string, and have painted geometric lines on their faces in black fruit dye. The central subject and her companion on the right have used black and red body paint to divide up and deconstruct their bodies, fragmenting them into separate parts. This sophisticated process isolates arms, chest, hips, legs, and ankle, and departs from the more prescriptive methods by which Western-style clothing tends to perceive of the clothed body as unified whole. For these women, painted and unpainted body parts become interdependent and have equal significance: both the positive shapes formed by the paint, but also the negative spaces in between those shapes. This process of decontextualising one’s own body parts, and perceiving each as an object or commodity in and of itself, demonstrates a self-reflexive gaze through which these women address their own bodies with a comparable level of scrutiny to that placed on them by the photographic gaze. These women are part of the Cinta Largas group, indigenous to the Western Amazon in Brazil, and have been captured by Brazilian filmmaker Jesco von Puttkamer in 1971 for National Geographic magazine.
The women re-invent Western-style dress through their use of body paint, in a process that draws on the particularities of Cinta Largas material culture. The resulting ensemble creates shifting points of reference that are comparable to an observation made by Claude Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1995). Levi-Strauss described how the sophisticated Spanish American Caduveo Indians (also called the Mbaya) appropriated aspects of the uniform worn by Spanish sailors in the mid-nineteenth century through their customary practice of body painting:
After the Indians saw a European warship for the first time, when the Maracanha sailed up the Paraguay in 1857, the sailors noticed the next day that their bodies were covered with anchor-shaped motifs; one Indian even had an officer’s uniform painted in great detail all over his torso – with buttons and stripes, and the sword-belt over the coat-tails.
Levi-Straus acknowledged the Mbaya’s appropriation and re-presentation of the Spanish sailors’ uniforms, which retained their visual motifs and design details but transformed them through the use of body paint. This process enabled them to negotiate new sartorial meanings relevant to the sociopolitical organisation of their own culture. In National Geographic, the women’s painted clothing is a comparably fluid demonstration of the subjects’ creative self-invention, which refutes claims made within the text that the Cinta Largas are a static and ‘simple culture’, about to be eroded by a ‘strong, complex one’. The subjects’ dressed bodies become a site of heterogeneous potentiality, which, rather than reiterate the disintegration of Cinta Largas culture, demonstrate its ongoing creative renewal through dress that is receptive to contact with other cultures.
Jesco von Puttkamer, ‘Brazil Protects Her Cinta Largas’, National Geographic, pp. 420-444.
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans by. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (London: Penguin Books, 1992).Categories: Work in Progress | Tags: Appropriation, Body Paint, Cinta Largas, Jesco von Puttkamer, Levi-Strauss, National Geographic, The Gaze | Comments Off
In a portrait of Marcel Kutumela, beneath the brim of a fedora hat, her cool gaze extends toward and beyond the viewer. It at once implores attention and inserts distance between subject and spectator. Her hat and layered garment cover her body and impart an old world masculinity. Dramatic lighting heightens the theatricality of the picture, which resembles a film noir set, and engages viewers. Yet as soon as they begin to penetrate the surface, the image disappears. It is one slide among many, projected without contextualisation onto a bare wall. Viewers are confronted with other faces, other looks, and the individuals they observed become a community. In this set of photographic portraits, clothing functions as a conspicuous tool in interpreting identity and relationships, between person and group, and spectator and subject.
The images are part of Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) Faces and Phases portrait series, and the above installation is from Isibonelo/Evidence, the current exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Viewers are able to view the actual silver gelatin prints in a large room behind the wall of slides, where Muholi’s concern with the materiality of identity is unmistakable. She has written, “In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. [...] Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another.” Clothing thus serves to articulate and document the process of identity fabrication, as well as incite viewers to question their own thought process. According to Muholi,
The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?
The cultural context of violence and inequality that envelops these portraits–reinforced by personal testimonies scrawled on an adjacent wall–sets the exhibition’s grave tone. It is the first installation viewers see in Isibonelo/Evidence, and is perhaps the most meaningful counterpart to The Dinner Party (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, which permanently resides in an adjoining room. Like its predecessor, Faces and Phases was created during a moment of upheaval in terms of sexual identity and rights. It also concerns the individual identities of a marginalised group, an how they are classified through their own production. Production in the earlier instance was expressed through the iconography of women in history, and, in Muholi’s work, by the ways everyday people style themselves. This helps visitors relate to the dynamics of being and seeing, and urges them to reflect on their own participation in the politics of appearance today.
Friday 6 May 2016, Regent Street Cinema, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2UW
Saturday 7 May 2016, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN
CALL FOR PAPERS
Posing has been central to art, dance, and sculpture for thousands of years. In recent years, the growing interest in fashion media and modelling has also focused attention on questions of pose and posing. Incorporating notions of movement and stillness, posing can be understood in terms of historical modes of representation, as well as contemporary media and rapidly evolving relationships between bodies, subjects, and technologies of representation. Posing incorporates symbolic and semiotic meaning alongside embodied action and feeling. Recent coverage of the work of choreographer Stephen Galloway in 032c magazine, and new publications such as Steven Sebring’s Study of Pose: 1000 Poses by Coco Rocha testify to the growing interest in the cultural significance of posing and the pose – yet both remain under-researched areas with little discussion of their significance.
This symposium will assert the importance of pose as both a creative practice and an emerging area of critical inquiry. It will bring together multi-disciplinary academics and practitioners to discuss and develop new ways of understanding pose and posing in a historical and contemporary context. We encourage proposals for papers that address pose from global and diverse perspectives. This event represents a potentially fruitful and exciting moment to bring these strands together to the benefit of researchers within practice and theory-based media, historians of dress, photography, art and film and allied disciplines.
The keynote lecture will be delivered by David Campany, internationally recognised writer and curator, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster.
Possible themes include (but are not limited to):
Modelling (fashion and artistic)
Gesture Dance (popular and classical)
Pose and the everyday
Movement and stillness
Posing, corporeality and the body
Posing and social media (Blogs, Instagram, etc.)
Submission process: Please submit abstracts of 150-200 words in English, along with a short biography of approximately 100 words to Posingthebody@gmail.com by 2 October 2015.
Organised by Rebecca Arnold, Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, The Courtauld Institute of Art; Katherine Faulkner, Study Skills and Widening Participation Academic Coordinator, The Courtauld Institute of Art; Katerina Pantelides, Visiting Lecturer, The Courtauld Institute of Art and Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography, University of Westminster.Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: Call For Papers, conference, Courtauld, David Campany, Eugenie Shinkle, Fashion Media, History of Dress, Posing the Body, rebecca arnold | Comments Off
Gucci Westman, Global artistic director at Revlon, has recently announced that she will be leaving the brand after a seven-year tenure. Since joining Revlon in 2008, Westman has been credited with raising the cosmetic house’s contemporary profile, ironically by returning to the seasonal colour stories that were the brand’s founding principles. Westman draws upon current runway trends, which often reference earlier epochs. The Evening Opulence collection of 2013, for example, with its concentration on vampish oxbloods and deep burgundies, complemented the season’s Gatsby fever, which originated at Prada – the design house behind the costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby of the same year.
There is a strong link between cosmetic and fashion artistry, as manifested in sell out premium collaborations. We have in recent years seen Phillip Lim and Guy Bourdin for NARS, Gareth Pugh for M.A.C, and Courrèges for Estée Lauder. Their respective brand identities are aestheticized through distinctive colour harmonies and packaging. Cosmetics in this light become an entry point for otherwise inaccessible luxury, and surpass their status as accessory to fashion by becoming part of it. At the same time, however, to achieve this, the ‘host’ brand leverages its own identity, thus conforming to the inherent creative order.
What makes Revlon so fascinating by contrast, not only as a business model, but as a colour house, is that since it’s conception in the 1930s, it has been able to keep up with, if not threaten, luxury contemporaries whilst maintaining a definitive drugstore identity. Functioning like a premium brand, whilst meeting the demand to keep costs low, it is easy to see why Charles Revson saw his company as worthy of premium status. Lindy Woodhead has noted how Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were so incensed by Charles Revson’s success, that they would begrudgingly refer to him as ‘the nail man.’
The allusion to wider cultural trends is arguably one of Revlon’s most identifiable qualities. This has been as consistent throughout its history. In 1952, Revlon launched its new lipstick shade, ‘Fire and Ice’, which was accompanied by arguably one of the most iconic campaigns in history. Dorian Leigh was photographed by Richard Avedon wearing a skintight silver dress that mirrored the overt sexuality of the coordinated red lip and nails. The ad’s daring copy asked, ‘Are you made for fire and ice?’ Revlon cleverly reframes outdated assumptions that any woman wearing red is a ‘hussy’, by instead positioning her as a modern woman. By stating that the colour is ‘for the girl who likes to skate on thin ice’, liberated sexuality becomes a rarefied, exotic virtue. The ad connects to youth culture and modernity, and shows how these mimic fashion, since, like Dorian’s dress, they look towards the future.
Revlon was remarkable in many ways, and was notably ahead of its time. Perhaps the most revolutionary factor was that it was a man who was able to democratize beauty in a way that no-one had yet seen, during a time when the industry was monopolized by female beauty entrepreneurs. Recognising the potential for experimentation that nail polish would allow for, Revson provided an outlet for the desires of both the upper and lower classes. His brand was at the forefront of fashion, rather than being qualified by it- a quality still at the heart of the brand today.
Lindy Woodhead. War Paint, Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Times, Their Rivalry (Virago Press: London, 2013)
Categories: Commentary | Tags: Charles Revson, Cosmetics, Dorian Leigh, Fire and Ice, History of Dress, lipstick, makeup, Red, Revlon, Richard Avedon | Comments Off
This month the Tanz Wuppertal Pina Bausch company presented their annual season at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in London. The company continues to stage and tour the work of the late choreographer, this year presenting ‘Ahnen’ from 1987 and ‘Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei’ (On the Mountain A Cry Was Heard).
I was lucky enough to see these performances, and was struck by the use of dress in each production. The normality of the costumes in contrast to the set, which in the case of ‘Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei’ was pine trees and a pile of soil in which the performers regularly rolled, sat and fell into, was extremely interesting. The costumes, which included tea dresses, suits and swimming costumes, worked in parallel with the choreography, to create a world that blurred the lines between reality and dreams. The performers are presented as ordinary people, not fixed in a specific time or place, but rooted in the everyday, participating in strange and erratic behaviour observed from life. Unlike other contemporary dance or ballet performances, where one is acutely aware of costume and characterisation, the costumes here felt like ready-to-wear garments. This is testament to the skill of Marion Cito, the costume designer for the company, who designed the ‘everyday’ costumes, whilst still allowing for the freedom of movement and flexibility necessary for a dancer. Cito says of the costumes: ‘…the Tanztheater costumes are interesting in that they present the dancers primarily as normal people – in dresses, suits, high heels and everyday shoes – as opposed to performers in traditional leotards and ballet shoes’
Cito, herself a trained dancer, took over the role of costume designer after the untimely death of Rolf Borzik in 1980. The first costumes she designed were for the piece ‘1980 – Ein Stück von Pina Bausch’, a piece that dealt with some of the issues of grief for the loss of Borzik. Cito continued the aesthetic and ethos of Borzik’s work, taking inspiration from everyday life that contrasts the often absurd, surreal and dysfunctional elements of what takes place on stage. Cito worked closely with Pina - looking through old photographs for inspiration. Unlike other dance companies where the costumes and sets are created before production begins, Bausch worked in a different way.
Cito had to design costumes ‘speculatively’, guessing the direction of the choreography - designing alongside Bausch’s choreographic process, entrusting each other with the shared task of creating a harmonious performance that only came together in the final stages of production.
Last year I saw these costumes on the London stage. The performers wore elegant dresses and suits, their splendid garb jarring with the poetic choreography, and the grass floor of the set. The glamorous eveningwear that features prominently in this piece came to be a common feature – a demonstration of beauty and desire, but also ‘…of how men and women interact with each other and use their clothing to hide or reveal themselves accordingly.’
Lee Miller, born Elizabeth Miller (April 23 1907) started her career as a successful fashion model after a fateful run-in with Condé Nast on the streets of New York City during the 1920s. Such a crossing of paths resulted in Miller landing her first modelling job for American Vogue, and she became a favourite model and muse to some of the greatest American fashion photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen. After returning to Paris in 1929, Miller went on to become a pupil of the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, who inspired her to open her own photographic studio. Switching from one side of the camera to the other, Miller became a unique talent, performing with brilliance on either side of the lens.
Miller’s career as a photographer resulted in various portraits and fashion assignments being published inside the glossy pages Vogue. She joined British Vogue as a freelance photographer in 1940. However, with the on-going struggles of the war, Miller found that working for a ‘frivolous’ publication such as Vogue was becoming a drain on her own morale. In 1942 she applied and was accepted by the US army for accreditation as a war correspondent. What followed was a series of photographs documenting the British home front, before she headed to France and Germany where Miller shadowed the steady successes of the Allied advances.
The accompanying image of the Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich was captured by Miller after the liberation of Paris in September 1944. During the war, many of Paris’ finest Couturiers had closed shop. Therefore, this image of Marlene is particularly important as it signalled the re-opening of the fashion house Schiaparelli.
Marlene Dietrich, born in Berlin in 1901, became one of the most glamorous leading ladies in film of the 1930s and 1940s. Famous for her ability to challenge the accepted notions of femininity, Dietrich often wore trousers and more masculine fashions both on – and off – screen. In this respect, Marlene’s sense of fashion combined with her German origins and her relocation to America, in order to crack Hollywood, meant that the actress came to resemble the sought-after exotic other.
Dietrich as ‘other’ can be explored in relation to the Schiaparelli evening coat she wears in the black and white photograph. The Damask fabric is almost oriental in appearance with its floral embellishment and decorative detailing. However, the coat is also positioned within the context of the war period as well. The single-breasted construction of the coat combined with the gold threaded toggles and matching belt allude to a military uniform. Whereas the coat had originally been part of Schiaparelli’s 1938 Zodiac collection, when placed within the context of war the clothing becomes imbued with colonialism and empire: ‘The design is so subtle that one hardly notices that it represents the British lion capering among faint bluish flowers.’
Marlene can be understood as challenging the accepted notions of femininity whilst wearing this evening coat because of both the feminine and masculine qualities of the garment. Her styled hair, painted nails and the make-up on her face indicate typical womanly conventions, especially when combined with the floral patterning of the evening coat. However, on the other hand, the appropriations of military uniform characteristics allude to a more masculine identity. Such an observation is particularly interesting because the coat can be identified as embodying wartime culture. With more men volunteering and being conscripted to join the front, women had to step out of their traditional sphere and enter into the world of work – something that had typically been reserved as the more masculine domain. As a result, the construction and decoration of this coat when read within the historiography of wartime culture can be seen as reflecting these changes within society.
Calvocoressi, R. Lee Miller Portraits From A Life (London, 2002).
50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Six: Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), PhD (expected September 2015)
Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas. We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.
Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), Current PhD
Elizabeth Kutesko is a third year PHD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently writing her thesis, entitled ‘Fashioning Brazil: Globalisation and the Representation of Brazilian Dress in National Geographic since 1988’. Liz has previously co-taught the BA3 course ’Fashion and Photography: Viewing and Reviewing Global Images of Dress’, and will teach it again next year, along with the BA2 course, the first that she ever studied at the Courtauld, entitled ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’.
Where did you study and how did you become interested in the history of dress?
I studied my BA, MA and am currently in my third year of my PHD at the Courtauld. I was in my second year when History of Dress popped up on the syllabus. At first I was a bit sceptical…I’d studied fashion and textiles at college and dropped out to complete A-Levels at Sixth Form instead. I remember that my mum encouraged me to choose the special option, ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’. It remains one of my best decisions yet. Rebecca is such a brilliant teacher, so enthusiastic about the subject.
So, was it really the construction side of dress and textiles, or the sociological context of dress that you were interested in?
Both are important in understanding dress as image, object, text and idea intertwined, but studying the more theoretical side of such a multifaceted subject, with all of its allied ambiguities, fascinates me.
Your research draws heavily upon the representation of dress, and really how dress presents citizens bodies in ‘non-western’ cultures including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. How did you find your niche?
I travelled to Brazil in 2008 and arrived with little idea of what to expect, beyond an oversimplified awareness of urban violence pervasive in internationally acclaimed Brazilian films such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. By the time I departed, six months later, I was struck by the internal subtleties of its racial, religious, social, cultural, geographical and sartorial diversity. I was fascinated by how Brazilian identities had been asserted, negotiated and re-negotiated through their representation by the ‘West’. What kinds of problems and tensions did representation engender? Was the photographer always the one in control of Brazilian subjects, or did this dynamic shift as subjects’ self-fashioned and self-presented before the camera’s gaze?
I became interested in the Sapeurs, young men from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) who fashion their own identities using Western designer labels, when Rebecca showed us the photobook in class by Danielle Tamagni, The Gentleman of Bacongo. Even though her specialism was Western European and North American fashion, Rebecca constantly broadened our horizons with images of dress from all around the world.
What methodologies guide your research approach to non-western representations of dress?
Despite a growing number of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural examinations of ‘non-Western’ dress and fashion since the early 1990s, there still seems to be a scholarly tendency to privilege enquiries into ‘Western’ high fashion. Although I’m well aware of the pitfalls of employing these generalised and ambiguous terms! I decided that I wanted my research to try and bridge that perceived gap between the Western and non-Western. I particularly like the work of Margaret Maynard, she is an alumna of the Courtauld, and she has considered what dress and fashion choices can tell us about individual subjects and their interactions with global culture. She refuses to understand globalisation as a synonym for standardisation, Westernisation or Americanisation, but examines all the interesting nuances and complexities that are woven into dress.
Your research crucially posits Brazil on the periphery of the West. In terms of the contemporary Brazilian fashion industry, has it evolved independently of North America and European influence, or towards it?
Brazil is an interesting example. In the 1930s, inspired by Hollywood, upper-class Brazilian women wore furs in the tropical climate. They had to pay extortionate fees to keep the garments refrigerated. It was madness! In the 1980s, this penchant for copying resulted in Brazilian designers being refused entry to Paris fashion week, as they plagiarised the designs too heavily. But in the 1990s imports of luxury goods were allowed into Brazil without heavy taxes. Brazilian designers who had previously copied American and European fashion couldn’t anymore, because for a cheaper price, Brazilian consumers could simply buy the originals. Brazilian designers had to step up their game! It resulted in this interesting intersection of foreign fashion ideas and more local modes of dressing. Sometimes Brazilian designers really play on the exotic stereotypes of Brazil, with tropical prints and exaggerated representations of beach culture.
Do you visit Brazil regularly, and does your approach to dressing and perception of the body differ when you are there?
I’ve been to Brazil on two occasions but hope to return soon. I went on a research trip last year. Cariocas (Brazilians who live in Rio de Janeiro), have an interesting beach aesthetic, with lots of bright prints and colourful items. They wear a lot less on the street, with short shorts and little tops. It’s the antithesis of the more formal dressing habits of Paulistas (Sao Paulo residents), with their frantic pace of life! I packed a wardrobe with summer clothes that I would wear in London, but when I arrived in Rio I felt very ‘stuffy’ by comparison to everyone else. So I quickly found this shop, Farm Rio (http://www.farmrio.com.br/), which had some amazing patterned pieces and interesting designs. I bought lots of things, but when I returned home these clothes then seemed very wrong for British summertime. It’s interesting how we are subconsciously influenced by the way that people around us dress.
Who is your favourite designer, past or present and why?
That’s tricky! I particularly like this label called ‘Shrimps’. It’s by a designer called Hannah Weiland, who studied at Central St. Martins. Everything is made from faux fur in loads of outlandish colours and I absolutely love it: fluffy clutches, heels, jackets, stoles. Although I’m not sure how sustainable a fashion label based on faux fur is during summer time…
By the time this interview is published the academic year will be finished, what advice would you give to any future MA students?
You have to try very hard not to get bored, and to remind yourself why you like the subject so much. When I allow stress to take over, I often end up feeling completely unmotivated and unenthused, which is the worst state to be in when you’re trying to be creative! It’s really important to have a few days off to do something that you really enjoy. Even if it’s simply flicking through a magazine or newspaper, it will re-ignite your enthusiasm for the subject. Someone once said to me that if you have writer’s block it’s because you haven’t read enough, or you haven’t thought about it enough, so just read anything that inspires you or go for a long walk! (Ed note: I can attest to this tip, thanks Liz!)Categories: Interviews | Tags: 50 Years, Alumni, brazil, Brazilian fashion, Congolese Sapeurs, courtauld institute of art, History of Dress, ma history of dress, PhD | Comments Off