Tied Up in a Bow: A Brief History of the Hair Ribbon

‘Tis the season for wrapping everything under the tree up with a bow. This year, to borrow a phrase from the great Diana Vreeland, why don’t you consider trimming yourself with ribbons too? There is nothing quite as festive as a velvet bow pinned neatly under atop the crown of the head or a strand of silk looped around the end of a braid. The appeal of the ribbon as a hair accessory is, however, no seasonal trend–it perhaps one of the most timeless adornments. 

Ribbon-making likely dates back to the early Middle Ages, when the invention of the horizontal loom allowed for the creation of more complex woven textiles. Ribbons quickly became a sartorial trend, pinned to clothing and wrapped into hairstyles. Chaucer notes the existence of ‘ribbands’ as accessories in his work. Visual evidence of the popularity of ribbons is widespread throughout Renaissance works, worn in great, swooping quantities by Filipo Lippi’s angels and as a dainty crown of bows in Lorenzo Lotti’s more secular Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia, 1530-1532, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 110.6 cm, The National Gallery, London, inventory no. NG4256.

As the Renaissance came to a close, a more specific trend in ribbon-adorned hairstyles took hold: that of the lovelock. Worn almost exclusively by men in the late 16th and early 17th century, the lovelock was a long strand of hair worn draped over the chest and often tied with a bow or a rose made from ribbon. The lovelock was a deeply sentimental style, intended to signify the wearer’s romantic devotion to their beloved as it drew emphasis towards the heart. 

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Henri II de Lorraine, 1634, oil on canvas, 204.6 x 123.8 cm (80 9/16 x 48 3/4 in.), The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., accession no. 1947.14.1.

In the late 18th century, the Dutch engine loom once again revolutionised the production of ribbon, allowing for six different types of ribbons to be produced simultaneously on a single loom. This industrial innovation spurred an unprecedented frenzy for ribbons of all kinds, which is apparent in the styles of Rococo France. Both men and women of the time were draped with ribbons and bows from the tops of tall wigs down to the pointed toes of effeminate court shoes. 


After the fall of the French monarchy, ribbons remained a popular accessory, even amongst those who had most vehemently opposed the Rococo style. Women who wore decidedly anti-Rococo Regency era dresses often topped their looks with bonnets bedecked in bows and flowers made from ribbon. These bonnets would remain popular for women throughout the 19th century, though ribbons as an accessory for men largely fell out of fashion. The Victorian affinity for elaborate braided hairstyles provided an ample canvas for yet more ribbon to be pinned into women’s hair. By the end of the century, a fashionable women’s hat could contain a decadent ten to twelve yards of ribbon–plus more woven into her tresses beneath. 

An illustration of Regency bonnets from Costumes Parisiennes, 1811, via https://historicalsewing.com/trimming-regency-bonnet-ideas-instructions.


In 1939, classic films Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz presented their respective starlets as pictures of wholesome femininity, their hair trimmed with bows of red and blue. Hair bows became stylish accoutrements for women of the silver screen and their fans. Bows took on flirtatious connotations, as evidenced by a 1944 spread from LIFE magazine that assigns various romantic meanings to the placement of a young lady’s hair bow, not at all dissimilar from the purpose of the lovelock popular over four centuries earlier. In contemporary Russia, the young woman’s hair bow had a far more political purpose. Girls wore two large, gauzy white bows known as bantiki as part of their school uniform to demonstrate their loyalty to the Soviet Union.

‘Girls Hair-Do Reveals Love Life,’ LIFE magazine, 15 May 1944, https://books.google.com/books?id=eE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA70&dq=hair+bow+reveals&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjGqI-9x-7jAhVFmVkKHSXZC3oQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=hair%20bow%20reveals&f=false.

From Renaissance angels to stars of the silver screen, the hair bow has been a steadfast and stylish companion for nearly the entirety of written dress history. Well into the 20th century, French ingenues like Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Anna Karina again made the hair bow a part of 1960s stardom, lending it a coquettish quality by styling it with winged eyeliner and short hemlines. In even more recent years, pop stars Madonna and Lady Gaga have put their outlandish touches on the ribbons in their hair as well, enlarging them to comical sizes and pairing them with clashing punk studs. Whether it is used to communicate romantic entanglements or political affiliations, ribbon is an infinitely customisable accessory, and looks just as pretty tangled in tresses as it does tied up under the tree.

Please note that the Documenting Fashion blog will be taking a brief holiday to make bows and be merry! We look forward to sharing dress history with you again regularly in the new year.

By Ruby Redstone


Anna Purna Kambhampaty, ‘From Marie Antoinette to JoJo Siwa, Hair Bows Have a Surprisingly Meaningful History,’ Time, published 14 August 2019, https://time.com/5642621/jojo-bows-history/.

FIT Fashion History Timeline, ‘Love Lock,’ published 10 August 2018, https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/love-lock/.

Katya Soldak, ‘This is How Propaganda Works: A Look Inside a Soviet Childhood,’ Forbes, published 20 December 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/katyasoldak/2017/12/20/this-is-how-propaganda-works-a-look-inside-a-soviet-childhood/?sh=2a927cd33566.

National Museum of American History, ‘For your Easter bonnet: Silk ribbons,’ published 13 April 2017, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/easter-ribbons.

‘Ribbons,’ Encyclopedia online, accessed 17 December 2020, https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports-and-everyday-life/fashion-and-clothing/clothing-jewelry-and-personal-adornment/ribbon#:~:text=Ribbons%20were%20so%20identified%20with,Knights%20of%20Bath%20wear%20red.


Women’s Bodies and Male Designers: John Galliano Spring 1994 and Alexander McQueen Autumn 1995

John Galliano graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1984, and eight years later Lee Alexander McQueen followed suit. Two of their collections from the mid- nineties, Galliano’s Princess Lucretia (spring/summer 94/95) and McQueen’s Highland Rape (autumn/winter 95/96) use women’s bodies as a medium beyond clothing. Both use historical narratives to emotional and aesthetic effect, and both are fascinated with hierarchical power dynamics and violence against women.

Galliano’s show was built on an invented fairy-tale narrative, inspired by a Vanity Fair article which detailed a DNA connection between the Romanovs and the Duke of Edinburgh. Galliano’s Princess Lucretia runs away from the 1860s crinolines and hoops skirts of her Russian upbringing to Scotland. On her escape train, she meets a polka-dotty duke and duchess, who introduce her to parties. She becomes “naughty”, drinking, smoking and gambling, before falling in love with a lord and living happily ever after in reimaginings of Madeleine Vionnet’s bias-cut dresses. This magical realist narrative allows for the corseted, extremely unwieldy shapes of the mid-nineteenth century to metamorphose into the lithe and figure-hugging silks of the nineteen twenties in one performance.

Galliano’s show also follows the narrative of the seeming emancipation of a young woman’s body after the First World War. However, the ideal boyish figure of the twenties was by no means less restricted. Though it took up less space than the hoop-skirted silhouettes we see at the beginning of the show, the binding of breasts and pushing down of hips through corselets was hardly comfortable or natural. By the nineties, these techniques of reducing the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics had been internalised through dieting, exercise, and, at times, starvation. Where Galliano’s show foregrounded a fairy tale narrative featuring the recognisable historical shapes of crinolines and bias-cuts, McQueen’s story was far more abstract. His historical starting point was the eighteenth-century Jacobite rebellion, reinvented as a tale of masculine English domination and violation of a Scotland that is codified as feminine and natural.

In Highland Rape, the beginning of McQueen’s fascination with what Stephen Seely terms the “becoming non-human of the wearer’s body” is visible. Such de-humanising has long been used as a method of patriarchal control, as evidenced in the consideration of undergarments from the 1860s through the 1920s. For Seely, however, this can also “problematize the privileged Western binaries of human/animal, organic/inorganic, real/artifice, and male/female.” These binaries are made evident in the lace that McQueen features throughout the collection. At times, it is a matte pale blue, that trains off in tendrils down the model’s legs, resembling a cornflower meadow turned upside down. At others, it is painted over with iridescence, like the scales of a fish. Later, the lace becomes dark green and seems almost moss-like, matching up with the clumps of scrub which decorate the edges of the catwalk, through which the photographers’ cameras leer, like predators waiting to pounce.

Using rape as metaphor in art is uncomfortable and risky, particularly when that art involves real women’s bodies in varying states of nudity as part of the performance. When it was suggested to McQueen that the collection was misogynous, he was deeply upset, stating that he was “very close” to his oldest sister who had been abused by her husband. “All you want to do is make women look stronger (…),” he said, “I want to portray the way society still sees women in some ways, not the way I see women.” McQueen’s focus on personal experience over public narrativization is key in Highland Rape, but it is also problematised by his use of lesser-known models who, given the precarious nature of their occupation, might not have able to give full consent in the use of their bodies in the show.


This was not the case for Princess Lucretia. In Catwalk, we see Galliano directing Kate Moss backstage. The tiered blue skirt billows out behind her as she runs, her torso emerging childlike from the top, tiny in comparison to the sea that swallows the rests of her body. The name “Lucretia” has obvious connotations of rape (the tale of the Roman woman’s assault has been retold many times), but there are other signs of vulnerability. The soundtrack of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé is cut through with the sound howling wolves, the threat of the traditional wolf whistle transferred from man to animal. Galliano instructs Moss that, when she hears the wolves, to “stop” in order “to make the dress go really forward”. The suggested whiplash of fear in her heart is communicated through the momentum of the dress.

In both shows, the models wear matted hair extensions, mismatched and straggly. These accentuate their jerky and uncomfortable movements, adding to the sense of the physical suffering they have endured. Where Galliano’s models look back behind them as they come out onto the runway, the women in McQueen’s show stare at the audience as they return. Certain models were given sclera contacts lenses which cover the whole eye and make it black. These empty-seeming eyes evoke the blank stare of a survivor’s dissociation. The lenses also act like black mirrors, reflecting the onlookers’ faces. These models glare back at the audience, challenging them to examine themselves and their assumptions.

By Alexandra Sive

Martin Margiela’s Melting Ice

For many, the arrival of winter brings with it a longing for summer. The cold has a way of expunging memories of sweaty afternoons spent with a cold drink pressed to the forehead in a desperate attempt to cool down. In a playful confrontation of this sensorial paradox, Maison Martin Margiela’s Spring/Summer ’06 collection, shown just as winter crept into Paris in 2005, features necklaces, earrings, bracelets and belts strung with coloured ice cubes. Continuing a process that no doubt began with a hairdryer backstage, the bright stage lights and the heat from the bodies of the audience and models melt the ice so that the dye – green, purple, blue and pink – runs down the models’ skin and seeps into their white clothes.

Maison Margiela, Spring 2006 Ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2006-ready-to-wear/maison-martin-margiela

Maison Margiela, Spring 2006 Ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2006-ready-to-wear/maison-martin-margiela

Maison Margiela, Spring 2006 Ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2006-ready-to-wear/maison-martin-margiela

Jewellery created from ice is an amusing play on the senses. Ice can have the transparency or the sparkle of a gemstone and feels cool to the touch just like jewellery. For decades, hip-hop artists have used ice as a metaphor for diamond jewellery in reference to the optic and haptic crossovers. The obvious difference is that ice cubes, unlike diamonds, do not last forever. The water, artificially and temporarily frozen, therefore speaks to the artifice and temporality of fashion. Both the ice and the clothes are visually altered as time unfolds before the audience.

This visible change recalls Margiela’s ‘9/4/1615’ exhibition held in 1997 at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, for which the clothes on display had been sprayed with living mould, yeast or bacteria. While the decay occurred at a slower rate than the melting of ice, each visitor would see a slightly different stage of development. Caroline Evans notes that each piece, recreated from the designer’s archive and decomposing before an audience, is ‘saturated with complex historical meanings’, hinting at Martin Margiela’s own complex relationship with history and time.

Martin Margiela’s personal and professional archive, unpacked in the 2020 documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, is a testament to his reverence for the past. This obsessive accumulation and preservation of objects might appear at odds with his reputation for deconstruction. Rather than being rooted in any sense of destructive violence, however, his deconstructive practice was based in ‘care for the material object and sartorial techniques’, as noted by Alison Gill. In this way, Margiela’s particular brand of deconstruction can be considered much closer to conservation.

Watching pure white fabric stained haphazardly, like an ice lolly dripped on a cotton dress, has the potential to be jarring. Instead, something in the wet, candy-coloured mess created is enlivening and joyful. The grotesque mixture of melted ice and oil sticks the models’ hair to their skin and causes their makeup to bleed, engaging the audience’s haptic imagination. The streetcast models, who smile and dance, amplify this effect with their relatability. Just as Elizabeth Wilson notes that grunge recalls glamour, here, the grotesque is inviting. The effect, according to Vogue, is ‘a hot display of grittily glamourous womanhood [that could] reduce any man to a pool of water’. Unlike Shalom Harlow, dancing in distress as her dress was spray-painted by robot arms at Alexander McQueen’s show seven years earlier, Margiela’s models exude cool acceptance as the recently frozen water spreads across their skin. Rather than destruction, or even creation, this is something more passive and voyeuristic: decay, or, as Evans described the process at the exhibition, ‘decay without revulsion’.

Maison Margiela, Spring 2006 Ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2006-ready-to-wear/maison-martin-margiela

Maison Margiela, Spring 2006 Ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2006-ready-to-wear/maison-martin-margiela

By Lucy Corkish


Maison Margiela SPRING 2006 READY-TO-WEAR on Vogue Runway: Words by Sarah Mower, Photographs by Marcio Madeira (https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2006-ready-to-wear/maison-martin-margiela)

Caroline Evans, ‘The Golden Dustman: A critical evaluation of the work of Martin Margiela and a review of Martin Margiela: Exhibition (9/4/1615)’, Fashion Theory 2:1 (1998), pp. 73-93

Elizabeth Wilson, ‘A Note on Glamour’, Fashion Theory, 11:1 (2007), 95-108

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

Alison Gill, ‘Deconstruction Fashion: The Making of Unfinished, Decomposing and Re-assembled Clothes’, Fashion Theory 2:1 (1998), pp. 25-49

René Lalique: The Master of Art Nouveau Jewellery

When thinking about jewellery, as I often do, my mind wanders to the nineteenth century legends. Famous jewellers such as Cartier, Fabergé and Bvlgari all rose to prominence in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. As the decades passed, each of these jewellery houses consistently reimagined the classic designs synonymous with its reputation (the panthère, the egg and the snake, respectively). However, another house also gained fame in the nineteenth century: Lalique. Founded in 1888 by René Lalique, the house created immensely popular jewellery throughout the end of the nineteenth century, as customers were drawn to Lalique’s novel approach to the relationship between the individual and nature.

Lalique had an extraordinary ability to render pieces with complimentary elements of naturalism and mysticism while also daring to create with materials no one else saw fit to use. However, though Lalique was both a jeweller and a glassmaker, his glassware technique remains far more recognized today than his jewellery. While the house still creates some jewellery, the pieces Lalique conceived in the late-nineteenth century are infinitely more iconic.

Born in 1860 in Aÿ-en-Champagne in the Marne region of France, Lalique spent his childhood in the countryside, an element of his life that inspired the naturalistic elements of his jewellery designs. He then studied at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, after which he became a freelance jewellery designer for famous houses such as Cartier, Boucheron and Gariod. By the 1880s, Lalique had catapulted to the forefront of the jewellery industry. Considered the master of the Art Nouveau style, René Lalique revolutionized jewellery design in his use of unconventional materials and the intricate patterns of his creations.


The style of Art Nouveau gained popularity in the late 1800s. Concurrently, this time period saw a rise in demand for elaborate jewellery and pieces in ‘The Garland Style,’ a technique that emphasised natural motifs and delicate, flowing lines. The graceful, sweeping designs aimed to compliment fashions of the time. Necklaces rose in favour, particularly chokers layered atop longer necklaces, such as strands of pearls, égligé pendants, or lavalieres. Brooches, corsages and tiaras were often designed to look like floral bouquets or vines of foliage.

Lalique took these trends a step further and incorporated elements of the mythical into his naturalistic designs. He frequently used motifs of the female figure, flora, and fauna in his creations; his favourite motifs included women with dragonfly wings and women’s faces imposed on varieties of flowers.

René Lalique, ‘Dragonfly-woman’ corsage ornament, c. 1897-98, Founder’s Collection, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. https://gulbenkian.pt/museu/en/new-readings/lalique-and-the-woman-flower/


René Lalique, ‘Woman’s face’ pendant, c. 1898–1900. Founder’s Collection, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. https://gulbenkian.pt/museu/en/new-readings/lalique-and-the-woman-flower/

He also made use of materials previously unused in the jewellery industry, including horn, semi-precious stones, enamel, ivory and glass. Rather than using large diamonds to pull focus, as was popular at the time, Lalique preferred stones such as cornelian, tourmaline, bloodstone, chrysoberyl, coral and ivory. He designed many pieces for actress Sarah Bernhardt. In the photograph below she wears a stunning headdress with jewelled flowers on either side of a large crown. Many of the pieces he designed for Bernhardt were stage jewellery, and she eventually became one of his patrons. Lalique became known for arranging his materials in patterns that favoured originality over outright ostentation.

Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Melissinde ‘La Princesse Lointaine’ or Faraway Princess by Edmond Rostand, Theatre de la Renaissance 1895. (Photo by APIC/Getty Images). https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/rene-lalique-7-things-you-need-to-know

Though he had used glass in his jewellery designs, Lalique eventually shifted his focus entirely to glass at the turn of the twentieth century, creating works in the novel, more minimalist Art Deco style. He partnered with perfumer François Coty, creating beautiful perfume bottles, before turning his attention to industrial glassware with the outbreak of World War I. Although its production of jewellery has dwindled, the house of Lalique is still renowned worldwide for its glassware.


By Genevieve Davis









Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part V

Last night saw the scintillating final installment of the week-long Fashion Interpretations Symposium. The first part of the evening was dedicated to a roundtable discussion with the creators of Archivist Addendum, ‘a publishing project exploring the nascent space between standardised fashion editorial and academic research’. To open the conversation, which focused on the questions faced by contemporary fashion publishing and the practice of sharing academic research, co-founder Jane Howard read aloud an email she had written to herself in 2003 after leaving her position as first assistant to David Bradshaw. The email, referred to by Lisa Cohen later in the evening as ‘a manifesto for our times’, detailed the problems she witnessed working within the fashion industry and potential routes to a better system. Howard has been working with Archivist Addendum’s other co-founder, writer and fashion communication lecturer Dal Chodha, for a decade. They discussed the sometimes ‘pointless’ and ‘precarious’ fashion system and how their work hopes to remedy this with a slower, more adaptable approach. Archivist Addendum will be published as a collection of papers and photographs brought together in a box, some parts bound and some loose. This content-driven approach can offer a more appropriate format for each project and a more tactile experience, reminiscent of browsing an archive, for the reader. The duo hopes that by breaking free from the established format, Archivist Addendum can play a part in dissecting and rebuilding ideas around fashion and the archive. Judith Clark noted the material juxtaposition produced by using items from the past to present a future, recalling projects introduced earlier in the week that dealt similarly with archival materials.


After the roundtable discussion, Rebecca Arnold led a reflective and emotive discussion with all contributors to the Fashion Interpretations research group. Many were quick to express their gratitude for the new and surprising connections made as well as the chance to work in collaboration with others. There was a focus on process: in particular, the welcome slowing down that occurs when taking a step back to consider medium – ‘the conduit to the content’. Finally, participants were grateful for the energy and ‘magic’ the project had generated.


To keep up with what the Fashion Interpretations group get up to next (after a well-deserved rest), follow their Instagram page @fashioninterpretations. To get your hands a copy of the inaugural Archivist Addendum when it is published in January, follow @archivistaddendum on Instagram. Recordings of the entire Fashion Interpretations Symposium can be found on The Courtauld’s Research Forum playlist on YouTube.

by Lucy Corkish

Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part IV

Last night’s Fashion Interpretations Symposium featured a masterclass with celebrated fashion illustrator Richard Haines. Haines began with a nod to fashion history, showing a selection of his favourite works by early twentieth century illustrator Christian Bérard, whose work Haines loves for its unwavering, confident lines. Particularly inspiring for Haines is the trompe l’oeil door Bérard created for the Institut Guerlain in Paris which appears from afar to be painted but is, as Haines discovered on a recent trip to Paris, comprised of small strips of grosgrain. Ruminating on this discovery, he remarked: ‘A line can be a piece of paper and a pencil, it can be charcoal, it can be Procreate, or it can be a strip of grosgrain’.

Haines continued this rumination on the concept of line, demonstrating how his hand responds differently when sketching contemporary clothing than it does when sketching archival looks from designers like Schiaparelli, of whom he is a loyal fan. When sketching the 1930s, he explained, he gravitates towards gentle, curvaceous lines. When sketching contemporary designers, like his particular favourite Christpher John Rogers, he finds that he naturally tends to use bolder, more graphic lines and emphasises the shape of a look more than its finer details. Haines also provided examples of different media in his body of work, noting the nuances of his works in pastel and charcoal and his newer works created on his iPad. ‘To me,’ he remarked, ‘there is nothing more beautiful than a drawing. But [with digital technology] we are adapting the drawing and putting it in different contexts, and that is so exciting’. He draws inspiration not just from his subject matter but from the vast array of media he is able to use to render it.


Haines then (virtually) brought in a model and led his audience through a thirty minute session of rapid-fire sketching. During this time, he provided practical illustration advice that he has garnered throughout his wide-reaching career in fashion. Haines always begins his drawings from the head down and focuses on capturing the gesture of a model’s pose quickly. In fact, he explained how he prefers to create most of his works in a short frame of time and avoids getting hung up on imperfections and fussy details–undoubtedly a factor in his drawings’ trademark liveliness. This can prove challenging when working for a commercial client, as Haines has to work in a client’s corrections without compromising the spontaneity of his style.


Most crucially, Haines believes that one should never take an eraser to their sketch. He makes confident marks on his page and, should he make a mistake, he works to change the line he is creating and manipulate it into an integral part of his drawing. Should any of us be lucky enough to be invited to sketch a fashion show like Haines, he warns us to be careful with the medium we select. Years ago when sketching at the Oscar de la Renta showroom, he knocked over a pot of India ink and nearly ruined the designer’s handiwork. He now favours a charcoal stick for these high-pressure situations. Confident lines are, of course, better left on the page than the showroom floor, but for Haines, the page seems to always provide enough room for boundless exploration.


If you sketched along with Haines, please do share your drawings under #richardhainesmasterclass, and browse the hashtag if you’d like to see others’ work! Join us tonight for the final night of the Fashion Interpretations Symposium which will be a special roundtable discussion to celebrate the launch of Archivist Addendum.

by Ruby Redstone

Madeleine Vionnet – “the architect of dressmakers”

Madeleine Vionnet transformed the way in which designers approached the female figure. Eschewing the restrictiveness and rigidity of the corset, she favoured free-flowing silhouettes which accentuated the natural curves of a woman’s body. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she revolutionised the fashion industry through her use of the bias cut, a technique of cutting on the diagonal grain of the fabric to give it a sinuous and stretchy quality. Previously confined to small and often hidden details of garment design, this cut became the defining feature of the 1930s female silhouette. Vionnet applied it to the entirety of a dress’s design, enabling the fabric to cling to women’s bodies without the support of padding, fastenings or buttons. This was a pivotal moment in dressmaking history, as it meant women could be elegant yet comfortable in their occasion wear, and appear feminine, yet be free to move around.

Model wearing Madeleine Vionnet bias cut dress, Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene for French Vogue, December 1930 (Source: @julien_morras_azpiazu on Instagram)

When Betty Kirke interviewed former employees of Vionnet’s fashion house on the Rue de Rivoli, they insisted she was a “technician” rather than a “designer”. Her bias-cut dress designs, though chic and simple in appearance, were highly complex and technical to execute. She did not sketch, but instead worked three-dimensionally on miniature dolls, cutting and pinning fabric to fit their form. She ordered fabric two yards wider than her original measurements to accommodate for extensive drapery, and left it to hang in her studio for a week to allow gravity to stretch it out to its full length. Once satisfied that the fabric was sufficiently stretched out that it would not warp over time, she re-created her designs on full-size models in the round. This corporeal approach to dress earned Vionnet the title “the architect of dressmakers”. Her mastery of the technicalities of fabric, and its potential to work with the natural curvature of the female figure, was unparalleled for decades to come.

Madeleine Vionnet working in on a dress design on a miniature doll (Credit: @andreabatilla on Instagram)

The most striking aspect of Vionnet’s designs was the freedom of movement they allowed women. Inspired by ancient Greek sculpture, Vionnet used classical style drapery and folding to create a sense of motion and lightness in her dresses. As she said in an interview for French Vogue in 1974, “I proved that fabric falling freely on a body liberated from heavy armature was beautiful in and of itself… I attempted to bring to fabric a balance that movement in -no way altered, but rather magnified.” Far-removed from the support and structure of 19th century corsetry, her dresses took on the form of a silky second skin which moved gracefully with the bodies they covered.

Bas-relief frieze dress, by Madeleine Vionnet photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene for French Vogue, 1931 (Source: @the_art_of_dress on Instagram)

In 1940 Vionnet’s label went into liquidation and her name faded quickly. However, for designers and dress historians her contribution to fashion will never be forgotten. As Azzedine Alaïa said, she was “the source of everything, the mother of us all”. Her ingenious use of the bias-cut to accentuate the natural female form changed the shape of fashion forever.

By Violet Caldecott








Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part III

Fashion Interpretations Symposium, Part III remedied Wednesday’s mid-week slump with a fascinatingly interdisciplinary approach to fashion — watercolours, mythological goddesses, and a ramshackle cowshed all featured.

The evening’s speakers included author, artist, and publisher Leanne Shapton and Judith Clark, curator and exhibition-maker.

To begin, Leanne Shapton gave us a sneak peak into her ongoing project investigating the way clothes are photographed and sold digitally. She focussed particularly on the way that amateur photography is used on online fashion sales platforms. Intriguingly, she highlighted the appeal of the carelessly shot, badly lit eBay image that seduces the buyer into believing they have found a treasure. Her current ongoing project is to create watercolour studies and paintings of these photographic eccentricities, focusing on their shapes and silhouettes as a way to understand their distinctly uncanny yet appealing aura.

Judith Clark presented her paper that analyses the relationship between word and image through Stéphanie-Félicité, Madame de Genlis’ nineteenth-century fashion illustrations labelled after goddesses Venus, Aphrodite, Minerva, and Juno. She questioned: did the words inspire the image, or vice versa? A bridge between word and image is particularly pertinent to the fashion exhibition, as Judith noted that curators are consistently looking for ‘meaningful adjacencies between objects.’ If language, she concludes, is what creates confusion between objects in a museum setting, then we must begin to consider alternative paths. Particularly of note was an audience question about Judith’s research process in the Warburg Library throughout the pandemic. She revealed that she had begun to key in bookmarks of pages, in order to artificially simulate archives that might be physically beside one another – an interesting example of the way we have to adapt to our new and wholly online experience of the world.

Finally, the evening concluded with a short film collaboration between Roman Kurzmeyer and Judith Clark, which turned the way that we think about exhibitions on its head. The Amden Atelier, a project that uses an old cattle stall in the mountains as a venue to showcase art installations lends itself to a debate about what it really means to be an ‘exhibition maker’. It requests an engagement with the site: artists and curators must specifically work with the building. This unique short film highlighted a multitude of ways we can think about the exhibition, the importance of perceptual conditions, and the ‘hyper image’.

The fascinating content we were presented with last night seemed to be incredibly pertinent to our current situation: the growing popularity of online shopping in a post-pandemic eco-conscious world, the effects looking at archives remotely has on academic research, and a case study on how particular environments relates to our experience of viewing art.

More from Fashion Interpretations Symposium tonight, with its fourth event!


By Kathryn Reed

Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part II

At last night’s Fashion Interpretations Symposium we heard from three amazing speakers: Lisa Cohen, Associate Professor of English and of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; Olga Vainshtein, Senior Researcher at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow; and Elizabeth Kutesko, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins in London.

Lisa Cohen led with a poetic presentation on the relationship between clothing and grief. Clothing reminds us of those we have lost, a remnant of someone mourned. It can provide a sense of closeness to a loved one or a sense of catharsis through the giving away the clothes to others. Cohen first described an interview with a woman named Anne as they went through Anne’s parents’ clothing together. Reminiscing over a black bolero cardigan and a beautiful white lace dress, Cohen conveyed the sense of connection formed between people by clothing. Wearing, touching, or smelling a loved one’s clothing can trigger a kaleidoscope of memories. Cohen also touched upon her own relationship with filmmaker Jim Lyons, whose AIDS-related death she chose to speak poignantly on yesterday, which was World AIDS Day. She spoke of the bag of t-shirts he left her; a symbol of their friendship kept on her shelf for over a decade. Cohen’s personal interactions with each person she interviewed in her research brought to life the deep intimacy between clothing and relationships.

Olga Vainshtein provided an in-depth look at fashion in literature and cultural interpretations of illustration. Focusing on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1886 novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Vainshtein discussed how the illustrations of the little lord in his suit, drawn by Reginald Birch, sparked a trend in boys’ fashion. Though the novel provided few descriptions of Lord Fauntleroy’s suits, Birch was a popular illustrator and the vivid drawings were mimicked in magazines, with pictures of each outfit and the pieces required for it, so that mothers could order ready-made outfits for their sons in the latest style. The illustrations were based on Burnett’s son Vivian, and they were inspired by late-seventeenth century and early eighteenth-century court dress. Vainshtein’s presentation allowed us a peak into the way fashion and fiction interact through “cultural illusion,” demonstrating how literature has the ability to impact fashion as much as photography and film.

Elizabeth Kutesko rounded off the night with a talk on Claude and Dina Levi-Strauss’ photographs of São Paolo from 1935-37. In one image, Kutesko examined Dina Levi-Strauss’ tailored, manicured outfit that contrasted the wilderness around her as she explored Brazil, highlighting how São Paolo was poised between an agricultural past and an industrial future. She also highlighted the ways the snapshots captured the picturesque nature of the city, with modern skyscrapers and well-dressed pedestrians, while simultaneously including the “extra,” such as rubbish in the gutters. In the 1930s, São Paolo transformed into Brazil’s industrial centre, but Kutesko emphasized how the Levi-Strauss’ photographs emphasized the “unfinished” nature of the city, as light leaks and blurring mirrored its constant transformation. The concept of modernity varies from culture to culture, operating across national borders and within them. Kutesko concluded with the idea that photographs capture these moments of modernity, often immortalizing more than can be seen by a single glance.

These three speakers were unified in their emphasis on the importance of memory. Memory can be captured in photograph, touched in a piece of clothing left behind, or disseminated through a novel. Fashion, and the mediums through which it is displayed, provides pathways to explore these memories and the emotions they provoke.

Join us tonight for Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part III.

By Genevieve Davis

Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part I

It is going to be an exciting week for fashion enthusiasts around the world! The Fashion Interpretations Symposium has officially begun and so also begins our daily recaps here of each night.

Dr. Rebecca Arnold’s discussion on Man Ray’s images for February 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar kickstarted the event, emphasising how the artist manipulated the photographic medium to blur the line between photography and illustration, respectively the most recent and the most established forms to represent fashion during the interwar years. Man Ray simultaneously saw himself as the creator of the image but also of the medium through which it would have been received. Using the technique of solarization to achieve a tone reversal effect on the black and white photograph, he would then apply a gouache to certain areas of the image to emphasise the colours. In one of the images presented, the perception of a white dress with a ghostly grey train was contrasted by the bright hues suggested by the applied splashes of colour, reflecting the descriptive text under the picture. Man Ray’s images were, to quote Dr. Arnold, ‘foregrounding the medium, drawing upon the idea of us as embodied viewers’, experiencing the image through the use of both optic and haptic sensations.

Detail of Man Ray’s picture for February 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

Elisa De Wyngaert, fashion curator at MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp, followed Dr. Arnold’s presentation, discussing her process when planning a new exhibition. She explained how, for her, the early stages of exhibition planning resemble the feeling of being a teenager decorating her walls: for a brief moment every item seems able to reach, without logistic or conservation challenges, and no budget restriction. What follows is the very slow process of “letting go”, as sometimes pieces are missing, too fragile or too expensive to loan, and the moment when the “wall of dreams” is translated to a more practical excel sheet. Elisa emphasised how the wall collage is an important part of the exhibition history: this is the moment corresponding to the teenage years of the exhibition, which is in the process of developing its identity. The “exhibition of dreams” then grows up into what we audience see. At this point, the exhibition does not belong to the curator anymore, but to everyone. Every person becomes part of the story, in the way they personally experience the exhibition.

Charles Tepperman, Associate Professor of Film Studies at The University of Calgary, concluded the presentation part of the night with “A World Dressed in Kodachrome – Fashion and Amateur Film in the mid-century”. Kodak introduced the Kodachrome film stock in 1935, becoming an amateur favourite for the way it allowed to capture formal and vernacular dress, and use colour almost as a textile in its own right. Kodachrome provided one of the first widely accessible tools to capture colour and created a true “chromatic modernity”. Amateur filmmakers such as Chicago-based Warren Thompson and Matthew Ko dressed the world in colour and motion, and their amateur films can now be considered kinetic records of how people dressed. Through their lenses, the city was transformed into a chromatic composition of streets, fabrics and styles.

As the event came to an end, I was left with a question: what are we attracted by when looking at fashion? Is it the colours it presents? Or the emotions it sparks? Is it its mix of textures, inviting us to touch the garments or imagine how they would feel on our skin? It may well be a combination of these three factors and many others relating to our subjective experience. What is clear to me, however, is that people are central to the shaping of fashion, and that the fashion object can only be fully understood in relation to people’s experience of it.

Tune in tonight for Fashion Interpretations Symposium Part II!


By Simona Mezzina