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?
When we think about the twenty years immediately following the Second World War in Britain, what images instantly spring to mind? Smiling women in glamorous dresses, feather duster in hand, happily making home for hardworking husbands and clean, grinning children. This construct of woman as a glamorous housewife in the 1950s is one of the most well-known images in the modern consciousness. Whatever our opinions of it, it is all-pervasive; on posters, cards and throughout the media. But how did clothing, and its depiction in advertising, feed into these constructs of femininity? And how was masculinity constructed alongside and in relation to this?
Advert for Wolsey, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 19th March 1960, p.20
Domesticity was expressed in advertising as being a woman’s ‘job’. A Wolsey advert constructs the role of ‘man’ as breadwinner and ‘woman’ as homemaker and domestic purchaser as being objective facts. The advert is aimed at presumably female ‘fiancées’, stating: ‘Sooner or later… you will find yourself buying his socks. This is the job that will probably be yours from “I will” onwards’. Through this single garment of the sock the assumed roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are expressed. ‘Woman’ here is constructed as residing within the domestic sphere, with mundane, everyday garments such as the sock being part of her everyday concerns. Furthermore, ‘man’ is presented here as being domestically incapable, unable to purchase even his own socks. His sharp suit, the uniform of the masculine breadwinner, further constructs him as residing in the public, rather than domestic, sphere.
Advert for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 3rd September 1960
While a woman’s concerns may have been mundane and domestic, her appearance certainly wasn’t. Countless advertisements show women in glamorous, flattering garments even while in the home. One advert for Kellogg’s depicts the idealised couple at the breakfast table. While the man is dressed in a suit for a day of work in the economic sphere, the woman is dressed in a house coat for her day of work in the domestic sphere. Her beautifully patterned house coat and perfectly styled hair and make-up suggest that being attractive is also an integral part of her role as housewife. Similarly, in an advert for Batchelors Peas, the mother is dressed very glamorously for a casual dinner-time. She is fully made up with red lipstick, ornate earrings and colourful clothing. Her garments are soft and flowing, following the idealised lines of the hourglass figure. She cuts a very bright figure against the father, who again wears the masculine staple of the suit.
Advert for Batchelors Peas, Woman, Week Ending 17th July 1955
By analysing adverts from this period, we observe a strictly traditional representation of ‘woman’; as beauty, housewife and mother. Meanwhile ‘man’ is constructed, equally traditionally, as breadwinner. These images show us a snapshot in history at a time in which advertisements were both constructing and reinforcing real-life ideals. We see domestic ‘woman’ and working ‘man’ idealised as safe, predictable constants in a world that was rapidly changing. These images depict the moment before the liberation movements of the 1960s changed the world, and particularly the female experience, beyond all recognition.
The Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, was originally used as a guest hall by the Medici family, but its current appearance as a ballroom is due to stucco works added in 1774-6, by Grato and Giocondo Albertini, following a neoclassical style. The colour white communicates both the decadence and the simplicity of the room. The decadent element stems from the classical motifs, with arches, pilasters and the stucco scenes on the ceiling. The chandeliers and mirrors further this luxurious display, adding reflective surfaces, which shimmer and catch the light. The neutral palette sterilises the room, as the monochrome appearance is minimalist, contrasting with the detailed decoration.
The Sala Bianca today
On the 22nd July 1952, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a Florentine fashion buyer, organised the fourth ‘Italian High Fashion Show’ in the Sala Bianca. He invited European and American press, buyers and designers, in order to showcase the best of Italian fashion, with the intention of rivalling Parisian haute couture. In the aftermath of World War II, Giorgini wanted to promote the advantages of Italian fashion production; with artisanal expertise, creativity and low prices of production. Nine high fashion and sixteen boutique houses were represented. Giorgini chose designers that would present pieces that matched the American lifestyle – for example, informal knitwear and beachwear. This show featured such designers as Emilio Pucci and Simonetta.
The 1952 Sala Bianca fashion show
The language of fashion at this time had to rely on other cultural frameworks, such as art and architecture, as it sought to find its own identity in culture. The Sala Bianca fashion show showcased the best of Italian design, showing modern looks in a traditional setting. This allied the glamour of the past with the elegant designs of the present. This was a very clever strategy for advertising Italian fashion to an international audience, by mixing the modern and antique.
We are now accustomed to contemporary fashion houses showcasing their latest collections in impressive historical locations. A prominent example of this is the 2016 Fendi 90th anniversary fashion show which actually took place on an Italian landmark, the Trevi Fountain, in Rome. Again, there is the significance of an Italian brand showcasing a collection at one of the most iconic Italian landmarks. The use of the Trevi Fountain can also be linked to Italian cinema. This is through the 1960 Frederico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, where the actress Anita Ekberg splashes around in the fountain.
Fendi 90th anniversary show at the Trevi Fountain, 2016
Both shows drew on the cultural significance of the landmarks, adding another layer of meaning to the shows. In this way, I feel they communicate the spectacle of the fashion show, with the dramatic surroundings acting as a stage and the models parading on their catwalk, or stage. The Sala Bianca was used as a location for fashion shows for the next thirty years in Florence. This was hailed as the ‘birth of Italian fashion’, but I also feel that it was influential in terms of linking architecture and fashion.
Stanfill, Sonnet. The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945 (V&A Publishing, 2014)
Vergani, Guido. The Sala Bianca: The Birth of Italian Fashion (Electa, 1992)
Photographs of Parkinson’s Wife, Wanda Rogerson in Robin Muir, ‘Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion’ (London, National Portrait Gallery 2004)
What is your title?
The title of my dissertation will probably still change. However at the moment I am going with How very British: National Identity in Norman Parkinson’s fashion photography for Vogue, 1950-1952. Parkinson produced some stunning images for different spreads, many of which lend themselves really well to a study of British national identity. Delving a little deeper into these specific images, Parkinson’s biography and the history of 1950s Britain has been great fun.
What prompted you to choose this subject?
The topic stemmed from a mixture of previous interests and pure chance. I had no pre-conceived idea of what I wanted to look at for this dissertation. However, I always studied World War II and the Cold War when I had the chance as an undergraduate, so I knew I wanted to stick within that time frame. Couple this with my love of 1950s fashion and elegance, and the random selection of a beautiful book on Norman Parkinson whilst browsing the stacks at the Courtauld and – ta dah! – the dissertation title was born. I had also wanted to be practical about my choice and choose a topic that would enable me to make the most of London based archives. Norman Parkinson has his own in south London (big shout out to the lovely and wonderful people that work there!), so it all came together beautifully.
Norman Parkinson Archive
Most interesting research find thus far?
I believe I read in Parkinson’s book that Irving Penn babysat Parkinson’s son. As you do. No big deal. On a more serious note, I am still continually blown away by how clever his images are. They seem so simple at first glance, and then, the more you look, the more you realise just how good he was in expressing a certain image, feel or identity to a wide range of readers. This was especially interesting with regards to the way in which his photographs for a 1951 South Africa spread differed, or were used in a different way, from the May edition in British Vogue to the July edition in American Vogue. On a side note I have become obsessed with an image that I’m not even using in my essay. It is just too stunning. Everyone- google “Carmen’s Armpit” and you will understand! Or not, in which case it is just my inner dress history nerd coming to the fore…
Favourite place to work?
I would love to say that it is The National Arts Library in the V&A. It surely wins the award for most aesthetically pleasing place to study- but I tend to be freezing cold in there, so sadly it loses out. I rather fluctuate between the Courtauld Book Library and my home. This arrangement provides the perfect balance between the comfort of home (sneaking a couple of biscuits and copious amounts of tea) and the beautiful comradeship between all Courtauld students during dissertation time in the library. We all really share the stress and joys of the process and that is unbelievably valuable as you are working. *Insert cheesy violin music here!*
I’ve always had very broad interests, academically and personally, that range between ancient and medieval art to modern design and fashion, so I really wanted to do something different and wanted to explore further (although I was hesitant to do so at first). I also have a soft spot for furniture, especially Mid Century Modern chairs, sofas and daybeds, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. But the moment I decided that I wanted to talk about furniture and fashion was during our class trip to New York. Not only was there an exhibition on Bauhaus interiors (another soft spot) at MoMA, but also, on our visit to the FIT archives, I realized that we were all sitting on 1975 Eames chairs for Herman Miller, which to the amusement of my classmates, got me very excited. That is when I thought I had to!
There has been so much! But the most interesting find was seeing how most of the 1950s images I’ve been looking at portrayed men and women sitting for a photo (more specifically husband and wife). Unless the shot portrays them working (as some portraits from Charles and Ray Eames), the man is usually positioned behind the woman (most likely standing), more pensive. The woman usually sits on a sofa (a tad reclined – but never too comfortably). This creates a dichotomy between the man and the woman portrayed, of vertical and horizontal lines.
Paul McCobb among his furniture, 1956. Photographer not stated. Getty Images.
Favourite place to work?
I’m not a library person anymore, so usually spend most of my time at home or in coffee shops (where coffee is allowed). But I’ve gone to my parent’s house in Madrid for a couple weeks and my favourite place to work here would be the library at the Costume Museum as it’s always quiet, cool, and has glass walls with views to their garden (which is pretty amazing).
I have, for some time now, been in love with Christie’s prints and was so happy to hear that she accepted my request to interview her. We met at Barbican Centre and talked about her work and inspiration, Mid Century Modern and fashion.
What are you wearing today and could you tell me a little about the pieces?
Today’s outfit is a pair of vintage 1950s sage green wool ‘White Stag’ label pants with a green and navy print shirt, also vintage 50s. The shirt’s unlabelled and has become one of my favourites for its ‘dressed up’ simplicity. The white bucks are from ‘repro vintage’ footwear brand Rocket Originals, bought back in 2012 and the navy swing jacket I have on is marked ‘Wyandotte Fabric, 100% wool’, with no fastenings, just a large lapel and deep pockets. It’s also vintage 50s, complete with an excellent pink/purple sharkskin lining. (A good lining is crucial!)
The jacket, the pants and shirt are from Etsy, where about 80% of what is in my wardrobe is from. The vinyl purse I don’t remember buying. This is probably 60s judging by the zip. The necklace I’m wearing is Danish silver dating from the late 1950s and was bought as a job lot along with a few other mid-century Danish silver pieces from a Swedish auction site – bought for peanuts. Finally, the green bangle (once again 50s!) was bought on a trip to Berlin.
What inspired you to pursue a career in textiles?
I am a believer that design should be fully accessible, embraced and experienced as much as possible – and the home as a canvas so to speak proves a great platform for my designs in interior textiles & soft furnishings.
In terms of how I finally came to take this direction, having always been interested in art and hand crafts. It took on a new element when I began studying textiles design alongside modern art and design at the end of high school. Not only was I able to construct my own garments and products, but I could also design the fabric too, with this new passion for mid-century modern design language in all its many forms. I went on to specialise in print and textiles at college in Leeds then finished my studies in London with a degree in printmaking and surface pattern design at university in 2012.
Courtesy Christie Goule.
How would you describe your work?
I’d say my design aesthetic was bold and illustrative, sometimes playful. I always manage to fall into using patterns of either spots or stripes in my work, sometimes in the loosest sense – an appreciation of the simple things I guess! I am more for the bold ‘here and now’ designs which can sit lively and vibrant around us, if we let them. The origins of my inspiration do lie within mid-century art and design, though I am consciously not looking to form copycat work, but looking to carry on and stay true to an aesthetic with such meaning and staying-power which still manages to inspire my own personal development to no end.
Courtesy Christie Goule.
What inspires your work?
Materials and methods both strongly inspire the work I do. I like working a lot by hand and feel the handmade is usually the essence of my designs. Inks, paint, paper, pencils, clay, woven fabric, block printed fabric, and printmaking! It all offers an opportunity to be used and exploited to your advantage as a textiles designer. I like the honesty in the design when using and experiencing such methods and materials as all the above.
Architecture has been a great source of inspiration too. I took a trip to California a couple of years ago, mainly to submerge myself in the mid-century cool which California is effortlessly famous for. Whilst there I was able to see a few case study houses such as the Eames House, took a tour around the Stahl House and stood outside The Frank House where all I was able to do was stare in wonder at the giant door.
Christie at Barbican.
What is your creative process?
My natural creative process is to see a problem or see a need for something, try to picture a solution and fill the gap with plenty of development in the form of drawing, painting and motif play. I have a great source of books and vintage home styling magazines too, which I always get ideas for products or prints from.
Actually, the other day I was preparing dinner, cutting mushrooms randomly, and found some great shapes and lines which I don’t usually see when cutting them. I took some photos and plan to use them as a starting point for some dinner table place settings I want to design for my dining table. I am always considering [a product’s] final resting place and what its natural surrounding should be in an interior.
Juice truck illustrations, courtesy Christie Goule.
What is your relationship with fashion, in particular with vintage fashion?
I am very proud of the things I chose to buy and then wear. I am proud of the fact they could still mean so much today as they did 60s years ago. I also feel a little like a custodian to these pieces and believe they should still be shown off, experienced and experimented with. Oh and naturally a lot of what I own are printed shirts and trousers. I also love the simple and effective materials used in accessories, particularly that of bags and purses.
I prefer the strong mid-twentieth century styles of ‘the beatniks’, ‘sweater-girls’ and juveniles – with their smart cotton basics, statement silhouettes, defiant bold colour choices and forward thinking attitudes! In the 50s it was all about being modern, so I never do feel I was ‘born in the wrong era’, as I tend to politely smile (cringe) when I hear that said to me today.
The appeal of the 50s must be the infections cool these cats had as they entered a room in any film, exit any car or the way their outfit demands so much attention, not always sexual. The attention to detail too – the details and accessories usual speak to me and I can relate these right back to interior design, sculpture or architecture.
The people and the outfits pictured by photographer Julius Shulman help capture the mood of an interior and what it can do to clothing choices. So it is certainly a lot about style in relation or reflection to textiles design and interior design.
Pocket square design, courtesy Christie Goule.
What are your favourite brands/artists/designers?
To start with, Marimekko, Svenkst Tenn & Heals. Ray Eames is an all-time personal hero. Evelyn Ackerman was the most fantastic ceramic, weave and tapestry artist. Picasso, for all he did for textiles design in both fashion and interior and for of course art work. Stig Lindberg will always be a firm favourite ever since visiting Gustavsberg in Sweden and gaining an understanding of his importance in ceramic design and ceramic finishings. Saul Steinberg, as his humour and imagination are endless.
Some past fashion brands I like to wear and shop for are White Stag, Queen Casuals, Paddle and Saddle, Turf and Track and finally Alfred Shaheen (not for the Hawaiian prints he his best known but for the tea-timers and separates).
Number one favourite artists include Jean Arp, Hepworth, Robert Motherwell, Vanessa Bell and Wifredo Lam.
Courtesy Christie Goule.
What projects are you involved in/are in the pipeline at the moment?
Currently, I am just trying to fix myself within a permanent role within an interior textiles design lead studio! Projects wise, I potentially have a collaboration (soon to be ironed out and design vision made a little clearer) with a dear friend of mine who I studied textiles and surface design with at University. We hope to launch a small range of interior textiles involving both weave and print.
Another fun [project] happening right now is sourcing appropriate vintage picture frames for my lino prints. Having had an Etsy shop for a few years, I began to feel that one of the most important things about a print was its frame. Selling my prints framed is making them an easily accessible thing, all ready to buy, hang on a wall and enjoy. I feel the frames also complete the aesthetic I am looking to achieve – the point been that they are all vintage and chosen by me.
Vogue UK February 1949. Image courtesy of lancashirebusinessreview.co.uk
If the thought of summer dressing makes you think of cotton floral frocks with full swingy skirts you may have Horrockses to thank for that image. One of the most popular dress lines in Britain and in America in the late 40s and 50s, Horrockses Fashions was known for its cotton prints manufactured in their own mill in Preston, Lancashire. The mill dated back to 1791 and by the early 20th century was established as a trusted manufacturer of cotton goods, mostly household linens. To expand their sales of manufactured goods into the lucrative fashion market, the parent company Horrockses, Crewdson & Co. Limited launched the Horrockses Fashions ready-to-wear line in 1946. Horrockses had the goal of increasing desirability for their fabrics and then satisfying the demand with their own products. Their vertically integrated business model ensured commerce at multiple points in the market.
Horrockses dress, 1957, V&A
Horrockses dress with bows, 1951-58, Bowes Museum
Horrockses Fashions were best known for their day dresses though they also produced housecoats, beachwear, and evening dresses. As these examples show, there came to be a distinctive Horrockses silhouette for the dresses consisting of full skirts, tailored bodices, and defined waists which shows the influence of Christian Dior’s New Look that debuted in 1947. Floral patterns, particularly roses, bows, and bands of print or bayadere, were signature motifs repeated every season which also borrowed heavily from Dior’s aesthetic.
Horrockses dress with bayadere design, 1953, V&A
To mitigate against the low-end connotations of mass-produced clothing, Horrockses carefully followed the lines, silhouettes and trends of the couture collections shown in Paris and London. Cottons were accessible fabrics that had the weight and drape to create the New Look silhouette but with a softer, more casual result. The dresses were made of high-quality cottons which were washable much like synthetics on the market. Horrockses thus combined the easy-care of sportswear with tailored, sophisticated cuts associated with couture to bring the consumer “the best of both worlds.”
Horrockses evening dress featured in Vogue, January 1956
Horrockses Fashions differed from Dior and other couture houses in their frequent use of bright, playful prints which were generally highly stylized and abstract. The company avoided unsophisticated connotations with their prints by aligning them with art, using exclusive designs by leading British artists including Eduardo Paolozzi, Graham Sutherland, and Alastair Morton.
pp. 96-7 of Horrockses Fashions: Off-the Peg Style in the 40s and 50s showing a design by Eduardo Paolozzi
At the symbolic level, voluminous skirts signalled plenty while the summery florals bring associations of vacations, resort, and weekend leisure which put the dresses at a clear remove from workwear. Instead, Horrockses dresses correlated escape, fun, and exuberance with style, elegance, and femininity. In the British post-war context, with rationing still in place into the early 1950s, Horrockses dresses were viewed as a splurge for an occasion such as a honeymoon. In the American import context, however, Horrockses Fashions fit in perfectly with the broader cultural landscape of social change in the 1950s when the country prospered economically and disposable income increased across class strata. The economic boom brought increased choices in manufactured goods which in turn increased consumerism. An accompanying urban out-migration led to the rapid development of suburbs and the American dream of home-ownership became a reality for many. Suburban houses came with front lawns and backyards where barbeques, pool parties, and gardening took place, providing a lifestyle scenario complementary to the look of Horrockses dresses.
Horrockses advertisement, Vogue, June 1950. Image from Christine Boydell, Horrockses Fashions: : Off-the-Peg Style in the 40s and 50s
The colourful aesthetic of Horrockses Fashions reflects the circulation of intensely saturated color images in print and film due to Kodachrome and Technicolor processes. The wide scale of the skirts, too, abundant with fabric, seem to reflect the various widescreen film formats that enticed audiences into movie theatres and drive-ins to see historical epics, westerns, and melodramas. Full-skirted, brightly-colored, patterned dresses such as those of Horrockses are like costumes for living life as it was depicted on screen: monumental, colourful, dramatic.
Model Barbara Gaolen in a Horrockses evening gown, Vogue October 1952
Horrockses dresses typically were produced in runs of 1,000-1,500. Despite being mass-produced, the Horrockses ready-to-wear line had an air of exclusivity established through use of select retailers, exclusive prints, quality fabric, and well-cut and designed garments. The image of quality always tied back to their own cotton manufacturing. Horrockses Fashions advertisements regularly featured the sub-heading, “in fine cotton” under the brand name, underscoring excellence in their product. The eminence reserved for couture was also accorded to Horrockses dresses in some measure by its royal selection. Images of Queen Mary at the Horrockses showroom in Hanover Square and of Princesses Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret wearing the dresses cemented the company’s image as respectable, feminine, and desirable. Editorial features in top fashion magazines also buoyed up Horrockses reputation as fashionable.
Though the name Horrockses might not be familiar to many today, their legacy is alive and well in contemporary fashion. In a Telegraph article by Katherine Rushton on April 20, 2013, the impending sale of the Horrockses company was discussed. The article states, “Horrockses vintage dresses had tapped into a growing demand for prom outfits, and that there was strong demand for newer versions…’These dresses are going on eBay for £250 each, they are part of Britain’s heritage.’” Hit television show Mad Men also likely whetted consumer appetites for mid-century style. It is not surprising then that in the past year, ready-to-wear line Maje featured lace dresses with “puff-ball” skirts in a bayadere style and Ines de la Fressange’s S/S 2017 line for Uniqlo featured full-skirted dresses in floral and gingham patterns, similar to what it has done in recent seasons. The Horrocks label was briefly resuscitated as a housewares line that sold at House of Fraser. Exhibitions of Horrockses Fashions have been mounted at the Harris Museum, Preston (2011) and the Fashion and Textile Museum, London (2010).
Maje’s Rayela dress from the A/W 2016-17 season featuring a full skirt and bayadere design, image from uk.maje.com
Boydell, Christine. Horrockses Fashions: Off-the-Peg Style in the 40s and 50s. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.
Burden, Rosemary and Jo Turney. Floral Frocks: The Floral Printed Dress From 1900 to Today. London: AAC Art Books, 2007.
Arnold, Rebecca, ‘Wifedressing: Designing Femininity in 1950s American Fashion,’ in Glenn Adamson and Victoria Kelley, eds., Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp.123-33.
Photographs by Alberto Ferreira and Lucy Moyse, with permission of the Museum of Vancouver
The Museum of Vancouver’s current From Rationing to Fashioning exhibition thoroughly and exhilaratingly takes its viewers through a turbulent interval of history. The glitter and roar of the 1920s had come to a sudden and catastrophic cease, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression. Beforehand, women ‘s newfound freedom and fun was reflected in looser fits and higher hemlines. However, after the crash, the sartorial mood turned towards sentimentality, and the traditional feminine figure began to re-emerge. Women’s dress of the 1930s delicately navigated changing ideals, later taking on designers’ nods to masculinity and the need for practicality during the Second World War. Peacetime instated the womanly silhouette once more: elaborate amounts of fabric countered wartime shortages, and sloping shoulders, full busts, cinched waists and full, long skirts glorified the female form and took it to new heights.
Guest curators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke display the complexities of these changes with thought and flair. On show until March 2015, the exhibition highlights the intrinsic connections between fashion, those that wear it, and the society that surrounds them. The underlying driving force behind the curatorial rationale is clear: fashion reflects, responds to, and helps to drive change. The exhibition expresses the way clothes had to be adapted according to changing conditions, availabilities, and moods, but also how they affected and constructed views of the women who wore them, from the diligent wartime worker to the immaculate housewife.
The exhibition is neatly divided into two main spaces. The first pulls visitors into a comprehensive overview of 1940s fashion. It slickly demonstrates transitions, whilst maintaining the range of styles available within them. Rainbows of both day- and evening-wear reveal fashion’s determination to thrive even during wartime, whilst also making clear the practical and aesthetic limitations imposed. The dual role of the idealised woman’s wartime appearance is revealed: soothing society involved a juggling act between putting her best face, and dress, forward, and cleverly working around restrictions such as rationing, all the while emanating a sense of pragmatism and tactful restraint. A 1943 blouse by London designer Anita Bodley, for example, demonstrates simultaneous practicality and frivolity. Its comfortable fit and short sleeves allowed movement, and a high, Peter Pan-collared neckline maintained modesty, while its silk fabric and assorted bright colours were enlivening. Most poignant of all are the spirited written messages that make up its pattern. Inspired by propaganda posters upon a brick wall, it includes phrases such as ‘-Go! –to! –it!’: one example of several wartime pieces that were especially designed to boost morale and brighten wardrobes.
The second main space leads the viewer to the eventual exultance of the post-war years, but not before an enchanting and specialized interlude: a select display of specifically Canadian clothing. For example, a pair of Boeing Vancouver overalls, displayed with its cuffs turned back to reveal red underneath, and the mannequin’s hand jauntily placed on its hip, exemplify both women’s active agency, and the modernist style and nationalist pride through which it was executed. Indeed, throughout the show, there is an equal emphasis on both internationality and the Museum’s own heritage in Vancouver, with objects originating from almost all of the powers involved in the conflict. In this spirit, an inter-disciplinary approach was taken: German ration books, Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature scrawled on a fashion student’s notepad, a bottle of Chanel perfume and ‘Victory Red’ Elizabeth Arden cosmetics imbue the exhibition with an enriching sensory dimension, which underlies and unifies fashion’s all encompassing interconnectedness.
Just a step away, the final room is a visual delight. Pigmented pinks and reds mingle with elegant whites and dramatic blacks, converging into intricate party concoctions. With the war effort over, and a return to notional normalcy allowed indulgence and amusement and girlishness was prized. This revival, explosion and celebration of full-skirted femininity reached its peak during the 1950s, and culminates the exhibition on an appropriately triumphant note.