The Quintessential Billie Holiday

Photo: Syd Shelton

Photo: Syd Shelton

Professor Carol Tulloch’s talk The Quintessential Billie Holiday explored the different ‘style narratives’ created by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-59) during her career. As defined by Tulloch, a ‘style narrative’ is a form of ‘self-telling’ which uses specific beauty regimes and forms of dress to articulate the self within daily life. Tulloch noted that style choices are significant both when they depart from contemporary fashion, and when they appropriate mainstream elements, a useful concept when studying Billie Holiday.

For Holiday’s style choices were always both hyper feminine and modern. Accessories such as her iconic gardenia corsage were common in 1930s eveningwear. Even more contemporary was the twinset, which Holiday adopted whilst recording Lady in Satin in 1958. Popularized by Hollywood actresses in the 1930s, the two-piece outfit became a staple 1950s dress. Evidently, the singer favored styles which, in Tulloch’s words were ‘completely appropriate to modernity.’ They identified her as a female dandy. Yet contrary to the association of foppishness usually carried by the term ‘dandy,’ Tulloch argued that Holiday used hyper-feminine dress to turn her decorated black body into a site of social contest.

Tulloch’s analysis of Holiday’s style as a site of contest concentrated on Holiday’s performances of Strange Fruit at Café Society in 1939. The song’s lyrics, originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, are a moving protest against lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s heartrending performances made the song unforgettable. Her performances can be analyzed though Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘grain of the voice,’ a form of sensual communication which circumvents the limits of the linguistic sphere through the intimate connection of body, music and words. Body, in Holiday’s performances, meant face. At the beginning of Strange Fruit all stage lights were dimmed to a pinhole, concentrating the spectators’ gazes on the singer’s lineaments, hair and gardenia corsage.Image

The legend goes that Holiday first wore the corsage to cover a patch of burnt hair which she had burnt preparing for a show whilst drunk. This story chimes with the popular myth that Holiday could not sing without alcohol or drugs. Arguing against this interpretation, Tulloch presented the corsage as integral to Strange Fruit’s performance. Drawing attention to the singer’s face, the flowers gave visibility to the tears Holiday always shed when performing. Thus, they emphasized the song’s resonance with Billie Holiday’s own life, especially the death of her father. Tulloch further explored the song’s sense of tragedy with reference to Yinka Shonibare’s Addio del Passato film (2012) and Fake Death pictures (2011).

This lecture clearly demonstrated, in line with the overarching theme of the Documenting Modernity lecture series, that non-fiction films (such as music videos) and documentary images can provide new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Yet as the audience’s questions underlined, a wider contextualization of Billie Holiday’s dandyism would have made her conscious style choices easier to register and unpack.

An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential: Heather Norris Nicholson

By :

Katarzyna Falęcka


Forming the third lecture of the Spring 2014 Friend Lecture Series, Dr Heather Norris Nicholson’s talk entitled An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential, examined the ways in which non-professional film footage can serve as a fertile resource for the studying of the history of dress. The lecture series emerged from the MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920 – 1945, which investigates the common means by which fashion, non-fiction film and documentary images reveal new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Dr Nicholson, who is a Andrew W Mellon Foundation / Research Forum Visiting Professor at The Courtauld, proposed therefore to incorporate alternative sources of visual heritage into academic research. Many examples of amateur film are archived within the North West Film Archives, Manchester, and are readily accessible to scholars. The archive includes 36,000 items from the 1890s to contemporary video production, both professional and amateur.

As Dr Nicholson noted that both amateur film and dress history allow for an independent construction of self-hood and form a mode of communication, also expressing a sense of individual agency. This becomes clear in a black and white amateur film depicting adolescents dancing at a social club in 1957, in a small town close to Manchester. The continuous focus of the camera on the youth allows for the dress historian to analyse the local fashion, the means through which young people communicated their identities to a wider public and the relationship between local dress codes and the urban fashion standards in nearby Manchester. However, every representation requires an analysis of the conditions of its production. The film was made by a local paint manufacturer, who engaged with amateur film making as a hobby. This was not an isolated case; after the introduction of lightweight cameras in the early 1920s film making quickly became a popular recreational pass time in Britain. An increase in amateur film clubs followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heather Norris Nicholson

Heather Norris Nicholson

Amateur films were produced for a variety of reasons: documenting family life, travels, festivities, as well as capturing the steadily disappearing communal life styles. As a source, amateur film raises multiple questions. How do they relate to official imagery? What reasons motivated their production? And how were they used? The film footage by Michael Goodger, a teacher of liberal and general studies in Salford who sought to document the disappearing street life of a working class neighbourhood in Manchester, presents a private and intimate mediation of the changing urban landscape. Seeking to capture the fast changing face of Salford’s housing, he engaged with amateur film making in order to offer teaching examples which were familiar and relevant to his students, many of whom came from the Salford area. Goodger’s films were therefore motivated by the shifting urban ecology and had a pedagogical purpose. As an outsider to the communities he had filmed, Goodger adopted working class dress, at times even carrying a ladder with him.

Theorised by the magazine Amateur Cine World, amateur film steadily became professionalised. The shift from a private use of the camera to one that carried pedagogical and political implications, demonstrates a plurality of motivations for the production of alternative imagery. These films allow us to examine the aesthetics of the everyday, keeping in mind, however, that the camera often alters the scene represented. Nevertheless, amateur footage reflects a mode for storytelling and expresses an idea of self and society, which is crucial for the studying of dress history.