Documenting Fashion on Summer Break

Details from Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographs for Harper’s Bazaar.

The Documenting Fashion Blog will be on hiatus until September for the summer holiday. While you wait in anticipation for our return (and fresh posts from a new group of MAs), take a look at a few books recommended by our recent graduates.

Barbora: Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes (Random House, 1938)

I based my second assignment of the year on Elizabeth Hawes, the sadly not well-known American designer and writer, after we saw her archive at the Brooklyn Museum. Hawes was pretty much a dress reformer in the 30s, urging for more ready-to-wear fashions as well as clothing for men that was less restrictive and unhygienic as the multiple layers they were required to wear by society all year round. Fashion Is Spinach is the first book by Hawes in which she takes on the fashion industry in a hilarious manner, questioning its principles, uncovering the way it operates, how copying works (something she herself has done as a young woman) and generally just ridicules the way fashion authorities dictate what is and is not stylish at a certain moment. Her other books are great too, but Fashion Is Spinach combines all the different aspects of the industry and the business. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and definitely the best book I read during the year. Also, I feel more people should know about Elizabeth Hawes and the amazing work she has done, so this recommendation was a no-brainer. Only problem is, it is a bit tricky to find it online. But the search is so worth it in the end!

Read it online here.

Harriet: How LIFE Gets the Story by Stanley Rayfield (Doubleday, 1955)

I audibly gasped and was sternly shushed when I first opened this book one bleak day in the British Library. It documents the truly extraordinary lengths the magazine’s photojournalists went to best capture their subjects – from microscopic beings to Stalin’s successors; even Audrey Hepburn having her hair washed on the set of Sabrina. My favourite image is of Margaret Bouke-White dangling from a helicopter to get a better shot. As you do.

Jamie: Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David (Bloomsbury, 2015)

I picked up the spine-tingling Fashion Victims for a bit of pleasure reading after the course finished in June. Filled with morbid, and occasionally gruesome, details about dangerous dress, Alison Matthew David’s book brings to light some obvious and not-so-obvious ways that Western fashion of the 19th and 20th centuries led to many untimely deaths. The author’s wonderful balance of detailed scholarship and engaging writing makes this book a truly enjoyable read. While I won’t divulge any of the shocking facts I learned (that’s for you to find out!), I will leave you to ponder a point raised in the introduction of this book: if clothing is supposed to protect the body from outside harm, why is it that it ‘fails spectacularly’ so often in the course of fashion history?

Sophie: Fashion: A Very Short Introduction by Rebecca Arnold (Oxford University Press, 2009)

I feel like I’m stating the obvious and cheekily doing some serious ‘Documenting Fashion’ ad-work here, but this small little book really is a lovely nice overview for anyone wishing to jump into all things related to fashion. If you’re going on holidays it’ll also fit snugly into your hand luggage…lucky you!

Yona: Fashion Since 1900 (2nd edition) by Amy de la Haye and Valerie Mendes (Thames and Hudson, 2010)

This book has been my first point of reference for both my historical fashion designs and my academic work. Even though the book covers an entire century of fashion in rather few pages, it gives a clear overview of fashionable styles and societal influences on fashion as well as interesting details. In addition to mainstream fashion, Fashion Since 1900 also explores subcultural dress and even cosmetics and accessories. Amazingly, this book covers the basics of everything that I have researched during the past years.

Dana: Fashioning London: Clothing and the Modern Metropolis by Christopher Breward (Berg, 2000)

I actually read it before the course started as it was recommended in our reading list, and I love how it goes into detail about the relationships between city life and fashion, which are very explicit in London. It’s an amazing book to learn more about the city’s history and the manner in which particular styles of dress became associated with this leading international city, ultimately challenging the dominance of Paris, Milan and New York. The author constructs an original history of clothing in London its manufacture, promotion and cultural meaning in the city, which was an amazing taster for the course, therefore I encourage everyone interested in the London’s history or living in London to read it.

See you in September!

Fashion: A Very Short Introduction

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The new academic year is just beginning here in the UK, so to welcome all the new students focused on Dress History and Fashion Studies, we are giving you a PDF to download that will hopefully get started on your new course!

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Spectres exhibition, designed and curated by Judith Clark at Momu, Antwerp, 2005.

This is the Introduction to my book Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009), which discusses some of the definitions of the word fashion and its multiple meanings.  When I was writing this, I thought hard about how to introduce what is such a seemingly easy term that quickly becomes complex when you think of all the ways it is used within global culture.  I used Judith Clark’s amazing 2005 exhibition Spectres, held at MoMu in Antwerp as my starting point.  Encapsulated within the show were many of the ideas I wanted to convey to open up the book and its readers to ways to study and think about fashion.  I hope you will find this an interesting opening – I loved writing this book, it was a challenge to decide how to approach a big subject in a small format, but actually, this gave a brilliant clarity and focus to what needed to be covered in each chapter, to build towards a (very short) introduction to fashion …

Happy New Term!

John Trussler, The Habitable World Described, Or the Present State of the People in all parts o the Globe, from North to South; together with The Genius, Manners, Customs, Trade, Religion, Forms of Government, & of the Inhabitants, and every thing respecting them, that can be either entertaining or informing to the Reader, collected from the earliest and latest Accounts of Historians and Travellers of all Nations; With some that have never been published in this kingdom; And nothing advanced but on the best Authorities (1788-97)

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Summary

The Courtauld Library holds volume sixteen of Rev. John Trussler’s expansive scope of books entitled, The Habitable World Described… It focuses on Italy: namely, the Papal States, Sicily, Naples, and Malta. It is just one of twenty volumes, the first of which was published in 1788 and the last in 1797; each attempts, with the addition of engraved copper plates and maps, to describe the ‘entire known habitable world’. It was produced in the late eighteenth century, a period when British territorial expansion overseas was in full swing and travel accounts played an important role in disseminating information, mainly concerning areas claimed and conquered, to a larger European public beyond the scientific community. An interesting mix of science and sentiment, Trussler’s interest with pre-unification Italy was not uncommon. Italy in the late eighteenth century, with its art and architecture of classical antiquity, fascinated numerous British travellers, as had continental Europe as a whole.

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Response

Trussler was concerned with the geography, politics, and social structures of the places he visited, not to mention the people, although dress played a minor role in his descriptive accounts of them. References to dress in Trussler’s account are far from abundant, which leads one to deduce that Stella Mary Newton, to whom this book belonged, was primarily concerned with encouraging her students to venture into the mind-set of the different periods studied in the Courtauld postgraduate dress history course, through first-hand, eyewitness accounts, such as that of an eighteenth-century traveller like Trussler.

In one mention of dress, Trussler described the outfits of the Sicilian nobility during the Festival of Saint Rosalia in Sicily, held on the 14th July: ‘The assemblies, at the viceroy’s palaces…gave me an opportunity of seeing the whole corps of mobility collected together. The men are rather a comely race; but the ladies are little favoured by nature. Two girls, under eight years of age, heiresses of great families, and already betrothed, made their appearance in the ballroom, decked out in the very excesses of the mode: their flowy dresses, their diminutive size, and affected gravity, in dancing a minuet; joined to the fatherly care, their future husbands anxiously took of them, reminded me of dolls ready to move around a table by clockwork.’

I was disappointed that Trussler failed to mention in detail the clothing worn by the men – since this omission suggests he associated dress with women and femininity. However, his description of the movement of the little girls’ dresses, which flowed as they danced, draws attention to its tactile qualities, which is of central concern to our contemporary understanding of dress as an object and idea, performed not only through the clothing itself, but also its representation.

Denis Diderot, ‘Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps, contenant vingt-quatre planches,’ extract of Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (c.1771)

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Summary

“Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” (tailor and corset maker) is part of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, assembled by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). This ambitious and scandalous project, that comprised twenty-eight volumes by specialists in the sciences, arts and crafts, was published between 1751 and 1772. “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” was it fact largely extracted from François-Antoine de Garsault’s article “L’art du tailleur” in the Description des Arts et Métiers (1769). The presentation of free knowledge to a large public, with its emphasis on observation, reason and analysis, was a feature of the wider Enlightenment project. Yet such freedom and scientific empiricism disputed the authority of Church and State leaders in Ancien Régime France. The Encyclopédie was thus published clandestinely after its royal privilege was revoked in 1759. Eighteenth-century France, torn between different modes of government and systems of knowledge, was undergoing a period of uncertainty. The notion that order and meaning could arise from somewhere other than the will of God triggered a chaos of sorts, which the Encyclopédie’s systematic ordering and classification of knowledge could remedy. The “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps,” which resembles a manual, attests to this. It attempted to shed light on the tailor corporation, a remnant of the Medieval guild system, during a period that witnessed changes in business practices and advances in textile production. It is also revealing of fashion, politics and thinking in the immediate years leading to the revolution.

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Response

“Tailleur d’habits” discussed the trade pictorially through twenty-four plates of engravings by the architect Jacques-Raymond Lucotte, which Berard copied onto copperplate. The first plate showed the interior of a tailor’s workshop, “where several workers are employed”: it portrayed an animated group of men who “stitch and assemble the fabrics […] take measurements, and […] cut.” The eye is led to the view outside a window, and the reader thus connects the scene to the wider city. The following plates deconstructed the scene and presented its elements: tools for all levels of production, current fashions, such as the waistcoat and abbot’s mantle, patterns, stitches, and ways of cutting drapery. Only the last four plates, which described the corset maker, concerned women consumers.

At the time of the Encyclopédie’s publication, literacy was increasing and the printed word, in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers, flourished. The Encyclopédie resembled journals such as Courrier de la Mode (1768-1770) and La Gallerie des modes (1778-87), in that both types of publications acted as repositories of information. It also anticipated the encyclopaedic study of dress by early historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Recently rebound, the book’s new exterior belies its age. Touching the old, soft paper within, however, transports readers to another time. They connect to the many individuals that might have handled it in the past, immortalised in pencil and ink markings in the margins. As they absorb the text, they take part in a project that involved many – from engravers and writers, to publishers and booksellers.

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Cesare Vechellio, Habiti Antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo (1598)

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Summary 

Cesare Vecellio (1521 – 1601), a Venetian painter, engraver and publisher (and the less recognised cousin of Titian), published his first illustrated costume book in 1590.  Entitled The Clothing, Ancient and Modern, of Various Parts of the World, Vecellio’s extensive monograph is a rich historical study into dress from Europe, Africa and Asia in the sixteenth-century. This second edition, published eight years after the original, brings with it a New World section, prompted by geographical exploration and colonization of the Americas. Vecellio’s introductory index lays out his immense global coverage, with an impressively detailed list of the known world, subdivided into further sections by gender, class and occupation.  The additional inclusion of a second table, this time meticulously indexed by garment, in both Latin and Italian, suggests he created these volumes to be read, studied and enjoyed by a diverse readership. Vecellio’s visual profiles, made up of over 500 original woodcuts and illustrations, complement the often-humorous commentaries dedicated to each figure. Naturally, the Venetian section is the most comprehensive, outlining character types as diverse as the ‘doge antico’ (old doge), the ‘pizzicamorti’ (corpse-bearers) and the ‘spose nobili moderne’ (noble modern brides).  In each case, the inhabitants of Venice, and all subsequent regions, are categorized and defined by their clothing and bodily adornments.  In this way, Vecellio adheres to the accepted mode of defining identity by a set of material signifiers. Yet simultaneously, Vecellio’s project is rather modern in its inclusion of such a diverse collection of costume from faraway places that is representative of a fast changing world.

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Response

Vecellio’s book is surprisingly easy to follow, even without a grasp of Italian or Latin. This gives credit to the illuminating woodcuts, which skilfully evoke each persona through meticulous observation of fabric, gesture and posture. The depicted fashion minutiae allow the reader to identify a wide range of costumes – from the plain and domestic, to the exotic and extravagant: everything is worthy of inclusion. We meet noble brides, old brides, ordinary brides, modern brides, brides outside the house, and brides en route to a temple, all with their own distinct ensembles and attitudes – who knew so many types of bride existed! We encounter over thirty types of hats, each painstakingly labelled in the introductory index. Every accoutrement is placed under Vecellio’s scrutiny: his intricate vocabulary illuminating the various textiles and garments in circulation at that time. The artist also seems to have gone to great length to pinpoint the figures’ various stances. Some are depicted from behind, some stare ahead pompously. Others are still, whilst others have been captured mid-motion. There is a distinction made between those who are idle, and those whose occupation demands activity. This makes for a very naturalistic portrayal, yet simultaneously relies on stereotypical caricatures to enhance their significance. In the same way, Vecellio’s evidence is sourced from first hand observation, as well as other visual sources, such as painting, architecture and earlier costume books, rendering the work not wholly reliable as a source for the dress historian. However, these sketches must be approached with an acceptance of the work’s reliance on visual conventions: this only furthers our understanding of social identity as it was seen then.

The inclusion of annotated pages by  ‘Angelo Antonio Cervelli’, is further evidence that this book was read, re-read and used as an important document of popular dress. However, what is not clear is whether readers took Vecellio’s work as documented fact or fabricated fiction. To the modern reader, Vecellio’s work can be both instructive and enchanting. By charting the ‘constantly changing’ nature of clothing, and the hybridization of fashions across borders, we are reminded of a loss of national identity by globalization that is arguably still relevant today.

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500 Years of Dress Historiography Display

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June is Fashion Book Month! Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in June we will be posting the MA and PhD Dress History students’ responses to their chosen texts that constitute our ‘500 Years of Dress Historiography’ display, which is currently on show in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Today we are starting with the text panels, written by Dr Rebecca Arnold, which feature at the beginning and end of the display.

Text Panel 1

As part our celebrations of 50 years of the History of Dress at The Courtauld Institute, this display explores the subject’s historiography through items from the Book Library’s Special Collections. Collected by Stella Mary Newton, who originated the Institute’s first course on the subject, the books represent varied perspectives on dress and fashion.

Each book has been chosen by a current History of Dress student, as an example of a key moment in the subject’s articulation in text and image. The display begins with the earliest book in the collection, Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi, Moderni di tutto il mondo… published in 1598, which seeks to catalogue dress in all its variety, and ends with Genevieve Dariaux’s Elegance… of 1964, a guide for modern women on how to dress successfully. It thus encompasses the myriad ways dress had been written about up to the point that the History of Dress department opened in 1965.

Vitrine 1 displays books that record existing dress, seeking to understand its history, diversity and manufacture through an encyclopedic approach to the subject. Vitrine 2 focuses on books that are more thematic in approach. These texts explore fashion and dress’ meanings and significance in relation to the period in which they were published.

Conceived as a dialogue between The Courtauld’s current History of Dress staff and students, and their counterparts in Fashion Museology at London College of Fashion, the display represents interplay between the objects themselves and our responses to them.

Text Panel 2

In 1965, when The Courtauld Institute’s then director, Anthony Blunt, incorporated History of Dress into its list of courses, it marked the subject’s formal entry into academia, and an intervention into its historiography to date. From this point, History of Dress became a discrete area of study within the university, allied to Art History, and therefore to the ways dress resonates within imagery. Stella Mary Newton, Head of Department in its early years, sought to establish the subject’s significance through close analysis of types of dress as seen in art, and in relation to extant examples. Her own writing, and that of many of her students, most notably, her successor, Aileen Ribeiro, encouraged a style of visual analysis that has become distinct to The Courtauld. Since 2009, under Rebecca Arnold’s direction, this specialism has evolved further to integrate into The Courtauld’s contemporary approach to Art History, and to develop its interdisciplinary methodologies and international scope.

As seen in the students’ choice of texts, and their own writing on each book, we espouse a rich and analytical approach to writing on dress. We aim to push the discipline’s boundaries and consider dress as image, object, text and idea. Our publications attest to this, and to our status as the only History of Dress department with such a long and illustrious history. We want to show why good writing matters to thinking about and understanding dress.

‘Handprint’: The Double Fingerprint of Fashion

One of the most powerful and memorable chapters I read as part of the History of Dress MA course was Kitty Hauser’s ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin’ (2005), in which she describes a series of bombings and robberies that took place in 1996 in the Spokane area of Washington. What was remarkable about this case was that the culprit was identified by his clothes: the seams and hems on their jeans showed patterns of wear and fade that were so distinct to the wearer that they acted almost like his fingerprint at the crime scene, allowing the detectives to eventually identify him.

Hauser’s article claims that each person’s clothes bear the imprint of the body of the wearer, becoming a second unique ‘fingerprint.’ However, it is not only the trace of the wearer that is visible on a garment. Clothing does not gain individuating features only from the consumer; the mark of the maker is also present. Visible traces of the creator’s hands can be seen in the structure of each garment, especially along seams and hems, where the subtle differences in the way they work the sewing machines will result in tensions building up in the material. Each piece is not a tabula rasa, it is already a highly personalized record of the maker long before it is worn.

Hauser’s article seems particularly pertinent in relation to the recent Fashion Revolution Day, which took place on April 24, and was conceived as a way to encourage consumers to be more conscious when making clothing choices and to consider where it has come from. It is especially concerned with raising awareness of the unethical sweatshop conditions that many thousands of people, often women, must endure for hours a day in return for very little pay. It encourages consumers to think about what the human cost of their cheap clothing is.

Last year, I attended a Fashion Revolution Day film screening and panel discussion focusing on the issue of ethical fashion. The film, directed by Mary Nighy and entitled ‘Handmade,’ was awarded silver in the Young Director Category at the Cannes Lions in 2014 and highlights the exact same concept that Hauser discusses. It begins with a scene that will be all too familiar to many fashion conscious women: clothes, accessories and shoes are strewn across the floor of a bathroom, while a girl wrapped in a towel washes her face and then proceeds to get dressed.

But it is not her hands that slip her dress over her back, zip it up, fasten her belt and put in her earrings. Multiple hands of different ages and ethnicities dress this glamorous woman; then, she looks in the mirror, and the faces of these people are revealed. The film ends with the quotation ‘you carry the stories of the people that make your clothes,’ forcing the viewer to be more conscious and curious when purchasing their clothes. As in Hauser’s essay, the dress already carries the identities and memory of the people who made it.

To the consumer, the people who make our clothes are completely anonymous, invisible and silent, however, their mark is all over our most personal objects, and therefore there may be more of a connection between creator and wearer than one might think.

 

Sources:

Kitty Hauser, ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin,’ in Christopher Breward and Caroline Evans (eds) Fashion and Modernity, (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005) pp 153-170

http://fashionrevolution.org

http://eco-age.com/handprint-2/

 

Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in June we will be posting the MA and PhD Dress History students’ responses to their chosen texts that constitute our ‘500 Years of Dress Historiography’ display, which is currently on show in the Courtauld Institute of Art. The display was created as part of our 50 Years of Dress History at the Courtauld celebrations, and was on display for our conference ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Make Women’. The display was a collaboration between the History of Dress department at the Courtauld and the Fashion Museology department at London College of Fashion. We hope you enjoy reading the posts as much as we did the texts and come back to the blog on Wednesday for the first in the series.