5 Minutes with… Lucy Corkish

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Lucy, the co-editor of this blog, discusses Tamara de Lempicka, lidos and self-styling via eBay.

 

What is your dissertation about? 

I’m writing my dissertation on the artist Tamara de Lempicka, looking at her life as a process of self-fashioning. She’s most famous for the portraits (and self-portraits) she painted while living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, but lots of people were/are aware of her because of her persona and her distinctive look. The details of her life are sketchy in lots of places – some biographers believe that she lied about her age right up until her death in 1980 – and she seems to have actively cultivated this image of herself as a kind of glamourous, film star-esque aristocrat. She would commission photographers to capture her in designer clothes, always with painted red lips and nails. She wore a lot of accessories and had a particular penchant for hats, in her later years matching her hat to her outfit. For most of her life, she seemed to crave independence, marrying her second husband on the promise that she could enjoy his money and his title but continue her own, largely separate life. Once, when she failed to return home to spend Christmas with her young daughter, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, the two of them burned her collection of designer hats in retaliation.

Tamara de Lempicka photographed by Willy Maywald, 1948-1949 (via Stained Jabot)

One of her most famous paintings, a self-portrait commissioned as the cover of Die Dame, shows her in the driver’s seat of a green Bugatti – in reality, she drove a yellow Renault. The image has been hailed as a symbol of the modern woman, and for me, it says a lot about how she saw herself. It can be tricky to unpick all the anecdotes surrounding her, which she often reworked and retold to portray herself in a flattering light, but researching her life has taught me that her moulding of the truth was an extension of her self-styling. It’s been fascinating getting to know the many overlapping sides of her.

Tamara de Lempicka, Autoportrait, 1929, oil on panel, private collection

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year? 

I enjoyed writing my first essay on Margiela and memory, for which I watched the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. It was clear that his childhood memories played an essential role in his work and that his ideas around creating memories influenced his creativity. For example, at one show, the models – who walked among the audience – were perfumed with patchouli, playing on sensory memory. For my second essay, I looked at hundreds of images from ‘the golden age of the lido’ in 1930s Britain, which was, for me, great fun.

Bradford Lido, 1939 (via The Mirror)

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Early in the year, we read the first chapter from Daniel Miller’s Stuff, titled ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’. His discussion of Trinidadian ideas of the self as constantly evolving, existing on the surface (rather than somewhere buried within, built up incrementally over time) so that it must be sustained day by day in actions and choices – including in wardrobe choices – deepened my understanding of why clothes feel so important.

Where do you get your clothes from? 

I’m relatively serious about eBay. Closely monitoring saved search alerts and frantically trying to outbid any rivals in the final seconds of an auction has brought me lots of joy and frustration over the years, as well as a wardrobe full of things that I love to look at but that don’t necessarily fit me well. I keep a collection of screenshots of the wildest photos that people use to sell their clothes. Also, charity shops in fancy areas and anything that my friends are getting rid of.

Screenshot (eBay app), 2020

How would you describe your style? 

It was described to me today as ‘very last season Arket’, which I think is fairly accurate. I like to look at extravagant, sparkly clothes, but I want to feel as comfy as I can get away with, so cosy jumpers in the winter, cotton dresses in the summer and when in doubt, jeans. Anything that could be pyjamas but could also be worn out is the goal.

 

Bibliography

Claridge, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London, 2001)

De Lempicka-Foxhall, Kizette and Charles Phillips. Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka (New York, 1987)

Holzemer, Reiner. Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, cinematographer Toon Illegems (2020; London: Dogwoof)

Miller, Daniel. ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’ in Stuff (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 12-41

Oswald Birley’s “Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown”: dress in focus

Oswald Birley, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny gown, 1919, oil on canvas, 101.5 x 76 cm. Private collection. Image taken from Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley. London: Philip Mould Ltd, 2017.

Oswald Birley was a prolific British portrait artist active between 1919 and 1951. He was one of the most beloved portraitists of the British monarchy, political leaders and other powerful men. He completed the portrait of the young British debutante Miss Muriel Gore in 1919, however the information available on this work and its subject is extremely scarce. Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown was completed at a time of significant social change for women, started in the final years of the nineteenth century and becoming more prominent with the end of the First World War. This change was translated in fashion and was echoed in the success the designs of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo found in this historical time.

The scarcity of information available on Miss Gore’s life allows only for a partial understanding of her figure. It is likely that she was Scottish and belonged to the aristocratic upper class, as she was related in some way to Lady Mabell Gore, Countess of Airlie, wife to the 11th Earl of Airlie. It is plausible to say that, at the time the portrait was completed, Miss Gore was still nubile and probably making her debut in society. A few elements of this portrait, such as her title (Miss rather than Mrs.), the absence of a wedding ring, and her youthful appearance support this idea. After careful analysis, the only element revealing her social status remains the expensive Fortuny gown. Known as the Delphos gown, and existing in a variety of versions, this design stands out as the most typical of the Fortuny style.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Pale grey Delphos gown. 1920. Palazzo Fortuny, Venezia. http://www.archiviodellacomunicazione.it/Sicap/OpereArte/338940/?WEB=MuseiVE

A pleated tunic inspired by a robe seen on male and female Greek statues from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, as well as figures painted on vases, the Delphos was named after the antique sculpture known as ‘Charioteer of Delphi,’ adorned with a long chiton held in place at the shoulders by simple bronze clasps. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871-1949), a Venice-based Spanish artist and designer, patented the dress in 1909. The creation of a single sleeveless Delphos was a highly intricate production that reportedly took eight hours in total. The fabric was a luxurious silk imported from Japan, and the characteristic pleating, usually consisting of between 430 and 450 pleats per fabric width, was achieved by a process of evaporation. The wet and folded silk was laid on heated porcelain tubes, also patented in 1909, which permanently fixed such tight pleats in the material so that the dress looked carved or pressed. This time-consuming and complicated manufacturing process, along with the precious fabric used, made the price of this gown stratospheric, and it was only affordable for women of conspicuous means, such as Muriel Gore. The Fortuny pleat, which did not wrinkle nor lose its shape, expanded slightly over the natural feminine curves, remaining compact in other areas, thus creating alluring zones of light and shadow. Fortuny was particularly interested in enhancing the brilliance of the silk, and he found in albumin, an extract of egg whites, the perfect substance to do so. With the help of a brush, albumin was applied on the humified fabric, functioning on the pleats as a fixing agent, increasing the brilliance, and adding flexibility and softness to the fabric. Birley masterfully translated the characteristic traits of the Delphos gown on his canvas, in particular the malleable quality of the fabric when touched by light and the resulting effects of chiaroscuro, which was also highly important for the designer.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Pale grey Delphos gown completed with belt (detail). From the catalogue of the exhibition “Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise” (2017).

Fortuny’s vision of fashion stemmed from his travels to Greece in 1906, where he found antique printed textiles and admired the beauty of the archaic Korai and Delphi’s Charioteer. His intention was never that of becoming a couturier like Worth; he did not present an annual collection, nor show separate summer and winter designs. His aim was to find his own version of a timeless ideal form, detached from the fleeting trends of fashion, and with his Delphos gown he successfully transformed the past into an eternal present.

The Delphos gown quickly became a must-have garment for the most cultured and liberated women of the time. Eccentrics, divas, intellectuals and aristocrats flocked to buy Fortuny’s dress, which spoke of refined extravagance while exalting the personality of the wearer. The association with such timeless beauty attracted those women who could perceive the uniqueness of the dress, and Miss Gore may be seen as one of them, as she decided to be portrayed wearing a Delphos. With this gesture, she also implicitly showed her support to the movement that had started in the years just before World War I, freeing women from corsets and rigidly constructed gowns. Dancers like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Loïe Fuller made the liberation of women’s dress a cause, and they did so by performing their pioneering choreographies enveloped in mermaid-like Delphos. Their choreography sought to express a mix of asceticism and sensuality associated with the Minoan women who had inspired Fortuny’s creations.

The controversial nature of the Delphos stemmed precisely from the sensuality presented by the gown, in particular the ‘clinging fashion’ with which it enveloped the female body to reveal its shape and rendered lingerie impossible to wear. In a society that had not totally abandoned the use of tight bustiers and stays, this feature understandably caused quite a scandal, and the gown was initially considered more suited to be worn in the privacy of one’s home, or complemented by a shawl, coat or robe when in public, often designed by Fortuny himself. Likely aware of such tensions, Miss Gore chose to be portrayed wearing an embroidered shawl over her Delphos, which she gently falls down to her elbows to uncover another beautiful detail of Fortuny’s design: the drawstrings used to tighten and change the height of the short arum-lily sleeves.

Roger Viollet. Isadora Duncan and her husband Sergei Essenin with one of her adoptive daughters, Irma Duncan, wearing Delphos gowns. Photograph. Harlingue-Viollet collection, Paris. From the catalogue of the exhibition “Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise” (2017).

During his life, Birley was considered one of the most gifted portraitists both in Britain and overseas for his ability to combine physical likeness with psychological realism. The portrait of Miss Muriel Gore, dated 1919, shows the image of a wealthy debutant, nonetheless controversial for her clothing choice. The expensive Fortuny gown Miss Gore decided to be depicted with carries meaning reflecting not only her social status but also her character and personality Ultimately, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown emblematically illustrates how eloquent the depiction of a dress can be in the context of a portrait, as it becomes the only key to unlock the mystery surrounding the sitter’s identity.

 

By Simona Mezzina

 

Sources:

Black, Jonathan. ‘The Life and Portraiture of Sir Oswald Birley MC’. In Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley. London: Philip Mould Ltd, 2017.

Deschodt, Anne-Marie and Davanzo Poli, Doretta. Fortuny. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Desveaux, Delphine. Fortuny. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Mariano Fortuny. Edited by Maurizio Barberis, Claudio Franzini, Silvio Fuso, Marco Tosa. Venezia: Marsilio, 1999.

Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise. Edited by Sophie Grossiord. Paris: Palais Galliera, Paris Musées, 2017.

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys

 

Paris is often romanticized as a dream-like vision; the bustling banks overflow with cafés as sophisticated Parisian dwellers enchant our imagination. Chaïm Soutine addresses this imagined ideal of the Parisian streets with his vivid portraiture in Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys, which depicts the quotidian worker in Paris thus highlighting the mundane and unglamorous. Soutine personally related to these workers he depicted; after emerging as an acclaimed artist in 1922 after years of humble work, Soutine felt out of place in this new bourgeois realm. Through acute attention to his subjects’ uniforms, Soutine reveals a complex narrative of both the discomfort of the service men and women he depicts in their high-class workplace, and his own apprehension about his newfound fame. Both uncomfortable in their given uniforms, Soutine and his subjects feel like outsiders in a bourgeois society.

The pair of galleries on the top floor of the Courtauld Gallery guide the viewer on a rich visual journey through twenty-one of Soutine’s portraits organized primarily by his sitter’s occupation. Soutine’s thick application of velvety reds and dark blues dominate the majority of the portraits’ backgrounds and bring a richness and warmth to the space that feel secure and familiar. This visual ease juxtaposes with the discomfort of the subjects in the portraits.

Soutine’s sitters, primarily valets, bellboys, pastry cooks, waiters, or chambermaids, appear deeply uncomfortable. Their bodily proportions are distorted in an unsettling manner, their facial expressions are scornful, and their brows are furrowed—all projecting to the viewer the discomfort in their uniform both physically and emotionally. The subjects look tense in their dress, and their uniforms appear stiff and ill-fitting. This is particularly poignant in The Chambermaid and Valet.

The Chambermaid (La Femme de chambre) c. 1930

The Chambermaid’s hands are clasped tightly in front of her apron, her elbows stiffly pinned to her side. Her rigid stance draws attention to her pink dress and white apron, which, as a chambermaid, needed to be pristine at all times to tend to hotel duties. The woman’s face is tired, and her tense body language suggests a discomfort in her role.

Valet (Le Valet de chambre), also known as Hotel Boy c. 1927

The Valet’s white apron, blue coat, and red vest envelop his figure. The red fabric surrounding his torso bunches to his right side, and his blue coat sleeves billow around his elbows and upper arms. Soutine’s wide brush strokes convey the folds in the valet’s white apron and mirror the wide fit of his uniform as a whole. The Valet’s ill-fitting uniform and disdainful expression suggest a similar discomfort and unhappiness in his role.

While coexisting in the realm of the Parisian bourgeois, Soutine and his sitters were uncomfortable in their uniforms. This tension suggests Soutine felt awkward and tense stepping into a position of great wealth and privilege, and related to the unpresuming service workers, who also felt a sense of discomfort. Through focusing on the dress of Parisian service workers, Soutine was able to channel some of his anxieties about his new uniform just as his subjects’ were confronted with their own.

The Courtauld Gallery’s Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys on view until 21 January 2018.

By Arielle Murphy

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.

Readdressing Black Photographic History in Victorian Britain

Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).

Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.

Observations from Several Sides of the Lens: on Women, Fabric and Space in Maria Kapajeva’s Photographs

Maria Kapajeva, from the 'Interiors' series

Maria Kapajeva, from the ‘Interiors’ series

Women and space are frequent points of inquiry for London-based artist Maria Kapajeva. In her series entitled Interiors from 2012, she manipulates amateur photographs of Russian women in sexualised poses, and replaces their skin and bodily features with the bold pattern of surrounding wallpaper. Viewers’ sense of haptic visuality is roused by the tactility of the pictured textiles of home furnishings and clothing, including crushed velvets and synthetic satins. Pattern and texture intertwine so that space engulfs and integrates women subjects, while bodily absence paradoxically serves to remove their subjectivities from the image.

'Interiors' series

‘Interiors’ series

When I met Maria on 23rd May 2014 to discuss her work, she admitted that she chose the photographs for their post-Soviet interiors—easily recognisable through the wallpaper and bed covers’ prominent patterns—that she knew in her native Estonia. Yet the dated styles of the photographs’ interior decoration belie their more recent time of photography. This stylistic retrogression mirrors that in women’s lives. Wallpaper in lieu of skin serves to show the extent to which women in certain Eastern Bloc countries must still conform to a “domestic ideal.” Even as they attempt to stand out and become visible through poses in states of undress, they fail to escape the domination of their environment. In these absurd, integral images, objectified women are equated with domestic settings.

'Interiors' series

‘Interiors’ series

Maria explores women’s roles and the notion of integrality in different ways in her ongoing series A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, in which she photographs women in their work environments. She explains that “[m]ost of these women have moved to a new country, as I have, not to get married, but to realize their own potential in whatever they do: write, draw, paint, photograph or invent. Working in collaboration with them, I try to find the ways to photograph each of them as a unique and strong personality in her own working environment.” The subject of one photograph, Elena, is thus defined as an artist by her studio space yet she stands out as an individual against its blurred details. Maria draws on such details—stacks of papers, folds of clothing, bric-a-brac—to shape the composition of these images. These minutiae also inform and complicate the construction of the sitter’s identity, but do not dominate as in Interiors.

Helena, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman'

Elena, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Eugenia, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' series

Eugenia, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Maria prefers that the sitters dress as they would normally in their ‘natural’ environments, and clothing varies as widely as their diverse personalities. As opposed to the original viewers or photographers of the Interiors series, she withdraws herself from the equation. The image is untouched and raw, in the sense that she does not use supplemental lighting, filtering or cropping techniques. And the subject is meant to dress for no one but herself. Eugenia, for example, who wears a garment of her own design, stands in the open space of a London rooftop. As the wind blows her voluminous collar it comes into contact with her face. Her body is the site of narrative and identity, informed by the interaction between dress and exterior.

During our conversation I sensed that Maria, who believes that too much importance is placed on specific dress codes, did not want to broach the subject of clothing. She likes that, as a photography lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts (Farnham), she can dress as she wishes. But this freedom poses its own problems.

My experience as Maria’s most recent sitter for the Portrait of the Artist series in October replicated my own research into the use of dress and its representation in the construction of identity, and the relationship between dress, ideas of appropriateness and how this relates to specific space.

Alexis, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' series

Alexis, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Like Maria’s raw photos, clothes on the body leave bare a host of personal paradoxes, details and foibles. My relationship with the black linen shirt I wore during my portrait, paired with black trousers, is complex. As is my connection to the space in which I was photographed—my bedroom—where personal and professional lines are blurred. The shirt’s long, well-worn life is evidenced by its loose weave in some places. Yet its history is concealed by its simplicity. Knowing that I loved to write about its designer, a dear friend found it for me at a Paris flea market. It is thus a piece of evidence and resource, and a link to people and places, yet its early life is a mystery. These elements, contained within the coarse fabric, are my secret, and constant reminders at each touch against my skin. As captured in Maria’s image of me, my clothing and surroundings combine to inform my ideas of self. Her photograph exposes these connections and foregrounds the emotional links we have to our dress, and the ways we use them to negotiate our presence.

Source:

Kapajeva, M. ‘About A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’, http://www.mariakapajeva.com/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman/