Oswald Birley’s “Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown”: dress in focus

Oswald Birley, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny gown, 1919, oil on canvas, 101.5 x 76 cm. Private collection. Image taken from Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley. London: Philip Mould Ltd, 2017.

Oswald Birley was a prolific British portrait artist active between 1919 and 1951. He was one of the most beloved portraitists of the British monarchy, political leaders and other powerful men. He completed the portrait of the young British debutante Miss Muriel Gore in 1919, however the information available on this work and its subject is extremely scarce. Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown was completed at a time of significant social change for women, started in the final years of the nineteenth century and becoming more prominent with the end of the First World War. This change was translated in fashion and was echoed in the success the designs of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo found in this historical time.

The scarcity of information available on Miss Gore’s life allows only for a partial understanding of her figure. It is likely that she was Scottish and belonged to the aristocratic upper class, as she was related in some way to Lady Mabell Gore, Countess of Airlie, wife to the 11th Earl of Airlie. It is plausible to say that, at the time the portrait was completed, Miss Gore was still nubile and probably making her debut in society. A few elements of this portrait, such as her title (Miss rather than Mrs.), the absence of a wedding ring, and her youthful appearance support this idea. After careful analysis, the only element revealing her social status remains the expensive Fortuny gown. Known as the Delphos gown, and existing in a variety of versions, this design stands out as the most typical of the Fortuny style.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Pale grey Delphos gown. 1920. Palazzo Fortuny, Venezia. http://www.archiviodellacomunicazione.it/Sicap/OpereArte/338940/?WEB=MuseiVE

A pleated tunic inspired by a robe seen on male and female Greek statues from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, as well as figures painted on vases, the Delphos was named after the antique sculpture known as ‘Charioteer of Delphi,’ adorned with a long chiton held in place at the shoulders by simple bronze clasps. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871-1949), a Venice-based Spanish artist and designer, patented the dress in 1909. The creation of a single sleeveless Delphos was a highly intricate production that reportedly took eight hours in total. The fabric was a luxurious silk imported from Japan, and the characteristic pleating, usually consisting of between 430 and 450 pleats per fabric width, was achieved by a process of evaporation. The wet and folded silk was laid on heated porcelain tubes, also patented in 1909, which permanently fixed such tight pleats in the material so that the dress looked carved or pressed. This time-consuming and complicated manufacturing process, along with the precious fabric used, made the price of this gown stratospheric, and it was only affordable for women of conspicuous means, such as Muriel Gore. The Fortuny pleat, which did not wrinkle nor lose its shape, expanded slightly over the natural feminine curves, remaining compact in other areas, thus creating alluring zones of light and shadow. Fortuny was particularly interested in enhancing the brilliance of the silk, and he found in albumin, an extract of egg whites, the perfect substance to do so. With the help of a brush, albumin was applied on the humified fabric, functioning on the pleats as a fixing agent, increasing the brilliance, and adding flexibility and softness to the fabric. Birley masterfully translated the characteristic traits of the Delphos gown on his canvas, in particular the malleable quality of the fabric when touched by light and the resulting effects of chiaroscuro, which was also highly important for the designer.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Pale grey Delphos gown completed with belt (detail). From the catalogue of the exhibition “Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise” (2017).

Fortuny’s vision of fashion stemmed from his travels to Greece in 1906, where he found antique printed textiles and admired the beauty of the archaic Korai and Delphi’s Charioteer. His intention was never that of becoming a couturier like Worth; he did not present an annual collection, nor show separate summer and winter designs. His aim was to find his own version of a timeless ideal form, detached from the fleeting trends of fashion, and with his Delphos gown he successfully transformed the past into an eternal present.

The Delphos gown quickly became a must-have garment for the most cultured and liberated women of the time. Eccentrics, divas, intellectuals and aristocrats flocked to buy Fortuny’s dress, which spoke of refined extravagance while exalting the personality of the wearer. The association with such timeless beauty attracted those women who could perceive the uniqueness of the dress, and Miss Gore may be seen as one of them, as she decided to be portrayed wearing a Delphos. With this gesture, she also implicitly showed her support to the movement that had started in the years just before World War I, freeing women from corsets and rigidly constructed gowns. Dancers like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Loïe Fuller made the liberation of women’s dress a cause, and they did so by performing their pioneering choreographies enveloped in mermaid-like Delphos. Their choreography sought to express a mix of asceticism and sensuality associated with the Minoan women who had inspired Fortuny’s creations.

The controversial nature of the Delphos stemmed precisely from the sensuality presented by the gown, in particular the ‘clinging fashion’ with which it enveloped the female body to reveal its shape and rendered lingerie impossible to wear. In a society that had not totally abandoned the use of tight bustiers and stays, this feature understandably caused quite a scandal, and the gown was initially considered more suited to be worn in the privacy of one’s home, or complemented by a shawl, coat or robe when in public, often designed by Fortuny himself. Likely aware of such tensions, Miss Gore chose to be portrayed wearing an embroidered shawl over her Delphos, which she gently falls down to her elbows to uncover another beautiful detail of Fortuny’s design: the drawstrings used to tighten and change the height of the short arum-lily sleeves.

Roger Viollet. Isadora Duncan and her husband Sergei Essenin with one of her adoptive daughters, Irma Duncan, wearing Delphos gowns. Photograph. Harlingue-Viollet collection, Paris. From the catalogue of the exhibition “Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise” (2017).

During his life, Birley was considered one of the most gifted portraitists both in Britain and overseas for his ability to combine physical likeness with psychological realism. The portrait of Miss Muriel Gore, dated 1919, shows the image of a wealthy debutant, nonetheless controversial for her clothing choice. The expensive Fortuny gown Miss Gore decided to be depicted with carries meaning reflecting not only her social status but also her character and personality Ultimately, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown emblematically illustrates how eloquent the depiction of a dress can be in the context of a portrait, as it becomes the only key to unlock the mystery surrounding the sitter’s identity.

 

By Simona Mezzina

 

Sources:

Black, Jonathan. ‘The Life and Portraiture of Sir Oswald Birley MC’. In Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley. London: Philip Mould Ltd, 2017.

Deschodt, Anne-Marie and Davanzo Poli, Doretta. Fortuny. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Desveaux, Delphine. Fortuny. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Mariano Fortuny. Edited by Maurizio Barberis, Claudio Franzini, Silvio Fuso, Marco Tosa. Venezia: Marsilio, 1999.

Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise. Edited by Sophie Grossiord. Paris: Palais Galliera, Paris Musées, 2017.

Addressing Images Talk Friday, February 9th

Every term we have a meeting of the Addressing Images Discussion Group.  Actually, that makes it sound far too official and formal, what really happens is that anyone who feels like spending their lunch hour talking about fashion can drop in and join my students and me. This session opens up discussion of dress’ significance within imagery – whether paintings, prints, photographs, advertisements, film stills or drawings. It brings together dress and art historians, as well as those interested in exploring issues and meanings within representation.

Guided by PhD student Leah Gouget-Levy, a single image will be shown, giving participants the opportunity to re-examine familiar, and confront new representations of fashion and dress. We will rethink images through the lens of dress history, and consider what is shown from the perspective of participants’ own research. The aim is to provide a forum to debate, share reactions to images, and to consider ideas about fashion, dress and representation in an informal environment. This reflects our desire to share and build upon the innovative work being undertaken in this field at the Institute with the wider community, and beyond.

Taking place this Friday over the lunch hour, these sessions are open to all.

Friday 9 February 2018

12:30 pm – 1:30 pm

Research Forum Seminar Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN

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!

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Harper’s Bazaar

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This magazine is an October edition of Harper’s Bazaar published nationwide in the year 1940, during the London Blitz. Despite the hardships of wartime, the magazine targeted the female upper classes, which were the only ones with enough purchasing power to afford it. With the costly price of 2 shillings 6 pence, it was a considerable expense that could feed an average family for one day. In contrast to DIY publications, Harper’s Bazaar relies on the desire to emulate the rich and powerful to disseminate latest fashions. With the upcoming winter, the issue centers around the season’s new fashions coming from the capital, presenting a wide array of greatcoats both furless and completely fur-lined, made mostly out of warm wools or commonly available types of fur like squirrel, mole, and rabbit. The effects of rationing clearly influence the choice of images which are plain in their style with scarcely any accessories and minimal display of jewelry, painting a picture of a simple, although fashionable, woman. The practicality of the inside contrasts sharply with the flamboyant cover which is aimed at defying the grim realities of wartime and giving people back the feeling of normality.

Looking closer at the front cover, we can examine it as a historical source from the era, a social history document that tells the historian part of the story of Britain in the 1940s, and more particularly its dress history. A closer inspection may reveal that the colours chosen in such a specific moment in history are not random. The predominant purple tones, which are one of the first elements that catch the viewer’s attention, are historically associated with opulence, richness, royalty and empire. The crispness and silky texture of the sleeve contrast with the other colours of the dress that look as if they are polluted with randomly distributed red dots. The grainy and wooly texture of the material creates an off-focus effect that contrasts with the smooth and well-shaded arm and the sharp colours of the jewellery that richly decorates it. Our gaze is naturally led towards the hand that holds the cigarette, a luxury item that was rationed and reserved mostly for the servicemen at the front. Smoking, at the time, was an activity reserved for the feminine elite, symbolic of the defiance and rebellion against the male culture and male-centred workplace. The model positions herself in a relaxed and mindful manner looking down upon the viewer in an almost spiteful way, suggesting her higher status. This projects an image of power and confidence, a new Britannia clothed in all the riches of the Empire, watchful and confident of her power to withstand the dangers that befell her.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Für die Dame

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


This is a January 1927 issue of Für die Dame – Schweizerische Illustrierte Monatszeitschrift für Mode und Gesellschaft (For the Lady – Swiss Illustrated Monthly Magazine for Fashion and Society), a Swiss fashion magazine, published by Druck und Verlag Buchdruckerei Wittmer & CIE in Basel. The cover informs that this is the “3. Jahrgang” (3rd Year) suggesting that the magazine was launched in 1925. Its content consists of a mixture of fashion, society portraits, a novel and short pieces of varied nature. These range from a discussion of hotel staff in Russia to an obituary on William Macdonald II, to humorous short stories. Photography is used especially for the society and fashion sections. The latest Parisian fashion by ‘Romain’ and ‘J.Paquin’ are captured on models standing either in front of a curtain or in a living room tending to flowers. Dresses show a dropped waistline and straight silhouette. The content of Für die Dame is, as for most magazines still today, interspersed by advertisements. These range from soap ads to ‘hygiene’ related articles, to furniture/ interior design shops. The magazine thus, not least through its title, has a very clear female audience, one that the magazine’s content suggests is educated, modern and interested in a variety of different areas of fashion, literature, health and society.

Für die Dame, January 1927. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

The magazine’s remarkable front cover shows a beautiful illustration of a young blonde lady with fashionably bobbed hair on a ski slope. She is wrapped in a yellow scarf, striped jumper and trousers that cut off just below the knee to reveal brown socks and what are possibly the beginning of boots with a blue and red chequered pattern. She stands assertively, holding her yellow skis, while behind her the white piste with two trees forms a winter backdrop. A fellow skier is indicated to her left and a tiny ski-jumper in the background completes the picture of a day on the slopes. The illustration corresponds to an article on the likes of health, posture and diet on the inside of the magazine, which is complemented by photographs of women with skis. Only marked “RI CO” in the bottom right hand side corner, the illustrator’s full identity could not be determined. Offset through grey and white frames on a light blue background, the art-deco styled illustration is striking through its geometric design and modern appeal. The cover is matte and paper-like, suggesting to us viewers that what we are holding is in fact nearly an art print that one could hang on the wall. The paper used for the pages too is a little thicker, rather soft and slightly shiny suggesting quality and preventing the magazine from having a simple throw-away quality such as that of a newspaper. It implies that the magazine would not be entirely out of place in one of the lavish rooms showcased in its interior design spread. Therefore, the lifestyle encapsulated by the front cover, is supported and expressed through the material quality of the magazine itself.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Gazette du Bon Ton

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


From 1912-1915 and 1919-1925, fashion and art met on the pages of Gazette du Bon Ton. This French publication entertained upper-class consumers with elaborately illustrated articles and sumptuous fashion plates. Though the First World War loomed on the horizon, the stories in this issue from March 1914 showed no signs of global tension. From an article detailing exotic pearl-net masquerade masks to a list of elites vacationing at the French Riviera, the authors of Gazette du Bon Ton created a world ruled by novelty and luxury.

Stimpl, ‘Riviera… Riviera…” in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Each issue included a set of ten plates with couture fashions by houses like Doucet, Lanvin, and Worth. Two plates from this issue feature designs by masters of 1910s couture: Paquin and Paul Poiret. In ‘La fontaine de coquillages’, George Barbier set an evening gown by Paquin against a luscious blue courtyard and classical fountain. Pearl embellishments on the turquoise velvet and grey tulle dress mimic shells, which Barbier echoes in white on hanging shell clusters. A shell in the figure’s hand catches water from the fountain, merging the background and foreground. In comparison, Simone A. Puget’s illustration for ‘Salomé’, an evening gown by Paul Poiret, is striking in its simplicity. By placing the figure on a plain black base, the artist focuses attention on the dress. The design speaks to the sensuality of the legendary Salomé, as fishnet stockings emerge from beneath the diagonal skirt hem and the figure’s nipples, colored the same red as her lips and nails, peek through the swirled, off-the-shoulder bodice.

George Barbier, ‘La fontaine de coquillages’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Simone A. Puget, ‘Salome’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Every turn of the page in Gazette du Bon Ton offers a new feast for the eyes. At just 25cm x 7cm it is very easy to hold, though the heavy paper prevents the issue from feeling flimsy. With at least one color illustration in the pochoir technique on every page, the magazine presents itself as something to be slowly cherished. The difference in style of the vivid ‘La fontaine de coquillages’ and stark ‘Salomé’ plates exemplify how artistic variety creates the tantalizing feeling of ‘What’s next?,’ urging the reader to turn the page. This sumptuous array of visual delights did not come cheap: the price of a yearly subscription was 100 francs, or more than 400 pounds today!

Artists sometimes used striking metallic paint to enliven their illustrations. Here is one illustration of dancer Armen Ohanian viewed straight on and at an angle. Valentine Gross, ‘Armène Ohanian’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Gazette du Bon Ton invites haptic interaction as well. The metallic paint used on some illustrations, for example, requires the reader to tilt the page to get the full effect. Should the reader give into temptation and run a finger over the fashion plates, they may feel more than just the horizontal ridges of the thick paper. In ‘Salomé’, the outline of the figure and the dots on the skirt are debossed. Contact with the flat surface of the page brings the gown to life, but also acts as a tangible barrier to the beautiful world displayed in the plates. That space of breathtaking couture fashion, endless luxury, and carefree joy exists only between the covers of Gazette du Bon Ton.

Fashion Illustrator Richard Haines to Visit the Courtauld

Join us next week for two events with renowned fashion illustrator and visiting artist Richard Haines! After years as a fashion designer, Richard uses his eye for detail of fabric and form to produce striking images of fashion for clients like Prada, J.Crew, Pennyblack, Il Palacio del Hierro, Calvin Klein, Coach, Georg Jensen, Bobbi Brown, Unionmade Goods, Barneys, Mr. Porter, Grazia, The New York Times Style Magazine, Man of the World, GQ and GQ Italy. Richard also runs the fantastic blog “What I Saw Today,” where he records the style of trendsetters on the streets of New York City.

On Tuesday 21 February, Richard will be in conversation with London-based writer and editor Dal Chodha to discuss how he found his way to illustration from fashion design. This event will be held in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The event is free to all, but make sure to come early to secure a seat!

We will be holding another event with Richard later in the week on Thursday 23 February. At this smaller lecture, Richard answers the question, “What does it mean to be a fashion illustrator in 2017?” through discussions of social media and collaboration. The event is open to Courtauld staff and students, though non-affiliated visitors may book a place at the lecture by emailing researchforum@courtauld.ac.uk. Seating is limited, so reserve your place soon.

If you can’t wait to learn more about Richard, check out his illustrations on Instagram. We hope to see you there!

Documenting Fashion – Happy summer holidays!

Documenting Fashion will be taking its summer holidays during August – so we thought we would leave you with some vacation reading while we are away – essays to download from our archives.

Continue to follow us on Instagram @documentingfashion_courtauld and we look forward to seeing all our wonderful blog followers again in September.

First, Rebecca’s essay with film historian Adrian Garvey – glamour and violence in the 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven:

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2015/09/29/sometimes-the-truth-is-wicked-fashion-violence-and-obsession-in-leave-her-to-heaven/

Next, another one from Rebecca – this time her discussion of the ‘New Rococo’ a style identified in contemporary fashion photography, and cinema – particularly Sofia Copploa’s films:

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2015/09/08/the-new-rococo-sofia-coppola-and-fashions-in-contemporary-femininity/

If you feel like learning more about dress history’s development and the subject’s 50 year development at The Courtauld, then this one is for you:

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2015/05/26/dress-and-history-since-1965-from-women-make-fashion-fashion-makes-women-conference-may-2015/

And finally, a discussion of reactions to Japanese fashion in the 1980s by Liz can be found here:

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2016/04/29/3630/

Happy Holidays!

Documenting Fashion Graduation

This Monday, July 4th, the Documenting Fashion students (and Liz, PhD, though not pictured!) graduated from the Courtauld. We were all very happy to have been able to have been there and wanted to share some photographs from our special day. The black academic robes with the brown hood are the academic dress for MAs of the University of London (the Courtauld is a self-governing college of the University of London). What did you wear to your graduation? Let us know in the comments on here or on Instagram.

From Left to Right: Giovanna, Carolina, Eleanor, Aric, Leah, and Aude

From Left to Right: Giovanna, Carolina, Eleanor, Aric, Leah, and Aude posing outside of the Courtauld Gallery. 

The MAs standing outside St. Clement Dane's church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, where the graduation ceremony was held.

The MAs standing outside St. Clement Dane’s church located on the Strand, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682, where the graduation ceremony was held. It is the central church of the Royal Air Force. 

 

The graduates taking a "selfie" timed photograph.

The graduates taking a “selfie” photograph.

 

A graduation ceremony leaflet and two guest tickets.

A graduation ceremony leaflet and two guest tickets.

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 1

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelides, both of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauld, generously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the second half will be posted next Tuesday.

What made you both decide to do a PhD in dress history at the Courtauld?

Alexis: I was living in New York, studying design history with a focus on fashion and textiles. When I finished the degree I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I was still writing and researching so it just seemed like the next logical step. My research, which is based on national fashion and post-war dress, really connected with Rebecca Arnold’s work, which I always admired. So it seemed like a good fit!

Katerina: I did an MA at The Courtauld, and it was interesting because during the time of my MA I always thought that I wanted to be a curator. I was always really interested in theatre and dress and performance, and so I did an internship at the V&A at the Theatre and Performance archive. It was a round the time of the big [Sergei] Diaghilev exhibition and I remember there was all this stuff about émigrés and Russian ballet. I was so interested in all the stories. At that time, I thought I wanted to do a book on Russian émigrés and the ballet in connection with dress and costume, but then I applied for the PhD and I got it and I got the funding, so I worked on that for three years. I ended up working with Rebecca because I met her on the MA and I really liked her and her approach.

What were the topics of your theses?

Alexis: I wrote about the French ready-to-wear industry and its development between 1945 and the late 1960s. I explored this in relation to what was happening in terms of various aspects of the post-war reconstruction of the country and women’s history, and the shift in constructions of fashion, modernity and the representation of women. I looked at how women connected to wider cultural issues through their experience of [ready-made] fashion.

Katerina: My title was ‘Russian Émigré Ballet and the Body: Paris and New York c.1920-50’. I looked at how Russians who emigrated after the Russian revolution in 1917 brought over their dance practice and how they influenced body, dress and exercise culture in the west. I also looked at how dress and exercise culture in the west, specifically in New York, influenced the Russian émigrés. So it was this two-way relationship that I examined.

I am always really interested in how research develops. People start off with having one thing in mind, and then they work on it and it sort of transforms into something completely different. Did you find that your research developed over the course of your study? And if so how?

Alexis: I think research is a personal thing, and connects to who you are. My research evolved a lot, for instance, I ended up studying an earlier period than when I started out. But on a more personal level I became much more interested in women’s personal, everyday experience of dress, focusing on women in their 30s. I turned 30 over the course of my research, and that apparently was a defining moment that I came to terms with through exploring women of a similar age, and their hurdles, in history.

Katerina: That’s so interesting because I do think that you grow up with your PhD in some ways. I started out being very young and idealistic, interested in the ethereal aspects of the ballet and the whole idea of Russian Émigré ballet as a ghostly nation that travels, and then as I got further into the research and started to look at things in archives, I became more interested in the dusty, dirty things. I became much more interested in the realities of travel and what people took with them, what they archived, what they lost, how they talked about things they lost. I think I started out being very interested in the illusions that were taking place and then I became much more interested in the women themselves, the gritty realities.

 Alexis: I wonder why we both became interested in the personal rather than looking at things from a scholar’s lens?

Katerina: I think it’s because with fashion images, for example, you always want to know what’s beneath them, and what’s the reality of the people who consume them and things like that. You always look for depth I think.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.