The conference Reading Fashion Magazines may be over, but our display of 9 items from the collection is still available to be viewed outside the Courtauld Library vitrines. Please come and visit, before it closes in August. In order to tempt you, you can read the introduction to the display, and our conference, below, available for you to download in a pdf.
On a sunny Wednesday in London, Liz and the Documenting Fashion MAs took a trip to the archives of the National Portrait Gallery to view a selection of photographs from our study period of 1920-1960. Tucked behind the main building of the National Portrait Gallery, the archives were an oasis of calm in the centre of bubbling London. The Photographs Collection began in 1972 and today holds about a quarter of a million images. 2000 of these form the primary collection consisting of the most important images with the remainder of the material (photographs, negatives etc.) forming the bulk of the collection. The selection we viewed was wide-ranging including a book, two albums, an illustration and, of course, black and white, as well as colour photography.
Of particular interest to us MAs was an album from the “Lady Ottoline Morrell Albums.” It showed a variety of subject matter ranging from a rather less glamorous cow on a field to the beauty of Claude Monet’s garden. However, seeing one of the albums first hand mainly provided further insight and context to the way in which fashion is also captured in these photographs. We had touched on the album collection’s value and richness in conveying fashion related information in class while discussing Lily Le Brun’s (former Documenting Fashion MA) article on Siegfried Sassoon’s depiction in the album (see below for details of this fascinating read). Other highlights included an illustration by Cecil Beaton which captured a stunning hat and dress with a tiny waist in just a few artistic strokes. As the illustration is merely in black and white, the references to the racecourse scene in the film “My Fair Lady” were strong – Beaton had been responsible for the costume and art direction of the film. A variety of his photographs on display also led us to discuss poses taken by the models or sitters. From the carefully posed and constructed to the informal snapshots from Lady Ottoline’s album, we mused over the different effects each has on the representation of the sitter. Are those in the snapshots truly less aware of a camera being present or is their awareness possibly heightened by trying to stay casual? Interesting backdrops also theme in the selected images. From polka dots, through geometric patterns to a design resembling the form of a bedspring were all instrumental in forming a highly stylised and distinctive look. A photograph taken by Louise Dahl-Wolfe here served as a refreshing contrast. It showed two men sitting in a park, dappled sunlight and shadows on their hair and clothing, resting and enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. Moving onto 1950s and 1960s images on the other hand gave us a chance to peek at photographer Norman Parkinson hanging upside down from a gymnasts climbing wall amongst his models. Beside this, there were three images by Horst, one of which showed a young Carmen Dell’Orefice, as stunning back then as she is today.
Although only a miniscule part of the overall collection, the images on display today showed the wide scope fashion imagery encompasses and the multiple different ways they can be decoded or read. From the personal to the public, the colourful to the dull, the professional glance to the amateur take, all store information on a time gone by, now preserved and ready for inspection in the wonderful archive of the National Portrait Gallery.
Conversation with the Archivists of the NGP, 15/03/17.
Le Brun, Lily, ”Life Lived on the Plane of Poetry:” Images of Siegfried Sassoon in the Lady Ottoline Morell Album Collection, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA Dissertation (2011).
The inter-war period signalled a time of change for many women as they were granted more responsibility within society. As more women inhabited the office as a place of work during the 1930s, a new sense of freedom was also occurring. Women were now smoking in public, going to parties at weekends without a chaperone and increasing numbers were using makeup. As a result, the interwar period was a turning point for women, with regards to their changing appearances as well as role within society.
Women were wearing and purchasing makeup on a wider scale to change and perfect their appearances during the 1930s. Although widespread availability of make up and other beautification products were available during the flapper era of the 1920s, by the 1930s makeup had become integral to self-expression. Furthermore, as Kathy Peiss highlighted, makeup also contributed to the belief that identity was a ‘purchasable style.’ The number of cosmetic advertisements dominating the pages of fashion magazines during the inter-war period contributes to this idea of a purchasable identity. In the Courtauld’s History of Dress archive, there is a rare fashion journal from 1939 called Pinpoints. The magazine’s first issue documented how its inception was based upon the need to widen the ‘closed circle of fashion,’ as well as the aim to ‘prove itself as an independent, amusing and original step towards the ideal.’ In this respect, the ‘ideal’ woman embraces the necessity of using and purchasing makeup. The accompanying image is an Elizabeth Arden advertisement from 1939. The image is a black and white illustration portraying a fragmented sculpture of the head and neck. What is especially unique about this specific advertisement is how the viewer can physically interact and engage with it. The reader is encouraged to turn the wheel on the page behind the advert in order to display alternative colour groupings of rouge and lipstick, altering the colour combination shown. There is a sense of what the vital ingredients for constructing a fashionable and proper identity of the face are in Elizabeth Arden’s eyes. In this respect, the aim of the advertisement is to reach out to Arden’s target market by highlighting how separate looks can be constructed with different coloured groupings of cosmetics. The missing pieces of the sculpture highlight the fragile nature of faces and consequently reinforce the need for a beauty regime, which will preserve and take care of the face’s appearance. The fragmented sculpture also aligns ideas of craftsmanship and construction with the use of makeup on the face. Women have the freedom to build a lasting identity for themselves by purchasing cosmetics.
Yet, by purchasing additional cosmetics, a woman’s identity can also be altered in order to keep up-to-date with changing and seasonal trends. In this respect, the altering of identity is demonstrated through how women chose to decorate their faces with cosmetics. As a result, women changing and controlling their appearances through the use of cosmetics demonstrated their newfound freedom in the 1930s.
Peiss, K. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (Metropolitan Books, 1998).
Beatrice Behlen is Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She completed the MA History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1991.
When did you know you wanted to do something with fashion?
From when I was little, I was always interested in clothes. I can still remember the things I wore when I was three years old. At first, I wanted to become a fashion journalist because the idea of it sounded very glamorous; I thought I would fly everywhere and see fashion shows. At the time, you couldn’t study fashion journalism in Germany, so I was very lucky to get into a school for fashion design in Bremen without really having a portfolio.
Did the school make you want to become a fashion designer?
Not really, I wasn’t very good as a fashion designer and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was a very proper fashion design course and we learned how to make drawings and patterns. At one point, I remember we went to see the fashion shows in Paris. This was of course great, but I hated it at the same time. I immediately felt that this was not my world and that it was not where I wanted to be either. Everything in fashion happens too quickly, I couldn’t deal with it. What I really enjoyed most about the course were the classes on fashion history.
Can you tell me about your fashion designs? What were they like?
I found the body something difficult to deal with because it is round and everyone is different. I think I should probably have done graphic design because it is more orderly and all about straight lines. I like order. For my last collection, I designed a group of really big top hats inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait and the drawings for Alice in Wonderland. This collection was about the meaning and significance of hats and it was a mix between the real and surreal.
Who was your favorite designer?
I always really liked Jean Paul Gaultier.
After studying fashion design you moved to London to study the History of Dress at the Courtauld. What was it like back then?
I had to go to the Courtauld for an interview first. It was not easy and very expensive to go all the way to London for just one day. Luckily, I had the entire afternoon free and spent ages just walking around at the V&A. After I was accepted, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that there were only seven of us on the course because in Germany there had always been so many of us. The first year of the course was a whole run through of fashion history starting from the Romans and Greeks to now. I found that first year very tough because I hadn’t done an academic course before. I can still remember the first presentation I had to give… I couldn’t even finish it. The second year, my special subject was the history of dress for the period 1600-1640, mainly for England, France and Holland.
What did you write your dissertation on?
I wrote about several fashion magazines dating from the period around 1800. I was working on it at the British Library all the time, even on Saturdays…
Did you know right after graduation that you wanted to become a fashion curator?
No, I thought I wanted to be an academic. I am not sure why that was exactly. I didn’t think being a curator was something for me because curators were usually a particular kind of woman that was nothing like me. This perception changed when I met Valerie Mendes at the V&A; she was a curator and someone I could really relate to. I did a three-month internship at the V&A. That was such a lucky experience!
Before coming to the Museum of London in 2007, you worked as a curatorial assistant at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace. You also taught fashion and design students at several art colleges and you worked at the contemporary art gallery ‘Annely Juda Fine Art’. What did you take away with you from these various experiences?
At Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace I catalogued their collection and learnt how much work it is to care for clothes in a museum. This also gave me the insight that I don’t mind dealing with all of that. By teaching, I realised how much I could learn myself just from talking to people and through discussion. I liked the idea that I could make a difference by talking to the students about their work. At the contemporary art gallery, on the other hand, I got to know how the commercial world works: you have to do what the client wants. I am quite shy but at these big art fairs I had to learn how to approach people. Unfortunately, I never enjoyed selling that much. I just didn’t get a kick out of it.
Today, you are Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. What makes this place so special for you?
I have been at the Museum of London since late 2007, which is the longest I have ever been anywhere. It was fun working at Kensington Palace but the subject matter was just quite narrow as we kept talking about the Royal family and the court. I was really pleased when a job came up here because the Museum of London also has ‘everyday dress’ in its collection.
What would be your ultimate next exhibition project?
Oh dear, that’s a difficult one. I am almost moving a little bit away from purely dress exhibitions. For a long time, I wanted to do something about ‘Love’. I would like to work around this theme because we have a lot of objects in the collection that connect to ‘Love’ in one way or another, and not just clothes. Besides that, I think that an exhibition on ‘things you wear at night’ would be great fun.
What have been your main research interests over the years?
I am interested in subcultures and youth cultures. I am most interested in the interwar period. I love the personal stories behind objects and I find myself wondering more and more how I can bring these out in a museum environment. You could easily write about them, or show them in a film, but in an exhibition this is really hard. That’s something I still need to crack.
What is your fashion obsession at the moment?
I am obsessed with bomber jackets!