Gunne Sax: A Cottagecore Fantasy

Gunne Sax was founded in 1967, the Summer of Love, by San Francisco-based dressmakers Elle Bailey and Carol Miller. The brand became hugely popular under the direction of Jessica McClintock in the 1970s. Known for their prairie dresses, Gunne Sax designs incorporated elements from various romanticised time periods, from the front-lacings of a medieval kirtle, through the low-cut square neck of Renaissance French gowns, out to Victorian mutton sleeves and the lace inserts of Edwardian tea dresses. They also often resembled traditional folk costume – many look like refashionings of the German dirndl, for instance. The overall effect is one of fairytale escapism. This is a European heritage through American eyes. In 1984, McClintock herself told People magazine ‘I sell romance and fantasy’. The name of the dress, however, suggests the prairie skirts worn by colonisers in the mid-19th century. The dresses were popular with hippies in the 1970s, connecting back to the more progressive politics of the sixties and therefore appealing to the young women for whom they were made. Yet the invocation of “traditional values” in the whitewashed historical references and relative modesty of the designs made them double agents, and therefore supremely financially viable.

The overarching sense of historical fantasy is picked up by Laird Borrelli-Persson in an article for Vogue.com in 2016, entitled ‘How the Gunne Sax Dress Went From Cliché to Cool’. She writes that “at the end of what was, for many, an annus horribilis, the escapist fantasy aspect of Gunne Sax dresses resonates and makes them look fresh, not frumpy.” 2016 might well have been a horrible year for America, but 2020 was unfathomable in terms of collective trauma. If we take this need for escape and nostalgia as a key factor in the resurgence of Gunne Sax-style prairie dresses, it makes sense that we have seen so many iterations of the prairie dress in recent years, in a time of such huge socio-political upheaval. From Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2019 and Gucci fall/winter 2020, to Cecilie Bahnsen and Batsheva autumn/winter 2019, to Ganni and Dôen’s most recent collections, prairie dresses have already been established as a wardrobe essential of sorts.

Batsheva A/W 19 Final Look Prairie Wedding Dress

But then came cottagecore, an internet aesthetic which revolves around a romanticised western pastoral, free from the urban spaces to which so many of us have been confined through quarantine. As Rowan Ellis points out in her video ‘why is cottagecore so gay?’, cottagecore is not a subculture, but imagery consumed online, through social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok. But even if a cottage in the woods is unavailable to most, there are active elements of a cottagecore lifestyle that are available to all. Speaking to i-D, 16-year-old Redditor InfamousBees says “I can make bread in a tiny city apartment. I can grow herbs in my windowsill or in flowerpots or in old mugs. I can surround myself with loved, cared-for plants that can thrive on little sunlight. I don’t need a huge yard to have a few chickens or a big, fluffy dog. I certainly don’t need a cottage to be vulnerable with my girlfriend.” These small things are all examples of behavioural activation, small goals that result in positive rewards. The queer roots of this focus on handmaking and craft are outlined beautifully by Eleanor Medhurst in her article ‘Cottagecore Lesbians And The Landdyke Legacy’. Here, she discusses landdyke ecofeminism, which is based on a network of communities of lesbian activists. One function of these communes has traditionally been “living important values through everyday acts”, like the small rituals that link teenagers looking at images online to the aesthetic that underlines those images. Gunne Sax dresses, as they are now necessarily bought vintage – by virtue of the closure of the brand – play into the ecological concerns of cottagecore enthusiasts, but also hold a sense of the significance and integrity of something owned before. They hold stories of the past and therefore connect us to other human beings. There is community in pre-owned clothing.

@widowmeiker

Very princess-y haul today! Going to try to post some collection videos this week! #gunnesax #brigerton #vintage #aesthetic #cottagecore #princesscore

♬ original sound – Madeline The Person

Yet this is a community in which few can participate. Gunne Sax dresses, though labelled “affordable” by Borrelli-Persson, tend to sell at around £300 a garment, which is unreasonably expensive for most. They are also size restrictive – though a prairie dress looks great on everyone, most Gunne Sax examples for sale are between an XS and an S – even as a mid-size girl, I’ve yet to find one that will fit me. These price and size restrictions reflect some of the more problematic aspects of the aesthetic, which align with its predecessors. Ronald Creagh identifies hippies as the last guard of utopian socialism, following in the footsteps of the Romantics and William Morris, but I would argue that cottagecore is reflective of this ideology, too. It falls into many of the same pitfalls – an idea from the mind of those who are alienated from the real toil of farm life, who do not know the struggles of working the land, and who think of it only as “simple”, at their most detached approaching Marie Antoinette and her model farm, Le Hameau de la Reine.

A third problem with the cottagecore aesthetic is the exclusion of BIPOC – if you look under the hashtags for Gunne Sax, almost every photo is of a thin white woman. Indeed, many of the touchpoints of the aesthetic are of colonial Western Europe. Leah Sinclair argues that “black women embracing cottagecore is an act of defiance”. Like many exercises in reclamation, it is both ambivalent and powerful. Some of my favourite BIPOC cottagecore creators include @hillhousevintage, @obrienandolive, @sallyomo, @puffybunni, @victoriamisu and @camriehewie.

https://www.tiktok.com/@enchanted_noir/video/6920707784816233733?sender_device=pc&sender_web_id=6934974510681179653&is_from_webapp=v1&is_copy_url=0

However, the white supremacist possibilities and the traditionally patriarchal values espoused by the aesthetic have drawn interest from alt-right circles, particularly through the figure of the tradwife, a woman whose position is based on traditional wifely activities, namely cooking, cleaning and babymaking. It’s substantially different from being a housewife, a job which (like many caring professions) is vastly undervalued in society today, because it relies on an ideology that dictates that women are naturally more gentle, more submissive, and weaker. It’s also clearly trans- and homophobic. In so many ways, it is the opposite of the WLW cottagecore community. The danger in an aesthetic, perhaps even more so than a subculture, is that the focus on imagery rather than politics allows for the visual markers of a group to be taken up by those who actively wish harm to others who might look or dress quite like them. Ultimately, the success of cottagecore online is its marketability. To span both sides of the political spectrum is quite a feat, and there’s huge commercial potential to be tapped, which is, I’m sure, partly why we’ve seen such a proliferation of Gunne Sax-style dresses in the past few years, and why the imagery has been pushed forward by the algorithms: it makes people buy. But even if this is the drive behind its popularity, the value of community and care, environmental activism, handmaking and crafts which cottagecore encourages are not lessened by that fact. If anything, it provides a drive to make a world where these things are valued more.

By Alexandra Sive

 

Sources

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5odKiL7jRW0

https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/g5xjgj/cottagecore-aesthetic-lgbt-teens-tumblr-tik-tok

https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/ep4egw/is-cottagecore-a-colonialist-fantasy-

https://dressingdykes.com/2020/08/28/cottagecore-lesbians-and-the-landdyke-legacy/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/style/cottagecore.html

https://www.vogue.com/article/vintage-trends-gunne-sax-dress

https://zora.medium.com/black-women-embracing-cottagecore-is-an-act-of-defiance-3df8696d8811

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/people-explain-why-baked-bread-quarantine_l_5ec73570c5b6698f38f5035c

https://www.verywellmind.com/increasing-the-effectiveness-of-behavioral-activation-2797597

 

 

In Conversation with Isla Simpson

Isla Simpson seems to live in a world bedecked in the beauty of her own creation. The multifaceted designer has adorned stationery, china, mirrors, linens, and candles with her delightfully romantic visions of climbing ivy, budding roses, and silky ribbons, creating a portfolio that is nothing short of a chintzy fairytale. Before she lent her hand to the world of lush interiors and painted papers, Simpson spent a decade and a half working in accessories design, an experience she says informs her work now but also gave her courage to set off on her own away from the world of fashion. To add further to her impressive resume, Simpson is a Documenting Fashion alum of sorts, having studied with Dr. Rebecca Arnold during their time at Central Saint Martins! Below, we caught up with Simpson about the journey she’s taken following the passion that has always tugged at her (surely bow-tied) heartstrings.

 

Portrait of Isla Simpson taken by Kyle Galvin for L’Occitane

 

I’ve garnered from your social media and your lovely website that you started your career working in fashion (and I’ve also gathered that you might be eager to talk about it! No pressure if you are not, of course). How did you enter into the fashion industry and what did your career in the fashion world entail?

I knew from the moment I arrived at Saint Martin’s that accessories design was for me, so I worked as a weekend shop girl at Anya Hindmarch and went straight into women’s handbag design on graduation. I worked for various brands over 15 years, designing everything from the shape of the bag and purses to the metal componentry and the leathers. It was a niche career, but I’d engineered myself into the ‘It bag’ era, so my skill set was in demand.

 

What made you decide to depart from the fashion industry to start your independent career as a designer and illustrator?

Longevity in my field has always been important to me. The generation of designers above me all seemed to disappear after 40, so I knew I had a problem on the horizon. I could foresee the industry would only support me if I went into middle management in an age-appropriate brand. The only way to future-proof myself was to set up on my own, and I thought it was scarier not to try…

I should add I was also creatively burnt out, too. When I entered the industry, we designed the traditional two seasons a year. By the time I left, it was nudging eight collections. It took a pandemic to stop those product-churning cogs, even though we all knew it was wrong.

 

Do you find that your time in fashion informs the way you work now? Have you reshaped your creative process as you work independently?

Absolutely! Fashion training was second to none, I learnt everything I know standing on the factory floor (my factories were amazing), drawing technical drawings, software packages etc. You have to meet the deadline; the buck stops with you.

When that chapter closed, I had to ‘reboot and unplug’ myself from trends, and the merchandising team whispering ‘bestseller’ in my ear. I sought inspiration in the British Library archives and old country houses. I allowed myself to be besotted with everything chintzy and feminine, for no reason other than my enjoyment.

I now only design products that I truly love, in the hope that my followers love them too. Because my designs come from a place of true passion, and respect for chintz patterns, that sustains me through the tough times such as 2020.

 

 

You work with such a wide variety of media – gorgeous papers, linens and, of course, the iPad. Do you find that your approach to illustration changes across each?

It definitely keeps things fresh! The uniting aesthetic is that my work is always quite flat, respecting that tradition of graphic, block printing in chintz surface pattern.

Sadly, few new chintz patterns are designed – it’s just no longer commercially viable to pay a designer for weeks to hand paint as they would have done in the old days. I’ve developed techniques that mimic the textures and brushes of old chintzes on the iPad, which means I can design that old-school look faster. All the brands I collaborate with are in a hurry, so there’s no time for scanning in and cleaning up.

 

 

Your work seems so steeped in the lush beauty of British history. Are there any particular periods or styles of design history that inform your work?

I used to spend hours at the Museum of Costume in Bath as a teenager which probably tells you everything you need to know about my love for Regency aesthetic. I’m drawn to the sentimentality of Victoriana, but stylistically I’m always trying to return to the 80s/90s – the cosy chapter of my childhood.

 

 

Is there a relationship between your personal style and your designs?

The two are now so intertwined, I barely know where one begins and the other starts…I want ruffles on my dresses, bed linen and my linen hand towel designs.

In the fashion years, I had to suppress my own style in favour of whichever accessories brand I was designing for and represented. Now, I just feel unapologetically myself – you could come back in twenty years’ time and the house will still be full of blousey curtains and pie-crust collars. It’s just part of my DNA.

 

 

Finally, this might be a bit selfish, but it seems that you have an unbelievable collection of vintage ribbons and textiles and I’m so curious to have a metaphorical peek: is there one ribbon or swatch that has been particularly inspiring or comforting to you during this year spent inside?

I used to feel embarrassed about being a grown woman collecting ribbons, but I am in good company on Instagram, so I’ll happily share.

My Mum studied Italian in Naples as a mature student, and I used to visit her during the holidays. This silky swatch came from the most fantastic vintage ribbon shop – I wish I could remember the address – I’d give my right arm to return to. The woven underside is as beautiful as the top. I’m launching lots of embroidered table linen designs this year, all of which were designed during the pandemic year, when I had to make do and be resourceful with my inspiration. Ribbons make the best colourway and construction research.

 

Courtesy of Isla Simpson

Interview by Ruby Redstone

The Red Coat and Remembrance in Leon Bridges’ music video for Bad Bad News

The scene begins with a panorama shot of a dimly lit train station at night. A woman with long dark brown hair in a red coat walks away in the background. The camera slowly advances toward her until it abruptly changes positions so that it is no more than a few feet behind her– acting as a looming shadow. The woman hears a fain whistle and turns her head in surprise, a second wolf whistle follows not too long after. The second whistle causes her to turn to face the camera. Her red coat hangs off of one of her shoulders exposing her bare skin. Understated gold hoop earrings and a gold chain frame her face.

The woman in red decides to walk in the direction of the where the whistle came from. She walks with conviction, courage and also caution. The sound of her shoes creates a pulsing beat that slowly transitions into the percussive introduction of Leon Bridges’ song, Bad Bad News.

The music becomes layered as the woman runs down the train station stairway into a dimly green tinted tunnel. The green of the tunnel contrasts and compliments the red she wears. The video (directed by Natalie Rae) then changes scenes to one of Bridges entering a rehearsal space where his band is playing his new song and he begins to let the rhythm move him. The scene switches to the one of the woman in red (played by model, Paloma Elsesser) who stands framed by a series of archways as she begins to slowly move to the music.

The music video continues with the woman frantically moving through the streets of New York trying to find the man from the train station. In various parts of the video she beings dancing as she is overcome by the rhythm, however she holds tension in her body. Her dancing becomes a personal battle between enjoying herself and feeling ashamed or guilt of some sort.  The way in which she wears the coat echoes this duality, the coat protects her, or shields her, in her ability to decide how tightly it is cinched at the waist, but also reveals her vulnerability as it continues to fall off her shoulder.

The emphasis of the woman’s red coat throughout the music video evokes themes of remembrance and also acts of violence against women. Muldisciplinary Canadian artist, Jamie Black, explores similar themes in The REDress Project which collects red dresses and installs them in public spaces as a reminder of violent crimes committed against Aboriginal women. Black’s work hopes to make visible the gendered and racialized crimes committed against marginalized women that often go unnoticed.

The REDress Project, Jamie Black, 2014, www.redressproject.org

The red coat is a haunting presence in the music video. It is as if it possesses its own identity apart from that of the wearer. Perhaps it is to reflect the collective fear that women still face as they walk home alone.

By Destinee Forbes

For more info on the REDress project click here.

To watch Bad Bad News by Leon Bridges click here.

Star Wars & Fashion: A look into the galactic love affair

 

With Star Wars: The Last Jedi reaching over $1 billion at the box office and earning the title of the highest grossing movie of 2017, Star Wars is once again at the forefront of the cultural moment and subsequently continuing the franchises’ love affair with fashion.

From the film’s debut in the 1970s, Star Wars has been a source of inspiration for fashion, even appearing in Vogue in a 1977 spread featuring Jerry Hall and Darth Vader. The franchise’s equally iconic characters and costumes have sparked Star Wars’s influence on high fashion. Rodarte closed its Fall 2014 show with gowns featuring Star Wars characters Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, C-3PO, and Yoda. Preen Fall 2014 channeled the dark side and featured Darth Vader’s mask on several pieces. Vetements created a spoof on a Star Wars movie poster (its film is titled Star Girls) as a print on a maxi skirt in its Spring 2016 collection. Just recently, in time for the release of The Last Jedi, Rag & Bone partnered with Star Wars to produce a limited-edition collection inspired by the films.

Beyond the aesthetic coolness of these high fashion designs, why do fashion designers look to Star Wars for inspiration and why do we race to wear our favorite Jedi or Sith Lord on our bodies? Is this pure fashion as escapism? Or perhaps the allure is Star War’s ability to paradoxically position itself both in a galaxy far, far away and at the center of the current culture. Fashions with Star War’s iconography or aesthetic inspiration can transport the wearer to an outside realm where a nobody can be the hero of the universe. But these styles also allow the wearer to embody a culturally relevant phenomenon.

From a marketing standpoint, Star Wars is sellable to multiple age groups and can piggyback off of the marketing for the film itself. However, I argue that the urge to clothe ourselves in the symbols and characters of Star Wars reveals a collective desire for escapism, association with a far-off time and place, and at the same time, the need to assert our own cultural relevance. Whether fashion imitates the austere neutral colors of the Jedi Order or the harsh blacks and shiny exteriors of the dark side, the pull to wear the Force is strong.

By Abby Fogle