Dissertation Discussion: Yona

The finale of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, 1939. Romano Archives.

What is your title?

Billy Rose’s Aquacade & The Search for American Identity

The ‘Aquagals’ dressed as the Statue of Liberty, 1939. Romano Archives.

What prompted you to choose this topic?

For my dissertation, I am looking at American identity in the costumes of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, which performed during the 1939 and 1940 New York World’s Fair. Not being aware of the Aquacade’s existence until recently, I came across this topic by chance. During the past year, I have spent considerable time researching American fashion and identity and knew I wanted to continue exploring the subject. When looking for an American film clip archive, I came across the Prelinger Archive, which was founded by Rick Prelinger in 1982 in New York City and consists of around 60,000 ephemeral films. The archive contained amazing amateur films of the New York World’s Fair, which also showed the Aquacade. The Aquacade was the most extraordinary show that I had come across for a long time. Its vast array of different acts included synchronised swimming, diving, dance, skating, fashion, clowns, and performances by important athletes of the time, including Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Due to its extravagant declarations of Americanness, the Aquacade provides invaluable insight into American identity around the start of World War II.

A birds-eye view of the Aquacade, 1 September 1939. Vogue Archive.

Most interesting research find so far?

One of the most exciting parts of my research has been analysing the use of the American flag and American symbols as an expression of American identity in the Aquacade. During the first New York World’s Fair season, World War II broke out in Europe. Even though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, the American government realised that the US needed a defined identity to be able to unite its people in patriotism. As the US did not have strongly embedded traditions and copied European ideas and design styles until well into the 20th century, identity had to be based on something other than traditions that could be considered unequivocally American. Therefore, American identity focussed on history and symbols, including the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. The Aquacade incorporated the colours, stripes and stars of the American flag in its costumes and props, and even showed 48 dancers dressed as the Statue of Liberty – one for each state (Alaska and Hawaii only became states in 1959).

Four of Billy Rose’s ‘Aquabelles’ stage a fashion show of the past, present and future bathing suit styles at the New York World’s Fair, July 4, 1939. Getty Images.

Favorite place to work?

Even though I am writing on an active performance with important athletes, I have barely moved myself since starting my dissertation work. I have always preferred writing at home as I like the comfort and endless supply of tea and prefer not to have any distractions. As such, I have been living like a hermit, only leaving my room for food and tea.

Dissertation Discussion: Harriet

Spot the illicit San Pellegrino

What is your title?

Something along the lines of  ‘Capturing Fashion at Work: Mark Shaw’s behind-the-scenes images of the Paris collections for LIFE magazine in the 1950s’

What prompted you to choose this subject?

Our tutor Dr Rebecca Arnold’s fondness for the work of American designer Claire McCardell (you may thank her for ballet flats, spaghetti straps, separates…) led me to a fine art and textile collaboration she worked on (Picasso prints!) which was photographed for LIFE in the mid-Fifties by Mark Shaw. The Mark Shaw Archive recently popped up on Instagram (@markshawofficial / @markshawlondonsydney), and scrolling through his work – snapshots of Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy amongst the images – I discovered and became mildly obsessed with his images of models prepping for fashion shows. Amazingly few people have studied backstage images – these days they’re a mainstay of Instagram and Vogue Runway reports during fashion week.

Looking up at the lilac tree

Most interesting research find thus far?

Speaking to Mark Shaw’s daughter in law Juliet across the pond in Vermont and meeting his grandson Hunter in London. Juliet kindly sent me scanned film and contact sheets to pore over – a game changer. Coming across a key quote by Baudelaire (who famously coined the slippery term ‘modernity’) one grey day in the British Library got me pretty excited (#nerdalert).

Favourite place to work?

The National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum for its sheer opulence, or at home in my south London garden in the dappled light beneath the lilac tree. Most libraries don’t allow food or drink, and some days the need for constant cups of tea (and a visiting fellow art historian with a pair of puppies) wins out.

Puppy stress therapy

Dissertation Discussion: Jamie

Aubrey Beardsley, cover for The Yellow Book, Volume III, 1894. British Library. Photo by Jamie Vaught.

What is your title?

Decadence, Defiance, Death: The Last Years of Aesthetic Dress

What prompted you to choose this topic?

While studying dress reform as an undergraduate, I became enamored with Aesthetic dress, an alternative style of clothing adopted by followers of British Aestheticism primarily during the late-1870s and early-1880s. Female Aesthetes channeled medieval, Greek, and pastoral styles in muted-color dresses outfitted with puffed sleeves, straight, trained skirts, and unconstricted waists. As I researched, I was surprised to discover that very little scholarly work had been done on Aesthetic dress in the 1890s. This dissertation allowed me to explore that last decade of this style and the impact Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial had on its reception. More specifically, I examined how three groups interpreted Aesthetic dress through extremely different ideals of womanhood, as elucidated in their respective writing and illustrations: Decadents (The Yellow Book, The Savoy, and the works of Wilde), artistic reformers (Aglaia and The Queen), and department stores (The Queen and Liberty catalogues).

Liberty gowns drew heavily from historical dress. In this ad, the cut of the coat resembles the Empire period, while the tea gown is very medieval. Detail from a Liberty & Co. ad in The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper, 3 June 1899, Vol 106. Courtesy of the British Library.

Most interesting research find so far?

I have found some absolutely odd gems during my exploration of Queen, including an embroidery pattern of a duck wearing a robe à la polonaise, yearly coverage of the Crystal Palace cat show, and a story on the flammability of dresses in the home. My all-time favorite line of text was from the 22 May 1897 installment of ‘Vista of Fashion’ in which author Mrs. Aria begins the article, ‘“GIVE ME FROCKS,” I cried, as I rushed up the stairs.’ I aspire to enter every clothing store this way from now until my last day.

Of all my research, Max Beerbohm’s satirical essay ‘1880,’ published in the fourth issue of the The Yellow Book (1895), left the greatest impression on me. Its tone when discussing the Aesthetic Craze is simultaneously mocking and maudlin; Beerbohm’s observations are truths with a bite to them. This sentimentality affected me considerably. After working on Aesthetic dress for two years, I have grown very attached to that elite coterie’s eccentric cast of characters and do sometimes wish I could experience what it was like to live among them. One passage in the essay stuck out to me the most:

‘All Fashion came to marvel and so did all the Aesthetes…Fairer than the mummers, it may be, were the ladies who sat and watched them from the lawn. All of them wore jerseys and tied-back skirts. Zulu hats shaded their eyes from the sun. Bangles shimmered upon their wrists. And the gentlemen wore light frock-coats and light top-hats with black bands. And the aesthetes were in velveteen, carrying lilies.’

I will admit to shedding a tear in the middle of a British Library Reading Room when I read that final sentence.

These four figures are examples of Greek-inspired dress designs in Aglaia, the journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union. Straight, flowing skirts epitomize the loose styles advocated by artistic reformers, and the sleeves are a less exaggerated version of the gigot sleeve fashionable in the mid-1890s. ‘The Empire Dress’ from Aglaia No. 1, July 1893, page 35. Courtesy of Senate House Library.

Favorite place to work?

I only really work in three places: the Book Library, the British Library (most often in the Newsroom), and a café near the Courtauld. I am most productive in the last, since jazz standards and the customers’ soft conversations give me writing tunnel vision. And the baristas are great­–they start preparing my usual breakfast, black tea and a blueberry muffin, as soon as I walk through the door!

My cafe workspace, complete with laptop, notebook, draft, and tea.

Dissertation Discussion: Barbora

My three bibles for the past few months: D.V. by Diana Vreeland, Allure by Diana Vreeland and Memos: The Vogue Years edited by Alexander Vreeland

What is your title?

“Fake It!” Examining the myths and realities in the life and work of Diana Vreeland.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

Ever since I’ve watched The Eye Has To Travel for the first time, I was fascinated by Diana Vreeland and the way she shaped the industry almost singlehandedly. Her stories, too, are quite something: Vreeland, her sister and nanny were the last people to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen in 1911; Charles Lindbergh flew over her garden on his first trans-Atlantic flight; she almost took down the British monarchy when Wallis Simpson came to her lingerie store to order some special garments for her first weekend away with the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward; and she attended Hitler’s birthday party in the early ’30s, sending a postcard to her son afterwards with the note “Watch this man.” Apparently so, anyway. I wanted to find out more about what prompted her to create such an extreme background for herself, the reason behind all the myth and fantasy which surrounded her, the obsession with “faking it” and everything else about her, really. Actually, I think I fancied the role of a detective for a few months, attempting to untangle what really went on in her head and her life.

‘Vogue’ December 1, 1965 Cover | Wilhelmina Cooper by Irving Penn | Diamond cage deisgned by Harry Winston (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

‘Vogue’ July 1, 1969 | Veruschka by Irving Penn (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Most interesting research find thus far?

I was lucky enough to go to New York to visit the Diana Vreeland Papers Archive at the New York Public Library. Flicking through the original pages of her teenage diary, handling her passport and birth certificate (the date of her birth is no longer a mystery!) and finding out what she was up to on a day-to-day basis through the Smythson leather diaries she kept between 1950 and 1985 was quite amazing. There are some peculiar entries where Vreeland notes when she is due to start her pills – once green, then yellow, then pink. Very intriguing. Sadly, I only had two days in New York and so could only go through four boxes out of the sixty-something the library has. Might have to go on another trip soon! I think about a month should do it, mainly because Vreeland’s handwriting makes it quite a challenge to decode what she was actually trying to write down. Oh, and one more thing: the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue online archives are very dangerous if you don’t have much time – they suck you in!

‘Vogue’ April 15, 1969 | Bert Stern (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Favourite place to work?

I got into a very bad habit of working from my bed. So most of the time I can be found there, surrounded by mounds of paper, pastel-coloured highlighters and books. If I manage to persuade myself to face the outside world, I head to Starbucks (but only one that has comfortable armchairs or sofas!), and have a huge mug of soy matcha latte. I fear to look at my bank statement and find out how much I spent at Starbucks in the past couple of months. And there’s still time to go… Strangely, I find libraries quite distracting, but in Starbucks I get the work done.

Starbucks should probably have its mention in my acknowledgements as the place which provided constant fuel for all the writing.

What my bed looks like most of the time now. Also, pastel-coloured highlighters are a must, as is colour-coding!

Dissertation Discussion: Dana

Model Anne Saint-Marie wearing cinnamon brown wool tweed evening coat, lined in black satin over matching black satin dress. © Horst P Horst for Vogue Oct, 1959. Getty Images

What is your title?

I’m very bad at coming up with titles and I’m still working on mine, but the working title is ‘Relationships Between Body, Fashion and Furniture: The Modern Chair in Mid-Century Photography.’

Model Anne Saint-Marie wearing cartwheel pyjamas as pants, of printed silk shantung in flowers of orange and red. Shown with white sleeveless linen top and strap sandals. © Horst P Horst for Vogue June, 1957. Getty Images

What prompted you to choose this subject?

I’ve always had very broad interests, academically and personally, that range between ancient and medieval art to modern design and fashion, so I really wanted to do something different and wanted to explore further (although I was hesitant to do so at first). I also have a soft spot for furniture, especially Mid Century Modern chairs, sofas and daybeds, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. But the moment I decided that I wanted to talk about furniture and fashion was during our class trip to New York. Not only was there an exhibition on Bauhaus interiors (another soft spot) at MoMA, but also, on our visit to the FIT archives, I realized that we were all sitting on 1975 Eames chairs for Herman Miller, which to the amusement of my classmates, got me very excited. That is when I thought I had to!

Anne Gunning-Parker wearing shantung pajamas with watermelon slice design reclining on couch with dog and unidentified man seated next to her. © Horst P Horst for Vogue May, 1954. Getty Images.

Most interesting research find thus far?

There has been so much! But the most interesting find was seeing how most of the 1950s images I’ve been looking at portrayed men and women sitting for a photo (more specifically husband and wife). Unless the shot portrays them working (as some portraits from Charles and Ray Eames), the man is usually positioned behind the woman (most likely standing), more pensive. The woman usually sits on a sofa (a tad reclined – but never too comfortably). This creates a dichotomy between the man and the woman portrayed, of vertical and horizontal lines.

Paul McCobb among his furniture, 1956. Photographer not stated. Getty Images.

Favourite place to work?

I’m not a library person anymore, so usually spend most of my time at home or in coffee shops (where coffee is allowed). But I’ve gone to my parent’s house in Madrid for a couple weeks and my favourite place to work here would be the library at the Costume Museum as it’s always quiet, cool, and has glass walls with views to their garden (which is pretty amazing).

Documenting Fashion: History of Dress MA Dissertations since 2010

As the summer term starts, all thoughts turn to dissertations. While this year’s students focus on their writing, let’s take a look at the wonderful array of subjects covered so far.

All dissertations are available on request at The Courtauld Book Library – click here for details: http://courtauld.ac.uk/study/resources/book-library/collections-services/dissertations-theses

Processed with MOLDIV

2010/11

Rachel Boddington – ‘Feminine identity and the consumption of synthetic fabrics: the projection of social judgment onto synthetic fabrics, and its ramifications for female identity in the 1930s’

Harriet Hall – ‘Nostalgia, innocence and subversion: Kawaii and the Lolita fashion subculture in Japan’

Hannah Jackson – ‘Representing femininity: Madame Yevonde’s Goddess series, 1935’

Jemima Klenk – ‘A process of reorganisation: the construction of modern classicism as a social, fashionable and political response to modernity 1930-1939’

Lily Le Brun – ‘”Life lived on a plane of poetry”: images of Siegfried Sassoon in the Lady Otteline Morrell album collection’

Uthra Rajgopal – ‘The release of fancy dress in interwar Britain: a closer look’

Emma McClendon – ‘”First Paris fashions out of the sky”: an examination into the effect of the 1962 Telstar satellite on the dynamic of the transatlantic fashion industry’

Katy Wan – ‘Photographic and bodily exposures in Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful”’

2011/12

Alexandra Dives – ‘Swimwear in aspirations of modernity and identity: the healthy ’mindful body’ in politics, class and gender in 1930s Britain’

Elizabeth Kutesko – ‘Representation of Moroccan women’s dress in National Geographic, 1912-2012’

Lucy Moyse – ‘”A seductive weapon… a necessary luxury”: the fragrance ventures of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli during the interwar period’

Amanda Pajak – ‘Low: a psychogeographic analysis of the American and German influences on David Bowie’s image during the 1970s’

Natalia Ramirez – ‘Blogging and the reinvention of the fashion industry in the early 21st century’

Rebecca Straub – ‘Man-made: gender performativity in the costume and practice of rehabilitation at Walter Reed General Hospital’

2012/13

Sarah Heather Brown – ‘The look of citizenship: subjecthood in Humphrey Spender’s ’Worktown’ photographs’

Emily Collyer – ‘Selling with sex: underwear advertising in women’s magazines, Britain 1946 – 1955’

Katherine Gruder – ‘Modernity, vitality and freedom : the factors behind the founding of the men’s dress reform party’

Michele Levbarg-Klein – ‘Styling identity: character construction and contemporary culture in the fashion editorial imagery of American, British, French and Italian Vogue 1990-1999’

Madeleine Piggot – ‘Alexander McQueen: a construction of Britishness in the media, 1994-2010’

Charlotte Smart – ‘Constructing identity through adornment: the jewellery of Wallis Simpson and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, 1919-1939’

Antonia Their – ‘Undressing Scorsese : theorising film costume as text and subtext’

Nadya Wang – ‘Fashioning multiracialism: (ad)dressing the modern Singapore woman in “her world” in the 1960s’

2013/14

Fruzsina Bekefi – ‘Fashioning the future: High treason (1929) and the wardrobe of tomorrow’

Elisa de Wyngaert – ‘Inhabiting art and fashion: the case of designer and artist Helmut Lang’

Jessica Draper – ‘The space between a uniform and a utopia: an exploration of how Sophie Hicks’s style wields power’

Jennifer Potter – ‘Consuming fashion and selling social dance: Irene Castle’s performances in early twentieth century consumer culture, 1912-1915’

Julia Rea – ‘Adorned in myth: the significance of mythology in Chanel jewellery, 1932-2012’

2014/15

Brianna Carr – ‘Motif as motive: representations of Helena Rubinstein’s brand of beauty in America, 1915-1930’

Lauren Dobrin – ‘Embodying the nation: dress, image and performativity in the Miss America pageant and protest of 1968’

Lisa Osborne – ‘Pleats and folds: modernity, technology and atemporality in the designs of Mariano Fortuny and Issey Miyake’

Emma Parnis England – ‘”Between two lives”: fashioning T. S. Eliot’s fragmented self in modernist portraiture, 1925-56’

Nicole Prattis – ‘Lee Miller’s war photography: the boundaries between civilisation and demise (as seen in Vogue)’

Rosily Roberts – ‘Performances of Mexicanidad: displaying nationalism in representations of Mexican dress after the Mexican Revolution’