Dissertation Discussion: Jeordy

What is the working title of your dissertation?

For my dissertation I have chosen to write on a very niche and largely unexplored topic: the female Jewish experience in England, as understood through clothing. My working title is ‘How did Jewish women in England negotiate dual identities through dress, 1939-1955?’

What led you to choose this subject?

I have long been interested in diaspora and immigrant experiences, especially in London, where so many different immigrant groups have passed through or settled. My own Ashkenazi Jewish heritage lead to my interest in the Jewish experience, which has not been written on extensively. The opportunity to contribute to the historiography of Jewish life in England was irresistible, especially considering that Jewish women as wearers and consumers of fashion has been almost entirely neglected to date. Furthermore, the Second World War was a catalyst for change in so many ways, but especially in altering and challenging conventions of femininity. This makes the war years, as well as the decade after, the perfect time period to explore.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

Eric Silverman’s A Cultural History of Jewish Dress. It has been very insightful and his writing style is relatable and easy to read. It was the most interesting read because, while irrelevant for this dissertation, it taught me why the Hasidic/Haredi Jewish communities dress the way they do, which is something I always wondered about as a child growing up in a largely Hasidic neighbourhood.

Image courtesy of the Jewish Museum London.

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

It’s challenging to pick just one! If I really had to choose, it would be this family portrait taken by Boris Bennett in 1948. Mr. Keiner had just obtained English citizenship, and the portrait was taken to commemorate the moment, as well as to memorialise the feeling of safety the family finally felt. The hardship of the war is visible on the parents’ relieved faces, while the children (who look exactly like their parents and it’s adorable) seem innocent and happy. Finally, I love little Judy Keiner’s tartan pinafore, and I think it is too precious that she is hugging a ball.

Favourite place to work?

I usually work from home, seated at the kitchen table. It’s not the most inspiring spot, but having easy access to snacks and not having to get dressed compensates for that. When I do go out to write, it’s usually to the Humanities 1 Reader Room at the British Library. I don’t necessarily enjoy being there (if they’d just let me bring water in!) but the formal atmosphere and the impressive architecture means I always get lots of work done.

 

Dissertation Discussion: Imogene

What is the working title of your dissertation?

The working title of my dissertation is ‘The 1980s Body Ideal: A Case Study of Azzedine Alaïa’.

What led you to choose this subject?

I have always been interested in the relationship between clothing and the body. Unsurprisingly, I was particularly fascinated by a class we had at the beginning of this term, in which we discussed the fashionable female ‘sports body’ of the 1930s and 1940s. At that time new ideas about health and exercise had begun to emerge, which had a direct influence on attitudes towards gender, sexuality and dress. Since I am personally more interested in contemporary dress, I wanted to apply the 1930s-40s analysis of the body as presented in class to the 1980s hyper-idealized female sports body. I was curious to see what lay behind our modern-day notions about dress, gender, and sexuality that had their beginning in the 80s. 

I thought that using the designer Azzedine Alaïa as a case study for my analysis of the 1980s body ideal would be fitting, not only because his clothes were instrumental in defining the decade’s feminine silhouette, but also because of how central the body was to his design philosophy. 

A couple of years ago, I discovered that there had been an exhibition of Alaïa’s designs at the Galliera Borghese in Rome called ‘Azzedine Alaïa: Couture/Sculpture’. I remember being instantly amazed by the photographs of the exhibition. As a student of art history with a particular interest in Classical and Renaissance art and an affinity for fashion, I was thrilled to see that this exhibition represented an ideal amalgamation of both worlds into one. Although I had known since high school that I want to study fashion and eventually work in the industry, seeing those photographs was a confirmation that I had made the right decision in choosing to major in art history in my undergrad. It made me realise that what I was learning about aesthetic analysis could be applied to fashion. Moreover, it validated my conviction that art and dress are inextricably linked. I am therefore delighted that my dissertation has taken me full circle and has given me the opportunity to research this exhibition, which is now the subject of my first chapter!

Azzedine Alaïa Couture/Sculpture at the Villa Borghese, 2015

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

My favourite book is a book that our tutor, Rebecca, let me borrow. L’Esprit Vionnet, by Jéromine Sauvignon, is about the early twentieth century couturier Madeleine Vionnet and the designers she influenced, including Alaïa himself. I love the parallels Sauvignon draws between Vionnet and Alaïa. She forges fascinating links between their design techniques and the ways in which they both conceptualised the body of the modern woman of their respective times. 

‘Azzedine Alaïa Collector. Adrian and Alaïa. The art of tailoring’ at the Association Azzedine Alaïa, 2019, Paris

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

My favourite image that I analyse in my dissertation is from the ‘Couture/Sculpture’ exhibition. Seeing a timeless Alaïa gown next to a timeless work of art like Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is quite ethereal. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Paris briefly to see the current exhibition ‘Azzedine Alaïa Collector. Adrian and Alaïa. The art of tailoring’ at the Association Azzedine Alaïa. Suits by Adrian, the Hollywood costume designer turned couturier, were displayed alongside suits by Alaïa. Alaïa was an admirer and avid collector of Adrian’s work. It was a wonderful experience to be able to look at physical garments after having spent so much time reading and writing.

‘Azzedine Alaïa Collector. Adrian and Alaïa. The art of tailoring’ at the Association Azzedine Alaïa, 2019, Paris, photo taken by the author.

Favourite place to work?

I do not really have one particular place I like to work. I am definitely someone who likes to change it up. I can stay in the same environment for a couple of days, but then I need to relocate and find somewhere new to write and glean inspiration. It keeps things fresh. I will switch between coffee shops and various libraries around London. I do prefer the library though; I feel that I accomplish the most in a quiet space. 

Dissertation Discussion: Lily-Evelina

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. Costume design by Bernard Newman. RKO Pictures, 1935.

What is the working title of your dissertation?

My dissertation is as yet untitled, but it’s on the subject of costume and dance in Top Hat (1935). The consensus in film studies is that musicals unfold in terms of oppositions, and I am exploring this theory as it plays out in the costuming of Top Hat‘s numbers. Through an analysis of the visual and tactile pleasures offered by costume in motion, I suggest that a costume plot exists in the film which represents a split between the film’s dominant ideology and what Robin Wood calls ‘certain fundamental drives and needs that are not ideological but universal’, such as delight in bodily movement. The tensions arising from this split are discussed in relation to gender, pleasure, and power at a specific historical moment but also more generally, with particular focus on the spectacle and spaces of costume within the numbers.

What led you to choose this subject?

My interest in the intricacies of costume plots stems from my own experience of devising them as a film student. Seminars on dress and movement at the Courtauld then led me to develop an interest in the similarities between dress, dance, and film as mediums. I wanted to further explore their interplay, and chose the Hollywood musical as a starting point because of the way in which it combines all three mediums. I then explored the Astaire-Rogers musicals as films especially well-known for their wedding of dance and costume, before choosing to focus on Top Hat as the quintessential Astaire-Rogers musical in this respect.

Ginger Rogers by Horst P. Horst, 1936.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

A 1935 Women’s Wear Daily article on Top Hat which, very usefully, lists all of the fabrics and materials used to construct Ginger Rogers’ costumes.

Favourite object/image in your dissertation and why?

Horst P. Horst’s photographs of Ginger Rogers. Used in a 1936 advertisement for the Muriel King dress worn by Rogers, I like the images for the way in which they capture what the advertisement describes as ‘rhythm in chiffon’.

Favourite place to work?

The Courtauld common room.

Reference

Robin Wood. (1981 [1975]). Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings. In: Rick Altman, ed. Genre: The Musical. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/British Film Institute, pp. 57-69.

The Henkin Brothers Archive: Rediscovered Treasure

In February, I submitted an assessed essay discussing the image of the Neue Frau as documented through various media formats in Weimar Germany (see previous blog post ‘In Her Image’). So when Rebecca introduced me to the Henkin Brothers Archive a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see primary photographic material rendering 1930s Berlin with a warming, frank humility. 

Before discussing their photographs, I think it’s best to get to know the brothers and their posthumously formed foundation first. The photographs of brothers Evgeny (b.1900) and Yakov Henkin (b.1903) were freshly unearthed in 2012. For over 70 years, untouched boxed filled with rolls of film had sat in Yakov Henkin’s former home in Leningrad. The rediscovery of these photographic heirlooms set in motion the creation of a wonderful archival foundation, with Yakov’s descendants taking full advantage of new technologies and digitising the thousands of negatives they had uncovered. 

Fig 1. Evgeny Henkin, Self-portrait with a Leica camera, c.1936-1937, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

Despite growing up together in Rostov-on-Dov (situated in the European South of the Russian Empire), the brothers’ paths diverged in the wake of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, with Evgeny travelling to Berlin and Yakov moving to Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). This disruptive parting between the two siblings is documented in their separate photographic collections: Evgeny capturing the cityscape of interwar Berlin (1926-1936) and Yakov the distinctive streets of 1930s Leningrad; until his voluntary enlistment in 1941 (his subsequent death on the Leningrad Front shortly thereafter). 

Fig 2. Yakov Henkin, Self-Portrait in a mirror, c. mid-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

In accordance with this blog’s dress historical premise, I thought it would be on-theme to select two images—from Berlin and Leningrad respectively—to demonstrate the brothers’ natural photographic talents whilst simultaneously illustrating the contemporary fashions of their individual city-spaces (neither brother worked professionally as photographers: each chose to hone their natural talent as amateurs while undertaking alternative careers). The first (Fig.3) is the stuff of fashion-historian dreams. Evgeny provides us with the street-side setting of what I assume to be a hair-salon’s storefront. This is a remarkably kitschy-cool image: quaffed and glossed mannequin heads line the length of the windowpane, while two living models occupy the foreground, emulating the pose of their backdrop inspirations. The Bubikopf, modelled here in various incarnations, was a masculine-inspired haircut symbolic of the New Woman’s revolutionary personhood. Bubikopf translates directly to ‘boy’s head’, and this affluent grooming modification was reconfigured several times, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, which featured defined, exaggerated waves (see central mannequin for main reference). I am desperate for this wool coat on the left also, truly desperate. 

Fig 3. Evgeny Henkin, Two women, c.1930s, Berlin (Germany). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

The second image (Fig.4), taken by Yakov, is a more traditionally composed portrait that shows two women standing on one of Leningrad’s many riverfronts (c. late-1930s). In this image, we are treated to a fantastic display of jazzy pullovers that set the overall, fabulous fashion tone: matching ‘v’ neck-lines, each woman sporting a fun and unique woven motif (a dot pattern vs. a form of waved, rib knit) that is offset by equally distinguished collars (neat, petite bow vs. oversized Peter Pan collar). I could discuss at length the killer shoe-game on display here, but I am fully obsessed with the mirror-image diagonal poses each woman is striking (the soft, harmonious ‘v’ their bodies unintentionally create, repeating the motif of their corresponding necklines) and the headwear-cherries they have placed atop their ensemble-cakes: a structural cloche and the timeless beret (that always screams chic). Good show, ladies! 

Fig 4. Yakov Henkin, Two women, by the river, c. late-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

These two corresponding images, from individual European cities, depicting two pairs of fashion-conscious female friends and the style aesthetic of two unique landscapes, perfectly demonstrate the important, historical and cultural reference the Henkin Brothers’ work represents. 

In recent years, the collection has been displayed at the @hermitage_museum (St. Petersburg) in the archive’s inaugural public exhibition, entitled: The Henkin Brothers: A Discovery. People of 1920s-30s Berlin and Leningrad (2017). And just this May (16-19 May), a selection of Henkin Brothers photography was shown at the 2019 @streetphotomilano festival. It’s safe to say that the Henkin Brothers are making a stellar, 21st century comeback! 

I would like to thank Denis Maslov, Yakov Henkin’s great-grandson for his assistance and helpful emails concerning the writing of this post. Denis works to preserve the archive and develop its social media presence with his mother Olga—the only living descendants of the Henkin Brothers. 

To learn more about the Henkin Brothers Archive Association, go to www.henkinbrothers.com  

And visit their Instagram ASAP—it’s full of photographic treasures: www.instagram.com/henkin.brothers 

Reflections on Gordon Parks and Anthony Hernandez

During a class in February, we discussed Gordon Parks’ 1956 series of photographs entitled Segregation Story. They were originally published in Life magazine as a visual documentation of the Jim Crow-era American South. His photographs highlight moments in the daily lives of African American subjects throughout Georgia and Alabama. At the time they were published, these photos were intended to foster empathy among white northern readers who were provided a powerful visual of how systemic racism permeated even the most basic activities: eating ice cream, going to school, or stopping at a drinking fountain.

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile Alabama, 1956. Credit: High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Though I had seen many of these images before, one stood out to me in particular. Department Store, Mobile, Alabama depicts a woman and her young daughter standing outside of a door marked ‘Colored Entrance’. They wear their Sunday best, mother in a stylish pale blue dress, and daughter adorned in white frills, yet the neon sign above them reminds the viewer that systemic racism has relegated them to the position of second-class citizens. This image contrasts the fashionably dressed subjects in an otherwise serene moment with the glaring reminder of the segregation, hatred, and violence that impact every aspect of life. In this scene, notions of fashion and shopping are implicated into fraught negotiations of race and power in the American South.

Anthony Hernandez, Rodeo Drive #68, 1984. Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

When I considered this image again in class, I was reminded of another photograph, taken nearly thirty years later which shares similar iconographic elements, and perhaps likewise raising questions about how constructs of race and power are played out through fashion, shopping, and consumer culture. Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive #68, part of his 1984 series, shows an African American family posing for a photograph in front of the Gucci store on the prominent shopping street in Los Angeles. This series of candid photographs of anonymous subjects documents those who were out to see and be seen. Most of the subjects in this series are dressed in bold styles of the power dressing era, acting out a narrative of the decade’s fashion on a street filled with its vendors. The majority of these subjects are white and captured in action as they move down the street. For this reason, the family in Rodeo Drive #68 stands out, particularly because we see them stopping to be captured in front of the shop. The Gucci storefront connotes a particular association with luxury fashion and commodity culture, and perhaps posing with the curling gold text of the brand name serves as a memento of the visit. As Rebecca notes in her post, it is unknown if they went inside. Both of these photos, though taken in enormously different contexts, raise questions about how shopping can be simultaneously social, personal, and entertaining, and implicitly entwined in the nettles of race, class, and gender dynamics. Parks and Hernandez help viewers interrogate how we read constructs of race and identity in relation to fashion culture, and how elitist and exclusive spaces are imprinted with power.

Sporting Style: Tennis Outfits in the Early-Twentieth Century

Tennis has always had strong associations with fashion. This link is most clearly demonstrated, argues Phyliss Tortura, in the Jean Paul Gaultier Autumn 2010 show in which the runway was made to look like a tennis court and much of the collection was inspired by sportswear. I recently visited the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Archive, which has a large collection of vintage postcards featuring famous tennis stars of the past. These postcards show the numerous and changing styles of female sporting dress that have adorned the tennis court.

Jean Paul Gaultier Runway Show, Autumn 2010

Jean Paul Gaultier Runway Show, Autumn 2010

The modern game of Lawn Tennis first emerged in the 1870s and female players in these early years usually wore their ordinary clothes, often a smart ‘tea dress’, in order to play. This would have included a corset, a skirt with a bustle and various other trimmings. While the decorations were pared down over the years to the classic Wimbledon white, corsets remained a regular feature in women’s tennis outfits. Right up until the late 1910s female tennis players engaged in this vigorous and strenuous sport whilst wearing this boned and laced garment which would restrict both their breathing and their freedom of movement.

Mrs McNaire, ca. 1910s

Mrs Satterthwaite, ca. 1910s

It took the glamorous and daring Suzanne Lenglen to challenge this norm, and she was met by great shock and outrage when she took her place on court at the 1919 Wimbledon tournament wearing no corset. She also made a radical change to the length of skirts for women in tennis, with the skirt of her 1919 outfit stopping at her calves. This modification soon caught on, with hemlines gradually rising across the following decades, giving female players a greater capacity for movement in the game. Lenglen’s signature headscarf also caught on, adding a sense of glamour and chic to the sport.

Suzanne Lenglen, ca. 1920s

Senorita De Alvarez, ca. 1920s

Many players accessorised their outfits, and spectators at the interwar Wimbledon tournaments would have seen everything from geometric cardigans to fur coats. Other modifications in women’s tennis dress were gradually made over this period, eventually coming to value practicality over the Victorian demands of modesty. Stockings were worn under tennis dresses until 1932, when they were finally discarded.

Miss G. Sterry, ca. 1920s

Mrs Satterthwaite, ca. 1930s

Women’s tennis dress changed dramatically in the early twentieth century, creating a more practical and comfortable costume, suitable for the sporting prowess of the players. However, a touch of glamour and style still didn’t go amiss.

Tennis Photos Courtesy of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Archive

References

Phyliss G. Tortura, Dress Fashion & Technology: From Pre-History to the Present (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

Ted Tinling, The Story of Women’s Tennis Fashion (Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, 1977)

Valerie Warren, Tennis Fashions: Over 125 Years of Costume Change (Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, 1993).

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/