Dress in Focus Archive

Anatomical Fashion

Dress is so intimately linked to human anatomy. It has the capacity to hide, manipulate and expose our ‘natural’ contours and our skin tone. Dress’s poetic relationship to human anatomy is what separates us from other mammals. It is a truism that our physical bodies have been on the line in the last year. We have been overly conscious of the status of our own healthy bodies as well as those we care about. And by virtue, the value of our dressed bodies have been impacted.

Contemporary American designer and trauma nurse Oluwole Olosunde obliquely addresses fashion’s intimate links with our primal form through his collections. His comfortable-looking streetwear designs quite literally strip the human body to its core. In an interview for The Business of Fashion, Olosunde highlights the similarities between his continued work as a trauma nurse and as a designer: he says in both roles the individual has to have an eye for detail, an understanding of human anatomy and human sensations, but most importantly have empathy. He also notes that both industries have been irreversibly shaken by the pandemic as both have spotlighted the values concerned with healthy bodies.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CKZhDCcnntZ/

 

Olosunde was not the first to have the human body at the front of his design. In 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali collaborated to create the Skeleton dress. Under dimmed lights and by focusing on only the front of the figure, the woman wearing this silk crepe dress would have seamlessly blended in with the crowd of women wearing similarly supple dresses. With the lights up and back turned, however, it would expose the true intention of the trapunto quilting technique. Unmistakably, the dress replicates the human skeleton and creates an almost second skin through the contradictory soft texture of the protruding elements.

 

Skeleton Evening Dress by Elsa Schiaparelli [Source: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O65687/the-skeleton-dress-evening-dress-elsa-schiaparelli/]

Both artists tested the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable within their artistic discipline during a time of increasing anxiety. Schiaparelli’s career has been defined by these surrealist experiments of dress that humorously played with the visual language surrounding the female body and fashion dictates. Her fingernail gloves are another example of this. Dali was similarly concerned with the use of the female body to represent the essence of human anatomy as seen in Voluptuous Death. In a time of anxiety, fear, and economic hardship in Europe, the double image of the human body represents the inescapable and impossible situation of navigating the bridge between internal and external relations.

 

Voluptuous Death by Salvador Dalí [Source: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/dali-in-voluptas-mors_n_4373479]

Conversely, the human body has also been overtly used in fashionable dress as a means to liberate. Mildred Orrick’s 1940 design was informed by a detailed study of the body’s propensity to move. Orrick’s leotard was created with the freedom of movement in mind. In 1943, Harper’s Bazaar praised the leotard: “[the leotard is] a new idea, leading towards the 21st century and the cosmic costumes of Flash Gordon’s Supergirl.” Bazaar was clearly aligning the leotard with the super potential of women in their newly liberated clothing. However, this statement was premature as Orrick’s leotard would not be a success. The ‘body suit’ in fashion would become popular much later, in the 1970s.

 

Penis Pants by Eldridge de Paris [Source: https://www.messynessychic.com/2013/08/01/the-1970s-political-activist-who-invented-penis-pants/]

Male bodies have also come under examination when exploring dress as a supposed means of liberation in the 20th century. Eldridge de Paris, a former black panther member, invented the Penis Pants to represent the idea that men have been castrated through clothing. “Clothing is an extension of the fig leaf — it put our sex inside our bodies,” Cleaver told Newsweek in 1975, “My pants put sex back where it should be.” (I feel like things may have been easier for him if he had just designed a skirt…)

Reasserting the human body through fashion is the purest form of social commentary. During this time of continued uncertainty and anxiety around our bodies, the human body as a design element in dress helps us to navigate our human existence. By appropriating a visual rhetoric that many or all can understand, it encourages empathy which in turn establishes a community of people that can overcome societal structures, bringing them back to their primal form.

By Bethan Carrick

Sources

https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O65687/the-skeleton-dress-evening-dress-elsa-schiaparelli/

http://vestoj.com/the-fig-leaf-mentality/

https://www.wsj.com/articles/still-risque-the-formfitting-bodysuit-rises-again-11574857951

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/dali-in-voluptas-mors_n_4373479

https://www.messynessychic.com/2013/08/01/the-1970s-political-activist-who-invented-penis-pants/

Put on the Garments of Shame: Cross-dressing in 1620

For hundreds of years, women’s fashion has been a magnet for satire and mockery. A woman interested in fashion, astutely observed by feminist scholar Sandra Clark, is often associated with two ‘fruitful themes of misogyny’: frivolous excess and overt sexuality. In a brief (yet repeating) and curious phenomenon, London in the year 1620 saw such satire distort itself into an attack on a particular type of fashionable women – those who were dressing and acting like men.

We should, first, imagine ourselves in the bustling streets of London in the year 1620; King James I was the first Scottish king as the increasingly urban capital became populated with an emerging merchant class that was – controversially, of course – wealthier than ever before. The English Renaissance was at its peak, and theatrical culture was flourishing. Nestled among this transforming social landscape of seventeenth-century England was the strange and sudden condemnation of women wearing men’s clothes.

Man’s doublet of black silk shot with silver, with silver ribbon points, made in England, circa 1630-1635. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Accessed via: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O361542/doublet-unknown/

Evidence of this first emerged in a letter written on 25 January 1620 by prolific author John Chamberlain to a friend outside of the capital. A new fashion was spreading across London, it seemed – he wrote of women in ‘broad brimmed hats’, ‘pointed doublets’, with their hair ‘cut short’. ‘The world is very far out of order’, he lamented. King James I must have too felt a disruption to gendered stability and instructed all bishops and preachers in London to ‘to inveigh vehemently and bitterly … against the insolence of our women’ via their sermons.

Title page of ‘Hic Mulier’. Hic Mulier (London: Eliot’s Court Press, 1620) in E. Arber (ed.) A transcript of the registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1554-1640, (5 vols, 1876).

Soon after the King’s reported orders to the pulpit, on February 9 1620 an anonymously written pamphlet was printed and distributed around London, hatefully entitled Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman. A vitriolic document, it is addressed to the fictional titular character Hic Mulier, a cross-dressing woman who has ‘cast off the ornaments of [her] sexes, to put on the garments of Shame’. These garments of shame, much like the letter of John Chamberlain, included a ‘broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton feather’, and the ‘loose, lascivious embracement of a French doublet, being all unbutton’d to entice all of one[‘s] shape’. To this pamphlet’s anonymous author, the Hic Mulier type, in her confusingly masculine-yet-seductive garments was represented in growing numbers of ‘city wives’ – the new class of wealthy mercantile (not aristocrats nor gentry) women.

A wall painting of two masculine women in broad-brimmed feathered hats, smoking a pipe and holding a mirror. Part; English, c. 1632, painted plaster, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Accessed via: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78991/fragment-of-a-unknown/

Up until this point, fashion was something heavily regulated by the Crown. Sumptuary legislation ensured that only those of high status could wear fine clothes and fabrics like lace and silk. But repeated proclamations of these laws in 1574, 1577, 1580, 1588, and 1597, can only suggest alarm from the government at the growing agency of fashion. For the first time, too, the legislation specifically imposes restrictions on not just men but their wives. Women, clearly, in the context of apparel, were becoming increasingly independent. Fashion itself was upsetting social and gendered order, and as the merchant class became established, the explosion of the cross-dressing controversy in 1620 epitomised this this. Indeed, in the weeks following Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman, two more satirist pamphlets featuring the cross-dressing women were rapidly published and circulated.

Illustration of Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, an infamous London cross-dresser. The title page of the 1611 quarto in The Roaring Girl ed. Paul A. Muholland (Manchester, 1987).

In such a rigid and orderly society, men’s clothes were obviously perceived differently on women’s bodies. The scandalously unbuttoned doublet worn by the androgyne in Hic Mulier was not uncommon in men for in the early seventeenth century; indeed, it was fashionable particularly for artists or poets to sport a somewhat unkempt appearance with open collars and their doublets undone. A woman in an unbuttoned doublet, of course, was no longer melancholic and artistic but immodest and enticing, revealing the natural shape of her body. According to the pamphlets, the cross-dressed woman was the antithesis to the modest, feminine woman, and ‘will give her body to have her bodie deformed’. Crucially, to these moralists, Hic Mulier was conversely masculine in both behaviour and appearance (even carrying a dagger for duelling) yet promiscuous and ‘bawdy’.

Edward Sackville in an unbuttoned doublet. William Larkin, Edward Sackville (1613), oil on canvas; 206.6 x 121.6 cm, Kenwood House: London. Accessed via: https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1610-1619/

This masculine fashion trend clearly exacerbated patriarchal fears of the overtly sexual woman who both looked and indeed acted like a man. But the issue of fashion is also integral – to moralists, wearing masculine clothing served to accentuate a woman’s sexuality, but also highlighted her vanity and frivolity. Unsurprisingly, the illustration on the title page of Hic Mulier depicts a woman in a broad-brimmed feathered hat looking at herself in a mirror.

The only evidence of these masculine-presenting women is in the written criticism and condemnation by men. But it’s affirming that, against the backdrop of socially fluid, urban and increasingly commodified London, a subverting trend in women’s fashion was able to briefly disturb the rigidity of the royal court, pulpit, and press. Although we will never know how many women really cross-dressed in early seventeenth century or what type of women participated, one thing is clear: as long as women’s changing fashions has long caused crises among the male ruling classes, women have been purposefully dressing to subvert, dupe, disguise and express themselves.

By Kathryn Reed

Sources

Clark, Sandra, ‘”Hic Mulier”, “Haec Vir”, and the Controversy over Masculine Women, Studies in Philology 82 2 (1985), pp. 157-183

Hooper, Wilfrid, ‘The Tudor Sumptuary Laws’, The English Historical Review 30 119 (1915), p. 433-449

Newman, Karen, Fashioning Femininity: Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991)

Vincent, Susan J., ‘“When I am in Good Habitt”: Clothes in English Culture c. 1550 – c. 1670’ (PhD dissertation, University of York, 2002)

 

Gunne Sax: A Cottagecore Fantasy

Gunne Sax was founded in 1967, the Summer of Love, by San Francisco-based dressmakers Elle Bailey and Carol Miller. The brand became hugely popular under the direction of Jessica McClintock in the 1970s. Known for their prairie dresses, Gunne Sax designs incorporated elements from various romanticised time periods, from the front-lacings of a medieval kirtle, through the low-cut square neck of Renaissance French gowns, out to Victorian mutton sleeves and the lace inserts of Edwardian tea dresses. They also often resembled traditional folk costume – many look like refashionings of the German dirndl, for instance. The overall effect is one of fairytale escapism. This is a European heritage through American eyes. In 1984, McClintock herself told People magazine ‘I sell romance and fantasy’. The name of the dress, however, suggests the prairie skirts worn by colonisers in the mid-19th century. The dresses were popular with hippies in the 1970s, connecting back to the more progressive politics of the sixties and therefore appealing to the young women for whom they were made. Yet the invocation of “traditional values” in the whitewashed historical references and relative modesty of the designs made them double agents, and therefore supremely financially viable.

The overarching sense of historical fantasy is picked up by Laird Borrelli-Persson in an article for Vogue.com in 2016, entitled ‘How the Gunne Sax Dress Went From Cliché to Cool’. She writes that “at the end of what was, for many, an annus horribilis, the escapist fantasy aspect of Gunne Sax dresses resonates and makes them look fresh, not frumpy.” 2016 might well have been a horrible year for America, but 2020 was unfathomable in terms of collective trauma. If we take this need for escape and nostalgia as a key factor in the resurgence of Gunne Sax-style prairie dresses, it makes sense that we have seen so many iterations of the prairie dress in recent years, in a time of such huge socio-political upheaval. From Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2019 and Gucci fall/winter 2020, to Cecilie Bahnsen and Batsheva autumn/winter 2019, to Ganni and Dôen’s most recent collections, prairie dresses have already been established as a wardrobe essential of sorts.

Batsheva A/W 19 Final Look Prairie Wedding Dress

But then came cottagecore, an internet aesthetic which revolves around a romanticised western pastoral, free from the urban spaces to which so many of us have been confined through quarantine. As Rowan Ellis points out in her video ‘why is cottagecore so gay?’, cottagecore is not a subculture, but imagery consumed online, through social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok. But even if a cottage in the woods is unavailable to most, there are active elements of a cottagecore lifestyle that are available to all. Speaking to i-D, 16-year-old Redditor InfamousBees says “I can make bread in a tiny city apartment. I can grow herbs in my windowsill or in flowerpots or in old mugs. I can surround myself with loved, cared-for plants that can thrive on little sunlight. I don’t need a huge yard to have a few chickens or a big, fluffy dog. I certainly don’t need a cottage to be vulnerable with my girlfriend.” These small things are all examples of behavioural activation, small goals that result in positive rewards. The queer roots of this focus on handmaking and craft are outlined beautifully by Eleanor Medhurst in her article ‘Cottagecore Lesbians And The Landdyke Legacy’. Here, she discusses landdyke ecofeminism, which is based on a network of communities of lesbian activists. One function of these communes has traditionally been “living important values through everyday acts”, like the small rituals that link teenagers looking at images online to the aesthetic that underlines those images. Gunne Sax dresses, as they are now necessarily bought vintage – by virtue of the closure of the brand – play into the ecological concerns of cottagecore enthusiasts, but also hold a sense of the significance and integrity of something owned before. They hold stories of the past and therefore connect us to other human beings. There is community in pre-owned clothing.

@widowmeiker

Very princess-y haul today! Going to try to post some collection videos this week! #gunnesax #brigerton #vintage #aesthetic #cottagecore #princesscore

♬ original sound – Madeline The Person

Yet this is a community in which few can participate. Gunne Sax dresses, though labelled “affordable” by Borrelli-Persson, tend to sell at around £300 a garment, which is unreasonably expensive for most. They are also size restrictive – though a prairie dress looks great on everyone, most Gunne Sax examples for sale are between an XS and an S – even as a mid-size girl, I’ve yet to find one that will fit me. These price and size restrictions reflect some of the more problematic aspects of the aesthetic, which align with its predecessors. Ronald Creagh identifies hippies as the last guard of utopian socialism, following in the footsteps of the Romantics and William Morris, but I would argue that cottagecore is reflective of this ideology, too. It falls into many of the same pitfalls – an idea from the mind of those who are alienated from the real toil of farm life, who do not know the struggles of working the land, and who think of it only as “simple”, at their most detached approaching Marie Antoinette and her model farm, Le Hameau de la Reine.

A third problem with the cottagecore aesthetic is the exclusion of BIPOC – if you look under the hashtags for Gunne Sax, almost every photo is of a thin white woman. Indeed, many of the touchpoints of the aesthetic are of colonial Western Europe. Leah Sinclair argues that “black women embracing cottagecore is an act of defiance”. Like many exercises in reclamation, it is both ambivalent and powerful. Some of my favourite BIPOC cottagecore creators include @hillhousevintage, @obrienandolive, @sallyomo, @puffybunni, @victoriamisu and @camriehewie.

https://www.tiktok.com/@enchanted_noir/video/6920707784816233733?sender_device=pc&sender_web_id=6934974510681179653&is_from_webapp=v1&is_copy_url=0

However, the white supremacist possibilities and the traditionally patriarchal values espoused by the aesthetic have drawn interest from alt-right circles, particularly through the figure of the tradwife, a woman whose position is based on traditional wifely activities, namely cooking, cleaning and babymaking. It’s substantially different from being a housewife, a job which (like many caring professions) is vastly undervalued in society today, because it relies on an ideology that dictates that women are naturally more gentle, more submissive, and weaker. It’s also clearly trans- and homophobic. In so many ways, it is the opposite of the WLW cottagecore community. The danger in an aesthetic, perhaps even more so than a subculture, is that the focus on imagery rather than politics allows for the visual markers of a group to be taken up by those who actively wish harm to others who might look or dress quite like them. Ultimately, the success of cottagecore online is its marketability. To span both sides of the political spectrum is quite a feat, and there’s huge commercial potential to be tapped, which is, I’m sure, partly why we’ve seen such a proliferation of Gunne Sax-style dresses in the past few years, and why the imagery has been pushed forward by the algorithms: it makes people buy. But even if this is the drive behind its popularity, the value of community and care, environmental activism, handmaking and crafts which cottagecore encourages are not lessened by that fact. If anything, it provides a drive to make a world where these things are valued more.

By Alexandra Sive

 

Sources

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5odKiL7jRW0

https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/g5xjgj/cottagecore-aesthetic-lgbt-teens-tumblr-tik-tok

https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/ep4egw/is-cottagecore-a-colonialist-fantasy-

https://dressingdykes.com/2020/08/28/cottagecore-lesbians-and-the-landdyke-legacy/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/style/cottagecore.html

https://www.vogue.com/article/vintage-trends-gunne-sax-dress

https://zora.medium.com/black-women-embracing-cottagecore-is-an-act-of-defiance-3df8696d8811

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/people-explain-why-baked-bread-quarantine_l_5ec73570c5b6698f38f5035c

https://www.verywellmind.com/increasing-the-effectiveness-of-behavioral-activation-2797597

 

 

The Italian suit: Fellini, Mastroianni and Jep Gambardella

Suits have been considered ‘naturally masculine’ since their birth in the late seventeenth century, as argued by fashion scholar Anne Hollander. Tracing their modern evolution back to the Enlightenment, when a rediscovery of Ancient Greek and Roman ideals took place, Hollander explains that the survival of modern suits is due to their simultaneous suggestion of classical nudity and confident male sexuality. In Italy, the sartorial suit has come to represent the quintessential mise of elegant and fashionable men, reinforced by the outfits of two characters embodying an image of Italian masculinity and style recognised worldwide: Marcello Rubini of La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), and his modern reincarnation, Jep Gambardella, the protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza (2013). Their suits speak of the most refined Italian sartorial tradition, emblematic of a vision of the Italian ‘Latin Lover’ much indebted to Fellini’s masterpiece.

Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960) gave birth to a powerful trope signifying Italian style, fashion and glamour, recognized both in Italy and abroad. Especially in terms of menswear, the movie started a real revolution. Piero Gherardi, costume designer, set designer and art director of La Dolce Vita, chose for Marcello Mastroianni Brioni’s ‘Roman style’ suits, which he wore throughout the film. The brand, founded in Rome in 1945 by tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and businessman Gaetano Savini, received greater exposure thanks to the incredible success of the movie and became known as the epitome of Italian sartorial elegance. As opposed to the Savile Row’s ‘boxy, almost military suits of stiff lines and finite palette of materials, colors and details’, Brioni put forward a form-fitting style of suits for men: ‘elegant, impeccably made, and undeniably formal’, but also relaxed and unpretentious.

Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita wearing the Brioni “Roman Style” suit. (https://www.artribune.com/attualita/2014/02/percezioni-proiezioni-dellitalia/attachment/2_marcello-mastroianni-ne-la-dolce-vita-federico-fellini-1960/)

This was the starting point of a different image of masculinity, one that moved past Flügel’s idea of ‘Great Masculine Renunciation,’ in which – since the end of the eighteenth century –men had abandoned their beauty in favour of being ‘only useful’. The character of Marcello Rubini, a socialite journalist part of the Roman elite made of Hollywood stars like Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), and incredibly wealthy youth like Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), became the symbol of this revolution, reclaiming menswear’s right to draw attention to itself. Fellini played a crucial role in the establishment of this attire, and it is not a coincidence that in his three movies starring Mastroianni – La Dolce Vita (1960), (1963) and City of Women (1980) – the costumes worn by the Italian actor are variations of the classic male suit. The cynical journalist Marcello Rubini, the indecisive director Guido Anselmi and the middle-aged businessman Snàporaz, all equally tormented by feminine figures who seem to dominate their universe, can be seen sporting the dark suit – completed with a white or striped shirt, and a dark tie – and the almost inevitable pair of dark glasses. These elements transformed Mastroianni into ‘the man everybody wanted to be, or be with,’ a model of consumption for a consumer society, whether European or American, and the embodiment of the Italian ‘Latin Lover.’

Marcello Mastroianni in 8½. Photo by Paul Ronald. Centro Cinema Città di Cesena. (https://iicberlino.esteri.it/iic_berlino/de/gli_eventi/calendario/2017/02/ciao-marcello.html)

Today, the symbol of the suit has become an integral part of Italian culture and style, and the character of Marcello still echoes in modern productions, such as Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza (2013). Jep Gambardella, the protagonist of the movie, seems to be shaped as an older version of Marcello Rubini: same profession, same social milieu, and above all the same sense of fashion. There are some almost identical outfits worn at similar occasions, such as the black suit and tie as everyday uniform, and the impeccable white suit they both sport at the beach – or near it, in the case of Jep. The white suit – an equally iconic style that continues to appear in menswear collections – was symptomatic of the introduction of colour that characterized the new style created by Brioni, which also presented red as one of the colours of men’s eveningwear.

Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. Cineteca di Bologna/Reporters associati. (https://iicberlino.esteri.it/iic_berlino/de/gli_eventi/calendario/2017/02/ciao-marcello.html)

Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo) wearing the white suit as he visits the place where the cruise ship Costa Concordia sank. Photo by Janus Film, 2013. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2358891/mediaviewer/rm96719360/)

All these elements were translated in the style of Jep, whose outfits included red and yellow sport jackets matched with white cotton trousers and shirts, worn without ties for a more relaxed look. Behind Jep’s impeccable image stands another historical sartoria, Cesare Attolini of Naples, birthplace of Sorrentino, Servillo and the character of Jep, too. One of the oldest and finest sartorie in Naples, Attolini created a series of bespoke suits with the help of Servillo himself and costume designer Daniela Ciancio, who decided to mix them with more formal Armani suits. Jep’s tailor-made outfits seem to caress his body as he slowly and elegantly walks among the ‘great beauty’ of Rome, constituting a ‘soft armour’ and ‘his shield against the ugliness and vulgarity of the world.’ They are as eccentric and dandyish as Gambardella himself, in a way that perfectly matches his tenor of life. In fact, by alternating scenes of ‘high life,’ be it the extravagant parties on Jep’s terrace or his night-time walks around the city’s splendid streets, Sorrentino represented a sense of wealth, both cultural and economical, that often degenerates into pure excess.

Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo) wearing a red sport jacket by sartoria Attolini. (https://www.thomasmason.co.uk/it/articles/colour-depth-and-darkness-tailoring-in-the-great-beauty/)

Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo) wearing a yellow sport jacket by sartoria Attolini. (https://www.thomasmason.co.uk/it/articles/colour-depth-and-darkness-tailoring-in-the-great-beauty/)

Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo) in a black suit and tie in La Grande Bellezza. (https://www.thomasmason.co.uk/it/articles/colour-depth-and-darkness-tailoring-in-the-great-beauty/)

The emphasis on the artisanal, made-by-hand and luxury aspect of the ‘Made in Italy,’ represented by Attolini’s suits for La Grande Bellezza, as well as Brioni’s in La Dolce Vita, reflects a globally defining mark of Italian style that especially characterises men’s sartorial elegance. These suits present a specific economic and cultural value which identifies the men who wear them with a certain type of masculinity not predetermined but rather culturally and publicly sustained. Worn and afforded only by certain individuals, socialites and trendsetters, they become emblems of a lascivious lifestyle that characterised, and still characterises, the model of the ‘Latin Lover,’ presented on screen through the figures of Marcello Rubini and Jep Gambardella.

By Simona Mezzina

 

Sources

Flügel, J. C. The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth Press & the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1940.

Hochkofler, Matilde. Marcello Mastroianni: the fun of cinema. Translated by Jocelyn Earle. Rome: Gremese International, 1992.

Levy, Shawn. Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome. London: Hachette UK, 2016.

Paulicelli, Eugenia. Italian Style: Fashion & Film from Early Cinema to the Digital Age. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Reich, Jacqueline. Beyond the Latin lover: Marcello Mastroianni, masculinity, and Italian cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

 

Films

(Federico Fellini, Italy, 1963).

City of Women (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1980).

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1960).

La Grande Bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2013).

Rose-Coloured Tresses: Pink Hair for Dark Times

Every February, like clockwork, I am struck with the sudden urge to dye my hair pink.  The desire is almost inexplicable. Perhaps by this point it is a force of habit or evidence of my desire to blend in with saccharine Valentine’s Day decor, but it also feels like a small act of rebellion against the onslaught of bitter, grey days that blur together in late winter. This season it seems that I am not alone in this desire. Teen Vogue has deemed pink hair to be the ‘defining aesthetic’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. This statement is supported by Alex Brownsell, founder of the hair salon Bleach known for its wild colours (and, for the record, producer of this author’s favourite at-home pink dye kit), who told The Guardian that her company has sold one pink hair product every 30 seconds in the past year – which makes for nearly 2,880 people buying bubblegum hues each day since the pandemic began.

While the exact number of Londoners sporting pink hair in lockdown remains difficult to calculate, the reasons the trend has spiked so much this year seem quite simple. Lockdown has felt like an endless late winter slump, each dreary day blending into the next and the familiar walls of our homes beginning to feel, well, too familiar. The visual equivalent of candyfloss made to top your head has the effect of a jolt of sugar to the system – an instant mood booster. Additionally, with screens limiting our outward appearance to the shoulders up, pink hair seems an easy way to set oneself apart from the crowd in an onslaught of endless Zoom calls. (I’ve also found that I receive many more smiles on the street with pink hair – proof perhaps that it’s not just my mood that the colour brightens).

Using blush hair as a distraction from dark times, however, is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. As long ago as Rococo France, men and women tinted their hair pink with powder, a trend which, in hindsight, may have been one of the more minor frivolous diversions from their festering societal problems. Several centuries later, pink hair took on a more practical purpose in cheering up citizens of a war-stricken nation. A 1940 issue of St. Joseph’s News Press proclaims a new fashion for pink hair, writing that across London: ‘Blondes are going to turn pink…for khaki and blonde don’t go together too well. The new pink fashion is becoming especially popular among women in uniform. The new pink tint is the invention of a West End hairstylist, who said that uniforms are playing a big part in hair fashions’.

As Pat Kirkham establishes in ‘Keeping Up the Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain,’ hairstyling and beauty products were essential to the identity of women enlisted in the British military, who were encouraged to maintain traditionally feminine appearances both to differentiate themselves from male soldiers and to project a polished, confident image of unified nationalism. Women not enlisted in the military were similarly encouraged to adhere to their usual beauty routines or enhance them even further, as means of offering comfort to themselves and their families that all was well on the home front. In light of this, unnaturally pink hair seems to be a choice motivated by much more than the fact that blonde hair clashed with khaki uniforms. It seems more likely, perhaps, that a coif of pink hair poked out from a sea of khaki like a beacon of optimism, offering brief respite from the drabness of wartime rationing and imposed service. In occupied Paris, cosmetics took on an air of rebellion, signifying a refusal to adhere to the plainness essential to Nazi standards of femininity. Just four years after the liberation of Paris, the High Fashion Coiffeurs Union showed a shade of pale pink called ‘hermine rose’ as the hair colour of the season, which reads as a jubilant celebration of the full potential of beauty products.

Luminex hair dye ad shown in L’Officiel, late 1930s-early 1940s.

The trend for rosy locks was widespread enough to necessitate options for women who were not ready to take the plunge into permanently colouring their hair. A 1947 piece in Women’s Wear Daily describes how women could purchase pink nylon hair from British designer Bianca Mosca to mix with their own hair, creating a style that coordinated with their pastel evening gowns. A 1942 issue of Harper’s Bazaar praises socialite Mrs. Arturo Lopez-Willshaw for her ‘immaculate and lovely’ hair styles, braided creations that were festooned with pink velvet bows and pearls.

Lapinal hair colour chart, late 1950s, image via Etsy, https://www.etsy.com/listing/894710740/vintage-lapinal-hair-color-chart-poster.

Just ten years later, a brochure for Lapinal hair colour offered no fewer than four shades of pink available to women dyeing their hair at home. In 1964, famed costume designer Edith Head brought pink hair to the silver screen in the movie What a Way to Go! with Shirley MacLaine in a Pepto-Bismol hued bouffant and a fur coat to match. In a London where we are blessedly free from military draft and enemy occupation, pink hair seems a bit less shocking – these days it’s been seen on everyone from Kate Moss to Kylie Jenner. The sentiment behind the style, however, remains unchanged: when the going gets tough, it helps to look at the world with rose-coloured tresses.

Promotional image for What a Way to Go!, 1964, directed by J. Lee Thompson. 20th Century Fox.

By Ruby Redstone

Sources:

Bateman, Kristin. ‘How Pink Hair Came to Define the Aesthetic of Covid-19,’ Teen Vogue. 22 December 2020. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/pink-hair-aesthetic-covid-19.

Elan, Priya. ‘Why pink hair is the “statement-making” hair color trend of the pandemic,’ The Guardian. 8 January 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2021/jan/08/pink-hair-color-trend-pandemic.

Felsenthal, Julia. ‘Pink Hair is All the Rage – Just Like it Was in 1914,’ Slate. 12 May 2011. https://slate.com/culture/2011/05/pink-hair-is-all-the-rage-just-like-it-was-in-1914.html.

Kirkham, Pat, ‘Keeping up Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain,’ in   Atkins, Jacqueline M. ed., Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-45 (New Haven and London: BGC/Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 205-228

‘New Pink Hair Fashion’. St Joseph’s News Press. 14  September 1940. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=G4hkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=U3UNAAAAIBAJ&dq=pink%20hair%20history&pg=6185%2C2174950.

‘Paris Picks Pink Hair-Calls It “Hermine Rose”’. Toledo Blade. 2 December 1948. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=mNMpAAAAIBAJ&sjid=AgAEAAAAIBAJ&dq=pink%20hair%20history&pg=2723%2C5938092

“Pink Nylon Hair.” Women’s Wear Daily 75, no. 48 (Sep 08, 1947): 3. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/pink-nylon-hair/docview/1627474466/se-2?accountid=10277.

“SCRAPBOOK.” Harper’s Bazaar 76, no. 2772 (12, 1942): 58-59. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/scrapbook/docview/1832465226/se-2?accountid=10277.

“Shopping Bazaar.” Harper’s Bazaar 71, no. 2704 (01, 1938): 32-37. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/shopping-bazaar/docview/1832491061/se-2?accountid=10277.

The Pas de Deux of Fashion and Ballet

As a little girl, I watched prima ballerinas dress up in flowing tutus and sparkly leotards to perform seemingly impossible manoeuvres with only their bodies and a pair of pointe shoes. Slipping into my own tights, leotard, and shoes while pinning my hair into the tightest bun possible felt like a daily badge of honour. As a former ballerina, I can’t help but admire the intricate, graceful look of ballet costumes and how their designs highlight the elegance of a dancer’s body.

Ballet and fashion are inextricably intertwined, with each art form both inspiring and drawing inspiration from the other. Anna Pavlova, a world-renowned prima ballerina of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wore a particularly striking tutu in her 1905 performance of ‘The Dying Swan,’ a four-minute ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. Pavlova performed the piece thousands of times over the course of her career, and her rendition influenced contemporary versions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Her costume features a tight bodice with soft panels, reminiscent of a swan’s wings, on either side of her tutu and a feathered headpiece.

‘Cygne Noir,’ an evening gown designed by Christian Dior in the mid-twentieth century, reimagined elements of Pavlova’s timeless costume. The gown also incorporates a tight bodice and its skirt billows out in a waterfall of silk and velvet. Furthermore, the gown reconceives the silky panels of Pavlova’s tutu. If Pavlova’s costume embodies the demure fragility of the white swan, Dior’s gown radiates the mystery and seduction of the black swan.

Herman Mishkin, ‘Anna Pavlova, costumed as the dying swan,’ 1905. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Christian Dior, Cygne Noir (Black Swan)
Evening Dress
1949-1950 (made)
Victoria and Albert Museum

The leotard, a fundamental component of ballet costumes and rehearsal wear, has been consistently reimagined and incorporated into fashion. In 1943, Harper’s Bazaar introduced ‘The Leotard Idea’ based on designs created by Mildred Orrick. With sportswear dominating wartime fashion, fashion editor Diana Vreeland hoped to introduce the styles to young women, particularly college girls. She worked with renowned sportswear designer Claire McCardell and Townley Sports to create ‘variations of the leotard theme,’ but the designs were ultimately too expensive to manufacture. However, twenty-first century bodysuits recycle this traditional piece of balletwear into contemporary streetwear.

‘The Leotard Idea,’ Harper’s Bazaar, 1943.

Stella McCartney, ‘Stella Wear Modern Open-Knit Bodysuit’ via https://www.neimanmarcus.com/p/stella-mccartney-stella-wear-modern-open-knit-bodysuit-prod234870329

Twentieth-century camp also seized upon the connection between ballet and fashion. Franco Moschino designed a strapless dress for his fall/winter collection of 1989, combining a bustier top with the ballet pink of a leotard. The dress is an optical illusion, depicting a pair of legs in pink tights and pointe shoes posing in passé, underneath a cropped, pink tulle tutu that protrudes from the black skirt. The ensemble comes alive as the wearer moves; a simple shift in direction sends the legs on the skirt spiralling into a pirouette.

Franco Moschino (Italian, 1950–1994) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983). Dress, fall/winter 1989. Courtesy of Moschino. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ballet slippers and pointe shoes are another source of consistent inspiration in fashion. Ballet slippers were first introduced in the eighteenth century by Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo, a French dancer who preferred to perform in soft slippers as opposed to high-heeled shoes, breaking away from traditional dance footwear. A century later, Swedish ballerina Marie Taglioni pioneered the creation of the pointe shoe, which would be further advanced by Anna Pavlova. Pavlova also worked with Salvatore Capezio to create the world’s first international pointe shoe brand. Pointe shoes and ballet slippers were traditionally made for white female ballet dancers. Therefore, pale pink – perceived to be close to the colour of white skin – became the standardised colour for ballet tights and shoes.

Until as recently as 2018, dancers of colour were forced to dye their pointe shoes. As most ballerinas go through two to three pairs of point shoes per week, many dancers spent as much as eight-hundred dollars per year on dyes. However, ballet manufacturers like Gaynor Minden have finally recognised the need to accommodate ballerinas of colour, and ballet shoes are now available in a range of satin colours that represent a wider variety of skin tones.

‘Melle. Taglioni dans La sylphide,’ 1860. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Gaynor Minden’s satin shades for pointe shoes via https://dancer.com/satin-colors/

Modern, prêt-à-porter ballet flats echo their onstage ancestors. They exploded in popularity after Rose Repetto designed flats for Brigitte Bardot in 1956, which Bardot later wore in her film …And God Created Woman. Today’s ballet flats come in a range of colours and styles from various designers, and often feature the dainty bow and soft leather that define the ballet slipper. Brands like Repetto and Chanel continuously revamp the classic silhouettes each season. However, some feature modern twists, such as Simone Rocha’s combination of a ballet flat and trainer. Even the design’s crisscross straps resemble pointe shoe ribbons.

Simone Rocha spring/summer 2021 shoes via https://www.vogue.co.uk/miss-vogue/article/simone-rocha-ss21-shoes

Ballet and fashion have also been linked in popular culture and advertising. Stuart Weitzman released a series of advertisements for the 2019 holiday season called ‘Step Inside,’ featuring Misty Copeland, one of the foremost prima ballerinas of the twenty-first century. In one variation, Copeland wears a black bralette and black tulle skirt, modernising the traditional tutu. Her shoes change colour as she chaînés across the room, aligning the artistry of ballet with the ephemerality of fashion.

 

Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw wore a pink sleeveless bodysuit and white tulle skirt in the opening sequence of Sex and the City (1998-2004). With love of fashion being one of the show’s central themes, Bradshaw’s ballerina-meets-urban-woman look kicked off every episode, embodying the timeless elegance of the relationship between fashion and ballet. Although I am no longer a ballerina, ballet flats, bodysuits, and the occasional tulle skirt are staples in my wardrobe, and I can’t wait to scoop up more reinvented pieces that put me onstage again.

By Genevieve Davis

Sources:

Arnold, Rebecca. “Sportswear and the New York Fashion Industry during the Second World War.” In the American Look: Fashion and the Image of Women in 1930’s and 1940’s New York. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.

Daher, Nadine. “From Ballerina Flats to Tutus, Ballet Has Left Its Mark on Fashion.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ballerina-flats-tutus-ballet-has-left-its-mark-fashion-180974296/.

Marshall, Alex. “Brown Point Shoes Arrive, 200 Years After White Ones.” The New York Times, November 4, 2018, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/arts/dance/brown-point-shoes-diversity-ballet.html.

Pike, Naomi. “It’s A Ballet Slipper, But Not as You Know It: Simone Rocha Has Created A Shoe We Never Knew We Needed.” British Vogue. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.vogue.co.uk/miss-vogue/article/simone-rocha-ss21-shoes.

Pointe. “1820s–1830s: Marie Taglioni and the Romantic Ballerinas,” August 5, 2020. https://www.pointemagazine.com/history-of-pointe-shoes-2646384074.html?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3?rebelltitem=3.

Staff, C. R. “The History of Ballet Flats.” CR Fashion Book, October 15, 2019. https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/a24663992/the-history-of-ballet-flats/.

The Bimbo: A Fashion Icon

The bimbo has recently been reclaimed as a feminist icon by Gen Z content creators on TikTok. By their standards, being a bimbo involves a self-aware performance of hyper-femininity, whether ‘you’re a girl, a gay or a they’, according to Queen Bimbo Chrissy Chlapecka. There’s even a space for straight ‘himbos’, too. As ‘thembo’ Griffin Maxwell tells Rolling Stone, ‘if [being a bimbo] was originally about catering to the male gaze, we’re taking that back.’ Though originally, bimbos were thin, white women, those reclaiming the term are not bound by the patriarchy’s expectations of white femininity. This performance often includes, but is not limited to, peroxide blonde hair, heavy makeup and false nails and eyelashes… Before the inevitably pink and sparkly garments have even been put on, the body is made bimbo. This aesthetic of artifice is precisely camp. As Susan Sontag puts it, ‘the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural,’ but modern bimbos are not ‘de-politicised’ in the way that Sontag believed camp should be.

Indeed, a fundamental of the movement is its leftist values – bimbos are pro-choice, pro-sex work, pro-BLM and pro-LGBTQ+. It encounters many of the same stumbling blocks as choice feminism, especially when it comes to cosmetic surgery and upholding oppressive beauty standards. But in its extreme, almost parodic, hyper-femininity, bimbofication also requires us to remove the assumption that femininity is equal to stupidity, naivety, and weakness. This article will take a look at three iconic bimbo fashion moments of the past, and how they have influenced the present.

Perhaps the most famous bimbo of Old Hollywood is Marilyn Monroe’s character, Lorelei Lee, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Her most iconic outfit in the film is from the musical number ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’: the dress has its own Wikipedia page. Costume designer William Travilla originally designed an incredibly bejewelled, showgirl body stocking, but after nude photographs of Monroe (shot for a calendar before she had made it big) were leaked, the pink dress was created instead. It is constructed of a hot pink peau d’ange satin, with matching opera gloves and shoes by Ferragamo. The straight neckline covers Monroe’s cleavage, though the huge bow – which was stuffed with horsehair and feathers for shape – emphasises the movement of her hips as she dances. This extension of her physical expression is where the sensuality of the dress lies.

Aside from pink, the other essential component to any bimbo ensemble is sparkle.  Monroe’s wrist, neck and ears all drip in diamonds from Harry Winston. Crucially there is no diamond ring, a symbol since the late thirties that a woman was ‘taken.’ In this way, she is free from male ownership – the power is hers to choose. Monroe’s character is a gold-digger: she believes that women’s power is in their looks and men’s is in their money.  The mutual objectification gives all financial, and therefore all tangible and enduring power to men. Though she is painted and played as ditzy, Lorelei Lee is very successful in securing precisely what she desires: a very rich man.

The ditziness of this character has often been ascribed to Monroe herself. Rosenbaum beautifully illustrates this in his article Merry Marilyn, where he writes that her private speech is peppered with ‘citations from and sophisticated discussion of Freud’s introductory lectures, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare and William Congreve.’ He goes on to write that ‘the difficulty some people have discerning Monroe’s intelligence as an actress is rooted in the ideology of a repressive era, when super-feminine women weren’t supposed to be smart.’ If you’ve read any of the comments on BimboTok, you might argue that such an era has not yet passed.

The second, absolutely iconic look I want to explore is Dolly Parton’s pink, flared jumpsuit. It was worn for her 1974 performance of ‘Jolene’ on The Porter Wagoner Show, which launched her into stardom. The set of the show is old-fashioned and homey, with cardboard cut-out houses and a painted Western sunset in the distance. Juxtaposed against it, Parton’s outfit seems dramatically new.

 

 

The jumpsuit is magenta with bell bottoms and bell sleeves, flaring her whole silhouette so that she is literally larger than life. Her waist is picked up with a rhinestone belt and her chest sparkles with the jewels, too. Her body is totally covered by fabric, yet emphasised in the process. The white lace inserts on her sleeves fulfil much the same function as the bow on Monroe’s dress, completing her movement as she performs. Her hair, the same peroxide blonde as Monroe’s, is backcombed and teased to the gods.

Parton is staunchly apolitical in public, uncomfortably so for many of her fans. Above all, she is a businesswoman (hence her silence on most divisive issues), but, when it comes to gay rights, she breaks her silence to defend them. Like Monroe, she is constantly underestimated but, to Parton, it is a strength of sorts: ‘I’ve done business with men who think I am as silly as I look. By the time they realise I’m not, I’ve got the money and gone.’

The third and final bimbo fashion moment of this article is Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, specifically the court scene – a performance of a very different kind.

In a room full of men in dark suits, Witherspoon’s pink and sparkly dress pops. The body of the dress is hot pink, calling on the power of bimbos past. The wrap shape recalls the Diane von Fürstenberg dresses so popular with working women for their ease, comfort, and modest, yet flattering cut. The collar is wide, and with the cuffs suggest the shirt of an eighties Wall Street banker. This brings a high masculine element to the dress, but reframes it within the feminine by virtue of the cotton-candy, satin material. This same fabric is used on the rhinestone belt – which seems inappropriate in a court room setting, just like Woods herself. Yet ultimately, she wins the case, proving she is just as worthy as any of the law firm bros in the background. Like many other women, she overcomes sexual harassment and constant underestimation to gain the same respect as the men in the room. Regardless of the realism of the film, it is a situation which many women recognise all too well.

Bimbos continue to show up the ways in which society continually undermines and underestimates those who present as hyper-feminine. The real question is whether bimbofication is a revolutionary act – a detournement of the societal ideal – or one that plays into late-capitalist expectations of womanhood, and thereby is recuperated into misogyny.

By Alexandra Sive

Sources:

(https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/bimbo-reclaim-tiktok-gen-z-1092253/)

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe’s_pink_dress)

(https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/gallery/dolly-parton-best-quotes?image=5de1086e310d8c00088a752f)

 

Alice V Robinson: Confronting Consumerism

‘374’ is a collection of accessories and outerwear that includes: sleek, tan knee-high boots with a mid-heel; a belted suede mac with silver fastenings (and a second, interchangeable belt featuring cowhide pouches); a tan leather bucket bag with a silver clasp; suede mules; a cowhide jacket. Part of the collection – conceived, designed and created by Alice V Robinson – went on display at the V&A in 2019 as part of the exhibition Food: Bigger than the Plate. Visitors were able to get a closer look at the solid silver plates and leather tags engraved and embossed with the number ‘374’, a reference to ‘Bullock 374’, a longhorn bullock from whom the entire collection was created.

Alice V Robinson graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2018. Her degree collection, the predecessor to ‘374’, involved her purchasing a sheep (‘11458’) from a farm nearby where she grew up, attending its slaughter and designing a collection to make use of the entire animal. The resulting cream-coloured knitted jumper, finger gloves and butter-toned leather bag, shoes and purse are elegant and contemporary. Burgers made from the leftover meat were served at the degree show, shocking some attendees.

Robinson’s approach to the ethical and environmental concerns of the fashion industry was based on the attempts of the food industry to tackle their own similar production problems. Using a by-product of meat, Robinson was able to address the issues around sourcing fashion’s materials: the hide of ‘374’ would have otherwise been incinerated, at cost to the farmer who raised him. Her resource-led process and a zero-waste objective enabled her to work creatively and respectfully within the limits posed by what was available: ‘it is all defined by the animal used’. While supply chains can be murky in both industries, Robinson’s small-scale, entirely localised production allowed for complete traceability and transparency. Her process also demanded slowness, that desirable but elusive antidote to rampant consumerism, leaving her ‘unable to stick to the same deadlines as others in my class’ as she awaited the completion of each step. Style, too, is one of the most significant aspects of the collections’ sustainability. Classic pieces designed and made thoughtfully from durable materials, they are built to last without needing replacement, thereby negating the need for future production.

It would be impossible to label this experiment as half-hearted greenwashing: it rips apart received ideas about sustainable fashion. Leather goods, like fur, have been demonised by some animal rights activists since the 1990s (unlike fur, however, leather remains prevalent and widely accepted) and, as in the food industry, veganism is considered by many to be the only ethical and environmentally-sound choice. Instead, Robinson confronts the reality of the cycle of production and consumption, including the violence, sometimes overlooked, that is undeniably present within the fashion industry. By identifying the once-living source of her materials by name, Robinson plays on the shame of many carnivores who admit that they would feel uneasy witnessing the death of their future food, or in this case, garment. The numerical name tricks the viewer-consumer, putting a figure to a life and, once the significance is illuminated, revealing the distance created between that life and its outcome. Wearing, like eating, is an embodied experience, which adds emotional weight to the subjects of fashion and food. Robinson’s method is certainly shocking to consumers accustomed to facing only the end product but, in some ways, violence seems the appropriate response to a system that is so frequently violent to its workers and ecosystem, in often only thinly veiled ways.

The ethics of Robinson’s project are far from clear-cut, but her exploration is valid and thoughtful. In its refusal to shy away from reality, it demonstrates a kindness that is missing from many attempts at sustainability in fashion. By borrowing lessons from the food industry, it builds ‘a bridge between farming and fashion where values between the two [are] mirrored’. This uncomfortable collection reveals that the most important directive for a sustainable system is to keep questioning, experimenting and reworking, because there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

By Lucy Corkish

 

Alice V Robinson, 374. Installation image at FOOD Bigger than the Plate © the artist. Photo Victoria and Albert Museum, London (https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/inside-the-food-bigger-than-the-plate-exhibition)

 

Sources:

Catherine Flood and May Rosenthal Sloan, Food: Bigger than the Plate (2019)

Alice V Robinson, personal website (https://alicevictoriarobinson.com)

Rebecca Speare-Cole, ‘Budding London designer who makes clothes from entire animals to promote zero waste on show at V&A’ (2019) (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/budding-london-designer-who-makes-clothes-from-entire-animals-to-promote-zero-waste-on-show-at-v-a-a4230996.html)

Rosario Morabito, ‘Fashion is a living thing: the RCA fashion show 2018’ (2018) (https://www.vogue.it/en/vogue-talents/fashion-schools-vogue-talents/2018/06/22/rca-royal-college-of-art-londra-fashion-show-students-2018/?refresh_ce=)

Tea Gowns: At-Home Style in Victorian England

Months of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus has kept much of the world inside, limiting our social and professional interactions to computer screens and causing even the most sartorially-conscious to shed our typical trappings. Jeans, we bemoan, are far too stiff for Zooming from our living rooms, even though they once seemed fine for eight-hour office days bookended by crowded commutes. Fabulous faux-furs that once eased our winter blues? Useless now–it’s not like we’re headed anywhere that requires a coat! Many have struggled to strike a balance between the clothing that keeps us snug in our homes and wardrobes that offers us power and a sense of self in the crowded public world, a dilemma encapsulated quite neatly and comically in the pajama-trousered, dressy-bloused ensemble that became an unofficial uniform for so many working from home this year.

This predicament, however, is not wholly new. Over a century and a half ago, upper-middle class Victorian women struggled with the same set of concerns, seeking out a style of dress that struck a balance between the comfort desired for time spent mostly indoors and the formality necessary for a life that required constant socialising. Thus the tea gown was born, a garment specifically designed to bridge the gap between private and public dressing. The tea gown was worn, as the name suggests, for evening tea. It had to be comfortable enough to allow for relaxation but dressy enough that its wearer would not risk embarrassment should a caller drop by. Tea gowns were relatively simple in shape and loose at the waist, allowing them to be worn without a corset–a small act of rebellion in Victorian society. Tea gowns were, however, decorated heavily to maintain decorum and indicate status. Freed from some of the physical and societal constraints of the time period, tea gowns became a canvas upon which progressive members of the upper class could engage in stylistic experimentation.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. ‘A Useful House-Dress ; An Elaborate Tea-Gown’. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 26, 2020. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ebab-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

The parlour where tea was served acted as a liminal space between interior and exterior, contained within the private home but open for entertaining guests, not dissimilar to our own homes now put on view for our colleagues’ computer screens. Fashionable tea gown wearers sought to coordinate their gowns with the decor of their parlours. (Though, as Freyja Hartzell notes in ‘The Velvet Touch’, it was common practice for many Victorian women to match their ensembles to their interiors). For followers of the Aesthetic and subsequent Art Nouveau movements, this meant that tea gowns could be printed with abstract swirling motifs and rendered in rich colour palettes. Charles Frederick Worth’s tea gowns are particularly beautiful examples of this effect with their thickly piled blue velvet and shocking purples and greens that would have looked right at home against a similarly sumptuous wallpaper. Liberty, the nineteenth century mecca for all things Aesthetic, produced a wide variety of tea gowns. Oscar Wilde dubbed the store to be ‘the chosen resort of the artistic shopper’, a nod to the fact that both the homewares and the fashions for sale at Liberty would have set the store’s shoppers apart from their strict Victorian counterparts.

 

The tea gown also served as a means of escapism, transporting its wearers on flights of fancy far from their parlours. When Japan opened its ports to Western trade in the mid-nineteenth century, British and French designers were quick to take inspiration from the nation’s vast array of beautiful garments and textiles. Tea gowns could be inlaid with swaths of Japanese textiles or, in some cases, produced in Japan for Western customers. A tea gown from the Kyoto Costume Institute illustrates this cross-cultural exchange in its spectacular sleeves alone, a mix of heavily-puffed Victorian shoulders and Kimono-style wide cuffs. Tea gowns offered the potential not only for international travel from the comfort of the settee, they provided the possibility of time travel as well. Designs for tea gowns often borrowed from eighteenth century French designs, featuring Watteau backs that swept away from the body (providing a dash of both historicism and comfort) and mimicking the silhouette of the robe à la française.

 

An 1879 critic wrote sharply of the tea gown in the Evening Post: ‘It is of elaborate design and infinite cost…. It is absolutely useless and utterly ridiculous, but this is not the worst that may be said about it’. Does this not, however, make the tea gown the perfect item to lift the spirits of a woman typically tightly corseted and kept indoors? It is an act of self-indulgence, but it is also a small rebellion against the dreary constraints of the every day. (The Metropolitan Museum notes that one of the tea gowns in its collection was worn by prominent member of American high society Amelia Beard Hollenback just after she gave birth to her daughter, an indication that there may be a very practical purpose to the tea gown unknowable to its male critic). Perhaps the tea gown is also just what the locked-down, early-sunsetting end of 2020 calls for as well, offering us a lift off of our collective couches into the depths of history and encouraging us to engage in costumed camouflage with the interiors of the homes to which we are confined. This seems an opportunity too tempting to pass up in favour of sweatpants.

Designer unknown (American), Tea Gown, 1875, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 2009.300.397.

by Ruby Redstone

Sources

‘Free and Easy Manners in London Society. (London World.)’. Evening Post Vol. XVII, Iss. 387 (5 April 1879): 5. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP18790405.2.35.

Hartzell, Freyja. ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, and the Fabric of the Interior.’ Fashion Theory Vol. 13, Iss. 1 (2009): 51-81. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/175174109X381328.

Lee, Summer. ‘1898-1901 Green Silk Embroidered Tea Gown’. Fashion Institute of Technology Fashion History Timeline. Last updated 13 January 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1898-tea-gown/.’

Liberty. ‘Our Heritage’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.libertylondon.com/uk/information/our-heritage.html.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘House of Worth, Tea Gown, 1900-1901’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/157330.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Tea Gown, 1900’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/158923.

 

Oswald Birley’s “Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown”: dress in focus

Oswald Birley, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny gown, 1919, oil on canvas, 101.5 x 76 cm. Private collection. Image taken from Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley. London: Philip Mould Ltd, 2017.

Oswald Birley was a prolific British portrait artist active between 1919 and 1951. He was one of the most beloved portraitists of the British monarchy, political leaders and other powerful men. He completed the portrait of the young British debutante Miss Muriel Gore in 1919, however the information available on this work and its subject is extremely scarce. Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown was completed at a time of significant social change for women, started in the final years of the nineteenth century and becoming more prominent with the end of the First World War. This change was translated in fashion and was echoed in the success the designs of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo found in this historical time.

The scarcity of information available on Miss Gore’s life allows only for a partial understanding of her figure. It is likely that she was Scottish and belonged to the aristocratic upper class, as she was related in some way to Lady Mabell Gore, Countess of Airlie, wife to the 11th Earl of Airlie. It is plausible to say that, at the time the portrait was completed, Miss Gore was still nubile and probably making her debut in society. A few elements of this portrait, such as her title (Miss rather than Mrs.), the absence of a wedding ring, and her youthful appearance support this idea. After careful analysis, the only element revealing her social status remains the expensive Fortuny gown. Known as the Delphos gown, and existing in a variety of versions, this design stands out as the most typical of the Fortuny style.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Pale grey Delphos gown. 1920. Palazzo Fortuny, Venezia. http://www.archiviodellacomunicazione.it/Sicap/OpereArte/338940/?WEB=MuseiVE

A pleated tunic inspired by a robe seen on male and female Greek statues from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, as well as figures painted on vases, the Delphos was named after the antique sculpture known as ‘Charioteer of Delphi,’ adorned with a long chiton held in place at the shoulders by simple bronze clasps. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871-1949), a Venice-based Spanish artist and designer, patented the dress in 1909. The creation of a single sleeveless Delphos was a highly intricate production that reportedly took eight hours in total. The fabric was a luxurious silk imported from Japan, and the characteristic pleating, usually consisting of between 430 and 450 pleats per fabric width, was achieved by a process of evaporation. The wet and folded silk was laid on heated porcelain tubes, also patented in 1909, which permanently fixed such tight pleats in the material so that the dress looked carved or pressed. This time-consuming and complicated manufacturing process, along with the precious fabric used, made the price of this gown stratospheric, and it was only affordable for women of conspicuous means, such as Muriel Gore. The Fortuny pleat, which did not wrinkle nor lose its shape, expanded slightly over the natural feminine curves, remaining compact in other areas, thus creating alluring zones of light and shadow. Fortuny was particularly interested in enhancing the brilliance of the silk, and he found in albumin, an extract of egg whites, the perfect substance to do so. With the help of a brush, albumin was applied on the humified fabric, functioning on the pleats as a fixing agent, increasing the brilliance, and adding flexibility and softness to the fabric. Birley masterfully translated the characteristic traits of the Delphos gown on his canvas, in particular the malleable quality of the fabric when touched by light and the resulting effects of chiaroscuro, which was also highly important for the designer.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Pale grey Delphos gown completed with belt (detail). From the catalogue of the exhibition “Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise” (2017).

Fortuny’s vision of fashion stemmed from his travels to Greece in 1906, where he found antique printed textiles and admired the beauty of the archaic Korai and Delphi’s Charioteer. His intention was never that of becoming a couturier like Worth; he did not present an annual collection, nor show separate summer and winter designs. His aim was to find his own version of a timeless ideal form, detached from the fleeting trends of fashion, and with his Delphos gown he successfully transformed the past into an eternal present.

The Delphos gown quickly became a must-have garment for the most cultured and liberated women of the time. Eccentrics, divas, intellectuals and aristocrats flocked to buy Fortuny’s dress, which spoke of refined extravagance while exalting the personality of the wearer. The association with such timeless beauty attracted those women who could perceive the uniqueness of the dress, and Miss Gore may be seen as one of them, as she decided to be portrayed wearing a Delphos. With this gesture, she also implicitly showed her support to the movement that had started in the years just before World War I, freeing women from corsets and rigidly constructed gowns. Dancers like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Loïe Fuller made the liberation of women’s dress a cause, and they did so by performing their pioneering choreographies enveloped in mermaid-like Delphos. Their choreography sought to express a mix of asceticism and sensuality associated with the Minoan women who had inspired Fortuny’s creations.

The controversial nature of the Delphos stemmed precisely from the sensuality presented by the gown, in particular the ‘clinging fashion’ with which it enveloped the female body to reveal its shape and rendered lingerie impossible to wear. In a society that had not totally abandoned the use of tight bustiers and stays, this feature understandably caused quite a scandal, and the gown was initially considered more suited to be worn in the privacy of one’s home, or complemented by a shawl, coat or robe when in public, often designed by Fortuny himself. Likely aware of such tensions, Miss Gore chose to be portrayed wearing an embroidered shawl over her Delphos, which she gently falls down to her elbows to uncover another beautiful detail of Fortuny’s design: the drawstrings used to tighten and change the height of the short arum-lily sleeves.

Roger Viollet. Isadora Duncan and her husband Sergei Essenin with one of her adoptive daughters, Irma Duncan, wearing Delphos gowns. Photograph. Harlingue-Viollet collection, Paris. From the catalogue of the exhibition “Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise” (2017).

During his life, Birley was considered one of the most gifted portraitists both in Britain and overseas for his ability to combine physical likeness with psychological realism. The portrait of Miss Muriel Gore, dated 1919, shows the image of a wealthy debutant, nonetheless controversial for her clothing choice. The expensive Fortuny gown Miss Gore decided to be depicted with carries meaning reflecting not only her social status but also her character and personality Ultimately, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown emblematically illustrates how eloquent the depiction of a dress can be in the context of a portrait, as it becomes the only key to unlock the mystery surrounding the sitter’s identity.

 

By Simona Mezzina

 

Sources:

Black, Jonathan. ‘The Life and Portraiture of Sir Oswald Birley MC’. In Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley. London: Philip Mould Ltd, 2017.

Deschodt, Anne-Marie and Davanzo Poli, Doretta. Fortuny. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Desveaux, Delphine. Fortuny. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Mariano Fortuny. Edited by Maurizio Barberis, Claudio Franzini, Silvio Fuso, Marco Tosa. Venezia: Marsilio, 1999.

Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise. Edited by Sophie Grossiord. Paris: Palais Galliera, Paris Musées, 2017.