Dissertation Discussion: Imogene

What is the working title of your dissertation?

The working title of my dissertation is ‘The 1980s Body Ideal: A Case Study of Azzedine Alaïa’.

What led you to choose this subject?

I have always been interested in the relationship between clothing and the body. Unsurprisingly, I was particularly fascinated by a class we had at the beginning of this term, in which we discussed the fashionable female ‘sports body’ of the 1930s and 1940s. At that time new ideas about health and exercise had begun to emerge, which had a direct influence on attitudes towards gender, sexuality and dress. Since I am personally more interested in contemporary dress, I wanted to apply the 1930s-40s analysis of the body as presented in class to the 1980s hyper-idealized female sports body. I was curious to see what lay behind our modern-day notions about dress, gender, and sexuality that had their beginning in the 80s. 

I thought that using the designer Azzedine Alaïa as a case study for my analysis of the 1980s body ideal would be fitting, not only because his clothes were instrumental in defining the decade’s feminine silhouette, but also because of how central the body was to his design philosophy. 

A couple of years ago, I discovered that there had been an exhibition of Alaïa’s designs at the Galliera Borghese in Rome called ‘Azzedine Alaïa: Couture/Sculpture’. I remember being instantly amazed by the photographs of the exhibition. As a student of art history with a particular interest in Classical and Renaissance art and an affinity for fashion, I was thrilled to see that this exhibition represented an ideal amalgamation of both worlds into one. Although I had known since high school that I want to study fashion and eventually work in the industry, seeing those photographs was a confirmation that I had made the right decision in choosing to major in art history in my undergrad. It made me realise that what I was learning about aesthetic analysis could be applied to fashion. Moreover, it validated my conviction that art and dress are inextricably linked. I am therefore delighted that my dissertation has taken me full circle and has given me the opportunity to research this exhibition, which is now the subject of my first chapter!

Azzedine Alaïa Couture/Sculpture at the Villa Borghese, 2015

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

My favourite book is a book that our tutor, Rebecca, let me borrow. L’Esprit Vionnet, by Jéromine Sauvignon, is about the early twentieth century couturier Madeleine Vionnet and the designers she influenced, including Alaïa himself. I love the parallels Sauvignon draws between Vionnet and Alaïa. She forges fascinating links between their design techniques and the ways in which they both conceptualised the body of the modern woman of their respective times. 

‘Azzedine Alaïa Collector. Adrian and Alaïa. The art of tailoring’ at the Association Azzedine Alaïa, 2019, Paris

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

My favourite image that I analyse in my dissertation is from the ‘Couture/Sculpture’ exhibition. Seeing a timeless Alaïa gown next to a timeless work of art like Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is quite ethereal. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Paris briefly to see the current exhibition ‘Azzedine Alaïa Collector. Adrian and Alaïa. The art of tailoring’ at the Association Azzedine Alaïa. Suits by Adrian, the Hollywood costume designer turned couturier, were displayed alongside suits by Alaïa. Alaïa was an admirer and avid collector of Adrian’s work. It was a wonderful experience to be able to look at physical garments after having spent so much time reading and writing.

‘Azzedine Alaïa Collector. Adrian and Alaïa. The art of tailoring’ at the Association Azzedine Alaïa, 2019, Paris, photo taken by the author.

Favourite place to work?

I do not really have one particular place I like to work. I am definitely someone who likes to change it up. I can stay in the same environment for a couple of days, but then I need to relocate and find somewhere new to write and glean inspiration. It keeps things fresh. I will switch between coffee shops and various libraries around London. I do prefer the library though; I feel that I accomplish the most in a quiet space. 

En Mode Sport

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

En Mode Sport, an exhibition currently at the Musée National du Sport, in Nice takes an expansive look at sportswear’s development since the late 19th century. When I visited, I was excited to see the range and diversity of material on display – from rare examples of early cycling ensembles, to recent couture collections inspired by sport.

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

I first became aware of the planned exhibition when I was asked to contribute a short essay on mid-century New York sportswear to its catalogue, and it was wonderful to be able to view En Mode Sport having got a sense of the depth of research that went into its making.

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

What struck me was the dynamic display techniques deployed to give a sense of movement and endeavour to the items on view. White walls, shiny glass and glossed surfaces added to this effect and enabled glimpses of things to come, as you wove your way through the chronological displays. It was fascinating to see so many early examples – and to see how dressmakers struggled to provide appropriate garments for the range of new activities emerging at the turn of the century. The cycling outfit I mentioned was one such case – the top half of the body would be clad in a beautiful, striped Spencer jacket – its mutton-leg sleeves and fitted bodice a marker of contemporary femininity. But for the bottom half of the body? Well, innovation and improvisation was needed to envision and create a garment that would free women’s legs to cycle successfully. The knitted culottes shown were an interesting admixture of bloomers and trousers – part underwear as outwear, part menswear as womenswear.

Elsewhere, knitted swimsuits showed another not-quite-there form of dress – the body-conscious shape that emerged by the 1920s was perfect for a dip in the sea, but the wool yarn used to create the costumes became heavy and drooped from the figure once wet.

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Another interesting context that emerged was that of class – not only were more women playing sports professionally and for fun, but working class men were also expanding their activities – with a range of football strips and boots readied for matches. Alongside actual dress, film, posters, sketches and promotional material were also included. As you moved past the displays, it became clear how iconic sportswear is – as a marker of personal and team achievement, as souvenirs for spectators, and as a link between professional and amateur. Stars such as Suzanne Lenglen and René Lacoste forged new styles that entered mainstream fashion, and which still affect how we dress today.

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

The latter sections of the exhibition showed how technology has caught up with lifestyle, providing running shoes and kit that not only streamline the wearer, but also enhance the body’s performance, while streetwear and high fashion appropriate and redeploy such innovations for everyday and occasion wear.