Fashion in Motion: Phoebe English at the V&A

 

On Friday, 20 October, the V&A hosted a spectacular retrospective presentation by British designer Phoebe English as part of the museum’s Fashion in Motion series. The series features leading contemporary fashion designers and makes live fashion experiences available to the public.

Set within the V&A’s grand Raphael Gallery, the Fashion in Motion series typically features a runway show. English, however, broke with this tradition and presented her designs on raised, round platforms where four models donning a range of English’s womenswear designs stood next to marionettes wearing a scaled-down version of the original designs. This provocative presentation blurred the lines between performance art and fashion show when models, or, rather, performers dressed in plain white jumpsuits moved between the platforms to toy with the marionettes, puppeteering the movements of the fashion models. Indeed, the spectacle created by this inventive set design continues English’s practice of staging her collections within immersive environments. Combined with live music by a harpist, the sublime designs and the playful scale of the marionettes resulted in what felt like visual gluttony.

The individual, rounded platforms allowed the viewer to weave through the presentation and move closer to the designs in a way that would not be possible during a traditional runway show. Although this set design was much more engaging that a catwalk, the act of moving around the platforms and observing the models and their marionettes up close felt somewhat intrusive. The models made direct eye-contact with onlookers and members of the press, posing consciously for Snapchat stories and press photos. This directness coupled with the uncanny marionettes and the puppeteers’ manipulation of the models and their puppets created a haunting, powerful experience. The weight of the presentation was most palpable at the end of the show when the models slowly descended from the platforms and walked out of the gallery, leaving only the puppets. The dangling, lifeless marionettes dressed in their Phoebe English miniatures represented, for me, the eerie, indescribably strange and alienating space that fashion can occupy.

Aside from the memorable spectacle of the show, English’s luxury designs demonstrated an expertise in technique, materials, and construction. English, who aims to set her label apart from mass made fashion, creates striking silhouettes with unconventional textures to indicate balance between craft and design. The Phoebe English label, which is entirely made in England, is certainly one to watch.

By Abby Fogle

All photos authors own

Balenciaga’s Legacy: Reinventions of the Modern Female Silhouette

The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.

The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.

Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.

Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.

Semi-fit dress, 1957-58

Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.

Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.

We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”

Baby Doll dress by Molly Goddard

Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.

All images author’s own

By Lily Mu

All the Fun of the Fan

Fan painted by Ronot-Tutin, 1890-1900, France. Painted silk gauze and bobbin lace leaf, with mother of pearl sticks and guards. Lady Cory Bequest. V&A.

‘The fan is back’ declared the Financial Times this month. Meanwhile, British Vogue devoted two thirds of a page to the accessory in its February issue. Fashion writer Susie Lau admitted that it was the ‘one accessory that I’ve not had the opportunity to touch upon in all of Style Bubble’s ten year history’ in spite of the many modern day instances where one was required – namely fashion shows, on the underground, and wherever there is a lack of air conditioning in the summer months.

British Vogue, February 2017

What prompted such headlines? The highly symbolic accessory appeared on the Gucci catwalk for Spring/Summer 2017 – a flat, rigid Japanese éventail style. All three articles referenced a just-launched brand called Fern Fans established by London-based PR Daisy Hoppen and Danish textile designer Amanda Borberg, who have revised the traditional pleated concertina style in birchwood and textured cottons for the contemporary consumer.

Fan, 1820-30, France. Pierced Ivory. Given by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt and Lady Wyatt. V&A.

The fan is an accessory with a rich and whimsical history, with pictorial history suggesting their use as far back as 3000BC. Their purpose is not just keeping oneself cool – fans have long had a ceremonial role, with the Greeks, Romans and Etruscans using them in this way. European folding fans came much later – introduced by merchant traders and religious orders from China and Japan – and regarded as status symbols, reserved for Royalty and nobility. They were often highly ornamental, using materials such as mother of pearl, ivory and tortoiseshell for their sticks and guards, decorated with precious metals and gems, and hand-painted; craftsmen dedicated to producing fans gradually formed guilds such as The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers (established during the reign of Charles II in London and incorporated by a royal charter in 1709).

Fan, 1750-60, France. Painted paper and mother of pearl. Given by Emily Beauclerk. V&A.

Fan, 1820-30, England or France. Horn sticks, gouache and metal. Given by Admiral Sir Robert and Lady Prendergast. V&A.

After the swift rise of the accessory in the late 16th and 17th century – often pictured in the hands of ladies in portraits from this time, including Elizabeth I (see the ‘Darnley Portrait’, c. 1575) – increased imports together with new methods developed by manufacturers to print fans meant that they became cheaper to purchase and available to a wider audience. The Fan Museum in Greenwich documents the fan’s continued history and craft and a significant number of examples on show in the Fashion and Textile rooms in the V&A. These include an 18th and several 19th century fans; the former is French, made of hand-painted paper featuring leisure scenes, the latter range from pierced ivory to horn, and painted flowers on silk gauze. There’s even a peacock-printed plastic and paper fan for sale in the shop.

Fan in the V&A shop

Beyond ornament and temperature-regulation, the fan developed an altogether more intriguing role in concealing and revealing the wearer’s emotions in delicate social situations. It holds the potential to do much more than hide a blush, illicit smile or veil boredom. Behold: a guide to speaking the language of one of fashion’s most enduring accessories.

To hold the fan with the right hand in front of the face: follow me
To move the fan with the left hand: they are watching us
To throw the fan: I hate you
To hold the fan closed: do you love me?
To move the fan with the right hand: I love another
To open and close the fan: you are cruel
To hold the fan open, covering the mouth: I am single
To fan slowly: I am married
To fan quickly: I am engaged
To hold the fan on the lips: kiss me
To open the fan slowly: wait for me
To open the fan with the left hand: come and talk to me
To strike it closed on the left hand: write to me

References

Farrell, Aimee, ‘The fan is back – and it’s cooler than ever’, Financial Times (1st February, 2017)

Fern Fans

Lau, Susanna, ‘The Fanfare of Fern’, Style Bubble (12th January, 2017)

Pithers, Ellie, ‘Do you speak fan?’, British Vogue (February, 2017), p. 57

The Fan Museum

The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers

Undressed at The V&A

by Aric Reviere

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

Last weekend, on my semi-regular sojourn to the V&A, I decided to attend the Fashion Department’s new exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” To my surprise the exhibition garnered quite a bit of attention the morning of my visit, with the exhibition space itself full of visitors and lines of spectators inching slowly past the glass displays of historic underwear and garments.

My initial expectation of the exhibition imagined the display to be a spattering of various undergarments from different eras, but with a noticeable emphasis on the corset and hoop skirt. To be fair, these elements were featured prominently in the display, and even though most of the visitors flocked to these body contorting contraptions, the rest of the exhibition presented a delightful overview of innovations in underwear from an impressive range of eras. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the evolution of lingerie design toward the end of the exhibition, which traced developments in the industry from the 1920s to the 1930s. Compared to the hyperbolic manipulation of the body evident in the miniscule waists of the corsets on display, the body sculpting garments from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s seem tamed. Upon closer examination, however, the garments’ structures constrict the form and manipulate it into an ideal shape. From an academic perspective, the garments provide a perfect point from which to examine the power structures connected to standards of beauty. They enable the viewer to question what motivated a wearer (and still does) to physically transform their body via the adornment of garments that often use metal structures to manipulate the form? What gaze ultimately develops that definition of beauty and through networks disseminates and propagates an entire system of dress to elevate certain ideals? How do such beauty ideals limit the wearer’s agency within various social contexts, but also enhance his/her agency within others?

The second half of the exhibition attempted to blur the demarcation between under garments, lingerie, etc., and outerwear through the presentation a numerous outfits from the V&A’s permanent collection. Personally, I found this section disconnected from the first half of the exhibition with certain ensembles on display not particularly resonating with the exhibition’s theme. With that said, I must admit that the Ulyana Sergeenko couture pieces were to die for and on my list of most coveted items.

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

 

Ulaan Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Ulyana Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Alumni Interview Part 12: Lesley Miller, MA (1982), PhD (Brighton, 1988)

Lesley Miller is Senior Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Glasgow. She has led the curatorial team on the reinterpretation of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries at the V&A over the last five years, and returns to her duties in Textiles and Fashion in 2016. Her current research projects focus on early modern dress and textiles.

Your first degree was in Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow, before you went on to pursue the History of Dress for an MA at The Courtauld. What led you to Dress History? How was the transition; did any interesting connections arise between the disciplines?

The sewing skills I learnt as a child provided the route into historical dress studies while seasonal treks around remnant shops and department stores handling materials laid the foundations for my knowledge of textiles. As a student, I spent my summer holidays making costumes for either theatrical performances or museum displays under the guidance of my mother. Penny Byrde’s book The Male Image alerted us to the existence of the Courtauld course. I was not optimistic that I had the qualifications – no history or art history at undergraduate level. But, I did have more than two modern European languages, and they have proved invaluable throughout my career. Initially, at the Courtauld, having come from a language and literature background without an image or an object in sight, my visual memory was extremely poor. A daily diet of dozens of slides at the Courtauld, a weekly diet of visiting art galleries and the Witt Library’s rich photograph collection soon had its impact – and I am still grateful for that exhilarating training.

What was the History of Dress course like when you studied at The Courtauld?

The History of Dress course was still a two-year programme in 1980 under Aileen Ribeiro’s stewardship: the first year was a survey from the classical world to the present day; the second comprised a special subject – in our case, ‘Dress in England and France, 1740-1790’ – and a 10,000-word dissertation on a subject of our choice – in my case, on men’s dress in Golden Age Spain. The 18th-century course provided my entrée into a PhD on 18th-century French silk manufacturing, while my dissertation put dress into the Golden Age drama I had studied at undergraduate level before I had any inkling of what the plays might have looked like on stage. That research also allowed me to understand the paintings and sculpture I had seen in art gallery, church and street in Castile during the time I had lived there, and the impact they might have had on contemporaries. At the end, I knew that I wanted to pursue research to PhD; that I didn’t want to work in a museum; and that teaching was how to share my newfound passion.

How did your time at The Courtauld make an impact upon you? Can you tell us about your PhD at Brighton University?

The Courtauld Institute and Brighton University were poles apart, the former a small, specialized monotechnic with an exclusive focus on art history (and conservation), quite precious in many ways and isolated from the wider University of London geographically and socially (those were its days at Portman Square). The latter was a polytechnic in which the Art and Design Faculty was developing what became an influential BA in Design History that encouraged the study of and debate around designed objects of all sorts, not just those of top quality for the highest level of society. Indeed, the study of elite art and luxury was at that time rather frowned upon, and study of the silk industry not obviously a happy fit with the more democratic principles of the institution. I was fortunate, however, to have Lou Taylor as my champion and supervisor, she having proposed the project on the basis that British designers and manufacturers from the 18th century onwards always bewailed the excellence of French design over their own. Their assumptions on why this was the case needed investigation. The Research Assistant’s post that I occupied for four years required a small amount of teaching – lectures for first year fashion textile students and the supervision of a few third year dissertations. These duties punctuated periods of research in France. Never having set foot in an art school in my life, I was not best equipped to understand the needs of these students – but was fortunate to have a mentor in Lou who alerted me to the desirability of thinking about my audience and how to engage it. Courtauld-style content and presentation were not going to do the trick!

Lesley Miller in Brighton during her PhD studies c. 1983

Lesley Miller in Brighton during her PhD studies c. 1983

You taught the History of Design for over 20 years – how did the field change over this time?

As you say, I did teach Design History for many years, and still do, though now only through my own particular specialism (textiles, dress and museology). Indeed, I was lucky to teach not only studio-based design students, but also Design History and Humanities undergraduates, Textiles and Dress History post-graduates (I went to Winchester in 1991 to help Barbara Burman set up an MA in Textile and Dress History, which continues in a slightly different form today in Glasgow under the able stewardship of Sally Tuckett) and Textile Conservation students. When I started out, the secondary literature was very limited, so we often had to work from primary sources – and thus my awareness of object-centred study evolved. Today, there is not only a good range of reliable texts introducing the field, but multiple theoretical approaches to the subject. Earlier historical periods have gradually assumed their place in the literature (in the early days Design History was almost exclusively 19th and 20th-century in focus) and luxury production is no longer denied. The ‘material turn’ in mainstream history is also informing the field, and now, ‘Material Culture History’ provides a more inclusive term for describing what all art and design historians do, alongside archaeologists, anthropologists, and some historians, all with slightly different inflections.

You’ve produced a lot of fascinating work on the 17th and 18th centuries, with an emphasis on silk – how did your research interests develop?

My interest in the early modern period developed through my MA special subject and dissertation, and then led directly into my PhD – and I have never let go. My initial interest in designers in the Lyon silk industry has gradually broadened into an investigation of other trades in manufacturing, notably that of manufacturer and that of salesman. Of course, my greatest pleasure is burrowing into archives to find the elusive documents I haven’t yet read – or to explore in more depth the manufacturers who emerge from my work on V&A objects. A classic example is my recent introduction to a facsimile of a merchant’s sample book of 1764, kept in the V&A collections. The identification of manufacturers’ initials in this book has given me the perfect excuse to frequent that great French gastronomic centre again – and appreciate how archive-management has evolved. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t quite believe that anyone would stick with the same subject for a life-time. Now, I understand the addiction – and, of course, now, it is much easier to travel and do research efficiently in short bursts, armed with laptop and digital camera instead of simply pencil and paper. Nonetheless, a prolonged period of time getting to know the place of production or consumption, as well as its archives, is invaluable. Silk is a very seductive fabric on which to focus, but, at the end of the day, it is the people who designed, made and wore silk that fascinate me.

Panel of Silk Brocade, Jean Revel, France c.1735 © Victoria and Albert Museum

You wrote a wonderful monograph on the Spanish fashion designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga. What led you to focus on Balenciaga? What do you think of the house today?

Ironically, my monograph – not wonderful, but certainly one of the first serious attempts at an analytical approach to understanding a fashion designer’s reputation through his work and context – was the result of failure. Thanks to Aileen’s recommendation, as I was finishing my PhD, Batsford commissioned me to write a book on dress in Golden Age Spain, one of a series on Dress and Civilisation. Unfortunately, the first two books in the series did not sell as well as anticipated, and since I was lagging behind (PhD dissertations never take as little time to write as one imagines), my contract was cancelled. Within a month, however, Batsford decided to launch its Fashion Designer series, asking me whether I might like to take on Balenciaga. I had French and Spanish and some knowledge of the corresponding cultures and their art, and had much appreciated the pioneering Balenciaga exhibition at the Musée des Tissus in Lyon in the first year of my PhD, which underlined the designer’s debt to textiles. Understanding of historical dress was fundamental in the case of a designer whose oeuvre owes a great debt to dress from 17th – 19th centuries. I accepted with alacrity, on the pragmatic basis that I needed to develop understanding of 20th-century fashion and textiles, if I were to teach in an art school. It is salutary to realise that in 1993, when the first edition of my book was published, there was only one other monograph on Balenciaga and little substantial on couture history. Now, one trips over such literature astoundingly frequently – and the number of student dissertations on Balenciaga is legion. As I prepare the third edition, to coincide with the V&A exhibition on Balenciaga’s Craft to open in 2017, I look forward to reflecting on the expansion in ‘Balenciaga Studies’ and to exploring with new eyes – mine and the exhibition’s curator Cassie Davies-Strodder – the expanded riches of the V&A collections. This is an exciting time for the House, as a new designer has just been appointed. Will he have the impact that Nicolas Ghesquière had in reviving its fortunes in the 1990s? Will we know by May 2017?

Cover of Balenciaga by Lesley Miller

Cover of Balenciaga by Lesley Miller

How have your academic studies contributed to or shaped your professional activities? What does your role at the V&A involve? What is your favourite aspect of it?

      My academic studies are at the heart of all I have done and all I do in my professional life, and probably all I will do when I retire. They gave me the incentive to explore in detail objects and images in museums and documents in archives and libraries, and to be rigorous in analyzing them to formulate an argument or story. Fortunately, over the years, a great variety of different approaches to my subject have come from the tutelage of or discussion with inspiring colleagues, and I have been obliged to go through periods of being a generalist as well as a specialist, though I am a specialist by nature. My current role as Lead Curator of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries refurbishment has been salutary in this respect, reminding me that dress and textiles do not exist in isolation, demanding that I think about them holistically and justify why I think it’s important to include them in these galleries. What I have enjoyed most about this five-year project is the teamwork collaborating with colleagues across the Museum, all with different specialisms, ideas and skills, all thinking about how we communicate with different audiences. At this stage in my career, both as Senior Curator for Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textiles Histories at Glasgow University, it is my pleasant responsibility to facilitate the development of the next generation of textile and dress specialists, whether through sharing subject expertise or advising on professional practice.

Could you share with us some of your goals for the future?

As you probably know, working in a museum means that institutional priorities dictate to a large extent what one’s goals are, and they can change from one year to the next. For me, a third edition of Balenciaga, this time with a focus on the V&A collections will be a short-term goal, once the Europe galleries open on 9 December. It is very exciting to imagine how beautiful this book will look in comparison with the first edition – and how much more accurate the V&A catalogue will become. I will also return to my role as one of the three specialists in the early modern period in textiles and dress, caring for the collections and ensuring both physical and intellectual access to them.

Then, of course, there are other projects that will come to fruition in the longer term, informed by my past research and executed largely in my own time: the annotated translation with my Courtauld friend, art historian Katie Scott, of a translation of the first manual of silk design published in Paris in 1765. Do look out for the small exhibition of 18th-century textiles from the Courtauld’s very own Harris collection next Spring outside the library, and the conference Fabrications that we are running on 5th March in the Research Forum. Then there is the completion of a monograph on 18th-century Lyonnais silk designer-manufacturers, and of a collaborative book project on European silks during the period of French dominance between 1660 and 1815. And, finally, in retirement, I hope to be back on the road to Spain and Portugal to continue my slightly strange academic perambulations.

Finally, do you have any advice for budding dress historians who aspire to have a career similar to yours? 

Budding dress historians have to be persistent, prepared to take risks and grab opportunities, some of which may not seem terribly enticing at the time, either because of where they are or what they are. Just remember that menial and repetitive tasks often prepare you in a way that is not immediately obvious for intellectual as well as practical goals. Developing a reputation for working collaboratively and courteously is crucial.

As our subject is young and enticing to a variety of audiences, avoiding academic snobbery is a very good idea, whilst maintaining meticulous attention to detail in all you do. Aileen Ribeiro’s greatest advice to me was to learn to write at a variety of levels, in other words for different audiences – a stricture I probably didn’t appreciate at the time, but do now. I would add to that advice, that keeping on writing, even when you don’t actually have to prepare material to submit for deadlines, is important. And, of course, for ‘writing’, you could substitute ‘speaking’.

I have been lucky to have two careers, the first in teaching and the second in a national museum. I would not have been suited to the latter at the time I took up the former, so I would advocate open-mindedness as to what the future might hold. Don’t feel you have to do the same forever – even if you do want to retain your specialism, and do look beyond both museums and academia for opportunities. My main mantra may be contentious, but here it is: you can’t do dress without textiles satisfactorily, nor contemporary fashion without a background in historical styles and practices.

 

 

 

A Comparison of the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe And the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure & Pain

By Carolina Reyes

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Shortly after my arrival to London in mid-September, I was surprised to see advertisements for the V&A’s latest fashion display Shoes: Pleasure & Pain (June 13, 2015 – January 31, 2016). After all, it had only been a year since I had seen a similarly titled exhibition, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe (September 10, 2014 – March 1, 2015) at the Brooklyn Museum, and it seemed unusual for two world-renowned institutions to put on exhibitions with such striking parallels within a short span of time.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

 

Indeed, the advertisements featuring high-fashion model Nadja Auermann in crutches struggling up a set of stairs in a pair of sky-high and needle thin stilettos which surely test the acceptable limits of sensible footwear (even if for fashion’s sake) prepares the viewer for an exhibition more closely resembling Killer Heels – one that explores solely the high heel as a status symbol, fetish object and source of power throughout human history – than the one actually encountered.

The viewer quickly realizes that Shoes does indeed live up to its name, and whilst high heels and their association with fetishism and sexuality are certainly explored throughout the lower-level of Shoes, the wider range of artefacts, including pieces of footwear designed for men such as David Beckham’s “Brooklyn” football boots, provides the viewer with a more nuanced and holistic appreciation of the history and cultural significance of shoes.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

Furthermore, the exhibition’s examination of the shoe as a commodity and collectible item throughout the upper-level was an important theme, which I felt had gone unexamined in Killer Heels. And, by more closely scrutinizing the impact of globalization on the industry of shoe production, I found it fascinating to learn in this section that in 1986 China produced just eight per cent of the world’s footwear, whilst today it is estimated that six out of ten pairs of shoes in the world are made there.

However, although Shoes’ stark displays of footwear fanatics’ collections in this segment did showcase society’s irrational obsession, Shoes and Killer Heels alike, could have taken more critical stances on our perhaps excessive preoccupation with designer footwear. Instead, both exhibitions seemed to pander to our fixation to possess couture shoes and their connection to celebrity culture. For example, Shoes justified the inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choos because Carrie Bradshaw (a shoe fanatic in her own right) of Sex and the City exclaimed that she had “lost my Choo,” and greatly elevated the eponymous designer’s profile.

There were many similarities between Killer Heels and Shoes. Most notably, their utilization of documentary-style films to chronicle the creation of shoes from design to development, in addition to use of movie clips to draw connections between shoe styles and epochs.

Both Killer Heels and Shoes were beautifully curated and certainly each worth a visit (or a look at their videos online, see source links) as they provided the viewer with various, fascinating perspectives on iconic footwear from all over the world.

Sources:

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/heels/

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/shoes-pleasure-and-pain/

5 Minutes with… Michaela Zöschg

Michaela Zöschg is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at The Courtauld, and Research Assistant for the upcoming V&A exhibition Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. Her thesis is titled ‘Rich Queens, Poor Clares: Art, Space and Audience of Royal Clarissan foundations in Late Medieval Europe’. She was born in Bolzano, Italy, and moved to London in 2011 from Vienna. She now spends her time between South London, Vienna and the Tyrolean Alps (and southern Italy and Spain for research). I recently spent five minutes with Michaela to discuss her experience of dress.

Can you recall an early fashion memory?

Dark red patent leather Mary Janes I got when I was about four. I still remember the excitement of trying them on in the shop, and how I insisted on having them in my bedroom, so that I could look at their shiny prettiness before falling asleep.

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Through your research, you are connected to people (women) who lived hundreds of years ago, so, in a way, you are dealing with many mysteries and interpreting silent voices. Do you feel like you must reconstruct their identities through the material evidence they left behind?

Absolutely. More often than not, material evidence – in the form of the stones of a palace or a church, in the form of an illumination or a scribble in a book, or in the form of a sculpture or a painting – is the only evidence I have, and the only means through which I can try and re-construct some of the stories of people who have lived in the past.

Can you share any comments on your everyday approach/method to getting dressed, and its connections to your own identity construction?
I think I put my everyday wardrobe together rather instinctively, without thinking about it in a methodological way. The most important thing is that I feel comfortable in my clothes and that I don’t have to think about them once I am wearing them; looking at it from this perspective, I think they are very much part of my identity, as they form some sort of second skin.

You are a passionate, talented knitter. How did you learn? What are you currently working on?

Thank you! Many members of my family are very good at making things – my mum is an amazing knitter, and my aunt was a professional seamstress, so I grew up in an environment full of fabric, yarn, wool, needles and buttons, and picked up knitting. These days, I unfortunately do not have that much time to knit, usually I end up making small gifts for baby arrivals among my friends. But I have a stash of a beautiful grey merino-alpaca blend that will hopefully soon be turned into a cosy winter layer for myself.

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Can you discuss a memorable clothing purchase from your past?

That would be a simple white cotton shirt I must have bought around the years 2000/01, which was quite expensive for my budget then. I remember going back to the store about three times before finally buying it. It was a good investment – I still wear it, and it still looks as crisp as it did when I bought it.

You are one of my favourite dressers. Your overall style seems extremely considered (but natural to you) and edited. Does the word ‘uniform’ resonate with your dressing?

Thank you! Yes, you probably could describe my clothes as ‘uniform’ – I always draw upon the same materials, shapes and colours. That I like clean shapes, high-quality materials and solid colours probably adds to this ‘uniformity’ – although I think I probably prefer the term ‘timelessness’.

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Fragments of denim, linen and wool garments

Where do you get your clothing from?

I like to go hunting in all kinds of places – from your average high street store to second-hand places and nice little independent shops. It is all about the process of finding a piece that can become a good and trusted wardrobe-friend.

You are my partner in black (and other dark colours)! Do you have any comments on wearing this colour?

It has a calming effect on me, I think.

Has your way of dressing changed over the years?

Very much so! I had quite a long and intense phase of wearing very colourful and ornamented clothes – bright reds, purples – with a lot of jewellery when I was younger. A favourite piece from that phase is this massive Indian mirror belt.

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Has living in London affected your dress? Does your relationship to others affect your dressing?

I think London is also visually such a buzzing place that it probably has made my clothing even more reduced and simple. I think I get a lot of inspiration from my friends, from the many creative ways how they are dressing and expressing themselves.

Can you recall any examples of difficulties in the daily process of dressing? And have you ever regretted wearing a certain outfit?

The only difficulties arise if I did not have time to do my laundry. I once possessed a pair of dungarees. Not a good idea.

The Fabric of India

Entrance to the exhibition

Entrance to the exhibition

I think the thing I loved most about the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition – and there is a lot to love – is the way that you learn so much through the objects themselves.  The show is subtly curated, there are distinct sections – dyestuffs, and types of embellishments and weaves, for example – which educate your eye in the early sections, but also a confident placement of fabrics across the displays, that slowly build deeper, longer histories. This means that by the later rooms, you are able to identify and understand the ways textiles fit into rituals, connect to life stage and to regional traditions, and the ways techniques somehow stay the same and yet can seem radically different in varied contexts.

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

Fabric as a global commodity is one of the threads (no pun intended) that runs throughout the exhibition, and which is then made explicit in a room that shows centuries of interconnections.  This shows how specific fibre, embellishment or print might be, and yet how it will also be adapted and translated across cultures. Thus, we see a beautiful Indian chintz ensemble of delicately coloured petticoat, jacket and fichu from mid-18th century England, next to an under-kimono that uses fabrics traded to the Japanese via the Dutch East India Company, and a banjan (similar to a dressing gown) from the Netherlands, made of fabric from the Coromandel Coast. The object labels state where each textile originated, and map the rich craft skills and resources of different areas, which then travel internationally setting fashions, sparking imitations, and at times triggering trade restrictions to protect home industries.

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

You get a strong sense of India’s centrality to the textiles trade, and just as important, as a source of innovation and creativity.  The sheer diversity of designs on show is dazzling, and benefits from low-key display techniques that allow the objects themselves to shine – in many instances, literally.  The room dedicated to the notion of splendour is remarkable, and includes the exhibition’s centrepiece – the printed chintz tent that belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in the second half of the 18th century.  Although it stands in a room filled with beautiful wall hangings and garments woven with gold and silver thread, it more than dominates the scene. And the fact you can walk inside gives you a sense of life in a moveable palace.

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Not all the exhibits are so dramatic, though they still have impact – I loved the late 19th century indigo-dyed dress on display in the first gallery, so severe and yet so rich with its full skirt. And the end section that shows contemporary Indian fashions, including a row of saris that glow in the gallery’s dim light is amazing.  What comes across is an almost overwhelming richness – of design and craft skills and creativity, of geographical scope and diversity, and of textiles’ impact on history and vice versa.  With this in mind, the role of Imperialism and colonialism, and its concomitant brutality haunts many gallery’s – brought to the fore in the discussion of Ghandi and the political significance of Khadi cotton. This controversial aspect of India’s history could perhaps have been explored further, but the exhibition as a whole is a breathtaking exploration of the Fabric of India.

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1913)

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Summary 

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was published in 1913 and presents a selection of the vast costume collection of the artist Mr. Talbot Hughes. Hughes was a British history, genre and landscape painter, and collected over 750 historical garments dating from c.1450 to 1870, which he used as studio props and references for his paintings. In 1913, Harrods Ltd bought his entire collection and displayed it for three weeks, to show the progression of historical dress, and to advertise their contemporary fashion range. After this, the collection was handed over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is still housed in the permanent collection.

This book begins with a preface by Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, then director of the V&A. He highlights the importance of the collection, ‘rich and splendid relics of ancient fashion’ and the history of dress as an essential adjunct to history and culture. As well as recognising the growth in appreciation for fashion history, he praises the inclusion of dressmaking as a subject in schools of arts and crafts and acknowledges the responsibility of the V&A to display and promote the skill and exemplary products of dressmaking to students and the public.

The book continues with some beautifully romantic descriptive notes by Philip Gibbs, reprinted from the November issue of The Connoisseur. These provide a personal and sensory account of his encounter with the collection – ‘I was able to examine their beauty, to handle their texture, and to study the historical evolution of dress in a delightful way.’ He too acknowledges the collection’s value to the public, and writes in such a way as to align costume to history, culture and art. He describes bygone eras, King’s fashions and satire, appealing to common knowledge and well-known imagery in his description of garments. Aligning the dresses to works by artists, such as Watteau and Hogarth, and writers, including Dickens and Austen, he provides an overview of fashion history through the lens of imagination and romance.

The rest of the book shows a selection of the fantastic collection in full-page photographs modelled by real people. The models, dressed in contemporaneous make-up, accessories and jewellery wear the historical garments and are placed in a contextual setting – outside, in a furnished room, or in a photographic studio. The photographs are beautifully shown in black and white, with a few full colour versions, showing the fine details of the garments.

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Response 

For me the book was intriguing on a number of levels. At first glance, it provides an interesting insight into changing perceptions of the History of Dress and dressmaking in 1913. The collection’s inclusion in the V&A stands as testament to the value in which dress was held.

 It is also interesting to see the prominence of corporate sponsorship and advertisement in publications, even as early as 1913. The book is careful to mention, at every opportunity, the role that Harrods Ltd played in the acquisition of the collection, and their support of the V&A. The importance of the collection and the sincerity of the V&A’s gratitude are particularly pertinent given that the collection was in danger of being sold to an American department store and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith and Philip Gibbs’ discussions of the collection provide an insight into museological practices and the history of dress in recent history. Their romantic language and description of the costumes is both informative and enjoyable, and really places costume within the cultural consciousness. It was also interesting to see how the costumes were originally displayed in the V&A, in glass cabinets along the Long Gallery. It is fascinating to see how the curators have picked up on the ghostly and uncanny quality that disembodied dress can convey: ‘If we would bring back to the imagination the spirits of the past, we must clothe them in the habit of their age, and neglect no detail, however slight, which will help to complete the picture.’

In light of this, the book’s most striking and unusual aspect lies in the photographs themselves. The collection is dressed on live models and placed in contemporary historical settings, producing images that are both bizarre and intriguing. This practice would be now be frowned upon – conservation issues mean that garments in dress collections are never to be worn by a live model again. However, the images are stunningly beautiful and strange at the same time. The clash of temporalities between eighteenth century costume and an early twentieth century model is captivating. There is a sense of theatricality and fantasy that is entirely unique to a History of Dress book.