Miwa Yanagi: Elevator Girl

 

Miwa Yanagi’s 1990s photography series, Elevator Girl, presents a fascinating look at how fashion and photography can come together for a cultural critique. Yanagi studied textile design at the Kyoto City University of Arts, and incorporated this knowledge with a newfound interest in photography and performance art into one project. Beginning in the early 20th century, Japanese department stores hired beautiful, young women to operate the elevators in their buildings. She was made to dress up in the same outfit every day, and sit in a box repeating the same motions over and over again. The elevator girl was clearly a sexual object that represented the traditional patriarchal oppression of women in society, yet she was also a modern woman of the world that had a paying job and dressed in a contemporary, sophisticated manner. Yanagi’s photographs explore the traditional pressure and oppression that women still face in modern society. Take Elevator Girl House 1F, which shows rows of uniformed elevator girls displayed in a glass case.

They are dressed in identical red uniforms consisting of a skirt and double-breasted jacket, complete with a matching red hat and white pumps. They are each posed in a stiff, mannequin-like fashion within the glass display cases. The photograph invites the viewer onto the moving walkway to observe the models as if they are commodities to be bought and sold. Uniforms are powerful tools, in that they invite an immediate response of recognition. When you see someone in an army uniform, you automatically assume they must be a soldier of some kind. The red uniforms in Yanagi’s photograph give the viewer that sense of recognition to the elevator girls, but puts them in a different context. There is a simultaneous familiarity and alienation – the girls are recognizable in their uniforms and remain in a display context; however, they are now overtly the commodities in an endless row. There is also a sense of alienation in their similarity. The reflections of the lights above on the glass cases obscures their facial features. This coupled with their identical outfits makes them almost indistinguishable from one another.

Miwa Yanagi’s work in the Elevator Girl series investigates Japanese popular culture and consumer culture by appropriating their themes and satirizing them. Her series takes the patriarchal image of the elevator girl and uses it to shed light on the pressure and inequality Japanese women face. The photographs themselves resemble glossy fashion advertisements, thus criticizing both the way in which women are thought of as commodities and the consumer culture that gripped Japan as well. The ritualized performance of the elevator girl, the repetitive motions she makes everyday, the identical outfit she wore to other women, and the pressure put on her to appear alluring and youthful, is representative of the standardized roles women of any profession or status are expected to play. Her photographs increase the viewer’s feeling that there is something problematic about the elevator girls through a heightened sense of unreality that she achieves by placing the girls in eerily familiar, yet surreal settings. While her photographs in the Elevator Girl series are glossy, beautiful, and eye catching, they leave the viewer feeling unsettled, which is precisely their job.

By Olivia Chuba

From English Fashion Plate to Japanese Print

After a period of limited trade, Japan opened select cities in 1859 as part of a commercial treaty with France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States. As traders flooded into the port of Yokohama, native artists capitalized on Japanese print tradition to spread information about the country’s new inhabitants. For centuries, widely accessible paper prints depicting beautiful women, actors, and mythological scenes entertained the masses. The new print genre, called Yokohama pictures, educated consumers through descriptive poetry and colorful images that emphasized the foreignness of Westerners.

Yoshitsuya Ichieisai, A Frenchwoman from the series The People of the Barbarian Nations (Bankoku jinbutsu zu: Furansu fujin), 1861. Polychrome woodblock print. Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession number 1968-165-119). http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/249307.html

Yoshitsuya Ichieisai, A Frenchwoman from the series The People of the Barbarian Nations (Bankoku jinbutsu zu: Furansu fujin), 1861. Polychrome woodblock print. Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession number 1968-165-119).

Native Japanese dress differed greatly from dress styles popular in Europe. As such, clothing became an essential tool to identify foreigners. In A Frenchwoman by Yoshitsuya Ichieisai, the inscription reads, “Wearing her foreign garb of spring brocade, a young woman strolls along the streets of Yokohama.” The background of the print is blank and the woman’s skin tone is similarly neutral: The real subject of the print is not the figure herself, but her brightly colored clothes. To Western eyes, the mantle, skirt, and bonnet may look oddly drawn. The familiar exaggerated hourglass silhouette of 1860s European womenswear is shrouded by a too-long mantle, the skirt has an unusual two-tone teardrop pattern, and the headdress only suggests a bonnet.

Dismissing this print as crude is a misstep, however. A Frenchwoman actually displays an impressive amount of invention in the face of artistic difficulties. Though there were some Western women in Japan, most traders were single men. With a shortage of real-life subjects, artists turned to foreign newspapers to complete their visual vocabulary.

‘The Paris Fashions for October.’ Illustrated London News (September 29, 1860). Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

‘The Paris Fashions for October.’ Illustrated London News (September 29, 1860). Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

A Frenchwoman directly supports this notion. Printed in the first months of 1861, it bears a striking resemblance to a fashion plate entitled ‘The Paris Fashions for October,’ which was published September 29, 1860 in the Illustrated London News, a paper widely available in Yokohama. The leftmost woman in the plate wears a multi-tiered mantle with crimped edging that unmistakably inspired the mantle of the Frenchwoman.

Recognizing that Yoshitsuya used fashion plates to create foreign figures helps explain his artistic choices. To avoid replicating the corseted waist, whose shape defied Japanese artistic training, Yoshitsuya added a long blue tier to the bottom of the mantle. The blue teardrop shading on the skirt resembles dark etching used in fashion plates to create depth in folds. And the figure’s open cloth head covering suggests that Yoshitsuya moved the bonnet’s close-to-the-chin bow, seen on the other two figures in ‘Paris Fashions,’ onto the collar of the mantle, a possible interpretation of the two-dimensional plate. Despite some difficulty translating the European costume into a Japanese print, the inscription still rings true to the context of the Frenchwoman’s clothing: The mantle was an outdoor covering that any foreign woman “stroll[ing] along the streets of Yokohama” would have worn. Using English fashion plates and reasonable estimation, Yoshitsuya created an imaginative representation of European women viewed through a Japanese lens.

Further Reading

Ann Yonemura, Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-century Japan (Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1990), 82.

Re-presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art

This Spring term I’m teaching a BA2 course entitled ‘Re-presenting the Past: uses of history in dress, fashion and art’. This was the first dress history module that I ever studied at the Courtauld as a second year undergraduate 6 years ago. Created and initially taught by Dr Rebecca Arnold, it was the first course that captured my enthusiasm for the subject, and prompted me to take my study of dress – as image, object, text and idea – to PhD level and beyond. Over the next ten weeks my eight students and I will be thinking about how history is studied, researched, thought and written about. We’ll be interrogating what history means, how it relates to diverse discourses such as narrative, power, identity and memory, and how our contemporary context impacts on the ways that history is used, presented and re-presented by historians, artists, photographers and designers.

Using theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Raphael Samuel, Jacques le Goff, Jean Baudrillard and many more, we will be considering how history can be re-visited and re-presented through images of dress and fashion. It’s a course that is wonderfully fitting to the cyclical nature of dress and fashion, which continually weaves together past and present with potential for the future. Using images of dress and fashion heuristically, to open out a broader discussion that draws on theory and context, we’ll be considering how objects might contain within themselves an alternative historiography, which could challenge preconceived ideas of what history constitutes.

For their Christmas projects, I sent my students to the V&A British galleries to consider how history is explored through image, object and text within the displays, and to think about how dress and fashion link to national history.

My own explorations threw up some interesting starting points. I began my search for uses of history in the V&A British galleries, 1760-1900, and happened upon a display case exploring the influence of Japan in Victorian Britain. The text panel diligently explained the enormous impact of Japanese art and design in the UK, which was first aroused following the opening up of Japan to British and American powers in 1850. From this point on, Japanese objects began to circulate globally and by the 1870s there was a craze for all things Japanese. The distinctive patterns and motifs of Japanese artistic forms provided a new and exciting source of exoticism to tantalise the curiosity of the British public and its desire for Eastern Otherness.

An example is an orange and green tasseled Japanese gift cover made of Satin silk, with two lobsters embroiders in satin silk thread on the front. The V&A caption vaguely informed us that it was produced in Japan between 1850 and 1880, and then concentrated on explaining that in the late Victorian period it was very fashionable to decorate your home with Japanese objects. The caption read: ‘Textiles such as this, which would have been used in Japan to cover a gift, were particularly popular. The striking lobster design would have seemed very exotic to the British public’.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Hung up flat on the wall of the display case, and thus divorced from its original function as a beautiful and functional object, the gift cover was presented in such a way so as to highlight its aesthetic qualities, which drew a connection to how it would have been originally been displayed, hung up on the wall, in Victorian Britain. In doing so, the V&A presented a very one-dimensional history of these Japanese objects, centered on the perspective of Britain. Although this may have been unsurprising, given that they were displayed in the British galleries, I began to wonder how the objects themselves might tell another history, narrated from the perspective of Japan.

Close up of Japanese silk cover.

Close up of Japanese silk cover at the V&A.

Presented in a very different way, and inserted into a Japanese context, the gift cover could have told another, equally important, history of Japanese art and design production, and how these objects circulated contemporaneously in Japanese daily life. Called a ‘fukusa’ in Japanese, this gift cover would have been draped over a gift, which itself would be presented on a tray. The ‘fukusa’ would be an object of interest in its own right to be suitably admired by the beneficiary, and any guests present. The choice of the gift cover constituted an important part of the process of gift giving and the extent of the decoration reflected the wealth of the person giving the gift, as well as their tastes. The gift cover was then returned to the giver.

This object is just one example of how preconceived histories might be challenged, nuanced, or even re-written in part through a focus on close visual and object analysis. In this particular example, the gift cover contained within itself another narrative of the past – a history narrated from an indigenous Japanese perspective -which the curious viewer might be prompted to further unpick the threads of.