5 Minutes With… Ruby Redstone

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Ruby discusses tartan, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress and 1930s personal style.

 

What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is about how the concept of personal style developed in 1930s America. The decade was a spectacular time for American womenswear, as the fashion industry developed rapidly and many (but certainly not all) women began to enjoy much more freedom of dress. I’ve found some great books about personal style from the period, all by women writers, and I’m studying those in tandem with wardrobes and looks from exceptionally stylish and highly visible American women like Mae West, Wallis Simpson, and Barbara Hutton.

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

I had a great time working on my Virtual Exhibition, which was a show about the use of tartan in Scottish fashion design. I love Scottish design, and I had been wanting to do something to pay homage to that love for a long time. Also, I’m quite a visual person, so I really enjoyed being able to draw maps of my galleries and select paint colours and all that – admittedly, I got a bit carried away and even made designs for what my display mannequins would look like. They are tartan, of course.

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

Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes has become a bible to me. I now recommend it to anyone who is even remotely interested in dress history! Hollander’s chapter on fabric has fundamentally changed and deepened my relationship with clothing. I also have to echo everyone else and say Daniel Miller’s Stuff. It’s no surprise that all of us in Documenting Fashion are drawn to it. It’s such a well-researched study of why clothing is inherently important to humanity – something which I think we all already believed innately, but it’s comforting to see it supported by someone else’s research.

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

Oh my, yes. I already joke that I treat my closet as if I’m building the world’s smallest fashion museum, and now that’s intensified tenfold. I fall in love with every single garment we look at, and I’m never content to just say ‘Oh, that looks great on her’ – I always want one for myself. My eBay searches are a bit out of control these days.

Favourite dress history image?

I could never pick just one! Lately, however, I can’t seem to stop thinking about Gordon Parks’ 1956 editorial photo ‘Evening Wraps at Dawn’. It’s such a textured, tactile image. You can almost feel the nighttime fog beginning to clear and smell the wet pavement and car grease that surround this couple. I love the contrast of her glamorous evening look with the gritty early morning light, and I love that she clearly hasn’t been a well-behaved woman in the 1950s sense – she’s been out on the town with a gentleman until dawn! Also, as a New Yorker, I love that I can gauge almost exactly where Parks would have shot this image. It’s amazing how little the city has changed.

Gordon Parks, Evening Wraps at Dawn, 1956, The Gordon Parks Foundation.

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a vintage set from the seventies; it’s a pair of wide-leg pants and a ruffled top in red, yellow, and green Madras plaid. I’m not wearing shoes right now, but when I go outside I’ll probably wear a pair of purple fur and red velvet Prada sandals with big gold buckles. I love them, but they’re highly impractical. There are only a few weeks of the year that it’s the right temperature to wear them, so I have to squeeze in as many outfits with them as I can before it gets too warm! 

Where do you get your clothes from?

I’m a big vintage collector, and most of my wardrobe is vintage from eBay, Etsy, and lots of wonderful vintage shops that I’ve hunted down across the years. I supplement that with some secondhand designer pieces from Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal – I try to buy almost everything vintage or secondhand. I also love to support local designers in New York and London, the two places where I split my time right now!

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

My answer to this will change every single day, if not every hour of the day, but right now I’d have to say Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress that she made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. I mean, can you imagine anything better for summer?!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Dinner Dress, 1937, printed silk organza and synthetic horsehair, Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1969-232-52. Image courtesy of PMA.

How would you describe your style?

Usually I say Victorian-meets-1960s in a candy store colour palette. Recently, as I get deeper into dissertation research, there have been a lot more thirties references mixed in with that too – I think at this point it’s really just a little bit of everything from every era. I’m a magpie.

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

My earliest memory is actually a fashion memory! I remember my parents taking me aside to tell me that I was going to have a little sister when I was just a toddler, and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was fixated on pulling out a bright blue turtleneck from my wardrobe. I guess I’ve always been a bit too obsessed with clothing.

 

The Whimsical Works of Marcel Vertès

Marcel Vertès epitomised innovation in twentieth-century design and fashion illustration. Born in Hungary, he moved to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian. He travelled to New York frequently, even staging his first show there in 1937. With the outbreak of World War II, Vertès fled Paris and settled in New York, his home for the next decade. He returned to Paris in his later years and spent the majority of his time there before his death in 1966. Among his many talents, Vertès experimented with costume design in film, painting, needlepoint, and silkscreen prints. However, his illustrated advertisements for Elsa Schiaparelli will always be my favourite.

Harper’s Bazaar, February 1944

Vertès created some of his more notable works for Schiaparelli’s perfume advertisements from the late 1930s through the 1950s. He created numerous fantastical illustrations for her ‘Shocking Schiaparelli’ campaign featured in Harper’s Bazaar. Vertès’ playful style shines through in these advertisements. Many depicted flirty and poetic drawings that often incorporated elements of the mystical. Women became dainty nymphs and fairies surrounded by autumn leaves or spring flowers as they danced around the page. The perfume bottle, designed to mimic the female form, often had bouquets of flowers blooming from the top, representing the scent of the perfume as well as implying the femininity a woman would attain while wearing it. Vertès’ passion for other art forms also manifested in his works for Schiaparelli. He frequently paralleled ethereal depictions of women with artistic tools such as painter’s palettes or bouquets made of sheet music. The designs were often suggestive and used various objects, such as a palette or leaf, to conceal yet hint at the intimate parts of the female body.

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1943

Harper’s Bazaar, April 1939

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1944

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940

Vertès also wove societal undertones into his advertisements for Schiaparelli, altering the connotation of the campaign according to the era’s values. One of his drawings depicts a sailor on a date in a park with the female-shaped perfume bottle. This advertisement was released in 1942, and its drawing hinted at the ‘beauty and duty’ ideal that women and girls were encouraged to uphold during the war in order to bolster morale. Women pitched in for the war effort in various physical ways, but the illustration signified to women that, by wearing Schiaparelli’s perfume, they could demonstrate their patriotism while still embodying the very essence of beauty. On the other hand, one of Vertès’ 1953 illustrations exploded with the colour pink. It featured a woman beaming in a gown reminiscent of the ‘New Look’ style and high heels, the epitome of traditional, feminine beauty. With the war over, the men returned, pushing women out of workforce positions and back into the home. The fashion industry once again favoured the restrictive, ultra-feminine ensembles that signalled a return to ‘normalcy’ in society. Vertès subtly captured this shift in his illustrations.

Harper’s Bazaar, November 1942

Harper’s Bazaar, May 1953

Marcel Vertès also collaborated with Elsa Schiaparelli in designing the costumes for the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. He won two Academy Awards for his work, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Beyond these achievements, Vertès painted murals for both private and public display, including one for the Café Carlyle at the famous Carlyle Hotel in New York City. He even explored fashion design, creating pieces that showcased his whimsical illustrations.

Marcel Vertès
MOULIN ROUGE (MARIE ACCOSTE LAUTREC), 1952
Gallery 19c

Marcel Vertès Mural at Café Carlyle via Tillett Lighting Design Associates

An artist in every sense of the word, Marcel Vertès worked with a diverse array of mediums, but stayed true to his light, flowing style with every project he undertook. Vertès translated culture into his illustrations and portrayed ‘Shocking Schiaparelli’ as more than a perfume. Rather, his drawings enabled the viewer to envision and desire a way of life.

By Genevieve Davis

 

Sources:

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, April 1939.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1940.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, November 1942.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1943.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, February 1944.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1944.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, May 1953.

The Annex Galleries. “Marcel Vertes Biography | Annex Galleries Fine Prints.” Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/3209/Vertes/Marcel.

Addressing Images

Every term we have a meeting of the Addressing Images Discussion Group.  Actually, that makes it sound far too official and formal, what really happens is that anyone who feels like spending their lunch hour talking about fashion can drop in and join my students and me.  It started as a way to share ideas and has become a regular venue to think about what fashion representation means.  Past sessions have included looking at Bill Cunningham’s entrancing photographs of Editta Sherman dressed in vintage, out and about in 1970s New York, amateur film footage of a late 1930s family holiday to Europe, and Paul Iribe’s images for Les Robes de Paul Poiret – this last one was extra special, as we had the original 1908 book on display from our collections.

Deciding what to discuss is always fun.  We need to choose something that will spark discussion, and interest the wide and wonderful range of people who attend – everyone from fellow Courtauld academics and administrative staff to textile designers, photographers, Instagram friends, vintage collectors – anyone who likes to talk about dress.  Ideas are just as diverse as the backgrounds of the people and that’s the point – sharing what we do at The Courtauld with others, and in turn being inspired by the people that attend.

  Detail of illustration of Elsa Schiaparelli design by Marcel Vertes, 1938

Detail of illustration of Elsa Schiaparelli design by Eric, 1938

Out most recent session focused on Christian Berard’s illustrations for Elsa Schiaparelli’s famed 1938 Circus Collection.  With the original double page spread as our focus we considered the way Berard’s technique drew viewers in to a tumbling series of glimpsed images of couture-clad women, clowns, acrobats and animals.  We compared his illustrations to Eric’s more earthbound, but no less seductive style, and to Marcel Vertes’ fantastical dreamlike drawings.  Discussion ranged from brushstroke to colour, from character to iconography and from fashion to funfair.

It was, as always, a wonderful, enlightening way to spend an hour … so do put the date for next term’s Addressing Images on 9 February in your diaries.

Diary Dates: Documenting Fashion Events Autumn Term 2017

We have two fascinating events coming up this term – do join us if you can. We want to open up discussion of the many, varied themes within fashion and its history and these are a wonderful forum for meeting and talking about dress.

Both are held in:

Research Forum Seminar Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN

Both are FREE & OPEN TO ALL – we look forward to seeing you there

Christian Berard, Elsa Schiaparelli, Circus Collection, 1938, detail

12.30-1.30 Friday 20 October

The first event is part of our Addressing Fashion Discussion Group seminars and opens up discussion of dress’ significance within imagery – whether paintings, prints, photographs, advertisements, film stills or drawings. It brings together dress and art historians, as well as those interested in exploring issues and meanings within representation. A single image will be shown in each session, giving participants the opportunity to re-examine familiar, and confront new representations of fashion and dress. We will rethink images through the lens of dress history, and consider what is shown from the perspective of participants’ own research. The aim is to provide a forum to debate, share reactions to images, and to consider ideas about fashion, dress and representation in an informal environment. This builds upon the innovative work being undertaken in this field at the Institute with the wider community, and beyond.

Pietro della Vecchia (1603-78), A fortune-teller reading the palm of a soldier

12.30-1.30 Monday 10 November

Our second event is an exciting part of our Dress Talks series titled: Crossing Boundaries: Dress and Exclusion in Italy, 1550-1650, Elizabeth Currie will discuss dress and deviancy in early modern Italy, from the perspectives of the fashionable elite to others at the social margins.

The typical black attire of the Italian nobleman represented an ideal of restraint and sobriety. Other styles that strayed from this model were often denounced, particularly the kind of flamboyance usually associated with soldiers: leather, feathers, and slashed, figure-hugging garments.  How did this impulse to regulate clothing change in the context of groups of ‘outsiders’, increasingly prominent in visual imagery from this period, such as fortune tellers or beggars?

Drawing on contemporary debates on morality, etiquette, and health, the talk will investigate why specific types of dress were vilified and considered to pose a threat. It will highlight clothing’s power to bind together communities as well as to disrupt gender identities and social hierarchies.

Elizabeth Currie is a lecturer and author specialising in the history of early modern dress, fashion and textiles.  She currently teaches at the Royal College of Art/V&A and Central St Martins. Her articles have appeared in Fashion Theory, Renaissance Studies, and the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Recent publications include Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (2016) and (ed.) A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion, Vol. 3: Fashion in the Renaissance (1450-1650) (2017), as well as contributions to the Bloomsbury Visual Arts blog, Gucci Stories, and Apollo online.