5 Minutes with… Courtauld MA Student Aristea Rellou

‘Documenting Fashion’ not only aims to analyse fashion imagery, contexts and theoretical approaches. No, the course’s influence is much more far-reaching. It subtly trains the eye towards using a fashion gaze to view the world around us. The Courtauld itself, being a small institution with a specialised subject and student body, provides a fertile ground to practice it. So, in order to expand on my own perception of someone’s style I decided to ask Courtauld MA student Aristea Rellou about her clothes in order to get the inside scoop. Aristea’s fabulous way of dressing had always caught my eye through its slightly edgy, yet classic look. She kindly agreed to share her thoughts with me on what inspires her to dress the way she does.

Aristea is a student of the Print Culture and the Early Modern Arts of Italy, France and Spain MA special option. Before attending the Courtauld she studied Law at the University of Athens and Art History at the New School in New York. It was the latter where she felt her own style coming together and her interest in fashion growing. The student body there was fashionable and sported distinctive looks. Her inspiration was furthered by working in commercial art galleries, where a strong statement look oftentimes comes with the profession. Aristea is inspired by people with an innate sense of style, as they present themselves through their clothing. ‘Being very comfortable with the way you dress comes with knowing yourself too,’ she muses.

Aristea has noticed about her own approach that she chooses items which deconstruct the body. She grins: ‘It’s very Cubist, now that I think about it.’ Large shapes which do not necessarily conform to her body’s silhouette allow her to play around with juxtapositions. On the day I met her she wore a white, cropped top, tied at the front, high-waisted, wide dark trousers and a pale, blue/grey, long coat that reached to her lower calves. She topped everything off by choosing sturdy red shoes. Yet for all the deconstruction, a classic element to her clothes is also intrinsic to her look. When going shopping with her sister, they joke with each other: ‘Well, would Kate Middleton buy this?’ It is a smart move, as it also allows Aristea to be dressed appropriately all day long. Her daywear functions and shifts easily into evening wear.

Lastly, we talk about make-up. Winged eyeliner completes Aristea’s style. Even more so than clothing she thinks make-up reflects on where we currently are in our lives and how we feel. This discussion also brings me back full circle to ‘Documenting Fashion,’ where we have discussed Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ definition of dress ‘… as an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings.’ Thank you for communicating with me, Aristea!

 

Sources:

Eicher, Joanne B. and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford: Berg, 1993), pp. 8-28. (P.15)

 

 

5 Minutes with… Michaela Zöschg

Michaela Zöschg is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at The Courtauld, and Research Assistant for the upcoming V&A exhibition Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. Her thesis is titled ‘Rich Queens, Poor Clares: Art, Space and Audience of Royal Clarissan foundations in Late Medieval Europe’. She was born in Bolzano, Italy, and moved to London in 2011 from Vienna. She now spends her time between South London, Vienna and the Tyrolean Alps (and southern Italy and Spain for research). I recently spent five minutes with Michaela to discuss her experience of dress.

Can you recall an early fashion memory?

Dark red patent leather Mary Janes I got when I was about four. I still remember the excitement of trying them on in the shop, and how I insisted on having them in my bedroom, so that I could look at their shiny prettiness before falling asleep.

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Through your research, you are connected to people (women) who lived hundreds of years ago, so, in a way, you are dealing with many mysteries and interpreting silent voices. Do you feel like you must reconstruct their identities through the material evidence they left behind?

Absolutely. More often than not, material evidence – in the form of the stones of a palace or a church, in the form of an illumination or a scribble in a book, or in the form of a sculpture or a painting – is the only evidence I have, and the only means through which I can try and re-construct some of the stories of people who have lived in the past.

Can you share any comments on your everyday approach/method to getting dressed, and its connections to your own identity construction?
I think I put my everyday wardrobe together rather instinctively, without thinking about it in a methodological way. The most important thing is that I feel comfortable in my clothes and that I don’t have to think about them once I am wearing them; looking at it from this perspective, I think they are very much part of my identity, as they form some sort of second skin.

You are a passionate, talented knitter. How did you learn? What are you currently working on?

Thank you! Many members of my family are very good at making things – my mum is an amazing knitter, and my aunt was a professional seamstress, so I grew up in an environment full of fabric, yarn, wool, needles and buttons, and picked up knitting. These days, I unfortunately do not have that much time to knit, usually I end up making small gifts for baby arrivals among my friends. But I have a stash of a beautiful grey merino-alpaca blend that will hopefully soon be turned into a cosy winter layer for myself.

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Can you discuss a memorable clothing purchase from your past?

That would be a simple white cotton shirt I must have bought around the years 2000/01, which was quite expensive for my budget then. I remember going back to the store about three times before finally buying it. It was a good investment – I still wear it, and it still looks as crisp as it did when I bought it.

You are one of my favourite dressers. Your overall style seems extremely considered (but natural to you) and edited. Does the word ‘uniform’ resonate with your dressing?

Thank you! Yes, you probably could describe my clothes as ‘uniform’ – I always draw upon the same materials, shapes and colours. That I like clean shapes, high-quality materials and solid colours probably adds to this ‘uniformity’ – although I think I probably prefer the term ‘timelessness’.

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Fragments of denim, linen and wool garments

Where do you get your clothing from?

I like to go hunting in all kinds of places – from your average high street store to second-hand places and nice little independent shops. It is all about the process of finding a piece that can become a good and trusted wardrobe-friend.

You are my partner in black (and other dark colours)! Do you have any comments on wearing this colour?

It has a calming effect on me, I think.

Has your way of dressing changed over the years?

Very much so! I had quite a long and intense phase of wearing very colourful and ornamented clothes – bright reds, purples – with a lot of jewellery when I was younger. A favourite piece from that phase is this massive Indian mirror belt.

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Has living in London affected your dress? Does your relationship to others affect your dressing?

I think London is also visually such a buzzing place that it probably has made my clothing even more reduced and simple. I think I get a lot of inspiration from my friends, from the many creative ways how they are dressing and expressing themselves.

Can you recall any examples of difficulties in the daily process of dressing? And have you ever regretted wearing a certain outfit?

The only difficulties arise if I did not have time to do my laundry. I once possessed a pair of dungarees. Not a good idea.

5 Minutes with….Professor Deborah Swallow

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Professor Deborah Swallow is Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Before coming to the Courtauld in 2004, she worked in various museums, including the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she was head of the Indian department. Teaching in India for a year gave her a deep interest in the culture of the country, which she explored through the discipline of social anthropology and as a curator in the context of an art museum. While at the V&A she also oversaw the creation of the Nehru Gallery of Indian Art.

What are you wearing today?

Today I am wearing an older Indian jacket. It is made from a fabric that is normally used for shawls. It is a called a Nehru jacket, and the cut is based on India’s first independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It’s a man’s garment, and is very similar to the Achkan, which is North Indian court dress.

Where does the inspiration for your dress come from?

I started going to India in 1969 and wore what you would describe as ‘missionary dress.’ This was in the ‘60s so skirts were very short, but that wasn’t appropriate for India, so my mother made me a longer skirt. But I felt pressure to wear a sari. So I bought one for 45 rupees, but then I was told off because the quality wasn’t good enough for someone who would be lecturing at a university. So I stopped wearing saris because I couldn’t afford to buy good enough quality ones on my budget.

So I started to wear a shalwar kameez, which is long shirt over loose trousers. Now there is a very heavy Western influence on Indian dress, and Indian styles are subject to changing fashions, such as the length of the sleeves or trousers. There are also subtle regional and local variations.

Where do you get your clothes from?

I buy all my jackets readymade- I’m back and forth like a yo-yo so I’m never in India long enough to have them made for me! I get them in Jodhpur in the old town bazaar. Jodhpur trousers that are worn for horse riding actually originate in Jodhpur, because they’re horse riding people. The bazaar is seven stories tall, with really narrow staircases. It is absolutely full of textiles, both antique and new.

Do you feel that being the head of the Courtauld dictates the way you dress?

Yes, I feel I have to dress reasonably formally. I tend to wear a lot of structured clothing because it suits me. I have to wear things that are suitable for both day and evening. I wear a lot of trousers, as you might have noticed, because they are comfortable. These jackets are very practical because they can be worn over anything to be dressed up or dressed down. I can wear them over trousers like this, or over silk trousers to be more formal.

Libby [Debby’s PA] said that you keep a cupboard full of jackets at the Courtauld?

 Yes I do, to put on if I need to, but it’s not very full at the moment. This jacket is really nice- it’s quilted. There is one quilted style from Jodhpur that I really want. It’s very long and made of velvet and normally dark green. Jodhpur is in Northern India so it’s desert and can get very cold at night. So this style is perfect, it’s like being wrapped in a divan.

Any other comments or clothing secrets?

 A group of us from the Courtauld had our colours done once, so I know what goes with my complexion. I avoid yellows and browns and stick to reds and blues.

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Three: Rachel Worth, MA (1989), PhD (2003)

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas. We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

Rachel In The Late 1980s

Alumni Interview Part Three: Rachel Worth, MA (1989), PhD (2003)

Rachel Worth is Professor of History of Dress and Fashion at the Arts University Bournemouth. She is currently working on two books, Clothing and Landscape in Victorian England: Working-Class Dress and Rural Life (I. B. Tauris) and Fashion and Class (Bloomsbury), both forthcoming 2016.

You did the MA in the late 1980s with Aileen Ribeiro. What was the structure of the course like then?

I did the course from 1987 to 1989 when it was a two-year syllabus. The first year was a survey of the history of dress, from the medieval period right up to the twentieth century. It introduced us to a subject that few of us had studied before. Being at the Courtauld, the perspective adopted was very much an art historical one. But as well as Aileen’s core input, there were guest lecturers who would focus on particular periods, source material and / or methodological approaches. I absolutely loved it and soaked it all up! I think I particularly relished the analysis of paintings that the course entailed. It informed how I have looked at art ever since.

In the second we year did a ‘special subject’, ‘Dress in England and France c 1760 – 1820’ which drew upon one of Aileen’s research specialisms. We also wrote a dissertation. Because it was a two-year Masters, there were financial implications for students, then as now. Not only was the course itself intensive, but one of the things that was so much a part of my experience of it was the fact that I had three part-time jobs! I had a daily library job at the Courtauld itself, a Saturday job at Liberty’s in the scarf department, and I taught English as a foreign language to private students.

What were your first impressions of the Courtauld?

It was in a very different location – Portman Square. I can remember well the feeling of being in the basement where the dress history library was located  – and it always seemed rather dusty!  What was great was that it was only a short walk away from the Wallace Collection, so I often went there at lunchtimes! I think that wonderfully eclectic collection has influenced some of my interests, particularly 17th century Dutch art and a fascination with armour and its relationship to dress. It reinforced a number of the topics that we were studying on the course and the importance of considering different source material in relation to dress history.

 What was your favourite thing about the History of Dress MA? Do you have any particularly fond memories?

There were many many things I enjoyed. One of the things that stands out in my memory was that Aileen Ribeiro would take us through a wonderful range of paintings in the context of a particular period or theme. And she would leave the slides – physical slides then of course – in the room for the rest of the day so that we could go back through them and check that we’d got a proper slide list. It was very important to make sure that we had comprehensive notes: – artist, date, location of the work etc. And I still have those lecture notes! They were so useful and I still sometimes refer to them! It was an excellent foundation for things that I’ve done since.

You came from a History background – BA in History at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. Why did you decide to study History of Dress at postgrad?

That’s right: in my BA I’d specialized in social history but I’d always been interested in cultural and art history, and I felt (and feel!) very strongly that dress is an absolutely essential part of social history. At the time, it was most unusual to study dress on a history course. So for me the Courtauld course was the obvious postgrad choice – and it was unique.

As a young child I had always loved fabrics and haberdashery and I was always making things. My mother taught me to sew – she would make all her own clothes. She was born in 1931 so her formative teenage years were in the post Second-World-War period – late 1940s. The suits and evening dresses she made and wore were very much based on her interpretation of the Dior image. In my own teenage years I got totally hooked on the history of dress, perhaps because, as a dedicated daydreamer, I was always imagining how it would be to live in another time and place and dress is such an imaginative way into another world. During my history degree I felt increasingly that there was huge potential for the study of dress but that it hadn’t been ‘tapped’ by the undergraduate history curriculum.

Did you find that the transition from History to History of Art and Dress in particular was difficult?

Not really. After my BA I took a year ‘out’ and worked at the Museum of Costume, now the Fashion Museum, in Bath, as a tour guide and that really fuelled my interest. It was wonderful to be surrounded by actual garments and to imagine the past societies that ‘produced’ them. The people who visited were mostly non-specialists and tourists taking in a number of museums in Bath so you had to try to interest them and make connections. Those amazing garments on display did my work for me and probably helped me to make the transition you allude to.

What did you do after the MA?

In 1990 I got a place on the Marks and Spencer ‘Graduate Management Training Scheme.’ I was really interested in the whole idea of retail. It was an incredible experience: I trained as a buyer (we were called ‘selectors’) and it was a totally different environment from what I was used to. It taught me so much about how fashion is understood on a popular level as well as issues around design and manufacturing for mass production. I loved visiting the Midlands knitwear factories – they were pockets of incredible textile skill and expertise, but they are mostly – sadly – gone now. After two years, I decided that retail wasn’t for me! But having an insider’s knowledge of the company meant that I got to know about the M&S Company Archive – which wasn’t a public archive at the time – and that led to my research for my book on M&S.

In 1991 I secured my first academic job at Staffordshire University, responsible for the dress history elements of a BA and MA in history of design and visual culture. Having done a PGCE before my MA I knew that I would love teaching. Then, in the late 1990s a got a course leader job at what was then the Arts Institute at Bournemouth (now Arts University) At the time they had a Higher National Diploma (HND) in fashion but they were looking for someone to write a new BA. The course that I wrote with my colleagues brought together fashion theory and history, design and marketing, and it’s still running…

And what about your PhD? What was that on?

It was while I was at Staffordshire University that I started my PhD, part-time while I was working full-time. It was a study of potential sources for, and representations of, rural working class dress in the 19th century. I finished writing it about two days before the birth of my son – it’s always good to have a deadline!

Would you say that your style of teaching was influenced by that of Aileen’s?  

I’m sure it has been. I have tried to take on board her meticulous attention to detail and her insightful analysis of the work of art or artefact as central to an understanding of dress history. I’ve also taken inspiration from other excellent teachers over time. By the way. I nearly did a BA in philosophy, and I really like to encourage students to think about and analyse concepts and ideas too.

What is your favourite thing about teaching History of Dress?

That depends on whom I’m teaching. If I’m with a first year undergraduate group  – say, fashion design students – who’ve never done any dress history before, I love seeing them start to make connections and realise why the history is so fascinating and so important. Equally, discussing in depth an aspect of a student’s PhD research is immensely stimulating. Being in a position to teach something you love and that many people can relate to in so many ways is amazing and a privilege. Even if some students find some of the theory tricky, there is usually a way of presenting it so that they can relate it to something that has meaning for them.

If you could own any piece of clothing, what would it be?

That’s difficult. What I would actually love is to have in front of me and be able to explore an item of clothing that we might see in, perhaps, a 15th century Netherlandish painting by, say, Rogier van der Weyden or Hans Memling.

I suppose that is difficult, because not many of those survive.

I think that’s the point, that’s why I love the idea! My initial reaction when you asked the question was to say something designed by Worth (no relation!) but actually I don’t particularly feel the need to own something that survives and is well documented. So what I would really like is the impossible: to examine something that hasn’t survived, something that we know so well – or think we know – from paintings, but have ever only had a two-dimensional view of.

Do you have any advice for current MA History of Dress students?

…Grasp opportunities that present themselves, and also ‘make’ those opportunities. If you want to do something, never take no for an answer. Absolutely follow any dreams that you have. Stay focused but, at the same time, try to be open to the unexpected because the things that might seem like offshoots may turn out to be really useful later. This is a special time so immerse yourself in your studies – and relish every moment, even – dare I say it – the deadlines!

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Two: Harriet Hall, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA (2011)

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

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Alumni Interview Part Two:  Harriet Hall,  Courtauld Institute of Art MA (2011).

Harriet Hall is a freelance journalist specialising in Art, Fashion and Entertainment. She has published work online and in print, as is currently working on a book about the history of Sportswear. Harriet also works for the BBC, producing segments for live radio and television, and has interviewed celebrities, designers, artists and industry experts.

Could you tell us a little bit about what you are up to now?

 I am a journalist. I work three days a week at the BBC News Channel as a producer, and three days freelance, writing Fashion and Art pieces. I am currently writing a fashion book for Bloomsbury on the history of Sportswear. I give myself Sundays off!

 Did the MA course help you to progress to where you are today?

Absolutely. The course provided me with knowledge of how to analyse and write about dress, and a historical grounding that I apply to everything I write. It made me realise I was allowed to take fashion seriously. It also introduced me to many people across the world of fashion and dress, most of whom I am still in touch with. It’s important to have a network of close friends and colleagues you can turn to for advice and vice versa. 

You graduated from the Courtauld in 2011. Could you describe the structure of the course back then?

 It was the first year that Rebecca Arnold taught the course (although I’d stupidly spent the pre-application time reading Aileen Ribeiro’s work, which was a century earlier!) so it was great, because we were all new; we were all starting a journey together. The course focused on the inter-war period in Paris, London and New York. It was all very liberating and chic. I wrote mostly about feminism- Virginia Woolf and then for my thesis, the Japanese Lolita – I missed the memo about keeping a tight focus!

Would you say that the History of Dress Department, with such small numbers (alongside fashion’s undeserved association with ‘triviality’), was seen as inferior in any way?

I never found at the Courtauld that anyone looked down on anyone’s subject – academic importance was afforded to everything, because the word Art is so all encompassing. They wouldn’t include it at the university if it wasn’t considered important. We were, as a class, a little separate from the other students, but that just made us all a lovely tight-knit group.

Are there any memorable highs and lows of the course that you’d like to share with us?

 The high point was definitely going to New York on a study trip. We went behind the scenes at some of the most prestigious museums and met all the curators, and did lots of shopping! Low point – returning from New York to revise for our exam a week later. Jet lag and libraries aren’t a great combination.

Did you come from a fashion background or was it something new to you?

I studied History of Art for my BA, so it wasn’t entirely removed. I had always considered studying straight fashion design or art, but I wanted to know about everything that had come before, how it was received and how it was built upon. I was always obsessive about fashion, reading about it at every moment, collecting Vogue and spending all my money on clothes, so I felt perfectly at home studying it – it never felt like something new to me.

Did the Courtauld succeed in paving the path to a career in fashion? How important do you think a fashion-specific degree is to a job in the industry?

For curator roles, the History of Dress MA is virtually a requirement, but for my career it has been more of an invaluable addition. In journalism, many people expect you to have done a more vocational degree but for me, I think the historical and analytical knowledge is far more important, you learn the rest on the job.

 Could you talk a little bit about your career path since leaving the Courtauld? Any mistakes, any triumphs?

I started by interning at the Victoria & Albert museum, where I worked in the fashion department as a cataloguer and, separately, alongside a curator on a display of Japanese Lolita dresses. It was great timing with my thesis, and I was able to speak alongside him at the museum and at Hyper Japan events. Afterwards, I interned at Marie Claire, and later secured a job as Features Assistant at InStyle the January after I graduated. I worked at InStyle for a year. After I left InStyle, I began working at the BBC, whilst writing freelance Art and Fashion reviews for various publications. Soon the BBC promoted me to become a Broadcast Assistant on the news, and someone asked me to write a fashion book at the same time!

There have been some difficult moments, working in the media isn’t an easy path, and you’ve got to be prepared to stay at home a little longer. I’ve had to hold myself up with part time work – at a hairdresser and a beauty salon, and write a lot for people for free, but it’s important to prioritise building up a portfolio, first and foremost.

 Did extra curricular activities and networking with peers and alumni have an impact on your academic life?

 I didn’t really have time for much else other than researching for the course, but I would say that developing friendships and bonds with the other students was invaluable. We helped each other through everything – from advice on topics, to essay stress-outs and even sharing our photocopier money! It’s important to realise you’re all a team, not individual competitors. I made friends for life.

Could you talk a little bit about the sportswear book you are working on?

 It charts the history of sportswear from the 1900s to present day, focusing on specific designers as milestones. I am writing it alongside sportswear designer, Christian Blanken, who is going to illustrate it. It’s a brilliant time, because sportswear is more popular now than ever, and it’s such a versatile, liberating style of dress. It’s going to be a coffee table book- big and glossy with lots of great pictures. It should be ready for publication at the end of 2016- so that’s what everyone’s getting for Christmas next year.

Do you keep up to date with the Courtauld’s events, exhibitions and publications?

 I keep my eye out to see how the new classes are going and have attended a few lectures – you feel somewhat connected to the people on a similar journey to you. And of course I keep in touch with my peers and Rebecca. I think the History of Dress blog is great.

If you could own one exquisite piece by any designer (dead or alive) what would it be?

I love the black feather dress from Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2009-10 ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection – it looks impossible to wear but it’s magnificent – although I don’t know if the birds were killed or not, so maybe the red cape and white gown from the Autumn/Winter 2008-9 ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ collection – it’s so regal. Of course, I don’t think I’d get away with them down the local…

What is your dream project/achievement/job?

 To author a book (nearly there), to produce and present my own fashion programme and to be editor of Vogue one day. (aim high, I say.)

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

 Comparison is the thief of joy. I try to hold onto that because in every walk of life there will be someone younger, more intelligent and more successful than you, and you just gotta get over it. Also, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part One: Aileen Ribeiro

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

Aileen Ribero in the late 1970s.

Aileen Ribeiro in the late 1970s.

Alumni Interview Part One:  Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA (1971), PhD (1975), Head of History of Dress Department (1975-2009).

Aileen Ribeiro has lectured internationally and written widely on the history of dress, including Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (Yale: 2011), and Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England (Yale: 2005). In addition, she has been a costume consultant to major portrait exhibitions in the UK and US, most recently Whistler, Women and Fashion at the Frick Collection, New York (2003).

Why the history of dress?

My first degree was in history, which I enjoyed on the whole, although in retrospect there was a sense of dissatisfaction in the predominance of political history rather than cultural history. It was very much with the feeling of being rescued from the desert when, a few years later, I finally engaged with ideas of putting a face on history, with what people looked like and what they wore, particularly as I became increasingly interested in the history of art.

When and where did you become aware it was something you could study at The Courtauld?

Fairly soon after I’d graduated, my husband and I (sorry, that makes me sound a bit like the Queen…) spent some time teaching in Zambia, which was when I realised I wanted to teach, a profession which I’ve enjoyed immensely. While in Africa, where I taught history and English, I wrote to the Courtauld Institute with the idea of studying art history, but the prospectus gave details of a postgraduate course in the history of dress, which had recently been set up, and which sounded intriguing, so I applied and was accepted.

What were your first impressions of The Courtauld? And of Stella Mary Newton? 

The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 to offer the first degree in England in art history. Samuel Courtauld donated his collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works to the institute named after him, which was established in his town house, Home House, in Portman Square. By the time, in 1969, I arrived at the Courtauld, the art collections were housed in a separate gallery in Bloomsbury, but the Institute was still in Portman Square, a wonderful Adam house, although the library was sometimes difficult to use, particularly the collections in basements and cellars. As for the History of Dress Department, it was housed in the mews across the garden at the back of Home House, where Stella Mary also had her office. I remember being impressed by her elegance, stylish dress and jewellery, which wasn’t surprising as she had had a small couture house in London in the 1930s, and retained a great interest in fashion.

What was your favourite aspect of studying History of Dress with Stella Mary Newton?

The course – the first I think in the world – was established in 1965; Stella Mary Newton had been a costume designer in the theatre, with a particular interest in historical dress, and during the Second World War she had worked in the National Gallery in London, dating and identifying paintings through costume. Stella was my mentor – an inspirational teacher and self-taught scholar; she was the first to focus on the importance of clothing in art, that artists depict the dress of their time, either consciously or unconsciously.

What were your goals when you took on the role as course leader?

Through her [Stella Mary Newton’s] work I realised how important the links between art and clothing were and are. Which is why much of my career has been devoted to this aspect of the history of dress, both as a teacher (I became head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld in 1975), and as a writer. I never had any doubts when I first began to study the history of dress, that this subject had immense possibilities; it began in some respects as a kind of handmaiden to art/theatre/design history, but now it’s a discipline in its own right, with so many facets which it would take numberless lifetimes to explore.

Inevitably, given that the history of dress is situated in the most famous place for the study of art history, what we can ‘read’ in a work of art and how clothing can illuminate these works of art in themselves, and can reveal a wide range of aspects of society and of individuals, is an important aspect of our study, but one of the aims of our subject is to look at the history of dress within the context of social and cultural history, to analyse and interpret clothing from extant objects, documentary and literary sources, as well as from the visual. And I want to impress how important it is for students of the history of dress to be open to a wide range of possibilities, to study the subject from the earliest periods, and not just to concentrate on the 20th century and contemporary fashion.

What was your favourite aspect of teaching History of Dress at The Courtauld?

One of my pleasures in teaching the history of dress was to see how students were enthused by particular eras, topics, themes from classical antiquity onwards. So much research needs to be done in the areas of classical, medieval, Renaissance and the early modern periods; I think Stella Newton thought I was too ‘modern’ in choosing the 18th century for my PhD!

How did your teaching change over your time here?

It’s an interesting question, to contemplate how one’s teaching evolves over time, and not always easy to determine; sometimes it changes in response to students’ interests, and perhaps it’s more evident in writing. My concern has always been to teach and write in a way that’s accessible, and to avoid the opaque and often pretentious jargon of much academic discourse, particularly when it moves away from the object, but – because dress like art, is often full of signs, of ambiguities, and sometimes contradictory impulses – it needs de-coding if it is to have meaning. This is never-ending, and makes the history of dress/clothing, fashion, constantly surprising and illuminating.

24/1/2015

Sustainable Style: an Interview with Cora Hilts, Co-founder of rêve en vert

Reve en vert

The rêve en vert website.

Cora Hilts is co-founder of rêve en vert, a clothing company which sells and designs sustainable and ethical clothing from its Shoreditch studio. They promote and stock designers who are committed to using local products and fair trade manufacturing practices. She also happens to be one of my oldest friends, so I was more than happy to meet for a catch up!

Johnstons of Elgin recycled lambswool blanket and shopping bag from rêve en vert.

Johnstons of Elgin recycled lambswool blanket and shopping bag from rêve en vert.

Where did your interest in fashion come from?

I would say my interest in fashion was really born and cultivated during my five years living in Paris-it was the first time in my life I saw women that were dressed so elegantly and yet so simply. It was also where I learned that a small closet full of beautiful, curated things would always be preferable to an overflowing one full of less considered fashion.

What was the inspiration behind rêve en vert?

Having grown up on the seaside in Maine, I was always very connected to nature. But as I was getting my Master’s degree in Environmental Politics and Sustainability at King’s College London I was in a class where the professor mentioned that second only to energy, fashion was the most polluting industry in the world. It was at that moment I knew that I deeply wanted to see that change.

What do you mean by ‘sustainable,’ especially in relation to fashion?

We have identified four pillars of sustainability at rêve en vert: local, independent, sustainable and ethical. We thought these four words covered the remit of what we wanted to see in our designers whilst keeping it easy enough for them to produce without so much sacrifice. Mainly we want to see designers producing clothing in ethical and fair circumstances, manufacturing with an awareness of environmental impact and humanitarian concerns. With rêve en vert, oftentimes it’s also just the mantra of “less is more.”

What are the difficulties in selling and producing entirely sustainable clothing?

It’s much more expensive than the clothing you would find on the high street, and with people’s love of a bargain and expectation now that fashion should be incredibly cheap it’s hard to change their minds into buying more investment pieces. Consumers need to understand that to pay people a living wage, to use quality materials, and to reduce waste supply chains the way they shop will need to alter and they will need to spend more on less. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty straightforward message and one that I wholeheartedly believe in, but I also know this will take time and more and more awareness of the problems.

What are your plans for the future of rêve en vert? 

We are planning on expanding our own designing more and more-with a resort wear line launching this year and expanding beauty and home wear. After that comes men’s wear, and after that a concept store in Paris with an organic cafe attached!

www.revenvert.com