Commentary Archive

Morris Cohen: The Forgotten Businessman who Shaped 20th Century Womenswear in London

For the most recent essay for our MA course, I researched the history of the Jewish garment industry in London, particularly during the interwar period. My interest in this topic began when Rebecca mentioned an exhibition called Broken Threads, staged in Vancouver in 2007, that explored the decimation of the Jewish fashion and textile industries in Germany and Austria during the Nazi regime. Despite knowing that Jewish people had a long history as tailors and clothing merchants, and that a huge part of the Nazi agenda was to destroy Jewish businesses, I had never connected the dots. I realized that I had stumbled across an enormous legacy throughout Europe and America that is often forgotten, and contemporary scholarship is just beginning to study it.

As my research continued, Rebecca suggested I focus specifically on the case of London so I could access collections and archives in the city. Eventually, my final paper focused predominantly on the menswear retailer Montague Burton, a Russian Jewish immigrant who dominated his sector, owning 600 shops by 1939 all over the United Kingdom. A key component of his success was that he was able to rely on the ethnic economic niche of Eastern European Jews working in the tailoring industry. They provided both a community into which he could enter upon arriving in England, and, later, a workforce to employ in his enormous Leeds factory.

Burton’s factory in Leeds

Burton was not unique in his reliance on the Jewish community for his entrepreneurial success. Morris Cohen, a lesser-known figure in this history, is regarded as the grandfather of London’s Jewish garment industry, as explained by Anne Kershen. His name has now effectively faded into oblivion, but his contributions have long outlived him and deserve recognition. He was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who began in London as a gentlemen’s tailor, but eventually moved over to the women’s ready-to-wear sector, capitalizing on an enormous growth industry as women were becoming more economically active and independent in the 1920s and 1930s. Kershen describes Cohen as opportunistic and entrepreneurial as he built a mantle manufacturing factory using expertise working as a tailor for the Russian Court. Eventually, through his success in this area, he was able to employ many of his friends and neighbors in his community. He was very successful in this business, but his most significant contribution was in planting the seeds for future growth in his community.

Morris Cohen

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Cohen bought thirty-nine houses in Albert Square, building workshops in the rear and renting them to workshop masters, primarily in the mantle-making industry. According to Kershen, he was a ‘considerate and caring landlord who … in addition gave his tenants advice on the most economical ways to purchase raw materials and organize their production’. He saw potential in his tenants to become major players in a growth industry. Among these individuals were the founders of Alexon, Windsmoor, and Ellis and Goldstein, all of which became successful companies in the following decades. Though Cohen’s name is not as well-known as someone like Burton, he played a fundamental role in nurturing the Jewish economic niche in London, which eventually became one of the most successful womenswear manufacturers after the Second World War. His biggest contribution was to invest in his community, believing in the potential to transform Jewish immigrants working in the sweated trade into major entrepreneurs in the twentieth century fashion industry.

References

Kershen, Anne J. ‘Morris Cohen and the Origins of the Women’s Wholesale Clothing Industry in the East End’, Textile History 28, no. 1 (1997), p. 39-46.

L’Eau de Vie

I remembered the Maison Margiela perfume display at Charles de Gaulle as comprised of postcards, but they are actually faux Polaroid snapshots: even more emblematic. Two tiered marble shelves curve around the countertop with sunken perfume samples before upright ‘photographs’. A white Fuji Instax camera nestles between the minimalist bottles, reminding you, lest you miss the themes, of photography and construction, of the pull between vintage and contemporary.

The clichés are filtered, lit and cropped for uniform appeal while offering the promise of personalisation and aspiration: a nude back before the ocean or tucked in white sheets, sunsets and foliage-framed shots. White borders invite inscription, notes of time and place to complete the instant and make it your own.

If you examine the labels, everything falls in to place: ‘REPLICA. Reproduction of familiar scents and moments of varying locations and periods’. The names speak not of fragrance but of states of being, or destinations or occasions, that correspond with the picture: By the Fireplace, Sailing Day, At the Barber’s, Lipstick On. ‘Provenance and Period’ comes before fragrance description on the label, reaching for the abstract with a Proustian flair. Funfair Evening is from Santa Monica, 1994, Promenade from Oxfordshire, 1986. Here, you don’t just buy the perfume. You buy the experience it evokes and adopt the memory for yourself.

Though I would never buy perfume in an airport or train station. It would always make me think of leaving and loss… absence instead of presence.

***

Or consider: presence in absence. She took me in her arms to say goodbye. When I left, my coat smelled like her, and her perfume bloomed in the cold air on the way to Port Royal. It is hard not to wax poetic.

***

My psychology professor on Miss Dior: ‘Dior worried that they weren’t appealing to you. Because of course you don’t care if your perfume is French; you just want something that you like. So they hired Natalie Portman to be their face and then they changed their recipe’.

This is true. I don’t care if my perfume is French. I wrote fledgling essays about Coco Chanel and Marie Antoinette’s scented gloves, and the first perfume I remember is my grandmother’s bottle of Jean Patou Joy. But I care so much more about what a perfume does for me than about its aura or provenance. Perhaps it’s hard to believe, but being French isn’t everything.

But.

***

But while others in Rennes were learning the subjunctive, my language teacher had us read Süskind’s Le parfum. Years later in Paris, I filled a paper bag with mirabelles and thought of Jean-Baptiste. If you could make a perfume that smells the way a mirabelle – or better, a Reine Claude – tastes, that would be very good.

September 3, 2015

Back in Paris the next year, I bought two bottles of Atelier Cologne perfume: clementine for me, some kind of absinthe apéro for my mom. I don’t know if she liked it, but for me it was all part of the story I tell myself of my life, an assemblage of confected happenings and prefabricated, gold-plated memories.

Imagine getting a box of absinthe perfume directly from Paris. The vision itself is the idea-analogue of the gift box I sent, wrapped up in mental ribbons. Truly: it is the thought that counts.

For my part, I loved my clementine perfume. The bottle fit perfectly in my hand; I used it every day, with rose oil inside my wrists. I ran out a year later.

***

What about loyalty? What about having signature objects? Instead of replacing my clementine perfume, I tried Kabuki Blanche by Byredo. Top notes: aldehyde, pink pepper, white rose. Heart: neroli, peony, violet. Base: blonde wood, musk, sandalwood. Over a year later, I still don’t recognise it. It is a powder in a black stick that you brush on. I miss the feeling of the bottle in my hand, the crisp mist that lets me feel the perfume and not just its applicator, the bite of clementine in the air just like the spray of oil when you peel an orange.

***

Before coming to London, I spent a twilight month back in New York. I moved from apartment to apartment, admired different modes of living, tried on my best friend’s makeup so that I too could have shimmering eyelids and jasmine-scented pulse points. I didn’t even ask if I could: I went and bought my own, a little pot of persimmon-y pink balm. When my brother mentioned on 155th a craving for jasmine milk tea, I knew he could smell my perfume, magnified in the tropical city heat.

***

Anonymous but highly personalised, elegant but base and bodied. How intimate perfume is. It is a ready-made product until the consumer turns it bespoke. I am the final chemical element, and when you smell my perfume, you don’t just smell the eau de parfum – you smell me, the way it has reacted to my skin and my heat in particular. There is that exchange when women embrace, approach and slot in to place. Perfume is worn behind the ears, on the sides of the neck. Right where faces rest and lips brush: faire la bise. What else worn has so little to do with the boundaries of the body? We absorb one another, particles mingling.

You impose yourself on the world, you and your perfume. And while I love the idea of signature belongings as my own uniquely resonant significant forms, it is just as thrilling to consider being recognised. I want to make a sensory impression; I want to linger. I want the sharp spray of clementine to announce, evoke and recall me. This requires discipline and, indeed, loyalty. I should know better than to try Byredo Blanche… or Chloé Eau de Parfum, which I would very much like but resisted getting last week in Paris – at the Gare du Nord, of all places.

Perfume is so personal and unpredictable that I’d hardly think to select it for someone else. But what a power play. Give your perfume to someone you love: an aromatic love potion. Tread carefully, and give it to your enemy: remake her in your own scent.

If I ever give you perfume, wear it, and know that I have designs on your soul.

All photos taken by the author.

University Girl Wardrobe Essentials

What are the fashion staples any university girl must have in her wardrobe?

If you were one of the lucky young women attending university in the 1940s, numerous magazines had entire sections dedicated to helping you budget and obtain the perfect collegiate capsule wardrobe. I recently came across a number of these articles from both Women’s Wear Daily and American Vogue, dating from 1940 to 1946. The recurrent theme is how to achieve the most variation in a wardrobe with the fewest essential items. Naturally, there was wide variation in what was deemed essential, and proposed budgets varied from $100 for an austere annual collegiate wardrobe (Vogue, August 1941) to a lavish $1,400 (Women’s Wear Daily, December 1940). What then is the verdict on the wardrobe essentials for a 1940s female collegian?

Following the lead of the articles from the time, I’m going to break the wardrobe necessities down into categories. These will be: Dresses, Suits, Separates, Outerwear and Extras.

‘$100 Campus Wardrobe’, Vogue August 15, 1941

Dresses: A college girl would ‘need’ anywhere from three to ten dresses. In the most austere case of three dresses, she would need one formal dress, for events such as faculty dinners or serious dates. The other two dresses would be day dresses, either in cotton, rayon or silk, and preferably one in wool. For a girl with a larger budget, two nice dresser were necessary, one for formal events, and one ‘dressy black crepe, for fall date and town wear.’ She would also have at least two wool, two or three rayon or silk prints and four to six cotton dresses.

Suits: The most highly advertised item was a fashionable suit. The girl on a $100 budget might have one suit, while more fortunate girls would have three to six. In 1942, Vogue listed tweed as the number one must-have suit material, but in 1946, it had been ousted by gabardine, preferably in black, navy, brown or beige. In 1946, the tweed suit was still one of the top preferences, however, and was seen as ‘an intrinsic part of campus wardrobe.’

‘Campus Wardrobe’, Vogue, August 15, 1942

Separates: Separates were highly valued by college girls, as they added much variety to a constricted wardrobe. These items fell into their own categories: blouses, sweaters, skirts and trousers. At least three blouses, a mix of white collared masculine  shirts and feminine styes, were recommended. A simple wardrobe would have at least two sweaters: one long sleeve turtleneck in a subtle colour such as black or grey, or a bolder red, and another sweater in a college-specific colour. The most minimal wardrobe would feature two pleated skirts; a better funded one would have four, in plaid, pastels or checks. Finally, trousers. While never listed as essentials, tailored slacks, pedal-pushers and mens bluejeans were listed as ideal additions to a collegiate wardrobe. Some universities showed approval with loose regulations on length and styles. 

Coat: All the articles agree that every college lass needed at least one good wool coat. Brown, camel hair and beige box coats are recommended.

Extras: Finally, all the extra bits that pull a wardrobe together. Undergarments aren’t included in the descriptions, except where specific mention of the importance of stockings is made. The importance of a good hat and gloves is very explicit, however. Minimalist wardrobes suggest one hat and a turban, with one pair of versatile all-weather gloves. Berets in dark or bold colours are suggested, as are feminine felt riding hats. To finish off a college wardrobe is a sturdy pair of shoes. One or two pairs of oxfords or ‘moccasins’ are essential.

So, do you have all your college wardrobe essentials?

 

Both images accessed via Proquest.

Hybrid Style: Iris Van Herpen’s ‘Shift Souls’ Spring 2019 Haute Couture Collection

Having recently completed an essay on the zenith of haute couture in the late 1940s, I was particularly keen to see the couture collections that just showed in Paris to determine whether or not the designs are as avant-garde and innovative as they were once considered to be.

I was not disappointed.

From the moment I saw Iris Van Herpen’s opening piece, a blue-purple gown floating down the runway as though the model were a giant weightless bird gliding just above the floor, I knew that there would be more to this collection than what meets the eye. In true couture fashion, the show, with its multitude of colors and voluminous, graceful shapes invites us to enter a dream world for eight minutes. Sculpture, architecture and painting are all brought together in the materiality of these 18 made-to-measure pieces, which seem to be (surprise!) actually wearable.

The ‘Harmonia’ dress, look 1/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

The collection, called ‘Shift Souls’, was presented in Paris at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. A series of billowing gowns contrasted more statuesque pieces. As Van Herpen states on her website, she was inspired by celestial cartography and mythology. She also wanted to consider ideals of the female body and how these have shifted through time: ‘the fluidity within identity change in Japanese mythology gave me the inspiration to explore the deeper meaning of identity and how immaterial and mutable it can become within current coalescence of our digital bodies.’

The digital component of the inspiration comes from advances in technology that have been made with regards to human and animal hybrids, called ‘Cybrids’. Van Herpen sees this research on ‘Cybrids’ as particularly intriguing, considering how it links to a long history of mythological stories about humans morphing into animals. She explains that her intention was not to take an ideological standpoint on these scientific developments; rather, the collection is an acknowledgment of the fact that new links are being made between biology and technology, expressing ‘the fact that this reality is upon us.’

Left: Detail of face mask, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Iris Van Herpen official Instagram account
Right: Look 4/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Technology was not just evoked, but it was actually used in the creation process of this futuristic collection. For instance, 3D laser cutting technology was employed to create the wave-like shape of some of the dresses. A few of the models also donned 3D-printed facial ornamentation, made from 3D scans of their faces. The technology was used to create lattice-like facemasks delineated from changes in the density of their facial structures.

Look 18/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Van Herpen also collaborated with former NASA engineer Kim Keever, who is now an artist bridging painting and photography in his work on waterscapes. Together, they designed the translucent dresses that resemble aqueous gas or clouds to evoke the idea of shifting, transient identities.

Movement was also explored throughout the collection. The primary fabrics used, silk and organza, made the dresses appear to float through space. Loose pieces of material on some of the dresses, like the ‘Galactic Glitch’ dress, fluttered slightly, creating an optical illusion like a flicker as the model walked. Other dresses had petal-shaped cutouts that projected outwards, resembling undulating waves, which gave the impression of water ripples emerging from the model’s body. This play on movement gives the pieces a sense of liminality; shifting, they create a blur, and we cannot tell where the dress actually existing in space.

Left: ‘Galactic Glitch’ dress, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway
Right: Look 5/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Researching the historical development of haute couture since its conception at the end of the 19th century illuminates the fact that craftsmanship and savoir-faire are at the root of couture’s aura and prestige. I would argue that by forging an unlikely link between haute couture and technology, Van Herpen does not disavow the tradition of raw craftsmanship in couture, but rather, asks us to reconsider our preconceived notions of craftsmanship to create a new 21st century definition.

References: https://www.irisvanherpen.com/haute-couture

The Body Modified

Tattoo artists Deafy and Stella Grassman, early 1930s

I am a woman with tattooed arms and a face full of piercings. My ‘body modifications’ receive many compliments, but they also attract criticism. Most often, this criticism takes the form of unsolicited ‘advice’ from men, who tell me how attractive I would look if only I had fewer body modifications. Once, while I was at work, a man even asked me why I had ‘ruined a pretty face’ with piercings.

My experiences are anecdotal, but the opinions of the men I encounter are not dissimilar to those found in many academic works on body modification. In dress histories, tattoos, piercings and associated body modifications are frequently described as forms of ‘mutilation’ – that is, the infliction of a violent and disfiguring injury. This definition has filtered into common parlance, with legal and social consequences. For instance, a number of practitioners of more extreme body modifications – such as tongue splitting – have recently faced charges of grievous bodily harm, despite the consent of their clients. Tattoos and piercings might not be deemed harmful in quite the same way, but they are often viewed as indistinct from more extreme procedures, because Westerners have been taught to consider all modifications as (‘primitive’ and lower class) mutilations. Consequently, the perception that they ‘ruin’ one’s appearance is pervasive.

Medical studies which question whether there is a connection between body modification and mental illness have also had an insidious effect on public opinion, especially in regards to female body modification. Perhaps arising from the historical association of women with both adornment and hysteria, there now exists a stereotype of the modified woman as mentally unstable. If not certifiable, she is at least aberrant in some way (although the extent to which modified women with an appearance such as mine – white, skinny, and blonde – can actually be considered aberrant is debatable).

As such, I often feel frustrated when people ask, ‘But what do your tattoos mean?’ This question might seem innocuous, but it is effectively asking one to justify their modifications. In other words, ‘Why do that to your body?’ Taken to its extreme, this line of questioning then leads to the kind of intrusive, gendered comments that I have experienced. In turn, the notion that body modifications must be meaningful to be acceptable results in the bourgeois dismissal of any modification which does not have some significance to render it ‘refined’.

Such negative perceptions of body modifications have contributed to the argument that modified people should not be surprised if employers refuse to hire them based on appearance, especially since modifications are a choice. Yet, most forms of bodily adornment are a choice. In this way, getting a tattoo or a piercing is really not so different to dyeing one’s hair, putting on deodorant or using shape wear. In other words, as dressed bodies, every alteration or addition to our anatomies is a body modification in one way or another.

Looking at it Backwards: My Visit to the Brussels Fashion and Lace Museum

I visited Brussels over the holiday and had the pleasure of spending a few hours at the Fashion and Lace Museum. Their current exhibition, Back Side: Fashion from Behind, emphasizes the backs of the body and of the backs of garments, quite literally flipping the perspective on viewing fashion in a museum. It asks what is revealed or conveyed on the back of the body, which, according to their press kit, the human being has an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with because it is constantly decorated by fashion, yet remains unseen by the wearer. The show integrates 70 pieces, spanning a period of 400 years, from haute couture to ready-to-wear, and which help to explore the subject from many angles.

I most enjoyed the broad range of objects, but also the curatorial choices that were made to display the garments and communicate with the viewer. Many objects were shown with the back facing the viewer, often in a case with a mirror so the front could often be seen (reminiscent of Madeleine Vionnet’s photographs of models whose fronts were revealed by mirrors). Very few of them were visible in the round. It struck me that only being able to see the backside of a garment, with limited visual access to the front, produced a certain discomfort due to the restricted vision. Normally, we focus attention to the front sides of clothes, whether on our own bodies or others. It felt to me that I was being denied access to the part of a garment I am most used to seeing, and effectively made me consider the ‘ambiguous’ relationship we have to this side of the body.

Dress by Lanvin

The exhibition also highlighted the differing notions of the back as something hidden or forgotten, versus revealed or as an erotic focal point. One display case highlighted examples of the ‘forgotten’ back, including waistcoats embroidered on the front and plain fabric on the back, and one contemporary Lanvin dress with an embellished front of white, densely layered material, and an entirely black back, exposing the zipper and showing the ground on which the layers were attached. The back of this silhouette allowed the construction to reveal itself. Later, the erotically exposed back was demonstrated through the photographs of Jeanloup Sieff, which tread a line between fashion images and tantalizing photos of the female body.

Hilde in a Dress That is Too Small, Paris. Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff
Hervé Leger dress. Published in Depeche Mode 1995

Back Side asks the viewer to see the body in three dimensions, and reconsider how we relate to the unseen sides of our own bodies. It succeeds in mixing historical and contemporary dress, high and low fashion, glamorous and bizarre (a Rick Owens ‘outfit’ comes to mind, in which one outfit is attached to another like a backpack and would have been work by two models, one carried by the other). In addition to the joy of viewing beautiful objects, I most appreciated how the curation allowed such a simple change in perspective to become a rich and complex exploration of the back side through fashion.

Fashioning Femininity (and Making Masculinity) in the Post-War Era

When we think about the twenty years immediately following the Second World War in Britain, what images instantly spring to mind? Smiling women in glamorous dresses, feather duster in hand, happily making home for hardworking husbands and clean, grinning children. This construct of woman as a glamorous housewife in the 1950s is one of the most well-known images in the modern consciousness. Whatever our opinions of it, it is all-pervasive; on posters, cards and throughout the media. But how did clothing, and its depiction in advertising, feed into these constructs of femininity? And how was masculinity constructed alongside and in relation to this?

Advert for Wolsey, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 19th March 1960, p.20

Domesticity was expressed in advertising as being a woman’s ‘job’. A Wolsey advert constructs the role of ‘man’ as breadwinner and ‘woman’ as homemaker and domestic purchaser as being objective facts. The advert is aimed at presumably female ‘fiancées’, stating: ‘Sooner or later… you will find yourself buying his socks. This is the job that will probably be yours from “I will” onwards’. Through this single garment of the sock the assumed roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are expressed. ‘Woman’ here is constructed as residing within the domestic sphere, with mundane, everyday garments such as the sock being part of her everyday concerns. Furthermore, ‘man’ is presented here as being domestically incapable, unable to purchase even his own socks. His sharp suit, the uniform of the masculine breadwinner, further constructs him as residing in the public, rather than domestic, sphere.

Advert for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 3rd September 1960

While a woman’s concerns may have been mundane and domestic, her appearance certainly wasn’t. Countless advertisements show women in glamorous, flattering garments even while in the home. One advert for Kellogg’s depicts the idealised couple at the breakfast table. While the man is dressed in a suit for a day of work in the economic sphere, the woman is dressed in a house coat for her day of work in the domestic sphere. Her beautifully patterned house coat and perfectly styled hair and make-up suggest that being attractive is also an integral part of her role as housewife. Similarly, in an advert for Batchelors Peas, the mother is dressed very glamorously for a casual dinner-time. She is fully made up with red lipstick, ornate earrings and colourful clothing. Her garments are soft and flowing, following the idealised lines of the hourglass figure. She cuts a very bright figure against the father, who again wears the masculine staple of the suit.

Advert for Batchelors Peas, Woman, Week Ending 17th July 1955

By analysing adverts from this period, we observe a strictly traditional representation of ‘woman’; as beauty, housewife and mother. Meanwhile ‘man’ is constructed, equally traditionally, as breadwinner. These images show us a snapshot in history at a time in which advertisements were both constructing and reinforcing real-life ideals. We see domestic ‘woman’ and working ‘man’ idealised as safe, predictable constants in a world that was rapidly changing. These images depict the moment before the liberation movements of the 1960s changed the world, and particularly the female experience, beyond all recognition.

The Glamour of the Sala Bianca

The Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, was originally used as a guest hall by the Medici family, but its current appearance as a ballroom is due to stucco works added in 1774-6, by Grato and Giocondo Albertini, following a neoclassical style. The colour white communicates both the decadence and the simplicity of the room. The decadent element stems from the classical motifs, with arches, pilasters and the stucco scenes on the ceiling. The chandeliers and mirrors further this luxurious display, adding reflective surfaces, which shimmer and catch the light. The neutral palette sterilises the room, as the monochrome appearance is minimalist, contrasting with the detailed decoration.

The Sala Bianca today

On the 22nd July 1952, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a Florentine fashion buyer, organised the fourth ‘Italian High Fashion Show’ in the Sala Bianca. He invited European and American press, buyers and designers, in order to showcase the best of Italian fashion, with the intention of rivalling Parisian haute couture. In the aftermath of World War II, Giorgini wanted to promote the advantages of Italian fashion production; with artisanal expertise, creativity and low prices of production. Nine high fashion and sixteen boutique houses were represented. Giorgini chose designers that would present pieces that matched the American lifestyle – for example, informal knitwear and beachwear. This show featured such designers as Emilio Pucci and Simonetta.

The 1952 Sala Bianca fashion show

The language of fashion at this time had to rely on other cultural frameworks, such as art and architecture, as it sought to find its own identity in culture. The Sala Bianca fashion show showcased the best of Italian design, showing modern looks in a traditional setting. This allied the glamour of the past with the elegant designs of the present. This was a very clever strategy for advertising Italian fashion to an international audience, by mixing the modern and antique.

We are now accustomed to contemporary fashion houses showcasing their latest collections in impressive historical locations. A prominent example of this is the 2016 Fendi 90th anniversary fashion show which actually took place on an Italian landmark, the Trevi Fountain, in Rome. Again, there is the significance of an Italian brand showcasing a collection at one of the most iconic Italian landmarks. The use of the Trevi Fountain can also be linked to Italian cinema. This is through the 1960 Frederico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, where the actress Anita Ekberg splashes around in the fountain.

Fendi 90th anniversary show at the Trevi Fountain, 2016

Both shows drew on the cultural significance of the landmarks, adding another layer of meaning to the shows. In this way, I feel they communicate the spectacle of the fashion show, with the dramatic surroundings acting as a stage and the models parading on their catwalk, or stage. The Sala Bianca was used as a location for fashion shows for the next thirty years in Florence. This was hailed as the ‘birth of Italian fashion’, but I also feel that it was influential in terms of linking architecture and fashion.

Ellen Bhamra

References

Stanfill, Sonnet. The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945 (V&A Publishing, 2014)

Vergani, Guido. The Sala Bianca: The Birth of Italian Fashion (Electa, 1992)

Decoding Union Labels

As a  wearer of vintage clothing, I come across numerous interesting garment labels. Some are minimalistic, some are extravagant, some quirky and some plain. One recurrent theme I have found on my clothing is that of the union workers label. I have two items which feature the label of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, or ILGWU, and one for the United Garment Makers of America, or UGMA.

ILGWU label found of a vintage skirt

The ILGWU was created in New York in 1900 and lasted until 1995, when the decline of American-made garments necessitated the merging of fabric worker unions. ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE. UGMA was founded in New York in 1891 and similarly survived until its merging with the United Food and Commercial Workers union in 1994.

UGMA label found on a vintage coat

Purchasing union-made garments was a source of patriotic pride throughout the twentieth century. A consumer of union products supported, whether inadvertently or conscientiously, the cause of fair wages and safe working conditions. Their purchase also directly supported the consumer’s countrymen and women and the national economy. Union labels meant more than that a garment was simply a product of American labour, however. Many labels from both the ILGWU and UGMA include a unique code made up of numbers and letters which identify the specificities of an item’s production. With this code, a consumer could hypothetically locate and contact the exact union member who created his or her garment. This was vital in emphasising that clothing items were created by specific human beings. It could potentially have reminded consumers — distanced from the creation of clothing by ready-to-wear in the mid-twentieth century and fast fashion at the end of the century — that behind their clothes were living, breathing, tax-paying individuals who deserved fair wages and recognition, however minor, for their hard work. 

The author at Ely Cathedral wearing skirt with ILGWU label and coat with UGMA label

The concepts of union labels and unique item codes have been largely lost today, as the majority of garments are exported to places without unions in order to reduce production costs. When you look at, say, the jumper from Primark and the jeans from Topshop which you were given for Christmas, chances are their tags will name foreign countries of origin, lands which most of us have never visited. The distance we feel from the people creating the clothes we wear is recreated and perpetuated by this physical global distance from where our clothes are manufactured.

For more information:

http://ilgwu.ilr.cornell.edu/history/index.html 

http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ 

All photos belong to the author.

Women and Fashion on the Red Carpet

It is awards season in the film industry, which means a proliferation of red carpet fashion reports over the coming weeks. Female actors’ ensembles tend to receive the most attention, with certain garments attracting as much (or more) coverage as their wearer’s nominations. Consequently, red carpet fashion reportage has sometimes been criticised for its apparent focus on style over substance, and in recent years activists have attempted to shift the emphasis from what female actors are wearing to what they are achieving. For example, the #AskHerMore campaign was established in 2014 to encourage red carpet reporters to question female actors about more than their fashion choices.

Ginger Rogers, pictured next to James Stewart, wearing an Irene dress at the 13th Academy Awards, 27 February 1941. Unknown photographer.

It can certainly feel frustrating when female actors are asked solely about their appearance, especially when their male peers receive a wider variety of questions. Red carpet fashion coverage is further problematised because it is connected to the objectification of women as dressed bodies. Close-up, panning footage of a red carpet dress focuses as much on the wearer’s body as it does on the construction of the garment, and fashion-related questions and headlines can quickly become inappropriate or offensive with regards to female actors’ bodies. Feminist criticism of such reporting practices is thus highly relevant in Hollywood’s current climate.

However, not all criticism levelled at red carpet fashion coverage is concerned with the treatment of female actors; sometimes it is based on a notion that fashion is not newsworthy. If coverage of awards ceremonies and nominations is news, coverage of red carpet fashion is still viewed as unimportant by some. Yet, while ‘worst dressed’ listicles or questions about underwear can make the topic of red carpet fashion appear ridiculous, serious coverage of actors’ fashion choices is as relevant as ever. Linked as closely as it is with identity politics, for instance, fashion has an enduring relationship with red carpet protests connected to wider movements. From Ginger Rogers’ donning an economically-cut, American-made dress in an act of wartime solidarity at the 1941 Academy Awards, to the all-black ensembles worn on red carpets in support of the Time’s Up campaign, actors have always known the significance of fashion in the film industry and beyond.

Actors and activists wearing black in support of the Time’s Up campaign at the 75th Golden Globe Awards, 7 January 2018. Photograph by Joe Scarnici.

Moreover, the dismissal of red carpet fashion reports as irrelevant has the same undertones of sexism as inappropriate questions about female actors’ appearances. The historical association of women with fashion is long and unrelenting, with the fashion industry (including fashion journalism) still largely focused on women’s wear and catering to female consumers. Red carpet fashion reports can thus all too easily be undervalued as ‘women’s interest’ pieces, especially when they are published alongside coverage of nominations and awards in the male-dominated film industry.

In light of recent criticism of red carpet fashion coverage, some have suggested that it is no longer appropriate to discuss fashion on the red carpet. This sentiment is understandable, but it is also somewhat facile. Outdated approaches to reporting can only change if red carpet fashion continues to be a topic of conversation.