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

Travelling on the Ocean Liner in the 1920s

During my Christmas break at home in the Netherlands, I visited the TextielMuseum, located in a former textile factory in the city of Tilburg, in order to view their recently opened exhibition, JAZZ AGE | Fashion & Photographs. Organised by the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, this exhibition aims to show the variety of dress available to the modern woman and the completely new way of dressing that symbolised her new-found freedom and active lifestyle in the period after the First World War. The exhibition showcases more than 150 haute couture and ready-to-wear garments dating from 1919 to 1929 in different settings such as ‘In the Boudoir,’ ‘Tennis Match,’ and ‘Chinatown After Dark.’ As might be expected from a dress and textiles enthusiast, I was swooning in front of the quintessential fringed and beaded drop-waist flapper dresses and sumptuously embroidered velvet evening capes one would have worn for a night out.

The current exhibition at the TextielMuseum seems to have a slightly different design than the exhibition that was staged in London (see the excellent review written last year by former MA student Sophie Assouad). Instead of writing another review, I have chosen to focus on a specific display in this exhibition that sparked my interest because it gave me a fresh perspective on this particular period in fashion history.

Conjuring the scene of a steamboat’s deck, ‘On the Ocean Liner’ takes the visitor beyond the notion of the 1920s as a decade of glamourous nightlife and the familiar flapper dress. It does so by showcasing daytime and leisurewear suitable for the journey aboard an ocean liner on its way to a sunny destination.

Lounging in a rotan chair to the left is a mannequin wearing a simple, cream-coloured tunic dress with a jacket in the same colour, both dating from c. 1924–25. While the dress has been made from silk, the jacket’s material, interestingly, is ‘rayon’, a man-made fibre made from chemically treated cellulose. Generally known as ‘artificial silk,’ this material was first developed in the late nineteenth century but only became widely available from the 1920s onwards. The fibre was officially renamed rayon in 1924 through an industry-sponsored contest with the aim to counter the frequent associations with artificiality or inferiority to natural silk. Rayon grew in popularity as it provided women from all backgrounds the ability to wear certain garments that were previously reserved only for those who could afford to buy silk.

My favourite ensemble in this arrangement is a simple, but chic, striped dress with pockets and pleats made from silk that dates from c. 1922–23. This dress combines comfort and freedom of movement with elegance and is reminiscent of the silhouette and style of clothing designed by Coco Chanel.

Detail of the display showing my favourite dress to the left. To the right, a cotton swimsuit in herringbone pattern. Photo: Nelleke Honcoop

Moving to the right, the eye meets a group of mannequins wearing boldly-coloured, Art Deco-patterned beach pyjamas and loose, kimono-inspired dresses worn over cotton swimsuits. This group hints at a day spent swimming – or perhaps lounging and sunbathing at the pool, cultivating the tanned skin that was promoted by Chanel and became popular during this decade.

Top and trousers, c.1925, cotton. A pyjama inspired two-piece reflecting the contemporary vogue for wearing pyjamas as lounge wear in, as well as outside, the confines of the boudoir. © Photo Tessa Hallman. Collection Cleo and Mark Butterfield

 ‘On the Ocean Liner’ addresses how swimming became popular among women in the second half of the decade when American competition swimmer Gertrude Ederle (1905 –2003) became the first woman to swim across the Channel in 1926. A cotton swimsuit in a herringbone pattern with a subtly integrated skirt is used to illustrate the active lifestyle and freedom of movement of modern women during the 1920s. I particularly enjoyed the attention given to materials and construction details, such as the contrasting cuffs of a cotton swimsuit that were not only a chic addition, but also helped to keep it in shape when immersed in water.

Finally, by focusing on 1920s women’s fashion from the angle of sports, leisure, and travel, ‘On the Ocean Liner’ felt like an inspiring warm up to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s upcoming exhibition Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, which will explore the golden age of ocean travel around the world.

By Nelleke Honcoop

JAZZ AGE | Fashion & Photographs is on display at the TextielMuseum, Tilburg, The Netherlands, until 27 May 2018. See: http://www.textielmuseum.nl/en/

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 3 February – 10 June 2018. See: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style

 

One Aspect of an Exhibition: Viewers and Wearers at MoMu’s Margiela: The Hermès Years

Teaser – Margiela, the Hermès years from MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp on Vimeo.

How can you tell people what it is like to wear certain clothes without letting them try anything on? For curators this is a constant question – how to create an exhibition that expresses every facet of what clothes are.  Frequently, the answer lies elsewhere, the focus is placed on a designer’s creativity, or perhaps on the drama of catwalk shows and fashion photography. But at the heart of fashion are the wearers – and so, how do you enable exhibition visitors to understand clothes they will probably never put on?

This question is especially pertinent when the designer has placed emphasis on the wearer’s experience, rather than the viewer’s.  At Mode Museum Antwerp’s current exhibition Margiela: The Hermès Years, one way that the feel, fit and flow of the garments on the body is conveyed is through a series of short films by Guido Verelst played alongside the outfits themselves. These show models that walked in the original Hermès’ shows – moving in the clothes to demonstrate how they are worn.  Rather than striding as in a catwalk, these are subtler performances that enact the garments’ key qualities, and make visible the exhibition’s themes.  In one, Shirley Jean-Charles dressed in the A/W 1998-99 collection allows the supple black layers of her ensemble to slip slowly from her shoulders – the gossamer thin rainproof voile over buttery soft leather glide down her back, and as viewers our sense memories connect visual and material.  While we are not, of course, allowed to touch anything, this slow motion movement evokes a multi-sensory response.

Film’s own haptic surface and constant movement mirrors what is represented – the screen makes the images material, as they flicker before our eyes.  The model’s fluid gestures amplify this, and link to the way we move and feel in our clothes.  Not all of us may be able to wear the incredible, high quality fabrics that Margiela used during his time at Hermès from 1997-2003, but the curators draw our attention to the details, and surfaces to allow us to appreciate his work in deeper ways.

With thanks to Elisa de Wyngaert

Judith Clark: Fashion Redefined – The Vulgar and The Proust Questionnaire

 

Judith Clark, photograph by Hyea W Kang, 2016

Judith Clark, photograph by Hyea W Kang, 2016

How do you rethink an idea, or a word, or a dress? Or question what a fashion exhibition is, while at the same time creating an exhibition about fashion?

Visit Judith Clark’s show The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican Art Gallery and you will find out.

Bold, ambitious, yet subtle and witty, the exhibition is a tour de force, and makes you engage and reconsider your own attitudes to this very slippery term from the start. Adam Phillips definitions of ‘vulgar’ tease out its meanings, and the range of objects, as well as the exhibition’s design suggest ways to redefine …

To give some insight into Judith Clark’s way of thinking, I asked her to fill in a Proust Questionnaire – a 19th century parlour game popularised by Marcel Proust, which is designed to reveal the respondent’s personality.

 

Proust Questionnaire

__1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness? Being with my family.

__2.__What is your greatest fear? Snakes on a plane.

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Wanting to be liked. It means drowning out other more interesting thoughts about people and situations.

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others? False allegiance.

__5.__Which living person do you most admire? Mr Rob Crossley, Mr Matt Jones

__6.__What is your greatest extravagance?  Other than clothes?

__7.__What is your current state of mind?

__8.__What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Academic intelligence.

__9.__On what occasion do you lie? To make others feel better about themselves.

__10.__What do you most dislike about your appearance? Different parts at different times.

__11.__Which living person do you most despise? Today, anyone voting for the far right.

__12.__What is the quality you most like in a man? It is something to do with how the difference is negotiated rather than denied.

__13.__What is the quality you most like in a woman? Loyalty

__14.__Which words or phrases do you most overuse? No (to my children); Props and Attributes (to my students).

__15.__What or who is the greatest love of your life? The father of my children.

__16.__When and where were you happiest? Walking from Carbis Bay to St Ives, 2013.

__17.__Which talent would you most like to have?   Anything and everything to do with craftsmanship.

__18.__If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I would be much more courageous.

__19.__What do you consider your greatest achievement? Having had the courage to have a family.

__20.__If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? Someone born in the countryside and not a major city.

__21.__Where would you most like to live? My current home in London only with more room, or Rome.

__22.__What is your most treasured possession?  My sketchbook at any given time.

__23.__What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Stubborn loneliness.

__24.__What is your favorite occupation? Exactly my occupation, making exhibitions of dress with the people I build them with.

__25.__What is your most marked characteristic? I don’t know, you would have to ask other people.

__26.__What do you most value in your friends? Their memory.

__27.__Who are your favorite writers? Those who have made dress sound interesting, valuable, serious. Those who have resisted the temptation to be snide, or apologise for their interest in it. Many years ago Elizabeth Wilson made it more possible for me to become interested in fashion. And Adam Phillips.

__28.__Who is your hero of fiction? Mrs Moore, in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Like her, I don’t like muddles, and I don’t like racism.

__29.__Which historical figure do you most identify with? I would always like to identify with a female artist who had a studio. If she had a studio it meant that she was taking her work seriously and maybe was herself taken seriously.

__30.__Who are your heroes in real life? People who really manage to be kind to other people.

__31.__What are your favorite names? Marianne and Seth, and Jacob.

__32.__What is it that you most dislike? I’m not sure.

__33.__What is your greatest regret? That my mother did not live long enough to know my children better.

__34.__How would you like to die? In a way that would not make my children feel guilty.

__35.__What is your motto?    ‘All experiments are good’.

 

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at Barbican Art Gallery until 5 February 2017

The Winter Palace, run by the Belvedere Museum - where the exhibition travels to in 2017

The Winter Palace, run by the Belvedere Museum – where the exhibition travels to in 2017

Installing the Gucci Ad in the exhibition

Installing the Gucci Ad in the exhibition

Problems Regarding Evolution & French Fashion Exhibitions

A 1951 article in French Elle by journalist (and first Minister of Women’s Affairs in 1974) Françoise Giroud on the state of French haute couture exposed wider narratives of the country’s postwar reconstruction, cultural heritage and notions of femininity. The subject of the article was the apparent collapse of the industry, illustrated by the closure of fourteen houses since 1947. After discussing the cause of this decline, due in part to price increases and competition from foreign industries, Giroud asked whether the country should even attempt to save haute couture production, which she claimed had become increasingly irrelevant “psychologically” in relation to women’s lives. She reasoned that postwar consumers spent less on clothing and more on home appliances, automobiles and travel. Such “distractions and comforts,” Giroud wrote, began to “outweigh pure vanity.” This shift also indicated a “general evolution of women,” defined by the “disappearance of the doll-woman [who is] uniquely preoccupied by her hats and dresses.” Giroud’s description of women’s growing diversity and agency, unsurprising in the years following their 1944 suffrage, echoed wider fashion industry discourses, as I’ve learned through my doctoral studies at the Courtauld on readymade clothing and women’s lives in France from the 1940s to the 1960s. Yet the evolution that Giroud noted was not simple and linear; rather, femininity during the country’s postwar reconstruction was characterised by contradiction, drawing on older ideals alongside aims of autonomy.

Fig 1

A different type of “evolution” was explored in an exhibition held at Paris’ Palais Galliera in late 2014, and in 2015 at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao exhibition, The 50s: Fashion in France 1947-1957. According to the museums’ websites, the exhibition sought to “retrace the evolution of the female form” throughout this period. It presented and grouped garments in sections on silhouettes and clothing categories (i.e. cocktail and evening dresses), displayed monotonously in rows of identical mannequins, and sub-grouped by couturier, such as Jacques Heim and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Predictably, the star of the show was Christian Dior, evidenced firstly in the exhibition dates, 1947-1957, which demarcated the launch of his house and his death. Despite the exhibition’s focus on silhouette and dress, its content, mode of display and text centred around producers and their fashioned bodies, eliminating all reference to wearers’ subjectivity and various narratives, and denying them agency.

Fig 2

The curators’ chosen narrative, namely the fall and rise of postwar Paris couture, held similarities to that of Giroud in 1951. Conversely, the terms of their conversation were reductive and positivist, and sought to demonstrate the dominance of French fashion in the 1950s, as well as forge a link to notions of French cultural authority today. The website outlined these terms, claiming, “In the 1950s, Paris was reborn as the international capital of fashion,” as well as attributed the cause of couture’s success to couturiers, who “contributed to the enduring legacy of French fashion, synonym of luxury, elegance and creativity, and to the success of ready-to-wear fashion.” Likewise, the simplistic exhibition abstained from contextualising the garments or health of the industry in political, economic or social frameworks. Further, despite the website’s mention of ready-to-wear, the exhibition did not present this production other than in a marginal section on anonymous beachwear.

Fig 3

As my research has shown, readymade (confectionrobe de série, or prêt-à-porter) brands were an important feature of the 1950s French fashion industry, as well as a perceived threat to haute couture. Giroud alluded to this as she noted both couture’s irrelevance and its uniqueness, with its irreplaceable and time-honoured handwork and its originality, in “the century of the machine and industrial production.” She characterised couture as an art and a tradition worth saving especially as it underscored the health and dominance of the nation, being “one of the most vibrant, glorious expressions of our national genius, at the same level of painting or music.” However, in addition to her fear of change and loss, her text illustrated a willingness to move forward, an incongruity that can be applied to shifting national and feminine identities in the 1950s. She thus proposed that couture “transform [and] adapt to new times,” by refashioning itself after ready-made production, which “corresponds more and more to the lifestyle of women of our time.” Although her above phrase hides a wealth of complexity regarding the various experiences of women, it is a point of departure for understanding them via their experience of dress. The Palais Galliera, under the relatively new direction of Olivier Saillard, failed to draw out wider themes in its exploration of fashion and “female form”, which ended at the dressed mannequins on display, symbols of limitation, preventing potential narratives of wearers and avenues of research. Although the catalogue offered an assortment of analytical articles, the exhibition propagated accepted narratives and, dangerously, confused scholarship with connoisseurship.

 

Sources:

Françoise Giroud, “Où en est la Haute-Couture française,” Elle, 23 November 1951, 22-23, 39.

http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/exhibitions/50s

https://www.museobilbao.com/in/exposiciones/the-50s-fashion-in-france-1947-1957-231