Beyond the Buckle: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection

 

Blue striped wall with gold framed pictures of women and a bright pink decorated show beneath

Image C/O Maia Heegaard

The relationship between art and fashion is fraught with complexities, but the two disciplines have always drawn heavily from one another, in ways both synergistic and hostile. At the Wallace Collection’s recent exhibition An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection, we are presented with a glistening example of the collaborative nature of art and fashion at its best—a clear representation of how art can inform the fashion design process. Juxtaposing some of the designer’s most beautiful shoe creations with prominent works of art by Boucher, Rubens, Titian, and Gainsborough, all within in the architecturally exquisite setting of Hertford House, there is an obvious decadence to the exhibit that is impossible to not enjoy on an aesthetic level.

The Wallace Collection is rich and vast on its own—difficult to digest with a single visit. Upon walking in, I was pleasantly struck by the degree to which Blahnik’s shoes blended seamlessly with the collection—nothing felt forced, out of place. It was as though the shoes were a permanent part of the collection, echoing not only the paintings on the walls, but the gilding of a cabinet, the richness of a velvet window curtain. Each room was organized thematically to display a different historical moment or story, from the dimly lit baroque, full of velvet and brocade, to “Avant-Garde Fashion.” For fans of fashion, the exhibit offers clear insight into Blahnik’s creative process—the designer credits the museum’s collection as a source of design inspiration, and from early sketches to the final product it is clear how he has brought the fantastical aspects of the art into the realm of the living.

Light pink shoes with flowers in glass case beneath blue striped wall and painting of woman in pink dress

Image C/O Olivia Smales

Nestled between the paintings and gilded clocks and vases, I found myself engaging with the shoes as art objects rather than wearable items—objects of beauty, much like the paintings on the walls. Conceptions of art versus craft are challenged, and a dialogue between the two prompts the viewer to question what makes an object “art” to begin with. What are the difference between the traditional ‘high brow’ mediums of painting and sculpture, and where does fashion fall?

Placed within delicate domed glass cases, the shoes feel all the more at home in their rich and fantastical setting, precious objects to be protected from the corruptions of the external world. Despite this layer of glass between object and viewer, the shoes imbue the space with a certain unexpected intimacy. At a time in which fashion exhibitions are often sensationalized and overcrowded, it is refreshing to be able to get close to the shoes, to examine the subtle relationships between the objects and their surroundings, the details of their meticulous design.

Beyond crafting a dialogue, the shoes and paintings bring new meanings to one another, notably a pair of infamous Manolo’s—pink shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. The shoes are placed beneath Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) in which a woman kicks off a pair of candy-floss pink heels that are remarkably similar. The viewer is immediately transported to the realm of the painting, able to connect via this real world object, and simultaneously better able to understand how Blahnik may have conceptualized these shoes to begin with. The same shoes exhibited within the sterile confines of a luxury store might appear as simple objects for purchase by the privileged, drawing attention to the importance of context when it comes to all works of art (called to mind are Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and those same boxes on a supermarket shelf…).

Mint green shoes in glass case with feathers and jewels on dark green table

Images C/O Olivia Smales

While perhaps a stereotypically feminine object, the shoes crystallized the presence of women, both within the collection and throughout history. I found myself noticing prominent female figures in the works of art around me, and considering the place of women across history, from the Marquesses who once inhabited Hertford House to the largely female crowd viewing the shoes around me.

We all share in the experience of putting on shoes. Whether or not they are as decadent as those designed by Blahnik, there is a familiarity to the object, and a desire to know who stood in these shoes before, and to be like them. The exhibition offers something to art and fashion fans alike, teaching art fans about a revolutionary designer, and bringing in a crowd who may otherwise have missed out on the Wallace collection’s treasures.

 

Sources:

https://www.tatler.com/article/manolo-blahnik-an-enquiring-mind-wallace-collection

http://www.arteviste.com/arteviste/a-review-of-manolo-blahnik-an-enquiring-mind-at-the-wallace-collection-london-lhhj5

   

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style Exhibition Review

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, currently on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum, brings the luxury, modernity, and romance of traveling by sea during the 20th century. While the exhibition covers all aspects of ocean liner travel, including décor, promotion, and engineering, I was particularly struck by the room detailing Life on Board. Life on Board features a stunning array of cruise-wear ranging from the turn of the century to the late 1960s. The show gives room to show everything from high-end couture worn by first class passengers in the 1920s and 1930s to bikini’s worn by the deck pool in the 1960s. This broad range gives a comprehensive overview of golden age ocean liner fashion in the 20th century, and the changes to life on board as the century progressed.

As you enter the ‘Life on Board’ room a screen with an ocean scene creates a ship deck ambiance. The pool-side scene featuring bathing suit looks from different decades is set against this blue sky and sea backdrop. A mannequin languidly lounging behind the “pool” sports an Emilio Pucci bikini from 1968. The bikini has been styled with large, white sunglasses and a matching headscarf. The pattern, of different shades of blue and aqua, and accessories give the mannequin a distinct, almost psychedelic, youthful 1960s glamour. Sitting next to the Pucci-clad model is a more conservatively dressed mannequin dipping a toe into the pool. She is dressed in a Jantzen one-piece bathing suit from the 1950s. In between the two seated mannequins is a standing mannequin wearing a bathing top and shorts made by Viking in the mid-to-late 1920s. Finally, the mannequin in the very front is placed to look as if she is diving head-first into the pool. This athletic mannequin is clothed in a two-piece yellow bathing suit from 1937-39. The contrasts between the different colours, eras, and styles of bathing suits gives a broad sense of life on deck throughout the golden age of Ocean Liner travel. The reclining and active mannequins placed against the blue-sky background allowed me to feel as though I were truly witnessing a poolside scene on the deck of a grand ship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, displayed directly opposite the pool-side scene, is a re-creation of the Grand Descente. The Grand Descente was an elaborate staircase that led into the dining room, from which fashionable first-class passengers could make a memorable entrance and show off the latest fashions. The staircase is recreated as a series of plain back platforms elevated one above the other. The austerity of the staircase in the exhibition allows attention to be drawn to the garments. Behind the mannequins is a screen, onto which, a procession of models in gowns is projected, thus giving the sense of movement associated with the Grand Descente to the still mannequins. The ceiling above the display is black with countless small, lights, giving the appearance of a glittering, glamourous night sky. The mannequins display three gowns worn by New York socialite Emilie Grigsby in the 1910s-1920s, and a men’s evening ensemble worn by US Diplomat Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr. The outfits all enhance the glamorous image of ocean liner travel in the early 20th century.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting clothing from different decades and different occasions. By placing elegant 1920s couture across from bikinis from the 1960s, the viewer gains a sense of how much ocean travel changed during the course of the 20th century, but how it remained a glamourous endeavor.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum until June 17th.

By Olivia Chuba

All photos taken by the author