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: Arielle

 

What is the working title of your dissertation?

My title is very working (I change my mind about it daily), but it is currently “Underground Intimacy: Self-Fashioning in Bruce Davidson’s Subway, 1980”.

What led you to choose this subject?

I first saw a few photographs from the Subway series around one year ago on our amazing tutor Rebecca Arnold’s Instagram. I did not know at the time this series would become the topic of my dissertation until I kept coming back to them, enchanted by this closeness I felt to the people within the photographs and Davidson’s use of color and light. I was interested in documentary photography and dress, and I thought the subway created an interesting platform to discuss groups of bodies and self-fashioning.

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

Anthropologist Marc Augé’s Non-places has been the most challenging but most helpful book I have read; I use his theory about transitory spaces like the subway to contextualize my argument. But I’ve also really enjoyed researching the subcultures of New York City in 1980. I don’t directly include it in my dissertation, but I now know a surprising amount about gang culture/customs and the evolution of graffiti in the subway.

Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?

I can’t choose a favorite! I love the photographs as a series. But the first photograph I knew I wanted to include, and the first visual analysis I wrote, is this photograph of a woman dressed in an all yellow tube top and running short pairing. Her body is turned away from the viewer, but the way Davidson captures the color of her garments and the light reflecting off her skin is so beautiful.

Favorite place to work? 

I do the majority of my research at the V&A National Art Library, but I do my best writing at Timberyard, which is a coffee shop in Seven Dials. (I do also need to give a shout out to the employees at the Pret next to the Courtauld who are so kind to me—they are always asking about my dissertation as I go to them daily for sustenance and caffeine).

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive: Elle UK

Our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive is this Saturday! Book your ticket here for a day of amazing speakers and beautiful objects, including those from the exhibition we have previewed the last few weeks, ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines.’ We look forward to seeing you there!


‘French Fashions’ photographed by Chris Dawes. Elle UK, March 1986. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

The 1980s were turbulent years in Britain. From extreme hardships and upheaval to pop culture and newfound affluence, the decade had a lasting influence on modern-day life. In this explosive climate, some relief came with the birth of iconic magazines such as i-D, The Face, Arena and, in November 1985, the British version of Elle Magazine, the originally French style bible. Aimed at young career women, Elle combined carefree fashion with serious articles, or ‘style with content,’ as Dylan Jones, the Editor-in-Chief of GQ put it. Today, Elle holds the title of the largest fashion magazine, boasting 43 international editions published in 60 countries worldwide.

With Sally Brampton as its first Editor-in-Chief, Elle became the to-go magazine for the well off, modern 18-30 year old, who was uninterested in the world of luxuries, haute couture and pampering offered by Vogue. Instead, the magazine published frank and provocative features about love, sex, dating and health alongside interviews with the likes of Harrison Ford, Mickey Rourke, Jasper Conran or Paula Yates. The glossy fashion pages, graced by Naomi Campbell, Claudia Shiffer, Linda Evangelista, Carla Bruni and Yasmin Le Bon, were daring, powerful and unrestrained, full of spirit and joy. The articles were relatable and fascinating while the fashion photographs by Mario Testino, Eamonn J. McCabe or Neil Kirk shot in exotic locations provided a much-needed element of fantasy and aspiration. With such ingredients, Elle was set to become the cult publication of a generation.

This spread here, entitled ‘French Fashion’ and photographed by Chris Dawes for the March 1986 issue of Elle, showcases why the magazine was so groundbreaking in its first few years. Tapping into a younger, yet still style-conscious audience, guides on how to achieve a look which appears to be taken straight from the catwalk were a common fixture in the magazine. Chanel, a favourite of the modern working woman, plays a main role on this double page. The classic skirt suit of Coco, trimmed in black with gold details, complete white gloves and a black quilted bag with a chain strap, could be yours for a mere fraction of the original price. In style, however, it packs the same punch. French-chic without the price tag!

The sleek, glossy page hints at the opulence one experiences when wearing such an outfit. Framed as a Kodak contact sheet, the idea of a luxurious lifestyle is further alluded to by positioning the wearer of this ‘Chanel’ look as someone worth photographing. Yet, the girl is not simply a society lady going between luncheons and afternoon teas. She is in movement, her bag flying behind her. Perhaps she is on her way to a business meeting, or rushing to work in the morning. She appeals to the career woman of the 80s and inspires younger readers to embrace a working life – you can still look incredibly à la mode in office attire. Magazines should create a fantasy, but they should also be rooted in reality – Elle masters it!

Exhibition Review: Tino Casal, Art by Excess at the Madrid Museum of Costume

Photo: Dana Moreno

From November 15, 2016 to February 19, 2017, the Museo del Traje de Madrid (Madrid Museum of Costume) has one of its most ambitious projects on show, the exhibition Tino Casal, El Arte por Exces (Tino Casal, Art by Excess). It is a tribute to Spanish pop music artist Tino Casal, whose career in the 80s and early 90s was cut short in a fatal 1991 car accident. Tino Casal, El Arte por Exceso shows a small part of his legacy as a singer, musical producer, costume designer, set designer, painter, and sculptor that encouraged other artists to shake off the influence of the previous 35-year dictatorship in Spain.

The exhibition consists of 200 pieces, composed of about 50 outfits, album covers, photographs and works of art by Tino Casal on loan from his family, along with objects from the Museum’s collection and the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library). Also included are collaborations and pieces by associated artists including designers like Julián Ruiz, Paco Clavel, Francis Montesinos, Antonio Alvarado, and Fortu Sánchez.

Photo: Dana Moreno

His collaborations with musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and designers made him an icon of the post-dictatorship, countercultural artistic renaissance La Movida in Madrileña (The Madrilean Scene). During the 1980s, in addition to an increase in the number of firms with prêt-à-porter designs (far stylistically behind countries like the United Kingdom, France, or America), the expansion of fashion in Spain influenced society, the arts, and other cultural and industrial production. The figure of Tino Casal exemplified this amplification of the importance of image during the 80s, where his work displayed an array of influences that illustrated the cultural flow of international postmodernity.

Photo: Dana Moreno

Two of his early ensembles, late 70s. Purchased from Boy in London: black jacket. Biba: tapestry jacket, mustard crepe ensemble. Photo: Dana Moreno

What makes this exhibition special is that the Museo del Traje de Madrid has examined a facet of the artist that hasn’t been appreciated in the past: his excessive attire. During the transition to Spanish democracy, many young people played with gender identity and Tino Casal took self-expression to new heights. Though he invited scandal, Casal introduced a different, more triumphally frivolous perspective in society. Designers like Pepe Rubio, Antonio Alvarado, Pedro Morgao, Gene Babaleiro, and Francis Montesinos helped Casal become an ambassador of their work, creating a unique image born of his imagination. This image conveyed his central message of embracing difference.

Leather jacket customised by Tino Casal. He often sprayed his leather jackets with bright or metallic colours. Photo: Dana Moreno

The exhibition dedicates a room to each of his albums, focusing on the costumes and stage design of each album cover, music video, tour, and performance. Each set shows how the evolution of his personal style encompassed his idea of the total show, one that made him a pioneer of constructing artistic image in Spain.

Suits made for his songs “Lágrimas de Cocodrilo” and “Eloise”, recorded in Abbey Road with Andrew Powell. Photo: Dana Moreno

Detail of suit made for “Eloise.” Photo: Dana Moreno

For the styling of his first album cover, he was inspired by overlapping garments, flared trousers and animal prints of the English New Romantic movement. He refined his style on his next album with a wardrobe of bright-coloured, wide-shoulder jackets, frilled shirts, a multitude of accessories, and extremely pointy shoes. In the style of his later years, after his convalescence due to a broken femur, he sported shorter hair and cultivated the image of mature dandy, almost an elegant Count Dracula.

This exhibition shows the inseparable union of Tino Casal’s costumes and his public artistic identity.

Photo: Dana Moreno

Photo: Dana Moreno

Further Information

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QffBKrl_Eo

http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/11/15/tentaciones/1479202737_391026.html

Reflections on History of Dress Essay Writing

I’m currently supervising five of my second-year students through the research, writing and editing stages of their 4,000 word dissertations. They are writing on a variety of interesting topics, which include:

The complexity of dress reflecting complicated relationships in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954);

The representation of Japanese street-style in noughties American print media;

Dress as a traveller through time, space and place in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996);

A Freudian examination of British Punk fashion from 1975-85;

And, An analysis of Cecil Beaton’s dual identity in the American Vogue (March, 1951) fashion shoot, ‘The New Soft Look’.

It’s great to be helping my students tackle many of the problems I remember struggling with – structure, focus, linking the thread of the argument, avoiding colloquialisms, analysing quotations rather than simply dropping them into the text, pushing the analysis further still – and hopefully, emerging triumphant at the other end. I remember my own third-year assessed essay that I wrote in 2011, which addressed the representation of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s designs by the American and British fashion press in the early 1980s. I struggled with lots of aspects but thankfully had the help, not just of my supervisor Dr Rebecca Arnold, but also of the author and editor Virginia Rounding, the then Royal Literary Fellow, which is part of an amazing service the Courtauld provides for its students to help them improve their writing. For nostalgia’s sake, and because it’s fun to look back as well as ahead, I’ve included a pdf of my essay here, entitled ‘The American and British Reception and Representation of Japanese Fashion Designers in the Early 1980s’.

The American and British reception and representation of Japanese fashion designers in the early 1980s

The books of Liz's dissertation

The books of Liz’s dissertation!