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.
Liz (C) shown here at her BA graduation in 2011, with Elisabetta Pietrostefani (L) and Jonathan Vickers (R)
Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), Current PhD
Elizabeth Kutesko is a third year PHD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently writing her thesis, entitled ‘Fashioning Brazil: Globalisation and the Representation of Brazilian Dress in National Geographic since 1988’. Liz has previously co-taught the BA3 course ’Fashion and Photography: Viewing and Reviewing Global Images of Dress’, and will teach it again next year, along with the BA2 course, the first that she ever studied at the Courtauld, entitled ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’.
Where did you study and how did you become interested in the history of dress?
I studied my BA, MA and am currently in my third year of my PHD at the Courtauld. I was in my second year when History of Dress popped up on the syllabus. At first I was a bit sceptical…I’d studied fashion and textiles at college and dropped out to complete A-Levels at Sixth Form instead. I remember that my mum encouraged me to choose the special option, ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’. It remains one of my best decisions yet. Rebecca is such a brilliant teacher, so enthusiastic about the subject.
So, was it really the construction side of dress and textiles, or the sociological context of dress that you were interested in?
Both are important in understanding dress as image, object, text and idea intertwined, but studying the more theoretical side of such a multifaceted subject, with all of its allied ambiguities, fascinates me.
Your research draws heavily upon the representation of dress, and really how dress presents citizens bodies in ‘non-western’ cultures including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. How did you find your niche?
I travelled to Brazil in 2008 and arrived with little idea of what to expect, beyond an oversimplified awareness of urban violence pervasive in internationally acclaimed Brazilian films such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. By the time I departed, six months later, I was struck by the internal subtleties of its racial, religious, social, cultural, geographical and sartorial diversity. I was fascinated by how Brazilian identities had been asserted, negotiated and re-negotiated through their representation by the ‘West’. What kinds of problems and tensions did representation engender? Was the photographer always the one in control of Brazilian subjects, or did this dynamic shift as subjects’ self-fashioned and self-presented before the camera’s gaze?
I became interested in the Sapeurs, young men from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) who fashion their own identities using Western designer labels, when Rebecca showed us the photobook in class by Danielle Tamagni, The Gentleman of Bacongo. Even though her specialism was Western European and North American fashion, Rebecca constantly broadened our horizons with images of dress from all around the world.
What methodologies guide your research approach to non-western representations of dress?
Despite a growing number of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural examinations of ‘non-Western’ dress and fashion since the early 1990s, there still seems to be a scholarly tendency to privilege enquiries into ‘Western’ high fashion. Although I’m well aware of the pitfalls of employing these generalised and ambiguous terms! I decided that I wanted my research to try and bridge that perceived gap between the Western and non-Western. I particularly like the work of Margaret Maynard, she is an alumna of the Courtauld, and she has considered what dress and fashion choices can tell us about individual subjects and their interactions with global culture. She refuses to understand globalisation as a synonym for standardisation, Westernisation or Americanisation, but examines all the interesting nuances and complexities that are woven into dress.
Your research crucially posits Brazil on the periphery of the West. In terms of the contemporary Brazilian fashion industry, has it evolved independently of North America and European influence, or towards it?
Brazil is an interesting example. In the 1930s, inspired by Hollywood, upper-class Brazilian women wore furs in the tropical climate. They had to pay extortionate fees to keep the garments refrigerated. It was madness! In the 1980s, this penchant for copying resulted in Brazilian designers being refused entry to Paris fashion week, as they plagiarised the designs too heavily. But in the 1990s imports of luxury goods were allowed into Brazil without heavy taxes. Brazilian designers who had previously copied American and European fashion couldn’t anymore, because for a cheaper price, Brazilian consumers could simply buy the originals. Brazilian designers had to step up their game! It resulted in this interesting intersection of foreign fashion ideas and more local modes of dressing. Sometimes Brazilian designers really play on the exotic stereotypes of Brazil, with tropical prints and exaggerated representations of beach culture.
Do you visit Brazil regularly, and does your approach to dressing and perception of the body differ when you are there?
I’ve been to Brazil on two occasions but hope to return soon. I went on a research trip last year. Cariocas (Brazilians who live in Rio de Janeiro), have an interesting beach aesthetic, with lots of bright prints and colourful items. They wear a lot less on the street, with short shorts and little tops. It’s the antithesis of the more formal dressing habits of Paulistas (Sao Paulo residents), with their frantic pace of life! I packed a wardrobe with summer clothes that I would wear in London, but when I arrived in Rio I felt very ‘stuffy’ by comparison to everyone else. So I quickly found this shop, Farm Rio (http://www.farmrio.com.br/), which had some amazing patterned pieces and interesting designs. I bought lots of things, but when I returned home these clothes then seemed very wrong for British summertime. It’s interesting how we are subconsciously influenced by the way that people around us dress.
Who is your favourite designer, past or present and why?
That’s tricky! I particularly like this label called ‘Shrimps’. It’s by a designer called Hannah Weiland, who studied at Central St. Martins. Everything is made from faux fur in loads of outlandish colours and I absolutely love it: fluffy clutches, heels, jackets, stoles. Although I’m not sure how sustainable a fashion label based on faux fur is during summer time…
By the time this interview is published the academic year will be finished, what advice would you give to any future MA students?
You have to try very hard not to get bored, and to remind yourself why you like the subject so much. When I allow stress to take over, I often end up feeling completely unmotivated and unenthused, which is the worst state to be in when you’re trying to be creative! It’s really important to have a few days off to do something that you really enjoy. Even if it’s simply flicking through a magazine or newspaper, it will re-ignite your enthusiasm for the subject. Someone once said to me that if you have writer’s block it’s because you haven’t read enough, or you haven’t thought about it enough, so just read anything that inspires you or go for a long walk! (Ed note: I can attest to this tip, thanks Liz!)