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 Visits NYC, Dec 2016: A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Logo for MOMA’s A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant-Garde (Photo: Dana Moreno)

On Tuesday 6th of December, the second day of our trip, we spent a full day at MoMA on our own. The aim was to soak in MoMA’s art and design galleries related to the period 1920-1960, as well as two temporary displays: One and One is Four: The Bauhaus Photocollages of Josef Albers and A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant-Garde. Visiting these displays brought about the opportunity to see the different artistic movements and ideas from the European and Russian Avant-Garde that were translated into design and fashion during the early twentieth century.

Organized by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Curator of Drawings and Prints, and Hillary Reder, Curatorial Assistant, the latter exhibition brings together the development of one art movement, the Russian avant-garde from 1912-1935, for the first time at The Museum of Modern Art, and features 260 works from different disciplines including paintings, sculptures, posters, illustrated books, magazines, film, theatre set and costume design, drawings, prints, and objects. All pulled from the Museum’s Russian avant-garde art collection, the most extensive outside Russia, the exhibit provides a brief but intense analysis of the movement’s range of styles, media and social functions.

Wall display with works of Kazimir Malevich, 1916-1918. (Photo: Dana Moreno)

The exhibition, open a few months prior the hundred year anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, depicts the developments of early Suprematism and Constructivism, as well as avant-garde photography, design and film, by Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lyubov Popova, Alexandr Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova and Dziga Vertov, among others.

The first part of this exhibition illustrates the absorption of French modernism in works by Kandinsky and especially Rozanova and Lyubov Popova. With the birth of the artistic movement in 1919, Parisian styles were carefully studied (like works by Picasso and Matisse), which, along with the ideal of a total re-organisation of life and a new form of artistic expression available to the masses, gave life to a number of abstract paintings, design and fashion by making use of fundamental geometric shapes like squares, rectangles, circles, crosses and triangles in a limited range of colours.

El Lissitzky, The New and Globetrotter. Figurines for the opera Victory Over the Sun by A. Kruchenykh, 1920-1921. (Photo: Dana Moreno)

This provides us with a powerful visual introduction to next term’s special option, Documenting Fashion 1920 – 1960; from the social context of Europe and its relationships with Russia to reciprocal influences in art, film, design and fashion. On the latter, constructivists preferred simple geometric shapes and complementing basic colours in their avant-garde designs. Some of the artists worked in textile factories,  later on becoming actively involved in other processes of textile and fashion production and design. With their way of working with materials in such an abstract manner, their aim was to design garments that could be a reflection of practicality and their vision of art.

Vladimir & Georgii Stenberg, Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (The Man with the Movie Camera), 1929, Lithograph. (Photo: Dana Moreno)

Russian constructivism had an immense influence on fashion, a point not only clear in collections of the 1920s and 1930s, but also in later decades. The work of Russian constructivists, along with other international artists, helped establish ideas central to ready-to-wear fashion and mass production, as well as characterizing the previous idea of modern sportswear. Constructivism would also be influential in pieces like the Pierre Cardin’s space-age paper dresses from 1960, which were inspired by art of the early 1920s and were seen as progressive clothing indicative of a utopian society of the future.

A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of Russian Avant-Garde is on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until March 12.

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty

Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Marilyn Minter began her long and fruitful career in the explosive art scene of 1980s New York City.  Since the beginning of her practice, Minter has been exploring sexuality, feminism and her subjects’ deepest fantasies and impulses. Such intriguing, unapologetic and often seductive subject matter resulted in a great number of solo exhibitions all over the world and her ‘Green Pink Caviar’ video welcomed MoMA visitors for over a year, appeared on billboards in Los Angeles and at Times Square. In 2011, her work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in 2013 she was a part of a group exhibition show at Guggenheim Bilbao. Considering her output and influence on the art world, her first retrospective, currently at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, seems a little overdue. But it was worth the wait.

The Brooklyn Museum galleries of Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty are mesmerising. Tracking the development of her style, spanning the years 1969 to 2014, the visitor is encouraged to form a relationship with Minter and understand her intentions. Beginning with early black and white photography of the artist’s mother, her infamous undergraduate work, the exploration of the female body with which the artist occupies herself commences. Depicting Minter’s mother in front of a mirror, putting on make-up or just simply posing, the photographs set the scene for the fascination with the beauty industry and its deceptive nature. Here, the sexualisation of Minter’s work also begins, spilling into the following four galleries of the exhibition. Stepping deeper into Minter’s world, one is confronted with the oddly beautiful she is so fascinated by. Incredible paintings of mundane sights, such as a spill on a laminate kitchen floor or a cracked egg and a block of frozen peas in a kitchen sink, are made strangely desirable.

This desire associated with the kitchen and food becomes yet more explicit in her ‘100 Food Porn’ series. Conceived between 1989 and 1990, a few decades before the #foodporn hashtag took over Instagram, Minter explored the sensual imagery of peeling, splashing, dripping and shucking, harking back to the desire food can create as well as provoking the viewers’ sexual minds. No wonder a sign warning visitors of uncensored imagery and the show’s unsuitability for younger audiences is plastered over the entrance to the show space, stressing visitor discretion.

Marilyn Minter – Drizzle (Wangechi Mutu) (2010) Enamel on Metal. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Continuing along on Minter’s career path, the spectators are met with large-scale artworks which defy the preconceptions of photo-realism. By combining negatives in Photoshop, Minter creates compelling compositions, which are then painted by layering enamel paint on aluminium, ensuring the smooth finish and the illusory nature of her pieces. This idea of other-worldliness is further achieved by the zoomed-in and cropped viewpoints. Metallic liquid bubbles and spills out of mouths, make-up is smeared and made imperfect, graffiti obscures objects behind painted cracks and wet glass, blurred glitter, sequins and pearls create a hypnotic and visceral viewing experience, leaving the visitors guessing and perhaps slightly uncomfortable at times. The title Pretty/Dirty really hits home here – the works really tread the fine line between these two adjectives. But then, great art is always divisive. It challenges our preconceptions, makes us slightly uneasy and even alters our views considerably. Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty certainly does this very successfully and as such is a must-see exhibition for those who wish for their minds to be provoked and aroused.

Marilyn Minter – Blue Poles (2007), Enamel on Metal. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty is at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City until 2 April, 2017.

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Sketches, Dresses, and Fashion Plates in the Archives

During our MA study trip to New York City we were fortunate to visit several excellent archives. Our very first stop on Monday, to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections archive, kicked off the week with a look through fashion illustration’s past. Among the items shown that day were several lady journals dating back to the eighteenth century. An anthology of La Gazette Rose, a Parisian ladies’ magazine, displayed high quality coloured fashion plates from the early 1870s. The plates, interspersed throughout the volume, show women posing in various outdoor settings adorned in sumptuous costume, creating an intriguing contrast between their hyper-decorated dresses and the simplicity of nature.

Fashion plates from La Gazette Rose. Photo by Jamie Vaught.

Paul Poiret objects were also on display, including two early catalogues and a fan from his perfume shop Rosine. The albums, Les Robes de Paul Poiret of 1908 and Les Choses de Paul Poiret 1911, show Poiret’s fashions in the pochoir technique­–each limited edition album was laboriously hand stenciled and coloured. The fan, a souvenir from Rosine, featured multiple scents on the back in divided columns.

Yona sniffs the Rosine fan to see if any perfume scents remain. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Finally, we looked through a wealth of mid-twentieth century designer sketches. When we were invited to browse them at the end of our visit, Harriet and Barbora took on that task. Their exploration of several large boxes found inventive sketches by designers like Balmain and Balenciaga.

Harriet and Barbora find a Balenciaga sketch in FIT Special Collections. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Balmain sketch. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Later that day, we visited the storeroom of the Museum at FIT. While there, we saw clothing from the 1920s to the 1960s, including a brilliantly beaded dress from the roaring 20s, daringly cut dresses from the 30s, and a full Dior ‘look,’ complete with matching floral cocktail dress, heels, head wrap, and shawl.

Dior look in the FIT storeroom. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Later in the week we stopped by the Parsons School of Design and were introduced to the sketches of former students well-known in the twentieth-century American market: Claire McCardell, Mildred Orrick, and Joset Walker. While at Parsons we also saw a luxurious red evening gown by McCardell and publicity albums from Orrick and Walker.

Group at the Parsons Archives flipping through McCardell, Orrick, and Walker sketches. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Our last archive visit was to the Brooklyn Museum where we viewed their collection of playful sketches by Elizabeth Hawes, as well as her publicity albums. Though the museum gave most of their fashion collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, they retain sketches like Hawes’ artfully rendered designs. Hawes’ sketches stand out for their attached fabric swatches and humorous names, like ‘Go Home and Tell Your Mother,’ ‘The Clinging Tina,’ and ‘Chicken Little.’

Sketches by Elizabeth Hawes. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Group looks at sketches and books by Elizabeth Hawes at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to visit each archive. A special thanks to April Calahan at FIT Special Collections, Emma McClendon at the Museum at FIT storeroom, Wendy Scheir at the Parsons Archives, and Lisa Smalls and Deirdre Lawrence at the Brooklyn Museum.

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Christmas Window Displays

Bergdorf Goodman Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Bergdorf Goodman Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

The unveiling of Christmas windows in New York City prominently signals the approaching holiday season to New Yorkers and visitors alike. From mid-November onwards, stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Barney’s feature windows with elaborate fantasies more or less directly related to Christmas, which often include expensive designer dress, animated animal or Christmas puppets, music and copious amounts of glitter. Many of the windows take almost a year to design and create, continuing a tradition that has been shaping the look of New York for several decades. Perhaps the most famous windows are Bergdorf Goodman’s, whose Christmas window design process is shown in the 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and which were first created in the early 20th century. David Hoey, Bergdorf’s window dresser, explained that the 1930s windows were often surrealist, while the 1940s windows were patriotic and 1950 windows elegant. The spectacle shown in today’s windows did not occur until the mid-1970s.

Lord & Taylor Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Lord & Taylor Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

This year’s Christmas windows are not only breath-taking and full of Christmas joy and fantasy, but also show great variety in themes and look. Perhaps the most clearly dedicated to Christmas, Macy’s windows are created around the theme of Believe by designer Roya Sullivan and encourage the viewer to believe in the magic of the holiday season. Similar to Macy’s window, Lord & Taylor’s 79th Christmas windows feature no products sold by the store and rather focus on creating an Enchanted Forest fantasy through animated animals. To engulf the viewer into the Christmas fauna fantasy, Lord & Taylor’s display includes an extension of the front of the store covered in leaves and lights and squirrel puppets.

Sak's Fifth Avenue Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Sak’s Fifth Avenue Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Saks Fifth Avenue took sweetness in a more literal sense with displays on Land of 1000 Delights and The Nutcracker Sweet. The Land of 1000 Delights dedicates each window to a particular designer whose work is surrounded by oversized sweets. The Nutcracker Sweet, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, shows different animated scenes of the ballet’s characters in a landscape dominated by sweets. Bergdorf Goodman’s theme for the windows is unrelated to Christmas, instead favouring Destination Extraordinary. The all-green windows are inspired by nature, travel and the Natural History Museum and feature expensive designer dress in exotic fantasy locations.

The New York Christmas windows are on display until just after New Year.

Bergdorf Goodman Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Bergdorf Goodman Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Sak's Fifth Avenue Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Sak’s Fifth Avenue Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Macy's Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Macy’s Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Macy's Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

Macy’s Christmas Window. Photo: Yona Lesger.

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.

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the MET

De RIBES 1

Jacqueline de Ribes by Richard Avedon; de Ribes as ‘The Last Queen of Paris’ in Vanity Fair; and the designer adjusting her logo.

Showcasing 60 or so ensembles from Countess Jacqueline de Ribes’ wardrobe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style visually traces the life of de Ribes, a Parisian-born aristocrat whose sense of style and unconventional approach to dress had captivated the (high) society of her day. Now 87 and living in Paris, most of the gowns on display stem from the Countess’s personal archive and span the early 1960s to the present. These are arranged in a series of tableaux from daywear, eveningwear (the bulk of clothing on display), her own designs, to the exotic costumes she devised for dramatic entrances at masked balls. A devoted client and friend of the couturiers of her time, de Ribes was renowned for asking for specific modifications on the couture gowns she ordered, making her own adjustments, combining ‘high and low’ (although ‘low’ seems an ill-suited term for the ready-to-wear de Ribes purchased), and finally launching her own design business in the early 1980s.

Despite the constraints of an aristocratic milieu in which women’s accomplishments were limited to figuring in ‘Best dressed lists’ – something de Ribes mastered early on, entering Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed list in 1956 – the Countess found in fashion a way of channeling her independence and creativity, which would culminate in the launch of her own brand ‘Jacquelines de Ribes’ in 1982.  Yves Saint Laurent had encouraged her to re-consider: ‘He told me I would suffer too much.’ Her husband reluctantly consented, yet resisted risking his own money in the venture. If de Ribes had stood as ‘a muse to haute couture designers,’ she exceeded that role on many levels. It is a point that the exhibition seeks to make, emphasizing her unique sense of style, her role as designer, and her different endeavors in theater, television, interior decorating, and charity events.

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Yet for all its attempts to convey a more complex portrait of de Ribes, the exhibition falls back at times onto the long-worn tropes that precisely reduce women to the passive role of muse. Introducing her through the lens and pen of Richard Avedon and Truman Capote as one of the ‘swans’ of ‘impeccable elegance,’ the opening panel fails to clearly frame the issues at stake. There is a certain blurriness between her historical characterization and the discourse through which she is ‘advertised’ to the exhibition viewers: the panel notes her ‘precocious sophistication,’ ‘aura of exoticism,’ and ‘innate and self-taught talents,’ seemingly conflating at times her sense of style with an idealized (elite) femininity, and therefore playing to the allure that such discourses arguably retain today. Dramatic lighting effects and a classical music score only further obscure (quite literally) the exhibition’s critical engagement with the material on view. Put forward as a sort of conclusion, quotes from de Ribes that thrive on the classic fashion-elegance-style triumvirate stand as a final blow to a well-intended goal.

It is regrettable that exhibition does not attempt to unpick the loaded implications of de Ribes’ characterizations at the time, but rather ambiguously draws on them. This is despite the exhibition’s focus on de Ribes as a designer, and as a ‘wearer’  – someone who retains agency in asserting a personal identity through fashion, momentarily alleviating the weight of social prescriptions. As Elizabeth Grosz has noted ‘the past contains the resources to much more than the present.’ By addressing that past less obliquely, the Jacqueline de Ribes exhibition could have done more than thrust us back into a time capsule of glamour.

 

Sources:

http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2015/jacqueline-de-ribes

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/haute-ticket-jacqueline-de-ribes-at-the-met

Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Histories of a Feminist Future
,’ Signs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Feminisms at a Millennium (Summer, 2000), p. 1019.

Tags: exhibition; glamour; couture; style; Jacqueline de Ribes; MET

Cactuses and Paper Dresses: Frida Kahlo at the New York Botanical Gardens

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida's collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida’s collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

a replica of Frida's desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

a replica of Frida’s desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

Humberto Spindola's sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas

Humberto Spindola’s sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas

The New York Botanical Garden has been transformed into a Mexican, Frida Kahlo-esque paradise.  The Enid A Haupt conservatory, a huge Victorian greenhouse, is now full of cactuses, Frida’s great botanical love. The Casa Azul, the house in which Frida was born, and where she spent most of her adult life with her husband Diego Rivera, has been replicated within the conservatory. The strong blue colour that is so characteristic of the Casa Azul, and from which it derives its name, serves as a backdrop for the hundreds of prickly plants.

The garden is accompanied by a small collection of Kahlo’s paintings that exemplify her interest in and passion for plants and botanical drawings. The lifelike realism with which she rendered floral imagery in her paintings suggests that she was a keen and knowledgeable horticulturalist.

I studied Kahlo’s representation of dress in her paintings, and her own dress, extensively for my MA dissertation, so I was happy to make the trek out to New York’s Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The most interesting aspect of the exhibition was, in my opinion, Humberto Spindola’s lifesize recreation of the two figures in Kahlo’s famous painting The Two Fridas. The painting is a double self portrait; the two identical women sit side by side, holding hands. As in many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, dress is an important tool employed to depict a sense of strong Mexican national pride. The clothing worn by the figure on the right in The Two Fridas is very similar to other depictions of dress in her works, including My Dress Hangs There. The Mexican outfit, indigenous to the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, comprised of woven huipil and floorlength skirt, was also worn by Kahlo herself in her day to day life. Frida adopted this style of dress during her early adult life, and continued to wear it until her death. To her, this style of clothing was deeply implicated in her socialist political views and a symbol of her strong feelings of national pride. Since her death, the Tehuantepec style of clothing has taken on connotations as a symbol of the artist herself, and is used by many, including Spindola, as a homage to Kahlo.

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo,

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo

Spindola’s work, which stood alone in a rotunda, is a powerful example of how Kahlo’s dress has been transformed into a symbol of her identity. Although recognizable as the scene from The Two Fridas, his sculpture depicts only the figures’ clothing. Their bodies are simple reed canes, woven to create the three-dimensional figures. From a distance, the frames almost disappear into the background, creating the illusion of the dresses floating in space. The clothes, despite their realistic appearance, are made from amate paper using a traditional Aztec technique, posing an interesting question about the role of dress in art and art in dress. Many of the clothes Kahlo depicted in her paintings were real garments that she owned and wore on a regular basis. After her death, Rivera demanded that Kahlo’s bathroom and dressing room remain locked for a minimum period of fifty years, and, in 2004, when the rooms were finally opened by the conservators and curators at the Casa Azul, many of the clothes discovered inside were in perfect condition thanks to the dark, cool environment. Many were very similar, or indeed identical, to those Kahlo rendered in paint. For her, the garments she painted were very personal, real life objects. Often, as in My Dress Hangs There, clothing stands in for a human figure, acting as a form of self-portrait. However, for the millions of people who have looked at Kahlo’s paintings since her death, the dresses she depicted are nothing more than two-dimensional images. Spindola has played on this paradox between clothing that, to Frida, was very real and everyday, but to an audience was nothing more than a potent painted symbol. In creating these dresses in a lifesize, three-dimensional format, Spindola places them back in the ‘real’ world. But, not quite. Especially when approaching them from a flight of stairs, as the curators of the exhibition enforce, they seem almost like real women, a likelike incarnation of Frida herself. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are made of paper on a reed frame, and are therefore entirely unwearable. These dresses that have lived purely in the cultural memory of the post-Frida generations have been taken off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world by Spindola, yet remain just as fragile and unwearable.

The Two Fridas

The Two Fridas

Sources

http://www.nybg.org/

Denise Rosenzweig and Magdelena Rosenzweig (eds), Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, Fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007)

Shaping Prêt-à-Porter in the Fourth Republic (1946-58): The Paris/New York Dialogue

The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented last month at Fashion: the 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, held at London’s Institute of Historical Research. It was included in a panel on “Collaborations, Conversations and Peer Relationships in Fashion,” which featured individual papers by the four co-founders of the Fashion Research Network that drew on their doctoral research. Each pair of papers fell under one sub-theme, and was followed by a conversation between the authors, in both cases, a researcher in historical dress and a researcher  in contemporary fashion practice, around the evolution of collaboration in that topic. My paper, which explored the dialogue between the Paris and New York fashion industries during the Fourth Republic, preceded one that discussed contemporary global fashion capitals. The ensuing conversation, an interdisciplinary collaboration itself, demonstrated the methodology behind the session.

The autumn 1953 issue of the trade publication Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin reported on an important fashion industry event: the presentation of the winter collections of Les Trois Hirondelles to American buyers at New York’s lavish Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was a shared label of the French ready-made clothing brands in the Association of Maisons de Couture en Gros, which, from its establishment in the 1940s, was the focus of trade and government efforts to shape the national industry. The occasion attested to the growing dialogue between the French and American ready-made clothing industries since the end of the Second World War and, as the journal sought to indicate, marked an achievement for the French. Indeed, the country had been striving to modernise and compete on the international market, following the examples of their American and other foreign counterparts, since before the war. After the Liberation these goals were heightened in view of France’s weakened couture and ready-made clothing trades, as well as its newfound competition from the American sportswear industry. It was not surprising that the Cahiers, voice of the main trade organisation for ready-made clothing, recounted the events in New York. That a high fashion magazine should document this industrial happening was, however, exceptional: the brands’ New York visit was the focus of an editorial in the September 1953 issue of French Vogue.

The editorial, which featured photographs by Henry Clarke, made a new crucial connection that accompanied the commercial success of the French brands: that of French ready-to-wear to New York’s modernity. Clarke photographed American models, dressed in Trois Hirdondelles clothing, against New York’s iconic spaces such as Times Square and, according to the text, “in view of the Statue of Liberty, in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers” or “in the shade of newly-built buildings: the ‘Lever building,’ the ‘United Nations’ currently being finished.” Marshall Berman has written that much of New York’s construction in the twentieth century served as performative symbols of modernity, “to demonstrate to the whole world what modern men can build and how modern life can be imagined and lived.” Over time, these structures transformed New York into a “forest of symbols.” The New York City of the 1950s was one of perpetual, large-scale construction, the result of Robert Moses’ ambitious plan for the city’s reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in Berman’s “forest,” “axes and bulldozers are always at work, and great works constantly crashing down […] where new meanings are forever springing up with, and falling down from, the constructed trees.” Text and imagery gave magazine readers the impression of constant and modern construction, bolstering Europeans’ widespread characterisation of New York as a powerful political and economic force. Vogue’s imagery was the ideal means to temper fears of Americanisation, and, through fashion, include France in a modern, progressive narrative. Readers could insert themselves into the symbolism of modern life, as Berman described, as it was filtered through to the magazine.

In one photograph a model wore a beige corduroy dress and jacket by Lempereur at the very forefront of the composition. At once towering over the reader, and in the shadow of a modern skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, the image made a statement of epic proportion. The statuesque model mirrored the structure in the background and, with map in hand, surveyed her domain. The image visualised Berman’s notion of cyclical modernity; the newness of the building was reinforced by older structures in other photographs, the surrounding debris evoked destruction, and the empty space foretold the next, more modern construction. Likewise, Les Trois Hirondelles stood for a type of ready-made dress that would disappear at the end of the decade in view of the emergence of new labels, economic systems and political regimes.

Further, the United Nations building, built between 1948 and 1952, could be seen to symbolise international harmony and renewed ties between France and the United States. Founded in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations, in order to provide a platform for international dialogue. And, perhaps to France’s chagrin, the building represented, not only the new inclusion of the United States in international politics, but its physical leadership. Still, Les Trois Hirondelles provided a means for manufacturers to participate in a sort of cross-cultural exchange. Through this trip to New York, they could confirm the continued dominance of French fashion, which, in turn, bolstered the government’s own projects of reconstruction and modernisation.

Sources:

“Les ‘Hirondelles’ visitent New York,” Vogue, September 1953, 128.

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin, 1988 [1982], 288-9.

Faces, Phases and Dress: Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

“Faces and Phases” at Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

“Faces and Phases” at Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

Slide of Marcel Kutumela, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 2008 by Zanele Muholi (photo Alexis Romano)

Slide of Marcel Kutumela, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 2008 by Zanele Muholi (photo Alexis Romano)

In a portrait of Marcel Kutumela, beneath the brim of a fedora hat, her cool gaze extends toward and beyond the viewer. It at once implores attention and inserts distance between subject and spectator. Her hat and layered garment cover her body and impart an old world masculinity. Dramatic lighting heightens the theatricality of the picture, which resembles a film noir set, and engages viewers. Yet as soon as they begin to penetrate the surface, the image disappears. It is one slide among many, projected without contextualisation onto a bare wall. Viewers are confronted with other faces, other looks, and the individuals they observed become a community. In this set of photographic portraits, clothing functions as a conspicuous tool in interpreting identity and relationships, between person and group, and spectator and subject.

another image from "Faces and Phases," May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

another image from “Faces and Phases,” May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

The images are part of Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) Faces and Phases portrait series, and the above installation is from Isibonelo/Evidence, the current exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Viewers are able to view the actual silver gelatin prints in a large room behind the wall of slides, where Muholi’s concern with the materiality of identity is unmistakable. She has written, “In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. […] Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another.” Clothing thus serves to articulate and document the process of identity fabrication, as well as incite viewers to question their own thought process. According to Muholi,

The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?

another photo from "Faces and Phases," May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

another photo from “Faces and Phases,” May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

The cultural context of violence and inequality that envelops these portraits–reinforced by personal testimonies scrawled on an adjacent wall–sets the exhibition’s grave tone. It is the first installation viewers see in Isibonelo/Evidence, and is perhaps the most meaningful counterpart to The Dinner Party (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, which permanently resides in an adjoining room. Like its predecessor, Faces and Phases was created during a moment of upheaval in terms of sexual identity and rights. It also concerns the individual identities of a marginalised group, an how they are classified through their own production. Production in the earlier instance was expressed through the iconography of women in history, and, in Muholi’s work, by the ways everyday people style themselves. This helps visitors relate to the dynamics of being and seeing, and urges them to reflect on their own participation in the politics of appearance today.