Cléo de Mérode and the Seduction of Beauty

Léopold-Émile Reutlinger and Giovanni Boldini, Cléo de Mérode (collage)

What makes someone beautiful? Or maybe the question is, what makes someone photogenic? Or the perfect subject for representation in any media? Symmetry? Expressive eyes? The ability to pose, to present yourself just so? In Cléo de Mérode’s case she seemed to possess all the necessary qualities – from an early age she inspired image-makers and sparked styles. She had a quality – what a very vague term – that spoke of modernity at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her dancer’s poise, long neck and tiny waist presented an apparently perfect silhouette – slim yet curved to express the contemporary line of beauty. For Boldini, she was coquettish, glancing over her shoulder, blouse slipping from milky shoulder … in Belle Époque photographs she is still usually in profile – she knew how best to display herself – Amazonian with puffed sleeved blouses, sculpted torso and perfect posture. Painted, sketched, photographed repeatedly, artists sought to capture her beauty and show how it expressed a transcendent modern ideal that still entices today.

Born in 1875 to an aristocratic, artistic family, she was dancing professionally from the age of 11. She soon existed both in reality – dancing at the Paris Opéra, for example, and brave enough to risk outrage by appearing with the risqué Folies Bergère – and in parallel – she lived as an image, a vision of a ideal that seduced and entrapped viewers. She was a cipher – a perfect neck, the smallest waist, the newest hairstyle – who seemed knowable through these depictions, and yet out of reach, a modern star to be consumed visually. She was famous internationally, desired by royalty – pursued by the Belgian king, and sculpted by Alexander Falguière, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec and photographed by Nadar.

Mérode’s ability to transcend time is evidenced in Cecil Beaton’s interview with her for Vogue in 1964 – 2 years before she died. By then she was elderly, but no less elegant, and still astute in her approach to photographer and camera. In his photograph of her, she remains uniquely herself – true to her image, posing to present her herself and reflect her beauty towards the light, and to potential viewers. For Beaton she represented a key period of style and living – a lost age, filled with enigmatic women in trailing gowns and elongated corsetry, their hair piled up for extra height. His book The Glass of Fashion is a paean to these indomitable proto-modern women, able to live with a greater degree of independence because of their class, talent or refusal to adhere to contemporary morality.

Cecil Beaton, Cléo de Mérode (collage)

His interview with her, upstairs in her elegant Parisian apartment connects with themes that thread through his work – beauty, ageing and feeling out of synch with time. As he gains her confidence they walk through each room, seeking the best light for her to pose and reclaim her decades of modelling with gestures that resonate in hundreds of pictures. She denies the racier aspects of her reputation – no nights at Maxim’s she says, but she still knows how to perform, her body responds to artistic attention, and recreates the beauty of her youth. On his way out, Mérode became anxious – worried about the results of her sitting – and said ‘Remember, I am trés coquette. Now you’ve promised you’ll destroy all those pictures which are bad?’ As Beaton notes, she ‘knows how to protect her legend,’ perhaps the other key ingredient necessary to remain an eternal beauty.

 

Further Reading:

Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion (1954)

Cecil Beaton, ‘Cléo de Mérode Today’, Vogue (Feb 15, 1964)

Prof. Elizabeth Edwards to Speak at the Courtauld

Join us Monday 20 March in the Research Forum from 12:30 pm-1:30 pm for ‘Thoughts on historical pagents as photographs,’ an Ad/dressing History lecture with Professor Elizabeth Edwards!

Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The early twentieth century saw a craze for historical pageants – popular re-enactments of the history of a locality. In these the stress on authenticity of historical representation through words, scenes and costume was particularly important. Prof. Edwards will consider the role of photography in perpetuating these quasi-ritual processes, values and the social efficacy of the pageants. She argues that photographs of pageants were not merely records of pageants, but, through the temporal complexity and reality effect of photographs, created a subjunctive ‘as if’ of history which extended the reach of the ritual qualities of pageants. This paper is part of a larger ethnographic project on photography and the emergence of public histories 1850-1950.

Elizabeth Edwards is a visual and historical anthropologist. She has worked extensively on the relationships between photography, history and anthropology. She is Professor Emerita of Photographic History at De Montfort University, Honorary Professor in the Anthropology Department at UCL and will soon join the V&A Research Institute as Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor.  She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. Her current book projects are on photography and the emergence  concepts of the collective ownership of ancient monuments, and on photography and the apparatus and practice of history.

Looking North

Open Eye Gallery withVirgil Abloh and Ben Kelly’s installation

For the past few years, London’s galleries have been hosts to some incredible fashion exhibitions, luring visitors from every corner of the world to pore over their sartorial treasures. With the dawn of a new year, however, a new city is emerging as the latest fashion destination. From January 6 until March 19 2017, Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery is showcasing North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, an exhibition curated by SHOWstudio’s editor Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Prompted by the impact the North of England has had on fashion, music, design and art the world over, as well as the clichés associated with the area, the exhibition explores and challenges these dominant themes, asking the visitors to come to their own conclusions. The heritage of the North is unpicked through photography, historical films, interviews with its artists and designers, garments, fashion magazines and music, highlighting the impressively far-reaching influence of the region, one which is seldom acknowledged, ignored even, in the capital city oriented fashion world.

“Liverpool is tiny, but it has a lot of impact.” – Christopher Shannon, designer | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

With Stoppard and Murray not being full-time curators, the organisation of the space is free of restrictions and preconceptions of seasoned professionals, allowing for a fresh take on the potential of exhibitions. The rooms have a relaxed vibe, a coolness about them, which one can already sense getting off the train at one of Liverpool’s stations and walking through its streets to reach the gallery. It feels very authentic, honest and respectful in its representation of England’s North, a much welcome relief from the sometimes derogatory mentions the area gets in the media. Walking through the exhibition, admiring the prints by fashion’s favourites Jamie Hawkesworth, Alasdair McLellan and David Sims while being slightly amused by Alice Hawkins’ genius portraits of Northern teen girls or perusing the editorials in i-D, Arena Homme+, Vogue and The Face, all inspired by the visuals of the region and displayed in custom-made Sheffield steel vitrines (not a single detail escaped the curators), one starts to question the lack of credit given to cultural centres outside of London. Even musical legends such as Morrissey, The Stone Roses, New Order and Oasis, who have conquered the world with their sounds, (and who rightfully have their own pride of place within the exhibition) grew up and formed within the North’s energetic environments. No one can dispute that the talent which hails from and is inevitably profoundly influenced by the North of England enjoys great stature worldwide, yet their origins are often forgotten. Fortunately, North brings the talent home again.

“There’s tons of beautiful girls in Liverpool that aren’t WAGs with caked on make up.” – Thom Murphy, stylist | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

The magnitude and the wealth of visuals the North provides the world with becomes even more apparent upon entering the fashion gallery. Garments from the Belgian Raf Simons, German adidas and American/Milanese/Ghanaian Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh all clearly show signs of the North, emphasising its crucial and international role. On display are various versions of the adidas Samba and ZX trainers dedicated to Northern cities. Elsewhere, an Off-White knit pays tribute to the Gallagher brothers, while a Raf Simons Autumn/Winter 03 parka with a print of New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ album cover designed by Peter Saville hangs nearby. The parka can still be bought online, though it does fetch $20,000. Who said the North wasn’t fashionable? Add the giant steel columns created by Abloh and Ben Kelly, the designer of Manchester’s iconic Hacienda nightclub, interior of which was a starting point for this installation, which, complete with Abloh’s signature chevron, dominate the facade of Open Eye Gallery, and the North of England is firmly secured on fashion’s radar.

“The most Northern part of me is my sense of humour. That more than anything is the thing that has endured and what I use in my way of dealing with people. But I’m not a professional Northerner.” – Simon Foxton, stylist | Raf Simons parka from ‘Control’ Autumn/Winter 2003

“Some things I explore in my collections relate to my life in the North-East. There’s a sense of real life, because things aren’t so aspirational.” – Claire Barrow, designer | Mark Szaszy, Corrine Day – Diary (Extract) (2012)

There are many other gems scattered around the exhibition space. A small Panasonic TV from decades past screens an extract from Corrine Day’s diary, where the late photographer reminisces about her shoot for Dutch magazine in 2001 titled ‘A British Summer: Blackpool 2001’ featuring Kate Moss, George Clements and Rosemary Ferguson. A 1939 short film named ‘Spare Time’ documents the people of Sheffield, Manchester, Bolton and Pontypridd in the in-between times when they are not working in the towns’ famous industries. Watching the movie sat on a park bench, headphones on, you get sucked in, almost feeling as though you are in the film yourself, observing the goings on, being a part of the daily Northern life. Yet the biggest surprise is upstairs. The room is transformed into an old, seventies maisonette, complete with lace curtains, a floral print armchair, a bed with an embroidered throw, a giant wooden cross, shaggy carpet and old rotary dial telephones prompting the visitors to pick them up, revealing sound bites by Northern creatives such as Stephen Jones, Christopher Shannon, Claire Barrow and Gareth Pugh in which they look back at their upbringing and the importance of the North of England in their life and work. It is a charming corner to relax in, take a trip down memory lane, meet the locals and ponder on the importance the North of England has on the country’s image. Perhaps just this little refuge in a twenty-first century city is a reason enough to return for another visit. As Gary Aspden remarks in his interview upstairs, “all roads lead back to the North.” This exhibition is a testament to that. So do yourself a favour, brave the almost five hour long round trip from London and visit the Open Eye Gallery. Believe me, it is worth it!

“I still think that people from down South don’t understand people from up North. And it is this huge cultural, class and every-which-way divide.” – Stephen Jones, milliner | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion)

“I feel still very much connected to where I grew up… it’s a huge part of who I am. And I think in that it’s the Northern work ethic, that’s also something that is quite important.” – Gareth Pugh, designer | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion 

Sources:

‘North’ on SHOWstudio.com

Documenting MA Students

We’re almost at the halfway point of our MA (shocking how quickly the time goes!) and wanted to share a little bit about ourselves now that we’re here. It’s been a pleasure for us all to contribute to this blog, one of the firsts of its kind!

Below are some photographs of us, and we’re each holding a photo of one of our favourite ladies from history (although it should be said that we all had a hard time narrowing it down). Don’t forget to read the captions closely – each one describes some of our History of Dress related interests.

Giovanna

Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery

Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery

Leah

Leah's interests

Leah’s interests – Time and temporality, Paris, early twentieth century, photography and film

Carolina

Carolina’s interests – Costume in film, Latin American dress, History of Couture, Consumerism, Gender & Body

Carolina’s interests – Costume in film, Latin American dress, History of Couture, Consumerism, Gender & Body

Eleanor

Eleanor's interests – Dress History in the Museum, Gender, Uniform, Dress and Emancipation

Eleanor’s interests – Dress History in the Museum, Gender, Uniform, Dress and Emancipation

Aric

Aric's interests – Androgyny, the Black Body, and all things chic

Aric’s interests – Androgyny, the Black Body, and all things chic

Aude

Aude’s interests - history of photography; feminism; fashion and modernism; and when it comes to fashion fantasies, Martin Margiela!

Aude’s interests – history of photography; feminism; fashion and modernism; and when it comes to fashion fantasies, Martin Margiela!

Documenting Fashion MA Course – Our leading ladies

From left to right: Elsa Schiaparelli, Germaine Krull, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Katherine Hepburn and Josephine Baker

From left to right, then top to bottom: Elsa Schiaparelli, Germaine Krull, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Katherine Hepburn and Josephine Baker

A Look Back on ‘Fashioning Winter’ at Somerset House

It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!

Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’
by Alexis Romano

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.

And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.

Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.

Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!

4 November, 2014

Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House
by Fruszi Befeki

An empty vitrine...

An empty vitrine…

Objects and condition reports

Objects and condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text...

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…

I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.

We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.

At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.

Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.

With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!

We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.

7 November 2014

A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’
by Fruszi Befeki

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

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Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.

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Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.

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These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.

Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.

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Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.

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Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.

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If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.

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While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.

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The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.

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Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.

18 November, 2014

Avedon: Ancestor of Photoshop

“All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.”

– Richard Avedon

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay (and a few tweaks from the author!)

In our very first MA class the inevitable conversation about fashion, its imagery and manipulation of the real body turned to Photoshop. Scourge of contemporary fashion media that it is, a quick trawl through the history of fashion photography will tell you that it is not a new phenomenon. While the technology may not be the same, fashion photographers have been manipulating their images since the earliest years of the genre.

Richard Avedon was an American photographer with a prolific career in fashion. He held positions as lead photographer at Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, shot campaigns for Dior, Versace, Revlon and Calvin Klein among many others and is responsible for some of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century. He worked relentlessly and consistently from the mid 1940’s until his death in 2004.

Avedon was keenly aware that fashion photography had presumptions toward the ideal. Clothes and models starred, and the image should inspire, appeal and oftentimes—sell. The medium of photography allowed for both a ‘realistic’ and highly adjustable way of making images.

“The minute you pick up the camera you begin to lie—or to tell your own truth. You make subjective judgements every step of the way—in how you light the subject, in choosing the moment of exposure, in cropping the print. It’s just a matter of how far you choose to go.” Avedon

Avedon worked with ‘retoucher’ Bob Bishop for over forty years, manually adjusting photo-negatives. Lengthening necks and legs, making eyes larger and even swapping heads and torsos from different images to create an idealized picture, half a century before Photoshop.

As we rage against photo-manipulation in today’s print media, a moment of reflection on its rootedness in the world of fashion photography may yield new perspectives. Would understanding the subjective role of the photographer make us less desperate to believe the final image is the ‘truth’? Or perhaps it is the influence of celebrity in fashion media, with tightly controlled images and a desire to appear perfectly ‘real’. How many today would surrender their image to the photographer as Audrey Hepburn did in 1967? If we continue to view fashion photography through Avedon’s lens of aspiration and fantasy do we really want to restrict his tools? Perhaps understanding the artifice would simply ruin the magic.

 

Sources

Avedon, Richard. In the American West, 1979-1984 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), foreword. Print.

Avedon, Richard, Carol Squiers, and Vince Aletti. Avedon Fashion. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2009. Print.

Fineman, Mia. “Pictures in Print.” Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 157. Print.

In Conversation with… Eugenie Shinkle

I met with Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in London, to ask her about her current research on fashion photography, focusing on what she has coined, ‘the feminine awkward.’   

Esmeralda, New York, Hart+Lëshkina. The plastic chair is made into an extension of the body.

Esmeralda, New York, Hart+Lëshkina. The plastic chair is made into an extension of the body.

How would you define your concept of the ‘the feminine awkward’? 

It’s a way of thinking through changing representations of the female body and femininity as these are linked to shifts and developments in the creation and sharing of images.

Does it relate to specific fashion imagery? 

Yes, certainly. It relates to contemporary fashion imagery, work of roughly the last ten years where you’ll see a shift from images that specifically try to deal with grace and beauty, to images that try to deal with discomfort, awkward angles, a fragmentation of the body, what you might call gracelessness. It is different from the sort of alternative photography that was going on in the 1990s: Corinne Day’s images for example, images of real people in sometimes quite down-market surroundings. That was about a certain type of lifestyle. The newer work that I am thinking about is very much focused on individual bodies. So I am thinking of SynchrodogsHart+LeshkinaRen Hang to a certain extent. And certainly someone like Viviane Sassen.

How do these images affect the relationship between the viewer’s body and the model’s body? 

This is where it’s really interesting to start looking at models from the point of view of neuroscience, in which the basic idea is that what we experience visually is not just about vision, but that vision has various tactile stimuli incorporated into it. It’s about something called ‘sensory crossover’ and the fact that none of our sensory inputs are experienced in isolation. The one area that interests me a lot is ‘mirror neuron theory,’ which is the idea that when you look at an image of pain, the same neurons in your brain are firing as if you were actually experiencing pain. It’s the foundation of human empathetic response.

Sensory crossover is a fact of all image perception, but it’s particularly pronounced in fashion imagery, which incorporates sensations of touch, movement, and pose. Images that are ‘awkward’ are those that grab you, that give rise to a certain visceral response quite quickly. It’s a different way of catching and holding a viewer’s attention than, say, ‘shocking’ imagery.

Can they be seen as reaction to the idealized beauty of traditional fashion photography?  

I don’t like to see them simply as a reaction to conventional fashion photography because a lot of it has to do with technology as well. It has to do with the speed at which images of the body are disseminated, the rapidity with which they are received, the relationship that we have with images of our own bodies and other bodies. Part of this idea of awkwardness is not just a rejection of beauty it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between bodies, observers and images. That relationship is changing quite profoundly. I certainly see it as something that belongs to more than the limited contexts of fashion.

Synchrogos is a photography duo formed by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Novan

Synchrodogs is a photography duo formed by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven

How do they affect notions of femininity? In Viviane Sassen’s work for example, there is something very liberating in the fact that the bodies do not bear the conventional attributes of femininity; the body is made into a prop and becomes part of a broader formal experimentation. 

There is a kind of subversion of feminine identity through purposeful awkwardness, through the making of the body into featureless blobs. I agree with the idea that you can look at them as liberating because all the signifiers of femininity that fashion photography has traditionally exaggerated and made the essence of the feminine are made into something else in quite a humorous way. You can also see how this could be problematic, however. Erasing it, making it invisible is not necessarily a constructive way of challenging notions of femininity.

‘”Chic” Was To Art The Same As Sex Appeal Is To Love’: Four Things I Learnt While Reading Cecil Beaton’s Memoirs of the 40s

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One of the many delights – and distractions – of research is the things you read along the way to your real goal.  While my focus is on Beaton’s wartime photography, for a forthcoming paper at the Museum of London, delving into his diaries and memoirs reveals far wider dress gems.  Since these probably won’t make the final edit, I thought I’d share some of my favourite insights with you here – skimmed from the pages of his 1940s memoirs, and, in these examples, from his time spent in post-occupation Paris between 1944 and 1945.

No. 1 – Parisian style during the war was about resistance – to German torment, restrictions and morality, and to imposed ideas of respectability and beauty:  

The British Embassy’s Guests, Sunday, October 29th – Paris, 1944 

‘The women were a curiously dressed bunch in a fashion that struck the unaccustomed eye a strangely ugly – wide, baseball player’s shoulders, Dureresque headgear, suspiciously like domestic plumbing, made of felt and velvet, and heavy sandal-clogs which gave the wearers an added six inches in height but an ungainly, plodding walk.  Unlike their austerity-abiding counterparts in England these women moved in an aura of perfume.’

No. 2 – Necessity breeds innovation, hybridity and style: 

Stocking the Cellar 

‘Diana [Lady Diana Cooper] wearing trousers, yachting cap, and biscuit-colored fox coat…’

 Churchill’s arrival, November 10th 

‘Diana, in pants and bandanna…’

 No.3 – Never be too quick to judge who is best-dressed:  

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas 

‘During the years of cold and shortages, Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbour at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, who had a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women’s clothes.  In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice to wear during the hard winters.  Now he has opened a shop in Paris.  At first showing to the press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, Basket.  Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot’s self-portrait.  Alice, in a long Chinese Garment of bright colors with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the “Widow Twankey,” a comic transvestite from the vaudeville stage.  Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered: “Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it’s just as well for him that they don’t!’

No. 4 – Fashion and Art = Sex and Love 

Bébé Bérard and the Jackals, British Embassy, Paris 

‘Bébé inspired, proceeded to illustrate with his pencil the fashions of the new dressmaker Dior.  These, he says, have the same sense of sex appeal as Chanel created after the First World War.  A theory was put forward that fashion was anti-art, that “chic” was to art the same as sex appeal is to love.’

Perhaps later I’ll share what I learnt about New York … But for now, I must get on with what I supposed to be researching …

Source:  Cecil Beaton, Memoirs of the 40s, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972

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.

When War Meets Fashion Photography: Lee Miller and Marlene Dietrich

Photograph from Lee Miller: Portraits from a Life

Photograph from Lee Miller: Portraits from a Life

Lee Miller, born Elizabeth Miller (April 23 1907) started her career as a successful fashion model after a fateful run-in with Condé Nast on the streets of New York City during the 1920s. Such a crossing of paths resulted in Miller landing her first modelling job for American Vogue, and she became a favourite model and muse to some of the greatest American fashion photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen. After returning to Paris in 1929, Miller went on to become a pupil of the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, who inspired her to open her own photographic studio. Switching from one side of the camera to the other, Miller became a unique talent, performing with brilliance on either side of the lens.

Miller’s career as a photographer resulted in various portraits and fashion assignments being published inside the glossy pages Vogue.  She joined British Vogue as a freelance photographer in 1940. However, with the on-going struggles of the war, Miller found that working for a ‘frivolous’ publication such as Vogue was becoming a drain on her own morale. In 1942 she applied and was accepted by the US army for accreditation as a war correspondent. What followed was a series of photographs documenting the British home front, before she headed to France and Germany where Miller shadowed the steady successes of the Allied advances.

The accompanying image of the Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich was captured by Miller after the liberation of Paris in September 1944. During the war, many of Paris’ finest Couturiers had closed shop. Therefore, this image of Marlene is particularly important as it signalled the re-opening of the fashion house Schiaparelli.

Marlene Dietrich, born in Berlin in 1901, became one of the most glamorous leading ladies in film of the 1930s and 1940s. Famous for her ability to challenge the accepted notions of femininity, Dietrich often wore trousers and more masculine fashions both on – and off – screen. In this respect, Marlene’s sense of fashion combined with her German origins and her relocation to America, in order to crack Hollywood, meant that the actress came to resemble the sought-after exotic other.

Dietrich as ‘other’ can be explored in relation to the Schiaparelli evening coat she wears in the black and white photograph. The Damask fabric is almost oriental in appearance with its floral embellishment and decorative detailing. However, the coat is also positioned within the context of the war period as well. The single-breasted construction of the coat combined with the gold threaded toggles and matching belt allude to a military uniform. Whereas the coat had originally been part of Schiaparelli’s 1938 Zodiac collection, when placed within the context of war the clothing becomes imbued with colonialism and empire: ‘The design is so subtle that one hardly notices that it represents the British lion capering among faint bluish flowers.’

 Marlene can be understood as challenging the accepted notions of femininity whilst wearing this evening coat because of both the feminine and masculine qualities of the garment. Her styled hair, painted nails and the make-up on her face indicate typical womanly conventions, especially when combined with the floral patterning of the evening coat. However, on the other hand, the appropriations of military uniform characteristics allude to a more masculine identity.  Such an observation is particularly interesting because the coat can be identified as embodying wartime culture. With more men volunteering and being conscripted to join the front, women had to step out of their traditional sphere and enter into the world of work – something that had typically been reserved as the more masculine domain. As a result, the construction and decoration of this coat when read within the historiography of wartime culture can be seen as reflecting these changes within society

 

Sources:

Calvocoressi, R., Lee Miller: Portraits From A Life (London, 2002)

http://www.vogue.co.uk/spy/biographies/elsa-schiaparell

http://irenebrination.typepad.com/irenebrination_notes_on_a/2014/12/schiaparelli-kt-auction.html