5 Minutes with… Bethan Carrick

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Bethan discusses Donyale Luna, the ubiquity of blue jeans and wearing her grandparents’ clothes.

 

What is your dissertation about?

I am looking at BLITZ magazine (1980-91), one of the three ‘first-wave’ style magazines that began in 1980 along with The Face and i-D, and its articulation of cultural capital through its fashion pages. For the most part, I’m looking at the styling work of BLITZ’s fashion editor (1983-87), Iain R. Webb. He used visual strategies such as bricolage to forge the DIY aesthetic that typified street style and style magazines of this period.

 

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?

I loved researching Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel. I wrote my first essay on her representation in Harper’s Bazaar in the ‘60s. Looking into Luna demonstrated the complexity of representing black women in magazines made for and distributed to white women. Whilst researching, I was reminded of the widespread criticism of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s song ‘WAP’ being ‘oversexualised’ and not appropriate for younger audiences. Black women in the public eye have continued to be exoticised and sexualised, but it’s a problem when they take control of their own representation? We’ve still got a long way to go, I think.

 

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Like Lucy, Daniel Miller’s Stuff has stuck with me throughout the year. Miller and Sophie Woodward’s Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary about the tension between ephemerality and ubiquity of the blue jean is another really influential piece of writing for me. Finally (sorry, I couldn’t pick one), I can’t go without mentioning Caroline Evans’ The Mechanical Smile, which is something I have returned to constantly over the course of this year.

 

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned this year?

One thing that surprised me is how little academic research has been done on the history of styling and stylists. Also, having read Carol Tulloch’s The Birth of Cool, I realised that there was room to expand and challenge the rigidity of academic writing. Tulloch’s more anecdotal writing was really inspiring.

 

What are you hoping to do next?

Have a (UK) holiday. Go shopping. Keep researching. Find a job. No real plans.

 

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?

100%. I am now more obsessive than ever about how each element of my outfit should match the other (colour, silhouette, style).

 

Favourite dress history image?

I love this image by Brassaï of a Parisian lesbian bar in c.1930 – especially because I realised that the woman to the right is wearing an ankle-length skirt. I find this fascinating. Was this an active choice to play with the suit, or was she trying to show that she was a woman as soon as she left the bar?

 

Brassaï, photograph taken at Le Monocle, Paris, c. 1930

 

What are you wearing today?

I am wearing navy blue platform Kickers, baggy dark Dickies jeans, a buttoned-up, grey collared polo under an oversized black knit jumper, and my grandad’s old white golfer hat. Library chic.

 

Where do you get your clothes from?

Mainly charity shops, eBay, Vinted or my grandma’s wardrobe.

 

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

I love everything the ladies are wearing at the French seaside resort (I can’t remember the name) in Seeberger Brothers’ photographs: understated elegance.

 

How would you describe your style?

Grandma, but make it current.

 

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

One day, when I was on holiday with my family and family friends, 7-year-old me decided that today was going to be the day where I debuted my new flowery Boden circle skirt that I had picked especially from the catalogue. I paired it with one of those jumpers that has a fake shirt collar and cuffs and used my sisters’ flowery belt as a scarf. I thought I looked very Audrey-Hepburn-meets-cast-of-Grease. I was so pleased with myself and asked my dad to be my photographer. I posed in front of a white wall whilst the wind was blowing in my hair. Everyone was staring at me, but I was LIVING it.

Fashion In Ruins: Luxury and Dereliction in Photographs of 1940s London

Today, Rebecca is giving a paper at the Museum of London’s The Look of Austerity conference.  This is a short extract of her discussion of 1940s fashion photography that used bombsites as backdrops: 

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941, both for Vogue

During the Blitz people’s ability to survive became paramount, and their tenacity was linked to the city.  Cecil Beaton wrote about London for Vogue, where he discussed the city’s fabric as though another family member to be cherished, a community comprising people and buildings held together by collective memories and experience,  ‘In spite of the degradation of bomb havoc, the cold fury and the tedium caused by the raids on private houses, hospitals, Wren churches and children’s playgrounds alike; in spite of the general horrors of war, those who, loving London are not able to be here at such an epic time, are to be pitied.  The menace of danger gives a perspective to life, and in the face of what is happening in world history today, Londoners have reason to be proud of one another.  Despite the methodical ruination, the great Capital City remains.’ His photograph of a model in Digby Morton suit turned to see better the horrid remains of Temple encapsulates this mood.

While the destruction of such a meaningful, historic site dealt a further blow to London, the model’s stance suggests movement and action, and her suit is a defiant marker of traditional Britishness, designed to endure. It is as though the model herself is unable to stay facing the camera from the shock of realising that the ruins behind her are not some fashion studio or film set, but London’s current reality. Vogue’s belief in fashion’s symbolic value, as a manifestation of tenacious spirit in the face of adversity is underscored in the title, ‘Fashion is Indestructible’.  The model is a stand in for all the women looking at the image in the magazine, and, by extension, regarding similar scenes as they walk in their own neighbourhood.  The ruined buildings’ drama draws the eye to its textural excess and dissonance, but focus remains on the staunch tweed suit, and the model, turned from the camera to convey our collective shock at the bomb’s impact.

Like many others, Beaton was only able to comprehend and describe such scenes through art historical references.  At one point he used the phrase ‘Breughelesque’ to convey the twisted horror of the streets. Vogue, however, maintained its focus on fashion’s power throughout, and asserted its strength, even as buildings were falling.

Written as the Board of Trade allotted 66 coupons for clothing in summer 1941, an editorial states that, yes, fashions may have to pause under austerity, in as much as changing trends and the extravagance attached to such constant shifts are not possible: ‘But fashion, or elegance, is indestructible, and will survive even margarine coupons, for it is that intangible quality of taste, that sense of discrimination and invention which has lived on through all the clangour and chaos of the world’s history … It is also the most positive photographic record of the tempo and aspirations of each epoch; a record or indictment, according to the times.’  Fashion as an idea therefore supersedes the crisis, and endures as a temporal and personal record and expression of wartime life.  The magazine also recognises its emotional significance, and the contrary impulses that government dictates concerning rationing and austerity measures might trigger.  The article further asserts that such sumptuary legislation has created ‘a violent psychological stimulus’ by making fashion forbidden fruit, and therefore, will, perversely, encourage further innovation as women search for ways to maintain fashion and beauty.

Vogue, as an institution embodied this stubborn attitude. As seen in Lee Miller’s photographs of Vogue’s building which was itself later bombed, the seemingly handwritten script again refuses to accept the consequences implied by such devastation. Once again, fashion continues amongst the rubble.

Sources:

Cecil Beaton, ‘Time of War: Reflections on the Coming Months of Victory Vigil,’ Vogue, October 1940

Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton Diaries: 1939-44 The Years Between (Liverpool: C.Tinling & Co, 1965)

‘We Re-Affirm Our Faith in Fashion,’ Vogue, July 1941