500 Years of Dress Historiography Display

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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.

‘Dress and History Since 1965’ from Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Makes Women Conference, May 2015

Dr Rebecca Arnold delivering her paper at the ‘Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Make Women conference’

organisers Dr Rebecca Arnold, Liz Kutesko and Lucy Moyse

organisers Dr Rebecca Arnold, Liz Kutesko and Lucy Moyse

On 16 May we held our conference ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Makes Women,’ to celebrate our 50th Anniversary, and we wanted to share the introductory lecture ‘Dress and History since 1965,’ with our readers. This talk was given by Dr Rebecca Arnold, and was written in collaboration with the conference’s other organisers, and current PhD students, Lucy Moyse and Elizabeth Kutesko.

We’ve included some of the illustrations shown during the talk and also it’s abstract:

This talk considers the development of History of Dress at The Courtauld Institute since its inception in 1965, and the subject’s development and relationship to art history over this fifty year period. It will examine the context of History of Dress’ emergence as a discrete academic field and relate this to contemporary writing and scholarship on dress and fashion. Within this, the role of women will be analysed to situate our conference’s title ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Makes Women’, in relation to the discipline’s emergence, its reception and its sometimes contested significance and meaning within wider academia.
Dress History will be framed as a potentially radical and innovative way to rethink history, and art history, bringing to light new insights into a given period. The importance of dress and fashion to women, and the changing landscape of gender politics over this period sharpens our exploration of the History of Dress, and The Courtauld’s importance as its pioneer within the academy.

We hope you enjoy reading it!

‘Dress & History since 1965’ pdf

Images from the paper:

Four items currently displayed within the Dress Historiography: 500 Years of Fashion Books exhibition, The Courtauld Institute

Four items currently displayed within the Dress Historiography: 500 Years of Fashion Books exhibition, The Courtauld Institute

nvoice to Dodie Smith, Stella Mary Newton (née Pearce) Haute Couture, 1934

nvoice to Dodie Smith, Stella Mary Newton (née Pearce) Haute Couture, 1934

Professor Aileen Ribeiro photographed with the Harris Textiles Collection in the 1970s

Professor Aileen Ribeiro photographed with the Harris Textiles Collection in the 1970s

MA students examining an 18th century stomacher, Harris Textiles Collection

MA students examining an 18th century stomacher, Harris Textiles Collection

Professor Joanna Woodall speaking at the Helene Fourment Study Day, The Courtauld, April 2015

Professor Joanna Woodall speaking at the Helene Fourment Study Day, The Courtauld, April 2015

MA students looking at items in store at Museum at FIT, during a study trip to New York City

MA students looking at items in store at Museum at FIT, during a study trip to New York City

PhD student Alexis Romano preparing the Winter Mode exhibition

PhD student Alexis Romano preparing the Winter Mode exhibition

nstagram post of an Addressing Images Even

nstagram post of an Addressing Images Even

 

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part One: Aileen Ribeiro

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

Aileen Ribero in the late 1970s.

Aileen Ribeiro in the late 1970s.

Alumni Interview Part One:  Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA (1971), PhD (1975), Head of History of Dress Department (1975-2009).

Aileen Ribeiro has lectured internationally and written widely on the history of dress, including Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (Yale: 2011), and Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England (Yale: 2005). In addition, she has been a costume consultant to major portrait exhibitions in the UK and US, most recently Whistler, Women and Fashion at the Frick Collection, New York (2003).

Why the history of dress?

My first degree was in history, which I enjoyed on the whole, although in retrospect there was a sense of dissatisfaction in the predominance of political history rather than cultural history. It was very much with the feeling of being rescued from the desert when, a few years later, I finally engaged with ideas of putting a face on history, with what people looked like and what they wore, particularly as I became increasingly interested in the history of art.

When and where did you become aware it was something you could study at The Courtauld?

Fairly soon after I’d graduated, my husband and I (sorry, that makes me sound a bit like the Queen…) spent some time teaching in Zambia, which was when I realised I wanted to teach, a profession which I’ve enjoyed immensely. While in Africa, where I taught history and English, I wrote to the Courtauld Institute with the idea of studying art history, but the prospectus gave details of a postgraduate course in the history of dress, which had recently been set up, and which sounded intriguing, so I applied and was accepted.

What were your first impressions of The Courtauld? And of Stella Mary Newton? 

The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 to offer the first degree in England in art history. Samuel Courtauld donated his collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works to the institute named after him, which was established in his town house, Home House, in Portman Square. By the time, in 1969, I arrived at the Courtauld, the art collections were housed in a separate gallery in Bloomsbury, but the Institute was still in Portman Square, a wonderful Adam house, although the library was sometimes difficult to use, particularly the collections in basements and cellars. As for the History of Dress Department, it was housed in the mews across the garden at the back of Home House, where Stella Mary also had her office. I remember being impressed by her elegance, stylish dress and jewellery, which wasn’t surprising as she had had a small couture house in London in the 1930s, and retained a great interest in fashion.

What was your favourite aspect of studying History of Dress with Stella Mary Newton?

The course – the first I think in the world – was established in 1965; Stella Mary Newton had been a costume designer in the theatre, with a particular interest in historical dress, and during the Second World War she had worked in the National Gallery in London, dating and identifying paintings through costume. Stella was my mentor – an inspirational teacher and self-taught scholar; she was the first to focus on the importance of clothing in art, that artists depict the dress of their time, either consciously or unconsciously.

What were your goals when you took on the role as course leader?

Through her [Stella Mary Newton’s] work I realised how important the links between art and clothing were and are. Which is why much of my career has been devoted to this aspect of the history of dress, both as a teacher (I became head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld in 1975), and as a writer. I never had any doubts when I first began to study the history of dress, that this subject had immense possibilities; it began in some respects as a kind of handmaiden to art/theatre/design history, but now it’s a discipline in its own right, with so many facets which it would take numberless lifetimes to explore.

Inevitably, given that the history of dress is situated in the most famous place for the study of art history, what we can ‘read’ in a work of art and how clothing can illuminate these works of art in themselves, and can reveal a wide range of aspects of society and of individuals, is an important aspect of our study, but one of the aims of our subject is to look at the history of dress within the context of social and cultural history, to analyse and interpret clothing from extant objects, documentary and literary sources, as well as from the visual. And I want to impress how important it is for students of the history of dress to be open to a wide range of possibilities, to study the subject from the earliest periods, and not just to concentrate on the 20th century and contemporary fashion.

What was your favourite aspect of teaching History of Dress at The Courtauld?

One of my pleasures in teaching the history of dress was to see how students were enthused by particular eras, topics, themes from classical antiquity onwards. So much research needs to be done in the areas of classical, medieval, Renaissance and the early modern periods; I think Stella Newton thought I was too ‘modern’ in choosing the 18th century for my PhD!

How did your teaching change over your time here?

It’s an interesting question, to contemplate how one’s teaching evolves over time, and not always easy to determine; sometimes it changes in response to students’ interests, and perhaps it’s more evident in writing. My concern has always been to teach and write in a way that’s accessible, and to avoid the opaque and often pretentious jargon of much academic discourse, particularly when it moves away from the object, but – because dress like art, is often full of signs, of ambiguities, and sometimes contradictory impulses – it needs de-coding if it is to have meaning. This is never-ending, and makes the history of dress/clothing, fashion, constantly surprising and illuminating.

24/1/2015