Alumni Spotlight: Leah Gouget-Levy 

Leah Gouget-Levy is a current PhD candidate who is in her third year at the Courtauld Institute of Art and works at the London College of Fashion archives as Archives and Curatorial Assistant. She completed her MA at the Courtauld through Rebecca Arnold’s Documenting Fashion special option and earned a BA in the History of Art from University College London. In this interview that was conducted in late July Leah talks about her journey to the Courtauld, her PhD dissertation, and her long-standing fascination with the connection between time and fashion.

IW: How did you get into fashion and dress history?

LGL: I was always interested in fashion and it was one of my passions when I was growing up. While I was doing my undergraduate, I also became really interested in photography and film. I knew that Rebecca’s Documenting Fashion MA existed when I was doing my BA and once I graduated, and took a bit of time out, my thoughts returned to it. It seemed like a great combination of all my interests, so I applied and that’s where it all started.

IW: How did you know you wanted to get a PhD?

LGL: I saw the PhD as an opportunity to further expand my knowledge of fashion history. Because the MA program is so condensed, I wanted to keep exploring and working on some particular interests that I had begun to develop. The PhD was a way to pursue these in more depth.

IW: I saw that you wrote about fashion from the World’s Fair in your MA. How did you get the idea to write about that? And what was the research process behind that?

LGL: With the MA I remember that I had various topics that I was considering. But then I came across this wonderful short film,La Mode Rêvée, by Marcel L’Herbier. It was made for the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and it chimed perfectly with my interest in the subject of time. This was a topic that I had been thinking about since my BA when I wrote my dissertation about the temporal relationship between Andrei Tarkovsky’s polaroid photographs and his film The Mirror (1975). La Mode Rêvée played on similar themes, but in relation to fashion, so it was an interesting opportunity to explore those themes in a slightly different direction. My PhD directly builds on this work by considering the temporal experience of fashion in relation to photography. So, there is a clear thread running through all those things. It didn’t seem so clear at the time I was doing it, [but] it was more the case of those are my interests and somehow, I kept coming back to them.

IW: Wow, that’s really interesting! Especially since this year’s Met Gala theme was about time and fashion. You’re clearly in tune with something that’s happening in fashion right now.

LGL: (Laughs) Yeah, it is funny. It’s definitely something that is being thought about at the moment. There’s obviously the Met’s exhibition, but there’s also an anthology about fashion and time coming out soon in English, co-edited by Caroline Evans. So, there’s something in the air! It’s one of those funny things where nothing is deliberate but suddenly things converge.

IW: Yeah! Because in a weird way (and I wanted to get your opinion on this) with everything that’s happening a lot of shows are being shown online as opposed to going to this city and that city. And I was wondering if you thought that maybe this is another kind of mini World’s Fair? [Because] it’s everybody converging on this one place that everybody can access and see what’s happening from every designer around the world.

LGL: That’s a really interesting observation! I hadn’t actually thought about it from that perspective. You’re right that there’s something super interesting happening in terms of the condensing of space, similar to the way in which the World’s Fair worked. There does seem to be a shift from the very distinct geography of fashion weeks as we have known them in Paris, London, New York, Milan… I’ve actually been thinking about the recent developments in fashion from a slightly different perspective – in terms of the time of the fashion system and the way in which designers are moving away from the traditional calendar, trying to find alternative time scales to work to. I’m currently thinking about how I might address this in my PhD.

IW: What are you writing [your PhD] about?

LGL: My PhD is about early 20th-century fashion photography and the work of the Séeberger Frères, fashion reportage photographers working in France. Basically, they were early street style photographers taking photographs of (mainly) women at glamourous sea-side resorts and the horse races between 1909 and 1939. I am focusing in particular on what their work reveals about the relationship between fashion and time, and how is this represented in, and experienced through photography.

IW: Rebecca told us that you got a job at the London College of Fashion archives. If you were able to start it how has it been? Also, since you have told me so much about your work and how it deals with time, has working in the archives influenced your dissertation in any way?

LGL: Yes, I was really thrilled to have been offered the job as Archives and Curatorial Assistant at LCF and despite everything, I was able to start in June. It has definitely influenced my PhD and I am actually working on a chapter at the moment that considers the way in which the organization of the Séeberger Frères archive at the Bibliothèque National de France affects the experience of their photographs. So, while I’m working with the LCF archive these issues are also at the forefront of my mind as I am thinking a lot about how an archive is constructed and how that influences the way in which we experience and study fashion history.

IW: Do you have any advice for incoming or prospective students in the MA or doctoral program?

LGL: I would say that, if you have the chance, read the books on Rebecca’s reading list before the year starts! It is an intense course and there’s a lot that you have to do. So, take that time before you start [your course] and just read around and get a feel for things. I would also recommend getting involved as much as you can with university life – including embracing things that are not directly related to your work or special option. The Courtauld is such a great place and there are constantly things going on, for example with the Research Forum and events that Rebecca organizes.

IW: Have you thought about what path you want to go down when you finish your PhD? And is there another area that you are interested in studying?

LGL: To be honest, I feel really lucky to have the job at LCF, as working with an archive was always something that I wanted to do after I finished my PhD! So, I’m looking forward to continuing my work there. Alongside that, I would also be keen to continue teaching, as it’s something that I have really enjoyed doing over the past few years while I’ve been at The Courtauld.

In terms of research, it’s true that when you work on a PhD you are focused on a very specific subject. So, it will be really exciting to start a new project! For example, I would be very keen to think more about the temporality of fashion beyond the Western, and specifically French, fashion system.

 

[Answers have been edited for clarity]

Alumni Spotlight: Emma McClendon

Emma McClendon was the Associate Curator of Costume at The Museum at F.I.T. in New York where she has curated numerous critically acclaimed exhibitions including Power Mode: The Force of Fashion (2019), The Body: Fashion and Physique (2017) and Denim: Fashion’s Frontier (2015). She graduated from the Documenting Fashion M.A. program at the Courtauld in 2011. She sat down with Helena Klevorn to talk about fashion’s position in the museum, burgeoning questions about fashion curation, and her next career steps.

 

HK: HI!

EM: Hi! How are you? How is everything going?

HK: It’s good, though kinda tough, as you can imagine since the school has closed and we all went home and are writing our dissertations at home.

EM: Oh, you’re doing that all remotely. When did you guys comes back?

HK: I think most people left around mid-March.

EM: Oh, that’s not too long after I saw you guys, right?

HK: Yeah, it was really soon after our visit that the school closed. Everything happened so fast! So, the first think I want to talk about, since you told us you went straight to F.I.T. from the M.A., was how from the beginning of the M.A. program to the end, your idea of what you wanted to do afterwards changed or if it didn’t change, in that you got to do exactly what you wanted straight out of the program.

EM: I think it’s kind of weird because I think that I went into the M.A. program absolutely hoping that in the long run I would be able to work in a museum and work in a curatorial role at a museum that dealt specifically with fashion, because what led to the program was that I had interned in the Furniture, Textiles, and Fashion department at the V&A while I was an undergrad. I had actually worked with a furniture person, not a fashion curator, but while I was there I met some of the fashion curators and they had all gone to the Courtauld and so that was what led me to look into the program and so that was the dream. But while I was in the program, I definitely went in with eyes wide open that the likelihood of getting a curatorial job in a museum was pretty low. It’s a niche field, there just aren’t a lot of institutions, unfortunately—now there’s more and it’s growing—but even just ten years ago there weren’t as many institutions as there are now dealing with dress and fashion.

So throughout the program I kind of explored other ways that I might work in tangential fields. I did an internship while I was doing my M.A. at Diane von Furstenberg’s office in London during market week because I was like, “Well, maybe I can parlay this into the fashion industry itself.” I also did an internship, and these were shorter Work Experiences, at I.B. Tauris, the publishing house, just to get a lay of the land because, again, this [my current position] was the goal. It sounds really linear and like it was perfectly planned when I say it now, but at the time it felt like anything but a sure thing. That was the goal but in that way that I almost wouldn’t say it out loud because it sounded so far-fetched at the time.

So I started [at F.I.T.] as an intern, and even while I was interning it still seemed like a long shot, because of, I think, one of the most useful pieces of information I heard during the program from the working professionals that we met—like Beatrice [Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts], who I’m sure you met at the Museum of London. We went on a trip to their archive and saw a few pieces and I remember her being really frank with us in a way that I always try to be with students when they come through, and she said that museum work can be all about timing, which is what’s really frustrating because these are jobs that people tend to stay in for a really long time and there’s not that many of them and so it can really be about just happening into it. Yes you do the work, and you try, and you get the degree and all that, but it’s also being in the right place at the right time. And in that way I do feel like I was very fortunate that when I was coming to the end of my internship a part-time job opened up in the curatorial department, and so I applied and I was fortunate enough to get it, but then I was in that for almost two years before I got the full-time job. So there’s timing, and also this field just takes a lot of patience, is what I would say.

But, again, another thing I always say and what I really do believe from my experience is that even though it seems really scary, and the pessimistic way to look at it is that there’s no right way to do it, there’s no path, there’s no funnel and step-by-step process that you’re supposed to follow and that’s mapped out for you, that can be so frightening. But the more optimistic way to look at it, which I really do think is true, is that there’s no wrong way to do it. Because of the way that this is such a niche and burgeoning field, people are coming into it and coming into museums and coming into  academic positions from all different angles. People are working in corporate archives, they’re working in journalism, they’re working in the industry itself, they’re not necessarily just interning at a museum and working in a museum. There is a much broader spectrum of how you can build your career and build your experience.

HK: Definitely. And on that note, I wanted to talk about how, especially as you’ve been in this position for a number of years now and seen it change, I’m seeing people coming up as “independent fashion curators.”

EM: Right, yeah.

HK: There was a woman who I saw speak a few years ago who, then, was a curator at Somerset House, and then moved to New York City and now is an “independent curator” unaffiliated with any particular institution. What does that kind of position mean in this space and the, sort of, ability to be curating  fashion outside of a museum and what do you see in that in terms of the direction it’s moving in?

EM: I think that’s one of the things that’s really exciting. I, personally, would like to see more institutionalized, full-time, permanent positions for curators in our field given that museums and institutions generally–like colleges and their art galleries or corporations or independent galleries–are sort of hungry for this topic and want to engage with fashion, but then they don’t employ the permanent person, and that’s where these freelancers come in. And so this is where I think it really is about there not being a clear cut path. You can freelance, I know so many people who are in this field and [freelance] is the path that they’ve been on, whether it’s that they don’t like the 9-5 or whether it’s that they’ve really kind of struggled and hustled and this is their way of doing curatorial projects. Again, there’s a spectrum of how people come into this. But I think it’s really exciting.

I, personally, have not yet done a freelance project. Because of the trajectory  I’ve been on, I’ve always been with an institution which is really fortunate, but it also, I think, can be kind of limiting. When you’re a freelance curator–and there are so many opportunities for that because people are so hungry for this project and that’s just what a lot of people have to do–I think you have to wear so many different hats when you’re doing that job, because not only do you have to be the person who thinks of the ideas, thinks of the objects you want to include, thinks of how you want to organize the space, you also have to be the person who organizes the space, who organizes how you’re going to build it out, how you’re going to get it to look the way you want it to look. You might have to dress all the objects, because you might not have the money to employ handlers or installers. You also have to manage your entire budget and a lot of times that’s down to managing how much you’re actually going to be able to pay yourself. And I think that in museums, also, there’s a whole spectrum of museums, less well-known museums or historical houses, where you have to do a similar thing to the freelancers and wear so many different hats while you’re doing those kinds of projects.

In a way I feel kind of conflicted about it because I think it’s really exciting that there are all of these freelance opportunities and that there is this outlet to be able to express yourself creatively. At the same time, I worry that so many institutions are taking advantage of this freelance workforce that’s out there so that they can put on these one-off shows that maybe travel from somewhere else and then hire a local person or even not even a local person, a remote person, to sort of oversee or “advise” the curatorial staff at the museum. But then, [the institutions] don’t actually have any experience in mounting a fashion exhibition and it’s so different that I think it can be a double-edged sword. But I do think it is something really exciting and I would encourage anyone who’s entering the field to consider [the freelance] avenue. You know, if you have a project if you have an idea and you want to workshop and approach a gallery, an institution, a place, if you have a means or a context to get mannequins, get objects, you know, there’s a lot of opportunity there.

HK: Going off of what you were talking about, with the institutions and how they’re treating these exhibitions, your institution is obviously very focused on fashion and displaying fashion, but in other institutions where that’s something they’re starting to explore or that’s a department within a larger, fine-art focused institution, what do you think is the attitude towards fashion exhibitions? I’ve heard that it can be, “Oh, well, that’s a money-maker that gets people in the door but it’s not necessarily something we value.” Versus, for example, the V&A where they have, for lack of a better word, a higher regard for clothes than other ones. So I’m curious about how you’ve seen that transform or not transform.

EM: Well, museums and their approach to fashion is very much based on the goal of the institutions, right? So I think the attitude towards fashion can very based on whether they collect fashion or not. I think a place like the V&A started as a decorative arts museum, and they’ve been collecting textiles and clothing and material objects for their entire existence, so they’re going to have more of a regard and have more flexibility to let fashion be fashion and not have to fit it into a box. Whereas, similarly and different, a place like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also has been collecting fashion, for a very long time, and it has one of the older collections of clothing in the states. But that’s a fine art museum so I think that, likely, when you’re part of a fine art museum, you have to position the exhibitions within the goals of the institution, which might be more about the theories, and critiques, and ideas behind fine art as opposed to material culture or even social history. Versus the Smithsonian, their approach is going to be completely different, and it’s going to be about where clothing fits into the broader scope and mission of the institution because it’s sort of a social history museum.

But I think what’s been interesting to see are the places that, only in the last decade, have started to show clothing. What I find most interesting to see about those institutions is whether they’re going to develop their own content or whether they’re going to bring in a travelling exhibition because I think that can kind of change the institutional attitude towards it. if you’re just bringing in a monograph designer exhibition, like about Dior, about YSL, about something like that, in my opinion those shows are really about being a blockbuster. They’re about getting bodies into the museum and, yes, celebrating fashion, and yes celebrating these objects, and yes welcoming it into the museum. It’s great to see so many more museums doing these shows, and that’s the majority of the one’s that we’re seeing expand in the field, are these travelling blockbusters, you know Gaultier, McQueen, Dior, YSL.

What is much fewer and far between are when we see a show like the one at MoMA that doesn’t have a clothing collection, that has some odd objects that you could define as dress, but they developed from the ground up an entire show that was original to MoMA. And there were a lot of mixed reactions to that, because, you know what was interesting about that show was just how many reactions it sparked from people, from people from art who were like, “what is this doing here?” to people in fashion who were like, “I don’t know about their approach,’ but I’m still kind of processing how I feel about it. One thing with that show is that I think it’s fascinating that a museum that doesn’t collect [fashion] still developed its own content and brought this show and that it was able to spark such conversations about the topic. I wish more museums would do that, but unfortunately we’re really seeing that—and I mean this is true for fine art exhibitions as well—the big artists, the big designer exhibition is the kind of general governing principle for museums that don’t do fashion dipping their toe in the water or fashion. They’re not necessarily going to do a thematic deep dive trying to grapple with it academically, but we’re only really in the first, kind of, ten years of this awakening of interest, and I mean big blockbuster interest.

I keep using this word blockbuster and you brought this up in your question, it is about money, and I think it would be wrong to exclude money from any discussion of museum content and museum planning. Yes we, ideally, want the museum to be a place about ideas and academia and where money is this thing that you disregard, but the reality of running museums is that it’s always thinking about how many people are coming through the door, what the budget is, what you can put on, what loans you can get, what objects you can acquire, and so I think that this global interest in fashion exhibitions came out of the insane numbers of the McQueen show.

There is a reason that I say this past decade because when Savage Beauty opened in 2011 at the Met, they hadn’t had things like that at the Met since, like, the Mona Lisa was on display, and it’s only been getting bigger and bigger since then, but that was one that came out of left field. That was the first one where it was like, the idea that fashion exhibitions happen that people are interested, because no one really even paid attention to the Met Gala that year. That was just one where he was so much in the public imagination because of his recent death, because Kate Middleton had worn a design by Sarah Burton from McQueen to the Royal Wedding, his name was out there, everybody was kind of talking about him and thinking about him, and it just hit at that perfect moment. The lines! I mean, I went to that and, that was when I first got back to the city, and the line went down the Met stairs and a couple blocks up Fifth avenue, it was crazy. And you got in and it was so densely packed, and I remember that year the last few days of it they kept the museum open until midnight or something and there were lines stretching inside also to get to it. And so when you’re in the museum field you really are always thinking about how to get community engagement, visitor engagement, get bodies in the museum, that’s how you run your institution. It’s going to raise your eyebrows and make you ask why and, of course, since then, we’ve seen more and more institutions…

HK: …Taking that on.

EM: Right.

HK: It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of money in the exhibitions and the presentation of these pieces, because, especially with my background in formal art history, I feel as though something that was always coming up in the conversation was showing pieces that theoretically you could buy. Not off the mannequin in the museum but, for example, I could go to a show about Dior and if they show something from the last season I could go buy that. Or at the Rei Kawakubo show, a couple of years ago, they had the Commes des Garcons PLAY T-shirts in the store. The intersection of that is something that I don’t have an issue with, and that’s mostly because I think if you consider a garment as a piece of important work then you’ll consider your purchases more seriously, but I’m not sure if that really happens or if it affects people in that way.

EM: I think that there is a kind of cynical way to look at it and then there’s a much more generous way to look at it. So I have two minds about it. One is that at the end of the day, I do not think that fashion is art, personally. Fashion is an industry, fashion is material culture, fashion is not fine art. Fashion is a consumer product, that’s made, as you’re saying, in a completely different way. And when you’re showing contemporary clothing, it is a product, and, yes, I think that, again because museums—and this is the cynical thing—because museums are not for profit but they need money to run, and people also want these big flashy blockbuster shows, I think places like what you described with the Kawakubo show, they also had it with Camp, it’s like, yes we can poo-poo fashion as being really opportunistic, but museums do that all the time. I mean, every exhibition you walk out of you immediately walk into the gift shop, where the catalogue is and the postcards are, and the tote bags are and the posters are, so this isn’t just a fashion thing, this is museums in general.

What I find personally, as a scholar, more interesting are shows that really make you confront, and these are few and far between, but shows that are more intentional about the integration of the consumer-side of fashion in the gallery space itself and making you confront that. There have been two shows that spring to mind, one was this tiny show that the Whitney had that was with Eckhaus Latta….oh gosh was it called…

HK: I can’t remember what it was called [either], but they sold the stuff in the gallery.

EM: Yes. So it was basically, you walked in and I went and I actually bought a piece that was there and it has a tag on it … hold on it’s right in the closet I’ll grab it. EM steps away from computer…My husband’s saying it was called “Possessed.”

EM returns with her token of gallery visit, a white denim jacket, that’s “got the cropped, kick-pleated whatever thing.”

EM: OK, so, because I’m nerd I kept the tags on it, but I got this there, and I’ve worn it, but I kept the tags on it because it has this thing that says “Special Museum Exhibition Product” and it also says that on the label … So anyways, I kept that because I thought it was so interesting, it was like one of the only times where I’ve seen, like you walked in, you didn’t have to pay to get into it, you know it’s like the Whitney you have to pay exorbitant prices to get in, this was in  their…

HK: That downstairs gallery on the first floor

EM: Right, the small artists gallery that you don’t have to pay to get into. And so it also kind of blended the space, and it was in the Meatpacking, so it’s blending the space between the museum, and the boutique, and there was, a photo spread when you first walked in on these lightboxes that were on the ground, it was very cool. And then you walked in and it was a staffed boutique, but [the fashion’s] the art, but it’s also an installation, but what I thought was most interesting was that they weren’t restocking it. So it was like, you go in the beginning, and it’s full, and they were very playful about it, they were like, “We don’t know if we’re going to sell anything, we might be full the whole time, we might end up being empty.” And they worked with local artists to create the space. And then it had a fitting room and it had all these mirrors up…Did you go?

HK: I read a lot about it, but didn’t get a chance to see it. But it’s certainly something that [even though I didn’t see it] stuck in my mind as a sort of “what was that?” moment.

EM: Right, right. And you walk in and then there’s another room and you realize that the mirrors in the shop are actually two-way mirrors into this other room that’s all dark and has seats you cans it on, and then it has this screen of monitors that are all showing live security feed to other stores around the world that sell Eckhaus Latta.

HK: Oh whoa.

EM: So that was one of the shows. A the other one, I think I don’t know that much about it because I didn’t go because I’m not in Chicagp, but last year there was the Virgil Abloh show.

HK: Yeah, that one I actually did get a chance to see.

EM: That one I know, just from a friend who lives in Chicago, that they also had this sort of merging of gallery and shop space. And again, this sort of presentation of clothing that’s on hangers and on a rack and how you would see it in a store, and being a gallery and not on mannequins, so this is all a very extended way to say that I think people who call out fashion exhibitions for doing that kind of cross-branding and object-selling are forgetting that that’s just what museums do all the time with their posters and umbrellas and, like, MoMA’s design store.

It’s like, I’m sorry this is just the business model, this isn’t fashion, it’s just that fashion maybe lends itself much faster because you can buy the thing that you’re seeing, or a version of it. But, what are you talking about when you can go buy the salt and pepper shaker by the fancy Italian designer that you’re seeing across the street at the MoMA design store, I mean MoMA’s been doing this for decades.

But again, I think that more compelling academically, are the things like the Eckhaus Latta, which, again, got such mixed reviews, but I was like, this is making you confront the fact that fashion isn’t art. It’s a completely different social mechanism, it’s an industry, you can’t talk about it in the same way and to put it up on a pedestal can get really problematic because then we’re not dealing with the labor and the people who wear things and we can put it up on a skinny white mannequin and call it art and be like, “Oh it’s O.K., because it’s idealized” and it’s like, well but it’s actually a real world product.

HK: Right. And to going on this, too, I think there was an interesting moment at the Abloh exhibition where they had his pieces on racks in the gallery, and I was standing with my mom, and they weren’t facing forward because they weren’t on mannequins, they were on racks.

EM: Right! Yes!

HK: And we were looking at it, like, are we supposed to touch them to see them? Like I’m at a shop?

EM: And you want to, and it’s this confrontation of how you interact with objects, and you put them in here and suddenly you can’t touch them. Yes, yes, that’s what I heard too. But it’s weird because you can’t see it and then you’re, like, wait what am I supposed to do?

HK: Yeah. And I think it’s really interesting, and it’s such a question because I wonder, you know, what does that mean in terms of, like, you see museums doing that and the other side is you see stores, like we visited the McQueen flagship store as a class.

EM: Oh, yeah yeah.

HK: We saw the exhibition of their couture on the second floor, and it opens this question of whether the gallery exhibitions are the same thing, or are they different.

EM: Yeah exactly, and that’s really interesting, because that was in London, right?

HK: Yeah, it was.

EM: Yeah, I was wondering about that too, because it’s at the boutique, but then are they selling them?

HK: Yeah, and you have to walk through the whole boutique to get up there, because it’s on the second or third floor, so you go through, you see people shopping, you see all the merchandise, and then you get to the top where they have the exhibition space.

EM: Yeah, exactly, it’s really interesting.

HK: So there are only a few minutes before Zoom is going to kick me off, and I wanted to ask about your next steps, since I know you’re leaving F.I.T. to go into a Ph.D. program, and I wanted to ask about that.

EM: Yeah, so I actually started the program part-time last year, and since I left the Courtauld program I always kind of wanted to get the Ph.D., and so I’m finally doing it. I basically just reached a point where, I’ve been at the museum for nine years, and I really felt like I got to a place in my practice where I was feeling really conflicted about a lot of issues with fashion and museums. I think about how its displayed, about how people react with it, about the mannequins, about the type of clothing that we’re showing, about the bodies that we’re showing, about the designers that we’re celebrating about the clothing that we’re collecting, and I feel a bit, kind of, conflicted about some of that stuff. I don’t necessarily have an answer to it, it’s not that I say, “Poo poo on all that stuff and it’s terrible” one way or the other, but I found myself just really wanting to take a break from active curatorial practice, and segueing into a more academic side.

I’m doing research at the Bard Graduate Center for my Ph.D., which I’m really excited about. It’s on the history of standardized sizing in the late nineteenth century in the U.S., and I’m also going to be teaching some courses at the Parsons M.A. program on curatorial practice, and object based research. I’m really excited to transition into a side where I can think about a lot of the issues that I was so involved with and didn’t have time to really reflect on. You’re constantly producing and you’re constantly in it when you’re working, and I’m excited to step back and take it in a bit because I do think that we’re on the cusp of a lot of change in museums in general between the pandemic, but also all of the much overdue conversations that are being had about equality and about representation and so it’s going to be really interesting to see how museums grapple with these things going forward. And particularly in fashion museums that deal so much with bodies and people and identity. So I’m excited to go into a different thing. I’ll miss curating as well, but it was really breakneck at the museum. In nine years I did seven exhibitions, and three books and a  journal … it was amazing but it was a lot.

Quick Q’s:

  1. What was your M.A. Dissertation topic?

I wrote my MA dissertation on the effect of the 1962 Telstar satellite (which made it possible to broadcast live TV from around the world) on the trans-Atlantic fashion industry, looking specifically at how it impacted coverage of Paris couture shows in the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.

  1. What’s your favorite exhibition you’ve put on so far?

This is hard – I’ve really loved every show I’ve put on and each one has taught me new things and raised new questions that have built on each other. But if I had to pick one, I think it would be The Body: Fashion and Physique because it dealt with body positivity, discrimination, and acceptance, which is a topic that’s very important to me, and the exhibition actually gave rise to my Ph.D. research on the early history of standardized sizing.

  1. What’s an exhibition you didn’t get the chance to put on, but hope to see materialize in the future?

One issue I’d love to explore one day is the link between workwear and high fashion, and also the link between modern fashion, archaeology, and colonialism.

 

[Answers have been edited for clarity]

Alumni Spotlight: Elisa De Wyngaert

“You are always switching from disappointment to love and despair to admiration”

Elisa De Wyngaert graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014 and now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp. In between, she worked for Raf Simons and A.F. Vandevorst, reviewed fashion exhibitions on the Belgian radio, and in the evenings gave guided tours of exhibitions at MoMu. I spoke to her about her career trajectory, her curatorial process, and her valuable advice on pursuing a career in the history of fashion.

 

JH: How was your time at the Courtauld, and how did it lead to where you are now?

EW: Before the program, I did my MA in Belgium in art history. At that time I wrote a dissertation on fashion and was looking for some guidance or for someone to teach me how to do academic research on fashion not just from a classical art historical viewpoint. I wanted to do another MA and it took me quite a long time to find the Courtauld and decide. It played a very big part in the way I think about the subject, which really shaped my approach to fashion studies and the way I create now. You reflect in a very different way on fashion—it’s academic, it’s sociological, it’s cultural history, but it gave me more than that. I think it is also very much about the emotional and personal layers of dress and sensorial experiences; it is a completely different way of thinking about art and fashion and it gives you time to develop your thought process and challenges you which was good. The Belgian University system is very different: the professors will teach you, you study books and books of information and then you will take an exam where you repeat everything they told you, but Rebecca is very different. She doesn’t just teach, but she enables you to teach yourself and that is something extraordinary. I remember the first few classes I was like ‘I want her to tell me everything she knows!’ but that isn’t the point. The course was very instrumental.

Right after I graduated I was mourning a bit, I was like ‘this is what I love but how will I ever do something that even comes close to this experience in the next years!’

JH: I’m feeling that right now! It is a scary thought really.

EW: It is a scary thought and I empathize with you and your fellow classmates. I felt very alone when I came home in that there was nothing like it and no one to reminisce with. I didn’t find people with similar experiences when I returned and no one knew where I could work. I applied to different fashion companies and they all understandably said ‘but what do you want to do here?!’

JH: How did you then transition to curatorial work? I think that is kind of the dream for a lot of us.

EW: The previous question is important to this, if you graduate and you hope to immediately find your dream job for you, your personal dream, then it is so easy to be incredibly disappointed. What I did—and it wasn’t easy to do—was that I went to work in a multi-brand shop, a few days a week, and half of the time I was doing an internship at Raf Simons. After a while I really needed full time paid work and started at A.F. Vandevorst where I worked on logistics, wrote newsletters, worked in the flagship store, packed boxes. It was very hands on, but in the evenings I gave guided tours at the fashion museum in Antwerp, and I also worked for the Belgian radio as someone who reviewed fashion exhibitions.

It is very important to make the transition, there are not so many jobs, and it is important to stay busy. It was also important for me financially to go and take a job rather than wait and write letters at home, and to have colleagues that I formed close friendships with. It can be an incredibly inspiring time even if it isn’t a job you will do forever. You will learn from everyone you meet on a personal and professional level.

I have to say working in a fashion house wasn’t the job for me but I learned so much from A.F. Vandevorst. I have so much respect for designers and their work ethic, for what they create, and I think by working for a fashion company, as a curator now I have much more empathy. If I ask for loans at different fashion houses, I realize that they have a different schedule, that they are so busy, their timing is different and their deadlines are different and it’s good to have insight into an industry when you work on the more academic side.

Work on different aspects of things you want to curate, learn and have fun in the meantime. I never thought I would find a job as a curator but all of a sudden I saw I could apply and I was almost sad, thinking “there is a position and I won’t get it,” so it also takes a bit of luck and serendipity and right timing. Don’t give up!

JH: I am interested in your curatorial process. During class we spoke to someone at the V&A about their curatorial process but I’m curious to hear more about how you choose exhibition subjects and how you get something approved and to the point of starting work on a show.

EW: We have to find a balance between designer exhibitions and thematic shows. The thematic shows especially lead to new ideas for future exhibitions. I like these because you can display a large variety of artists and designers and it allows you to work in an interdisciplinary way. Fashion is intrinsically linked to emotion, to society, to the world in transition, to people’s psychology and I feel there is a lot more to tell and the ideas seem endless, but it’s important to discuss these topics with external voices with different iterations, different viewpoints. I have learned that curation is more about listening than about speaking, it is more about including different voices, realities, perspectives, and you have to get used to the fact that you can find something interesting or relevant but other people might not feel that way.

JH: I’m just curious, when you were at the Courtauld did you have the virtual exhibition as an assignment? What did you do yours on?

EW: Yes – I did mine on the friendship and artistic symbiosis between Ann Demeulemeester and Patti Smith. I made an exhibition about sound and clothing coming together and it was very immersive (although it never actually happened haha). It was quite conceptual and I am still happy about it, I’m still hoping it could happen one day!

JH: That for me was a lot harder than the essay writing for some reason!

EW: Ah! That for me was the least stressful part, I discovered that I always thought I loved writing so much but I actually get such a thrill from making visual connections and finding new and personal stories so I am perhaps at my core more of an exhibition maker than an academic or a writer. I also love working on the publications for our exhibitions, getting all the texts from the different writers, focusing on some essays myself and finding the right images. It is kind of thrilling seeing things materialize, and that is something I learned from being on the fashion house side. I did really like the virtual exhibition but as a non-native English speaker I found writing that first essay rather scary.

JH: Are you working on anything now (that you can speak about)? Obviously we are in such a unique time, I don’t know if you are working on a project now and how the virus has impacted your work and how you think it might continue to impact the fashion industry and your cultural institution.

EW: We are now closed for renovations until 2021. I am working on the new collection display—this will be a new space where we focus on MoMu’s own collection. This is great because in our thematic or designer exhibitions there is not always a lot of space for our own collection, and we do have so many amazing pieces. We are also working on a book about the collection, and I am working on our opening exhibition and its accompanying publication. All very exciting!

JH: A lot of stuff!

EW: Also I’m on Rebecca’s Fashion Interpretations Network which is so inspiring.

When it comes to the crisis, we are mostly working from home, we are lucky in that we were closed for renovations anyway so we haven’t felt like we missed tickets or visitors as other institutions have, but I really do feel sad for other museums, galleries, universities, and art schools. Mostly for the students and artists who saw exhibitions cancelled, students who traveled from all over the world to get a degree somewhere, spent so much money on it, and now see everything stop. I really believe that our generation and the younger generations, gen z, are great activists and they give me hope for a better world and a better fashion industry, more woke cultural institutions, but there is so much work to do. I try to think ‘ok what I’m doing is not saving the world but how can we help, how can we make it relevant or in some way meaningful to some people’ because fashion is a very difficult industry, it is so damaging in so many ways but also so relevant, emotional, omnipresent, innovative and inspirational. You are always switching from disappointment to love and despair to admiration.

JH: Definitely, even just as a student I agree, I find myself thinking—especially being back in the US at the moment and things are really bad—I feel the same kind of ‘oh how can I be focusing on this niche subject when this is going on in the world?’ but I think art and fashion and the humanities will always be important and relevant.

EW: Like you say it is so important and I keep my fingers crossed that the government keeps investing money so that artists, performers, musicians…can be supported.

JH: I guess just a frivolous question to end on but do you have a favorite piece in the archive for any reason?

EW: Oh, many. I really like all the pieces we have in the archives that we collected from the wearer. As a museum we actively acquire pieces from designers so we will shop straight from the runway—those pieces are incredible but never worn, but I do really like it when we collect it straight from the wearers. If you collect it from someone and you also collect that person’s biography, their lived experience. For example there is one dress from Kristina De Coninck, a former model of Martin Margiela. It’s a flower dress that Margiela made especially for her, and it’s composed of many recycled vintage flower dresses that he collected from flea markets—it’s like a patchwork. The colors are beautiful, it’s quite see-through. We have a picture of her when she was in her early twenties wearing the dress in her garden, and I was able to interview her. Perhaps in 50 years some curator will think ‘oh, there is a story with this dress,’ and that excites me.

I really like all the garments that we have that display a typical Belgian surrealism. We have quite a few items created from discarded fabrics and recycled materials. For example, a beautiful bustier top by Ann Demeulemeester that she made with very simple hotel soaps which is incredible. We have an A.F. Vandevorst skirt made with corset closures, it is intriguing, and we have pieces by Walter van Beirendonck made of old blankets. When you see them up close you see the fun the designer had, the passion, the originality. These objects make me happy and give me a lot of belief in why fashion is relevant and not a frivolous thing, and why it is something that will always have a future as long as we believe in the next generation and don’t drown in nostalgia.

JH: I think I can kind of speak for the current cohort but it is such a scary time for us to be graduating and looking for work so it is really nice to hear from you and about your experiences.

EW: I often work with people doing part time internships who have other jobs on the side, I do remember it is not easy, but even if you intern for 2 or 3 days you can make it work. I think having those discussions when you apply and being very open about your options just for the sake of own mental health is important. Internships are really crucial because only then do you really learn which job would suit you personally. For example, fashion curating entails a lot of emails, conversations, loan agreements, production logistics, excel sheets, trying to find pieces. I find it all exciting, but I can imagine that some people expect it to be all research or library work and that is only a part of what I do.

There aren’t that many jobs as a fashion curator in a traditional museum but there are so many experimental galleries, new small niche publications, online platforms to get experience from, so be open to different forms of curating fashion. What Rebecca is also doing on her Instagram is curating fashion.

Students now have incredibly curated Instagram feeds, how we engage visually with the world changes so much. I find it incredible how much things have changed even just since I graduated.

 

[This interview has been condensed for clarity]

Nostalgia and Womanhood in the Victorian fin-de-siècle

In 1892, the British periodical Young Woman acknowledged that “‘There is no scarcity of women’s journals’” (Mendes). Britain in the nineteenth century saw a significant rise in women’s periodicals, increasing in volume towards the end of the century to address a changing social landscape and growing female readership. As the end of the century loomed near, women had begun to transcend the domestic realm and gender roles were increasingly challenged. Society saw the emergence of the ‘New Woman’—strong and educated, striving towards greater political agency—sensationalized frequently in the press. With visual and verbal representations of women each periodical put forth its own ideas about the female role, disseminating to women of all ages and social statuses their concepts of the ideal woman and home, fashion, arts, literature, and other female-oriented content. The ‘woman question’ of the female’s place in society was on everyone’s mind, male and female alike, as traditionally delineated spheres—he in the public, she in the domestic and private—were challenged.

Clare Mendes writes in her exploration of fin-de-siècle New Womanhood that “1896 became a watershed year in which ideas were being recalibrated, following the Wilde trials and the public burning of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. New magazines for women after this date had an important role to play in the reinvention of womanhood: would she retain her outspokenness or return to submissiveness?” She references a binary that is characteristic of the way late Victorian femininity is often depicted in the contemporary imagination, focusing on two oppositional gender ideologies for women—one of conservative ideals—the domestic and confined female lacking agency—and the other of progressive alternatives—the feminist ideal of the New Woman. This duality reveals itself further in discussions of Victorian dress, where the feminine and conservative has “often been examined in terms of its regulation and control of the female body”(Wahl), and the progressive characterized as an attempt to ape men.

Even in recent decades scholars have argued that through most of the Victorian era in Britain “periodical readers were offered a model of femininity as undifferentiated and uncontested, focused on the private and domestic as distinct from the masculine world of politics, law and ‘work’” (Ballaster). But this statement is in fact an oversimplification—in reality domestic ideology was neither uniform nor static, but rather full of tension and contradiction—a textual and cultural analysis of women’s magazines reveals numerous discrepancies within representations of femininity. Specifically, through a brief case study of an instance of late nineteenth century portraiture and its preoccupation with the past, we can see that the stable visual binary of domestic femininity or an aggressive new womanhood is a further instance of oversimplification that begins to collapse and reveal itself as reductionist. Victorian feminisms and Victorian women were not one neatly packaged thing or another. In reality, the female body at this historical moment acted as a stage on which disparate gender norms and ideas were played out and at times compounded, bringing to light the “conflicting, unstable characteristics of nineteenth century domestic ideology and femininity” (Ledbetter).

Edward Hughes, Georgina, Countess of Dudley, late 19th century, oil on canvas, in Lady’s Realm 1 (1896), 250-257. Photo author’s own.

Edward Hughes, Georgina, Countess of Dudley, late 19th century, oil on canvas, in Lady’s Realm 1 (1896), 250-257. Photo author’s own.

As we often turn towards the past in times of societal and cultural difficulty, nineteenth century Britain was in many ways obsessed with the previous century. In 1894, an exhibition was held at London’s Grafton Gallery devoted entirely to representations of feminine beauty and loveliness. Titled the “Exhibition of Fair Women,” over two hundred historical portraits of ideals of female beauty were put on display alongside miniatures, female accessories, and objets d’beaute, many lent to the exhibition by prominent social ladies of the time. Of the many masters displayed on the gallery walls—Holbein and Van Dyck, Goya, Velazquez—the exhibition’s viewers and the press seemed to agree that it was the English masters of the 18th century, notably Romney, Lawrence, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, whose images held the utmost power in capturing female beauty, and “gave such brilliancy to English portraiture….given canvases breathing the essence of femininity” (Fowler). This exhibition was just one example of this societal obsession with the previous century at the cultural moment, gathering momentum as the century drew to a close. The interest was demonstrated most particularly in the commissions by aristocrats and the newly rich for portraits of their wives, in which evocations of eighteenth-century dress, props and poses were paramount (Maynard). The fascination with revivalist portraiture was extended to a wider readership through the pages of numerous female periodicals.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776, oil on canvas, 237 x 125 cm. The Huntington Library, San Marino. (Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)


Sir Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776, oil on canvas, 237 x 125 cm. The Huntington Library, San Marino. (Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

Women’s magazines in the fin-de-siècle frequently discussed portraiture and the arts, publishing portraits of society women done by the Reynoldses and Romneys of their day—Ellis Roberts and Edward Hughes. In the very first volume of the women’s periodical Lady’s Realm, the author Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson visits the studio of Mr. Roberts, recounting the experience in her article, aptly named “A Dream of Fair Women.” She is taken aback by the beauty of the painted women in their sumptuous garments, and her article is heavily adorned with reproductions of some of the Roberts and Hughes portraits she has admired, affording a wide audience of readers the opportunity to view paintings they would likely never experience in person.

Printed across from her descriptions of the studio is Georgina, Countess of Dudley by Edward Hughes (late 19th century). The Countess stands tall and statuesque, leaning against a flat-topped rock reminiscent of a neoclassical column. Set in a pastoral background with strong diagonal lines and painterly foliage, she wears a gathered white gown that floats down to her ankles, with satin bodice and crossed and knotted front. Her sleeves billow around her hitting just beneath her elbow, and she drapes a mantle over the rock to rest against, holding excess fabric loosely by her side. She gazes out to the periphery, hair gathered fashionably up on her head. There are obvious parallels in dress, pose, and setting to eighteenth century portraits like Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1775-1776), which would likely have been seen by Hughes and seen or read about by many readers of women’s magazines in exhibitions. Both women lean, dark sky and trees behind them, as their left hands grasp at delicate fabric folds, and white gowns pool at their feet. Their sleeves are gathered almost identically just beneath the elbow, though those on the Countess of Dudley extend out more at the shoulder—a modern intrusion into the vaguely historicized gown. But the Countess of Dudley’s crossover gown with long flowing skirt is still closer in style to a modernized version of the gown painted by Reynolds, an amalgam of fancy dress and the existing mode, than the structured and severe garments of the late nineteenth century, crafting an image of the female that is softer—more stereotypically feminine and pure—and playing on the societal interest in the previous century and its ideology. While the garments bring with them desirable characteristics of the eighteenth century, they are not pure representations of their predecessors, “as in most revivals of dress, wishful thinking often clouds the original reality, and current tastes modify those of other eras or places” (Baines). The modern inevitably creeps in, but implications are clear, and these images are imbued with hegemonic forms of feminine beauty, attaching them to aspirational women.

The revivalist aesthetic sought to depict women with greater simplicity,a kind of untroubled loveliness that seemed to prove that beauty could be perennially preserved” (Maynard); this feminine representation could be viewed largely as a conservative reaction to female advancement. And yet these were prominent society women with increased power outside of the domestic realm and in the British social sphere. They are depicted largely outside and in fancy dress, not caged within the confines of the home, and such portraits convey the social power of the hostess, displaying their wealth and material grandiosity. As subjects they are not entirely passive, conforming to the rigid confines of years past, and beauty and dress emphasize their celebrity, endowing these women with greater agency and influence rather than simply rendering them objects for male viewing pleasure. The frequent inclusion of these society portraits and their use of revivalist dress in woman’s magazines perpetuates an image of women that is in actuality full of contradiction—modern yet traditional, powerful yet sweet.

Similar competing ideologies can be seen in the photography and illustrations of female periodicals. Their images of women never adhered to one ideological camp or another, containing elements of femininity that were at times limiting, and simultaneously looked towards social advancement. Clothing was depicted as a means of this advancement rather than confinement, and yet maintained their idea of a proper feminine aesthetic. Images of late Victorian femininity were wildly unstable because the entire meaning of femininity at this cultural moment was unstable—to view them as static tropes is a great mischaracterization. These portraits and their use of dress in the context of the women’s magazine captured and crystallized this interstitial moment between letting go of a deeply separated past and forging a clear path forward—the press was merely attempting to navigate its complexities like everyone else.

Nostalgia retains a powerful presence throughout fashion and culture at large, as does the feeling that the golden age exists somewhere behind us—we make attempts to grasp at it with our sartorial reflections of decades and centuries past. But it is interesting to consider how these material reflections can never be pure. When we look towards styles of a previous decade or century, we are looking back on people who were also looking back (Cronberg). It seems we commonly think of this phenomenon in relation to the vintage aesthetic of more recent decades, but in actuality it has been occurring for centuries—perhaps a testament to some communal longing of the human spirit.

 

 

 

Sources:

Clare Mendes, Representations of the New Woman in the 1890s Woman’s Press

Kimberly Wahl, A Domesticated Exoticism: Fashioning Gender in Nineteenth-Century British Tea Gowns

https://warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/images/newwoman/rational/.

Rosalind Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron, Womens Worlds: Ideology, Femininity, and the Woman’s Magazine

Alexis Easley, Clare Gill, and Beth Rodgers, Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1830s-1900s: the Victorian Period

Kathryn Ledbetter, British Victorian Women’s Periodicals: Beauty Civilization and Poetry

Frank Fowler, Portrait Painting and some Early English Painters

Margaret Maynard, A Dream of Fair Women’: Revival Dress and the Formation of Late Victorian Images of Femininity

Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson, A Dream of Fair Women

Barbara Burman Baines, Fashion Revivals: From the Elizabethan Age to the Present Day

http://vestoj.com/postmodernism-and-fashion-in-the-late-twentieth-century/

Life in Colour with Parks and Shabazz

Photography often failed to be recognised as a true art form, something that has resonated with the struggles encountered by many famous photographers nowadays. The medium’s strength was always recognised in its ability to accurately represent reality – nevertheless, even reality has numerous depictions.

Michael Mery talking

Michael Mery at the Schomburg Centre (source: shot by author)

Gordon Parks is nowadays known to be one of the most influential photographers of his period. Having shot both fashion and news, he has an ability to convey beauty and despair in even the simplest of things.  During our trip to New York in February just before Covid-19, our MA class was fortunate enough to have the chance to discuss photography with Michael Mery from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Amongst the treasure troves were coloured prints of one of my favourite photographers, Gordon Parks.

The beauty and the timelessness of his images highlight the incredible fashion that ornate the bodies in town. By opting for Kodachrome, Parks manages to render mesmerising compositions highlighting colours, motifs and textures of dress, bringing them to life before our very eyes. In peering into these individuals’ everyday life, one experiences an almost soothing feeling. Yet, it is this calmness that is ultimately most disturbing.

gordon parks

Gordon Parks, Alabama Series, 1956 (source: Instagram screenshot)

Coloured film enabled him to capture reality more accurately, but this only emphasised the obvious forms of discrimination present in these images. Amongst Parks’s pictures of people going about their everyday life, you catch glimpses of signs: ‘coloured entrance’, ‘colored’, ‘coloured only’. It becomes ironic that the coloured medium through which he captures these images resonates with the display of ‘coloured’ segregation encountered everyday by these same individuals.

Shabazz and Parks

Jamel Shabazz, Fly girls and cousins. Jamaica Queens, ca. 1995. Gordon Parks, Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. (sources: Instagram screenshots)

His work in some way can be compared to that of photographer Jamel Shabazz, another favourite of mine. Despite generations separating the two photographers, in some way both their colour series resemble one another; their use of subdued colours, individuals getting caught in the moment, a sense of innocence. As discussed by Parks in his autobiography, photography was ‘a choice of weapon’ – instead of fighting inequality with guns and violence, he ‘shot’ people through his lens just like Shabazz.

Parks and Shabazz

From left to right: Gordon Parks, Ondria Tanner and her grandmother window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. Jamel Shabazz, The Corner. Midtown, Manhattan, 1990. Jamel Shabazz, Father and Sons. Downtown, Brooklyn. ca. 1990 (sources: Instagram screenshots)

Earlier in June I tuned into a discussion with Shabazz organised by Nights Global, and one question kept coming up again and again -where is the love in today’s culture? I understand that I will never understand, but what I can recognise is that both Park and Shabazz are depicting just that: the need for love. Displaying how these individuals go about their daily lives, these two men use photography to document beauty and a humanity which appears to be taken away.

Shabazz and Parks

Gordon Parks Store From, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. Jamel Shabazz, Double Dating in the 1990s, Harlem. Gordon Parks, Alabama, 1956. (sources: Instagram screenshots)

There is obviously much more that can be said and discussed in the works of the photographers mentioned above. But all in all, in the current ongoing media culture where people are constantly bombarded with the same images, often embedded with violence and aggression, recognising these images are as crucial as recognising those. They both show the same reality, just differently.

Uncovering Family Threads

Quarantining in your childhood home due to Covid is quite a unique experience. Beginning back in April, my parents and I have been cleaning out closets, cabinets, and drawers all over the house, which has turned into a kind of history lesson on our family. We’ve found old polaroid photos, costume jewelry, silver dollars, and, most exciting for me, clothing that belonged to my grandparents and uncles. I have been lucky enough to uncover some personalized, embroidered bowling shirts my grandfather designed in the 1960s. At first glance, the shirts are certainly retro, almost to the point of gaudy, but from these shirts I’ve learned more about my family history than through old photographs. I sadly never met my grandfather, so to actually hold, and even put on, a shirt my he wore, stains and all, it something quite intimate and special.

Ali's grandfather's shirt

My grandfather’s personalized bowling shirt c. 1963.

My father’s family moved to Minnesota City, Minnesota in 1962, and as can be imagined, there’s not a lot to do in a town with a population of 190. Bowling, I learned, was very important to my uncles and grandfather, as that was about the only thing to do, apart from ice skating. My uncles were all on bowling leagues that competed every week against other local leagues. They wore shirts like the one shown above, so clearly, they bowled in style. Every league was sponsored by a local business who paid for their gear and shirts, and this is where my grandfather comes in. He and my grandmother owned a local tavern called the L-Cove Bar which starting in 1963, sponsored many local leagues.

Ali's family


A family celebration at my family’s tavern, the L-Cove Bar

My grandfather bought the shirts, like the one above, from a large company that sold bowling-gear, called King Louie. The embroidered logo was designed my grandfather and done by one of his regular customers. The logo on the back of the shirt featured classic L-Cove Bar imagery: the signature martini glass, signifying a kind of 1960s elegance, and music notes, connoting their weekly live music performances (mostly by country bands). My grandfather wore this particular shirt often, judging from the light stains on the front and a cigarette burn above the front pocket. A bright yellow shirt that belongs to my uncle shows how bowling shirts evolved later into the late sixties. The L-Cove logo isn’t embroidered into the shirt, but printed. The font is simplified, and the bright yellow reflects the boldness of late sixties, and the quickly approaching 1970s.

Ali's Family

My uncle’s bowling shirt, late 1960s

I can imagine my grandfather wore this white shirt not only for bowling, but also with a sense of pride. According to my father, he wore personalized bowling shirts while tending bar and around town. The shirts were certainly a kind of advertising for my family’s business, but also so much more than that. My grandfather was the child of Lithuanian immigrants who spoke little English and worked grueling, low-paying jobs in the stockyards of Chicago. For him and his wife, to be able to run their own business was attaining their vision of the American dream. He was deeply involved in his community, as he was the chief of the local volunteer fire department. Judging from the pristine state of the shirt and my father’s memory, he didn’t actually fight too many fires, but wore this shirt to the local bingo night every week.

Ali's family

My grandfather’s volunteer fire department uniform, late 1960s

My grandfather was coincidentally about my size, so I’m able to wear these shirt today. I get a lot of comments on them, mostly from people who are looking to buy high-quality vintage shirts. For me, those shirts are priceless, as they are a connection to my family’s past. My father’s side of the family constantly reminisce about “the bar,” making it seem like a mythical place where the family worked and celebrated together. It has become my family’s pride and joy and the legacy of my grandparents, but unfortunately, my family sold the bar before I was born. When I wear these shirts, I am reminded the hard work that generations of my family put into the country. Although I never went to the L-Cove Bar or met my grandfather, I can feel the generations of stories against my skin. It is certainly a privilege to know your family history, especially in America. Having access to the clothing that loved ones wore is even more of a special privilege. These shirts tell the story of my family, and I’ll treasure them forever.

Colour Theory: Missoni Case File

The history of colour has been divided into many different areas of study, from aesthetic and cultural history, to dye and chemical research. I have been contemplating colour more recently, specifically in relation to fashion and design, to understand how wearing or looking at certain colour combinations can affect us emotionally. British artist and critical theorist, David Batchelor wrote that, ‘colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture’ (Chromophobia, 2000), evident from the nineteenth century onwards in which certain colour schemes held negative class associations. Josef Albers, a pioneer of Moderism, dedicated his practice to colour, and outlined in his 1963 Interaction of Colour handbook some key principles to his colour theory: 

  • Colours are in a continuous state of flux and can only be understood in relation to the colours surrounding them. 
  •  All colours have two key elements of ‘brightness’ and ‘lightness’. 
  •  How people see colour is subjective for everyone. 
  • Exploring and experimenting with colour is more important than the study of colour. 
Molli's colour text

Homage to the Square: Apparitition’, by Josef Albers, 1959, Oil on Masonite,120.6 x 120.6 cm, screenshot from the Guggenheim Collection online, https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/173

This is of course, a highly simplified summery of Albers’ theory, but is enough to allow a closer examination into a singular fashion house, Missoni. In 1953, Ottavio and Rosita Missoni established their knitwear workshop in their basement, and by 1966 they had their first fashion in Milan. Ottavio and Rosita were inspired by avant-garde art of the twentieth century, with a focus on Futurism and rhythmic compositions of bold, ‘pure’ colours. 

Molli's colour text

Author’s own painting interpretation of a study by Ottavio Missoni

The Fashion and Textile Museum in London curated an exhibition titled, Missoni, Art, Colour’ in 2016, which explored in depth the interwoven threads between Missoni’s knitwear and modernist art. Ottavio was himself an artist, his interest in experimenting with colour as outlined by Albers was revealed in his own paintings and tapestry studies. His use of geometric forms and ‘pure’ colours resemble artworks from Albers’ series: ‘Study for Homage to the Square’, and ultimately come to fruition in his clothing designs. Missoni’s use of knitted threads allows colour to react in a state of flux to each different coloured thread surrounding it, exploring the effects of colours by contrasting their brightness’ and ‘lightness’.  

Molli's colour text

Author’s own photograph of ‘M 37’, by Wojciech Fangor, 1969, taken at the Guggenheim Museum, February 2020.

In February, I visited the Guggenheim museum in New York and found myself fully immersed in colour and its emotional capabilities while looking around the ‘The Fullness of Colour:1960’s Painting’ exhibition. I was particularly captivated by Wojciech Fangor’s, ‘M 37’ painting from 1969, and how it’s simple green circular form appeared to bleed out into a vivid sky-blue ring, which then faded into the surrounding canvas. The application and contrast of these simple colours and shapes seemed to transcend its form and resonated a feeling of peace and calmness inside of me. On return from New York, I visited my favourite vintage shop in London, and immediately noticed a long sleeved, Missoni knit top. The vertical stripes of the top weave bright green threads into thin lines of white, which are then subdued by a deep purple. Only to be contrasted yet again by a thick stripe of bright pink, which illuminates next to the vivid orange. There was something that the impact of the paintings at the Guggeneheim exhibition had on me, that I felt was reflected in the composition of colours in this Missoni piece. If I could feel certain emotions looking at a painting’s colour and form, then how would others perceive and react to the experimental use of colour in this Missoni top 

Molli's colour text

Author’s own photograph of Missoni top.

I continue to chase the effect of colour and patterns in clothes especially in Missoni pieces, which have provided me with a new theoretical perspective on the already established connection between art and fashion. Each piece now holds a deeper meaning to me, as I come to appreciate the delicate art of Missoni’s knitwear technique, and influence of colour theory, form, and art. Perhaps in these times, now more than ever, we should consider how something so seemingly insignificant, can have such a big impact on our emotions and well-being. Not only for ourselves, but for others who may find a fleeting moment of peace or joy when appreciating colour in clothing. 

 

References: 

  • Batchelor, David, Chromophobia, (Reaktion books, 2000) 
  • Blaszczyk, Regina Lee, ‘The Design World’s Passion for Colour’, Journal of Design History, (Oxford University Press on behalf of Design History Society, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2014), pp. 203-21 
  • Fashion and Textile Museum, ‘Missoni, Art, Colour’, exhibition, 2016 https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/missoni-art-colour/ 
  • Hoecherl, Marlies, ‘Theoretical Aspects of Colour’, Controlling Colours, (Archaeopress Archaeology, 2016) 

‘There’s A Million Guys Like Me’: Gene Kelly, Dress and Ordinary Masculinity.

When it comes to dance royalty, Gene Kelly reigns supreme. With credits including classical musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), An American in Paris (1951), and On The Town (1949), Gene Kelly is best remembered for his athletic style of dancing, and stands out in popular memory as the original example of the manly dancer.

But despite this posthumous reputation, during his career Kelly’s masculinity was a constant source of anxiety for both the star – he frequently retold a story in which he denied being a ‘sissy dancer’ at a burger bar in New York – and for the studio he worked for. Although Kelly worked hard to hone a dancing style that would be considered manly and virile this was not enough, and in both his on-screen and off-screen appearances it becomes clear that dress was of paramount importance in creating Kelly’s masculine image.

Rosie's diss talk

Kelly’s simple look for the highly dramatic ballet sequence, performed with Leslie Caron (photo: screenshot from movie)

At first glance, many of Kelly’s costumes seem remarkable only for being, well, unremarkable. Throughout An American Paris, his dress is notably normal: at the beginning of the film, the star appears in cream coloured trousers with a cap and matching sweater, wearing a similarly simple outfit in the number ‘S’Wonderful’. Later, in an extended dance sequence with Leslie Caron, he also sporting plain black slacks and a short-sleeved t-shirt designed to draw attention to his muscular arms. Although simple, these costumes worked hard to assert the star’s manliness by emulating a cultural icon of heteronormative masculinity – the ordinary American man. This chimed with Kelly’s depiction in movie magazines of the period, where studio’s pre-made publicity material had him describe himself as ‘just Joe Average’, adding that ‘I’ve got a wife, a kid, a car and a house. There’s a million guys like me’.  By emulating the normal American man, his plain, simple dress dress works harder than it seems to – refusing to label Kelly a spectacle and resisting the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ that, according to Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema essay, characterised female performers’ appearances.

Rosie's diss talk

Gene Kelly at the beginning of An American in Paris and in the number ‘S’Wonderful’ (Photos: screenshot from movies)

Another of Kelly’s trademark looks was the suit – an unmistakable signifier of ordinary masculinity. But while his Fred Astaire frequently danced in elegant top hats and tails, Kelly’s suits strived to emulate the ordinary working man’s wardrobe. In Singin’ in the Rain, for example, Kelly performs one of the most well-known musical numbers ‘Good Morning’ in a grey business suit, having removed his jacket, and perhaps the best-remembered image of the film comes when Kelly, in a suit and hat, swings from a lamppost in the rain. Kelly’s suited look was established early in his career, and in the title number of his first film For Me and My Gal (1943), the star was also dressed in a pin-striped suit. By mirroring the look of the ordinary man Kelly’s image continues to insist on its own masculinity by refusing to depict Kelly as a sartorial spectacle. Importantly, however, Kelly’s plain business suits also reveals MGM’s particular interest in associating Kelly with a particular brand of relatable, working-class masculinity. In fact, Photoplay’s May 1943 edition even recounted a story that, after losing his dinner jacket, Kelly had threatened to attend a movie premiere in a business suit.

Rosie's diss talk

Gene Kelly’s pin-striped business suit in For Me and My Gal (Photo: screenshot from movie)

This dual preoccupation with both Gene Kelly’s masculinity and his relatability crystallises in his sailor costumes, which he wore in films including On the Town and Anchors Aweigh (1945). Intentionally resonating with the uniforms worn by men who had fought in the Second World War, his dress in these films not only underlined Kelly’s patriotism but also encouraged contemporary male viewers to recognise themselves in Kelly’s star image.

But at the same time as stressing Kelly’s ordinary masculinity, his sailor outfits in also undercut these implications. In Anchors Aweigh, for example, Kelly performs ‘The Worry Song’ with an animated Jerry the Mouse. Here, Kelly’s blue striped t shirt stretches over his torso, emphasising his pectoral muscles, and his high-waisted white trousers are very tightly fitted. Throughout the dance routine, a long tracking shot is used to ensure that the star’s body is in full view and so, despite insisting on his masculinity, Kelly’s costume here in fact positions him in a typically female cinematic role – that of sexualised spectacle.

Rosie's diss talk

Kelly and Sinatra’s identical sailor costumes emphasise their togetherness (Photo: screenshot from movie)

Of course, Kelly’s sailor suits and their ostensible assertions of masculinity are further complicated by the cultural understanding of the sailor as a signifier of homosexuality. In Anchors Aweigh, his costume not only exhibits Kelly’s body but also resonates with his male co-star (Frank Sinatra)’s costume to imply their togetherness – something which is echoed in their physical closeness during dance routines – and suggest the possibility of a relationship between the two. Although likely unintentional, this example is significant for highlighting the anxieties of gender and sexuality that troubled Kelly’s star image. Here we see how, despite being used to try to obscure such ambiguities, dress in fact becomes a key to understanding them.

Black Power Style in Wattstax

Wattstax was a day-long festival that happened in Los Angeles in 1973. It was known as the “Black Woodstock,” but it could not be more dissimilar to the rural New York music festival of 1969. Wattstax was organized as a celebration of the seven-year anniversary of the 1965 Watts Uprisings. It was a celebration of Black music, fashion, and success. Organized by Stax Records, the festival was organized by Black folks for Black folks, making it one of the least remembered, yet most successful events of the Black Power movement. Soul and blues artists like The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas graced the stage and moved the audience to cheer, laugh, and dance. All of the day’s celebrations were captured on film by director Mel Stuart in the 1973 documentary Wattstax.

Isaac Hayes as the center piece of Wattstax poster, 1973, offset lithograph, 41 inches x 27 inches, Edward Mapp collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Isaac Hayes as the center piece of Wattstax poster, 1973, offset lithograph, 41 inches x 27 inches, Edward Mapp collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (source: screenshot from AMPAS)

The fashions of Wattstax range from elegant and sleek to spectacular and outrageous. Director Stuart was sure to capture not only the performer’s costumes, but also the soul style of the audience and local community. Performers like Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas incorporated clothing into their performances by wearing capes and then dramatically throwing them off to reveal their humorous and politically-charged ensembles. Audience members arrived to Wattstax in their best soul style like over-sized newsboy hats, zebra print ensembles, and African prints. The documentary’s biggest achievement perhaps is its ability to show the diversity and creative abilities of Black Americans’ creative styling abilities.

 

 

screenshot from movie clip - Audience Members arriving in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973

Audience Members arriving in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973 (source: screenshot from movie clip)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_P6ZWUJIa0&t=554s

During the Black Power Movement of the early sixties and late seventies, Black people across the globe sought to achieve liberation by rejecting White beauty standards and creating a unique black aesthetic. Dr. Tanisha C. Ford explains that “soul” was a “cultural language through which people of African descent could speak about the horrors of slavery and colonialism while also serving as a source of cultural pride and political solidarity” (Liberated Threads, 6). Clothing was an essential part of Black Power, and soul style served as a way to express to the world one’s personal dedication to Black liberation. Wattstax provides a window into how each Black person constructed a liberated identity at the largest gathering of Black people at that point in Los Angeles history.

For all of its celebration of Black liberation, Wattstax not perfect. A clear hierarchy appears throughout the documentary that favors young, urban people over older rural people and most obviously, favors men over women. Few women performed at Wattstax, mainly because Stax Records simply did not represent as many female musicians. The Black women that do appear onstage are all similarly dressed in maxi dresses and afros while the male performers wear outrageous ensembles comprising of chains, neon colors, and white fringe. Indeed, Black feminists and conversation about gender equality was often excluded from Black Power events, as gender was believed to complicate the goal of racial equality. In interviews of the local community, men share their opinions on racism, politics, unemployment and policing, while women are only filmed giving their opinions on hairstyles and love. So while Wattstax was a groundbreaking event, it still represented relatively regressive gender politics.

Kim Weston, Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and Rufus Thomas in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973.

Kim Weston, Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and Rufus Thomas in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973 (source: screenshot from clip extract)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_P6ZWUJIa0&t=554s

 

Among the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve watched Wattstax in a different light. The film is not only an intimate glimpse into Black life during the Black Power Movement, but it is clearly relevant to the current protests of police brutality. When the festival was being planned, the venue owners and local White community feared that a gathering of 100,000 Black people would become violent. Wattstax was successful and peaceful because it was handled by an all-Black, unarmed security team. This stipulation was extremely important to the festival organizers because police forces, particularly the LAPD, had a history of racial discrimination and violence. Sadly, American policing has not improved, but has since become more militarized and continues to over-police and brutalize Black communities. Wattstax can be a lesson to us contemporary viewers of how communities can flourish when they are protected, and not violently policed. American policy-makers have tried body cameras and police reform, and Black Americans are still being arrested, imprisoned, and killed at a disproportionate rate. The police as we know it in America needs to be abolished and replaced with something more like what we see in Wattstax: an unarmed, community-based team dedicated to protecting citizens.

Watching Wattstax is a truly uplifting and joyous experience. Its detailed depiction of the audience and local community creates an intimate collective portrait of the Black Los Angeles community during the Black Power Era. In focusing on Black music, the documentary gets to the crux of Black life. Through music, Wattstax shows the beauty of Black church life, Black family, and Black creativity. Although Wattstax was not perfect in its politics, it is an important record of how Black Americans expressed their individual freedom through music and clothing. Wattstax was a small, yet significant step in the journey to towards Black liberation and should be an integral part of American history.

 

 

 

Sources:

Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities by Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramon

Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s By Gerald Horne

Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul by Tanisha C. Ford

The Many Meanings of Watts: Black Power, Wattstax, and the Carceral State by Donna Murch

Fashion’s Virtual Future: Notes from London’s Digital Fashion Week

We are still in the infancy of learning how to mimic and maintain something of the in-person experience online. In the early stages of lockdown, there seemed to be something promising in the ability to access renowned museum collections online, often in minute detail and with 360-degree tours. As our worlds began to narrow to our domestic spaces, how thrilling to be able to move from the Louvre to the Prado with the switch of a tab – how unprecedented (to borrow 2020’s favorite word)! While there is certainly something to be said for increased access and the democratization of art, virtual experiences and events across the board have proven to be lacking. If you cannot move seamlessly around a sculpture allowing its narrative to unfold, or be drawn to a new piece because you caught a glimpse of it in the next room over, or share in the experience with others in the room, there is undeniably a missing human emotional element, crucial to the arts.

This must be all the more true for fashion, whose materialism is essential, and whose location on the body increases the need to take into account this very materiality. With cancellations of couture week in July, and likely carrying over to the fall, the future of fashion presentations and fashion week lies online. Clearly in this transformation much must be lost. How can movement, transparency, intricacy and emotion be captured in the virtual world? What are the implications for such a material and corporeal industry?

How can clothing make itself felt virtually?

In short—it can’t, yet.

This past weekend London served as the first of the four major fashion capitals to take a week of shows and events into the digital realm (Shanghai became the first fashion week to pivot to an entirely virtual event this past March). Though scheduled to fall during London’s menswear slot the event was technically gender-neutral, the first time in its 40-year history that men and women’s collections “showed” side by side. Hosted exclusively on the “LFW Hub”, the event featured fashion films, capsule collections, playlists, poems, panels and live performances. Few designers actually showcased new collections given the economic fallout of the current global crisis, but they were presented with the opportunity and freedom to translate their creativity into the digital sphere in different mediums and formats, resulting in myriad new ways to convey a brand’s identity and values. While the weekend was certainly full of challenges, much can be gleaned about the place of the fashion industry in the current world climate, and fashion’s potential futures.

Entering the Netflix-like homepage of the event, it was not obvious that this was a site centered around fashion. The mix of media—videos, visual art, poetry, music—read like an interactive magazine; few images even involved clothing, focusing instead on the personalities behind brands. Many household names were notably absent (Burberry, Victoria Beckham, A-Cold-Wall), choosing instead to wait and show during women’s fashion week in the fall, perhaps dulling the excitement for many but leaving space for new talent to emerge. There were certainly some standouts among the current pool of young designers, who used the opportunity to make themselves and their ideologies known.

A view of the homepage - Screenshot of

A view of the homepage of LFW (source: Screenshot of website)

A few highlights included the LVMH Prize winning Nicholas Daley and his short film The Abstract Truth, presenting a new look at his most recent fall fashion show and highlighting the music of South London jazz musicians Kwake Bass, Wu-Lu, and Rago Foot. The film was grainy, conveying a sense of nostalgia—for the Black Abstraction Movement of the 1970s, the collection’s main inspiration, and perhaps for the pre-pandemic world. It seemed almost strange to see so many bodies crowded in one space, models moving to the music and lining up not six inches apart. Martine Rose—one of the more established names of the LFW Reset—partnered with London-based retailer LN-CC to release a “Late Night—Conscious Campaign” centered around waste, crafted entirely from deadstock. Charles Jeffrey canceled a virtual dance party in favor of a “talent showcase” highlighting Black creatives and urging viewers to donate to Black Pride UK. This decision echoed the sentiments of many designers who felt odd promoting new collections in the midst of protests and pandemic, several revoking their participation altogether.

Consistent throughout was the use of fashion to advocate for larger causes, many designers focusing on sustainability—arguably the industry’s most pressing issue—but several, like Jeffrey, responding to the Black Lives Matter movement and current global protests for social justice. This ability to be reactive and sensitive to current world issues demonstrates how nimble designers were able to be outside of the traditional confines of a physical presentation where looks, makeup, music, seating are decided well in advance—a particularly positive development for fashion, so often seen as being out of touch.

MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (screenshot from article)

MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (source: screenshot from article)

Several additional positives offered promise: The definition of fashion was questioned and broadened—how can fashion be conveyed through music, in a poem, without physical clothing? Sustainability was clearly at the forefront of thought, with many designers considering new ways of working, creating, producing, traveling, shooting. The democratization of fashion was furthered—the same experience was made available to a far broader audience—consumers, buyers, tastemakers alike.

But there are still many hurdles and unknowns to figure out. It is clear that whether you’re an established fashion house or an emerging brand, it will be a challenge to get people to pay attention without rows of photographers, celebrity appearances, posts and reposts across social media—commercial viability is called into question. The digital platform lacked the same excitement, the “sense of urgency or the anticipation that grows while you are sitting and waiting for catwalk theatrics or a hot debut,” be it from the audience or watching a livestream from home. There was a tangible absence of star power without some of the industry’s largest players and brands and their tantalizing new creations.

Ultimately, it is clear that as of now, the digital equivalent was not (yet) a successful replacement for the traditional week, lacking the human aspect of the physical show. Gone was the vibration of music through the crowd, the scramble of backstage beauty, the street style shots taken as the lucky few entered venues. Were artistry and emotion adequately translated online? Not in the traditional visceral sense, hearts stopping as otherworldly designs and beautiful fabrics passed by. But this was merely an experimental step and the beginnings of a road map for a future that is undoubtedly here to stay. As designer Iris Van Herpen stated: “It will take time before you can put your own language into that new tool, but I do feel we’ll be able to transmit that emotional aspect of the garment into the virtual reality.” Time will tell—Milan and Paris are up next in July—but it is clear that those who are hesitant or slow to adapt to the new ways of being will be at a severe disadvantage.

 

 

 

 

Sources:
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/style/london-fashion-week-digital.html

https://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/iris-van-herpen-virtual-reality-fashion-1203554662/

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/jun/12/london-fashion-week-drops-elitist-traditions-as-event-goes-fully-digital

https://hypebeast.com/2020/6/london-virtual-fashion-week-roundup

https://www.10magazine.com/tv/nicholas-daleys-aw20-film-the-abstract-truth/

https://www.harpersbazaararabia.com/featured-news/what-you-need-to-know-about-london-fashion-week-mens-first-virtual-showcase

 

 

Images:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/style/london-fashion-week-digital.html

https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/charles-jeffrey-highlights-black-creatives-at-lfw-digital/2020061549377