A Day in the Life of a Courtauld Student – 18th November 2015

With a vast number of libraries to visit across London, and a variety of fascinating lectures to attend, no day as a student at the Courtauld is quite the same. On a Wednesday morning, I would usually attend the Foundations lecture series, however today I made my way to Brixton for a tutorial on our first marked essay. Rebecca and I had a productive discussion at the Ritzy café on my topic – how Alfred Hitchcock uses Dior’s New Look in his 1955 film Rear Window – then once everyone’s sessions wrapped up, the course gathered to discuss our quickly approaching field trip to New York (time does indeed fly on a nine month MA course!).

Brixton

However, we weren’t quite ready to head back to school and were keen to explore Brixton a bit more so Giovanna, Leah, Aric, Aude, Eleanor and I popped over to Brixton Village Market to energize ourselves with a quick coffee before heading back to Courtauld to resume work on our essays. We stopped at Federation, an Aussie-owned café, and treated ourselves to their famous Anzac biscuits and gluten-free brownies, which we enjoyed over quality flat whites and lattes.

Walking through Brixton Village Market. Christmas decorations are up already!

Federation

Enjoying some very needed coffee and treats.

Intense dress history discussion.

Flat White at Federation.

Afterwards, we took the tube back to the Courtauld and buried ourselves in the stacks! We settled in our cozy basement library for an afternoon of (hopefully) productive study. In search of 1950s contemporary commentary and images regarding femininity in America for my essay, I spent most of the afternoon immersed in the Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily archives at the Courtauld’s Book Library.

Everyone on the tube.

Secluded study spot in the Courtauld Library.

Some research materials.

In need of a bit of fresh air after an afternoon of study, I ventured up to the Somerset House courtyard, where the Fortnum and Mason’s SKATE rink, Christmas Arcade and Lodge have now been officially opened – indeed to much fan fair yesterday. Dodging enthusiastic skaters and passerby’s taking selfies, I walked over to the New Wing of Somerset House for the Law Society’s “Art Law” course in which I have enrolled. The certificate is essentially a crash course in copyright, intellectual property law and related themes, which will hopefully allow me to speak with a bit of confidence on the subject one day.

Somerset House and Christmas tree!

F&M Christmas tree decorations.

Tom’s Skate Lounge.

Skaters on the rink.

Tomorrow promises to be equally diverse and exciting with visits to the British Film Institute’s archive and the British Library planned. Perhaps I’ll wrap up the day with the yoga society’s weekly evening session. Namaste!

50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Nine: Natalia Ramirez, MA (2012)

 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.

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Natalia is a fellow 2012 alumna of The Courtauld History of Dress MA. Originally from Los Angeles, California, Natalia has lived in London for over five years. Since graduating from The Courtauld, she has worked in online marketing for luxury beauty brands such as Estée Lauder, and is now a Digital Marketing Manager at Music Sales, in addition to running a successful fashion blog, Natalia Ambrosia (link below).

You took your undergraduate degree at The University of California, Santa Barbara. What was it like? 

Going to University in Santa Barbara was like being on holiday, it was very surreal. The University is directly on the coast and I could wake up go for a run, and even take my reading to the beach.

What were the best parts of the History of Dress MA for you when we took it in 2011-2012? 

I really enjoyed visiting the archives of the Museum of London and analysing pieces of clothing. Going to New York on the group trip was also very cool. Dr. Arnold set up everything from private visits to the FIT to the most incredible vintage store in Brooklyn: everything we’d been reading about came to life.

Did you notice differences between your study experiences in the USA and the UK? 

The British University system trains you to be a lot more independent. In the US, you have at least 2-4 hours of lectures/discussion per day and have weekly assignments, whereas in the UK, apart from assigned readings, you have 3-4 assignments for the whole semester. It was definitely an adjustment at first, but it really gave me an opportunity to explore and evolve themes that I had been working on.

Can you tell us your favourite place hang out in London? 

For coffee there’s no place like the ‘villagey’ feel of Hampstead. To get inspired, I like to people watch on Oxford Street (not far from The Courtauld): it’s like the pulse of London; you get a feel for what people are actually wearing.

 You run an amazing blog, Natalia Ambrosia, and it’s given you some great opportunities, like attending London Fashion Week. What’s the experience like for you?

In many ways, my blog was the catalyst for deciding to pursue an MA in Dress History at The Courtauld. I had moved to Paris to teach English and was interning for a small menswear designer because I thought I wanted to design clothes. I started the blog as an outlet for everything I saw and wanted and became obsessed with fashion blogs. I quickly realised that I wasn’t suited to design but was very much interested in the relationship society has with fashion, and therefore the Courtauld programme was perfect.

You’ve had an exciting career in beauty and marketing since leaving The Courtauld. What are you up to at the moment, and how did the course help you? 

During the course I had the opportunity to explore the evolution of the fashion industry since the introduction of the ‘fashion blogger.’ For my research, I spent countless hours at the V&A going through the Vogue archives, reading articles and looking through advertisements. I knew when I started the course that I didn’t want to continue on to a PHD, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted or could do with my experience and interests. During the course, I realised that I really enjoyed dissecting the psychology of the customer and Digital Marketing seemed like a natural choice, as it marries my need to be creative and analytical with the fashion industry. Since the course, I’ve worked in the beauty/fashion industry, and I currently work for a music company, where I’m working on a rebranding project. The Courtauld History of Dress MA really helped me to develop my analytical skills and led me to my career, and now, to use marketing speak, it’s my USP (unique selling point).

Do you have any tips for History of Dress students? 

Go to as many exhibitions and museums as you can while in you’re in London. Make the course yours: explore all of the details that capture your interest; you never know where it might lead! Go out there and interview everyone; make use of your stance as a student, and reach out to industry leaders – network!

 What are you excited about in fashion this season? 

Chloé. Everything Chloé.

 

@nataliaambrosia

5 Minutes with… Michaela Zöschg

Michaela Zöschg is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at The Courtauld, and Research Assistant for the upcoming V&A exhibition Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. Her thesis is titled ‘Rich Queens, Poor Clares: Art, Space and Audience of Royal Clarissan foundations in Late Medieval Europe’. She was born in Bolzano, Italy, and moved to London in 2011 from Vienna. She now spends her time between South London, Vienna and the Tyrolean Alps (and southern Italy and Spain for research). I recently spent five minutes with Michaela to discuss her experience of dress.

Can you recall an early fashion memory?

Dark red patent leather Mary Janes I got when I was about four. I still remember the excitement of trying them on in the shop, and how I insisted on having them in my bedroom, so that I could look at their shiny prettiness before falling asleep.

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Through your research, you are connected to people (women) who lived hundreds of years ago, so, in a way, you are dealing with many mysteries and interpreting silent voices. Do you feel like you must reconstruct their identities through the material evidence they left behind?

Absolutely. More often than not, material evidence – in the form of the stones of a palace or a church, in the form of an illumination or a scribble in a book, or in the form of a sculpture or a painting – is the only evidence I have, and the only means through which I can try and re-construct some of the stories of people who have lived in the past.

Can you share any comments on your everyday approach/method to getting dressed, and its connections to your own identity construction?
I think I put my everyday wardrobe together rather instinctively, without thinking about it in a methodological way. The most important thing is that I feel comfortable in my clothes and that I don’t have to think about them once I am wearing them; looking at it from this perspective, I think they are very much part of my identity, as they form some sort of second skin.

You are a passionate, talented knitter. How did you learn? What are you currently working on?

Thank you! Many members of my family are very good at making things – my mum is an amazing knitter, and my aunt was a professional seamstress, so I grew up in an environment full of fabric, yarn, wool, needles and buttons, and picked up knitting. These days, I unfortunately do not have that much time to knit, usually I end up making small gifts for baby arrivals among my friends. But I have a stash of a beautiful grey merino-alpaca blend that will hopefully soon be turned into a cosy winter layer for myself.

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Can you discuss a memorable clothing purchase from your past?

That would be a simple white cotton shirt I must have bought around the years 2000/01, which was quite expensive for my budget then. I remember going back to the store about three times before finally buying it. It was a good investment – I still wear it, and it still looks as crisp as it did when I bought it.

You are one of my favourite dressers. Your overall style seems extremely considered (but natural to you) and edited. Does the word ‘uniform’ resonate with your dressing?

Thank you! Yes, you probably could describe my clothes as ‘uniform’ – I always draw upon the same materials, shapes and colours. That I like clean shapes, high-quality materials and solid colours probably adds to this ‘uniformity’ – although I think I probably prefer the term ‘timelessness’.

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Fragments of denim, linen and wool garments

Where do you get your clothing from?

I like to go hunting in all kinds of places – from your average high street store to second-hand places and nice little independent shops. It is all about the process of finding a piece that can become a good and trusted wardrobe-friend.

You are my partner in black (and other dark colours)! Do you have any comments on wearing this colour?

It has a calming effect on me, I think.

Has your way of dressing changed over the years?

Very much so! I had quite a long and intense phase of wearing very colourful and ornamented clothes – bright reds, purples – with a lot of jewellery when I was younger. A favourite piece from that phase is this massive Indian mirror belt.

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Has living in London affected your dress? Does your relationship to others affect your dressing?

I think London is also visually such a buzzing place that it probably has made my clothing even more reduced and simple. I think I get a lot of inspiration from my friends, from the many creative ways how they are dressing and expressing themselves.

Can you recall any examples of difficulties in the daily process of dressing? And have you ever regretted wearing a certain outfit?

The only difficulties arise if I did not have time to do my laundry. I once possessed a pair of dungarees. Not a good idea.

Welcome New MAs!

We are so pleased to welcome the new MA group to The Courtauld! Look out for posts by Aric, Giovanna, Carolina, Emerald, Leah, Eleanor, Saskia and Aude in the coming weeks, as they start to settle into life at the Institute and share their thoughts on Dress History with you.

Here are some photos of their first week of studies – including looking at examples from our amazing collection of rare books and fashion journals on during the first class.  It’s always great to see Iribe’s Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Vecellio’s 1598 book on dress of the world, and Fish Annuals, showing 1920s Flapper style…

looking at rare fashion journals in our first class

looking at rare fashion journals in our first class

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50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Eight: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, MA (1997)

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.

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Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian who specialises in European fashion and textiles, French and British painting, and the decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She graduated from the Courtauld MA in the History of Dress with Professor Aileen Ribeiro in 1997.  She works as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world, and has contributed to books, scholarly journals, and magazines.

What made you want to devote your career to fashion and textile history?

It’s something that always interested me from a very young age, but it was only in my senior year of college that I realised it could be a career instead of a quirky hobby. I vividly remember pulling Dress and Morality off the shelf in my university library, turning to the back flap, and reading “Dr. Aileen Ribeiro is head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld Institute.” I wrote to the Courtauld for an application the same day, because you couldn’t do anything useful online in 1994!

What was unique about your Courtauld MA, and how did this in particular enhance your career?

I consider myself lucky to have done the MA when it was still a two-year course. And our special period was the late eighteenth century, which was obviously hugely influential for me. At the time, there were not any similar programs in the US, so having that training set me apart in the museum field. It gave me membership in a very small, mostly female club. To this day, my colleagues are amazed to hear that I got to listen to Aileen lecture for hours every week. I still have every page of notes I took in her course and I refer to them all the time.

You specialise in eighteenth century dress and yet work on modern fashion too. Why is it important to have a cross period focus?

Unfortunately, there’s just not a tremendous demand for eighteenth-century dress historians, so it’s helpful to diversify if you want to make a living as a freelance scholar, curator, and journalist. I resisted modern fashion for a long time; I think it was the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition in Montreal that finally brought me around and got me thinking critically about contemporary designers.

What is your pet project at the moment?

I haven’t given up the eighteenth century, but my next book will be on American fashion in the 1960s. I’m fascinated by the intersection of dress and politics, and by periods of dramatic social and sartorial change. Working in museums with encyclopedic collections has exposed me to a lot of different avenues of research I would not necessarily have pursued on my own, but I’m glad I did.

How has dress history changed since your MA?

There are so many more options for people who want to study dress history, although there is still nothing comparable to the Courtauld. And museums are finally realising that fashion is important, both as an art form and as a cash cow. The internet has gone from a novelty to an essential research tool, with both positive and negative results. There seem to be a lot more dress history conferences, which is frustrating, because I want to go to all of them!

How would you like to see fashion history develop in the future?

I would love to see a fashion history program in the US that is based in art history rather than museum studies or fashion design. And I would like to see more serious books on fashion published, and fewer picture books, and more grant money for research that does not fit into traditional academic disciplines. There is fantastic work being done in our field, but very little of it is getting into print.

External Links

Twitter handle @HottyCouture

FIDM Museum blog at blog.fidmmuseum.org

http://kimberlychrismancampbell.com/

Kimberly’s latest book: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015) (find it here)

50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Seven: Camille Benda, MA (1999)

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.

Camille dressing an actor, Daily Mirror, 2010

Camille dressing an actor, Daily Mirror, 2010

Camille Benda, MA (1999)

Camille Benda has recently designed costumes for the following films: Lilting, Still, The Quiet Ones, and The Blood Stripe, which is currently in post-production. As well as film, Camille has designed numerous theater productions, including regional theater at Yale Repertory Theater and Off-Broadway at Rattlestick Theatre. She also speaks about costume history at venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Costume Society and The Courtauld Institute of Art.

What led you to pursue graduate studies in the field of dress and fashion, and what attracted you to The Courtauld in particular?

The moment I heard about the Courtauld, I knew I had to go. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and was designing costumes for small theatre productions at the time. I was captivated by the chance to live in London, with its world-class museums, and the opportunity to combine history of dress studies with my fledgling costume design career.

Clothing was an early obsession for me, and it blossomed into a fascination with costumes, historical dress and fashion. I’ve always been interested in people and what makes humanity tick; so dress became a framework for understanding people – as we learnt at the Courtauld, clothing and fashion communicate economic and social status, moral values, human behavior and much more.

“Laura,” Camille’s sketch for the TV film “Belonging to Laura,” RTE Ireland, 2009

“Laura,” Camille’s sketch for the TV film “Belonging to Laura,” RTE Ireland, 2009

You graduated in 1999. What was the topic and structure of your MA course? What was the subject of your dissertation? 

Aileen Ribeiro was in her last few years of teaching at the Courtauld, and I feel so lucky to have been taught by her before she retired. It was the one-year course in the History of Dress, so we covered dress history through the ages in the first half. Our specialization was 18th century English and Scottish dress, with a trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh. My dissertation was on Moravian and Slovakian folk embroidery and the meanings woven within. Folk dress is a particular favourite of mine: it creates a tangible connection between the past and present, and is a perfect example of form and function working in harmony.

How did your time at The Courtauld impact your career choice?

Research has always been my favourite part of the design process – that’s where the characters described in a script come alive in images. I am always surprised when I am searching for the look of a character, and a drawing, painting or photo pops into my head as the perfect solution. It’s usually an image I’ve seen in the very first days of doing research – my brain must set it aside somewhere on a shelf, to be brought out for the right moment. Always go back to your research when you are stuck!

After The Courtauld you went on to complete an MFA in Theatre Design at Yale University. Could you describe this transition and/or how the two courses of study worked together? 

I was accepted to the Courtauld and Yale at the same time! So I asked Yale to defer my enrolment for a year so I could do the Courtauld course. I felt the Courtauld would provide me a unique viewpoint from which to look at costume design. The two courses meshed so well together. The Courtauld really provided me with the foundation of my approach to costume design, and at Yale I learnt the craft.

Could you discuss your career since completing your studies? 

I have focused on costume design for film since graduating, first in London as an assistant costume designer on films shot in England, like The Golden Compass, then designing costumes for art house films like Pelican Blood and Weekender. In between projects, I enjoyed giving the occasional history of dress talk, at the V&A, the Costume Society and my favourite one, a talk at the annual CHODA symposium about the representation of Elizabeth I in film throughout the 20th century, and the effect contemporary fashion design had on how the designs were approached. Now I’m based in Los Angeles, and enjoying learning the ropes in the ultimate movie town.

You’ve moved around for your education and career, notably between the USA and UK. How has your residence in various locations affected your approach to dress (personally and/or professionally)? 

I live in Los Angeles now, and moved there from London, where I lived for 12 years, so climate is the biggest factor in my approach to dress now. I admired London women and their masterful layering techniques: it is a true fashion achievement to stay warm and rainproof while remaining stylish! The exact opposite is Los Angeles style – too hot for layers, but still a big effort to add style to any simple and light look. Perhaps just a linen dress, but with amazing shoes or jewelry. And of course the ubiquitous LA sunglasses, which are an ethnography essay in themselves.

Actors Bess Wohl and Bill Thompson in “The Master and Margarita,” Yale School of Drama, 2001 (Photo: Camille Benda)

Actors Bess Wohl and Bill Thompson in “The Master and Margarita,” Yale School of Drama, 2001 (Photo: Camille Benda)

You’ve worked on fascinating film and theatre projects, are there any that stand out for you? 

The Master and Margarita, which I designed at Yale for director Will Frears- talk about a perfect creative opportunity! The play was adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s book about 1920’s Russia (with flashbacks to ancient Rome) and the absurdity of oppression. I enjoyed designing costumes for constructivist Russian artists, six-foot tall cats, Roman emperors, a naked witch and a masked ball hosted by the devil. (See photo)

Does your creative approach differ for historic films, such as Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, as opposed to ones set in the present time? 

Not at all! Once I discovered costume design, I was blissfully able to convey my curiosity for people-watching into a curiosity for characters in a script, and then a passion for helping actors, directors and writers express those characters with their costumes. So I always start with that. Costume design is not just putting people in clothes. It’s finding the driving force behind the characters and the script, and then bringing that to the screen, whether that means shopping for modern clothes, building period costumes from scratch (see photo) or digging through a costume rental house for the perfect glove. I always try to shop where the character would shop.

Actress Felicity Jones dressed for “Cheerful Weather for a Wedding,” 2011 (Photo: Camille Benda)

Actress Felicity Jones dressed for “Cheerful Weather for a Wedding,” 2011 (Photo: Camille Benda)

I just watched one of your most recent film projects, Lilting, and was mesmerised by its beauty and visual cohesiveness, from the interiors to the lighting and costumes. It shows how the creation of a film depends on a huge network. Could you discuss a particular collaboration that you felt worked well? 

Lilting was a very special project to work on, since everyone did it for the love of the craft, not the money. The budget for the film was tiny, but it proves that money is not the driving force, it should always be a focus on creating the world and telling the story. I often work with the director Karl Golden – he is a master at connecting all the creative departments and staying true to his visual style. I try to work very closely with the production designer, the cinematographer and the hair and makeup department to ensure that I am helping to support a cohesive vision for the film.

Advice for hopeful costume designers, as well as any shifts in the field of costume design that you’ve witnessed? 

Collaborate and contribute. Talent is necessary, but the next level is to be able to collaborate and support your team, other departments and the director. You can help your director and producers by showing them how much costume design can contribute to a project, be it film, television, theatre, music video, dance. It’s magical when you can infect other people with your own enthusiasm for design. But I’m not biased or anything….

The industry is changing. I learned from amazing costume designers like Ruth Meyers and Jane Greenwood who have been working for 50 years in the industry. Everyone knew how to draw by hand, and many designers still do, however now eye-catching computer drawing is becoming very popular. There are many more stylists joining the industry, starting out dressing celebrities and doing music videos and then moving into film and television. It will be interesting to see where costume design goes next!

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Six: Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), PhD (expected September 2015)

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

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!)

Paul Poiret, En Habillant l’époque (1930)

1002nd Night photograph
Poiret photograph of marbling
Poiret photograph of mannequin

Summary 

Paul Poiret’s memoirs ‘En Habillant l’époque,’ which literally translates as ‘Dressing the Age,’ were written in 1930, almost two decades after the height of his fame. At the end of his manuscript, Poiret wrote that though he continually felt ideas for new dresses germinating ‘under his skin,’ his glory days had passed. Poiret traced his fascination with dress to his childhood family. He dedicated his memoirs to his mother, who he considered supremely elegant, and described how his sisters gave him a forty-centimetre wooden mannequin, which he lovingly draped in silks, in both Parisian and Oriental styles.

Poiret cast himself as an artist-designer, whose vision of femininity radically differed from that of the early 1900s fashion he encountered during his tenure at the couturiers Doucet and Worth. He claimed that he waged war on corsets, which had divided women’s bodies into two distinct peaks, comprising the neck and breasts on one side, and the hips and buttocks on the other. However, he recalled how his more holistic outfits, with their narrow hobble skirts, made women cry, gnash their teeth, and complain that they could not walk, or get in and out of a car easily. Overall, however, Poiret regarded his relationship with women as mutually beneficial. He likened the women he dressed to orbiting planets, who relied upon ‘his sun’ to shine; but simultaneously considered that his favourite mannequin Paulette, a ‘vaporous’ blonde, with the cylindrical shape of a cigarette, was a true collaborator, because she brought his designs to life.

Response 

Poiret considered that his primary innovation in fashion was relinquishing the etherealized palette of rose, lilac, powder-blue, maize-yellow and white that had dominated French women’s clothing from the eighteenth century, in favour of opaque, Fauvist tones, including royal blue, strong greens, reds and violets and acidic orange and lemon hues that made women’s silhouettes ‘sing.’ Poiret’s incorporation of these bold hues, alongside Orientalising components, such as the Minaret ensemble of 1911, which featured turbans and hip-skimming lampshade tunics, alongside harem pants, introduced an expressive, if still decorative, vision of womanhood. Rather than blending into the background in pastel tones, the women he dressed would stand out for their exoticism. A photo-plate from Poiret’s Arabian Nights-themed party, the 1002nd Night, of 1911, shows non-Western attitudes to the body, as guests of both sexes in turbans, belted kaftans and variations upon the Minaret outfit, crouch or sit cross-legged upon a Persian rug. Extravagant feathers, which emerge from the guests’ turbans, contribute a festive and frivolous air to proceedings.

Still, the photograph’s grainy, cinematic greyscale imbues the image with a nostalgic air. One gets the impression that the colour and vibrancy of the original party resonated with memories of a vanished world. Interestingly, Poiret wrote that after his experimentation in the early 1910s, colours in fashion became ‘anemic and neurasthenic’ once more. Poiret’s memoirs, with their slate-blue leather skin, blue-marbled inside cover, and black and white photographic inserts, did not only reflect the colouristic limitations of publishing in 1930, but express their distance from the Orientalism that made the author’s reputation.

poiret cover

M.P. Verneuil, Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers (1925)

Book

Summary

Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers, by M.P.-Verneuil, was published in 1925 by Albert Levy, as part of the documentation and celebration of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the World’s Fair held in Paris, from April until October, 1925. Dedicated to the display of decorative arts, the international exhibition attracted over sixteen million visitors. Essentially, the book is a collection of seventy-five richly printed plates of decorative textiles, which Verneuil selected from the abundant examples displayed at the exhibition. Examples from Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, (then) Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are represented. Notably, France is missing: Verneuil described this as a deliberate decision, designed to eliminate bias, and to provide convenient access to an extensive international range, which could be appreciated and studied.

The book begins with a five-page introduction, in which Verneuil provides unrestrained commentary of the works included, and the countries from which they originated. This includes relevant snippets of history, such as the Austrian government initiative of 1899 to promote textile arts and teaching, which, he notes worked to great effect. He includes artistic criticism of the designs, and describes the English examples, for instance, to be ‘often perfect’, despite what he describes as the diminishment of the arts and crafts movement after the death of artists such as William Morris. After a brief but detailed contents table, the full page designs unfurl, taking the viewer on an international journey in which a thorough range of colours, techniques and styles can be studied in detail.

Book 2

Response

The International Exhibition was often shortened to Art Deco, which in time came to describe the style(s) displayed. This loose grouping included examples of modernism, cubism, futurism, and exoticism. A requirement for participation in this world’s fair was for the works included to be strictly modern, and not dependent on merely copying historic styles. Indeed, in Verneuil’s introduction, he emphasised that ‘simple lines seem necessary now,’ and the ‘more or less geometrical’ designs selected ‘agree perfectly with current architecture and furniture.’

It seems that Verneuil is according with the overall rationale behind the exhibition: to showcase the supremacy of luxury goods after the First World War. Textiles are positioned as an important expression of the zeitgeist, and those illustrated reflect contemporary, fashionable preferences. However, even within Verneuil’s chosen selection, a number of textiles rely heavily on tradition, such those that depict figurative designs of workers performing crafts. Highlighting modernity had the important, idealist function of signaling progress, distance and advancement away from the harrowing war years. Bright colours suggested a break from the muted tones of the earlier twentieth century, and even the more traditional designs shown could be produced by modern processes.

While the book does not specifically mention dress itself, the development of textiles has clear impact upon possibilities and taste in fashion, and many of the designs presented could be used in this application, both then and now. Despite the strictly ornamental nature of the designs, Verneuil successfully shows their creative and cultural importance. They, along with other related and interlinked aspects of the applied arts, such as fashion and architecture, are reflective and demonstrative of changing technology and aesthetics at this time.

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1913)

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Summary 

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was published in 1913 and presents a selection of the vast costume collection of the artist Mr. Talbot Hughes. Hughes was a British history, genre and landscape painter, and collected over 750 historical garments dating from c.1450 to 1870, which he used as studio props and references for his paintings. In 1913, Harrods Ltd bought his entire collection and displayed it for three weeks, to show the progression of historical dress, and to advertise their contemporary fashion range. After this, the collection was handed over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is still housed in the permanent collection.

This book begins with a preface by Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, then director of the V&A. He highlights the importance of the collection, ‘rich and splendid relics of ancient fashion’ and the history of dress as an essential adjunct to history and culture. As well as recognising the growth in appreciation for fashion history, he praises the inclusion of dressmaking as a subject in schools of arts and crafts and acknowledges the responsibility of the V&A to display and promote the skill and exemplary products of dressmaking to students and the public.

The book continues with some beautifully romantic descriptive notes by Philip Gibbs, reprinted from the November issue of The Connoisseur. These provide a personal and sensory account of his encounter with the collection – ‘I was able to examine their beauty, to handle their texture, and to study the historical evolution of dress in a delightful way.’ He too acknowledges the collection’s value to the public, and writes in such a way as to align costume to history, culture and art. He describes bygone eras, King’s fashions and satire, appealing to common knowledge and well-known imagery in his description of garments. Aligning the dresses to works by artists, such as Watteau and Hogarth, and writers, including Dickens and Austen, he provides an overview of fashion history through the lens of imagination and romance.

The rest of the book shows a selection of the fantastic collection in full-page photographs modelled by real people. The models, dressed in contemporaneous make-up, accessories and jewellery wear the historical garments and are placed in a contextual setting – outside, in a furnished room, or in a photographic studio. The photographs are beautifully shown in black and white, with a few full colour versions, showing the fine details of the garments.

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Response 

For me the book was intriguing on a number of levels. At first glance, it provides an interesting insight into changing perceptions of the History of Dress and dressmaking in 1913. The collection’s inclusion in the V&A stands as testament to the value in which dress was held.

 It is also interesting to see the prominence of corporate sponsorship and advertisement in publications, even as early as 1913. The book is careful to mention, at every opportunity, the role that Harrods Ltd played in the acquisition of the collection, and their support of the V&A. The importance of the collection and the sincerity of the V&A’s gratitude are particularly pertinent given that the collection was in danger of being sold to an American department store and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith and Philip Gibbs’ discussions of the collection provide an insight into museological practices and the history of dress in recent history. Their romantic language and description of the costumes is both informative and enjoyable, and really places costume within the cultural consciousness. It was also interesting to see how the costumes were originally displayed in the V&A, in glass cabinets along the Long Gallery. It is fascinating to see how the curators have picked up on the ghostly and uncanny quality that disembodied dress can convey: ‘If we would bring back to the imagination the spirits of the past, we must clothe them in the habit of their age, and neglect no detail, however slight, which will help to complete the picture.’

In light of this, the book’s most striking and unusual aspect lies in the photographs themselves. The collection is dressed on live models and placed in contemporary historical settings, producing images that are both bizarre and intriguing. This practice would be now be frowned upon – conservation issues mean that garments in dress collections are never to be worn by a live model again. However, the images are stunningly beautiful and strange at the same time. The clash of temporalities between eighteenth century costume and an early twentieth century model is captivating. There is a sense of theatricality and fantasy that is entirely unique to a History of Dress book.