Dissertation Discussion: Fran

What led you to choose this subject?

I was uniquely led to my chosen subject through Instagram (yup.). In the first week of March (2019), I uploaded a multiple-image post to my personal Instagram feed (@francesrcrossley) containing two comparable fashion images (Fig.1). The first was taken by fashion photographer Jason Lloyd-Evans at @edwardcrutchley’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show during London Fashion Week Men’s (2019). It features a collection of models, but one acts as the point of interest, her attention held away from the camera’s gaze. Atop her head is a tall, wide-brimmed hat (@stephenjonesmillinery), its structure implied through a meshed, translucent nylon that allows for the bones of its unique construction to be perpetually on show. It is fixed onto the model’s head with a long ream of ribbon that fastens in a delicate bow across the centre of her neck. 

Fig. 1 The first-half of the multi-image post I uploaded on my IG feed, featuring Edward Crutchley / Stephen Jones designs…

I placed this image in conversation with an archival photograph of American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin, in which she models a similarly structured, cylindrical hat. Dr Stephanie Lake (@cashincopy , @bonniecashinarchive ), author of Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It (2016), later informed me that Cashin purchased this hat during her travels for the Ford Foundation throughout Asia during the 1950s (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2 …and the second half.

This post was intended as a personal exercise, visually demonstrating the cyclical movement of twentieth and twenty-first century fashion systems, in which styles and motifs are recurrently recycled and given new meaning for a contemporary audience. After posting, I swiftly received word from Crutchley (also via IG), and the designer disclosed that his AW19 hats were based on the traditional male Korean bridal gat (a form of Joseon-era headgear). In this instructive experience, the trend of reproduction in fashion played out to confirm a well-discussed concept: fashion is a powerful cultural phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a singular, ‘present-day’ understanding. Through this three-way interaction, I formed a fascination with concept of ‘copying’ or ‘knocking-off’ another designer’s work vs. find inspiration in the silhouettes, modes of production or craft appropriated in past histories. I wanted to explore the difference between repackaging historical borrowings and ‘copycatting—which I believe to be an inherent exercise operating within the fashion system. And so, voilà: a dissertation subject was born! 💥

Mr Edward Crutchley setting me straight on gat-gate via Instagram’s private messaging feature.

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

Pfftttt that’s hard—I have discovered so many new (to me), fiercely innovative authors during this research period. I therefore have to choose two: Véronique Pouillard and Agnès Rocamora, who between them have produced some of the most fascinating texts I’ve read over the course of my undergrad and postgrad experiences. Pouillard’s extensive work on the formalisation of design piracy in the fashion industry during the interwar period and her exploration of intellectual property rights in relation to the preservation of originality European property laws vs. U.S. patents and trademarks)—-beyond helpful; and Rocamora’s comprehensive dissection of Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual arguments surrounding the sociology of cultural production—theoretical life–saver. 

Also, Sara Beth Marcketti’s 2005 PhD thesis, ‘Design piracy in the United States women’s ready- to-wear apparel industry: 1910-1941’ (Iowa State University)—gold dust. 

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

A memoir-like interview I found through FIT’s Oral Histories Project (@fitspecialcollections), in which American entrepreneur Andrew Goodman [son of Edwin Goodman and former president (1951) and owner of department store, Bergdorf Goodman (1953-1972)] discusses his life and career in the New York fashion industry (recorded in 1977). Goodman tells all manner of awe-inspiring anecdotes, but my favourite is one in which he goes undercover for a sting operation in Paris (while working for Patou in 1926) in order to apprehend a group of French copyists: just the right blend of theatricality and fun! 

The Re-Presentation of Western-style Dress in National Geographic, September 1971

liz

Three female subjects stand side-on in a forest clearing, next to the remains of a smoldering fire. They do not look at the photographer but appear to be posing for another photograph, which is being taken by someone to the left of the photograph frame. They have short dark bobbed hair, wear necklaces of dyed nuts and red string, and have painted geometric lines on their faces in black fruit dye. The central subject and her companion on the right have used black and red body paint to divide up and deconstruct their bodies, fragmenting them into separate parts. This sophisticated process isolates arms, chest, hips, legs, and ankle, and departs from the more prescriptive methods by which Western-style clothing tends to perceive of the clothed body as unified whole. For these women, painted and unpainted body parts become interdependent and have equal significance: both the positive shapes formed by the paint, but also the negative spaces in between those shapes. This process of decontextualising one’s own body parts, and perceiving each as an object or commodity in and of itself, demonstrates a self-reflexive gaze through which these women address their own bodies with a comparable level of scrutiny to that placed on them by the photographic gaze. These women are part of the Cinta Largas group, indigenous to the Western Amazon in Brazil, and have been captured by Brazilian filmmaker Jesco von Puttkamer in 1971 for National Geographic magazine.

The women re-invent Western-style dress through their use of body paint, in a process that draws on the particularities of Cinta Largas material culture. The resulting ensemble creates shifting points of reference that are comparable to an observation made by Claude Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1995). Levi-Strauss described how the sophisticated Spanish American Caduveo Indians (also called the Mbaya) appropriated aspects of the uniform worn by Spanish sailors in the mid-nineteenth century through their customary practice of body painting:

After the Indians saw a European warship for the first time, when the Maracanha sailed up the Paraguay in 1857, the sailors noticed the next day that their bodies were covered with anchor-shaped motifs; one Indian even had an officer’s uniform painted in great detail all over his torso – with buttons and stripes, and the sword-belt over the coat-tails.

Levi-Straus acknowledged the Mbaya’s appropriation and re-presentation of the Spanish sailors’ uniforms, which retained their visual motifs and design details but transformed them through the use of body paint. This process enabled them to negotiate new sartorial meanings relevant to the sociopolitical organisation of their own culture. In National Geographic, the women’s painted clothing is a comparably fluid demonstration of the subjects’ creative self-invention, which refutes claims made within the text that the Cinta Largas are a static and ‘simple culture’, about to be eroded by a ‘strong, complex one’. The subjects’ dressed bodies become a site of heterogeneous potentiality, which, rather than reiterate the disintegration of Cinta Largas culture, demonstrate its ongoing creative renewal through dress that is receptive to contact with other cultures.

Sources

Jesco von Puttkamer, ‘Brazil Protects Her Cinta Largas’, National Geographic, pp. 420-444.

Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans by. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (London: Penguin Books, 1992).