The Currency of Cool

Last year, I wrote my BA dissertation about the portraits by American painter Kehinde Wiley. He is known for featuring African American subjects wearing contemporary street clothing in positions taken from the Western canon of portraiture. Typically, the subjects portrayed are not identifiable, but take on the poses of rulers of history, removed from their context and painted against lush, decorative backgrounds. After finishing his MFA at Yale University in 2001, Wiley began displaying his work in the early 2000s, bringing grandiose images of black and brown bodies dressed in street wear into white gallery and museum spaces. My project in regards to his oeuvre questioned the utility of this kind of portraiture, simultaneously hyper-real and mythologizing, in terms of the politics of representation of blackness in the visual sphere.

In these paintings, fashion associated with the visual culture of hip-hop becomes the uniform for Wiley’s subjects. They pose in baggy jeans, chains, puffer jackets, sports jerseys, and popular clothing brands, which are remarkable for two reasons: it is rather shocking to see these casually dressed, ‘cool’ black figures assuming the position of a Van Dyck portrait, but also because it was nearly unprecedented to see this kind of fashion hanging on the walls of a museum space. While European portraits of rulers certainly utilize a visual language of opulence and excess in dress, seeing contemporary ‘bling’ in such an image is rather unusual. Wiley has produced dozens of paintings like these, and critics have suggested that these images have become formulaic. Arguments that these works have a homogenizing, flattening effect over the representation of black life in America have substantial foundations in the repetition of similar iconographies. It is true that Wiley’s paintings are not a representative cross section. They saturate the art market with images of African Americans of a singular social milieu, and rely on stereotypes perpetuated in news media and popular culture of a young black man as a thug or a pompous rapper. On one hand, these paintings introduce a new figure and fashion into the canon of formal portraiture, but risk commodifying the image of ‘coolness’ further than it already has been.

Concurrently with the early years of Wiley’s career, an exhibit opened at the V&A called Black British Style (October 2004-January 2005) which displayed clothing, photographs, and other objects to explore the many notions of fashion in the legacy of the African diaspora, particularly on the African continent, in Jamaica, Britain, and the United States. It spanned many styles, geographies, and times, and blended artifact and image, and narrative and memory, to contribute to the building of an archive of African diasporic history in the legacy of slavery and erasure. Addressed within the exhibit was the fashion of hip-hop culture in contrast to African-inspired fashion in the West. Black Style, the book published in conjunction with the exhibit, notes that hip-hop subverts ‘establishment notions of racial difference through cutting-edge styles that throw back in the face of mainstream America its own stereotypes of inner-city black youth.’ At the same time, hip-hop dress has been continuously co-opted by mainstream white culture, and, like in Wiley’s paintings, can signal popular commodified fashion. However, the display of this style of dress within such an institution was rather groundbreaking. As curator Carol Tulloch noted, ‘It really was a landmark event for a major national institution like the V&A. One magazine wrote: “The fact that the V&A has batty riders on display is worth the £6 entry on its own.”’

Wiley’s portraits and the V&A’s exhibition entered the mainstream art world around the same time, bringing representations of hip-hop fashion into elitist white museum and gallery spaces. They worked in opposite visual languages – one of fantasy, myth, and the art historical canon, the other creating a documentarian notion of ‘truth’ – but attempted to work within the same system to call out stereotypes about the black body. Wiley’s paintings utilize the visual language of visibility; Black British Style the currency of archival information and objects. Although bringing representations of black style into these spaces requires a careful negotiation of celebration versus commodification and appropriation, the dressed black body became visible and present where it had not been before, and has opened a door to more diverse representations of dress and the bodies that occupy it.

References:

Lewis, Tim. “Carol Tulloch: ‘Dressing Well Is Almost Part of the DNA in the Black Community’.” The Guardian. March 06, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/carol-tulloch-black-style-the-birth-of-cool-interview.

Tulloch, Carol. Black Style. London: V & A Publications, 2005.

Documenting My Wardrobe: Why My Friend and I Share Daily Outfit Pictures

For the past month and a half my friend, Niamh, and I have been sending each other outfit pictures. We lived together last year in York and now, with her there and me in London, we decided this would liven up our communication. Considering that a large proportion of our conversation is clothing related anyway, this made a lot of sense.

Having a visual record of our outfits gives me much more of a sense of keeping in contact, as the visual translates so much more than a message on a screen. On a daily basis we would have shown each other our outfits and also gauged opinions on new purchases in person, so this felt like a natural addition to our conversation.

We chose our six (tried to keep it to three and failed) favourite outfits from the other’s wardrobe and talked about our choices. As shown by the pictures, Niamh is never not wearing a black item of clothing. When I asked her why, she revealed that “It’s because it’s easy to wear, it’s flattering, I feel like it can be something basic but it being black elevates it in a way, and now I’m so comfortable wearing black it’s hard to wear other things.” She added that she used to steer clear of wearing black, out of fear that it would make her look too pale and stand out. Now she embraces this look, and I love that she took something that made her uncomfortable and turned it into a wardrobe staple.

I don’t normally document my wardrobe, but it has now become part of my morning routine. It falls in the five seconds I have to spare after brushing my teeth and before realising that I’m going to miss my bus. I liked the idea of taking a quick snap each day and sending it, as it felt like a real representation of us – for example, the streaky state of my bathroom mirror, and Niamh’s bedroom in the background. It was also interesting to see the poses we repeated, with Niamh going for phone covering part of the face and a bent leg, whereas I opted for a variation of the peace sign or hand on the hip with a pained grimace. To excuse myself, these pictures were originally meant for Niamh’s eyes only.

We discovered our mutual reasons behind our picture choices were a love of a statement coat and the outfits we would wear of the other person’s. My clothing choices have always been based on a love of bright colours and print, but more recently I have shifted to wearing less prints and more block colours. I feel that the outfit pictures show how different our styles are, but also a mix of comfort and (aiming for) sophistication.

The images we chose were our everyday clothes, rather than images we might share on a public platform, such as Instagram. I like that we are giving importance to our day-to-day wear and how we look, which is closer to our personal interactions, rather than presenting a mediated version of ourselves.

Ellen Bhamra

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one which the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents, before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance also contrasts her with Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Eve favours ill-fitting suits and anoraks, and is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, though, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. As such, Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless in and of itself, but it can also be read as unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is also confident and assertive, independent and liberated, and her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, and that the femme fatale has a fondness for shoulder pads and red lipstick; her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different, perhaps, if Eve were the fashionable one?

Fashion in Motion: Phoebe English at the V&A

 

On Friday, 20 October, the V&A hosted a spectacular retrospective presentation by British designer Phoebe English as part of the museum’s Fashion in Motion series. The series features leading contemporary fashion designers and makes live fashion experiences available to the public.

Set within the V&A’s grand Raphael Gallery, the Fashion in Motion series typically features a runway show. English, however, broke with this tradition and presented her designs on raised, round platforms where four models donning a range of English’s womenswear designs stood next to marionettes wearing a scaled-down version of the original designs. This provocative presentation blurred the lines between performance art and fashion show when models, or, rather, performers dressed in plain white jumpsuits moved between the platforms to toy with the marionettes, puppeteering the movements of the fashion models. Indeed, the spectacle created by this inventive set design continues English’s practice of staging her collections within immersive environments. Combined with live music by a harpist, the sublime designs and the playful scale of the marionettes resulted in what felt like visual gluttony.

The individual, rounded platforms allowed the viewer to weave through the presentation and move closer to the designs in a way that would not be possible during a traditional runway show. Although this set design was much more engaging that a catwalk, the act of moving around the platforms and observing the models and their marionettes up close felt somewhat intrusive. The models made direct eye-contact with onlookers and members of the press, posing consciously for Snapchat stories and press photos. This directness coupled with the uncanny marionettes and the puppeteers’ manipulation of the models and their puppets created a haunting, powerful experience. The weight of the presentation was most palpable at the end of the show when the models slowly descended from the platforms and walked out of the gallery, leaving only the puppets. The dangling, lifeless marionettes dressed in their Phoebe English miniatures represented, for me, the eerie, indescribably strange and alienating space that fashion can occupy.

Aside from the memorable spectacle of the show, English’s luxury designs demonstrated an expertise in technique, materials, and construction. English, who aims to set her label apart from mass made fashion, creates striking silhouettes with unconventional textures to indicate balance between craft and design. The Phoebe English label, which is entirely made in England, is certainly one to watch.

By Abby Fogle

All photos authors own