Interviews Archive

Alumni Spotlight: Leah Gouget-Levy 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[Answers have been edited for clarity]

Alumni Spotlight: Emma McClendon

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

 

HK: HI!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: Right, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HK: …Taking that on.

EM: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HK: That downstairs gallery on the first floor

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

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

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

HK: Oh whoa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM: Right! Yes!

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

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

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

EM: Oh, yeah yeah.

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

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

HK: Yeah, it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Q’s:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[Answers have been edited for clarity]

Alumni Spotlight: Elisa De Wyngaert

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JH: A lot of stuff!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[This interview has been condensed for clarity]

In Which My Grandmother Tells Me About Japan

As the year winds down, I thought I would let my grandmother do the writing in one of my final blog posts, as I continue to decompress after a charged summer term (read: dissertation season).


Ann was teaching at a Department of Defence school in Okinawa—her first teaching job overseas—in the 1960s when she met my grandfather. My mother was born in 1970, and they lived in Japan for another couple of years before moving to Hawaii and, eventually, Bakersfield, California.

My favourite picture* of my grandparents together: Ann and Bill at a teahouse.

I never knew my grandfather, so I grew up with photographs—both of him and by him. I also grew up with inherited memories and borrowed relics from my family’s time in Japan: a cloud-soft white kimono I wore for one of my first Halloween nights; a doll in a glass case with a cup of water; my mom’s tiny tabi socks that I remember once fitting me; the creaking snick of kimono closet doors opening and closing…

These dress-centric recollections are selected from a series of emails my grandmother sent me in early 2016, when I requested: ‘Tell me about Japan.’ The photos come from the albums upon albums stored in bookshelves and a great wooden chest at my grandma’s house in Bakersfield.


I believe my first official date with Bill was to a tea house; don’t remember details but we talked for hours. Funny what the brain chooses to remember. I remember wearing a red lightweight wool outfit. It was a pleated skirt with an attached camisole and over it a loose, long sleeved matching top that buttoned down the back. Wish I had it now!

We were there for a year. While there, I had some clothes made. I had grown up with homemade clothes, so store-bought ones were a treat. And there I was, wanting handmade clothes again. I recall a coral dress (wool again) with a fitted matching jacket and a brownish one with silvery-looking embroidery. Low waisted and slightly gathered. I would still like that one. I loved sending Mother stuff. I had a brown coat with a fur collar made for her, among other things.
I have one of the fur hats she sent her mother, as well as a wool coat that I wear in the winter. 

Two times our little convertible Datsun Fair Lady was stolen. Police found it both times. First time, somewhere outside Yokohama, abandoned in a rice paddy; and the second time, on a side street in Yokohama. Guess they ran out of gas after joy riding. It WAS cute!

We frequented Motomachi (name of a short street) often. There was a sushi bar that was a favourite and at the other end was a German restaurant that served the tastiest borscht; and when it went out of business, we were disappointed. Also on that street was a clothing store. I remember buying two long wraparound quilted skirts that were warm and I liked them.

I loved shopping in Japan. Not just for the items but the manner of wrapping so beautifully in a furoshiki (fabric wrapping). In the large department stores, there would be a greeter (I recall only women) at the foot of the escalator to welcome you as you were about to ascend. Mind you, this was in the sixties. I don’t know how things are now. 

My friend Sally and I modelled together. Crazy time. She was bisexual and wanted to find a lesbian bar.  Keep in mind that I spoke hardly any Japanese at that time and she spoke even less. So I am not sure we even had the right word for lesbian. Anyway, winter time after we had had a modelling assignment was dark.  Set off in a taxi to find this bar. Probably we were in Shinjuku (large area of Tokyo) in the Golden Gai District (known for its architecture, little bars crammed together upstairs and down—favourite hangout for artists). We felt very adventurous and very nervous. We would go into one and ask where we might find a lesbian bar, and we’d get a response that they either didn’t know or didn’t understand us—or they’d direct us to another place. Finally we went into one and inquired and we were pointed to upstairs. Now upstairs might have been a fine place to go; but not knowing what was really upstairs, we left, and caught the train to Yokohama. (I never drove to Tokyo. Always took the train.)  

‘And it was there that Michie had put beside each plate a rose petal with a pearl on it.’

Speaking of Sally—we both worked for the Patricia Charm Modelling Agency, the only foreign modelling agency in Tokyo at that time. She took a percentage of whatever we were paid, don’t remember what.   Sally felt she took too much and suggested we freelance. When we told Patricia our plans, she said she would blacklist us. Well, it wasn’t that I was gorgeous; but the Japanese photographers liked me because I was friendly and attempted to learn their language. So I received several job offers right away.  Then they would start canceling on me. Indeed Patricia did what she said. Really okay because not too long after that I became pregnant and became all wrapped up in that.


I will be at home in Los Angeles for a few weeks later this summer, and amongst the few things I have planned—a bal des victimes dinner party, driving lessons, days at the beach—a trip to Bakersfield definitely figures, when these photos will be unearthed and put into motion once more.

*All photographs belong to the author and her family.

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

Curator Circe Henestrosa Speaks about Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

The runaway success Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, co-curated by Circe Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox at the V&A Museum, will end on 18th November, two weeks longer than its originally intended run. I spoke to Circe to find out more about the exhibition’s message about the link between dress and disability, the enduring image and spirit of the artist, and the value of fashion curation.

Frida on the bench, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June-18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. 

As curator of Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico in 2012, and co-curator of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A Museum, could you talk about how the latter exhibition developed from the former? What did you want to keep and what changed?

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up had its genesis in Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo. Both exhibitions are based on the discovery of her wardrobe back in 2004. My first exhibition looked specifically at Frida’s construction of identity through disability and ethnicity.

In London, I wanted to expand the materials and we had to adapt the text for a UK audience. For example, when you go to the exhibition in Mexico you go to the Blue House, you learn the context of Kahlo’s life, of the place where she was born, where she lived and where she died.

After you understand the context of her life, then you see the wardrobe exhibition. In London, we had to contextualise her historical and cultural environment mainly through her personal photographic archive and other photographers who captured Kahlo at her house. We also included her paintings. My original research included the paintings, but in Mexico we could only get one painting, so it was very nice to be able to pair the paintings and the wardrobe together for the exhibition in London.

In Mexico, I was fortunate enough to work with exhibition maker Judith Clark who designed the show in Mexico. In London, the exhibition design transports us to Frida Kahlo’s universe, through the work of Tom Scutt, lead designer, as well as Patrick Berning and Matt Thornley, the architects.

What were the biggest challenges and rewards in executing the exhibition at the V&A?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving was a roaring success, and the positive response inspired me to see if there was a possibility for a Kahlo exhibition in London. In 2014 I met with Exhibitions Director at the V&A, Linda Lloyd Jones, who gave the idea the thumbs up. I was very lucky to find someone like Linda, who has always been a visionary.

The next years Linda and I spent trying to obtain as many of Kahlo’s self-portraits as possible from Mexico, other museums and private collections around the world. This was the most challenging part. Anything to do with Kahlo’s paintings is complex and you need to start planning well in advance. It took us four years to plan the whole show at the V&A. Several of the paintings and items currently on display at the V&A, including all the objects discovered in the Blue House in 2004, have never been seen in the United Kingdom before.

The layout and narrative of the exhibition evolved in discussion between the two co-curators. The idea was to start with her early childhood, move to the Blue House, explain her accident and how she managed her life-long injuries and end with her wardrobe, showing how she transcended pain to become one of the most celebrated women in Mexico. To illustrate all this we included a number of self-portraits, numerous photographs, film and sound, and provided context about the political and artistic circles that Frida and Diego Rivera were at the centre of in post-Revolutionary Mexico.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

Which item of dress belonging to Frida that is on display in the exhibition do you find most compelling and why?

I think Kahlo’s powerful style is as integral to her myth as her paintings. It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today. Her resplendent Tehuana dresses, striking headpieces, hand-painted corsets and prosthetics masterfully masked her physical impairments but were also a form of self-expression and an extension of her art.

I love all the pieces, but her prosthetic leg is probably my favourite object in the entire archive. I think it is so contemporary. This is one of the most intricate objects in Kahlo’s collection. Frida Kahlo had her leg amputated in 1953. To support her leg, she had these amazing boots made of luxurious red leather decorated with bows and pieces of silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs and decorative little bells. She turned her prosthetic leg into an avant-garde object, an accessory that she adopted as an extension of her body. She did this 45 years before Alexander McQueen had Aimee Mullins walking the runway in those amazing wooden carved prosthetic legs in 1998.

The exhibition’s run has been extended and is sold out. The image of Frida is also ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture. What do you think it is about Frida that has struck a chord with the public?

I think Frida Kahlo was ahead of her time. She is the very model of the bohemian artist: unique, rebellious and contradictory, and a cult figure that has been appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers and popular culture. But I mainly think Kahlo’s image endures because she was able to break a lot of taboos about women’s experiences, about the challenges to overcome illness and physical injury, both exposing them and working through this trauma in creative ways. This resilience, her fighting attitude and determination to enjoy life despite the difficulties she encountered make her a powerful symbol as she continues to speak to many different groups. Her iconic image communicates strength and the possibility for change. This is the message I wanted to convey in this exhibition.

The conference Frida: Inside and Outside gathered academic experts on Frida Kahlo. What stood out most for you at this meeting of minds? And did you discover something about Frida and/or the link between fashion and disability?

I enjoyed the conference greatly. We had the participation of some of the most prominent Kahlo scholars in London. Academics such as Prof. Dawn Ades, Prof Oriana Baddeley, Prof. Gannit Ankori, Prof Martha Turok, and a great mix of younger scholars and contemporary designers and artists as well. The session of Re-Configuring the Body was my favourite during the second day was by far my favourite one. I was so happy to secure the participation of Celeste Dandeker, Founder of Dance Company Candoco and Sophie the Oliveira, an amazing prosthetics designer in the UK for this session. The session was moving, it was powerful and I think we managed to open the disability debate in a very strong manner. The audiences commented on how inspiring this session was.

Guatemalan cotton coat worn with Mazatec huipil and plain floorlength skirt. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–18 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

As Head of School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, how has your role as an educator informed your curatorial practice and vice versa?

I hope to be able to inspire our students and the team through my work and curatorial practice. We do a lot of curatorial projects across our fashion programmes, we teach it from a theoretical perspective and from a practice-based perspective. I think that if the students acquire the ability to observe, analyse and evaluate objects in their material culture through different lenses, whether they are historical, contextual or structural, they will be able to interpret these objects with coherent narratives that will communicate with different audiences. They need to understand that fashion is about dealing with people, culture, and society, as well as garments and objects. Fashion curation is a very powerful tool to contextualise and communicate fashion.

What advice do you have for students who want to follow in your footsteps to curate fashion exhibitions?

I think they should go for it! We need more young people working in this field.

Are there plans for the exhibition to travel? Any details you could share would be great!

We have many museums that have expressed interest in this exhibition around the world, and at the moment we are exploring the different possibilities.

Interview by Nadya Wang

MA 16/17 Year-in-Review, Part 2

It’s difficult to capture a such a busy year as ours in a few lines or even a few paragraphs. Instead, I asked each of the MAs to sum up our time in Documenting Fashion with a song. Some noted the quick pace of the course, others selected songs from their studies, and a few chose personal favorites for the year. Take a look (with accompanying videos!) below:

Barbora: A few songs popped into my head. “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai is one. Quite self-explanatory, I think. Parts of the year, especially when writing my dissertation, felt like that. Also “Faith” by George Michael felt appropriate, I definitely needed a reminder to believe in myself quite a few times. But most of the time, the year was more like “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. “Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball!”

 

Jamie: I’m tempted to say “I’m So Tired” by the Beatles (for very obvious reasons) or pick something Astaire/Rogers, per my second essay (“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” from Follow the Fleet), but I have to give the song that I started each week with its due: “Manic Monday” by The Bangles. The weekends never seemed long enough to finish the laundry list of tasks from the week before–it was work, work, work the whole nine months!

 

Yona: The song that best represents my year is a live City Medley sung by Tony Bennett and Andy Williams from March 1, 1965. The clip, which includes songs such as “Gypsy in My Soul,” “My Kind of Town,” and “San Francisco,” served as one of the inspirations for my exhibition proposal and I have been obsessed with the casual style of the performance.

 

Harriet: Max Richter’s music has been the soundtrack to long library days – especially his music for Woolf Works, the ballet inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf, and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

 

Dana: Although I don’t have a favourite for this year, as I usually I listen to playlists of jazz, 50s-60s R&B, Latin, soul or popcorn, my song pick is “Johnny Lee” by Faye Adams. Or anything by Aretha Franklin. Although the lyrics don’t really relate to my year, the rhythm and music feel like my year’s pace (if that makes any sense). I’d encourage you to have a look as it’s a fantastic song.

 

Sophie: “We Don’t Eat” by James Vincent McMorrow. It came up on a random Spotify playlist at the beginning of the year and then it became one of my go-to songs on my morning commute to Somerset House. So it’s very much my Courtauld song.

MA 16/17 Year-in-Review, Part 1

Just as quickly as our time at the Courtauld began, so too did it end. During these nine months of intensive schoolwork, we’ve grown as scholars and people, forming close friendships over shared stress and joy. Here are some reflections about our time in MA Documenting Fashion:

What surprised you the most about the course?

Barbora: I knew I would absolutely love my year at The Courtauld. The lessons were stimulating, fun, thought provoking and always the highlights of my week, as sad as that may sound. What surprised me the most, however, was how close-knit our Documenting Fashion group became. With limited contact hours and only a year together, I was skeptical when people said we would all become great friends. But somehow, that really did happen. The support network we created was invaluable at times of assignment crises, of which there were a few, and the girls, as well as our fabulous professors, Rebecca and Liz, made the year the best it could have possibly been.

Harriet, Sophie, Jamie, and Barbora celebrating with champagne after the graduation ceremony

Dana: First, I’d have to say the location of the Courtauld, and the insight and knowledge that Rebecca shared with us. Second, I have to mention some of the trips to archives; for example, the trip to the Museum of London helped us better understand the histories behind London’s inhabitants.

Which assignment did you enjoy the most?

Yona: The exhibition proposal, which we were required to write as part of the course, was by far my favourite assignment. The task involved not just writing the proposal itself, but also the development of sample panels and exhibit labels. As I enjoyed developing a full exhibition, I even included an illustration of the exhibition design and submitted a playlist that visitors could listen to while walking through the galleries. The playlist consisted of 1940s songs that were declaration of love of American cities and I still find myself singing the songs.

Jamie: Though I may just be a glutton for punishment, the dissertation was my favorite assignment. It certainly took a lot of time and effort (not to mention self-motivation), but my absolute adoration of the topic made it all worth while. The development of my argument, slowly building something from months of research, was immensely satisfying. And the quirky stories I found as I researched late-19th century newspapers helped lighten the mood even in the most stressful of times. In short, I enjoyed every milestone, month, and minute of the dissertation process.

Favorite trip?

Harriet: New York, New York! Just before Christmas – surely the best time to visit, with all the spectacular store windows and Christmas trees for sale on every corner – the MA Documenting Fashion class crossed the pond to visit the FIT, Parsons and Brooklyn Museum’s archives. We also met the brilliant Pat Kirkham at the Bard Graduate Centre and visited the Masterworks exhibition at the MET (and took the opportunity to indulge in dumplings in Chinatown, skate in Central Park and catch some jazz too).

MA Documenting Fashion students in the archives at the Brooklyn Museum, December 2016

Sophie: Oh there were too many! The trip to the Museum of London to see fashion curator Timothy Long especially stands out. Not only did he show us some fabulous objects, including Anna Pavlova’s dying swan costume, but his enthusiasm and blatantly obvious love for his job was so striking and incredible to see. He gave us some great and honest insights into his career that are very valuable as we all try to find our own feet in the art and museum world.

Check back next week for a very special summary of the year by each MA student!

Victoria Thorne: An Illustrated Interview

A few months ago, after I had just started my fashion and dog Instagram account, I noticed that I had been mentioned in a post by Victoria Thorne. Inspired by my post from earlier that day, Thorne had drawn the loveliest illustration of a woman and two Dalmatians. Even though the professionalism and high quality of her work suggests otherwise, Thorne only started illustrating recently. Her career consisted mainly of art and design jobs, which included graphic, interiors and garden design, styling for photographers and advertising and organising events for a children’s bookstore. During the past years, she has started sketching people and images from Instagram and is now selling her illustrations on t-shirts and to organisations (including some for the Courtauld!).

Who is your favourite fashion designer?

What do you love to illustrate?

Souls.

Who would you like to swap lives with for a day?

The Dalai Lama. I want to know what it feels like to be that kind and that wise. I also want to learn how to laugh as often as he does.

How do you spend your favourite evenings?

With my family. There are a lot of us. Here are three of our newest additions.

What do you like most about yourself?

That I believe love can save us.

What animal do you think best represents you?

Snow fox (No idea why l think this).

Who do you admire?

Strong women. People with generous, open hearts. People who are concerned with living a reasonably selfless life.

What is your secret talent?

Being asked to leave the museum because I’m the last person there. Usually they ask nicely (I lose track of time).

Talking to Lucy Moore of Claire de Rouen

On London’s Charing Cross Road, an inconspicuous little black door at number 125 transports you into a world of the best art, photography and fashion books. Tucked away on the first floor of the building, the charming space of Claire de Rouen, a bookshop with an impeccably curated selection, instantly becomes everyone’s favourite place in the city. I visited the shop on one sunny afternoon to chat to its amazing director, Lucy Kumara Moore about the space, inspirations, culture and what the future holds for CdR.

Barbora Kozusnikova: Tell me about how the Claire de Rouen bookshop came about and how you started working here.

Lucy Moore: The shop was opened in 2005, by Claire de Rouen – a deeply-knowledgeable, beautiful and slightly mysterious woman born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Italian parents. She moved to London in her twenties to study art. She worked at the ICA bookshop, then at the Photographer’s Gallery and quickly established a reputation for being able to source books before anyone else, and for being so attuned to her clients taste that she knew how to put together the most incredible collections of books for them. After the Photographer’s Gallery, Claire got a job heading up the photo and fashion department at Zwemmer’s bookshop, which doesn’t exist anymore, but used to be just down the road from where my bookshop is now, on Charing Cross Road. She was friends with everyone – Bruce Weber would come and say hi when he was in town and David Bailey gave her a print of one of his portraits of Catherine Deneuve.

Soho used to be much more creatively-exciting… Central Saint Martins used to be on this street, and there were many more art and photo galleries and artist studios that have since closed or moved. The Astoria was an incredible music venue that was demolished to make way for Crossrail. Things have changed so much! Claire was a figurehead in that high-spirited world. Around 2005, Zwemmer’s was bought by another book dealer called Shipley – and Claire didn’t like the way things changed. At the suggestion of Bob Carlos Clarke (known for his sexy high gloss pictures that feel so of the 90s when you look at them now), Claire set up her own shop (and Bruce had connected her with the landlord of the beautiful little space that was to be its home). The opening of Claire de Rouen Books as it was known then (I’ve since dropped the ‘books’ part) was a party for Bruce Weber’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, on Bonfire Night – think of all the fireworks!

I met Claire through my boyfriend at the time, Ned Wilson, in 2009. I was just finishing art school then and loved coming to the shop for signings and launches. We always talked about me working with her but there wasn’t really a job available – she worked there every day except Saturday and had someone to do weekends already. In late 2010 I moved to Australia. I remember going in to the shop to tell Claire and she handed me a book called Bondi Style! After a few months of living in Sydney, we had a very sad phone call to say that Claire had been diagnosed with cancer. She was hoping I could go back to London to help her at the bookshop now that she was less able to work every day. But I didn’t make it back in time, tragically. After she died in 2012, it seemed as if the shop might close and so I decided to move back to London and buy it with some friends.

BK: Why do you think people are still publishing quite a lot of books and the shop continues to be so successful in the digital age?

LM: Well, publishing is much easier and much cheaper. I think if you’re a photographer or a fashion journalist or a stylist, if you publish something then it demonstrates a level of involvement with what you’re doing that goes way beyond putting images online. People understand the different qualities of printed matter and digital space – and select the best platform for saying what they want to say. The two are just different platforms for the exploration of ideas. It’s not one or the other.

People love looking at actual books! It’s so important to me that Claire de Rouen is public not appointment-only. It’s open 5 days a week and is there to welcome you into its paper arms when you have half an hour to kill before you go and meet your Tinder date or if you suddenly decide to do some research into the House of Beauty and Culture.

It’s also a place of idea exchange – lots of my clients make their own books – which I sell – as well as buying them from me, so it’s a two-way space in that sense. It’s part of the constellation of London’s culture. That’s what this shop is about.

BK: How do you select the books that you stock here? Is it really personal or driven by what customers are asking for?

LM: It’s both, because my customers mostly share my taste, so sometimes I buy things that they have suggested. But I never stock anything just because I know it will sell well. There is no Terry Richardson in the house! I have two buying rules that are totally antithetical to each other…! I like very serious, committed explorations of ideas through photography or writing or design – publications which contribute to a discourse. But I also love books that are just fun and pop and beautiful and sexy – I think pleasure and beauty are quite important in our dark political times.

BK: Are there any books that you’d like to see published that haven’t been yet?

LM: So many. I’m setting up a publishing house this year to start filling all the gaps. It will be called Claire de Rouen too, and will trace the history of the interplay between art, fashion and commerce from the ‘70s to now. News to follow!

BK: People can find fashion books next to art books on the shelves at Claire de Rouen. How do you think art and fashion relate?

LM: Unfortunately, because the art market grew so much in the early 2000s, many (although by no means all) of the commercial galleries adjusted themselves to cater for the super rich, with the consequence that they aren’t very welcoming spaces for a broad spectrum of people, necessarily. In contrast, the visual output of the fashion world is distributed in a very democratic way. A billboard on a street is going to be seen by everyone. And digital space doesn’t discriminate according to wealth or class – digital ‘societies’ are totally different to geographically-based ones. Ideas from high fashion filter into the high street, making fashion a very powerful medium to explore ideas relating to beauty, gender, identity, narrative, fantasy etc., because what you see in a Celine show you’ll see in Topshop in a slightly different form, very often before the Celine is even out. That’s very powerful. I find that really interesting. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily. It’s bad for Celine, but it’s very interesting that these ideas are expressed very quickly in a very mainstream way. And that doesn’t happen in art right now – not in London anyway.

BK: Do you collect anything? Or are the books your collection?

LM: Yes, in many ways, yes, totally – I stock Claire de Rouen like it’s my own library. But I also collect a few things, like Werk magazine, POP and Arena Homme+ – magazines are super important right now. Every time I do a signing, I ask the photographer or artist to sign a copy for me. I also collect books on Mark Steinmetz and Marc Camille Chaimowicz – all the Marks! Only joking. I love the Yohji catalogues from the 80s that Nick Knight, Peter Saville and Marc Ascoli did. I also really love functional printed matter, like annual reports and diaries.

Apart from books, I collect the little crystal Disney Swarovski sculptures, which are my total guilty pleasure. And shoes.

BK: Do you want to stay really small, and only here, in Charing Cross?

LM: No, the bookshop will move this year. I would like more space to show more artworks and prints and selected clothing and accessories. In theory, I would like more than one space, but I don’t know how I’d make it work because, really, the bookshop is about my presence there and my taste. So maybe if I had other bookshops, I would invite people who I really respect to set up their own, new, Claire de Rouen worlds, in the same way I do here.

BK: You stock books that inspire people and also the people that made the books were inspired by something. What inspires you?

LM: I am always beguiled by Araki’s approach to life – his voracious curiosity and obsession with sensual pleasure. Marc Camille Chaimowicz (who is a friend) has a carefully defined and beautiful approach to living. Wolfgang Tillmans’ work has a very lucid relationship to society that I find inspiring. There is also a constellation of women in my life who I adore working with – Lou Stoppard, Rei Nadal, Daisy Hoppen, Alice Neale, Lily Cole. I’m very interested in strong, successful, creative women!