Documenting Fashion


Questioning the value of my Jean Cocteau scarf: modern art, memory, and self

September 16, 2014 by Rebecca

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Found in a brocante market in Cannes a few years ago, my Jean Cocteau scarf is a treasure that links me to the Côte d’Azur and modern art throughout the year. Wrapping it round my neck, I feel the warmth, not only of the ivory silk it comprises, but also, of my memories of summer sun. Folded, its surreal face print transforms. No longer a sea god’s visage entwined with graphic fish, it becomes further abstracted and hides its complete image.

As we move into autumn, such connections with holidays become more significant – a means to use dress, or in this case, accessories, to re-trace our steps – at least metaphorically, and maintain a connection with our summer selves. This scarf, with its pale ground and liquid design in blue, lime, yellow and orange, is my favourite reminder of time spent on the coast.

It is also a minor mystery – although it bears the artist’s signature, it does not contain a clue to its actual maker. This double signature – or in this case, lack thereof – speaks to both authorship and value. For this to have been a major flea market find, it would need to also have the name ‘Ascher’ skimmed on its edges, or that of a similarly august textile designer and scarf producer. While my scarf speaks of its artistic legacy, it remains silent with regard to textile history.

An original Ascher artist scarf can fetch in the thousands. Founded in the early 1940s by Zika Ascher, this textile firm made highly desirable silk squares that carried on their surface the mark of mid-century modern art. With such storied names as Calder, Matisse and Cocteau contributing designs, Ascher’s printed scarves became highly regarded and very collectable. They followed in a line of artist-led textiles, that includes Dufy’s work for Bianchini-Ferier in the early 20th century, and are part of fashion and art’s close visual and material interplay – discussed in Fruszi’s post earlier this year.

Cocteau’s own links to fashion and design abound. His designs have been rendered in embroidery and beading on Schiaparelli’s garments. And his interest in the ways his graphic forms might work in different media mean that his oeuvre extends to include book design and ceramics. His relationship to the French coast is also entwined with his art – and includes two museums in Menton, and murals in the fisherman’s church at Villefranche-sur–Mer.

It is interesting though, to consider where such scarves real value lies – in their silk fabric? The quality of their printed designs? Their link to a ‘modern master’? Or perhaps to the name of the textile or fashion house that spawned them? I would add to this list, and perhaps even nudge to the top of the pile, their value and meaning to their wearers. Accessories always have an intimate relationship to the body. Curled around your neck, warmed against your skin, they shape to your form, while adorning it and drawing emphasis to your face. As we know from endless magazine articles, they can transform an outfit, punctuate your silhouette and raise your fashion status. By wearing a memento of the South of France, I can feel and see its colours and warmth, connect to personal memories, while carrying my love of modern art with me, and display hints of all these elements to those I encounter.

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SENSATION AND COSTUME IN SWIMMING STUDIES BY LEANNE SHAPTON

September 11, 2014 by Katerina

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Featured is actress Whitney Ellis, captured by photographer Champagne Victoria and styled by Monica Munoz

Fashion-orientated depictions of swimming primarily focus on appearance. Swimwear histories and the annual beachwear magazine features alike, discuss the shapes of swimming garments and how the exposed body should look or has looked over time. Appearing before strangers wearing nothing but a few choicely-positioned fig-leaves is certainly an important aspect of the swimming experience, but once you enter the water, other considerations come into play: will the suit cling acutely, forming a seal-like second skin, float buoyantly around you or threaten to leave you altogether?

Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, a memoir of her swimming experience both as a trainee Olympian and later as a recreational swimmer begins to answer some of these questions as she elaborates upon the sensory aspects of swimming and swimwear. She recounts how the water feels against her skin, hair and muscles, and considers how its variable temperature, smell, colour and parameters vary with each aquatic encounter.

Each swimming experience is synaesthetic, where the look of the water influences the feeling and vice-versa: for example, the Olympium pool in Etobicoke, Canada is ‘blue’, ‘hums in the mornings’ and is of a scale ‘amplified by the density of chlorinated air over the water’s surface’. The pure blue colour and chlorine smell preside over an atmosphere of concentrated swimming ambition. Subsequently, the bodies that enter the pool reflect its streamlined, utilitarian purpose. Conversely, the seawater at the women’s swimming pavilion at Saltsjöbadens Friluftsbad in the Stockholm Archipelago, where clothing is optional, appeared ‘a beautiful olive-green colour, turning (Shapton’s) skin ochre beneath the waves’ and tasted ‘only mildly saline’. The experience of swimming nude amongst other women was one of ‘indifferent animality… as though in our polite blankness we are brushing up against one another, our furs , our similarities’. Here, the water’s olive waves transfigure the women’s forms, both in terms of appearance and sensation, and indicate a natural, non-competitive realm, where bodies are free from scrutiny.

Shapton’s book also features black and white photographs of her swimwear collection, modelled by white, headless linen mannequins. She describes how one high-necked black Speedo, ‘used for training, 1988-1992’, was ‘made of nylon, more durable and less flexible than Lycra’ and worn doubled up with other suits in order to provide extra weight and ‘drag’. Shapton compared the team’s uniform mentality to their extra suits to that of a ballet company because ‘we’d roll them down wet after warm-up, as ballerinas roll legwarmers up over their knees and then down around their ankles.’ While Shapton’s competitive swimwear was exposed to the shared, routine experiences of a team, her often vintage, recreational swimwear, which hangs shapelessly from the mannequins, acquired personal associations. She reproached one vintage Cole of California, brown zebra-stripe full piece for being ‘slightly too short in the waist’ despite its pattern’s promise to transform the wearer into the zebra-fish it resembled, and recounted that a whimsical Vintage Charmant mustard-yellow and white polka-dot bikini was worn to host a suitably retro pool party ‘where guests played Bananagrams, croquet and Catchphrase’.

Shapton demonstrates how swimming is always an occasion because one leaves behind one’s terrestrial habits and gains ‘knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where my body is and what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with another element.’ Thus, each entry into the water, whether competitively in a team, or recreationally, is ripe for memory-making. Our swimming costumes, and how they transform in the water, become part of our aquatic beings. As we move through the water, we notice that racing stripes are the image of speed, or the ruffle around our bikini resembles a gill. We remember these garments not merely by how they appear dry, but by how they perform when wet.

Sources:
Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (London: Penguin Books, 2012).

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5 minutes with…Emma McClendon

September 9, 2014 by Elisa

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Emma McClendon graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2011 and is now an assistant curator at the Museum at the FIT, New York. She is currently working on an exhibition on 1970s fashion by Halston and Yves Saint Laurent. She lives on the Lower East Side.

What are you wearing today?

I am wearing Alexander Wang boots and a shirtdress by Veronique Leroy. I am also wearing faux-leather shorts from Zara underneath my dress…a funny fact about New York is that in summer a lot of girls wear shorts beneath their dresses because it’s a particularly windy city! But it’s also just too hot not to wear something flowing.

How would you describe your style?

I would say minimal but with an interest in volume and different kinds of shapes and silhouettes. I wear a lot of black, white and navy. I definitely have a favourite silhouette that I wear. I tend to like chunkier shoes with skinny pants and bigger tops.

Who are your favourite designers?

Personally, I gravitate towards stuff by Alexander Wang, I wear a lot of Theory as well and I like the more minimal stuff from Opening Ceremony, based here in New York. I also wear a lot of Reformation – they are a great sustainable brand that make all of their pieces out of pre-used or upcycled materials.

What is your dress code at the FIT?

There are things I wear to work such as pencil skirts and collared shirts that I might not wear during my “off-duty time”. I probably wouldn’t wear my denim overalls, oversized sweaters and jean jackets to work. In a way, I suppose I have more tones of grunge in my off-duty look that I don’t bring to work. This is no doubt a product of having grown-up in the Nineties!

Have you ever worked on an exhibition that inspired you to dress differently?

Every exhibition that you work on affects some aspect of the way that you dress. You look at different styles and time periods every day, and you start to gravitate towards pieces. I’ve been working for the last six months on a show about 1970s fashion and since then I have invested in a jumpsuit. Also, I used to have really long hair… but after admiring a picture of Anjelica Huston on the Halston runway, I decided to cut my hair short like hers.

Did your style change whilst studying in London?

Yes. One thing that came out of me being in London was definitely black opaque tights with everything, anytime of year!

New York City summers are HOT. What are your tricks to stay cool?

You need to wear short skirts and flowing things because it is so hot here that you will die otherwise. I deal with the heat by carrying my make-up in my bag in case I need to touch-up and by leaving a jacket at work (for when it gets too cold inside with the air conditioning). One thing I would say about New York summer is that you have to embrace the heat and accept the fact that you are going to be sweaty and nasty – we are all in it together and everyone feels disgusting!

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Florence: Italian Fashion’s Forgotten Capital

September 5, 2014 by Julia

Nestled in a Tuscan valley, the ancient terracotta cityscape of Florence boasts a rich history as the birthplace of Renaissance art, literature and architecture, yet its starring role in the evolution of Italian fashion has long been overlooked and disregarded. Following the success of the V&A Museum’s 2014 exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion, the spotlight has once again fallen upon this national school’s distinctive blend of luxury craftsmanship and often family-run tradition. Florence has begun to emerge from the dominant shadow of Italian fashion capitals such as Milan.

As the birthplace of some of Italian fashion’s most prestigious designers, including Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli and Guccio Gucci, Florence formed the backdrop to Giovanni Battista Giorgini’s landmark fashion show in 1951. This fashion show is widely credited as Italian fashion’s first introduction to an international stage, and continued annually until Giorgini’s retirement in 1965. Driven by the prevailing appetite for post-war reconstruction, Giorgini invited an audience of primarily American department store buyers to his spectacular Florentine villa in order to showcase haute couture, knitwear and textiles that could equal and, occasionally surpass, the quality of their celebrated Parisian counterparts. In 1952, Giorgini also became the first designer to send a male model down the runway. Carmel Snow, the influential editor of Harper’s Bazaar, encapsulated the spirit of Giorgini’s shows when, writing in 1953, she stated:

If there were no other reason to go to Florence…just when spring begins to whisper, Italian fashion would fully justify our going.

Six decades later, Florence is still at the forefront of Italian fashion design, manufacturing and curation, with 2014 shaping up to be an exciting and prolific year for its industry. This year, the prestigious Florentine Centre for Italian Fashion, chaired by designer Stefano Ricci, celebrates 60 years of nurturing and supporting Italian tailoring traditions and emerging avant-garde talents, while the Costume Gallery of the city’s historic Palazzo Pitti continues to boast an important collection of dress to rival those of its international counterparts, including the first exhibition dedicated entirely to hats. The Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, a museum devoted to the work of the prominent Florentine shoe designer, who is widely credited with the invention of the wedge heel, and whose loyal clients ranged from royalty to Hollywood stars Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, has just launched its latest exhibition Equilibrium, which runs until Spring 2015. Innovative and dynamic, the exhibition seeks to explore Ferragamo’s dedication to the scientific craft of shoemaking, through close links to art, dance and history, and investigates the designer’s desire to achieve a symbiotic harmony between balance, movement and style.

Described by Dolce & Gabbana designer Stefano Gabbana as an ‘open air museum’ rather than a city, Florence’s dense concentration of museums, galleries and cultural institutions forms the historic setting for one of fashion’s forgotten capitals, one that is only just beginning to reassert itself as a nucleus of Italian luxury, craftsmanship and steadfast style.

Sources:

The Costume Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence: http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/

Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, Florence: http://www.ferragamo.com/museo/it/ita

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-the-glamour-of-italian-fashion-1945-2014/

Ciulli, M. I. (2014), ‘Dolce & Gabbana: One mind in two bodies’ in Firenze No. 30, Florence: FM Publishing.

Stanfill, S. ed. (2014), The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945, London: V&A Publishing.

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Collar meets Bar: historicism and circuitous timelines at Dior

September 2, 2014 by Alexis

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One look from Dior’s Autumn-Winter collection, which was presented in July, comprises a top and trousers in blue taffeta. Its individual elements present a synthesis of references and blur the boundaries between casual and formal wear: while the trousers evoke twentieth-century industrial workwear, the top’s cut and embroidered motifs recall both men’s court dress tailoring and women’s bodices of the eighteenth century. The ensemble forms part of Flight a la Française, one of the collection’s eight themes, where, as artistic director Raf Simons explained, “the flight suit meets the traditional dress; bodices and embroidery transposed at times, zippers and silk taffeta utilised.” Like his description, the overall collection reads as a sketch of the designer’s creative process, a collation of transhistorical stylistic and technical sources. And as I viewed the collection I got the impression of being carried across history, never remaining in any one place or time.

Simons’ first collection for Dior in 2012 featured several references to Christian Dior’s 1940s and 1950s creations, such as the Bar jacket. His tendency to look backwards is a logical means of establishing continuity between his work and the historic fashion house. As in politics, the field of fashion has shown recurrently how comfort is found in historicism and restoration. And in one way, Simons was charged with restoring the house after John Galliano’s dismissal in February 2011. As Mark Holgate remarked of Simons’ first collection: “Dior, an esteemed component of the French cultural establishment, and therefore of national pride, is relying on the belief that Simons will be the designer to rejuvenate its sense of beauty, and—a factor not to be underestimated—declare its standing in the world.”

These workings are not unlike Christian Dior’s own brand of historicism when he opened the house in the late 1940s, at a moment when France sought to re-attain its place in fashion and politics, both left shaken after the Second World War. As Alexandra Palmer has written, “Dior designed a contrived and reproducible vision of a new elite French woman that drew on hybrid aristocratic European roots. The Dior woman recalled the nobility of eighteenth-century France, the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque.” Yet Dior’s Bar Suit, with its clear reference to the structured silhouettes of previous centuries and apparent departure from the immediate past, must have appeared very new to contemporary audiences. Such examples illustrate perfectly Walter Benjamin’s observation that “[f]ashion has an eye for what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle of what was. It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before.”

Likewise, Simons clearly explicated his trans-directional leaping last July: “I was very interested in the process of finding something extremely modern through something very historical; particularly through a juxtaposition of different themes.” The resulting collection presented allusions to various types of garments, such as the courtly justacorps, and silhouettes from the eighteenth century, 1910s, 1920s, and 1950s. These were not random selections however, and Simons went beyond “historical inspiration” to question “how the foundations of one era are based on another, how the future is based on the past.” Simons’ leaping was more like time travel, and he sought to infuse the present with the past, and vice versa. This dialectical vision extended to the various processes used, and Simons created new techniques, such as the “resin punctuated fringe” that replaced beadwork on his version of a 1920s dress. And he continued to rethink Dior’s designs, themselves linked to earlier periods. Simons’ “form language” challenges traditional linear timelines of fashion creation, a major departure from the days when silhouettes progressed strictly from one season to the next. Most fascinating, he has exposed his creative practice, which seeks to question the mechanisms of the fashion system.

References:

‘Across Time’ (2014) DiorMag, 7 July, http://www.dior.com/magazine/tw_ct/News/Across-Time

Benjamin, W. (1940) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, note XIV, http://seansturm.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/benjamin-theses-on-the-philosophy-of-history.pdf

Holgate, M. (2012) ‘Monsieur Simons: Raf Simons at Dior’, Vogue, 14 November. http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/monsieur-simons-raf-simons-at-dior/#

Palmer, A. (2009) Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise (1947-57), London, V&A, p. 32.

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Jean Hollywood: Fashion, Beauty and Identity

August 29, 2014 by Lucy

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Today I spoke to my close friend, John C. Ross, otherwise known as Jean Hollywood. An academic researcher, actor, illustrator, and more, he kindly produced original artwork for Documenting Fashion. Now, he divulges his keys to style, beauty, and knowing thyself…

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing some lapis high-waisted jeans, with a top from TK Maxx – I’m not sure who made it, but it reminds me of Alexander McQueen. My black swoopy thing is from H&M; I am a lover of the High Street. I’m also wearing a really cheap and tacky gold necklace, with my initial, J. I always wear a lot of silver rings, which are inherited or gifts.

Tell me about your nails.

They’re stiletto nails, in a light blue with an under-sheen of gold. They are integral to me; they are an expression of my soul.

How would you describe your general style?

I’m attracted to dark things: I like dark wood and leather, and I wear a lot of black – I’m told it’s intimidating. I’m moving away from it a little, and am really liking lapis and gold. Lapis goes so well with gold, and is such a beautiful colour …Blue is my favourite colour, but I hardly wear it because I don’t think it suits me – apart from my jeans today, which are probably the first blue item I’ve ever owned.

How do people react to the way you look?

Emily Brontë once remarked, when she was judged in Belgium for wearing old-fashioned leg of mutton sleeves and refusing to wear a corset, that she ‘wished to be as God made [her]’. I’m inspired by that: people should be themselves. I think I am unique, and people’s reactions can sometimes be odd, and sometimes brilliant. I’m not traditionally masculine, and I’m happy to be more feminine. Near 100% of people think that I’m a woman, and I don’t mind that because I’m me, regardless of whether I am a man or a woman. How people label me doesn’t matter too much, because I am who I am. This is why people should experiment with fashion. You have to know who you are – as the Ancient Greeks would say, gnothi seauton – and fashion can be a tool for this, through exploring and finding out what works.

Who do you draw inspiration from?

Give me any strong woman, like Katharine Hepburn. Lana Del Rey is an interesting one. I love her music, but I worry that people glamorise the things she sings about. The way she looks is a bit of an inspiration. I adore the music and aesthetic of the 1960s and 70s, but I never felt like I was allowed to. Then Lana came along and brought it to me, by putting it into a contemporary setting.

Has your current work on mid-nineteenth century photography given you an insight into the period’s sartorial culture?

Photography at the time was quite spooky: people didn’t like seeing themselves reflected back on metal and glass. This allowed for some cultural self-reflection, which has snowballed into how we use photography today. Also, feminism was in its inception then; women were very slowly starting to take a handle on independent life. In terms of fashion, the big European fashion houses were way ahead of everywhere else, which is interesting, as it took longer for high fashion to disseminate, if at all.

Finally, Documenting Fashion would like to thank you for the beautiful contributor illustrations you produced for our blog. Can you tell us any more about them?

I’m very happy with them, and hope you are too. It was a fascinating process for me. It wasn’t a new one, because I often draw portraiture, but it’s really nice to have a set of people all interested in similar things. It was great to source and research what people are into. I realised that essentially, I am a fashion illustrator, which I didn’t consciously recognise before. Now I know that is what I’d like to do more of.

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Motion, modernity and flux in Thayaht’s illustrations of Vionnet fashions

August 26, 2014 by Rebecca

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Gazette du Bon Ton
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Gazette du Bon Ton
1923, no. 2, plate 10

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Gazette du Bon Ton
1924, no. 6, plate 29

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Gazette du Bon Ton
1924, no. 7, plate 35

Recently, I’ve been looking through the copies of Gazette du Bon Ton in our collection, trying to find some cold-weather fashions for our upcoming display for Somerset House’s Winter Festival. In the process, I have come across several plates drawn by Futurist artist Thayaht for couturier Madeleine Vionnet. As those of you who have met me will know, Vionnet is a long-term obsession of mine. I find her work endlessly fascinating, and seeing the ways that Thayaht sought to represent her quintessentially three-dimensional designs is itself an absorbing topic.

Vionnet created her clothes in the round – working on a miniature mannequin to wrap specially woven textiles around the figure – and this makes her designs particularly difficult to capture in two-dimensional form. Unlike many designers, she never sketched her ideas first. And she didn’t divide up the body into back and front, sleeves and bodice etc. This means her garments enveloped the wearer – and curved around the body. She looked carefully at the anatomy and worked with the fabric’s bias to construct garments that floated just above the skin. This brought focus to, for example, the small of the back or the hipbones – areas that other designers tended to skim over. This sensual approach to body and fabric worked well in photographs, where live models could show the garments in movement, and the viewer could see how Vionnet’s work fitted to the body. But it was harder to translate into flat drawings.

This is where her close collaboration with Thayaht comes in. Working with a Futurist – who was himself interested in the relationship between dress and body, and who wanted to convey the moment – motion, modernity and flux – meant a close connection in themes and approach. These preoccupations made them a very good match for each other, since representation – whether in fabric or fashion drawing – was for them a means to explore what it was to be modern, and how this could be conveyed through contemporary art and design.

The images above show how this was achieved. Thayaht used a simple colour palette – as did Vionnet – so as not to distract from the overall form. He used force lines that reached out from the body into the surrounding space – to connect body to place and show how movement and form were linked through Vionnet’s designs. Whether at the theatre, swathed in furs, or on the links, playing golf, women inhabited space in new ways during the early 20th century. His drawings conveyed environment and emotion, too: dark clouds, that mirrored a dress’ smoky greys or a model’s flushed cheeks and anticipatory glance, that connected the blacks and reds of a dress to lush curtains and contrasted with electric lighting’s acid yellow at the theatre. Vionnet’s designs constructed new femininities and Thayaht’s drawings combined avant-garde art and design to demonstrate the effect this had on women, fashion and the spaces they inhabited.

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Made in Mexico: the rebozo in art, culture and fashion

August 22, 2014 by Liz

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Frida Kahlo with Rebozo
Toni Frissell, 1937
Part of a series published in US Vogue
Photograph © The Frissell Collection, Library of Congress

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Carmen Rion, Spring/Summer 2014
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Copyright: Carmen Rion

No chance to escape the city for sunnier climes this summer? The Fashion and Textile Museum, located in Bermondsey, South London, may hold the answer…

Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion  (6 June-31 August 2014) traces an extensive and historically informed account of the sartorial evolution of the rebozo from the 17th century, beginning with the exquisite collection of Belgian diplomat Robert Everts (1878-1942), to the present day. The enveloping rebozo, which is derived from the Spanish verb rebozar, to cover, is a long flat rectangular garment woven from cotton, silk, wool or, more recently, synthetic fibres. It is used interchangeably by Mexican women of all social classes as a scarf or shawl, wrapped or draped around the body and/or head. This exhibition makes use of loans from the Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City (its next destination in Spring 2015), the Museum of Textiles, Oaxaca, and the British Museum, London. It celebrates the indigenous craft skills and artistic excellence entailed in the production of the rebozo, which is still woven using long-established production techniques. In addition to the expected, and exceptional, rebozos displayed in glass vitrines or hung up throughout the gallery, the exhibition also features clothing, photographs, paintings, sculptures and installations. It includes contributions by contemporary Mexican and British fashion and textile designers, artists and photographers including Kaffe Fassett, Carla Fernandez, Francisco Toledo, Graciela Iturbide and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Zandra Rhodes. Rhodes is the founder of FTM (operated by Newham College of Further Education since 2006) and still has an active role in its direction and development.

A more detailed review of this exhibition is due to be published in a special issue on Latin American/Latino Fashion, Style and Popular Culture in the Fashion, Style & Popular Culture journal, guest edited by Jose Blanco F. (Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors, University of Georgia) and Raul J. Vazquez-Lopez (Romance Languages, University of Georgia).

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Adorned in Myth: The Significance of Mythology in Chanel Jewellery

August 19, 2014 by Julia

The jewellery designed and worn by Coco Chanel and, by extension, the modern-day incarnation of Chanel Fine Jewellery, presents a precise reflection of her overarching mythology, weaving together the three crucial components of this myth – design, biography and contemporary image – into an aesthetic shorthand for its contradictions and consistencies. The jewellery’s positioning as a perpetual counterpoint to the design philosophies Chanel signified through her clothing designs subverted and, at times, reversed the relationships between intricacy and simplicity, abundance and absence.

Cecil Beaton, writing in the year of Chanel’s ‘comeback’ in 1954, contemplated the logic behind the designer’s promotion of rational simplicity within her clothing designs. Bypassing typical attributions to notions of modernity and shifting social mores, Beaton suggested an alternative interpretation: ‘possibly she turned to nature and…reaffirmed, the fact that the female of the species is generally unadorned, that female birds are drab compared to the males’. The dualism inherent within the wider Chanel mythology, however, finds its full force in the couturière’s consistent contrasts: between this minimalistic clothing and a mode of ‘adornment’ defined by luxury, but never ostentation; artistry, but never economical value. She deconstructed the notion of ‘adornment’, stripping it from its conventional space on the clothing’s surface, only to reconstruct it through the medium of jewellery and, subsequently, making this juxtaposition an integral part of her image and identity, both personally and through her brand.

Chanel’s clothing designs appeared to be simple, with their streamlined silhouettes and reductive aesthetic, yet they both contradicted and complemented the bold, graphic qualities of her costume jewellery and the fantastical profusion of her 1932 foray into diamond jewellery. Her ability to incorporate seemingly oppositional elements, such as authentic and imitation stones, as seen in photographic representation of her wearing her own jewellery, alongside the consistency with which she employed recurring motifs and design features – the star, the feather, the lion – as seen in both the 1932 and 2012 collections, is part of her inherent mythology. However, the tensions that surface between contradiction and consistency within Chanel’s jewellery, and indeed clothing, are not limited solely to design. The frictions that have inevitably arisen between Karl Lagerfeld’s desire to respectfully reanimate the iconographical traditions of his predecessor while, simultaneously, avoiding an overtly reverential methodology create a contemporary layer of paradox atop a pre-existing mythology. Similarly, Chanel’s own conscious presentation of a cultivated ‘personality’, which sought to rewrite the more humble and tumultuous aspects of her personal narrative, was crystallized within her own use of adornment. However, an excessive biographical focus in relation to the Chanel ‘myth’, due primarily to a recent cultural propensity to amplify and ‘commercialize’ this particular aspect, can certainly eclipse vital components of a mythology that, in fact, extends further than mere biography. However, without any consideration of Chanel’s heavily mythologized personality, the ‘myth’ as a whole remains incomplete, owing to its significant contribution to the durability of her overall image.

The myth’s three central components are therefore inextricably interlinked in its establishment. Thus, both the jewellery’s design and representation enabled the expression of a mythology that extends beyond design in order to encompass interdependent notions of personality and contemporary image, and which, subsequently, becomes an embodiment of the Chanel brand’s modern, contradictory and indissoluble identity.

Sources:

Beaton, C. (1954) The Glass of Fashion, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Bolton, A. and Koda, H., eds. (2005) Chanel, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mauriès, P. (2012) Jewelry by Chanel, London: Thames & Hudson.

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Style and Substance: Thinking about Fashion

August 15, 2014 by Katerina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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