Fashion Now Archive

Life in Colour with Parks and Shabazz

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

Michael Mery talking

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

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

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

gordon parks

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

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

Shabazz and Parks

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

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

Parks and Shabazz

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

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

Shabazz and Parks

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

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

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

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

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

How can clothing make itself felt virtually?

In short—it can’t, yet.

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

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

A view of the homepage - Screenshot of

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

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

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

MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (screenshot from article)

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Images:

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

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

 

 

 

Redefining Luxury: What’s Left of Fashion Week?

As lockdown starts to ease throughout Europe, the Haute Couture Imperium has started to reopen slowly but questionably. With high-profile events gradually being cancelled for the rest of the year and customers now being followed by overly-eager-to-clean employees in department stores, it seems as if the world was settling into a “new” normal.

However, over the past week, the pandemic seems to not only have accelerated, but forced big designer brands into a more carbon-conscious spread of fashion (at least for now). Indeed, as household names gradually pull out of the massively-publicised Fashion Weeks (FW), designers and creators are finally starting to question the real and immediate legitimacy of FW in the twenty-first century.

Although many are unaware of this fact, FW actually originated during the Second World War, when American journalists found themselves unable to enter Nazi-occupied France for the season’s ‘new looks’. Eleonor Lambert, an American fashion publicist, believed this to be the “perfect” opportunity to promote local designers and American fashion which had long been on the back-burner of Paris and London. And voilà, NYFW was born.

Schiaparelli’s first show after WW2 (source: @julienbaulu on Instagram)

A bit over half a century later, FWs have evolved into long-awaited social events, showcasing the dos and don’ts of the season in front of (literally) rows of famous people sharing their ‘favourite looks’ on Instagram and making us lowly people feel a part of it all. But quite frankly, in the midst of this information overload, it becomes clear that some designers have felt the pressure to perform and deliver on time, and consequently, have been sacrificing their creative drive.

Now, with the uncertainty of social interactions at events looming over Luxury Houses, many designers have indeed taken a moment to reflect on their creative process behind-the-scenes. Amongst the many brands using the pandemic as a way to reshape their artistic expression are Saint Laurent and Gucci.

The latter’s creative director Alessandro Michele is already much beloved for having redefined chic Italian menswear, ultimately playing on a more androgynous style. In the search for a connection with creativity, he has decided to distance himself and the brand from the more ‘commercial’ aspect of FW by withdrawing the household name from it and by choosing to showcase only two collections a year. In extracts of his personal diaries published on Gucci’s Instagram, he goes on to explain in what ways the fast pace of fashion nowadays does not allow him to feel fulfilled creatively. This comes only a couple of days after Saint Laurent also drew back from the FW schedule to focus, not on set and specific deadlines, but on its own “creative flow”.

These trends of ‘going back to their creative roots’ is clearly setting a new pace for Fashion which seemed to be going down a hole of “who’s-who” rather than on the actual clothes and designs. The lack of focus on creativity as mentioned by Michele has indeed been a debated issue in recent times, with discussions regarding the environmental viability of hosting four shows in three cities in one year. Not only is the carbon footprint of such travelling massive, but the ever-changing looks and materials used are not exactly environmental-friendly. Some designers are however already taking full advantage of the whole world only being accessible digitally, with Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba already putting her creative spin on a digital runway.

Covid-19 has thus ultimately promoted a more eco-friendly FW in the short-term, and how these new houses’ take on Couture will ultimately reflect and affect the fashion industry in the foreseeable future remains to be seen. The greater impact of digitalising Fashion Week would perhaps be on the hosting cities’ economies, as it yearly represents a major source of revenue for restaurants, clubs, hotels and tourism in general.

As lockdown comes to an end, it remains quite clear that the virus does not, and it will be interesting to keep an eye out on how the public’s interaction with Haute Couture and its creative side will ultimately evolve. And whereas this period of quarantine has been a period of self-reflection on the little specks of happiness and fulfilment in life for some, others were fast to queue up at Zara and Pull&Bear as soon as it re-opened. Needless to say that fast-fashion will be disappearing anytime soon, but maybe for now, think before you shop, and think locally.

“Do You Mind If I Borrow…”: The Fun and Significance of Sharing Clothes

Recent theoretical discourse has sought to emphasise the emotional significance of dress, with many studies – academic and anecdotal – highlighting how the tactile and visual nature of clothing, and its prominence in our everyday lives, can imbue clothing with deep emotional resonance and also can be an important part of the human bonding experience. This idea of connecting through clothing resonated with me as my brother, Zak, and I now regularly exchange items of clothing, and always have a comment ready (usually, though not always, complimentary) on one another’s outfits. We have similar tastes, both favouring bright colours and bold patterns, and find most of our outfits in charity shops or (cheap) vintage markets.

Zak and I both chose some of our favourite garments from each other’s wardrobes, styling them with our own clothes. He chose two of my (many) jumpsuits and a pair of high-waisted trousers that he has always loved the colour of – and annoyingly suit him better than they suit me! I chose some of Zak’s outfits outright – you can’t go wrong with jeans and a t-shirt! – and also incorporated one of his favourite jumpers into one of my usual outfits.

Daisy

Zak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our discussions on clothing while taking the photos for this blog highlighted to me some interesting distinctions in the kinds of garments currently designed for men compared to those for women. My brother has mentioned that the clothing he sees for men in high street shops is often less colourful and daring than the clothing available to women, while I feel that some of the clothing marketed at women is impractical; as highlighted by the ongoing debate on why women’s clothing often comes without the useful addition of functional pockets.

 

Furthermore, the filtering of clothing styles through the rigid wall of traditional gender boundaries can sometimes seem somewhat one sided. Sarah Wilson has argued that the adoption of traditionally ‘masculine’ garments, such as trousers, by women in the 1920s initially resulted in a popular ‘hysteria’ in response to this supposed transgression of gender boundaries. This raised the point in my mind that while it now is generally accepted for women to wear conventionally ‘masculine’ clothing – I can easily incorporate Zak’s t-shirts or trousers into my outfit – it is still seen as less socially acceptable for men to wear ‘feminine’ garments or cuts. Additionally, I’m not sure if it’s the case that the cut of women’s clothing doesn’t flatter the male body shape, or that we are still culturally programmed to see men in women’s clothing as jarring, but some of my more ‘feminine’ clothing, such as dresses or flared trousers (not shown here), really didn’t seem to suit Zak at all. By sharing clothes with one another, and experimenting with some outfits that we wouldn’t necessarily try on in a shop changing room, we thought more closely about the clothes we choose to wear and why. As such, while swapping clothes with my brother is primarily a fun and playful bonding experience, I also now see it as an interesting exploration of the gender boundaries which have come to define sartorial norms.

 

 

What Does a Clinical Psychologist Wear to Work?

Dressing for a work environment alters our experience of clothing significantly. We are used to uniforms for school, but the world of work has a different set of rules, with each type of work/ workplace having a different dress code. This came to mind for me when I was talking to my friend, Maddy, who is currently in the first year of her doctorate for clinical psychology. She mentioned that when visiting wards and patients she couldn’t dress too formally, as she would appear intimidating, but still needs to look professional as she’s in a working environment. The psychological consequences of Maddy’s outfits interested me, so I decided to ask her some questions about her dress code and how it contrasts with her day to day outfits.

Maddy’s workwear

In relation to the outlined dress code, Maddy told me that what she was given was to be smart, clean and appropriate, a variation really on the (in my opinion) infuriating smart/casual. For example, her supervisor wears jeans paired with a waistcoat, whereas Maddy will opt to wear a cardigan rather than a blazer. She writes that while visiting wards she has to dress smarter than she would on community visits, and she has to adhere to the guidelines on NHS dressing. This means that she doesn’t wear an assigned uniform like nurses and healthcare assistants, but must still look smart (while also not dressing super smart) to be on a relatable level to patients. Maddy also mentioned that the older students gave advice in terms of the dress code, and they responded that it was difficult to know, but a tip was to avoid wearing red, as this is seen as an angry and aggressive colour.

Maddy’s workwear

These multiple factors demonstrate how many contradictory elements there are to consider when getting dressed. In Maddy’s case, how her clothing is received by others is of prime importance, and she says that it is best to not stand out and conform, as you don’t want the attention on you when dealing with people. She describes what she wears to work as boring, and she doesn’t like dressing smart. At the same time, when I asked Maddy how her clothing made her feel, she replied that she felt more confident, proper and competent.

Maddy’s day to day wear

In reference to Maddy’s personal style, her work clothes differ greatly. As shown by the images of us together (admittedly before nights out) Maddy has a clearly individualised sense of dress which I feel compliments her personality. She considers her work clothes boring, and admittedly they are made up of soberer colours, but I feel that she still manages to inject her personal flair into her work outfits, illustrated by her (Maddy trademark) Doc Martens and the prints on her clothing. I feel that with her career, as with any, there is a careful balance to strike with clothing. She doesn’t have a uniform but has to obey guidelines, while also appearing smart but not excessively so. Maddy’s working environment means that she has to consider not only her preferences for dress, but also her employer’s, the hospital environment, and how her patients will react. This shows the layers of meaning behind a deceptively simple and conformative work outfit.

Maddy and I

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.

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 if their male peers receive a wider variety of questions. In turn, 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, for example, 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, dismissals of red carpet fashion reports as irrelevant have 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.

The Currency of Cool

Last year, I wrote my BA dissertation about the portraits by American painter Kehinde Wiley. He is known for featuring African American subjects wearing contemporary street clothing in positions taken from the Western canon of portraiture. Typically, the subjects portrayed are not identifiable, but take on the poses of rulers of history, removed from their context and painted against lush, decorative backgrounds. After finishing his MFA at Yale University in 2001, Wiley began displaying his work in the early 2000s, bringing grandiose images of black and brown bodies dressed in street wear into white gallery and museum spaces. My project in regards to his oeuvre questioned the utility of this kind of portraiture, simultaneously hyper-real and mythologizing, in terms of the politics of representation of blackness in the visual sphere.

In these paintings, fashion associated with the visual culture of hip-hop becomes the uniform for Wiley’s subjects. They pose in baggy jeans, chains, puffer jackets, sports jerseys, and popular clothing brands, which are remarkable for two reasons: it is rather shocking to see these casually dressed, ‘cool’ black figures assuming the position of a Van Dyck portrait, but also because it was nearly unprecedented to see this kind of fashion hanging on the walls of a museum space. While European portraits of rulers certainly utilize a visual language of opulence and excess in dress, seeing contemporary ‘bling’ in such an image is rather unusual. Wiley has produced dozens of paintings like these, and critics have suggested that these images have become formulaic. Arguments that these works have a homogenizing, flattening effect over the representation of black life in America have substantial foundations in the repetition of similar iconographies. It is true that Wiley’s paintings are not a representative cross section. They saturate the art market with images of African Americans of a singular social milieu, and rely on stereotypes perpetuated in news media and popular culture of a young black man as a thug or a pompous rapper. On one hand, these paintings introduce a new figure and fashion into the canon of formal portraiture, but risk commodifying the image of ‘coolness’ further than it already has been.

Concurrently with the early years of Wiley’s career, an exhibit opened at the V&A called Black British Style (October 2004-January 2005) which displayed clothing, photographs, and other objects to explore the many notions of fashion in the legacy of the African diaspora, particularly on the African continent, in Jamaica, Britain, and the United States. It spanned many styles, geographies, and times, and blended artifact and image, and narrative and memory, to contribute to the building of an archive of African diasporic history in the legacy of slavery and erasure. Addressed within the exhibit was the fashion of hip-hop culture in contrast to African-inspired fashion in the West. Black Style, the book published in conjunction with the exhibit, notes that hip-hop subverts ‘establishment notions of racial difference through cutting-edge styles that throw back in the face of mainstream America its own stereotypes of inner-city black youth.’ At the same time, hip-hop dress has been continuously co-opted by mainstream white culture, and, like in Wiley’s paintings, can signal popular commodified fashion. However, the display of this style of dress within such an institution was rather groundbreaking. As curator Carol Tulloch noted, ‘It really was a landmark event for a major national institution like the V&A. One magazine wrote: “The fact that the V&A has batty riders on display is worth the £6 entry on its own.”’

Wiley’s portraits and the V&A’s exhibition entered the mainstream art world around the same time, bringing representations of hip-hop fashion into elitist white museum and gallery spaces. They worked in opposite visual languages – one of fantasy, myth, and the art historical canon, the other creating a documentarian notion of ‘truth’ – but attempted to work within the same system to call out stereotypes about the black body. Wiley’s paintings utilize the visual language of visibility; Black British Style the currency of archival information and objects. Although bringing representations of black style into these spaces requires a careful negotiation of celebration versus commodification and appropriation, the dressed black body became visible and present where it had not been before, and has opened a door to more diverse representations of dress and the bodies that occupy it.

References:

Lewis, Tim. “Carol Tulloch: ‘Dressing Well Is Almost Part of the DNA in the Black Community’.” The Guardian. March 06, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/carol-tulloch-black-style-the-birth-of-cool-interview.

Tulloch, Carol. Black Style. London: V & A Publications, 2005.

Documenting My Wardrobe: Why My Friend and I Share Daily Outfit Pictures

For the past month and a half my friend, Niamh, and I have been sending each other outfit pictures. We lived together last year in York and now, with her there and me in London, we decided this would liven up our communication. Considering that a large proportion of our conversation is clothing related anyway, this made a lot of sense.

Having a visual record of our outfits gives me much more of a sense of keeping in contact, as the visual translates so much more than a message on a screen. On a daily basis we would have shown each other our outfits and also gauged opinions on new purchases in person, so this felt like a natural addition to our conversation.

We chose our six (tried to keep it to three and failed) favourite outfits from the other’s wardrobe and talked about our choices. As shown by the pictures, Niamh is never not wearing a black item of clothing. When I asked her why, she revealed that “It’s because it’s easy to wear, it’s flattering, I feel like it can be something basic but it being black elevates it in a way, and now I’m so comfortable wearing black it’s hard to wear other things.” She added that she used to steer clear of wearing black, out of fear that it would make her look too pale and stand out. Now she embraces this look, and I love that she took something that made her uncomfortable and turned it into a wardrobe staple.

I don’t normally document my wardrobe, but it has now become part of my morning routine. It falls in the five seconds I have to spare after brushing my teeth and before realising that I’m going to miss my bus. I liked the idea of taking a quick snap each day and sending it, as it felt like a real representation of us – for example, the streaky state of my bathroom mirror, and Niamh’s bedroom in the background. It was also interesting to see the poses we repeated, with Niamh going for phone covering part of the face and a bent leg, whereas I opted for a variation of the peace sign or hand on the hip with a pained grimace. To excuse myself, these pictures were originally meant for Niamh’s eyes only.

We discovered our mutual reasons behind our picture choices were a love of a statement coat and the outfits we would wear of the other person’s. My clothing choices have always been based on a love of bright colours and print, but more recently I have shifted to wearing less prints and more block colours. I feel that the outfit pictures show how different our styles are, but also a mix of comfort and (aiming for) sophistication.

The images we chose were our everyday clothes, rather than images we might share on a public platform, such as Instagram. I like that we are giving importance to our day-to-day wear and how we look, which is closer to our personal interactions, rather than presenting a mediated version of ourselves.

Ellen Bhamra

Useful and Beautiful? William Morris and H&M

Coincidentally, two days after I asked whether the bourgeois elite ever matched their upholstery to the fabric of their dress, I took myself to the William Morris Gallery to work out what I thought about the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. Spoiler: while I am decidedly annoyed with myself for buying a pretty but unnecessary book about mazes (labyrinths have been on my mind – what else?), I remain ambivalent about the latest of the Swedish fashion chain’s myriad partnerships.

A West End window, emblazoned with the autumn partnership. Photo by author

On H&M’s campaign page, the shopper is encouraged to get lost ‘in a world of exquisite original patterns and modern tributes to the work of William Morris, one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated designers’, in celebration of ‘nature, style and timelessness’. Two models stride through a moor where they offer daisies, peer through windows, dunk enamel cups in basins, and snap pics with a vintage camera, self-referentially underscoring the ad’s amateur film footage look to induce the brand of lifestyle envy that only the 30-second fashion advertisement can. Then: an array of womenswear, ranging from £5.99 to £79.99, though neither the fabric hairband nor the wool-blend coat book-ending the spectrum represent actual collaboration pieces. Out of 90 products, 33 are William Morris & Co. x H&M. And so while there is nothing extraordinary about a two-pack of knee socks, the collection is meant to be a composition of heavy, heady historical references attenuated by standard H&M basics. Pair pleated skirts, maxi dresses and printed wide trousers with knit jumpers, Chelsea boots and faux fur coats: one can ‘curate’ outfits in a way that, in the age of online shopping, would normally never bear mentioning but which happens to resonate particularly with Morris’s artistic ethos: hand-picked Art for Art’s sake…and for everyone else’s.

A selection of pieces from the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. From https://
www2.hm.com/en_gb/ladies/shop-by-feature/1288a-morris-co-x-hm.html?sort=ascPrice&imagesize=
small&image=stillLife&offset=0&page-size=90

William Morris was one of the 19th century’s romantic, disappointing sons who abandoned a future in the church in favour of much more earthly realms. Getting a taste of artistic camaraderie after falling in with the Pre-Raphaelites, larking about on Rossetti’s hilarious ‘Jovial Campaign’ and embarking upon a group artistic housewarming project, he and six partners—whom he eventually bought out—founded the interior decorating business Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. Disillusioned with modernism and industrial modes of production and radically nostalgic for an age of highly artisanal craftsmanship, Morris pioneered a sort of anti-Industrial Revolution. As a progressive socialist and firm believer that beauty belonged to the masses, he also understood the limits to what could only ever ideally be a democratic model, apparently regretting that his ‘his high quality, handmade products were beyond the means of ordinary working people’ (William Morris Gallery). In a move similar to that of 19th century couture houses, his evolving company launched more affordable lines to attract a wider range of clientele – the interior design’s analogue of fashion’s ready-to-wear.

Mannequins dressed in collaboration pieces at H&M. Photo by author

While the ideal Morris client would have afforded an exquisite, hand-crafted, bespoke interior – despite the designer’s empathy for broader swathes of society – there is nothing inherently bespoke in today’s accessible, ubiquitous fashion lines. To be fair, what H&M has done is, superficially, no different from what countless museum gift shops – commercial spaces with much closer ties to art and history – do: if the scarf my mom wears at the Huntington Gallery is not printed with a Morris design, it certainly shares the look. Even his contemporaries ‘dressed themselves with his wall hangings’ (William Morris Gallery). Perhaps it is simply that, what with H&M as an established, popular clothing store, I am more inclined to critically analyse the partnership in terms of fashion and art history and get caught up in notions of integrity; and because Morris had such striking aesthetic principles, I am more invested in an ideological dialogue that I find lacking. Ultimately, the collaboration between Morris & Co. and a mostly-affordable fast fashion company that tends to satisfy and disappoint me at an equal pace oscillates between seeming antithetical and completely fitting. I have not purchased anything, nor do I plan to, and, as mentioned above, I remain ambivalent. But perhaps it would be more fitting to frame this ambivalence as a blossoming response to William Morris’s motto, ‘Si je puis: Pourquoi pas?’