Goodbye For Now!

Every group is special. Every year has its own particular character.  But the academic year 2020-21 was a year like no other… and this year’s MA Documenting Fashion students proved their intelligence, resourcefulness and grace during lockdowns, restrictions and global uncertainties.

I want to congratulate all of you for everything you’ve achieved – for the inspiring seminar discussions, sparkling presentations and thoughtful essays. For your imaginative searches for evidence and resources, the brilliant visual analysis and innovative ideas expressed in your Virtual Exhibitions and Dissertations, all the blog posts and, of course, the truly amazing costumes for our zoom parties.

Well done Violet, Kathryn, Ruby, Simona, Alexandra, Genevieve, Lucy and Bethan. It has been an honour to teach you and to spend this weird and difficult year in the company of such brilliant young dress historians.

Happiness and success to you all, I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you – I know that each of you will continue to shine.

Rebecca.

P.s. extra thanks to Simona and Ruby for acting as the blog’s Editors-in-chief during the autumn term, and to Kathryn and Lucy for taking on this role in spring and summer. You all did such a great job!

P.p.s. the Documenting Fashion blog will return in October, with posts by the new 2021-22 group of students…

5 Minutes With… Violet Caldecott

As it nears the end of term, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Violet discusses James Barnor, the Swinging Sixties, and photography as a means of resistance.

What is your dissertation about?

I wrote my dissertation on British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor and his capturing of Black Britain in the 1960s. I first came across his work in February when I saw his image Wedding Guests (below) on Pinterest. I was struck by the innate poise of the two female subjects, who in their meticulous attire and polished appearance, are the epitome of 1960s cosmopolitan glamour. I love the quietly revolutionary quality of his images. Whilst they are not politically or racially charged on the surface, in their depiction of everyday people, posing amongst the streets of London, they would have proved extremely powerful in both contemporary and post-colonial contexts. There is a retrospective of his work on at the Serpentine Gallery at the moment. Very fortuitously, it opened two weeks before my dissertation was due. It was incredibly exciting to see his images in the flesh. The show has been really beautifully curated, illuminating the multi-dimensionality of Barnor’s work through a diverse range of images from his six-decade career.

James Barnor, Wedding Guests, London, 1960, Photograph © Autograph ABP 

Who is your favourite designer?

Ossie Clark. I love the elegant cut, drape and flow of his pieces. Born in Liverpool in 1942, Clark quickly became known as a pioneer of London’s Swinging Sixties cultural revolution.  His designs offered a more romantic alternative to Mary Quant’s short hemlines, block colours and geometric prints. I came across a silk co-ord designed by him in a vintage boutique on the Portobello Road a couple of weeks ago. Consisting of a pair of billowing high-waisted trousers and a short-sleeved Peter Pan collar top, cinched in by a silk sash at the waist, it is my dream ensemble. The cut and fit are far superior to any item of clothing that I have ever worn. Perfectly proportioned and meticulously tailored around the waist and shoulders, I feel as if it was made for me. Clark really understood the female form. My dream is to become a collector of his pieces.

Ossie Clark with Gala Mitchell c. 1960s, Ossie Clark with Judy Guy Johnson and Patti Boyd c. 1960s, accessed via AnOther Magazine

Favourite dress history photograph?

This is a tough question as I have so many. But with regard to dress, the image which I find myself coming back to is the photograph Neil Kenlock took of Olive Morris in 1973. Morris was a political activist and community leader, known for the part she played in the Squatters Movement and her founding of the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1973. Very sadly, she died aged 27, but in her short life, she achieved an incredible amount. In this image, there is a real sense of her presence as an individual. In faux jacket, worn jeans and assortment of bangles, she appears confident and at ease. It possesses a snapshot quality with the viewer a voyeur looking in at an intimate moment in this remarkable woman’s life. She smokes a cigarette as she huddles by the electric radiator to keep warm. It seems like there is an interaction between her and Kenlock as she beams leaning slightly towards the camera. I love the idea of photography being a collaborative venture between the subject and photographer, with the viewer is privy to the intimacy of their relationship.

Neil Kenlock, Olive Morris, London, 1973, Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London 

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

In the first semester, I was introduced to the concept of photography as a means of resistance, and within this, the role clothing has played as a means to self-fashioning identities for oppressed groups within society. This fuelled an interest in Stuart Hall’s ‘politics of representation’ which I have applied to different periods and in varying contexts throughout the year. My first essay was on Harlem Renaissance portraiture and how the representational power of the genre was harnessed by various artists of the period to illuminate the complexity and multi-dimensionality of being African American at this time. I was particularly drawn to James VanDerZee’s studio portraits of glamorous young Harmelites. Posing in elegant 1920s clothing against elaborate backdrops, they drew together the different fragments of their diasporic identity in one visual narrative. I’m fascinated by the concept of the tiniest sartorial details having the most significant meaning to the individual and how this can translate to the outside eye.

James VanDerZee, Couple, Harlem, 1932 © Museum of Modern Art, New York

 
Sources
Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool (London: Bloomsbury) 2016
 
https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8992/the-fabulous-femininity-of-ossie-clark
 
https://aperture.org/editorial/how-james-barnors-photographs-became-symbols-of-black-glamour/
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/obituaries/olive-morris-overlooked.html

The Jewels of Fabergé

In 1914, American Vogue took note of a little shop on Bond Street in London that produced exquisite pieces unparalleled in their ‘beauty and delicacy of workmanship’ as well as their ‘bold presentment of form and color.’ The London shop was one branch of the famed Russian jewellery house, Fabergé.

Fabergé Bond Street, London, 1914.

Founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé, the St. Petersburg jewellery firm gained worldwide recognition for the intricate detail of its pieces, as well as its comprehensive knowledge of enamelwork. When Gustav’s son, Peter Carl Fabergé, took over the company in 1882, he developed a close working relationship with the last two Tsars of Russia, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, both Alexander the III and Nicholas II ordered numerous custom Fabergé eggs annually as presents for family members. Each egg usually contained a surprise, from family portraits to miniature coaches, to mechanical songbirds. Many were comprised of enamel, while others were made of rock crystal, gold, or other sumptuous materials. The first egg, known as the Hen Egg or Jewelled Hen Egg, was given by Alexander III to his wife, Maria Feodorovna, as an Easter gift in 1885. The family developed a fondness for the elaborate, inventive eggs and would order fifty-three more before the Revolution.

The Hen Egg designed for Maria Feodorovna in 1885. Stan Honda / Getty Images.

Some of the most awe-inspiring eggs include the Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg from 1898, the Bay Tree Egg from 1911, the Renaissance Egg from 1894, and the Winter Egg from 1913.

The Renaissance Egg, given by Tsar Alexander III to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1894. David Lefranc / Getty Images.

The Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, in 1898. Stan Honda / Getty Images.

The Bay Tree Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1911. Stan Honda / Getty Images.

The Winter Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1913. Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA / Shutterstock.

The Imperial Egg shape has been reimagined in pieces including pendants, bracelets, and earrings from the company’s Heritage collection. Additionally, the essences of specific eggs have been infused into subsequent collections. For example, the house produced a collection of fine jewellery with Rococo influences, stemming from the 18th century Rocaille Egg. Another collection comprised designs reminiscent of the jewellery Fabergé first released upon its founding in 1842.

Heritage Yellow Gold, Diamond & Turquoise Guilloché Enamel Egg Drop Earrings, https://www.faberge.com/jewellery

Fabergé Rococo Yellow Gold Multicoloured Gemstone Grande Pendant, https://www.faberge.com/jewellery

Fabergé 1842 Yellow Gold & Diamond Signature Ring, https://www.faberge.com/jewellery

Two extraordinary pieces worn by Kristin Davis at the Oliver Awards in London in 2014 highlight the house’s artistic flexibility. The Cascade de Fleurs Earrings nod to Art Nouveau and the Belle Époque, while the Mazurka Bangle mirrors the Rococo line.

Kristin Davis wearing the Fabergé Cascade de Fleurs Earrings and Mazurka Bangle at the Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House in London in 2014, Rune Hellestad / Getty Images.

I have always admired the house of Fabergé’s ability to seamlessly knit gemstones together in a delicate manner that highlights the beauty of each stone. The below Fabergé ring was given by my father to my mother when they found out they were expecting me, and she passed it on to me on my twenty-first birthday. I rarely take it off! In addition to its sentimental importance to me, I am also awed by the artistry and grace of its design. The woven bands of metal holding each stone flow like liquid, forming a delicate web of gold.

Fabergé ring. Photograph by author.

Overall, the jewels of Fabergé endure in popularity nearly three hundred years after the house’s founding due to its ability to steadfastly honour its history while consistently inventing new styles of jewellery. Though the eggs remain the house’s more recognizable signature, every piece possesses its own elegant flair and demonstrated expertise.

By Genevieve Davis

Sources

“Features: A Craftsman to the Czar.” Vogue 43, no. 2 (Jan 15, 1914): 40. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/features-craftsman-czar/docview/911849950/se-2?accountid=10277.

https://www.faberge.com

Evocative Dress in ‘Noël Coward: Art & Style’

On Wednesday, we went on our long-anticipated Documenting Fashion excursion to Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Noël Coward: Art & Style. The exhibition, that opened on June 14 and will run until late December, offers a behind-the-curtain view into the glamorous world of prolific British playwright and ‘Renaissance man’ Noël Coward.

As a gay man from a working-class background, he was an outsider to his environment in many ways, and as a result constructed his image meticulously. In both his personal life and on stage, he strove for a luxurious kind of ‘playful glamour’ and Guildhall Art Gallery thus curates a striking display of Coward’s rich visual realm.

Structured loosely chronologically, we are taken on an intimate journey through Noël Coward’s life. The exhibition greets us with the playwright’s famous fashion trademark: the silk dressing gown. Tied unusually – as he always did – to the side, the mannequin poses nonchalantly with hand-in-pocket. The other respectably gloved hand holds a long cigarette holder. This exhibit presents such an evocative quality of Coward: the man who was ‘determined to travel through life first class’.

Noel Coward with Marlene Dietrich. Accessed via https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2203/noel-coward

We are invited to examine an array of Coward’s pristinely preserved makeup tools and behind-the-scenes sketches of the costume design for iconic stage songs such as ‘Dance Little Lady’ from This Year of Grace (1928). Another section of the exhibition showcases black and white photographs of Coward with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, emblems of Hollywood glamour during his time in America.

Costume by Edward Henry Molyneux for Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives, 1930 (modern reconstruction). White satin bias-cut evening dress with white silk belt and gardenias. Dress reconstruction by Henry Wilkinson. Researched and supervised by Timothy Morgan-Owen. Photo by Kathryn Reed

A particularly striking element of the exhibition was the exhibition’s evocative display of clothing. On a raised semi-circular platform a white satin bias-cut evening dress with a white silk belt is displayed, that drapes gracefully to the floor. The neckline is decorated with a delicate artificial gardenia. This is a modern reconstruction of the dress that Gertrude Lawrence wore in Act I of Private Lives (1930) originally designed by British couturier Edward Henry Molyneux. The backdrop is a deep, midnight blue backlit art deco-style panel; the colour and lighting seems to accentuate the cool, bewitching, and glamorous aura of the dress. With the mannequin being physically raised on the platform, it evokes a sense of grandeur and celebrity.

Another experimental display of dress is a dark red chiffon dress with taffeta ruffles designed by Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, a designer who worked often for Noël Coward.  On a seventeenth-century Queen Anne chaise longue in a dusky pink velvet, the dress is draped, as if it still holds the memory of being worn on a reclining, celebrity body.

Chiffon and taffeta dress on Coward’s chaise longue by Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell. Photo by Kathryn Reed.

His luxury image translated into all aspects of his life, and Art & Style shows a section of the ostentatious antique furniture that adorned his homes. In his later life he moved to Jamaica, a country he felt great love towards, and began to paint landscapes of the country – a hobby into which the exhibition provides a personal peek.

A final section of the exhibition displays contemporary dress designs inspired by Coward and his world, by American designer Anna Sui. It bids us farewell with a final room that play videos of his performances, and even personal home videos of him and his friends.

Noël Coward: Art & Style presents us with the opulent chicness of the inter-war years of celebrity glamour, as well as a never-seen-before glimpse into the visual artefacts of his personal life.

Entry to the exhibition is free.

By Kathryn Reed

Sources:

Noel Coward, Another Magazine, https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2203/noel-coward

 

Runaway Brides: Tartan Wedding Dresses and Scottish Rebellion

Tartan is a fabric of rebellion, and it has long held appeal with those who consider themselves to be outsiders.

In 1745, the Scottish House of Stuart led the Jacobite Army in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the British throne from King George II. Following the uprising, a series of laws were enacted to subdue the fiercely independent Jacobites. The Dress Act of 1746, one of these laws, made tartan dress illegal in the United Kingdom. Anyone who wore tartan or other signifiers of traditional Scottish dress could face fines, imprisonment or exile.

However, The Dress Act of 1746 seemed only to strengthen the power of tartan. People across the United Kingdom began wearing full tartan outfits in defiance of the British government. Artists painted influential figures dressed in tartan but left their paintings unsigned, fearing that they would be punished for these public displays of dissent. Tartan became a signifier of anti-establishment attitudes, a very punk choice in the 18th century.

In 1974, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren opened their boutique SEX to cater to the burgeoning Punk rock scene in London. Westwood stocked the shop with every type of plaid imaginable, and soon the Sex Pistols were singing out against the British government in full tartan suits, just like the Jacobites nearly two hundred years before them.

Vivienne Westwood, Wedding Ensemble, Anglomania, Autumn/Winter 1993, National Gallery of Australia, NGA 94.278.1-4.A-B.

This 1993 wedding dress by Vivienne Westwood is a vision of tartan excess, crafted from yards of plaid silk that cascade over a bloom of tulle in coordinating colours. Though the concept of a tartan wedding dress is unorthodox, it is not purely a whim of Westwood’s wild imagination and is rooted deeply in the history of Scottish fashion. The Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown provides an example – a rare one, albeit – of a tartan wedding gown dating back to 1785. Though many details about the spectacular Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown remain shrouded in mystery, the tartan of the dress can be identified as one woven between 1775 and 1784. This means that it was likely created while The Dress Act of 1746 was still in place, making this wedding dress an illegal creation.

Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown, 1785, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

The headpiece that accompanies Westwood’s dress makes reference to a traditional piece of women’s Highland dress known as the earasaid. The earasaid is a length of pleated fabric that would be wrapped around the head like a veil and affixed at the waist. Although there is little information available on women’s dress in the Highlands before the turn of the 18th century, some historical evidence suggests that the wearing of the earasaid could date back to Pictish times. By the 1800s, written accounts and sketches of working-class women in earasaids were circulated across the United Kingdom, solidifying the trend as a hallmark of Scottish brides, even though the accuracy of these accounts remains contestable. Westwood recalls the earasaid with her veil’s gentle pleats and billowing volume but elevates its humble origins by pairing it with a regal gown of matching plaid.

A Victorian interpretation of how the earasaid may have looked. Robert Ronald McIan, plate from The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, 1845.

In a thoroughly contemporary interpretation of bridal traditions, Kate Moss first wore this gown down the runway at Westwood’s Autumn/Winter 1993 show with the bodice lowered to reveal one of her breasts. Preserving her modesty was a handful of flowers that once again harken back to tartan’s origins. Moss’s bouquet is studded with white roses, the symbol of the Jacobite army. Women participants in the Jacobite rebellion would often have their portraits painted with white roses tucked into the bodices of their dresses and their hair to signify their allegiance to the cause.

Vivienne Westwood, Wedding Ensemble, Anglomania, Autumn/Winter 1993. Runway photograph courtesy of Vogue Runway.

The bride who selects this dress to wear on her wedding day, likely one of the most publicly visible events of her life, chooses consciously not to perform the societal role expected of her. This wedding gown eschews the notion of brides dressing in virginal white, and it recalls a raucous national identity far more than a standard wifely one. With its earasaid and Jacobite references, this dress pays homage to the oft-overlooked women participants in the radical movements of Scottish history.

Westwood is one of the foundational contributors to tartan’s punk reputation, but she has also worked to ensure the medium’s longevity beyond the punk rock movement and, almost certainly conscious of her status as an Englishwoman, to emphasise its unique Scottish heritage. This dress is cut from MacAndreas tartan, a sett of tartan created by Westwood as a romantic tribute to her husband and collaborator Andreas Kronthaler. MacAndreas tartan is now officially listed in the Scottish Register of Tartans. Westwood has also created many of her tartan garments in accordance with the Harris Tweed Act, a 1993 Act of Parliament which seeks to protect and promote the traditional methods of woollen fabric weaving in Scotland.

From the Dress act of 1746 to the Harris Tweed Act of 1993, the lawmaking that surrounds tartan begs the question: why is tartan something institutions feel the need to control? Is it a dangerously influential pattern that incites revolt across centuries? Is it a precious national resource that must be protected at all costs? For the bride who dons a tartan wedding dress, one thing is certain. Tartan is a testament to fierce individuality and national history, suitable to dress herself in for one of the most sacred days of her life.

By Ruby Redstone

Sources:

Faiers, Jonathan. Tartan. London: Bloomsbury, 2008

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery online. ‘The Isabella Project’. Published February 2020.https://www.highlifehighland.com/inverness-museum-and-art-gallery/the-isabella-project/

MacDonald, Peter Eslea. ‘Musing on the Arisaid and Other Female Dress.’ Scottish Tartans online. Published 2016.https://www.scottishtartans.co.uk/Musings_on_the_arisaid_and_other_female_dress.pdf

Maspero, Ida. ‘Tartan Romance,’ National Museums Scotland online. Published 26 May 2019. https://blog.nms.ac.uk/2019/05/26/tartan-romance/

Scottish Tartans Authority. ‘Tartan and the Dress Act of 1746.’ Accessed 28 February 2021. http://www.tartansauthority.com/resources/archives/the-archives/scobie/tartan-and-the-dress-act-of-1746/

The Scottish Register of Tartans. ‘Westwood MacAndreas.’ Published 1 January 1993. https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=5530

V&A online. ‘Vivienne Westwood: A taste for the past’. Last accessed 15 February 2021. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/vivienne-westwood-a-taste-for-the-past

Watt, Patrick and Rosie Waine. Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museum of Scotland, 2019

Make-up as Artistry and the Origins of the Beauty Industry in ‘Make-up: A Glamorous History’

Global beauty industry sales hit $500 billion in 2019, and consistently outperformed other areas of fashion retail throughout the pandemic. It can seem as though this economic force appeared overnight, but make-up artist Lisa Eldridge’s BBC Two series, Make-up: A Glamorous History, debunks this notion by tracing the history of make-up in Britain in three parts. In each episode, she highlights an important moment in beauty history: ‘Georgian dandies, demure Victorians and decadent flappers.’

Each episode of the series sees Eldridge make up a model in the style of the period, where possible using products made according to original recipes. In some cases – notably, with the toxic lead used by the Georgians to create white pigment for face powder – this requires the help of a specialist and protective equipment. In others, Eldridge is able to knock up batches of luxurious Georgian facial cleanser and subtle Victorian lip tint with nothing more than a single tabletop hob and some muslin. Eldridge also speaks to historians to dig deeper into the trends of each era, looking at the women and men considered to be the beauty influencers of their time and what this says about each society. She looks at extant objects, including posters, magazines and compacts, to get an understanding of the marketing and retail of beauty products in each era.

While researching Georgian beauty ideals, Eldridge meets with Royal Academy of Arts Curator of Works on Paper Annette Wickham. Their discussion of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings of society women – including actresses, singers and courtesans – reveals the origins of the ‘beauty influencer’ system that is so culturally and economically significant today. The boom of print culture at this time allowed the images of these women to be disseminated in newspapers and as prints, displayed in alehouses, coffee shops and in the street-facing windows of dedicated print shops. The women who featured in these images encouraged their dissemination and even staged publicity ploys: Wickham tells the story of Kitty Fisher, a prominent courtesan who deliberately fell from her horse in Hyde Park to ensure that her name and picture would appear in the newspapers. Maintaining a high profile aligned with beauty brought these women financial security in the form of wealthy husbands. Today, being recognised for beauty (or, often, excellent make-up artistry) can bring financial gains in the form of brand partnerships and advertising revenue, highlighting the significant potential outcomes of effective use of make-up throughout history.

Kitty Fisher (1762), line engraving by William Humphrys, after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery.

The episode that focuses on Victorian beauty reveals the secrecy around make-up during this period. Just as today the perfect ‘no-makeup make-up look’ is a holy grail for many, the Victorians went to great lengths to appear ‘naturally’ beautiful. Make-up masqueraded as medicine in published recipes and advertisements, adding a further layer of artifice to what was already perceived as immoral trickery. But such efforts were necessary: the inherent sinfulness of make-up was enshrined in a law that enabled police officers to arrest women if they were suspected of wearing make-up. The argument was that if a woman was so depraved as to wear make-up, she might also be guilty of illegally selling sex. This puritanical preference for bare – and, notably, pale white – skin fed into the Victorian colonial narrative in its parallel suggestion that a person’s ‘natural’ appearance was an indication of their human worth. The quest for pallor meant that there was even a vogue for ‘tuberculosis chic’, prefiguring the trend for ‘heroin chic’ that would appear a century later. Prominent beauties, including Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, also known as Madame X, paid the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s money for a form of semi-permanent make-up known as enamelling. The treatment comprised an aggressive exfoliation before a thick layer of white paint – meant to fill in fine lines and cover blemishes – was applied, then drawn over with blue veins. Some of the dangerous attitudes that drove these extremes – especially those around deviations in skin tone or texture from a ‘natural’ yet idealised beauty – are undoubtedly still present in some form in the global beauty industry today.

Portrait of Madame X (1884) by John Singer Sargent, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the third and final episode in the series, the 1920s was the era in which the beauty industry as we know it today was born. A desire among women to break away from social ideals eventually led to the acceptance of a full face of make-up in public, as well as bobbed hair and new behaviours. This change was inextricable from the rise of cinema, which disseminated moving and still images of new beauty ideals – women were necessarily heavily made up under studio lights – and provided the technological advancements in make-up that allowed for its commercialisation. Eldridge traces the rise of modern foundations from their inception in Max Factor’s stage make-up. New markets also appeared – make-up was no longer just for the wealthy – and elaborate packaging encouraged further consumption. Celebrity endorsements continued to be important, but now famous faces could be tied to brand names, for example, Josephine Baker’s many beauty lines. Eldridge introduces a piece from her personal collection: a Josephine Baker and Flamand compact cuff. The glamorous black and gold bracelet can be opened to reveal powder and a mirror, allowing for regular, public reapplication. While it’s more unusual to find cross-pollination like this today, likely owing to the cost that would be involved for the manufacturer as well as the consumer, make-up brands continue to place a high importance on packaging. This is increasingly true as consumers look for sustainable (yet still aesthetically pleasing) options.

Josephine Baker and Flamand powder compact cuff bracelet, 1930s, personal collection of Lisa Eldridge. (Still from Episode 3 of ‘Make-up: A Glamorous History’, BBC).

Overall, the series makes it clear that, while the beauty industry as we know it today exists in an intensely commercialised form, it has been an important part of society for centuries, functioning in broadly similar ways. While trends have changed according to the mores of the day, some form of artifice (either highly decorative or more ‘natural’) has always been the goal. Make-up has always represented a form of self-expression: it offers a means of communicating wealth, health or alternative values. Furthermore, for viewers who may be accustomed to buying their make-up branded and boxed from the beauty aisle, the series reminds us that make-up is an art like any other, with the body as its canvas. The medium and the tools that can be used as make-up aren’t necessarily always labelled as such. Experimentation and play are therefore encouraged, and a less exclusive concept of beauty can emerge.

By Lucy Corkish

Sources

Emily Gerstell, Sophie Marchessou, Jennifer Schmidt, and Emma Spagnuolo, Consumer Packaged Goods Practice: How COVID-19 is changing the world of beauty, McKinsey and Company, 2020 (https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Consumer%20Packaged%20Goods/Our%20Insights/How%20COVID%2019%20is%20changing%20the%20world%20of%20beauty/How-COVID-19-is-changing-the-world-of-beauty-vF.pdf)

Make-up: A Glamorous History, presented by Lisa Eldridge, directed by Rachel Jardine and Lucy Swingler, BBC Two, 2021

5 Minutes With… Alexandra Sive

We’ve been busy working on our dissertations, so we’re taking the opportunity to get to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Alexandra discusses bodily taboos, her spooky virtual exhibition and Madeleine Vionnet.

What is your dissertation about? 

My dissertation is about maternity corsets in the 1920s and 30s. I’m drawing on Mary Douglas a lot, specifically her work on the social concept of dirt, which she designates as “matter out of place”, something which does not conform to social boundaries or systems of meaning. Drawing on Durkheim, that which cannot be explained or contained within social ideology must be deemed taboo and thereby removed either into the realm of the sacred or the profane, shut away from society. This is precisely what happens with pregnancy taboos, where the pregnant woman is shut away, both disgusting and holy.

I first encountered Douglas in second year at university, while writing about blood and other body fluids in the work of John Donne and George Herbert, and I came back to her in my finals, writing about Pope and Swift and all the bodily pairings in their poems. I’ve always seen literature and dress as being more connected than people would think – they’re both forms of communication that we use every day. Some clothes are just what we wear; others are poetry.

I’m really interested in corsets more generally, too – the idea that, for such a long time, society has been obsessed with holding in and reshaping the supposed site of reproductive power is fascinating to me. All too often, these conversations are rooted in transphobia, but I think it’s clear that the misogyny that arises, in part, from what wombs can do affects everyone in proximity to it, not just people who can give birth.

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

I’m absolutely loving my dissertation, but I also have a soft spot for my virtual exhibition, which was about the more macabre aspects of Victorian mourning dress. I had never done a piece of academic work which was so visual. I wanted to make it really spooky, so I set it in The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, which is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres, set in the very top of St Thomas’s Church in Southwark. The first room was full of explanatory texts and artefacts about the cult of mourning that developed during this period, including bits on widowhood (more taboos!) and the involvement of children in rituals of death. I wanted to line the staircase up to the operating theatre itself with black velvet so that it would be like being born through the drapery of the mourning bed into the afterlife. This section I called “The Ghosts” – visitors would come onto the floor of the theatre, but up in the viewing gallery, standing over them, would be faceless figures in mourning dress. It was so much fun to plan!

What are you wearing today?

I’m currently wearing a dress called the Vivienne from Réalisation Par in a really pretty blue-violet floral print – my body has changed so much over quarantine, so my mission right now is to find things that fit my new figure and make me feel comfortable. I love this dress because it fits so perfectly and shows the shape of my body, but it’s also really comfy and light, which is a must right now because it’s so hot in London. I’m barefoot, and I’m wearing some really pretty Murano millefiori heart earrings from Etsy. Aside from writing, the only thing I’m doing today is getting my hair dyed – it’s currently a pink bob, but I want to grow it out, so I’m getting it dyed back natural. I think I’m going to have to change because I would be distraught if I got dye on this dress!

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

When I was a child, I loved making things. I was always covered in paint and clay and whatnot. My mother found an incredible sewing class called Little Hands Design, run by a woman who is a force of nature called Astrid. It’s still going, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I remember going into class as a very young child, before I was able to use a needle, let alone a machine, and just draping fabric on the mannequins. I thought it was incredible the way that something flat and square could take on so much shape and movement, depending on how you tied it up and later where you put the pins. I think it’s why I’m now a bit obsessed with Vionnet, whom Rebecca introduced us to this year. Her designs have so much life in them, and all from the way that she cuts. She’s a real poet.

5 Minutes with… Simona Mezzina

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Simona discusses growing up in her family’s fashion boutique, dress as a language and American screwball comedies from the 1930s.

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

I have many early memories related to fashion. I often say that I was born among clothes: my grandfather started his textiles business in the south of Italy in the 1950s, which he shortly after turned into a menswear boutique. My father started working there at the end of the 1970s and then opened his own boutique in 2000, when I was just four years old. The boutique still exists in its original location and is currently run by my elder siblings, with the support of my father. I have many memories related to both my grandfather’s and my father’s businesses. As a child, I was extremely fascinated by the tactile qualities of clothes: I particularly loved passing my hand through the suits, perfectly hanging on their display racks, organised by colour, cut and fabric, and unfolding every shirt, sweater and pair of trousers to look at their smallest details, often deciding to try them on despite the obvious size mismatch. Some of my favourite memories involve a game I used to play in the boutique, where I would pretend to be a sales assistant with the support of our oldest employee, who would kindly and patiently play along, interpreting the role of ever different customers with the most bizarre requests. It was certainly good training – also because he taught me how to fold every item properly.

What is one thing you’ve learned about dress history that you wish more people knew? 

That dress history in itself is not just about ‘clothes’. The general understanding of the concept of dress is so shallow that trying to explain to those who ask what it means to study it is quite complicated. I recently came across a picture in a fashion magazine with a text reading ‘I don’t understand what my clothes mean’, and I became obsessed with it. It made me think that this is precisely the reason why I decided to study dress history: to understand the meaning of these items that we put on our bodies – along with all the elements that compose our appearance – which possess a unique and incredible communicative power, even more immediate than words. The problem, however, is that this language is unknown to most people, and trying to decipher it without the right tools is practically impossible. Studying dress history gave me those tools, unlocking an immense universe which encompasses multiple fields, such as sociology, social anthropology, psychology, economics, and politics.

What is your favourite thing you’ve read this year? 

Every paper or book I read thanks to this course was fascinating and challenging in its own way. However, to go back to what I was saying before about not knowing what the concept of ‘dress’ actually means: I would say one of the most important things we have analysed, at the very beginning of the MA, was Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ ‘Definition and Classification of Dress: Implications for Analysis of Gender Roles’. As a long-time supporter of Judith Butler’s ideas on gender as performance, this paper furthered my understanding of how, in the societal context I am writing from, the most prominent social distinction communicated by dress is that of learned gender roles.

What is your dissertation about? 

My dissertation is about the intersection between star image, costume design and film genre. I am discussing the function and meaning of costumes in the context of the American screwball comedies of the 1930s, through a specific focus on the screen couple Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, released in 1940. Throughout my academic career, I have been particularly interested in star studies and how this field relates to film and fashion. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Sophia Loren’s costumes in Vittorio De Sica’s 1963 comedy Ieri, Oggi, Domani, and, although through different lenses, I enjoyed the idea of following a similar path to conclude my MA. Comedy is one of the richest and most fascinating genres, in my opinion, and I believe there is much to be said about the implications of clothes and fashion when it comes to screen comedies.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) Source: The New Yorker

Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear? 

This is such a hard question! I will go with the one outfit that immediately came to my mind when I read this question, which is included in one of my favourite portraits and dress history images: Charles Frederick Worth’s evening ball gown worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in her 1865 portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. It is just sublime. The off-the-shoulder neckline, the white satin mixed with tulle, with thousands of silver foil stars shimmering throughout the dress, matching the diamond edelweiss pins in her long, braided hair… I must have dreamt of a dress like this a thousand times in my childhood ‘princess’ fantasies, way before I became acquainted with this painting. Plus, what an unforgettable experience it would have been to be dressed by the father of haute couture himself!

Franz Xaver Winterhalter (German, 1805–1873). Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1865. Oil on canvas; 255 x 133 cm. Vienna: The Hofburg. Source: Wikiart

The representation of fashion in ‘A Beatnik Community in St Agnes’ (1969)

During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.

Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.

Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.

If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.

It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.

Figure 1: Del Cooper addresses the camera as the Beatniks walk into shot

Figure 2: Overcoats, scarves, dark colours and an air of casualness defines these young people

As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.

Figure 3: The flamboyantly dressed leaders

Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.

What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.

This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.

Figure 4: A fur-hatted local

Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.

Figure 5: Traditionally masculine

Figure 6: A practical fur bonnet for winter

Figure 7: A stern pair of cats-eye spectacles

As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’.[1] The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.

Figure 8: Toni wears artistic beads and slightly puffed sleeves

Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.

Figure 9: Layered handmade silver rings adorn this jewellery maker’s hands

Figure 10: Sunglasses indoors

And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.

The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:

What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors.  They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.

Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.

Figures 11 and 12: The closing scene of the film, the Beatniks set against the backdrop of the cold, wintery ocean

By Kathryn Reed

Bibliography

A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online

Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)

Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)

Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)

Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)

Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140

Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)

Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)

Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills:  A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)

Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)

5 Minutes with… Genevieve Davis

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Genevieve discusses Austrian fashion designer Maria Likarz, the modern woman as machine and her love of jewellery with a story.

What is your dissertation about? 

I am writing about Maria Likarz, an incredible Austrian fashion designer who worked at the Wiener Werkstätte, a cooperative design workshop in Vienna, during its tenure from 1903-1932. This period saw the rise of many famous fashion names, including Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, and Madeleine Vionnet, but no one has ever heard of Maria Likarz! Dress history during this period tends to focus on France, so delving into Austrian fashion has been really fun. The diversity of Likarz’s talents was profound; she created fashion designs, jewellery, textiles, ceramics, lace, and even a few collections of wallpaper. I could spend all day looking at her designs in the archive of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts.

Maria Likarz, Faschings- oder Theaterkostüm, 1925,
Wiener Werkstätte Archive, Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

Maria Likarz, Romulus, 1928, Wiener Werkstätte Archive,
Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

Maria Likarz, Romulus, 1928, Wiener Werkstätte Archive,
Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

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

I would say my Virtual Exhibition, and my dissertation is running a really close second. I designed my exhibition around the connection between women and machinery in the early twentieth century. Some of my favourite exhibits included Fernand Léger’s 1924 silent film, Ballet mécanique, a recreation of an automobile painted by Sonia Delaunay, a Kodak Ensemble from 1929, and Look 17 from Prada’s Spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection. Honestly, I loved every exhibit. That exhibition is one of the coolest projects I have ever done!

Original Unic – model L2 painted in a recreation of the style of Sonia Delaunay
Automobile c. 1920, painted later
Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda
Málaga, Spain

Favourite dress history image? 

Narrowing down one choice was a battle, but this Norman Parkinson photograph for Vogue in 1950 is one of my favourite fashion photographs of all time. The subject, Mary Drage, was an English ballerina for Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She stands in front of John Singer Sargent’s 1899 painting The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant. I love this image because Drage’s grace and delicate elegance suggest she stepped right out of the painting. After endless months of leggings and sweatshirts, the sumptuous tactility of each gown makes me long for the time when we can all finally dress up again.

Norman Parkinson, 1950, Vogue.

What are you wearing today? 

With our dissertation deadline fast approaching, it is a library day for me. So, I am wearing a pair of teal, white, and navy flowy pants from Calypso, a white V-neck t-shirt, and my favourite gunmetal grey Chanel flats. I also have my softest white knit cardigan on hand because I get cold so easily! And can’t forget those blue light glasses.

How would you describe your style? 

A tough one! I went through several different phases during my high school and university years. When I asked a friend, she described my current style as ‘cosmopolitan chic.’ I like to think of it as classic and elegant. I prefer to shop vintage, I wear a lot of black, and I love bold or patterned jackets. Give me an LBD and some black, heeled booties and I am happy. That being said, I could never function without jeans and trainers. I also adore jewellery. Some of my favourite pieces include a gold ring given by my dad to my mom, which she then passed down to me; my small ruby and gold hoops; and a set of gold bangles (another family heirloom!). I love any piece of clothing or jewellery with a story behind it.

What are you hoping to do next? 

After finishing my MA, I am hoping to return to an auction house, gallery, or fashion house. I would also love to work at a museum in the dress department. I have worked in the luxury industry in the past and can’t wait to jump back in!

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

When I was three or four, I was the flower girl in my aunt’s wedding. There is an amazing photo of me wearing this gorgeous lilac dress with flowers around the neckline. I was completely obsessed with the dress until my parents gave me a piece of wedding cake, and the photo shows me, in my pretty dress, stuffing cake into my mouth with my hands. Luckily, the dress remained pristine!