Dr Sarah Cheang to Speak at the Courtauld

Join us Monday 19 June in the Research Forum from 12:30 pm-1:30 pm for ‘Transnational Fashion History: Some Problems in Twentieth-Century Chineseness,’ a lecture by Dr Sarah Cheang! It will also be available on a live stream at this link.

‘Cloquelle et Cloky ou le Voyage en Chine,’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Fashion is an emphatically transnational form of modernity and yet it is continually made to serve national agendas and uses pervasive ethnic stereotypes to create cultural value. Fashion thus creates embodied and material engagements between national and cosmopolitan subjectivities. This paper explores the vexed topic of fashion, nation and diaspora, foregrounding histories of imperialism, East Asian and European identities. New narratives of national identity are investigated by engaging directly with the transnational as a flexible state of in-between during which fashion produces multiple modernities and multiple subjectivities from within colonialism’s complex webs of global exchange and unequal power relations. Posing new questions about twentieth-century Chinese identity by placing iconic forms such as the qipao and the Chinese shawl within a transnational context, the nature of the exotic, constructions of western and non-western fashion, and the field of fashion itself are reconsidered. The paradox of fashion is that it demonstrates through flows of objects and ideas, commerce, people and politics that fashion objects are not reducible to a single culture, but at the same time fashion constantly plays with symbols of national identity in order to create personal and public meaning. This paper takes up that paradox as a key site for a deeper understanding of the East Asian within fashion history.

Sarah Cheang is Senior Tutor in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art, London. Her research centres on transnational fashion, material culture and the body from the nineteenth century to the present day, on which she has published widely. Her work is characterized by a concern with the experience and expression of ethnicity through fashion and body adornment. She co-edited the collection Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion (2008), writing on hair and race, as well as reflecting more generally on the meanings of hair within a wide range of cultures. Fascinated by states of in-between and the creative potential of metamorphosis and misunderstanding, she recently led the research project Fashion and Translation: Britain, Japan, China, Korea (2014-15), exploring East Asian identities through the ways that fashion travels between cultures. She is currently embarking on a new photographic project on hair, humanity and cycles of life and death.

Introduction to the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive

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.

Introduction to the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive

Some of the earliest fashion magazines in the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive are on show in the exhibition. Here, Gazette du Bon Ton, Für die Dame and Pinpoints are displayed.

A view of the 1940s section of the exhibition featuring Harper’s Bazaar and Femina.

Elizabeth and three MA Documenting Fashion students after the completion of the exhibition instal.

Prof. Elizabeth Edwards to Speak at the Courtauld

Join us Monday 20 March in the Research Forum from 12:30 pm-1:30 pm for ‘Thoughts on historical pagents as photographs,’ an Ad/dressing History lecture with Professor Elizabeth Edwards!

Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The early twentieth century saw a craze for historical pageants – popular re-enactments of the history of a locality. In these the stress on authenticity of historical representation through words, scenes and costume was particularly important. Prof. Edwards will consider the role of photography in perpetuating these quasi-ritual processes, values and the social efficacy of the pageants. She argues that photographs of pageants were not merely records of pageants, but, through the temporal complexity and reality effect of photographs, created a subjunctive ‘as if’ of history which extended the reach of the ritual qualities of pageants. This paper is part of a larger ethnographic project on photography and the emergence of public histories 1850-1950.

Elizabeth Edwards is a visual and historical anthropologist. She has worked extensively on the relationships between photography, history and anthropology. She is Professor Emerita of Photographic History at De Montfort University, Honorary Professor in the Anthropology Department at UCL and will soon join the V&A Research Institute as Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor.  She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. Her current book projects are on photography and the emergence  concepts of the collective ownership of ancient monuments, and on photography and the apparatus and practice of history.

5 Minutes with… Courtauld MA Student Aristea Rellou

‘Documenting Fashion’ not only aims to analyse fashion imagery, contexts and theoretical approaches. No, the course’s influence is much more far-reaching. It subtly trains the eye towards using a fashion gaze to view the world around us. The Courtauld itself, being a small institution with a specialised subject and student body, provides a fertile ground to practice it. So, in order to expand on my own perception of someone’s style I decided to ask Courtauld MA student Aristea Rellou about her clothes in order to get the inside scoop. Aristea’s fabulous way of dressing had always caught my eye through its slightly edgy, yet classic look. She kindly agreed to share her thoughts with me on what inspires her to dress the way she does.

Aristea is a student of the Print Culture and the Early Modern Arts of Italy, France and Spain MA special option. Before attending the Courtauld she studied Law at the University of Athens and Art History at the New School in New York. It was the latter where she felt her own style coming together and her interest in fashion growing. The student body there was fashionable and sported distinctive looks. Her inspiration was furthered by working in commercial art galleries, where a strong statement look oftentimes comes with the profession. Aristea is inspired by people with an innate sense of style, as they present themselves through their clothing. ‘Being very comfortable with the way you dress comes with knowing yourself too,’ she muses.

Aristea has noticed about her own approach that she chooses items which deconstruct the body. She grins: ‘It’s very Cubist, now that I think about it.’ Large shapes which do not necessarily conform to her body’s silhouette allow her to play around with juxtapositions. On the day I met her she wore a white, cropped top, tied at the front, high-waisted, wide dark trousers and a pale, blue/grey, long coat that reached to her lower calves. She topped everything off by choosing sturdy red shoes. Yet for all the deconstruction, a classic element to her clothes is also intrinsic to her look. When going shopping with her sister, they joke with each other: ‘Well, would Kate Middleton buy this?’ It is a smart move, as it also allows Aristea to be dressed appropriately all day long. Her daywear functions and shifts easily into evening wear.

Lastly, we talk about make-up. Winged eyeliner completes Aristea’s style. Even more so than clothing she thinks make-up reflects on where we currently are in our lives and how we feel. This discussion also brings me back full circle to ‘Documenting Fashion,’ where we have discussed Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ definition of dress ‘… as an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings.’ Thank you for communicating with me, Aristea!

 

Sources:

Eicher, Joanne B. and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford: Berg, 1993), pp. 8-28. (P.15)

 

 

Meet the 2017 History of Dress MAs

MA Documenting Fashion is well into the spring term, so it’s time to finally meet this year’s new group of blog contributors. Have a look below to explore each writers’ scholarly interests and, because we don’t always study, our favorites activities around London. Enjoy!

Sophie received her BA of Art History and History from University College Dublin. Her interests include Post War/Cold War fashions in Germany and the US, art, and department store displays. She is an avid scarf-wearer. When she’s not rambling on about art or fashion, she will be eating, cooking, baking, or generally gushing about food instead. All the time. Seriously. It’s kind of a problem.

Barbora received her undergraduate degree in History at King’s College London with a semester at The University of Melbourne. She is particularly interested in studying contemporary fashion, photography, fashion magazines, menswear, clothing in dance, exhibition curation, and Renaissance art. When not immersed in the history of fashion, Barbora can be found searching for her zen in a yoga class, walking out of Wardour News armed with copious amounts of magazines, or drinking a soy matcha latte.

Yona completed her undergraduate degree in Performance Costume at the University of Edinburgh. Her main fashion history interests are fashion as a social barometer, Orientalism, Fin de Siècle, and American fashion. Her favourite pastimes include watching musicals, reading whodunnits and trying out London’s amazing restaurants, but she also loves browsing for fabrics and posting historical pictures of people and dogs on Instagram.

Mia received her bachelor’s degree in Art History from Rutgers University. Her interests include modern fashion, the fashionable woman, early films and dress, designer/textiles collaborations, and curating fashion. In her limited spare time she enjoys shopping and reading fashion magazines.

Dana received her bachelor’s degree (Hons) in History of Art from the Complutense University of Madrid. Her interests include 1950s and 1960s prêt-à-porter, dress and architecture as habitable spaces, textiles for fashion and furniture design, and identity. She likes travelling, strolling around London, buying Mid Century clothing and jewellery, and just meeting friends for a chat and coffee/brunch.

Harriet completed her undergraduate studies at the University of St Andrews, gaining a First in English Literature. Her interests include fashion mannequins, artist-designed textiles, ready-to-wear, magazines, ‘behind-the-scenes’ imagery, and women’s service uniforms. When she’s not writing, Harriet may be found cooking for friends, devouring news and novels or losing to her boyfriend at backgammon.

Jamie received her bachelor’s degree in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania. Her interests include fashion in art, Aesthetic dress, dress reform, Orientalism, and costume in Old Hollywood cinema. When she’s not exploring museums around London, Jamie can be found cross-stitching, compulsively buying nail polish, or reading Oscar Wilde over a warm cup of tea.

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings

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Georgiana Houghton, The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861.

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Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1862.

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Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 1864.

I’ve recently been giving a couple of talks on Sunday afternoons in the gallery; it’s a great way of meeting some interesting people, and having a lively discussion about the works on display. My recent topic of conversation has been the Georgiana Houghton exhibition, a collection of 21 watercolour drawings that the British artist produced (ostensibly) through contact with the spirit world in 1860s to 1870s Victorian London. Houghton claimed to be in touch with various spirits including high Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Corregio, as well as deceased members of her immediate family, such as her brother Warrand, sister Rosalia and uncle William.

Her ‘spirit drawings’ are remarkable products of Victorian culture, and were produced about the same time that Claude Monet was painting the river Thames in an Impressionistic fog. If the fruits of his labour were seen as radical to a contemporary gaze, then how must a Victorian public have responded to Houghton’s endeavours, with their exotic colours and forms? Not very well at all is the answer. When she mounted an exhibition of her work in a gallery on Old Bond Street in 1871, critics responded with confusion, outrage, dismay, and bewilderment.

Nevertheless, Spiritualism had become very fashionable at the time in Victorian London, centred on the belief that contact with an ‘afterlife’ was possible through mediumship practices including séances. This fascination with the spirit world is unsurprising given the Victorians’ preoccupation with death. Not only did they introduce bells to coffins – lest any poor soul should be buried alive – but Victoria, following Albert’s death in 1861, elevated private mourning to a public level when she began to dress solely in black. With social and cultural upheaval in Victorian London, many women were beginning to enjoy greater private and public freedoms at home and work, and the dark environment of the séance room was a potentially liberating space for them to reside. Scientific expeditions were also gaining momentum during the period, alongside the doctrines of ethnography and anthropology, all of which reflected a desire to see and understand the surrounding world and, in doing so, find out more about the origins of man. It is perhaps only inevitable then that a question was also beginning to emerge of what might exist beyond life, and whether there was a contactable spirit realm.

Houghton’s work is fascinating for its pioneering use of largely abstract forms, which place her drawings closer in aesthetic terms to those of Kandinsky, or the Dadaists’ automated drawings produced in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps a contributing factor in her lack of recognition – until now – is not simply that she was a woman, but that she was producing these works 60 or 70 years too soon, before the existence of intellectual frameworks such as Freudian psychoanalysis that might have been used to understand and contextualise her drawings. I wonder if Houghton might even have been a synaesthete – there is something incredibly emotive and multisensory about her use of colour, shape, line and form.

But it is important to remember that these drawings are far from abstract. For the artist, they were highly symbolic, and she produced detailed explanations on the backs of each of them, painstakingly pointing out the different representational forms to the viewer.

Whilst Houghton is perhaps not an obvious choice for a dress historian, there is something about the thread-like lines and vibrant colours of her drawings that draw me in on a very visual – and unequivocally tactile – level. Professor David Lomas recently observed what he described as the ‘hair-like’ forms present in many of these images, suggesting a connection to be made with Victorian hair jewellery, and pointing out the interconnected processes of looking, and wanting to touch, but potentially also being touched by, Houghton’s spirit drawings.

Documenting Fashion Graduation

This Monday, July 4th, the Documenting Fashion students (and Liz, PhD, though not pictured!) graduated from the Courtauld. We were all very happy to have been able to have been there and wanted to share some photographs from our special day. The black academic robes with the brown hood are the academic dress for MAs of the University of London (the Courtauld is a self-governing college of the University of London). What did you wear to your graduation? Let us know in the comments on here or on Instagram.

From Left to Right: Giovanna, Carolina, Eleanor, Aric, Leah, and Aude

From Left to Right: Giovanna, Carolina, Eleanor, Aric, Leah, and Aude posing outside of the Courtauld Gallery. 

The MAs standing outside St. Clement Dane's church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, where the graduation ceremony was held.

The MAs standing outside St. Clement Dane’s church located on the Strand, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682, where the graduation ceremony was held. It is the central church of the Royal Air Force. 

 

The graduates taking a "selfie" timed photograph.

The graduates taking a “selfie” photograph.

 

A graduation ceremony leaflet and two guest tickets.

A graduation ceremony leaflet and two guest tickets.

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 1

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelides, both of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauld, generously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the second half will be posted next Tuesday.

What made you both decide to do a PhD in dress history at the Courtauld?

Alexis: I was living in New York, studying design history with a focus on fashion and textiles. When I finished the degree I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I was still writing and researching so it just seemed like the next logical step. My research, which is based on national fashion and post-war dress, really connected with Rebecca Arnold’s work, which I always admired. So it seemed like a good fit!

Katerina: I did an MA at The Courtauld, and it was interesting because during the time of my MA I always thought that I wanted to be a curator. I was always really interested in theatre and dress and performance, and so I did an internship at the V&A at the Theatre and Performance archive. It was a round the time of the big [Sergei] Diaghilev exhibition and I remember there was all this stuff about émigrés and Russian ballet. I was so interested in all the stories. At that time, I thought I wanted to do a book on Russian émigrés and the ballet in connection with dress and costume, but then I applied for the PhD and I got it and I got the funding, so I worked on that for three years. I ended up working with Rebecca because I met her on the MA and I really liked her and her approach.

What were the topics of your theses?

Alexis: I wrote about the French ready-to-wear industry and its development between 1945 and the late 1960s. I explored this in relation to what was happening in terms of various aspects of the post-war reconstruction of the country and women’s history, and the shift in constructions of fashion, modernity and the representation of women. I looked at how women connected to wider cultural issues through their experience of [ready-made] fashion.

Katerina: My title was ‘Russian Émigré Ballet and the Body: Paris and New York c.1920-50’. I looked at how Russians who emigrated after the Russian revolution in 1917 brought over their dance practice and how they influenced body, dress and exercise culture in the west. I also looked at how dress and exercise culture in the west, specifically in New York, influenced the Russian émigrés. So it was this two-way relationship that I examined.

I am always really interested in how research develops. People start off with having one thing in mind, and then they work on it and it sort of transforms into something completely different. Did you find that your research developed over the course of your study? And if so how?

Alexis: I think research is a personal thing, and connects to who you are. My research evolved a lot, for instance, I ended up studying an earlier period than when I started out. But on a more personal level I became much more interested in women’s personal, everyday experience of dress, focusing on women in their 30s. I turned 30 over the course of my research, and that apparently was a defining moment that I came to terms with through exploring women of a similar age, and their hurdles, in history.

Katerina: That’s so interesting because I do think that you grow up with your PhD in some ways. I started out being very young and idealistic, interested in the ethereal aspects of the ballet and the whole idea of Russian Émigré ballet as a ghostly nation that travels, and then as I got further into the research and started to look at things in archives, I became more interested in the dusty, dirty things. I became much more interested in the realities of travel and what people took with them, what they archived, what they lost, how they talked about things they lost. I think I started out being very interested in the illusions that were taking place and then I became much more interested in the women themselves, the gritty realities.

 Alexis: I wonder why we both became interested in the personal rather than looking at things from a scholar’s lens?

Katerina: I think it’s because with fashion images, for example, you always want to know what’s beneath them, and what’s the reality of the people who consume them and things like that. You always look for depth I think.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

An Auto-Ethnographic Text: Cara Delevigne for Vogue Brasil, February 2014

Cara Delevigne dominated the front cover of the February 2014 edition of Vogue Brasil, which was shot by the internationally-acclaimed Brazilian fashion photographer Jacques Dequeker. Dressed in a sparkly blue minidress by the Brazilian brand Bo.Bo., and accessorised with heavy gold jewellery designed by Lanvin and Dior, she is framed, hands on her hips, against the colourful backdrop of the Santa Marta favela. The Santa Marta favela (commonly referred to in Brazil using the more politically correct term ‘morro’, which translates literally as hill) occupies the Botafogo and Laranjeiras region of the Dona Marta hill in Rio de Janeiro. It received global media attention in 2010, when Dutch artists Jeroean Koolhas and Dre Urhahn (known as Hass & Hahn) collaborated with local residents to paint 7,000 square metres of the morro’s façade in contrasting shades of the rainbow. A symbol of pride for the local community, the Santa Marta art project featured throughout the 12-page Vogue Brasil editorial, which was entitled ‘Face to Face with the Favela: the Santa Marta hill serves as the scenario for Cara Delevigne to wear statement pieces of the season, showing that streetwear couture is the trend of the moment’.

It is not difficult to point out the strikingly asymmetrical dynamics of power in operation between the British supermodel – posing in a combination of mid to high-end Western and Brazilian fashion labels that include Prada, Chanel, Adidas Originals, Bo.Bo., Starter, Valention and John John – and the socioeconomic realities of local residents, whose own creative sartorial expressions were noticeably absent from the frame. Furthermore, it is certainly not uncommon, within ‘Western’ fashion magazines, to come face to face with similar stereotypically ‘exotic’ fashion shoots, which replace the immaculate studio for various ‘non-Western’ backdrops and cityscapes that provide an edgy and endlessly intriguing locale to display Western fashion for the curious Western viewer. Sarah Cheang discusses this at length in her fantastic article, entitled ‘’To the Ends of the Earth’: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot’, wherein she comments that Western fashion frequently constructs its ‘other and self-defining conceptual opposite’ through shoots in, for example, ‘dusty Palestine, rural India, or mountainous Peru’.

But what are we to think when Vogue Brasil, with forward thinking Editor-in-Chief Daniela Falcão at the helm, turns that curious Western gaze upon itself, using the morro Santa Marta as an exotic and colourful backdrop to spice up the pages of the magazine? Certainly, there is a considerable distance between the Brazilian viewer (predominantly white European-descended women with cultural and economic capital), whose social and material reality is far divorced from that of inhabitants of the colourful morro Santa Marta, a setting which is sure to have had a cheerful aesthetic appeal for a Vogue Brasil readership. Nevertheless, it is important to situate the magazine within the cross-cultural context from which it emerged in 1975 and has since developed. Brazil is a country that sits intriguingly in between the West and the so-called non-West. In geographical terms Brazil is certainly a Western nation. Moreover, it is affiliated with the West in terms of its developing free-market economy, its large export supplies of raw materials and manufactured goods, its transition to a democratic constitution following the end of the authoritarian military regime in 1985, its high cultural institutions, and its adoption of Christianity and the Portuguese language. Yet Brazil might still be considered a non-Western nation with regard to its incomplete infrastructure, socioeconomic disparities, unequal distribution of wealth and land, poor standards of public health, and its popular and material culture which constitutes, as David Hess and Robert DaMatta have succinctly articulated, a unique site in which ‘Western culture has mixed and mingled with non-Western cultures for centuries’.

So taking this cross-cultural context into account, is it possible to discern any critical engagement in Vogue Brasil with Western and non-Western academic debates that have used the term ‘auto-ethnographic’ text or ‘auto-exotic’ gaze to refer to the way that non-Western cultures often look at themselves with Western eyes, turning their culture into an exotic product that they then offer back to the West? Mary Louise Pratt coined the term ‘auto-ethnography’ or ‘auto-ethnographic’ and used it to describe ‘text[s] in which people undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them’. These auto-ethnographic texts involve ‘a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis and conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to various degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of understanding’. There are numerous tropes to draw upon to demonstrate how the West has produced an exoticised image of Brazil as a site of cultural difference, usually centered on Rio de Janeiro, and on the themes of sun, sea, Caipirinhas, Copacabana beach, skimpy bikinis, and the drugs and violence associated with the favelas. So in placing this fashion shoot within the morro Santa Marta, Vogue Brasil was engaging with a well-established stereotype of Brazil that is frequently seen in the Western media; the only difference is that the violence and gun crime has been eclipsed by the dazzling beauty of the rainbow coloured buildings. Pratt writes that ‘auto-ethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speaker’s own community’ and deduces that ‘their reception is thus highly indeterminate. In using Cara Delevigne as the model, Vogue Brasil knew that this shoot would attract the attention of the Western media, which it did, appearing in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, to cite but one example, in an article by Louise Sanders entitled ‘Favela funk! Cara Delevingne rocks her signature edgy style in vivid neon brights as she works her magic in street shoot for Vogue Brazil’. Although the title suggests the Daily Mail struggled to pick up on the critical message of the shoot it nevertheless constituted, as Pratt has pointed out, ‘a marginalised groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture’.

Therefore, whilst it might be easy to either dismiss this fashion shoot as an instance of Vogue Brasil following in the footsteps of Western fashion magazines, which marginalises the everyday experiences of local residents of the morro Santa Marta or, conversely, to celebrate it for its eye-catching images that frame Cara Delevigne against an intriguing backdrop, I would argue that something altogether more complicated is taking place. If understood as an auto-ethnographic text, then this shoot mobilises a far more interesting dynamic of cross-cultural contact between Brazil and the West that warrants further examination, in which Brazil is perhaps no longer subordinate to the West, but instead uses its own cultural productions to subtly fight back.

Cara Delevigne on the cover of the February 2014 issue of Vogue Brasil

Cara Delevigne on the cover of the February 2014 issue of Vogue Brasil. Image: Liz Kutesko

 

The first page of the Cara photo spread Image: Liz Kutesko

The first page of the Cara photo spread Image: Liz Kutesko

photo 3

Image: Liz Kutesko

photo 2

Image: Liz Kutesko

References

[1] Anon., ‘De Cara com a Rua: o morro Dona Marta serve de Cenario para Cara Delevigne vestir peças statement da temporada que, usadas com outras de dna Atletico, imprimem o streetwear couture que e tendencia da vez’, Vogue Brasil, February 2014, pp. 140-151.

[2] S. Cheang, ‘’To the Ends of the Earth’: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot’ in Fashion Media: Past and Present, ed. By D. Bartlett, S. Cole, and A. Rocamora (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 35-45 (p. 35).

[3] D. J. Hess and R. A. DaMatta, ‘Introduction’ in Brazilian Puzzle: Culture on the Borderlands of the Western World, ed. By Hess and DaMatta (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 2.

[4] M. L. Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 8.

[5] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, p. 8.

[6] Ibid.

The Met Gala – A Forgotten History

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.

The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.

Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile.  For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the Looking Glass," which translates into Chinese as "Moon in the Water," suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator's created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer - a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. "When 'Moon in the Water,' is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy." Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” which translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator’s created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer – a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. “When ‘Moon in the Water,’ is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy.” Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

A porcelain- inspired couture gown included in "China Through the Looking Glass". Image: Carolina Reyes

A blue-and-white porcelain- inspired couture gown included in “China Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibition pointed out that the story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchannge between the East and the West. It was originally developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. However, because of its popularity potters in the Netherlands, Germany and England began to produce their own imitations with a particular willow pattern, causing Chinese craftsmen to begin producing their own hand-painted versions of the willow pattern. Image: Carolina Reyes

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache.

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Image: Carolina Reyes

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the "Party of the Year" now known as the Met Gala.

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the “Party of the Year” now known as the Met Gala.