The Transformative Nature of Dress-Up

Coming across a picture of myself at the age of three, I realised this was about the age I became conscious of dressing myself. Even though my clothes were of course chosen by my mum, I was responsible for assembling this eye-wateringly pink get up. I really enjoy the fact that it’s Christmas, I’ve clearly just woken up – courtesy of the ruffled hair and sleep deprived expression – and I’ve put all my Christmas presents on, creating a hybrid ballerina princess.

Ballerina princess hybrid

This love of dress up was also explored by my siblings. For our local village carnival, we would dress up each year in our favourite characters of the moment. One year, I was Cinderella in a dress painstakingly made by my mum, and Chris and Sand were Kuzko and Pacha from the Emperor’s New Groove. Sadly, no pictures survive but we uncovered some from the year Chris went as a strikingly convincing Noddy, and Sand, who as a baby had no choice, was a disgruntled bunny.

Noddy??

Disgruntled bunny

Even now, I distinctly remember my favourite outfits, such as the wedding dress from the Little Mermaid and a fitted vest with a massive poofy skirt, modelled below by me and my frequent playmate/neighbour, Kate. In each image, we’ve carefully curated the whole outfit, with matching tiara/veil and tiny heels completing each look. In another image, I’ve gone for a more dressed down, princess-about-town look with my massive skirt exploding underneath my much more practical cardigan.

Kate and Me

Striking a pose

Princess-about-town

Seeing the tiny heeled shoes made me realise how much my years of dress up still resonated with me, as I bought a pair of heels for a formal event, mostly because I absolutely loved how plastic and bright they were. Seeing these images again linked my dress up heels with my adult self, with a sense of pink frivolity still clearly ingrained in my sense of dress.

Plastic heels

When I first saw these images, I wondered why are children so encouraged/drawn to dress up? What struck me was remembering the transformative quality of dressing up. This isn’t to say I necessarily believed that I was a princess/bride/ballerina, or when I played with my older siblings one of Robin Hood’s merry men – we had wooden swords from a visit to Sherwood Forest – but more that it fed my imagination by being dressed in a certain way. In my youthful career of dress up, I portrayed many roles and many genders. However, I naturally gravitated towards the most girly girl outfits I could get my tiny hands on. In my ordinary day as a young child, my outfits comprised of much more practical clothing, including hand-me-downs from older siblings. As Amanda Rock writes, dress up allows children to socialise but also builds up their vocabulary and confidence. In my experience, dress up gave me a chance to experiment with my femininity, fashion and a very short lived acting career.

Reference: Amanda Rock, Benefits of Playing Dress Up for Kids https://www.verywellfamily.com/the-importance-of-dress-up-play-2765056

Dressing, Possessing

*Spoilers for All About Eve, series 1 of Killing Eve*

‘If I ever give you perfume, wear it, and know that I have designs on your soul’, I wrote a few months ago. This notion of dressing and possessing has followed me to New York, where I re-watched Killing Eve with my best friend, once more to Paris – yes, I did get a little bottle of Chloé eau de parfum – and back to London, to the Grand Circle of the Noel Coward Theatre.

All About Eve – which I keep accidentally referring to as Killing Eve – isn’t so much about Eve as it is about subsuming your idols and becoming yourself.

Eve Harrington (Lily James) waits breathlessly for a chance to meet Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson). Becoming her personal assistant and understudy, adored by everyone, Eve appears to peak as Margo, a caricature of the ageing starlet, mourns her own premature death.

Eve occupies Margo’s dressing room, helps her undress, manages her personal life and, in a telling moment in an early scene, offers to put away her costume. Margo steps into the bathroom, and instead of sending the period dress off as promised, Eve slips her arms into it. She holds it against her chest and stands before the audience – the real, present audience doubling as her imagined, future audience. Eyes closed like an ecstatic Saint Teresa, she bows, blissful … until Margo presses up against her, and she tears the dress away from her body.

Lily James and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Photography by Jan Versweyveld.

If this is the ‘dress rehearsal’, Eve’s big reveal should come as no surprise. Having literally usurped Margo’s seat, Eve sits at Margo’s vanity – her vanity? The majority of the play takes place in what was at least initially Margo’s dressing room, as set design contributes to the identity slippage – and begins removing her stage makeup. Huge screens loom over the stage to show the audience what Eve sees in the mirror: her face slowly morphing into Margo’s.

All About Eve ends with a tightening and an unraveling of identity for Margo and Eve respectively. Margo adapts to the idea of ‘ageing gracefully’, embracing new roles and accepting the love she was too insecure to trust before. Eve, who never actually was the ‘Eve’ she made herself out to be, is blackmailed into continuing the act, her entire life a performance. Eve tried to possess and thus ‘kill’ Margo, but she only succeeds in loosing possession of – killing – herself.

***

While the second series of Killing Eve is airing in the US, its UK release has yet to be announced … and so all I can do is re-watch it again. What stands out this time is not Molly Goddard’s pile of pink tulle or the blue and gold balloons of a faux-birthday party, but how Villanelle/Oksana (Jodie Comer) and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) dress one another, with varying degrees of autonomy and consent.

Starting in the third episode, ‘Don’t I Know You?’, Eve and Villanelle play a game of mortal dress up. Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase in Berlin, appropriating her green zebra print scarf for herself and trailing Eve to a boutique. There, she lurks outside Eve’s dressing room and surreptitiously provides her with a belt, that ‘missing something’ to complete her outfit. Villanelle later stabs Eve’s friend as Eve watches helplessly, still accessorised by the assassin.

Stills from Episode 4, ‘Sorry, Baby’, of Killing Eve.

Back in London, a shattered Eve unzips her returned suitcase, only to find it full of new, luxurious clothing, still packed with tissue paper. But the most devastating is Villanelle’s calling card: a bottle of La Villanelle perfume – her name and identity bottled in a fragrance that her ‘nemesis’ will physically absorb. Eve’s terror transforms into another unnameable emotion, when she not just opens and smells the perfume but daubs it on her wrists. She holds the black heels against her slippered feet before undressing and stepping into a new dress, smoothing her hands across her body in an amalgamation of fear, daring, disgust and attraction.

Minutes later, Villanelle breaks in to Eve’s home, confrontationally violating Eve’s personal space for the first time. But, in wearing her clothing and perfume – with a purposely ambiguous antecedent – Eve had already let Villanelle inside.

***

‘You know when your outfit is missing something but just don’t know what?’ Eve thinks aloud to her friend before Villanelle fatefully delivers the finishing touch. So rarely is the missing feature proven to be ‘a psychopath’, but such is the case in All About Eve, Killing Eve and a myriad of other body-snatchings by way of make-over.

Without going in to problematic representation of psychopathy, perhaps, with dress and bodies at a borderline, the psychopath is the stand-in for past, present and potential identities and the unfixed self. Of course, I don’t want to devour, efface, become those I adore; I know the line between my body and theirs. But I do have a certain red velveteen camisole and dress with military buttons stashed away … don’t you?

Vintage Clothes and Modern Londoners

London has long been a hub for subcultures: teddy boys and girls in the 1950s, mods and rockers in the 1960s and punks in the 1980s, to name only a few. What of the subcultures found in London today? One of the least well known is the vintage subculture: a community of people who dress in distinctively old clothing. 

Before we begin discussing the vintage community, let’s first establish some ground rules on what vintage clothing is. There is a difference between antique, vintage, retro and reproduction in terms of clothing, as well as most other material culture items. Items 100 or more years old are generally considered antique, while items 20 (or 30, depending on whom you’re talking to) to 99 years old are considered vintage. Retro items tend to be newer and have a clear inspiration or aesthetic from the past. Finally, reproduction garments are new but closely imitate older items and often are made using similar materials and techniques.

The ‘VintageOOTD’ hashtag on Instagram shows the fashion-oriented nature of the Vintage Instagram community.

The vintage community in London, myself included, embraces all of these classifications. Some members dress only in antique or vintage garments, while most of us sport a combination of older and newer pieces.

What does this community look like, and how does it interact, you might ask?

Unlike some subcultures, which are exclusive and uniform in terms of their membership, the vintage community is incredibly diverse and inclusive. People of all professions, nationalities, races and identities make up the London vintage scene. For example, friends of mine include a Chinese-Indonesian-Australian scientist and a Croatian marketing advisor and model.

Three members of the London Vintage community: @James.L.Richardson, @JeordyRaines, and @NoraFinds. See below to find them on Instagram.

Somewhat ironically, the vintage community —a group of individuals who all share a love for the past— functions largely through social media, particularly Instagram. Through Instagram, vintage men and women from all over the world engage with and support each other. Oftentimes, someone with whom you have an Instagram relationship with will become a real-life friend when you live in the same city. These interactions are incredibly fashion-based, with outfit photos being one of the primary media of interaction. Via Instagram, the vintage community is able not to only keep in touch remotely, but also to organise events through which to engage in person. One of the most prominent of these events is the Chap Olympiad, a summer garden party and festival of all things odd and antiquated, which rolls around for one day each July. Both social media and events like this bring together a group of people who love old clothes and allow them to discover a likeminded community in a large and sometimes standoffish urban world.

2018 Chap Olympiad at Bedford Square. Jeordy Raines, James. L. Richardson, @MateaInWonderland, and @Telombre. See below to find them on Instagram.

You can learn more about these vintage Londoners and what inspires them on Instagram:
James.L.Richardson
JeordyRaines
NoraFinds
MateaInWonderland
Telombre

All images belong to the author.

“Hell is other people” – or is it Us?

Since the UK release of Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) in late March, I have seen the film a total of three times: 1) in Reading (where I live) with my partner; 2) in Exeter with my family; 3) alone in London. I am a firm believer that the people with whom you see a film and where you see it are vital components to your cinematic experience. The first viewing left me stunned; in the second, I was obsessively working through a plethora of Reddit theories I had poured over and memorised between screenings; and in the last, I was just elated to be in the presence of my new obsession again, mesmerised. 

We have Australian costume designer Kym Barrett (@kymbarrett.design)—Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), The Matrix (1999) and the upcoming Charlie’s Angels (2019) reboot—to thank for one of the many visual layers in this film. The costumery in this film acts as a textural representation of the misfortune that is to imminently befall its core characters (and their mirror-selves). 

*This is not a spoiler. I will however be discussing content that some may view as ‘spoilerific.’ Do not read if concerned (you have been warned!)  

The Wilsons and their Tethered-selves from Jordan Peele’s Us. Collage of two images made by the author.

Us offers its viewer too much: Peele curates too great of a visual feast for us to devour. In this limited amount of space I couldn’t possibly attempt to tackle each in their full manifestations, but I have given a couple of my favourites a go!

The importance of a well-placed tee 

There is a multitude of strategically placed t-shirts throughout Us’s duration, so let’s begin with the most prominent and well-discussed: the Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt. The film’s unsettling 1986 prologue places our protagonist, a younger Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), at Santa Cruz’s boardwalk. Her father wins a prize at one of the fairground stands, and Adelaide selects a t-shirt emblazoned with the album artwork for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984), much to her mother’s despair. The spectral figure of Michael Jackson looms over this clothing item and Us’s 1980s tone at large. 

Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) on Santa Cruz beach wearing Michael Jackson Thriller-themed tee. Collage and additions to image made by the author.

In an interview with @mashable, Peele confessed that he harbours a longstanding fascination with the peculiarly singular place Jackson occupies in pop-culture: ‘Michael Jackson is probably the patron saint of duality… The movie starts in the 80s—the duality with which I experienced [Jackson] in that time was both as the guy that presented this outward positivity, but also the ‘Thriller’ video which scared me to death … [In the wake of Leaving Neverland (2019)] The irony and relevance is not lost on me now that the discussion has evolved to one of true horror.’ The Thriller music video is a filmic pop-culture moment stamped in our collective consciousness, so we all know its main premise is Jackson’s transformation into a zombie. His personhood is metamorphosed and split in two, man and monster. 

This is not the only late-twentieth century mythic beast addressed in Us’s tee-game. Adelaide and Gabe’s (Winston Duke) youngest child Jason (Evan Alex) wears a Jaws (1975) t-shirt during their ‘present day’ return to Santa Cruz beach. Again, those familiar with Spielberg’s horror-at-sea B-movie classic will know that Jaws centres around the gruesome attacks of a gargantuan man-eating great white shark. Could this tee-nod be a symbol of incoming danger? An ominous creature that stalks a subterranean realm, lying in wait and ready to attack the evolutionarily ‘superior’ above-ground species…

Jason (Evan Alex) on Santa Cruz beach wearing Jaws-themed tee. Collage and additions to image made by the author.

Fun honourable tee mentions: 

  • Jason’s tuxedo-style pyjama top 
  • Josh Tyler’s (Tim Heidecker) black ‘FRAGILE’ tee (the slogan strategically placed above a broken wine glass) 
  • Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) wears two rabbit-themed tees: her baby-blue bunny t-shirt worn in the film’s early scenes and a green, short-sleeved hooded sweatshirt that reads ‘THỎ’ (rabbit in Vietnamese) 
  • Gabe’s Howard University sweatshirt (an acute cultural symbol)


THE jumpsuits 

The most instantly recognisable dress symbol in Jordan Peele’s Us is THE iconic red jumpsuits that Red (also played by Nyong’o) and her Tethered doppelgänger family don. The Wilsons’ mirror-image family unit are not the only Tethered outfitted in this (on-trend) boilersuit attire—it is the uniform that binds the Tethered army together as a unified whole. 

Image and caption reposted from Kym Barrett’s Instagram feed (@kymbarrett.design)

Barrett discusses the jumpsuits as a formal sign of rebellion—not too dissimilar looking from the all-red figures in the Hands Across America (1986) campaign imagery—that Adelaide’s Tethered-self Red utilises to outwardly convey her pain: ‘She completely enshrouds her being with this red. It’s a symbol of aggression, a screaming mission. You cannot miss it.’ Barrett discussed with The Atlantic’s Tanisha C. Ford how she and her team worked hard to produce a shade of red that would feel unsettling to look at: ‘It’s half the colour of wet blood; it’s half the colour of dried blood. It’s like an old wound.’

Overalls such as these are a recognisable dress trope that signify a labour-defined workforce: they are functional and allow for a body of workers (detainees, recruits, allies, etc.) to be established in an act of formalised aesthetic unification.  

Notable jumpsuit accoutrements: 

  • The single, brown leather palm gloves: Barrett states that this costuming element was incorporated from a practical standpoint. Barrett and her team learned early in the design process that it is incredibly easy to cut yourself when handling large shears (the Tethered’s weapon of choice). The gloves – another nod to the King of Pop – are protective gear to prevent the ‘slashing’ of hands. 
  • The scissors: technically weaponry, more arsenal than accessory, the scissors serve as another symbol of duality – two singular blades, forged as one, that serve to cut and splice. Scissors are a tool designed to sever, to split a tether.  

Us artwork by illustrator Vincent Blake. Click through image to visit Vincent Blake’s Instagram feed (@dre.blake).

As Ford concludes in her article on Barrett’s costuming, the garments of Jordan Peele’s Us speak for themselves. They ‘supplement and enrich the story rather than distract from it’ and deserve individual consideration. The costumes are contextually rich visual markers that ground Peele’s puzzle-like narrative. On repeat viewings – we are collectively coming to understand Peele’s work is designed to be enjoyed through repetition – the story unfolds a little more, and the costumes act as clues to a much larger picture. 

Oh, and please go see this film, immediately! 

Resources

Jean-Paul Sartre cited in Mark Kermode’s review of Us. Kermode, Mark. ‘Us review’. The Guardian (UK). March 24, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/24/us-review-jordan-peele-lupita-nyongo 

Thompson, Rachel. ‘Jordan Peele explains the significance of the Michael Jackson imagery in ‘Us’’. Mashable UK. March 19, 2019. https://mashable.com/article/jordan-peele-michael-jackson-us-movie/?europe=true 

Ford, Tanisha C. ‘To Understand Us, Pay Attention to the Outfits’. The Atlantic. March 27, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/03/us-meaning-costumes-kym-barrett-interview-red-jumpsuit/585793/ 

The John Cole Fashion Photography Archive

As Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute once said in a Vogue documentary, ‘Your memory of fashion is fashion photography.’

I love fashion photography. I have collected magazines ever since I was little, when my mother and I would spend hours looking at the pretty glossy pictures. It was my interest in fashion photography that led me to the Documenting Fashion course at The Courtauld. An entire course on fashion imagery? I knew immediately that this course was for me. Reflecting upon my year at The Courtauld as it is coming to a close, I believe that one of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the depth of fashion photography, as a fashion photograph can be much more than a visually pleasing image. I have learned that fashion photography has the potential to shape our attitudes towards our identity, our society and our culture. But fashion photographs are not only expressions of our visual culture: they are first and foremost expressions of our desires. We can come to see the world through the knowing eye of the fashion photographer, who instinctively captures seminal moments and has the ability to immortalise certain fashion designs.

I was convinced until this year that Google Images and my stack of old magazines were my best bet when it came to looking at old fashion photographs. I have since discovered the existence of a plethora of rich fashion photography archives, many of which have greatly helped me with my research throughout the year. The most recent archive that I have discovered is that of fashion photographer John Cole (1923-1995).

John Cole at work at Studio Five.*

John Cole began his career as a fashion photographer in the 1940s and opened his first studio in Mayfair in 1956. The studio, called ‘Studio Five’, attracted photographers who would rise to great prominence in the fashion industry—one such photographer, David Bailey, would eventually work for British Vogue. 

John started taking fashion photographs in the early 1940s when working for Gee & Watson and Hugh White Studios. He took many photographs for the original Tatler & Bystander magazine which was owned by the Illustrated London News; he also took photographs for Britannia & Eve magazine.

John was a very prolific photographer whose photographs were used for many adverts in a wide range of publications. At Studio Five, he took photographs for Hairdressers Journal, Flair Magazine, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, The SUN, the Daily Express, Evening News, Evening Standard and The Guardian. Throughout the 1970s, Country Life ran a fashion section for which John was the main photographer. 

John’s many years of experience, both in the darkroom and on set watching other photographers at work, would eventually allow him to master his own techniques—such as lighting. As stated in an article from 1962, John was ‘someone at the top but always willing to learn.’ If he wasn’t using tungsten lighting, he was working with the natural daylight that poured in through the two roof windows at Studio Five.

This photograph was taken for Chemstrand tights, April 1966.* 

John asserted his creative agency in the original way he captured the cut and shape of the clothes in his images, demonstrating an utmost confidence in his own instincts. He seemed interested in capturing clothing from unexpected viewpoints. In shooting from quirky angles, his photographs change the way a particular garment is seen. They provide a fresh perspective on relatively standard items of dress that would make any woman want to purchase them. 

John Cole had a knack for showing the clothes off from unexpected angles.*

The pictures that have been collected and made available in his archive accessible via a website and an Instagram account give us a glimpse of the times in which he worked, particularly the 1960s—an era full of glamour and youthful fun. Included in this collection of stunning photographs are images of model-turned-editor Grace Coddington, along with some behind the scenes photographs that provide us with a flavour of the energetic ambiance of Studio Five. 

There was always music being played at the studio. Well, it was the 60s!*

John had a distinct ability to capture the energy of his subject. While there is a light and whimsical overtone to his photographs, the model in the picture always seems to be deeply engaged and present. We can see that each model is prepared to give everything she has, with the knowledge that John would capture her at the perfect moment. Each one of John’s models emanates a liveliness that reflects her desire to fully invest in playing her role for the camera. As John himself asserted, ‘There has to be complete affinity between photographer and model to take a really good picture.’

This image of Twiggy was taken for fashion brand Slimma in 1966. The clothes were designed by David Bond, whose trouser suit was the Bath Fashion Museum Dress of the Year in 1967, chosen by Felicity Green at the Daily Mirror.*

The John Cole website provides everything from bibliographic information, to video clips of him on set with 1960s icon Twiggy, to personal accounts written by individuals who worked alongside Cole at Studio Five. 

An archive such as this puts into question the ephemeral nature of fashion photography. It challenges common notions of fashion photography as images that we mindlessly flip through in a waiting room or on our morning commute: images that are quickly discarded, never to be looked at again once the next month’s issue is published. A fashion photography archive emphasises the commonly overlooked notion that fashion photography has the potential to capture the collective consciousness of a particular time, frozen in one glossy beautiful image. For those of us who cannot afford to wear the glamorous clothes featured in most fashion photographs, we can take solace in the thought that fashion photography nevertheless allows us to partake in this dream world. 

* All images taken from the John Cole Archive and subject to copyright.

 

References:

http://www.johncolestudiofive.co.uk/home/4570078226

‘Photography in Advertising: A self-contained service in an unusual backwater,’ John Heron, February, 1955

‘“The Only Way to Succeed…” Robert Sowter interviews top photographer John Cole,’ Robert Sowter, Time & Tide, November, 1962

The Normalisation of a Fast Fashion Mentality in Films and Television

A famously extensive wardrobe in Clueless. Costume design by Mona May. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

During the earliest years of the film industry, actors would generally wear their own clothes as costumes. In short films set in the present-day and centred on only a few locations and story days, numerous specially designed costumes were simply an avoidable expense. Furthermore, actors’ everyday clothes complemented the ‘naturalistic’ elements of those films which sought to create the illusion of reality for cinema’s largely working-class audience.

By the late 1910s, the draw of extravagant costuming had become apparent, and films, now increasingly aimed at a middle-class audience, began to place greater emphasis on the consumption of clothing. Developments in the technical and narrative complexity of films also demanded more specialised costumes in greater numbers, and sartorial excess – in both design and quantity of costumes – became crucial to the film industry’s role as producer of fantasy.

The growth of the continuing television series from the mid-twentieth century onwards necessitated a similar abundance of costumes on screen, but with the need for frequent costume changes intensified by the high episode count and rapid turnaround time of many series. Moreover, seasonally scheduled series could keep abreast of fashion changes in their costuming to an even greater extent than films.

Viewers have consequently become accustomed to unique costumes for each story day of a film or television series, especially in those produced for a middle-class and/or female audience. Multiple costume changes within a story day are also common, and characters do not often wear the same costume twice in a given production (excepting ‘hero’ pieces worn throughout). This is sometimes true even when an extensive wardrobe cannot be justified by, say, a character’s socioeconomic circumstances. Subsequently, whether they are bought, made, or hired, single-use costumes normalise the fast fashion mentality that clothes should be acquired more frequently than they can be worn.

Costume and fashion are not entirely comparable, of course, but they do impact each other both stylistically and commercially. The practice of using a costume only once in a production thus appears dated within the context of recent discourse on fast fashion. Yet, the effects of this practice on the consumption of fashion, and vice versa, remain undertheorised. The challenge lies in critiquing certain industry customs whilst respecting costume design’s status as art, business, and significant appeal of films and television.

Skewed Perspectives

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

While we were studying abroad in Brittany during our third year of high school, some of my American classmates chose to go back home to the U.S. for Thanksgiving—that is, for all of a regular two-day weekend. From six years ago up until today, the very idea of going home for such a short amount of time, under such unusual circumstances, has represented an uncanniness I just can’t properly distill. It approximates being a guest—a visitor, a tourist—in your own home, collapsing two valid but separate realities in a way that simply shouldn’t be. It’s too close to home…and at the same time, too far. 

All of this to say that, personally, our study trip was more than privileged, backstage access to vaults and archives. After living in the city for four years, I experienced a shift, a disconnect, but above all, a sense of being home. This trip served as a reminder, after the tropical misery of last summer, of how novel and timeless and familiar and invigorating New York can be.

Between FIT and Brooklyn Museum visits, I complained about the L train and avoided subway transfers. I made the trip from 103rd St. into downtown Chinatown…several times, in a descent that only needs four words to justify (Nom Wah shrimp dumplings). I lay on my friend’s couch, drinking grapefruit with gin and fighting with her cat. I fell in love with another friend’s new pink velvet couch. I took my cousin out for boba and used up all his bath bombs. I raided my uncle’s attic for my down jacket, forgotten t-shirts and winter sneakers (yes, it’s a thing).

It looks like love, but he is trying to bite my hand.

All the while, I thought about my Courtauld friends’ impressions and experiences. Some had never been to New York; for some, it was the first visit to America. Is it possible to romanticise the MTA, the gritty yellow and 10-minute wait time of the NY subway? Were three days enough time to feel the grid layout, to become familiar with that sense of recalibrating your internal compass at subway exists and on unmarked streets? How American was America? What bars and cafés and thrift shops and hidden gardens did they discover to call their own? Can they communicate the essence of the city? I sure can’t.  

This is the idea: people can look at the same thing and, as individuals, receive it wildly differently. A city can’t be described or defined. It’s the people, memories and associations as they relate to me—or you—that make it up.

So there I was, on a third-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side as the other MAs found their home base in Chelsea. We assembled and separated according to schedule, our rendez-vous lighting up the map of New York’s cultural institutions. 

At the very end of the trip, I brought us together one last time, merging our existences again in the lobby of the New York Times building. My above-mentioned uncle, Marc Lacey, is the national editor, and he has cheerfully hosted groups of my friends at the NYT for the past few years. His talents and achievements as a journalist aside, Marc is a fabulous tour guide: charismatic, approachable, engaging, always ready with the unusual anecdote, dry comment or terrible dad-joke. We attended a morning briefing, gleaned an insider’s view—literally—of the NYT, took premier snapshots of the city skyline, spied a specialist ISIS reporter next to (shut) closets jammed with clothing for fashion reviews and came away with advance copies of the paper. The others returned to London that evening; I went home with Marc.

The MA class, minus your author, in front of a wall of other distinguished NYT guests.

I have been aware for a while of having several places where I feel at home: LA, Brittany, Paris, New York, London. But now, I am realising how strange and exciting it can be to overlap them and stretch their limits. Boundaries are bizarre…

All photos by the author.

A Bonnie Wee Peep into the World of Ms. Cashin

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you.

Bonnie Cashin wearing a traditional Korean gat that she purchased during her travels for the Ford Foundation in East Asia during the 1950s. Additions to image made by the author.

Before this trip to New York, I had never seen any of Bonnie Cashin’s Coach-era sketches. Cashin designed for the luxury accessories brand for a little over a decade whilst maintaining her own sportswear company (1952-1985). She was hired by Coach’s wife & husband duo Miles and Lillian Cahn in 1962 to work collaboratively on the brand’s range of leatherwear accessories. From bucket-scooped ‘carriables’ to practical leather-trimmed ponchos, Cashin became well-known for her unusual combinations of texturally diverse fabrics. Cashin was Coach’s first designer, and I believe her veracious, playful nature as a creative can be most resolutely understood through her quirky sketches. 

As previously mentioned, I had never seen Cashin’s sketches before, and yet during this four-day study trip, I was able to closely examine two collections of her work, from different archives: the Special Collections & College Archives at the Fashion Institute of Technology and at the Brooklyn Museum Fashion and Costume Archive. It was not singularly the drawings that provided me with such entertainment—though bold and thoroughly fun—but also the captions Cashin had devised to sit alongside them. Her words inject the drawings with a splash of campy humour.

Sketch by Bonnie Cashin for Coach, Special Collections & College Archives collection at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Photo by author.

Take, for example, this waifish figure laden with piles of precariously stacked Cashin-Coach handbags, which are seemingly ready to topple from her outstretched arms. In the right top-hand corner of this sketch is the accompanying caption: ‘I just want to steal every Cashin-carry I can put my hands on’.

‘I’d rather wear body bags than body stockings’, sketch by Bonnie Cashin for Coach, Special Collections & College Archives collection at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Photo by author.

In this sketch, like the others I studied, Cashin employs a provocative statement and counterbalances its weight with her own special brand of humour. The term ‘body bag’ holds two meanings—at least to me (!): a bag in which you place a cadaver… or a cross-body bag in which you hold your phone, keys, lip-salve, whatever. The drawing of an in-motion model paired with a quirky caption makes Cashin’s work that much more unique. She has also incorporated her own surname to further instate the mark of her hand within the image. 

I am reminded of the wit that contemporary illustrators, such as Julie Hout, use to poke fun at the commercial fashion industry’s superficial nature. Even though the girls that decorate Hout’s Instagram feed are clumsy, brash and all together horribly scatty, I want to be them, and their parodied inadequacies make them all the more relatable. 

Julie Hout vs. Bonnie Cashin – additions to image made by the author.

This is also true of Cashin’s cluttered mannequin, weighed down by her bags, her indecision and her shopaholic tendencies. I like to think of her illustrative style as a precursor to the current trend of satirical fashion illustrations swarming our Instagram feeds. 

Once again, we defer to you, Bonnie!  

Find amazing images of Cashin’s sketches on FIT’s digital image library: fitdil.fitnyc.edu 

OR through the Brooklyn Museum’s Costume and Textiles Archive Collection:  www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/archives 

An ode to the talents of Julie Hout (@jooleeloren), seriously, follow her! – additions to image made by the author

Jeordy on MoMA and Muriel King

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

Our study trip to New York City was a whirlwind. As a native Californian, it was fascinating to visit a part of the United States I had never seen before in the company of my English classmates. It was a strange in-between state, where I was among my countrymen and women, but in an entirely alien environment, mentality, and culture. Once I overcame the uncanniness and aggressive atmosphere of NYC, I enjoyed myself greatly. Of particular interest were the Good Design Exhibit at MoMA, and the collection of Muriel King’s design sketches.

Wooden Shelving Unit and Chairs, Good Design exhibit, MoMA

‘Good Design is not a label or a price tag
Good Design is international in both origin and appeal
Good Design is a statement and not a gadget
Good Design need not be costly
Good Design is neither a book of etiquette nor a social register
Good Design is one that achieves integrity
Good Design depends on the harmony established between the form of an object and its use.’

The Good Design style of the 1940s and 1950s highlighted function, form and aesthetics. It encompassed the design of everything from coffee pots to the Fiat car. I was fascinated to see exhibits like the one above, which contextualised midcentury clothing for me.

Muriel King sketches, 1930s, FIT Special Collections Archive

Sketches by American designer Muriel King also caught my attention. Muriel King became a name-known designer in the 1930s; she designed for films and socialites alike, including the notorious fashionista Hattie Carnegie. I find her designs remarkably imaginative and modern, even by today’s standards. Our guide at the archive informed us that Muriel King had no knowledge of sewing or pattern making, thus necessitating that she sketch both the front and back of each outfit as to express her deigns with the utmost clarity. Our guide also suggested that her originality and creativity derived from her said lack of sewing knowledge, as she was not intimidated by complex or challenging designs.

Muriel King sketches, 1930s, FIT Special Collections Archive

I took pictures of dozens of these sketches, in the vain hope that I may one day have the resources to have them made up for myself. How many vibrant and boldly patterned dresses can I have before it’s too many?

 

All photographs taken by author.

More information on Good Design: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5032?locale=en

Our Visit to Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

China Chic: East Meets West

One of my favourite parts of our study trip to New York was spending the day at FIT, where we explored their collections, met with their amazing staff and visited two temporary exhibitions: Fabric in Fashion, which looked at how textiles affect the silhouette of 250 years of Western fashion, and Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT. Exhibitionism was a fabulous and fascinating show that reflected upon some of the museum’s most groundbreaking exhibitions over the last fifty years. Not only did it spotlight some incredible pieces in their collection, both historical and contemporary, but also gave insight into the curatorial thought process. I loved the self-reflexive nature of the exhibition, where objects were grouped by how they were used in past shows. The text panels accompanying various exhibits explained the nature of each show and what curators were attempting to explore. This framing was particularly helpful, as we’re currently working on our Virtual Exhibitions for our MA course, and Exhibitionism essentially mapped out the thought process and approach taken by curatorial and academic all-stars like Valerie Steele. It also introduced me to the work of curators with whom I wasn’t familiar, including Emma McClendon, who we then had the pleasure of meeting as she shared some of FIT’s couture collection with us! Furthermore, it taught me a lot about the goals of the institution to maintain an academic approach in their focused and thoughtful exhibitions, and its role as a teaching museum.

Gothic: Dark Glamour

It was also fun to walk through and catch glimpses of past exhibitions which I hadn’t seen, including Gothic: Dark Glamour from 2009 and China Chic: East Meets West (1999). The labels accompanying each object also listed other shows that they had been used in, highlighting the various ways one garment can be interpreted. The exhibition as a whole was spectacular, visually appealing and cohesive, despite the vast range of objects included. The introductory wall text mentioned how this exhibition helps look towards the museum’s future by reflecting on the past: a sentiment that I think is so vital to considering how fashion collections operate, and to thoughtfully growing and changing as an institution.

Gowns from Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion and American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion