The conference Reading Fashion Magazines may be over, but our display of 9 items from the collection is still available to be viewed outside the Courtauld Library vitrines. Please come and visit, before it closes in August. In order to tempt you, you can read the introduction to the display, and our conference, below, available for you to download in a pdf.
What is your title?
“Fake It!” Examining the myths and realities in the life and work of Diana Vreeland.
What prompted you to choose this subject?
Ever since I’ve watched The Eye Has To Travel for the first time, I was fascinated by Diana Vreeland and the way she shaped the industry almost singlehandedly. Her stories, too, are quite something: Vreeland, her sister and nanny were the last people to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen in 1911; Charles Lindbergh flew over her garden on his first trans-Atlantic flight; she almost took down the British monarchy when Wallis Simpson came to her lingerie store to order some special garments for her first weekend away with the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward; and she attended Hitler’s birthday party in the early ’30s, sending a postcard to her son afterwards with the note “Watch this man.” Apparently so, anyway. I wanted to find out more about what prompted her to create such an extreme background for herself, the reason behind all the myth and fantasy which surrounded her, the obsession with “faking it” and everything else about her, really. Actually, I think I fancied the role of a detective for a few months, attempting to untangle what really went on in her head and her life.
Most interesting research find thus far?
I was lucky enough to go to New York to visit the Diana Vreeland Papers Archive at the New York Public Library. Flicking through the original pages of her teenage diary, handling her passport and birth certificate (the date of her birth is no longer a mystery!) and finding out what she was up to on a day-to-day basis through the Smythson leather diaries she kept between 1950 and 1985 was quite amazing. There are some peculiar entries where Vreeland notes when she is due to start her pills – once green, then yellow, then pink. Very intriguing. Sadly, I only had two days in New York and so could only go through four boxes out of the sixty-something the library has. Might have to go on another trip soon! I think about a month should do it, mainly because Vreeland’s handwriting makes it quite a challenge to decode what she was actually trying to write down. Oh, and one more thing: the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue online archives are very dangerous if you don’t have much time – they suck you in!
Favourite place to work?
I got into a very bad habit of working from my bed. So most of the time I can be found there, surrounded by mounds of paper, pastel-coloured highlighters and books. If I manage to persuade myself to face the outside world, I head to Starbucks (but only one that has comfortable armchairs or sofas!), and have a huge mug of soy matcha latte. I fear to look at my bank statement and find out how much I spent at Starbucks in the past couple of months. And there’s still time to go… Strangely, I find libraries quite distracting, but in Starbucks I get the work done.
As those of you who follow our blog will know, we are very interested in the ways personal and ‘official’ histories intersect through dress. We frequently refer to a wide range of imagery and objects – amateur and professional in their creation, private and public in their use – to seek new ways to understand how dress is thought about, worn and represented. This enables us to develop a more rounded view of fashion and dress histories, and look beyond the canon.
One thing I always ask students to do in the first term of MA Documenting Fashion is to bring in a dress-related image or object from their personal or family collection to open up discussion on (auto)biographies of dress, but also to think about history and memory. This is always one of my favourite sessions, and I was reminded of this at the weekend, when I went to visit my parents. My Dad gave me two autograph books that belonged to his Mother and looking through them has been incredibly touching personally, and professionally. What is so wonderful is the care each contributor takes with their ‘autograph’ – and how often a fashion illustration is used as the author’s signature and message to my Grandmother.
They date from 1914-16 – and the pages are filled with pictures carefully drawn and coloured by friends. Clearly inspired by contemporary fashion illustration in magazines and newspapers they replicate, or perhaps rather re-imagine fashions they’ve seen, or clothes they fantasise about wearing. What emerges is a beautiful private world of intimacy and connections made through these drawings. Their friendships and their desire to create a unique contribution are catalogued on the books’ pages, and have been saved for over a century now, passed down through generations.
Because of the period in which the books were completed they also document the war, and these idyllic renditions of femininity and display are punctuated with darker references, as the outside world interferes in home life. Several male friends – including my Grandfather – draw soldiers, warships, and even a Zeppelin scare on Leigh-on-Sea, where my family comes from.
I hope you enjoy viewing these images from my Grandmother’s autograph books, I will share some on our Instagram account too – and please post your own family dress histories. We would love to see them, and to create a more nuanced view of what clothes mean to us.
Something we discuss a lot on the MA Documenting Fashion is the ways dress is implicated in our ideas of history – on the grand scale, but also in our personal histories too. Early on in the course, we all bring in items from our own and/or family collection to help us unpick the myriad ways we use images and objects to talk about ourselves and situate ourselves within our families and wider communities. These discussions are always some of my favourites, they draw us together as a group, as we share stories and memories, and they allow us to recognize the subjective element within our work as dress historians – how we relate to and use dress ourselves.
I thought it might be interesting for our blog readers to see the things I treasure as part of my family history through dress, and the ways these items connect to wider histories.
My grandfather was in the Royal Navy, and travelled to China in the early 1930s. His wife was left behind at home, but their closeness and love is remembered still in the presents he brought back for her on his return. These include the powder compact shown here. The outside has a little scene painted on it, and the surface has a slight texture – it warms in your hand as you hold it, and contrasts to the cold metal base of the case. Once opened, traces of the white face powder remain and I think of my granny using it – catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, just as she would have done.
The compact makes material their relationship, my grandfather’s travels, and the emotions imbued in the souvenirs he brought to share his experiences with his family. It provides an intimate link to the past – my personal history, but also to the role of the military in the 1930s, to international relations and the goods produced for home and tourist markets. It shows us an example of makeup history, and ideals of beauty and design in the 1930s.
There are so many links to be made through the objects and photographs we save – in a sense we curate our life histories through these and share them with those close to us, weaving intimate and public histories together and showing the importance of dress in embodying emotion and memory simultaneously.
At this point in the term we switch gear – you might think we’d be winding down for the holidays, but no, we like to keep the momentum going. So having spent the first eight weeks of the course looking at themes in dress and fashion history, we now focus in on our core period, 1920-60, and apply everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about thus far to this era.
But before we move on, I thought it would be good to reflect on what we’ve been up to these past months…
7 Themes discussed: definitions of dress, modernity, history & memory, dress as autobiography, vision and touch, empire & colonialism, portraiture
4 Storerooms & Archives visited: Fortnum & Mason, National Portrait Gallery, Museum of London, Courtauld Prints & Drawings
22 Seminar readings read
1 Presentation given – in front of a painting at Tate Britain, on the theme of empire
1 Film review written – on a clip chosen from the BFI’s archives
1 Formal essay written on one of the 7 themes discussed
8 Objects and images discussed that evoke personal connections to dress during the history
& memory class
10 Fashion magazines and rare books, spanning 16th – 20th century from the History of Dress collections studied during our very first class
1 Hand-painted Victorian family photo album examined during our discussion of sight & touch
3 Tutorials each – to talk through ideas and approaches to assignments
1 Addressing Images event attended
14 Blog posts written
224 Images posted on Instagram (follow us here!)
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something … But I think this gives you an idea of what we’ve been up to…