In Conversation with… Eugenie Shinkle

I met with Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in London, to ask her about her current research on fashion photography, focusing on what she has coined, ‘the feminine awkward.’   

Esmeralda, New York, Hart+Lëshkina. The plastic chair is made into an extension of the body.

Esmeralda, New York, Hart+Lëshkina. The plastic chair is made into an extension of the body.

How would you define your concept of the ‘the feminine awkward’? 

It’s a way of thinking through changing representations of the female body and femininity as these are linked to shifts and developments in the creation and sharing of images.

Does it relate to specific fashion imagery? 

Yes, certainly. It relates to contemporary fashion imagery, work of roughly the last ten years where you’ll see a shift from images that specifically try to deal with grace and beauty, to images that try to deal with discomfort, awkward angles, a fragmentation of the body, what you might call gracelessness. It is different from the sort of alternative photography that was going on in the 1990s: Corinne Day’s images for example, images of real people in sometimes quite down-market surroundings. That was about a certain type of lifestyle. The newer work that I am thinking about is very much focused on individual bodies. So I am thinking of SynchrodogsHart+LeshkinaRen Hang to a certain extent. And certainly someone like Viviane Sassen.

How do these images affect the relationship between the viewer’s body and the model’s body? 

This is where it’s really interesting to start looking at models from the point of view of neuroscience, in which the basic idea is that what we experience visually is not just about vision, but that vision has various tactile stimuli incorporated into it. It’s about something called ‘sensory crossover’ and the fact that none of our sensory inputs are experienced in isolation. The one area that interests me a lot is ‘mirror neuron theory,’ which is the idea that when you look at an image of pain, the same neurons in your brain are firing as if you were actually experiencing pain. It’s the foundation of human empathetic response.

Sensory crossover is a fact of all image perception, but it’s particularly pronounced in fashion imagery, which incorporates sensations of touch, movement, and pose. Images that are ‘awkward’ are those that grab you, that give rise to a certain visceral response quite quickly. It’s a different way of catching and holding a viewer’s attention than, say, ‘shocking’ imagery.

Can they be seen as reaction to the idealized beauty of traditional fashion photography?  

I don’t like to see them simply as a reaction to conventional fashion photography because a lot of it has to do with technology as well. It has to do with the speed at which images of the body are disseminated, the rapidity with which they are received, the relationship that we have with images of our own bodies and other bodies. Part of this idea of awkwardness is not just a rejection of beauty it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between bodies, observers and images. That relationship is changing quite profoundly. I certainly see it as something that belongs to more than the limited contexts of fashion.

Synchrogos is a photography duo formed by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Novan

Synchrodogs is a photography duo formed by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven

How do they affect notions of femininity? In Viviane Sassen’s work for example, there is something very liberating in the fact that the bodies do not bear the conventional attributes of femininity; the body is made into a prop and becomes part of a broader formal experimentation. 

There is a kind of subversion of feminine identity through purposeful awkwardness, through the making of the body into featureless blobs. I agree with the idea that you can look at them as liberating because all the signifiers of femininity that fashion photography has traditionally exaggerated and made the essence of the feminine are made into something else in quite a humorous way. You can also see how this could be problematic, however. Erasing it, making it invisible is not necessarily a constructive way of challenging notions of femininity.

The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

Today we have a special post for our blog readers – a PDF of Rebecca Arnold’s essay ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity’ for you to download.  

The New Rococo – In the last twenty years, a visual style has evolved within cinema, in particular within Sophia Coppola’s films, and fashion imagery, including Corinne Day’s photographs and Stella McCartney’s designs, which express a light, feminine ideal reminiscent of eighteenth century rococo style. Coppola and her peers in fashion design and photography explored the potential of fashion, and gender, as masquerade.  In so doing, they created a visual aesthetic that might be called ‘New Rococo.’  This combined contradictory impulses, which looked to both nature and artifice, and formed a pastiche of eighteenth century and contemporary reference points. This essay explores the reasons why rococo style re-emerged during this period, and how it enabled these image-makers to validate contemporary feminine and fashionable ideals, but also to foreground these as constructed surfaces.

We will also be posting images connected to the essay on our Instagram feed @documentingfashion_courtauld today – so take a look!

Rococo Echoes Book Cover

Rebecca Arnold – ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola And Fashions In Contemporary Femininity’

(click above to download PDF)

The essay was published as part of a compilation, edited by Katie Scott and Melissa Hyde, Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2014

The book explores the influence of rococo style in a wide range of media since the 18th century, and is an exciting view of the subject. Read more here.

With thanks to Katie & Melissa, and all the book’s contributors.  This PDF is made available by permission of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford (www.voltaire.ox.ac.uk)

 

H.R Haweis, The Art of Beauty (1878)

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Summary

In The Art of Beauty (1878), English writer H.R Haweis synthesises a series of previously published articles centred on the importance of beauty, dress and physical appearance. The work can be characterised as an ardent apology for the significance of dress and, simultaneously, an advice manual targeted exclusively at women that both encourages and teaches them to take pride and care in their appearance.

At the outset, Haweis announces her central argument and writes, “[t]he culture of beauty is everywhere a legitimate art.” She attempts to remedy dress and beauty’s maligned reputation as frivolous by claiming its exalted status as a dignified art form. To defend her declaration, she classifies dress as akin to other established varieties of art, such as sculpture, painting and architecture, all of which, she believes, ought to be governed by principles of form, colour, shade and proportion. She takes an evaluative approach to beauty and adheres to the Ruskinian tradition that praises truth to materials and nature. She favours clothing and accessories that accentuate, rather than falsify, the natural self. For example, she expresses vehement disdain for overly high heels that strain the spine and for stays that distort the natural lines and proportions of the figure, preventing internal organs from functioning properly.

The work is divided into four books. ‘Beauty and Dress’ focuses on proper and ideal forms of clothing, ‘Beauty and Headdress’, outlines principles governing head accessories, ‘Beauty and Surroundings’ explains the role interior décor plays in enhancing one’s appearance and, finally, ‘A Garden of Girls’, catalogues a variety of women who may appear hopeless, but whom she assures the reader can achieve beauty so long as they heed her advice.

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Response

The Art of Beauty occupies an important position within the history of dress, as it constitutes one of the first literary attempts to apply aesthetic principles to modes of self-presentation. Haweis transcends the conventional women’s magazine mandate to promote the latest fashions in Victorian England and, instead, praises clothing for its artistic truth. Her serious tone and scrupulous attention to historical detail justify her authoritative statements and render her text cogent and sophisticated.

Although Haweis’ work was published in 1878, her concerted effort to reform the way people thought about beauty and ameliorate its status remains relevant to the contemporary discourse of fashion. A plethora of publications have contributed to a rich corpus of scholarship on dress, however, the area of research is oftentimes undeservedly perceived as trivial and unworthy of scholarly inquiry. Haweis’ text, while comprehensive and argumentative, is not officially scholarly insofar as she assumes an expressly evaluative approach to dress, claiming outright that it must be classified either as good or bad depending on its adherence to certain artistic principles. Her assertion that dress and beauty is tantamount to art rests on the assessment of formal qualities alone. Despite its limitations, The Art of Beauty can be seen as paving the way for future writers to explore the importance of dress and modes of appearance. Current scholars diverge from Haweis insofar as they favour analysing the socio-political and cultural dimensions of dress, rather than solely formal qualities, yet connect with her in their endeavor to assert the value of beauty and dress.

Fanny Bury Palliser, History of Lace (1869)

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Summary 

Fanny Bury Palliser’s History of Lace traces the development of needlework from its earliest references in the Old Testament to those in the late nineteenth century. The author documents the inception of lace as primarily an extension of needlework and embroidery, before noting how lace was differentiated according to country and region, as well as placed in a hierarchy, in order of preference by the Monarch in power at the time.

At the time of print, 1869, little information could be gathered from secondary sources, because earlier research scarcely existed. As a result, Palliser argued that ‘wardrobe accounts, household bills, and public Acts were the most truthful guides,’ to use in order to trace the history of lace. In light of this, the book is filled with public documents that Palliser had been granted access to in the Imperial and Records archives. Accompanying the text are black-and-white and coloured engravings, which highlight the existing variations of lace, and demonstrate how lace was incorporated within the composition of a person’s clothing. Therefore, dress is attended to within the content of the text through the featured engravings.

The front cover – a gold-coloured engraving of a woman in a heavily embroidered gown from 1676, indicates how the book relates lace to dress and femininity. Palliser clarified that, although needlework was not solely confined to females, ‘every woman, had to make one shirt in her lifetime.’ As demonstrated by the engraving, the woman created her own embroidery as well. This engraving reinforces how lace has been considered in the past, as well as the present, as a favourite embellishment and decorative trimming to add to clothing.

Response 

Palliser’s History of Lace can still be considered relevant to dress history now, because it is the first to provide the reader with such a rich and varied historiography of embroidery, and therefore demonstrates how far needlework had evolved over earlier centuries. For example, Palliser explained in the text how past laces had derived from the name and function of passament. As the workmanship was improved and the passament became enriched with various designs, the resulting development became what we now refer to as lace.

Examples of this evolution are depicted within the beautifully clear engravings used throughout the book. These designs not only afford the reader an encounter with visual samples, but ultimately serve to present a comparison between the different variations of needlework that exist, and how these can be identified and considered, based upon the distinctions between region or country of manufacture.

Although the book only follows the chronology of the design up until its year of publication in 1869, the in-depth account is still hugely relevant for research purposes today, because of the vast historical period it covers. Palliser’s research identifies the Industrial Revolution as the main turning point for lace manufacturing. This period saw profound change, most notably, the introduction of ‘machinery lace’ in Nottingham. This brought lace within the reach of a wider range of classes and, remains the main method of its production today. Therefore, The History of Lace is still an important text for dress historians, because it charts the production of lace up to the point when it switched from a handcraft to one powered by machinery.