M.P. Verneuil, Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers (1925)

Book

Summary

Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers, by M.P.-Verneuil, was published in 1925 by Albert Levy, as part of the documentation and celebration of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the World’s Fair held in Paris, from April until October, 1925. Dedicated to the display of decorative arts, the international exhibition attracted over sixteen million visitors. Essentially, the book is a collection of seventy-five richly printed plates of decorative textiles, which Verneuil selected from the abundant examples displayed at the exhibition. Examples from Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, (then) Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are represented. Notably, France is missing: Verneuil described this as a deliberate decision, designed to eliminate bias, and to provide convenient access to an extensive international range, which could be appreciated and studied.

The book begins with a five-page introduction, in which Verneuil provides unrestrained commentary of the works included, and the countries from which they originated. This includes relevant snippets of history, such as the Austrian government initiative of 1899 to promote textile arts and teaching, which, he notes worked to great effect. He includes artistic criticism of the designs, and describes the English examples, for instance, to be ‘often perfect’, despite what he describes as the diminishment of the arts and crafts movement after the death of artists such as William Morris. After a brief but detailed contents table, the full page designs unfurl, taking the viewer on an international journey in which a thorough range of colours, techniques and styles can be studied in detail.

Book 2

Response

The International Exhibition was often shortened to Art Deco, which in time came to describe the style(s) displayed. This loose grouping included examples of modernism, cubism, futurism, and exoticism. A requirement for participation in this world’s fair was for the works included to be strictly modern, and not dependent on merely copying historic styles. Indeed, in Verneuil’s introduction, he emphasised that ‘simple lines seem necessary now,’ and the ‘more or less geometrical’ designs selected ‘agree perfectly with current architecture and furniture.’

It seems that Verneuil is according with the overall rationale behind the exhibition: to showcase the supremacy of luxury goods after the First World War. Textiles are positioned as an important expression of the zeitgeist, and those illustrated reflect contemporary, fashionable preferences. However, even within Verneuil’s chosen selection, a number of textiles rely heavily on tradition, such those that depict figurative designs of workers performing crafts. Highlighting modernity had the important, idealist function of signaling progress, distance and advancement away from the harrowing war years. Bright colours suggested a break from the muted tones of the earlier twentieth century, and even the more traditional designs shown could be produced by modern processes.

While the book does not specifically mention dress itself, the development of textiles has clear impact upon possibilities and taste in fashion, and many of the designs presented could be used in this application, both then and now. Despite the strictly ornamental nature of the designs, Verneuil successfully shows their creative and cultural importance. They, along with other related and interlinked aspects of the applied arts, such as fashion and architecture, are reflective and demonstrative of changing technology and aesthetics at this time.

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1913)

Old English Costumes Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 17.40.48

Summary 

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was published in 1913 and presents a selection of the vast costume collection of the artist Mr. Talbot Hughes. Hughes was a British history, genre and landscape painter, and collected over 750 historical garments dating from c.1450 to 1870, which he used as studio props and references for his paintings. In 1913, Harrods Ltd bought his entire collection and displayed it for three weeks, to show the progression of historical dress, and to advertise their contemporary fashion range. After this, the collection was handed over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is still housed in the permanent collection.

This book begins with a preface by Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, then director of the V&A. He highlights the importance of the collection, ‘rich and splendid relics of ancient fashion’ and the history of dress as an essential adjunct to history and culture. As well as recognising the growth in appreciation for fashion history, he praises the inclusion of dressmaking as a subject in schools of arts and crafts and acknowledges the responsibility of the V&A to display and promote the skill and exemplary products of dressmaking to students and the public.

The book continues with some beautifully romantic descriptive notes by Philip Gibbs, reprinted from the November issue of The Connoisseur. These provide a personal and sensory account of his encounter with the collection – ‘I was able to examine their beauty, to handle their texture, and to study the historical evolution of dress in a delightful way.’ He too acknowledges the collection’s value to the public, and writes in such a way as to align costume to history, culture and art. He describes bygone eras, King’s fashions and satire, appealing to common knowledge and well-known imagery in his description of garments. Aligning the dresses to works by artists, such as Watteau and Hogarth, and writers, including Dickens and Austen, he provides an overview of fashion history through the lens of imagination and romance.

The rest of the book shows a selection of the fantastic collection in full-page photographs modelled by real people. The models, dressed in contemporaneous make-up, accessories and jewellery wear the historical garments and are placed in a contextual setting – outside, in a furnished room, or in a photographic studio. The photographs are beautifully shown in black and white, with a few full colour versions, showing the fine details of the garments.

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 17.41.11

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 17.41.03

Response 

For me the book was intriguing on a number of levels. At first glance, it provides an interesting insight into changing perceptions of the History of Dress and dressmaking in 1913. The collection’s inclusion in the V&A stands as testament to the value in which dress was held.

 It is also interesting to see the prominence of corporate sponsorship and advertisement in publications, even as early as 1913. The book is careful to mention, at every opportunity, the role that Harrods Ltd played in the acquisition of the collection, and their support of the V&A. The importance of the collection and the sincerity of the V&A’s gratitude are particularly pertinent given that the collection was in danger of being sold to an American department store and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith and Philip Gibbs’ discussions of the collection provide an insight into museological practices and the history of dress in recent history. Their romantic language and description of the costumes is both informative and enjoyable, and really places costume within the cultural consciousness. It was also interesting to see how the costumes were originally displayed in the V&A, in glass cabinets along the Long Gallery. It is fascinating to see how the curators have picked up on the ghostly and uncanny quality that disembodied dress can convey: ‘If we would bring back to the imagination the spirits of the past, we must clothe them in the habit of their age, and neglect no detail, however slight, which will help to complete the picture.’

In light of this, the book’s most striking and unusual aspect lies in the photographs themselves. The collection is dressed on live models and placed in contemporary historical settings, producing images that are both bizarre and intriguing. This practice would be now be frowned upon – conservation issues mean that garments in dress collections are never to be worn by a live model again. However, the images are stunningly beautiful and strange at the same time. The clash of temporalities between eighteenth century costume and an early twentieth century model is captivating. There is a sense of theatricality and fantasy that is entirely unique to a History of Dress book.

H.R Haweis, The Art of Beauty (1878)

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.23.10

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.23.20

Summary

In The Art of Beauty (1878), English writer H.R Haweis synthesises a series of previously published articles centred on the importance of beauty, dress and physical appearance. The work can be characterised as an ardent apology for the significance of dress and, simultaneously, an advice manual targeted exclusively at women that both encourages and teaches them to take pride and care in their appearance.

At the outset, Haweis announces her central argument and writes, “[t]he culture of beauty is everywhere a legitimate art.” She attempts to remedy dress and beauty’s maligned reputation as frivolous by claiming its exalted status as a dignified art form. To defend her declaration, she classifies dress as akin to other established varieties of art, such as sculpture, painting and architecture, all of which, she believes, ought to be governed by principles of form, colour, shade and proportion. She takes an evaluative approach to beauty and adheres to the Ruskinian tradition that praises truth to materials and nature. She favours clothing and accessories that accentuate, rather than falsify, the natural self. For example, she expresses vehement disdain for overly high heels that strain the spine and for stays that distort the natural lines and proportions of the figure, preventing internal organs from functioning properly.

The work is divided into four books. ‘Beauty and Dress’ focuses on proper and ideal forms of clothing, ‘Beauty and Headdress’, outlines principles governing head accessories, ‘Beauty and Surroundings’ explains the role interior décor plays in enhancing one’s appearance and, finally, ‘A Garden of Girls’, catalogues a variety of women who may appear hopeless, but whom she assures the reader can achieve beauty so long as they heed her advice.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.23.34

Response

The Art of Beauty occupies an important position within the history of dress, as it constitutes one of the first literary attempts to apply aesthetic principles to modes of self-presentation. Haweis transcends the conventional women’s magazine mandate to promote the latest fashions in Victorian England and, instead, praises clothing for its artistic truth. Her serious tone and scrupulous attention to historical detail justify her authoritative statements and render her text cogent and sophisticated.

Although Haweis’ work was published in 1878, her concerted effort to reform the way people thought about beauty and ameliorate its status remains relevant to the contemporary discourse of fashion. A plethora of publications have contributed to a rich corpus of scholarship on dress, however, the area of research is oftentimes undeservedly perceived as trivial and unworthy of scholarly inquiry. Haweis’ text, while comprehensive and argumentative, is not officially scholarly insofar as she assumes an expressly evaluative approach to dress, claiming outright that it must be classified either as good or bad depending on its adherence to certain artistic principles. Her assertion that dress and beauty is tantamount to art rests on the assessment of formal qualities alone. Despite its limitations, The Art of Beauty can be seen as paving the way for future writers to explore the importance of dress and modes of appearance. Current scholars diverge from Haweis insofar as they favour analysing the socio-political and cultural dimensions of dress, rather than solely formal qualities, yet connect with her in their endeavor to assert the value of beauty and dress.

Luke Limner, Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion (1847)

Cover

Madre

Summary

This ‘social essay’, published in 1874, documents the author’s views about the dangers of following fashion. The author, Luke Limner, starts by condemning the luxury and excess of fashion, and criticizing the wealthy classes’ taste when choosing to wear the latest styles.

Limner’s main concern is fashion’s utter disregard of, and attempt to better, nature. He comments that modern dress is becoming increasingly independent of climate or season, stating that ‘the English lady suffers in her corset and tight bottines in the tropical heat of Calcutta.’

Corset

The bulk of the essay charts his disapproval of modifications of the body. He comments that clothing, instead of fitting itself to the human form, demands that the body adapt itself to fit the garments. He feels that this ‘authority of fashion is a gross imposition on mankind,’ and specifically focuses on the corset. He believes that fashion is deforming natural bodies, with great health risks, that he outlines in detail. He is very knowledgeable about human anatomy, commenting on the impact of the corset on the lungs and liver, which serves to provide epistemological evidence and support to his claims, which may otherwise seem somewhat empty. He urges modern women to ‘aid Mother Nature to abolish that type of body bondage and cursed contrivance.’

Corset 2

Response

Limner’s concerns about the dangers of the excess of fashion, as well as attempts to modify the natural forms of the body are common themes in fashion writing. Particularly during this period, but even as late as the twentieth century, there is a concern about the frivolity of fashion and the impact, both physical and moral, that it has on women.  As is the case with a lot of fashion writing, there is a somewhat sexist tone to Limner’s essay. He expresses a concern that women’s heads are filled with ‘flounces and furbelows, ribbons and gauze’ and that female vanity is ultimately leading to the downfall of society. However, there also seems to be a genuine concern about the risks to women’s health as a result of following fashion too strictly, and he appears to blame the fashion industry more than the women themselves. He sympathises that fashion’s ever-changing demands make it increasingly difficult for women to adhere to trends. That is the main contradiction of this essay: Limner accepts that the fashion industry makes unrealistic demands of women’s bodies, but then also seems to blame female vanity for accepting these demands.

Spine

It is very telling of attitudes of the period that, despite the fact that women were generally accepted as the main consumers of fashion, it is men who are trusted to write about fashion in a critical way. There is much debate in dress history, about whether fashion is a liberating or enslaving force. When reading essays such as Limner’s, it is hard to imagine that it can be anything other than a subjugating, oppressive industry.  However, in the twentieth century, when women started to be respected as designers and later writers and curators, the tables turned and fashion became a means of female emancipation and expression of creativity.

Back

Fanny Bury Palliser, History of Lace (1869)

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.10.39

Summary 

Fanny Bury Palliser’s History of Lace traces the development of needlework from its earliest references in the Old Testament to those in the late nineteenth century. The author documents the inception of lace as primarily an extension of needlework and embroidery, before noting how lace was differentiated according to country and region, as well as placed in a hierarchy, in order of preference by the Monarch in power at the time.

At the time of print, 1869, little information could be gathered from secondary sources, because earlier research scarcely existed. As a result, Palliser argued that ‘wardrobe accounts, household bills, and public Acts were the most truthful guides,’ to use in order to trace the history of lace. In light of this, the book is filled with public documents that Palliser had been granted access to in the Imperial and Records archives. Accompanying the text are black-and-white and coloured engravings, which highlight the existing variations of lace, and demonstrate how lace was incorporated within the composition of a person’s clothing. Therefore, dress is attended to within the content of the text through the featured engravings.

The front cover – a gold-coloured engraving of a woman in a heavily embroidered gown from 1676, indicates how the book relates lace to dress and femininity. Palliser clarified that, although needlework was not solely confined to females, ‘every woman, had to make one shirt in her lifetime.’ As demonstrated by the engraving, the woman created her own embroidery as well. This engraving reinforces how lace has been considered in the past, as well as the present, as a favourite embellishment and decorative trimming to add to clothing.

Response 

Palliser’s History of Lace can still be considered relevant to dress history now, because it is the first to provide the reader with such a rich and varied historiography of embroidery, and therefore demonstrates how far needlework had evolved over earlier centuries. For example, Palliser explained in the text how past laces had derived from the name and function of passament. As the workmanship was improved and the passament became enriched with various designs, the resulting development became what we now refer to as lace.

Examples of this evolution are depicted within the beautifully clear engravings used throughout the book. These designs not only afford the reader an encounter with visual samples, but ultimately serve to present a comparison between the different variations of needlework that exist, and how these can be identified and considered, based upon the distinctions between region or country of manufacture.

Although the book only follows the chronology of the design up until its year of publication in 1869, the in-depth account is still hugely relevant for research purposes today, because of the vast historical period it covers. Palliser’s research identifies the Industrial Revolution as the main turning point for lace manufacturing. This period saw profound change, most notably, the introduction of ‘machinery lace’ in Nottingham. This brought lace within the reach of a wider range of classes and, remains the main method of its production today. Therefore, The History of Lace is still an important text for dress historians, because it charts the production of lace up to the point when it switched from a handcraft to one powered by machinery.

500 Years of Dress Historiography Display

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 09.04.11

June is Fashion Book Month! Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in June we will be posting the MA and PhD Dress History students’ responses to their chosen texts that constitute our ‘500 Years of Dress Historiography’ display, which is currently on show in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Today we are starting with the text panels, written by Dr Rebecca Arnold, which feature at the beginning and end of the display.

Text Panel 1

As part our celebrations of 50 years of the History of Dress at The Courtauld Institute, this display explores the subject’s historiography through items from the Book Library’s Special Collections. Collected by Stella Mary Newton, who originated the Institute’s first course on the subject, the books represent varied perspectives on dress and fashion.

Each book has been chosen by a current History of Dress student, as an example of a key moment in the subject’s articulation in text and image. The display begins with the earliest book in the collection, Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi, Moderni di tutto il mondo… published in 1598, which seeks to catalogue dress in all its variety, and ends with Genevieve Dariaux’s Elegance… of 1964, a guide for modern women on how to dress successfully. It thus encompasses the myriad ways dress had been written about up to the point that the History of Dress department opened in 1965.

Vitrine 1 displays books that record existing dress, seeking to understand its history, diversity and manufacture through an encyclopedic approach to the subject. Vitrine 2 focuses on books that are more thematic in approach. These texts explore fashion and dress’ meanings and significance in relation to the period in which they were published.

Conceived as a dialogue between The Courtauld’s current History of Dress staff and students, and their counterparts in Fashion Museology at London College of Fashion, the display represents interplay between the objects themselves and our responses to them.

Text Panel 2

In 1965, when The Courtauld Institute’s then director, Anthony Blunt, incorporated History of Dress into its list of courses, it marked the subject’s formal entry into academia, and an intervention into its historiography to date. From this point, History of Dress became a discrete area of study within the university, allied to Art History, and therefore to the ways dress resonates within imagery. Stella Mary Newton, Head of Department in its early years, sought to establish the subject’s significance through close analysis of types of dress as seen in art, and in relation to extant examples. Her own writing, and that of many of her students, most notably, her successor, Aileen Ribeiro, encouraged a style of visual analysis that has become distinct to The Courtauld. Since 2009, under Rebecca Arnold’s direction, this specialism has evolved further to integrate into The Courtauld’s contemporary approach to Art History, and to develop its interdisciplinary methodologies and international scope.

As seen in the students’ choice of texts, and their own writing on each book, we espouse a rich and analytical approach to writing on dress. We aim to push the discipline’s boundaries and consider dress as image, object, text and idea. Our publications attest to this, and to our status as the only History of Dress department with such a long and illustrious history. We want to show why good writing matters to thinking about and understanding dress.