5 minutes with… Archive

5 Minutes With… Violet Caldecott

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

What is your dissertation about?

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

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

Who is your favourite designer?

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

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

Favourite dress history photograph?

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Minutes With… Alexandra Sive

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

What is your dissertation about? 

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

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

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

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

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

What are you wearing today?

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

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

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

5 Minutes with… Simona Mezzina

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

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

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

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

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

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

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

What is your dissertation about? 

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

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

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

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

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

5 Minutes with… Genevieve Davis

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

What is your dissertation about? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite dress history image? 

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

Norman Parkinson, 1950, Vogue.

What are you wearing today? 

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

How would you describe your style? 

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

What are you hoping to do next? 

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

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

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

5 Minutes With… Ruby Redstone

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Ruby discusses tartan, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress and 1930s personal style.

 

What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is about how the concept of personal style developed in 1930s America. The decade was a spectacular time for American womenswear, as the fashion industry developed rapidly and many (but certainly not all) women began to enjoy much more freedom of dress. I’ve found some great books about personal style from the period, all by women writers, and I’m studying those in tandem with wardrobes and looks from exceptionally stylish and highly visible American women like Mae West, Wallis Simpson, and Barbara Hutton.

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

I had a great time working on my Virtual Exhibition, which was a show about the use of tartan in Scottish fashion design. I love Scottish design, and I had been wanting to do something to pay homage to that love for a long time. Also, I’m quite a visual person, so I really enjoyed being able to draw maps of my galleries and select paint colours and all that – admittedly, I got a bit carried away and even made designs for what my display mannequins would look like. They are tartan, of course.

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes has become a bible to me. I now recommend it to anyone who is even remotely interested in dress history! Hollander’s chapter on fabric has fundamentally changed and deepened my relationship with clothing. I also have to echo everyone else and say Daniel Miller’s Stuff. It’s no surprise that all of us in Documenting Fashion are drawn to it. It’s such a well-researched study of why clothing is inherently important to humanity – something which I think we all already believed innately, but it’s comforting to see it supported by someone else’s research.

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?

Oh my, yes. I already joke that I treat my closet as if I’m building the world’s smallest fashion museum, and now that’s intensified tenfold. I fall in love with every single garment we look at, and I’m never content to just say ‘Oh, that looks great on her’ – I always want one for myself. My eBay searches are a bit out of control these days.

Favourite dress history image?

I could never pick just one! Lately, however, I can’t seem to stop thinking about Gordon Parks’ 1956 editorial photo ‘Evening Wraps at Dawn’. It’s such a textured, tactile image. You can almost feel the nighttime fog beginning to clear and smell the wet pavement and car grease that surround this couple. I love the contrast of her glamorous evening look with the gritty early morning light, and I love that she clearly hasn’t been a well-behaved woman in the 1950s sense – she’s been out on the town with a gentleman until dawn! Also, as a New Yorker, I love that I can gauge almost exactly where Parks would have shot this image. It’s amazing how little the city has changed.

Gordon Parks, Evening Wraps at Dawn, 1956, The Gordon Parks Foundation.

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a vintage set from the seventies; it’s a pair of wide-leg pants and a ruffled top in red, yellow, and green Madras plaid. I’m not wearing shoes right now, but when I go outside I’ll probably wear a pair of purple fur and red velvet Prada sandals with big gold buckles. I love them, but they’re highly impractical. There are only a few weeks of the year that it’s the right temperature to wear them, so I have to squeeze in as many outfits with them as I can before it gets too warm! 

Where do you get your clothes from?

I’m a big vintage collector, and most of my wardrobe is vintage from eBay, Etsy, and lots of wonderful vintage shops that I’ve hunted down across the years. I supplement that with some secondhand designer pieces from Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal – I try to buy almost everything vintage or secondhand. I also love to support local designers in New York and London, the two places where I split my time right now!

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

My answer to this will change every single day, if not every hour of the day, but right now I’d have to say Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress that she made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. I mean, can you imagine anything better for summer?!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Dinner Dress, 1937, printed silk organza and synthetic horsehair, Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1969-232-52. Image courtesy of PMA.

How would you describe your style?

Usually I say Victorian-meets-1960s in a candy store colour palette. Recently, as I get deeper into dissertation research, there have been a lot more thirties references mixed in with that too – I think at this point it’s really just a little bit of everything from every era. I’m a magpie.

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

My earliest memory is actually a fashion memory! I remember my parents taking me aside to tell me that I was going to have a little sister when I was just a toddler, and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was fixated on pulling out a bright blue turtleneck from my wardrobe. I guess I’ve always been a bit too obsessed with clothing.

 

5 Minutes with… Bethan Carrick

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Bethan discusses Donyale Luna, the ubiquity of blue jeans and wearing her grandparents’ clothes.

 

What is your dissertation about?

I am looking at BLITZ magazine (1980-91), one of the three ‘first-wave’ style magazines that began in 1980 along with The Face and i-D, and its articulation of cultural capital through its fashion pages. For the most part, I’m looking at the styling work of BLITZ’s fashion editor (1983-87), Iain R. Webb. He used visual strategies such as bricolage to forge the DIY aesthetic that typified street style and style magazines of this period.

 

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

I loved researching Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel. I wrote my first essay on her representation in Harper’s Bazaar in the ‘60s. Looking into Luna demonstrated the complexity of representing black women in magazines made for and distributed to white women. Whilst researching, I was reminded of the widespread criticism of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s song ‘WAP’ being ‘oversexualised’ and not appropriate for younger audiences. Black women in the public eye have continued to be exoticised and sexualised, but it’s a problem when they take control of their own representation? We’ve still got a long way to go, I think.

 

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Like Lucy, Daniel Miller’s Stuff has stuck with me throughout the year. Miller and Sophie Woodward’s Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary about the tension between ephemerality and ubiquity of the blue jean is another really influential piece of writing for me. Finally (sorry, I couldn’t pick one), I can’t go without mentioning Caroline Evans’ The Mechanical Smile, which is something I have returned to constantly over the course of this year.

 

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned this year?

One thing that surprised me is how little academic research has been done on the history of styling and stylists. Also, having read Carol Tulloch’s The Birth of Cool, I realised that there was room to expand and challenge the rigidity of academic writing. Tulloch’s more anecdotal writing was really inspiring.

 

What are you hoping to do next?

Have a (UK) holiday. Go shopping. Keep researching. Find a job. No real plans.

 

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?

100%. I am now more obsessive than ever about how each element of my outfit should match the other (colour, silhouette, style).

 

Favourite dress history image?

I love this image by Brassaï of a Parisian lesbian bar in c.1930 – especially because I realised that the woman to the right is wearing an ankle-length skirt. I find this fascinating. Was this an active choice to play with the suit, or was she trying to show that she was a woman as soon as she left the bar?

 

Brassaï, photograph taken at Le Monocle, Paris, c. 1930

 

What are you wearing today?

I am wearing navy blue platform Kickers, baggy dark Dickies jeans, a buttoned-up, grey collared polo under an oversized black knit jumper, and my grandad’s old white golfer hat. Library chic.

 

Where do you get your clothes from?

Mainly charity shops, eBay, Vinted or my grandma’s wardrobe.

 

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

I love everything the ladies are wearing at the French seaside resort (I can’t remember the name) in Seeberger Brothers’ photographs: understated elegance.

 

How would you describe your style?

Grandma, but make it current.

 

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

One day, when I was on holiday with my family and family friends, 7-year-old me decided that today was going to be the day where I debuted my new flowery Boden circle skirt that I had picked especially from the catalogue. I paired it with one of those jumpers that has a fake shirt collar and cuffs and used my sisters’ flowery belt as a scarf. I thought I looked very Audrey-Hepburn-meets-cast-of-Grease. I was so pleased with myself and asked my dad to be my photographer. I posed in front of a white wall whilst the wind was blowing in my hair. Everyone was staring at me, but I was LIVING it.

5 Minutes with… Lucy Corkish

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Lucy, the co-editor of this blog, discusses Tamara de Lempicka, lidos and self-styling via eBay.

 

What is your dissertation about? 

I’m writing my dissertation on the artist Tamara de Lempicka, looking at her life as a process of self-fashioning. She’s most famous for the portraits (and self-portraits) she painted while living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, but lots of people were/are aware of her because of her persona and her distinctive look. The details of her life are sketchy in lots of places – some biographers believe that she lied about her age right up until her death in 1980 – and she seems to have actively cultivated this image of herself as a kind of glamourous, film star-esque aristocrat. She would commission photographers to capture her in designer clothes, always with painted red lips and nails. She wore a lot of accessories and had a particular penchant for hats, in her later years matching her hat to her outfit. For most of her life, she seemed to crave independence, marrying her second husband on the promise that she could enjoy his money and his title but continue her own, largely separate life. Once, when she failed to return home to spend Christmas with her young daughter, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, the two of them burned her collection of designer hats in retaliation.

Tamara de Lempicka photographed by Willy Maywald, 1948-1949 (via Stained Jabot)

One of her most famous paintings, a self-portrait commissioned as the cover of Die Dame, shows her in the driver’s seat of a green Bugatti – in reality, she drove a yellow Renault. The image has been hailed as a symbol of the modern woman, and for me, it says a lot about how she saw herself. It can be tricky to unpick all the anecdotes surrounding her, which she often reworked and retold to portray herself in a flattering light, but researching her life has taught me that her moulding of the truth was an extension of her self-styling. It’s been fascinating getting to know the many overlapping sides of her.

Tamara de Lempicka, Autoportrait, 1929, oil on panel, private collection

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

I enjoyed writing my first essay on Margiela and memory, for which I watched the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. It was clear that his childhood memories played an essential role in his work and that his ideas around creating memories influenced his creativity. For example, at one show, the models – who walked among the audience – were perfumed with patchouli, playing on sensory memory. For my second essay, I looked at hundreds of images from ‘the golden age of the lido’ in 1930s Britain, which was, for me, great fun.

Bradford Lido, 1939 (via The Mirror)

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Early in the year, we read the first chapter from Daniel Miller’s Stuff, titled ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’. His discussion of Trinidadian ideas of the self as constantly evolving, existing on the surface (rather than somewhere buried within, built up incrementally over time) so that it must be sustained day by day in actions and choices – including in wardrobe choices – deepened my understanding of why clothes feel so important.

Where do you get your clothes from? 

I’m relatively serious about eBay. Closely monitoring saved search alerts and frantically trying to outbid any rivals in the final seconds of an auction has brought me lots of joy and frustration over the years, as well as a wardrobe full of things that I love to look at but that don’t necessarily fit me well. I keep a collection of screenshots of the wildest photos that people use to sell their clothes. Also, charity shops in fancy areas and anything that my friends are getting rid of.

Screenshot (eBay app), 2020

How would you describe your style? 

It was described to me today as ‘very last season Arket’, which I think is fairly accurate. I like to look at extravagant, sparkly clothes, but I want to feel as comfy as I can get away with, so cosy jumpers in the winter, cotton dresses in the summer and when in doubt, jeans. Anything that could be pyjamas but could also be worn out is the goal.

 

Bibliography

Claridge, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London, 2001)

De Lempicka-Foxhall, Kizette and Charles Phillips. Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka (New York, 1987)

Holzemer, Reiner. Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, cinematographer Toon Illegems (2020; London: Dogwoof)

Miller, Daniel. ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’ in Stuff (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 12-41

5 Minutes with… Kathryn Reed

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Kathryn, the co-editor of this blog, discusses ghostliness, layering necklaces for Zoom and the elusive photographer Nina Leen.

 

What are you wearing today?

A brown halter neck top over a striped button-down shirt. I didn’t realise that the shirt had a button missing when I picked it off the £1 rail in Brixton last week – hence the layering.  Also: a long black skirt and brown work boots with paint on. They make me look artistic.

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style? 

Having seminars on Zoom has definitely made me wear more necklaces at once.

What is your dissertation about?

It’s on the photography of Nina Leen. She was born in Russia and moved to America in 1939; from then on, she became a really prolific photographer for Life magazine (and was one of the very first women to work there). She took some amazing, perceptive photographs of American culture and fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, but she’s an elusive figure and barely anything has been written about her. I’m interested in how her outsider status shaped the pictures, especially in the context of the all-American middle-class image that Life was promoting.

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

I wrote my first essay about the ghostliness of clothing that isn’t being worn – I find it so interesting to consider the reasons empty clothes can sometimes unsettle us. In the essay, I compared the shrouded figures in William Hope’s spirit photography with Eugène Atget’s photos of deserted Parisian shop windows. I was quite frightened while writing it, but it was really fun.

Eugène Atget, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris, 1912. Accessed via https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286216

William Hope, Elderly couple with a young female ‘spirit’, c. 1920. Accessed via https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co8228833/elderly-couple-with-female-spirit-photograph

And your favourite image?

At the moment, my favourite is one by Nina Leen from Life’s December 1944 feature on teenagers. It documents a trend at the time for teenagers to wear masculine clothes, and I love this picture of a girl who had borrowed her dad and brother’s clothes to change into after school.

Nina Leen, ‘Pat Woodruff wears after-school costume of blue jeans and a checked shirt’, Life, 11 December 1944.

5 Minutes With… Niall

 

Niall is a Courtauld MA Student currently on Rebecca Arnold’s Documenting Fashion course, about to graduate in July. During our end-of-year class trip to Kew Gardens, I caught up with him about his style.

Describe what you are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a black turtleneck with black trousers, a black blazer, and a black umbrella to keep away the summer sun.

Does your style differ depending on where you are?

I literally wear a black turtleneck and high waisted black trousers everywhere, even at home.

How would you describe your style?

I would describe my style by saying, “I’m going to the opera at 7, and I’m meeting my Coven at 11.” That’s how I would describe it, especially because in the Winter I have this big, black faux-fur coat, and I tend to wear velvets a lot. I feel like my approach to style is very Minimalist because the basis of what I wear is very plain and I wear the same things everyday, but then I also have more extravagant items as well which add a little touch. Because I love texture, I like velvets, satins, lace and silk, so I’ll wear those fabrics sometimes. I actually was going to wear black lace gloves today, too.

Have you always dressed like this?

No, I haven’t. I used to wear colour but then I felt really self conscious and it made me feel like I stood out, and then I started to wear all black — just because I think it looks best on my skin tone and my hair.

Do you remember an early fashion memory?

When I was four of five I would wear every single day the same red Postman Pat t-shirt with black trousers and the same pair of white trainers. I wore them everyday, until the shoes fell apart and the t-shirt had holes in, which I think is interesting because now I wear the same thing everyday as well.

Are you associated with the word ‘uniform’?

Yes, I like to wear a uniform because it makes me feel like I always look put together. It takes so much time out of the morning… I never have to be self conscious about what I’m wearing. I found my uniform just by accident because I ended up just naturally gravitating towards things that I felt the most comfortable in and the things that I feel like I looked best in. Because I wear the same thing everyday, I never have to worry about whether it looks nice or not, and can just throw something on and have it always look put together.

Do you have any favourite accessories?

One item that I wear a lot is my black and purple velvet shawl. It’s more of a Wintery thing, but I like that its kind of witchy. I got it after I went to see Stevie Nicks in the Summer Hyde Park concert, so obviously have a fond memory of it.

Can you note any inspiration for your style?

A big inspiration for me was a picture of Audrey Hepburn. Its a studio portrait of her and she’s in a black top with high waisted black trousers which are basically the same ones that I wear, and she’s got black ballet flats on. Another inspiration, honestly…. in the first two Harry Potter films, Professor McGonagall always wears a black turtleneck dress with a green velvet cape and a brooch around her neck. That was a big inspiration to me as well because I like vampiric, witchy things. And obviously American Horror Story’s Coven is a big aesthetic inspiration too. Stevie Nicks is also a style inspiration to me because she doesn’t strictly wear a uniform, but she’s always in all black, and she wears similar things to me.

 

All photographs taken by Niall

 

5 Minutes with… Courtauld MA Student Aristea Rellou

‘Documenting Fashion’ not only aims to analyse fashion imagery, contexts and theoretical approaches. No, the course’s influence is much more far-reaching. It subtly trains the eye towards using a fashion gaze to view the world around us. The Courtauld itself, being a small institution with a specialised subject and student body, provides a fertile ground to practice it. So, in order to expand on my own perception of someone’s style I decided to ask Courtauld MA student Aristea Rellou about her clothes in order to get the inside scoop. Aristea’s fabulous way of dressing had always caught my eye through its slightly edgy, yet classic look. She kindly agreed to share her thoughts with me on what inspires her to dress the way she does.

Aristea is a student of the Print Culture and the Early Modern Arts of Italy, France and Spain MA special option. Before attending the Courtauld she studied Law at the University of Athens and Art History at the New School in New York. It was the latter where she felt her own style coming together and her interest in fashion growing. The student body there was fashionable and sported distinctive looks. Her inspiration was furthered by working in commercial art galleries, where a strong statement look oftentimes comes with the profession. Aristea is inspired by people with an innate sense of style, as they present themselves through their clothing. ‘Being very comfortable with the way you dress comes with knowing yourself too,’ she muses.

Aristea has noticed about her own approach that she chooses items which deconstruct the body. She grins: ‘It’s very Cubist, now that I think about it.’ Large shapes which do not necessarily conform to her body’s silhouette allow her to play around with juxtapositions. On the day I met her she wore a white, cropped top, tied at the front, high-waisted, wide dark trousers and a pale, blue/grey, long coat that reached to her lower calves. She topped everything off by choosing sturdy red shoes. Yet for all the deconstruction, a classic element to her clothes is also intrinsic to her look. When going shopping with her sister, they joke with each other: ‘Well, would Kate Middleton buy this?’ It is a smart move, as it also allows Aristea to be dressed appropriately all day long. Her daywear functions and shifts easily into evening wear.

Lastly, we talk about make-up. Winged eyeliner completes Aristea’s style. Even more so than clothing she thinks make-up reflects on where we currently are in our lives and how we feel. This discussion also brings me back full circle to ‘Documenting Fashion,’ where we have discussed Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ definition of dress ‘… as an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings.’ Thank you for communicating with me, Aristea!

 

Sources:

Eicher, Joanne B. and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford: Berg, 1993), pp. 8-28. (P.15)