5 Minutes with… Simona Mezzina

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Simona discusses growing up in her family’s fashion boutique, dress as a language and American screwball comedies from the 1930s.

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

I have many early memories related to fashion. I often say that I was born among clothes: my grandfather started his textiles business in the south of Italy in the 1950s, which he shortly after turned into a menswear boutique. My father started working there at the end of the 1970s and then opened his own boutique in 2000, when I was just four years old. The boutique still exists in its original location and is currently run by my elder siblings, with the support of my father. I have many memories related to both my grandfather’s and my father’s businesses. As a child, I was extremely fascinated by the tactile qualities of clothes: I particularly loved passing my hand through the suits, perfectly hanging on their display racks, organised by colour, cut and fabric, and unfolding every shirt, sweater and pair of trousers to look at their smallest details, often deciding to try them on despite the obvious size mismatch. Some of my favourite memories involve a game I used to play in the boutique, where I would pretend to be a sales assistant with the support of our oldest employee, who would kindly and patiently play along, interpreting the role of ever different customers with the most bizarre requests. It was certainly good training – also because he taught me how to fold every item properly.

What is one thing you’ve learned about dress history that you wish more people knew? 

That dress history in itself is not just about ‘clothes’. The general understanding of the concept of dress is so shallow that trying to explain to those who ask what it means to study it is quite complicated. I recently came across a picture in a fashion magazine with a text reading ‘I don’t understand what my clothes mean’, and I became obsessed with it. It made me think that this is precisely the reason why I decided to study dress history: to understand the meaning of these items that we put on our bodies – along with all the elements that compose our appearance – which possess a unique and incredible communicative power, even more immediate than words. The problem, however, is that this language is unknown to most people, and trying to decipher it without the right tools is practically impossible. Studying dress history gave me those tools, unlocking an immense universe which encompasses multiple fields, such as sociology, social anthropology, psychology, economics, and politics.

What is your favourite thing you’ve read this year? 

Every paper or book I read thanks to this course was fascinating and challenging in its own way. However, to go back to what I was saying before about not knowing what the concept of ‘dress’ actually means: I would say one of the most important things we have analysed, at the very beginning of the MA, was Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ ‘Definition and Classification of Dress: Implications for Analysis of Gender Roles’. As a long-time supporter of Judith Butler’s ideas on gender as performance, this paper furthered my understanding of how, in the societal context I am writing from, the most prominent social distinction communicated by dress is that of learned gender roles.

What is your dissertation about? 

My dissertation is about the intersection between star image, costume design and film genre. I am discussing the function and meaning of costumes in the context of the American screwball comedies of the 1930s, through a specific focus on the screen couple Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, released in 1940. Throughout my academic career, I have been particularly interested in star studies and how this field relates to film and fashion. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Sophia Loren’s costumes in Vittorio De Sica’s 1963 comedy Ieri, Oggi, Domani, and, although through different lenses, I enjoyed the idea of following a similar path to conclude my MA. Comedy is one of the richest and most fascinating genres, in my opinion, and I believe there is much to be said about the implications of clothes and fashion when it comes to screen comedies.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) Source: The New Yorker

Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear? 

This is such a hard question! I will go with the one outfit that immediately came to my mind when I read this question, which is included in one of my favourite portraits and dress history images: Charles Frederick Worth’s evening ball gown worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in her 1865 portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. It is just sublime. The off-the-shoulder neckline, the white satin mixed with tulle, with thousands of silver foil stars shimmering throughout the dress, matching the diamond edelweiss pins in her long, braided hair… I must have dreamt of a dress like this a thousand times in my childhood ‘princess’ fantasies, way before I became acquainted with this painting. Plus, what an unforgettable experience it would have been to be dressed by the father of haute couture himself!

Franz Xaver Winterhalter (German, 1805–1873). Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1865. Oil on canvas; 255 x 133 cm. Vienna: The Hofburg. Source: Wikiart

Exploring Ginger Rogers’ Costumes in Top Hat (1935)

In anticipation of discussing interwar fashion and film as part of the MA course this semester, I marathoned the movie partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers over winter break. Their highest grossing film, Top Hat (1935), remains well known today both for the pair’s fancy footwork and the spectacular outfits worn by Ginger Rogers. Her costumes were designed by Bernard Newman, former head designer at Bergdorf Goodman who had initially been contracted by RKO to make costumes for Roberta, another Astaire-Rogers film. Newman would go on to dress Rogers in Swing Time (1936) and Follow the Fleet (1936). His imaginative designs for Top Hat assured Rogers’ place as the ultimate fashionista of 1930s musical film.

Dale’s nightgown and robe in stills from Top Hat (1935)

In the film, Ginger Rogers’ character Dale Tremont is a model for the fictional designer Alberto Beddini, and she wears ‘his’ high-fashion clothing throughout the film. Dale encounters Astaire’s Jerry Travers days before a trip to Italy to meet her friend Madge Hardwick, awoken by his tap-dancing in the hotel room above. Her nightgown, cut in the fashionable slim silhouette of the 1930s, is designed with short sleeves and a v-neckline accentuated with a bow at the bust. When she confronts Jerry, Dale covers up her previously exposed skin with a silk robe: her low neckline is replaced with a high, flared collar and her arms covered with long bell sleeves.

Dale’s riding outfit in stills from Top Hat (1935)

Despite her icy response to his dancing, Jerry attempts to woo Dale the next day at the stables. Her riding outfit is practical and fashionable, with activity-appropriate jodhpurs, a checked blazer, and an ascot accentuated with a glittering pin. Jerry entices Dale to tap dance with him and she soon returns his affections.

Dale’s afternoon dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

A mix-up with Jerry’s employer Horace Hardwick leads Dale to believe she accidentally fell for Madge’s husband. During the ensuing trip to Italy, Dale tries to explain the situation to a comically indifferent Madge. In an attempt to catch Jerry (who Dale believes is Horace) in the act of lying, she confronts him wearing a tantalizing low-back afternoon resort dress, its sheer sleeves and spray of flowers at the collar accentuating her femininity. She tells Jerry of a fictional time they spent together in Paris only to become angry with him when he starts to play along with a story he knows is false.

The iconic ostrich feather dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

That evening Madge invites Horace, Dale, and Jerry to dinner. Horace is, of course, unable to attend. Madge encourages Dale and Jerry to dance (having intended to introduce them during the Italy trip), and Dale reluctantly agrees. The following dance sequence, “Cheek to Cheek,” is perhaps their most well-known. Though the scene looks effortlessly beautiful, Rogers’ ostrich feather dress was a source of contention on the set. As it shed feathers during each take, director Mark Sandrich and Astaire demanded Rogers change. She, along with her manager, rejected their criticisms and the now iconic dress remained in the film.

The Piccolino Dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

After yet more mix ups, Dale finally uncovers Jerry’s real identity. They end the film joyously dancing “The Piccolino,” with Rogers’ glittering dress echoing the celebratory mood. The Piccolino dress epitomizes how, despite being in black and white, Newman’s costumes in Top Hat are a feast for the eyes and rightly remembered as some of the best in Astaire-Rogers history.

Sombreros and Sarapes, Good and Evil in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film ¡Que Viva Mexico!

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After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, depictions of indigenous people and their dress began to be used by artists as an important tool for glorifying Mexican nationalism and the new Socialist politics of the country. Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian filmmaker who became disheartened with the Soviet Union’s treatment of both avant-garde art and antique religious artefacts, looked to Mexico as an example of perfect socialism. He traveled there in 1930, after meeting Diego Rivera in 1927 and became enthralled with the Mexican heritage that Rivera spoke so passionately about.  Eisenstein’s intention was shoot a film entitled ¡Que Viva Mexico! However, the project was never fully realized as he was forced to return to the USSR after losing his funding in 1932. What remains are the hundreds of metres of film he shot, which, in 1979 were turned into a film of the same name by director Grigori Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov remained faithful to the format that Eisenstein had intended for the film, breaking the footage up into four separate episodes: Sandunga, Fiesta, Maguey and Soldadera, as well as a prologue and epilogue.

The film opens with shots of the Mexican landscape and ancient ruins, depicted almost as snapshots. Each of the four episodes then depicts a different time period and location, but always exalting Mexican nationalism, culture and particularly the lower classes.

Maguey is the episode in which sympathy for and appreciation of the lower classes is most apparent, and the disparity between the dress of the workers and landowners most obvious. Set on a maguey plantation during the pre-Revolutionary capitalist regime, headed by leader Porfirio Diaz, it tells the story of Sebastian, a worker, and his lover Maria. When Maria is held captive and abused by the apparently evil landowner, Sebastian and his friends seek revenge, but are caught and executed. The episode is laced with visual references to Christianity, the immorality of the capitalist landowners and a clear allegiance to the workers.

workers in the courtyard

Dress is crucial in marking out the different characters, particularly for an English viewer, as the film is in Spanish with Russian subtitles. As well as making the plot slightly more difficult to follow, this has the effect of forcing the viewer to read the visual clues left by Eisenstein during his filming. The workers are depicted in traditional Mexican clothing: simple trousers, and woven sarapes, blanket-like capes. During the beginning of the episode, the viewer is introduced to the workers. They are shown lined up against a wall in a sun-drenched courtyard. The camera draws the viewer’s attention to their garments and sandal-like shoes. These shots of the sun-drenched wall and the sarape-clad men were clearly conceived as an image of quintessential indigenous Mexico. However it is not an idealised, peaceful lifestyle. These men are subject to the exploitation and poor treatment that Eisenstein feels is part of a capitalist society. In stark contrast to the workers, there is one solitary figure looming in the background that is a representation of authority on the plantation. Unlike the men, he wears more European style tight-fitting trousers, a jacket and a large hat. He is seen only in profile, a silhouette against the bright field behind, which makes the large gun he rests on his bent knee even more apparent and menacing. His European style dress is one of the most obvious symbols of his evil character.

the wealthy landowner in European attire

The workers’ dress is also radically different from the landowners themselves, who are shown as fat, lazy men getting drunk while the workers toil on the plantations. This episode is constructed as a microcosm of capitalism, in which the rich get ever richer, and subsequently fatter, from the labour of the poor. These men, who are cast as evil in the eyes of the viewer, are distinguishable by their lavish, European style of dress. They are depicted in tailored jackets, striped trousers and one even wears a bowtie, tying them definitively to Western capitalist societies.

Women’s dress is also contrasted to display the differences in social class. Maria is shown wearing a simple skirt, blouse and a scarf covering her head. In direct comparison, Sara, the daughter of the landowner, arrives wearing extravagant clothing; an elaborate ruffled blouse and skirt, white lace gloves, a large hat with lace train and bustle. She is an exaggerated image of vanity and her ostentatious costume is used to exhibit her decadence and cruelty.

the landowner's daughter, Sara

Eisenstein’s message is clear: Mexico under Spanish rule and Diaz’s westernised, capitalist regime was a cruel society, driven by greed and abuse of the indigenous people. What is perhaps most significant about the depictions of the different classes in Eisenstein’s film is that they are mediated through a nationalist lens – the wealthier, landowning classes, who are portrayed as evil and manipulative, are all closely aligned through their dress to European traditions. The lower, working classes, in their indigenous attire, are idealised and shown as the victims of a corrupt capitalist system, and therefore are the heroes of the film.

Sources:

Inga Karetnikova and Leon Steinmetz, Mexico According to Eisenstein, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991)

Fashion in Amateur Film: I’d Be Delighted To (1934)

A phone rings. A woman begins to bathe, tentatively dipping her toe into a tub of warm water, before slowly pulling a stocking up her shapely calf. A man douses his shaving brush in cream before selecting the perfect pair of cufflinks. I’d Be Delighted To, an amateur film made in 1934, portrays a couple preparing themselves for a romantic dinner, every small step of their separate dressing rituals, and the evening itself, shown in close-up detail. This is not, however, a conventional visual narrative- the silent 14-minute film is played out solely through close-up shots of the couple’s hands and feet, as they engage in washing, dressing, drinking and dining, in a technique that shares affinities with the avant-garde cinema of the period and its alternative approach to that of Hollywood. These carefully angled shots of almost anonymous body parts, combined with inanimate objects, build up a powerful overall sequence, isolating specific details in order to form strong thematic associations between them and the viewer and therefore dramatically increasing the significance of their meanings. The direct result of this technique is a prevailing ritualistic mood and a sensual emphasis on clothes as tools for glamour and seduction. The tactile qualities of the clothes’ textures, such as the woman’s fur coat, glittering jewellery and silk dress is consequently illuminated in a manner bordering on the fetishistic, and the visual appeal of the garments becomes inextricably linked to desire and imbued with an erotic energy. The romantic tension between the couple is therefore heightened through the use and depiction of dress, presenting both a sensory experience of everyday activities such as dressing and dining and blurring the boundaries between intimacy and anonymity. The fleeting presence of a maid character, who assists with the preparation and serving of the meal, is enforced through a similar focus on dress. However, this time it is labour rather than luxury that is imposed upon the viewer as the decadently sumptuous elements of the female diner’s garments are sharply juxtaposed against the strictly utilitarian aesthetic of the maid’s plain ensemble. The overall resulting impression of this amateur film technique is an intriguing blend of both detachment and engagement, erotic charge and ambiguity; one that manages to distil its simple narrative with as much poignancy and visual force as any Hollywood sequence.

See ‘I’d Be Delighted To’ (1934) here (courtesy of the East Anglian Film Archive): http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/3436

This commentary is based on a lecture given by Dr. Charles Tepperman, assistant professor of film studies at the University of Calgary entitled ‘“We are all Artists”: Amateur Film, Fashion, and the Art of the Everyday’. The lecture was given at the Courtauld Institute of Art in January 2014 as part of the Friends Lecture series based on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation MA course ‘Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920-1945’.